The East: LTTE's Achilles Heel or Military
Northeastern Herald, August 24, 2002
The Hindu newspaper's Sambandan asked what was in my view the
most useful question at Prabhaharan's press conference in
Kilinochchi on March 10. Clearly Sambandan did not realise the
import of his question at the time. ˜What would you consider the
greatest military challenge that you had to ever face?' was his
question. The LTTE leader pondered the matter for some time. Many
expected him to say it was the Indian army.
I thought he might specifically refer to the battle of Nithihaikulam,
deep in the jungles of Mullaithivu, where a special commando group
of Ghurkhas were sent in for finishing him off. It was a fiercely
fought battle- hand to hand at times. The LTTE leader was within a
few feet of the Ghurkhas during the combat.
Although the Tigers eventually beat back the Indian commandos and
killed Col. Bakshi, the officer who led the operation, there is no
gainsaying the fact that it was a narrow shave indeed for
Prabhaharan. To many, it appeared at the time that the Indian army
was about to checkmate the LTTE.
The tales of Indian generals who lament that they could not do a
proper job in Sri Lanka because their hands were tied by orders from
Delhi not to kill Prabhaharan are plain untruths. The Ghurkhas went
into the thick forests of Nithihaikulam with very clear orders to
kill the Tiger leader and wipe out the organisation's main base
So anyone familiar with the military history of the Liberation
Tigers would have naturally expected Prabhaharan to tell Sambandan
that the greatest military challenge that he ever had to face was
the Indian army, or more specifically, the Niththihaikulam battle.
But the Tiger leader after the long pregnant pause said it was Op.
Jeya Sikurui. He certainly did not intend to compliment the corrupt
Gen. Ratwatte, who mercilessly drove the Sri Lanka army to
destruction in the unrelenting jungles of the Vanni.
The answer was Prabhaharan's unique way of acknowledging to
the world the importance of Karuna, the eastern commander who
was seated by his side at the press conference.
Karuna was the overall commander of the LTTE's defensive
operations and counter offensives against Jaya Sikurui. It was
Karuna who commanded the LTTE forces that drove the army out of the
It was the greatest honour Prabhaharan could have bestowed on any of
Almost all who were present at the conference missed the message in
his reply ‚€“ and its implications.
The ramifications of the answer, among other things, would help us
understand why the LTTE leader is able to inspire such ferocious
loyalty among his troops and followers.
Prabhaharan readily acknowledges and perseveres in honouring those
who stood by him and the Eelam cause in times of great danger and
adversity against great odds.
The story of Charles Anthony (Seelan) of Trincomalee would
illustrate this well. Seelan was a relatively junior member of the
LTTE (in the late seventies). He was working under the directions of
several seniors who were closely associated with Prabhaharan at the
The Tigers were struggling to survive after the split in the
movement, which saw Uma Maheswaran and his loyalists going off with
most of the organisation's assets. The attack on the Chavakachcheri
Police station led by Charles Anthony was the turning point in the
military fortunes of the LTTE when it was almost on the verge of
sliding permanently into oblivion, swamped by the numerous armed
groups that were mushrooming in the northeast in the early eighties.
Charles Anthony was killed in 1983. Great was the LTTE leader's
grief. Three years later Prabhaharan, a scion of a conservative
Hindu family that owns the old Shiva temple in Valvettithiurai,
named his first-born Charles Anthony. When he formed the LTTE's
first conventional military formation in 1991, he called it the
Charles Anthony Padaippirivu.
It continues to be the LTTE's foremost conventional fighting
formation under the general command of Balraj. The unit commemorates
Charles Anthony every year.
Karuna and his troops went from Batticaloa when Op. Jeya Sikurui was
threatening to slice Vanni in two and to eventually reduce the LTTE
to a guerrilla group confined to pockets in the north.
The tide turned in favour of the LTTE under Karuna's command. More
than 2000 fighters from Batticaloa laid down their lives to defend
the LTTE's heartland in the Vanni.
So, Prabhaharan chose the best moment possible to express his
gratitude for what Karuna and his fighters had achieved for him.
The sudden removal of Karikalan, Visu and Thurai has given rise to
speculation that the LTTE's command structure in the east is
unstable. One report went as far as to say that a disgruntled
Karikalan was ‚€œrunning amok‚€Ě there.
The stories arise from the traditional military wisdom in the south
that the east is the LTTE's Achilles Heel given its ethnic diversity
and contradictions, compounded by the fact that it has got a long
and porous border.
Critics have argued that the LTTE is Jaffnacentric. They point to
Dr. Balasingham's statement that Jaffna is the cultural capital of
the Sri Lankan Tamils. The LTTE therefore is endemically incapable,
according to them, of fully understanding or effectively handling
the east which by virtue of its ethnic fault lines is naturally
unstable, both politically and militarily.
This view has its roots in the LTTE's early military history. At the
time when they first enunciated their military strategy for
achieving their goal, the Tigers said they would first build up
their strength in the peninsula through urban guerrilla warfare and
gradually spread into the Vanni and the east once they were sure of
their military power and resources in the peninsula.
They argued that in the first stage of their development as an armed
national liberation movement they had to engage in low intensity
guerrilla war, which required for its success the sympathy of the
general population. The Tigers claimed that the popular support for
carrying out hit and run operations was available only in the
peninsula. This view didn't arise from the LTTE's Jaffnacentrism but
was largely due to their inability at the time (early eighties) to
develop substantial support points in the Vanni and the east. Most
of the best fighters from the east and the Vanni who had joined the
LTTE during the early period had to be based in Jaffna or Tamil
Nadu. The names of Seelan (Trincomalee), Victor (Mannar) readily
come to mind.
The Marxist groups in the Eelam movement squarely condemned the
LTTE's strategy as Jaffnacentric. They argued that the middle
classes of Jaffna who were in the majority in the peninsula would
turn against the Eelam cause if and when they felt their material
interests were directly threatened by the armed struggle.
Only the people who had little or nothing to lose would support the
Eelam war to the very end, they said. The majority of the Jaffna
middle classes who were the vociferous advocates of the armed
movement for Eelam would back out and then betray the cause once the
war was at their doorstep, prophesied the Marxists in the EROS and
That the LTTE had appointed persons from Jaffna at the time to run
its affairs in Batticaloa was also adduced by sections of the Eelam
left as a manifestation of the organisation's Jaffnacentric
attitude. The Tiger leadership sent Ramu, Kaaka and Kumarappa (in
that order) to command the eastern district until the local
leadership became capable of managing the region on its own.
Karuna was appointed the commander for Batticaloa and Ampara in
1987. He is the only officer in the LTTE hierarchy and in the
organisation's history who has held a regional command
uninterruptedly for more than fifteen years.
And he is the only one who enjoys the greatest and unique devolution
of power in the LTTE's regional command structure. Myriad complaints
of child conscription, extortion from Muslims etc., haven't
undermined his position.
Upstart Sri Lanka peace experts, who are being parachutes in to help
resolve our problems these days, only too readily pontificate on how
the east is the LTTE's Achilles Heel. They fail to see the writing
on the wall ‚€“ splashed in fading yellow on the shell-scarred
Elephant Pass signboard, the customary signature of the Jeyanthan
Padaipirivu, the LTTE's main fighting formation from the east, is
still discernible. And unmistakable too is the message.