Tigers dominate decades of Tamil militancy
18 August 2004
"...A US army officer
covering South Asia whom I met in Washington many years ago
asked me why the Sri Lanka army is unable to raise
paramilitaries in the northeast that are large enough to
curtail the spread of the LTTE's influence in those regions
considered key to the counter insurgency campaign against
the Tigers. He had in mind paramilitaries like the right
wing AUC that controls large areas in Columbia and
terrorizes peasants who support FARC, the main Marxist
guerrilla organisation fighting the state in that country.
The AUC is estimated to be about ten thousand strong. It
plays a key role in the Columbian military's counter
insurgency campaign against FARC..."
The murder of Sinna Bala, one of the better-known personalities
of the EROS in the eighties, has further diminished the Tamil
opposition to the military power and political cause of the
Liberation Tigers. His death is yet another occasion to reflect on
the reasons that have caused the steady decline of Tamil groups and
parties opposed to the Tigers over the last decade.
TELO had the largest stock of weapons of all the armed groups in the
northeast when the LTTE wiped it out in the course of a few days in
April 1986. TELO had eight times more fighters than the LTTE. It had
India's full backing. PLOTE had six thousand fighters trained in
India and about twelve thousand trained in its military camps in the
northeast. Yet in September 1986 the organisation's local commanders
were compelled to announce that they were ceasing all their military
activities in the northeast to avoid bloodshed.
The EPRLF was much better armed and had six times more trained cadre
than the Tigers when it was decimated in November 1986. The Tamil
Eelam Army (TEA), which had an enviable stock of modern weapons at
that time, was simply banished.
The National Liberation Front Tamil Eelam (NLFT), a small but
influential Maoist group that was based largely in Jaffna, drove
down the road to perdition by splitting hairs over the question of
whether it should first build an armed wing or a mass political
movement. The theoretical squabble split the NLFT in two. The
splinter group called itself the People's Liberation Front of
Tamileelam (PFLT) before it dwindled to oblivion.
Tamil Eelam Liberation Army (TELA), which showed some promise of
growth in Jaffna in the beginning, was absorbed by the PLOTE after
its leader, 'Oberoi' Thevan, was shot dead by the Tigers. Then there
was a zany little outfit called Tamil Eelam Liberation Extremists
(TELE) led by a crackpot who loved to call himself 'TELE Jegan'. He
was shot dead when he began to hit the limelight with a few
Here one should mention in some detail the first regional armed
Tamil separatist group that rose to considerable prominence and
power in the formative period of the armed Tamil movement.
The group was established to fight for the cause of the people of
Batticaloa. It was active in 1983-84 and was started by a group of
PLOTE cadres in Batticaloa who were frustrated by the inaction of
the organisation's local leader Ramalingan Vasutheva.
Later they brought together two like-minded groups that were trying
to do something about "liberating Batticaloa from the clutches of
the Sinhala state" (as stated in its unpublished manifesto). The
young men of this 'Batticaloa liberation group' were fired not only
by the anti Tamil pogrom of July 1983 but also by the Mahaweli
Ministry backed attempt to colonise more than ten thousand Sinhala
families overnight in the Vadamunai region in the northwestern
corner of the Batticaloa district.
The de facto leader of the group 'Suresh' killed 'Mala
Ramachandran', a UNP organiser for Batticaloa, with a borrowed
shotgun. This was its first 'military action'. The Batticaloa
liberation group hit the headlines in the Tamil press in early 1984
when it stole an exploder from the highways department in Batticaloa
(The Tigers triggered the landmine that killed the thirteen soldiers
in Thinnevely in July 1983 with a similar electric exploder which
they removed from the Kankesanthurai Cement Factory).
A month later the group hit the headlines again when it robbed more
than 200 guns which were stored in the Batticaloa Fort. (The weapons
were mostly licensed shotguns and World War II vintage rifles,
repeaters and a couple of handguns including a magnificently inlaid
Browning .45 calibre pistol, which had been surrendered to Police by
their owners in Batticaloa during the JVP insurrection in 1971).
However, while the 'Batticaloa liberation group' was planning its
first big military action against the Police, Thayalan, the LTTE's
local leader at the time, started negotiations with of one its
'central committee' members called Karuna (not the renegade LTTE
commander). Thayalan is Suresh Manickavasagam who later migrated to
Canada and was made the LTTE's chief organiser there.
The talks were aimed at convincing the main leaders of the
Batticaloa group that they would be safer in the LTTE fold and they
could go to India if they were agreeable to a merger. This convinced
Karuna because the Police had found the identity of 'Suresh', the
group's de facto leader, and were on the verge of discovering a safe
house where some of the stolen weapons were buried. Karuna was the
son of a bank official and Suresh's father was a Policeman at the
Batticaloa Police station.
This was the end of the group that espoused the cause of Batticaloa
twenty years before Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan's botched attempt
to raise the eastern flag against Velupillai Pirapaharan.
Here one should also mention the Tamil Eelam Liberation Cobras
(TELC) which was also a Batticaloa based group. It was widely known
as the Cobra Army (Naaha Padai). It did little except call for
hartals and send out pre-recorded warnings to those whom it
considered traitors. The warnings ended with the hiss of a snake.
TELC caught the Batticaloa public's imagination and evoked fear.
Without clear direction or plan for military action, the TELC died a
natural death by the end of 1984. Also young men were keener at the
time to go to India for military training than work in Batticaloa.
The only armed Tamil separatist group that survived the LTTE during
the First Eelam War (1983-87) was EROS. And Sinna Bala (Bala
Nadaraja Iyer) was one of its better-known leaders in Jaffna.
EROS had an interesting theory at the time for surviving by playing
it safe with the Tigers. What follows is a summary of the
explanation I got from one of its central committee members in
Jaffna in 1986, a few days after PLOTE closed shop in the northeast.
"All the Tamil Eelam groups are led by the petit bourgeoisie class.
This class will never develop the political cohesion necessary to
take the struggle forward. Only the proletarian vanguard
organisation like the EROS can do it. The Tamil Eelam groups would
eventually cancel each other out because the essential class
character of the petit bourgeoisie inevitably gives rise to
un-resolvable contradictions. Therefore the EROS has to wait for the
right historical conjuncture to take leadership of the Eelam
I need not repeat here how the Tigers absorbed EROS a few years
later. The Indians created a second opportunity for the non-LTTE
groups to make a comeback in the northeast. The total strength of
the PLOTE, TELO, EPRLF and the newly formed ENDLF was at least ten
times higher than that of the LTTE when Pirapaharan decided to take
on the Indian army. This strength was further boosted when the TELO,
EPRLF, ENDLF troika conscripted young men for the Tamil National
Army (TNA). The finer details of why the TNA fell like ninepins when
the Indian army left Sri Lanka in 1990 are irrelevant here. The
political decline of these non-LTTE groups was almost inexorable
essentially because they could not deliver the alternative to Eelam
that they had promised to get for the Tamils when they accepted the
Indo-Lanka Accord. The Northeast Provincial Council experiment
Its chief minister, Varatharajaperumal, declared that he could not
deliver anything to the Tamils under the strictures of the unitary
state of Sri Lanka. His flight from Trincomalee after announcing the
intention to declare the northeast as a separate state proved the
If one reads the fourteen-point report that Perumal sent to
Premadasa and Rajiv Gandhi explaining why he was unable to
effectively deliver anything to the people of the northeast, one
would see outlines of some fundamental reasons cited by the LTTE for
setting up the ISGA. The bare fact is that the unitary state of Sri
Lanka does not permit the political space necessary for the anti
LTTE groups to survive. Deprived of political oxygen they have thus
been dying a natural death. No amount of financial and military
infusions will help revive them sans the political space which the
constitution of Sri Lanka denies them. This has been amply
demonstrated since 1988 when the Northeast Provincial Council was
Of course the lesson will never be learnt. Instead the southern
polity wants an apolitical, mindless Tamil killer machine against
the Tigers like the paramilitaries they make in Latin America. A US
army officer covering South Asia whom I met in Washington many years
ago asked me why the Sri Lanka army is unable to raise
paramilitaries in the northeast that are large enough to curtail the
spread of the LTTE's influence in those regions considered key to
the counter insurgency campaign against the Tigers.
He had in mind paramilitaries like the right wing AUC that controls
large areas in Columbia and terrorizes peasants who support FARC,
the main Marxist guerrilla organisation fighting the state in that
country. The AUC is estimated to be about ten thousand strong. It
plays a key role in the Columbian military's counter insurgency
campaign against FARC.
The Mohan Group was the only apolitical paramilitary that worked
with the Sri Lanka army. But Mohan did not have more than a dozen
associates. Even Razeek had political ambitions. The Tamil Eelam
movement dominated Tamil political life so much so that even
militarily rudderless minor groups were driven by political
idealism. That is why the Sri Lankan military cannot create an AUC
like paramilitary group in the northeast.
From a strictly military perspective this has been one of the
biggest drawbacks in the Sri Lanka army's counter insurgency
campaign against the Liberation Tigers.