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Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

LTTE: The Metamorphosis

by B. Raman
Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

SAAG Paper no. 448, 29 April 2002

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of Sri Lanka uses effectively the modus operandi (MO) of an insurgent as well as a terrorist organisation.

As an insurgent organisation, it has a hierarchial political and military structure and a fighting force organised on the patterns of a conventional people's liberation army. It seeks to secure and retain territorial control over the area in which the people for whom it claims to be fighting live and to establish the parapherlania of a state/administrative structure over the area under its control. Organisations, which rely exclusively on intimidation and terror for achieving their objective, generally do not have any of these characteristics. They avoid a rigidly hierarchial structure, territorial control and the parapherlania of a formal State or administration. They have no place in their MO for conventional warfare tactics.

As a terrorist organisation, the LTTE uses a cellular structure to prevent the infiltration of its set-up by the adversary State or non-State groups such as the rival Tamil organisations of Sri Lanka and does not hesitate to use ruthless forms of terrorism to intimidate and demoralise not only its State and non-State adversaries, but also the civilian population living in the area under the control of its State adversary.

As an insurgent organisation, it emulates the Vietcong of Vietnam and, as a terrorist organisation, the Al Fatah of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Since 1983, it has had a long history of active interactions with the various Palestinian terrorist organisations, the Hamas and the Hizbollah. Its interactions with the Popular Front For the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), then headed by George Habash, were particularly intense and it was in receipt of training and arms assistance from the PFLP.

When the late Rajiv Gandhi, the then Indian Prime Minister, faced difficulty in persuading Prabakaran, the leader of the LTTE, to accept the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, the then head of the PLO office in New Delhi contacted him and offered his good offices for making Prabakaran amenable to reason. After politely rejecting his offer, Rajiv Gandhi had enquiries made as to how the PLO representative claimed to have influence over Prabakaran. They revealed that without the knowledge of the Government of India, the PLO representative had been clandestinely interacting with Prabakaran, the late Kittu and other LTTE leaders and possibly extending financial assistance to them.

The influence of the PLO, its Al Fatah, the PFLP and other terrorist organisations of West Asia on the LTTE's MO could be seen in the following characteristics: its use of suicide terrorism; its networking with the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in different countries through a web of non-governmental organisations not overtly connected with the LTTE, but secretly working under its direction and control; and its business interests centred around its shipping fleet used overtly for legitimate commercial purposes, but covertly for narcotics and gun-running and other clandestine purposes. The fleet provides it with an important source of revenue and with the clandestine means for keeping its arsenal replenished. Initially, it built up its network of contacts with the clandestine world of arms and ammunition with the help of its West Asian friends, most of them then based in the Lebanon. Subsequently, it benefitted from its contacts in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia.

However much one may dislike the LTTE, one cannot deny that it has emerged as one of the most effective non-religious insurgent-cum-terrorist organisations of the world and as a conventional insurgent force with unconventional thinking and methods of operation. Its distinguishing characteristics are:

* Its ability to motivate its cadres to the same level of determination as a religious terrorist organisation, but without using religious arguments. The motivation remains as strong as ever despite the casualties suffered by it at the hands of the Sri Lankan Army and the difficulties faced by it in other countries, particularly after September 11, 2001.
* Its ability to train its cadres in the use of modern arms and ammunition as well as in the ruthless tactics of terror to a high level of perfection with no longer any need for external assistance for such training.

* Its ability for innovation and improvisation, which has been remarkably illustrated in one successful operation after another.

* Its effective intelligence and counter-intelligence apparatus, which has been able to repeatedly take the adversary by surprise and to thwart the efforts of its adversaries to penetrate the organisation.

* Its attention to details.

* Its ability to keep pace with the latest advances in science and technology and to use them for its operations.

In its fierce determination to achieve its political objective of a Tamil Eeelam, a separate Tamil State encompassing the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, the LTTE follows a no-holds-barred approach. It has had no qualms over letting its fleet be used for narcotics-running by the heroin barons of Pakistan and Afghanistan or for gun running to the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front of the Southern Phillipines by the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) of Pakistan in order to replenish its coffers and arsenal. It did not hesitate to accept a consignment of arms and ammunition from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan in 1993.
It is this no-holds-barred approach, which sowed the seeds of suspicion in the minds of the intelligence agencies of other countries, particularly in the West, over the likelihood of the LTTE emerging as a threat to their own security because of its linkages in the clandestine world of narcotics and arms and ammunition, its hobnobbing with the Pakistan and Afghanistan-based jehadi organisations etc.

Before 1991, the intelligence agencies of the rest of the world looked upon the LTTE more as an insurgent than as a terrorist organisation despite its involvement in ruthless acts of terrorism against other Sri Lankan Tamil leaders not prepared to accept its hegemony. Since 1991, they have been paying increasing attention to the activities of the LTTE outside Sri Lanka due to the following developments:

* Its assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
* Its unsuccessful efforts to procure microlite aircraft from the West in order to use them for air-borne terrorist operations.

* Its acceptance of a consignment of arms and ammunition from the ISI in 1993.

* Its assistance to the narcotics barons based in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

* Its assistane to the HUM in smuggling arms and ammunition to the southern Phillipines to help the religious terrorist groups there.

This increasing attention led to the following action:

* The designation of the LTTE as a foreign terrorist organisation by the USA under a 1996 law. Significantly, the HUM, then known as the Harkat-ul-Ansar (HUA), was also so designated.
* The subsequent ban on its activities in Canada and the UK.

Thus, even before September 11, 2001, the LTTE had started experiencing some difficulties in its funds and arms procurement activities in Western and Eastern Europe, but these were not of an insurmountable nature since it continued to have a free run of South-East Asia despite the increasing concerns of the countries of the region over its activities.
The post-September 11, 2001, developments such as the global war against terrorism, the UN Security Council Resolution No.1373 against terrorism, the freezing of the sources of terrorist funding, the close networking of the intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies of the world as part of the global war etc were matters of serious concern to the LTTE though it has had no links with Osama bin Laden and its Al Qaeda. This was due to the following reasons:

* The West conceded for the first time that terrorism has to be treated as an absolute evil, whatever be the objective of the organisation using terrorism and has to be combated determinedly by the nations of the world.
* The focus on funds flow to terrorist organisations was directed at all terrorist organisations of the world, whether they had links with the Al Qaeda or not.

* While the ground/air war against terrorism was essentially directed against the Al Qaeda and its affiliates in the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the USA and Israel, the intelligence co-operation was directed against all terrorist organisations, whether linked to the Al Qaeda or not.

* Since one of the objectives of the international coalition led by the USA was to bottle up the dregs of the Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their affiliates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and neutralise them there without allowing them to escape to other countries, an international watch was mounted on all terrorist organisations which might be in a position to help the dregs escape. The shipping fleet of the LTTE and its communication network have come in for special attention in this regard.

It is in this context that one has to see the post-September 11 metamorphosis of the LTTE, which has led to the Cease-fire Agreement of February 22, 2002, and the forthcoming negotiations in Thailand on the formation of an interim administration in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The metamorphosis appears, as of now, to be more opportunistic than genuine. It has not come about as the result of a realisation by the LTTE of the futility of violence. It has come about more as the result of a realisation by the LTTE that till the present war against the Al Qaeda and its affiliates ends, it would be unwise on its part to continue to use violence. It has decided to bide its time and see whether it can use this pause for making a forward movement towards its strategic objective of a Tamil Eelam, without recourse to arms for the time being. The change is essentially one of tactics and not of objective.
One cannot fault the desire and efforts of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe of Sri Lanka to try to take advantage of this metamorphosis, whether genuine or opportunistic, to bring about peace in Sri Lanka and to put the country again on the road to economic prosperity. But his style and his seeming over-anxiety to be seen by the LTTE as more accommodating than any other leader of Sri Lanka, particularly than President Chandrika Kumaratunga, disturbingly brings to mind the example of B. J. Habibie, the former interim President of Indonesia, whose similar style and over-anxiety led to an irreversible march of events towards an independent East Timor.

Thanks to Ranil Wickremasinghe, the LTTE seems to be well on the way to achieving a de facto Tamil Eelam to be concretised during the forthcoming talks in Thailand on the interim administration. Not only its humanitarian demands, but even some of its political demands such as the implicit recognition of its hegemony in the Tamil areas through the exclusion of other Tamil parties, the acceptance of the territorial control established by it through force of arms over some areas, the recognition of its right to extend its political activities to the areas not yet under its territorial control etc have been conceded. If the ban on the LTTE in Sri Lanka is lifted as demanded by Prabakaran prior to the forthcoming talks in Thailand and if the talks lead to an interim administration under the LTTE's hegemony, it would be only a question of time before the LTTE resumes military pressure for having the de facto Tamil Eelam converted into the de jure.

India faces a dilemma in the face of the march of events in Sri Lanka. The role of Prabakaran and his LTTE in the brutal assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and their many other acts of perfidy vis-a-vis India inhibit any meaningful initiatives by India in contributing to a search for a political solution which will preserve the integrity of Sri Lanka while meeting substantially the aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils. The consequent absence of Indian activism has led to an activist role by Norway as the facilitator and by the USA as the seeming guarantor of the interests of Colombo.

In the event of the Sri Lankan Government lifting the ban on the LTTE and the Thailand talks leading to an interim administration headed by Prabakaran or one of his nominees, with such an administration recognised and blessed by the international community, India's dilemma will become more acute. What are the ground realities and the options available to India?

First, the ground realities:

* Indian public opinion would not accept any denouement towards any exoneration of the responsibility of Prabakaran for the brutal murder of Rajiv Gandhi and would continue to insist that he be brought to trial in India.
* The LTTE cannot be wished away as the predominant Sri Lankan Tamil force and Sri Lankan Tamil public opinion would not accept any denouement which would not give the LTTE what it considers as its due in the new adminstration of the Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka.

In the face of these conflicting ground realities, the only option presently available seems to be to keep up the pressure for the extradition of Prabakaran and to encourage the emergence of a moderate leadership in the LTTE. At this moment, such an alternate leadership is nowhere in the horizon and appears to be a pipe-dream. This does not mean that India should not try for it. In fact, India should have started looking for such alternate leadership immediately after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. It has already wasted 11 years. It should not waste more.

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