Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    South Asia
     Jul 3, 2010

Inquest of a defeat
The Tiger Vanquished by M R Narayan Swamy

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

The unexpected destruction in May 2009 of one of the world's most fearsome guerrilla movements, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has altered Sri Lanka's fate completely. Explanations for this separatist rebel group's momentous demise have thus far remained limited to bits-and-pieces opinion articles and half-baked books.

The field was wide open for the world's most renowned authority on Sri Lankan Tamil militancy, senior Indian journalist M R Narayan Swamy, to plug the gaps in understanding the fall of an organization whose birth and maturity he chronicled in two earlier bestselling books, Tigers of Lanka (1994) and Inside an Elusive Mind (2003).

The Tiger Vanquished comes as a fitting finale of a trilogy that can be rated as the finest collective reference guide to the devastating three-decade-long war in Sri Lanka's north and east.

This concluding volume contains a long introduction and contextualized articles Swamy wrote from 2003, when the LTTE shunned the international peace process, to 2009, when its supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran, perished with his organizational top brass in a savage Sri Lankan military assault. The thread running through the book is an examination of the immediate and ultimate causes for the once invulnerable LTTE's destruction.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa, a one-time human-rights activist and Sinhalese Buddhist hardliner, became Sri Lanka's head of state in 2005, Prabhakaran was "arrogantly confident of success" (p xviii) in his lifelong ambition of carving out an independent homeland for the island's Tamils. He picked Sarath Fonseka, the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) chief, as the latest target of his elite corps of suicide bombers, the Black Tigers. Prabhakaran's strategic goal was to derail the state's war machine that was taking shape amidst a crumbling ceasefire.

The sensational attempt failed and Fonseka miraculously survived. This and other provocative tit-for-tat actions by the LTTE and the SLA in the eastern province formally triggered the fourth phase of the protracted Eelam war.

Swamy argues that the LTTE's unsuccessful bid to assassinate the younger brother of President Rajapaksa in December 2006 was "the most decisive turning point in the war" (p xxi), as it steeled the resolve of Sri Lankan state elites to pursue nothing short of total annihilation of the painful thorn in their flesh. Rajapaksa went for Prabhakaran's jugular while the latter calculated that the regime would capitulate to his audacious strikes.

By early 2009, after suffering severe setbacks at the hands of the SLA and getting cornered in the forested northern district of Mullaitheevu, Prabhakaran hoped for Indian and Western intervention for an 11th hour ceasefire. It was to no avail, and he was killed in battle in May "in the same callous and brutal manner he had so often used to send so many thousands to their death". (p xxiv)

Swamy elaborates through fresh revelations that the Congress Party-led coalition government in India played a crucial role in the LTTE's rout. The preceding regime in New Delhi under the Bharatiya Janata Party had covertly orchestrated the Norway-sponsored ceasefire agreement between Colombo and the LTTE in 2002. But the Indian establishment under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, a woman widowed by Prabhakaran, progressively tilted towards the Sri Lankan government in the war's endgame.

India's Intelligence Bureau (IB) cracked down hard on LTTE's networks in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and kept a gimlet eye on developments in Sri Lanka during the final years of the war. Swamy divulges that the IB was the first to uncover the truth about a mysterious accident off Sri Lanka's coast in 2007, when Soosai, the LTTE's naval chief, barely escaped death.

The chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi, widely regarded as an LTTE backer, actually did nothing to prevent the Tigers from breathing their last breath. While serving Karunanidhi's government, the Tamil Nadu police's "Q Branch" crippled LTTE insurgents on Indian soil with seizures and arrests. Indian interdictions were critical at the finish because "the Tigers' dependence on Tamil Nadu had soared parallel to their mounting difficulties in Western countries". (p 87)

Swamy does not dispute rumors that India harbored the leader of the breakaway faction of the LTTE, Karuna Amman, who weakened Prabhakaran's de facto state like none other. Recalling LTTE propagandists' accusations in 2004 that India covertly aided the renegade Karuna, the author mentions that this former bodyguard turned bete noire of Prabhakaran "quietly spent time in India when Sri Lanka became too dangerous for him". (p xlii).

Swamy spotted the irony as early as 2007 that Rajapaksa was not returning India's favors by implementing verbal assurances of a power devolution package for Sri Lanka's minority Tamils. Now that the war is over, New Delhi finds itself with even less leverage to ensure that Colombo grants political autonomy to the discriminated people of the north and east.

Swamy could have raised a number of moot questions in this regard: What did India gain geostrategically from propelling the LTTE's defeat? Is Sri Lanka any less susceptible to China's influence because India was instrumental in wiping out the LTTE? Is Rajapaksa's illiberal reign a sign of progress or regression? Will India benefit from an imposed victor's peace on Tamils in Sri Lanka?

In one reproduced column from 2008, Swamy writes matter-of-factly that "everyone agrees India matters the most in Sri Lanka". (p 133) A good year after the war, with Indian military and diplomatic aid no longer absolutely imperative for Sri Lanka, serious doubts arose about such convictions. A line of inquiry that Swamy ignores, but one which is nonetheless tangential to the LTTE's fall, is whether India allowed itself to be taken for a ride by the deceptive and ethnic chauvinist Sri Lankan government?

A cardinal error Prabhakaran committed after Karuna's desertion was to wage a virtual war on Tamil civilians to enforce loyalty and extract the last ounces out of a war-weary populace. Horrific conscription and re-conscription drives, mass intimidation and the use of civilians as human shields robbed the LTTE of its oxygen - public sympathy.

When the end came, few beleaguered Tamils in the battle zones willingly cooperated with their so-called "liberators". Alienation and "silent anger in the Tamil community" (p lxi) orphaned the rebels who once rode on relatively high social legitimacy. Swamy does not downplay the horrific abuses committed by Sri Lankan security forces as the war culminated, but the LTTE's impunity was strategically costlier.

The secretive and paranoid Prabhakaran's decision in 2003 to replace the legendary Scarlet Pimpernel, Kumaran Pathmanathan (aka "KP"), as international arms procurement chief with another confidante, V Manivannan, alias "Castro", was one of the most consequential blunders that contributed to the LTTE's undoing. Swamy narrates how Prabhakaran resurrected KP when the war was almost lost and no late miracle could save a "sinking ship called the LTTE". (p l)

The author lists Prabhakaran's hubris, "false sense of superiority" (p lvii) and misreading of India and the West after September 11, 2001, as other fatal mistakes that brought down his empire in a gory climax. Had the Tiger boss correctly read New Delhi's preference for democracy, pluralism and human rights in the north and east, and liberalized his totalitarian rule, his dream of achieving freedom for Sri Lankan Tamils may not have been comprehensively extinguished.

Swamy observes, contrary to received wisdom, that Prabhakaran "often acted irrationally" and "at times took decisions that made no sense". (p 44) When the ceasefire of 2002 offered a golden opportunity to seal a permanent settlement with the LTTE in the driver's seat, Prabhakaran "slipped on the political art of compromise and accommodation badly". (p 181) His decree to Tamil voters to boycott the November 2005 presidential elections spiked the prospects of the liberal Sinhalese candidate Ranil Wickremasinghe and ironically paved the path to victory for Rajapaksa, who went on to be Prabhakaran's nemesis.

Swamy reasserts the view that Prabhakaran's biggest indiscretion was ordering the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Tiger commander-in-chief also erred in military tactics by not scattering LTTE's forces and senior echelons once the SLA embarked on a no-holds-barred offensive in late 2008. The famed guerrilla forgot the fundamentals of unconventional war when the curtains were closing.

The author lays part of the blame for LTTE's collapse on its diehard donors and acolytes among the Tamil diaspora residing in the West. These non-resident Sri Lankan Tamils failed to articulate in favor of a negotiated end to the conflict when the timing was apt. Their "illusions" (p lxxiii) and "persistent aggression" (p 185) wasted the lives of tens of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians facing bullets and fear in the north and east.

Swamy cites a disillusioned young female escapee from LTTE's ranks lamenting in retrospect that, "after so much destruction, the Tamils are nowhere". (p lxxvii) He quotes a former Prabhakaran associate in despair that Sri Lankan Tamils are "today not in zero but in minus". (p 151)

Prabhakaran's penchant for "unlimited violence" and "supreme destruction" (p 174) come in for consistent criticism throughout Swamy's book, reconfirming that the militant mode of emancipation is often a folly of epic proportions. Via a wealth of previously unknown empirical details, The Tiger Vanquished sends a profound message that choice of means is the most meaningful factor in political struggles.

The Tiger Vanquished. LTTE's Story by M R Narayan Swamy. SAGE Publications, New Delhi, 2010. ISBN: 978-81-321-0459-9. Price: US$8, 276 pages.

Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world politics at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


UN panel rankles Sri Lanka
(Jun 25, '10)


1. Obama risks all on flip of a COIN

2. The anatomy of an attack on Iran

3. BP in the Gulf - the Persian Gulf

4. Singapore wins, for now

5. Gates open on departure

6. Stamp of idiocy

7. Propaganda, stir-fried and roasted

8. Europe's not the problem

9. Smoke gets in Aquino's eyes

10. Explosive mood in Pakistan

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jun 30, 2010)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110