By Shamindra Ferdinando
Prabhakaran’s successor, T. S. Pathmanathan or simply ‘KP’ as he is better known has thrown his weight behind Sri Lanka’s post-LTTE efforts to restore peace in the Northern and Eastern provinces.
In an exclusive interview with The Island in Colombo yesterday, Pathmanathan, former confidant of the slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and the outfit’s main arms procurer, discussed a wide range of issues, including his capture last August, breakdown of various attempts to negotiate peace and a desperate bid to thwart annihilation of the LTTE‘s military leadership in May 2009.
Pathmanathan, in a light brown kurta, black slacks and matching shoes could have easily walked the streets of the city without being identified as one of the key LTTE leaders, who had helped build the organisation as a ruthlessly efficient terrorist group over the past three decades. He sat on a couch asking the writer to fire away in what turned out to be a three-hour interview in which he spelt out his plans in support of on-going rebuilding efforts of the government.
The onetime most elusive man from Jaffna said he was confident that a group of likeminded Tamils based in various parts of the world would support the initiative for the benefit of Sri Lankan Tamils.
Fielding questions with a smile, KP said what he expected of the Tamil Diaspora and what the Diaspora expected of him was to step up the rehabilitation, reconstruction and resettlement programmes now underway.
Born on April 6, 1955, KP had played different roles before succeeding Velupillai Prabhakaran after the latter’s death at the hands of the Sri Lanka Army on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in May last year.
Excerpts of the interview:
Q: Are you confident that the Tamil Diaspora could work with President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government?
A: President Rajapaksa is genuine in his efforts to settle differences among communities and help re-build war devastated regions in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Within a year of the conclusion of the war, the majority of the people displaced by the conflict are back at their villages and ex-combatants of the LTTE are undergoing rehabilitation and the international community, too, is supportive of Sri Lanka’s efforts. None of these would have been possible without the political leadership given by President Rajapaksa.
KP said it was essential for the Tamil Diaspora to realise the ground reality in a post-LTTE era and review its strategy to meet the new challenges. He said he had stepped in as he felt there was a leadership vacuum to be filled. Emphasising his determination to go ahead with what he called a tangible action plan, the LTTE veteran said everybody should have come forward and assist in the rebuilding efforts without trying to live in the past. The media should play a positive role in the post-LTTE period and strengthen the ongoing reconciliation efforts. Nothing could be as bad as negative reporting, though no one would dispute the right of the media to cover any issue the way it deemed fit, KP said. However, he said their focus should be on development and peace building efforts such as rebuilding, speedy resettlement of the war displaced and rehabilitation of ex-combatants.
Q: You recently set up an NGO to collect money from the Tamil Diaspora to help the re-building process. Would the Diaspora respond to your move as there were others who claimed to represent the interests of the LTTE?
A: The North-East Rehabilitation and Development Organisation (NERDO) is ready to play a key role in the rehabilitation, reconstruction and resettlement processes. With its main office situated at No 10, 1st Lane, Kathiresu Road, Vairavaputiyankulam, Vavuniya, NERDO is engaged in various activities in support of the Tami speaking people. We are only concerned about the welfare of the people, particularly children, though some seek fresh funding to cause mayhem. People are fed up with war and every effort should be made to alleviate the suffering of the people without playing politics with a purely humanitarian issue. We are appealing for funds - -$1 from each Tamil living abroad on a monthly basis. To facilitate fund raising activity, we recently opened an account at the Vavuniya branch of the Commercial Bank bearing 1610046482 (Code CCEYLKLX). Our e-mail is email@example.com/www.nerdo.lk.
Q: What was the turning point in the eelam war IV?
A: Multi-pronged Al-Qaeda 9/11 attack on the US changed it all. Within 24 hours, the international community led by Western powers moved against all armed groups causing immense damage to our operations. There are many other factors, but the primary reason is nothing but the rapid rise of Al-Qaeda, which prompted the West to change its attitude. This brought about a drastic change in the attitude of political leaders in the other parts of the world. Circumstances made propagation of separatist sentiments extremely difficult in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, an influential section of the LTTE, including its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran did not realize the urgent need to change its strategy. Had he done that the situation would have been different today. There is a New World Order today, which does not tolerate armed campaigns and that is the hard reality.
Q: Are you satisfied with the progress in resettlement and reconstruction following the conclusion of war in May last year?
A: The situation is much better than I expected. Although, there is lot to be done by way of confidence building, we should appreciate what the government has done since the conclusion of the war. The Tamil community should not solely depend on the government, UN agencies and NGOs for their needs. We have a duty by the people to act swiftly and decisively to bring immediate relief to war affected people. During a recent visit to the North, we had an opportunity to provide immediate assistance to several hundreds of GCE (Advanced Level) students sitting for the forthcoming examination. No one would have believed a common programme involving the Tamil Diaspora and the government was possible, but today we are cooperating with the government and working for the people. We are already receiving requests for assistance from the Tamil community, a case in point being that two school principals recently obtained financial assistance for students who needed to pay for examination papers at term tests.
Now that the war is over, we can go flat out to implement development programmes. Recently, we donated Rs. 500,000 for the provision of buns and tea for the Advanced Level students at the Sundaralingham Tamil Maha Vidyalaya, Vavuniya, sitting for examination in August.
Q: When did you first hear of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s death on the Vanni front? Where were you at the time of the final battle?
A: I was abroad when I first heard of Prabhakaran’s death on May 19. The international press reported the final confrontation, though some continued to dispute the fact. I was Prabhakaran’s best friend and felt sad about the loss of his life. Had he listened to me and reached an agreement with the government before it was too late, the final battle could have been avoided. The LTTE suffered a massive setback on May 10 on the Vanni (east) front, where some 400 experienced cadres perished while trying to break the army lines. Following that tragedy, I discussed with the then political chief Nadesan a way out of the quagmire. But unfortunately they believed the army could be somehow forced to stop the offensive and a deal worked out through a third party. We also talked to various people and organizations, including the UN in a bid to work out some arrangement but nothing happened due to the failure on the part of Prabhakaran to make his move earlier.
Q: When did you first leave Sri Lanka? When did you last visit Sri Lanka before being taken in abroad shortly after the end of war?
A: I fled to India with Prabhakaran in 1980. The military searched for me and arrested me forcing me to think of my future. Intensified military activity demoralized the community. When the pressure was mounting, we took a boat from Valvettiturai and sought refuge in India. At that time crossing the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary was no problem. The then TULF leader A. Amirthalingham introduced me to Prabhakaran in mid 70s, most probably in 1976 and since then we worked together. At that time TELO and the LTTE were the dominant militant groups and they worked with the Jaffna-based political leadership for the eelam project. I studied at Mahajana College, Jaffna but gave up University education to fight for our rights, which we believed were violated by successive governments. But today we are in a unique position to bring about a permanent peace in not only Northern and Eastern Provinces but the entire country.
Following the then Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappah’s killing by Prabhakaran, the decision makers of the politico-militant movement at that time had removed Prabhakaran from the outfit. When he came to me, I was just an Advanced Level student, though I had to accommodate him in my room. There had been moves to kill him by some individuals, including the then TELO leader Thangadurai.
Q: Were you in contact with the LTTE during the last few months of eelam war IV? Did the LTTE leadership trapped in the Vanni ever openly acknowledge that the army could not be stopped?
A: Prabhakaran, his key commanders and an influential section of the Tamil Diaspora felt that Tamil Nadu would come to their rescue. They believed Tamil Nadu political parties could exploit a dicey political situation to compel Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to intervene in Sri Lanka. We also sought the assistance of some UN officials and President of East Timor to arrange for a truce before the Army overran the last few sq km of territory held by the LTTE in the third week of May 2009.
Q: Do you believe the Tamil Diaspora can reach an understanding with the government due to the absence of LTTE’s military muscle?
A: There is a need for changing our attitude. The destruction of the LTTE’s military capability has not left room for us to do anything other than reviewing our position. The Diaspora must realize the ground situation in a post-war era and act accordingly.
Any fresh attempts to revive separatist sentiments would only cause trouble and therefore a tangible action plan is necessary to re-build the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The absence of military power would make things easy on the negotiating front.
The North-East Rehabilitation and Development Organisation (NERDO) is ready to facilitate those living abroad to visit Sri Lanka. They should not ignore this opportunity. About a year ago no one would have believed that freedom of movement in the Northern and Eastern provinces was possible.
Q: You are widely credited with running a highly successful procurement operation overseas? But some have claimed that you were replaced several years ago by another senior cadre? When did Prabhakaran replace you and why?
A: I was taken out in 2003. Prabhakaran personally handled the network through Castro. I had to play a low key role due to increased surveillance mounted by intelligence services.
KP acknowledged that Sri Lanka’s premier intelligence service had brought LTTE overseas network under heavy pressure.
Q: Why did LTTE engineer Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the November 2005 presidential election?
A: Prabhakaran felt that the then Prime Minister wasn’t strong enough to meet the challenging task of solving the national issue. Prabhakaran had successfully dealt with several Sri Lankan leaders before the advent of President Rajapaksa.
Q: Did LTTE consult you before resuming hostilities in August 2006.
A: I was not consulted by Prabhakaran before launching a massive multi-pronged attack on the security forces. Prabhakaran wanted me to help acquire urgently needed armaments and also explore the possibility of bringing international pressure to bear on Sri Lanka during the last few months of the war.
Prabhakaran never felt the need to consult anybody as long as he believed his military machine could help him pursue the eelam project.
Q: Some Tamil politicians feel threatened by your presence in Colombo and the possibility of you (LTTE rump) reaching an understanding with the government. Is there any likelihood of all Tamil political parties both in and out of parliament seeking a consensus on a common programme?
A: No one should feel threatened by my presence in Colombo. The need of the hour is a practical approach to the post-war issues. Let us take tangible action to provide assistance to the war displaced and help re-build the Northern and Eastern Provinces. I have absolutely no intention of competing with any politician or any other faction. For the benefit of the Tamil community, the Diaspora and political parties and groups active in Sri Lanka should forge a common alliance to uplift the living standards of the people. I have no political agenda or expect propaganda mileage at the expense of the long suffering civilians.
KP defended his decision to work with the government following his capture in the first week of August last year. He said it was ludicrous if anyone though anything could be done without engaging the government of Sri Lanka. Depending on the circumstances, he said "we would have to work with the relevant ministries, including Defence, External Affairs and the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation".
Q: Would you mind commenting on LTTE fund raising activity during the CFA?
A: The CFA gave a mega boost to our fund raising activity. There was no shortage of funds as we received vast amounts of money from various sources. Tsunami, too, brought us funds, though I could not comment specifically as I wasn’t involved in procurement. Castro, who ran our international branches from his base in Vanni, never cooperated with me. Following Prabhakaran’s killing in May last year, the Tamil Diaspora discussed all the issues including funds. Some of those who had controlled funds declined to cooperate, thereby causing a great deal of friction.
Q: How did your first meeting with the Defence Secretary go?
A: When I was apprehended and flown to Katunayake, I felt demoralized. I was anxious and believed my end was near. The collapse of the LTTE fighting formations in May and my capture in the first week of August 2009 caused me immense heartache. From Katunayake, I was driven to the residence of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya in Colombo, where I had the opportunity to meet the man widely believed to be an indefatigable and brilliant strategist. But within minutes, he allayed my fears and we had some tea and cake before I left the place. There were a few others including those who had planned my capture and brought me to Colombo.
As I entered the Defence Secretary’s residence, I saw a Buddha statue and felt confident that nothing bad could happen to me there.
With the blessings of the Defence Secretary, I brought nine Diaspora activists from Canada, UK, France, Switzerland, Australia and Germany to explore the possibility of cooperating in relief efforts. There is an urgent need to bridge a big gap between the ground reality and the thinking of the Diaspora. I had many sleepless nights before I went ahead with a plan to bring in the Diaspora activists to facilitate an understanding with the government. A section of the Diaspora is opposed to our move but at the end of the day there’ll be no way out. We’ll have to come to terms with an unprecedented situation in which the LTTE no longer wield military power. To the credit of the government, we were allowed to meet senior officials, including top Security Forces Commanders to exchange views. We never expected the army to welcome us warmly, particularly at Palaly, the main air base in the Jaffna peninsula.
Q: How did you follow the battle-field progress during August 2006-May 2009 period? Did the LTTE keep you informed of the ground situation first in the East and the Vanni region?
A: Although I was far away from the war zone, I knew what was going on in the Eastern and Northern battlefields. Our cadres were constantly under pressure and had no option but to gradually retreat as the Army advanced further into LTTE-held territory. As I pointed out earlier, the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks had prompted the international community to take entirely a different stand on the Sri Lankan war. I knew it was militarily IMPOSSIBLE to stop the army, but unfortunately Prabhakaran simply ignored the rapidly changing ground situation. The rest is history.
Q: You are a veteran in this game. What went wrong with your strategy on the North and East battlefields?
A: Prabhakaran was blind to the ground reality. Had he carefully studied 9/11 as well as President Rajapaksa’s advent to presidency and the gradual change in Sri Lanka’s strategy, the LTTE could have survived. Prabhakaran was a simple man, who pursued his goals ruthlessly and sometimes blindly paying no heed to consequences. A case in point was his decision to undermine the then Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government.
Q: What was your role during July 1987-March 1990?
A: I was away moving in and out of various countries, including Thailand, Cyprus and Malaysia.
Q: You have been working abroad for many years and following international developments? Would you comment on the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq?
A: Afghanistan and Iraq are in crisis with international forces still trying to dominate hostile territory. Foreign intervention will only aggravate domestic problems and the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq are not an exception.
Q: Recently Karuna said that you would not enter politics as you have no political experience. What would you say to this? Did you meet LTTE negotiating teams led by Anton Balasingham during the Norwegian-arranged talks overseas?
A: Karuna is free to express his opinion. I have nothing to say about his opinion of me or what I am doing now. The need of the hour is to ensure the speedy implementation of post-war rehabilitation, reconstruction and resettlement process.
Prabhakaran appointed me as a member of our delegation led by Anton Balasingham for discussions with the Sri Lankan government. But some opposed my appointment on the basis it would give me an opportunity to visit various countries in the guise of meeting government representatives. They feared I would capitalize on talks in various capitals to engage in other business other than negotiations.
At one point Prabhakaran even wanted to replace Balasingham, as he didn’t approve of the way Anton handled the talks.
Some accuse me of working with the government and the military. What can one do without the help of the State apparatus to bring relief to the long suffering people? What do they expect me to do? Obtain assistance from the moon or work with the government to bring relief to war affected population. I will not be deterred by critics bent on picking holes …
Q: Did you try to persuade LTTE leader to refrain from suspending talks in April 2003?
A: Lack of trust caused the breakdown of talks. This was evident when I discussed CFA issues with Prabhakaran. Negotiating peace is not easy and can be more difficult than war. We also felt the absence of competent negotiators. Except Balasingham, LTTE negotiators were ordinary and simply failed to match the skills of government representatives. The government had Prof. G.L. Peiris and several other expert negotiators while we lacked experienced men.
Q: Was the CFA a ruse to develop your fighting capability in five years and then go for an all-out war?
A: Some have accused the LTTE of making such plans.
Q: Even after losing all its major bases in the East by mid 2007, did the LTTE believe it could regain the initiative and how?
A: Once the army had the initiative and the upper had on the Vanni battlefield we never could have changed the ground situation.
Q: Some analysts believe that Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE would not have been possible without the navy blocking the sea supply routes. Would you agree with that assertion?
A: Blockade of sea supply routes had been a major obstacle.
Q: Now that the war is over would it be possible for the once warring parties to sit down for talks and work on a common programme for the benefit of all communities?
A: I responded to a similar question earlier.
Q: There is no doubt that the LTTE had carefully studied the Sri Lankan political scene and taken timely decisions to advance its strategy? What made the group deny the northern voters their right to vote at the November 2005 presidential election, thereby paving the way for the then Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s election?
A: Prabhakaran may have felt that Wickremesinghe could not have had the strength to pursue negotiations to a successful conclusion. - courtesy: The Island -