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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2704

Sri Lanka: Myth and reality after Thamilchelvan

By Col R Hariharan (retd.)

It is time to take a realistic look at the situation in Sri Lanka's war as well as peace, after all that has been written on the death of Thamilchelvan, the political head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a SLAF air strike in Vanni on November 2, 2007.

As the chief negotiator of the LTTE in the defunct peace process, he was a familiar face to the international media. So his death was hyped up in the international media. There had been a few speculative stories surrounding his death. In most of the unnatural deaths of political and militant leaders in Sri Lanka, there is always a tendency to see a conspiracy. Thamilchelvan's death is no exception. If we cut the flab around his death, to see the likely effect of his death on the situation, three issues come to the fore: the future of LTTE-Sri Lanka negotiations and peace process, the course of military operations, and the higher hierarchy within the LTTE.

Even before his death, the political head was No. 3 in the pecking order of the LTTE. The relationship between Prabhakaran and the late Anton Balasingham, LTTE's sole ideologue and predecessor of Thamilchelvan at the negotiating table, was on a closer and more equitable plane than Thamilchelvan. Unlike Balasingham, as the LTTE political points man Thamilchelvan merely carried out what his supreme leader Prabhakaran wanted. Thamilchelvan lacked the international exposure and savvy Balasingham had. It is doubtful whether he ever aspired to do beyond that. Considering this, qualitatively future negotiations between the LTTE and the government, if at all they take place, are unlikely to suffer in the absence of Thamilchelvan.

Of course, Thamilchelvan had the advantage being the most visible LTTE leaders, familiar with the Norwegian mediators and the media.

No doubt his successor Nadesan, the ex-Sri Lankan cop who heads the LTTE police, would have some problem in getting into the groove in his new role. However, as couriers of Prabhakaran's dicta, LTTE negotiators have little space to take their own initiatives or change existing scheme of things. The war is in full swing for two years now and the guns are blazing and they will have to stop if any negotiation can take place. This appears unlikely in the near future. So the resumption of negotiation between the LTTE with the government is beyond the realms of possibility, though the peace lobby and international community may desire it. So it is immaterial who presides over the LTTE negotiating team.

As anticipated the Sri Lankan spokesman has clarified the death of Thamilchelvan in the air strike as incidental to his presence at a meeting of LTTE leaders targeted by the SLAF. But whatever was be the cause, the man is dead and buried. The LTTE will of course avenge his killing as it has always avenged every major killing.

The Sri Lanka security forces are also doing the same. It struck the LTTE leaders conclave probably to avenge the devastating raid on its air base at Anuradhapura. Despite all the romanticism about war over the centuries, it is a conflict of egos with revenge and killings as the means. In war, the bullets and shells do not distinguish between the soldier and the common man, even if they are influential politicians.

It is amusing to read the LTTE describing Thamilchelvan as the 'peace dove.' He was definitely not one of that species.

Thamilchlevan like all other persons owing allegiance to Prabhakaran and the LTTE (in that order) was a foot soldier of the LTTE deputed to do his political job after he was wounded in action. The LTTE has killed many more real peace doves even when there was no war; so the statement about 'peace dove' when there is a hot war going on, was probably yet another propaganda barb.

The Anuradhapura attack followed by the killing of Thamilchelvan will undoubtedly further strengthen the war lobbies on both sides.

The more the war lobbies are strengthened the less the chances of the resumption of peace process. In any case, chances of its revival or even retrieval were probably gone after the LTTE domain in East was lost. So we can expect the military operations to continue with more air strikes, which have gained some credibility, and more LTTE commando and suicide strikes. The ground operations are likely to continue in spurts, with pauses to consolidate forces and territory.

Many commentators have hinted at the cause death of Thamilchelvan due to internal power struggle between Pottu Amman, the intelligence chief, and Thamilchelvan. In my view, this is over hyped. Pottu Amman was already the No. 2 in the hierarchy after the 'supreme leader'. Many who had visited Kilinochchi have vouched that only Pottu has access to Prabhakaran's ears, apart from physical reach. In fact, Tamil leaders have described Pottu Amman as the Chanakya behind Prabhakaran in the present phase of Eelam War. His intelligence apparatus permeates the body of LTTE, and also influences the LTTE's vast international support network with its foothold in many countries. Thamilchelvan, on the other hand, lacked this intricate network of influence and power.

In insurgent movements, internal cannibalism among leaders is more a norm than an exception. This has been less frequent in the LTTE than many other movements of such vintage, However, Mahathiya's elimination stands as a prime example of true power struggle at the top in the LTTE. The distance between Prabhakaran at the top and his No. 2 is vast. So getting to be No.2 position would not have enhanced Thamilchelvan's clout unless Prabhakaran willed it.

A Sri Lankan Tamil reporter Vithyatharan speaking on the Sun TV on November 2, described shock effect due the bombs as the cause of death of Thamilchelvan. He ascribed the absence of external marks of injury on his body to back his claim. I have seen similar deaths in battle due to the shock action of 1000 lb bombs, where there were no visible physical injuries, except a little trickle of blood in nose or mouth in some cases. So this is a distinct possibility in the case in point.

Considering these aspects, an attempted palace coup of sorts for safeguarding the second position does not seem as the possible cause of death of Thamilchelvan. For a long time now, reports of internal power struggle within the LTTE had been circulating.

Whether these reports emanating from intelligence sources are true or not, Prabhakaran continues to be the unquestioned leader of the LTTE. He decides not only the strategies and policies of the LTTE, but also has a hand in planning its operations and decides the fate other LTTE leaders and cadres. His secretive conduct, limited public appearances, and control of physical access have enhanced not only his personal security but strengthened his 'Robinhood' image among his Tamil admirers. That is the secret of his survival and unchallenged leadership. But that is his weakness also because he is unable to access the vast pool of Tamil talent, which can be used to further the Tamil cause and achieve the same end results he wants without any more sacrifice of lives. Seventy thousand lives lost so far is already a heavy prize.

So the death of Thamilchelvan is unlikely to impact the war beyond a few more retribution killings and attacks by both sides. The peace scenario now in comatose stage is unlikely to be affected by his loss. And the sad thing is mayhem and killings of war are likely to continue and many more leaders - military and political ? on both sides will also pay the price, just as ordinary citizens continue to do. That is the only justice you find in wars, the bombs do not choose the victims, man does.

Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.

- Asian Tribune -

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