A South African safari in search of LTTE quarry

There is a well-known saying in the lighter vein that diplomats are people who go to another country to lie about their mother country. The Sri Lanka foreign affairs ministry reversed that saying last week when it regaled Sri Lankans with sunshine stories about Lakshman Kadirgamar's diplomatic triumphs in South Africa.

By a mixture of facts, comments, exaggeration, understatements, twists and interpretations of great latitude, the ministry sought to convey an impression to Sri Lankans that South Africa was going to come down really hard on the LTTE. This was in a sense a case of diplomats indulging in 'terminological inexactitudes', about developments in another country to their mother country, instead of the other way about.

What exactly has our big game hunting foreign minister achieved by the great South Africa safari? How successful has he been in the search for his constant quarry - the Liberation Tiger?

The foreign ministry news releases are glowingly positive. Mandela will not permit LTTE office in South Africa,' is one heading. 'South Africa vows not to let the LTTE get a foothold in South Africa', says another. Taking their cue from the information dished out by our foreign ministry mandarins the local media, particularly the state-controlled sector, has really gone to town.

Reading, listening to or viewing these would give the reader, listener or viewer the impression that Kadirgamar has really messed it up for the Tigers in South Africa. All that is lacking is a picture of 'Bwana' Kadirgamar clad in khaki shorts standing with rifle in hand over a dead tiger with a triumphant foot planted on its carcass.

But, alas, life does not have such picturesque storybook endings. There are no quick fixes in the sphere of international relations. Kadirgamar's expedition to South Africa deserves some critical examination in order to dampen the undeserved enthusiasm that it has been engineered to evoke.

Bailing out of Britain?
There is, first of all, the point about the LTTE wishing to relocate its international secretariat housed in London to South Africa. Colombo apparently has information that the Tigers are worried about the new anti-terrorism legislation enacted by Britain and want to move out.

The idea is that the clauses about planning terrorist activity aboard on British soil and about collecting money for terrorist activities are so lethal that the Tigers have no option but to shift from London. South Africa seems the best option for the LTTE, it is felt. So the preemptive strike by Kadirgamar.

But the question is whether this basic assumption on the part of Sri Lanka is substantially correct?

Firstly the new legislation in Britain will not change the 'legal geometry' much in relation to the LTTE. Establishing clearly that such and such and organisation is a front organisation for the LTTE is not an easy task. Establishing further that money collected by these organisations is being channelled to the war chests in Sri Lanka is even harder. The problem is compounded by the fact that the LTTE could always infiltrate existing organisations or start new ones. Moreover it would be difficult to gather precise information as long as authorities come up against the 'wall of silence' barricading the Tamil community.

Secondly there is the point about conspiring or planning terrorist activity. Terrorism itself has to be defined. Such a definition, as it relates to Sri Lanka, has to be accepted by a British tribunal. Assuming the activities of the LTTE are indeed 'terroristic,' it has to be established that such activity is being planned in Britain. Again, it is an open secret that the LTTE conducting a military campaign in Sri Lanka does not, cannot and will not plan or conspire in Britain for these. It is both illogical and impractical.

There is also the well known fact that it is LTTE supreme Prabhakaran who plans all major moves. The line of authority begins in Sri Lanka and extends abroad, not vice versa. Besides, Kadirgamar himself has stated on other occasions that any firm assurance regarding negotiations has to be given by Prabakharan himself and not by his representatives aboard. So it is clear that LTTE organisations are powerless when it comes to planning explicit 'terrorist' activity.

Another point being missed in Sri Lanka is that the new legislation mainly targets Irish terrorism . The fact that such legislation had the scope to cover other terrorist groups too is only incidental. There is no international targeting of the LTTE in Britain so far. There does not seem to be any inclination on the part of Britain to deliberately single out the LTTE. In fact the Brits seem to be still entertaining notions of playing honest broker or at least facilitator in future government-LTTE talks. The Liam Fox initiative is still there on paper. Britain is also pressing for talks and it is Colombo that is not responding positively. Under these circumstances there does not seem any possibility that Britain would use the new legislation in a manner that would compel the LTTE to relocate from London. Britain would not like to lose its leverage with the LTTE at this point of time.

There are other aspects to the situation too. Even if the LTTE is specifically outlawed in Britain, that does not mean that 'Tiger' activity would cease automatically. India and the USA designated the LTTE specifically and banned it. But Tiger activity continues in those countries under various guises and banners. In fact, the LTTE is challenging the ban legally in both countries. So even if Britain did so, that would not mean the end of the road for the LTTE even in Britain.

There is also the question of the structure of the LTTE abroad. Although the nomenclature 'international secretariat' suggests a highly centralised headquarters, that is not so in reality. The LTTE overseas is highly decentralised with different branches in different countries performing different functions.

The international secretariat was established by former LTTE Jaffna commander Kittu. The impressive title was his brainchild. While he functioned as secretary-general, the international secretariat was the hub of overseas LTTE activity. Later when Thilagar was in charge, there was a functional shift to continental Europe. Today the secretariat at St. Catherine's Road is manned by Ramachandran alias Anton Rajah. Even the communiques released by it are drafted elsewhere. The secretariat was only a distributing outlet.

Even before the new anti-terrorist legislation was passed, there has been a systematic effort by the LTTE to promote the 'Eelam House' as the repository of all things Tamil. This does not mean that the LTTE will downgrade the international secretariat to the point of extinction. It will try to keep it functional as far as possible. But it would be futile for anyone to think that the secretariat by itself is indispensable. Nowadays it is only a coordinating body. So it can be seen that although the secretariat by itself is not centralised, the LTTE does find some utility in maintaining it in London.

This is because of the importance of London itself. For an organisation like the LTTE, maintaining an international office for disseminating propaganda to non-Tamil persons and to engage in efficient lobbying can be successful only if located in places like London, Paris, Geneva or New York.

Although greater Toronto has the largest concentration of Tamils in the west, the LTTE does not have a propaganda secretariat there because the location is not suitable.

If London is not available, then the LTTE would opt for Geneva. In that sense, shifting the international secretariat to South Africa would be detrimental to propaganda and lobbying by the LTTE. One may even inquire flippantly from Kadirgamar whether it would have not have been better to let the LTTE 'bury' its secretariat in South Africa instead of trying to prevent it.

Unlikely move
Against this background it seems quite unlikely that the LTTE is indeed planning to relocate its international secretariat to South Africa.

It is also well known that the LTTE is already in South Africa. The Tigers have a number of legitimate organisations in SA that are overtly sympathetic and supportive. It also has some front organisations. So in terms of propaganda, lobbying, fund raising, arms procurement etc, the Tigers have already a set-up in place in SA.

What the LTTE may want to do is to open an official branch of the LTTE in South Africa. The Tigers do not have an official LTTE branch anywhere else. They function through a network of front organisations for obvious reasons.

But South Africa is the best and possibly the only country where it could established its own, official branch. Such a branch can also be a fallback guarantee if and when the west gets positively hostile to the Tigers.

But what Kadirgamar has accomplished is to forewarn the South African authorities of the LTTE trying to shift their international secretariat to South Africa and request them not to allow it.

Apparently the South Africans themselves were puzzled abut this as they did not have an inkling about such a move being contemplated by the LTTE. There are grounds to believe that the South African missions abroad, particularly in London, have a better insight into the workings of the Tigers than Sri Lankan intelligence.

Any assurance that the LTTE would not be allowed to relocate their international secretariat becomes meaningless if no such move was actually being contemplated. Thus Kadirgamar's advance intelligence was a complete surprise. So it could have been either really smart intelligence on the part of Sri Lanka or a terrible lapse.

It remains to be seen whether Kadirgamar was properly briefed about the situation. Incidentally it is worth recalling that the solitary intelligence operative stationed at our mission in London was hoodwinked only recently by an alleged 'LTTE' stool pigeon' who had been systematically feeding him wrong information.

Apart from the question of the international secretariat, there is also the information about LTTE training camps in South Africa. It is alleged that persons trained there are brought over to Sri Lanka to fight.

The situation is being compared to what prevailed in India some years ago. Tamil militant camps were established in Tamil Nadu and thousands of youths including the LTTE obtained training. More importantly, Tamil youths were also trained in North India. The training was done with the knowledge and facilitation of both the central and state governments. In addition, some groups had independent training too.

Comparing the Indian situation then with the South African situation now would lead to a false analogy. The training camps were started in India only because of four factors.

Firstly, it was not possible for Tamil militants not controlling even an inch of territory in 1983 to establish large scale training camps anywhere in the north-east at that time. Secondly, none of the Tamil groups had the financial resources initially to conduct such large-scale training camps. Thirdly, they did not have access at that time to large quantities of arms, ammunition or explosives. Fourthly, they did not have experts to provide sophisticated training.

But later on when the groups were in a position to control territory, generate resources, obtain adequate weapons and procure trainer personnel, they began to shift training camps to north and east Sri Lanka. The LTTE dismantled all its training camps in India by 1987. Even the other groups used only Sri Lankan soil for training when they raised the Tamil National Army in 1989-90. Training camps in India were necessary only at a particular phase of the evolution of the Tamil armed struggle. Training camps abroad, despite the short distance between India and Sri Lanka, became redundant.

Today, the LTTE controls extensive tracts of land in the Wanni and the east. It has the resources, expertise and materials to conduct intensive and sophisticated training right here in Sri Lanka.

The performance of the Tigers in recent combat provides testimony to their skilful training. In fact, the LTTE is in a position to conduct an international training school in the northeast if it desires.

It is totally unnecessary for the LTTE to conduct training camps in faraway South Africa for their cadres. It is impractical and illogical to recruit and transport cadres all the way there when training is possible on your home terrain.

So the allegation about the LTTE having training camps in South Africa seems unbelievable. So too is the allegation that the Tigers are training South African Tamils there. Is it not better and easier for the LTTE to bring these so called 'trainees' over here?

What then is the truth behind these allegations and charges?

Courtesy: Sunday Leader 29 Nov 98

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