Vancouver — From Thursday’s Globe and Mail Published on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009 10:01PM EST Last updated on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009 3:06AM EST
One of the 76 Sri Lankans onboard a migrant ship intercepted off the West Coast last month was a key player in a Tamil Tiger network that transported weapons from North Korea to Sri Lanka, says a terrorism expert who is advising Canada on what to do with the men.
Rohan Gunaratna, whose credibility is under fire from lawyers for the migrants, made the assertion in a recent telephone interview. He also defended his claim that many of the migrants are Tamil Tigers – not refugees – who came to Canada to regroup after their defeat in a decades-long civil war with the Sri Lanka government.
Lawyers for the men have criticized Mr. Gunaratna, who heads a think tank in Singapore, as anti-Tamil. Others point out that he rarely identifies his sources. But he is a widely sought-after expert on terrorism, and is the chief adviser to Canadian authorities who are trying to determine if the 76 migrants are refugees who would face persecution in post-war Sri Lanka or defeated terrorists seeking a haven in Canada.
His views on the men, their ship and their rationale for sailing to Canada are outlined in a 109-page document submitted to the Immigration and Refugee Board, which is holding detention hearings for the 76 migrants. To date, all but one remain in custody in a Vancouver-area detention centre.
In the interview, Mr. Gunaratna said he looks forward to the cross-examination at the Immigration and Refugee Board, and reiterated his assertion that many of the migrant men are members of the Tamil Tigers, which is listed as a terrorist organization in Canada.
In fact, he said, one of the passengers was a key player in the Tamil Tiger shipping network that for years transported weapons and explosives from North Korea to the Tiger militants. Many of those ships were destroyed by the Sri Lankan government in the war, he said.
Another man, who is wanted by Interpol, was a Tiger intelligence officer who helped procure electronic equipment such as GPS devices and night-vision equipment for the separatists, Mr. Gunaratna said.
The individuals can’t be named because of a publication ban imposed by the Immigration and Refugee Board.
The migrants arrived on Oct. 17 off the West Coast aboard the Princess Easwary. Mr. Gunaratna said the ship was owned and operated by the Tamil Tigers and was one of the few to survive the war.
When the rebels were defeated last spring, they decided to use the Princess Easwary to move former Tamil Tigers from Southeast Asia to Canada, he said. Other ships carrying Tamil migrants have showed up off the coasts of Indonesia and Australia, but the Princess Easwary was always destined for Canada, he said.
“They [Tamil Tigers] want to reorganize and regroup themselves,” Mr. Gunaratna said. “They see Canada as a place where they can do that. There has been a tradition in Canada of being soft on terrorism. There is no better place for Tamil Tigers to reconstitute than in Canada. They chose Canada as their destination.”
Lawyer Lorne Waldman, who represents at least 15 of the migrants, questioned Mr. Gunaratna claims. “In my view, given his background, he is very closely connected to the Sinhalese government,” he said. “Undoubtedly, he is providing information that was provided by the Sinhalese government and in my view, anything that comes from them is highly suspect.”
Mr. Gunaratna’s assertions have been submitted to the IRB, which is trying to determine the identities and motives of the migrants. The men, many of whom have relatives in Canada’s large Tamil community, have made refugee claims.
Reports from some human rights groups and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have documented abuses by the Sri Lankan government against its Tamil population, especially in the final months of the war. Today, hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians are in internment camps.
However, other security experts agree with Mr. Gunaratna and believe the 76 migrants may be the first wave of defeated Tamil Tigers fleeing to Canada.
“The LTTE needs a place to reorganize and they need it quickly,” said Tom Quiggin, an Ottawa security expert and senior fellow with Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. “This means Canada, Australia, Norway and the UK. Given the generous reception that terrorist groups such as the LTTE have received in the past in Canada, it makes sense that they would try again here. Canada in the past has been identified as a safe haven for terrorist fundraising and organizational work.”