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Third Session of Peace Talks in Oslo & Aftermath > Tamil diaspora in limbo
over role in Sri Lanka peace
Tamil diaspora in limbo over role in Sri Lanka peace
6 January 2003
COLOMBO (Reuters) - "Thanks for the cash, we'll take it from here" may be the message Tamils who fled Sri Lanka's violence for better lives overseas are hearing as peace talks deepen between the government and Tamil Tigers.
Tamils forced abroad early in the 19-year civil war have bankrolled the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the fight for a separate Tamil state, but as the rebels sit down for negotiations, their role in any settlement remains unclear.
The Tigers' enduring power over the community makes it hard to determine just how the hundreds of thousands who moved abroad as fighting terrorised civilians and crippled the economy see the peace process or their role in a peacetime Sri Lanka.
"There is not a single dissident view expressed in the Tamil media," said one longtime resident of Canada's 300,000-strong Sri Lankan community, most of whom are Tamil.
"There are a lot of differences -- some are hoping that through the political experience we've gained in the diaspora, we might change things. But every time we try to criticise, we are accused of being warmongers," he said.
The diaspora has traditionally been split between those who, safe from the war in Sri Lanka, could afford to push a hard line, and those who fled the Tigers' brutality.
But after a year of ceasefire and with negotiators sitting down for a fourth round of direct talks in Thailand, indications are that despite reservations, Tamils abroad are also ready for a resolution to a conflict that has cost more than 64,000 lives.
"Initially, there was a fear about trusting that this was going to work. With time, my sense from everyone I've heard from so far is incredible relief," said Jeyanthy Siva, a Tamil raised mostly in the United States who has returned to live in Sri Lanka.
But despite a general atmosphere of support, concerns remain over the substance of the peace process, and what role there might be for the community that by most accounts still fills the Tigers' coffers, a post-September 11 crackdown notwithstanding.
Those overseas say it is hard to give input when the rebels still exert a powerful influence over the community, threatening retaliation against relatives in Sri Lanka or curbing access to Tamil community organisations on which new immigrants often rely.
But there are signs that the Tigers are showing some sensitivity to the diaspora's contributions.
An "expatriate co-ordination centre" was opened in eastern Sri Lanka in December, at a ceremony in which members of the LTTE's political wing sang the praises of the diaspora.
"Their economic assistance has strengthened the arms of our leader. We never would have reached this stage in our struggle without the help from our expatriates," one was quoted as saying on the pro-rebel Tamilnet Web site.
Editorials in the Tamil media have encouraged a role for Tamils overseas in rebuilding the war-battered north and east, saying their skills should be tapped because of expertise gained abroad and their understanding of the language and culture.
But even if the Tigers acknowledge a peacetime role for the diaspora, it may be different from what those who have been watching and worrying from abroad envision.
"What I find with a lot of activism here in Toronto is that there is quite a bit of frustration," said Kevin Shimmin, a human rights activist who works with the Sri Lankan community there.
"The ones who truly support the peace process are the ones asking the difficult questions," he said.