Two major events –the arrest of Selvarasah Pathmanathan, better known by his acronym ‘KP’ alias Kumaran Pathmanathan and the union council elections in Jaffna and Vavuniuya in the first ten days of August – have put the five-decade old Tamil struggle at cross roads.
After the elimination of V Prabhakaran and the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Tamils are now faced with two choices – both unpalatable potions, if past experience is any guide. These are, one, continuing the conflict with the Sri Lanka state after the LTTE has lost the war and run the risk of being totally eclipsed. Two,accepting the government’s offering and reworking a political architecture suited to the post LTTE environment. Probably the second option has a better chance of success.
With KP’s arrest and rendition to Colombo, the Rajapaksa government has sent a strong message that it was taking up the war against the LTTE overseas. It appears determined to crush any revival of the Tamil Tigers both at home and abroad. KP’s arrest and rendition has a strong symbolic value because after the death of V Prabhakaran he was self anointed as the general secretary of the LTTE despite a brief power struggle. KP had two advantages. Prabhakaran had installed him in January 2009 as the LTTE’s international representative conferring some legitimacy in the hierarchy. The other was KP’s street smartness in speaking the idiom that would appeal to the Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates, shell shocked after the battlefield death of Prabhakaran.
He was also probably favoured because he had better connections and interface with a whole range of LTTE stakeholders – arms dealers, LTTE representatives, lobbyists and even politicians. He has a great deal of experience in vital skills required for revival of the LTTE – procuring and trafficking resources including weapons and armaments for the LTTE. A negative aspect was he had the image of a wheeler dealer rather than the aura of a battlefield leader. Naturally he was not accepted by the peddlers of the romantic image of the LTTE as modern-day crusaders for the cause. So he continued to remain persona non grata with Vaiko and Nedumaran, leading pro-LTTE Tamil Nadu politicians.
KP appears to have gauged the international mood and soft pedalled the idea of taking up arms again. Though he spoke of it in his Channel 4 interview, he softened it in his numerous other interviews. Instead, he spoke of a concept of continuing the separatist struggle politically. This would have been heresy had Prabhakaran been alive. But in the changed circumstances it would have increased the chances of survival and revival of the LTTE in many countries. He also managed to work out an equation with the Tamil Eelam dreamers among the Tamil Diaspora. As a result the Provisional Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam (PTGTE) a virtual “government” in the making was announced. Despite its longwinded name, the concept was to keep the dream of Tamil Eelam alive and probably provide enough legal snags to inherit LTTE assets overseas.
Like all episodes of its genre, KP’s arrest in Malaysia, transit through Thailand and rendition to Sri Lanka in an apparently seamless operation has left a lot of unanswered questions. And at best the answers are murky. But a few home truths emerge from the whole episode:
- The governments of Malaysia and Thailand appear to have cooperated with Sri Lanka in this operation, though they may officially disclaim it. Now that the LTTE’s is toothless and leaderless, in future not only these two countries but many others are likely to extend such help to prevent the revival of LTTE activity on their soil. This is connected with the greater convergence of nations on eliminating terrorism globally. That is why Western nations, for all their loud concerns on Sri Lanka’s human rights violations, have been helping her fight the LTTE.
- Only three countries – the US, Russia and Israel have demonstrated capability in this kind of operation. One or more of these countries could have assisted Sri Lanka. (India’s capability might be doubtful on this count although KP’s whereabouts were probably known to it.)
- There are a lot of other speculations in circulation. KP had all along been a shadowy figure; his sudden appearance and large scale visibility in the global media probably enabled intelligence agencies to pin point his actions and trap him. But it is difficult to accept that KP, a seasoned operator with many faces, was casual enough to indulge in an overt PR exercise. Or has he been betrayed by the rival faction of Nediyavan within the LTTE?
- The coordination required between the LTTE’s largely intact overseas elements and the local remnants in Sri Lanka now in hiding is going to be more and more difficult. Apparently there is no leader in the horizon capable of bonding the local and overseas segments. This could result in the surrender of more demoralised LTTE cadres.
- According to the Chief of Defence staff Gen. Sarath Fonseka at present 15-25 cadres per week are being identified and apprehended from the IDP camps. And the security forces’ strength in Jaffna has been increased by about 115% to 35,000 now. The CDS has once again reiterated that the army would continue to be deployed in all key locations to ensure security. Under the circumstances, the security forces are likely to meet with more successes in weeding out LTTE cadres and supporters.
- Buoyed by its success in arresting KP, Sri Lanka is likely to increase the pressure on overseas governments to act against LTTE cells. This could affect proto LTTE bodies’ activities in Tamil Nadu.
With all these impediments, at present the revival of militancy politics among Tamils appears to be a remote possibility. However, the security lobby is likely to play up the threat potential of the LTTE to station adequate force levels in former LTTE controlled areas to keep the heat on. Thus militancy politics is a non-option for Tamils, at least till such time the incubatory environment for its resumption is created.
The results of the local elections in Jaffna and Vavuniya need to be studied in this overall post war socio-political environment. In Jaffna, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm because the pro-LTTE/Eelam lobbies are either eliminated or under risk of compromise. They had always dominated Jaffna’s political space. Over the years the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) had curbed their activity and prepared the ground in Jaffna for its domination. So its success in alliance with the ruling coalition comes as no surprise. It now has an opportunity to carve out its own space and a distinct Tamil identity. Whether the people and the government would allow it to do so is the moot point.
There are three ways of interpreting the success of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in Vavuniya, where it came out as the party with the maximum number of seats. One, as a loyalty vote by pro-LTTE segments of the population, for the TNA. Two, as a vote for the TNA for its assertion of a Tamil identity and autonomy as issues for the election. I would go for the second reason given above for the TNA’s success.
Both Douglas Devananda of the EPDP and D. Sidharthan, leader of the Peoples Liberation Organisation for Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) have conceded their failure to do well in the elections for different reasons. The close identification of the EPDP with the government and ruling coalition was probably a handicap in Vavuniya where it had never been strong. On the other hand, PLOTE-led alliance Democratic Peoples Front (DPF), which polled only 0.8% less votes than the TNA, was expected to win as Vavuniya has been its base for a long time. With PLOTE ready to support the TNA there is a possibility of such an understanding growing further, if the TNA manages to subsume its image as an LTTE proxy. The TNA might just do that for its own survival.
For the government the northern election results were probably a disappointment. As the President plans to go for an early presidential poll, he would probably re-examine his alliance with Tamil parties to garner sizeable votes from the north which could tilt the balance. So probably we can expect to see some political sleight of hand. Overtures to the TNA from the SLFP in the coming months could be part of it.
In a nutshell, KPs arrest has probably foreclosed the option of any meaningful revival of the LTTE activity in the near term. So much would depend upon how the Tamil political leaders and people evolve a viable strategy to politically assert themselves in the coming months. So the choice has now been reduced to a one-horse race.
(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.)