By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS
New Delhi : The arrest of its senior most operative in Britain is the latest of crippling setbacks Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers have suffered in the West, which was seen until recently as a safe haven for the deadly insurgent group.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is facing an unprecedented crackdown in countries ranging from the US to Australia where it had over the years painstakingly built an overseas empire to finance and arm its separatist campaign in Sri Lanka.
Even as it fought to break up Sri Lanka's northeast, establishing a state within a state, it used the Tamil diaspora and the freedom available particularly in the West to generate financial and other forms of support to sustain its costly protracted war.
The Western tolerance of the LTTE, Tamil sources say, seems to be withering away. But even by the standards of what has taken place since 2005 in several countries, the June 21 arrests in London of A. Chrishanthakumar, more widely known as A.C. Shanthan, and an associate are seen as a terrible blow to the Tamil Tigers.
Shanthan, a long-time associate of the LTTE's late ideologue Anton Balasingham, is president of the British Tamil Association (BTA). More importantly, he is the head of the LTTE in Britain, where the group opened its first overseas branch in the 1970s.
A civil engineer by training, Shanthan, 51, was taken into custody under the UK Terrorism Act, which bars support to any group dubbed terrorist. The LTTE was banned in Britain in 2001. British authorities also raided offices of LTTE fronts.
"Shanthan was a key person in LTTE," a Tamil activist in London who did not want to be named told IANS over telephone. "His arrest will affect Tiger morale. For years the LTTE was so cocky that it thought no one could harm it in Britain, law or no law. That is over."
The London development came just two months after authorities in France, where the LTTE has maintained its International Secretariat, swooped on the Tigers, slapping charges of "financial terrorism" and links "with a terrorist enterprise" against 15 men.
But it is the US that has hit the LTTE really hard. In April this year, an LTTE activist was charged in New York with raising funds for the Tigers and for arranging meetings in Sri Lanka between Tiger leaders and American Tamils with backgrounds in engineering, technology, weaponry and medicine.
Again in New York, eight Sri Lankan Tamils were arrested in August 2006 and accused of trying to provide material support to the LTTE. Four of them reportedly met an undercover agent and sought to buy SA 18 surface-to-surface missiles, missile launchers, AK-47s and other weapons.
The next month, at another American court, a Sri Lankan Tamil, a Singaporean and four Indonesians were charged – after an elaborate sting — with attempting to buy night vision devices, sniper rifles, submachine guns and grenade launchers for LTTE.
Far away, authorities in Australia cracked down on the LTTE in November 2005, when Sri Lanka elected Mahinda Rajapakse as president, questioning over 15 LTTE operatives and raiding offices of LTTE front organisations and supporters' homes in Melbourne.
More arrests took place in Melbourne in May 2007 to check funding to the Tigers.
LTTE suspects have also been detained in such countries as Canada, home to the largest Sri Lankan Tamil population, Switzerland, Thailand and Indonesia. Others have reportedly quietly put LTTE activists under the scanner.
Tamil sources say there is a patter to the crackdown.
"My sense is that stopping LTTE funding is a policy priority now in the West. So this sort of activity is likely to continue," another Tamil activist who regularly interacts with Western diplomats said.
The LTTE's steady rise in Sri Lanka was accompanied by the growth of its overseas network, both overt and covert. The Tigers used genuine support to its cause as well as strong-arm tactics to raise huge sums of money. The West was also a safe haven for its well-oiled propaganda network. Until the late 1990s, the West hardly paid any heed.
But post-9/11 and the steady collapse of the Sri Lanka ceasefire, the West is discovering in the LTTE traits that until recently it saw only in Islamic outfits.