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Tamil Tigers: A roar tilll the last gasp

[Express Buzz, Monday, 12 January 2009 07:49 No Comment]

the first week of December, less than a month before the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam abandoned Kilinochchi, two boats landed on the Eastern seaboard of Mulaitivu with precious cargo for the separatists. The boats, carrying arms and ammunition, had escaped detection and interdiction although intelligence had been passed on to the Sri Lankan navy. It was another indication that despite the loss, over a two-year period, of 10 cargo vessels the LTTE had been using to ferry arms, the Tigers were still finding ways and means to stay in the fight. Sri Lankan authorities concede that four to six LTTE arms vessels continue to be in play. But after the fall of Kilinochchi, the LTTE is now largely confined to one district — Mulaitivu. The western coast is denied to them. The only access to sea now is a strip of the Mulaitivu coastline, and then there are the jungles. Some will say the LTTE’s writ now runs only to about 40 sq km of real estate. Every day, the armed forces take a little piece of that away. The question now is: how long can Velupillai Prabhakaran hold on to this diminishing asset?

 

The dream shrinks

It’s a bit of a comedown for Prabhakaran who dreams of an entire nation for the Sri Lankan Tamils. When he started the war in 2006, he didn’t expect this turn of events. Off the record, a senior politician told this reporter during a recent visit to Colombo that the 54-year-old Tiger chief has no one to blame but himself. The politician cited the fact that Prabhakaran made sure the Tamils did not vote in the elections in sufficient numbers. If they had, they would have probably voted for Ranil Wickremasinghe. Consequently, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had earlier served as PM, won with a margin so narrow that it would not have given him much comfort. If Wickremasinghe had won, it would have been a different story.

 

The politician probably wanted to make the point that as a strategist Prabhakaran had lost it. The irony is that Rajapaksa took the battle to the Tiger hinterland and mauled them militarily. The Tigers have been on the run for so long now that they are running out of places to run to.

 

The Sri Lankan establishment is gung ho. “As a military organisation, the LTTE is broken. Finished. People here understand this,” a top defence source told this reporter. He outlined the downfall of the Tigers step by step, graphically, beginning with Prabhakaran calling all his commanders to Pudukudiyiruppu to tell them that he intended to use the ceasefire to buy time and regroup, re-arm, re-finance, procure, recruit, train and retake Jaffna in five years. The objective was to achieve parity with the Sri Lankan military.

 

Wobbly house

The idea was to strengthen the Eelam House, which, explained another top official, rests on four pillars. There was the diaspora that supported it. There was support from the local community. There were the finances. There was the military procurement. As long as the four pillars were strong Eelam House could not be shaken. Now it wobbles. How long will it stand?

 

There is fatigue in the diaspora. The batch of Tamils who went in the early Eighties still yearn for the homeland, but 25 years on, the new generation is not fired up in the same way about Prabhakaran’s monochromatic dream, which seems more distant today than at any previous point. People who have tracked the diaspora in various countries see a disenchantment setting in. The ban on the LTTE in key countries has introduced a deterrent. But the LTTE is not rea­lly strapped for finance. It has invested in many businesses that keep the money coming in. The other pillar: the one based on local support, say officials, is also shaky. “If you put a gun to the head of the Tamil and ask him to fight, how much motivation can be there?” asks an official. Rhetorically, of course.

 

The absence of even one local in Kilinochchi when the army moved in indicates that Prabhakaran still has a physical hold over the civilian population. The numbers are imprecise but anywhere between 2,50,000 and 4,00,000 are compressed into that small piece of land.  This, Col Karuna, a former LTTE commander who has thrown his lot in with the government, told this reporter over the phone, is “Prabhakaran’s last weapon”. He will want to use it for maximum effect. And the government knows it. The world is hoping this won’t happen. It remains to be seen who will blink in that face-off.

 

Political failure

Col Karuna, a former bodyguard of Prabhakaran, says all that remains of the LTTE chief’s dream is Pudukudyirrupu, Dharmapuram, Vishwamadu and the Muthiyam kattu jungle. From a monarch to a mayor. And Karuna, now an MP, was certain Mullaitivu would fall. It was just a matter of time.

 

Karuna, who now heads an LTTE breakaway faction called TMVP, says Prabhakaran failed because he refused to metamorphose into a political leader. He recalls that when he had come back from Oslo and met the LTTE leader in one of his many houses in Kilinochchi and declared that Prabhakaran had a good chance to get a federal solution, he got angry. “When we signed agreement in Oslo saying we will consider federal solution, he was angry. When I gave the agreement to Prabhakaran he got angry. He called a central committee meeting that called me a traitor. A separate country is best for us, not this federal solution.”

That is when Karuna decided enough was enough. He split the LTTE scene. Literally. Karuna wants to convey this to the audiences outside Sri Lanka: “So long as Prabhakaran is alive Tamil peoples can’t get any solution. He has killed more Tamilians than the Sri Lankans. That’s why Tamil people don’t like him.”

What is the support Prabhakaran enjoys? Taking a census of the Liberation Tiger is more complicated than taking a census of the normal tiger. Difficult even during peacetime, spoor reading and pugmark tracking is more complicated during conflicts. Which is why there is no clear assessment of exactly how many cadres they might have lost.

 

Still a formidable force

If you go by Sri Lankan government estimates, the Tigers must be at the point of extinction, which is clearly not the case. For example, the only death of a separatist leader advertised by the authorities in this long campaign is that of Tamil Chelvan. So, even as the Tigers are in full retreat their leadership is nearly wholly intact. And so is much of the weaponry. According to Indian estimates, the hardcore, battle-hardened cadres may have numbered 4,000 to 6,000 before the outbreak of hostilities, apart from about 4,000 non-military personnel who performed support functions such as logistics, stores and the like. In addition, male civilians were given some basic training of the civil defence type, and used to prepare the defensive line, dismantle whatever could be taken away from Kilinochchi and relocate. In two years of war the LTTE has lost close to 900 cadres, in the Indian estimate. About 120 were veterans. That means the defining battles still remain to be fought, although the battlefield has shrunk.

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