Selavarajah Padmanathan is every immigration
official's walking nightmare. An inconspicuous man of
medium height and build, the 41-year-old Sri Lankan
carries several passports, changes names frequently and
has access to multiple bank accounts across the globe.
He also has an impressive facility for forging
Using the alias T.S. Kumaran, but better known
simply as "KP," Padmanathan works in a high-pressure
job that demands the skills of a businessman, banker
and smuggler. Head of a transnational team, he has the
job of supplying a 10,000-strong guerrilla army -- the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) -- with the
hardware to wage a war that has already claimed over
50,000 lives. Before "KP" retires, the Tamil Tigers'
struggle will almost certainly claim thousands more.
For over a decade, Padmanathan has stayed at least
one jump ahead of his trackers. Last year he was
sighted in Phnom Penh and Bangkok. Today he might be
negotiating a shipment of Chinese rocket-launchers with
a friendly Australian arms dealer in a five-star Hong
Kong hotel. Next week he may be discussing the price of
silence with a Thai customs official in a Phuket
One thing is certain: KP's job is not getting
easier. The Tigers, who since 1983 have campaigned for
an independent state in the north and east of Sri
Lanka, are now fighting with their backs to the wall.
Having lost their capital of Jaffna in a major reverse
last December, they have since been squeezed out of the
entire Jaffna peninsula, which for five years they ran
as a rebel mini-state. And Sri Lanka's Army shows no
signs of easing the pressure: since early this month,
government troops have hit hard at long-time Tiger
bases in eastern Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts.
The increasingly bloody tempo of the war has thrown
into sharper focus than ever the international
dimension of the LTTE. A complex, shadowy network
developed over more than a decade, it mirrors the
sophistication of the quasi-governmental structure
built by the Tigers in Sri Lanka itself. Drawing on the
loyalties and resources of members of a global Tamil
diaspora, the network -- call it LTTE International
Inc. -- links commercial companies and small
businesses, informal banking channels, a fleet of
ships, political offices, aid and human rights
organizations, arms dealers and foreign mercenaries.
Led by its 41-year-old supremo, Velupillai
Pirabaharan, the Tigers have become far more than a
jungle army in an isolated war. "The LTTE functions
like a multinational corporation with resources all
over the world," notes one former Tamil militant.
"Pirabaharan's acumen is as much that of a CEO as of a
military commander. He knows whom to use for what."
The transnational and often secretive presence of
the LTTE and its front organizations is increasingly
unsettling governments in Asia and the West. Goaded by
Colombo, countries including Switzerland, Canada,
Australia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines have
expressed concern in recent months over LTTE activities
-- and in some cases moved against them. Broadly, say
analysts, LTTE International functions on three
distinct levels: publicity and propaganda, arms
procurement, and fundraising. While the networks
overlap to some extent, operationally they remain
The public face of the LTTE is best associated with
Lawrence Thilakar, a Jaffna-born Tamil and graduate of
Jaffna University who joined the movement in the early
1980s. Soft-spoken in gold-rimmed glasses, the
mustachioed Thilakar might be mistaken for a university
But like Pirabaharan in Sri Lanka's northern jungles
or Padmanathan in the arms bazaars of East Asia, he is
fighting a war no less important for the realization of
the Tigers' goals. For the most part, Thilakar
operates from an LTTE office in a nondescript Paris
apartment block. The spartan room is decorated with
posters of Pirabaharan in military fatigues and
calendars featuring color pictures of Tamil children
killed by government bombing.
For years he has traveled widely, repeating a
tireless message: victims of discrimination and
military oppression, Sri Lanka's Tamil minority can
never coexist with the island's dominant Sinhalese
majority. Until the Tamils, led by the LTTE, are
granted their own homeland, he says, peace is
"The basic blunder on the part of the [Sri Lanka]
government is assuming that the Tamil people and the
LTTE are different things," Thilakar says. "But the
LTTE is the only party struggling for the rights and
self-determination of the Tamil people. Other militant
parties have given up those ideas."
Thilakar operates at the apex of a quasi-diplomatic
organization that comprises 38 offices globally. Aside
from centers in leading Western states with large Tamil
communities, the Tigers are represented in countries as
far-flung as Norway and Botswana. The LTTE also works
through sympathetic umbrella groups such as the
Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations and the
Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils.
The war for international hearts and minds is
conducted at a level of sophistication far more
advanced than anything Colombo has reached. Diplomatic
missions and news organizations receive daily faxes
detailing -- albeit selectively -- battlefield reports
transmitted by satellite phone links.
The LTTE puts out slick videos projecting in
gut-churning detail the results of government air
strikes (while editing out LTTE military units the
planes are trying to target.) And it uses the Internet
both as a propaganda tool and a means to appeal for
funds. On one Eelam page, the reclusive Velupillai
Pirabaharan -- a man with the record of a ruthless and
single-minded autocrat -- emerges as a lover of
literature and a patron of the arts. By contrast, the
Tigers' arms-procurement network has always been
shrouded in secrecy. No less global in its reach than
the propaganda wing, it has been painstakingly built up
since 1983 and is backed by tens of millions of
At its foundation is Velvettiturai, a sun-bleached
fishing port on the north coast of the Jaffna
peninsula, colloquially known as VVT. Birthplace of
Pirabaharan, it has long been the center of a web of
Asia-wide LTTE commercial, maritime and smuggling
contacts. For centuries the traders of VVT -- from a
distinct Tamil seafaring caste -- crisscrossed the Bay
of Bengal, venturing as far as the South China Sea and
Java. With the gaining of independence in 1948, some
became smugglers ferrying contraband across the Palk
Strait between India and Sri Lanka.
"Even before the days of armed struggle VVT had a
problem with the army, the police and the state," says
Thavarajah, a former Tamil militant who is now a
politician. "There was an antagonism, an attitude of
resistance. It was inbred in anyone who grew up there."
In the early years of the Tamil militancy, VVT
provided the LTTE and its forerunner, the Tamil New
Tigers, with both leaders and a marked logistical edge
over other militant groups.
Even before the bloody anti-Tamil riots in July 1983
that pushed the island into open insurgency, the LTTE
had established links in the Indian state of Tamil
Nadu. Between 1983 and 1987 these expanded dramatically
as India provided sanctuary, training and weapons for a
clutch of Sri Lankan militant factions.
Still, Pirabaharan remained suspicious of Indian
motives and the extent of New Delhi's commitment to his
own vision of an independent Eelam. Never a favorite of
India's external intelligence service, the Research and
Analysis Wing (RAW), Pirabaharan began to develop
contacts with local politicians and businessmen. That
led to the setting up of the first independent
arms-manufacturing plants both in Tamil Nadu and on the
Jaffna peninsula. Pirabaharan also began to look
abroad for equipment and turned first to VVT commercial
contacts in Singapore for help in buying radios.
"Pirabaharan thought like any good merchant
capitalist from VVT," recalls one militant. "He
registered a company in Singapore, invested in
Malaysia, started a shipping company in Cyprus, played
the share-market in London."
But it was KP who focused on setting up a department
specializing in document forging and extending the
international network. In 1984, he organized one of the
LTTE's early weapons purchases with an Australian arms
dealer who was to remain a trusted business partner.
Early shipments were run to India and from there moved
in speed boats across the Palk Strait to Jaffna or the
Between 1985 and 1986 the LTTE phased out chartered
vessels and allegedly with the help of Pratima Das, a
Bombay shipping magnate, began to buy its own
ocean-going vessels. The fleet -- which today numbers
five or six small freighters -- was registered under
Panamanian, Honduran or Liberian flags, crewed often by
VVT Tamils and owned by various front companies.
"Ninety percent of the time they were transporting
legitimate commercial goods: timber, paddy or
fertilizer," says Rohan Gunaratna, a noted Sri Lankan
authority on the Tigers. "The ships are just one of the
LTTE's commercial ventures."
Then as today Singapore, strategically situated on
key shipping lanes with a developed banking
infrastructure, was a central hub in the LTTE's
weapons-purchasing network. And Yangon, where
Pirabaharan's grandfather had owned property, was an
early port of call for LTTE freighters. Parallel with
the ships came Tiger trading companies established by
Padmanathan and associates in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore,
Yangon, Dhaka, Chittagong and elsewhere. "In the
mid-Eighties, [the LTTE network] was coming along
slowly," says one Sri Lanka analyst. "They had the
assistance of the Indians and were getting stuff
themselves. It was in the late Eighties that it went
into a gallop."
As Pirabaharan had foreseen, that gallop was spurred
on by changes in Indian policy toward Sri Lanka. While
eager for a federalist solution to the conflict, New
Delhi had no desire to see an independent Tamil state
on the island, which would have inevitable
repercussions on Tamil Nadu state politics. In July
1987, the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord was signed, and Indian
Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) troops arrived in northern
By October, they were involved in a war with the
Tigers that was to last until their humiliating
withdrawal February 1990. Within months of their
departure, the India-backed Tamil National Army
collapsed in the face of LTTE attacks and Pirabaharan's
domination over the Tamil movement was complete. The
LTTE-IPKF war left a deep scar on the institutional
psyche not only of the proud Indian Army but also of
the intelligence service, RAW. "They felt cheated,"
recalled one senior Tamil militant.
"They thought they could control the LTTE, and that
was a fatal mistake." There were also practical reasons
for RAW's antagonism. Despite the war in Sri Lanka, the
LTTE still ran an extensive network of businesses in
Tamil Nadu aided by then chief minister Muthuvel
Karunanidhi, who was dismissed by New Delhi in early
1991. Moreover, in 1990 the Tigers also opened contacts
with two Indian insurgent forces, one in Assam in the
northeast, the other in the southern state of Andhra
Pradesh. But ties to Indian rebels paled beside the
act that many close observers argue was Pirabaharan's
greatest blunder. On May 21, 1991, Dhanu, an LTTE
human-bomb, destroyed herself and Rajiv Gandhi, scion
of India's foremost political dynasty.
Prompted both by anger over Gandhi's role in the
IPKF intervention and fears that he might move against
the LTTE should he return to power, the killing
propelled Tiger terrorism onto international radar. It
also finally hardened the resolve of India's security
and intelligence establishment against the machine it
had helped to create. It was a sea change. Prior to
1991, the LTTE's activities were of only passing
interest to Western or Asian nations. That indifference
was reinforced by Colombo's appalling human-rights
record and the perception in the West of the Tamil
guerrillas as underdogs. Gandhi's killing, however,
resulted in a sweeping crackdown on LTTE networks in
Tamil Nadu. It also pushed the Tigers into a covert war
with RAW, one of Asia's largest intelligence services.
India's official line then, as now, was one of
non-interference in Sri Lankan affairs.
But RAW's covert agenda was to check the LTTE at
every possible turn. "There's a RAW campaign against us
everywhere," says an angry Thilakar. "RAW is doing the
Colombo government's work for it." By the early 1990s,
Padmanathan had substantially diversified the LTTE's
arms network. Sources that in the early days relied on
West Asian and European dealers -- with end-user
certificates often obtained from pliable Nigerian
officials -- extended their reach to cover Southeast
Asia and Pakistan's booming Afghan arms bazaar.
LTTE operatives appear to have had no problems
operating in Pakistan. To the extent that Islamabad's
security services were aware of their presence, any
enemy of India was a friend of Pakistan. KP himself
was spending a lot of time in Bangkok, where a large
South Asian community and easy-going Thai ways made for
a conducive operating environment. An important LTTE
cell was established on the Andaman coast in the Thai
town of Trang before it was shifted north to a front
company in Phuket. Deals with global arms dealers were
also put together in Hong Kong, while Singapore became
the favored market for the purchase of "dual-use" items
such as computers, electronics, outboard motors and
But it was in Myanmar where the Tigers found their
cosiest home away from home. LTTE vessels are believed
to have begun shipping timber from Myanmar to Thailand
in the late 1980s, a line of business that soon brought
them into contact with the Myanmar military. Some time
after mid-1990, the contacts resulted in the
establishment of an LTTE base at the small town of
Twantay, in the Irrawaddy delta south of Yangon. At the
very least, the base is understood to have consisted of
a communications and transshipment facility.
Whether the Myanmar military junta as a whole was
aware of the situation remains unclear. But analysts
doubt that the Yangon Command's military chief,
Lt.-Gen. Myo Nyunt, could have been ignorant. European
intelligence sources are said to have blown the whistle
on the Twantay base. Following protests from Sri Lanka,
the facility was quietly closed down last year. Since
then, an embarrassed junta has scrambled to assure
aggrieved Sri Lankans that the goings-on in the
Irrawaddy delta had in fact never occurred.
Twantay was not the only door to close after the
Tigers departed. For months, the LTTE made use of an
island in the Andaman Sea to train their Sea Tiger
naval wing. According to intelligence sources,
Norwegian mercenaries assisted in the training of Tiger
frogmen in underwater demolition techniques. The Tigers
returned to Sri Lanka to teach other fighters whose
skills were later displayed in the sinking of a string
of Sri Lankan naval vessels.
Gaining an effective anti-aircraft capability --
specifically surface-to-air missiles -- was another
LTTE objective. Tiger guerrillas had training in the
use of SAMs courtesy of a RAW course in 1985.
But India had been careful never to release missiles
to their Tamil protégés. Initial efforts to
acquire Stingers from the Afghan war-theater proved
abortive. It was not until 1994 that KP was able to get
his hands on Soviet-made SA-7s. The missiles are
believed to have been sold by corrupt Cambodian
generals and transported across the Thai border in late
1994. The weapons reached the Sri Lanka coast well
before the Tigers resumed hostilities on the island in
April 1995. The SA-7s were used to down two aging Avro
transport planes on April 28 and 29. Explosives have
also been needed for the LTTE's local munitions
Traditionally these were shipped across the Palk
Strait from India. But even before the anti-LTTE
crackdown in Tamil Nadu, demand for more sophisticated
weapons was pushing the LTTE farther afield. The
largest single consignment to arrive in Sri Lanka came
even as the LTTE was ostensibly talking peace with the
government in mid-1994. In August of that year, an
LTTE vessel later identified as M.V. Swanee left the
Ukrainian Black Sea port of Nikolayev. It carried 50
tons of TNT and 10 tons of RDX explosives.
The consignment had been arranged by a Dhaka front
company, Carlton Trading, and the paperwork was up to
usual LTTE standards. An end-user certificate
purportedly signed by Bangladesh's secretary for
defense indicated its military as the approved
recipient. The Swanee arrived off the northeastern Sri
Lanka coast in September, having called at Twantay en
route. By that time the ship had a different name.
Protected by Sea Tiger speed boats, its deadly cargo
was off-loaded and transferred to several jungle bases.
Some of the Ukrainian RDX was put to horrific use on
Jan. 31 this year: a truck-bomb exploded outside the
Central Bank building in Colombo killing 91 and
injuring over 1,400. It was one of the most devastating
terrorist attacks in history.
But improved intelligence work and stepped-up Indian
and Sri Lankan naval patrols have complicated KP's work
and cost the LTTE several vessels. One was the M.V.
Yahata, which left Phuket in January 1993. By then, the
Thai port had become a focus of Indian intelligence
interest. (One submarine understood to be Indian had
been sighted from the air near the harbor apparently
spying on shipping activity.) On board the Yahata --
along with a shipment of arms and explosives -- was
Krishnakumar Sathasivam. Better known as "Kittu," he
was the former LTTE Jaffna commander and a close
In the Bay of Bengal, the M.V. Yahata became M.V.
Ahat by the simple expedient of painting over the first
and last letters in the ship's name. But on Jan. 13, it
was intercepted by the Indian Navy and three days
later, at a point 700 km southeast of Madras, the final
act was played out. Kittu and other Tigers aboard
permitted the crew to swim for safety, then detonated
explosives on board and went down with the ship.
The biggest LTTE maritime disaster, however,
occurred earlier this year. A shipment of weapons,
ammunition and explosives believed to have been
purchased from Cambodia and worth several million
dollars left the port of Phuket in early February
aboard the freighter Comex-Joux 3. At sea, in line with
LTTE standard procedure, the vessel changed its name to
Horizon. But a tip from Western sources in Thailand had
already blown the game.
On its journey across the Bay of Bengal, the
freighter was tracked by the Indian Navy and
Orissa-based spy planes of the Aviation Research
Center, a RAW sister organization. It was intercepted
by Indian naval vessels off Sri Lanka's east coast. On
Feb. 14, as the Indians stood guard, Sri Lankan Puccara
attack fighters and patrol boats moved in for the kill.
After the heavy Jaffna fighting of late 1995 in
which around 600 Tigers were killed, the loss of the
Comex-Joux could hardly have come at a worse time.
"They expended a hell of a lot of ammunition in the
second half of '95," notes one Western military analyst
in Colombo. "The loss of that ship was significant."
Replacing those munitions and maintaining the Tiger war
machine in the field will hinge inevitably on funds
raised from an international Tamil diaspora of 450,000
to 500,000. Following the loss of a substantial
population and taxation base on the Jaffna Peninsula,
the LTTE's international funding is today more
important than ever.
The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora is concentrated mainly
in North America, Western Europe and Australia. Some
140,000 Tamils live in Canada alone, over 85% in the
Toronto area. And almost everywhere, political
mobilization and the collection of financial donations
is a monopoly of the LTTE.
Studies in various countries suggest that expatriate
Tamils part with their money for several reasons. Many
are, or have been, believers in the Tiger prescription
of a separate state as the only long-term solution to
The war and atrocities committed in the past by
Sinhalese security forces have only reinforced that
perception. Some, often illegal migrants or asylum
seekers on the fringes of an alien society, see in the
well-entrenched LTTE a form of insurance. For others,
fear -- either for themselves or for relatives in
LTTE-controlled areas -- is a powerful incentive to aid
the cause. "Collection is often a form of blackmail,"
notes one Sri Lankan analyst. "It might be: We know
your mother is on the [Jaffna] peninsula, so pay up."
Hard-knuckle extortion seems to have played a part
in LTTE fundraising in Switzerland, where there are
some 23,000 Sri Lankan Tamils. According to LTTE
sources, Tamil donors are coaxed to part with $40 to
$80 each month. Encouragement does not always stop at
Following a spate of violent incidents, including
several murders, Swiss police finally moved. A
nationwide roundup in the early hours of April 10
netted 15 suspects including the LTTE's Swiss chief,
Nadarajah Muralidaran. He and others are charged with
extortion and threats of violence. "Before, there were
allegations by Tamils, but never any witnesses prepared
to go public," one Swiss official told Asiaweek. "That
now seems to be changing."
In addition to direct donations, LTTE coffers also
benefit from investments in small Tamil-run businesses.
In many cases these operate on a system of ownership by
proxy in which the initial investment is made by the
Tigers and profits are subsequently split between the
party and the business's ostensible owner. This type of
operation is favored in Tamil Nadu.
Despite a crackdown in the state the LTTE is, as one
Tamil politician puts it, "still doing very well
financially." Rough estimates of the LTTE's monthly
revenues are telling. From Switzerland, best guesses
are that the Tigers bank $660,000 monthly. In Canada,
officers of the Asian Crime Task Force have calculated
the Tigers pull in around $730,000 monthly. In Britain,
sources estimate a monthly income of around
Says Sri Lankan scholar Rohan Gunaratna: "It's
fair to say the LTTE is making at least $2 million per
month. And this year over 60% of their income is
probably coming from abroad."
Almost inevitably, accusations of drug-running have
become a contentious piece of the LTTE's financial
jigsaw. In the increasingly hard-fought propaganda war
waging between Colombo and the Tigers, the government
has not hesitated to claim the LTTE owes its rise in
large measure to the Asian heroin trade.
"Collection of money from Tamil expatriate sources
is insignificant compared to income from narcotics,"
asserts one senior Sri Lankan diplomat. Other analysts
point to the well-established nexus between
international narcotics and arms trafficking. "The
fastest and easiest money in this region is drug
money," notes a Bangkok-based analyst of the trade.
"And the Tigers would be in a privileged position to
move drugs given their transport network."
The same analyst also points to close personal ties
between leading Myanmar narcotics traders and senior
military figures with whom the LTTE is likely to have
had contact. But hard evidence implicating the LTTE
and its leadership in narcotics has been conspicuously
lacking. Undisputed is that in the late 1980s Tamil
expatriates and asylum seekers emerged as important
movers of Afghan and Pakistani heroin via India and
West Asia to Europe.
Many were arrested and jailed, notably in Italy, and
many had contacts with a range of Tamil militant groups
including the LTTE. Indeed, one former militant told
Asiaweek his first arms-buying visit to Pakistan in
1984 had been in the company of Tamil heroin smugglers.
None of that, though, has served convincingly to
indict the LTTE as an organization engaged in the
narcotics trade today. Indeed, some governments see
Colombo as playing up the drug issue to elicit aid and
cooperation for its anti-LTTE struggle. "The government
is looking for any hook to get us more engaged," says
one Colombo-based diplomat. "They're after the
international community to provide the silver bullet."
Nevertheless, international perspectives on the war
in Sri Lanka are undoubtedly shifting. In one sense,
the LTTE -- an uncompromising product of a liberation
ideology that grew to maturity at the height of the
Cold War -- is being overtaken by a transformed global
environment. "There's been a significant change in
perceptions particularly in countries like Canada and
Australia that have big Tamil constituencies," reflects
the Western diplomat. "In the past they've been
supportive or at least even-handed. That's definitely
The Tigers mostly have themselves to thank for that.
While not all countries are comfortable with Colombo's
characterization of the LTTE as a "terrorist
organization," recent actions have done nothing to win
hearts and minds.
If Rajiv Gandhi's murder was Pirabaharan's first
great blunder, the unilateral terminating of peace
talks and return to war in April 19, 1995, was surely
the second. "In many Western countries, the theory that
the Sri Lankan government and security forces were
hell-bent on genocide held good until April 19,"
reflects former army commander Lt.-Gen. Gerry de Silva.
"But that day was a watershed."
Then came the globally televised carnage of the
Colombo Central Bank bombing, another
almost-incomprehensible misstep in the battle for
international sympathy. As a result, many governments
are increasingly receptive to the diplomatic offensive
of Colombo's high-profile Tamil foreign minister,
Following pro-LTTE demonstrations in Malaysia
earlier this year, Kuala Lumpur banned similar displays
and threatened to revoke the visas of foreign
organizers. The Philippines has introduced a new
requirement for Sri Lankans to have visas, and in
India, the LTTE remains a banned organization. In
Australia, government officials pointedly turned their
backs on a major seminar organized last month by a
pro-LTTE Tamil association that was addressed by
Perhaps as worryingly for the Tigers is the growing
number of analysts who argue that support among the
Tamil diaspora may be slipping. "The LTTE network is
still effective but influence on and support from Tamil
communities is less than it was," says Shankar Rajee, a
former militant turned politician. "The younger
generation who migrated from the war may still be
supportive, but many older professionals are more
influenced by international perspectives." Can the
Tigers' organization change its stripes and adapt
itself to a changing world far removed from the dreams
of the 1970s? Or will it fight on against mounting
military and diplomatic odds?
Recent reports have hinted that in an echo of the
Irish Republican Army, the movement may be considering
floating a Sinn Fein-style political wing in a bid for
But the LTTE's dilemma may lie in a more
fundamental paradox. It may well be that its greatest
asset in the past -- the unbending, militant vision of
Velupillai Pirabaharan -- is today its greatest
liability. Whether the autocrat at the center of an
almost religious cult of uncompromising martyrdom can
function as a man of peace in any democratic
dispensation remains uncertain. To date, the record is