Sharpened Claws (About LTTE from Time Magazine 1998)
Posted on May 22nd, 2009

BY TIM MCGIRK Velvettiturai

Sharpened Claws A stunning high-seas heist shows how the once-ragtag Tigers have become a deadly fighting force

BY TIM MCGIRK Velvettiturai 

ASIA

FEBRUARY 9, 1998 VOL. 151 NO. 5

While finding his way through the maze of Rome’s airport last March, a dapper arms manufacturer from Zimbabwe named Tshinga Dube paused for a few seconds and put down his briefcase. It vanished. Inside were documents on the sale of 32,400 rounds of 81-mm mortars to the Sri Lankan army. With them, the Sri Lankans hoped to blast open a strategic road and break the hold of Tamil Tiger rebels in the palmyra jungles in the northern part of the island.

At the time, Colonel Dube didn’t worry much about his missing briefcase. He figured it had been grabbed by one of the airport’s numerous snatch-and-run artists. Moving swiftly, Dube ordered copies of the stolen papers, and his company, Zimbabwe Defense Industries, went ahead with the $3 million sale to Sri Lanka. On May 23, the mortars were transported to Beira, a port in Mozambique, and loaded onto a freighter bound for Colombo. The ship docked on July 2 in Madagascar. Then, like the colonel’s briefcase, it too disappeared.

Nobody in the Sri Lankan Defense Ministry seemed too upset by the freighter’s absence until July 14, when a mysterious fax arrived at the United States Embassy in Colombo claiming to be from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (ltte). The message, which lacked the group’s usual letterhead of a snarling tiger, seemed to be an outrageous hoax: “We, the Tamil Tigers, inform you that on July 11, 1997 we have hijacked a vessel carrying arms, sailing under Liberian flag.” But instead of laughing at the fax, officials in the Defense Ministry got nervous. Checking records, they realized the shipload of mortars was nearly a month late. With growing dread, the authorities ran a check on the vessel, the Stillus Limmasul. Bad news: no ship by that name was registered. The mortars had been grabbed by the Tigers.

Just how they pulled off this high-seas sting still isn’t clear, but it seems the Tigers may have secretly owned the ship all along. Now the stolen mortars are being used against their intended recipients. More than 900 Sri Lankan soldiers have been killed, mostly by 81-mm mortar shells, in the eight-month-long operation to open the Jaffna-Vavuniya road. Says Major General Lionel Balagalle, commander of the northern peninsula of Jaffna: “Before, the Tigers would fire a single mortar. Now they’re firing 10 or 12. Mortars are coming down on our boys like anything.”

The hijacking illustrates how, during Sri Lanka’s 14-year ethnic conflict, the Tamil Tigers have evolved from a bunch of guerrillas known more for their martyrdom than their method into a deadly fighting force. Backing up the 7,000 guerrillas fighting in the north and northeast corners of Sri Lanka is a global intelligence and financial network. Using an array of front companies, the ltte’s web extends from Singapore and Australia over to Europe and North America. An annual report of its legitimate endeavors would show millions of dollars pouring in from investments in shipping, property, securities, restaurants, Tamil-language videos and music cassettes. After the Sri Lankan army reconquered Jaffna in 1996, the ltte’s fund-raisers brought in more than $3 million from Canada alone. Not all of these donations were voluntary: Tamil businessmen in Toronto complain of regular shakedowns by Tiger goons.

Extortion isn’t the rebels’ only sinister enterprise. Police in Colombo, London and Toronto reportedly claim the Tigers are involved in arms smuggling, running protection rackets among the 1.5 million overseas Sri Lankan Tamils, and trafficking heroin from Burma and Pakistan. In recent years, the Tigers seem to have hit on another lucrative sideline: sneaking illegal immigrants into Canada and Europe. “Sri Lankans have become the world’s biggest smugglers of people,” reports a Western diplomat, who says they typically charge up to $20,000 a person. Says Rohan Gunaratna, a London-based specialist on terrorist groups: “The ltte is like an octopus with its head in the north of Sri Lanka and its tentacles extending around the world.”

The head of this octopus is the Tigers’ leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, a portly 43-year-old with glittering eyes. An enigma even to his most loyal commanders, Prabhakaran is the topic of speculation in Colombo as well as among Tamils. Where will he strike next? His suicide bombers on Jan. 25 tried to destroy the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, sacred to Sinhalese Buddhists, killing 14 civilians and prompting the government to declare the ltte an illegal organization. What else will he do to sabotage the country’s 50th anniversary celebrations? And will he ever accept peace, short of splitting Sri Lanka into two nations, Tamil and Sinhalese?

Prabhakaran inspires fanatical devotion among his fighters, even though he is rarely seen except before battles or to host farewell banquets for Tigers setting off on suicide missions. Asked who his heroes are, Prabhakaran once named actor Clint Eastwood. M.R. Narayan Swamy, an Indian journalist and author, claims that Prabhakaran used to amuse himself by practicing his quick draw with live ammunition against a man-sized cut-out in the jungle.

Born into a warrior-fisherman caste from Velvettiturai, a coastal village near Jaffna, he was the son of a pious Hindu agricultural officer who was famed for being so incorruptible that he would refuse cups of tea from his subordinates. The official’s voice seldom rose above a timid whisper, and one relative recalls that the man “would not even crush a stem of grass.” His son was oblivious to the father’s gentle message; Prabhakaran spent his days killing birds and squirrels with a slingshot. He was an average student, preferring historical novels on the glories of ancient Tamil conquerors to his textbooks. A Catholic priest remembers him as “a quiet fellow, in awe of the older boys.”

As a youth he became swept up in the growing militancy in the northern peninsula of Jaffna, which is predominately Tamil. And like his idol Clint Eastwood, young Prabhakaran decided to let his gun do the talking. He dropped out of school, discarded his slingshot for an old revolver and, at the age of 16, helped launch a militant group called the Tamil New Tigers, becoming its co-leader at 21. Only through supreme sacrifice, insisted Prabhakaran, could the Tamils achieve their goal of Eelam, or a separate homeland. He wasted no time in imposing a strict code of conduct over his 15 gang members: no smoking, no drinking and no sex. A former militant recalls: “We barely had any guns, but Prabhakaran was talking about how we’d be needing a navy and an air force. Back then, some of us thought he was crazy.” In 1975, Prabhakaran’s gang assassinated Jaffna’s mayor. The youngster became a wanted man and a disgrace to his pacifist father.

The New Tigers, renamed the ltte in 1976, survived on robbing banks, killing policemen and stealing their weapons, and fighting rival Tamil militant groups. Whenever the police were closing in on him, Prabhakaran and his boys slipped over to India’s Tamil Nadu state, smuggled in with help from boyhood friends. In 1983, the gang killed 13 soldiers in an ambush near Jaffna. He and his cohorts fled to Tamil Nadu, but hundreds of Tamils across the island were massacred in retaliation. Says a Sinhalese businessman: “Tamil shops and houses were being selectively burnt. Many people felt the Tamils deserved to be taught a lesson.”

Until then, the Tamil militant groups were not much better than petty crooks armed with pistols and shotguns. Together, the various gangs could muster only 150 men. Their militancy gained momentum after the 1983 riots. Thousands of Tamils living in Sinhalese areas headed over to India to sign up at Tamil militants’ training camps, many of which were sponsored covertly by Indian intelligence, a bit of intrigue that was to backfire horrendously on the Indians. In Tamil Nadu, Prabhakaran’s exploits turned him into a folk hero. His fierce eyes glared from calendars. He was courted by Tamil Nadu’s powerful chief minister, M.G. Ramachandran, a former movie star, who encouraged the young man to bring around his latest weapons. These lethal toys were used against other Tamil militant leaders, as well as the Sri Lankan army. Tiger ideologue Anton Balasingham once gave this explanation for the internecine massacres: “Down the history of liberation struggles all over the world, the big fish swallows the smaller fish. In the end, only the big fish remains.”

Nobody was bigger than Prabhakaran. Gradually and ruthlessly, he gained control of the Tamil uprising. No protest happened without his say. So when a group of university students began a death-fast campaign in 1983, he had them kidnapped and brought by boat to his headquarters in Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu. Their leader was a fiery beauty named Mathivathani Erambu. During the Indian festival of holi, she dared to douse the leader with a bucket of colored water. It was love at first splash. After reducing her to tears of fright with his spluttering yells, Prabhakaran then went on to confess his love and break his ltte chastity vow. The rule was bent to suit Prabhakaran, and he wed Erambu at a Hindu temple near Madras. Now Tigers are allowed to wed after five years of combat. Prabhakaran’s wife, son and daughter (a third child may also have been born) are reportedly hiding in Australia. Soon after the wedding, Balasingham confided: “In a way, we’re happy. This marriage will humanize Prabhakaran.”

If it did humanize Prabhakaran, he hides it well. The Tigers’ chief has purged many of his trusted commanders for suspected treason. Having murdered so many, Prabhakaran fears he may be next. While ruling Jaffna, he never slept in the same place more than two nights in a row. Even then, he shifted his bed to different locations in a room full of comrades and slept with a handgun–some say a razor–under his pillow. He demands loyalty but seldom gives it in return. Says a Tamil former militant in Madras: “He would eliminate anyone who would be a threat to him, even 10 years down the road.”

President Chandrika Kumaratunga was told by Indian officials that when Prabhakaran was coaxed to New Delhi to sign the short-lived India-Sri Lanka peace accord in 1987, the only sticking point was his obsession over personal security. As Kumaratunga told TIME: “Rajiv Gandhi sent for one of his secretaries and told him to bring him his personal bulletproof vest. Rajiv got up and told Prabhakaran, ‘Look, this is symbolic of the guarantee of the security that the Indian government and I personally will give you.’ Prabhakaran had tears in his eyes and said: ‘I’ll agree.’ [On the flight back to Madras, Prabhakaran began vomiting.] One of the Indian officers who was with him asked, ‘Why are you like this?’ And Prabhakaran replied: ‘I will never be able to live in peace because I have killed too many of my own people.’ So this is Mr. Prabhakaran.”

The anecdote about Gandhi’s vest is all the more chilling in light of later events. A suspected ltte suicide bomber, acting under Prabhakaran’s orders, blew up Gandhi in May 1991 after garlanding him with flowers. Last week marked the first time the Tigers have ever been convicted: 26 people, including 13 Sri Lankans, were sentenced to death by an Indian court for their role in the conspiracy that eventually killed Gandhi and 15 others. The Tigers are also accused of assassinating President Ranasinghe Premadasa and presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake, as well as two cabinet ministers, 10 legislators and 32 prominent Tamil leaders. Tiger operations are always meticulously planned, with agents spending months stalking their prey. Kumaratunga is also thought to be on the hit list, and she seldom ventures from her heavily guarded residence in Colombo.

Prabhakaran remains fearsome, though his grasp on the Tamils may be slipping. He is still praised as an avenging warrior-king, but after all the years of battle, many Tamils were let down when the Tigers in April 1995 broke off a four-month cease-fire. The government is now preparing to offer the Tamils autonomy within a federalist system, and Kumaratunga is willing to let Prabhakaran rule the Tamils. But as the President remarked, “I don’t know that Prabhakaran can ever live with peace.”

Dreams of a Tamil Eelam also receded with the Sri Lankan army’s capture of Jaffna, forcing the Tigers back into the jungle. Internationally, support for the ltte is ebbing after a vicious bombing campaign in Colombo killed hundreds of civilians. The U.S. State Department last October placed the ltte on its terrorist list; as a result, government forces are getting more intelligence tip-offs. One such warning came on Oct. 31, when Western agencies detected a weapons-laden litte ship approaching the coast off Mullativu. Though it wasn’t the mysterious Stillus Limmasul, the vessel may have contained some of the Zimbabwean mortars. Sri Lankan aircraft sank the ship, but not before part of its deadly cargo of mortars and other arms was unloaded.

Senior military officials suggest that the Tigers, increasingly isolated in their jungle strongholds, may be growing weary of the struggle. “A few years back, we’d never take any of them alive,” says Colonel Rizwi Zaki. “They’d rather swallow cyanide than give up. Now we’re getting a few–just a few–of these young boys and girls surrendering.” Until many more of them lay down their arms, Sri Lanka’s nightmare will go on.

With reporting by Meenakshi Ganguly/Jaffna, David Jeyaraj/Toronto, Waruna Karunatilake/Colombo and R. Bhagwan Singh/Madras

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