Rameswaram, a 40-year-old restaurant owner in Paris’s Tamil quarter, thought he left fear and violence behind in Sri Lanka when he fled the country’s civil war in the late 1980s. But he didn’t.
Now, he says, he lives in fear of the young men who come to his apartment once a month to collect 100 euros for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the rebel group fighting for autonomy for the ethnic Tamils of Sri Lanka.
Rameswaram – a pseudonym – says this has been going on since he opened the restaurant in Paris’s La Chapelle district in 1990. “Initially I didn’t want pay the LTTE but they hinted that my wife and children in Sri Lanka would suffer the consequences,” he says.
His wife and children joined him in France in 1995, but Rameswaram says he is still making the payments. He says he tried to put a stop to the payments when his family arrived in France but was attacked and beaten outside his restaurant.
Afraid of calls from the Tigers or their representatives, he no longer answers his phone directly, instead letting it go to the answering machine so callers can identify themselves before he picks up.
Some pay willingly, others don’t
In France, many members of the Sri Lankan community, especially shop-owners and businessmen, say they are being forced to pay contributions to the Tamil Tigers to fund their guerrilla war in Sri Lanka.
Some of the Tamils pay willingly, eager to support the Tigers’ efforts to win broader rights for Tamils from the Sri Lankan government, which is dominated by another ethnic group, the Sinhalese. “The LTTE tells us that the money they are collecting is a loan and that it will be paid back with interest after the war ends in Sri Lanka,” says Shankar, a shop-owner in La Chapelle who contributes to the LTTE. “They are fighting for our rights.” he adds. (Like many Tamils, Shankar uses only one name.)
But others say they are obliged to pay because they are threatened and coerced by the LTTE’s fund-raisers.
1 day abroad = 1 euro to pay
According to a March 2006 report by the nongovernmental Human Rights Watch, most Sri Lankan Tamils living abroad – including in Canada, Europe and the United States – are approached and asked to contribute to the LTTE. The report says the fund-raisers sometimes identify themselves as representatives of the LTTE, and sometimes of Tamil charity groups that are widely seen as fronts for the LTTE.
According to Human Rights Watch, Tamils who fail to pay while living abroad are asked to pay double or triple the amount when they return to Sri Lanka to visit. The amount varies but is often calculated on the basis of $1 or 1 euro for each day that each member of the family has lived in the West, the group says. Once the payment is made, expatriate visitors are given a PIN number and a visitor’s pass which allows them to move about freely in LTTE-controlled regions like the Jaffna peninsula.
Arumugam Kumarasamy, a 50-year-old Tamil who has been living in Paris since 1987, says he has not been able to visit Sri Lanka in more than a decade. “I don’t have the means to pay the LTTE. Even if I go back to my country the Tigers will not let me enter Jaffna unless I pay,” he says, adding, “Even if I had the means, I wouldn’t pay because I don’t support their goals.” Kumarasamy says he is one of the few Tamils who can afford to say “no” because most of his family is in France.
Even former Tigers say they come under pressure. Forty-five-year-old Mani Sundram says he was an LTTE fighter in his twenties but left Sri Lanka in the late 1980s after an internal split within the group. Now the owner of a music store in Paris, he says he often receives visits from LTTE members asking him to contribute large sums of money. “They come home and if I don’t answer they leave a note in my mailbox. I refuse to contribute because I know my money will be misused,” he says.
One of the Tamils interviewed for this article gave FRANCE 24 a printed slip that he said was pinned to his door while he was out. The yellow slip, printed in the Tamil language, reads:
A national freedom worker came to your house but you were absent. To make it possible for us to get in touch with you please let us know your day off or the time when you take a lunch break by calling on the following number.
The slip then gives the telephone number and address of the Tamil Co-ordinating Committee (TCC), a Tamil welfare organisation based in Paris.
‘All Tamils are Tigers’
The TCC’s office, in eastern Paris, are adorned with LTTE flags and photos of LTTE military leaders. On a recent visit by FRANCE 24, two young men were sitting at a desk, one of them reading off names and euro amounts from a printed list, the other entering the data into a computer. Asked what they were doing, the men said they were tracking contributions made by French Tamils for cultural events.
In an interview in his office next door, the TCC’s manager, Metha, denied assertions by human rights groups and terrorism experts that the TCC is a front for the LTTE. “The TCC is not linked with the Tamil Tigers,” he told FRANCE 24, “but we support their cause since they’re fighting for the rights of the Tamil people back in Sri Lanka.”
Metha, who says he worked as a public relations officer for the LTTE back in Sri Lanka, says he is aware that some groups extort money from Tamils in France to support the Tigers’ military activity, but that the TCC only collects voluntary contributions for cultural purposes. He noted that the French government has not taken action against the TCC even though the European Union branded the LTTE a terrorist group in May 2006.
(The French interior ministry, asked about allegations of coercive fund-raising by supporters of the LTTE in France, refused to comment.)
When asked whether he knew who worked directly for the Tamil Tigers in France, Metha smiled and responded: “All Tamils are Tigers and we all help the LTTE in their cause”.
The Sri Lankan embassy in Paris says the TCC and other Tamil charities raise thousands of euros for the LTTE by staging cultural events such as Tamil sports meets and dance competitions, and encouraging local Tamil business owners to purchase stalls for high prices.
According to Chitranganee Wagiswara, the Sri Lankan ambassador in France, “In France, these organisations have registered themselves as cultural or humanitarian organisations, so it is difficult to take an action against them since there is no authentic proof of their links with the LTTE.”
The TCC and other Tamil charities say the Sri Lankan government targets them because they work for the benefit of the Tamil population, which they say has been oppressed and unfairly treated by the central government for decades.