Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Tamil Eelam - a De Facto State

Tamil Eelam - a De Facto Reality

V.K Shashikumar,
Tehelka, 16 April 2005

"..Even though LTTE’s official history records Captain Miller as the one who blew up the northern SLA headquarters at Nelliady, LTTE fighters consider Prabhakaran as the first Liberation Tiger to have willed to die for Eelam. The young LTTE fighter told me, “Our leader is actually the first Black Tiger. During ipkf operations, he lived for many days with a can of petrol in one hand and a weapon in the other. He had instructed his bodyguards that should a situation arise wherein the Indian Army finds his hideout; he and all of them should go down fighting and take cyanide capsules so that nobody ends up in Indian custody. Such was the defiance that he had instructed his bodyguards to set his body on fire. ‘I don’t want the Indians to even take away my body,’ he had told his bodyguards.”"

Can anyone write the lines of my unwritten poem?

In a land where fantasies of freedom outnumber bloody memories, even two decades of war have failed to answer Captain Malathi’s poetic query. She was 20, the first woman fighter of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to die in combat. Thousands of young men and women laid down their lives to give meaning to her lines. Finally, the tsunami did what a violent ethnic conflict couldn’t. It made Eelam, the Tamil homeland, a de facto reality. The tsunami brought the world to this war-blighted corner of Sri Lanka. The ocean drowned the past and left behind the hopes for a new beginning.

The tsunami has wrought a political inflexion and the world has had to grudgingly take note of this reality. A pointer to this reality is visible on a beach in Mullaitivu, the naval base of the LTTE’s Sea Tigers. A statue of the Virgin Mary stands with her back to the waves. She stands tall in a ceaseless vigil, amid large heaps of concrete and possessions forsaken during the manic moments when numerous feet pattered away from the invading waves.

The way she stands after the waves receded has kindled unbelievable hope in this strategic coastal region, home to the LTTE’s naval wing. For the embattled Tamil Tigers, the tsunami was a blessing in disguise. It gave the LTTE unprecedented international recognition for running an effective administration in Eelam that is intrinsically concerned with its people’s welfare. Two-thirds of the 40,000 devoured by the tsunami were Tamils from the north and east, which the LTTE says is the contiguous homeland of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Even though LTTE continues to wear the tag of a proscribed ‘terrorist’ organisation, the tsunami receded only after it left behind the potent message of “a nation within a nation”. The buzz in LTTE territory is that the chief Velupillai Prabhakaran is buoyant and, for the first time, sees the possibility of the outfit being de-proscribed. The international community is holding on to the purse strings till the LTTE is made an equitable stakeholder. And despite three impotent years of “no war, no peace” and an impudent rebellion in its stronghold in eastern Sri Lanka, the LTTE is feeling smug.

For the first time in their fierce armed uprising for an autonomous homeland, the Tamil Tigers see themselves as being within striking distance of their goal. This is so because Sri Lanka needs international aid for post-tsunami reconstruction and rehabilitation and governments across the world want Sri Lanka to share the aid with LTTE. Colombo is caught in a Catch-22 situation; if it shirks away from sharing the aid, all the promised money will slink away and if it does, it will give legitimacy to an enemy with which it is in a reluctant ceasefire. Ironically, it is by doing neither that the government has endorsed the fact that LTTE does govern an area of the country that falls out of the realm of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.

No wonder the buzz in the LTTE run 1-9 bar (it’s the best and the only bar on the A-9 road running through Tiger territory and that’s how it got the name 1-9) in Kilinochchi is one of awe as international aid workers and representatives of un agencies gather to exchange notes. The conversation invariably centres on their serendipitous encounter with Eelam, much like what I experienced.

I was in Sri Lanka, but I could have been in a different country altogether. A swathe of land called Vanni comprising the northern districts of Mannar, Vavuniya and Mullaitivu, a part of the umbilical Elephant Pass that connects the island to Jaffna peninsula including Kilinochchi, the present administrative capital of Eelam and parts of the east, Ampara and Batticaloa, form a zone outside Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The writ of the government does not run here.

So complete is Sri Lanka’s loss of sovereignty in LTTE-controlled areas that even its flag has been replaced by that of the Tigers’ flag, depicting a snarling yellow tiger in a blood-red backdrop. MK Eelaventhan, a Tamil National mp in the Sri Lankan Parliament, summed up the paradox of a nation in disguise pithily: “The crux of the Tamil problem is centred over the need for a homeland. Land is a must, a standing army to defend the land is a must and finance to administer the land is a must.”

So the only sign of Colombo’s tremulous presence is the Government Agent (GA), whose only job is to ensure he/she remains in the good books of the LTTE and keep track of official supplies of essential goods sent by the government. The GA also issues identity cards to Tamil civilians so that the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) or police don’t arrest them when they venture out of LTTE-administered areas.

In any case, the government can’t even put a road marker in Eelam without LTTE approval. Colombo has virtually written off its sovereignty in Eelam. Colombo does nothing in Eelam because it does not want to strengthen its enemy. There are no power stations — only limited electricity supply, no piped water or industries. The LTTE has had to generate its own resources and depend on international agencies and the Tamil diaspora to rebuild and create institutions to run its administration.

So when un agencies wanted land to rebuild permanent houses for the tsunami displaced in Mullaitivu, the Eelam administration allocated the land. When the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) wanted to bring computers for its office in Kilinochchi from Colombo, it had to ensure that the LTTE media office issued approval letters. Thaya Master, an affable man with a steely look in his eyes, is the “permissions man”, aid workers say.

Not surprisingly, therefore, outsiders talk of an amazing duality of a nation within a nation. And it is visible the moment one crosses the last SLA checkpoint at Omanthai in northern Sri Lanka. Everyday at 6.10am, the ‘border’ of Eelam opens on the Colombo-Jaffna A-9 road at Vavuniya. As soon as I entered Vanni at Puliyankulam, a LTTE cadre dressed in white shirt-black trouser uniform came up and said, “This is Eelam, your passport please.”

Some 100 yards away, identities and intentions are checked in a special office — ‘For Indian Passport Holders Only’. In that cheerless, caution-filled room manned by a stern girl, one immediately understands that no answers are sought. Only explanations are demanded. A journalist from Delhi is met with “you should not be here, what are you doing here?”

Even a road marker can’t be put in Eelam without LTTE approval. Colombo has virtually written off its  sovereignty here and does not want to  strengthen its enemy ,

Later at the LTTE’s political office, I was told that there had been a communication gap between the media office and the immigration post about my arrival. So the woman officer manning the counter for Indian passport holders had suspected me to be an Indian intelligence agent, posing as a journalist. I was told that every year some Indian visitors would transit through this office on their way to Jaffna, a city controlled by the SLA. All of them claim to be saree sellers from Tamil Nadu. The LTTE suspects that most of these saree sellers are agents of Indian external intelligence agency, raw.

Once the confusion was sorted out, the LTTE immigration post issued a one-month entry slip and waved me on. “You must hold on to this very carefully and must produce it at any checkpost if asked. If you lose this pass, you will not be able to go anywhere and you will have difficulties when you leave Vanni,” said a woman officer in a brown light and shade sari. “And yes, remember we have half an hour time difference with Sri Lanka, so don’t forget to adjust the time,” she called out as I moved towards the Tamil Eelam entry point. The reminders are constant: the territory is theirs.

The A-9 road snakes through thick forested areas, skirting the remains of huge SLA camps once in a while. An hour or so later, Captain Malathi’s glistening granite memorial unmistakably comes into view at a T-junction. It marks the outer limits of Kilinochchi, Eelam’s administrative capital. Instead of travelling straight up the road towards Jaffna, a right turn past the memorial is a place that I later surmised will increasingly become a bone of contention between Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government and the Tamil Tigers. Iranamadu is where the LTTE has established its air operations wing, the Air Tigers, functioning from a solitary airstrip.

The first person to give me a clue about the existence of the Air Tigers was a Lankan Tamil emigré poet, vis Jayapalan, who divides time between Oslo and his village close to Kilinochchi. In Vanni, strangers attract friendship and some suspicion.

Jayapalan was keen to know about developments in India and he invited me for lunch. We were having mixed fried rice in 1-9 restaurant and I was absent-mindedly listening to his soliloquy about his interactions with Nirupama Rao, India’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, and how he found her to be ready listener, when he abruptly changed tack: “Have you heard the low growl of aircraft engines at night?” I said, “No”. “In my village many have heard it and so have I,” he replied.

I got the Tigers’ confirmation in a strange manner. Riding pillion with LTTE spokesperson Thaya Master on his Hero Honda, I asked him: “Does the LTTE have an air force?” Master slowed the bike, looked at me and said, “there is some truth in what you have heard”. This might be a formal acknowledgement but the LTTE has not revealed how many planes it has.

What can be confirmed is that the LTTE has at least two Swiss-built Pilatus pc-7 aircraft. Many countries use this aircraft to train their air force pilots. It is flown by a two-member crew and has a 1,200-km-range without drop tanks. A sense of freedom is in the air but militarily the Tigers have their fingers on the trigger. The new reality could also see the breakout of another war and in anticipation, the military muscle is being strengthened. An LTTE cadre told me that Air Tiger pilots are undergoing night landing exercises, with rudimentary navigational assistance. I was shown photographs of the fighter planes published in LTTE newsletters.

The Tamil Tigers also have an elite Black Tiger unit that specialises in suicide operations. In Kilinochchi, I met a young LTTE fighter (name withheld for his safety) who aspires to be a Black Tiger. He was once a bodyguard to senior renegade leader Vinayagamurthy Muralitharan, alias Colonel Karuna, who broke ranks in March 2004 and which has led to a deadly internecine conflict. The toll stands at 200 and is climbing. While it is an open secret that the Karuna group (also known as the Eastern Tamil Tigers) is functioning under the SLA’s patronage, a section of the LTTE believes that raw is behind Karuna’s “betrayal”.

At the sprawling Tamil Eelam police headquarters, I asked police chief B. Nadesan about his views whether raw is indeed destabilising the Tigers. “We don’t attach much importance to frivolous rumours. We believe these rumours are baseless and untrue. Some people want to create more trouble because they want to disturb the peace process and so create these stories about covert Indian intelligence support to the Karuna faction.”

Nadesan was pleasantly disinterested in the interview. He really did not have the authority to answer the “difficult questions” posed to him, like ‘what is the police strength?’ or ‘Is the LTTE continuing to train its forces to prepare for war?’ Because, whatever a senior LTTE leader says must be in principle cleared by their reclusive supremo, Prabhakaran.

A sense of freedom is in the air but militarily the Tigers’ fingers are on the trigger. It could also see another war break out and in anticipation, the military muscle is being strengthened Nadesan was, however, authorised to make an interesting revelation. He told me that India has to play a crucial role if the ethnic strife in Sri Lanka has to be permanently resolved. The Tigers have control of their de facto nation but they need international support. “We are eager to build a relationship with the Government of India. India can pressure the Government of Sri Lanka to resolve this question by peaceful means,” he said. The LTTE has been making covert approaches to the Indian government and we will pick up the thread of the new dynamics in India’s engagement with the Tamil Tigers elsewhere as we continue our journey through Eelam. For now let’s get back to the young man who wants to be a Black Tiger.

“One must be enlisted as a cadre to join the Black Tigers. Each member of the unit is handpicked by the leader (Prabhakaran),” he said. Any LTTE cadre wanting to join the Black Tigers must show a consistency in his or her resolve to join the crack commando squad. The unwritten protocol is that an aspiring candidate must write five to six letters to the leader expressing his or her reasons for joining the elite squad. If Prabhakaran is convinced, he issues orders for the candidate to be called in for a lengthy interview. The thumb rule is that only those candidates are called who have lost close relatives in military operations. If the candidate clears the interview, he/she is put through rigorous training and then inducted into the Black Tigers. This is so because such candidates having lost their loved ones want to avenge the deaths of their family members.

Even though LTTE’s official history records Captain Miller as the one who blew up the northern SLA headquarters at Nelliady, LTTE fighters consider Prabhakaran as the first Liberation Tiger to have willed to die for Eelam. The young LTTE fighter told me, “Our leader is actually the first Black Tiger. During ipkf operations, he lived for many days with a can of petrol in one hand and a weapon in the other. He had instructed his bodyguards that should a situation arise wherein the Indian Army finds his hideout; he and all of them should go down fighting and take cyanide capsules so that nobody ends up in Indian custody. Such was the defiance that he had instructed his bodyguards to set his body on fire. ‘I don’t want the Indians to even take away my body,’ he had told his bodyguards.”

The Black Tigers’ unshakeable loyalty to suicide missions is rooted in such legends about Prabhakaran. The marine commando unit of the suicide squad, the Black Sea Tigers, is the most lethal unit. They are primed for ramming boats packed with explosives against an enemy vessel. In fact, I was told that the training regimen of the Black Sea Tigers includes swimming through the treacherous waters of the Indian Ocean to the Tamil Nadu coast at night and then return to their base in Mullaitivu. The drill, apparently, is still on.

The Black Sea Tigers’ commitment has percolated even through the iconography of the militarised Eelam society. A petite white replica of a bronze Parvati from the Chola period symbolises the Goddess of Justice in the courts, instead of Themis, the Greek goddess. The transmogrification of Shiva’s consort, Shakti, as Goddess of Justice is loaded with Tiger symbolism of power, destruction and justice. The Tamils respect the integrity of the Eelam judiciary, whose functioning is an insult to SriLankan authority. The courthouse in Kilinochchi is full of men and women with petitions and documents in their hands. Even Tamils from SLA-controlled Jaffna and from the east come to Kilinochchi to file cases. “If a case comes to the courts from Tamil areas that are currently not under our control, the court summons both parties to Kilinochchi to settle their dispute,” E. Pararajasingam, chief of the Eelam judicial services, said as he took me around the court premises.

The judiciary started by the Tamil Tigers in 1993 has become a full-fledged legal system. The legal system is borrowed unabashedly from India. So much so that the law college prescribes Indian law textbooks. Even the Eelam penal code is a replica of the Indian one. The judicial hierarchy is in this order—chief judges, high court judges, district judges who are in charge of the special bench, two high courts (Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu) and seven district courts respectively. In 2001, the LTTE issued a directive that the death penalty should be restricted to cases of murder, rape and grievous assault for robbery.

The LTTE leadership ensures that the law and order machinery radiate the principle of rule with an iron rod. I came across this principle in the police post within the courthouse complex. A man charged with heinous murder sat quietly on a bench smoking as a woman police officer updated the police report on his crime. He was not handcuffed. “The principle is simple—nobody can escape from here. So we neither handcuff murderers and dangerous criminals, nor do we chain them,” Pararajasingam said. “We run a revolutionary administration so the crime rate in Eelam is extremely low. There have been only 150 cases of heinous crimes, murder and rape, in the last 12 years,” he added.

In my interactions with LTTE leaders, I could sense their confidence in having demonstrated their ability to manage and govern freedom. “Our understanding is that in the post-tsunami scenario, the international community has realised that we are not a terrorist organisation. Within 20 minutes of the tsunami impact, the LTTE effectively put in the right disaster management mechanism that could deliver humanitarian aid and provide relief services. By doing this we did not merely demonstrate our capability to meet the needs of the people but reaffirmed the fact that we are with the people because LTTE is a people’s organisation and people’s welfare for us is priority number one,” SP Thamilchelvan, the political wing leader of the Tamil Tigers, said. (see interview)

An Emergency Task Force (ETF) set up by the Eelam Planning and Development Secretariat converted schools, temples and churches into 23 welfare centres. The ETF is coordinating with un agencies and international ngos on rehabilitation work. “We have moved 22,000 tsunami displaced from welfare centres to 16 transitional centres and are now concentrating on setting up permanent habitats 300 metres away from the coastline,” ETF director Eelamaran said.

In the eyes of the world, the Lankan government has shown up as uncaring to the grave humanitarian crisis of Tamils. This has strengthened the Tamil aspiration for autonomy
His Mullaitivu office looked like a war room with people working on computers and wireless sets buzzing with status reports. Meanwhile, the overall in-charge of the eastern coast of Mullaitivu, Sea Tigers commander Thillayampalam Sivanesan, alias Colonel Soosai, deployed his forces for rescue and relief operations. But there are no accurate figures available of the damage to the Sea Tigers’ assets in the tsunami. One thing is sure though; Colonel Soosai has been extremely tied up shuttling between Mullaitivu in the east and Mannar in the west as he tried to make LTTE’s naval capability operational.

Though the LTTE is tight-lipped about the damage to its fighting ability, I witnessed the excitement with which their leaders expectantly waited for international dignitaries visiting Colombo to assess the rehabilitation and reconstruction needs to also turn up at Kilinochchi. But the government prevented un Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former US Presidents Bill Clinton (UN special envoy for tsunami recovery) and George Bush from visiting tsunami-hit areas in Eelam.

While the world waits to help Sri Lanka, the government and Sinhalese establishment have embarrassingly revealed their inability to seek accommodation with the Tigers. In the eyes of the international community, the government has shown up as unrepentant and uncaring to the grave humanitarian crisis of thousands of Tamils. This has strengthened the Tamil aspiration for autonomy.

I got a sense of the LTTE’s buoyant mood at a meeting with Eelaventhan in Kilinochchi. He told me that the LTTE leadership “wants the government to allow free flow of international aid to areas under our administration. Around $3.5 million has so far come as tsunami relief but it has not been channelled to us because it is under Central government control. We say that for democracy to succeed there must be sharing of powers at the grassroots level, both here as well as the Centre.”

By refusing to share tsunami aid, Colombo has handed down a potent marketing pitch to the LTTE to sell its demand for an autonomous homeland. And they have found a market in many European capitals. Two top LTTE leaders that I met, Thamilchelvan and Nadesan, are currently leading an LTTE delegation on its first-ever official Europe tour. Their intention is to solicit direct aid so that they can carry out rehabilitation in areas under their control.

A week or so before they left, I caught up with Thamilchelvan. The LTTE political wing leader sprung a surprise when in the course of the interview, he told me that if Colombo continues its dilatory politics “the Tamil people themselves will make a determination to have a pattern of governance for their own freedom. We will have to wait and see whether such a resolution accommodating the aspirations of the Tamil people could be arrived at by negotiations. So Colombo has to make a decision as to which of the two would be ideal for the nation.”

The LTTE is poised to enter a dramatic new phase in its armed struggle. From what I gathered from other LTTE leaders and if one goes by Thamilchelvan’s hints, it appears that the Tigers are poised to unilaterally declare independence. If the government does not react then Sri Lanka’s position will become indefensible. And if it does, it will have to wage war. This will take care of the mounting internal pressure on Prabhakaran to launch an offensive against the government. In any case with Japan, European Union and the US backing the peace process with the lure of massive aid, it will be a difficult decision for Colombo to take.

But whatever decision Chandrika Kumaratunga takes, it will be Advantage LTTE. A political twister is brewing in Sri Lanka and the LTTE has little or no problem with it.


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