Interpol has issued an arrest warrant for a British man accused of running the human smuggling network that sent 76 Sri Lankans to Canada aboard a cargo ship in 2009.
Shanmugasundaram Kanthaskaran, 40, is wanted by Sri Lankan authorities for “people smuggling, trafficking and illegal immigration” as well as “terrorism,” according to the Interpol website.
While the public Interpol notice is vague, classified details of the allegations obtained by the National Post show he is wanted in connection with the human smuggling vessel Ocean Lady.
Police Lieutenant General Pongpat Chayapan, head of the Central Investigation Bureau speaks during an interview at The Central Investigation Bureau at the Royal Thai Police headquarters in Bangkok on Tuesday March 1, 2011
A confidential Sri Lankan government report says Mr. Kanthaskaran, also known as “Peg Leg Shankar,” was born in Sri Lanka, holds a British passport and operates from the U.K., Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.
“The subject has established an effective network covering South Asian countries to run the human smuggling operations,” it says, adding he organized the Ocean Lady smuggling run with a Canadian named Ravi Shanker.
According to the report, Mr. Kanthaskaran was a member of the Sea Tigers, the naval wing of the Tamil Tigers rebels. After his leg was amputated following a clash with government forces, he moved to London, where he was allegedly involved in procurement.
Using a ship called the Princess Easwary, he smuggled weapons to Sri Lanka from North Korea, the report says. The ship was transporting military hardware to the island in May 2009 when the civil war ended, it says.
After hearing that Tamil rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was dead, the ship’s crew dumped their cargo into the waters off Indonesia. Mr. Kanthasakaran then began organizing a human smuggling voyage to Canada, it says.
The ship, which was registered in Cambodia, changed its name to Ocean Lady and sailed from India with a stop in Malaysia, arriving off the British Columbia coast in October 2009 carrying 76 Sri Lankans. All have claimed refugee status.
Ten months later, a larger ship, the MV Sun Sea, reached Canada from Thailand carrying 492 Sri Lankans. Mr. Kanthaskaran’s alleged involvement in human smuggling may explain why Canadian officials such as Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews have linked the ships to the Tamil Tigers.
The Immigration and Refugee Board has so far ordered the deportation of two of those on board the Sun Sea on the grounds they had been Sea Tigers. A Canada Border Services Agency report says that pro-rebel music and videos were played aboard the ship.
But the RCMP remains uncertain whether the smuggling ships were a rebel operation (perhaps to raise money for the cause, or to relocate members and their families to Canada) or whether remnants of the rebel group were simply fleeing the region following their defeat.
RCMP ‘making a difference’
A tall, sturdy cop with short-cropped hair, Lieutenant-General Pongpat Chayapan is Commander of Thailand’s Central Investigation Bureau.
He may also be Canada’s best ally in the fight against human smuggling.
When he was a young officer in the Royal Thai Police, he was sent to Vancouver and Ottawa for police training. The RCMP taught him how to conduct surveillance and undercover operations.
To this day he remains fond of Canada and respects the Mounties. So when the RCMP came to see him last year, to ask for his help against the human smugglers organizing migrant ships to Canada, he did not hesitate.
“From my experiences working with the RCMP, I feel a comfort level in working with them,” the general said in an interview. “They are true professionals and the RCMP has made this issue become more aware in Thailand.”
It was a lucky turn of events for the RCMP, which was under pressure to fight human smuggling after two derelict cargo ships arrived off the British Columbia coast in August carrying more than 500 Sri Lankan refugee claimants.
The Mounties needed to find out who was behind the smuggling networks using Thailand as a staging ground. Ottawa also wanted the RCMP to stop any other migrant ships that might be preparing to leave for Canada.
Both required the close cooperation of the Thai police.
And they got it.
“We are fortunate that the RCMP liaison officer here came with the information and the willingness to work with us,” Lt.-Gen. Pongpat said. “Of course, I wasn’t happy. However, we realize that Thailand has been used as a transit point for many illegal activities such as human smuggling, the drug trade.”
After recognizing that little can be done once migrant ships are at sea, the Canadian government has begun quietly working in transit countries like Thailand to disrupt human smuggling operations before they get going.
The RCMP has sent a handful of officers to South and Southeast Asia to combat human smuggling in coordination with local authorities, notably the Royal Thai Police and police in Australia, which has become a favorite target of the smuggling syndicates.
RCMP Deputy Commissioner Bob Paulson, the head of Federal Policing, described the program as layered. At one level, he said police are trying to disrupt and prevent future ships. At another, they are chasing lower-level, hands-on members of the smuggling networks.
A third objective is to bring the “operating minds” of the networks to justice, he said. Although no arrests have yet been made, the RCMP said charges would soon be announced against the organizers who sent 76 migrants to Canada in 2009 aboard the ship Ocean Lady.
Deputy Commissioner Paulson said the overseas effort to stop further migrant ships had been a success. “It is making a difference,” he said. “I think we’re absolutely having an effect in terms of interrupting and disrupting.”
A central RCMP intelligence hub in Ottawa collects and analyzes leads about human smuggling, he said. Those deemed worth pursuing are sent to officers posted overseas, who share them with their police partners for follow-up.
“Here in Thailand, as anywhere else outside Canada, we have no law enforcement powers,” said Inspector George Pemberton, the Bangkok-based Mountie who heads the Anti-Human Smuggling Team. “Our role is strictly to cooperate with the local authorities, facilitate information exchange, make sure that the right information gets into the right hands.”
With an Islamist insurgency in the south, border skirmishes with Cambodia in the east and with Burma in the west, in addition to occasional clashes with the Red Shirt and Yellow shirt movements in the capital, Thailand already had its hands full when Canada came calling.
“They have a lot of security issues facing them, so the effort that they’ve put into tackling this problem has been just remarkable,” Insp. Pemberton said. “I think they have recognized that it is their problem, and it affects their reputation. They don’t want to attract criminals to Bangkok any more than we would want to attract them to Toronto.”
As a regional transit hub, Bangkok has long been used by smugglers but senior Thai police officials said the MV Sun Sea was the first large ship to embark from the country carrying a cargo of would-be refugees.
The freighter spent weeks in the Gulf of Thailand, loading passengers who traveled from Sri Lanka to Bangkok, and then to the southern city of Songkhla, where they were boarded fishing boats that brought them to the Sun Sea. The ship reached the B.C. coast last August, carrying 492 Sri Lankans.
“Thailand is a very open country, similar to Canada. They welcome people from all over the world and so a small number of those people will abuse the hospitality,” Insp. Pemberton said. “They’re obviously at a crossroads for Asia geographically, very well developed transportation infrastructure, good support networks in Bangkok for migrants and for refugees. The UNHCR [the United Nations refugee agency] is here, there’s a sizeable community particularly of Tamils here to provide support.”
Since Thailand, in cooperation with the RCMP, began a crackdown in Bangkok, police believe they have disrupted one migrant ship that was preparing to leave for the B.C. coast last fall. Some of the top human smugglers have been arrested or have moved to Laos and Malaysia but Canadian and Thai police believe the main network remains active in Thailand.
“They deserve a lot of credit,” Insp. Pemberton said of the Thai police. “I think they have pushed some of the bad guys out of Bangkok. But to think that that’s permanent, you would be crazy.
“Certainly the RCMP’s perspective is that this is a long-term problem. And it happens to be Tamils today that we’re looking at in Canada’s perspective. But the reality, looking around the world, is there’s millions of people fleeing either conflict or looking for a better life for their family. And so it’s Tamils today but who knows who it might be tomorrow.”
On the fourth floor of Royal Thai Police headquarters, Lt.-Gen. Pongpat strides down the hall. Two young men in camouflage leap to their feet as he passes, into a conference room to meet a delegation of police from various countries, including Canada.
Later, he sits at a conference table in his chocolate-brown uniform, his reading glasses in front of him along with two cell phones, a stack of official-looking papers and a tissue box encased in gold fabric and white lace.
To show his esteem for Canada, he offers his ranking of the world’s greatest police forces. The RCMP is the second-best, he says, behind only Scotland Yard. He puts the Federal Bureau of Investigation in third.
A framed painting on his office wall shows a man in the prisoner’s box of a Montreal courtroom, on trial for smuggling drugs out of the Golden Triangle. Lt.-Gen. Pongpat investigated the smuggler, who was later arrested, convicted and sentenced to 12 years. Almost three decades later, the general is again investigating smuggling to Canada. Only the cargo has changed.
After Canada sought their help, the Royal Thai Police launched a task force called Project Hydra to coordinate the various law enforcement agencies that had a role in human smuggling (but that were not well-linked due to problems such as the lack of a common computer system).
Now Thai officials are working with the RCMP to stop the next migrant ship. Thai police said they were informed that another vessel was being organized for the voyage to Canada and they are investigating.
The RCMP has launched Project Seahorse to probe the latest smuggling operation, which they believe is being coordinated by a Sri Lankan who made $1.6-million for organizing the Sun Sea. Nicknamed Praba, he works from a hideout in Laos.
Since most of the Sri Lankans who travel to Thailand to board smuggling ships or organize them enter the country as tourists, Thailand has put new guidelines in place that have made it much tougher for Sri Lankans to get visas.
As a result, the number of Sri Lankan visitors to Thailand has declined 70-80 per cent since the Sun Sea incident, Thai police said. “We are quite happy with the result we are having with the prevention process,” said Major General Manoo Mekmok of the Thai police Immigration Bureau.
Thai police have also increased controls on the southern border with Malaysia to prevent migrants and smugglers from crossing into Thailand to board ships. “We are sealing the border in the southern province because some of the lower tier of the network is still operating in Thailand and they may smuggle people into Thailand,” said Major General M.L. Pansak Kasemsant, Deputy Commissioner of the Immigration Bureau.
He wants the international community to know Thai authorities have been working on the issue. “We are trying our utmost to help and to arrest and to prevent human smuggling, under our law,” he said, “but you have to understand we are working under so much pressure for the human rights situation.”
Lt.-Gen. Pongpat said while the anti-smuggling program has had successes the fight is far from over. “It is temporary because there’s more opportunity to operate in Thailand because of its diversity, the less strict rules and regulations in Thailand itself. And of course Thailand is a tourist country.”
Shanmugasundaram Kanthaskaran. ~ Interpol handout
He reverts to English to make his point.
“Welcome to Thailand,” he says. “Welcome good person, welcome bad person.” ~ courtesy: The National Post ~