Part I: Prabhakaran's eastern challenger
Part II: Seeds of discontent
Since 2001, there have been indications of dissatisfaction against Prabhakaran's leadership style not only in the east, but also in the north.
Vaithilingam Sornalingam alias Colonel Shankar, 52, a Prabhakaran loyalist, who was in charge of the LTTE's air wing, anti-aircraft defence and military intelligence set-up, was killed by a claymore mine on September 26, 2001, when he was travelling alone in a pickup vehicle from Oddusuddan to Puthukkudiyiruppu.
In the preceding months, other Prabhakaran loyalists such as Gangai Amaran, deputy chief of the Sea Tigers, Nizam, the political head of Batticaloa-Amparai, and Mano, communications chief of the Eastern Tigers, had been killed in similar claymore explosions. Others such as Colonel Balraj, deputy chief of the LTTE's military wing, political wing chief Tamilselvan and senior commander Jeyam had escaped when their vehicles too had struck mines.
Shankar, who was associated with Prabhakaran for nearly three decades, had set up the LTTE's overseas purchases unit to procure arms and ammunition. He was succeeded by Kumaran Pathmanathan alias KP. He was also the founder-commander of the Sea Tigers division, the underwater attack unit, the anti-aircraft unit and the air wing division. He held a pilot's licence and certificates in marine and aeronautical engineering. It was Shankar who assisted Prabhakaran when he met Norwegian Special Envoy Erik Solheim at Mallavi on November 1, 2000.
While Prabhakaran blamed the deep penetration units of the Sri Lankan army for these incidents, the army denied these allegations and hinted that they indicated growing dissatisfaction in the LTTE over Prabhakaran's policies. Prabhakaran also ordered a secret purge of suspected elements in the LTTE set-up by Balraj and Pottu Amman, in which many cadres from the east were among those executed.
Many civilians in the Eastern Province were also arrested on charges of possessing explosive substances and executed, with Pottu Amman claiming to have found over 30 bombs during searches in the Batticaloa-Amparai area.
In an effort to stem the unhappiness among large sections of the population of the Eastern Province over the continued deployment of their children in the north and the severe hardships entailed by them even a year after the cease-fire went into effect, senior LTTE officials met over 5,000 parents of fighters from the east, who had either been killed or deployed in the north at a meeting held in February last year at Palugamam in Batticaloa district. Praising the martyrs who died for the cause of Tamil Eelam, they assured the parents that those deployed in the north were being well looked after and not discriminated against in any way.
Among those who interacted with the parents were Batticaloa-Amparai district Special Commander T Ramesh, Batticaloa-Amparai head of the political wing of the LTTE E Kausalyan, Commander of the Jeyanthan Battalion, Ram, Batticaloa-Amparai special commander of the women's wing Nilavini, Commanders Nagesh, Prabha and John Kelly Thaatha (their designations not known), head of the political section Banuka, head of the medical section Vaamanan, Vava of the political section, head of the administrative division Reginald, head of the accounts division Suvi, and Kirushan, Karthik and Manalaaru Vijayan from the section in charge of administration.
On July 28, 2003, Tamilselvan visited Batticaloa and addressed over 5,000 LTTE fighters from the east at a function held at the 'Meenaham' military base to mark the eighth death anniversary of Anparasi, an LTTE woman commander who was killed when the Tigers overran a Sri Lanka army camp at Pondugal Chenai, near Tharavai on July 27 1995. Inaugurating a memorial for Anparasi, he spoke at length on the vital role played by cadres from the Batticaloa-Amparai district in the war to safeguard the Wanni heartland and in the major offensives against the Sri Lanka army in the north which led to the fall of the Elephant Pass and other key garrisons.
Others who spoke at the event included Karuna, who was described as the special commander of the LTTE's Southern Front Forces, T Ramesh, described as the special commander for the Batticaloa-Amparai District, and Nilavini, described as the commander of the LTTE's women's unit in the district.
In July 2002, Bandula Jayasekara, a Sri Lankan analyst, penned an almost propethic profile of Karuna in Frontline magazine.
'It is not clear how old he is, but it is accepted even by the Sri Lankan military that Karuna leads from the front and that he does not believe in withdrawing even if he is in danger. Karuna is credited with leading several battles to victory. He took part in all phases of Operation Unceasing Waves. He was responsible for the capture of Aiyakachchi. It was, in a way, the beginning of the capture of Elephant Pass. Karuna is also well-guarded like his leader and, moreover, Prabakaran recognises Karuna as a real fighter. One of Sri Lanka's most successful generals and currently the country's high commissioner to Australia, Janaka Perera, once described Karuna as one of the LTTE's most successful commanders.
'Karuna is developing Batticaloa militarily, even while securing his place and strengthening his forces in the area. Decoded radio intercepts from Karuna made since the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding refer ominously to "when hostilities recommence." More cadres have been recruited in the east. The military strength of the LTTE around its headquarters stands at an all-time high of around 7,000. LTTE cadres who fought in the battles in the north and in the Wanni have moved back to Batticaloa. It was Karuna who took them to fight the battles in the North and proved to Prabhakaran how effective his forces were.
'Most of the cadres in Batticaloa are returning to the east on the pretext of going on leave. One can question the real motive of Karuna at this juncture. What is he doing at a time when he is expected to lay down his arms, building a separate and dreadful force in Batticaloa? Karuna is getting ready to take over the east. He knows that Prabhakaran trusts him though there is a difference between the Tamils in Batticaloa and Jaffna. No one knows if Karuna has an ulterior motive, or if he is following the orders of his leader. Karuna, like Prabhakaran, is not very comfortable at times of peace. He is a real warlord of the LTTE.
'It is well-known that he has gained total control of Batticaloa and is strengthening Batticaloa and the east through mass mobilisation and collection of arms and ammunition. He has reorganised LTTE cadres into regiments. The Pongu Tamil and the anti-Indian Annai Bupathi celebrations in Batticaloa helped Karuna in his mass mobilisation. The Tigers tried through these two events to project the image of the LTTE as the only saviours of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
'Four LTTE boats intercepted by the Sri Lanka navy recently carried a large stock of arms and ammunition. The boats also carried hardcore Batticaloa cadres returning from the north. These boats were released without taking any count of arms or other items lying with the LTTE. Karuna and Paduman were also in those boats. There were reports about the presence of LTTE intelligence chief Pottu Amman. However, informed sources confirm that Pottu Amman was not in any of the boats. He had taken the sea route and landed before the Sri Lankan navy intercepted the boats.
'Prabhakaran has also started to recruit more cadres from Jaffna and the opening of the A-9 highway helped him to reach out to more people than ever before. It was never in doubt that Prabhakaran has most faith in his people from Jaffna even though it was Karuna's people from the east who fought hard for the LTTE in recent times. Unconfirmed reports say that (LTTE ideologue Anton) Balasingham had warned Prabhakaran to keep Karuna under control.
'No one knows what Karuna is up to. It is Karuna that Sri Lanka's minister of defence, Thilak Marapona, and even Prabhakaran have got to watch closely. Karuna may prove people wrong, people who believe that everything will end the day Prabhakaran goes to 'heaven.' In fact Karuna is emerging as a formidable leader of the LTTE though he hails from the east. He could be even more ruthless than Prabhakaran. Karuna may even tell Prabhakaran one day: 'I will look after the east and you look after the north.'
There are conflicting estimates of the LTTE's real strength, from 9,000 plus and above. The LTTE designates its military formations in Tamil as Padaipirivu, which means unit. Many analysts translate it in English as Brigade and estimate that each brigade must have a minimum strength of 2,000 plus. This results in over-estimation. Each padaipirivu of the LTTE has a minimum strength of around 1,200 only, equivalent to a conventional battalion. In 2000, the LTTE had four full-strength padaipirivus:
The Charles Anthony Padaipirivu: Directly under Prabhakaran and commanded by Sornam, chief of his bodyguards (since transferred to Trincomallee). Responsible for Prabhakaran, only Tamils from the north known for their loyalty to him were recruited.
The Jayanthan Padaippirivu: Formerly commanded by Ram, it consists exclusively of fighters recruited in the Eastern Province and hence likely to be loyal to Karuna.
The Vithusha Padaipirivu: Formed in 1996 by merging five independent companies of the LTTE women's wing. Its women fighters distinguished themselves in the battles of Operation Unceasing Waves II in 1999. Consists of fighters from the north and east.
The Leopards Padaipirivu: The LTTE's special commando force. Consists of fighters from the north and east.
After the battles of 1999, Prabhakaran decided to raise two more padaipirivus. They are presumably already in position, but details are not available. In addition, the LTTE has an artillery padaipirivu with six batteries,a logistics padaipirivu and the Black Tigers (estimated strength 240 plus), the suicide unit, which consists largely of volunteers from the north. Presuming that the two new padaipirivus are already in position, the total strength of the LTTE army is estimated at 7,200 plus.
Balraj, as deputy chief of the army, commanded this entire force and Karuna used to report to Prabhakaran through him. Media reports that Karuna had at his disposal 6,000 fighters from the east seem somewhat exaggerated. A more reasonable estimate would be 1,200 plus.
In a military confrontation, it would be reasonable to expect that the Charles Anthony Padaipirivu (1,200), the Black Tigers and the intelligence wing would be fiercely loyal to Prabhakaran. The Jayanthan Padaipirivu (1,200) may be loyal to Karuna. It would be difficult to say anything about the remaining padaipirivus.
The ultimate outcome of any confrontation would depend upon how many of the fighters from the east would obey Karuna and disobey Prabhakaran.
B Raman is a former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat and currently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convener, Observer Research Foundation), Chennai Chapter.