Sri Lanka hunts a Tiger chief

Posted in Asia | 27-Jan-09 | Author: Sudha Ramachandran| Source: Asia Times

Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard outside a bullet-riddled building that had once housed the Bank of Ceylon in the formerly Tamil Tiger rebel-controlled town of Mullaitvu in north-eastern Sri Lanka January 27, 2009.

CHENNAI - With the capture of Mullaitivu town by the Sri Lankan armed forces on Sunday, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has lost the last town under their control. The Tigers, whose writ once ran across Sri Lanka's Northern and Eastern provinces, are now bottled up in the Puthukkudiyiruppu and Vishwamadu areas of Mullaitivu district. The Tigers are now not just in retreat, but on the run.

But where is the LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran? That is the big question on the minds of the armed forces as they advance deeper into Tiger territory. Prabhakaran is the big prize the troops are now chasing.

A string of decisive blows inflicted by the Sri Lankan armed forces has left the Tigers cowering in a narrow swathe of territory in the Mullaitivu district in the eastern part of the island's Northern province.

In July 2007, the LTTE was ousted from the last of its bastions in the East. The loss of territory in the north began soon after. Early this month, Kilinochchi, its "political headquarters", fell to the armed forces; the strategic Elephant Pass followed. The armed forces then took control of all of the Jaffna Peninsula.

They then trained their attention on Mullaitivu, the LTTE's military headquarters, where the beleaguered Tigers and their leadership were believed to be holed up.

Last week, the armed forces came on an air-conditioned underground bunker believed to be among the vast network of bunkers that Prabhakaran is thought to have been using.

But there has been no sign of Prabhakaran himself. Has he slipped off the island or has he gone deeper into hiding in one his legendary bunkers? Sri Lankan army chief Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka told reporters last week that Prabhakaran might have fled the island already.

Speculation is rife in Sri Lanka and neighboring India on where the Tiger chief might have gone. Reports of the LTTE chief going to the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu have been making the rounds.

A narrow strip of shallow waters, the Palk Strait - a waterway some 45 kilometers wide at its narrowest point - separates the northern coast of Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu. This is not a long distance to cross, but in the current circumstances, where vigil along the coasts is at an all-time high, it might not be that easy for the Tiger chief to enter India undetected.

Still, "entry into India is not impossible given the thousands of fishing boats that head out to sea daily. Prabhakaran could slip in on one of them," said one of Prabhakaran's die-hard supporters in Chennai. "In Tamil Nadu itself, Prabhakaran would find loyal pockets of support and sanctuary among the Tamil nationalists in the state." There has been a surge in pro-LTTE support in Tamil Nadu in recent months.

However, the LTTE is a banned organization in India. Prabhakaran is wanted there for allegedly masterminding the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991.

An official with the Intelligence Bureau (IB), India's internal intelligence agency, dismissed the possibility of the LTTE chief coming to India. It would amount to "fleeing from the frying pan [Sri Lanka] to the fire", he told Asia Times Online. Even if Prabhakaran were to come here, his presence would be quickly detected, he said, notwithstanding the fact that Prabhakaran could easily mingle with the local Tamil population. Prabhakaran would not remain undetected in India because he is a known face here and a wanted man.

Since the 1991 assassination, his popularity has plummeted even in Tamil Nadu, where he once was revered. While thousands have showed up at rallies in Tamil Nadu in recent months, they are there to express solidarity with the plight of Tamil civilians caught in the fighting between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE in Sri Lanka, not to bail out Prabhakaran from his predicament.

Prabhakaran enjoys the support of some powerful politicians in Tamil Nadu but this is nowhere near what it was in the 1980s. Parties that were seen to be supporting the LTTE have been rejected by the electorate in the past and few would be willing to hitch their electoral fortunes to Prabhakaran's fate and fortunes today. "The support he enjoys in Tamil Nadu today is not enough to keep him from being arrested," the IB official said, adding, "Not many in the state would stick their necks out today to support Prabhakaran. He is a terrorist and a fugitive, wanted in several countries."

With India seeming an unlikely sanctuary, some, including Fonseka, say that Prabhakaran might be headed in the direction of Southeast Asia. That is, if he's not already there.

That there is real concern of this happening is evident from the nation-wide alert that Malaysian police sounded across Malaysia late last week following reports that Prabhakaran might have reached Malaysia or Thailand or be attempting to enter these countries. Tigers have been using both Malaysia and Thailand as bases from which to coordinate LTTE arms procurement.

Some believe that a country like Malaysia with a large Tamil-speaking population and its largely pro-LTTE Sri Lankan expatriate community would be just the kind of country in which Prabhakaran would take sanctuary. The large pro-LTTE population here would provide him the cover and sanctuary he so desperately needs. And it is not so far from Sri Lankan shores either.

But distance from Sri Lankan shores need not be a factor in determining Prabhakaran's destination. After all, it is not by boat alone that he could make his exit from the island. The LTTE owns two or three Czech-made Zlin Z-143 single-engine aircraft. Sri Lankan soldiers who have taken control of the LTTE's airfields and landing strips have not found the aircraft as yet.

While it is likely that the LTTE could have dismantled these aircraft and hidden them deep in the Mullaitivu jungles, the possibility of Prabhakaran having used them to get off the island cannot be ruled out. These are low-flying planes, which have escaped Sri Lankan radar in the past to carry out attacks in Colombo and other parts of Sri Lanka. They could have escaped notice again by Sri Lankan radar to take the LTTE chief off the island to a destination from where he could be flown to just about anywhere.

Pro-LTTE sections of the Tamil diaspora are in favor of Prabhakaran moving overseas, so that he can revive the LTTE from outside the island and "then strike at the Sri Lankan government at a time of his choosing to free the Sri Lankan Tamil people again". It is expatriate Tamils who funded the LTTE's war for the past several decades, fueling Prabhakaran's dreams of setting up an independent Tamil Eelam and ignoring his at-times brutal rule over the Tamils. And it is this community that he can count on now to provide him with sanctuary overseas.

But even as the world wonders whether the LTTE chief has left by boat or air, to India or beyond, those who have worked with him in the past say he is still on the island. Sri Lankan member of parliament Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, aka "Colonel Karuna", who was once Prabhakaran's close confidante and the LTTE's eastern commander, told reporters a few days ago that Prabhakaran was somewhere in the Wanni jungles.

If he is indeed still in the Wanni jungles, what would be his fate as the Sri Lankan army tightens the noose around the Tigers in the coming weeks? Will Prabhakaran perish in the ongoing aerial bombing of Mullaitivu? Or will he surrender to the armed forces? The latter option is unlikely. The LTTE supremo, like many Tigers before him, will swallow a cyanide capsule if surrounded by the armed forces. He would prefer death to the ignominy of capture.

But Prabhakaran has been captured alive before. That was in Chennai (then Madras) in 1982, when he, along with a leader of a rival militant group, was arrested for exchanging fire on a busy street. The Sri Lankan government pressed India for his extradition and India agreed. But then things changed. Mass rallies organized by P Nedumaran, a Tamil nationalist who continues to be Prabhakaran's most loyal supporter in India, opposed the deportation to Sri Lanka on the grounds that the two would be tortured there.

The pressure worked. India said Prabhakaran would be tried here and stayed the deportation. He never was tried. Prabhakaran was granted bail, which he eventually jumped and went on to wage a deadly separatist war against the Sri Lankan state.

Prabhakaran's exit, whether because of death, capture or flight from the island would have a far-reaching impact on the LTTE and the ethnic conflict as a whole. It is Prabhakaran who transformed the LTTE from a mere band of boys to the world's deadliest insurgent group. A post-Prabhakaran LTTE would not be the LTTE anymore.

Prabhakaran's exit would undermine the morale of his fighters immeasurably. If he were killed by the armed forces, he would emerge a martyr and provide a rallying point for the Tigers. Still, Prabhakaran death would be a blow.

While some believe that it is Prabhakaran who has stood in the way of a political settlement to the conflict - he is uncompromising in his commitment to the creation of an independent Tamil state - others are of the view that in his absence, the Sri Lankan government would be reluctant to hand out even crumbs to the island's Tamils.

Prabhakaran today is a cornered man, not just in terms of the strip of territory on which he is hiding, but more importantly, in terms of having few options. Having ordered the killing of an entire generation of Tamil politicians, intellectuals, comrades and rivals who were open to a compromise or political settlement of the conflict on the ground that they were "traitors to the Tamil cause", he cannot settle for less than Tamil Eelam today.

Having expected his fighters to swallow cyanide to escape capture, he would have to do the same were Sri Lankan troops to surround his bunker. If not, he could find a bullet fired by a Tiger in his head.

The world's most brilliant guerrilla strategist doesn't have too many options.

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