Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Globe and Mail

Saturday, Dec. 19, 2009 12:46AM EST

By Timothy Appleby and Beatrice Fantoni


Type Velupillai Thangavelu's name into an Internet search engine and the results are distinctly mixed.

One cluster of references shows Mr. Thangavelu to have been vice-president of the World Tamil Movement, outlawed by Ottawa in June, 2008, as a terrorist group and front for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in its long, ultimately fruitless battle against the Sri Lankan military.

Along with its legitimacy, the WTM lost its home on Cosentino Drive in Scarborough and its bank account, seized by authorities.

These days, however, Mr. Thangavelu has a new mission: Helping organize the Canadian component of a multinational referendum in which the Tamil diaspora is being asked whether – like the Tigers – it favours creation of an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka.

Tamil Canadians will vote in the referendum today at 31 polling stations, most in the Greater Toronto Area, home to the majority of the country's 200,000-plus Tamils.

Mr. Thangavelu offers no apologies for his past, saying the image of the Canadian-based WTM was badly distorted by the government and federal security agencies, and that the group has, in any case, been dissolved.

But he concedes the game has changed since May when, amid horrific scenes of civilian suffering in which both sides were accused of atrocities, the Sri Lankan military finally crushed the Tigers' 23-year struggle for independence.

“The goal is the same, but now we are re-mandating our political aspirations,” Mr. Thangavelu said.

“We tried ballots – it failed. So we tried bullets and that failed. And now we have come back full circle and come to ballots.”

Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Halifax and Cornwall are the other venues for today's vote, orchestrated by the Coalition for Tamil Elections Canada.

Participants will be asked to approve the Vaddukkoaddai Resolution, a 1976 document declaring the Tamils' right to form a separate state in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

Similar referendums have already been held in Norway and France – Yes was the reported outcome in both – and next up will be Britain.

“There are multiple views on the issue,” said coalition spokeswoman Darshika Selvasivam. “That's why the referendum needs to speak for itself.”

And while the ultimate aim is independence, the short-term hope is to exert pressure on the Sri Lankan government to allow a widened role for the country's Tamil minority in parliamentary and presidential elections expected in January.

Whatever the outcome of those elections, Mr. Thangavelu and 28 other Tamil Canadians will be organizing another vote in April, this time to create a de facto government-in-exile.

Not all expatriate Tamils are cheering on the referendum, or even taking part.

“We're just watching it with interest,” said David Poopalapillai, spokesman for the Toronto-based Canadian Tamil Congress, the mainstream non-profit organization that bills itself as the voice of Tamil Canadians, with 11 chapters across the country.

“We have lots of other things in our basket, there are many other problems, though we welcome any democratic process.”

(Mr. Thangavelu, who hopes to see up to 50,000 ballots cast in the referendum, dismissed the CTC as “an elitist institution … They should be involved, but they're not.”)

Even less impressed than Mr. Poopalapillai is Bandula Jayasekara, Sri Lanka's consul-general in Toronto, who recently described the referendum as “laughable,” and said its proponents were being misled.

Whatever its merits, it underscores an evolution seen in many other parts of the world: Extremists who re-emerge as moderates.

“Historically this has happened time and time again,” said Chris Mathers, a former RCMP officer who heads his own consulting firm, chrismathers inc., specializing in fraud, money laundering, terrorism and organized-crime issues.

“A lot of the leaders of Israel were considered to be extremists by the British government in the 1940s. Sinn Fein [the political wing of the Irish Republican Army] is another perfect example.

“People have short memories about things like that. When Yasser Arafat can get the Nobel Peace Prize, the world is a wacky place.”

Mr. Thangavelu readily agrees that other former members of the proscribed World Tamil Movement are taking a role in the Coalition for Tamil Elections Canada, a group that Ms. Selvasivam describes as “politically neutral.”

And legally there seems to be no reason why they should not.

“It's the organization that's banned,” Mr. Mathers said, “not the people in it.”