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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki) > The East: LTTE's Achilles Heel or Military Asset?

Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

The East: LTTE's Achilles Heel or Military Asset?
Northeastern Herald, August 24, 2002

The Hindu newspaper's Sambandan asked what was in my view the most useful question at Prabhaharan's press conference in Kilinochchi on March 10. Clearly Sambandan did not realise the import of his question at the time. �What would you consider the greatest military challenge that you had to ever face?' was his question. The LTTE leader pondered the matter for some time. Many expected him to say it was the Indian army.

I thought he might specifically refer to the battle of Nithihaikulam, deep in the jungles of Mullaithivu, where a special commando group of Ghurkhas were sent in for finishing him off. It was a fiercely fought battle- hand to hand at times. The LTTE leader was within a few feet of the Ghurkhas during the combat.

Although the Tigers eventually beat back the Indian commandos and killed Col. Bakshi, the officer who led the operation, there is no gainsaying the fact that it was a narrow shave indeed for Prabhaharan. To many, it appeared at the time that the Indian army was about to checkmate the LTTE.

The tales of Indian generals who lament that they could not do a proper job in Sri Lanka because their hands were tied by orders from Delhi not to kill Prabhaharan are plain untruths. The Ghurkhas went into the thick forests of Nithihaikulam with very clear orders to kill the Tiger leader and wipe out the organisation's main base camp.

So anyone familiar with the military history of the Liberation Tigers would have naturally expected Prabhaharan to tell Sambandan that the greatest military challenge that he ever had to face was the Indian army, or more specifically, the Niththihaikulam battle.

But the Tiger leader after the long pregnant pause said it was Op. Jeya Sikurui. He certainly did not intend to compliment the corrupt Gen. Ratwatte, who mercilessly drove the Sri Lanka army to destruction in the unrelenting jungles of the Vanni.

The answer was Prabhaharan's unique way of acknowledging to the world the importance of Karuna, the eastern commander who was seated by his side at the press conference.

Karuna was the overall commander of the LTTE's defensive operations and counter offensives against Jaya Sikurui. It was Karuna who commanded the LTTE forces that drove the army out of the Vanni.

It was the greatest honour Prabhaharan could have bestowed on any of his commanders.

Almost all who were present at the conference missed the message in his reply – and its implications.

The ramifications of the answer, among other things, would help us understand why the LTTE leader is able to inspire such ferocious loyalty among his troops and followers.

Prabhaharan readily acknowledges and perseveres in honouring those who stood by him and the Eelam cause in times of great danger and adversity against great odds.

The story of Charles Anthony (Seelan) of Trincomalee would illustrate this well. Seelan was a relatively junior member of the LTTE (in the late seventies). He was working under the directions of several seniors who were closely associated with Prabhaharan at the time.

The Tigers were struggling to survive after the split in the movement, which saw Uma Maheswaran and his loyalists going off with most of the organisation's assets. The attack on the Chavakachcheri Police station led by Charles Anthony was the turning point in the military fortunes of the LTTE when it was almost on the verge of sliding permanently into oblivion, swamped by the numerous armed groups that were mushrooming in the northeast in the early eighties.

Charles Anthony was killed in 1983. Great was the LTTE leader's grief. Three years later Prabhaharan, a scion of a conservative Hindu family that owns the old Shiva temple in Valvettithiurai, named his first-born Charles Anthony. When he formed the LTTE's first conventional military formation in 1991, he called it the Charles Anthony Padaippirivu.

It continues to be the LTTE's foremost conventional fighting formation under the general command of Balraj. The unit commemorates Charles Anthony every year.

Karuna and his troops went from Batticaloa when Op. Jeya Sikurui was threatening to slice Vanni in two and to eventually reduce the LTTE to a guerrilla group confined to pockets in the north.

The tide turned in favour of the LTTE under Karuna's command. More than 2000 fighters from Batticaloa laid down their lives to defend the LTTE's heartland in the Vanni.

So, Prabhaharan chose the best moment possible to express his gratitude for what Karuna and his fighters had achieved for him.

The sudden removal of Karikalan, Visu and Thurai has given rise to speculation that the LTTE's command structure in the east is unstable. One report went as far as to say that a disgruntled Karikalan was “running amok” there.

The stories arise from the traditional military wisdom in the south that the east is the LTTE's Achilles Heel given its ethnic diversity and contradictions, compounded by the fact that it has got a long and porous border.

Critics have argued that the LTTE is Jaffnacentric. They point to Dr. Balasingham's statement that Jaffna is the cultural capital of the Sri Lankan Tamils. The LTTE therefore is endemically incapable, according to them, of fully understanding or effectively handling the east which by virtue of its ethnic fault lines is naturally unstable, both politically and militarily.

This view has its roots in the LTTE's early military history. At the time when they first enunciated their military strategy for achieving their goal, the Tigers said they would first build up their strength in the peninsula through urban guerrilla warfare and gradually spread into the Vanni and the east once they were sure of their military power and resources in the peninsula.

They argued that in the first stage of their development as an armed national liberation movement they had to engage in low intensity guerrilla war, which required for its success the sympathy of the general population. The Tigers claimed that the popular support for carrying out hit and run operations was available only in the peninsula. This view didn't arise from the LTTE's Jaffnacentrism but was largely due to their inability at the time (early eighties) to develop substantial support points in the Vanni and the east. Most of the best fighters from the east and the Vanni who had joined the LTTE during the early period had to be based in Jaffna or Tamil Nadu. The names of Seelan (Trincomalee), Victor (Mannar) readily come to mind.

The Marxist groups in the Eelam movement squarely condemned the LTTE's strategy as Jaffnacentric. They argued that the middle classes of Jaffna who were in the majority in the peninsula would turn against the Eelam cause if and when they felt their material interests were directly threatened by the armed struggle.

Only the people who had little or nothing to lose would support the Eelam war to the very end, they said. The majority of the Jaffna middle classes who were the vociferous advocates of the armed movement for Eelam would back out and then betray the cause once the war was at their doorstep, prophesied the Marxists in the EROS and PLOTE.

That the LTTE had appointed persons from Jaffna at the time to run its affairs in Batticaloa was also adduced by sections of the Eelam left as a manifestation of the organisation's Jaffnacentric attitude. The Tiger leadership sent Ramu, Kaaka and Kumarappa (in that order) to command the eastern district until the local leadership became capable of managing the region on its own.

Karuna was appointed the commander for Batticaloa and Ampara in 1987. He is the only officer in the LTTE hierarchy and in the organisation's history who has held a regional command uninterruptedly for more than fifteen years.

And he is the only one who enjoys the greatest and unique devolution of power in the LTTE's regional command structure. Myriad complaints of child conscription, extortion from Muslims etc., haven't undermined his position.

Upstart Sri Lanka peace experts, who are being parachutes in to help resolve our problems these days, only too readily pontificate on how the east is the LTTE's Achilles Heel. They fail to see the writing on the wall – splashed in fading yellow on the shell-scarred Elephant Pass signboard, the customary signature of the Jeyanthan Padaipirivu, the LTTE's main fighting formation from the east, is still discernible. And unmistakable too is the message.


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