Print edition : December 05, 1998

South Africa has ignored the Sri Lankan Government's pleas to deny the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the terrorist organisation's support groups any room to operate from its soil.

THE Sri Lankan Government received the following communique from an intelligence agency: "Recent intelligence indicates that the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) plans to develop South Africa as one of its main stations for operating in the African region where weapons are inexpensive. The LTTE plans to establish relations with some of the other African regimes and groups through the ANC (African National Congress). These developments call for a review of relations between South Africa and Sri Lanka and the need to develop effective political, diplomatic and informational counter-measures to alert South Africa that the LTTE and the ANC are neither electorally nor politically comparable and the Sri Lankan conflict cannot be understood through the lens of apartheid."

In the light of the fresh information, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar formulated a dual strategy to win over South African President Nelson Mandela and to confront South Africa with information regarding the LTTE's activities in that country. Kadirgamar proposed to invite Mandela as chief guest at the 50th anniversary celebrations of Sri Lanka's Independence. However, Mandela came under pressure from the Tamil lobby not to accept the invitation. At the behest of the LTTE, South African Tamil activists wrote to Mandela: "Mrs. (Chandrika) Kumaratunga is scheming to use the upcoming 50th anniversary of British departure from Ceylon to invite world leaders and proclaim it as a tacit acceptance of her policies of ethnic decimation. The Tamils have nothing to celebrate. We are sure that you have courage and wisdom to tell Mrs. Kumaratunga that for a person like you, who has passed through the baptism of fire in the fight for racial justice, to take part in a charade to celebrate 50 years of ethnic inequity is sacrilegious. Please tell her to 'Let the Tamil people go'." Mandela declined the Sri Lankan Government's invitation.

While LTTE activists attempted to lobby with Graca Machel (who later became Mandela's wife) at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Edinburgh in October 1997, Chandrika Kumaratunga approached Mandela in the Scottish capital city and informed him about the LTTE's activities in South Africa. Mandela, who is known to have considerable respect for Chandrika Kumaratunga's mother Sirima Bandaranaike, who is the country's Prime Minister, and acknowledges the support provided by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to the ANC, promised to investigate the matter immediately. Although Mandela and his officials were said to have been somewhat embarrassed by the manner in which Chandrika Kumaratunga accosted him on a sensitive issue, the strategy produced results. Within 24 hours, South Africa's National Intelligence Agency (NIA) reported to Mandela the extent of the LTTE's operations in South Africa. Based on the report, Mandela ordered the dismantling of the LTTE camps in the country.

At the crack of dawn on October 29, 1997, South African troops assisted by NIA operatives, simultaneously raided the three LTTE camps in Laudium near Pretoria, Lenasia near Johannesburg and New Castle near KwaZulu-Natal. Investigations conducted by the South African authorities revealed that 24 hours before the camps were raided, the LTTE had been informed about the raids by a high-ranking source.

Soon after they received information about the raid, the trainers and the trainees had moved out to other LTTE safe houses in South Africa with their arms. The trainers and the trainees, none of whom were arrested, perceived the dismantling of their infrastructure as a temporary setback. ANC hardliners pacified them by stating that this was a necessity and that it would not happen again.

Within a month of the raids, the LTTE resumed training activity, albeit on a lower scale and involving smaller groups. This level of training continues even today and will continue as long as South Africa is hesitant about taking action to disrupt the LTTE's support network on its soil.

Owing to political and electoral pressure, Mandela did not ask the South African criminal justice system to proscribe either the LTTE or its front organisations. The support network remained intact, offering the prospect of a revival. LTTE front organisations that disseminate propaganda and raise funds continue to operate in South Africa. Some of the most active front organisations are: People Against Sri Lankan Oppression (PASLO), Gauteng, which has branches throughout South Africa; the Movement Against Sri Lankan Oppression (MASLO), Cape Town and Durban; the Dravidians for Peace and Justice (DPJ), Gauteng, an offshoot of the PASLO; the Tamil Eelam Support Movement (TESM), Durban; the Peace for Sri Lanka Support Movement (PSLSM), Pretoria, an alliance of several groups; and the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO).

The TRO, the LTTE's principal fund-raising organisation, acts as a central conduit to channel money out of South Africa. The PSLSM, the latest front organisation to be established by the LTTE, was set up in March-April 1998. In an effort to wield greater influence, the LTTE also attempted to infiltrate other Tamil organisations in South Africa such as the Natal Tamil Federation, the South African Tamil Federation, the Tamil Federation of Gauteng and the World Saiva Council of Chatsworth.

The links between the LTTE front organisations and the South African Tamil Tigers is clear. For instance, G.M. Veerabadren of the DPJ is the spokesperson for the South African Tamil Tigers. When he spoke to Prega Govender of Sunday Times, Johannesburg, South Africa,he identified himself as 'Thamizh' Veerabadren.

THE most recent round of discussions between Sri Lanka and South Africa followed an article and a photograph of armed men published by the Sunday Times on October 25. The photograph, taken by Nicky de Blois, had the caption: "Armed and ready: Some South African Tamil Tiger supporters have had military training. They say they are ready to fight for the cause of a separate state in Sri Lanka. This determined group was pictured in the bush in Gauteng."

'Thamizh' Veerabadren said that LTTE members regularly slipped into the country to receive secret training in the latest weapon technology. "We also have a highly disciplined and militant group of Tamils here who have received training in explosives and tracking....they are prepared to make the supreme sacrifice for the Tamils of Sri Lanka."

He has also written letters on the DPJ letterhead under his original name while lobbying for the LTTE. For instance, on February 4, 1998, he wrote to several prominent persons in South Africa: "Dravidians for Peace and Justice, South African chapter, is a human rights organisation monitoring human rights abuses worldwide. Presently our focus is on Sri Lanka..."

In addition to disseminating propaganda and raising funds, the front organisations hold public events and engage in lobbying. For instance, on July 4, 1998, the TESM staged a "play of conscience" titled "God is Silent". The play, centred on the Sri Lankan conflict, was staged in the Regional Hall, Arena Park. It was organised in support of the LTTE. The advertisement for the play stated: "Thousands of Tamils are being massacred and raped in Sri Lanka. Don't just sympathise with the cause. Do something about it."

Around 20 influential South African Tamils promote the interests of the LTTE either for financial or ideological reasons. Some of the activists who have come to the attention of the South African authorities are: Dr. P. Lingam, V. Pillai, Tommy (Tony) M. Padotan, M. Peddy, M.T. Pillay, T.D. Pillay, Kisten Chinappan, Y. Chetty, Ned Pillai and Kumbesan Sandrasegaran. In an effort to keep an eye on the LTTE's activities, particularly on its political and military activists who visit South Africa from time to time, the NIA has stepped up its surveillance on these organisations.

THE South African Government's attitude to the LTTE is shaped by the level of its (the LTTE's) propaganda and lobbying. However, it is incorrect to presume that there is no opposition to the LTTE in South Africa. After Mandela met with Chandrika Kumaratunga, his attitude towards the LTTE changed, at least for a while.


Striking a menacing pose for the photographer, G.M. Veerabadren alias 'Thamizh' Veerabadren, South African Tamil Tiger, flaunts a rifle at the office of the Dravidians for Peace and Justice, a front organisation of the LTTE, in Gauteng, near Johannesburg. On the wall, among other pictures, is a poster of LTTE leader V. Prabakaran and a photograph of South African President Nelson Mandela. Behind him are his associates (from left) Mark Joseph, Terence Veerabadren, Dan Govender and Leon Holtzkampf. This photograph was taken in October 1998.-

In December 1997, a South African Tamil activist wrote to Mandela: "... recent statements made by your officials reflect a number of misconceptions and missing conceptions about the situation in Sri Lanka." Thus, South African opinion vis-a-vis Sri Lanka is not monolithic. There are prominent South Africans, including South African Tamils, who are aware of the LTTE's role in Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, and who do not wish to support the LTTE. However, they form a silent majority.

Former U.N. expert Elizabeth Bennette, who is with the Institute of Strategic Studies, Johannesburg, is openly critical of the LTTE's role in recruiting and deploying child combatants. As the current head of the institute's project on Children in Armed Conflict, Elizabeth Bennette, who was earlier with the National Children's Rights Committee in South Africa, is working towards an ad hoc tribunal that will prosecute both governments and guerillas who "commit war crimes against children". She is specifically examining the use of children under 15 in warfare by Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo; Kony of the Lord's Liberation Army in southern Sudan; and the LTTE.

Because of Mandela's aversion to violence, the LTTE's front organisations have adopted the technique of portraying themselves as peace organisations. They regularly call on South Africa to promote negotiations between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government. For instance, a South African Tamil activist wrote to Mandela: "Our beloved President, you are the symbol of struggle against evil and a symbol of freedom and hope. Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga is hunting for trophies. What is more rewarding than to get the most incorruptible and courageous fighter against injustice to put the stamp of approval on her atrocious and vicious acts against a long-suffering Tamil minority who simply want to be masters of their own destiny. We also appeal to you to use your enormous influence and expertise to solve the problems in Sri Lanka through peaceful means. An offer from South Africa to mediate the conflict... and to set up a truth and reconciliation committee would be welcomed by all peace-loving citizens of Sri Lanka."

IN preparation for the NAM meeting in Durban, South Africa, in September 1998, the LTTE made an appeal to President Mandela to use his good offices "to impress upon the Government of Sri Lanka to abandon its aggressive military policy and seek a negotiated settlement based on the principles enunciated at the Thimpu talks." The message, dated August 29, 1998, was widely distributed. The LTTE's front organisations also staged a demonstration outside the venue of the NAM meeting in Durban. The demonstrators urged South Africa to ban Colombo from attending the NAM meeting and carried placards stating: "Sri Lanka kills her own people" and "Child murderers, our sincere greetings and well wishes."

After being subjected to the LTTE's propaganda, Mandela called for third-party intervention in Sri Lanka, both at the NAM and at the U.N. General Assembly. At the 53rd meeting of the U.N. General Assembly on September 21, 1998, Mandela said: "Immediately, a whole range of areas of conflict confront us in Africa, Europe and Asia. All of us are familiar with these, which range from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Sudan in my own continent, to the Balkans in Europe and Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Sri Lanka in Asia. Clearly, this organisation and especially the Security Council acting together with people of goodwill in the countries and areas concerned, has a responsibility to act decisively to contribute to the termination of these destructive conflicts."

Chandrika Kumaratunga's response to Mandela's comments was as follows: "We in Sri Lanka are particularly conscious of the capacity of terrorist groups to resort to the strategy of using front organisations for raising funds which end up in the LTTE war chest to contribute towards murdering and brutalising our people. Moral and legal sanctions against terrorists are not enough. Laws must be effectively implemented. Only by such concerted action will we be able to ensure that terrorists are compelled to renounce violence and enter the democratic process. I would like to thank India and the United States of America in particular for having recognised and declared the LTTE to be the terrorist organisation that it is, and for encouraging my Government to settle this problem by political means. I would like to add here that this is an internal problem that Sri Lanka is fully able and ready to resolve with the full support of its peoples. We will not tolerate any outside interference whilst we appreciate all the support given to us by our friends abroad in resolving the conflict."

Chandrika Kumaratunga further said: "The LTTE's claim to be(ing) a 'liberation organisation' is an insult to organisations such as the African National Congress and the South West African People's Organisation, which courageously struggled against minority rule, racism and oppression and, with equal courage, negotiated the creation of the democratic, non-racial states of South Africa and Namibia." She added: "The LTTE's claim to be(ing) a 'liberation organisation' is negated by its unilateral resort to violence and its reluctance to put its claims to the true test - that of participating in an open, democratic and peaceful process of consultation with the people."

On October 13, Chandrika Kumaratunga had a three-hour discussion with Jerry Matsila, the South African High Commissioner to India, who is concurrently accredited to Sri Lanka. As expected, Matsila pleaded ignorance about the LTTE's activities in South Africa and denied the presence of LTTE training camps on that country's soil. Matsila provided the standard South African official response that the country was investigating the LTTE. (From the time the LTTE's training camps in South Africa were raided, this has been the standard response.)

BY permitting the LTTE and its support groups to operate on its soil, South Africa is tacitly encouraging the transfer of new technologies from Africa that will, in turn, boost the fighting capabilities of the LTTE.

Governments the world over are concerned about international procurement because new technologies often provide the cutting edge by increasing the lethal power of any force. The 37 million rands in funds, sophisticated armaments and dual technologies and trained combatants transferred from South Africa to the LTTE will mean an increase in the LTTE's capabilities. The opportunity to grow and operate in South Africa is a great blessing for the LTTE especially because it has been suffering heavy casualties since the time the Sri Lankan military launched an offensive against it back home.

Mandela's stature as a statesman has taken a beating because of repeated revelations about South Africa harbouring violent groups and the relations it maintains with states that support terrorism. Tolerating the presence of terrorist infrastructure in order to please a political constituency or to accommodate the request of a political or a personal ally is a major crime against a friendly state. The unprecedented wave of crime, corruption and provision of facilities for groups engaged in terrorism elsewhere is eroding the image of free South Africa. The short-, mid- and long- term consequences of permitting the LTTE to operate in South Africa will lead to serious consequences, including a resurgence of Tamil nationalism, proliferation of weapons, flow of narcotics, corruption, and organised crime in South Africa.

In addition, there is a likelihood of South Africa becoming a meeting point for existing and emerging groups to exchange intelligence, conduct joint procurement exercises and even plan common strategies. This will have a tremendous impact on international security. The LTTE is also bound to expand its scope of operations further into Africa from its central base in South Africa. It already has cells in Reunion, Madagascar, Fiji, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland.

There are many similarities and dissimilarities between the situation that existed in South India between 1983 and 1987 and in South Africa between 1994 and 1998. Just as leaders in New Delhi were susceptible to the potential of the Tamil ethnic vote, South African leaders are vulnerable to ethnic compulsions.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga with President Nelson Mandela at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Edinburgh in October 1997.-MAX NASH / WPA POOL / AP

The Tamil communities in both the countries are vulnerable to the LTTE's influence. Such calculations will play an important role in determining the future of LTTE politics in South Africa.

There is also evidence that the whites and Indians are feeling isolated in free South Africa. In this context, Dushmantha Ranetunge, a U.K.-based Sri Lankan researcher, makes an astute observation: "Sri Lankan Tamils and South African Tamils are both minorities with influence far above their ethnic representation. Are South African Tamils fearful that their influence may be trimmed by the African majority as the Sri Lankan Tamils were by the Sinhalese? Is that why we are hearing of South African Tamil Tigers? Is this an alliance between two insecure minorities?" Ranetunge argues that the South African Tamils seem to be feeling isolated and the formation of the South African Tamil Tigers may be a preemptive strike at the coloured majority, fearing a Sinhala-style cutting down to size of Tamils in South Africa.

On October 28, Mandela sought to placate the Indian South Africans by asking them not to regard themselves as a minority, but to become a part of the majority and play an important role in the democratic transformation of the country. "Move away from the sidelines and come to the centre and become a part of the majority," he said.

In the light of these developments, South Africa's future appears to be uncertain. South African leaders of the 1990s - like their Indian counterparts in the 1980s - have underestimated the LTTE, a pan-Tamil organisation.

The LTTE can be denied access to South Africa only if the country's Government decides to designate it legally as an illegal organisation and pass legislation to proscribe its front organisations and companies operating in South Africa. However, it is highly unlikely that South Africa will take such measures because the LTTE's influence has grown singularly since 1994 and the Indian Tamil lobby is today formidable in South Africa.

In the past, questions about the LTTE's presence in South Africa have been discussed between the Presidents and the Foreign Ministers of the two countries. Although such discussions have affected the LTTE's operations in South Africa, they have not made a major dent in its functioning. Will Kadirgamar's recent visit create a significant impact because the South African media themselves have raised the issue now? Sri Lanka's political leaders and its intelligence community and foreign service personnel have a daunting task ahead of them in trying to advance Sri Lankan interests in South Africa.

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

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