Sri Lankan Tamils aim for North America, asylum

Images from around the world, including a drought in Russia, preparation for the 1,000th anniversary celebrations in Hanoi and a ballet world record in New York City.
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

An estimated 200 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, including some believed to be members of a group the United States has labeled a terrorist organization, are aboard a ship in the Pacific Ocean heading toward North America, according to U.S. government officials and other sources.

The MV Sun Sea had been destined for Australia but changed course after its captain determined that Australia's navy and coast guard would prevent it from landing. Its current destination is believed to be the west coast of Canada, and it is expected to make landfall mid-month.

"We are aware of the vessel and are monitoring its progress," said Matthew Chandler, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman. "Should an emergency arise, the United States will respond appropriately."

The passengers are believed to include members of the separatist group the Tamil Tigers as well as women and children. Sri Lankan newspaper reports said the ship had passed through the Straits of Malacca and was monitored by the Thai navy before heading east toward North America.

The ship appears to be the second to carry Tamil asylum seekers to North America after last May's collapse of the Tamils' 40-year battle for a separate homeland in Sri Lanka. In October, a ship with 76 Tamils landed at Victoria in British Columbia.

The State Department identifies the Tamil Tigers, also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as a terrorist organization. The FBI, in a 2008 posting on its Web site, identified the group as "among the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world," crediting it with inventing the suicide belt, pioneering the use of women in suicide attacks and killing two world leaders -- something no other terrorist group has done.

The Canadian Tamil Congress, which advocates for Tamil rights, said conditions aboard the ship were poor. "We're not talking the Queen Elizabeth 2 here," David Poopalapillai, a spokesman for the group, said in a telephone interview from Toronto. "These people are putting their lives at enormous risk, but we fully understand why they are taking this deadly voyage. The situation in Sri Lanka is still not normal. Tamils are still being persecuted."

Human rights organizations allege that Sri Lankan troops killed thousands of Tamil civilians last year when they moved to quash the Tamil insurgency. The United Nations is attempting to investigate those claims but has been stymied by demonstrations near U.N. offices in Sri Lanka.

James Clad, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, said he thought that the boat was part of an attempt by the Tamil Tigers to "create a network again and play the transnational terrorist game."

"I'm not an advocate for sending people back to their deaths, but that is just not happening in Sri Lanka," he said. "I've helped a lot of migrants before, but I know a scam when I see one."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company