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Sri Lanka wary of Tiger revival abroad

One year after Sri Lanka's army wiped out the Tamil Tigers, there are no signs of the rebel group's revival at home, but concerns remain about extremist fund-raisers abroad.

world Updated: May 16, 2010 08:55 IST

One year after Sri Lanka's army wiped out the Tamil Tigers, there are no signs of the rebel group's revival at home, but concerns remain about extremist fund-raisers abroad.

This week, the country will mark the first anniversary of the defeat of the separatist Tamil guerrillas, who were finished off in a crushing military campaign still dogged by war crimes allegations.

The United Nations estimated that up to 7,000 civilians perished in the final months of fighting, which brought an end to a 37-year civil war that is thought to have claimed up to 100,000 lives in total.

Since then, the country has been violence-free. The Tigers, once regarded as the world's most ruthlessly efficient guerrilla outfit with an army, navy and mini air force, appear to be a force of the past.

But despite the calm, the government has sounded the alarm several times about the influence of overseas Tiger patrons -- wealthy expatriate Tamils who helped fund the rebels during their struggle for an independent homeland.

"The military capability of the Tigers has been finished off," Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne said on May 7. "But we know there are three groups abroad which are trying to revive the movement."

Jayaratne said one such group was known to be collecting money and weapons to resurrect the Tigers, also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), formed by Velupillai Prabhakaran in 1972.

At the height of the struggle, fund-raisers would pressure expatriate Tamils to pay a "war tax," often threatening them or their family members back in Sri Lanka if they failed to pay up.

The government has highlighted meetings abroad planned to coincide with the first anniversary of the LTTE's military defeat as a fresh move to revive the separatist movement.

A London-based group known as the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), which Colombo says is a front for the Tigers, said it planned commemorative meetings in Canada, Europe and Australia. GTF says it wants to launch a non-violent agitation for a separate homeland in Sri Lanka.

Prabhakaran was killed in the final military offensive on May 18, 2009, and the corpse of the once elusive Tiger supremo was shown on national television a day later.

Sri Lanka's military is to stage a series of ceremonies this week to mark the victory, including a display of military hardware in Colombo on Thursday.

At the height of their power, the Tigers controlled a third of the island's territory and ran a de facto state with its own police, banks and civil administration.

The group used suicide bombers with deadly effect, claiming high profile targets, including former Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa two years later.

"As far as Tigers re-emerging, there is no possibility in the short to medium term," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the head of the private Centre for Policy Alternatives think-tank.

"But there is extremist Tamil sentiment abroad and how it finds resonance here (in Sri Lanka) will depend on the actions of the government in addressing the political causes of the conflict."

Saravanamuttu said the government had yet to come up with a plan to address long-standing Tamil demands for political power sharing. Tamils have accused Sinhalese-majority governments of discrimination in jobs and education.

Analysts say President Mahinda Rajapakse must now win the peace after winning the war.

The 64-year-old was swept back into power in presidential elections in January, with his popularity among the Sinhalese majority credited to his hardline approach to the Tigers and rising economic development.

His regime remains under fire from human rights groups for its perceived authoritarianism, its decision to hold 300,000 Tamil civilians in camps after the war and alleged crimes committed by troops during the fighting.

The UN wants an investigation, which the government says is unnecessary because it maintains that no civilians were killed in what is officially termed its "humanitarian operation."

In a further twist, when Colombo marks the war anniversary, the man who commanded those troops, General Sarath Fonseka, will be in a naval detention cell not far from the venue of the national celebrations.

He unsuccessfully challenged the president in the January election after falling out with him after the war and now faces a court martial.