New Tiger chief does not pass go

Posted in Asia | 10-Aug-09 | Author: Sudha Ramachandran| Source: Asia Times

Sri Lankan Defence Ministry spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella announces the arrest of Selvarasa Pathmanathan

BANGALORE - Selvarasa Pathmanathan's stint as chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been rather short. Barely a fortnight after Pathmanathan appointed himself as Tiger chief, he was been arrested in Southeast Asia this week, according to a statement released on Friday by the LTTE.

The arrest has been confirmed by top Sri Lankan officials, including its Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohana, and Pathmanathan is now reported to be in Sri Lankan custody. Sri Lankan media said the arrest took place on Thursday in Thailand, but Thai officials have denied this.

The Tigers said Pathmanathan was arrested in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and handed over to the Sri Lankan military, according to the Friday statement. Either way, Basil Rajapaksa, senior advisor and brother of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has said that Pathmanathan "was arrested and has been flown to Colombo".

Pathmanathan's arrest is yet another blow to the LTTE, which was militarily defeated by the Sri Lankan armed forces in May. The rebels lost control over territory and their entire top brass, including chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed.

The senior-most Tiger alive today is Pathmanathan. With his arrest, whatever hopes that Tigers and their supporters might have nurtured of reviving the fortunes of the LTTE have been dashed.

Pathmanathan or Kumaran Pathmanathan, also known as "KP", was the LTTE's chief of arms procurement. He built the LTTE's arms and shipping network. He also controlled the LTTE's front organizations abroad and presided over its overflowing overseas coffers. His contribution to the LTTE was considerable.

If his talent in military strategy helped the LTTE score impressive victories on the battlefield, it was also Pathmanathan who contributed to building the Tigers' military muscle. It was his networking with gun runners and arms merchants that kept the LTTE a well-oiled fighting machine with a seemingly never-ending supply of arms.

Pathmanathan was a close confidante of Prabhakaran. But in 2002 he was sidelined when reports of his financial irregularities reached Prabhakaran's ears. Still, given his impressive experience in procuring weapons, he continued to be consulted. Then in January this year, even as the LTTE's fortunes on the battlefield were fading, Pathmanathan's fortunes began looking up. He was appointed chief of international relations by Prabhakaran. In the months that followed, it was Pathmanathan who was at the forefront of the LTTE's campaign abroad to get Sri Lanka to halt the military operations against the Tigers.

Despite his significant, but unseen, role in the LTTE's rise there was considerable opposition to Pathmanathan's assumption of the leadership of the LTTE last month. He has been under severe criticism from Tiger hardliners and sections of the diaspora for confirming Prabhakaran's death and for taking a political and more moderate approach to achieving Tamil demands. They have accused him of betraying the LTTE cause.

More importantly, a bitter battle for control over the LTTE's well-endowed "war chest" has been raging.

It is said that his "appointment" as the LTTE chief by a so-called executive committee of the LTTE was deeply resented by his opponents in the LTTE and a section of influential persons in the Tamil diaspora. It is believed that information supplied to police by one of his rivals in the LTTE played a role in his arrest.

Pathmanathan was known to be directing the LTTE's international operations from hideouts in Southeast Asia. His many aliases, multiple identities and connections with diplomats, police and intelligence officials helped him slip with ease between borders for decades and evade arrest. Besides, Tigers abroad, despite their bitter infighting, did not betray him all these years.

That seems to have changed a few days ago, leading to Pathmanathan's arrest.

If the LTTE's military defeat was facilitated by the exit of its former commander of the Eastern province, "Colonel" Karuna in 2004, the arrest of Pathmanathan was also facilitated by fellow Tigers, this time by those living abroad.

In September 2007, Sri Lankan officials claimed that Pathmanathan had been detained if not arrested in Bangkok. Thai officials denied this. Expatriate Tamils close to the LTTE told Asia Times Online then that he had been detained but was subsequently let off. His "connections in high places" was believed to have helped him walk free once again.

Pathmanathan is wanted by Interpol, Sri Lanka and India. His interrogation is expected to provide information that many governments will find useful. He, more than anyone else in the LTTE knows about the LTTE's mammoth overseas operations - its arms purchases, shipping network, finances.

The LTTE's overseas operations have often been likened to an octopus. It had operations spread across continents. It was similar to an efficiently run multinational company, and was hugely successful in making profits from its many business enterprises. It was an iceberg - with little of its international operations visible to the world. What is known of the LTTE's international operations is a fraction of what exists.

That could now change. The questioning of Pathmanathan is likely to provide the world with a glimpse of the shadowy world of the global terrorist networks.

Pathmanathan's arrest is being celebrated by many in Sri Lanka and the Tamil diaspora, albeit for different reasons. To Sri Lankans, his arrest will deal a big blow to the LTTE's fund-raising and arms-procurement operations. It will undermine further the LTTE's capacity to return to armed operations. As for hardliners among the Tamil Diaspora, his exit removes an important obstacle in the LTTE's return to armed struggle.

Although it was Pathmanathan who built the LTTE's military capability, he had of late turned increasingly pragmatic in his approach. It is believed that in the weeks before the LTTE's defeat and death of its leaders, he was pleading with Prabhakaran to call for an unconditional ceasefire, even surrender.

The defeat of the LTTE further crystallized his pragmatism. He appeared to be moving away from Prabhakaran's path of armed struggle. Days after Prabhakaran's death, Pathmanathan told the BBC in a telephonic interview that the LTTE had "given up violence" and would "enter the democratic process" to achieve self-determination for Tamils. He buttressed this with several statements in the following weeks when he stressed the LTTE's adoption of political means and its decision to "silence its guns".

But even as he stressed that the LTTE proposed to change its tactics, he said the goal of Tamil Eelam remained. He even announced the setting up of a "provisional transnational government of Tamil Eelam" that would "represent the political aspirations and will be the voice and conscience of the people of Tamil Eelam in the international arena". This renewed commitment to Tamil Eelam is believed to have been aimed at winning over his critics.

His continuing endorsement of Tamil Eelam, however, still did not silence them. They did not like his adoption of political means. To them abandonment of the armed struggle would not evoke support of the Tamil diaspora or move them into making the generous financial contributions that they have made to the LTTE for years.

Pathmanathan's attempt to transform the LTTE into a political organization, and to give himself a publicity makeover did not work. Neither India nor Sri Lanka was willing to forgive or engage with him in recent weeks. His statement announcing the LTTE's switch to political means failed to move Colombo, which simply responded by renewing its request to foreign governments to arrest him.

With Pathmanathan's arrest, the LTTE's arms supply lines will be affected. The Sri Lankan government has one more Tiger to flaunt as a trophy. But it might have sabotaged the possibilities of the LTTE reinventing itself as a political organization. That could weaken the quest for a political settlement to the conflict.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.