Selvarasa Pathmanathan received a call on his mobile phone. He went out of the hotel room conversing. He did not return.
Sri Lanka’s Cabinet spokesperson on defence affairs, Keheliya Rambukwella, announced at a special press conference on Friday that Selvarasa Pathmanathan alias “KP” was in military custody. He was arrested in an Asian country and flown to Colombo on the night of August 6. He was to be interrogated about the overseas operations of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Mr. Rambukwella stated.
The capture of the newly designated chief of the restructured LTTE has an air of mystery surrounding it. The man known as KP was at one time the organisation’s chief arms procurer, heading what was known in the movement as the “KP department.”
KP, who had generally maintained a low profile, grabbed a great deal of media attention in the aftermath of the decisive defeat suffered by the LTTE at the hands of the Sri Lankan armed forces. Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabakaran’s death in May left the LTTE leaderless. With many senior leaders dead or in custody, KP, living in Thailand, was the senior-most LTTE leader “alive and free.” From January 2009, he has been functioning as the LTTE’s international relations head.
The military defeat and virtual demolition of the LTTE in Sri Lanka resulted in its overseas structure assuming greater importance. Tiger and pro-Tiger elements of the global Tamil Diaspora were now tasked with the responsibility of perpetuating Prabakaran’s legacy.
KP’s attempt to don the leadership mantle in a post-Prabakaran scenario was opposed by an influential Tiger cabal in the Diaspora. After protracted wrangling, a settlement was reached in July and KP assumed control of a revamped LTTE as “Thalaimai Seyalar” or chief secretary. Even as the ex-arms smuggler began consolidating his position, adversity struck in the form of his capture and transportation to Sri Lanka.
While there is no official version so far about how and where KP was arrested, many relevant details are available through diverse media sources. This has made it possible to piece together a picture of the incident.
The new LTTE chief, married to a Thai national, lived in suburban Bangkok. But he used to travel frequently to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to meet with various people. KP was in the Malaysian capital in August.
Around noon on August 5, he went to the “First Tune Hotels” at 316 Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman Road in the heart of Kuala Lumpur to meet two visitors from London. One of the British visitors was Balasingham Balendran, the younger brother of former LTTE political commissar Balasingham Mahendran alias Nadesan. The other person was Nadesan’s own son who had gone to London some years ago and was staying with his paternal uncle.
While chatting in the hotel room, around 2 p.m. KP received a call on his mobile phone. He went out of the room conversing. He did not return. Worried, Balendran and nephew searched for him. But there was no sign of KP’s vehicle, or its driver, Appu. Dayamohan, the friend who had called Pathmanathan, was also perturbed. KP had been talking to him when he heard a sudden ‘thud.’ There was a commotion of sorts and KP’s phone went dead. Repeated calls by Dayamohan went unanswered as the mobile had been switched off.
News spread among the new LTTE chief’s friends and aides in Kuala Lumpur that something was amiss. When some of them went to the place KP was staying in Kuala Lumpur, they found only his daughter there. Significantly, the insulin and syringes used by KP, who was a diabetic, were in the room.
Comparing notes, KP’s colleagues and well-wishers were able to gauge the situation. Had the new LTTE leader been abducted or killed? From an LTTE perspective, the Sri Lankan officialdom was the prime suspect. But the hand of intelligence agencies of other countries was not ruled out.
The suspense ended the following day, August 6, when news of KP having been taken to Colombo broke. Apparently he and Appu were transported to Bangkok from Kuala Lumpur and then taken to Colombo on a chartered flight. They arrived after nightfall at the Katunayake airport and were whisked away to an undisclosed location. All speculation about KP’s whereabouts ceased after the Cabinet spokesperson disclosed that he was in military custody and would be questioned.
In September 2007, there was much excitement in Sri Lanka when KP was detained by authorities in Thailand. It was expected that he would be deported to Sri Lanka or India. But the arrest was denied and KP was soon “free.” But this time it was different.
Two factors played a significant role in the new development.
First, much pressure was exerted by Sri Lanka on Malaysia over KP. Taking the stance that he was living in Malaysia, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama made a request on May 29 to Malaysian Defence Minister Dr. Ahamd Zahid bin Hamidi YB Dato Seri to hand over KP to facilitate ongoing investigations into LTTE operations overseas. The appeal was made on the sidelines of the 8th Shangri-La Dialogue event held in Singapore in May 2009.
Secondly, Sri Lanka recently appointed Brigadier Udaya Perera as Deputy High Commissioner to Malaysia to meet the new threat posed by the LTTE. Subsequently, he was promoted Major-General. His main, yet unpublicised, assignment was “Operation KP.”
In the public eye
A puzzling aspect of the drama was Pathmanathan’s reckless disregard for safety. He had two warrants issued against him by Interpol, yet he was brazenly going about in public. He met with people openly, granted print, television, and radio interviews, wrote regularly in his own blog and engaged in telephone conversations on a global scale. This made him highly vulnerable as a target of law-enforcement officials.
The Sri Lankan government is extremely happy about the arrest. Any prospect of the residual LTTE having a resurgence has been effectively scuttled. Further interrogation of KP is likely to elicit important information about LTTE activity abroad.
President Rajapaksa’s reputation has received a further boost. Not only was Prabakaran killed, his successor too has been captured. But despite the buoyant mood in the country, the Rajapaksa government is not boasting about its achievement. There are valid reasons for this.
Aid from other countries
Though the details are scanty, there are sufficient grounds to believe that Sri Lanka, with the aid of “intelligence officials” from other countries, accomplished the feat of seizing and transporting KP from Kula Lumpur to Colombo. It is assumed that the exercise amounted to an “extraordinary rendition” on the lines of what the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had been doing after 9/11. More details about “Operation KP” are likely to be revealed in the near future.
Against this backdrop, the capture of Pathmanathan has caused a great deal of excitement. Colombo is sensitive to any negative publicity over the incident but it also wants to avoid any embarrassment to the countries that helped Sri Lanka in this matter.
Pathmanathan, known as Tharmalingam Shanmugam Kumaran in India, had been proclaimed a wanted offender by Interpol. This was based on two warrants issued by India and Sri Lanka. India wanted Interpol to apprehend KP for interrogation on charges of criminal conspiracy, arms smuggling, violation of Indian terrorist and explosives laws, and for questioning over the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
KP allegedly played a role in financing and providing arms, explosives, and communication equipment to the Rajiv Gandhi killers. It was KP who provided the RDX-and-C4-based suicide vest worn by the suicide bomber Dhanu and the AK-47 pistol and a Czech 9-mm pistol possessed by Sivarasan.