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VI. Extortion of Tamil Expatriates Visiting Sri Lanka

Since the ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE in February 2002, increasing numbers of Tamil expatriates have taken advantage of the relative peace to visit family and friends who remained in the North and East of Sri Lanka, areas that are largely under the control of the LTTE. Increasingly, these visits have become a source of revenue for the LTTE as the LTTE has begun to systematically identify visiting expatriates and pressure them to contribute to the “cause.”

Visitors to the North of Sri Lanka may travel by one of two routes: fly to Jaffna from Colombo, or travel north by bus or car on the main A9 highway that stretches from Kandy in the south to Jaffna at the northern tip of Sri Lanka. North of Vavuniya, travelers reach the Omanthai and Muhamalai crossing points that separate government- and LTTE-held territory. Leaving government-held territory, they must exit their vehicles and show documentation at a government checkpoint before crossing several kilometers of no-man’s land that is monitored by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). On the other side, visitors stop again at an LTTE checkpoint where they must show documentation before proceeding into LTTE-held territory. At the checkpoint, travelers are directed by signs into separate queues depending on whether they are Sri Lankan nationals, or whether they carry foreign passports.

Recent expatriate visitors to the North report that foreign Tamil visitors are given a pass at the checkpoint, for which they must pay 1,000 rupees (approximately U.S.$10). They are told that within three days of reaching their destination, they must take the pass to the local LTTE office in Jaffna or Kilinochchi.

At the LTTE office, visitors must give detailed personal information, such as their name, home phone and address, employer, salary information, whether or not they own their home, and how long they have lived there. They are also asked for information about their past contributions to the LTTE. If visitors cannot verify a history of regular contributions, they then may be told an amount of money that they “owe” to the LTTE. The amount varies but is often calculated on the basis of $1, £1, or €1 per day, for each day that they have lived in the West. For expatriates who have lived in the West for long periods of time, the amount can be substantial. For example, a Tamil who has lived in Toronto for twenty years might be expected to pay Cdn$7,300. Alternatively, they may be pressured to sign a pledge to pay a monthly amount once they return home.102  

Priya’s Story

Priya (not her real name) left Sri Lanka in the early 1990s and now lives in the Toronto area. In mid-2005, she made her first visit back to Sri Lanka in more than ten years, traveling by road from Colombo to visit a parent and siblings in the North. She told Human Rights Watch:

At the checkpoint, they told me that each family had to get a pass and pay 1,000 rupees. I was told that was the rule. Then once you get to [town], within three days you have to go to the LTTE office and give all your details there. I paid the 1,000 rupees and gave my name and passport number.

On the second day, I went to the [LTTE] office. They asked how long I had been living abroad and if I had contributed any money while abroad. I said I hadn’t. I told them I was living on welfare and had children. I said it was very difficult, so I didn’t give money.

The LTTE told me, “When you go back, you should give money. You should help our struggle. It is your obligation to help us.” I agreed that when I got back I would give money month to month. I felt I had to agree, because I was in their territory. I was afraid that if I refused, they would demand the money then. They asked for $50 per month. I said I couldn’t afford $50, but would pay $30. They finally agreed on $40 a month and said I should pay it to the World Tamil Movement.

They asked me to fill out a form and sign it. It included my home address, name, and the amount I had agreed to pay. When I was there [at the office], for most people, they were demanding money right then, but in my case, they said paying later would be okay. Maybe it was the way I was talking to them.103

Priya said that at the time, she felt she had little choice but to report to the LTTE office and sign the pledge. “If I didn’t go to the office, they would have come to look for me. At the checkpoint they asked me where I would stay. If I had argued with them and refused to give the money, I might have had problems.”

After signing the pledge, the LTTE office put a seal on the pass she had received at the border checkpoint and instructed her to present it when she left LTTE-controlled territory to return to Colombo.

After returning to Toronto, Priya said that representatives from the World Tamil Movement started calling her within a week. “They left three or four messages, but I didn’t pick up the phone. If my children answered, they told them I was at work.”

Shortly afterward, a man came to Priya’s home. Priya said, “He had all the information, including my passport number. He said, ‘I’m from the World Tamil Movement. You said in Sri Lanka that you would give money. I am here to collect it.’ He had a printout and I could see other peoples’ names. It had my name and children’s names, my passport number, and my address.”

Priya told the man that she had managed to make the trip to Sri Lanka by taking out a loan, and that she could not afford to pay any more. “He said, ‘People who only make $6 or $7 an hour are giving, so you have to give the money.’ I tried to argue with him and ask him to come back after a few months. I told him I couldn’t afford it. He said, ‘All these people who are much worse off than you are giving, so you have to give.’”

Eventually, Priya agreed to pay the amount she had pledged. When she spoke to Human Rights Watch several months later, she indicated that she was thinking of stopping the payments, but was afraid that if she stopped paying, “they would probably come and harass me, and come and constantly knock on my door.” She was also concerned that if she did not keep up the payments, she would not be able to return again to Sri Lanka to see her family. “If I don’t pay the money, next time I go, they will demand the entire [accumulated] amount. I can’t afford to pay that much.”

When speaking to Human Rights Watch, Priya became visibly upset. She indicated that one of the reasons why she did not want to give money to the LTTE was because of their practice of recruiting children as soldiers.

My brother’s children are in the Vanni. The LTTE is collecting money here and using the money to train children to fight and die with the [Tiger] army. The people who collect the money here are living a very good life and drive a nice car. They don’t seem to care that it is the children there who are forced to fight and die. My children are here. I will never let them join or fight or die. Nor would any other Tamils in Canada let their children fight and die. But there are children there who are being used as fighters. How can they accept that? I worry about my nephews and nieces.104

Common Extortion Methods

Priya’s experience is not unique. A lawyer with a Toronto practice reported that from March through November 2005, he had at least a dozen clients who had been pressured to pay money while visiting Sri Lanka. He said, “All of my clients who have been to Jaffna have had the experience. If they go by land, it is a sure case.”105

He reported that clients who fly to Jaffna may not immediately be identified, but that word often spreads quickly in local neighborhoods when someone visits from abroad. “Then by the second or third day, someone will come and say, ‘You should go to the Kondavil office [LTTE treasury].’ If you try to avoid him, the man will come again. Then your family says, ‘You need to go. If you don’t, you will create a problem for us.’”

According to the attorney’s clients, they were required to give detailed personal information at the LTTE office in Kondavil, a village near Jaffna town. He said that individuals were often unsure of how much personal information the LTTE already possessed, so were afraid to give any false information. Some of his clients reported that they were told they could not leave Jaffna until they paid the amount of money requested, and that if they didn’t have the money with them, they should get it from family members in Canada. “If they are told not to leave, people don’t want to take the risk, so they get their family to wire the money.” He was unaware of anyone who was forcibly detained, but said, “The mere verbal order is more than enough to upset them.”106

Even people who have given contributions while in the West may be pressured to give when visiting Sri Lanka. The attorney said, “If you say that you have given, they say they don’t have a record. They ask, ‘Do you have a PIN number?’ Or they will enter your name and date of birth in a computer and say, ‘No, we checked, you didn’t give money.’ You have to give.”107

In some cases, the LTTE confiscates the passports of visiting Tamils until they pay the requested amount of money. A reliable source in London provided information about a Tamil woman with two children, from another European country, who visited Jaffna in 2005.108 They flew to Jaffna from Colombo because they had already heard about families being pressed for money when passing through the LTTE checkpoint by road. When they reached Jaffna, they were told to report to Kondavil. At the Kondavil office, officials worked out a figure based on the amount of time they had lived in the West and had not contributed money to the LTTE. The woman was told that before they left, they would have to pay 500,000 rupees (approximately £2,800/U.S.$4,800). She only had 100,000 rupees with her, which she paid. The LTTE then took her passport and informed her that the passport would be returned to her when she returned with the other 400,000 rupees.

Rather than pay the amount, the woman flew back to Colombo that same night, and went to her embassy the following day, claiming that she had lost her passport. After receiving a replacement passport, she quickly returned to Europe with her children.109

In another case, a British Tamil woman visiting the North was asked at the LTTE checkpoint if she had contributed to the LTTE while living in the U.K. She responded that her husband had given £35 a month. She was told that the amount was “not enough” and was asked for 1.3 million rupees (approximately £7,300/U.S.$12,600). The LTTE took her passport and instructed her to visit the LTTE office in Jaffna. In Jaffna, she was again pressed for money but refused to pay. When she returned to the checkpoint to retrieve her passport, she was again pressed for money until she finally signed an agreement to increase the family’s monthly pledge to £50.110

Not every expatriate who travels to the North is pressed to give funds. One Toronto university student who traveled to Jaffna by road in mid-2005 was told at the checkpoint to visit the Kondavil LTTE office in Jaffna within three days. “They said, ‘You must go.’ I was kind of scared, so I went there. Some people said if I don’t go there will be big trouble. They said I might not be able to leave.” At the Kondavil office she was asked for personal information. Her impression of the meeting: “The main idea is that they want the money from us.” She told the LTTE representatives that she was still in school, had loans, and was not working. In her case, the LTTE did not press her for immediate funds or a pledge, but informed her that once she got a job, she should start to give. She expressed concern that they would continue to monitor her. “They have my current address, so they can come to my house.”111

As word of such stories spreads, many Tamil families reportedly have begun to change their travel plans and even cancel planned trips to visit Sri Lanka for fear of being forced to pay amounts that they cannot afford or are not willing to give. The attorney in Toronto told Human Rights Watch, “Many people have cancelled plans to go, even if they are strong LTTE supporters. I know three or four families who have cancelled plans to go visit.”112 A London Tamil who has lived in the U.K. for more than twenty years and was approached for money in mid-2005 told Human Rights Watch, “I had plans last year to visit, but now I have this problem to take the PIN number and payment.”113

[102] Human Rights Watch interviews, Toronto, Canada, November 2005.

[103] Human Rights Watch interview, Toronto, Canada, November 2005.

[104] Ibid.

[105] Human Rights Watch interview, Toronto, Canada, November 2005.

[106] Ibid.

[107] Human Rights Watch interview, Toronto, Canada, November 2005.

[108] Human Rights Watch interview, London, U.K., November 2005.

[109] Human Rights Watch interview, London, U.K., November 30, 2005.

[110] Human Rights Watch interview, London, U.K., October 2005.

[111] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Toronto, Canada, November 2005.

[112] Human Rights Watch interview, Toronto, Canada, November 2005.

[113] Human Rights Watch interview, London, U.K., November 2005.

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