Where did the LTTE go wrong?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka may not be wide off the mark that LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran would have been politically rehabilitated in a ‘high position’ if only he had not pursued war and violence till the very end, is worthy of active consideration by the Tamil community. Fonseka has referred to the case of Vinayakamurthy Muraleedharan alias Karuna, but there was also the case of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, better known as Pillaiyan.

All this is not to miss out on the post-war ‘capture’ of ‘KP’, or Kumaran Pathmanathan, Shanmugam Kumaran Tharmalingam or Selvarasa Pathmanathan in Malaysia but ‘rehabilitation’ in Sri Lanka. KP was the founder-leader of the post-LTTE ‘transnational government of Tamil eelam’ (TGTE), . After his rehabilitation, US-based lawyer Viswanathan Rudrakumaran has remained the self-styled ‘prime ministers’ for nearly a decade.

In his turn, Prabhakaran, if he had come to some kind of a political settlement with any of the successive governments in Colombo, might have become the chief minister of the Northern Province. At an earlier stage or as a part of any new negotiated settlement, he might have also come to lead a re-merged North-East, minus possibly the Ampara district. That proposal was already agreeable to the Sri Lankan State, and also the ruling SLFP, and was proposed under the UNP-torpedoed ‘Chandrika Package-II’ in 2000.

But would Prabhakaran’s prominence as the world’s most-feared terror-leader settled for something as simple as a provincial chief minister, when the LTTE and other Tamil groups (both militant and moderate) had long since given up that idea, in favour of a ‘separate Tamil Eelam’. Long before the ‘Vaddukottai resolution’ that pronounced the concept in 1976, ITAK/Federal Party founder, S J V Chelvanayagam, had hinted at the possibility even in the fifties

“This is only the first step,” is how ‘Thanthai’ Selva, Sri Lanka’s ‘Tamil Gandhi’, declared at Batticaloa, in the mid-fifties. Responding to Tamil protestors, who condemned the meaningful ‘Bandaranaike-Selva Pact’ as a ‘sell-out’, his public declaration was also among the causes for the then Prime Minister reportedly tearing up the pact.

In Prabhakaran’s time, if and if only he had entered into a negotiated settlement, the SJV kind of pronouncement would have still rankled in the mind of the Sri Lankan State. They would have continued to keep a watchful eye on Prabhakaran’s moves and movements. Not that he would have accepted the total surrender of his men and their weapons – or their integration into the nation’s armed forces, as has since happened successfully in Nepal.

That is what had happened when the IPKF was called into maintain peace between the LTTE and the armed forces. Prabhakaran had a photo-op of the ‘surrender event’, but it became clear that his men had not surrendered the ‘real weapons’. That might have come out of his over-cautious approach to politics and terrorism.

More importantly, whether as chief minister or as the leader of a ‘separate state’, it would still have been doubtful if Prabhakaran would have been able to walk the streets of Jaffna the same way he could hole up in the Vanni jungles of his Killinochchi fortress. Whatever personal security precautions he and his bodyguards would have taken against perceptions of any ‘state-sponsored’ sabotage attempt would have bene applicable even otherwise.

After the blood of so many Tamil leaders, especially that of other militant group leaders and those lieutenants like Mahattaya, Prabhakaran would have had to secure himself against remnants of some of those erstwhile militant groups. Then thee could have been attempts at multiple ‘lone wolf’ attacks, as every kin or friend or followers of any of those he had killed – moderate or militant, and not necessarily leaders – could have been waiting for his turn.

Suicidal tendency

Military minds, both in the country and outside, have had a lot of respect for Prabhakaran’s military mind. Even in political terms, his tactics was appreciated. But his strategy did not help the larger Tamil interest. Elsewhere in similar situations, militant groups targeting the state had used terror/military might to push their political agenda. Here, after a time, it became increasingly clear to all stake-holders, including the international community, that the LTTE was using the negotiations route to strengthen it militarily, instead.

All of it boiled down to the maxim that the LTTE was not interested in a negotiated political settlement, but only to spruce up its military might, for what it deemed to be a fight to the finish. In the process, the LTTE was the one that got finished off, and almost for the good, as it looks thus far.

In leading up to this point, the LTTE forgot a lot of things that should have been visible to the naked eye. Because it was drunken with power and its leadership was holed up in the jungles with no real, independent outside contact capable of evaluating national and international developments and conveying it to the leadership to the point of convincing the same, the LTTE – rather the Tamils lost out, not only the war but also possible peace and a honourable settlement.

The LTTE is still remembered – and will always be remembered the world over, by academics and officials studying the global terror pattern, mainly for its ‘Black Tigers’ suicide squads. But in instilling in young cadres such suicidal tendencies, much of it seemed to have rubbed on the organisation, itself. Or, was it the suicidal tendency of the organisation – based possibly on Prabhakarans’s reported liking for Hitler’s war and political strategies, which also tempted him to follow the latter to the very last step in his own life?

The story is not about the LTTE’s suicide-bombing tactics alone, but also about the LTTE’s suicidal ways. Going by reports, there may have been opportunities for the LTTE’s suicide-bombers in the Anuradhapura air force base attack in October 2007, the LTTE bombers could have escaped – if not all, at least some of them. But conferring on them martyrdom, to motivate the next line of Black Tigers cadres to achieve personal glory, seemed to have been uppermost in the minds of the leadership, then as ever.

In doing so, the leadership sacrificed experienced front-line commanders of the traditional military arm or the Black Tigers terror-arm on the field, with the result when push came to shove in the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’ (2006-09), the LTTE had a lot of foot soldiers, including child conscripts in their hundreds and thousands – and not enough effective commanders on the ground.

Insulated isolation

By getting into the jungles, physically insulated and information-wise isolated, the LTTE leadership ensured that it did not get the real pulse of events happening around it. So high was its self-belief, it never ever thought that the Sri Lankan State would have also utilised the Norway-facilitated CFA period (2002-06) to rearm, re-train and rework its strategy and tactic, as much.

Gloating over the past war victories and demoralising terror-attacks on the Sri Lankan State and individual leaders, both of the government and of the Tamil community, they had come to believe that were the greatest. In 2005 elections, they wanted Mahinda Rajapaksa as President, because they wanted war – and they believed that only a Rajapaksa presidency would offer them war.

In doing so, again, the LTTE leadership faltered as on most occasions. Most victories were won not because the LTTE was smarter and leaner, but the other side was neither. The LTTE was frozen in the early eights past, when the Sri Lankan armed forces numbered around 15,000 all – a ‘ceremonial army’ with not-very-professional soldiery, and gentlemen officers from Colombo Seven Sinhala-Buddhist families who were mostly men of leisure. By the time Rajapaksas came to power, all of it had changed.

The LTTE saw only Mahinda R the politician, not an army/war veteran in Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, now President., They did not understand the dynamics of Sinhala-Buddhist politics, as the Rajapaksas did. They did not have a clue as to what the armed forces had sought of the two leading presidential candidates, pre-poll, or of the victor, afterwards.

The army, too, wanted peace, according to reports. But if it was not possible and they were to be pushed into a war, it would have to be fight-to-the-finish. The Rajapaksas reportedly promised the former, and the LTTE obviously offered them the latter, and they grabbed it, with the full conviction that not only would the political leadership stand by them, but this one would not also cow down under international pressure, as its predecessor.

Through all this, the LTTE forgot to read the two pointers on the wall, written in, bold and clear, all caps: One, ‘Post-9/11, the global mood has changed. The West, starting with the US, has started reading new meanings into the LTTE assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the neighbouring India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.’

Two, they refused to accept that in President Mahinda R, there was a leader “who could finish off the ethnic war – and on his terms’. If nothing else, unlike the Colombo elite, and more like the hardy Ruhuna’s fellow-predecessor slain President Ranasinghe Premadasa, the Rajapaksas could think like Prabhakaran, from the hardy Tamils of the dry North. In Fonseka and his team, the army also had an equally hardy fighters, unlike some of their predecessors over the previous two decades and more.

Worst case scenario

It was obvious that the LTTE leadership had become incapable of evaluating the worst case scenario as any battle-leadership should have and would have done. After taking out Mahattaya, or Gopalasamy Mahendraraja and frightening all other leaders of his generation into chilly silence, Prabhakaran had only boys who addressed him and referred to him as ‘thalaivar’ or ‘leader’ – and rightly so.

In Anton Balasingham, the LTTE’s ideologue, he had the only one left in the top layer who would address him as ‘thambi’, or ‘younger brother’. But somewhere after the turn of the century or afterwards, even that changed. Bala ‘annai’, or the ‘elder brother’, too, began addressing Prabhakaran as ‘thalaivar’. His sane voice too got silenced within the LTTE long before his death in London, December 2006.

Either Balasingham had over-estimated his reach or Prabhakaran’s grasping power of global events, or both, that he took negotiated decisions for the LTTE, for which he was put on the cold store. With his exit in December 2006, just as ‘Eelam War IV” was taking shape, the LTTE was left only with the war option, and they fought to their own finish.

Two pointers where the LTTE military strategy went wrong at the commencement of ‘Eelam War IV’. One, when they started off the ‘Maavilaaru seizure’ and gave it up without a battle, it exposed their thoughtlessness and unpreparedness to the armed forces that needed to evaluate the post-CFA preparedness and intelligence of the LTTE leadership.

Then, when an LTTE suicide-bomber targeted army chief Fonseka, so very daringly on the army headquarters campus, and the air-strike targeted the tri-ethnic East, and not the northern headquarters of the LTTE, the State strategy was amply clear. That the military was fighting the war to finish it, starting with the lesser of the LTTE’s strongholds before moving on to the stronger North – as it happened!

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)


  1. Whilst Prabhakaran is enjoying his time in heaven, the abandoned, misguided cadres and asylum bogus seekers who in foreign countries are licking their wounds now !

  2. The author did not tell the main allies of LTTE. All the EELAM terrorists robbed the Tamils and sold them in Tamil Nadu. The LTTE had allies in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. Catholic Church is the main ally of LTTE in Jaffna. Many Catholic/Christian Tamil people like Vai.Gopalasamy, and Simon Nadar AKA Seeman were allied with LTTE for profit sharing. LTTE always had a “soft” corner in the UNP ranks. LTTE killed all the seniors above Ranil and paved the way to Ranil to the top of UNP. When Ranil became PM under Chandrika, he supplied everything the LTTE needed. Catholic Church is always the “middle man” for LTTE and UNP. Will the author of this article tell about these allies of LTTE?

  3. How did the 10% Tamils of Jaffna believe, they can defeat 70% of Sinhala population? Catholic/Christian churches gave a rope of “foreign” power will come to help the Tamils. Tamils always bark that they are better educated but failed to understand the “war”. They trusted “fulltime” smugglers as their saviors. Smugglers and Catholic/Christian church made money and vanished. The losers are Tamils now.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here