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Fate of ship steered by two forces - Ottawa and Tamil diaspora

A military boat passes by CFB Esquimalt in Colwood, B.C., near Victoria on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010. A suspect Tamil migrant boat named the MV Sun Sea which is believed to be holding at least 450 people with unknown numbers of women and children is said to be headed into Canadian waters and will be directed to CFB Esquimalt.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Almost as soon as the Sun Sea set sail, two Canadas scrambled to respond - and how they get along could decide the fate of hundreds of asylum seekers, present and future.

There was Official Canada - immigration agents, the Navy, politicians - who weighed what to do about the ship that left Thailand in May with up to 500 Sri Lankan Tamils aboard.

And there was Tamil Canada, an obscure but robust public-within-a-public with its own elected officials, social agencies, media and financial outlets - a parallel society built over decades into the largest Tamil diaspora in the Western world.

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As Canadian officials kept watch on the British Columbia coast amid fears the defeated Tamil Tigers have chosen this country to revive their separatist cause, Tamil Canada dispatched refugee lawyers and leaders from Toronto, its de facto capital, to handle refugee claims and steer the media to the humanitarian angle.

Tamil Canadians have even enlisted the new Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, elected in April to push from outside for a sovereign Tamil state in Sri Lanka. The TGTE's two B.C. members have been organizing medical and legal help, children's aid, counselling, clergy and charitable support, and have consulted Sikh and Chinese immigrant groups for expertise.

As these parallel publics jockey to direct an undeniable human drama, observers worry Official Canada will exploit fears of terrorism to justify a draconian rewrite of refugee policy. Even worse, they fear it will miss the boat on why Tamil Canada came to be in the first place: Sri Lanka's failure to reconcile with its largest minority.

"The numbers of Tamils leaving Sri Lanka over the last 25 years have ebbed and flowed directly in relation to the human-rights circumstances in the country," said Sharryn Aiken, associate dean of law at Queen's University in Kingston and an expert in refugee issues. "When there was a hope for peace, people didn't leave in the numbers we see right now."

It's been more than a year since the Sri Lankan government defeated the Tigers and brought a decisive end to 26 bloody years of civil war. But amid what passes for peace, reports of Tamil mistreatment continue, and the government, despite claims to social democratic principles, has repeatedly rebuffed calls for an independent probe of war crimes alleged on both sides during the conflict.

Instead, Sri Lanka has framed its victory over the Tigers in the post-9/11 vernacular - as a key win in the global war on terror, which brought peace and liberated Tamils, in Sri Lanka and abroad, from the Tigers' terrorist clutches. By that reckoning, Tamils who still see the need to board a boat and flee, or who lob criticisms from abroad, are equated with terrorists or sympathizers.

As the Sun Sea drifted closer to shore, where the Tigers were banned as a terrorist group by the Conservative government four years ago, there were signs this message was getting some traction in Official Canada.

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On Thursday, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said, "While our government believes in offering protection to genuine refugees, it is imperative that we prevent supporters and members of a criminal or terrorist organization from abusing Canada's refugee system."

That system, Ms. Aiken said, is already equipped to examine claims and reject them if a person is unsuitable, and "if that boat was used by the Tigers, Canada will figure that out." Better to focus, she said, on what would push someone to pay a smuggler $45,000 (U.S.) to spend three months at sea for an uncertain shot at a refugee claim.

"If Sri Lanka was making genuine attempts to address the human-rights problems within its borders, I would agree with the cynics," she said. "But to the extent that it hasn't, and there's ongoing, very serious problems in the country, I think we should hold our cynicism in abeyance for the moment."

Those problems have been documented by respected independent observers, including the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict-prevention body led by retired Canadian jurist Louise Arbour; the United Nations; Human Rights Watch; and most recently by The Elders, a 12-member group of ex-leaders including Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter.

"There has been a deafening global silence in response to Sri Lanka's actions, especially from its most influential friends," Mr. Annan said in the group's Aug. 3 statement. "The international community cannot be selective in its approach to upholding the rule of law and respect for human rights."

A chronic problem for Tamil Canada is the frequent conflation of its members, most of whom support some form of Tamil independence in Sri Lanka, with the blunt and bloody methods of the Tigers. The now-defeated paramilitary juggernaut took up the separatist cause by force, coerced support from Tamils and even killed moderates who advocated peaceful means.

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Fixating on suspicions of Tiger connections to the ship's passengers, and to the Canadian Tamils waiting to greet them, misses the point that "the Tigers were defeated," Ms. Aiken said. "They exist, but they're marginalized, splintered and there have been a whole bunch of new groups emerging," none of whom have called for a return to armed struggle - yet.

Whether they do, or whether the Tigers die a natural death, depends less on Canada turning back the boats and more on its ability, along with other countries, to press Sri Lanka to address its problems, Ms. Aiken said.

If that happens, "there's every reason to hope that the Tigers will indeed have bitten the dust," she said. If not, she predicts rough seas ahead.

"A future generation of militants will be spawned," Ms. Aiken said, "radicalized by the experience of seeing the international community sit back and do nothing."

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