Direct hit

Print edition : December 07, 2007

The funeral procession of Tamilselvan at an undisclosed place in northern Sri Lanka on November 5. - LTTE/HANDOUT /REUTERS

The death of S.P. Tamilselvan, the ever-smiling political commissar of the LTTE, may lead to a further hardening of Tiger attitudes.

The funeral procession

EARLY in the morning on November 2, Suppiah Paramu Tamilselvan, the 40- year-old political division head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was killed in an air raid along with five other Tiger cadre. The fatal attack was carried out by two jet bombers, an Israeli K-fir and a Russian-built MiG-27; their target area was suburban Thiruvaiyaaru, about three kilometres from Kilinochchi town in the Wanni region, controlled by the Tigers.

Tamilselvan, who functioned from 1994 as the LTTEs political commissar, had recently been assigned additional quasi-military duties. He was placed in charge of defences at Pooneryn as he was familiar with the area. Tamilselvan was at Pooneryn from October 29 to November 1. He returned to Kilinochchi, the LTTEs political headquarters, on the afternoon of November 1. The organisations peace secretariat and strategic communications unit are also located there.

Tamilselvans last official duties were performed at the communications unit, from where he contacted several persons in Sri Lanka and abroad. The political commissar and others stayed late into the night at the place holding discussions.

Thereafter, at about 2-30 a.m., the Tigers moved to a safe bunker in the interiors of Thiruvaiyaaru. Given the prevailing security situation, important Tiger leaders sleep at night in well-fortified bunkers away from their homes. They also avoid sleeping at the same place on successive nights. The L-shaped bunker, with lower and upper compartments, was well camouflaged. Tamilselvan went to bed in the lower one while the others slept in the upper one.

At 4-30 a.m., an IAI Scout unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), a spy plane, hovered over the skies of Kilinochchi. Later at first light, the two jet bombers came and discharged their lethal cargo. Subsequently, three other planes, two MiGs and a K-fir, dropped nine bombs, between 6-20 a.m. and 6-30 a.m. in the south of Kilinochchi in the area around the 155th milepost and St. Anthonys church. Two civilians were killed and six injured.

The first aerial strike saw a bomb fall at the entrance to the bunker. There was a massive explosion and the entire structure caved in. Six Tiger cadre were killed in their sleep; the seventh died days later of injuries. The destruction was so immense that a bulldozer was brought first to facilitate excavation. Thereafter, the bodies were dug up manually.

Among the first top LTTE leaders to reach the spot were its intelligence chief Pottu Amman and sports division head Pappa.

Tiger chief Velupillai Prabakaran issued a special message on Tamilselvans death. He accused the Colombo government of sending war-vultures that are dropping giant bombs and said that it has cruelly killed our peace dove. According to reports, the giant bomb referred to by Prabakaran was an American general purpose bomb called Mark 84, or MK 84. The largest of the Mark-80 series of weapons, MK 84 is nicknamed Hammer for its considerable power. The extensive destruction caused to Tamilselvans fortified bunker suggests that an extremely powerful bomb was used. Only one bomb fell on the bunker and it was a direct hit.

Tamilselvan was born on August 29, 1967, in Madduvil, a sprawling agrarian village in the Thenmaratchy sector of Jaffna district. He had four elder brothers and a younger sister. His eldest brother, Balasubramaniyam alias Moorthy, is a senior member of the LTTE. Moorthy, a close confidant of former LTTE deputy leader Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahatayya, was one of the LTTE delegates who participated in the discussions with the Sri Lankan government in Colombo when Ranasinghe Premadasa was President. He, however, fell from grace after Mahatayyas downfall, and was incarcerated for a long period. Demoted from his earlier positions, Moorthy is now a low-rung cadre engaged in clerical work for the LTTE.

Tamilselvan is married and has two children. His wife, Sasirekha, is a former female cadre of the LTTE. Her nom de guerre was Isaichelvi. Their wedding was one of the first in a scheme introduced by the LTTE supremo. In the scheme, women cadre of the LTTE were paired off with suitable male cadre, in tune with the Tamil custom of arranged marriage. Prabakaran himself selected the bride for Tamilselvan. He along with his wife, Mathivathany, presided over the marriage. The LTTEs late political adviser, Anton Balasingham, and Prabakarans father-inlaw, Erambu Master, were the witnesses.

Tamilselvan had his primary education at the Madduvil Maha Vidyalayam and secondary education at the Chavakachcheri Hindu College. His family was politically conscious and for a long time actively supported N. Shanmugadasans pro-Beijing Communist Party.

His father and elder brothers participated in protests against caste discrimination, especially the one in 1970 demanding that the famous Pandrithalaichi Amman temple in Madduvil be thrown open to all for worship. With the escalation of the ethnic conflict, Tamilselvans family, like many other Tamil families, shed their Marxist ideals and became increasingly Tamil nationalistic.

Tamilselvan joined the LTTE at the age of 16, after the July 1983 violence against Tamils. By international standards, he was a child soldier. According to Sivasubramaniam, one of his brothers living in Canada, Tamilselvan went by boat to India in June 1984 for arms training. He was a member of the fourth batch of recruits and received military training in the Chirumalai camp near Dindigul in Tamil Nadu.

Tamilselvan was known by the nom de guerre Dinesh for a long time. Later, when the LTTE began a de-Sanskritisation drive, his name was reverted to Tamilselvan.

After training, Tamilselvan was first attached to the LTTEs medical unit. He was later posted to Prabakarans security detail in India. One of his main duties was to function as bodyguard to the chiefs wife. The young lads subservience and sense of duty impressed her very much. Soon Prabakaran also became fond of him and made him a trusted lieutenant.

Before Prabakaran crossed over to Jaffna from India on January 5, 1987, he sent three of his trusted bodyguards ahead of him. Their duty was to inform the then Jaffna commander Col. Kittu, make necessary arrangements and then return. Thereafter, the trio accompanied Prabakaran to Jaffna clandestinely. The trusted trio were Imran, Pandiyan and Tamilselvan. All three are dead now.

Tamilselvan with Erik Solheim, Norway`s Special Envoy for the peace talks, at a press conference in Geneva on October 29, 2006.-SALVATORE DI NOLFI/AP

Tamilselvan with Erik

Once in Jaffna, Tamilselvan was assigned to the Thenmaratchy sector. He rose rapidly in the hierarchy and became the Thenmaratchy sectoral commander after the death of Curdles, who was killed in an accidental explosion in Kaithady along with Ponnamman, Vasu and some others on February 14, 1987. After some stopgap measures, Prabakaran made Tamilselvan the Thenmaratchy commander in October 1987. In 1991, he became the military commander and, later, the special military commander for Jaffna district.

Tamilselvan was seriously injured in the Elephant Pass battle of 1991 when he was the Thenmaratchy commander, and in the Pooneryn battle of 1993 when he was the Jaffna district commander. Among other major battles he participated in were Operation Yarldevi and the LTTE attacks in Silavathurai, Karainagar and Thachankaadu. Tamilselvan had a brush with death after the Pooneryn battle; he lost most of the flesh on one leg. He survived but sustained a permanent limp and had to use a walking stick thereafter .

With active military duty ruled out owing to injury, Tamilselvan was rehabilitated in the political wing. When political commissar Narendran alias Yogi was expelled from the movement upon Mahatayyas downfall, Tamilselvan filled the slot.

At one point Prabakaran wanted to appoint Sornalingam alias Col. Shankar in place of Yogi. But Balasingham, who did not like Shankar, persuaded Prabakaran to appoint Tamilselvan instead.

But Tamilselvan also functioned as kattalai thalapathy, or commanding officer, during Operation Unceasing Waves in the Thenmaratchy sector. He was seen in military fatigues in August last year too when the LTTE attempted to penetrate Muhamaalai. In recent times, Tamilselvan was in charge of LTTE defences in Paranthan, Poonagary and Pallavarayankaddu.

As political commissar, Tamilselvan received the government delegations led by Kusumsiri Balapatabendi in the peace talks held from October 13, 1994, to March 28, 1995. He participated in all rounds of peace talks held after the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement on February 22, 2002. Balasingham and G.L. Peiris led the LTTE and government delegations respectively at the talks in Thailand, Norway, Germany and Japan.

Tamilselvan also presided over the LTTE conference in Paris on August 23, 2003. After the conference, he went to Switzerland for a month-long study of the federal system. Tamilselvan also presided over discussions to finalise proposals for interim administration in the North and East, held at the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in Ireland from October 3 to 10, 2003. In 2005, Tamilselvan headed an LTTE delegation to Europe and toured Norway, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland and also South Africa. Tamilselvan also participated in the talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE held from February 22 to 23, 2006, and again from October 28 to 29, 2006, in Geneva.

Tamilselvan reflected Prabakarans thinking perfectly. At times, diplomats have found him to be uncompromisingly intransigent despite his smiling exterior. The plastered, permanent grin was resented by many Western journalists and diplomats who perceived it as patently insincere. He would shake his head from side to side smiling all the time; hence he was nicknamed the smiling cobra by the media.

When charges were made about human rights violations by the LTTE, he would deny them with a broad smile. Tamilselvan was an unquestioning acolyte of Prabakaran. His loyalty to the chief was immense. This special relationship was also his passport to success within the movement.

There have been many attempts on Tamilselvans life, including a close call when a claymore mine killed his chief bodyguard. The political commissar was travelling in a vehicle behind. The Sri Lanka Armys deep penetration squad was suspected to be behind that attack. He had many narrow escapes during aerial bombardment and artillery shelling.

In recent times, Tamilselvan had become the political face of the LTTE. No wonder his death is depicted as a terrible loss to the organisation. The truth is that the death may be a personal blow to Prabakaran but it is not a great loss to the LTTE. Tamilselvan did not influence policy on important issues.

He was not an advocate of a peaceful settlement to the ethnic problem through negotiations. His political role was subordinated to the overall military imperatives of the LTTE. Tamilselvans death may very well lead to a further hardening of Tiger attitudes. The undeclared war may become a declared war. Sri Lanka is in for turbulent times.

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