“A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian” – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
This reflective assignment will examine the tribulation I underwent in Canada between April 1998 and June 2009 to clear my name since I am a former member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), otherwise known as the Tamil Tigers. Before I left Sri Lanka to come to Canada, I had to prove to the Sri Lankan authorities that they could trust me and free me from detention. In keeping with the Sri Lankan government’s commitment to rehabilitation, Professor Rohan Gunaratna recommended that the Sri Lankan government grant me an amnesty that helped me not face trial for my membership with the Tamil rebels. Gunaratna was then the National Security Advisor to the President of Sri Lanka and currently the Director General at the Institute of National Security Studies in Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defense. Upon my release, the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) of Sri Lanka arranged my passport, identity card, and birth certificate and provided me with some funds. During this time, I was code-named by the DMI as “05”. This is how they address me in all communications, even now. My travel arrangements to Canada were thus facilitated by the DMI with a long-term plan to continue working for them as an informant. In 2001, I sent a letter to DMI explaining I no longer wanted to work for them, as I was afraid. Shortly after this, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was notified of my past membership with the LTTE. Therefore, I had to go through 11 years of investigation by CSIS to become a Canadian citizen eventually.
In this essay, I will identify stimulus/observation; express my thoughts/ interpretation; my feelings upon the reflections, needs, intentions, and behaviors/requests regarding my feelings in this situation. The situation is incredibly private, but I will contain it to the focus of communicating and relating.
In the summer of 2000, one day, when I got home from work, a woman was waiting for me at my apartment who introduced herself as ‘Angela’ from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). I asked her why she was here, and she said that she had received a few anonymous letters but one that was signed by Professor Rohan Gunaratna, stating that I was an operative for the LTTE. She asked if I wanted to talk about it. I was wary initially, afraid of exposing myself for the sake of my family in Colombo, who was still kept as collateral by the DMI. I was terrified that if they began an investigation, the DMI would find out I had told Angela about the Sri Lankan secret service’s operations, and my family would be at risk. On the other hand, I had to clarify to Angela that I had no link whatsoever with the rebels since I arrived in Canada. Therefore, I told her about my association with Gunaratna and how I was forced to fight for the LTTE in Sri Lanka.
Angela asked me to show her all the work I was doing for Gunaratna. Hence, I showed her the documents I wrote about the activities of the LTTE front organizations in Canada, some documents I translated from Tamil to English, letters, emails, and books I received from Gunaratna. She said she was happy I was opening up to her. She did not say anything else that first day, but a week later, she returned and told me that she was actually from CSIS and asked me not to tell Gunaratna they were investigating me. She said to tell him only that CIC was investigating me.
Angela also brought me a pamphlet from the Justice Department of Canada and explained the document. According to the refugee act, “A foreign national with terrorist ties is generally inadmissible to Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, for security grounds if they are engaged in an act of subversion against a government; or engaged in terrorism; or is or was a member of a terrorist organization” (Department of Justice Canada, 2012). She told me that there is an exception to the law only if you cooperate with us. She gave me her business card, said they would pay for my tuition fees, and asked that I share my communication with Gunaratna and another Sri Lankan diplomat at the High Commission in Ottawa named Mr. Mohan Samarasinghe. As I did not trust her fully as yet – this was only our second meeting – I did not tell her anything about my family was being kept as collateral by the DMI. Therefore, I declined the offer of paid tuition to protect my family.
A mixture of fear and paranoia set in. I was afraid of my fellow Tamils as well as CSIS and the Sri Lankan government operatives here. I was exhausted, discouraged, and felt burnt out. My family was being held for ransom in Sri Lanka. The currency with which I was buying the continued safety of everyone dear to me was information. I was caught like a fly in a very sticky web, and it felt like the more I attempted to struggle my way out, the more I was getting stuck.
Angela wanted to meet with me once a week. She would ask me about the ethnic conflict and the current situation in Sri Lanka and explained that she was only interested in Gunaratna, Samarasinghe, and other Sri Lankan government officials operating within Canada and their operations. I had a vague idea and thought she was from CSIS’s counter-espionage and foreign interference department, certainly not from its counterterrorism department. I interpreted this because she was not interested in LTTE’s propaganda or fundraising activities in Canada but very much wanted to know about Sri Lankan government operatives in the country. Ironically, in winter 1999, CSIS published a report about LTTE international organization and operations, citing Gunaratna and Samarasinghe many times (Chalk, 1999).
Slowly, I got to know Angela and realized that she was very compassionate, decent and understood the hardships that I was going through. Eventually, I started telling her the truth about who I am. I told her about my past and what I knew about the DMI, Gunaratna, and Samarasinghe. As she got to know me more and more, she seemed to sympathize and empathize with my narrative. It is an accepted tactical theory that you have to play nice with rebels to get information. Because I knew Angela as a friend by then, I felt free to tell her everything, but I realized that she also reported everything. On my side, I was also cooperating with her to ensure that I would eventually clear my name and get my Canadian citizenship.
Since I felt Angela had gained my trust, I told her about my plan to write a book, and she suggested that I contact Claire Hoy about it, who had written a similar story before. I felt moved when Angela brought me the book “By Way of Deception: The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer” written by Victor Ostrovsky and Claire Hoy about Ostrovsky’s career as an intelligence officer in the Israeli spy agency, Mossad. I felt encouraged by Angela’s idea of writing a book with an established Canadian author. She told me that I should expose the untold story of the Sri Lankan secret services to the world.
Unfortunately, in 2003 Angela said that she would be transferred to another desk and that a different CSIS agent, ‘Dexter,’ would interview me from then on. I felt awful that we could not work together anymore since we had developed a relationship of mutual understanding by this time; we had a small party to celebrate her move. I liked Angela for her true Canadian values, and I stayed in touch with her.
To fulfill my need to become a Canadian citizen, I continued to disclose all the information to Dexter. He started everything over from scratch. He did not trust me and cross-examined me suspiciously all the time. For instance, he would ask me where my wife was working, and then he went to my wife’s workplace to check on her, which upset me. I felt that his attitude was unprofessional, and I was not comfortable talking to someone who did not trust me. On the other hand, I strongly felt the need to clear my name to get my citizenship, so I had to cooperate with whoever was investigating me. Once I tried to explain to Dexter that I felt comfortable working with Angela, his response was, “beggars cannot be choosers.”
I was frustrated by how he was interrogating me, so finally, I told Dexter I did not want to talk to him anymore and wanted him out of my life. He kept calling and attempting to convince me to see him again, but I was not interested. I contacted Angela and told her my feelings about working with Dexter; she said I had the right to tell him that I did not want to work with him.
I was at a crucial point in my life to survive. I had two options: either oblige with CSIS and come clean to get my Canadian citizenship and live peacefully in Canada. Or not to cooperate with CSIS and get deported back to Sri Lanka, where the lives of my family and I would be in jeopardy. Therefore, I chose to cooperate. I was being sent letters and emails from Gunaratna, Samarasinghe, and officials from DMI – everyone – and I gave all this information to CSIS. They were perhaps getting the information from me in a more pleasant way. Still, when I one day mentioned the amount of work that I had been doing for CSIS and wondered out loud what I had received in return, Angela told me that it was her who drew the line at recommending my permanent resident status and that CSIS had “saved my skin.” It seemed to me that I had heard this before, from LTTE, DMI, Gunaratna, and other Sri Lankan government officials. The similarities were unavoidably obvious.
Even though I did not want to cooperate with Dexter because of his attitude towards me, I was compliant with Angela and did everything she asked me to collaborate with CSIS. My only request to Angela was to clear my name and grant my Canadian citizenship.
After 11 years from the time I was accepted as a conventional refugee, in June 2009, my status as a Canadian citizen was confirmed. Shortly after, I was invited by the CIC for a ceremony where I stood before the Canadian flag in a church in Montreal, in a room full of every hue and shape and size, every language and culture and religion of humanity, as I swore to uphold the laws and to exercise the responsibilities of a Canadian citizen. I could not bury the tears of joy in my eyes. This is a freedom that I do not hold lightly – it has been hard-won.
The first lesson I learned was despite being investigated by CSIS and terrified for the safety of my family; I eventually became a Canadian citizen due to the compassion and empathy I felt from Angela. Another lesson I learned was for the first time in my life; I could live in peace and be free in Canada after the horrendous experiences I had in my native country of Sri Lanka.
Author’s note: Canadian journalist Michael Bramadat-Willcock contributed to this report.
Image credit: Canadian Immigrant
Chalk, P. (2009). Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) International Organization and Operations – A Preliminary Analysis. Retrieved from: https://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/9.533762/publication.html
Department of Justice Canada. (2012). Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Retrieved from: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/I-2.5/index.html