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Critics question Sri Lanka’s ban on Tamil exile groups

Analysis: Ban could muzzle rights groups and derail abuse investigations

<p>A Sri Lankan soldier stands in front of a war monument in Kilinochchi, the former stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (photo by Will Baxter)</p>

A Sri Lankan soldier stands in front of a war monument in Kilinochchi, the former stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (photo by Will Baxter)

  • ucanews.com reporters, Colombo
  • Sri Lanka
  • April 3, 2014
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Rights monitors are questioning the motives behind Sri Lanka’s decision to ban 16 Tamil diaspora organizations, which the government has accused of links to “terrorism” and the alleged revival of a separatist movement.

On Tuesday, External Affairs Minister GL Peiris signed the proscription order outlawing the organizations, which operate in Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Norway, the United States, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.

The announcement of the ban comes in the wake of a decision last week by the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution calling for an international investigation into alleged war crimes committed during the final days of the country’s civil war. As many as 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed during the final battle between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), according to the UN.

Analysts said the ban was intended to effectively muzzle rights groups within Sri Lanka and punish diaspora organizations that aided the UN’s inquiries ahead of the Council’s vote.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives based in Colombo, said the objective of the ban was “to prevent the flow of information, internationally, regarding the human rights situation in the country at present” and “to de-legitimize the involvement of these banned organizations with the investigation that will follow pursuant to the Human Rights Council resolution”.

“The ban is a very serious and negative development, effectively criminalizing legitimate democratic dissent within Sri Lanka and making it harder to challenge government policies from outside the island,” said Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka Project Director and Senior Analyst at the International Crisis Group. “It appears designed in part to punish those Tamils inside and outside Sri Lanka who organized in support of the UNHRC resolution. 

"[The ban] may also be designed to make it more difficult for activists within Sri Lanka to gather and disseminate information about alleged war crimes and other human rights violations, since much of the information that has emerged over the past five years has come through diaspora networks,” said Keenan.

“According to statements by government spokesmen, simply meeting or interacting with members of the newly banned diaspora organizations would be enough for Sri Lankan citizens to be arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA),” said Keenan. “The PTA is already regularly used for arbitrary and often long-lasting detentions of the government's political opponents.”

Rights monitors have made repeated calls on the government to repeal the PTA. Hundreds of journalists, opposition political leaders and separatist suspects have been punished over the years under the 1979 law. In some cases, those detained have languished in remand for 15 years without trial. Last month, several prominent rights activists were detained under provisions of the PTA.

Saravanamuttu said that the banned organizations were by no means “homogenous” and that stirring up talk of a revived LTTE movement amounted to scaremongering.

Some of the groups have “sympathies and links to the LTTE and [are] openly secessionist in their goals,” he said. “There are others who are moderates and by no means supportive of a secessionist agenda.”

“To lump them all together suggests either an ignorance of diaspora politics or a deliberate attempt to brand them all as LTTE and extremists. In any event, this is contrary to reconciliation and sends a message that the LTTE is actually alive and constitutes some sort of threat,” he said.

“The LTTE no longer exists,” said Fred Carver, campaign director at the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice. “The Government of Sri Lanka's attempts to pretend otherwise are part of their attempts to stifle domestic dissent and isolate activists.”

Since the end of the war a number of the banned groups have “made clear their commitment to non-violence”, said Keenan.

“If the government has specific and credible evidence that any of the groups or their leaders were in any way involved in financing or encouraging political violence or terrorism, they should make that evidence public and share it with law enforcement authorities in those countries where the groups operate,” he said.

“The fact the Sri Lankan government hasn't done this lends weight to the widespread belief that the ban is a political attack on the government's Tamil critics, rather than a legitimate response to a genuine threat.”

The organizations banned include the British Tamil Forum, Canadian Tamil Congress, Australian Tamil Congress, Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, Tamil Coordinating Committee, World Tamil Movement, Global Tamil Forum, National Council of Canadian Tamils, Tamil National Council, Tamil Youth Organization, World Tamil Coordinating Committee, Tamil Eelam People’s Assembly, World Tamil Relief Fund and the Headquarters Group and the LTTE.

Global Tamil Forum, based in the UK, is headed by Catholic Priest Father SJ Emmanuel.

“The substantial effect of an order under this regulation is that all funds, assets and economic resources belonging to or owned by the designated persons or entities remain frozen until they are removed from the designated list,” said a statement from Sri Lanka’s Ministry of External Affairs. “Moving, transferring or dealing with frozen assets without the permission of the competent authority is prohibited. In terms of the regulation, any person who fails to comply with an order to freeze assets is liable to heavy penalties.”

The ban is a “positive step” toward “combating terrorism” in Sri Lanka and abroad, said Suranimal Peiris, a Colombo-based pro-government activist, adding that host countries should “investigate” and “monitor” the activities of the banned organizations.

Meanwhile, Saravanamuttu said that a lasting resolution to the country's long-running tensions between minority Tamils and the Sinhalese-dominated government could only be achieved through a policy of engagement.

“The government must speak to Tamils, whether they are here or not, and engage with them to get their ideas to achieve reconciliation,” he said.

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