Succession squabble

Published : Jun 19, 2009 00:00 IST

Prabakaran came down heavily on potential challengers as Mahathaya (right), his one-time aide and lieutenant, discovered to his detriment.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY Prabakaran came down heavily on potential challengers as Mahathaya (right), his one-time aide and lieutenant, discovered to his detriment.

Prabakaran came down heavily on potential challengers as Mahathaya (right), his one-time aide and lieutenant, discovered to his detriment.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY Prabakaran came down heavily on potential challengers as Mahathaya (right), his one-time aide and lieutenant, discovered to his detriment.

THE acknowledgement of the death of V. Prabakaran by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on May 17 came from Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the organisations international representative, a week after the Sri Lankan security forces announced it. This is not surprising as the LTTE under the monolithic leadership of Prabakaran had always wished away information he found either uncomfortable or inconvenient. Pathmanathans signed statement to the British Broadcasting Corporation on May 24 probably sent shock waves through the acolytes of the LTTE the world over, who had been in a state of denial over the LTTE leaders death.

Pathmanathan sowed further confusion among LTTE ranks when he said: We have already announced that we have given up violence and agreed to enter a democratic process to achieve the rights for the Tamil (self) determination of our people. Armed struggle to carve out an independent Tamil Eelam is the basic reason for the support the LTTE has enjoyed among many Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates.

However, the pro-LTTE website TamilNet, which carried Pathmanathans statement, did not include the portion relating to the decision to give up violence and enter the democratic process, which was mentioned in the BBC report. TamilNet also put out a statement from the LTTEs Department for Diaspora Affairs (DDA) that said it did not want to acknowledge Prabakarans death without explicit authorisation from the LTTE leadership. It insisted that the LTTE leadership was safe and it will re-emerge when the right time comes. Other reports quoted LTTE international intelligence leader Arivazhagan as confirming that Prabakaran was still alive as late as May 22.

It was clear from the tone of the news items in pro-LTTE websites that they would maintain the fiction that the LTTE leadership was still alive as long as possible. Pro-LTTE political leaders from Tamil Nadu also appeared to be toeing the same line. Vaiko, leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (MDMK), who considers himself a personal friend of Prabakarans, and Nedumaran, a long-term frontman of the LTTE in Tamil Nadu, came out strongly against the veracity of Pathmanathans statement. Vaiko appealed to Tamils elsewhere in the world not to believe it, while Nedumaran questioned the legitimacy of Pathmanathan to issue the statement. He said: Except the generals close to Prabakaran, none has the authority to issue official statements.

In a way he was correct, as Pathmanathan, though he was anointed by Prabakaran as the head of the LTTEs international affairs in January 2009, was probably not senior enough in the tightly controlled leadership hierarchy to be given the freedom to issue public statements on his own. But this was not the first time that Pathmanathan had issued statements on behalf of the organisation since he assumed office as its international representative, and the very same leaders did not question his legitimacy earlier.

The LTTE, strictly operating under the control of Prabakaran and his deputy Pottu Amman, probably did not have a contingency plan of action to handle the situation in the absence of both leaders. Given the vengeful mindset of Prabakaran, it would have been heresy in the LTTE to even think of such a contingency. When the entire top and middle level leadership was eliminated on the battle front, Pathmanathan was the only senior leader left alive with a seal of approval from Prabakaran.

The timing of his statement is also interesting. The United Nations Human Rights Councils emergency meeting in Geneva to consider the violations of human rights by both sides in Sri Lanka was scheduled for May 26. Both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE have taken the meeting seriously. On the eve of the meeting, the Sri Lankan government announced its intention to hold elections for the Jaffna Municipal Council and the Vavuniya Pradesiya Sabha between August 4 and 17, presumably to give the impression that the situation was more normal in the Northern Province than it appeared. Similarly, the LTTE representatives disavowal of violence also came on the eve of the meeting. Pathmanathan, with his long international experience in handling LTTE affairs, might have thought it prudent to present the LTTE in a better light on the occasion by issuing a statement to suit it. (In any case, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa quickly rejected the LTTEs offer, saying that he did not believe the LTTE can enter a democratic process after years of their violent activities.)

In spite of the international developments, the conflicting statements emanating in the name of the LTTE have all the indications of a serious succession squabble brewing in its top echelons both at home and abroad. Given that the LTTE is a complex organisation, totally shrouded in secrecy, and in the absence of a clearly indicated line of succession, the power struggle to it take over could be long drawn and might draw some blood.

The LTTEs large and carefully created asset base spread over many countries is cash-rich and provides an added incentive for the power struggle to turn fierce. Janes Intelligence Review in August 2008 assessed the LTTEs annual income at $200-300 million. It rated the LTTE as the second biggest income-generating terrorist organisation in the world, the first being the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), with income derived from the sale of cocaine. In the words of Janes Intelligence Review, the LTTEs sources of income were both legal and illegal and probably came from shipping to drugs and extortion by a network of professional managers both Tamils and others across a string of countries. Investigation of select Tamil charities in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada has shown that the LTTE used them as an effective and legitimate way to collect and transfer money to LTTE entities in Sri Lanka.

In his lifetime, Prabakaran was the single most powerful leader of the LTTE. He was the heart and soul of the organisation, providing it with the much needed mystique to attract and retain a loyal band of cadre. The LTTEs elite force of suicide bombers the Black Tigers swore loyalty to him and not to the organisation. He did not allow a second line of leadership to evolve naturally. He came down heavily on potential contenders for power as Mahathaya (Mahendraraja), his one-time aide and lieutenant, discovered to his detriment.

Prabakarans death has left a big void in the LTTE leadership. His successor will find it very difficult to meet the high expectations of supporters, particularly after the organisation has been so grievously mauled. The new leader will require extraordinary skills to recoup the LTTEs assets, marshal the scattered flock and motivate it to build up the organisation all over again. There is no single leader in sight within the LTTE who can meet this stringent requirement.

In addition to this, Prabakarans successor should be popular enough to attract and retain the loyalty of cadre and supporters while being strong enough to exercise his muscle power to assert his authority. He should also be able to impress the LTTE satraps presiding over the overseas tentacles of the organisation and controlling the assets. As Prabakaran did not nominate a successor, any new aspirant for the LTTE leadership will have to gain the acceptance of three constituencies of the organisation: the fighting elements, the expatriate segment and fellow travellers extending value-added support to the LTTE.

The front-line fighting segment made up of the LTTE rank and file still eluding capture in Sri Lanka is the most important constituency. The security forces have claimed that the LTTE lost around 22,000 cadre, while 9,100 of them have been apprehended. These figures might be exaggerated, and the LTTE has probably lost between 12,000 and 15,000 cadre in Eelam War IV. After suffering a crushing defeat and left leaderless in isolated pockets, many of these cadre, including the sleeper cells, are likely to be a demoralised lot. Sri Lanka has already announced that the security forces will continue to hunt them out until the last vestige of the LTTE is eradicated from Sri Lanka.

So it is not surprising that Karuna (Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan), the former LTTE leader who is now a Minister in Mahinda Rajapaksas government and a vice-president of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, is attracting cadre from this segment. And President Rajapaksa is likely to encourage this trend further. Under this difficult ambience, any new leader of the LTTE will find it an uphill task to retain the loyalty of such cadre and strengthen his power base within Sri Lanka.

The expatriate segment of supporters comprises a melange of identities and backgrounds. It has its own pulls and pressures based on its perceptions of the Tamil Eelam question. It is to the credit of Prabakaran that he was able to commandeer the support of such a disparate group.

On the ground, the style of operation of LTTE representatives, particularly in Canada and the U.K., progressively degenerated over the years. In spite of the LTTEs much publicised penchant for discipline, there were complaints of LTTE operatives using of a mix of extortion, coercion, intimidation and even violence to muster support. In the absence of the strong hand of Prabakaran, this situation is likely to deteriorate further, with each group trying to outdo the other. Controlling the local chapters of the LTTE and keeping the proxies handling the LTTEs vast overseas assets on a tight leash will be an important factor in re-establishing the authority of a new leadership. But this may not happen with the urgency the issue deserves.

Lastly, the Tamil struggle for equity attracted the support of non-governmental organisations and sections of the intellectual and political community although the LTTE had assumed its leadership role using questionable methods. Politicians, human rights activists and intellectuals in many countries including India, Canada, and the U.K. chose to support LTTE-sponsored causes and movements ignoring its negative aspects because they believed in its organisational effectiveness. Their support has been critical in indirectly building up the LTTEs image in international fora, including the U.N., often to the embarrassment of Sri Lanka. Unless the new leadership is able to take charge and assert itself quickly, this support may dissipate.

Pathmanathan is probably making a pitch to emerge as a potential candidate to take over the LTTE leadership. Better known by his nickname KP which stands for Kumaran Pathmanathan, he is no front-line military commander. His skill in overseas operations enabled him to organise the LTTEs supply chain on the basis of a captive tramp shipping network that became the lifeline for the LTTE.

He was under a cloud for some time when Prabakaran suspected his financial integrity. However, he was reinstated as international representative, in the place of the late Anton Balasingham, to revamp the LTTEs overseas operations to meet its battlefield needs.

Pathmanathan is an organisational man with a sound knowledge of clandestine international operations. Even if he musters the support of the overseas segments in his bid for leadership, his acceptance among the fighting elements of the LTTE will remain a question mark as he comes out as a poor option after Prabakaran. His behind-the-scenes skills may not be enough to create enthusiasm even among the Tamil public, particularly when Tamil politicians such as Douglas Devananda and Karuna are going to occupy an increasingly larger political space.

Considering all these aspects, the LTTE is likely to be in internal convulsions for some time over the leadership issue. It may require the collective skills of expatriate leaders to hammer out a solution acceptable to all segments. In the interim, the internal squabble might not only increase in decibels but also end in fisticuffs. To avoid such a contingency, a collective leadership may emerge. But such committee solutions would take the dynamics out of leadership just when the organisation needs it the most to survive as a viable entity.

Colonel R. Hariharan is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia and served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka in 1987-90.

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