Anuradhapura, Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

The Killing of the ‘Always-Smiling Face’ LTTE Political Head and the Anuradhapura Airbase Attack Bring an Already-Futile Peace Process to the Edge of Chaos

By Satheesan Kumaaran

The LTTE’s two-pronged attack on the Sri Lankan airbase, located at Saliyapura, in Anuradhapura, which is a north-central province of Sri Lanka, on Monday, October 22, 2007, and the air raid of the Sri Lankan air force on November 02, 2007, which killed six LTTEers, including the their political wing chief, have created panic among the Sri Lankans and anxiety among the global community. This mounting panic could push Sri Lanka intent on crushing the LTTE prowess and the LTTE in turn to to launch military operations aim at dividing the country into two nations within one island. The profile of the LTTE has risen, both militarily and politically, following the aerial and land attacks on the Sri Lankan airbase. The LTTE victory has put the Sri Lankan government into a grave political predicament for the Sri Lankan government, since Mahinda Rajapaksa coming to power, has not faced such a massive military defeat. But, in swift retaliation, the Sri Lankan air force bombers targetted the “always smiling face” LTTE political wing leader S. P.Thamilselvan. Thamilselvan was regarded as a moderate political activist of the LTTE, and he is seen as a skilled diplomat by international leaders who met with him during interludes of peace talks.

The international community has sensed that the struggle in Sri Lanka cannot end unless both parties in the conflict enter into genuine peace talks. The LTTE, for its part, declared that, although it is ready to engage in peace talks, the Sri Lankan government should first advance a political solution for the LTTE to consider and immediately address the grievances of the Tamils; it is only under these conditions that the LTTE feel they can enter into peace talks as an equal partner and reach mutual understanding with members of the Sri Lankan government. The Sri Lankan government, for its part, blames the LTTE for insisting that there be conditions before it enters any peace talks.

In the aftermath of the Anuradhapura airbase bombings, peace-loving people around the world do not want to see the island subjected to war again. War will further devastate the country economically. The burdens of war will disastrously impact on the ordinary citizens of the country, citizens who are already sick and tired of intermittent war. The Sinhala people, however, have not yet been alerted to the consequences of another war on the island for they do not seem to take the issue seriously; instead, they are being hoodwinked by politicians who are out for gain. In addition, extremists on both sides want to preserve their legacies, whether the myths they have created are true or not. Many innocents accept the myths propagated by the extremists, even though the latter provide no clear evidence of the validity of those myths.

The story of Anuradhapura is important to be discussed in this paper because Anuradhapura was one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka and is a sacred Buddhist place for the majority of the Sinhala population. Sinhala anthropologists and historians claim that this city is a centre of one of the oldest civilizations in Asia if not the world. It is located about 200 kilometres north of Sri Lanka’s present capital, Colombo, and it is recognized, by UNESCO, as a world heritage site. According to the Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, a Pali work of the sixth century A. D(translated by Wilhelm Geiger), the city was controlled by the Tamil king Ellalan, with the support of the Chola Empire of southern India. The Tamil monarch Ellalan, also known as Elara, reigned for 44 years, nearly 2000 years ago, but was defeated by the Sinhala Prince Gamini Abhaya, known as Dutugemunu, from Ruhunu in the deep south of Sri Lanka. The importance of Anuradhapura and Ellalan is further highlighted by the fact that LTTE supremo Velupillai Pirapaharan gave the military code name “Operation Ellalan” to the attack on the Anuradhapura airbase, in order to show the world that Tamil heritage remains active on the island and that the direct threat to Anuradhapura will extend to other areas unless the Sinhala government in Colombo grants autonomy to the two Tamil provinces, which lie in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

The LTTE leader directed his most trusted man to arrange for the provision of military training to selected members of the Black Tigers. Besides regiments, the Tamil Tigers have three armed forces – Land, Sea and Air; their members are known as the Black Tigers. The latter wear vests filled with explosives, drive vehicles filled with explosives, and navigate boats filled with explosives. The Black Tigers embrace death on or before the completion of their missions, as a way of protecting the secrecy of the LTTE. Proper training was essential for the success of the attack on the airbase because the base is in the heart of Sinhala area. The special training required a map and good topographical knowledge of Sri Lanka, especially Anuradhapura and its surroundings, because the airbase alone is about 3 kilometers in length and 2 kilometres in width. The well-trained Black Tigers knew exactly when to strike; they reached the airbase on October 22 , well before 3:20 a.m., when the Sri Lankan armed personnel were deep in sleep, following a day of eventful activities, which saw the participation of over 100,000 spectators.

The LTTE leader marked the date and the object of the mission. Just before 11:59 p.m., on Sunday, he called together all the commanders of the LTTE. During this meeting, he told them he was going to show the ancient Tamil monarch Ellalan a successful military operation conducted by 21 Black Tigers, with the support of the LTTE’s Tamil Eelam Air Force. The LTTE leader had not disclosed the attack details; even the families and relatives of the 21 Black Tigers were uninformed until the mission was completed, at about 11 a.m., on Monday. The overall military operation commander was Illango, who headed a 7-member team, while the second-in-command was Veeman, who led a 14-member team. Both teams broke into smaller groups for the purpose of executing specific duties. Commander Ilango asked for permission, from the LTTE leadership in Vanni, to begin the operation at 3:20 a.m. The LTTE leader gave the order to begin the operation. Utmost importance was given to mopping up the four sentry points and two guard posts. This was done quickly. Soon thereafter, the radar surveillance unit was seized and neutralized. The communications room was also knocked out. The other objective of the LTTE was to seize control of the air defence system and artillery units. Two 40 mm and two 23mm artillery guns were seized. The 12.7 m anti-aircraft guns were also taken. Within 20 minutes, the artillery and anti-aircraft guns, the radar, the communications and guard posts, and the sentry points had all been taken over by the Black Tigers.

Two LTTE factions began to move into the hangars and destroy the helicopters, fixed wing aircraft, and UAV drones. More than eight aircraft were left in ashes. Another nine were damaged, some irreparably. Ten other aircraft were partially damaged, but are still in working condition. The LTTE in Vanni closely monitored developments during the attack because it had communication until 9.a.m. The LTTE sent more than two aircraft to support the Black Tigers on the ground. The main aim of the LTTE aircraft was to ward off any incoming Sri Lankan armed forces, whose aim was to save the aircraft. LTTE aircraft dropped two bombs each and flew back to home base safely. Interestingly, the Sri Lankan Vavuniya commander, Maj. Gen. Upali Edirisinghe, sent two Bell 212 helicopters to intercept the LTTE aircraft, but one of the helicopters crashed at Doramadalawa, about 10 kilometres from the Anuradhapura airbase. LTTE aircraft intercepted the Sri Lankan helicopters, shot one down, and caused the other helicopter to turn back.

Until Monday evening, the Sri Lankan military spokesman played down the attack, stating that the LTTE was exaggerating its success. After fierce opposition from the opposing political parties, however, the Sri Lankan prime minister admitted that eight of their aircraft were damaged and fourteen of their airmen had died. He added that the defence ministry had to play down the damage in order to keep up the morale of the armed forces. The London Telegraph reported $40 million U.S. were lost through the destruction of the eight aircraft alone. The opposing political parties, including the UNP, however, admitted the damage inflicted on the aircraft was much greater and that the LTTE destroyed eighteen aircraft, valued at $439 million U.S.

Twenty-one Black Tigers, of which three were females, died on the ground, but the last Black Tiger was still alive at well past 11 a.m. on Monday. In effect, the Black Tigers were on the enemy’s base for about eight hours, fighting the enemy and causing great damage to the base. The Sri Lankan armed forces collected the remains of twenty Black Tigers; the other one could not be collected. These were put in tractors– naked, and showcased for public viewing. The locals took pictures of the naked, dead bodies. The bodies were finally taken to the Anuradhapura hospital mortuary before they were buried in Anuradhapura, the next night, which was Tuesday.

The Tamil Tigers have blamed the Sri Lankan government for violating the U.N. Geneva convention by removing the clothes of the dead and exhibiting the bodies to the public. The Anuradhapura Bishop came forward in support of the LTTE because the issue was of great humanitarian concern in the sacred Buddhist city. The Sri Lankan government faced diplomatic pressure for this wrong-doing because it handed over the bodies, through the ICRC, to the LTTE, as is the practice between conflicting parties during war.

In any event, Sri Lanka faced great defeat military, politically, and diplomatically. The retired Indian cabinet secretary, B. Raman, who, when hitherto writing about the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis, had always supported the Sri Lankan government and opposed the LTTE, now was in praise of the LTTE attack: “It was an act of unbelievable determination, bravery, and precision, successfully carried out by a 21-member suicide commando group of the Black Tigers—significantly led by a Tamil from the Eastern Province— with the back-up support of two planes of the so-called Tamil Eelam Air Force.”

Since the attack on the airbase, the Sri Lankan government has received enormous support from other countries, including Russia, the Czech Republic, Israel, Pakistan, and China. These countries have promised to send more sophisticated weapons and modern combat planes. However, the Sri Lankan cabinet ministers, prime minister, the president, and defence attachments speak in favour of war against the LTTE, in order to regain the support lost after the attack on Anuradhapura airbase.

Before the attack on Anuradhapura airbase, the LTTE had used various tactics to avoid engaging in conventional warfare with the Sri Lankan armed forces, when the latter took control of some areas controlled by the LTTE in eastern Sri Lanka and south of Mannar. But, people who knew the mind of the LTTE leader knew the Tigers were simply crouching, in order to leap forward later.

The LTTE supremo became numb when he heard of the death of his senior political man and chief peace negotiator with the Sri Lankan government. Thamilselvan was one of six siblings. His elder brother is a member of the LTTE. One brother lives in Norway. Two brothers, one sister, and his mother now live in Canada. He was married to an LTTE female cadre, and they have two children, who live in Vanni. He joined the LTTE in 1984 at the age of seventeen, and acquired his military training in a camp operated by the LTTE in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Thereafter, whenever he stayed in India, he worked closely with leader V. Pirapaharan. Thamilselvan was one of a number of LTTE cadres who had gone to Eelam to research background realities. Then, Thamilselvan and other senior LTTEers accompanied LTTE supremo Pirapaharan to Tamil Eelam to fight the enemy on the ground. Since then, he served in a military cadre of the LTTE, until he got injured. Thereafter, in 1993, he was groomed by the LTTE leader to be the political wing head, since the LTTE did not have a high-profile person to take the position after Col. Thileepan died in 1987 after twelve days of ‘fasting-to-death’ while demanding the Indian government fulfill the demands of the Tamils. Thamilselvan played an important role, under Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and Mahinda Rajapaksa, during peace talks with the Sri Lankan governments.

It is unfortunate that the Sri Lankan government targeted a champion of peace a man who believed that peace was a real possibility and a man of hope. While the weeping relatives and supporters of Thamilselvan cried loudly, Pirapaharan, who was present to pay tribute to the dead, did not speak a word, but, rather, put his face down and personally embraced his dead colleague. The LTTE leader is seen as a frustrated and angry man. Mourners speculated that the LTTE supremo is grief-stricken. It is not clear why the Sri Lankan government targeted a man who was in his residence, located just four hundred metres away from the Kilinochchi hospital. It is a known fact that the Sri Lankan government is in possession of the latest bombs used to kill enemies through the pressure of bombardment. Five others were killed in the bombardment; Lt. Col. Anpumani (Alex), Major Mikuthan, Major Kalaiyarasan, Lt. Aadchievael, and Lt. Maavaikkumaran were also killed in the attack. The LTTE leader, some hours after Thamilselvan was killed, conferred the organization’s highest rank, Brigadier, to Thamilselvan and announced the appointment of P. Nadesan, the current police chief of Tamil Eelam Police Department. Nadesan once served in Sri Lanka’s police department, is married to a Sinhala woman, and is fluent in both Tamil and Sinhala. Pirapaharan also has called on the commanders to discuss further actions in the Tamil homeland and beyond. The details, however, have not been revealed. If the Sri Lankan government thinks it can wipe out the LTTE by killing people like Thamilselvan, it is grievously mistaken.

In an instant reaction to the Sri Lankan government’s raid, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lankan Defence Secretary and one of the important policymakers of the government, hailed the air raid and said his government would also kill other LTTE leaders ‘one by one’. He expressed his joy at a celebratory meeting at Temple Trees, the official residence of his brother President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Reuters quoted Gotabaya as saying: “This is just a message that we know where their leaders are, and I know the locations of all the leaders, that if we want, we can take them one by one, so they must change their hideouts”. In addition, security has been beefed up in the Sinhala areas, especially the capital city of Sri Lanka; the government fears that the LTTE suicide cadres will take retaliatory action by killing Sri Lankan leaders in Colombo.

As never before in the history of the Tamil Eelam struggle and not since the 1991 killing of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi have Indian Tamil leaders so wholeheartedly come forth to condemn the Sri Lankan government and support the LTTE. They have expressed their deepest grief on the death of Tamilchelvan and the five others. The chief minister of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Muthuvel Karunandhi, in a strongly-worded, passionate, and poetical sentiment, wrote a poem, narrated by Karunanidhi and released by the state government. In it, Karunandhi described Thamilchelvan as ‘a general’ who had a ‘heart that would render the opposition to ashes’. Written as if Karunanidhi was addressing Thamilchelvan directly, Karunanidhi stated that by dying ‘(you) turned yourself into fertiliser, for the sake of the struggle for (Tamil) rights’. He further added: “The ‘Utham Purush’ that you are, Your life is not extinguishable nor would you let your brethren die; Selva, you have carved a place for yourself in every Tamil habitat and heart; Where have you gone?”

The rising supportive sentiments expressed by the Indian Tamil leaders are considered a great boost for the Tamil struggle at this time because Sri Lankan government representatives pay frequent visits to India in order to garner the military support of India for the purpose of wiping out the Tamil struggle. Now, circumstances have changed, since the central government in New Delhi is led by the Indian Congress Party and its senior leader, Dr. Manmohan Singh, who needs the support of regional political parties, including a coalition in which Karunanidhi’s DMK is a major partner. If Karunanidhi withdraws support from Singh’s government, the government in New Delhi will collapse. As a result, the central government will listen to what Karunanidhi has to say regarding the conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. Karunanidhi and members of other southern Indian political parties, who are supportive and now have come forth with the sentiment that no-one should think the Tamils in Eelam can be wiped out militarily because there are over 70 million Tamils in India, will not see their brethren in Eelam defeated. In effect, the killing of Thamilselvan has not pushed the LTTE or their struggle for freedom downslide; rather, it has led to an uprising and an awakening in the world arena, especially in the minds of the Tamils around the world.

Others around the world have expressed their support for the Tamils. A Canadian parliamentarian elected in Scarborough-Agincourt, Jim Karygiannis, issued a statement immediately after Thamilselvan and the five others were killed. He said: “I would like to express my distress at the news of the death of Mr. S.P. Thamilselvan, the political leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), on November 2, 2007. I wish to extend my sympathies to the family of Mr. Thamilselvan and to the Canadian Tamil community. My thoughts and prayers are with you. In January 2005, following the Tsunami, I visited Sri Lanka and had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Thamilselvan. He expressed thanks to Canadians for their magnanimous generosity in a time of great need. He said there ‘is a thread of hope’ for building mutual trust in the nation, as Singhalese and Tamils work together in rescue and relief efforts. Mr. Thamilselvan devoted more than a decade for the pursuit of peace, with justice, to bring an end to the protracted civil war in Sri Lanka. During this time, he was a member of the Tamil Tiger’s negotiating team that held direct peace talks with the Sri Lankan Government, sat at the negotiation table during Norwegian-brokered peace talks, and, as recently as last year, represented the LTTE at talks in Geneva. During my meeting with Mr. Thamilselvan, he told me that, since Canada had provided asylum to Sri Lankan immigrants, he believed Canada should play a more significant and permanent role in the peace process in Sri Lanka.”

Many other foreign dignitaries, who had had face-to-face meetings with Thamilselvan, also expressed their sorrow. One said that, at the age of 40, an ‘always-smiling face’ has left everyone, including his friends and loved ones.

Now, things have totally changed. The expectations of the international community for genuine peace talks might have come to an end. It is obvious that the LTTE wanted to have equilibrium, politically and militarily, with the Sri Lankan government. That is why the LTTE had to be successful in its raid on Anuradhapura airbase. But, the action of the Sri Lankan government, by targeting moderates, has put the peace process into chaos and pushed both parties towards a military solution. If Sri Lanka enters into genuine peace talks with the LTTE, hope will return. If Sri Lanka descends into war, there will definitely be enormous numbers of casualties among innocent civilians. The Sri Lankan government must also remember, before launching more attacks in the guise of fighting terrorism, that such attacks will divide the country permanently, because the LTTE has once again proven it does not have less power than its counterpart and it does have people to take over the posts vacated by LTTE members who have been killed. LTTE cadres are not joining for a wage; they are motivated by their desire for Tamil liberation. Sri Lankan leaders should not continue to commit the same blunders as previous leaders because the country is declining economically. Future wars will benefit only arms dealers and extremists and will not bring prosperity to the Sinhalese or Tamil-speaking Hindus, Muslims, or Christians.

Time is ticking for Sri Lanka. It is time for the Sri Lankan government to act quickly to send its condolences for the killing of the LTTE cadres and to embark on acts of goodwill. It is important to do this before November 27, 2007, Heroes Day, when the LTTE leader goes before the public and relays his verdict on the matter.

(The author can be reached at e-mail: [email protected])