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Experts: Cambodia Fertile Ground for Tamil Tigers

Cambodian authorities recently broke up a human smuggling network run in part by the Tamil Tigers. The involvement of the Sri Lankan separatist group in illegal activities in Cambodia came as no surprise to experts, who have watched the sophisticated insurgency transform in Phnom Penh since it began buying Cambodian weapons in the 1990s.

"The operations in Cambodia still exist to a great extent. However, it may not be focused in the same areas that it was focused in the late '90s," said Shanaka Jayasekara, a terrorism researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, no longer need Cambodia as a place to "mop up" old weapons, Jayasekara told VOA Khmer, echoing other interviews with analysts and government officials over several weeks.

Their weapons purchases are more sophisticated now, but the criminal infrastructure put in place in the early 1990s, when Cambodia was its primary arms bazaar, is still there, enabling drugs and human smuggling, credit card fraud and money laundering.

"The LTTE has been involved in the narcotics trade for quite some time. They have also facilitated human smuggling of the Tamil diaspora through some of the Southeast Asian countries," Jayasekara said.

Cambodia authorities say in August they broke up an operation run in part by Tamil Tigers intent on smuggling up to 250 Pakistanis and Sri Lankans to Western nations and Australia.

The bust was an indicator that efforts from Sri Lankan and Cambodian officials to unseat Tamil Tiger operations in the county had not been successful.

The Tamil Tigers earn hundreds of millions of dollars each year by collecting money from Tamil immigrant communities. The Tamil people belong to a minority group in northern Sri Lanka and southern India, but Tamil expatriates live in many Western countries, including Canada, Norway and Australia. A lot of money comes from these groups, either by choice or through coercion, experts said.

Meanwhile, the Tamil Tigers also earn money by running guns to groups like the Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group in the Philippines. And they smuggle Tamil people into Western countries.

This helps the Tamil Tigers fill their war chest and continue their separatist fight against the Sri Lankan government, Jayasekara says.

"It's a kind of a business opportunity for the LTTE. They make money out of it. They also do it to take their key operatives to certain locations and place them in vital destinations so that their international network can be run more efficiently," Jayasekara said.

At least two Tamil operatives escaped Cambodia's August dragnet: Ranni Lerin and his brother, Lipton Lerin, who operated their human smuggling ring out of a cafe in Phnom Penh, authorities said in September.

The Cambodian government made a public call to Interpol to help them capture the men.

Jayasekara said the flight of the two brothers likely has not halted the group's activities, which are now being run by a man who officials know little about.

Officials say more needs to be done to rein in the Tamil Tigers, who have invented devices—including the suicide vest—and innovated techniques that reach Islamic terrorists.

"The LTTE has growing links with other terrorist organizations like the al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah," said Dr. Palitha Kohona, the Sri Lankan Secretary of Foreign Affairs in Colombo and an expert on the Tamil Tigers.

The innovative Tamil Tigers, who have been fighting for a separate Tamil state since 1975, has its own navy, merchant vessels and a small air force. The insurgency has led to the deaths of more than 60,000 people.

Countries like Cambodia and Sri Lanka need help in pursuing the group, Kohona said. "We need expertise," he said.

"We need intelligence gathering assistance."

The US, meanwhile, has listed the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization.

Earlier this year, US agencies disrupted a Tamil Tiger plot to smuggle high-tech weapons, missiles, ammunition and night-vision goggles out of the US.

Undercover officers acting as State Department officials also caught operatives attempting to bribe them to have the Tamil Tigers taken off the US terrorist list.

The problems Sri Lanka is facing with the Tamil Tigers will become the problems of wealthier countries if more isn't done to stop the group, in undeveloped countries like Cambodia and in developed nations of the West," Kohona said.

"Terrorism is not an issue for one country. It is an issue for the entire sea of humanity," he said. "Terrorism is a scourge that has to be eliminated wherever it might be found."