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Tamils' transnational elections 'an experiment in democracy' Add to ...

With his flyers, TV ads, Facebook page and YouTube video, Sam Sangarasivam has everything he needs for his political campaign, with one key exception: a country to represent.

If elected Sunday, Mr. Sangarasivam and fellow Tamils scattered around the world will embark on a fresh and controversial bid to change that. As candidates for the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, they are taking a new run at an old dream - for a sovereign Tamil state in Sri Lanka.

As home to the largest expatriate Tamil community outside Asia, Canada will play a central role, with 25 of the government's 135 seats - more than any other country.

The Tamils' Eelam dream appeared to disintegrate into a corpse-strewn nightmare a year ago, when the Sri Lankan army crushed the Tamil Tigers after a 26-year conflict stained by the Tigers' famously brutal tactics, which they often used on their own people.

The smoke has since cleared, but the ideal of independence remains strong in the Tamil diaspora, where the transnational government will be chosen in a highly organized vote. Supervised polling stations will operate in Tamil areas across the country, following a few weeks of campaigning, which included advertising, canvassing and lively debates on Tamil media.

While critics see the election as a bid by diaspora Tamils to revive the Tigers by remote control, from behind a veneer of legitimate politics, supporters are hailing it as a constructive and independent way for Tamils to move forward from a violent and constricted past.

"I see it as a very positive move that the international community should support and encourage," said Rudhramoorthy Cheran, a Tamil academic and poet from Toronto who teaches at the University of Windsor. "It's an experiment in democracy and I'm looking forward to seeing how this is going to evolve."

As the war raged to an end a year ago, thousands among Canada's estimated 200,000 Tamils protested the plight of their Sri Lankan kin while waving the flag of the Tigers, a banned terrorist group that relied on the financial support of the diaspora. The resulting characterizations of the protesters as terrorist sympathizers, Dr. Cheran argued, obscured their genuine concern for the plight of civilians trapped in the war zone, thousands of whom died. The generalizations also masked a diversity of views among Canadian Tamils and applied an "extremist" label to a group that remained nonviolent during the demonstrations.

Rather than kill the dream of Eelam, the Tigers' defeat was a key factor that prompted Tamils - many of whom fled Sri Lanka as a direct result of the hostilities - to explore other political avenues to attain it.

The Sri Lankan government, and some anti-Tiger critics within the Tamil community, dismiss the diaspora elections as irrelevant to the interests of Tamils in Sri Lanka who now enjoy peace, and as a misguided use of Canadian Tamils' time.

"The organizers of the so-called election are a proxy of the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Tigers' official name]" said Sumith Dassanayake, a spokesman for the Sri Lankan High Commission in Ottawa. "Hence, this 'election' should not be given any credibility as it would be doing a disservice to the innocent Tamils who want to live peacefully in Canada."

Lenin Benedict, of the Canadian Democratic Tamil Cultural Association, recently returned to Toronto from a visit to Sri Lanka, where "nobody talks about this Eelam crap." He pointed to recent Sri Lankan elections in which the Tamil National Alliance lost significant ground in the country's predominantly Tamil north and east.

A secessionist government based abroad "will only put the Tamils living there into trouble" with the government and impede the nascent peace, Mr. Benedict said.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based global think tank led by Canadian former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, raised similar concerns in a February report on how the Tamil diaspora has responded to the Tigers' defeat.

The report called the transnational government "an ambitious attempt to rebrand the LTTE as a non-violent political body," with a goal of achieving an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka in 30 to 60 years. It further suggested Tamils are confused and skeptical about what this new government will actually be.

Mr. Sangarasivam, a 62-year-old information-systems professional from Milton, Ont., confessed some uncertainty himself, despite being a candidate for one of Canada's 25 seats.

"It's not going to be perfect, like any other government," he said, adding that the leadership and structure of the constituent assembly will be hammered out after the election, possibly at a joint meeting somewhere in the diaspora. "There is nothing concrete at this moment."

More solid, by the sound of it, is Mr. Sangarasivam's resolve to adhere to Canadian democratic principles as he steps into politics. Of ex-Tiger hardliners, he said "I'll withdraw my candidacy if I know they are twisting people's arms or anything like that. I'm very, very clear on that."

Having immigrated in 1974, well before the 1983 outbreak of civil war, Mr. Sangarasivam had no role in the conflict and steered clear of the diaspora's more-militant elements in favour of volunteer work in Tamil housing and recreation programs in Toronto. At the same time, he makes no apologies for sympathizing with the Tamil struggle for improved treatment and self-determination in Sri Lanka - a sympathy that endures, despite the war's end.

"We have to still find a solution for our people who are still living there," he said. "I believe that peacefully, we can do anything. At least we can try."

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