With the Government under pressure to outlaw terrorist organisations, EUGENE BINGHAM investigates the New Zealand connections of a group that claims its members are merely freedom fighters.
The young Sri Lankan breathed a sigh of relief as he boarded his flight to freedom. Back home, soldiers were kicking in the door, seeking him for his involvement with one of the bloodiest guerilla organisations in the world.
An intelligence officer and tax collector for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers), he had obtained a New Zealand student visa and fled when he was tipped off that the Sri Lankan military were after him.
New Zealand authorities learned the 29-year-old had spent two years gathering intelligence about Government supporters, extorting taxes for the Tamil Tigers from locals, and working for the rebels in a Kandy hotel, a job that involved harbouring Tiger operatives and hiding their stashes of weapons and explosives.
He admitted to New Zealand immigration officials that he had known about the bombing of Sri Lanka's Central Bank in January, 1996, which killed more than 90 people in one of the war-ravaged country's deadliest blasts.
His escape is just one example of Tamil Tiger involvement in New Zealand uncovered during a Weekend Herald investigation.
Our Government will have to consider classifying the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organisation under legislation before Parliament, yet the group has key members in New Zealand, some of whom are under investigation by foreign intelligence agencies. The Weekend Herald can also reveal:
* An elusive leader of the Tigers made an important trip to visit New Zealand business associates, who include one of his relatives.
* There are New Zealand connections with the group's shipping network, a fleet that is believed to ferry explosives and arms.
* There is evidence of people-smuggling operations suspected of being run by the Tigers, and allegations by a Tamil man that he escaped to Australia after New Zealand-based Tigers hired local gangs to threaten him.
* Pamphlets suggesting that Tigers' front organisations are raising funds in New Zealand have circulated in Auckland. But leaders of the 5000-strong New Zealand Tamil community dismiss them as propaganda pedalled by the Sri Lankan High Commission.
* An experienced watcher of the Tigers' global activities, Dr Rohan Gunaratna of of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism at Scotland's St Andrews University, says there is no doubt the Tigers have a presence in Australasia, led by Tillai Jayakumar, who coordinates activities in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
The Tamil Tigers' New Zealand connections are only just emerging. But the group has had its claws in other countries for more than 20 years, setting up bases in London and Paris and relying on connections throughout Asia and North America.
Established in the 1970s by leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tigers have built a formidable reputation since their war with the Sri Lankan Government began in 1983. About 65,000 lives have been lost since.
Their complaint is with state-led economic and social reforms that they believe discriminate in favour of the Sinhalese ethnic majority. Their goal is to carve a separate Tamil nation out of the north and east of Sri Lanka, the island home of 19 million people off the coast of India.
The Sri Lankan Government has pressured the international community to treat the Tamil Tigers as terrorists, a campaign that is gathering momentum, ironically just when the rebels have made steps towards peace.
Last month , the Tigers' leadership declared a one-month ceasefire in the hope of encouraging peace talks with the newly elected Government. Days earlier, the Australian Government announced it had included the Tigers on a list of banned organisations compiled in response to the American-led war on terrorism.
Being classified terrorists, with the restrictions that label brings, is a blow to the Tamil Tigers. But they are used to the close scrutiny of international authorities. In May, 1991, the group spectacularly seized the attention of the Indian security forces when it killed former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the type of suicide-bombing attack it favours. Tigers have carried out more suicide bombings than any Palestinian paramilitaries.
The Indian Central Bureau of Investigation targeted the Tigers' leadership, in the process turning its attention to Kumaran Padmanathan, a shadowy kingpin of the Tamil Tigers, sometimes referred to as the number two.
Travelling under several passports and using many names, he has eluded authorities for a decade. Intelligence agencies and police - who know him as "KP" - continue to track him over his alleged involvement in gun-running and smuggling. Of medium height and unremarkable features, Padmanathan slips easily across borders. Intelligence agencies believe he came to New Zealand about five years ago.
Two officers of the Indian CBI, Superintendent M. Thiagarajan and Deputy Superintendent R. Raju, came to Auckland in April last year to investigate Padmanathan's New Zealand business connections and his visit to this country.
They interrogated three Tamil men, one of whom is understood to be a relative of Padmanathan. The Weekend Herald spoke to the man but he denied any connection with the investigations.
Scotland's Gunaratna says he is aware that Padmanathan visited New Zealand, and that New Zealand authorities should not underestimate the significance of the visit.
"KP is a really busy and intelligent man - he would not have gone to New Zealand on a holiday," says Gunaratna.
He names seven men he believes are key to the Tigers' operations in New Zealand and likely to know of Padmanathan's connections here. The Indian detectives interviewed at least one of those men.
They also looked at front companies run out of Auckland on Padmanathan's behalf. It is believed the business connections are in the marine industry, as Padmanathan is heavily involved in running the Tiger shipping empire.
A Canadian Security Intelligence Service report says the Tigers run a secretive fleet of ships through various front companies. The fleet includes at least 10 freighters equipped with sophisticated radar and satellite communication technology. While the ships mostly carry legitimate commercial goods such as tea and concrete, they also transport explosives, arms and ammunition to the Tigers.
Among the ships linked to the Tigers, the report names one it says flew under a New Zealand flag. There is no record of the ship being registered in New Zealand. The Maritime Safety Authority has safety records relating to a ship of the same name, but cannot say if it has been here. If the ship had been flying a New Zealand flag, it would have been illegal.
Weekend Herald investigations show the ship was at one time registered in Singapore, but is now registered in Liberia.
The Canadian report says Padmanathan's shipping ties are an integral part of the Tigers' arms network and his global weapons procurement team, known as the "KP Department". The team's role is one of the most significant in the organisation - the importance is demonstrated by Padmanathan's close association with leader Prabhakaran.
International authorities believe the Tigers' activities in New Zealand include fundraising and people-smuggling.
Gunaratna believes the main purpose of human trafficking is to enable Tigers' operatives to discretely move internationally, but also to raise money from asylum-seekers desperate to escape South Asia.
And there are plenty of people who want to get away. Last year's Amnesty International report on Sri Lanka says innocent people of all ethnicities have suffered gross human rights abuses, including indiscriminate bombing and shelling, murders, disappearances and torture. The report notes the Tigers and the Sri Lankan Army have killed civilians.
In the past two years, more than 260 Sri Lankans claimed asylum in New Zealand, one of the highest number of refugees from one country.
Some came here with the help of human traffickers. One example involves a 46-year-old Tamil man who paid RS700,000 ($17,500) to leave Sri Lanka with forged documents. He had been pressured by the Tigers and the Sri Lankan Army, both of which wanted to use his communications business.
The Weekend Herald has learned of at least one case where New Zealand authorities have looked at the Tigers' possible involvement in a people-smuggling operation. The scam involved bringing men into New Zealand on other people's Sri Lankan passports.
Police have also investigated claims by a Tamil man that he had been harassed by local gangs hired by the Tigers. Australian documents show the man initially moved to New Zealand as a permanent resident with his wife and three children in 1987 to avoid violence from the Sri Lankan Army and the Tigers.
He stayed in New Zealand for three years but left for Canada after receiving threats. He returned to New Zealand when he encountered similar problems in Canada.
During his second extended stay in New Zealand, from 1994-1995, the man claimed that he was chased by two men armed with a knife. In another incident, he said his home was broken into.
The family fled to Australia, where he sought asylum. The man told Australian immigration authorities that if he returned to New Zealand the Tigers would hire criminals to kill him. He believed the attacks and threats were carried out by local gangs acting for the Tigers.
New Zealand police confirmed the man had complained about the attacks, but they were unable to trace the people responsible or verify his claims.
Other information obtained by the Weekend Herald suggests the Tigers are raising money in New Zealand through two front organisations, which go by the acronyms of the TCC and the TRO. The TRO is understood to stand for the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation. The Weekend Herald knows of two TCC organisations - the Tamil Co-ordindating Committee and the Tamil Cultural Committee.
Intelligence sources say fundraising in New Zealand was sporadic until 1998-1999, when a Tamil Tigers' operative came to help to streamline the collection of money through businesses and donations.
The fundraising is similar to patterns noticed by authorities around the world.
The Canadian SIS report says the money is not always directly given to the Tigers. "Often the LTTE will siphon off donations that are given to non-profit cultural bodies to finance Tamil social service, medical and rehabilitation programmes in Sri Lanka. The great advantage of this form of financial procurement is that it is often extremely difficult to prove that funds raised for humanitarian purposes are being diverted to propagate terrorism."
Two leaflets sent to Tamils in Auckland suggest a link between donations and funding for the Tigers. They say that "each year there are about four to six events held in Auckland which are directly/indirectly in support of the cause of the 'Liberation of Tamil Thayagam'," and that they should not support events that have no link to the Tigers.
"What the Tamil Homeland Liberators need now ... is not moral support by engaging in ... crocodile [tear]-shedding events but true support by forgoing some of your pleasures, digging into your wallets and donating a couple of hundred dollars towards the Thayagam cause. If all the Tamils living around the world donate $100 per year or $10 per month towards the Thayagam cause, this will give enough money to buy 200 tanks, 20 sub-boats, 20 jet fighters, 20 SAM [surface-to-air missiles] missile launchers, 20 helicopter gunships - sufficient hardware to liberate your homeland."
The other leaflet makes a link between the Tigers and events run by the TCC. "Please give your generous support for future TCC events ... doing so you become an indirect participant in Tamil Thayagam Liberation and once we liberate our homeland you would be proud."
One of the leaflets provides an Auckland phone number which has a pre-recorded message giving news in Tamil about events in Sri Lanka. The message is updated regularly.
The president of the NZ Tamil Society, George Arulanantham, says the leaflets are examples of propaganda from the previous Sri Lankan Government.
"The Government wanted to create among foreign countries [the impression] that the TCC and other organisations are involved with the LTTE. They want to put the blame on these Tamil organisations," says Arulanantham, who migrated to New Zealand four years ago with his family.
As further examples of what he calls propaganda, Arulanantham produces two more leaflets distributed among Tamils.
One refers to the TCC, the TRO and the TDO as organisations that help the Tigers. It says donations collected at one meeting of 300 people in Auckland amounted to $875, six bangles, two rings and one gold chain.
The second leaflet calls on Tamils in Australia and New Zealand to make an immediate contribution of $50 for the war effort. "Your TCC representative is expecting your contribution by April 15. Failure to make your contribution by this date will have serious repercussions."
Arulanantham confirms that the TCC and the TRO exist in New Zealand but says neither is linked with the Tigers. He says the Tamil Cultural Committee is responsible for organising functions that celebrate the Tamil language and culture, while the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation raises money to help people in Sri Lanka recover from the war and economic hardship.
Gatherings are regularly held around Auckland. Two weeks ago, Tamils gathered in Mt Albert for Christmas celebrations. Children dressed in traditional clothing danced and sang in Tamil. On July 28, the Tamil Society observed "Black July" - the anniversary of the beginning of the war - with a meeting at the Mt Roskill War Memorial Hall. Classical dances and dramas were performed and a documentary about the events of 1983 was screened.
Arulanantham says the gatherings are an important opportunity to instil in Tamil children their culture and history. Any money raised is to ease the suffering of people in Sri Lanka. "Definitely we don't have fundraising for the LTTE. But we did send funds for the affected people. We send it through recognised organisations and through legal procedures and banks."
He confirms the leaflets obtained by the Weekend Herald refer to certain events and that the phone number is a Tamil Society-sanctioned service for the community. But the accuracy of the pamphlets, he says, merely shows the lengths the perpetrators of the propaganda will go to.
"These are well-planned letters. They are attacking individual people and driving them against the Tamil organisations. They are purposely doing this to get rid of the Tamil organisations."
While the allegation that Tamil groups are financing the Tigers draws a strong denial, Tamils here have strong sympathy for them. "We are morally supporting the LTTE but we are not collecting money for any arms struggle," says Arulanantham.
Asked if he knows of Tamil Tigers in New Zealand, he says: "No, definitely not. But we are supporters of the LTTE - we feel they are freedom fighters."
Sometimes, that support is expressed openly. At the time of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Auckland six years ago, Tamil marchers walked down Queen St with banners that read: "We plea for NZ to voice concern", "Military solution is not the only solution", "LTTE is our only defence" and "LTTE is our only representative".
Dr Nagalingam Rasalingam, a founding member of the NZ Tamil Society in the early 1980s and now the president of the NZ Refugee Council, says he can understand how newly arrived Tamils feel about the Tamil Tigers.
"When we came [from Sri Lanka] in the late 1970s, there were pockets of problems and discrimination against the Tamils," he says. "Ultimately it ended up with the LTTE. The [people] say, 'We can only live because of them now.' So as a result there is huge backing for them now and most people who come in [to New Zealand] now will say that the only way they were supported was by the LTTE.
"But from my point of view ... to talk on my own set-up back home is very difficult because of 18 years of absence."
Rasalingam and another long-standing member of the Tamil community in Auckland, Victor Ragupathy, say the Tamil organisations in New Zealand have important roles. "It's a cultural sentiment to be shared among the community members, keeping the language alive, the culture alive."
Representatives of the Sri Lankan High Commission in Australia have a different opinion. Spokesman Panduka Senanayake says the TRO is not registered in Sri Lanka and has been linked to the Tamil Tigers.
As for claims that the commission is spreading propaganda, he says: "Let me assure you that the Sri Lankan Government does not engage in such activities at all. I can do nothing more than to totally and categorically deny that the Sri Lankan Government would be behind such an attempt to discredit the LTTE."
- Additional reporting by John Andrews