Who killed Manickathasan?

Print edition : September 11, 1999

The killing of the PLOTE leader in Vavuniya on September 2 right inside the fortified local headquarters of the organisation raises a host of questions.

ON September 2, the deputy leader and military commander of the People's Liberation Organisation of Thamil Eelam (PLOTE), Nagalingam Manickathasan alias Thasan, became the latest victim of Sri Lanka's ongoing ethnic conflict when an explosion occurred at Vavuniya, the southernmost town of the predominantly Tamil Northern Province. It happened at the 'Lucky House' camp where the headquarters of the PLOTE functioned in Vavuniya. Lucky House is situated within the Vavuniya Urban Council limits, at Rambaiku lam behind the St. Anthony's Catholic church and about half a mile from the Clock Tower road junction.

Along with Manickathasan, his lieutnenant Illango who was the Vavuniya regional military leader of the PLOTE, and Vino, a former member of the Kaluvanchikudi pradeshiya sabha (local authority) in Batticaloa district were also killed. Another cadr e, Uthayan alias Thavam, was seriously injured. Residents of Vavuniya described the explosion as a powerful one; it reverberated through the town. Vino died instantly and Illango a little later at the spot; Manickathasan died on the way to hospital.

There was some confusion initially about the mode of attack. The police first stated that a suicide killer of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was responsible for that. Subsequently they said that an explosive device of the Claymore variety ha d been fixed on the ceiling above the staircase and triggered just as Thasan and Illango were coming down from the first floor. The extensive damage caused to the building seemed to bear testimony to this.

Informed sources in Vavuniya said that the initial impression of a suicide bomber being involved was caused by the fact that Vino took the full force of the blast: his body was torn to bits. Vino was ascending the stairway while the other two were descen ding. Thavam was standing at the foot of the staircase. Since Vino's body had disintegrated, it was presumed at first that he was a suicide bomber.

The explosion at the Jaffna Municipal Council in Nallur last year, in which the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) Mayor of Jaffna, Sivapalan, Jaffna military commandant Brigadier Mendis and several high-ranking police and municipal officers were kille d, was also carried out in a similar manner. Until then, Claymore devices were usually placed on the ground as landmines to target mobile patrols or convoys. Deploying one on the ceiling and making it explode in a downward direction was considered an LT TE 'innovation'.

According to sources in Vavuniya, there were 15 to 20 people on the ground floor waiting to meet Manickathasan. None of them was harmed. According to eyewitness reports, Manickathasan had just asked his men to prepare tea for the waiting people: those we re his last words.

The prevailing confusion was compounded by the fact that the explosion had occurred within the fortified premises. When there were doubts about the involvement of a suicide killer, the question was how such a person would have managed to enter the camp, walk upstairs to the room and self-destruct. The same doubt persisted when the cause was attributed to an explosive device fixed on the ceiling. Again the question is how it was possible to affix an explosive device there.

The preliminary answer to these questions was that it was an insider's job: there had to be collaboration by some PLOTE cadres in the affair. In fact, a person closely trusted by Manickathasan could have been responsible. If the bomb was triggered by a r emote device, how did the person responsible know that Manickathasan was coming down the stairs at that very moment? Was that person then close at hand? These questions raise certain doubts.

BORN in 1959, Manickathasan was involved in Tamil militancy from his teens. He hailed from Jaffna town. His father, Nagalingam, ran a small lumber depot at Martyn Road in the heart of the town. Thasan's mother is Sinhalese and, incidentally, is the siste r of former Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) general secretary Upatissa Gamanayake's mother. Gamanayake, along with JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera, was killed in military custody in 1989, during Ranasinghe Premadasa's presidency. It was an interesting case o f two cousins being actively involved in two extremes of the political spectrum.

Thasan was earlier a junior member of the LTTE. After the split between former PLOTE leader Umamaheswaran (who was killed in July 1989) and LTTE supremo V. Prabakaran in 1980, he threw in his lot with the former. Along with Umamaheswaran he was one of th e founder-members of the PLOTE. He later went to Lebanon and obtained military training in one of George Habash's PFLP camp. He returned to Sri Lanka in 1981, and is said to have been responsible for the gunning down of four policemen at an election meet ing of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in Nachimarkovilady, Jaffna. Thasan was arrested on suspicion and detained in Colombo. He survived the Welikade prison massacre of July 1983 and was then transferred to the Batticaloa jail. He escaped from that jail and made his way to India. He spent several years in Chennai and Orathanadu in Thanjavur district, trying to recover from health problems caused by torture in custody. He returned to Vavuniya in early 1987 and set up a PLOTE camp in Chettikulam .

PLOTE leader Manickathasan.-

Vavuniya town as well as the greater part of the district has long remained a citadel of the PLOTE. Thasan and the military wing formed the cutting edge of the organisation. One consequence of Manickathasan's endeavours was that the LTTE, in spite of its overall hegemony, could not retain a dominant presence in Vavuniya town and its environs. After the death of Umamaheswaran and Kandaswamy alias Sangiliyan in 1989, there was some internal restructuring. D. Siddharthan, son of former TULF MP V. Dharmalin gam, became the PLOTE leader. Manickathasan became its military commander. Soon he became its deputy leader too.

Gradually, the PLOTE devised a new equation with the Sri Lankan armed forces and began to enjoy absolute power within Vavuniya district. The taste of such power had a corrupting influence, according to PLOTE insiders themselves. Soon Thasan began imposin g taxes on the people. Vehicles involved in transporting people and goods had to pay a levy. Businessmen and farmers had to pay up too. The PLOTE under Thasan exercised a monopoly over the sale of eggs and coconuts in Vavuniya. "Donations" were extracted from ordinary people too. Those who did not pay up were dubbed LTTE supporters, "arrested", and tortured. Suspected LTTE members or informants too were detained and tortured. There was internal repression; several PLOTE cadres were subjected to this har rowing treatment.

There were several torture centres in Vavuniya, the most notorious one being the Malar Maaligai (flower palace) camp and the Lucky camp. The existence of a torture camp in Lucky House was dramatically revealed last year when a detenu in shackles escaped and burst into the adjoining St. Anthony's Church while morning Mass was going on. He fell at the feet of the priest and cried out for protection. When armed cadres of the PLOTE entered the church and tried to take him away, the priest refused to allow t hem to do so. The PLOTE members turned nasty but the worshippers prevented them from being violent. Ultimately the police arrived and rescued the man. This incident as well as many others were highlighted by Amnesty International.

In recent times, Manickathasan displayed an ambitious political streak when he contested the Jaffna Municipal Council elections and aspired to be the Mayor. The TULF won and Sarojini Yogeswaran became the first Mayoress. Thasan was elected councillor but he declined to serve and returned to Vavuniya. There began a controversial, perplexing and troubled phase in his life.

One aspect of this phase was the launching of a vicious intra-organisational campaign to oust PLOTE leader Siddharthan. All those identified as Siddharthan's supporters were warned not to set foot in PLOTE offices. Subsequently, Thasan seemed to have rea lised that he lacked the ability to function as the PLOTE head. He opted to allow Siddharthan to function as the de jure leader while he himself would be the de facto leader. A few weeks before his death, both PLOTE leaders appeared joint ly before sections of the media and declared that there were no differences between them.

The second controversial aspect of Manickathasan's conduct was his open confrontation with another Tamil group, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO). The clash began as a turf war, with both groups competing to levy "taxes' from the traders of Vavuniya. Soon Manickathasan led a bitter campaign against TELO, leading to the death of several cadres and supporters. TELO retaliated and soon there was a full-scale 'civil war' in Vavuniya; at one stage the entire town was paralysed. Several ordinary people were caught in the crossfire. The residents of Vavuniya agitated for the disarming of both groups. The security forces confiscated some of their arms. But both groups objected to this, saying that they were needed to defend themselves from the LTT E. The situation became too hot in Vavuniya, and the leaders of both groups shifted temporarily to Colombo.

But the conflict spread to the national capital. The TELO leader in Vavuniya, Rajaratnam Kugarajah alias Kugan, and two others were shot dead at a shopping complex in Bambalapitiya. It was widely believed that Manickathasan himself had executed them. The re was a public outcry that the Tamil groups should not be allowed to continue the violence in Colombo and the police began looking for Manickathasan. He then flew out to Singapore and from there to Mumbai.

From there Thasan moved to Chennai. Finding Chennai inhospitable, he returned to Colombo.

THE third and perhaps the most controversial aspect of Manickathasan's conduct was his attempt to appease and align himself with the LTTE. Earlier, Sri Lankan intelligence officials had discovered that the PLOTE was harbouring suspected LTTE operatives i n its camps. Calendars published by the PLOTE with the picture of a tiger mauling a lion lying spread-eagled over the northeastern area of a map of Sri Lanka were confiscated. Thasan gave some interviews to the Tamil press in the course of which he said that the LTTE and the PLOTE were brothers, while the Army was always the enemy. On another occasion he said that the PLOTE would "give up" Vavuniya if the LTTE wanted it. When the armed forces began confiscating arms from PLOTE cadres, he threatened to t eam up with the LTTE and fight the government. He announced that he had instructed his junior cadres to join the LTTE. Later there were reports in the Sri Lankan media that more than 70 such cadres had indeed joined the LTTE.

AGAINST the backdrop of such bizarre conduct by Manickathasan, his killing too has become a matter of speculation. Although the needle of suspicion naturally points to the LTTE, there is reason to think otherwise because of the recent overtures Manickath asan made to that organisation. Whether the Tigers would have killed someone who was trying to ingratiate himself with them is a moot question.

Given the prevailing state of affairs, other possibilities also remain. It could have been TELO; it could have been the dirty tricks department of the Sri Lankan Army; it could even be the handiwork of PLOTE elements opposed to Manickathasan. Given the f act that Lucky House was a veritable fortress, an internal squabble being behind the killing is a distinct possibility. It was only a few years ago that Manickathasan was being blamed for the killing of Arjuna, the PLOTE leader from Trincomalee who part icipated in the ill-fated invasion of the Maldives that was thwarted by the Indian Navy. He was also thought to be responsible for the death of Karavai Kanthasamy, a political activist of the PLOTE who was on the verge of crossing over to the Eelam Peopl e's Democratic Party (EPDP). It is also rumoured that Thasan travelled to Switzerland and killed a former cadre, Robin, and his wife in order to suppress information about his own involvement in the killing of Umamaheswaran.

All these signs of internal divisions within the PLOTE and enmity with other groups, notably TELO, has caused a cloud of doubt to appear whenever the PLOTE was targeted effectively. Last year Manickathasan's deputy, Alavaanku Das, was blown up using a Cl aymore mine when he was travelling on a tractor. Thasan was travelling in another vehicle. Last year, the PLOTE MP from Wanni district, Shanmuganathan alias Vasanthan, was killed in another landmine attack. Shots were fired at the house of another PLOTE MP, Balachandran, but he survived. In July, Thasan's aide, Sabaratnam Baskaran alias Dumal, was killed in a Claymore mine attack.

All these incidents in Vavuniya taken along with those in Jaffna against PLOTE members indicate that the LTTE has been consistently targeting the PLOTE. It has not been possible to point the finger of guilt conclusively because of the suspicion that othe r agencies too may be involved.

Such a climate of uncertainty is one in which the LTTE thrives. It continues with its actions systematically and ruthlessly while the victims and aggrieved parties indulge in mutual recrimination. The Special Task Force commandos of the Army have been ta king action against TELO in Vavuniya. They think the recent landmine attacks by the LTTE against them were carried out with the connivance of TELO. In that context, the killing of Manickathasan too will raise doubts.

Nevertheless, to those analysts who have been observing the pattern of the LTTE's attacks, there is no doubt about who is responsible for the latest attack. The LTTE is currently aiming to demolish all effective alternatives to it within the Tamil commun ity. In Vavuniya the PLOTE enjoys some popular support though much of it was eroded owing to Manickathasan's ignoble conduct. Still the LTTE wants to reduce the PLOTE to a non-entity through selective assassinations. It may like to co-opt some of the jun ior PLOTE cadres. LTTE deputy military commander Balraj himself came from PLOTE. The LTTE, however, would not accommodate senior members from other groups. They are forever dubbed traitors or anti-social elements who must be eliminated. In the case of Ma nickathasan, he was always perceived by the LTTE as a "thug and criminal" who had to be eliminated. He had also killed and tortured a number of LTTE members and supporters. So there never was any chance of his being pardoned and accepted by the LTTE.

For now, the questions about his death will linger. But it will be only a matter of time before the truth emerges. The important factor, however, is to recognise that the killing would not have been possible without internal connivance in the PLOTE. This means that the LTTE has deeply infiltrated the movement. That should make the alarm bells ring for the PLOTE, other Tamil groups and in the final analysis the armed forces of the country.

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