Tamil organization says migrant boat had burial at sea, police confirm death

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — A man died and was buried at sea last month as hundreds of ethnic Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka spent a grueling several months at sea in a cramped, rusting cargo ship, officials said Sunday.

At least 450 migrants from Sri Lanka arrived in Canada's Pacific coast province of British Columbia Friday aboard the Thai-flagged MV Sun Sea.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Const. Michael McLaughlin confirmed a 37-year-old Sri Lankan man died onboard about three weeks ago. The man died of an illness, and there was nothing to indicate criminal action. McLaughlin said the man's name will not be released.

Canadian Tamil Congress spokesman Sarujan Kanapathipillai said lawyers and representatives of his organization met with some of the migrants on Saturday. Kanapathipillai said they were told the man had a wife and children still in Sri Lanka.

Canadian government officials have said the boat was very cramped but said the migrants arrived in good condition. The government initially said there were about 490 people onboard. By Saturday afternoon, more than 350 men, 50 women and 50 children had been processed.

"They're in surprisingly good shape all things considered," McLaughlin said. "They did not appear as you would expect after being onboard in a confined space like that. I think that says something about the resiliency of these people."

Government officials also said Saturday conditions aboard ship were better than they had feared. There were hammocks and eating areas, and the women and children were separated from the men. The migrants had lived on rice, dried fish, juice and water.

The refugees ranged from toddlers to a couple in their seventies, Kanapathipillai said.

"You could see the joy on their faces," Kanapathipillai said. "We're doing everything on our end to deal with their mental well-being. These people were extremely happy to be here, that the long voyage was over and that they were finally out of Sri Lanka. They can start a new life in peace."

Canada has been suspicious about the ship and its passengers, fearing that rather than threatened families they were victims of a human smuggling ring.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has said the vessel was extensively renovated so that it could carry as many people as possible. He called it the work of a sophisticated criminal network — likely the Tamil Tigers — an organization Canada labeled a terrorist group in 2006.

Canadian officials say they are trying to determine whether any of the people on the vessel are members of the Tigers.

The Tamil Tigers, also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, fought for an independent state, claiming decades of discrimination by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority. The conflict killed more than 80,000 people and ended after a massive government operation against the Tigers.

While the conflict ended in May 2009, Tamil leaders in Canada say the ethnic Tamil minority still faces persecution, which is why they are seeking asylum in Canada. The United Nations and some non-governmental organizations have reported people in Sri Lanka are still being abused.

Canada is home to about 300,000 Tamils, the largest Tamil community outside Sri Lanka and India.