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The LTTE in Crisis

Paper was first published in South Asia Intelligence Review [SAIR] Volume 6, No. 35, March 10, 2008

In the past few weeks there have been many media reports that point to the prevalence of confusion and disarray among the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE/Tigers) in the face of heavy losses inflicted by the armed forces of the Government of Sri Lanka. Apart from many references to injury sustained by the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in the course of an aerial bombardment in November 2007, there was some speculation that he may even have died. [Claims of Prabhakaran’s death may be set to rest after Prabhakaran’s ‘public appearance’ at the funeral of the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance Member of Parliament, P. Sivanesan, in the rebel-held Wanni area, of which the LTTE released photographs on March 9, 2008]. The specificities that embellish these reports, though ignored by spokesmen for the LTTE, have been refuted with disdain by several pro-LTTE writers. Given the questionable credibility of ‘news’ originating from either side of the great divide, it has seldom been possible to sort out the truth from fiction in the stories on the confrontational aspects of the Sri Lankan conflict. What can, consequently, be attempted is, first, to contextualise the recent surge of media attention on turbulences in the shrinking Tiger habitat of the ‘Vanni’ in northern Sri Lanka, without speculating on whether its leader is dead or dying or hibernating prior to a deadly leap at the jugular, and then, to synthesise the information on what prevails at present, extractable from sources less contaminated by propaganda objectives.

In the chequered history of the LTTE spanning the past three decades during which Prabhakaran has held sway as its supreme leader, there have been several spells over which its insurrectionary capacity suffered serious setbacks. Prominent among such recessions were: the brief eclipse of the LTTE in the aftermath of the Indian peace-keeping intervention in 1987; the worldwide anti-Tiger revulsion evoked by the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991; the strategic losses consequent upon its expulsion by the Sri Lankan armed forces from the Jaffna peninsula in 1995; the constraining effects on its international operations generated by the global tide of hostility towards terrorism following the al-Qaeda attack on the United States in 2001; and, more far-reaching in impact than any other, the internal revolt led by ‘Colonel Karuna’ in March 2004. The impression conveyed by the experiences in each of these episodes, however, is that the LTTE possessed the inner resilience and the external support required for recovery, if not entirely unscathed, at least with sufficient strength to persist with its campaign of warfare and terror. By contrast, the losses suffered in the more recent past appear to constitute an irreversible and aggravating trend featured by indications that could well portend a final collapse.

Despite the weakening of its grip on the eastern lowlands that resulted from the calamitous breakaway of the Karuna group, the LTTE leadership persisted with unswerving commitment to its goal of establishing a sovereign Tamil nation-state – ‘Eelam’ – encompassing the entire ‘northeast’ of Sri Lanka, the pledges of the ceasefire agreement of February 2000 notwithstanding. As in earlier times, its efforts were directed mainly at enhancement of military strength, expanding the territory under its control in the Northern and Eastern provinces and eliminating its rivals in that part of the country, mobilising international support for its cause, and destabilising the Government of Sri Lanka through carefully regulated intimidation and terror. That instigating a Sinhalese backlash of violence against the Tamils living outside the northeast – a re-enactment of 1983 – also remained a prime objective was underscored by the assassination of Sri Lanka’s charismatic Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, a provocative outrage committed in the final days of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s presidential tenure.

Colombo-based politics of the country during this period remained in a state of flux, featured by both frequent changes of the power configuration as well as intense electoral rivalry. Given the fact that the release of the foreign aid pledged by the donors remained conditional on progress being made towards a negotiated settlement of the conflict, Government policy had to accommodate two mutually conflicting needs – that of strengthening security and defence in the face of the mounting Tiger threat, on the one hand, and persistence with credible peace overtures to the LTTE, on the other. The latter encountered the almost insurmountable problem of fierce inter-party dissension on what could be offered to the Tigers without endangering the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.

On the eve of the presidential election of November 2005 Prabhakaran enforced a boycott of the polls in the north and parts of the eastern lowlands where Ranil Wickremasinghe, former Prime Minister and a frontrunner of the presidential stakes, would have attracted substantially more support than his rival Mahinda Rajapakse. This decision appears, in retrospect, to have been a monumental blunder that marks the onset of a drastic change in the fortunes of Prabhakaran’s Eelam campaign. The boycott decision was evidently based upon the premise that Wickremasinghe, hailed internationally as the ‘peace candidate’, if elected, would, with his commitment to power-sharing under a federal system of Government, place in serious jeopardy the case for a secessionist campaign. Prabhakaran’s expectation was that Rajapakse, if successful in his presidential bid, backed as he was by electoral allies vehemently opposed to a political compromise involving devolution of power to the northeast, would actually attempt to implement his campaign pledges to jettison the ceasefire agreement, to evict the “White Tigers” (Norwegians) from their role as facilitators of peace negotiations, and to discard the notion of LTTE being the sole representative of the Tamils. Such a hawkish approach, the LTTE leadership believed, would pave the way for a resumption of military confrontations in earnest, backed by vastly enhanced international sympathy and support for the rebels’ cause.

Having contributed to Rajapakse’s victory at the election, the LTTE leaders began to test the resolve of the new President. Thus, while articulating with greater vehemence than ever before their earlier demands for Government intervention in disarming the Karuna group, and for constitutional power over the northeast pending a final resolution of the conflict, they launched a series of guerrilla attacks and acts of terrorism which, in April 2006, reached the heart of Colombo’s defence establishment in the near-successful attempt to assassinate the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

The sharply escalating level of violence did not evoke a retaliatory response from the Government, at least for some time. Rajapakse persisted with his pursuit of peace, risking, in the process, the support of some of his parliamentary allies. He established an ‘All-Party Representative Committee’ tasked with formulating constitutional reforms based on the axiom of devolution. He backed the Norwegian efforts at facilitating fresh peace negotiations, expressing a solemn hope that the brief meeting between delegates of the Government and the LTTE staged at Geneva in February 2006 would mark the resumption of a continuing dialogue with the Tiger leadership. Rajapakse was also reported to have made a ‘secret’ attempt to establish direct contact with the LTTE high-command, knowing fully well that the attempt would not be kept concealed from Sri Lanka’s friends abroad. The intensifying LTTE violence, however, could not be ignored indefinitely. From the commencement of Rajapakse’s presidency up to the bomb attack on the Army Commander (approximately 150 days), 150 armed services personnel, in addition to about 150 civilians, had been killed by the LTTE. The animosity between the LTTE and the security forces had reached such fever pitch, and the nationalists’ pressure for some retaliation had become so intense that the President was eventually compelled to initiate a series of air strikes on identified LTTE bases. Nevertheless, as the President had surmised, the continuing belligerence of the LTTE, on the one hand, and the show of restraint by the Government, on the other, did resonate in the policy stances, vis-à-vis Sri Lanka, of several western Governments, both in a substantially enhanced flow of aid as well as in the imposition of sanctions on the LTTE in member-states of the EU and in Canada in May-June 2006.

The repercussions of Prabhakaran’s capricious gamble at the presidential polls soon instilled into his strategy a sense of desperation. This found expression in a series of ‘Sea Tiger’ attacks (including an act of piracy) that evoked strictures from several quarters including the Secretary General of the UN and the Head of the Scandinavian ‘Ceasefire Monitoring Mission’ stationed in Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran retaliated by demanding the removal of all non-Norwegian members of the Monitoring Mission from the northeast. The tempo of violence was increased further with a spate of attacks on military and civilian targets in all parts of the country. Then came the major military showdown in the eastern lowlands that began on July 20, 2006, in the form of a ‘riparian’ confrontation in the irrigation channel system of Mavil Aru (south of Trincomalee) which compelled the Government to retaliate in earnest, with a nod of approval from the US. Thereafter, following a series of bloody battles that lasted up until mid-2007 in the course of which the LTTE incurred heavy losses, the rebels were finally evicted from the entire Eastern Province.

Throughout this period of intense military activity in the ‘East’, confrontations between the security forces and the LTTE elsewhere in the country took various forms. The Forward Defence Lines (FDL) of the Government-controlled areas in the Jaffna peninsula and in the hinterland of Mannar continued to be venues of low intensity clashes, with occasional flare-ups of short duration. In localities adjacent to the FDL in Vavuniya District, Army killings of suspected insurgents and LTTE claymore-mine attacks and ambushes of Army patrols occurred in routine fashion. The severe ‘maritime’ losses suffered by the LTTE during these months included the sinking of eleven of its vessels off the east coast. More significant, as an ingredient of the LTTE military debacle than any other, was the destruction caused by the constant barrage of aerial bombardments in one of which (November 3, 2007) Thamilchelvan, Head of the LTTE’s political wing, perished, and in another (November 27, 2007), Prabhakaran suffered injury.

These military defeats constitute only one (albeit the key) component of the current LTTE crisis. The mutually interacting ‘external’ misfortunes of the Tigers in the recent past include the death in December 2006 of Anton Balasingham, who had served for well over two decades as, by far, the most effective international spokesman and propagandist for the secessionist campaign. The impact of the loss of its carefully nurtured image of invincibility has been even more profound, especially on the support from the expatriate Sri Lankan Tamil communities whose responses to fluctuating fortunes of the LTTE have never been devoid of elements typical of ‘cheer-squad’ reactions. Recent reports also indicate that the increasingly stringent enforcement of anti-terrorism regulations in some of the western countries has curtailed both diaspora funding as well as other operations of LTTE agents and ‘front’ outfits abroad. The crescendo of their desperate campaign for UN ‘humanitarian intervention’ against the alleged proliferation of human rights violations in Sri Lanka has achieved a measure of success in generating external pressures against the country’s war effort, but has had no mitigating effect on the pariah status of the Tigers.

Foremost among the ‘internal’ causes for the present LTTE crisis is the prevailing trend towards factional disintegration of its leadership which, as the related evidence suggests, could well represent the emergence at the surface of subterranean rivalries that had been in existence all along. It may be recalled that the departure of Karuna itself caused a mini-purge in the Tiger leadership. Thereafter, when Thamilchelvan was killed in November 2007, certain critics (among them, S.R. Balasubramaniam, Congress Party leader in the Indian State of Tamil Nadu), cast doubt on the ‘official’ explanation of the death, and pointed to the possibility of Thamilchelvan having been killed by Prabhakaran in the same way he had liquidated other potential rivals in the past. In addition, throughout the recent years, there has been the barely concealed animosity between two of the highest ranking Tiger leaders – ‘Pottu Amman’ (alias Shanmuganathan Sivasankaran, the feared Head of the Tiger intelligence network whose spectacular ‘hits’ include the masterminding of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination) and ‘Soosai’(alias, Thillaiyampalan Sivanesan), the charismatic ‘Sea Tiger’ ‘admiral’. According to an analysis of this rivalry by the journalist D.B.S. Jeyaraj, when Soosai [who had been accused by Pottu Amman of connivance with the renegade Karuna and the Indian external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)] suffered serious injury in 2004 while engaged in a speed-boat manoeuvre (though the injury was officially attributed to an accident) the widespread and lingering belief within the LTTE that it was the consequence of an attempt by Pottu to murder Soosai had given rise to clashes among its rank and file, which took a long time to subside. Factional rivalries of this type in the Vanni and their repercussions outside the country are likely to intensify if, indeed, the reported weakening of Prabhakaran’s grip over the LTTE contains substance.

Yet another ‘internal’ dimension of the crisis is seen in the recent resurgence of several anti-LTTE political organisations among the Tamil community of Sri Lanka, most of which were reconciled to a shadowy existence in the heyday of the Tigers in the past. Tamil critics of the LTTE have become bolder in expressing their views than ever before. Some among them repeatedly announced that the ‘Eelam’ campaign is doomed. A distinction between the LTTE interests and those of the Tamils of Sri Lanka is being drawn with clarity and vehemence. There is also a publicly expressed suspicion that the recent spate of murders of several pro-LTTE activists operating outside the northeast represents the work of such organisations, the members of which rank among the innumerable victims of LTTE terror.

As a barrier to progress towards statutory recognition of the entire northeast as a ethnically distinctive entity (which, of course, constitutes the conceptual basis of the secessionist campaign), the Supreme Court verdict announced on October 16, 2006, according to which the then existing amalgamation of the Northern and Eastern provinces to constitute a single unit of Provincial Government (a sequel to the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987) had all along (since the expiry of 12 months after the related constitutional amendment) been constitutionally ultra vires, is even more insurmountable than the military eviction of the LTTE from the east.

The cumulative impact of these complex military and political reverses on the LTTE has been devastating, producing the most acute crisis of the group’s existence. Sustained Government operations in the North now have the capacity to inflict progressive damage on the rebel infrastructure and support base, increasingly undermining any residual potential for recovery and consolidation.