Tamil Migrant Ship Case: Reflective Assignment Part II

Introduction

In my first reflective assignment, I elaborated on my complex association with my long-time acquaintance, Professor Rohan Gunaratna. This second essay will focus on a different situation where I had to defend my fellow Tamils from Sri Lanka who arrived in Canada as war refugees. It was a very controversial matter and all over the media between 2009-2010 when two ships named MV Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea carrying more than 500 refugees came to Canada from Sri Lanka. At the time, the Conservative Canadian government labeled some of the arrivals as “human smugglers” (Fitzpatrick, 2011). The Canadian government imprisoned all the Tamil refugees and hired Professor Gunaratna as an expert witness in the investigation process to refuse them entry. I believed it to be my responsibility to work with a leading immigration law office, representing some of the Tamil refugee claimants, to give an affidavit based on my unique knowledge that countered the testimony provided by the government-appointed counterterrorism expert. My evidence was beneficial for the administration of justice in Canadian tribunals and courts concerning the treatment of the Tamil refugee claimants. As such, I played a crucial role in determining the fate of these migrants, most notably in giving evidence to refute the testimony of Gunaratna.

In this essay, I will distinguish between stimulus/observation; describe my thoughts/ interpretation; my feelings upon the reflections, point out needs in the circumstances and my intentions while considering my feelings in this situation. The situation is very contentious, and thus I will include it in the focus of communicating and relating.

Stimulus/Observations

At 10 pm on October 19, 2009, I watched the CBC National News as usual when I learned that a ship carrying 76 Tamils had been captured by a joint Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA) operation in Vancouver. All of the ship’s passengers were seeking asylum. This was not the usual mix of “boat people” because Tamil men were between 18 and 30. The Sri Lankan insurgents, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers, own their fleet of merchant vessels. Everybody in Sri Lanka knew that the LTTE remnants were dispersing to Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and India – mostly their closest neighbors. At first, I made the same assumptions as the Sri Lankan government had that they were fleeing with the intent to reorganize and rebuild. To me, it was apparent that they were very possibly LTTE cadres, being Tamils of prime age. Whoever they were, I knew that they were fleeing torture, murder, and worse at the hands of the Sri Lankan government.

I watched the news and browsed the internet with escalating apprehension since the LTTE had been defeated militarily in May 2009. Every week, it seemed that there were more reports of horrifying acts of retribution on the part of the majority Sinhalese of Sri Lanka against the minority Tamils, now easy prey without the LTTE presence. There was even a Western media documentary on execution-style mass killings, wanton rape, and looting of internment camps for Tamils (Shaw, 2010).

One evening, I was startled to see the face of  Professor Gunaratna staring out of my television screen. The Canadian government had hired him as an ‘expert witness’ on the migrant ship issue. There was Gunaratna, declaring with absolute certainty that the 76 Tamils were all LTTE cadres. He argued that the refugee claimants were a threat to Canadian and Sri Lankan security and should therefore be sent directly back home to be ‘dealt with’ there (CBC News, 2009). The lawyers for the 76 arrivals and David Poopalapillai, the spokesman for the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC), a non-profit Tamil community organization, were also featured in the news, arguing that it was impossible to make such a sweeping statement. Each refugee claim should be investigated individually whether the arrivals were LTTE cadres or not (Youssef, 2010).

My gut reaction was immediate and robust; Gunaratna had no moral right to advise on this matter. I thought there should be an internal investigation by Canadian authorities, and if the men were found to be a threat to Canada’s national security, they should be sent back. Meanwhile, Gunaratna had been instrumental in sending me – an LTTE intelligence wing cadre – to Canada. Once I was here, he had blackmailed me into working as an informant for the Sri Lankan intelligence agencies.  He had once said to me, ‘When I say jump, you should ask, ‘How high?’ Now he wanted to send these other men back?  LTTE cadres were acceptable in foreign countries, as long as he approved of them first, it seemed.

Thoughts/Interpretations

Since I arrived in Canada, I have willingly worked with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to help identify those importing violence to this land.  I firmly believe in peaceful means to peaceful ends. I felt humbled and privileged that the Canadian government and its agencies had enough faith in me to grant me citizenship despite being a former member of Tamil Tigers. I had done whatever I could to be worthy of that trust. I am a law-abiding citizen and a family man with young children who inspire me to become better.

I had hoped that once the LTTE was obliterated, the Sri Lankan government would look for a political solution to the internecine conflict. This was promised to me by most of the military and Sri Lankan government officials. The merciful victor was not a concept that seemed to be well understood by the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese majority has no intention of offering a permanent political solution to this dwindling fly in their ointment. The government already insists that no Tamil problem exists, and they ignore the plight of Tamils. Helpless and full of guilt, I watched as my people were being continued marginalized and oppressed.

Feelings

I feel indignant and ashamed at the image that has been portrayed of Tamils in the media. Tamil Canadians have been painted with the broad strokes of propaganda, effectively seeded in high places by strategically positioned Sinhalese agents (Sri Lanka Ministry of Defence, 2012). Tamil teenagers and adults alike are suspected of being gangsters that engage in violence. I am determined to do all I can to change Canada’s image of the Tamil people. Because of this, I was nervous at the thought that some of the men who had arrived might be coming to regroup, reinforce and re-emerge as a more potent military force – to use Canada as a training and recruiting ground for maintaining hatred and bloodshed.

I felt sad that these men had fled Sri Lanka and traveled thousands of miles to get to Canada, so how could anyone justify sending them back to where they would undoubtedly be tortured and murdered. I had been an LTTE cadre, and so many like me had been forcibly recruited – did they not deserve the possibility of a second chance for their lives as well. On the other hand, if they were coming to Canada to recruit more members to continue a violent struggle, I did not want this on my conscience. Many young Tamils in Canada were sent from Sri Lanka to save them from forcible recruitment or assassination. In Canada, they struggle with their identity. They often live with an aunt and uncle, have little or no guidance, and could be easily influenced and inspired by macho LTTE cadres who are seen as heroes, brainwashing them to violent Tamil nationalism.

Needs

I found the email addresses of the head office of CTC and CBC National News. I sent them a summary of my story and a statement explaining why Gunaratna should not assist the Canadian government. In the message to the CTC, I said that I wanted to speak with their lawyer. I felt, by doing this, I needed to prevent my Tamil brethren from being sent back to Sri Lanka.

David Poopalapillai called me the next day. He said, ‘If you want to help your people, we will help you do so,’ and gave me a name and phone number of a fellow from the CTC Montreal branch. David told me that they wanted me to come to Toronto right away that evening and that I would see the lawyer the following day. He told me to bring all the evidence I had, so I did, shoving books, letters, emails, my medal from Gunaratna’s institute  – the whole lot – into a giant suitcase to bring with me. Volunteers from CTC Montreal drove me to Kingston, where David came to pick me up, and from there, we went to Toronto.  I let my whole story pour out of me during the drive to Toronto – my throat became sore from talking. Canadian Tamils had never heard of Gunaratna until he had shown up on the CBC that first time and now he was in the news constantly. I showed David the books that Gunaratna had written from the information I had provided him and explained exactly who he was. We spoke all through the night until about 6 am and we went to see the lawyer that same morning.

Intentions

The purpose of our case was to show that Gunaratna was not a credible witness. He is a Sri Lankan government operative and is ethically compromised, and on top of that, he is biased against Tamils. In my opinion, he is an information speculator, masquerading as an analyst.  I told the lawyers that asking Gunaratna to identify Tamils is equivalent to consulting Hitler to determine a Jew.

I was told that Barbara Jackman of Jackman and Associates is one of the best lawyers in Toronto. Her offices are bare – meant for work, not for show. She and her associate, Hadayt Nazami, and several assistants went straight to work on the case. I gave Barbara the password for my email account, and she went into my files to read them. I had all the email correspondence with the Sri Lankan officials since summer 2000 – almost 400 emails were printed out.

We wrote an affidavit submitted to CBSA with the rest of this information in the lawyers’ cross-examination of Gunaratna. It seems that he admitted to most of the significant points brought against him and was consequently demoted from an expert witness to someone able to present factual evidence. Still, there is a publicity ban on the 106-page report from the cross-examination. Until it is lifted, I will not know precisely what was said during the proceedings.

The CBSA contacted my lawyer, saying that they wished to speak to Kagusthan Ariaratnam.  They wanted me to identify the 76 men who were still incarcerated in Vancouver. I did not want to antagonize the Canadian authorities, nor did I want to obstruct justice. However, I had made my mind up never again to work with Gunaratna, so I responded that I would only work with CBSA if Gunaratna was entirely off the case. They did not contact me again.

Soon after I submitted my affidavit to CBSA, Gunaratna accused me of saying I was working for the LTTE front organization, the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC). The truth is that the CTC is a non-profit organization that serves as the voice of Tamil Canadians. According to the Canadian government, CTC is part of Canadian civil society, and it is a legal entity in Canada. Gunaratna was trying to paint a picture of the entire Tamil community who live here in Canada as smugglers, criminals, and terrorists. He was perpetuating a stereotypical version of the Tamils, continuing their oppression in Sri Lanka and Canada.

Following the migrant ship case, Gunaratna made direct allegations against CTC in a Sri Lankan newspaper, stating, “The LTTE is operating under the name of the Canadian Tamil Congress…and Canadian Government is aware of this and is currently investigating.” As these comments were completely false and profoundly defamatory, CTC decided to take legal action in Canadian courts against Gunaratna. In January 2014, an Ontario Superior Court judge found Gunaratna liable and fined him $75,000 in CTC’s favor. The judge stated, “the statements were clearly defamatory, either directly or by innuendo, because they imply CTC is involved in the commission of violence and illegal activity. It is unequivocal and uncontroverted that these statements were, in fact, false and untrue.”

As soon as the CTC won the defamatory case against Gunaratna, the Sri Lankan government subsequently designated the CTC as a terrorist entity under UNSCR 1373. However, it is worth noting that the Canadian government denied this allegation by the Sri Lankan government and claimed that CTC is part of Canadian civil society and a mere legal entity.

Conclusion

In January 2010, all the 76 migrants were ordered released by a judge from the Immigration and Refugee Board since the Canadian agencies could not find any evidence against them or links to the rebels. I was relieved that they were not sent back to Sri Lanka for their possible deaths. I believe that they are now undergoing an individual investigation into their eligibility to remain in Canada. The result of the Canadian government’s actions towards these boat people has been a perception of wasted money, immigrants with a negative first impression of the host country, the antagonizing and alienation of Diaspora residents already integrated into the host society, and suspicion sown amongst the various minorities living together within the countries’ boundaries.  The tactic of being unwelcoming to refugee claimants in an effort to slow down immigration not only does not work, but it also fosters animosity and resentment in the hearts of these refugees, most of whom will become citizens eventually.  This seems to be a recipe for trouble and dissension rather than of peaceful coexistence.

Lessons

The first lesson I learned was that one person could make a difference. I had Gunaratna removed as an expert witness from the Tamil migrant’s investigation by giving my testimony through the affidavit. Secondly, I learned that through my actions, I could achieve inner peace.  Being instrumental in the fall of Tamil held Jaffna peninsula to the hands of the Sri Lankan government in 1995, I thought that I betrayed the Tamil people. Still, when I submitted my affidavit against Gunaratna, I felt that I had somehow made it up to my people at last.

Author’s note: Canadian journalist Michael Bramadat-Willcock contributed to this report.

Image credit: National Post

References

CBC News.(2009, November 5). Two Tamil migrants named as ‘terrorists’. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2009/11/05/bc-tamil-migrants-hearing-smeets.html

Fitzpatrick, M. (2001, June 16). Human smuggling bill makes a return. CBC News. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2011/06/16/pol-human-smuggling.html

Shaw, C. (Producer), &Macrae, C. (Director).(2011). Sri Lanka’s Killing Field [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Channel 4. Available from: http://srilanka.channel4.com/index.shtml

Sri Lanka Ministry of Defense and Urban Development. (2012). Terrorist Fronts in Canada Traps Amnesty International. Retrieved from: http://www.torontoslcg.org/ottawa2/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=195:terrorist-fronts-in-canada-traps-amnesty-international-&catid=43:hc&Itemid=120

Youssef, M. (2010, August 5). More Tamil vessels may be headed for Canada. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/british-columbia/more-tamil-vessels-may-be-headed-for-canada/article1662085/

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