OPINION

Examining a post-Prabakaran scenario

D.B.S. Jeyaraj



Acting on intelligence, the Sri Lankan security forces have been effectively targeting the LTTE at different levels. On November 28, the Air Force came close to eliminating Velupillai Prabakaran. This naturally raises the question: what will happen to the LTTE without its supremo?



For many years in Sri Lanka’s politico-military landscape, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been the predators, preying on members of the government, the security establishment, the administrative apparatus, non-LTTE politicians, and so on. A remarkable reversal in recent times has seen the predator becoming prey. Carefully coordinated action by the Sri Lankan security forces has seen the Tigers being targeted at many different levels. From destroying LTTE ships carrying arms to ambushing LTTE operatives in landmine attacks, the forces have been hitting hard and consistently.

A key component of this strategy has been the targeting of Velupillai Prabakaran, the 53-year-old LTTE leader hailed by his followers as the Tamil ‘national leader.’ Relying on information made available through intelligence sources, the Sri Lankan Air Force has been regularly targeting areas where the Tiger supremo was suspected of roaming. Air Force morale was boosted greatly after the November 2 bombing in which the LTTE Political Commissar, Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan, was killed along with six others. This was at Thiruvaiaru, a southern suburb of Kilinochchi, which is regarded as the de facto capital of the Tiger-controlled regions in the northern mainland known as Wanni.

On November 28, the Air Force came very close to getting the LTTE chief himself when Jeyanthy Nagar, a northern suburb, was bombed. The same area had been bombed on November 26. The bombing was so intense that the Tigers closed the Uruthirapuram Road, along which Jeyanthy Nagar is situated, for two weeks. While the pro-LTTE website, ‘Tamilnet,’ reported both incidents and claimed that there were no civilian casualties, the authorities in Colombo divulged nothing about them for more than three weeks.

A Colombo English weekly, The Nation, reported on December 16 that the LTTE leader was slightly injured on November 28. He was reportedly in a fortified bunker at Jeyanthy Nagar, a settlement consisting of six housing schemes. A bomb had caused damage to the bunker and Prabakaran had sustained minor injuries on his shoulder, arm, and back from falling debris.

In a report published in The Hindu of December 18, B. Muralidhar Reddy, the newspaper’s Sri Lanka correspondent, quoted President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the incident: “Asked about the report in a Sunday English weekly paper about the LTTE chief being injured in an aerial attack on November 28, Mr. Rajapaksa said though the government was not in a position to confirm the veracity of the report, it was sure that on that particular day the Sri Lanka Air Force had definitely hit two ‘important targets’ of the Tigers in Kilinochchi. ‘At the moment we are not in a position to comment on the correctness of the report. However, the SLAF is certain that it has hit two specific high value targets of the LTTE on November 28,’ Mr. Rajapaksa said.”

On December 19, the Defence Ministry, in an official release through the Media Centre for National Security, confirmed that the LTTE leader was injured in the bombing on Jeyanthy Nagar. The press release said, however, that the injuries were caused on November 26. The delay in releasing this information was explained thus: “Though the Air Force believed that Velupillai Prabakaran had been hit in this attack, non availability of ground information to confirm such at that time prevented the Government from releasing this information to the media.”

Predictably, the LTTE denied that Prabakaran was injured. The organisation’s defence affairs spokesman, Rasiah Ilanthiraiyan, claimed that these were part of psychological operations by Colombo. Once the Government confirmed that Prabakaran was injured, there were several follow-up media reports. Some went to the extent of saying that 116 bodyguards of the LTTE leader were killed and that he was to be taken abroad for medical treatment. Even if some of the reports evoked a sense of disbelief, there seemed little doubt that the LTTE leader had been injured in an Air Force attack. It was evident that the Lankan Air Force was getting better and better, or luckier and luckier, depending on different perspectives.

President Rajapaksa’s brother and Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, has publicly confirmed that the armed forces were targeting the LTTE leader. “We will get him,” he has declared. According to government sources, the intelligence network has been receiving information about the movements and whereabouts of top LTTE leaders, including Prabakaran, from residents disgruntled with the Tigers. Forced recruitment on a massive scale has incurred widespread resentment.

Once this information is analysed and particular localities identified, specific aerial reconnaissance is conducted and this is followed by intense aerial bombardment of target areas. Jeyanthy Nagar, for instance, was bombed twice in three days. The killing of Tamilselvan and the injuring of Prabakaran have demonstrated that the LTTE leadership is now a prize target. In spite of the personality cult built around him, the LTTE leader is being shown up to be a mere mortal and quite vulnerable.

An interesting question — uncomfortable for the LTTE — that arises is: who will succeed the supremo if he is taken out? The most senior Tiger in the hierarchy is a man whom many do not know. It is ‘Baby’ Subramaniam, the head of the LTTE’s education division. He now has a nom de guerre, “Ilankumaran.” Hailing from Kankesanthurai, he is a founder member of the LTTE (from 1976). He has remained steadfastly loyal to Prabakaran. Despite his seniority, Ilankumaran is not a fighting man. Until 1991, he spent most of his days in India. Known as ‘Baby’ Subramaniam in India, he coordinated all propaganda and political activity for the LTTE in Tamil Nadu. He cultivated a whole lot of Tamil Nadu politicians and promoted the Tiger cause. He it was who established links with Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran.

In the harsh world of power struggles, these accomplishments are of little use. Even if Ilankumaran is made leader or acting leader on account of his seniority, it will be only a matter of time before he is de-throned or reduced to a puppet. By nature and temperament, the mild-mannered LTTE veteran is not likely to pursue power or hold on to it ruthlessly.

The only other senior from pre-July 1983 days who is active in the Wanni is the dreaded intelligence chief, Pottu Amman. He joined the LTTE in 1982 and was a ‘helper’ long before that. All the other senior Tiger commanders like Soosai, Bhanu, Sornam, Jeyam, Theepan, Balraj, and Nadesan joined the LTTE after July 1983. Apart from Pottu’s seniority, there is a factor that makes him a serious contender for the crown. As intelligence chief, he wields enormous power now. His minions have infiltrated all sections of the LTTE. This extraordinary power and influence makes Pottu Amman the favourite in the succession stakes. Already, he acts like a de facto deputy leader. It may not be difficult for him to become de jure leader after Prabakaran.

The only man who could have effectively challenged Pottu Amman for leadership was the former Batticaloa-Amparai commander, Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan alias Karuna Amman. Both were blue-eyed boys of the big boss and there was simmering tension between them. But Pottu emerged victor in the battle of the Ammans. Karuna was ejected as a ‘thurogi’ or traitor.

Virtual one-horse race

In such a situation, the succession stakes seem a virtual one-horse race. Arguably, there could be a ‘dark horse,’ someone from the family stables. Prabakaran’s wife, Mathivathany, is now being seen increasingly in public. She ceremonially opened an elders’ home recently and her influence is already visible in the overseas branches of the LTTE. The other possibility is Prabakaran’s eldest son, Charles Anthony, who has reportedly obtained a pilot’s licence and aeronautical training. He is reportedly involving himself with LTTE activity nowadays. ‘Vaarisu Arasiyal’ or dynastic politics is a common phenomenon in South Asia. It is widespread at both national and regional levels. Can the so-called ‘first family of Tamil Eelam’ be immune to this common affliction? Only time will tell.

If the family enters the succession stakes, even Pottu Amman may have to give in. He will, however, remain the power behind the throne. A collective leadership under a nominal head from the family is also a possibility. Pottu will dominate such a set-up too from behind the scenes. Two other options need to be considered. One is a leadership committee chaired by Ilankumaran to run LTTE affairs for some time. The other is for a cabal of senior Tiger leaders to provide an informal collective leadership. Pottu Amman will be the most powerful person calling the shots in either set-up.

Given the fact that Pottu, like Prabakaran, is a key accused and a proclaimed offender in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, the ascendancy of the intelligence chief is unlikely to change New Delhi’s stance towards the LTTE.

There is however a long term question. Will the LTTE be as effective without Prabakaran at the helm? The answer clearly is ‘no’. If Prabakaran is no more, it will not be an immediate end of the LTTE. It will however be the beginning of the end and the decline and fall could be quite rapid. Prabakaran himself is basically responsible for this situation. He has built up the movement around his dictatorial leadership and personality cult. He is projected as the all-powerful Messiah who will lead the Tamils into the promised land of Tamil Eelam. He has ensured the absence of a viable alternative.

However, the exit of Prabakaran will not mean the automatic resolution of the Tamil question. Even the possible extinction of the LTTE will not make the ethnic problem go away. A durable solution to the Tamil question can be found only on the basis of justice and equality. The grievances of the Tamils have to be redressed and their legitimate aspirations addressed within a united Sri Lanka. Only then will the problem go away.

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