Andrew Mahendrarajah Antonipillai believed he was protected. Family and friends tried to warn him of the danger he faced returning to his native Sri Lanka. But Mr. Antonipillai, a man his Montreal neighbours knew as ready to help anyone in need, shrugged them off, saying his Canadian citizenship would keep him safe. “They can't do anything to me,” he told friends who cautioned him about his planned travels earlier this year.
But in the end, Mr. Antonipillai's passport proved no shield when he ran into trouble in a former Tamil Tiger enclave in northern Sri Lanka two weeks ago. The Tamil-Canadian was brutally slain in still-unexplained circumstances. His mutilated body was flown home and buried in Montreal on Saturday.
The killing has inflamed tensions on both sides of the divide between Sri Lanka’s two ethnic groups, on the island and in the country’s far-flung diasporas. It paints in stark relief the climate of barely suppressed violence that endures from the country’s bitter civil war. And it serves as a cautionary tale. For while Mr. Antonipillai escaped the war and painstakingly built a new life in Canada, his success as an immigrant did not immunize him from the old violence of his homeland.
Mr. Antonipillai, 53, fled Sri Lanka at the height of the conflict in the late 1980s. He flew back from his Montreal home in January, intent on reclaiming family property that he said had been occupied during the war.
Friends say that his family once owned a few stores and houses in Killinochi, the northern Sri Lankan town that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) used as their de facto capital until they were defeated by the Sri Lankan army in a final bloody assault three years ago this week.
The property had first been seized by the LTTE, which helped itself to the assets of the people who lived under its control to fund its rebellion.
After the Sri Lankan army took the area in 2009, the military then occupied a huge amount of civilian property and continues to run the majority of businesses in the region. Friends say Mr. Antonipillai’s property was taken too.
Killinochi today buzzes with theories about his death: most Tamils, and many Sri Lankan human-rights groups, believe the military is somehow implicated.
The continuing heavy military presence in northern and eastern Sri Lanka – the areas once controlled by the LTTE – has been sharply criticized by international human rights organizations which have urged the United Nations to examine the government’s “forcible acquisition of land” that is displacing Tamils.
“The military remains in full control of the north and anything that happens there can be considered to happen with the consent and the complicity of the military,” said Ruki Fernando, head of the Law and Society Trust of Sri Lanka and a leading human-rights advocate.
The Sri Lankan military has refused to answer any questions about a possible investigation into Mr. Antonipillai’s murder, he added. There have been no arrests. The Canadian High Commission in Colombo is pressing for an inquiry and has sent a fact-finding team to Killinochi, according to journalists in the area.
“There is an ongoing investigation so we have to wait for their conclusions,” said Chitranganee Wagiswara, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Canada, in an interview. She derided what she called “wild allegations” made by “groups sympathetic to the Tamil Tigers” to keep the issue of a Tamil homeland, or Tamil Eelam, alive.
Mr. Antonipillai came to Canada in the first wave of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka. He found work in Montreal as a manager in a furniture factory. He married a fellow Tamil immigrant and they had three children, raising them on Montreal’s West Island. Their community considered them prosperous and well-settled, although Mr. Antonipillai was convicted once of welfare fraud.
Last year, Mr. Antonipillai met up with a priest who taught at his alma mater, St Anthony’s College, near Jaffna. The teacher was meeting “old boys” in Canada, asking them for help for the current students, many of whom were orphaned in the war.
Mr. Antonipillai was inspired to help, and also began to talk about reclaiming his family’s property, according to friends, colleagues and people who saw him in Killinochi. After arriving in Sri Lanka, despite the warnings of his friends back home, he apparently began negotiating for his property and is reported to have been on the verge of meeting with top government officials early this month about his claim. He was killed on May 3.
Last Saturday, more than 800 mourners of all backgrounds attended Mr. Antonipillai's funeral at St. Thomas à Becket Catholic church, just outside of Montreal, speaking of how he hired people for factory jobs and volunteered to teach racquet sports at a community centre.
“The whole family was active parishioners,” said Father Michael Leclerc, recalling that the dead man’s youngest son had been an altar boy and his wife of 25 years sang in the choir. Mourners swapped stories about how Mr. Antonipillai had always been quick to aid his friends – if you asked for help, you'd get a response from him faster than if you called 911, one speaker said.
In Sri Lanka, the government says that peace has brought new prosperity to the north, where the Canadian was slain, and it points to a host of development measures including road and electrical grid repair and tourism operations intended to open up areas long shut off by war. But critics counter that almost all these businesses are controlled either by the military or Sinhalese Sri Lankans from the south – and that few jobs and even fewer funds are flowing to Tamils.
Little of the property seized under the LTTE or since the war’s end by the military is being returned, said J.C. Weliamuna, a prominent lawyer in Colombo and a former head of Amnesty International Sri Lanka. “The government is not following the law.”
And his death, whether the military was in fact involved or not, will be seen as a warning to others who were considering pushing for the return of their property, he said.
In Canada, the homicide is seen as proof that Tamils remain unsafe in Sri Lanka, despite the nominal peace and reconciliation process under way. “Our Canadian brother, who is also Tamil, was murdered there, and this type of thing cannot continue to go on,” said Rathika Sitsabaiesan, a Tamil-Canadian MP from Toronto who raised the case during a Tamil rally in Scarborough this past weekend. “We need to make sure the Canadian government is pushing for an investigation – a lot of members of the community are outraged.”
“We are totally under army occupation still in the northern provinces,” Suresh Premachandran, a member of Sri Lanka’s parliament who heads the main Tamil political party, said in a telephone interview from Killinochi. “So many people want their property back, their shops and houses back. But the military says, ‘Whatever was occupied by the LTTE now belongs to us.’”
Mr. Premachandran said that many of his constituents are suffering economically because they cannot regain control of their property and have been given no compensation, but that most are far too frightened to confront those who occupy their businesses or homes. Mr. Antonipillai, he said, was by all accounts different. “He was from Canada, a democratic area, and he might have thought 'I can say anything to them.’”
With reports from Les Perreaux in Montreal and Celia Donnelly in Toronto