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Tamil politics and Tiger strategy in perspective


KP’s story continues to provide insights into the history of the LTTE, Tamil politics and the contemporary history of Sri Lanka. One disclosure stands out. “The then TULF leader A. Amirthalingham introduced me to Prabhakaran in mid 70s, most probably in 1976 and since then we worked together”. (‘KP Speaks Out: An Interview with T. Selvarasa Pathmanathan alias KP’, Shamindra Ferdinando, The Island, Aug 5, 2010).

An exegetical attempt is subsequently made to downgrade its significance and render it ‘innocuous’. “KP was introduced to Prabhakaran – both 20 + years, by Amirthalingam when he was out of parliament (1970-77) and in with the grassroots as well as the violent upstarts.” (‘Tamil politics post-LTTE: serious business or serial stories?’ Rajan Philips, Sunday Island, Aug 15, 2010).

Let us unpack the meaning of KP’s disclosure. The leader of the moderate secessionist Tamil party the TULF, Mr Amirthalingam, introduced KP to a young man known to be heading a terrorist organisation. For what purpose could he have done this? If he wanted to recruit KP he could have done so to the TULF or its youth/students wing. Instead he pretty much acted as a recruiter for a terrorist nucleus.

There again, if Mr Amirthalingam wished to introduce KP to a militant leader, even one of an armed organisation, and especially the Tigers, he could have introduced him to Uma Maheswaran, chairman of the LTTE in 1976, and known to be an educated, politically minded man. Instead he chose to introduce KP precisely to the ‘pure terrorist’ or ‘pure militarist’, the shadowy youth, Prabhakaran who had already assassinated Alfred Duraiyappah.

What is as remarkable is that he did this prior to July ’83, when it might have been understandable, if not exactly excusable. He also did this when General Elections were scheduled for 1977, i.e. when chances of peaceful, democratic negotiated change or a peaceful platform for Tamil Eelam were still possible.

Mr Amirthalingam, who was a university friend of my father, a contributor to the Lanka Guardian, a compelling speaker in the English language (though not in the Sivasithamparam league) with whom I had only the most cordial encounters, was killed by gunmen sent by the very man he chose to introduce KP to Velupillai Prabhakaran.    

Moderates are known to consort with extremists, and radicals known to ally with the state, but not without a dramatic marker event which throws them together, as the Accord of 1987 brought together the SLFP and JVP, just as it did the UNP governed State and the SLMP (as well as groups such as the one I belonged to).  By 1976 there were plenty of reasons ( such as the IATR tragedy of 1974) to provoke restive youth to take up the gun, but insufficient cause for an avowedly moderate, responsible, parliamentary nationalist to have passed on contacts to a terrorist group.

Sadly Mr Amirthalingam is depicted here as having done so prior to such a seismic shock (1979, 1981, Black July ’83) and with a General Election a distinct probability. No moderate behaves that way, and one who does so can be classified as a moderate.

This brings us to Prof. Urmila Phadnis’ observation that a distinct feature of Sri Lankan Tamil (sub) nationalism, in contrast to sub-nationalisms in India, is the “autonomist-secessionist continuum”. The question arises as to whether mainline Tamil nationalism, even of the parliamentary variety, could be defined as moderate in it aims and affiliations, by any international standard.

Does this mean that there are no Tamil moderates, and/or that there are no moderate Tamil negotiating partners as the Sinhala extremists claim? I disagree. The Tamil moderates do exist, and they are those who have passed the existential test with flying colours, dissenting from and resisting the LTTE, albeit at various times. These are the EPDP, PLOT, EPRLF (Nabha wing), TMVP and personalities like Anandasanagree and SC Chandrahasan, currently grouped within the Tamil Political Parties Forum (though that forum does have former fellow travellers of the Tigers bringing up the rear). This is not to say that the TNA should not be seriously negotiated with It must be, as it contains the bulk of the elected representatives of the Tamil people of the North and East. However, insofar as it hasn’t recanted on its support of the Tigers nor undertaken a criticism of the LTTE, the TNA cannot yet be strictly classified as a wholly moderate party by comparative international standards.       

The third part of DBS Jeyaraj’s exciting interview with KP deals with Prabhakaran’s last days. KP makes much of the valour of the last ditch stand of Prabhakaran and his fellow Tigers but that begs two questions: why didn’t he bite on his famous cyanide capsule, and more basically, what does the fact that he was (out) manoeuvred into and trapped in that ‘killing box’ say about Prabhakaran as a commander and strategist?

The point is all the more valid when set against a recent publication; a large volume of  896 pages by Fidel Castro entitled The Strategic Victory. Being the first volume of his autobiography he deals with the decisive turning point of the Cuban revolutionary war, when a ten thousand strong force of US trained (for possible deployment in the Korean War) and equipped army of dictator Fulgencio Batista, supported by air force planes firing US supplied rockets, surrounded a mere three hundred strong force of “poorly equipped” guerrilla fighters led by Fidel and his fellow commanders Che Guevara, Raul Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos. Fidel’s guerrillas had already suffered a huge setback when the General strike of 1957, led by their urban network the July 26th Movement, failed.

The state decided to capitalise on this failure and press home the advantage, launching a decisive operation to surround and crush the Cuban revolutionaries. That was in 1958. By New Year’s Eve that very year, the Cuban army was in disarray and dictator Batista fled the country. Such was the magnitude of the turnaround in strategic fortunes that Fidel and his 300 guerrillas were able to effect. 

True, a far great number of Sri Lankan soldiers besieged Prabhakaran, but the ability to raise that number was also a success of the political and military leadership on the Sri Lankan side. Far more significantly, Prabhakaran had a force under his command that was superior to Fidel’s 300 by a multiple of a hundred -- not to mention a sea and air arm! Again, true, the Cuban revolutionaries had the advantage of a mountainous terrain, the Sierra Maestra, but Prabhakaran was supposed to be undefeatable in the Mullaitivu jungles with its impenetrable natural canopy.

This was attested to in print by many an IPKF officer, including commanding General Kalkat who, even towards the end of the war was rather doubtful of the Sri Lankan army’s capacity to beat Prabhakaran in that terrain. The Tigers had another advantage that Fidel did not: he was fighting on his home turf.

It was reported that just before the last war, Prabhakaran made his fighters watch a movie called ‘300’, which was of course the movie version of an illustrated novella of one of the most famous battles ever, recorded by Herodotus in his Histories. That was the battle of Thermopylae in which 300 Spartans led by King Leonidas held off a Persian invading force of several hundred thousand before being betrayed and succumbing, but not before buying enough time for the Greek federation to rally and defeat the Persians decisively.

Prabhakaran, with a starting force that was far greater, proved that he was no Leonidas, while Fidel in 1958, with a force of 300, proved that he was greater than Leonidas because he not only held off the vastly superior army that invaded his redoubt, but smashed the offensive, achieving a ‘strategic victory’ as he entitles his reminiscences of it, and going onto to win the war within a year.

The contrast between the Prabhakaran outcome and Fidel outcome proves not only the superiority of the Sri Lankan military’s strategy, tactics and performance, but also the qualitative superiority, almost to the point of incomparability, between the strategic leadership of Fidel Castro (and the Fidel-Raul-Che-Camilo combine) on the one hand, Velupillai Prabhakaran a.k.a the Sun God, on the other.

If I may anticipate readers who would think, not without reason, that this an unfair comparison (and at one level, comparing Prabhakaran with Fidel is like comparing a Hobbit with an Olympean) let me say that Prabhakaran and the Tigers compare badly in the realm of asymmetric warfare, with contemporaries such as the Eritrean EPLF (which prevailed in its aim), the Nepali Maoists (who combined guerrilla war, negotiations and electoral politics to emerge the top contenders for state power) and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which caused the Israeli army to pull out of Southern Lebanon and then in 2006, fought it to a standstill.

Prabhakaran led a movement which was the world’s top terrorist organisation but not the world’s best guerrilla formation. He was terrorist maestro but not a  master strategist of guerrilla and insurrectionary warfare, still less a virtuoso of warfare in general, unlike Fidel, Ho Chi Minh, Giap, and (Sandinista chief and now Nicaraguan President) Daniel Ortega.

If Prabhakaran had been a first class strategist he would have done as Mao did when after a decade, he abandoned the ‘Red base’ in Yenan in 1945, and made the timely shift (back) to mobile and guerrilla warfare. By 1949 Mao was in power. Prabhakaran failed to realise that the civilian populace he held onto as a human shield, with which he sought to deter Sri Lankan attacks and secure a ceasefire plus international intervention, had in fact become a liability which was slowing him down. He should have let the civilians go and dismantled his force early enough, into mobile guerrilla columns, and dispersed.  The Tigers and their supporters (including the much vaunted and possibly imaginary ‘brains trust’ in the Diaspora) just weren’t brainy enough for that and were outsmarted by the Sri Lankan state, its armed forces and its friends.

As for those readers who may query as to why it then took the Sri Lankan military thirty years to defeat the LTTE, the answer is that it was about to or well might have, a decade into the war, in 1987, when it was brusquely interrupted by an ‘external shock’.

By Dayan Jayatilleke


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