Page last updated at 07:21 GMT, Monday, 8 December 2008

UK Tamils polarised but powerful

East Ham high street
The Tamil community has transformed East Ham's High Street

By Samanthi Dissanayake
BBC News

For one bitter-sweet moment when he wakes up each morning, Anand believes he is still in Sri Lanka.

When a ferocious war between the Sinhalese-dominated government and Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for a separate homeland arrived at his doorstep in 1993, he fled to Britain.

Anand - Tamil refugee in London
Anand says he would like to return to Sri Lanka
"In my dreams, I go to Sri Lanka. I see my mother who is dead now. I see my old job," he says.

As evening draws in he listens to the radio for news of war, a clue as to where his future lies. "I don't feel British. When the problem is solved I will return."

But exactly how this problem should be solved is where another set of problems for Britain's close-knit Sri Lankan Tamil community begins.

They are articulate and organised campaigners but fear of being criminalised as a community, internal divisions, and the effects of a far-away war are taking a toll on refugees like Anand.

Financial muscle

For many Tamils settled in Britain, the only feasible solution to the war is a separate state - a land they call Eelam.

This is what the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are fighting for. And for years, many Tamils who fled alleged discrimination and conflict threw their financial muscle behind the LTTE.

The LTTE is considered to be a devastatingly effective rebel force. It has land and sea forces, a rudimentary air force, a notorious suicide-bombing squad and has been blamed for attacks on civilian targets in Sri Lanka.

Plam tree on business in East ham
2001 census: 67,832 Sri Lankan-born people in the UK
Community estimates: 150,000 Tamils in the UK
1940s - 1960s: Professionals arrive for work and education
1970s: Students arrive to pursue higher education
1980s -1990s: Refugees fleeing conflict seek asylum
2000s: Tamil-origin EU nationals settle in the UK
Sources: 2001 census; Dr Nicholas van Hear/COMPAS, University of Oxford

But the general climate of opinion in the West on such groups has undergone a fundamental shift. In 2001, the LTTE was banned in the UK, under the Terrorism Act, and the EU followed suit in 2006.

This has had an impact, according to International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia security expert Rahul Roy-Chowdhury.

"For the past year-and-a-half… governments have become much tougher on funding. It's been tough for the Tigers to get sufficient funding," he says.

Many Tamils say they have noticed the effects of the proscription because there have been fewer residential visits by LTTE representatives for donations.

"They are scared of the government and they don't ask for money as much as before," said one woman who wished to remain anonymous.

"People gave £50, £100, whatever they can. And now they hold regular fund-raising activities," she said, pointing to what is possibly now a greater emphasis on fund-raising events rather than house-to-house visits.

Businesses are still targeted for substantial amounts, according to one well-respected Tamil businessman who also wished to withhold his name.

Paul Sathianesan came to Britain as an asylum seeker in 1985 and watched as refugees arriving in London with nothing transformed East Ham into a cornucopia of shops selling everything to be found under a Jaffna sun.

Paul Sathianesan in East Ham
Paul Sathianesan arrived as a refugee and is now a councillor in East Ham

Yet he points out that in Sri Lanka "they had social status, wealth and caste".

"Here they were nobody when they came. The pride was all gone."

Now a councillor and deputy civic ambassador for Newham council, Mr Sathianesan says the community performs the critical function of funding local institutions back home in war-torn districts that have seen a collapse of effective government. Their money allows civil society to function.

"People have events in support of a particular village. They support orphanages, temples, churches," he says. Many still have relatives in Sri Lanka.

Campaigning might

They might live in Britain, but the hearts and minds of many refugees remain in the homelands they fled. What influence do they have back home and what does it mean for their lives in this country?

There is a reluctance to talk explicitly about the Tigers operating in the UK. Analysts have noted that they are often referred to simply as "them".

This is not just out of fear of the LTTE, but fear of the government too. So intertwined is the separatist cause with the life of the community that proscription can feel like a wholesale criminalisation of the Tamil population.

"They are scared," said one businessman who also withheld his name. "Even going to [nationalist] events people are scared. In this country we have the right to ask for a separate state. That clear understanding is not there."

The Sri Lankan High Commission understands that Tamils have strong relations with Sri Lanka, but says that this is "not always positive". It believes that Tamils are compelled to support the LTTE.

But nobody was ashamed to express their support at a passionate meeting in September in Harrow, which was addressed by the Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch-Brown.

Massive applause greeted a question on what the proscription of the LTTE had achieved. His reply that the government believed "the activities the LTTE are pursuing… are of a terrorist nature", was met with heckles and boos.

Many feel they are victims of double standards. They accuse government forces now closing in on Tiger strongholds of indiscriminate aerial bombardment, displacing countless civilians.

Born abroad promo

Lord Malloch-Brown did say that Britain and the EU could withdraw certain trade benefits if the Sri Lankan government did not abide by the Geneva Convention on Human Rights.

This is one objective of campaigning group the British Tamils Forum (BTF). In July 2008, to mark the 25th anniversary of anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka, the BTF hosted an exhibition in the Houses of Parliament. It was not open to the public - the sights of campaigners are set on the policy-makers.

Divided community

The message sent out by Tamil campaigners is coherent particularly in comparison with other activist communities. But there are still bitter divisions at the heart of this community.

A vocal minority of Tamils fiercely oppose the LTTE and resent the equation of the LTTE with the Tamil nationalist cause. They feel emboldened by recent developments putting the LTTE on the back foot in the war.

A former militant from a rival Tamil group eliminated by the LTTE in Sri Lanka, now says: "I don't want a separate state. I just want peace. Now I lobby European governments."

Some ordinary Tamils share similar views. Brimming with resentment, Geetha arrived from Colombo two years ago to join her husband who was working here.

Tamil Tiger rebel holding a gun, Sri Lanka, 1980s
I had to leave the country... the army got me and they really didn't trust me

She says that Tamils in the diaspora with little recent experience of Sri Lanka are not in a position to talk about what Sri Lankan Tamils want.

"People here don't know the real situation in Sri Lanka," she says. "They would never send their children to the war." The experience of exile, such critics argue, is crucial to support for the LTTE cause.

"They become radicalised here," says Jayabalan. He publishes Thesamnet, a Tamil news magazine, which, he says, adopts a critical perspective on both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government.

Experts say the earliest wave of Tamil migrants distanced themselves from the activism of later arrivals. For others, Jayabalan says, attitudes have hardened in the diaspora as people feel their culture and identity under threat.

However Jayabalan thinks that London is precious and unique for having a Tamil media that is not entirely dominated by a pro-LTTE perspective. Instead a variety of voices can flourish.

But what one is not allowed to do is ignore the issue.

"To be part of the Tamil community you have to have a view of the conflict. In the Tamil circle there is polarised politics," says Jayabalan.

Escape to the wider world often means having to negotiate the pressures of an even smaller community.

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