The Tiger Vanquished: LTTE's Story
Publication Year: 2010
This book tells the story of why the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) lost the war that it had always dreamt of winning in Sri Lanka. It is a collection of news stories and commentaries penned by the author from 2003 to 2009 on the ethnic conflict in the country. Each piece is provided with an introduction that places it in the context in which it was written. The unfolding of the drama is brought about through conversations with Sri Lankan leaders, Tamil activists, Indian officials, Norwegian and other diplomats, human rights activists, former LTTE guerrillas and civilians.
The Tiger Vanquished: LTTE's Story provides a detailed account of the critical years when Sri Lanka's internationally backed peace process slowly led to a vicious war that ...
- Front Matter
- Back Matter
- Chapter 1: Why does LTTE Make Pro-India Noises?
- Chapter 2: Turmoil in Tiger Land
- Chapter 3: “Only a Snake Understands a Snake”
- Chapter 4: Can Tsunami Bring Peace to Sri Lanka?
- Chapter 5: The Tsunami, and Prabhakaran
- Chapter 6: Tribute: Shankar Rajee
- Chapter 7: Kadirgamar Assassination Will Kill Peace Process
- Chapter 8: Norway Has to Recalibrate Sri Lanka Peace Process
- Chapter 9: Switzerland Taking Deep Interest in Sri Lanka
- Chapter 10: Solheim Not to Quit Peace Process
- Chapter 11: India Clawing Back to Sri Lanka's Northeast
- Chapter 12: A Book is a Window to Knowledge
- Chapter 13: Indian PM Urges Rajapaksa to Save Tamils in Trincomalee
- Chapter 14: Suicide Bomber Blows up Sri Lanka's Peace Process
- Chapter 15: Prabhakaran's Pride: Or Why He Refused to Meet Akashi
- Chapter 16: Co-Chairs' Forthright Sri Lanka Edict Will Please India
- Chapter 17: Indian Trader Brutally Killed, Two Missing in Sri Lanka
- Chapter 18: Pro-LTTE Website Attacks Karunanidhi
- Chapter 19: Armed with Parrots, Tamil Girl Flees to India
- Chapter 20: In War Torn Sri Lanka, a Widow Remembers
- Chapter 21: Be Patient Please, Sri Lanka to Tell India
- Chapter 22: Faltering Sri Lankan Peace Process
- Chapter 23: Solheim Calls Karuna Allegations “Complete Lies”
- Chapter 24: Experts Suggest “Genuine Power Sharing” in Sri Lanka
- Chapter 25: Balasingham Epitomized LTTE's Love-Hate Ties with India
- Chapter 26: Sri Lanka Needs New Truce Agreement
- Chapter 27: Why George Bush Cannot Match Sonia Gandhi?
- Chapter 28: Misery, Epidemic Go Hand in Hand in Troubled Sri Lanka
- Chapter 29: Sri Lanka's Abduction Industry Has Top Academic in its Grip
- Chapter 30: War Material Seizure Signal LTTE Bracing for Guerrilla War
- Chapter 31: LTTE Cannot Be Defeated Militarily, US Tells Sri Lanka
- Chapter 32: India Concerned over LTTE Explosives Smuggling
- Chapter 33: Husband Dead, Tamil Woman Wants to Return to Sri Lanka
- Chapter 34: A Historic Accord Few Remember Today
- Chapter 35: On to Tamil Eelam: From Bicycle to Aircraft
- Chapter 36: Amid War, India's Emerging Sri Lanka Tilt
- Chapter 37: How to Tell Tamils They Don't Belong to Sri Lanka?
- Chapter 38: Action above Ideology for Black Sea Tigers
- Chapter 39: Use Dignified Language, Bhagwati Tells Sri Lanka
- Chapter 40: Two Decades Later, LTTE Suicide Bombers Live on
- Chapter 41: “Why no Memorial for the IPKF in India?”
- Chapter 42: India-Sri Lanka Accord: Does it Still Flicker?
- Chapter 43: Britain Favours “Regime Change” in Sri Lanka
- Chapter 44: Tamilchelvan's Killing a Disaster to LTTE—and Sri Lanka
- Chapter 45: Sri Lanka Gained upper Hand over LTTE in 2007
- Chapter 46: LTTE Man's Arrest for Abduction Plan First Since 1991
- Chapter 47: India's Covert Role in Sri Lanka's Ceasefire
- Chapter 48: India Meddling in Sri Lanka Affairs, Says JVP
- Chapter 49: I Want to Bring Peace to Sri Lanka: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
- Chapter 50: India's Sri Lanka Power Project Runs into Tamil Storm
- Chapter 51: Sri Lanka Cannot Negotiate with LTTE, Says Diplomat
- Chapter 52: In Sri Lanka, LTTE Territory Shrinks and Shrinks
- Chapter 53: We Have Failed to Convince the World: Sri Lanka Defence Secretary
- Chapter 54: Norway-LTTE Ties Sour over Theft of NGO Vehicles
- Chapter 55: India under Attack in Pro-LTTE Media
- Chapter 56: Tamil Nadu Ferment Stuns Rajapaksa But War Will Go on
- Chapter 57: India to Send 2,000 Tonnes of Relief Goods to Sri Lanka
- Chapter 58: Kilinochchi's Fall a Major Setback to LTTE
- Chapter 59: Prabhakaran Cannot Escape from Sri Lanka, Says Former Aide
- Chapter 60: After 25 Years, Cornered LTTE Faces Deathly Crisis
- Chapter 61: Tamil Man Recounts Tales of Horror in Sri Lanka War
- Chapter 62: Vaiko Has Been an Undisguised Supporter of the LTTE
- Chapter 63: Has LTTE Executed its Military Spokesman?
- Chapter 64: LTTE Media Targets Sonia over War Debacle
- Chapter 65: Playing Politics with Tamil Lives in Sri Lanka
- Chapter 66: Is LTTE in Secret, Indirect Talks with US to Surrender?
- Chapter 67: Prabhakaran: From Catapult Killer to Ruthless Insurgent
- Chapter 68: Prabhakaran was with 18 Men When He Was Killed: Karuna
- Chapter 69: Displaced Tamils to Be Resettled by 2009-end: Rajapaksa
- Chapter 70: Swat the Fly, Kill the Foe
- Chapter 71: So, the Tamil Tigers Were Mortals after All…
- Chapter 72: How the Tide Turned
Copyright © M R Narayan Swamy, 2010
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
First published in 2010 by
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Narayan Swamy, M. R.
The tiger vanquished : LTTE's story/M. R. Narayan Swamy.
1. Tami_li_la Vitutalaippulikal (Association) 2. Sri Lanka—History—Civil War, 1983–2009. 3. Sri Lanka—Politics and government—21st century. 4. Tamil (Indic people)—Sri Lanka—Politics and government. 5. Ethnic conflict—Sri Lanka. I. Title.
ISBN: 978-81-321-0459-9 (PB)
The SAGE Team: Rekha Natarajan, Sushmita Banerjee, Sanjeev Kumar Sharma and Trinankur Banerjee
[Page v]In memory of M.A. Raman and T.S.L.V. Sarma I miss them enormously
THE people who have helped me the most to write news stories and commentaries on Sri Lanka over the years—and this volume too—wish to remain anonymous. Some have gone out of their way and repeatedly too, to provide me a better understanding of Sri Lanka and the many complexities of its brutal conflict. They include Sri Lankans, Indians and people of other nationalities. My interactions with them helped me to shed many cobwebs and to place perplexing events in their perspective. For understandable reasons, some of my sources did not want to be named; others, I know, also would prefer it that way. I am beholden to them all.
I would like to particularly thank newsmakers in Sri Lanka and Norway, who freely spoke to me, often at length, whenever I sought their views. Some of them held—and still hold—influential positions. They need not have taken my telephone calls or responded to me, but they did. I am grateful to them.
Many others in Sri Lanka have helped me in many ways. These include rights activists, a breed whose commitment to human values is often misunderstood; journalists, who have faced extreme adversity in recent times; as well as ordinary civilians from the north and east, the war theatre for over a quarter century.
Sreeram Chaulia, a voracious reader and a prolific writer, deserves my gratitude for more reasons than one. I thank Vipin Das for poring over the first draft. I owe special thanks to Rajani, my wife and Vidya, our daughter. Rajani's admirable command over English is a source of strength to me. Vidya provides inspiration for what we do.
This is a collection of some of the stories and analytical articles I wrote from 2003, when the LTTE suddenly walked out of the international peace process, to 2009, when the Tamil Tigers were finally defeated. They also include interviews. Most of the writing was done for IANS, the news agency I have worked for since returning to India from Singapore in 2001.
I also wrote, on request, for Mainstream, The Week, The Hindustan Times, The Telegraph, Asian Affairs, Journal of International Peace Operations, Institute of Peace [Page xii]and Conflict Studies, Hard News and World Focus. I thank all these organizations for permitting to reproduce, for this book, what I had written for them.
I have always maintained that there are no experts on the LTTE—outside of the group. The one man who fathered the outfit and was enormously suited to narrate its full story (I doubt he would have done that) was killed in May 2009. Those of us who are students of this conflict can only, hopefully, contribute to a larger and better understanding of the LTTE, the causes that gave birth to it, the reasons it grew into such a formidable entity and the factors that led to its destruction.
The idea for this book was born from this limited agenda. I hope it serves the purpose.
As a nation Sri Lanka has suffered enormously because of the conflict. The terrible agony the war unleashed cannot be adequately gauged even if one is numbed by the voluminous statistics of death, destruction and displacement. Most unfortunately, even the devastating 2004 tsunami failed to bring peace. I do hope, at least now, all communities in Sri Lanka will get their act together for a better future for themselves and their country.
Key Years in LTTE History[Page xiii]
1954 Velupillai Prabhakaran is born. 1975 Prabhakaran assassinates Jaffna Mayor. 1976 LTTE is formed. 1978 LTTE issues first press statement. 1982 Prabhakaran arrested in India, bailed. 1983 Prabhakaran shifts to India after anti-Tamil violence. Eelam War I is on. India arms, trains Tamil militants. 1984 LTTE starts buying weapons from abroad. 1985 LTTE massacres Buddhists at Anuradhapura. 1986 LTTE crushes rival group TELO. LTTE ‘bans’ rival group PLOT. 1987 Prabhakaran quits India. Indian troops deployed in Sri Lanka. LTTE goes to war against India. 1988 Ranasinghe Premadasa elected president. 1989 Premadasa asks Indian troops to go home. Premadasa, LTTE in peace talks. LTTE assassinates Tamil leader Amirthalingam. 1990 Indian troops quit Sri Lanka; LTTE controls Jaffna. LTTE ignites Eelam War II. LTTE massacres leaders of rival group EPRLF. 1991 LTTE assassinates Rajiv Gandhi. 1992 India outlaws LTTE. 1993 LTTE leader Kittu commits suicide. LTTE assassinates Premadasa. 1994 Chandrika Kumaratunga elected president, offers peace. LTTE executes former no. 2 Mahattaya. [Page ixv]1995 LTTE starts Eelam War III. 1996–99 Military stalemate. 1999 Kumaratunga survives assassination attempt. 2001 Norway's Erik Solheim meets Prabhakaran. 2002 LTTE, Sri Lanka sign Ceasefire Agreement. Prabhakaran addresses press conference. 2003 LTTE pulls out of peace talks. 2004 LTTE splits, Karuna walks away. 2005 LTTE assassinates Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Mahinda Rajapaksa elected president. 2006 Army chief survives suicide attack. Eelam War IV starts. President's brother Gotabaya survives suicide bomber. LTTE's Anton Balasingham dies of cancer. 2007 Sri Lanka drives out LTTE from east. LTTE leader Tamilchelvan killed in air strike. 2008 Sri Lanka scraps ceasefire agreement with LTTE. Cornered Prabhakaran says India is “superpower”. 2009 Military captures LTTE hub Kilinochchi. Velupillai Prabhakaran killed, LTTE defeated.
The Final Conversation: May 2009[Page xv]
THE telephone rings in a humble Sri Lankan Tamil home in a European country. It is a call its inmates have been eagerly awaiting.
The man at the other end, in LTTE territory, sounds dejected and tired. He says he can only speak briefly because he is using a satellite telephone.
In broken sentences, the man says that it is all over.
His family realizes the import of what he is muttering. The LTTE is about to become history.
How are you, he is asked. It is a silly question given the boom of gunfire and exploding shells they can hear in the background.
I am surviving, he says. It is a callous answer.
The family is worried about others it knows.
How is Francis, the man is asked. He is dead, he replies, sounding casual to the point of being disinterested. How is Selva? He too is dead.
There is a brief silence.
At the Tamil home, a woman now grabs the phone. She is desperate to know the man's well-being.
Speaking slowly, he repeats what he has already said. It is all over.
After another brief silence, the man speaks again. Although his voice is still feeble, his words now sound like an exploding volcano.
“I will not be around for long,” he mumbles.
The woman shrieks. “Don't say that, please don't say that, everything will be all right, please don't say that!” She is now crying.
[Page xvi]The man goes on: “This is my last call.”
“No! No! Don't say that, please don't say that,” the woman is now screaming at the top of her voice.
The man is sounding philosophical. He knows the war is ending. There is no escape. He will be dead soon.
In choking voice, he tells the family: “Please take care.”
The conversation ends.
The telephone line goes dead.
Prabhakaran and other such tinpot heroes … are leading the Tamils towards a long-term political and moral disaster… Despite the struggle, I now think that there will neither be Eelam, nor “true” federalism, nor genuine devolution, nor anything else which is just and fair to the Tamils this century, if ever.1I
THE surreal end of Velupillai Prabhakaran and almost all his senior lieutenants at one go marked the most dramatic and unexpected decimation of the seemingly indestructible Tamil Tigers, bringing down the curtains on one of the world's longest running insurgencies that had torn apart Sri Lanka for over a quarter century.
Year after year, it had looked as if Tamil militancy would never end in the once idyllic Indian Ocean island nation and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would never breathe its last. Successive governments in Sri Lanka, of course, tried to crush the Tigers, only to get badly bruised, at times to the point of humiliation. In the process, the LTTE's image, as an outfit that cannot be defeated by anyone, only got reinforced, making it the most feared, fanatic and ruthless outlaw, its ability to destroy, next only to Al Qaeda's.
Yet, in the scorching month of May 2009, what for long had seemed impossible, was made possible by a barely four-year-old regime in Sri Lanka sworn to stamp out the LTTE. When he took over the presidency in November 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa, a Sinhalese Buddhist politician from the country's deep south, confided to an Asian diplomat2 he counted as a friend that one of his priorities was to decimate the awesome LTTE. As the war progressed, Rajapaksa went public with that claim. In the light of Sri Lanka's past quarter century when the LTTE had only grown from strength to strength, few took him seriously.
But Rajapaksa was deadly serious. In an earlier decade, the man had passionately battled human rights abuses by security forces when thousands of youths were butchered in the wake of an insurrection launched by the Sinhalese-Marxist group, [Page xviii]Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP).3 The times were now different. He was presiding over a conflict-torn country whose fortunes seemed wedded to the whims and fancies of a Tamil man called Prabhakaran. Like the newly elected president, Prabhakaran too was a determined man. But his aim was different. He had pledged to break up Sri Lanka.
A school dropout with low intellect but with a passion and precision for violence, Prabhakaran had been calling the shots in Sri Lanka both during phases of war and ceasefire since giving birth to the LTTE in 1976.4 Rajapaksa knew this and was determined to chart a path different from his predecessors—one that Prabhakaran would not be able to influence. Fortunately for him, the LTTE chief ignited the spark that led to the final of Eelam wars5 that finished off the Tigers, lock, stock, and barrel, near a lagoon in Mullaitivu district, which until then had been Prabhakaran's seemingly impregnable hideout.
After declaring in his annual speech of November 2005 that he would give Rajapaksa a year to prove his sincerity vis-à-vis the Tamils, Prabhakaran did not wait even for a month before beginning to militarily provoke the new president. It was a foolish move. It helped to convince Rajapaksa that the assessment of the LTTE provided by his aides was right. Prabhakaran's publicly stated loyalty to peace was a sham. Further negotiations with the Tigers would not lead Sri Lanka anywhere. The external peace facilitator, Norway's, passion for negotiations was based on wrong surmises. The time had come for the president to make history. The single-minded Rajapaksa did just that.
I was one of the journalists who covered that blood-soaked story, albeit from a distance.6II
RAJAPAKSA was not only a determined and calculating politician but also a lucky one. One of his predecessors, Ranasinghe Premadasa, had been blown up by the LTTE in 1993 after trying to make peace with the group. Another head of state who had been a long-standing sympathizer of Tamil grievances, Chandrika Kumaratunga, lost an eye during a suicide bombing aimed at killing her. Yet another, Junius Jayewardene, otherwise considered a wily fox, had earlier gone politically bankrupt fighting the Tigers. Fortunately for Rajapaksa, even before he took over the reins of Sri Lanka, luck had slowly begun to desert Prabhakaran, after being on his side for an unusually long, long time.
When Rajapaksa became the head of state in 2005, Prabhakaran remained arrogantly confident of success in the long run, notwithstanding an unexpected and [Page xix]crippling split in the LTTE the previous year. The Tigers were an unusual cocktail of classical insurgency and sheer terror. Besides being the only insurgent outfit to own a shipping fleet (after the PLO—Palestine Liberation Organization—and IRA—Irish Republican Army), the LTTE had its own army, a small but lethal naval wing, a nascent air force, artillery units, a feared intelligence wing, a police force, a clandestine radio, and an efficient logistics division to buy and ferry war material from around the world in the most secretive and sophisticated manner. The group's tentacles reached almost every country. And the LTTE had proved its mettle by repeatedly harassing the Sri Lankan military—and for over two years the much bigger Indian Army too.
More importantly, the LTTE had an elite corps of suicide bombers known as Black Tigers. Whenever Prabhakaran wished, he could dispatch one or more of them to extinguish a foe of Tamil Eelam, real or perceived, Sinhalese or Tamil, Sri Lankan or Indian. The LTTE's ability to kill any key person, in the military or the government, inevitably dented the state's counter-insurgency, making Prabhakaran look exactly like his childhood comic hero—the Phantom, the masked jungle hero who could never be vanquished.
More often that not, the suicide bombers succeeded in their grotesque missions, blowing up themselves as well as their intended victims. Married to the belief that aggression pays, Prabhakaran picked Sarath Fonseka, the Sri Lankan army chief and a man close to Rajapaksa, as his first VVIP victim in the new Rajapaksa government. If Fonseka were to get killed, it would deal a huge blow to Colombo and surely derail the war machine that was taking shape.
The chosen killer was a young woman who managed to gain entry into the otherwise impregnable army headquarters in Colombo by pretending to be pregnant. She attended prenatal maternity classes at a hospital within the army complex. The subsequent arrest of a senior LTTE operative revealed that the entire plan was drawn up after detailed and meticulous study of the area and the intended victim's routine. The LTTE intelligence had also befriended a Tamil-speaking Muslim cook in the army to gain access to the complex. Prabhakaran gave the final green signal. The attack took place in April 2006 or just five months after Rajapaksa had assumed office.
The woman's audacious attempt to kill Fonseka by detonating explosives strapped to her body—a methodology first tried successfully in May 1991 on Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister of India—however failed. An alert guard riding a motorcycle kicked away the suicide bomber as she tried to get close to the army chief's car. But nothing could prevent the human bomb from exploding. She died instantly—along with eight bodyguards of the army commander.
The huge fireball triggered by the deafening blast, seriously injured Fonseka. Unfortunately for Prabhakaran, the veteran soldier was not destined to die. Fonseka, who had always held the LTTE in contempt, miraculously survived. He returned to his [Page xx]job following months of medical care in the country and abroad. Fonseka was now a wounded lion, determined to avenge his humiliation.
For Rajapaksa, the attempted assassination was a personal affront.
By then the LTTE had gone berserk. It killed soldiers and targeted high value military personnel, including those from the intelligence—the eyes and ears of Colombo. The armed forces, sick of a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement they felt was loaded in favour of the LTTE and spoiling for a fight, retaliated without mercy. As in the past, the Tigers were in a hurry to influence events as they wished.
As ill luck would have it, the LTTE failed to accurately read the mindset of the enemy and went on to commit a blunder that was to push it to its gory end.
The Tigers closed down a sluice gate in an area they held in the eastern province, depriving irrigation water to thousands of farmers, mostly from the majority Sinhalese community living in the adjoining government zone. It quickly became a highly emotive issue. Conveniently, the Tigers denied responsibility; the Tamil people, the LTTE argued with an air of sarcasm, were acting on their own. Anyone who had even an inkling of the rebels knew that nothing could happen behind the Tigers' iron curtain without their nod.
The LTTE's refusal to back down despite international appeals formally triggered what came to be known as “Eelam War IV”—the final of the wars for a Tamil state that ended in May 2009 with the Tigers' ignominious defeat. Sporadic incidents that international actors overseeing the tottering peace process had assumed, could be tamed spiralled out of control. The military concluded, after four long years of uneasy ceasefire, that enough was enough and that the LTTE needed to be taught a lesson it would not forget.
The LTTE probably realized, somewhat late, that it had made a mistake. It was too late though. As the two antagonists took on one another in the east of Sri Lanka, a region where Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims lived in almost equal numbers, the intensity of their fighting betrayed their unmasked hatred for one another. It was clear that the war this time would be different.
It was. The LTTE had carefully prepared for a showdown during the Norway-sponsored and internationally backed peace process that began formally in February 2002. One will not be too far off the mark to say in retrospect that if the devastating tsunami had not hit Sri Lanka in December 2004, the Tigers may have gone on the offensive around that time. War was very much in the air then.
Once large-scale fighting broke out in 2006, it dawned on Prabhakaran that Colombo too had psychologically prepared itself for war. Rajapaksa was ready to pay back in a fitting manner, whatever the consequences. Half-hearted peace talks held in Norway and Switzerland that year collapsed as quickly as they started. They were perhaps not meant to succeed.
[Page xxi]Like in earlier times, capital Colombo became a fortress. The LTTE meant business. Bombs went off in areas far removed from the conflict theatre, killing innocents. Sri Lanka unleashed its air force and artillery barrages on LTTE areas like never before. For once, the state decided that it needed to be an LTTE to defeat the LTTE. Anyone with the slightest of suspected links with the LTTE got picked up. Abductions in government areas became rampant as the government embraced unconventional methods to break the LTTE's very deadly sleeper network. Many victims simply disappeared. The bodies of others turned up in unlikely places, at times with their hands tied and with bullets in their head. The media was muzzled.
In the east, the LTTE found itself on the defensive, thanks considerably to the breakaway group led by its former regional commander Vinayagamurthy Muralitharan alias Karuna. Forcible recruitment of children soared. Sri Lanka's war had become as dirty as it could. The Ceasefire Agreement of 2002, brokered by Norway between the government and the LTTE after months of painstaking backroom diplomacy, began to come apart, much to the dismay of the international community.
After failing to kill the army chief, Prabhakaran now tried to do away with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the man spearheading Sri Lanka's war and a younger brother of the President. This was in December 2006. From Prabhakaran's perspective, killing Gotabaya Rajapaksa would fetch far greater dividends. It would surely destabilize Sri Lanka's war machinery. Unfortunately for Prabhakaran, he too survived miraculously although the attempt shook him up. It was a momentous event that ultimately would prove very costly to Prabhakaran.
It can be said without an iota of doubt that the attempt to blow up the younger Rajapaksa, on a Colombo street, was the most decisive turning point in the war against the LTTE. As a retired Sri Lankan army officer, who was an American citizen, he had returned to Colombo ahead of the 2005 presidential elections. After Mahinda Rajapaksa won, he had asked Gotabaya to stay on. Having fought the LTTE when he was in the army, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had a clear vision as much as the insurgent outfit was concerned. A no-nonsense man, he had firmed up much earlier that the only language the LTTE understood and respected was that of force. And that is what Colombo would now employ.
The attempt to kill Gotabaya Rajapaksa only steeled his resolve—and that of President Mahinda Rajapaksa—to go for the kill. They were now more than convinced that Prabhakaran and the band of men and women who made up the LTTE could never be trusted. As the army chief Fonseka would say later, using the terminology of cricket, a game that united Sri Lanka like perhaps nothing else, the government concluded that it would play for certain victory, not for a draw.
From then on, Sri Lanka would contemptuously reject the parrot-like suggestions that there could only be a negotiated end to the conflict. In the process, for the first [Page xxii]time, Colombo took on not only Western countries but also international institutions, at times accusing them of bias towards the LTTE. Human rights activists were treated with contempt. The pontification from the Indian government about political and constitutional reforms was tolerated. But Sri Lanka was far less approving of the pro-LTTE noises made in Tamil Nadu, the Indian state separated from the island nation by a narrow strip of sea. Sri Lanka's unprecedented aggression, in the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena, stunned the LTTE leadership, which had expected the Rajapaksa regime to capitulate.
President Rajapaksa had other ideas. He would do what no government in Colombo had done before. He went for Prabhakaran's jugular. It would be do or die.
From the day he survived, it took Gotabaya Rajapaksa and a resurgent Sri Lankan military that reported to him just two and a half years to finish off the LTTE, an octopus that had played havoc for over a quarter century. It was nothing short of a miracle. May 2009 witnessed the macabre end of a horribly bloody saga that had brutalized Sri Lanka since 1983 and divided it ethnically, fractured its soul, claimed more than 90,000 lives, wounded and maimed thousands, and created a huge Tamil refugee population within the country and all across the world.III
ON the run since the dawn of 2009, Prabhakaran ended up trapped close to the coast in Mullaitivu with his closest aides and family members as well as a core group of LTTE fighters, many of who were in no mood to give up. The LTTE boss had calculated that the West, where for years he had had a free run, would somehow be able to halt the war and provide him another lease of life. There were also fears that he could take to the sea and disappear, possibly with his close aides to fight for another day.
Interviews with those who escaped from the region, reveal that Prabhakaran had hoped the military would halt its offensive after seizing Kilinochchi, the LTTE's political and administrative hub in the country's north, at the start of January 2009. That was not to be. After capturing Kilinochchi, the military kept relentlessly advancing into the rapidly shrinking LTTE zone.7 For one last time, LTTE guerrillas literally fled for their lives, withdrawing repeatedly in large numbers. In the unprecedented confusion, they often left behind a large quantity of war material and precious internal documents. Many young fighters deserted and escaped. The LTTE's Sea Tigers and the famed suicide squads (Black Tigers) were bruised beyond recognition. Panic had set in.
The final days were as gory as hell. As the body count mounted in LTTE ranks, the Tigers desperately recruited more and more sacrificial lambs in the age group of [Page xxiii]1522 years. The unwilling fighters were given hurried one-week training in the use of weapons. Soon this got reduced to three days of training. Towards the very end, the youngsters were pushed to the war front after merely being told how to hold the weapon and how to fire!8 Until then, the “martyrs' families”—whose members had died fighting for the LTTE and who enjoyed special privileges—had been spared the threat of forced recruitment; now the LTTE asked them to cough up at least one more member for the cause.
Prabhakaran had been given to understand by some of his senior aides that mass protests by the Tamil diaspora in Western cities would surely lead to Western intervention—and ceasefire. That flicker of a hope faded away once the British and French foreign ministers ended their visit to Colombo at the end of April 2009 without achieving anything. Suddenly, the Tigers ceased to be cocky.
The LTTE had also hoped that vocal protests in Tamil Nadu in support of a truce would force the central Indian government to do a U-turn in its Sri Lanka policy since the Congress party faced a tough parliamentary election. Colombo too was aware that the LTTE would try to drag the war until the middle of May in the hope that a Congress defeat in India could lead to policy changes. This too did not happen. If anything, Tamil Nadu political parties vocally supportive of the LTTE were wiped out.
Far away from the make-believe world of the Tamil diaspora, clashes erupted between ordinary, but furious, Tamil parents and Tiger guerrillas who had forcibly recruited their children. After one ugly spat, a Tamil mob thrashed a group of guerrillas and set ablaze their vehicles. Simultaneously, Tamil civilians—most of who lacked sleep, adequate nourishment, basic medicines, and money—looked for ways to get out of the LTTE territory despite the enormous risks involved. Furious Tigers shot many of them.
The situation turned so ugly that some distraught men and women risked their lives by openly abusing Prabhakaran for landing them in a bloody mess. It was crystal clear that the armed struggle had gone horribly wrong, depriving the Tamils of whatever they had when it all began. Some civilians pleaded with the LTTE to hurriedly make up with India.
But the LTTE was not bothered. The LTTE threatened death to those questioning its ability to fight. And helpless parents were warned that they would be taken into custody if their kids ran away from the battlefield. Its leaders kept insisting that the war had to be fought and they were confident of overcoming their military setbacks. As if to prove its point, it simultaneously pushed many of its war veterans into taking on the military to somehow reverse the tide—only to lose en masse Theepan, Adhavan, Vidusa, Durga and Manivannan (all of the rank of Brigadier) as well as Seralathan and Rakesh (both Colonels).
[Page xxiv]This was a shattering blow to the LTTE. It stunned Prabhakaran. And for the first time, it led to murmurs of surrender in the LTTE ranks.
By then, the army had learnt a valuable lesson. It would keep up sustained attacks at LTTE positions so as to draw maximum fire from the Tigers. The aim was to exhaust Tiger ammunition and deplete the existing stocks, knowing well that fresh supplies were becoming near impossible.
The tactic paid off handsomely. LTTE fighters became desperate for weapons and ammunition towards the end of the war—when it mattered most. Things eventually became so bad that the Tigers could not put up even a semblance of effective retaliation against the monstrous onslaught of Sri Lanka's artillery and Multi-barrel Rocket Launcher (MBRL) barrage that killed civilians and combatants alike. Civilians saw badly wounded LTTE female cadres begging for cyanide to kill themselves and end their agony. An elderly Tamil man lamented to me: “When we fled the military, the LTTE could not save us. How could they have when they were unable to protect themselves?”
Unmindful of what the world thought, the LTTE had forced a large number of Tamil civilians—who had always borne the brunt of the dragging war—to withdraw with them into the interior. This happened in Jaffna in 1995 and it happened again in 2009. Prabhakaran had schemed that this mass of semi-starving men, women, and children would somehow prove to be a guarantee for his safety by generating Western intervention.9 When that too failed to halt the military push, Prabhakaran's loyalists spread an eleventh hour rumour that the LTTE chief had escaped to Myanmar.10
But possessing high quality human and electronic intelligence they had lacked years earlier, Sri Lankan troops pressed on, determined to finish off the LTTE. It was a golden opportunity and it might not recur. Some Tamils who survived the war feel that once the Tigers concluded that all was lost, they became resigned to their fate and ceased to care for a population in whose name they were fighting. Prabhakaran, a man who had become a legend, was finally killed in the same callous and brutal manner he had so often used to send so many thousands to their death.
The final images of the man who for decades had cast a dark shadow on Sri Lanka were terrifying.
Prabhakaran was in his battle fatigues and sprawled on a stretcher, staring blankly with eyes wide open, the back of his head blown off and covered by a blue handkerchief, his face seemingly frozen in terror. Young soldiers milled all around him, some shooing away flies and others using their mobile phones to take the last pictures of a man who for so long presided over a state within a state, determining who would live and who would die in Sri Lanka.
Luck had finally deserted Prabhakaran. The Tiger boss was history.[Page xxv]IV
THIS book is an overview of the final and no-holds-barred war against the LTTE as I viewed and recorded it from New Delhi, a city where Sri Lanka mattered a lot, and how and why the Tigers perished. I have been a long-time student of the conflict whose early years are still etched in my memory as if they took place only recently. My unauthorized biography of LTTE chief Prabhakaran, Inside an Elusive Mind, created a minor stir when it came out in 2003 for more reasons than one.11 I continued to write both news stories and commentaries as Sri Lanka's peace process slowly ruptured.
I was fortunate because years of pursuing the story had enriched me with contacts on all sides of the ethnic fence in Sri Lanka as well as in India and other countries. These included people high in the echelons of governance, diplomats from around the world, police and military officers, spies, rights activists, Tamil, Sinhalese, and Muslim politicians, the very articulate and informed Sri Lankan journalists and, of course, the most important of them all, the ordinary Tamil folks in whose name the LTTE waged war. Most of my writings were done for IANS, the Indian news agency where I worked. I also contributed to Indian and foreign publications on request.
This book is a collection of some of my writings of that eventful period when Sri Lanka witnessed change of governments, cracks in the Norway-built peace process, a paralysing split in the LTTE, growing international involvement in Sri Lanka, a death-raining tsunami, a surge in Sinhalese nationalism, massive rights abuses, India's overt and covert involvement, the flow of refugees to India,12 the relentless crackdown on LTTE cells in Tamil Nadu, the return of the war and, finally, the comprehensive defeat of the Tamil Tigers amid large-scale civilian suffering.
Contacts provide information, not necessarily knowledge. In the process, journalists—like all human beings—make assumptions and predictions that tend to go wrong. I was no exception to this time-tested truth. Like most observers of Sri Lanka, I did not expect the war to end so dramatically,13 although I always maintained that the LTTE would never be able to carve out a Tamil Eelam and that it would never be amenable to peace.
After seeing the LTTE repeatedly wriggle out of tightest corners, I was among those who came to believe firmly that the conflict would never end without Prabhakaran's involvement. The Rajapaksa brothers turned the idea upside down—by killing him! Also, by taking the war to Prabhakaran's lair, Sri Lanka demolished another myth about the LTTE. While many Tigers did embrace death without fear, Sri Lanka's final military offensive proved that there were hypocrites in Tiger ranks who sent kids to fight and die but were eager to show the white flag when their own lives were at stake.[Page xxvi]V
ONE event that no one perhaps anticipated would play a crucial role in the unfolding Sri Lanka story was the unexpected change of guard in New Delhi in May 2004. This happened, coincidentally but significantly, just two months after the LTTE broke up and only a month after Mahinda Rajapaksa was catapulted as the prime minister following the defeat of Sri Lanka's ruling United National Party (UNP) in parliamentary elections.
I was in Colombo in April 2004 and was among the first journalists to meet Rajapaksa after the election results came out. I rushed to his residence for what turned out to be a brief and relaxed interview. Despite the trappings of newfound status, there was none of the choking security normally associated with South Asian VVIPs and which envelops him now. Immaculately dressed, the man was polite and amiable, choosing his words cautiously. His aides, with whom I chatted before talking to him, exuded confidence that Rajapaksa was destined to play a crucial innings. Looking back, I cannot say for sure if they said this out of a sense of loyalty to the man they served or because they knew him better or both.
But Rajapaksa was not in the good books of the politically weakened, yet, still charismatic President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the head of state. The lady would have probably preferred her suave and English-speaking Tamil foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, as prime minister. That was not to be for a variety of reasons. As for the Indian establishment, it quietly but firmly rooted for the Sinhalese Rajapaksa over the Tamil Kadirgamar in a cold-blooded reminder that strategic interests mattered more for New Delhi than ethnicity.
Why was the surprise victory of a Congress party-led coalition significant for Sri Lanka? Thereby hangs an extraordinary tale as far as India's Sri Lanka relations were concerned.
Once a coalition government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took office in 1998–99,14 India quietly started to get pro-active in Sri Lanka (and in much of South Asia). This coincided with Colombo's search for international interlocutors, in a bid to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table. Devoid of the Sri Lanka baggage the Congress carried, the BJP wanted India to play a major role in the search for peace in the island nation. It would no more be a bystander to the conflict.
Overseen by National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra, a seasoned former diplomat, New Delhi decided to actively assist the Norway-brokered peace path, so as to help end a seemingly unending war. It was not too difficult a proposition for a country that had been an intimate part of the ethnic conflict since it began. India had lost nearly 1,200 soldiers to the LTTE during a failed attempt to bring peace over a decade earlier. Many hundreds of soldiers were also wounded and maimed.
[Page xxvii]India had pursued a largely hands-off approach, vis-à-vis the Sri Lankan conflict, ever since the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi. The policy continued both when the Congress party was in power from 1991 to 1996 and when the Congress propped up two short-lived coalition governments. But all along, besides the external affairs ministry, Indian intelligence agencies had kept a close tab on Sri Lanka, in particular the LTTE. But they stayed away from forging contacts with the Tigers because of the Indian government's ban on the group.15 Once it was firmed up that India needed to change tracks on Sri Lanka, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India's external intelligence agency, was asked to step in.
It was a bold move but none of this would come into public realm, either in India or Sri Lanka. An intelligence agency in India was entering a field normally reserved for the foreign policy establishment. The agency's penchant to work in secrecy was now linked to its lesser-known ability to perform in tandem with policymakers from distant countries.16
The Indian establishment decided early on that New Delhi would work behind the scenes in the light of its blood-soaked and controversial past in Sri Lanka. Barring a few in India, Sri Lanka and Norway, no one would know what Indian policymakers were up to. It was a radically new role for an intelligence agency, that had become notorious in Sri Lanka in the 1980s for training and arming Tamil militants, the LTTE included. Its mission now was to help bring peace to the very same country.
When I broke the story in February 2008 without naming RAW, many otherwise well informed people on the ethnic conflict, both in India and Sri Lanka, reacted in disbelief. I actually had the story from about the middle of 2007 but sat over it because of intense speculation that Sri Lanka might repudiate the ceasefire agreement any time. Even when Sri Lanka did that in January 2008, I waited for a month to pass, lest Colombo had a change of heart. I did not want my story to be seen as a calculated leak aimed at preventing the collapse of the truce.
One of the most honest and understandable reactions to my story came from Austin Fernando, who was Sri Lanka's Defence Secretary during the ceasefire period. In a hugely informative (but bulky) book, My Belly is White, Fernando referred to my revelation:
The peacemaking process was a very sensitive political tool, maintaining the highest secrecy to which even I was sometimes not privy. For that matter I hear of Indian involvement in drafting the CFA only in February 2008, six years after the signing. Even now I am unaware whether this revelation is true or not.17
This was 100 per cent true.
[Page xxviii]Having burnt its fingers badly over the Tamil issue in an earlier decade, the Indian state wanted a different role. Sri Lankan sensibilities vis-à-vis New Delhi, right and wrong, had to be respected. It was felt that Norway could play the role of the facilitator for three reasons: it was physically far removed from South Asia; it had no territorial ambitions and it had a proven record in peace building.
A small group of RAW officials discussed the nuts and bolts of the peace process with an equally small group of veteran Norwegian diplomats in an exercise kept tightly under the wraps. (The Indian external affairs ministry came into the picture much later.) The drafts of the ceasefire documents submitted by the LTTE and Colombo were studied in New Delhi. In a bid to prevent the LTTE from derailing the process, the Indian state supported a Nordic umbrella to oversee a truce. It was the first time there would be an international body of peace monitors outside of the United Nations.
Only four senior Norwegian diplomats interacted with the Indian establishment, three of them intensely. Norway's main responsibility was to win over the LTTE to the idea of peace, which, it was assumed, would get cemented on the foundations of a ceasefire agreement.
New Delhi used all its influence, vis-à-vis Sri Lanka, to create the conditions for a peace accord. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, New Delhi felt, was incapable of making a bold leap towards peace. The need of the hour, so went the thinking, was a leader who could take bold and unconventional steps. In order to make it clear that it had no sympathy for the LTTE, India went on to offer training to the Sri Lankan Army's Special Forces, which would later play a critical role in the war, and to the Special Task Force (STF), which the Tigers always feared.18
All this is not to mean that Norway did not play the dominant role in the peace process and in knitting together the ceasefire agreement. What needs to be understood is that contrary to what has been known in India and abroad, New Delhi was in the thick of it all and was a key participant in the path-breaking peace process.
Vidar Helgesen, who was assistant foreign minister of Norway during the inception of the peace process, is probably the only Norwegian who has gone public about the critical and covert Indian role, albeit without revealing too much. After joining the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, he said:
I may reasonably say that the Norwegian contribution in structuring the CFA (ceasefire agreement) … was, indeed, crucial. However, we could not have achieved any success without the active role played by India at every step of the negotiations. Nothing could be attempted without Indian support at every step, including the CFA.
[Page xxix]India's security establishment let the LTTE know through Norway that it was taking an active interest in the goings on. But the LTTE never learnt about the depth of RAW's involvement. At no point did the agency deal with the LTTE since it was outlawed in India after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. RAW's role in the peace process continued even after the Congress took power in May 2004, but in a diminished form. All along, the BJP-led Indian government made no concrete effort to dispel the popular impression that New Delhi had lost interest in Sri Lanka.
It is clear in hindsight that Prabhakaran had only a half-baked knowledge of what India was up to. This is why he claimed, very erroneously, at his April 2002 press conference at Kilinochchi that he expected New Delhi to lift the ban on the LTTE soon. But at no point did anyone in India even contemplate this. For the Indian security agencies, the Tigers were persona non grata. On this, India was in a very different league compared to the West.VI
INDIA was the first country to ban the LTTE as a terrorist organization. This happened in 1992, a year after a woman suicide bomber blew up Rajiv Gandhi at an election rally near Chennai. The ban was extended every two years—in 1994, 1996, 1998, and 2000 mainly on the strength of inputs from the Intelligence Bureau, India's low key but ruthlessly efficient domestic intelligence agency. Another extension was due in 2002 when Prabhakaran made his surprise statement. In what was clearly a rebuff to the LTTE chief (and a signal to Sri Lanka as well), India extended the ban for two more years. Then and later, despite requests from pro-LTTE quarters, New Delhi has refused to lift the ban, which remains in force even now.
The Indian assessment was that the LTTE, which, in 2002, held the upper hand militarily, needed to be securely tied to a peace process in order to de-fang it. At the same time, the legitimate political concerns of the Tamils in Sri Lanka needed to be recognized. It was vital to draw a line between the LTTE and the Tamil community (though the Tigers resented this) because otherwise it would become difficult for anyone in Colombo to give the Tamils the autonomy they longed for. This was also the understanding of the larger international community.
However, the LTTE and many others in Sri Lanka, although holding entirely different perspectives, felt that the peace process was legitimizing the Tamil Tigers. This was one of the unexpected and negative fallouts of the peace process. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister and one of the signatories to the 2002 ceasefire pact, likened the peace process to an international safety net.
[Page xxx]That was the truth—as far as Sri Lanka was concerned.19 It was Colombo's way of tackling the Tigers since it was unable, at that point of time, to subdue the LTTE militarily.20 In other words, Wickremesinghe's calculated intention behind choosing the peace process was fundamentally no different from Rajapaksa's later decision to go to war. Both wanted to subdue the Tamil Tigers. Given the circumstances, their paths differed.
The Sri Lankan leader who invited Norway was no doubt President Chandrika Kumaratunga, but it is doubtful if she would have done this but for the LTTE's ascendancy and military supremacy. In short, she had no choice. She had taken charge of the government on a strong wicket in 1994, ending 17 long years of United National Party (UNP) rule, and offered peace to the LTTE. It was a widely hailed move. Her background and image as a liberal Sinhalese, one whose charismatic actor-husband had been assassinated by Sinhalese hardliners, cemented her popularity.
When the Tamil Tigers dramatically resumed the war in April 1995, she responded with a military offensive that led to the capture of Jaffna, the Tamil heartland the LTTE had controlled since 1990. After that, the military push surprisingly slackened. The Tigers went on to hit back with a ferocious blitzkrieg that stumped Sri Lanka. As Colombo tottered under the weight of the LTTE offensive, losing territory after territory, it sought out Norway to shake hands with the belligerent Tigers.21
Wickremesinghe, who headed the rival UNP, entered the picture after Kumaratunga's popularity got badly eroded because of repeated political and military setbacks. She led her Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to a defeat in elections, towards the end of 2001, following political convulsions in the country.
What happened next was bizarre. While Prime Minister Wickremesinghe formed the government, Kumaratunga remained the powerful President. But they would not see eye-to-eye on vital issues. Wickremesinghe signed the February 2002 ceasefire agreement with LTTE chief Prabhakaran but without the full knowledge of the President, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The lady was predictably furious but fell in line reluctantly due to international pleadings. However, it was a bad start to an experiment that required pan-Sri Lanka support. It was the beginning of an uneasy co-habitation for the President and prime minister, a perfect recipe for disaster.
The ups and downs of the peace process only widened the gulf between the two leaders. Eventually, Kumaratunga sacked the Wickremesinghe government in November 2003 after the LTTE submitted a set of proposals for self-governance, widely seen in Sri Lanka as a stepping-stone to Tamil independence. Wickremesinghe came under widespread attack for virtually surrendering to the LTTE. Fresh parliamentary elections in April 2004 led to the defeat of his party, the UNP. Kumaratunga's SLFP was back in the saddle.
[Page xxxi]The March—April—May months of 2004 thus had a vital bearing on Sri Lanka because of three seemingly unrelated but critical developments: the split in the monolithic LTTE in March; the defeat of the UNP in Sri Lanka in April; and the defeat of the BJP and the return to power of the Congress in India in May. The last was to alter New Delhi's equations vis-à-vis the peace process.
A reading of LTTE and pro-LTTE literature of that period shows the Tigers were as stunned by the Congress victory as everyone else. The electoral verdict had made a woman widowed callously by Prabhakaran the most powerful person in India although she said “no” to the prime minister's office. Indeed, Sonia Gandhi may have been nowhere in politics if Prabhakaran had not ordered her husband's killing. There was no inkling to what she would now do.
The prime minister would be, Manmohan Singh, was a Gandhi family loyalist. The National Security Adviser (NSA) was J.N. Dixit, who even as India's envoy to Sri Lanka in the 1980s, never hid his dislike for the LTTE and its tactics. Indeed, he had contempt for the outfit. This dislike of the LTTE continued before and after India and Sri Lanka signed a pact in July 1987, to end Tamil separatism.
But Dixit was highly unpopular in Sri Lanka, among large sections of the Sinhalese majority, for what were seen as his overbearing ways.22 He was no doubt hawkish. Few among the Sinhalese public cared to appreciate that Dixit thought like them on the LTTE. After his retirement, Dixit admitted candidly that he was in the wrong in his assessment of the LTTE's resilience and its ability to bounce back even in the most adverse circumstances.23
After his death as the National Security Advisor, the mantle fell on M.K. Narayanan, who had headed the Intelligence Bureau when the LTTE cold-bloodedly assassinated Rajiv Gandhi after pretending to befriend him. The Gandhi killing was a chapter the Intelligence Bureau would never forget—and never forgive the LTTE for.
Each of these individuals—Sonia Gandhi, Dixit, Narayanan, and even Manmohan Singh—had strong reasons to dislike, if not loathe, the LTTE and its leader Prabhakaran. In any case, by the time the Congress took over the reins of power in India, Sri Lanka's peace process was under severe strain.
It took some time for the new Congress regime to learn about India's covert involvement.24 In the meantime, New Delhi continued its behind-the-scenes role. The truce held on but barely. In the long run, however, India's approach to Sri Lanka would undergo a slow but sure change. Once the war picked up, from 2006, New Delhi's tilt towards Colombo began to show. By the time the conflict approached its finale, India had publicly begun to denounce the LTTE as a terrorist group. The language had not been heard in New Delhi for a long time.
While India and Sri Lanka pursued their close interactions at the highest level, New Delhi was in contact, both collectively and individually, with the key global [Page xxxii]players: peace-broker Norway, the US, Japan, and the European Union. The four entities were together called the Co-Chairs and oversaw the peace process. But despite repeated private and public invitations, India firmly but politely declined to be an institutional part of the Co-Chairs per se, fearing it might then be forced to subjugate its strategic interests vis-à-vis Sri Lanka and the region to the whims of the largely Western players.
Again, New Delhi maintained an active interest in Sri Lanka even as the situation deteriorated from 2004–05, eventually resulting in full-scale war. There were occasions when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan met exclusively to discuss Sri Lanka. At times one or more officials would join them.
These meetings never found their way to the media. Most of the Indian media was also unaware of Manmohan Singh's telephonic conversation with President Rajapaksa after communal violence directed at Tamil civilians erupted in Trincomalee in 2006. Several Tamils in Sri Lanka frantically telephoned the Indian High Commission in Colombo urging India to do something. The Trincomalee rioting was halted after Manmohan Singh's intervention.
The Congress regime in New Delhi assisted the Rajapaksa administration in several ways without much sound and fury—the quietly efficient style of governance preferred by Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. With one of its key coalition partners, the DMK, ruling Tamil Nadu (from May 2006), the Congress-led government played its cards carefully so as to ensure that Tamil sentiments in the state, vis-à-vis Colombo, never got out of hand. This was easy and difficult at the same time. It was easy because the LTTE, post Rajiv Gandhi, could never regain the popular sympathy it had once enjoyed in the sprawling state; it was difficult because many political parties and politicians in Tamil Nadu continued to speak vocally for the LTTE.25
Even as it provided select military support to Sri Lanka, overt and covert, New Delhi kept pressing Colombo not to deviate from its stated pledge to empower the minorities, the Tamils in particular. It continuously voiced concern over human rights abuses if and when civilians got hit in a major way. But it normally avoided going public with statements critical of Sri Lanka—in contrast to the mid-1980s.26 Even as National Security Adviser Narayanan once publicly faulted Colombo for apparently not realizing that the Tamil man on the street was sullen, India trained the first batch of Tamil policemen for Sri Lanka. Not surprisingly, the Sri Lankan reaction to Narayanan's critical remarks were extremely mild—another contrast to the 1980s.
Simultaneously, the Indian government used its diplomatic clout, if and when there was too much Western heat on Sri Lanka. While dubbing the LTTE a terrorist organization, sections of the West were vocal about what they felt were the failings of [Page xxxiii]Sri Lanka on the war front. This was noticeably acute in the initial stages of the Rajapaksa administration, before it gained the upper hand militarily. European countries were more sharply critical of Sri Lanka than the US.
In 2006, as fighting escalated, some Western countries pressured Sri Lanka to disarm the breakaway LTTE led by Karuna who had split the organization two years earlier. This was also a key LTTE demand. Some of the countries that took this line probably felt that the Tigers could be persuaded to return to the negotiating table if only the Tigers were appeased on this front. There were indeed serious concerns about human rights abuses being committed by Karuna's men against Tamil and Muslim civilians in the east.
India, which understood the LTTE far better than many other countries, knew the crucial role Karuna was starting to play in the war for supremacy in the eastern province. Naturally, the LTTE, having failed to hunt down the former regional commander, decided to use the West to immobilize a man it saw as a “traitor”—a Tiger epithet to mean one who deserves to die. Precisely for the same reason, the Sri Lankan security establishment was firmly opposed to the fettering of Karuna and his men. India made it clear to the international interlocutors that it was against the peace process being held hostage over the Karuna issue.
The more India acted behind the scenes, influencing other players and at times events, the more frustrated the LTTE became. The LTTE suspected initially that Indians might have been linked to Karuna when he revolted with thousands of guerrillas in the eastern district of Batticaloa in March 2004. Karuna's public statements (after his rebellion) criticizing Prabhakaran for ordering the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi made the LTTE suspect a possible Indian connection. Adding to the LTTE's suspicions was the decision by the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF), an India-based Sri Lankan Tamil group, to support Karuna.27 It was the ENDLF link that fuelled intense speculation that Karuna had taken shelter in India for about six months after feeling seriously threatened in Sri Lanka.
As years rolled by after the 2002 ceasefire agreement, India remained firmly opposed to the LTTE, making it clear to everyone, Norway included, that New Delhi would never accept a “dictatorship” in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Over time, as it became pronounced that India's aloofness would be a permanent veto to the LTTE gaining political legitimacy, more and more Tiger operatives and high-profile supporters admitted, mostly off the record, that Rajiv Gandhi's killing was a first rate blunder by Prabhakaran.
Prabhakaran was, of course, too egoistic to admit that he had made a mistake. Such an admission could have dented the image of a man who claimed to act wisely on behalf of the Tamil community. But Indians visiting the LTTE territory returned [Page xxxiv]with the impression that the feeling of remorse voiced by Tiger sympathizers could not have been possible without a nod from the Tiger boss. Anton Balasingham, the London-based colleague of Prabhakaran and the LTTE's political ideologue, came closest to anyone in the organization by offering a virtual public apology for Gandhi's murder.
In 2008, in what turned out to be his last annual 27 November speech, Prabhakaran shed his long-standing animosity, described India as a “superpower” and sought “a constructive relationship” with it. It was too little too late. New Delhi took notice of the speech but did not respond. India's security establishment had decreed a long time ago that the LTTE was untrustworthy. There was no question of lifting the ban on the LTTE. The grotesque Gandhi murder was not the only reason for this.VII
ONCE the LTTE gained control of Jaffna in early 1990 after the Indian troops sailed home, it quietly trained several insurgents from India. The Indians were in the dark initially. The LTTE had always had a strong anti-India streak although it carefully clouded this by friendly pronouncements. The Indian military intervention, however, made the LTTE change gears.28
Steeped in unforgiving tit-for-tat tactics, it concluded that if New Delhi could train outfits opposed to the Tigers, then it had the right to take revenge. And so it imparted training to the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA),29 an insurgent group that sought to break away the tea- and oil-rich state of Assam from India. Interestingly, ULFA also had deep links with the intelligence agencies of both Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The ULFA training, which took place in Jaffna, ended in six months. One reason was that the ULFA members found the LTTE capsule too rough and tough. But the LTTE had other plans. Also from 1990, the LTTE helped train and set up a militant group in Tamil Nadu, suggestively called the Tamil National Retrieval Troops (TNRT). As its name revealed, it was to “retrieve” Tamil Nadu from India!
LTTE intelligence chief Shanmugalingam Sivashankar, alias Pottu Amman, personally passed on weapons, gold biscuits, and communication equipment to TNRT operatives. The apparent aim was to create mayhem in Tamil Nadu in the event there were attacks on innocent Tamils by non-Tamils in the wake of Gandhi's death—à la what happened to Sikhs in New Delhi after Indira Gandhi's assassination. The police crackdown following the Rajiv Gandhi killing smashed up the TNRT.
Another Tamil Nadu group, which the Indian authorities believed was trained by the LTTE, was Tamizhar Pasarai (Bastion of Tamils). The group planted a bomb at the [Page xxxv]secretariat in Chennai during a meeting of the National Integration Council in 1990. Fortunately, the bomb did not explode. (A key operative of the group, who is on the run, was last spotted in Bangalore.)
The LTTE also operated networks in Tamil Nadu to smuggle war material from the Indian state to Sri Lanka. While maintaining that it would never do anything to hurt Indian interests, LTTE men used Indian soil both to source goods needed to pursue the armed conflict and also as a transit point for sophisticated communication equipment bought in the West. The LTTE even attempted to build a 70 feet long vessel in Kerala for use by the Sea Tigers.
Naturally, there was much more behind the Indian decision to outlaw the LTTE than Gandhi's assassination.30 True to its self, the LTTE never admitted training ULFA or other Indian insurgents. As the war in Sri Lanka escalated from 2006, the LTTE did a dramatic U-turn, emphasizing to its cadres that while sailing to Tamil Nadu they should not to get involved in any activity that could be deemed anti-India. LTTE guerrillas who fell into the police net said as much when they were interrogated.
Tamil Nadu was vital for the LTTE's larger scheme of things. It is where Prabhakaran had repeatedly fled to in the 1970s and early 1980s when the police hunt for him became intense in Sri Lanka. It is where the LTTE chief had been arrested—for the first and last time—way back in May 1982. (After securing bail, he lived in India for a while and then escaped to Sri Lanka.) It is also where he lived for over three productive years, until January 1987. The LTTE counted a large number of friends and sympathizers across the state. Not only was it an important place to whip up passions in support of its cause but it was also the nearest coastline to Sri Lanka's north, the main war theatre.
The LTTE routinely procured a wide variety of goods ranging from food and medicines to explosives in Tamil Nadu to be taken by speedboats to Sri Lanka. The coming to power of a DMK party government in Tamil Nadu in 2006 did not derail the crackdown on the Tiger smuggling cells even if the state police were not too enthusiastic about chasing the Tigers. Within a month of taking power, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi made it abundantly clear that the Central government's Sri Lanka policy will be his policy too. This was one reason why one pro-LTTE website at one time ended up accusing Karunanidhi of betraying the Sri Lankan Tamils. It was a major development considering the sympathies Karunanidhi's DMK party had brazenly exhibited for the LTTE until Rajiv Gandhi was killed.
The main credit for the unending assaults on LTTE networks in Tamil Nadu and for denying the killers of Rajiv Gandhi a rear base in south India should go to the federal Intelligence Bureau. The Intelligence Bureau, born during the British colonial rule, was responsible for nearly 80 per cent of all seizures of war material in the [Page xxxvi]sprawling coastal state during the last few years of the conflict in Sri Lanka. These included ball bearings used as shrapnel, aluminium bars, ordinary and electronic detonators, boat building equipment, walkie-talkies, batteries, petroleum products, chemicals, high-speed outboard engines for boats, cycle spares, tyres for cycles and motorcycles, power generators, surgical equipment and medicines, and even beedis, the poor man's cigarette.
None of this was in small quantity. Detonators were seized in thousands, while the quantity of chemicals ran into thousands of litres. It was a hugely creditable performance. The Q Branch of the Tamil Nadu Police, a unit meant to shadow and cripple insurgents, also played a key role in smashing up LTTE networks. It was the Q Branch's interrogation of arrested LTTE members that revealed that a boat seized from the Tigers and docked in the Chennai Port was packed with a huge quantity of concealed explosives.
From the time “Eelam War IV” resumed, the LTTE increasingly used former LTTE guerrillas settled in the West, particularly in Britain, to link up its units in Sri Lanka with the smuggling networks in Tamil Nadu so as to hoodwink the intelligence agencies. The last major coordinated attempt to smuggle sophisticated communication equipment (bought in the West) into Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu took place in March 2009. And the last serious bid to send a large consignment of medicines, including insulin for Prabhakaran, from Tamil Nadu happened in May, just before the Tigers were crushed. The first operation was a failure, thanks mainly to the vigilance by Indian security agencies. The medicines managed to leave the Indian shore but they probably never reached the targeted audience because by then the LTTE was in complete disarray.
Notwithstanding statements from arrested LTTE members that the Tigers were in no mood to confront the Indian state, New Delhi never lowered its guard. Laxity had led to Rajiv Gandhi's killing. As if to prove that it indeed could not be expected to keep its word, the LTTE tried, in 2008, to assassinate an India-based senior Sri Lankan Tamil political activist it has always hated.
The intended victim was Annamali Varadaraja Perumal, who was chief minister of Sri Lanka's northeastern province when Indian troops were stationed there. He moved over to India with his wife and three daughters and lived under state protection from 1990. He belonged to the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), whose top leader, K. Pathmanabha and many of his lieutenants were gunned down in Chennai in 1990.31
An LTTE intelligence sleeper who ran a taxi company in Tamil Nadu had befriended some relatives of Perumal. When one of Perumal's daughters got married in Ajmer in northern India, the LTTE agent told the relatives that he would be happy to drive them all the way to Ajmer. When he was arrested, the man confessed that the [Page xxxvii]LTTE had planned to abduct Perumal from India. It is another matter whether the daring scheme could have been executed successfully. But the episode proved one thing to the Indians: the Tigers would never, never change their stripes. It was a lesson President Rajapaksa too learnt—and very quickly.VIII
IT will be no exaggeration to say that the LTTE's demise as a military machine began in March 2004 when it was rocked by a stunning and unprecedented rebellion by thousands of its cadres in the eastern province, made up of Trincomalee, Batticaloa, and Amparai districts. Unlike the predominantly Tamil north, the eastern wing was multi-racial where Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims32 lived in near equal numbers. Of the three eastern districts, Batticaloa, inclusive of its Muslims, was almost wholly Tamil speaking. This is where the LTTE broke up.
The development, which a few Sri Lankans had anticipated with remarkable foresight, shook the Tamil Tigers at their very roots. At the head of the epoch making event was 37-year-old Vinayagamurthy Muralitharan, widely known as Karuna Amman or Karuna, the LTTE's longest serving regional commander. He was in charge of Batticaloa and Amparai districts. The battle-hardened rebel had also been a former bodyguard of Prabhakaran—and for long his blue-eyed man.
Although an estimated 4,000–5,000 guerrillas had left the LTTE from the early 1980s and lived mostly in the West,33 the group had never faced a mass revolt. In the LTTE, this was unthinkable. Only once before, had one man rebelled against Prabhakaran's authority—and paid with his life. That was Gopalasamy Mahendrarajah, alias Mahattaya, a former designated number two in the group. He was picked up by the LTTE intelligence in August 1993 on charges of being an Indian spy. He was executed along with his supporters in December next year after being tortured to confess.
Mahattaya's revolt became public knowledge only after he was taken into custody. Karuna was too cunning and too powerful for that. He played his cards well once he anticipated the impending danger from Prabhakaran because, as he told me in a July 2004 interview after going into hiding, “only a snake understands a snake”.
Born into an agriculturist family in a place called Kiran in Batticaloa, Karuna was among the hundreds who flocked to Tamil militancy after anti-Tamil riots swept Sri Lanka in 1983. Karuna opted for the LTTE and was one of its many young soldiers. He underwent military training in Tamil Nadu when Prabhakaran lived in the safety of the Indian state. Karuna's commitment to the cause and ruthlessness helped him go up the ladder quickly. He was a leader of some standing in the LTTE by the time India deployed its army in Sri Lanka's north and east in 1987 to end Tamil separatism.
[Page xxxviii]Karuna proved his skills against both the Indian and the Sri Lankan militaries. In no time, he became an object of reverence and terror—much like his mentor and boss, Prabhakaran.
Trouble followed. His military exploits and his standing among the LTTE cadres from the eastern province earned him a place in the Tiger delegations when peace talks opened with Colombo following the Norway-brokered 2002 ceasefire agreement. Karuna was with Balasingham in the Norwegian capital Oslo in December that year when the LTTE and Colombo signed a path-breaking document promising to find a federal solution to the dragging conflict—a revolutionary leap forward for the uncompromising Tigers. Prabhakaran, when he learnt about it, was livid. He had not been consulted.
The development led to an unprecedented chasm between Prabhakaran and Balasingham, otherwise best buddies in the LTTE leadership. Karuna did not escape censure. Even otherwise, Pottu Amman, the LTTE's cold-blooded intelligence chief, loathed Karuna. Karuna too hated Pottu Amman. Prabhakaran did always have a soft corner for Karuna, but the Tigers chief could not do without Pottu Amman, the LTTE's eyes and ears. In any case, Karuna was based far away in the east; Pottu Amman was almost constantly by Prabhakaran's side.34
Although Karuna's revolt took most people by surprise, some had seen it coming. At a December 2003 meeting of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), the five-nation Nordic body overseeing the truce, a former Tamil militant turned peace activist voiced apprehension that the LTTE might come apart in the eastern wing. To his small but startled audience, he went on to explain why.35 The respected University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), which enjoyed widespread grassroots support in the Tamil areas, separately warned of a split in the LTTE in the eastern province much before it actually happened.
Having achieved the status of a war hero, Karuna had begun to openly express his dislike of both Pottu Amman and S.P. Tamilchelvan, the political head of the LTTE. In his own lair, the eastern province, he undermined both men—an unforgivable audacity as the vengeful Pottu Amman saw it.
The LTTE's Batticaloa political wing leader was Kaushalyan who was theoretically answerable and accountable to Tamilchelvan. Instead, Kaushalyan was forced to clear every schedule from Karuna and even refuse some of Tamilchelvan's directives if Karuna did not endorse them. To Tamilchelvan this was downright humiliating.
Similarly, Reginald, head of the LTTE military intelligence for Batticaloa, was supposed to report to and take orders from Pottu Amman. However, Karuna read his reports first. He would even censor some of the reports and only the edited material went to Pottu Amman. Predictably, Tamilchelvan and Pottu Amman complained against Karuna to the LTTE chief.
[Page xxxix]Prabhakaran knew what was happening on the ground, from about the middle of 2003—almost nine months before the revolt actually took place. But Prabhakaran thought, mistakenly as it turned out, that this was a personality clash between Karuna on the one hand and Tamilchelvan and Pottu Amman on the other. The LTTE chief had, for long, trusted Karuna immensely and thought that such differences in the highest echelons were inevitable in a large organization like the LTTE.
This turned out to be a horrible blunder. As 2004 dawned, relations soured between Prabhakaran and Karuna. Karuna felt that the boss was lending too much ear to his detractors. According to Karuna, Prabhakaran had refused to heed his advice to give up violence and opt for a sincere and negotiated settlement with Colombo.
Karuna also felt that diplomats and others who called on Tamilchelvan at Kilinochchi, the LTTE hub in the north, should visit him too in Batticaloa. Hadn't he fought more battles than Tamilchelvan? Wasn't he as important as Tamilchelvan in the LTTE pecking order? Wasn't his contribution to the LTTE's growth far greater than that of Tamilchelvan? Karuna did not hide his contempt for two others in the LTTE: B. Nadesan and Tamilendhi, the heads of the LTTE police and financial wings.
Quietly, without fanfare but clearly with Prabhakaran's blessings, Pottu Amman began to sneak his operatives from the intelligence wing into Batticaloa. When Karuna realized this, he knew serious trouble was on hand (Some of these infiltrators would later get killed in Karuna's custody). Already, there had been summons for him to attend a meeting in the Wanni, Prabhakaran's headquarters. Karuna smelt a rat and refused to go. Instead, he decided to go on the offensive.
Karuna called a meeting of his top lieutenants and gave them an unenviable choice. He revealed that he was going to revolt; those who wanted to be with him could stay on in Batticaloa, others should leave for Prabhakaran's fiefdom. Knowing what Pottu Amman was capable of, he stepped up security for himself.
In March 2004 he took another step by shooting off a letter to Prabhakaran asking him to sack Nadesan and Tamilendhi, describing them as unfits for surrendering to the Indian Army instead of biting the cyanide capsules. Karuna knew that the LTTE would never accept this demand. The die was cast.
The LTTE was too stunned by the initial turn of developments to know how to respond. When it did, its long-standing arrogance was evident. It attempted to brush off the unexpected challenge as an “individual problem” and an “internal matter” that it would easily take care of. But it became quickly clear that the unthinkable had happened and that its confidence was misplaced. Barring a few second rung leaders who deserted Karuna and sought sanctuary with Prabhakaran, thousands of LTTE men and women guerrillas remained loyal to their regional chief. Worse, hundreds of young civilians took to the streets in Batticaloa town and elsewhere in Batticaloa, [Page xl]hailing Karuna and denouncing “northern” leaders of the LTTE—a reference to the Jaffna men who held sway in the organization.
Karuna even told Norway that he wanted a separate ceasefire agreement in the eastern province. Norwegian diplomats were taken aback; it was the last thing they had expected to happen. And once the LTTE sacked him, Karuna hurled one accusation after another against the LTTE brass, including Prabhakaran. He flayed the LTTE chief for needlessly killing Rajiv Gandhi, the former Indian Prime Minister and earning the enmity of India. He accused the Tigers of ignoring and discriminating against cadres from the east although they died in larger numbers in the battlefield. No Tamil from eastern province, Karuna pointed out, headed even one of the over 30 departments in the LTTE. Thanks to Karuna, the north-versus-east differences among the Tamils of Sri Lanka, suppressed by years of war, had burst into the open.
For Colombo, the split in the LTTE was a divine gift. (The LTTE's version was more cynical—that Colombo actively fanned Karuna's ambitions and offered him security guarantees before he announced his rebellion.) The Tigers knew this. But like a tiger sneaking slowly towards its prey, Prabhakaran waited for the opportune moment to strike back.
Surprisingly, even as anti-Jaffna and pro-Karuna sentiments gripped Batticaloa, many Tamils in the east insisted that Prabhakaran was not responsible for Karuna's hurt feelings; they blamed the LTTE chief's senior aides instead. Most Tamils elsewhere in Sri Lanka, startled by the break up, predicted rightly that Prabhakaran would never forgive Karuna for his treachery—and would have him killed at the first available opportunity.
Even as Karuna became a hero in the Sinhalese and international media, a David taking on a Goliath, the Tigers hit back on Good Friday at the start of April. Using speed and stealth, its two long-standing weapons, LTTE fighters loyal to Prabhakaran quickly overran Karuna's forces massed along a river in Batticaloa's north. The rout was sudden and total. Karuna fled Batticaloa, with help from a ruling party MP. The military intelligence promptly took him under its wings, protecting a man who had once ordered the slaughter of 600 surrendered policemen but who could now become a deadly weapon to weaken and destroy the wily Prabhakaran.
That's exactly what happened.IX
THE LTTE overcame Karuna's open challenge but Sri Lanka's east never saw peace again. Backed covertly by Colombo, Karuna organized his men for hit-and-run attacks to harass the mainstream LTTE. The violence was vicious and neither side gave [Page xli]any quarter. But Karuna went out of sight even as the LTTE launched the biggest manhunt in its history for any one man. Try as they might, the Tigers could never track him down.
This was frustrating to the LTTE, which came down heavily on his supporters, killing some in public to cow down his cadres and sympathizers. The staff of Save the Children NGO was witness to one such cold-blooded execution in Batticaloa's Karadiyanaru village in July 2004. LTTE fighters had caught two young men loyal to Karuna. After gathering the villagers, and forcing the Save the Children staff to watch the spectacle, the LTTE decreed that “Tamil traitors” could only expect death in Tiger land. LTTE gunmen then pumped bullets into the two who collapsed in a pool of blood. So chilling was the effect of this double killing that the Save the Children staff were terrified to return to the village to do development work.
Karuna's younger brother Reggie, another former bodyguard of Prabhakaran, was also gunned down. With the Tamil media mostly siding with the LTTE, scores of cold-blooded killings went unreported. Three middle-rung LTTE leaders who had sided with Karuna were persuaded to return to Prabhakaran's fold by a Bishop in Batticaloa. They were promised they would not be harmed. But when they did what was requested of them, the LTTE quickly executed them for treachery. One of the victims was known by his nom de guerre Jim Kelly Thatha.
The string of killings by the LTTE led to an equally macabre retribution. Karuna's men virtually took over parts of interior Batticaloa. Around 40 guerrillas from the Karuna faction entered Batticaloa's Omadiyamadu village and warned its residents not to countenance Prabhakaran's men. To prove that they meant business, they brought bodies of two LTTE cadres tied to tractors.
As months rolled by, there was a marked increase in the activities of the Karuna group. At night, residents would hear heavy exchange of gunfire in Batticaloa's rural areas where much of the Prabhakaran—Karuna war raged. Nobody knew who was targeting whom. The very vocal Kaushalyan, who had remained loyal to Prabhakaran as the LTTE political head in Batticaloa, was killed. Although Prabhakaran mourned his death, the funeral was a low-key affair, mainly because of the terror unleashed by Karuna's armed bands with the backing of Sri Lankan security forces. It was the first major sign that the LTTE's writ was not running in Batticaloa despite the end of Karuna's open rebellion.
The passionately anti-LTTE Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) headed by Douglas Devananda, a militant turned cabinet minister, threw its lot with Karuna. So the LTTE targeted the EPDP too, trying to kill its leader with a suicide bomber in July 2004 in Colombo. Devananda survived, becoming the only Sri Lankan man to survive a string of LTTE assassination attempts. Sri Lanka's military intelligence [Page xlii]backed Karuna. In the mêlée, some Muslim traders in the east gathered courage and refused to pay “taxes” to the LTTE—for the first time in years.36
In Batticaloa and Amparai, the two districts Karuna had commanded, the LTTE found it difficult to observe the annual Black Tigers day on 5 July 2004, marking the anniversary of the first Tiger suicide attack on that day in 1987. Over time, the LTTE realized to its dismay that Karuna's ambush parties appeared to know in advance about the movements of its fighters, leading to scores of deaths on roads linking Batticaloa. It meant that some of those who had revolted on the side of Karuna and returned to the LTTE fold later were playing a dangerous double game.37
The LTTE's failure to catch and kill Karuna, who quietly spent time in India when Sri Lanka became too dangerous for him, infuriated the Tigers. It was the first time the LTTE was finding it difficult to net a sworn enemy despite managing to infiltrate his group. After Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected the President in November 2005, Karuna went on to become a key element in the government's strategy once it was decided to destroy the LTTE. As the tide of the war slowly turned against the Tigers, the LTTE's anger against Karuna only mounted because it knew he was a key reason why it was losing the east.
The LTTE branded Karuna and his supporters “paramilitaries” and demanded that they be disarmed. A section in the West echoed the Tiger demand. Colombo, wiser to the tactics of the LTTE, would have none of it. Karuna's knowledge of the topography and the LTTE mindset helped Sri Lanka capture the entire eastern province from the Tigers in 2007, including areas where Colombo's writ had not prevailed for one and a half decades. Although conventional wisdom held that the military would find it difficult to hold on to the east once soldiers moved to the north, the LTTE failed to regain the eastern province, mainly because it lacked the numbers to confront Colombo.
The wealth of intelligence about the LTTE that Karuna possessed was as astonishing as it was invaluable. It is doubtful if Sri Lanka could have won the war against the LTTE in 2009 so comprehensively, but for the internecine war in the Tiger ranks five years earlier. What the LTTE had contemptuously dismissed as a “one man problem” finally turned into a fireball that eventually consumed Prabhakaran and his once formidable army.
Clearly, the LTTE misread the long-term consequences of Karuna's walking away. It erred in gauging the mood behind the break up. Whatever Karuna's bent of mind and proclivity to violence,38 he represented a dormant idea that the northern Tamils (read Jaffna Tamils) bossed over the eastern Tamils. This thinking also destabilized a section of the eastern LTTE cadres who were based in Prabhakaran's territory in the north when Karuna revolted.
[Page xliii]The LTTE also failed to reconcile with the fact that Karuna's rebellion was qualitatively different compared to the earlier revolt by Mahattaya. Even the two men were different. Karuna was more lethal and more scheming compared to Mahattaya. He was also more ruthless. In sum short, his going away was a dangerous development. But the cocky confidence and ingrained pride in the LTTE's veins did not help it to correctly analyze the Karuna phenomenon. It paid a heavy price for it.X
THE aftermath of Karuna's March—April 2004 revolt led to one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the Tamil struggle. Determined to gain back the physical and political space it had lost in the eastern province, the LTTE went on an ugly offensive, urging combatants who had called it quits before and after the rebellion to rejoin the Tigers. While many did respond voluntarily, a majority did not.
Many young men and women had simply dumped their weapons and uniforms and returned to their anxious families, disgusted with the war and the mindless suffering it caused. The more daring ones sold off their weapons for whatever money they fetched, moved quickly to Colombo, where, with help from relatives and friends, they hunted for passports to leave Sri Lanka for good.
The LTTE would not take “no” for an answer—for anything. When it realized that most young fighters were not returning to its fold on their own, it decided to grab them forcibly. Though the Sri Lankan military had been happy over the split in the LTTE, there was no political backing at that point of time to prevent forcible conscription. The pro-LTTE diaspora, its own children tucked away in the safety of the West, looked the other way as Tamil Tiger gangs swooped on children from poor families in numerous villages to make them don the battle fatigues again.39
The LTTE-controlled region witnessed mayhem.
On 26 June 2004, over two months after Karuna's challenge had been put down, armed and young female LTTE cadres checking public buses ordered a middle-aged woman and her young daughter to get off a bus in Vakarai area in Batticaloa. It was about 10 in the morning. Vakarai had been held by the LTTE for a long time. The girl had been in the LTTE for about two years and had returned home in April that year. She was from a village close to Panichenkerny and, according to her mother, was only 14 years old.
The frightened mother held her daughter in tight embrace and tried to reason with the LTTE women that the girl was young, had rejoined school and should not be taken away. The girl mustered courage to blurt out that she did not want to return to fighting. This infuriated the uniformed women. As the bus passengers watched in [Page xliv]horror, the LTTE fighters kicked the mother and beat her severely. Her crime—she had the audacity to argue!
The daughter was also assaulted. Even as some gang members urged their colleagues to spare the mother, the woman was thrashed until she lost consciousness. Those watching the scene were outraged but there was no stopping the Tigers as they made away with the unwilling and screaming girl—to fight for Tamil Eelam.
Pressed by their leadership to recruit as many fighters as possible, LTTE guerrillas, both men and women, returned that night to the village of the young woman snatched from the bus. They forcibly entered the homes of other young women who too had quit the Tigers in April. In one house, a mother who resisted was beaten along with a 14-year-old girl and her minor sister. When the brother tried to stop the aggressors from taking away his sister, he was threatened with death.
It was as if the LTTE had declared war on the Tamil people.
A female-headed family lived in Panichenkerny, a small village in the LTTE-controlled part of Batticaloa. The son was 14 years old in 1990 when the army had picked him up during a cordon and search operation. He was never seen again. The daughter had served in the Tharavai camp of LTTE at Thoppigala, about 50 km from Batticaloa town, after being abducted by the Tigers in 1999. She too returned home in April. But she could not enjoy her freedom.
Since late May of 2004, LTTE fighters started visiting the family demanding the return of the young woman, now aged 19. The family insisted it had no idea where the girl was. On the third visit, the cadres decided to seize matters by the scruff of the neck. They forced the mother to board a tractor and took her around the village in a public display of what could happen to objectors. They flayed her verbally and physically before other villagers, stopping the tractor in spots where people could gather and silently witness the high-handedness.
It was a chilling warning sign not to follow the woman's methodology of survival. As for the young former guerrilla, she went into hiding in the jungles, determined to avoid re-conscription and firm in her mind that Tamil Eelam was not worth dying for.
For the LTTE, festivals at Hindu temples, which drew large gatherings, provided a happy hunting ground. At the start of August 2004, the Tigers swooped down on a temple festival in Batticaloa's Vavunathivu area, which the LTTE controlled and grabbed up to 40 children at one go. It was a shocking display of high-handedness; but behind the LTTE's iron curtain, there was no court of appeal.
The mothers of the children wailed and wailed, pleading with the LTTE to free their children. That had no effect. The LTTE was simply not bothered about the niceties of human rights and international law—although it would cry foul if Colombo [Page xlv]or Karuna violated these. Ironically, this mass abduction took place during a month when the UN Human Rights Adviser to the High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Batticaloa.
The terrible destruction caused by the December 2004 tsunami only triggered further abductions because more Tamil children were rendered orphan and homeless. Since the traumatic disaster had claimed the lives of many LTTE fighters, the Tigers were desperate for recruits. In a major departure from the past, few Tamils were voluntarily joining the Tiger ranks, preferring instead to stay away from the unending conflict even though the LTTE was ready to pay salaries. At one time, an exasperated LTTE Sea Tigers chief, Soosai, made public appeals that the LTTE had enough arms and ammunition to take on Colombo but it was badly short of fighting hands. It was the truth.
Even as the LTTE pretended to respect international law in the main town of Batticaloa district, it ran amok in the interior villages. LTTE guerrillas banged on doors, threatened parents with dire consequences and took hold of unsuspecting and screaming kids from virtually every village, often quickly transporting them in autorickshaws towards the Batticaloa lagoon. From there, the children were put in boats to be taken to the large LTTE camp at Vakarai so as to evade army checkpoints on the land route.
Much of this happened in villages away from the coast, areas that escaped the wrath of the tsunami. The reasoning was simple: kidnappings from relief centres in tsunami hit coastal villages could cause outrage and Western censures. Also, once the tsunami struck, international NGOs and aid workers virtually stopped going to non-tsunami areas. But the Tigers need not have bothered. With the Sri Lankan state looking the other way, poor Tamil parents were left to fend for themselves vis-à-vis the belligerent Tigers. To the distraught Tamil families, this was worse than the tsunami.
A tea stall owner in Koduvamadu village (Chenkalady division) wailed over the abduction of his 15-year-old son, grabbed from nearby fields by a band of LTTE members. The boy used to earn 100 rupees a day as a farm hand to supplement the meagre income of the straitened family. The heart-broken father went to the LTTE intelligence wing office at Illupadichenai as many as nine times over a week to beg for the boy's release. The LTTE procrastinated before finally telling him that his son was being held for an “enquiry”. This was a lie because the boy had no previous involvement with any militant group and had no criminal past.
The LTTE refused to free the boy, who was eventually sent to the battlefield to take on the Sri Lankan military. The family had lost to the tsunami several of its members who had lived close to the coast. Now their main livelihood source had been whisked [Page xlvi]away. The boy's mother was inconsolable and asked aid workers, “Why do we poor people have to be crushed like this?”
There was no one to answer that question or the concerns of the scores of Tamil parents who lost their children—many in their teens—to the LTTE's unending appetite for child soldiers. The LTTE was acutely aware of the asymmetry in the numbers between the Sri Lankan state and its own forces. The situation was made worse by the killer tsunami. In no time, the LTTE fixed quotas for its units in each district in the north and east of the country to make up its lost numbers. After Karuna's revolt, the tsunami was a double blow.
It may have been a coincidence but the brunt of the forced recruitment was borne by Tamils in the eastern province. The overwhelmingly Tamil Batticaloa, the birthplace of Karuna, suffered the worst. Local LTTE commanders repeatedly turned down pleas from impoverished Tamil families to spare their children. The hardened guerrillas would get angry if parents of missing children complained to the UN and other aid agencies or approached LTTE camps and offices in the company of foreign aid workers.
At one such encounter with aid workers, who were aplenty in eastern Sri Lanka, LTTE leader Kaushalyan wanted to know why Tamil families had objections to their children fighting and dying for Tamil Eelam. He talked about the need to understand Tamil history before hectoring the LTTE over human rights. “When I left home on Anna's (Prabhakaran's) call, my mother also felt sad. But she was a brave woman who sacrificed everything for freedom. Please stop encouraging sentimentalism,” he told an aid worker as he stood on the road opposite the Thenagam training camp of the LTTE, beyond the Chenkalady black bridge. His devotion to Prabhakaran cost him his life.
Despite promising the UN that it would not go for child combatants, the LTTE finally declared that this was a “Tamil issue” and that outsiders had no role to play in the affair. A mother who went to an LTTE office accompanied by aid workers was told to come the next day. When she did that, the area leader of the LTTE warned her that she would be hung from the nearest tree if she ever came again asking for her son.
Unfortunately, the peace process failed to recognize the enormity of the crime committed against the Tamil population by the LTTE. Once conscription became too rampant to be ignored, the UN and others did become vocal.40 At their own level, many aid workers were appalled. Many of them were sincerely committed to enforcing human rights. They did what they could to help rescue as many young and unwilling combatants as possible. But sections of the international community appeared to take at face value, numerous explanations trotted out by the LTTE vis-à-vis the children [Page xlvii]in its ranks. And since the LTTE's continued cooperation was vital for the success of the peace process, not many wanted to rock the boat too violently.
There was also legalese the LTTE cleverly exploited. If the concern of the world was for underage or minor children (aged under 18), then the Tigers only had to prove that the fighters in its ranks were over 18. In some cases, this was simply not possible; those kids were let off. But conscription of those over 18 too was rampant. This was no issue for some international aid and rights groups although it was no less a crime.
Innumerable Tamil teenagers and those in the early 20s were petrified for their lives. The LTTE treated them as high-value targets, more so if they had had training before. Many worried families in Tamil areas married off their young as early as possible in a desperate bid to keep them away from the LTTE's penchant for the unmarried youth.
The LTTE, however, was not the only guilty party in this respect. Once Karuna re-organized his forces, both before and after Mahinda Rajapaksa took over the presidency, he too found it convenient to forcibly recruit children. In any case he had done this and very successfully and ruthlessly, while in the LTTE. So this was not new to him. But this time he had the covert (and overt) backing of a military itching to take advantage of the fissures in the LTTE.
Many young men and women who had escaped from the LTTE after Karuna's revolt suddenly found themselves between the devil and the deep sea. If they took shelter in Sinhalese populated areas at the edge of the east, hoping to get away from the war theatre, they got picked up on suspicion of being LTTE spies. Worse, LTTE's feared “pistol groups”,41 operating under the command of the intelligence wing, were on the constant move to cut down deserters if they refused to re-enlist.
While workers of aid agencies, many from distant lands, performed under trying circumstances to save the missing children, their terrible plight failed to generate enough sympathy in India or in Western countries overseeing the peace process. The pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora of course saw nothing amiss.42
Although the children bolstered the badly needed numbers for the LTTE, their military value was always in doubt. Once Colombo took the battle into the east and then the north in real earnest, hordes of young boys and girls gave up and surrendered, unable to face the earth-shaking barrage of artillery and air attacks. They never had the will to fight, in the first place. In any case, those who—had families were desperate to be reunited. However, hundreds, many of whom had been dragged into a war they had no love for, got slaughtered. The LTTE could neither protect them—nor the mass of civilians. Across the northeast of Sri Lanka, particularly in the eastern province, numerous families mourned the numbing loss of their loved sons and daughters. In most cases, they could not even perform the last rites. With no one to come to their rescue, wailing parents cursed the LTTE, the government and themselves.[Page xlviii]XI
IF India played a vital role in the growth of the LTTE in the 1980s, partly consciously and partly unconsciously, it also ended up cold-bloodedly overseeing the decimation of the organization nearly two decades later. As the first country to outlaw the Tigers, New Delhi turned adamantly anti-LTTE from the time a woman suicide bomber acting on Prabhakaran's order stealthily blew up Rajiv Gandhi at a crowded election rally near Chennai on 21 May 1991.
It was a grotesque murder that ultimately cost the LTTE its Tamil Eelam—and Prabhakaran his life.
By the time Norway brokered a truce between Sri Lanka and the LTTE in February 2002, the Tigers had long concluded that India was a resolute foe, one determined not to allow the formation of a Tamil Eelam. New Delhi had no doubt helped the LTTE in many ways and the Tigers had used India in its growth trajectory; but it was more than evident that Prabhakaran had a mind of his own. His was a genuinely homegrown group and the enigmatic and elusive Prabhakaran had built it brick by brick. In its formative years, he would flee to south India whenever things became too hot in Jaffna. But he never was a slave of India, ideological or otherwise.
Prabhakaran realized correctly and early on, that New Delhi's military training to Tamil militant groups, the LTTE included, was not meant to break up Sri Lanka, but to pressure Colombo to talk peace. He also concluded, again accurately, that New Delhi would apply the squeeze one day, leaving the Tamil groups high and dry. So without fanfare, the LTTE boss put in place a well-oiled network to source arms and ammunition from around the world with money donated by the growing number of Tamil expatriates—so that the Indian brakes, when applied, would not halt the Eelam war.
It was one of Prabhakaran's wisest decisions.
The man picked for the task was only one year younger to him. In no time Selvarasa Pathmanathan proved an outstanding choice. He would modify his name to Kumaran Pathmanathan; so everyone addressed him as “KP”. Here was a man with a natural talent for secrecy, forgery, business, and sophistication, all rolled into one. He came to acquire multiple identities and as many passports as he could lay his hands on. He reported direct to Prabhakaran, none else.
KP began by acquiring an old Chinese ship that was quickly christened “MV Chola”. As the years rolled by, the LTTE added many more ships to its covert fleet, flying flags of countries such as Liberia and Panama. KP presided over a secretive unit whose perennial challenge was to acquire, from all over the world, everything the LTTE needed to pursue its war. This was a never-ending list that included arms [Page xlix]and ammunition, aircraft parts, explosive material, sophisticated communication equipment, fibre-glass boats, etc. He also smuggled gold and, possibly, narcotics.43
In any country he visited or operated in, he took care not to confine himself to Tamil circles. In New Delhi, for instance, he made friends with north Indians in the hospitality industry, although the city boasts of several thousands of Tamils. For the double life he led, KP was not averse to befriending and having a good time with women if that bolstered the cause. KP subscribed to the view that all is fair in love and war. And the LTTE was waging war, a costly one at that.
Year after year KP remained constantly on the move, flying and sailing to one country after another, always a step or two ahead of law enforcing agencies in several countries. He was now in Southeast Asia, then in Central Asia. He shopped for arms at the Thailand-Cambodia border; he bought weapons from Lebanon. He was in Britain one week and he was elsewhere in Europe, the next. Even after he entered the Interpol's Wanted List, there seemed to be no trace of the man. LTTE supporters saw KP as the most elusive of all Pimpernels—and were proud of him. Few could have matched KP's skills. It would be accurate to say that just as there would have been no LTTE without Prabhakaran, there may have been no Prabhakaran minus KP.
All good things do come to an end.
Coinciding with the tensions surrounding Karuna, Prabhakaran decided around 2003 to clip KP's wings. The LTTE had already signed a Norway-brokered ceasefire agreement with Colombo. The situation looked bright for the LTTE even though it had walked away from the peace talks in April 2003 after the US failed to invite it to an international conference. Prabhakaran was the virtual lord and master of all that he surveyed in the island nation's north and east—perhaps more. Even those who did not support him viewed Prabhakaran as the arbiter of Sri Lanka's destiny.
War had not only come to a halt but its early resumption seemed unlikely, what with the international community keeping a close watch on Sri Lanka and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe strongly wedded to the ceasefire agreement. Now was the time to consolidate. Anyway, KP had held the job too long.44 And a senior LTTE member, V. Manivannan, who went by his nom de guerre, Castro, had been eyeing KP's position. So Prabhakaran made Castro the chief of the international procurement division. There was only one hitch: Castro was ambitious all right, but was no match for the innately talented KP.
The change of guard proved to be a monumental blunder for the LTTE. When people list the follies of Prabhakaran to understand where he went wrong, they tend to overlook this development. Prabhakaran would rue KP's absence once the war picked up lethal speed from 2006 and the LTTE started losing one ship after another [Page l]and suffering unprecedented battlefield reverses. After his aide Anton Balasingham succumbed to cancer in December 2006, Prabhakaran's loneliness only increased.
The Norwegians began to press the LTTE to name an international interlocutor they could deal with in the absence of the suave Balasingham. They too had concluded by then that Prabhakaran alone mattered in the LTTE, no matter what position others might hold. Unless one had the ability to reach him, even if indirectly, nothing could be achieved. Balasingham was a great asset in that sense. Notwithstanding the fissure that developed over the agreement signed in Oslo, promising to explore a federal solution to the conflict, Balasingham regained the LTTE chief's confidence. He enjoyed a unique proximity to Prabhakaran that afforded him to call a spade a spade when he wanted.45 So Norway needed a replacement for Balasingham quickly.
Prabhakaran prevaricated—a folly he came to realize only when the situation turned from bad to worse and then to grim for the LTTE. Eventually, as the military began to choke the Tigers from the start of 2009, the LTTE chief dramatically resurrected KP. He was made chief of the newly set up Department of International Relations.
It was too late. There was no miracle KP would be able to unveil in 2009, to save a sinking ship called the LTTE. Although he began interacting with the Norwegians and later the Americans, he was not as astute as the late Balasingham. It was one thing to be an ace smuggler, it was quite another to posses diplomatic and negotiating skills. It was eventually left to KP to make the historic announcement that the LTTE was silencing its guns. KP was also one of the last persons outside Sri Lanka to talk to Prabhakaran before the Tiger chieftain met a chilling death in May 2009.46 Lacking the charisma and appeal of Prabhakaran and Balasingham even among LTTE supporters, KP tried to resurrect a lifeless LTTE, but ended up getting abducted from Malaysia and landing in Sri Lanka's custody.XII
INDIA'S decision to arm, train, and finance Tamil militant groups has led many to believe that there would have been no militancy and no LTTE but for New Delhi and Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is no doubt that India's covert intervention in Sri Lanka's internal turmoil provided valuable oxygen to the militants in the early 1980s. More than the limited weaponry and money India gave away, it was the Indian sympathy and sanctuary that tilted the scales to the advantage of the Tamil rebels vis-à-vis a Sri Lanka not prepared for a full-blown insurgency then.
But if India's covert help was such a determining factor, then the militant groups that would have emerged the strongest, would have been the Tamil Eelam Liberation [Page li]Organization (TELO) or the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOT). The TELO, the one group that never showed any inclination for Marxism, was the recipient of the most generous Indian assistance. PLOT at one time had the most number of (potential) fighters in its ranks, probably up to 5,000, although it did not enjoy TELO's warm ties with New Delhi. But neither group grew beyond a point, for different reasons. The LTTE eventually crushed the TELO in 1986, accusing it of serving Indian interests, while PLOT suffered mainly due to internal convulsions.47 Interestingly, when the TELO faced destruction at the hands of the LTTE, the Indian intelligence found, to its dismay, that it had no influence over the Tigers to stop the bloodbath.
Prabhakaran has to be given the main credit for the LTTE's systematic growth from a group of barely 40 men and fewer weapons in 1983 to one of the world's most lethal non-state fighting machines. Even his worst critics admit that the Tamil Eelam dream that Prabhakaran chased, overwhelmed him so much that he was prepared to go to any length to do what he thought was right. And he did just that.
India allowed Prabhakaran to grow (as in the other case of other militant leaders) but the LTTE chief outgrew India very rapidly—and cunningly. He realized the limitations of India vis-à-vis an independent Tamil Eelam. So while Sinhalese hardliners (and many Tamils, at least in the earlier stages) believed that India was committed to breaking up Sri Lanka à la Pakistan/Bangladesh, Prabhakaran understood that this would never happen. He confided this to some of his lieutenants. He decided to get his own crutches. For that, he had to keep away from the Indian strategic worldview while paying lip service to India.
The first major move Prabhakaran made in this direction was to quickly make the LTTE the dominant, if not the sole actor, in the militant arena. He feared that India could play one militant group against the other if there were rival, near-powerful outfits. So he went about systematically destroying other Tamil militants and groups although their members too were loyal to the Eelam cause. This ingrained nihilism was not an Indian gift.
Once the TELO and PLOT were gone, the EPRLF was made non-effective. Its surviving leaders were slaughtered in Chennai in 1990.48 The Eelam Revolutionary Organizers (EROS) decided to ally with the LTTE. The moderate Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) had become redundant. That left only the LTTE in the Tamil Eelam field. Once this happened, India had no choice but to deal with Prabhakaran—which is precisely what the Tiger chief wanted. New Delhi's decision not to come hard on the LTTE, when it destroyed the TELO in April—May 1986, was one of India's biggest strategic blunders.
Within months of TELO's destruction, New Delhi was forced to acknowledge the overarching importance of Prabhakaran in the scheme of things. In November 1986, [Page lii]when the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit was held in Bangalore, Indian officials flew Prabhakaran and his aide Anton Balasingham to the city from Chennai, for a meeting with President Junius Jayewardene. But Prabhakaran was not interested in a provincial council; his eyes were set on Tamil Eelam. Predictably, the initiative failed. In less than two months, a bitter Prabhakaran quit India for good.
The 1987 India—Sri Lanka accord may have been a bold diplomatic venture, but it was destined to die because it sought to marginalize the LTTE and Prabhakaran in the long run. Prabhakaran understood quickly that the main aim of the agreement was to make him surrender his weapons—since his was the only group still fighting the military. The euphoria that followed the signing of the agreement by Rajiv Gandhi and Jayewardene in July 1987 was misplaced.49 While a section of the Sri Lankan state no doubt wanted to sabotage the accord, Prabhakaran's antics contributed in a major way to its collapse.50 It led to war between the LTTE and the Indian military, with predictable suffering for the civilian population. In the end, the Indian military deployment ended in disaster while the LTTE reigned supreme in Sri Lanka's northeast.
The LTTE no doubt fought the Indians doggedly. But it is doubtful if Rajiv Gandhi would have called off the troops if Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa had not publicly insisted on their withdrawal. The Indian decision to end the military intervention in Sri Lanka gave Prabhakaran a false sense of pride that he was invincible. He was—but only in the short run. From then on, he remained uneasy about the Indian establishment and its intentions. It was the fear of Rajiv Gandhi's return to power and another possible confrontation with India that led Prabhakaran to take a decision that he and the LTTE rued till their own destruction: Gandhi's assassination.
The Gandhi killing led India to shut its doors and windows to the LTTE forever. Except to its hardcore supporters in Tamil Nadu, the LTTE became a dirty word. Henceforth, the LTTE cause would never get diplomatic recognition, anywhere. Even when the Norway-brokered peace process got under way, it soon became clear to Prabhakaran that India would never, never make up with the Tigers. His initial I-care-a-damn attitude eventually gave way to frustration.
Prabhakaran mellowed vis-à-vis India as Sri Lanka started to hit him hard. In 2006, when India wanted to send relief material to displaced civilians, the LTTE was happy to cooperate. It agreed to allow vehicles carrying Indian goods to use the A-9 highway without any checks or delays (The highway linked Jaffna to the rest of Sri Lanka and was partly controlled by the Tigers). It even conveyed to the Indian High Commission in Colombo that Indian helicopters could land in Vakarai, a LTTE governed region in the country's east.
[Page liii]After a Sri Lankan air attack in November 2007 killed S.P. Tamilchelvan, the LTTE political head, Prabhakaran went a step further and said he did not desire enmity with India. B. Nadesan, who succeeded Tamilchelvan, conveyed this message to a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP. The LTTE, Nadesan went on, would never accept weapons from any country inimical to Indian interests even if the Tigers felt choked. “Our leader (Prabhakaran) wants this conveyed to the Indian government and the Indian people,” Nadesan told the MP after Tamilchelvan's funeral.
The message found its way to New Delhi but India remained unmoved.
Years of dealing with the LTTE had made Indian policymakers and strategic thinkers wiser and cautious—vis-à-vis Prabhakaran. The LTTE wallowed under the mistaken impression that it could play Tamil Nadu, where many politicians supported it in varying degrees, against the central Indian government. But the times had changed.
Despite heading a coalition that relied on vital support from political parties in Tamil Nadu, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (and Congress president Sonia Gandhi) did not allow India's Sri Lanka policy to be torpedoed. New Delhi was well aware that over the years, the LTTE had pointedly killed Tamils deemed pro-India and forced many others to turn against India. Even after the 2002 truce, the LTTE cold-bloodedly killed poor sari traders from Tamil Nadu in Sri Lanka's northeast fearing they could be Indian spies.51
In the end, however, the LTTE lost the battle of nerves against India, without even realizing it. Long before it was crushed, the Indian intelligence had developed moles in the LTTE. Although it was RAW the LTTE was in perennial dread of, it was the less assuming Intelligence Bureau—the domestic intelligence agency—that ran rings around the Tigers. It not only thwarted sustained efforts by the LTTE to revive the support base in Tamil Nadu but also played a major role in accurately monitoring the reverses the LTTE suffered during its final retreat—until Prabhakaran lay dead. In the process, it proved the hollowness of LTTE claims that it was withstanding the Sri Lankan military onslaught.
One of the biggest successes the Intelligence Bureau scored was when Soosai, the LTTE Sea Tigers chief, suffered serious wounds in what initially looked like a mysterious accident off Sri Lanka's northeast in 2007, that left his young son and a bodyguard dead.
What really happened?
Soosai had ordered the construction of a 52-feet long vessel and was overseeing its test run close to the coast. He himself was in a 27-feet boat with his five-year-old son and bodyguards. For reasons that never became clear, the bigger vessel suddenly picked up speed and tore into Soosai's boat.
[Page liv]It all happened in a few split seconds. Soosai's vessel broke into two. His son was thrown into the sea and drowned in no time. A weapon held by one of the bodyguards pierced Soosai's ribs from the left. Soosai lost his consciousness and he too fell into the water (One of his bodyguards died in the incident but the LTTE did not reveal this initially).
The incident triggered wild rumours including one that Soosai, wanting to do another Karuna, was trying to flee from the LTTE but Prabhakaran had had him killed. There was also speculation that Soosai's deputies had prevented their boss from escaping and promptly alerted Prabhakaran.
None of this was true. A badly injured Soosai, who grieved a lot over his son's unexpected death, was provided medical care at a house in Pudukudiyarappu. As one of the seniormost commanders, the best of doctors attended on him. He was ordered to rest for three weeks.
The Indian establishment learnt the story from an LTTE insider who managed to call on the convalescing Soosai, who was both amused and alarmed over the rumours surrounding him. The LTTE source also reported that a concerned Prabhakaran had called on Soosai to enquire about his health. The Indians were among the first to know the full story.XIII
THE year was 2005. Sri Lanka was in turmoil. War was in the air. Killings were on the rise. An aid worker in the eastern town of Batticaloa casually asked an officer from Sri Lanka's military intelligence: which place in the country could be considered the safest? The major, a Sinhalese, pondered briefly before blurting out: “Come to think of it, it must be Prabhakaran's bunker!” The major and the aid worker had a hearty laugh.
But that was no joke. The answer was apt—in 2005. And it held true even for a couple of years later. Prabhakaran had after all been in the thick of it right from the 1970s and had constantly kept himself many steps ahead of all his foes. The authorities were never able to trap him. And despite a brutal war, Prabhakaran managed to keep himself unscathed and unhurt through many tumultuous years.
Diabetes did catch up with him but neither did the Indian Army nor the Sri Lankan Army until 2009. Only once, when the Indians rained artillery towards his hideout in the Wanni region, did the man come anywhere close to getting hurt. A shell exploded not far from him and threw up dust on his battle fatigues, momentarily stunning him.
[Page lv]No wonder, Prabhakaran became a cult figure for all those who believed in the war he was waging. Even for those who hated him, he was undoubtedly an enigma. How could this man go on and on? Wasn't he a father of three children? How did he manage so much of resources? From where does he procure his arms and ammunition? How does he coax so many Tamil men and women to die at his bidding? How could he command such authority? Where did his appeal come from? Just how does he survive? Where is his family? Can Sri Lanka ever defeat such a formidable foe? Will Prabhakaran ever be caught—or killed?
The questions nagged everyone in Sri Lanka and beyond.
Yet, from 2005 when it was stated that Prabhakaran's bunker was the safest place in Sri Lanka until the rebel chieftain's nemesis in May 2009, the LTTE's slide to destruction was so rapid, that it left those loyal to the Tamil Eelam cause, speechless. Many simply refused to believe that the guerrilla boss they adored was dead. The questions now were very different. How did this happen? How could this happen? Wasn't he supposed to lead them to Tamil Eelam? Hadn't he promised them victory? How could the LTTE be snuffed out? How could all LTTE leaders die so suddenly? Why did Prabhakaran not escape? How could a Sinhalese army, which the Tamil diaspora and the LTTE despised, manage to trap and kill Prabhakaran?
The reasons for the LTTE's destruction are many. To understand the phenomenon called the Tamil Tigers, it is crucial to understand the man who led it, from its very birth to its very ugly end.XIV
WHEN Prabhakaran plunged into militancy,52 he was a young nobody. He was a product of the times when Sinhalese—Tamil relations were souring and leading to conditions that pushed hotheads in the Tamil community towards violence. The politics of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), at one time the party of the Tamils, was their umbrella. Smothered by Sinhalese obduracy, the TULF made aggressive noises that immensely appealed to the restive young Tamils. The thinking was if the elders are ready for battle, why should we, the young, sit idle?
Sri Lanka's inability to heal the ethnic wounds following independence from Britain in 1948, catapulted the island nation from one crisis to another. The nascent militancy in the Tamil areas, particularly in Jaffna, led to iron-fisted steps that only added to the problem. It is to escape police torture and death that Prabhakaran, then a teenager, fled his home for good one night in the early 1970s. Had the police caught up with him then, history would have been different. That was not to be. Luck was on his side.
[Page lvi]Prabhakaran's worldview was limited when he founded the LTTE. The year, according to LTTE, was 1976. The killing of Jaffna's Tamil Mayor, Alfred Duriappah, the previous year, arose from a mindset that Tamils and Sinhalese were historical enemies and a Tamil person had no right to be on the side of the Sinhalese establishment. This is not what the majority of the Tamil people thought, but this remained Prabhakaran's central theme all through the years he lived. This worldview prevented him from reaching any settlement with Colombo, even if it seemed fair and just to many, because many of the Tamils he killed had advocated precisely such a negotiated deal.
The ideological foundation on which Prabhakaran's LTTE rested decreed that the Tamils and Sinhalese constituted two nations and that they could not co-exist peacefully. Much like the self-consuming theory that led to the birth of Islamic Pakistan out of Hindu-majority India in 1947, Prabhakaran insisted uncompromisingly that the Tamil nation had to break away from the Sinhalese-majority Sri Lanka.
Prabhakaran considered himself the messiah of the Tamils—and the man ordained to decide the future of the community. Although a poor speaker, he preached Tamil separatism more vocally and more passionately than all others in the militant ranks. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, ideology and politics did not interest him beyond a point. This led him to give primacy to the gun. Naturally, he came to command many followers who agreed that violence was the only way out. After initial setbacks, Prabhakaran became the LTTE and the LTTE became Prabhakaran. Once he reached that stage, the next step was logical: anyone who disagreed with him was deemed to be disagreeing with the Tamil cause and thus a “traitor” deserving death.
In the process, Tamils, young and old, who were as passionate about the Tamil community, but who thought differently, began to die at the hands of the LTTE. The earliest victims were innocuous Tamils who were simply counted as statistics when they turned into corpses. These included young members of rival groups gunned down like street dogs, even as some of them begged for mercy. When Prabhakaran picked someone to be killed, it did not matter if the person had helped him in the past.53
The likes of Appapillai Amirthalingam, the once towering TULF leader, and his colleagues followed. Rajani Thiranagama, a brilliant academic and Tamil nationalist, paid the price for thinking differently and criticizing the Tigers. Men like Neelan Thiruchelvam, a renowned constitutional lawyer, and Lakshman Kadirgamar, the highly regarded foreign minister of Sri Lanka, came later. In Prabhakaran's eyes, all these Tamil men (and women) deserved to die because they had embraced or tried to co-exist with ideas that conflicted with his vision. Finally, after a quarter century of armed struggle that left the world amazed with its military exploits, Prabhakaran could only turn to a man wanted by Interpol when he desired a successor, to the late Anton Balasingham!
[Page lvii]One man walked away from the LTTE in its early years and moved to the West when it dawned on him that even disagreeing with Prabhakaran could invite death. He would tell me years later:
I questioned him about something at an LTTE meeting. He didn't like it. He gave me looks that could kill. I knew what it meant. He would kill me for what he thought was my audacity. I wanted to live. I simply left the LTTE.
In the early 1980s, a middle-rung TULF leader in Jaffna had a close brush with death after voicing critical remarks about the LTTE. That very night, a young man armed with a pistol came looking for him at his house. The TULF activist sensed the danger and hid himself until the frustrated to-be assassin retreated.
Violence became the preferred answer to settle disputes and differences. This, in turn, instilled fear about the LTTE in the minds of everyone it confronted.54 All this helped when Prabhakaran built a formidable military organization, killing at will and turning assassinations into a fine art. Militarily too, few could have achieved what Prabhakaran managed to.
From an era when LTTE members relied on cycles to reach their unsuspecting targets, Prabhakaran went on to acquire a fleet of ships and, much later, a handful of modified light aircraft, that even bombed Colombo. For a man who once craved to see just 100 LTTE members marching in uniform, Prabhakaran came to preside over thousands of heavily armed men and women fighters. He proved repeatedly that he had the ability to come out of the tightest corners. Even those who considered him a foe admitted this.
Away from the battlefield, the LTTE displayed an uncanny ability for Machiavellian politics that tripped even Ranasinghe Premadasa, otherwise a veteran of Sri Lankan politics.55 By the turn of this century, Sri Lanka appeared to be at its wit's end, vis-à-vis the Tigers. No less a person than General Sarath Fonseka, the army chief, was to tell an Indian journalist: “When I took over (in late 2005), most officers had the mentality that we cannot win this war, as had been the case in the past three Eelam wars.”56
So how did Prabhakaran fall?
As he galloped from strength to strength, Prabhakaran forgot that his uncompromising strategy based on narrow Tamil nationalism combined with political immaturity and sheer terror could not last forever. He mistakenly concluded from New Delhi's decision to withdraw its army from Sri Lanka and Colombo's recurring failures to overcome the Tigers that the LTTE had become unbeatable. The international community's repeated assertions that the Sri Lankan conflict could only see a negotiated end gave a false sense of superiority and security to Prabhakaran. The de facto Tamil Eelam, that he presided over, came to be perceived by him as a guarantee that the [Page lviii]ground situation could never be reversed. He misread Tamil Nadu and misread the West. The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), a Tamil rights group critical of the war, was perhaps the first to observe that the LTTE, its visible muscles notwithstanding, was hollow from inside.XV
WHEN Prabhakaran shifted to India in late 1983, he wanted to have the cake and eat it too. He took material help from India but he would not trust the Indian state. Once he understood Indian officialdom, he played one wing of the government against the other. When it suited him, he contemptuously ignored DMK chief M. Karunanidhi because he wanted to be in the good books of his rival and Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran or MGR. An amount of Rs 250,000 raised due to Karunanidhi's efforts was to be distributed among five Tamil groups, including the LTTE. Prabhakaran, out to prove his loyalty to MGR, spurned the donation. But when MGR died,57 the LTTE boss quickly embraced Karunanidhi as if his previous humiliation of him meant nothing.
Karunanidhi had not forgotten the earlier insult, however. One of the first things the LTTE had to do during the 1989–91 DMK regime was to sheepishly accept the Rs 50,000 it had rejected years ago. There was no other way of getting into the good books of Karunanidhi. But the LTTE remained focused on its long-term goal. By the mid-1990s, Tiger literature proudly began proclaiming Prabhakaran as the leader of the Tamils the world over—another quiet snub to Karunanidhi.
Prabhakaran's men prided themselves as a disciplined force on Indian soil. But they had no second thoughts about killing rival Tamils in cold blood in the heart of the state. If that wasn't bad enough, the LTTE chief went on to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister who had once personally presented him a bulletproof jacket. After the deed was done, Prabhakaran brazenly denied his involvement and dared the Indians to prove his guilt in a court of law! To cap it all, the LTTE chief had the audacity to expect Rajiv Gandhi's widow, Sonia Gandhi, to come to his rescue when the Sri Lankan military cornered him. When she did not do that, she was dubbed anti-Tamil!
Arrogance led the LTTE to commit follies it should have never indulged in. After delivering several near knockout blows to Colombo, the LTTE concluded that Sri Lanka would never be able to stand on its two legs. It was over-confidence that made the LTTE think it could take the Tamil community for granted, despite inflicting so much suffering on it, during the course of the long war. It was political immaturity that pushed the group to turn against India and ignore the sensitivities of an international [Page lix]community that was prepared to invest a lot to help end a seemingly unending conflict. So much so that Prabhakaran even upset Norway that was sympathetic to Tamil aspirations for greater autonomy.
When anti-Tamil violence swept Sri Lanka in 1983, Tamil militancy was widely seen as a legitimate response to a callous state. It was Prabhakaran who took away the moral sheen when he ordered the massacre of innocent Buddhist monks and nuns at the holy site of Anuradhapura in 1985. The next year, in a savage display of brutality that numbed the Tamil community, the LTTE massacred hundreds of guerrillas from the rival TELO group in Jaffna. In no time, a group, claiming to be fighting for the “liberation” of Tamils, ended up holding hundreds of dissenting Tamils in its own prisons.58 Even LTTE supporters were shocked when it jailed Rajasingham Jayadevan, one of its high profile supporters and a British national, for 62 long days in its fiefdom in February—March 2005 before Scotland Yard's intervention led to his freedom. The slide began a long time ago.
Among the first to realize that the LTTE had become a menace to the Tamils was British scholar David Selbourne, who once sympathized with the Tamil political grievances. After EROS snuffled out the life of a respected Tamil activist,59 a disgusted Selbourne prophesied that militants such as Prabhakaran were leading the Tamils “towards long term political and moral disaster”. He warned: “There will neither be Eelam, nor ‘true’ federalism, nor genuine devolution, nor anything else which is just and fair to the Tamils this century, if ever.” Armed with remarkable political foresight, Selbourne spoke these words in 1988. A good 21 years later, the man was proved incredibly right!
By the time President Mahinda Rajapaksa launched his all out assault on Prabhakaran, the LTTE had become a bundle of contradictions. If the LTTE made peace with the authorities, it was strategy; if other Tamils did so, it was treachery. If the Tigers took arms and ammunition from India, they were clever and scheming; if others did so, they were RAW agents. Premadasa and Rajapaksa were pragmatic if they spoke to the Tigers; they were Sinhalese chauvinists if they waged war. The LTTE had a right to do political work in government territory; others could not enjoy the privilege in Tiger land. Karuna's child conscription was legitimate if he was in the LTTE; it was a crime if he scooped the kids after deserting the group. Prabhakaran would deny involvement in Rajiv Gandhi's killing one day; the LTTE would seek (half-hearted) forgiveness from India another day. Norwegian diplomats were friends if what they did or said helped the LTTE; they were to be shunned if they did not bow to Tiger wishes. Tamil politicians deserved to die if they were independent; they could live if they surrendered to the LTTE. We are not terrorists, Prabhakaran would keep parroting; but he would callously kill innocent civilians whenever he got the chance.
[Page lx]It was amid such discrepancies that Prabhakaran signed the 2002 ceasefire agreement with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe—at a time when he, the perennial rebel, was viewed unbeatable militarily. It was the best opportunity the LTTE had to seek a lasting peace—after the Indian intervention of 1987. In retrospect, it is clear that Prabhakaran never wanted to make peace. He wanted to use the truce to strengthen himself to wage war for Tamil Eelam. And he did that.
So, when Sri Lanka was to elect a new President in 2005, Prabhakaran callously spiked the chances of Wickremesinghe by asking Tamils to boycott the elections. This alone led to the victory, albeit by a very narrow margin, of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was considered a Sinhalese hardliner. The LTTE's grotesque thinking was that a Sinhalese nationalist in Colombo would inevitably widen the Tamil—Sinhalese gulf. This would surely lead to war—and to predictable civilian suffering. The LTTE would then tell the world (read West) that there was no way but to carve out an independent Tamil Eelam—à la East Timor and Kosovo.
It did not happen that way. The world had changed irrevocably since 9/11. The era of terrorism was over, more so if the terrorists had planes to fly. The West and Japan would have generously helped the LTTE if it seriously desired a settlement within Sri Lanka. The Norwegians had virtually handed over federalism on a platter to the LTTE. But no one wanted Sri Lanka to split. That was the bottom line. Prabhakaran did not understand this. Rajapaksa did. And so he proved to be Prabhakaran's nemesis.XVI
THOSE who had been with the LTTE and those who knew its working well are unanimous that the 2002 ceasefire agreement laid the foundations for the long-term destruction of the Tigers as a military force.
Way back in 1994–95, Prabhakaran had emphasized to Balasingham that LTTE cadres would get rusted in peace. Maybe his thinking had changed in 2002. But the end result was the same. Once the ceasefire period dragged on and on, many in the LTTE thought it was best to enjoy the de facto state that already existed instead of shedding more and more blood for a mirage called Tamil Eelam. The truce was a badly needed breather for young men and women who, for years, had known nothing but war and suffering. Peace finally allowed them to enjoy life and the power they wielded.
Many got married to colleagues they had been in love with over a period of time. Once that happened, families put pressure on the guerrillas: Enough is enough, how long will you keep fighting? Said a man while describing the life in LTTE territory: “LTTE leaders would go to the market with their wives and children for ice cream. It was a scene unimaginable in the past.” Naturally, discipline slackened. There were [Page lxi]desertions, which forced the LTTE to go for further child recruitment; this in turn mounted the silent anger in the Tamil community. Ordinary Tamils leading a near primitive life in LTTE zones were aghast on seeing the luxurious lifestyle of Tiger commanders during the ceasefire period. Some commanders had 24-hour running water, uninterrupted power supply, and mansions that could be compared with the best.60 The alienation was complete.
Then Karuna broke away with thousands of guerrillas, dealing deathblows to the LTTE. His aides have admitted that it was his exposure to the West during the peace talks that opened his eyes to the outside world. One former LTTE woman guerrilla was equally emphatic that, of all the factors that contributed to the LTTE's fall, the Norway-sponsored truce played a key role although that was not its intention. She told me in an interview: “The CFA (ceasefire agreement) destroyed the LTTE.”
Unconsciously, the Tamil diaspora, large sections of which were vocally pro-LTTE, added to the slide of the Tamil Tigers. When visits by Tamil expatriates to the LTTE zone shot up following the ceasefire, LTTE leaders suddenly saw what good life was all about. They saw that Tamils coming from abroad were healthier, better dressed, and wealthy too. If the diaspora had wanted, it could have stepped up pressure on the LTTE to make peace with the Sri Lankan government. It may not have succeeded. But at least the world would have realized that sections of the influential Tamil community were serious about a genuine political settlement as opposed to the LTTE's persistent love for war and gore.
Regrettably, that did not happen. The rest, as they say, is history.[Page lxii]Notes
1. See David Selbourne. 1989. “What Low Brutishness was That?,” in An Untimely Death: A Commemoration of K. Kanthasamy. Kanthasamy Commemoration Committee, Colombo.
2. Interview to the author, Colombo.
3. The JVP, a Marxist group rooted dominantly in the Sinhalese society, staged two bloody insurrections to capture power—in 1971 and 1988–89. Both were put down violently at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. Most of the dead were young Sinhalese men, mainly from rural areas, the same constituency from which the army recruited soldiers. The latter revolt decimated the established JVP leadership. I was a frequent visitor to Sri Lanka when the second uprising took place. The JVP insurrections showed that Colombo, when faced with deathly crisis, killed at will, no matter who the victims were, ethnically. Indeed, the first mass victims of the Sri Lankan state were the Sinhalese themselves, not Tamils.
4. To know more about the evolution of Prabhakaran, read my unauthorized biography, Inside an Elusive Mind, (New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 2003). Unlike my first book, Tigers of Lanka, the LTTE did not appreciate Inside an Elusive Mind, which quickly become a must read for anyone wanting to understand the Tigers. The first book deals with the origins and evolution of Tamil militancy as well as India's overt and covert involvement in the crisis.
5. Eelam War I was fought from 1983–87; Eelam War II from 1990–94; Eelam War III from 1995–2002 and Eelam War IV from 2006–09. The LTTE fought the Indian Army from 10 October 1987 onwards. The last of Indian soldiers sailed home from Trincomalee on 24 March 1990.
6. My interest in the Sri Lankan conflict followed the anti-Tamil violence of 1983 that truly heralded Tamil militancy. In the early years, most Tamil groups published literature dominantly in Tamil and were constantly on the lookout for journalists in New Delhi who could speak and read Tamil. I recall getting a letter in 1984 from B. Nadesan (who later became the LTTE political wing leader and was killed in May 2009) promising to send me LTTE literature regularly. He never kept the pledge.
My first and only solo meeting with Prabhakaran took place in a hotel in New Delhi in 1985, courtesy a Chennai-based Indian supporter of another Tamil militant group. I was probably the first journalist to speak to LTTE's Anton Balasingham, its ideologue, after he and Prabhakaran returned to their hotel after meeting Rajiv Gandhi, hours before the Indian Prime Minister flew to Colombo on 29 July 1987 to sign a pact with Sri Lanka that sought to end Tamil separatism.
My first visit to Sri Lanka was on 5 August 1987, coinciding with the surrender of weapons by the LTTE. Along with several Indian journalists, we flew directly from New Delhi to Jaffna's Palaly air base in a Soviet-built Il—76 transporter. It was a journey that showed India in poor light because none of the journalists had visa to visit the country.
I visited Colombo for the first time in February 1987 in the aftermath of the assassination of Vijaya Kumaratunga, the hugely popular actor-husband of Chandrika, who would later become the President. Since then I have been to Sri Lanka numerous times and interacted with a very large number of people of all ethnic shades. I have spoken to army officers and LTTE guerrillas, traders and Buddhist monks, academics and politicians, auto-rickshaw drivers and human rights activists, politicians, and journalists.
[Page lxiii]Unfortunately, some people I knew intimately are no more. Most died violent deaths. In a few cases, I have never been able to guess who the killers were.
One night in October 1988, Indian soldiers took me away from a run down hotel room in Vavuniya (where I had halted en route from Jaffna to Colombo) and made me undergo an identification parade aimed at weeding out LTTE suspects. I revealed my identity to the startled soldiers only after it was all over. I had heard about these cordon- and-search operations and wanted to know how the soldiers dealt with the civilians.
Rajiv Gandhi's assassination brought about a dramatic transformation in the LTTE—India relationship. One fine day in 1995, Nirupama Subramaniam, a gifted Indian journalist who spent many years in Sri Lanka, and I made our way to LTTE-held Vakarai in Batticaloa to meet Tiger leaders in the eastern province. As we entered the LTTE territory in a taxi, a LTTE boy posted as a lookout, no older than 17 years, got into our vehicle. He was angry that India had turned its back on the Eelam struggle. He talked non-stop, occasionally insisting that the LTTE could have never killed Gandhi.
Driving on, we encountered a large group of LTTE men, some of them armed. They were curious about our visit. One of them took the boy aside and whispered something to him. The boy nodded. When we resumed our journey to the LTTE's main office, the boy had gone sullenly silent. He would not even reply to our questions.
The LTTE contacted me from London in November 1998 and offered an advance copy of Prabhakaran's annual speech. I was with AFP. Those days there was no Internet and the LTTE leaked the eagerly awaited policy address first to a friendly media (which thus earned a scoop) and then to others, around the time it was broadcast on its clandestine Voice of Tigers radio. I was surprised I had been chosen for the honour. Since I was never their supporter, I believed it must have been because of my first book on the Tamil conflict that had been published some years before.
I must now reveal why I rejected the speech, a decision that startled the London office of the LTTE. When I got in touch with AFP Sri Lanka bureau chief Amal Jayasinghe, I realized the LTTE was cunningly using me to undermine him. The LTTE had been upset with his reporting for some time and had complained to AFP Paris that Amal was more of a “Sinhalese” than an independent journalist (This was slander because Amal was and is one of the best in wire service journalism). By giving the Prabhakaran speech to me, an AFP journalist in New Delhi, the LTTE wanted to show Amal (who headed the Sri Lanka office) in poor light. After hearing his version, I knew I had a decision to make: stand by a friend or earn a scoop. I chose Amal.
I was among the journalists who attended the 2002 press conference of Prabhakaran at Kilinochchi. It is the first time I saw how the LTTE subtly discriminated between whites and non-whites (both Sri Lankans and Indians). As journalists streamed into LTTE territory, the Tigers allocated different places for them to stay. Most of the whites got plush rooms a little distance away from us, while the rest had to be content with cemented but frog-infested floors for the night. This must have been planned to impress the Western world, which has the power to bestow sovereignty by recognizing some secessionist movements as representatives of independent states.
During the Indian military presence in Sri Lanka, LTTE representatives in Chennai (where the Tigers maintained an office though they were fighting the Indian Army!) contacted me in my Colombo hotel room. They wanted to know if they could get four prints [Page lxiv]of a photograph AFP had distributed, showing the LTTE releasing a captured Indian soldier in Vavuniya.
AFP gives out its photographs only to subscribers. However, AFP's then South Asia Deputy Bureau Chief in New Delhi, Kate Webb (a fine journalist from New Zealand, who is no more), ruled that we could spare four prints so that we don't lose our ties to the LTTE. I relayed the decision to the LTTE over telephone and added that I would be in Chennai after a week on my way to New Delhi. Could they come to my hotel and pick up the photos? And could they bring some printed LTTE literature as a quid pro quo?
Two young LTTE men armed with motorcycle helmets entered my room around 11 in the night. I gave away the photographs and ordered coffee as a mark of courtesy. I then made small talk with them. But the men appeared to be in no mood to leave. I had an early morning flight for New Delhi and I was determined to catch at least a few hours of sleep. Finally, when I suggested to them that it was time they left, one of the men took out his wallet.
I knew what it meant: money was on offer.
I was disgusted and had not expected this. I told my two visitors politely, but sternly, that I had spent no money in taking the photographs or developing the prints. These were AFP property and they were not on sale. The LTTE was not a subscriber either. And I did not need any money. The men mumbled their apologies and left.
All these encounters were valuable lessons to my understanding of the LTTE. I have never had any illusions about the LTTE's inability to live in peace in Sri Lanka. I told Norwegian diplomats at my very first meeting with them in 2003 that they would never be able to bring around the LTTE.
7. At the start of August 2008, the LTTE was in control of about 4,000 sq km of land or 6 per cent of Sri Lanka's territory. And the population under its control was over 250,000, a mere 1.25 per cent of the country's total. This was a far cry from the time when, according to President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the LTTE had controlled a third of all land in Sri Lanka and two-thirds of the winding coastline.
8. More and more accounts of how the LTTE dealt with itself and the Tamil population at large, are beginning to come to light. These are bound to inspire rethinking about a lot of preconceived notions. For one of the most readable versions, in Tamil, of the LTTE's final months, please see Anon. “What happened in the Wanni,” Availble online at http://thesamnet.co.uk/?p=15418 (accessed on 26 August 2009).
9. In the process, some families who had originally fled towards Kilinochchi (when it was still with the LTTE) from Mannar in the northwest to escape the advancing army, ended up moving from one place to another as many as 20 times. By the time the fighting ceased in May 2009, many families had lost all their possessions except the clothes they were in. Fearing for their lives, they lived, slept, and ate in hurriedly dug bunkers. But LTTE guerrillas refused to let them go over to government territory. Those who tried were shot.
10. LTTE supporters in the Wanni made telephone calls to New Delhi with this message two days before Prabhakaran was killed.
11. The publication of Prabhakaran's unauthorized biography made the LTTE brand me as an Indian spy—a convenient allegation the Tigers hurled at anyone they didn't like. The charge was made both on select LTTE websites and in person. S. Pulideevan, who headed the LTTE Peace Secretariat and was killed in May 2009, spread the slander to [Page lxv]Colombo-based Western diplomats with whom he was in touch. If the attempt was to prevent people from talking to me, it had the direct opposite effect! The biography opened the most unexpected doors and windows to me—in India and abroad.
12. Outside of the Indian government, no one I know kept such a meticulous record of the refugee arrivals as S.C. Chandrahasan, a Sri Lankan Tamil whose NGO has worked among the refugees for decades. A lawyer by training, the Chennai-based Chandrahasan is the son of the legendary Tamil political leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam.
13. Karuna, the breakaway LTTE commander, told me in the first half of October 2008 that the Tigers were in “a precarious condition” but no one could predict when they can be overcome militarily. “There can be no deadlines (to defeat the LTTE). In no war can deadlines be set.” By then, however, military officials had claimed that the LTTE would be vanquished by 2008-end. They later extended the time frame to mid-2009, which incidentally coincided with Lok Sabha elections in India.
14. BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister for a second time in 1998. (His first experiment in government formation collapsed in just 13 days.) His government was voted out by parliament after 13 months. The BJP won the elections that followed in 1999 and went on to become the first non-Congress party government to complete a full term in office.
15. India outlawed the LTTE in 1992; a year after a woman suicide bomber blew up Rajiv Gandhi.
16. Talking about an earlier era, J.N. Dixit, India's High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and later the Foreign Secretary, noted in his book Assignment Colombo (New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 1998): “The RAW … had become not just an intelligence and information factor but a political factor directly influencing policy in Sri Lanka since 1980” (p. 233).
17. See Austin Fernando. 2000. My Belly is White. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.
18. Such was the STF's reputation that Indian troops, when they were deployed in Sri Lanka, routinely threatened captured LTTE guerrillas that they would be handed over to the STF if they did not cooperate during interrogation. On most occasions, particularly in the eastern province where the STF had a bigger presence, the trick worked.
19. In his book My Belly is White (see p. 34), Austin Fernando, Sri Lanka's Defence Secretary during the peace process, criticizes President Chandrika Kumaratunga for doing nothing concrete to weaken the LTTE. He then says of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe: “Our approach was different. It was to corner the LTTE through negotiations and international pressures.”
20. According to one published account, the casualty rate of soldiers-LTTE was about 1:1 in 2002. See University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) document, Rajani's Vision for Lanka, 18 September 2009. Available online at http://www.uthr.org/Rajani/Tribute_Reflections.htm
21. France was Kumaratunga's first choice as peace facilitator but the LTTE vetoed the idea. Kumaratunga had many friends in Paris, where she had studied. So the LTTE suspected the impartiality of France although its own International Secretariat was based in Paris after moving out of London in the 1990s.
22. No Indian envoy to Sri Lanka evoked so much hostile reaction as Dixit. Former Defence Secretary Cyril Ranatunga calls Dixit “the worst high commissioner India has ever sent” to Colombo. Dixit (who served in Colombo during 1985–89) was perhaps the only [Page lxvi]Indian diplomat who dealt directly with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi when he wanted to, bypassing the foreign minister. One Sri Lankan who intensely hated Dixit was Ranasinghe Premadasa, the prime minister in President Junius Jayewardene's government. When Premadasa became the president in December 1988, he drastically cut Dixit's access to him. In contrast, Dixit was a frequent visitor both at Jayewardene's office and residence.
23. See Dixit's book, Assignment Colombo. Whatever one might say about Dixit's personality, he was among the few who had the courage to admit that he had been in the wrong when he wielded power. Since Dixit was a key policymaker vis-à-vis Sri Lanka, the candid admission meant that at least some of the government decisions during the troubled 1980s were based on his flawed assessments. Indian Army officers deployed in Sri Lanka disagreed with Dixit's overall understanding of the LTTE and India's military-cum-diplomatic capabilities in the island nation.
24. It was a Sri Lankan leader who informed J.N. Dixit about India's deep involvement in the peace process. According to one account provided to this author, Dixit's eyes almost popped out when he heard the full details of what RAW had achieved—and so quietly. As far as Dixit was concerned, this was not the RAW he knew, when he was India's envoy to Sri Lanka.
25. Support for the LTTE and other militants began to wane at the popular level in Tamil Nadu even before the Tigers took on the Indian Army in October 1987. The LTTE—India war of 1987–90 and Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in 1991 together destroyed mass sympathy for the LTTE in the state. A section of its politicians, however, continued to vocally back the Tigers, giving an impression to outsiders that the LTTE still enjoyed popular support. In contrast to 1983, when genuine grief engulfed Tamil Nadu over the killings of Tamils in Colombo, there was hardly a whimper, outside of known pro-LTTE forces, when the Tigers were crushed and Prabhakaran was killed in 2009.
26. As one who has covered the subject for a long time, I realized that Indian concerns about the situation in Sri Lanka were often conveyed to leaders (including ministers) from Colombo, but rarely revealed to the media. If and when there was an announcement, it would be a tame version of what transpired in closed-door meetings. It was clear to those on the Sri Lanka beat that India had forged a mature bilateral relationship compared to the 1980s and there was far greater understanding in New Delhi of the constraints Colombo faced, vis-à-vis the war. Additionally, all wings of the Indian government without exception were ranged against the LTTE. There existed differences in the outlook of the two countries and these were not glossed over.
27. The ENDLF was a constituent of the provincial administration that presided over the northeast of Sri Lanka in 1988–90. When the Indian military was deployed in Sri Lanka, some surrendered LTTE militants joined the ENDLF. Later, when it was forced to withdraw from the island after the LTTE virtually took over the northeast, the ENDLF opened a camp for its members and their families at Malkangiri in India's Orissa state. (The unlikely destination followed Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi's churlish refusal to allow a ship ferrying fleeing EPRLF and ENDLF members from Sri Lanka to berth in Chennai.) The ENDLF later opened a school for Sri Lankan Tamils in Bangalore. After the ENDLF threw its lot with Karuna, one of its key operatives, Pakyanathan Rajarattinam alias Mano Master, who was based in India, mysteriously disappeared during a visit to Colombo. Some say the LTTE abducted and possibly killed him; others said [Page lxvii]that he was a long-time LTTE mole in the ENDLF who quietly rejoined the Tigers. I would prefer to believe the former version. Before undertaking what turned out to be his last trip to Sri Lanka, Mano Master had visited the Norwegian embassy in New Delhi to submit a memorandum criticizing the LTTE.
28. Once fighting erupted between the Indian military and the LTTE in October 1987, the Tigers unleashed a propaganda war against India. LTTE media accused New Delhi of “suppressing” its various “nationalities” such as Kashmiris, Sikhs, and Gurkhas. One man who aired such views openly was LTTE's Gopalasamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahattaya, the designated number two in the group. Ironically, the LTTE later killed Mahattaya after accusing him of being an Indian spy! For instance, Tamil Nation, a pro-LTTE journal originally published from India, took a brazenly anti-India line after Rajiv Gandhi's killing.
29. An ULFA member who underwent LTTE training surrendered to Indian security forces on his return. He is now a moderately successful businessman in a north Indian city. At the same time, LTTE leaders kept denying that it was anyway linked to Indian insurgents. Balasingham told India's Outlook magazine (8 November 1995):
As far as the LTTE is concerned, we consider India a friendly ally. Even now, we don't have any animosity towards the Indian government and people. We are not involved in any insurrectionary or terrorist movements in India. The LTTE will not contribute to or get involved in the Indian secessionist politics. It is not going to act in any manner inimical to the national and the geo-political interests of India.
Amid its own contradictory statements, the LTTE never hid its contempt for India. Asked about Rajiv Gandhi's killing, Balasingham told The Hindu (30 May 1991) that it did not involve any sophisticated technology. “It was just a matter of joining two wires together.”
30. For all practical purposes, successive Indian governments never deviated from Rajiv Gandhi's assessment of the LTTE, which he made public in a speech at Pudukkottai in Tamil Nadu on 21 December 1987:
The LTTE represents no one but itself. It has not been ready to come into a democratic framework and it has been responsible for the killing of most of the militant Tamils who have been killed and many hundreds, thousands of innocent Tamils. The LTTE has gone back on every promise that it made. It has gone back on every commitment. It has shown itself, and proved itself, to be untrustworthy and unreliable. It has shown that it does not have the interests of the Tamils at heart. (See, Satyamurthy, Patriot of Dignity and Dedication. 1988. New Delhi: DAVP, Government of India.)
31. When Tamil militancy erupted in a major way in 1983, there were five frontline groups: the LTTE led by Prabhakaran, the EPRLF led by K. Pathmanabha, the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOT) led by Uma Maheshwaran, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) led by Sri Sabarattinam and the Eelam Revolutionary Organizers (EROS) led by V. Balakumar. The LTTE killed Sabarattinam in 1986 and Pathmanabha in 1990. Maheshwaran was killed in 1989 in an internal PLOT feud. Prabhakaran fell to the military in 2009. Balakumar was among those who disbanded the EROS and joined the LTTE in 1990. He may have perished with other LTTE leaders in 2009.
[Page lxviii]32. While the Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka are predominantly Hindu and Buddhist respectively, both communities boast of a large number of Christians. Almost all Muslims in the country speak Tamil (many speak Sinhalese too) but they see themselves as a distinct community. This was not so for a long time, at least in the north and east where Muslims took active part in the peaceful anti-government struggles led by Tamils of an earlier era. Later, many young Muslims joined Tamil militant groups. Although it is fashionable for some Tamil apologists to blame Colombo for Tamil—Muslim fissures, the LTTE contributed in a major way to fomenting anti-Muslim sentiments and violence. This led to Muslims leaving militant groups. The LTTE eventually expelled hundreds of thousands of Muslims from Jaffna in 1990, callously disregarding the fact that they had lived there for generations. It followed it up with the cold-blooded massacres of Muslim worshippers, that too inside mosques, in Batticaloa. The LTTE subsequently admitted that it was wrong in forcing Muslims out of Jaffna but it never allowed them to return.
33. In a 1991 interview to The Indian Express (May 1991), Sathasivan Krishnakumar, alias Kittu, then head of the LTTE International Secretariat in London and formerly its Jaffna commander, put the number of guerrillas who had left the group until then at around 3,000. It was the first time the LTTE gave out a statistic of this kind. Kittu spoke in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. His argument was that since a large number of LTTE cadres had quit, the organization could not be blamed for the Gandhi killing even if the killers were found to be linked to the Tigers. It was a dubious argument and Indian investigators proved it to be so. After the early 1990s, quitting the LTTE became more and more difficult. But people continued to leave, taking the number until the Karuna rebellion to an estimated 5,000. I knew a Jaffna family that had known Prabhakaran from his younger days and which wanted their son, who was in LTTE, to migrate to Denmark. The boy's father became desperate as the 1990s drew to a close because the LTTE would not release his son. Eventually, the approval came, to the family's delight.
34. I have spoken to Karuna on more than one occasion. Much of my information has come from those who were close to him and those who witnessed his revolt first hand in Batticaloa. What is significant about his rebellion is the popular acceptance it got in no time among very many ordinary Tamils in the east. Karuna's complaint that the “northern” LTTE was lording over the “eastern” Tamils had touched a sympathetic chord. After Karuna fled Batticaloa, the LTTE carried out a systematic purging of his known and suspected sympathizers in the civil society in the region. One man who was picked up by the LTTE intelligence was an academic who survived only because he was a relative of D. Sivaram, alias Taraki, a Tamil militant turned journalist. The academic is still alive but the once anti-LTTE Taraki, who eventually became a staunch LTTE supporter, was abducted and murdered in Colombo, apparently by those linked to the government.
35. Interview with the author.
36. When it ran a de facto state in Sri Lanka's north, the LTTE charged “duty” on goods brought into “Tamil Eelam”. This ranged from a low of 5 per cent on agriculture machinery, outboard motors and Anchor milk powder to a high of 25 per cent on items such as furniture, electronic and electrical items, building material, lead, lubricating oil, cigarettes, matches, camphor, candle, bakery items, and liquor. Owners of bicycles and motorcycles were charged over 70 per cent duty. An LTTE announcement said:
[Page lxix]Government and non-government employees coming on transfer from Sri Lanka can bring items used by them, free of duty. Duty exemption would be given for used items brought by persons from Sri Lanka and other countries coming to Tamil Eelam with the intention of taking up permanent residence.
37. Interviews with residents of Batticaloa.
38. I am ignoring charges of financial embezzlement hurled at Karuna after he broke away. Even if the charges were true, he was not the lone sinner in the LTTE. Although the LTTE maintained meticulous accounts of expenditure, thefts from the Tiger kitty were not uncommon. Incidentally, some LTTE guerrillas turned against the group after being wrongly accused of corruption.
39. What follows here is mostly unpublished information. Aid workers in the eastern province kept me informed about child recruitment, as the LTTE forced kids to join its ranks, particularly from remote rural parts. The information I got was precise—including names of villages, victims and their parents. But precisely because of this reason, I was urged not to go public with the details. Aid workers feared then that publicity might spoil whatever chances they had of rescuing the abducted children.
40. An aid worker told me that he and his colleagues reached an LTTE camp in Batticaloa in 2004 to demand the release of an abducted young boy. To their surprise, a young uniformed Tiger at the camp gate said he would bring out the boy and they could take him away in their vehicle; the guard promised to concoct a story about the boy's escape to his seniors. The aid workers could not believe their ears. But they did not fall for the temptation. Even if the sentry meant what he said, they knew it would lead to trouble. The LTTE could chase and catch up with them. In any case, this was against their organization's charter. They politely turned down the offer. This was a rare, but not the only instance, when LTTE militants in camps and prisons acted or volunteered to act, against the interests of their own group, out of humanitarian concerns. A rival Tamil militant once held in an LTTE prison recalled that a young Tiger guard offered him water from the toilet to drink, but on the condition that this should not be reported to his seniors, who were holding the prisoner hungry and thirsty. In another instance, a young LTTE woman guerrilla scolded a group of girls who reached her camp to enlist. Why did you come here, she asked in disgust. “Ithu thooimayana iyakkam ellai” (This is not a pure organization), she remarked.
41. The “pistol groups” were mostly controlled by the LTTE intelligence—and drew their name from the weapon wielded by their members, dominantly young men. They were akin to the hit men in the mafia. If the LTTE wanted to kill someone who was not a VIP, a member of the “pistol group” would be assigned the task. Who would suspect an innocent looking young man on the street? The assassin would approach the victim, shoot, and quickly escape, if necessary after dumping the weapon. As for the LTTE, it would play innocent and not claim responsibility for the murder.
42. The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), which over the years, issued numerous eminently researched reports on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, particularly in the northeast, repeatedly pointed out that many Tamils who left with their families for greener pastures in the West had no hesitation in approving the LTTE's recruitment of kids from poor families to fight and die for Tamil Eelam. It is highly doubtful if they would have ever allowed their own children to be conscripted in this manner.
[Page lxx]43. Allegations that the LTTE was into drugs to finance its war, are as old as the LTTE. I recently asked a senior official of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) in India if this was true. The response was: It might have been but we have never had any conclusive evidence. The official added that men from all religions and ethnic groups (including the well-heeled) were into Sri Lanka's drug trade. There is no doubt that narcotics, heroin included, are smuggled into and out of Sri Lanka in large quantities. And it is difficult to believe that this could have happened without at least the LTTE's approval if not participation when it reigned supreme in the north of the country.
44. Despite dethroning him, Prabhakaran continued to share secrets with KP. When Anton Balasingham fell from Prabhakaran's grace after signing a pact in Oslo in December 2002 promising to explore a federal solution to the conflict, the LTTE, chief complained bitterly against him to KP.
45. When Balasingham died, Erik Solheim, the Norwegian Special Envoy to Sri Lanka who met the LTTE ideologue more than 100 times, described him as an honest man. The comment was erroneously, but widely, seen as endorsing the politics of one committed to violence. Solheim was actually referring to Balasingham's ability to speak the bitter truth (in private) on matters related to Tamil militancy, LTTE and Prabhakaran, even if these were unpalatable to the Tigers.
46. KP told a Tamil politician before his own abduction from Malaysia that he learnt about Prabhakaran's death from Soosai, the Sea Tigers chief, on 17 May. Soosai was reportedly calm when he broke the news over satellite phone. Unless KP was confused or lying about the date, this contradicts the official versions that Prabhakaran was killed on 18 May.
47. Remnants of both TELO and PLOT exist. After being decimated by LTTE, surviving TELO members sided with the Sri Lankan military against the Tigers for a long time before dramatically joining the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The PLOT has remained steadfastly anti-LTTE and its leader is Dharmalingam Sitharthan, who has known Prabhakaran from their younger days. A section of PLOT broke away to form the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF).
48. The LTTE intelligence member who oversaw the assassination of EPRLF chief K. Pathmanabha and his close aides in Chennai was none other than Sivarasan, who later headed the cell that killed Rajiv Gandhi. The failure of the Indian authorities to take the investigation into the Pathmanabha killing to its logical conclusion emboldened the LTTE to send Sivarasan again to Tamil Nadu to target Gandhi.
49. While most Indians thought the 1987 pact would herald peace in Sri Lanka, one Indian who knew better, disagreed. This was P. Jayaram, a seasoned journalist then with United News of India. Based in Colombo since 1983, Jayaram went on to live there for 14 long years. He was not taken seriously when he insisted in July—August 1987 that the LTTE would sabotage the accord. Jayaram was also the first journalist to report that the LTTE had taken a vocal anti-India stand while destroying TELO in 1986. Alarmed by Jayaram's reporting, which was a revelation to Indian policymakers, the LTTE took the unusual step of issuing a press statement denouncing him by name.
50. Prabhakaran told Indian journalist P.S. Suryanarayana (whom he had known well since his Chennai days; the interview of Prabhakaran was conducted by P.S. Suryanarayana at Jaffna, Sri Lanka on 7 September 1987) that he would “play politics” to counter the Indian military presence in Sri Lanka. He would also provoke the Indian troops to attack [Page lxxi]Tamil civilians. “The provocation should be so fine-tuned as not to arouse suspicion.” (See Suryanarayana. 1988. The Peace Trap, p. 22. New Delhi, Madras, Bangalore, Hyderabad: Affiliated East—West Press Private Ltd.)
51. Interestingly, the murders of the sari traders evoked no protest from Tamil Nadu's political parties, whose leaders were always quick to condemn the killings of Sri Lankan Tamils by security forces. In the end, families of the dead men were left to fend for themselves. This itself could be taken as implicit evidence that the killings were committed by the LTTE.
52. This is not meant to be a biographical sketch of Prabhakaran. Those wanting to understand the man in detail, can read my unauthorized biography, Inside an Elusive Mind. There is plenty of other informative literature too on the subject.
53. A case in point is Tamil MP M.K. Shivaji Lingam, who, like Prabhakaran, hailed from Velvettiturai in Jaffna. But Shivaji Lingam joined TELO. In the early 1980s, Shivaji Lingam provided Prabhakaran a hideout close to the coast when the latter wanted to escape to India. In 1986, when the LTTE sought to destroy TELO, Tiger gunmen reached the very same hideout looking for Shivaji Lingam. He was not there and so survived. Similarly, in the early years of militancy, EPRLF's Annamali Varadaraja Perumal provided a hideout in Jaffna for Prabhakaran. That did not deter the LTTE chief from targeting Varadaraja Perumal in later years.
54. Aid workers recall attending a LTTE cultural programme in a rural area of Batticaloa one night during the ceasefire period. One of them told me:
The LTTE put up this skit. There were many people in the audience, mostly men though. But they looked artificial, like some kind of zombies. They lacked any lively expression on their faces. In contrast, there were stern looking LTTE guerrillas in uniform. They stood around the audience. When one man clapped, everyone clapped. They had to clap. The people had no choice. I asked myself: “Hey, am in Sri Lanka or North Korea?”
55. President Premadasa's decision to give weapons and other material to the LTTE (besides a free run in Colombo) during the war against the Indian Army is seen by many in Sri Lanka as treachery. The latest to express his disgust is General Cyril Ranatunga, who was then the Defence Secretary but was not consulted about the arms transfer (See Ranatunga, Cyril. 2009. From Peace to War, Insurgency to Terrorism. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications). During the Premadasa presidency, the LTTE “arrested” Tamils in Colombo who it saw as foes and took them away to the country's north in buses with tinted glass in which the prisoners were handcuffed and bound to the seats with ropes. The buses went past police and military checkpoints that had orders not to stop or check them.
56. See Gokhale, Nitin A. 2009. Sri Lanka: From War to Peace, p. 54. New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications Private Ltd.
57. MGR and his AIADMK ruled Tamil Nadu when Tamil insurgency erupted in Sri Lanka in 1983. MGR held the reins in the state, until his Christmas-eve death in 1987. This was just over two months after the LTTE began fighting the Indian Army in Sri Lanka.
58. LTTE's prisons form another sad story of the Tamil militant movement. When it did not want to kill, the LTTE imprisoned and tortured its real and perceived foes in the most horrific manner. Unable to face the pain and humiliation, some prisoners went insane. All this began even when the Tigers enjoyed Indian patronage. I have met ex-LTTE prisoners [Page lxxii]who recalled the savagery they underwent in these jails, often at the hands of sadistic young men (women too) who appeared to enjoy seeing others suffer.
59. EROS abducted and killed Kandiah Kanthasamy, a Tamil human rights activist, in Jaffna in June 1988, triggering widespread condemnation. Kanthasamy had given up an outstanding legal career to devote his life to human rights work. EROS wanted to lord over Kanthasamy's NGO, the Tamil Refugee Rehabilitation Organization (TRRO), but he refused to bow to the militant group. The meticulous Kanthasamy quietly made detailed notes of all his meetings with EROS representatives. These became public knowledge after his death, exposing the killers. Cornered, EROS denied killing him; but a previously unheard of group, Tamil Eelam Pasari Movement, claimed responsibility for his death. David Selbourne's moving tribute to the dead man is part of a book, An Untimely Death: A Commemoration of K. Kanthasamy, published by the Kanthasamy Commemoration Committee, Colombo, on his first death anniversary in 1989.
60. Interviews with former LTTE guerrillas.
Testimonies of LTTE Cadres[Page lxxiii]
THE LTTE stood out in comparison to other insurgent groups because of the large number of women it had on its rolls although Tamil society was deeply patriarchal. Young women began joining the group in right earnest in 1984. It took about two years before they fought their first battle, in Mannar. Since then, women combatants have taken part in almost all military offensives, in varying degrees, at times displaying ferocious courage. They also played a key role in suicide attacks, the most significant of them being the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Unfortunately, many of the women imbibed the LTTE's fascistic streak. This was evident when they took part in forcible conscription of young combatants, girls included. The women's role in the Tamil Eelam war should not be taken to mean—as some believe—that the LTTE emancipated or elevated the status of women by making them fighters and killers. Aid workers who saw the LTTE from close quarters, post 2002, say that many in the women's wing would slip away or stand back when male cadres passed by in the villages of Trincomalee and Batticaloa. I present here the stories of two young women who joined the LTTE in different periods and fled Sri Lanka just before the war ended in 2009.Testament I—Saroja's Story1
I was born into a lower middle class family in a village in Kilinochchi district. My father was a farmer. Besides my mother, I had three brothers and two sisters. My brothers used to help my father in the fields. We were a hard working family. The war was around us.
The year was 1999. I had passed the 9th standard examination and had just gone into the 10th standard. This was the time when the LTTE was on the winning streak—or so it seemed. Their members used to come to schools and address students about the armed struggle. They would speak about “Sinhalese atrocities” and the need to fight for an independent Tamil Eelam. They would call out for 16-year-olds and [Page lxxiv]above to join them. Sometimes, if students, they specifically beckoned, insisted that they were only 15-years-old, then they would be spared. The forced recruitment began much later, at least in our area.
We had a deer in our house. One day, there was a row in our house over the upkeep of the animal. My mother beat me badly. This hurt me a lot. I became emotionally disturbed. I simply left the house and walked towards the fields on the outskirts of the village. There I was spotted by a group of LTTE guerrillas. They consoled me and asked me to join their ranks. I consented. I was not in a frame of mind to say no although I had never agreed to join the LTTE when such appeals were made in school.
Thus began my life in the LTTE. The initial training was not difficult. It was a three-month capsule. Since I was always interested in sports, I took to it easily.
One of the first things we did was to pick a name for ourselves in our organization. This was our “iyakka peru” (nom de guerre). The only condition was that it had to be a typical Tamil name. We were told that these names would be sent to our higher ups for approval. Most names got the go ahead. Some names, which the leadership thought was not Tamil enough, were changed.2 We did not mind it. After all we were all Tamils and the feeling of Tamil identity ran deep in us. This was our first introduction to the LTTE.
Quickly everyone in the camp became a family. All of us in our unit were more or less of the same age group. I was in the women's unit. But our instructors were not necessarily female. There were males too. In some cases, there were joint classes for males and females. One thing that made us happy was the peace in the camp. There was discipline too. In fact, there was a sense of peace wherever the LTTE ruled.
We would run every day for several kilometres. We would also cross hurdles of various kinds. We did all kinds of physical exercise. Then came firing practice. Those who passed the firing test were promoted in the training regimen. Those who failed had to pass it before going ahead with the training.
Even as they trained us, the LTTE would spot out those with leadership potential. They were very good spotters of talent. The instructors always observed us closely. Those who, the LTTE concluded, had the ability to grow as leaders would be asked to head a unit of 10 people, then 20, then 30, and so on. This is how leaders were born in the LTTE from among the mass of its members. This process kept the LTTE alive.
Although we slowly became immersed in our new lives in the LTTE, we did not forget our family. Our memories about our family would get rekindled whenever we stepped out of our camps. On the streets, we would see mothers and daughters walk past us. On those occasions, I would fondly recall my family, my mother, and father in particular. We would get occasionally homesick. But we knew where we were.
[Page lxxv]There was no question of deserting the LTTE. It was utterly dangerous and we knew what happened to deserters. So we would return to the camp.
Occasionally we would be assigned sentry duty. There would be just the three of us the whole night. Frankly speaking, this was the one time fear did creep into us. This was partly because we were young and largely inexperienced and partly because of the feeling of isolation at night. During daytime, there were so many of us that the fear factor disappeared.
My first major battle was the war for Elephant Pass. Whenever the LTTE conducted a major operation, they would gather all the fighters in large groups and show them battle maps. But they would never reveal which place was to be attacked. They would say for example—“Suppose, if this building is to be attacked, then you must take up positions in these spots.” They would not tell us which building they were referring to or where it was located. Nor would they tell us when and where the fighting would begin or take place. It was always a hush-hush affair even if the operation included hundreds of fighters. No one asked needless questions.
But it would become evident that a major operation was under way. There would be these sudden coming and going of trucks. There would be a general atmosphere of excitement. These were tell-tale signs of impending major military operations. Within days we realized that the LTTE wanted to capture Jaffna.3 As I was forging ahead with others towards the Elephant Pass, a Sri Lankan artillery shell landed nearby and a splinter struck my back. There was piercing pain but I carried on. Suddenly a bullet grazed my right hand. It was damn painful but I carried on, now holding my AK-47 with my left hand. Before long, another bullet tore through my left hand as well. This was worse.
My rifle fell as my left hand almost got twisted. I could not walk any more. I collapsed in pain. On the fourth day of the battle, I was back in an LTTE camp as a wounded soldier.
Doctors took several X-Rays of my hands, my left one in particular. They feared that there was a chance of paralysis. So they had to act quickly and carefully. I was in terrible pain. The LTTE medical unit had arranged for elderly women to take care of us. As for the doctors in the camp, they were among the best, perhaps, in the whole of Sri Lanka. The best of doctors always had to work for the LTTE. The other doctors in Kilinochchi were ordinary. I was bedded for 15 days but I got excellent medical care.
When we learnt that the LTTE had halted its advance towards Jaffna after capturing the Elephant Pass, we were very, very disappointed. We kept asking one another why stop when we have come this far. Why don't we press ahead? Will this halt in war lead us to Tamil Eelam?
[Page lxxvi]During training, we would wake up at 4 a.m. whatever the weather and whether we liked it or not. Only the badly sick could escape the training schedule. For about two hours, we had to run in the open field and do various types of physical exercises. We also had to learn and practice judo and karate. We would get a cup of tea at 6 a.m.
The lunch was always sumptuous. There would be “pittu,” vegetables, a curry, and fish. The vegetables came from a section of the market reserved for the LTTE. Some of us would go there with a special card. The shopkeeper would give us what was prescribed in the card (for our camp). There would be various chores to do at the camp. Weapons had to be cleaned and errands had to be run. We also had to cook by turns. All this kept us busy for the better part of the day.
Before the day got over, there would be more training. We would also listen to the LTTE radio and watch TV.4 We were always in uniform, morning to night. We stepped out of it only when we slept.
On one occasion, Prabhakaran came to our camp. He used to make these sudden visits to various camps. Sometimes we were told that he would come but he would not. His movements were kept very secret. But he would certainly come on the anniversary day of our unit. On those occasions, he would sit through the entire function the unit organized. On such days, he came with his family at times.
Death was constantly in the air. But frankly we never feared death. Four or five of my best friends died in battles. I was very moved on those occasions. They were people I had become very good friends with. We had shared many things in common. We ate, slept, and trained together. When they died, I would be overcome with emotions. But such martyrdom only steeled our resolve. We would vow to avenge their death by deepening our struggle.
Without doubt, the best fighters came from the eastern province. The reason was simple. While we had only heard of Sinhalese atrocities, these people would have experienced it. That made them really hard boiled and vicious fighters. Some of them related to us how soldiers had shot dead their family members and friends, occasionally right in front of their eyes. Most of them were from Batticaloa. When they told us their horror stories, it made us doubly loyal to the LTTE cause. Some of the eastern guerrillas were orphans and would have taken days of trekking through impregnable forests to reach the Wanni. They came looking for the LTTE. They had nowhere to go. They never bothered about death. They would keep saying that it is better to fight and die rather than live like slaves; at least we would get a free state where Tamils can live a life of dignity.
During training, we were first given wooden rifles to handle and hold. They were prototypes of rifles. But we had to treat them like real rifles. These could never be placed on the ground. Then came the AK-47.
[Page lxxvii]If we did any wrong, we faced punishment. We could be asked to stand on a barrel, holding a rifle and under the hot sun, for hours together. On other occasions we would be asked to run for miles holding our rifles.5 Sometimes cooking was turned into punishment. Normally we would cook for 30 to 40 people by turns in our camp. Punishment cooking included making food for 400 to 500 people.
We knew nothing about the CFA (ceasefire agreement of 2002) until it happened. We were taken aback by the development. We had been told in our political classes about the history of our struggle and the need to fight on and on for Tamil Eelam. So, what was the need for CFA?
One of my brothers came to our camp after the CFA and asked me to return to the family. I was very fond of that particular brother. I too badly wanted to rejoin my family. I left the camp quietly one day and proceeded with him to Jaffna. He had readied a Sri Lankan ID6 card for me. I used it to travel to Colombo.
When I look back, I think the CFA destroyed the LTTE. Once the ceasefire happened and fighting ceased, the LTTE became very relaxed. The discipline slackened. The daily rough and tough life gave way to easy life. This was something the LTTE was not used to. Many colleagues got married within the ranks. These included some leaders too. Clearly, people had fallen in love over a period of time and were waiting for the first opportunity to tie the knot.
Family life then became the dominant factor for many. Once the CFA was signed, desertions shot up. Like me, many left the camps, never to return to the LTTE. The LTTE did come looking for me but failed to trace me. I had told them earlier that I had no relatives in Jaffna. So they never thought of looking for me there.
When I look back, I am thoroughly disgusted with everything, including the LTTE.
After so many years of fighting for Tamil Eelam, after losing so many fighters and people, after so much of destruction, where are we? Tamils have nothing today. This long, long war has helped us gain nothing. On the contrary, we have lost whatever little we had when militancy started. Either the LTTE should have made permanent peace with Sri Lanka or it should not have rested until attaining Tamil Eelam. Today, the Tamils are nowhere.
Will the end of war lead to peace? I am not so sure. The LTTE may not rise again but there would never be permanent peace in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese would never accept Tamils as their equals. They will always look down upon us. That is for sure.
In December 2006, my brother who had helped me escape from the LTTE was shot dead in Jaffna by the military.7 He was a (car) mechanic and led a quiet life. He had nothing to do with the LTTE or any other group of any kind. But for reasons that are unclear (to this day), Sinhalese soldiers shot and killed my brother. I can [Page lxxviii]understand the army killing LTTE guerrillas but why kill innocent Tamils? Why kill my brother?Testament II—Vani's Story8
I was 13 years of age when I joined the LTTE. The year was 1991. My house was at Thondamanar, near VVT.9 I knew I was a minor but I approached the LTTE on my own. I was attracted to the LTTE and the weapons they held. My family was shocked by my decision. My father in particular was deeply unhappy. But I had made up my mind. Yes, it is true that in later years, the LTTE abducted many underage children into its ranks, but I went to them voluntarily. So did many others like me.
We were immediately inducted into their training programme. This included physical exercises and firing practice. We had to run around fields and do various other things to toughen our bodies and mind. It was difficult in the beginning. As days passed, the number of kilometres we had to run kept increasing.
During my time, the LTTE did not provide too much ammunition for rifle practice.10 We were given only a limited number of bullets to fire. If we hit the target, it was good; too bad otherwise.
Political ideas followed. This was very important in the LTTE. Once, Anton Balasingham presided over a political class. Usually the teachers were our own instructors. They told us about Tamil history, about the history of our armed struggle, about the LTTE's growth, about its aims and aspirations. They showed us inspirational movies. This teaching was considered very important because it brought us closer to the LTTE worldview and ideology. The LTTE knew that many of us had no real moorings in Tamil nationalism. Without that, our loyalty to LTTE would always be tenuous. These classes helped us understand and appreciate our Tamil identity vis-à-vis the Sinhalese.
After about two years, I was selected for the computer wing of the LTTE. I had never seen a computer in my life. Initially we were given theoretical lessons about computers. We were shown pictures of computers and taught about CPU, ROM, MS Word, and so on. We were not told about the Internet. I got to know that much later. To initiate me into computers, I was given typing lessons. It helped.
Eventually, the computers arrived, about 10 of them. We were a total of 15 people. Once the computers came, we had to practice more and more. Most of us fell in love with computers very quickly.
Our main task was to translate books and literature from other languages into Tamil. I didn't know English well. I had learnt computers with Tamil keyboards. I was good at Tamil typing. There were experienced translators who would read out [Page lxxix]English books and dictate in Tamil. This we took down in computers. One book I was involved in was a thick one about Germany and Russia and related to World War II. I don't recall it very well though.
Life in the LTTE was very regimented. Although I did not take part in any battle, our training programme was no different compared to guerrillas who took part in battles. We had to wake up between 4 and 4.30 in the morning and start running. There were physical exercises. Once that got over, we would bathe, followed by various chores in the camp. By 9 or 10, we would be in the computer room and start work. After lunch, we would be back at the computers. In the evening, there was more work at the camp. Sentry duty was given to us all by rotation. This involved guarding our camp at night.
The LTTE had no religion although most of us were Hindus.11 None of us worshipped any God or went to temples. However, the LTTE did celebrate certain important festivals. We got sweet pongal to eat on Pongal day and sweets on Deepawali. We all celebrated Christmas. When it was our individual birthday, there would be little gatherings in the camp. All this brought us closer emotionally since we were living away from the families. On Prabhakaran's birthday, we all got cakes to eat.
I saw Prabhakaran only once. He came to our camp. We were told that someone important was coming, but the identity was not disclosed to us. This, I realized later, was due to security reasons. The meeting took place in a hall. We were overawed by his presence. We could hardly speak. He spoke softly. He asked us if we had any complaints about life in the LTTE and whether there was anything that was lacking in the camp. None of us replied. I think we could not get the courage to speak before him. He spent about 30 minutes and left. We were all held back at the venue for a while after he left. It was only later that we got to stir.12
I remained with the LTTE through the tumultuous 1990s, seeing many ups and downs. After the fall of Jaffna to the military in December 1995, we moved to Kilinochchi area. From there, we had to move again before the LTTE recaptured Kilinochchi and made it its administrative and political hub.
I decided to quit the LTTE after the CFA of 2002. The reason was personal. I had problems with my camp commander who was my immediate superior. The differences escalated after the CFA, when there were no more prospects of war.
I sought permission to quit. The LTTE heard my case and ruled against me, saying I would have to serve another five years in a punishment posting before they could discharge me. This was too much and I argued against it. So they cut the punishment posting to two years. I served that period quietly cooking for hundreds of cadres, day after day, night after night, waiting for the two years to be over. Finally, in 2004, I called it quits.
[Page lxxx]I remained in Kilinochchi till late 2008 when the military began to advance menacingly. I then became a part of the mass of civilians numbering thousands who retreated deep into the Wanni along with the LTTE. The military assaults were relentless. I can never, never forget this period of my life. I can say without hesitation that if there was any hell on this earth, it was this.
From March/April, we were on the run every single day. Each day and night, indeed each hour, was passed in fear and terror. We never knew when the military would rain MBRLs (Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers) and artillery or bomb us from the air. Our only concern was survival. We kept on praying that we should be alive with our extended family members, including two children.
We spent most of our life during the last two months of the war (until May 2009) with nothing except the clothes we were in. We lost everything. I lost all my educational certificates, including those related to computer learning. Many people lived virtually in bunkers. When shells fell, people died instantly. They were the lucky ones. There were others who were maimed, suffered in pain, and died in agony due to deep cuts and excessive blood loss. There was no medical care and there was nothing we could do. My cousin, who was with me, lost her father and mother. She saw them die in front of her eyes. It was an extremely painful sight. Even today, she has not recovered from that horrifying moment.
Eventually, my family and I were trapped at Mullivaykkal, where the LTTE put up its last ditch fighting before going down. Frankly, I had been afraid of crossing over to the government side fearing they would kill me due to my past LTTE links. Would they believe that I had no relationship with the LTTE since 2004 and indeed had served the last two years undergoing punishment in the LTTE?
At Mullivaykkal, I stayed put till 15 May before deciding that we had no choice but to escape from the LTTE territory. Bombs were falling all around us. The sound of gunfire and explosions were perennial and deafening. It was frightening. It made us numb at times. I saw young LTTE boys and girls, who I could make out were forcible recruits, drop their weapons and run for their lives. Their war ended in distress. They mingled with the civilians in a desperate bid to escape. By then, the LTTE was in such a bad shape that they could not even hit back. They were busy fending for themselves.
Why did the LTTE lose so badly? As I see it, there were two reasons. One was the frenzied forcible recruitment of children that took place in LTTE areas on a large scale, particularly after the revolt by Karuna. The LTTE had to make up the lost numbers. But it completely turned ordinary Tamil civilians against the LTTE. Who will not get angry when they see their young sons and daughters being taken away, against their will, to fight and die? Even I would have been furious if my siblings had been kidnapped. But the LTTE didn't care and paid a heavy price for this folly.
[Page lxxxi]Then came the deaths of various leaders. Balasingham died in 2006, Tamilchelvan in 2007. So many died one by one. Many of them were key people. Once you lose important people, what is left of you?
As for me, I am thoroughly disgusted. I feel it has all been a total waste. All these years of fighting, of dying, of war, of violence, everything has gone down the drain. Today I cannot bear to see even war movies. I am disgusted with everything that has happened in the past. My only aim now is to live in peace.Notes
1. Saroja is neither the real nor the “organizational” name of the LTTE guerrilla interviewed here. The interview was conducted in Tamil in a congenial atmosphere, and the young woman spoke her heart out about her life in the LTTE. This is a slightly condensed version of the interview. I have, over the years, observed that LTTE guerrillas speak a language that borders on artificial when they are in their lair or in a large group. They, however, become free and frank if they are alone and if you are able to win their trust. Like others who were with or linked to the LTTE I spoke to for this book, Saroja remains a Tamil to the core but, unlike the Tamil diaspora dispersed mostly in the West, has no illusions that the Tigers can make a comeback. Given the choice, she would not want them to. It is possible that in the interview she may have glossed over aspects of her life as a guerrilla that could land her in trouble now.
2. The system of giving a nom de guerre (or alias) to fighters is as old as Tamil militancy. This became an obsession in the LTTE. In its early stages, the group picked aliases for its fighters. Religious differences were glossed over for this purpose. Thus, a Hindu fighter could be called “Raheem” or “Antony”. As the numbers swelled in the LTTE ranks, it ran out of easy aliases and it asked its entrants to choose short names for themselves. Thus a whole lot of bizarre nom de guerre cropped up: Reagan, Castro, Gadaffi, Newton, and so on. Indian troops chasing the LTTE were surprised to know that one of their quarries was a Gavaskar! It was deemed a crime in the LTTE to try finding out the real names of guerrillas. In the 1990s, the LTTE became insistent that aliases should be very Tamil sounding.
3. Jaffna, the Tamil heartland in the very north of Sri Lanka, is where Tamil militancy began. The LTTE ruled over Jaffna from early 1990, when the Indian troops returned home, to December 1995, when the Sri Lankan military recaptured it after a 50-day operation. Prabhakaran had vowed to recapture Jaffna come what may, but the dream remained unfulfilled. The LTTE mounted a major offensive in 2000 to take control of Jaffna. In the process, it overran and captured the strategic and heavily defended Elephant Pass, the narrow isthmus linking Jaffna with the rest of Sri Lanka. But even as panic gripped Colombo about the fate of thousands of soldiers trapped in Jaffna peninsula, the LTTE suddenly halted its offensive. It has never been conclusively clear why.
4. Saroja was referring to the Voice of Tigers radio, which operated secretly in Sri Lanka's north, initially on FM frequency. It must have had a powerful transmitter because it could be monitored even in northern India. From the start of this century, Voice of Tigers began beaming advertisements. Its correspondents were daring and reported from the frontlines [Page lxxxii]when the LTTE waged war. The LTTE also had a TV station but it was not as popular as its radio. In later years, several radio and TV stations (besides websites) emerged in the West. Most of them were brazenly pro-LTTE. The Tigers encouraged their guerrillas to tune in to BBC Tamil Service as well as Radio Vertias, a Catholic radio station based in the Philippines. After the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the LTTE “banned” All India Radio (AIR), accusing it of bias. AIR had been hugely popular among the Tamils of Sri Lanka between 1983 and 1987.
5. It is here that the LTTE stood out vis-à-vis numerous militant groups in the world. Punishment was swift, often lethal. Matters related to corruption and illicit sex often resulted in capital punishment. This was surprising considering that the only Marxist hero Prabhakaran looked up to was Che Guevera, who, when he was in the jungles, ordered minimal punishment to his erring colleagues.
6. It is mandatory for all Sri Lankans to have a national identity card. The lack of it could lead people to prison. In later years, the LTTE issued its own “national” ID cards.
7. Saroja appeared to be sure that it was the military (in uniform), not the LTTE, which killed her brother.
8. Like in the case of Saroja, Vani too is neither the real nor the “organizational” name of the guerrilla who was interviewed. Surprisingly, despite years of interaction with computers and English translators, her grasp of English language remains poor. She too spoke in Tamil.
9. VVT is short for Velvettiturai, the birthplace of Prabhakaran. This is a coastal village located in the northern tip of Jaffna.
10. This could have been because the war against Sri Lanka had resumed in June 1990, and the LTTE may have faced an ammunition crunch in 1991.
11. Despite its overwhelmingly Hindu membership and the Prabhakaran family's association with Hindu temples in VVT when he was young, the LTTE buried its fallen comrades instead of cremating them. But it is known that many LTTE Sea Tiger guerrillas would quietly pray in the direction of the Velankanni Church on Tamil Nadu's coast when they took to the sea. In February 2002, when I was frisked ahead of the Prabhakaran press conference in Kilinochchi, a young guerrilla noticed photos of Hindu gods in my wallet. I also had a small packet of “vibuthi” (sacred ash) given by my mother-in-law at my wedding. When I asked him not to spill the “vibuthi,” the young man replied: “Don't worry, Sir, the gods you worship are the same gods we too worship.”
12. This is how it happened at the 2002 Prabhakaran press conference too. Journalists were prevented from leaving the venue until the LTTE chief had got into bulletproof vehicles and had been driven away. In the process, there was a great deal of jostling at the main gate because journalists were desperate to file their stories ahead of their deadlines. Those lacking satellite phones had to drive back all the way to Colombo to communicate. Armed LTTE guerrillas, who had no knowledge about journalism, had a tough time handling a crowd they had never encountered earlier.
Postscript: A New Dawn[Page 181]I
ALMOST one full year before the Tamil Tigers were crushed, a discerning Sri Lankan diplomat summed up, in simple prose, how, and in what circumstances, would the war in his country end. As he spoke to me from Geneva in June 2008, there was no doubt in Dayan Jayatilleka's mind that the conflict would keep raging as long as Prabhakaran was not neutralized. This, of course, went against the conventional wisdom that only negotiations would halt the bloodshed.
It will all end the way it all ended in Angola after decades of conflict when (rebel leader) Jonas Savimbi was killed by the Angolan armed forces. It will all end the way it did in Chechnya when the Russian army got Djokar Dudayev, defeated the Chechen separatist militia in fierce combined arms warfare… Angola and Chechnya are peaceful and prosperous now. It cannot end while Prabhakaran has not been demilitarized one way or another.1
Foresight? Crystal ball? Extraordinary intelligence? Call it what you will, that is exactly what happened in the marshy tract of Mullaitivu in May 2009 when the military gave a death blow to the LTTE, wiping out virtually its entire leadership, Prabhakaran included.
Yet, there was a time, and not long ago, when it looked as if there would be no return to peace in Sri Lanka minus Prabhakaran.2 But the rebel chieftain slipped on the political art of compromise and accommodation so badly that Sri Lanka concluded that his elimination was necessary to unlock the knot it was in, ever since Prabhakaran vowed to settle for nothing less than an independent Tamil Eelam. What is equally extraordinary is that neither the LTTE leadership nor those in the Tamil diaspora who [Page 182]backed it to the hilt, realized where they were headed. Power corrupts. Totalitarian power destroys.
Notwithstanding his fingers on the pulse of Sri Lanka, diplomat Jayatilleka was politely asked to head home once Prabhakaran became history. Left with no choice, Jayatilleka went back to his first love, academics and journalism. He was convinced that he had been shown the door because of his views on how Sri Lanka's political contours should be in the times to come. His thoughts on political give-and-take and devolution of power to the minorities had put him on the wrong side of hardliners within the majority Sinhalese community who possessed a different worldview. In some ways, Jayatilleka's journey from Geneva to Colombo is a mirror on the battle of ideas now raging in Sri Lanka.
Whatever the character of the LTTE and however clichéd this might sound, Prabhakaran did not create what came to be known as the Tamil problem. He was its creation. What, however, he did was to completely overhaul the character of a Tamil ethnic struggle that wanted the community to be treated at par with the Sinhalese. Using violence as a weapon, he snuffed out the movement's democratic credentials and injected an uncompromising bloody streak that robbed it of its innocence. The LTTE soon became a hegemonic force in the Tamil community, wielding a veto over any attempt at reconciliation. This led to a prolonged war, which the Tigers thought they would never lose.
The unending violence, the LTTE's cruel streak and its adamant unwillingness to drop its Tamil Eelam idea together combined to alienate almost everyone who came into contact with the group. The LTTE had plenty of opportunities to reach a political settlement and chart a new course for the Tamils at large. They may or may not have led to the most ideal solution to the crisis in hand but would have certainly provided a widely acceptable framework to move on. But the man chose to jettison them all. Prabhakaran thus ended up giving birth to a Sri Lankan leadership in Colombo that became a mirror image of the LTTE and eventually dealt with the Tigers in the very same manner in which the LTTE dealt with its foes, real and imaginary. It too refused to compromise.
Since the Tigers prided themselves as the sole and authentic representative of the Tamil community, Tamils at large suffered due to the follies of the LTTE. Large sections in Sri Lanka's Sinhalese community came to unfortunately view the LTTE and the Tamil problem as two faces of the same coin. Many others outside of Sri Lanka also came to share this opinion, which, although seemingly sound, was inherently flawed. The natural outcome of this was that military assaults on Tamils per se were construed in Colombo as a justified, even if unfortunate, price the community had [Page 183]to pay for supposedly supporting the LTTE. It was a perverse vicious cycle. Ordinary Tamils who did not want the war, and no love for the LTTE, would wonder why they were being punished for crimes they never committed. The LTTE, of course, benefited from the messy situation because it could then justify its policies and very existence. How would the Tamils survive without the LTTE? So went the argument.
The reality was that the LTTE had become an impediment to a possible resolution of the Tamil conflict a long time ago. It was neither prepared to shake hands with Colombo nor would it allow anyone to make up with the Sri Lankan state. Those within the Tamil community who showed guts to think and act differently were either murdered or forced to live caged lives to escape the LTTE's highly efficient killer squads.3
History was repeatedly cited to show that Sri Lankan leaders (read the Sinhalese) would never offer meaningful concessions to the Tamil community. But if, and when, a Chandrika Kumaratunga was ready to make peace, war was ignited. The blame for the warfare and consequent civilian suffering was of course conveniently heaped on Colombo. When a Sri Lankan administration professed its willingness to talk, the LTTE would take credit; but it would slowly propel the negotiations to another round of conflict—and more suffering.
Regrettably, sections of the Tamil political class, who should have known better, subjugated themselves to the Tigers, further undermining the Tamil cause. “I had no choice,” said one Tamil MP who was once fiercely anti-LTTE but later became its apologist. “I would have been killed otherwise.” Rightly or wrongly, these Tamil politicians were under the illusion that the Tigers could guarantee their security. As later events proved, this was an illusion. Eventually, the LTTE could not even save itself.
A complex interplay of war and politics in Sri Lanka has led to a situation where national reconciliation appears a distant and difficult proposition. There now exists in Sri Lanka a government wedded to a mindset that there never was an ethnic conflict, only a terrorist problem; now that the LTTE has been crushed beyond recognition, the menace of terrorism is over, although security concerns remain. So there is no need to bring about any constitutional or administrative changes in Sri Lanka to please the minorities. The country will remain unitary in character, take it or leave it.
It is of course easy and tempting to blame Sri Lanka's current crop of leaders for such a stand. But it needs to be borne in mind that Mahinda Rajapaksa became the president only in November 2005. By then, Prabhakaran was three decades old in the ethnic conflagration. He contributed more than anyone else to widening the ethnic divide in the country, so much so that meaningful compromises by any government became politically near impossible. There was a time when it seemed that Colombo was ready to accommodate the LTTE. The group's intransigence, however, turned [Page 184]the tables. Towards the end, proposals suggesting far reaching constitutional changes to give due political space to the minorities (Tamils and Muslims) were shot down. The Rajapaksa regime became convinced—and so did many others—that there could never be a political settlement to the conflict because the LTTE would never reach out for one—unless it was wholly on its terms. The war had to be fought—and won.
The LTTE's biggest of all blunders was that it convinced itself, until the last moment, that Sri Lanka would never be able to win the war. By the time reality dawned on a chastened Prabhakaran, Colombo was in no mood for any further compromise, in no mood to spare the LTTE, and in mood to embrace a corps of men and women who seemed to be enthralled by violence.
The dominant thinking now in Colombo is that the Tamil community needs relief and rehabilitation, particularly in the northern and eastern provinces, nothing more; a region that saw nothing but war for over two decades needs economic development to merge it with the larger Sri Lanka. It is highly unlikely that this assessment would change in the near future. I will be happy to be proved wrong.
It is not that Sri Lankan leaders do not understand the need for the various ethnic communities to live together in harmony. It is not that they are against nation building. It is just that they have their own idea of how to weave together a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual Sri Lanka.
Even as he conducted a punishing war against the Tigers, Gotabaya Rajapaksa told me more than once that Sri Lankans needed to think and live like Sri Lankans, not as Tamils, Sinhalese or Muslims. But he and his President brother Mahinda Rajapaksa seem to be convinced that federalism or a federal structure of governance that the minorities pine for is not what their country needs. Federalism, to them and to many others in Sri Lanka, is a dirty word, the ideological fountainhead of Tamil separatism. The Indian model of governance may have its strengths, but Sri Lanka cannot be compared to India.
This is why there is so much opposition to the India-sponsored 13th amendment to the constitution that dented, for the first time, Sri Lanka's strong unitary character, by giving birth to provincial assemblies. This accompanied the Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987, an experiment that began with a lot of promise but which ended in disaster. Much later, as long as it fought the LTTE, the Sri Lankan leadership provided repeated assurances to the international community that it was committed to implementing all the provisions of the 13 th amendment. Now that the LTTE has been decimated, there is a rethink in Colombo.
The U-turn is linked to Sri Lanka's larger understanding that the LTTE can never rise again and that outside powers have no business to hector Colombo over what needs to be done to bring about national reconciliation.
[Page 185]Indeed, the LTTE can never rise again. The LTTE that went down in May 2009 was not just about men, money and weapons; it had a central living organism called Velupillai Prabhakaran. The man was its biggest strength—and weakness too. To those who believed in him and his vision, he was an icon and a god; he could do no wrong. And he would lead them to Tamil Eelam one day.
It never happened like that.
Provoked into a war ignited by the LTTE, Sri Lanka neutralized Prabhakaran in the most unexpected manner. The LTTE founder leader had enveloped his outfit in Tamil nationalism, even if it was of a narrow variety, one that ultimately destroyed the soul of the Tamil community. He built the LTTE meticulously, brick by brick. It took over a quarter century to accomplish what he had accomplished. By the 1990s, the LTTE had grown into a monstrous and mammoth entity that could rival the Al Qaeda if it wanted to. The credit for this feat should go to Prabhakaran. No one can ever take his place. And minus him and his close and long-time associates, there can be no LTTE.
Those who fear that continuing ethnic discontent could lead to the rebirth of the LTTE have no idea of the realities on the ground where ordinary Tamil folks had been pining for peace even when the Tigers were immersed in war. The misery the Tamil population has suffered on account of the LTTE's uncompromising nature would ensure that they never again side, even remotely, with an inherently nihilist group. Tamil parents would never again want to see their sons and daughters lured or snatched from them to fight a war that only guaranteed death in the garb of martyrdom for a cause.
The LTTE that survives today is largely an expatriated body. Those who escaped the military onslaught and took to the jungles are neither in large numbers nor can they expect to survive for long. Those who managed to flee Sri Lanka cannot hope to return to that country. And those who now claim to lead what remains of the group enjoy neither credibility nor aura except perhaps in the circles that know them intimately.
Indeed, the more the Tamil diaspora keeps alive the shadow of the LTTE, the more difficult will life become for the mass of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The pro-LTTE diaspora's persistent aggression can only further militarize Sri Lanka—and legitimize Sinhalese hardliners. The LTTE that existed and thrived for decades can never be revived.
The Tamil side in Sri Lanka can claim its legitimate political space only if it eschews the violent and insular politics of the LTTE. A complete break from the past is necessary for those who had aligned themselves with the Tigers. And they would need to join hands with those Tamils whom they shunned earlier. In some ways, this is already beginning to happen. Ironically, part of the credit for this nascent process should go to Colombo's adamant refusal to be magnanimous in victory. Its wholesale rejection [Page 186]of Tamil political aspirations is bound to propel Tamils of various hues to pool their energies to campaign for what they feel is their due in a united Sri Lanka.II
IT should not be forgotten that military victory over the Tigers has come at a Himalayan cost. The history of bloodshed in global hotspots such as Ireland pales into insignificance compared to what Sri Lanka underwent since Tamil militancy galloped from 1983. The widely estimated death toll in the ethnic conflict stands at over 90,000 with tens of thousands wounded or maimed, on all sides of the ethnic divide. Destruction to movable and immovable assets has been colossal. For a country of just over 20 million, this is a hugely traumatic figure. Also, hundreds of thousands, mainly Tamils, have fled the country and became refugees the world over. The economy has taken a battering. So have human values and democracy—the first casualties of any dragging internal war.
The final months of the war saw unprecedented human tragedy. While many officers and soldiers of the overwhelmingly Sinhalese military showed sincere concern for ordinary Tamils, as indeed numerous individual Sinhalese have done in the past, the fact remains that Tamil civilians were punished in the name of fighting the Tigers. Unceasing artillery, MBRL (Multi Barrel Rocket Launcher) and air attacks took a massive toll, killing and maiming those who neither wanted the war nor took part in it. The “us-and-them” ideology based on narrow ethnic nationalism failed to adequately recognize that the state could not be a carbon copy of the LTTE, which of course had contempt for civilian lives, Tamil, Muslim or Sinhalese.
If the agony of the war was not enough, over 250,000 Tamil men, women and children of all ages got locked up in military-supervised camps—after escaping the clutches of the LTTE. This is a largely civilian population that had been promised liberation from the Tigers. These were Tamils who had endured the worst of the war. These were Tamils who had been pushed to starvation,4 who saw fellow civilians bleed to death, whose only ambition was to somehow get away from it all. When they tried to do that, the LTTE mercilessly and callously shot at them. But once they left the shrinking LTTE territory, the Tamils found themselves locked up once again, this time by Colombo.
Sri Lanka no doubt has legitimate security concerns since many Tigers had escaped in civilian garb. But the continued confinement of a population in camps, making them virtual prisoners, has ceased to make sense beyond a point. In the process, their anger, until then directed dominantly towards the LTTE, has turned against Colombo.
[Page 187]True, de-mining of vast areas in the north and east of Sri Lanka is no easy task. But if the Tamils need to wait until de-mining gets over even substantially, many would end up spending the rest of their lives in camps!
All this is intimately related to Sri Lanka's future. Ultimately, it is only the people of Sri Lanka who can and will decide what kind of a society they want. Human rights and good governance are closely linked; one cannot exist without the other. Good governance includes democracy, including the legitimate and peaceful right to dissent. The LTTE denied both to people living under its umbrella. Sri Lanka cannot afford to emulate the LTTE any further. Now that the war is over, the state needs to embrace its people without bias, and truly so. The LTTE's pet theme was that Tamils would never be able to trust the Sinhalese and Colombo; the Sri Lankan leadership needs to prove the Tigers wrong if the country has to really have a new dawn.Notes
1. IANS moved the story on 1 June 2008. Jayatilleka was Sri Lanka's permanent representative to the UN and other international organizations based in Switzerland.
2. I ended my unauthorized biography of Prabhakaran (Inside an Elusive Mind) with these words:
Sri Lanka today stands at a decisive turning point where it will have to take politically mature, even if popularly unpalatable, decisions towards a practically workable solution to resolve the larger issues of ethnic divide and economic development. If it were to fail, for whatever reason, the destiny of Sri Lanka and its 20 million people would still be in the hands of one man: Velupillai Prabhakaran.
These words were written in early 2003—although the book came out only in September that year. Until then, five key developments had not taken place: the LTTE had not walked out of the peace process; Karuna had not split; the LTTE had not assassinated Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar; Prabhakaran had not replaced KP with Castro; and, the most important of all, Prabhakaran had not ordered Tamils to boycott the presidential election, thus ensuring the defeat of a politician who had been prepared to do business with him. In retrospect, my understanding was not wrong; except that instead of making peace with him, Colombo decided to do away with Prabhakaran.
3. Many years ago I was in a car with PLOT leader Sitharthan, who would later become an MP, and one of his aides in Colombo. As we approached a bend, the aide suddenly asked the driver to turn left and take another road. When I enquired why, the aide explained that he had spotted a man standing by a parked motorcycle some 30 feet ahead. “We don't take risks,” the man went on. “That man could be from the LTTE. Why take a chance?” In the euphoria surrounding the military victory, it will be easy to forget that it were Tamils who opposed the Tigers politically who waged the most bitter struggle against the LTTE—and paid a heavy price for their bravery.
[Page 188]4. By the time the LTTE got crushed in May 2009, starvation levels had peaked in its territory. A LTTE cadre told a relative in a European city over satellite telephone:
When I sat down under a tree to eat, a group of children came over and stood watching me silently. There was hunger in their eyes. I consumed a bit of my lunch but could not continue. I just did not have the courage to eat in front of them. I gave away my food to them. I said to myself that I was only hungry but these kids were starving.
About the Author[Page 189]
A graduate of Delhi University, M R Narayan Swamy took to journalism in 1978. He began his career with the United News of India (UNI), a premier Indian news agency. After over eight years, he switched over to the French international news agency AFP where he served for more than 13 years. And after a stint in Singapore, he returned to India and joined the IANS news agency in 2001, where he is now the Executive Editor.
Narayan Swamy is the author of two previous and path-breaking books on Sri Lanka. The first, Tigers of Lanka (1994), details the origins and growth of Tamil militancy, including India's overt and covert involvement. The second, Inside an Elusive Mind (2003), is the only biography—albeit unauthorized—of the now dead LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Both books are considered a must read for all those trying to understand Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka.