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On the smugglers’ trail: Sun Sea’s Canadian link and the unlucky ones

Mar 31, 2011 8:35:35 PM- transcurrents.com

by Stewart Bell

BANGKOK — In the office of Thailand’s Anti Human Trafficking Division, Colonel Panya Pinsook flips through photos of engine parts, sacks of food, plastic oil drums -and the Canadians caught with the cache of supplies.


A cellphone photo taken inside the Bangkok Immigration Detention Centre, where Sri Lankans arrested while awaiting ships to Canada are being held.

Police found the provisions during a raid on a Bangkok apartment building last June. They suspect it was being stockpiled for the ship MV Sun Sea, which was then being readied for a human smuggling run to Canada.

The four men arrested that day were all foreigners: the 30-year-old Sri Lankan businessman who had purchased the Sun Sea three months earlier, a Frenchman named Markandu Thayakaran and two citizens of Canada.

Nadarajah Mahendran, 54, is an importer of South Asian clothing and a former Toronto convenience store owner with a wife and three kids, and Thampeernayagam Rajaratnam, also 54, lives in suburban Markham, Ont.

Contacted by the National Post, neither of the Canadians would agree to talk about how they came to be in Bangkok with suspected supplies for the MV Sun Sea, together with the owner of the smuggling ship (who later boarded the vessel and is now in Canada claiming refugee status).

But details of the arrests are contained in two thick binders that document the results of Project Hydra, a Thai antihuman smuggling task force set up last year to investigate the Sun Sea in coordination with an RCMP investigation called Project Eprofluent and an Australian Federal Police probe called Longfin.

Since the MV Sun Sea arrived off the British Columbia coast last August carrying 492 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, government officials as senior as Immigration Minister Jason Kenney have said that Canadians had played a role in the massive human smuggling operation. But none of the suspects has yet been identified.

RCMP Deputy Commissioner Bob Paulson confirmed to the National Post that Canadian citizens were among those being investigated over their suspected roles in the Sun Sea. He would not say whether the men arrested in Bangkok were among them.

“I can’t really comment on that except that was good, that was an illustration of a cooperative enforcement action. And then to the extent that anybody is exposed to our jurisdiction, then we’re engaged in assessing that,” the deputy commissioner said.

Reached by phone in Ajax, Ont., Mr. Mahendran, said he would speak to a reporter the next day but never did. When a National Post reporter followed up and visited the new home, he was told to leave the property or police would be called. A letter sent to the address requesting an interview went unanswered. Mr. Mahendran has not been charged with human smuggling.

On the Scarborough cul de sac where, until recently, Mr. Mahendran lived for many years in a small red brick house, neighbors said he ran a clothing import business and travelled frequently. They said his wife was a seamstress and that they had two boys and a girl.

“He used to go back and forth,” Parbatti Randoll, who lives next door, said of his travels. She said he once had a shop at the nearby Lawrence Ave. E. and Birchmount Rd. intersection. The family moved out last November, she said. Another neighbor said his last trip abroad, a year ago, was a particularly long one.

“He was a very good man,” Ms. Randoll said.

Mr. Mahendran was born in 1956 in Inuvil, Sri Lanka, according to his passport. The northern farming town has a women’s hospital, and expectant mothers from surrounding villages often travel there to give birth.

Inuvil was not spared the horrors of the island’s long civil war. Inhabited mostly by minority ethnic Tamils, the town suffered executions, disappearances and shelling as government troops, Indian peacekeepers and Tamil rebels fought it out.

There is no public record of how or when Mr. Mahendran arrived in Canada but in 2003, he opened SRV Gifts & Clothes World Inc., naming himself as administrator and secretary. The company opened a shop in the heart of Toronto’s Tamil-Canadian neighborhood that his neighbors said sold imported South Asian clothing. In 2006, he registered another Ontario business at the same address. It was called SRV Convenience Plus.

A list of donors at a 2007 fundraiser for the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) shows a $50 contribution from an “N. Mahendran” beside the same phone number as that listed online for SRV Gifts. The Canada Revenue Agency alleges the TRO was an arm of the Tamil Tigers, although the group denies that.

AfterobtainingaCanadianpassport in Whitby in 2008, Mr. Mahendran left the following year for the United Arab Emirates, India, Burma and Thailand, the entry and exit stamps and visas in his passport indicate.

Then on March 1, 2010, he bought a plane ticket from VMS Travels & Tours in Scarborough. It was an economy class, round trip ticket on Cathay Pacific, leaving Toronto for Hong Kong on March 10 and transiting to Bangkok. He paid $1,690.

The immigration stamps in his passport show he traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, later in March. He was scheduled to return to Toronto on May 10 but another passport stamp indicates he was still in Malaysia on May 25.

By then, the international police probe of the MV Sun Sea was well underway.

Canada and Australia had learned that Sri Lankans were obtaining Thai tourist visas in Colombo and flying to Bangkok, where they were being taken to a 30-year-old freighter that was about to sail for Canada.

The ship, MV Sun Sea, had been purchased in March by the Sun & Rshiya Company, which had incorporated in Thailand in 2008 for “trading and agricultural products.” The company initially had two directors, one Thai and one Sri Lankan. But the Thai later left.

By early May, a few hundred Sri Lankan migrants were already on board the Sun Sea, most having put down a deposit of about $5,000, in some cases paid by family members who sold their land and jewelry, in others by relatives already in Western countries. The balance, $20,000 to $25,000, was to be paid after they reached Canada.

The Royal Thai Navy spotted the ship in the Gulf of Thailand during the first week of May but had no authority to board it or interfere with its journey since it was outside Thailand’s territorial waters. It was last seen heading east on May 9.

Three weeks later, on May 28, an Australian police official sent a letter to his Thai counterpart advising him that there were indications more passengers would be leaving Bangkok to board the human smuggling ship.

Police suspected the migrants would be moved south by bus to the port city of Songkhla. From there, longtail boats would take them to larger fishing vessels which would then deliver them to the Sun Sea, according to the letter.

“AFP is unsure where these Sri Lankan passengers are located but we believe they are currently in Bangkok,” the letter said. It added that the Australian police and RCMP liaison officers wanted to meet with Thai police.

In particular, they wanted to discuss “any action that can be taken against the passengers if they take a bus from Bangkok to Songkhla” and “any action that can be taken if the passengers assemble on the beach,” it said.

Thai police went to work.

They tracked the owner of the Sun Sea to a Bangkok apartment block, which they raided on June 3, arresting the four foreigners, according to Col. Panya and Thai police documents.

Police photos taken during the arrests show the two Canadians squatting beside the ship’s owner on the floor of a parking garage as police sort through the seized materials -which included 529 litres of engine lubricant and sacks of flour and vegetables.

One of the photos shows the ship owner posing with an assortment of metal parts. Col. Panya said police were aware the Sun Sea was having engine troubles at the time. The parts and supplies were found in the ship owner’s apartment as well as in a passenger van parked in the garage, Col. Panya said.

“I don’t want to say anything,” Mr. Rajaratnam said when asked about the incident. His Canadian passport shows he was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka in 1957. Property records show he bought his home in Markham in 2003. He traveled to the United Kingdom in 2006 and to Sri Lanka from May 12 to 28, 2008, according to the stamps in his passport.

He said he did not know Mr. Mahendran or the owner of the ship, and that 15 to 20 Sri Lankans were staying at the same apartment building and suggested he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. “There’s a lot of Sri Lankans there,” he said. He referred questions to his lawyer but declined to provide the lawyer’s name.

The arrests resulted in only a charge for improper storage of materials and a fine of 10,000 Thai Baht, about $320, the police colonel said. The men were then handed over to the Immigration Bureau, which detains foreign nationals no longer permitted to stay in Thailand. Mr. Mahendran flew back to Toronto but the ship owner somehow slipped away, the colonel said.

On August 12, the Sun Sea entered Canadian waters off Vancouver Island and was intercepted by the RCMP and Navy. At a naval base near Victoria, the 492 passengers disembarked, including the ship owner and his pregnant wife.

Initially, he gave Canadian authorities a false name. But after a month, he acknowledged his true identity. He reportedly denies owning the ship. He cannot be named because he is seeking refugee status in Canada and the Immigration and Refugee Board has imposed a publication ban on his case.

Charging the smugglers behind the Sun Sea and the Ocean Lady, which brought 76 Sri Lankans to Canada in 2009, is a national tactical priority for the RCMP. A major investigation is underway in several countries.

But Douglas Cannon, a Vancouver lawyer who has represented several Sun Sea passengers, said human smugglers are not the problem. He blamed conditions in Sri Lanka, where the ethnic Tamil minority has long suffered widespread human rights abuses.

“Nobody disagrees that human smugglers are opportunists but that’s not the problem,” he said. “The problem is persecution that’s creating this terrible situation where people feel like they have to access rickety ships just to be safe.”

Deputy Paulson, head of the RCMP’s Federal Policing program, said he could not confirm whether either of the Canadians arrested in Bangkok were questioned by investigators upon their return to Toronto. He said such investigations were complex.

“I’m not making excuses except to say that the reality is, evidence collection abroad, introduction in a Canadian court, application of the Charter, all of those things are very complicated considerations,” he said.

“I know it seems like -you’ve got pictures for God sakes -but demonstrating intent, linking it to the conspiracy, all those things are big chunks and investigative gaps that need to be closed with reliable evidence.”


On the smugglers’ trail: The unlucky ones

The blue steel door slides open and a guard leads a line of detainee children out of Bangkok’s immigration prison, past visitors waiting with bags of rose apples, and across a tight alley to a classroom.

Many of the children are Sri Lankans.

They travelled to Thailand with parents who paid smugglers for a spot on a migrant ship to Canada. But they never made it to sea. Instead, they were arrested and locked up inside the immigration detention centre.

The 492 Sri Lankans who arrived off the West Coast aboard the MV Sun Sea last August were the lucky ones. For many others, the dream of Canada died in Bangkok’s overcrowded immigration prison, a big cement block on Suan Phlu Road.

It is no resort.

Visitors are not allowed inside, but the National Post was able to communicate with several detainees who sent photographs of the facility and the six- by 20-metre cell where the Sri Lankans are being held.

They show a rectangular room so overcrowded there is hardly room to tread. The detainees said 140 men are housed in the cell; they must sometimes sleep in shifts because of the scarcity of floor space. “There is not enough room to sleep — even stretch our limbs freely,” one said.

A young boy can be seen wandering among the men. The detainees said they lacked clean drinking water, healthy food and proper medical facilities, and they complained of the heat. “We don’t have any more power to bear this situation,” another detainee said.

The arrests were, at least partly, the result of Canada’s new anti-human smuggling program in Southeast Asia. Responding to Canada’s concerns about human smuggling ships such as the MV Sun Sea, Thailand set up a task force last year to work on the problem.

A Royal Thai Police investigation called Project Hydra began working closely with the RCMP and Australian Federal Police, and when smugglers began collecting deposits for yet another ship last fall, the Thais took decisive action.

“We used different methods to verify the information,” said Lieutenant-General Pongpat Chayapan, Commander of the Central Investigation Bureau. “And, of course, then we were able to locate the network of this criminal activity and through coordination with the RCMP, with cross-checking the information that we had on both sides, we were able to arrest these people.”

What police found was that Sri Lankans were living at hotels in three cities, waiting to board a migrant smuggling ship to Canada. Last Oct. 11, the Royal Thai Police, in coordination with the RCMP, began rounding them up.

In Bangkok, immigration police made 130 arrests. That was followed by another 61 arrests in the southern port city of Songkhla and in Hat Yai, near the Malaysian border. A further 23 were arrested in Bangkok on Dec. 8. Some were smugglers but most were would-be refugees.

“About 40 were involved in gathering the people, in falsifying documents, in ship procurement, as well as finding accommodation, food,” said Lt-Gen. Pongpat. No ship was seized. But he said the vessel had been modified to hold passengers “better than the MV Sun Sea.”

Thai police photos of the mass arrests show men, women and children — a group similar to the Sri Lankans who were on board the Sun Sea when it arrived off the British Columbia coast last Aug. 12. Only this group never even made it onto the ship.

The police operation was the first major success of Canada’s anti-human smuggling initiative, which aims to disrupt migrant ships before they even set sail. “We think they disrupted something that was very close to happening,” RCMP Inspector George Pemberton said in a recent interview in Bangkok.

“The Thais were very pro-active, especially in the late fall,” said Insp. Pemberton, who heads the RCMP Anti-Human Smuggling Team. “They took a lot of enforcement actions and we’re convinced that their actions deterred and prevented a vessel from going to Canada.”

But it also resulted in the mass arrests of men, women and children, members of the island’s ethnic Tamil minority who had fled Sri Lanka. And a significant number of them remain locked up at Bangkok’s immigration detention centre months later.

“Our chief concern about the waves of arrests is that they do not appear to make a distinction between the organizers of human trafficking or smuggling — people who are willing to put tiny babies and pregnant women at risk on the high seas — and their victims,” said Kitty McKinsey, the Asian spokeswoman for the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

“At least the original arrests last October in Bangkok were indiscriminate and, as far as we can tell, not targeted at the real organizers of smuggling or trafficking of Sri Lankans to other countries,” she said.

“While we understand the need to crack down on illegal human trafficking and smuggling, we are concerned that care should be taken to keep victims from being caught in the same dragnet.”

According to the detainees, about 175 ethnic Tamil Sri Lankans remain at the centre. Fifty-three of those rounded up during the recent crackdown have been recognized as legitimate refugees by the UNHCR and are waiting to be resettled to other countries.

Thirty are children and 25 are women, one of whom is six months’ pregnant, the UNHCR said. A photo sent by the detainees shows a pregnant woman who was arrested on Oct. 11. In the picture, she is chained to her hospital bed by the leg.

“The UN refugee agency’s position is that asylum-seekers and refugees should not be locked up and we work with governments all over the world to find alternatives to detention,” Ms. McKinsey continued.

“We are also greatly concerned about arbitrary and indefinite detention,” she added. “We particularly do not believe that a detention centre is an appropriate place for pregnant women and children.”

Royal Thai Police officials said the detainees were free to leave Thailand once they had purchased plane tickets to Sri Lanka. They said they were doing their best but acknowledged prison conditions were not ideal.

“Our detention facility is limited. And the sheer numbers of them that come in has caused us a lot of difficulty,” said Major General Manoo Mekmok. “We try to do our best to keep their living conditions decent, up to the United Nations standard, but some are very hard to provide, like shower and nice toilet.”

The UNHCR said there had been eight round-ups of Sri Lankans since October, most recently on Feb. 17. Those arrested are sent to court to be fined for overstaying their tourist visas. Those who can’t pay the fine must serve a jail sentence. Either way, they eventually end up at the detention centre.

They must remain in detention until they leave Thailand. But many say they fear returning to Sri Lanka, so they wait it out in the hopes the UNHCR will help them resettle to a Western country. That happens rarely but it is their last hope, aside from the smugglers.

“A lot of these people are caught up in, I don’t know, maybe it’s like the Canadian dream,” said Troy Anderson, a Bangkok-based U.S. lawyer who advocates for the Suan Phlu detainees. “They know all these Tamils in Vancouver and Toronto and they kind of have this image of all the Tamils get there and have the good Western lifestyle.”

He said it was no coincidence the Thai crackdown on Sri Lankans began two months after the MV Sun Sea arrived off the British Columbia coast. “Once that ship went to Canada, very quickly after that the Sri Lankans started getting arrested,” he said. “It’s not rocket science to figure out that someone put pressure on Thailand to deal with the Sri Lankans.”

Even those recognized as genuine refugees by the UNHCR must stay behind bars until they leave the country. Thailand is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention — although it has a great number of refugees, especially along the Burmese border.

“We are against these sea voyages,” said David Poopalapillai, the Canadian Tamil Congress spokesman. “First of all it’s treacherous, dangerous and everybody’s putting their life at risk. But arresting them is not the answer.”

He urged Canada to resettle its share of the Bangkok detainees, and said Ottawa should do more to discourage migrants from falling prey to the human smugglers using Thailand as a transit country.

Canadian officials have visited the detention centre but not to resettle the Sri Lankans. Several sources said the Canadians came to question the detainees about the human smugglers organizing migrant vessels to Canada.

The detention centre is a prison with several blocks. Within the blocks are cells that hold 100 to 200 who share two toilets. Rice and soup are provided three times a day. There is also a shop where detainees can buy food.

“There’s at least 500 people there and it’s not, from what I can tell, built to handle that many,” said Mr. Anderson, who has represented several of the Sri Lankans at the detention centre. “It’s not a good situation.”

The Sri Lankans living illicitly in Bangkok face a bleak choice: return to the island they fled or risk being caught and sent to the immigration detention centre. Or there is a third option: board a smuggling ship.

For those with a past in the Tamil Tigers the situation is even more stark, which may explain why some of those who travelled on the MV Sun Sea last year were ex-combatants or had alleged links to the rebels.

As former separatist guerrillas, they are at greater risk if they return to Sri Lanka. But they cannot be resettled by the UNHCR because no country will accept them as refugees due to their past involvement with the Tamil rebels.

Some of those at the Bangkok detention centre are in that very bind. One detainee said he had joined the Tamil Tigers at age 12. He was sent to a rebel “education centre” until he was ready for paramilitary training.

He worked as a karate instructor and performed “sentry duties,” he said. In 2004, he told the Tigers he needed to visit his father at a hospital. He went instead to the capital Colombo, intending the leave the rebels.

But he said guerrillas arrested his wife. They told her he would be killed unless he left the country. So he flew to Hong Kong, hoping to transit to the West, but he was arrested and deported. Upon his return to Sri Lanka, he said he was arrested and tortured. Released on bail, he fled to Thailand.

The UNHCR accepted him as a refugee but Thailand detained him, at first at the airport and, since 2009, at the immigration detention centre. His wife is detained at the same facility. While a recognized refugee, he cannot be resettled because of his rebel past.

He said the detainees are let out of their cells twice a week for 90 minutes of exercise and time outdoors. “Except that, we are forced into a smaller jail room in which we can’t even move an inch,” he said.

He said the detainees just want to leave Thailand. “Please understand our difficult situation and please create a way for us to live peacefully and freely in whatever country it might be,” he said, “except Sri Lanka.” ~ Courtesy: The National Post ~