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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

Tigers dominate decades of Tamil militancy

18 August 2004

 "...A US army officer covering South Asia whom I met in Washington many years ago asked me why the Sri Lanka army is unable to raise paramilitaries in the northeast that are large enough to curtail the spread of the LTTE's influence in those regions considered key to the counter insurgency campaign against the Tigers. He had in mind paramilitaries like the right wing AUC that controls large areas in Columbia and terrorizes peasants who support FARC, the main Marxist guerrilla organisation fighting the state in that country. The AUC is estimated to be about ten thousand strong. It plays a key role in the Columbian military's counter insurgency campaign against FARC..."


The murder of Sinna Bala, one of the better-known personalities of the EROS in the eighties, has further diminished the Tamil opposition to the military power and political cause of the Liberation Tigers. His death is yet another occasion to reflect on the reasons that have caused the steady decline of Tamil groups and parties opposed to the Tigers over the last decade.

TELO had the largest stock of weapons of all the armed groups in the northeast when the LTTE wiped it out in the course of a few days in April 1986. TELO had eight times more fighters than the LTTE. It had India's full backing. PLOTE had six thousand fighters trained in India and about twelve thousand trained in its military camps in the northeast. Yet in September 1986 the organisation's local commanders were compelled to announce that they were ceasing all their military activities in the northeast to avoid bloodshed.

The EPRLF was much better armed and had six times more trained cadre than the Tigers when it was decimated in November 1986. The Tamil Eelam Army (TEA), which had an enviable stock of modern weapons at that time, was simply banished.

The National Liberation Front Tamil Eelam (NLFT), a small but influential Maoist group that was based largely in Jaffna, drove down the road to perdition by splitting hairs over the question of whether it should first build an armed wing or a mass political movement. The theoretical squabble split the NLFT in two. The splinter group called itself the People's Liberation Front of Tamileelam (PFLT) before it dwindled to oblivion.

Tamil Eelam Liberation Army (TELA), which showed some promise of growth in Jaffna in the beginning, was absorbed by the PLOTE after its leader, 'Oberoi' Thevan, was shot dead by the Tigers. Then there was a zany little outfit called Tamil Eelam Liberation Extremists (TELE) led by a crackpot who loved to call himself 'TELE Jegan'. He was shot dead when he began to hit the limelight with a few daredevil antics.

Here one should mention in some detail the first regional armed Tamil separatist group that rose to considerable prominence and power in the formative period of the armed Tamil movement.

The group was established to fight for the cause of the people of Batticaloa. It was active in 1983-84 and was started by a group of PLOTE cadres in Batticaloa who were frustrated by the inaction of the organisation's local leader Ramalingan Vasutheva.

Later they brought together two like-minded groups that were trying to do something about "liberating Batticaloa from the clutches of the Sinhala state" (as stated in its unpublished manifesto). The young men of this 'Batticaloa liberation group' were fired not only by the anti Tamil pogrom of July 1983 but also by the Mahaweli Ministry backed attempt to colonise more than ten thousand Sinhala families overnight in the Vadamunai region in the northwestern corner of the Batticaloa district.

The de facto leader of the group 'Suresh' killed 'Mala Ramachandran', a UNP organiser for Batticaloa, with a borrowed shotgun. This was its first 'military action'. The Batticaloa liberation group hit the headlines in the Tamil press in early 1984 when it stole an exploder from the highways department in Batticaloa town.

(The Tigers triggered the landmine that killed the thirteen soldiers in Thinnevely in July 1983 with a similar electric exploder which they removed from the Kankesanthurai Cement Factory).

A month later the group hit the headlines again when it robbed more than 200 guns which were stored in the Batticaloa Fort. (The weapons were mostly licensed shotguns and World War II vintage rifles, repeaters and a couple of handguns including a magnificently inlaid Browning .45 calibre pistol, which had been surrendered to Police by their owners in Batticaloa during the JVP insurrection in 1971).

However, while the 'Batticaloa liberation group' was planning its first big military action against the Police, Thayalan, the LTTE's local leader at the time, started negotiations with of one its 'central committee' members called Karuna (not the renegade LTTE commander). Thayalan is Suresh Manickavasagam who later migrated to Canada and was made the LTTE's chief organiser there.

The talks were aimed at convincing the main leaders of the Batticaloa group that they would be safer in the LTTE fold and they could go to India if they were agreeable to a merger. This convinced Karuna because the Police had found the identity of 'Suresh', the group's de facto leader, and were on the verge of discovering a safe house where some of the stolen weapons were buried. Karuna was the son of a bank official and Suresh's father was a Policeman at the Batticaloa Police station.

This was the end of the group that espoused the cause of Batticaloa twenty years before Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan's botched attempt to raise the eastern flag against Velupillai Pirapaharan.

Here one should also mention the Tamil Eelam Liberation Cobras (TELC) which was also a Batticaloa based group. It was widely known as the Cobra Army (Naaha Padai). It did little except call for hartals and send out pre-recorded warnings to those whom it considered traitors. The warnings ended with the hiss of a snake. TELC caught the Batticaloa public's imagination and evoked fear. Without clear direction or plan for military action, the TELC died a natural death by the end of 1984. Also young men were keener at the time to go to India for military training than work in Batticaloa. The only armed Tamil separatist group that survived the LTTE during the First Eelam War (1983-87) was EROS. And Sinna Bala (Bala Nadaraja Iyer) was one of its better-known leaders in Jaffna.

EROS had an interesting theory at the time for surviving by playing it safe with the Tigers. What follows is a summary of the explanation I got from one of its central committee members in Jaffna in 1986, a few days after PLOTE closed shop in the northeast.

"All the Tamil Eelam groups are led by the petit bourgeoisie class. This class will never develop the political cohesion necessary to take the struggle forward. Only the proletarian vanguard organisation like the EROS can do it. The Tamil Eelam groups would eventually cancel each other out because the essential class character of the petit bourgeoisie inevitably gives rise to un-resolvable contradictions. Therefore the EROS has to wait for the right historical conjuncture to take leadership of the Eelam struggle".

I need not repeat here how the Tigers absorbed EROS a few years later. The Indians created a second opportunity for the non-LTTE groups to make a comeback in the northeast. The total strength of the PLOTE, TELO, EPRLF and the newly formed ENDLF was at least ten times higher than that of the LTTE when Pirapaharan decided to take on the Indian army. This strength was further boosted when the TELO, EPRLF, ENDLF troika conscripted young men for the Tamil National Army (TNA). The finer details of why the TNA fell like ninepins when the Indian army left Sri Lanka in 1990 are irrelevant here. The political decline of these non-LTTE groups was almost inexorable essentially because they could not deliver the alternative to Eelam that they had promised to get for the Tamils when they accepted the Indo-Lanka Accord. The Northeast Provincial Council experiment failed miserably.

Its chief minister, Varatharajaperumal, declared that he could not deliver anything to the Tamils under the strictures of the unitary state of Sri Lanka. His flight from Trincomalee after announcing the intention to declare the northeast as a separate state proved the LTTE right.

If one reads the fourteen-point report that Perumal sent to Premadasa and Rajiv Gandhi explaining why he was unable to effectively deliver anything to the people of the northeast, one would see outlines of some fundamental reasons cited by the LTTE for setting up the ISGA. The bare fact is that the unitary state of Sri Lanka does not permit the political space necessary for the anti LTTE groups to survive. Deprived of political oxygen they have thus been dying a natural death. No amount of financial and military infusions will help revive them sans the political space which the constitution of Sri Lanka denies them. This has been amply demonstrated since 1988 when the Northeast Provincial Council was established.

Of course the lesson will never be learnt. Instead the southern polity wants an apolitical, mindless Tamil killer machine against the Tigers like the paramilitaries they make in Latin America. A US army officer covering South Asia whom I met in Washington many years ago asked me why the Sri Lanka army is unable to raise paramilitaries in the northeast that are large enough to curtail the spread of the LTTE's influence in those regions considered key to the counter insurgency campaign against the Tigers.

He had in mind paramilitaries like the right wing AUC that controls large areas in Columbia and terrorizes peasants who support FARC, the main Marxist guerrilla organisation fighting the state in that country. The AUC is estimated to be about ten thousand strong. It plays a key role in the Columbian military's counter insurgency campaign against FARC.

The Mohan Group was the only apolitical paramilitary that worked with the Sri Lanka army. But Mohan did not have more than a dozen associates. Even Razeek had political ambitions. The Tamil Eelam movement dominated Tamil political life so much so that even militarily rudderless minor groups were driven by political idealism. That is why the Sri Lankan military cannot create an AUC like paramilitary group in the northeast.

From a strictly military perspective this has been one of the biggest drawbacks in the Sri Lanka army's counter insurgency campaign against the Liberation Tigers.
 

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