by Amarnath Amarasingam
The recent revelation that members of the federal and provincial Conservative Party have been getting into bed with former members of the World Tamil Movement (WTM), banned as a terrorist organization in Canada since 2008, was not news to many in the Tamil community. The Conservative government's actions are indeed hypocritical in light of their tough talk against terrorism. However, the Canadian public is missing a crucial part of the story: the criticism of the Conservative Party is largely collateral damage in what was, at base, a leadership coup within Tamil diaspora politics.
The leak to news media was an attempt by anti-WTM activists to stem the influence of WTM members in Canadian politics. Tamil diaspora politics, with all of its own petty bickering, leadership struggles, and vendettas, went mainstream in order to achieve what one community member called an ‘internal ethnic cleansing’ of the former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) structure from Canadian politics. When I phoned one of the individuals leading the anti-WTM campaign, he was jubilant and noted that this was a breakthrough for the Tamil community. “These guys need to go, they need to stop hurting the Tamil community,” he tells me.
With the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka in May 2009, Tamil political organizations in Canada have attempted to move from supporting an armed struggle in Sri Lanka, to transnational political lobbying. However, according to sources in the community, former LTTE operatives in Canada and elsewhere, proved difficult to extricate from diaspora politics. They insist that members of WTM began a concerted effort to undermine, undercut, and interfere with the activities of “moderate” Tamils in an effort to hold on to their positions of power and safeguard millions of dollars in assets.
Around the middle of last year, the Tamil media in Canada was again ablaze with news about a new organization, the National Council of Canadian Tamils (NCCT) that would be holding elections in Ontario on June 20, 2010. While it was obvious that former WTM operatives were behind the organization, it was also clear that many unaffiliated individuals were being placed as the public face of the group. Members of the Tamil community explicitly warned them to stay away from the group as it would inevitably collapse and may leave their reputations in tatters.
With news of the NCCT elections, anti-WTM groups went on the offensive to rid the Tamil community of WTM influence once and for all. An anonymous email was circulated without much fanfare, containing information on all WTM operatives at work in Canada. This email eventually reached critical mass.
The opportunity to bring the information to the public came with the announcement that several Sri Lankan Tamils, some supposedly backed by WTM, were holding discussions with the Conservative Party of Canada. It was almost too good to be true. Their involvement with the Conservatives would ensure that the mainstream media, sniffing out a scandal, would take notice. “We used the mainstream as a platform to bring this to the light,” says one of the anti-WTM activists. “If the mainstream does not take notice, these guys will never leave.”
Canadians will remember that on May 6, 2000, Finance Minister Paul Martin attended a dinner organized by the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils (FACT), an umbrella organization which had WTM as one of its groups. At the time, Canadian Alliance MPs lambasted Martin for attending the dinner, which they said was a front for the Tamil Tigers. As one anti-WTM organizer tells me, “We have to tell the Conservatives, ‘These are the people who brought Paul Martin down, and now they are coming to you, so how can you trust these people?’”
When I pointed out that perhaps it was unfair to denounce the entirety of the NCCT when the organizers were primarily to blame, the response was, “Sometimes you need to burn down the whole house to get rid of the bugs.” The assumption is that whatever damage these revelations do to the reputation of the Tamil community in Canada, it can always be repaired. “This is one of the biggest blows that we have brought to these people,” says one activist, “this is not the end. We will continue until they stop hurting the Tamil community. We don’t need these people.”
As noted, the instigators of the anti-WTM strategy see the criticism of the Conservative Party as secondary. For them what is important is the mainstream delegitimation of the World Tamil Movement, which most Canadian Tamils consider to be a corrupt and meddling stain on the community. In other words, the Canadian public should not assume that all Tamils, wanting to run for public office, have a hidden agenda to influence foreign policy. Rather, the recent controversy was a strategic attempt from within the community to purge supposed “Tiger remnants” from making further inroads into mainstream Canadian politics.
Amarnath Amarasingam is a doctoral candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University, and is currently completing his dissertation entitled, Pain, Pride, and Politics: Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism in Canada.