Print edition : November 21, 1998

On the run in most other parts of the world organisationally, the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is in the process of finding a haven and even striking roots in South Africa. An investigation.

INTELLIGENCE agencies and security personnel from around the world are focussing their attention on South Africa in the wake of recent reports about the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) having developed a clandestine political and military infrastructure in South Africa. This information did not come as a surprise to many people because unverified reports about groups such as the Hamas, the Hezbollah, the Partiya Karkera Kurdistan (PKK) and alleged terrorist leader Osama bin Laden operating out of South Africa have been doing the rounds from time to time.

Away from the glare of the international media, the LTTE is operating a state-of-the-art network involved in disseminating propaganda, fund-raising and procurement and shipping operations in South Africa. Compared to other countries from where it operates, the LTTE has greater influence in South Africa because of the presence of a politically active Tamil community there.

The LTTE exploited the situation and started conducting a series of camps to train South Africans of Indian Tamil origin. (The South African Tamils have come together to form the South African Tamil Tigers.) Many of them were trained by LTTE trainers who came from Sri Lanka and retired South African military personnel drawn from the Koevoet and the 32 Battalion, two elite military outfits of the apartheid era. The Koevoet and the 32 Battalion spearheaded the counter-insurgency drive against African National Congress (ANC) fighters operating out of bases in southern Angola and northern Namibia. The Koevoet and the 32 Battalion troops fought not only the fighters of the ANC and the South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO), but also regular Angolan and Namibian forces.

There are also reports that LTTE activists from Sri Lanka received specialised training on South African soil.

Women cadres of the LTTE at a training camp in Sri Lanka.-

Although the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and the National Int-elligence Service (NIS), institutions responsible for the internal and external security respectively of South Africa, were aware of the LTTE's ruthlessness, they appeared to be powerless in containing its influence in South Africa. This was because the LTTE had won the support of key political leaders, particularly those belonging to the Indian Tamil community in South Africa. The LTTE's strategy was to lure them into supporting it, either by winning them over with money or by appealing to their Tamil nationalism.

THE LTTE established its influence in South Africa through a series of front organisations. It attracted sympathy by exploiting the Hindu cultural and religious affinity that existed between Sri Lankan Tamils and South African Tamils. The Hindu temples in South Africa have many Tamil priests hailing from Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. Initially, the LTTE raised the funds it needed to procure weapons for the war it was waging in Sri Lanka, through these priests.

However, after consolidating its presence through propaganda, the LTTE ventured to win over key South African leaders, including parliamentarians representing the ANC.

From 1995, the LTTE began operating a series of training camps in South Africa. It established its training programme by registering itself as a "closed corporation" by paying Rand 200 in February 1995. In a closed corporation, the company's name and the constituent members can be changed without informing the Registrar. For the sake of expediency, the company even provided security guards to private and government organisations. The compound walls around the camps were well concealed from the public eye. The perimeter was protected by barbed wire, spikes and high walls. The first three camps were established in three Tamil neighbourhoods.

The camps had the facilities to train recruits in guerilla warfare. The recruits were provided with accommodation inside the camps. Initially, all the trainers were Sri Lankan Tamils. Gradually, however, South Africans were also recruited as trainers. Each camp had between 10 and 20 trainers, many of whom were rotated among different camps. For instance, one camp had 18 trainers. The recruits were taught the history of "Eelam Tamils" by four trainers, put through rigorous physical training by six trainers and provided basic military training by two others. Armed and unarmed combat were also included in the training programme. Instructions about how to evade surveillance, various aspects of counter-intelligence, the use of explosives and communication facilities were also given. The other trainers who were present at the camp silently observed the recruits' performance. The training period for each batch was three months. After graduation, the best recruits were sent to Sri Lanka via India by boat or via Maldives by air. Reports of some recruits being sent to Sri Lanka by LTTE ships frequenting South African ports is currently under investigation.

Although the NIA became aware of the training camps within a year of their being set up, the influence wielded by ANC hardliners within the NIA prevented it from advising the South African Government to close down the camps. The NIA, however, inducted an agent, who provided them with details about the trainers and the training methods. The main reasons behind South Africa's reluctance was the effectiveness of the LTTE propaganda and the ANC Government's susceptibility to supporting violent movements.

A confidential South African Foreign Ministry assessment on Sri Lanka (1996) cites a United States State Department human rights report as guidance. Although this report gives a negative picture of the LTTE, a report from the Sub-Directorate for South Asia in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs implies that it has no objections to the South African Government raising in multilateral forums the issue of alleged human rights violations committed by Sri Lankan armed forces.

Among the South African diplomats who supported the LTTE quite openly was Jacky Selebi, former South African Ambassador to Geneva and the Chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission and current Director-General of the Foreign Affairs Depar-tment in Pretoria. During one of his visits to Geneva, he is reported to have met representatives of the LTTE (on August 10, 1998), and pledged support to the Tigers' cause.

THE relationship between the ANC and the LTTE dates back to contacts made in London and Paris in the late 1970s. Through an umbrella organisation - the Friends of Palestine - LTTE activists frequently met ANC representatives at the Arab League building in the United Kingdom. The LTTE also established links with SWAPO, which had close relations with the ANC. This relationship, which included providing military assistance to ANC fighters, opened the doors for the LTTE to enter South Africa when Nelson Mandela took over as President.

However, some influential ANC activists in the U.K. distanced themselves from the LTTE after it assassinated Dr. Rajini Thiranagama, an LTTE activist-turned-human rights-activist, in 1989. It was Thiranagama who had forged LTTE-ANC relations in the U.K. After the LTTE assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the resentment of ANC activists grew further.

After 1994, LTTE activists, including Tharmalingam Shanmugam Kumaran alias Kumaran Pathmanathan, the head of the LTTE International Network, travelled to South Africa. Close links were forged between South African Tamils and the LTTE through the International Secretariat in London. The LTTE's links with the Mandela Government were consolidated in late 1994 when LTTE activists won over a few ANC hardliners. It also established contacts with South African missions in Canberra, New Delhi and London. In fact, the LTTE continues to feed South African missions, particularly the one in U.K., with propaganda.

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader V. Prabakaran (far right) with LTTE cadres somewhere in Sri Lanka, in a picture made available recently.-VANNI PHOTO GROUP

After the ANC Government assumed office, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was the first Sri Lankan dignitary to visit South Africa. Around the same time, President Nelson Mandela received a 14-member LTTE delegation in his office. Except one delegate who joined the group in South Africa, the others came from Sri Lanka via India on airline tickets which came through the South African Government. Their programme was organised by the ANC with the assistance of the South African High Commission in New Delhi. (Both the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), India's premier intelligence organisations, apparently failed to monitor the ANC-LTTE link and the fact that India was being used as a transit point.) The high level meeting between Mandela and the LTTE delegation was followed by several meetings between ANC and LTTE representatives in India. Among the ANC officials was a South African Foreign Ministry official. The South African mission in India, particularly the Office of the Deputy High Commissioner, was involved with these discussions.

Before Kadirgamar left South Africa, he received an official briefing from a white South African intelligence official. Although Sri Lanka supported the ANC through the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), it continued to maintain contact with the apartheid regime on matters of intelligence. This was a necessity because Sri Lankan groups were undergoing training in Lebanon and in Syria, particularly in the Bekaa Valley with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the ANC. Senior Sri Lankan intelligence officials visited South Africa regularly. South Africa also assisted Sri Lanka in developing its military and intelligence gathering capabilities. The intelligence official told Kadirgamar that the LTTE was disseminating propaganda and raising funds through four front organisations and that there were around 100 Sri Lankan Tamil families in South Africa.

The NIA, after the Mandela Government took over, has been the NIA and the ANC's intelligence wing combined. Many ANC intelligence types entertained the view that South Africa had an obligation to assist their former allies - meaning the groups that had helped them, including the PLO and the LTTE and the countries that had stood by them, including Iran and Libya. ANC hardliners in the NIA were therefore annoyed that a Sri Lankan Minister was being briefed about the LTTE's activities. Within a few days, the intelligence official was transferred. This exacerbated the tension between the NIA's old guard and the new members.

The LTTE's influence continued to grow in South Africa through 1996. As a mark of respect for President Mandela, LTTE's magazine Hot Spring, which is published from the U.K., carried messages and quotes from the celebrated African leader.

The October 1997 issue of Hot Spring provided wide coverage of Mandela's visit to Libya and criticised the U.S.' role in Libya. The December 1997 issue of Hot Spring carried two quotations next to each other. The first quote, which was from a woman from Johannesburg on Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's role in several apartheid-era murders and abductions, said: "Winnie is a murderer. What can a murderer do for our country?" The second quote by a Johannesburg-based nurse, Jemina Litabe, said: "Whether she killed people or not, she was fighting for the rights of our people."

The LTTE even managed to obtain a message from Mandela for a conference organised by it in Australia in June 1996. The Peace with Justice International Conference, co-organised by the Australian Human Rights Foundation and the Australasian Federation of Tamils, two LTTE front organisations, was attended by Lawrence Thilagar, who headed the LTTE International Secretariat at that time, and Pravin Gordhan, an influential South African supporter of the LTTE. The LTTE had obtained the message from Mandela through Gordhan, a former ANC leader and currently a parliamentarian representing the ANC. Gordhan, who secured the message in the form of a letter from Mandela to the "human rights conference", was an ANC ideologue rather than a terrorist. His ANC background made him a powerful figure in Mandela's South Africa. He served as the co-chairperson of the Transitional Executive Committee and was engaged in drafting the new South African Constitution. Some of his South African colleagues believe that he was duped by the LTTE into believing that its struggle against Colombo is similar to the conflict between white and coloured South Africans during the apartheid regime. Although there is no evidence to indicate that Gordhan accepted money from the LTTE for his services, there is evidence to show that the LTTE paid for his travel to Australia in mid-1996. Even some of the better educated South Africans, particularly those of Indian Tamil origin, view the war being waged by the LTTE through the lens of apartheid.

Some Sri Lankan organisations overseas wrote to Mandela, protesting against the message he had issued to the LTTE.

The LTTE's network in South Africa is both a covert and an overt one. At the political level, it mobilises Tamil support in South Africa for demonstrations, rallies, seminars and for lobbying. For instance, when Sri Lanka's national airline Air Lanka started flights to South Africa on June 4, 1996, around 100 Tamils held a demonstration in Durban. The placards read: "Sri Lanka go home, Stop fighting before flying." The placards also called for South Indian intervention in Sri Lanka. The flight's first stop was at Durban, which has a strong Indian Tamil community.

With the help of its ANC friends, the LTTE monitored the deliberations of the Sri Lankan delegation engaged in promoting the airline. (The delegation arrived in South Africa on May 28, 1996.) The LTTE also infiltrated Travel Directions (Pty), Air Lanka's general sales agent in South Africa. For economic reasons, Air Lanka stopped flying to South Africa from April 1, 1997.

Sri Lanka, however, continued to make efforts to influence South Africa in its favour. For instance, Sri Lanka's Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris met his counterpart in South Africa in early 1997. However, without a Sri Lankan mission in South Africa, Colombo could not advance its foreign policy goals because the LTTE's propaganda machinery was already operational.

A KEY figure in the LTTE's propaganda network in South Africa was Father S.J. Emmanuel, former vicar-general of the Jaffna Diocese. Emmanuel, who is a key figure in the LTTE's international network, used his association with Archbishop Desmond Tutu to cultivate key figures in South Africa. In addition to attending a series of high-power meetings, Emmanuel gave a damning interview to South African radio. His book, Let My People Go, published by the Tamil Catholic Chaplaincy, Osnab-rueck, Germany, drew its title from the autobiography of the great South African leader Albert Luthuli, who won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1961.

By drawing parallels between Sri Lanka and South Africa, the LTTE attempts to equate the treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka to that meted out to the coloured people during the apartheid regime in South Africa. It claims that Sri Lanka was the "only South Asian country that maintained economic ties with the (old) South Africa during the dark days of apartheid" at a time when "India, Pakistan and Bangladesh found it morally wrong to deal with the criminal regime." It alleges that "Sri Lanka had no feelings about the oppressed people of South Africa," and that like the "ANC's Umkhonto weSizwe, the Tamil youth had no alternative but to take up arms when all peaceful means failed." The LTTE further claims that the "fertile land of the Tamils" was taken over by the Sinhalese with financial assistance from the state and the use of arms. The propaganda further claims that the Tamils are treated as "foreigners in their own homeland."

Drawing parallels with the ANC, the LTTE alleges that just as the ANC was discredited by apartheid governments, the Sri Lankan Army and politicians too blamed the LTTE for terrorist acts committed by them (the Army and the politicians). The propaganda alleges that Tamils have been detained, tortured and sentenced to death without trial. "There are thousands of Steve Bikos in Sri Lanka," the propaganda material states. "Just as the apartheid government financed and provided military training to opportunist black parties in South Africa, the Sri Lankan government has done the same with opportunist Tamil parties in Sri Lanka." It further adds: "The 120,000 members of the Sri Lankan armed forces are almost exclusively Sinhalese and utilise 20 per cent of the national budget, similar to the white-dominated armed forces of old South Africa." The propaganda material also draws parallels between modern Sri Lanka and old South Africa vis-a-vis the regulation of the press.

Comparing its leader V. Prabakaran with Mandela, the LTTE claims: "Just as the ANC and many other liberation movements in Africa were labelled terrorist organisations by some Western powers that had interests in South Africa, the LTTE has been labelled as a terrorist movement by the U.S., which has significant military and economic interests in Sri Lanka."

This kind of sustained propaganda helped the LTTE increase its influence in South Africa. One of the direct effects of the propaganda was South Africa's ban on the sale of weapons to Sri Lanka. Despite the efforts made by the Sri Lankan Government to explain its position to Ibrahim Ibrahim, Chair, Portfolio Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Kader Asmal, Chair, Portfolio Comm-ittee on Defence, South Africa has not revoked its decision.

Meanwhile, the LTTE continues to lobby and receive support from some of the 11 South African Indian parliamentarians. The South African Tamil parliamentarians appear to be more easily influenced by the propaganda.

Sri Lanka set up its mission in South Africa in late 1997 after it realised the need for stronger ties between Pretoria and Colombo. South Africa will prove to be a major challenge for the current Sri Lankan High Commissioner to South Africa, Gamini Munasinghe, who assumed office in March 1998.

SINCE March 1997, leaks within the South African Government led Sri Lankan Government officials to believe that LTTE combatants were present in South Africa and that some of them were receiving specialised training. There were also reports that the ANC had provided funds to the LTTE. Based on intelligence reports provided by South African and other foreign agencies, Lanka Outlook, a magazine published by the International Foundation of Sri Lankans (IFSL), a prominent Sri Lankan expatriate association in London, prepared a cover story on LTTE activity in South Africa. The article, which questioned whether the LTTE was taking South African leaders for a ride in the same way that it had deceived Indian leaders, cautioned the South African leaders.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

During this period, President Mandela visited London. At a reception for foreign envoys, he met Sri Lankan High Commissioner S.K. Wickram-asinghe and asked him: "How is President Chandrika?" Perceiving that Mandela was well disposed towards Sri Lanka, Wickramasinghe persuaded the IFSL against carrying the article. He said that the Mandela Government fully supported the Sri Lankan Government. Wickram-asinghe further argued that the LTTE had no presence in South Africa. After holding discussions with Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry officials dealing with South Africa, the IFSL decided against publishing the South Africa cover story on national security considerations.

Wickramasinghe's assessment was not new. Various Sri Lankan leaders have made similar flawed assessments when India was providing sanctuary, training, finance and weapons to some 20,000 Sri Lankan militants in 33 camps from October 1983 to June 1987.

Fifty years after Independence, Sri Lanka's decision making process continues to be flawed because successive governments failed to build the institutions and processes necessary for collective thinking and the country lacks the political, military and foreign policy think tanks needed for formulating immediate and long-term policies.

(To be concluded)

Rohan Gunaratna, who is currently a British Chevening scholar at University of St. Andrews in Scotland, is the author of Sri Lanka's Ethnic Crisis and National Security.

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