In November 2010, a Sri Lankan member of Parliament expressed his dismay when a small statue of a leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was erected on private property in a Paris suburb. It was an alarming sign, said Sarath Weerasekara, a retired rear admiral in the Sri Lankan navy, that the LTTE, an armed separatist group that Sri Lanka defeated decisively in 2009, might be regrouping in other countries.
“Its one leg is in America and the other one in France,” Weerasekera said in a statement in Parliament. “The head is in Norway and the other body parts in Australia or South Africa.” His rhetoric was consistent with the views of then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government, which repeatedly warned of the threat posed by LTTE supporters organizing abroad after they were crushed by the Sri Lankan army at home.
But months before Weerasekera’s speech, the Sri Lankan government was told quite plainly that, at least in the case of South Africa, the LTTE posed no threat at all, according to a secret intelligence agency cable (PDF) obtained by Al Jazeera’s investigative unit.
In the cable, dated June 9, 2010, South Africa’s State Security Agency (SSA) replied to a request for information about several cases of purported LTTE activity in South Africa, from a suspected military training camp held in May 2010 to suspicions that local Tamil organizations were raising money for the LTTE and allegations that the LTTE was in contact with former members of the South African military. In every case, South African intelligence concluded that there was no sign of LTTE activity or support in the country. “The LTTE does not have any offices or known representatives in South Africa,” the cable states.
And yet officials in the Rajapaksa government continued to warn of the threat posed by the LTTE in South Africa.
In July 2011, a minister in the government, Wimal Weerawansa, said in a newspaper interview that South Africa refused to help Sri Lanka quash a United Nations investigation of its conduct during the war because it had been “highly influenced by Tamil separatist ideology.”
In September 2011, Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, a senior commander of Sri Lankan ground forces during the end of the war who was part of the country’s delegation to the United Nations until December 2014, asserted that the wife of a top LTTE official “fled the country during the last days of the war to South Africa and is currently living there.”
In February 2012, an official in Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry told The Sunday Observer that the ministry recently sent communications warning about LTTE propaganda to several countries, including South Africa, “where the LTTE activities are significantly high.”
These comments echoed the view of then–Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who claimed that the LTTE in the diaspora was Sri Lanka’s No. 1 security concern. “There are ex-LTTE cadres, pro-LTTE activists and LTTE sympathizers still operating in various guises through various groups in many countries around the world,” he said in a 2012 speech.
Rajitha Senaratne, a Cabinet minister in the current Sri Lankan government who was also a minister during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government, downplayed the cable, saying it was common for Sri Lanka to make such requests to foreign governments. “That is the usual thing,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Al Jazeera, by phone and by email, about the cable and government officials’ subsequent statements.
The office of new Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said that he had not been briefed on the issue and could not comment.
During the peak of its power in the 1980s and 1990s, the LTTE did rely on the political and financial support of the Tamil diaspora in South Africa and countries with much larger Sri Lankan Tamil populations, such as the U.K. and Canada. “There were long-standing, very important connections between diaspora organizations and activities and the LTTE when the LTTE existed,” said Alan Keenan, a Sri Lanka senior analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG) in London. “Certainly the diaspora was an absolutely essential part of the LTTE’s machine.”
The SSA cable acknowledged this point, noting that “contact between local Tamil organizations in South Africa and similar organizations in other countries, including the LTTE, has been confirmed in the past.”
But experts on the Sri Lankan conflict have found few signs of a resurgence since the LTTE’s defeat. “There is little chance, however, of the Tigers regrouping in the diaspora,” according to a report by the ICG in February 2010. “LTTE leaders in Sri Lanka are dead or captured, and its overseas structures are in disarray.”
Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, an economist and the founder of the Point Pedro Institute of Development in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, explained that the group was highly centralized, with nearly all the power held by its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, who was killed during fighting in 2009. “Once he’s gone, everything falls apart,” Sarvanathan said.
But Rajapaksa had a domestic interest in playing up the threat. His regime used what Sarvananthan calls a “fear psychosis” to win elections, maintain its nationalist rhetoric and justify its spending on the military, whose $2.3 billion budget has increased every year since the war ended. “They were building up a real dynastic rule,” Sarvananthan said.
Internationally, the Sri Lankan government hoped to silence the voices in the Tamil diaspora that criticized the army for abuses allegedly committed in the last months of the war. “The diaspora was a threat to them because they kept certain issues alive,” Keenan said. “So it made sense to label them in ways that made their activities harder, that delegitimate them.”
The most prominent of those voices was a South African woman, Navi Pillay, who was the United Nations high commissioner for human rights from 2008 to 2014. In 2010, Sri Lanka tried to prevent the United Nations from empowering a panel of experts to investigate allegations of horrific crimes committed by the Sri Lankan military at the end of the war, arguing that the panel was influenced by LTTE propaganda in the diaspora. As Pillay pushed the issue before the U.N. Human Rights Council, the criticism against her as a tool of the LTTE became personal. “Pillay’s South African heritage and her South African Tamil heritage was something they went on and on about,” Keenan said.
When she traveled to Sri Lanka in August 2013 on a fact-finding mission, the attacks intensified, with three government ministers joining in. “They have claimed I was in their pay, the ‘Tamil Tigress in the U.N.,’” Pillay said at a press conference during her trip. “This is not only wildly incorrect, it is deeply offensive.”
Ironically, even as Sri Lanka played up the LTTE threat in South Africa, it claimed to have taken inspiration from South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in creating a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to examine the war. “They definitely wanted the legitimacy that comes with South Africa’s name for any kind of reconciliation-related process,” Keenan said.
But critics said that South Africa should distance itself from Sri Lanka’s postwar efforts, because the LLRC lacked true independence and because of the government’s persistent hostility to minorities. “It has controlled narratives both within and outside the country, reacting furiously to any challenge to the official version,” Louise Arbour, a former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, wrote in 2011.
Ultimately, Sri Lanka was unable to secure South Africa’s support, and Rajapaksa was recently voted out of office — not because of his government’s conduct during the war but because of mounting frustrations over nepotism and corruption. A new report from the U.N. Human Rights Council on war crimes allegations in Sri Lanka was supposed to be released this month, but the new government successfully argued for a six-month delay, promising more cooperation and transparency with international investigators.
The country’s new President Maithripala Sirisena, has softened some of the rhetoric of his predecessor and is attempting, again, to build ties with South Africa. A handful of South African officials arrived in Colombo last week to share lessons from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But Sri Lanka’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ajith Perera was careful to point out that the country would go its own way on reconciliation. “We will look at a Sri Lankan model,” he said.
Amantha Perera contributed reporting from Colombo.