The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon
Part 10

Sachi Sri Kantha
[8 August 2001]

Civil War Leader for Tamils

The Time magazine (Asia edition) of February 5, 2001, carried the following brief prognosis on the immediate future of peace-talks in Sri Lanka, which floated in the air early this year.

“Last year was declared the ‘Year of War’ by Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. He proved it: the Tigers almost captured the northern Jaffna peninsula before being turned back by the army. The insurgents will call for negotiations, but President Chandrika Kumaratunga will refuse rebel demands for concessions before talks actually begin - and in the meantime will move to liquidate the Tigers on the ground. That will harden Tamil opposition to a peace settlement. The civil war will reach its 19th anniversary with no end in sight.”

Of the five sentences which have more or less summarized correctly the recent events (during the six months since it appeared in print), I would like to focus on the vital final sentence. The proper use of the phrase ‘civil war’ by the Time magazine is correct. But, the accuracy of its count of 19th anniversary (scheduled for 2002) is somewhat off the mark, if one adheres to the definitions of ‘civil war’ formulated by Prof. Roy Licklider (see, Pirabhakaran Phenomenon - part 9).

Commencement of Civil War in Sri Lanka

Majority of the contemporary analysts of Sri Lankan politics and international journalists (including the Time magazine’s commentator) point to July 1983 as the commencement date of civil war in Sri Lanka. By analyzing multiple sources and the events which occurred between July 1983 and December 1986 in Eelam and by trying to correlate these to Licklider’s three criteria which have to be satisfied for the designation of civil war, I infer that the date of commencement of civil war should be marked for November 1986. The period from July 1983 to October 1986, until the Battle at Mannar where LTTE leader Victor became a martyr for the cause, has to be labeled as a period of civil unrest, followed by civil strife.

The dictionary definitions of the three words in discussion namely, unrest, strife and war are as follows, and I provide examples within parentheses.

Unrest is defined as, ‘trouble; turmoil, especially with regard to public or political conditions and suggesting premonitions of revolt.’ (bank raids; LTTE’s 1985 retaliatory attack in Anuradhapura)

Strife is defined as, ‘fighting; any contest for advantage or superiority’ (Infighting in TELO between Bobby and Das factions; LTTE’s decimation of TELO)

War is defined as, ‘an armed conflict between nations or states; the science of military operations’.

To recapitulate, Licklider’s three criteria which need to be satisfied for a designation of civil war are:

  1. Presence of influential leaders concerned about the possibility of living in the same political unit with their current enemies after the killing stops.

  2. Existence of multiple sovereignty: Population of an area obeying more than one institution, paying taxes, providing men to its armies, feeding its functionaries, honoring its symbols, giving time to its service, yielding other resources despite the prohibitions of a still-existing government they formerly obeyed.

  3. Large scale violence, reflected by (a) 1,000 battle deaths or more per year, and (b) effective resistance where the weaker side must have imposed casualties on its opponent equal to at least 5% of its own (to distinguish between civil wars and political massacres).

Now, let me show why the civil war began during Pirabhakaran’s sole-leadership of Eelam Tamils, and not when Amirthalingam was the nominal leader in July 1983, or when there were competing claimants for leadership among the Tamil militants, between August 1983 and end of 1986.

Pirabhakaran’s ascent to Eelam leadership, though unprecedented in South Asian setting, is legitimate, if one comprehends the peculiar conditions Sri Lanka faced in the mid-1980s, when (1) parliamentary democratic process was paralysed by the duplicitous 1982 referendum designed by an Al Caponist President (2) the TULF leadership abandoned its constituents and fled to Madras, and (3) Sri Lankan government was militarily showing aggression in the Tamil zones, under the pretext of eliminating the ‘Tamil terrorists’.

1984 - the year of chaos

1984 will be remembered in the Eelam history as one in which EPRLF made waves. It produced a bizarre abduction of American couple, Stanley and Mary Allen, by EPRLF militants. This episode, for some reason, has been omitted in the Broken Palmyra book, authored by Rajan Hoole and his colleagues. Though Pirabhakaran was not involved in this abduction episode, I wish to cite this episode to show the Rodney Dangerfield-type leadership skills shown by Pirabhakaran’s competitors, and how Pirabhakaran’s stature was different from them. The Allens’ episode also deserves exposure since one of the perpetrators of this kidnapping currently holds a cabinet post in President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government.

Allens from Ohio State, while working on a development project in Jaffna, were abducted on May 10, 1984 in Jaffna by the EPRLF. The EPRLF then demanded that Allens will be released when 50 million rupees in gold is paid to the Tamil Nadu government and a number of EPRLF cadres held in Sri Lankan custody were released. In hind-sight, one can only laugh at these two fool-hardy demands made by the EPRLF, when India was playing host to a visit by the then Vice President George Bush.

Now, to the resolution of this abduction episode, I can do no better than quote the central player K.Mohandas, former Director General of Police (Intelligence) of Tamil Nadu, who made his deposition to the Jain Commission (investigating Rajiv Gandhi assassination) on January 2, 1996, as follows:

“One night I was sleeping in my house. I got a call from the US Consul General from Madras at 11 pm. He told me frantically that Mr. and Mrs. Allen who were working as water resources experts in Jaffna had been kidnapped by militants. He wanted my assistance to rescue them. I told him how could I help him, for the incident had happened in Jaffna. He pressed that the President of the United States of America was interested. The Consul General said that a large amount of gold (to be paid as ransom) and six or so militants in Sri Lankan custody must be released. This must be done within 48 hours or else Mr and Mrs Allen would be shot dead. Then something struck me and I asked the Consul General to find out the names of the militants whom they were asking for release. Then as soon as I placed the phone down, I got a call from G.Parthasarthy from Delhi repeating the same request.

“I rang up MGR and took his permission to take up this matter. I immediately proceeded to office calling all my principal officers to come to the office. As soon as I reached the office, I got a call from the US Consul General revealing the names of the militants whose release the kidnappers had wanted. My officers immediately said that they were from the EPRLF. So the hunt began to find out whether there are any important EPRLF fellows in Madras. After about 24 hours, we got 3 or 4 of them sleeping in a house. There were also two women who were released. The catch was very important. Among the people we caught were one Mr.Padmanabha who was later massacred by LTTE. Then, two, Vardharaja Perumal, the subsequent Chief Minister installed by the IPKF in East Sri Lanka, and three, General Douglas, self-styled, who was the chief of militant wing of the EPRLF. I asked my officers to take the three to a five star hotel. It was about 2.00 am with a lot of security, the officers started questioning. But upto 6.00 am, they did not budge.

“So I went there with two commandos with loaded revolver. I made the three fellows stand. I placed my revolver on the table and made the commandos aim with their AK-47 at them. There was silence for two minutes. I looked at them straight and said: ‘It is your people who have made ransom demand on Allens. I will not allow you to open your mouth. Whatever happens to Allens will happen to you three right in this room’. After five minutes, General Douglas said that he would speak to his people in Jaffna to release Allens. I said, ‘Mind you, nothing in return, no gold; no release of their comrades’. General Douglas contacted Jaffna and got the release of Mr and Mrs Allen and, within four hours, Mr and Mrs Allen were released at the residence of Bishop of Jaffna with their eyes blindfolded.” [Jain Commission Report, vol.5, chapter 18]

This kidnapping incident organized by EPRLF cadres in Jaffna, though no harm was done to Allens due to quick-minded action taken by MGR’s police chief K.Mohandas in Madras, created a negative image on Eelam militants in the spring of 1984. Excerpts from a Time magazine report (August 27, 1984) authored by Spencer Davidson, on what happened in Jaffna and Mannar, will further substantiate the civil strife which was engulfing the Eelam in that year of chaos.

“For two weeks the violence had spread through Sri Lanka’s northern province, a bloody tit for tat of ambush and attack, pitting government forces against insurgents fighting for independence for the country’s predominantly Hindu Tamil minority. Roads lay deserted, banks and offices were shuttered, and shops opened for only a few hours each day. By the time a measure of calm had been restored last week, at least 150 people had lost their lives, including 25 government troops - the last worst bloodletting in Sri Lanka since July 1983, when hundreds died in communal clashes between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamils. Said a Western diplomat in Colombo: ‘This is the first sustained and significant challenge to the government’s authority in a year’.

“...The violence reached a climax early last week when troops rampaged in Mannar, about 50 miles southeast of Jaffna, in retaliation for a Tiger ambush in which ten military men were said to have died. By the time the soldiers’ destructive fury was spent, 123 shops had been burned and five Mannar residents lay dead... Minister Athulathmudali insists that the government would never permit a backlash by the Sinhalese. ‘That would be disastrous’, he said last week, as the government offered compensation and help in rebuilding Mannar. But reconciliation will be difficult, if not impossible. Even President Jayewardene admits gloomily that there now exists ’a virtually unbridgeable gap’.”

Even an year following the July 1983 holocaust, when Jayewardene’s regime invited Israeli military advisers for the first time in Sri Lanka, Pirabhakaran was not noted by the international news analysts. Here is an excerpt of a commentary which appeared in the Economist magazine of September 15, 1984, under the title, ‘Call in the Professionals’.

“...The number of Israeli military advisers in Sri Lanka is officially put at 10, but there are probably about two dozen, training Sri Lankans at a military establishment near Colombo. They belong to Shin Beth, the Israeli internal security agency and a cousin of Mossad, the intelligence service. It takes a long time to train someone in counter-insurgency, and it is unlikely that any Israeli-taught men have gone into action against the Tamil guerrillas fighting for a breakaway state in northern Sri Lanka.”

This commentary also stated that the links EPRLF had to PLO around that time would have been one of the reasons for Israeli support to the Sri Lankan government.

“...The Tamils’ Eelamist People’s Radical Front has close ties with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Its guerrillas have received training in PLO camps in southern Lebanon. A number of them were detained when Israel overran the camps during its invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. This PLO link swayed the Israelis when Sri Lanka came shopping for advice. Under an agreement with the United States, Israel is not supposed to help other governments with their security unless Israel’s own security is involved. As Tamils are being trained just across Israel’s border, this condition was felt to be met.”

The last sentence of this Economist commentary of September 15, 1984 is also revealing: ‘Sri Lanka is not yet at civil war. But chaos is doing well.’ Thus, one year following the July 1983 holocaust, civil war between the Sri Lankan government and Eelam Tamil militants was yet to begin. Narayan Swamy, in his book Tigers of Lanka, citing Voice of Tigers (September 1984) had observed,

“The LTTE announced that it was switching from ‘our tactic of hit and run to a sustained guerrilla campaign’ and urged other ‘liberation groups to join us as comrades-in-arms to fight our common enemy and defend our people’ [1996, 2nd edition, p.132]

Then, it took another two years for LTTE to qualify as the authentic Eelam army in the Sri Lankan civil war.

1985 - the year in the brink of civil war

As I show below from the excerpts of news reports and commentaries which appeared in the Economist, Sunday Times (London) and The Nation (New York), the situation in Eelam transformed from chaos into ‘near civil-war’ in 1985. This year began badly for the LTTE. On January 9, 1985, LTTE lost Pandithar, one of its oldest members, to an army raid at Achuveli, in addition to losing another 13 guerrillas.

A month later, on February 13, LTTE showed its vibrancy by raiding the Kokkilai army camp in which more than 100 guerrillas took part. It announced that 106 army men were killed and lost 16 of their guerrillas. The Sri Lankan government, beginning a trend of announcing dubious fatality figures in its engagements with LTTE, informed the public that only 4 of its soldiers died in Kokkilai raid by LTTE, while killing 14 guerrillas. Narayan Swamy had recorded that,

“Ravi Jayewardene [the son of the then President of Sri Lanka, who was serving as an advisor to the army] who visited the camp 3 days later, was in for a shock. For the first time since the ethnic conflict turned into a full-scale confrontation after July 1983, the Sri Lankans realised how sophisticated the enemy was.” [Tigers of Lanka, 1996, p.141]

I would consider that this LTTE’s raid on Kokkilai army camp in February 1985, which followed TELO’s raid of Colombo-bound Yal Devi train at Murikandy on January 19, 1985, in which 22 army men were killed, effectively terminated Amirthalingam’s leadership status. While Sri Lanka was sliding into the brink of civil war, by Licklider’s criteria, Amirthalingam’s leadership of Eelam Tamils satisfied only the first criterion. By exiling himself in Madras after the July 1983 holocaust, he couldn’t organize his TULF party cadres vibrantly to satisfy the second and third criteria of Licklider.

A competition for the Eelam Tamil leadership among the five militant factions sprang up in 1985. The competing parties were, TELO, LTTE, PLOTE, EPRLF and EROS. The leaders of each of these five factions satisfied Licklider’s first criterion for civil war leadership. Also, they established their influence among segments of the Eelam Tamil population, thus satisfying Licklider’s second criterion of ‘multiple sovereignty’. However the leadership skills of Pirabhakaran’s competitors (as demonstrated for instance, by EPRLF’s kidnapping episode of Allens in 1984, or the slavery of TELO to India’s intelligence-wallahs, or the secretive cult-like dealings of PLOTE) left much to be desired, though this was hardly visible to the general public in 1985.

The Economist magazine’s analysis entitled ‘A small but solvable war’, which appeared in August 3, 1985 was a succinct summary of the then situation in Eelam. Excerpts:

“The guerrillas were at first small groups of middle-class extremists who did not reflect the opinions of most Tamils. Known as ‘the boys’, they came from among the educated but frustrated young, many of whom had been unable to get into universities because of the policy of favouring the Sinhalese.

When the army went in to root them out, it turned minority violence into mass secessionism. The indiscriminate reprisals against civilians do not seem to have been ordered by officers; the problem was that 95% of the men in the army’s ranks were Sinhalese peasants, most of whom regarded Tamils as foreigners and saw their job as fighting a war, not restoring law and order.

Last year the government banned fishing around the Tamil’s bit of the coast, and restricted movement in Tamil areas. The fishermen and farmers found it almost impossible to make a living; so the peasants joined in what had been a mainly middle class fight, and the guerrillas suddenly had a flood of volunteers. Most people this correspondent spoke to in the North supported the guerrillas.”

This commentary also recorded that, “As the guerrilla movement grew, control of the north slipped away from the government....”. But by mid-1985, in real terms, even the Eastern Sri Lanka was slipping away from the control of Sri Lankan government, as presented by Simon Winchester’s on-the-scene report, published in the Sunday Times (London), June 23, 1985, under the caption, ‘Behind the lines with the Tamil guerrillas’.

It should be noted that Winchester and a photographer who accompanied him were arrested near Mutur and brought to Colombo, under the pretext that both of them had “entered Sri Lanka as tourists and had no journalistic accreditation from the [Sri Lankan] government” (London Times, June 20, 1985). I reproduce a brief sketch of a young Tamil Tiger from Trincomalee, as presented by Winchester.

“ ‘We are continuing with the fight’, insisted Gamesh, a young man who, in normal times, had been a medical student, and was still a talkative and polite middle-class Tamil of 24. When we met, in a secluded village 10 miles south of ‘Trinco’, last week, he was carrying a Soviet-made AK 47 assault rifle, a bandolier of ammunition, a pouch of hand grenades and a commando knife.

With his two well-armed colleagues - one a chemistry student, the other a former civil servant - from a local unit of the Tamil Tigers guerrilla group, Gamesh was scornful of Tuesday’s announcement of an 18-week ‘cessation of hostilities’ between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the small army of militant Tamils, in which he is a section leader...

The battle for control of Trincomalee - Nelson called it ‘the finest harbour in the world’, and it was a prime Royal Navy base until 1957 - is turning out to be the critical struggle in Sri Lanka. Militant Tamils, who want all of northern and eastern Sri Lanka for themselves, as an autonomous or semi-autonomous state to be named Tamil Eelam, see Trincomalee as their natural capital city. But the island’s Sinhalese majority, well aware of the strategic and commercial importance of the harbour - as a base for the Ceylon Navy and as an expanding centre for container trade with the Orient - is equally determined not to allow it to fall into Tamil hands.

In our brief reconnaissance of the region - cut short by our arrest, interrogation, and summary removal back to Colombo - it became easy to understand the bitterness and hatred that is currently dividing the communities in Sri Lanka...

The Tamil Tiger guerrillas are widely admired, their violent tactics now, to judge from conversations and interviews conducted last week, accepted by virtually all sectors of rural Tamil society. The fighters themselves, who agreed only with great reluctance to be interviewed, were confident and, it has to be admitted, impressive. The trio we met, though possibly not representative, were intelligent young men. They were not the hooligans or cowboys mentioned in the Colombo press and they also were not, they insisted, Marxists. True, their weapons were Soviet-made (the Sri Lankan army uses American M-16s). But they said: ‘We want no more socialism for Tamil Eelam than President Jayewardene wants for Sri Lanka as a whole. We want freedom for our people, that is all.’

But in pursuit of that freedom had not some terrible acts of slaughter been committed by the guerrillas? ‘Yes, but it is a vicious circle’, said Gamesh, the medical student. ‘Violence breeds more violence. You have it in Ireland. We have it here. It will not end until the cause is taken away.’ [Sunday Times, London, June 23, 1985]

Five months later, the Nation weekly of New York carried an analysis by Richard Greenberg, with the caption, ‘Sri Lanka Lurches toward Civil War’ (November 30, 1985). Among the named sources, it carried the comments of V.Balakumar (the leader of EROS), B.Deogupillai (the Bishop of Jaffna) and A.S.Balasingham (the spokesman for the LTTE), in addition to the then National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali. The published comments of these four were as follows:

Balakumar: “The Sri Lankan security forces have been our best recruiter.”

Rev.Deogupillai: “Many people are afraid of the boys, but they are even more afraid of the army.”

Balasingham: “The colonization of the Tamil homeland by Sinhalese settlers is part of a deliberate policy aimed at the genocide of the Tamil people. In the Eastern Province, the Sinhalese share of the population has grown from 8.4 percent in 1946 to 24.9 percent in 1981. We will never accept anything less than the union of the two provinces which make up the Tamil homeland.”

Athulathmudali: “The facts are simply against it.” [on relinquishing control over the Northern and Eastern provinces]

Pirabhakaran, who was living in Madras, was not cited (probably not interviewed) by Greenberg. But, I wish to quote in full one paragraph which (after the passage of nearly 15 years) proves the unbelievable organizing skill of Pirabhakaran.

“ ‘If it’s war, it must be war’, President Jayewardene declared in a speech after the collapse of the Bhutan talks. But the ‘war’ has already cost millions of dollars, which have been diverted from development. Even with a military budget eight times larger than that of 1977, the army leader had admitted that a victory on the battle field is virtually impossible, and the Finance Minister is predicting huge deficits and potential economic ruin if the fighting continues. It is not clear that the guerrillas could sustain a prolonged war either.” [Nation, November 30, 1985]

15 years since this was published, Pirabhakaran had proved the validity of the then Sri Lankan army leader’s premonition that victory on the battle field is virtually impossible. How? Among the five main Eelam militant factions which jostled for power, only Pirabhakaran’s LTTE developed into a full-fledged army to satisfy the third criterion of Licklider for being a participant of a civil war. Of the other four Eelam militant groups (PLOTE, TELO, EPRLF and EROS), EROS faction of Balakumar joined the LTTE. PLOTE forfeited the stage by its erratic leadership and its inability to engage the Sri Lankan army continuously. TELO and subsequently EPRLF lost their sheen and paid for their sins of becoming the puppets of India’s intelligence agencies. One of the wisecracks of Lalith Athulathmudali, made in 1986, was “Once they [Eelamists] get their air-conditioned cars they will forget Eelam” turned out to be true to quite a number of leaders belonging to PLOTE and EPRLF, and their breakaway groups like EPDP.

1986 - the first year of civil war

In my assessment, the commencement of repetitive, aerial bombing by the Sri Lankan military was a significant marker to delineate the beginning of civil war from civil strife. The first such aerial aggression in Eelam was reported in the Saturday Review of February 22, 1986, as follows:

“7 civilians, including 2 children were killed and 16 others injured in bombing and firing by the Sri Lankan Air Force in the outskirts of Jaffna on 19th February. 14 houses, a rice mill, a power loom, the Vairavar temple and the bo-tree were damaged. The places affected by the bombing were Thavady, Suthmalai, Manipay, Kondavil and Navaly. The bombing by 5 Air Force planes, had started around 4.30 pm and gone on for nearly one hour.

The apparent provocation for the aerial attack - the first in Sri Lanka since World War II when the Japanese bombed Colombo and Trincomalee in 1942 - was the reported presence of a camp of the Tamil Eelam Army (TEA) led by ‘Panagoda’ Maheswaran in the Thavady area.”

Another significant marker which I used to support the proposal that 1986 was the first year of civil war, and not 1983, is the accumulating number of LTTE cadres who lost their lives in engagements with the Sri Lankan army. The threshold for satisfying Licklider’s third criterion of civil war (viz., ‘effective resistance where the weaker side must have imposed casualties on its opponent equal to at least 5% of its own’) was reached only by the end of 1986. According to the casualty statistics of LTTE cadres, published in the LTTE publication, Sooriya Puthalvarkal - 2000, LTTE lost its first cadre on November 27, 1982. Then, the accumulating losses were as folows: 5 in 1983, 36 in 1984, 123 in 1985 and 258 in 1986. By the end of 1986, LTTE had lost 423 of their fighters to the civil unrest and civil strife, which preceded the civil war.

From the information provided in Narayan Swamy’s book Tigers of Lanka, I tabulated the loss of Sri Lankan army men who confronted the LTTE, following the Kokkilai army camp raid in February 1985. It is as follows:

1985 April 22: 20 soldiers ambushed at Mullaitivu.

1985 April 26: 10 soldiers killed in a gun battle at Ariyalai.

1985 May 7: 5 soldiers killed in an army truck blast near Valvettithurai.

[undated]: attack on Mannar police station, killing ‘several’ policemen.

[undated]: 10 police commandos killed in Trincomalee.

1985 June 1: 30 naval personnel killed in an attack on a naval camp.

1985 September 27: 9 soldiers killed in a gun battle, following an attack on a police station, 16 km from Anuradhapura.

1986 October 12: fierce gun battle in Mannar, killing 28 army men, and LTTE losing one of its leaders, Victor, who led the 1985 retaliatory raid on Anuradhapura.

11986 October 14: landmine attack in Trincomalee, killing 10 army men.

Obviously, the above tabulation is factually incomplete. But, one can infer that if LTTE’s armed cadre numbered around 1,500 at that time (see, Time magazine, February 16, 1987, p.7), the threshold of reaching Licklider’s third criterion for being one of the warring parties of civil war was reached near the end of 1986, when the casualty figures inflicted on Sri Lankan army by LTTE’s [acknowledgeably, the weaker side] engagements reached at least 5% of LTTE’s strength. The strength of Sri Lankan army in 1984 was 12,000 (see, Time magazine, August 27, 1984, p.31). By the end of 1986, this number would have been increased to nearly 25,000 - 30,000. The end of 1986 also marked the closure of Pirabhakaran’s leadership-apprentice phase and his impending permanent return to Eelam from Tamil Nadu. [Continued]