Gerald Peiris, Courtesy of Island, 10 August 2010
The contents of the report based on an interview with Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP), published in The Island of 29-31 July 2010, give reason to ponder over the issue of whether the report was meant to authenticate a ‘Pauline’ (or ‘Angulimaline’?) conversion or expose yet another ‘Tiger Trap’. What Minister Rambukwella announced at his press briefing on the same day the first installment of the report was published seems to indicate that, in official circles, there prevails at least a pretense at cautious acceptance of the ‘conversion theory’. Yet the possibility of the report being intended to show that KP has not lost his touch in evasion and guile that made him one of the most successful underworld operators of our time cannot be ruled out, mainly for the reason that the veteran journalist who authored the report is unlikely to have missed the point that only a very few of his questions had received from KP direct and precise replies. In fact, only a few of KP’s responses are free of digression and bluff. True, he has been quite forthright in furnishing information on his NGO and its bank account; the diminution of his fund-raising responsibilities since 2003, and on the strained relations between him and ‘Castro’ (alias, Manivannan) the pretender to the Tiger throne. Among the other interesting trivia extractable from KP’s rambling answers are that he has visited some IDP settlements in the north (Is KP still in custody?); that he found the government’s rehabilitation and resettlement efforts better than he expected (What actually did he expect to see?); that his NGO has already donated Rs. 500,000 for the supply of buns to A-L students of a school at Vavuniya (Welcome change that, buns instead of guns); and that ‘9-11’ attack on the United States represented the turning point in the Eelam War IV (Our understanding is that the fourth phase of the Eelam War began at least five years after ‘9-11’).
The idea that KP has renounced his earlier commitments to the campaign of secessionist violence and is now concerned entirely with mobilizing the support of the Tamil Diaspora for reconstructing of the shattered lives of the war-ravaged people of the ‘north-east’ – which, of course, is the gist of what he has tried to convey – is not quite acceptable, especially for those of us who believe that past transgressions could be forgiven but should never be forgotten. The general impression which his answers were probably intended to create is that he, guided as he was by a conviction on the need to liberate the Sri Lankan Tamils (note that there is not a word of regret from him about the enormous suffering inflicted by the LTTE even on that community), was engaged in the seemingly innocuous function of fund-raising from willing donors in the expatriate Tamil communities, and channelling the proceeds to purchase and deliver arms for that liberation struggle. Only naivety or amnesia could make such an impression seem plausible.
Perhaps the most basic fact concerning KP – one which must not be lost from our collective memory – is the unique contribution he made to the emergence of the LTTE into the ranks of the most powerful terrorist outfits the world has ever seen. What it entailed was not so much the mobilization of donations towards what the donors perceived as a worthy cause, but the building up of a highly streamlined and regimented transnational management network designed to raise ‘dirty money’ – proceeds of extortion, smuggling, gun-running, trade in narcotics and many other forms of racketeering – and accumulate that money in several hundreds of bank accounts so as to facilitate its utilization to procure weaponry from clandestine markets, strengthen campaigns of disinformation, organize assassinations, bribe those in positions of influence and power, and perpetrate misery on ordinary people. Interestingly, his present appeal for donations from the Tamil diaspora to his newly established NGO at the per capita rate of a dollar per day (roughly, US$ 150 per month from each family) is identical to the decree imposed upon some of the Sri Lankan Tamil communities in Toronto by the infamous VVT Gang and the Kannan Gang in the heyday of the Tigers. The rates varied from one venue to another.
When asked about his “role during July 1987-March 1990″ (i.e. the IPKF period), KP’s brief and casual response was: ” I was away moving in and out of various countries including Thailand, Cyprus and Malaysia”. True, but not the whole truth. Many other sources have furnished much more information on what he did from about the late 1980s which, in fact, was the time be began to establish himself at the apex of an arms procurement organization which soon extended over far-flung markets such as those in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and Ukraine in Europe; Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Iraq in the Middle East; several African countries such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa; North Korea and Hong Kong in East Asia; and, more important than all else, the arms markets in Southeast Asia – notably, those in certain rebel-held areas of the Southeast Asian interior. That he was among the Tiger activists whose arrest was pursued by the Indian law enforcement agencies for alleged links with the squad that assassinated Rajiv Gandhi points to the likelihood that even by the early 1990s he had acquired considerable stature among the international operatives of the LTTE. The peak of his criminal career was probably reached at the end of that decade when Lawrence Thilagar, the Paris-based international spokesman for the LTTE, began to slide into oblivion. Then, with the onset of the ceasefire at the end of 2001, which made it possible for the Vanni-based Tiger leadership to establish direct links with the fund-raising and arms procurement operatives in the different sources of supply that had been established largely through KP’s efforts, he himself declined in importance, having been stripped of earlier administrative and financial authority. That there could have been a re-elevation of KP’s status in the Tiger hierarchy following the death of Balasingham and Thamilchelvan is indicated by a report in the Syndicate Tamilnet dated 30 January 2009 according to which KP has been appointed the Head of its newly established Department of International Relations. The report, quoting an edict issued by Prabhakaran, added that “Mr. Pathmanathan will be representing the movement in any future peace initiative and will be the primary point of contact for engaging with the international community”.
KP’s achievements, especially those of the 1990s, leave little room to doubt that he is an extraordinarily talented person who had the skills required to meet the exacting demands of hazardous illegal transactions. Being in the Interpol list of ‘most wanted’ persons, he had to evade arrest through disguise, impersonation and other forms of fraud. In arms procurement, he and his operatives were often required not only to pay black-market prices, but also to maintain a protective cover of bribery and muscle-power as safeguards against official detection of the goods in transit. The enormous arsenal which the LTTE had at its disposal – parts of it still being unearthed in various parts of the Vanni – despite the 11 shipments lost during the penultimate phase of the Eelam War, bears testimony to the skill and acumen they had for successful manipulation in the ruthless underworld of criminals and gangsters in alien societies, despite the handicaps of language barriers – KP himself, though not of the cosmopolitan Tamil elite, is said to be fluent in English, French, German, Tamil and Sinhalese – skin colour, and the absence of shared ideological interests. So, what past records seem to indicate is that KP is unlikely to be the simpleton to be arrested in a bustling city centre of a highly security-conscious country by a small team of our sleuths in James Bond style and brought tamely to Sri Lanka to receive an unexpected cordial welcome by the authorities here.
What seems far more plausible is that KP was brought across here with the passive collaboration of the Malaysian authorities (official denials at that end was bluff), that KP came because he wanted to, and he wanted to because that was the only option available to him to reap at least some of the benefits of the hazardous life he had led serving the Eelam cause.
Let’s recapitulate the snippets of published news on KP to which we have had access since Prabhakaran’s demise. On 18 May 2009, the ‘istream’ (an Indian news service) in one of its online news broadcasts referred to an interview it has had with KP in which he had confirmed Prabhakaran’s death, and asserted that the surviving Tiger cadres (whose number he placed at between 1,500-2,000) have accepted him as their leader. On July 23, 2009, in the course of an interview with Channel 4, he made the identical claims and pledged: “We have a fighting force. We can continue our armed struggle”. However, as explained to us by D. B. S. Jeyaraj in a report published on 25 July 2009, KP,s leadership had not found unanimous acceptance. ‘Castro’ was evidently the most prominent among KP’s rivals. There were several other leaders in the West who expressed misgivings on the wisdom of anointing KP the successor to the late Prabhakaran. It was in the context of widening fissures among the remnants of the Tiger elite that KP’s so-called arrest/abduction took place in early August 2009. KP did have the key but, being hunted by the Interpol and the security agencies of at least 30 countries, not the access to the Tiger treasure trove represented by many dormant bank accounts – most of it officially frozen.
This is why I am inclined to conclude, admittedly on the basis of speculation, that KP, still no more than 55 years old, decided that the best prospects for the remaining part of his life would lie in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the government of Sri Lanka and, through that device, place himself in high profile among political activists in the ‘north-east’. It is only then that he, in collaboration with the government, could gain control over at least a part of the LTTE assets. He risked virtually nothing by agreeing to hibernate as a VIP prisoner in Colombo for some time. He was also aware that only a few (if any) foreign governments could refuse to defreeze the LTTE funds, if the government here authenticates the claim that the funds would be used exclusively for rehabilitation and reconstruction of the war-ravaged ‘north-east’.
Several questions posed in the course of The Island interview with KP focus on the issue of whether the Tamil diaspora will respond positively to his appeal for funds. Instead of answering that question what he has repeatedly said is that the diaspora should understand the “ground situation” (one of his favourite phrases) and should contribute to his humanitarian cause. There could be no doubt about the presence of many among the Sri Lanka Tamils living abroad who would willingly participate in humanitarian activities. There is also no dearth among them of passionate commitment to the interests of Sri Lanka. But what appears unrealistic is the expectation that they, ravaged as they had remained for more than two decades by Tiger cadres, could be persuaded to donate funds to yet another bank account operated by KP. There are, of course, the big time financiers and affluent professionals who supported the Eelam campaign of war and terror. But even among them, how many would support the conversion of swords into plough-shares, except on the basis of a belief that KP has the capacity to re-convert plough-shares into swords at an appropriate stage in the future? Thus, the probable explanation for KP’s new bank account is that it will attract, not so much the donations from a generous diaspora impelled by humanitarian considerations, but transfers from his other bank accounts.
If this speculation has substance, it raises two issues of utmost significance. As noted above, the financial assets over which KP had control is ‘dirty money’. A transfer of such assets to a bank account here with the sanction of the government, regardless of the claimed purpose for which the assets would be utilised, is a process of money laundering. Would it be proper for the government to participate in the commission of such a crime, the sophistry about confiscation of all LTTE assets, notwithstanding? Secondly, there is the dire need for rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts in the ‘north-east’ (as in other parts of the country) to be conducted under the control of the government. This does not mean that all non-government participation in development and welfare should be banned. But what should remain axiomatic is that, given our disastrous post-Tsunami experiences, the flow of foreign funds to Sri Lanka for any purpose and the utilization of such funds should remain under the exclusive control of the government. The claimed donation of Rs. 500,000 for giving buns to the AL students of Sunderalingam Mahavidyalayam at Vavuniya (how many buns, how many students, over how many days?) is perhaps reminiscent of certain types of ‘rescue and relief’ that became rampant in the aftermath of the Tsunami. There were also the other more deadly “philanthropic” activities in that free-for-all.