US Charities Feel Heat From ‘Terror War’

The tsunamis that pounded Indian Ocean coastlines the day after Christmas killed an estimated 30,000 Sri Lankans – nearly half in areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group that has been placed on a special list of "terrorist" groups by the U.S. government.

The situation is complicating relief efforts in the country, where a fragile cease-fire reigns. One of the leading groups distributing humanitarian aid is the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), which has branches around the world and says it has no ties with the Tigers but is nonetheless coming under increased scrutiny.

Some Canadian politicians have called for an investigation into the group’s activities following news reports that money collected three years ago by the Canadian branch was used to buy guns for the Tigers.

Several calls to the U.S. State Department’s office of counter-terrorism were not returned.

But the Asian Wall Street Journal reported on Jan. 11 that the U.S. Government now wants TRO to show that "every water bottle and bowl of rice" is going directly to refugees rather than the Tigers.

"Some people have been concerned that we are operating in areas controlled by the Tigers, and they say, ‘how do you know the money is not going to Tigers?’" said Dr. Arul Ranjithan, the president and founder of TRO-USA.

"Look, we’ve been doing relief work for nine years. Why do we work in the north and east? Because that’s where the aid is most needed, and that’s where most of our members are from."

"When we work in government areas, we deal with the government. When we work in Tiger areas, we have to deal with the Tigers," he said. "The most important thing is that we just need to get relief to the people. So far, no one (from the U.S. Government) has bothered us, but if they do, we are transparent."

TRO-USA has raised close to $400,000 so far, Ranjithan said, as well as arranging for shipments of medical supplies and infant formula. He said he has been deeply touched by the outpouring of generosity, not just among Tamils but from the wider community.

TRO-USA’s practice is to channel its donations through TRO-Sri Lanka, Ranjithan said, although some of the aid "is getting bottled up in politics."

"The government doesn’t want the Tamils to self-represent because that bolsters their case for autonomy," he said. "For the first three days, no aid went to the northeast camps. Then the army came into the camps, and people fled. A camp of 1,500 people would suddenly become a camp of 30 people."

"There’s a high level of suspicion on both sides – after 20 years of war, it’s only natural."

The conflict has pitted the country’s Hindu Tamil minority against the majority Buddhist Sinhalese since 1972. According to Human Rights Watch, both the Tigers and the Sri Lankan armed forces have committed grave abuses against the civilian population, although the situation has improved somewhat with the signing of a truce in Feb. 2002.

TRO-USA enjoys non-profit status in the United States, unlike the group’s affiliate in Canada. Molly Millerwise, a spokesperson for the U.S. Treasury Department, told IPS that while the Tigers have been designated a terrorist organization since October 2001, "TRO does not appear on the Treasury’s list."

However, she added that "the United States does not differentiate between the militant wings and social wings of terrorist organizations."

Millerwise would not speculate on whether the TRO was being eyed by the U.S. Government as a "social wing" of the LTTE, but said that in general, "terrorist groups are known to have abused charities and the goodwill of donors, and we will take action against those corrupting the humanitarian aid process."

After the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, President George W. Bush signed an executive order allowing the government to seize the assets of organizations it suspected of funding terrorism.

So far, four Islamic charities here have been shut down, although the government has largely refrained from going after individual donors.

Last July, the U.S. Justice Department handed down a 42-count indictment against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a group it suspected of funneling more than 12 million dollars to the outlawed Palestinian group Hamas from 1995 to 2001.

While they support many of the government’s anti-terror efforts, some Arab and Muslim leaders in the United States say the targeting of charities has had the insidious effect of suppressing giving in their communities.

"People have opened their hearts and wallets to the tsunami victims, but in this day and age, there are serious concerns about giving to the wrong group and having an FBI agent knock on your door six months from now," said Sohail Mohammed, a lawyer and member of the New Jersey-based American Muslim Union.

"The best indication we have of this chilling effect is during the month of Ramadan," he said. "Charitable donations have dropped every year since Sep. 11, 2001. Did people just stop wanting to give? We don’t think so."

The Justice Department declined a request by Muslim and Arab American groups last year to develop a list of "safe" charities, but the Treasury Department did provide voluntary "best practices" guidelines after Mohammed held a press conference.

His own giving, he added, "is between myself and my God."