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SINGAPORE, Jun 12 2014 (IPS) - The recent arrest and deportation from Malaysia of three Sri Lankan Tamils on U.N. refugee status, under suspicion of trying to revive the disbanded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has raised questions about regional security and minority politics.
For many, disputes over the South China Sea and the proliferation of Islamic terror networks are the defining peace and security issues in South and Southeast Asia. As a result, the arrests of the three men last month went largely unreported, with the exception of local Malaysian and Sri Lankan media.
But with a large and restive Tamil minority in South India, huge Tamil diasporas in Malaysia, Singapore and Mauritius, as well as unhealed wounds from the recently concluded civil war in Sri Lanka that decimated the separatist LTTE, experts say that Tamil nationalist aspirations could end up shaping regional politics.
Considered defunct since 2009, when the Sri Lankan army stormed the remaining rebel-held territory and eradicated its top leadership in the final phase of the country’s 30-year-long civil war, the LTTE still holds a powerful place in the collective imaginary of the region.
Referring to the May 15 arrest of the three Tamil men by Malaysian police under a Red Notice issued by Interpol, a regional terrorism expert speaking to IPS on the condition of anonymity said this was a significant development in thwarting attempts to revive the LTTE in Malaysia under the cover of U.N. refugee status.
The arrests followed hard on the heels of another deportation from Malaysia, in March this year, of the deputy leader of the LTTE’s international network, Nanthagopan, who was arrested in Iran on a tip-off from Sri Lanka and sent back to Malaysia before being subsequently deported to Colombo.
In announcing the arrests, Malaysian Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar charged that the suspected persons had “used Malaysia as a base to collect funds, spread their propaganda, and were attempting to revive the defunct terrorist group at the international level.”
Police also seized propaganda material promoting the LTTE and a large amount of cash in over 24 different currencies.
The alleged offenders, registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), had been living in the country without visas since 2004.
“We will not allow the country to be used as a place for them to hide or conduct any terror activities in the country or on foreign soil,” the inspector-general stressed, adding that the UNHCR office in Malaysia should undertake a thorough review of its procedures to ensure that terrorist suspects don’t abuse its offices for activities that threaten regional stability.
A spokesperson for UNHCR in Malaysia, Yante Ismail, told IPS that while the High Commissioner’s office cannot comment on individual cases, they did urge the Malaysian government not to deport the three suspects until investigations could be completed.
“UNHCR regrets that despite our representations to the Malaysian Government, this group has been deported to a place where they may be at serious risk of harm,” she said.
UNHCR is not alone in its concern – since 1983 thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils have sought refugee status in other countries on the grounds that their rights have been trampled upon by the majority-Sinhalese state.
Unresolved charges that the Sri Lankan army committed war crimes against the minority population during the last days of the conflict, coupled with reports that Tamils have experienced systematic detention in the years following the war, add to the fear that some Tamils are not safe in Sri Lanka.
But since Malaysia is not a State Party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the government is not bound by UNHCR guidelines.
Others believe the issue runs deeper than just regional security.
P. Ramasamy, deputy chief minister of Malaysia’s northwestern Penang state, who acted as a legal advisor to the LTTE during peace negotiations a decade ago, has accused the Malaysian police of falling into the trap set by the Sri Lankan government to frustrate international efforts to conduct a full investigation into possible rights violations in the country.
“About 90 percent of Malaysian Tamils are ardent supporters of the Tamil freedom movement in Sri Lanka. Is Khalid [Abu Bakar] going to arrest more than two million of us just because we support their struggle?” he remarked in an interview with The Edge.
Roughly eight percent of Malaysia’s population of some 29 million people is Tamil, mainly descendants of indentured labourers brought by the British to work in the rubber plantations in the 19th century.
At the height of the HINDRAF rebellion in December 2007, the then Malaysian police chief Mussa Hassan accused the group of “actively canvassing for support and assistance from terrorist groups”, including the LTTE.
HINDRAF’s leaders were subsequently arrested and jailed under the Internal Security Act and the movement officially banned in October 2008. However, in January 2013 the ban was lifted and in April HINDRAF signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the governing Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to work towards uplifting the Tamil community.
According to Ramanathan Sankaran, a scholar on the Indian diaspora in Malaysia, many Malaysian Tamils are sympathetic to the cause of Sri Lanka’s minority and have thus supported the LTTE. HINDRAF once represented these sympathies but since joining the ruling government has been much more cautious in its message.
“My support for HINDRAF has declined because they did not make any comments on the arrest and deportations,” Sankaran told IPS, adding, “Their failure to act on this matter is a disgrace.”
Some say the Malaysian government’s biggest fear is the reawakening of the sentiment once expressed by HINDRAF, and the radicalisation of Malaysian Tamils.
The government has been particularly concerned about the recent creation of a group calling itself the Tamilar Progressive Team, which is modeled on a similar group in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu that one of the arrestees – 38-year-old Selvathurai Kirubananthan, also known as Anbarasan – is alleged to have been involved with.
Other experts, like leading Malaysian rights activist Chandra Muzafar, say these fears are unfounded.
“Tamil support for the ruling coalition has been increasing since the last General Election in May 2013,” he told IPS. The more likely scenario, he says, is that the Malaysian government is legitimately apprehensive about Sri Lankan Tamils “using Malaysia as a base to revive the LTTE.”
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