Secessionist War and Terrorism in Sri Lanka: Transnatonal Impulses

Gerald H Peiris, being an article presented at an international conference held in New Delhi in October 2001 under the sponsorship of the Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management. It has since then been published as a chapter in The Global Threat of Terror: Ideological, Material and Political Linkages, eds. K P S Gill & Ajai Sahni of the same institute….. with highlighting in black being the work of Peiris and that in red the hand of The Editor, Thuppahi

LTTE leaders at Sirumalai camp, Tamil Nadu, India in 1984 while theywere being trained by RAW (from L to R, weapon carrying is included within brackets) – Lingam; Prabhakaran’s bodyguard (Hungarian AK), Batticaloa commander Aruna (Beretta Model 38 SMG), LTTE founder-leader Prabhakaran (pistol), Trincomalee commander Pulendran (AK-47), Mannar commander Victor (M203) and Chief of Intelligence Pottu Amman (M 16).

The LTTE carried out its first major attack[44] on 23 July 1983, when they ambushed Sri Lanka Army patrol Four Four Bravo at Thirunelveli,

Introduction: The campaign led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for the creation of a Tamil nation state consisting of the northern, northwestern and eastern parts of the island of Sri Lanka is financed in various ways which include donations from individual benefactors, private organisations, and, on a few occasions, foreign governments; extortion from its captive/pliant Tamil communities in Sri Lanka and abroad; smuggling of narcotics and weapons; trafficking in refugees; and forging currency, credit cards and travel documents.

Some of the related operations are conducted under the sponsorship and control of the so-called ‘Central Governing Committee’ of the LTTE headed by Velupillai Prabhakaran. In other instances, it appears, organised groups affiliated to the ‘International Secretariat of the LTTE’, and consisting largely of Sri Lankan Tamils living abroad, engage in these activities and channel some of their profits to the LTTE.[i]  Over time, the income from these sources has apparently been invested in legitimate enterprises of trade, commerce and industry in many parts of the world.  In a reference to such enterprises, a recent report prepared for the United States government contains the speculation that the LTTE now controls a transnational business empire in which its campaign of separatism could well be only one of the components. It has also been asserted that illegal sources of income are no longer essential to sustain the LTTE secessionist effort.  Regardless of the validity of these latter contentions, there is no doubt that while the military operations, attacks on civilian targets, assassinations, publicity, propaganda, and various forms of subversion undertaken by the LTTE are being sustained with proceeds from a massive and highly ramified matrix of commercial operations, such operations, in turn, derive strength, cohesion and, in the perceptions of the sympathisers of its cause, legitimacy, from its secessionist campaign.

This article is the product of an effort to synthesise sets of information extracted from diverse sources on the international transactions of the LTTE that have a destabilising impact on governance in Sri Lanka.  The focus of the article is on clandestine operations, the most important among which is the involvement of the LTTE in the global trade in narcotic drugs.  The scope of the article extends into other transactions of the LTTE such as smuggling of arms for use in its own war effort and for supply to several insurgent groups of the Indian subcontinent.  It also draws from a thin scatter of evidence on illegal financial manipulations such as money laundering which are known to be associated with trade in contraband.

LTTE Fundraising in the West

Donations and Extortion

That it is almost impossible to make an accurate estimate of the diverse, highly ramified, and partly secretive fundraising activities of the LTTE and its front organizations is obvious enough.  Yet, most observers appear to favour the notion that, if legally permitted commercial enterprises (on which there is hardly any quantitative information) are excluded from the reckoning, donations and extortion probably constitute the most persistent, though perhaps not the largest, among the sources of finance for the LTTE, and that, after the eviction of the LTTE from the Jaffna peninsula in 1995/6, the bulk of the income so derived has originated in expatriate Sri Lanka Tamil communities in western countries.[ii]  It appears from various reports that there have been wide temporal variations in the inflow of these donations. For instance, individual benefactors (among whom are certain genuinely affluent professionals and businessmen living in the United States – some identified by name in published writings and personal communications) make large congratulatory donations in response to the occasional patriotic stimuli of “battle-field” victories of the LTTE. On the other hand, periodic waves of international revulsion against major acts of terror, or civil disruptions that result from gangland clashes involving expatriate Tamil communities, are observed to have the opposite effect of curtailing donations.

According to a recent estimate which takes into account these fluctuating fortunes, the total amount of “refugee funding” of the LTTE world-wide has averaged about US$ 2 million a month since December 1995 (when the Tigers lost control of Jaffna).  Soon after this so-called “fall of Jaffna”, the LTTE, evidently in order to ensure a regular minimum inflow into its coffers, made an appeal (backed up, where necessary, by compulsions) to the Tamils living in Europe, USA, Canada and Australia for commitments to regular monthly donations on a per family or per capita basis.  An estimate by the Sri Lanka embassy in Ottawa at this time, place the monthly contribution of the Tamils living in Canada was equivalent to about US$ 730,000.[iii]  The average monthly collections from other countries (whether entirely from donations is not made clear), as estimated by Davis in 1996, work out, in US$ equivalents, to 650,000 from Switzerland (this probably includes transfers from other countries), 385,000 from the United Kingdom and 200,000 from Germany.  Another estimate, made in 1997, placed the “LTTE collection from the Tamil diaspora world-widely at £ 1.25 million per month.”[iv]

Since it is not uncommon for varying degrees of coercion including the use of muscle power and death threats to be employed in the procedures of collecting donations, there is, in practice, only a hazy distinction between donation and extortion.  Over the past 20 years there have been many reports of extortion by the LTTE within Sri Lanka where most of the victims are from the Tamil and Muslim communities. The same procedures of fundraising appear to be operated at a more organized plane among the Tamils communities in the high-income countries.  Extortion is both direct as well as indirect.  For instance, direct lump-sum payment demands from business concerns and from recipients of regular salaries are known to pursue methods identical to those of gangland protection rackets elsewhere in the world.[v]  Indirect extortion appears to be more extensive and more varied.  Among these, there are ‘exit visa’ payment demands, levies in lieu of military service to the LTTE, charges for the monopolistic transport services across the Vanni area provided by the LTTE (at the time it controlled Jaffna), and fines for the violation of LTTE laws, all of which have been reported from the LTTE-controlled areas in Sri Lanka; and taxes on income and profits, compulsory membership fees of LTTE front organisations, and ‘pay-as-you-earn’ charges for human cargo handling from those smuggled out of Sri Lanka.

LTTE Entry into the Global Narcotics Trade

The involvement of the LTTE in narcotic transactions is believed to take several forms – (a) the bulk delivery of heroin and cannabis from producing areas in Asia via transit points to destinations in consuming countries, (b) conveying (as travellers) relatively small consignments of heroin (concealed in personal baggage) from suppliers in Asian countries to intermediary contact persons in the Middle East, North Africa, South Africa and western countries (c) the operation of drug distribution networks dealing in consuming regions or countries, and (d) working as couriers between dealers and distributors (i.e. “muleing”).  There does not appear to be any extensive involvement of persons with LTTE associations in drug “peddling” in the retail market.  Nor has there been an indication of LTTE participation in opium growing and refining of heroin.

Contraband trade between India and Sri Lanka has, for long, been a lucrative commercial enterprise, controlled, for the most part, by gangs operating from both sides of Palk Strait.  While Velvettiturai (‘Vvt’ – a township located along the northern coast of Sri Lanka) is considered to have served as the foremost centre of the smugglers from Sri Lanka, on the Indian side, Madras (Chennai), Tuticorin, Pattukotai, Rameshwaram, Tiruchendur, Ramnad, Nagapatnam, Cochin and a host of smaller localities inhabited by fishing communities have figured prominently among the smuggler bases and hideouts.

Up to about the mid-1970s, Indo-Sri Lanka contraband consisted mainly of raw opium (abin), fabrics, light consumer goods, coconut oil, spices, and processed foods.  Thereafter (over several years) certain transformations in Sri Lanka’s wider economic milieu had the effect of expanding the scope of clandestine trade between India and Sri Lanka, generating windfall profits especially to those already in the well-established smuggling cartels. The ready availability in Sri Lanka of light manufactures from Japan and the Newly Industrialised Countries following trade liberalisation in the late 1970s, for instance, increased the range of goods which the smugglers could convey to the protected Indian market.  Again, the increasing demand for heroin in Sri Lanka in the wake of expanding tourism induced the smugglers to establish contact with suppliers as far a-field as Pakistan and metropolitan Mumbai (Bombay), and with delivery destinations as far south as Colombo.  At this time, moreover, it became possible for the smuggler gangs to add to their paraphernalia speedboats and other naval equipment, and thus increase their turnover, resistance to coastal surveillance, and their geographical reach.

In 1970, the Sri Lanka police detected among the commodities smuggled into the country publications espousing an extreme form of pan-Tamilian chauvinism.  This, though brought to the notice of the government by a senior police officer (a Sri Lanka Tamil, it so happened), was ignored.  Then, by the end of the decade, there was evidence of consignments of arms and explosives trickling into the country.  This was also ignored, though, by this time, there were several groups of militants making their presence felt in the Jaffna peninsula.

The Vvt township which could, in many ways, be regarded as the cradle of the LTTE, also remained the main centre of smuggling in the north.  Among its special attractions was its cohesive community, held together by ties of kinship and caste.  There were links between its smugglers, fisher folk, and ordinary tradesmen.  It is said that there has usually been a spirit of mutual tolerance between its law enforcement officers and its criminals.  Persons familiar with the Vvt ethos also recall that there were parts of the town into which outsiders were decidedly not welcome. Its socio-economic milieu portrayed by Hellmann-Rajanayagam (1994)[vi] highlights that:

Velvettiturai has since time immemorial been a fishing centre and a harbour famous for smuggling and the audacity of the Karaiyar fishing caste, and as an area where the Karaiyars were particularly well able to hold their own against the high caste Vellalas.  This gives one some clues to the caste base of the militant groups, and it can be said that the LTTE is not only one of the few militant groups with a mixed-caste Karaiyar dominated rank-and-file base, but also the only one where Karaiyars are the leaders of the movement.

It was in Vvt of the mid-1970s that the pioneers of Sri Lanka Tamil militancy met frequently to organise their cadres, plan their crimes and chart their political course.  Velupillai Prabhakaran, the daredevil “kid brother” (thambi) among the pioneers, already with a few murders and bank robberies to his credit, was a native Karaiyar of Vvt.  So was Selvaduarai Yogachandran (alias Kuttimani) who, as far back as 1973, had been apprehended by the Sri Lanka navy while conveying a boatload of explosives.[vii]  Gopalasamy Mahendrarajah (alias Mahattaya), liquidated by Prabhakaran in 1994 in the course of a power struggle within the LTTE, was also a Karaiyar from Vvt.  Many others like Balakumar, Thangadurai, Sathasivam Krishnakumar (alias Kittu) and ‘KP’ Kumaran Padmanathan (alias Tharmalingam Shanmugam, best known for his highly successful international arms procurement operations), were all of the same caste, and all from Vadamaratchi, the area within which Vvt is located. Quite clearly there was at this stage a confluence of the firepower and the will-o’-the-wisp skills of the Vvt smugglers, and the ruthlessness and fanatical commitment of the militants.  It is also easy to understand in retrospect the haughty defiance shown in later times by the Tiger leaders to other prominent Tamil militants and, indeed, towards the entire Vellala elite.

The advent of the LTTE to drug trafficking on an intercontinental scale following the convulsions of July 1983 was thus an easy step in its progress as a terrorist organisation.  It already possessed the means to obtain heroin from sub-continental sources of supply.  It now acquired the capacity to mobilise large numbers of obedient conveyers and couriers who, as political refugees, were treated with considerable benevolence in western countries.  It had an abundance of paternal goodwill and support of the mainstream political parties of the Sri Lankan Tamils.  It had the reassurance of Indian protection.  What it now needed was the money and the weaponry for a vastly enhanced insurrectionary effort.

Narcotics Operations of the LTTE in the West

Among the different forms of LTTE involvement in drug transactions during the 1980s referred to above, it is mainly in respect of “dealing” and “muleing” that there is concrete information extractable from published sources.[viii]  This information may be synthesised as follows.

According to authoritative Western analysts[ix] it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979), the Islamic revolution in Iran (1979), and the Iran-Iraq war (1980-90) which disrupted the main ‘traditional’ drug routes between the ‘Golden Crescent’ and Europe, and thus made the Pakistan-based drug cartels turn to alternative routes of delivery via South Asia.  The west coast of India along which surveillance was weak is believed to have provided many safe transit points, with the Indian workforce in West Asia providing a reservoir of couriers.  It was evidently in this wider context that the ‘proto-LTTE’ (and smuggler gangs operating in northern Sri Lanka), with the experience they already possessed in contraband operations in South Asia, were drawn into the matrix of transcontinental drug trafficking.

The heyday of LTTE’s association with drug “dealing” (operation of distribution networks) and “muleing” (providing courier services) in western countries was in the aftermath of the anti-Tamil mob violence in Sri Lanka in July 1983 which initiated a massive exodus of Tamil refugees from the country.  While a fairly large proportion of this refugee outflow was formally admitted into Europe and North America as asylum-seekers, there was, concurrently, a large-scale illegal infiltration of Tamil youth from Sri Lanka to the West via the Soviet block and Africa – a process sponsored by several organisations among which the LTTE played a major role.  The LTTE and certain other Tamil militant outfits internationally active at this time were thus able to mobilise the services of a large number of Tamil youth to carry consignments of drugs from Sri Lanka and South India to various destinations, and, in the case of some among them, also serve as couriers after their entry into their intended countries of domicile.  It is said that the performance of such conveyer and courier services was often a repayment for being smuggled out of Sri Lanka.  It seems likely that in the initial stages of this refugee flow, lax surveillance procedures and liberal attitude of the authorities in the host countries towards political refugees facilitated the participation of fairly large numbers of Tamil youth in the drug trade.  To some extent, this has persisted in the Nordic countries.

Table 1

Sri Lankans Arrested in the West on Drug Charges

year number arrested year number arrested
1981 83 1986 218
1982 136 1987 122
1983 236 1988 58
1984 317 1989 61
1985 374 1990 37
Source: IGP, 1991

The first major detection of LTTE-linked drug rings in Europe took place in Italy in September 1984, following the arrest of a Tamil courier on his way to Rome.  Well co-ordinated police search operations resulted in the arrest of about 200 Tamils most of whom were believed to have constituted a Rome-based narcotic distribution network spread over several Italian cities such as Milan, Naples, Acilia, Cetania and Syracuse, and extending into Sicily.  The Italian breakthrough activated the drug enforcement agencies elsewhere, leading to the arrest and incarceration of many Sri Lankans associated with the drug trade, and the confiscation of surprisingly large amounts of high-grade heroin.  The Swiss police, for example, broke up a drug ring – one that was believed to have links with the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) rather than the LTTE – engaged in cross-border heroin transactions in Switzerland and France.  Numerous arrests of Sri Lankan Tamils on drug charges were also reported at this time in Germany, France and the Nordic countries (Table 1).[x]  These law enforcement operations resulted in imprisonment and/or deportation, the personal intervention on behalf of the convicts by the then leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) – assassinated by the LTTE a few years later – with the Italian government notwithstanding.

There has been no published evidence since the late 1980s of large-scale organized involvement of Tamil militant groups in the distribution of narcotics in the European market.  In fact, the general belief among the officialdom appears to be that drug rings associated with the LTTE no longer exist in Europe. Hence, evidently, their exasperation with the Sri Lanka government’s persistence with the charge of drug trafficking against the LTTE.  If the Tiger involvement in the European drug market has, indeed, declined, it could be attributed to several reasons.  For instance, some of the major police offensives staged in Italy, Switzerland and France in the mid-1980s against Tamil drug dealers and couriers are said to have been based on information supplied by rival drug rings, especially those of the Lebanese, Italians and Nigerians who had been in the European drug scene from earlier times, and for whom the competition from the new Asian intruders had become a source of irritation if not a serious threat.  It is also possible that the law enforcement agencies began to exercise greater vigilance over Tamil refugee groups following the initial discovery of links between them and the narcotics trade, and in the context of an increasing global concern on narco-terrorism. Moreover, it is likely that, in the face of an increasingly tarnished political image (a fallout, notably, of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination), on the one hand, and the success of its legitimate enterprises, on the other, the LTTE found it prudent to dissociate itself from the distribution aspects of the drug trade at least in Europe, where, in any event, it had formidable rivals.  In addition, it seems reasonable to speculate that, over the past few years, the LTTE has shifted emphasis from “dealing” and “muleing” in consuming countries to intercontinental bulk transfers of narcotics.  More on this presently.

Sri Lanka Tamils still occasionally figure among those associated with the drug trade in Canada.  A statement released in 1991 by the Sri Lanka High Commission in Canada referred to a report of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMC) according to which a part of the 1 billion dollar drug market of Montreal city is controlled by Sri Lankans who send some of the profits to the LTTE.  Again, a report prepared in 1995 for the Mackenzie Institute of Toronto[xi] estimated (speculatively) that the 134 kg of heroin seized globally by various law enforcement agencies from Tamil drug runners the previous year represented only about 7-10% of the probable total volume of such traffic, and that “… Tamil drug runners could be selling around 1,000 kg of heroin a year”.  The retail market value of such a volume of heroin (at 40% purity) in the West, according to price levels of that time [xii](cited in Rasul Bakhsh Rais, 1999), would have been about US$ 290 million.

Other forms of LTTE Fundraising in the West

There is an abundance of evidence which indicates that the LTTE in being constantly enriched by organizational networks engaged in clandestine operations in some of the major cities of the west, notably those in Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland and Norway. Despite the likelihood that these organizations have tended to move away from the gangland transactions of “dealing” and “muleing” in drugs, the indications are that numerically small groups consisting of Tamil migrants residing in these countries have continued to be engaged in a variety of illegal activities such as smuggling, counterfeiting and forgery, and that at least some of the profits they generate are channelled into the secessionist campaign of the LTTE. The city of Toronto has an expatriate Sri Lankan Tamil community of about 130,000 – the largest of its kind outside Sri Lanka. Being the venue of two close-knit crime syndicates, known respectively as the Kannan Gang and the Vvt Gang, both having connections with the LTTE, Toronto is also probably the most important centre of these Tiger-directed clandestine operations in the western world. According to the Mackenzie Institute report referred to above, “(T)he Mounties implicate these Tamil criminal groups in a staggering variety of activities, including extortion, home invasion, attempted murder, theft, the import and sale of brown heroin, arms trafficking, production and sale of counterfeit passports, migrant smuggling, bank and casino fraud, and money laundering”. Canadian newspapers have given fairly frequent coverage to the growing menace of crime with which the two gangs referred to above have been associated. As recently as 30 September 2001 The Globe and Mail carried two reports on the same day – one of the discovery of a large-scale credit-card fraud master-minded by two Tamils believed to be members of the Vvt Gang, and the other of the slaying of a young courier affiliated to the Kannan Gang by its Vvt rivals. The government response to these, according to certain critics (themselves Canadians), appear to be guided by the electoral implications of the presence of many thousands of (probably well over 40,000) Sri Lanka Tamil voters in the country, rather than by its ostentatious commitment to the principles of liberalism.

The Swiss city of Zurich, where, by the mid-1990s, Sri Lankan Tamil migrants numbered about 23,000, provided yet another major venue for the LTTE to engage in fund-raising by whatever means. Here, as in some of the other countries of western Europe, the initial groundwork for its commercial activities appears to have been laid by the Tamil immigrants from Sri Lanka involved in the drug trade.[xiii] When the diverse enterprises took root, the LTTE operatives entered the scene as coordinators of rackets involving extortion, forgery of travel documents, and the smuggling of people.     It seems, however, that since 1996 when, in response to a “… spate of violent incidents and murders in the Tamil community” there was  “… a nation-wide round up (which) resulted in the arrest of 15 suspects including the LTTE’s senior Swiss representative”, the authorities have been exercising greater vigilance over such activities[xiv].

Several other European countries have also continued to provide the Tigers ample opportunity for similar income-generating crime. Among the widely publicized illustrations of this from the recent past is a racket that had involved several hundreds of Tamil immigrants each of whom had been claiming social security benefits from several sources. The estimated intake, according to Compagnies Republicaines de Securite,  was about 2 million Francs (US$ 560,000).[xv] The Credit Card racket in North London unearthed earlier this year by the Scotland Yard is an even more spectacular example which is estimated to have netted more than £ 5 million over a two-year period (see Text Box 1).

The Mackenzie Institute report referred to earlier[xvi] provides a glimpse of the income-generating capacity of operations involving the mass shipment of people to western countries as asylum seekers. The charge levied per person in one such shipload in 1988 for a journey from Hamburg to Halifax ranged between $ 1,700 to 2,999. That refugee-smuggling has persisted throughout as an important source of revenue for the LTTE is indicated by the numerous press reports on attempts (sometimes unsuccessful) at infiltration of people either overland via eastern Europe or by sea to destinations in both Canada and southern Europe as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Apart from the clandestine activities referred to above, there are the legally permitted commercial operations many of which are believed to generate substantial profits and also provide the means for laundering of money earned in illegal transactions. According to a report prepared by an intelligence analyst in 1996: “In addition to direct donations from individuals and businessmen, LTTE coffers also benefit from investments in small- and medium- sized businesses such as Tamil-run restaurants, supermarkets and video outlets. In many cases these are run on a system of proxy ownership whereby the initial investment is made by the LTTE and profits are subsequently split between the party (sic.) and the business’s ostensible owner”.[xvii]

The addition of South Africa to the list of ‘western’ countries that provide opportunities for clandestine operations of the LTTE is a recent development that has attracted considerable official attention and concern. The initial LTTE links with South Africa appear to have taken the form of smuggling of methaqualone (‘Mandrax’) from its principal source areas in Gujarat and Maharashtra.[xviii] Since then, it has transpired that, with shrewd propaganda which portrayed the secessionist campaign in Sri Lanka as being similar in its objectives to (and inspired by) the anti-apartheid struggle of the African National Congress, the pro-LTTE activists succeeded in generating a measure of sympathy for their cause among the political leadership of South Africa.  Press reports of this time[xix] also claimed: “The 37 million rands in funds, sophisticated armaments and dual technologies and trained combatants transferred from South Africa to the LTTE will mean an increase in the LTTE’s capabilities”.

Asian Connections

At the height of the out-migration of Tamils from Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s, it may be recalled, even a passing reference to a connection between the refugees and the trade in narcotics usually evoked an angry response from those sympathetic to the “liberation struggle” in Sri Lanka.  However, in the face of mounting evidence relating to the arrest and conviction of large numbers of Sri Lanka Tamils on charges of drug transactions in European countries, this show of indignation gave place to a stance of mildly embarrassed silence on the drug issue. One could suggest, however, that the extreme sensitivity of the subject of an LTTE-narcotics link has lingered, with the result that the subject seldom receives even brief mention in scholarly writings on the Sri Lankan crisis.

Moreover, following the disintegration of the Sri Lanka Tamil drug rings in Europe during the late 1980s, there came into being an impression that, although there could be the occasional Tamil refugee among the couriers of the European drug market, the LTTE itself has withdrawn from the drug scene to reorient its focus on legitimate methods of fundraising.  Even well informed western analysts treated the charge of continuing narco-terrorism levelled against the LTTE with scepticism, and demanded from the Sri Lanka government hard evidence as a precondition for such charges to have a serious impact on the policy of their governments towards the LTTE.[xx] A general impression of expert perceptions on this issue in western countries during the mid-1990s could be gained from Davis’s thoroughly researched paper on clandestine operations of the LTTE extracts from which are cited below.

“In the hard-fought propaganda war waged between Colombo and the Tigers, Sri Lanka officials have consistently branded the LTTE as a ‘terrorist organization’ that derives a substantial proportion of its income from drug trafficking.  However, they have been less successful in adducing any real evidence to support the allegation.  Undisputed is the fact that, in the mid-late 1980s, Sri Lanka Tamils – often asylum seekers – did emerge as important movers of Afghan and Pakistani heroin via North Africa and the Middle East to the main Western European distribution centres of Berne, Paris and Rome.  From September 1984 onwards, many involved in the so-called ‘Tamil Connection’ were arrested and imprisoned, notably in Italy; some were revealed to have had contacts with a range of militant organizations, including the LTTE.  Beyond that, there is little doubt that the LTTE is well placed to profit from the heroin trade should it wish to.  The nexus between international arms and narcotics trafficking is well established; the party (sic.) runs a clandestine shipping network, and it may well have contacts with senior elements in the Burmese military themselves known to be close to key players in the Golden Triangle heroin trade.  None of that, however, constitutes hard evidence indicating the LTTE as a player in today’s Asian heroin trade (emphasis added)”.[xxi]

In the shadowy world of drug trafficking, hard evidence is hard to come by. It is not merely the difficulty of detecting drug transactions which, as everyone knows, is difficult enough.  Even where those apprehended by the drug law enforcement authorities are suspected of having links with the LTTE, given the existence of its highly ramified network of front organizations, there could hardly ever be any hard evidence to substantiate the suspicion.[xxii]  Even more elusive would be the evidence to establish that proceeds of such transactions are transferred either direct to the LTTE war chest or to the equally impenetrable clandestine markets of military hardware.

However, there are several sets of information, not all of them of uniform reliability, which point to the likelihood that, while the LTTE ‘dealer-courier’ outfits in Europe were disintegrating in the face of the law enforcement onslaught in the late 1980s, there was a parallel process of expansion and consolidation of the LTTE drug connections in Asia. This was probably accompanied by a shift of the LTTE’s involvement in market-related transactions in consuming areas (especially those of Europe) to activities of supply from the producing areas and conveyance through transit points in Asia.  That the related information does not constitute conclusive and irrefutable proof of large-scale LTTE involvement in drug transactions is, of course, too obvious for specific mention.  As evidence, this information is admittedly disparate and circumstantial.  Yet it is persuasive enough to form the basis of the proposition – one that requires further verification – that the Asian connections of the LTTE entail activities concerned with the bulk haulage of narcotics from the sources of supply in continental South-East Asia.

The first and, perhaps, the most significant step in the entry of the LTTE into the field of bulk haulage of narcotics from their principal source areas and delivery to points of transit in Asia is represented by its purchase in 1984 of a second-hand cargo vessel named ‘Cholan‘ from a Mumbai-based shipping magnate, and the permission it obtained from the Burmese government to establish a modest shipping base in the island of Twante located off the Irrawady delta.  The ‘Cholan‘, though intended mainly for smuggling arms and other military requirements from distant sources to their war zone in Sri Lanka (for which chartered ships had become somewhat risky), was also used for the legitimate haulage of goods.

With the experience in cargo shipping so gained, the LTTE soon increased its fleet to five or six small freighters which were registered under the ownership of several dummy companies having their offices in Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.[xxiii] These, ostensibly, were intended to carry timber (for which the source areas were much the same as that of opium/heroin) and grain from Burma to the main markets of maritime Southeast Asia; and fertilizer, cement and other bulky goods as return cargo to Burma. By the early 1990s, LTTE vessels also had an additional niche at Pukhet in southern Thailand. Despite occasional setbacks, these shipping operations appear to have prospered. Thus, according to a recent investigation conducted for the London-based maritime insurance firm Lloyds, by March 2000, the LTTE fleet had increased to 11 vessels, most of which are said to be well equipped and capable of trans-oceanic long-distance sailing.[xxiv] The investigation also confirmed that these vessels, while being routinely engaged in the transport of legitimate cargo, are also used for the smuggling of drugs, arms and other types of contraband.

The second set of relevant information relates to the Tiger connections with Burma (Myanmar). By the mid-1990s, this country had become the world’s largest source of opium/heroin. Burma, in some ways, remained over several decades an enigma in the community of nations.  In the production and export of opium/heroin, it paid scant regard to world opinion.  According to estimates by Ford [xxv] Burma continued to account for over 90% of the entire Golden Triangle opium production.  The progress achieved by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) notwithstanding, extensive areas of the interior of Burma have remained under the control of powerful ethnic organizations such as the United Wa State Army, the Eastern Shan State Army, and the Kachin Defence Army.[xxvi]  Moreover, while the most powerful among the Burmese drug rings – the Ka Kwe Ye – was, in fact, a creation of the Ne Win regime during its early days, members of the military elite are known to have had continuing contact with other key operators in the opium trade as well.  The general belief is that drug trafficking and money laundering still receive, as they did in the past, at least unofficial support from the government, and have thus continued to figure prominently in the country’s economy.[xxvii]  We could also speculate here that, since some of the tribal armies named above have been fiercely hostile towards the Rangoon regime, it has been in the regime’s interest to bring into the Burmese opium matrix outside groups over which it could exercise some control.

The maritime transactions referred to above are likely to have brought the LTTE operatives into direct contact with bulk suppliers of opium/heroin from the Southeast Asian interior, and bulk dealers of narcotics in the ‘transit’ points located in and along the sea lanes that link Rangoon, Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong.  Some of these cities, it must be remembered, also figure prominently among the major arms markets of the Pacific Rim of Asia. Moreover, the type of freight legitimately carried by the LTTE-owned ships, and the flexibility afforded by their ‘tramp’ system of operation (which involves, inter alia, the capacity for surreptitious contact with numerous creeks and inlets such as those of Ranong, Krabi, Haadyai, Songkhala and Sattahip along the periphery of the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand) are believed to provide ideal cover for large-scale smuggling. According to a report published in Asiaweek [xxviii] there is definite evidence, in the forms of reports of occasional encounters between the smugglers and the Thai law enforcement authorities, on the outward movement of arms and ammunition to the LTTE through these trading posts

  Route/Transit Point 1985 1995
via Thailand 1.2 0.5
via China ? 2.4
via Malaysia 0.2 0.1
via Singapore 0.3 0.1
via Hong Kong 0.4 0.4
via Cambodia & Vietnam ? 0.1
via India 0.7 1.6

Table 2 – Amounts of Heroin Seized along the Golden Triangle Outflows (metric tons) [xxix]

Yet another factor which is believed to have facilitated the involvement of the LTTE (along with a more general transformation in the composition of participants) in the outward movement of narcotics from the Golden Triangle is the decline in the importance of the traditional overland drug routes – mainly those through China, Thailand and Malaysia. The latter has been attributed to the concerted offensive against smuggling of narcotics launched in the early 1990s by the government of China (in Yunnan province alone, over 400 are reported to have been executed in 1994 for drug offences), and in Malaysia and Singapore (where drug offences carry a non-commutable death penalty). According to expert opinion, such deterrent action against drug trafficking, while not having the effect of making these countries totally impervious to the flow of drugs, has nevertheless contributed to a perceptible increase in the preference for haulage of drugs across the Bay of Bengal and through the overland routes of the Indian sub-continent where the law enforcement has remained far less restrictive.  The data presented in Table 2 on the amounts of heroin seized along the different routes radiating from the Golden Triangle provide a very rough impression on the nature and scale of this change.

The increasing importance of trans-Indian routes in the outflow of narcotics from the Golden Triangle [xxx] should be looked at alongside the concurrent growth of links between the LTTE and certain insurgent groups of the sub-continent. On account of the phenomenal success of the LTTE in its campaign of war and terrorism, the vast resources which it came to command, and the experience it acquired in overseas dealings, by the end of the 1980s, it had established contact with many other insurgent groups of South and Southeast Asia.  These connections are believed to extend through the Deccan where there is a scatter of ‘People’s War Groups’, through the ‘Ananda Marg’ localities of West Bengal, into the Indian ‘North-East’ – the venue of several fiercely belligerent secessionist and autonomy movements – and from there, into the politically chaotic Karen, Kachin and Shan tribal homelands of upper Burma, Laos and Cambodia, which encompass much of the ‘Golden Triangle’.

More specific information on these links could be obtained from various Indian publications dealing with militant political movements. Some of these suggest that links which the LTTE had forged over these years with insurgent groups and other communities in the Indo-Burma periphery might have facilitated the consolidation of its emerging drug connections with the Golden Triangle.  For instance, Sanjoy Hazarika’s fascinating probe[xxxi] into the turbulent politics of India’s Northeast has made a passing reference to visits by LTTE agents to Assam in the late 1980s, and to their attempts to establish an LTTE-ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) link.  Special mention is made of a brief visit to Assam in 1990, possibly as a gesture of fraternal solidarity, by the LTTE operative Dinesh Kumar.  Though Hazarika suggests that there was no further progress in the LTTE-ULFA connections, a report furnished by Sharma (1997) to the Indian Express refers to meetings between the operatives of the two groups in Tamil Nadu, and of training in guerrilla warfare imparted by the Tigers to the Assamese in the early 1990s. Again, Debashis Mitra in his ‘Newsletter from Kohima’ for the Delhi newspaper The Statesman[xxxii] dealt mainly with what he saw as an “LTTE-NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland) nexus.”  More specific details have been furnished in the highly acclaimed study of India’s Northeast by B G Verghese, according to which: “… the ‘Operation Rhino’ undertaken by the Indian government in September 1991 against the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) resulted, among other things, in the discovery of documentary evidence of links between the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) of Burma, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).”[xxxiii]  Thuingaleng Muivah, one of the twin leaders of the NSCN, according to Verghese, admitted in a press interview the existence of links between the NSCN and other insurgent groups of Burma and South Asia including the LTTE. (Note that the KIA has been named in several writings as one of the main insurgent groups that control the flow of narcotics from the Golden Triangle). Thus, as The Hindu reported in its issue of 17 May 1998, “(e)vidence has now emerged clearly suggesting an unholy narco-terrorism alliance between drug traffickers and the underground insurgent groups of India and Sri Lanka.  The LTTE and the Indian insurgent groups, especially those operating in the Northeast states, have close connections with the trafficking of drugs in the region.”

From the viewpoint of the present study, certain details furnished by Verghese, almost in incidental fashion (note that his monograph has an exclusive focus on India’s Northeast), are of intriguing interest.  For instance, in his analysis of the political turbulences of Manipur, Verghese says: “The second factor (contributing to the bewildering complexity of the Manipur political scene) relates to a sudden eruption of Kuki-Tamil violence in Moreh (in 1993), the prosperous little border town where smuggling is a thriving industry.”

He states further: “There are some 17,000 Tamils living in and around Moreh, and some across the (Myanmar) border in Tamu.  Some are World War II refugees, others left Burma following nationalisation of trade and business by the Ne Win government in the early 1960s.  They are fluent in Manipuri, Burmese, Nagamese, Hindi, Tamil and English.  They have relatives and business contacts in Myanmar, India and other parts of Southeast Asia, a valuable network that facilitates commerce.  Along with smaller numbers of Punjabis, Marwaris and Nepalese they control the Burma trade, both legitimate and clandestine, the latter being by far the larger.  The rest of Moreh is made up of Meiteis and Kukis.  But the Tamils dominate.[xxxiv]

There is here no concrete evidence of an LTTE presence in Moreh or of commercial connections between its Tamil community and the LTTE.  It is just that both groups are known to engage in smuggling, and narcotics are known to be among the goods they smuggle.  Further, Moreh, as Verghese mentions,[xxxv] has easy access not only to the Golden Triangle, but also to nearby Ukhrul and Senapati within India which, in the recent past, have assumed importance as producers of exceptionally high quality cannabis (ganja) transported out in large quantities.  There has always been a substantial demand for this bulkier narcotic in both India as well as the main population agglomerations of Southeast Asia and beyond.

Verghese’s account makes it seem likely that the Moreh Tamils are of both Indian as well as Sri Lankan in origin.  A specifically Sri Lankan link of at least some among them, however, is suggested by Davis[xxxvi] according to whom there was a fair number of Tamils of Sri Lankan origin engaged in trade in Rangoon (among them, the grandfather of Prabhakaran), who, when expelled from Burma by Ne Win’s military regime, migrated and settled down in Manipur.

Press reports of the past two years furnish further confirmation of the impression that the LTTE has remained active and has probably increased its commercial presence in those parts of the Southeast Asian mainland associated with the opium trade.  The Bangkok Post ran a feature in October 1997 according to which (to cite extracts):

“A diplomatic source involved in a recent study of the Tamil Tigers said the evidence is overwhelming and clear.  ‘The LTTE is directly involved with the Burmese regime in making and distributing heroin,’ said the source”.

“The investigation uncovered direct proof of close collaboration between Burma and the Tamil Tigers.  LTTE forces are allowed to train at military bases in southern Burma.  In return they supply couriers for the worldwide smuggling of heroin.  In recent months, says a confidential report, Tamil drug smugglers with links to the Tamil Tigers have been arrested in Sri Lanka, India, Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, the United States and Canada”.

“Last November, Indian authorities seized $71 million (2.7 billion baht) worth of drugs when they broke up a trafficking ring in southern Tamil Nadu state, home of most of India’s Tamil minority.  Tamil Tiger militants and sympathizers both find sanctuary in the Indian state despite government efforts to root them out”.

“The Tamil drug smuggling network has become an integral part of Burmese drug trafficking around the world,’ said a Bangkok-based anti-narcotics officer.  ‘The Tigers are not just profiting from drugs, they have made narcotics their chief battle — more important than the war in Sri Lanka” (emphasis added).

The US Drug Enforcement Administration Report of 1997 on Sri Lanka provides a list of recent detections of large consignments of smuggled heroin with which Sri Lanka has been associated.  The list contains a reference to a seizure by the Phnom Penh police of seven metric tons of marijuana (cannabis) destined to be shipped through Colombo.  This, on the one hand, confirms the Sri Lanka-Cambodia drug link and, on the other, raises the interesting question of whether the LTTE, with its capacity of conveying bulky cargo, handles (in addition to heroin) cannabis, for which there is said to be a large demand not only in Malaysia and Singapore, but also in Australia.  Our earlier reference to the possible Tiger presence in Moreh, which evidently has easy access to prime cannabis-producing localities in Manipur, is of some relevance here.

A report which appeared in The Hindu (17 May 1998) contains certain details which could well represent new trends (or hitherto obscure facts) concerning the Asian drug trade.  It states, for instance:

“In recent times a steady rise in the smuggling of narcotics through Tuticorin, Tiruchendur, Ramnad and Chennai (Madras) has been reported.  Of late, there has been a spurt in the smuggling of methaqualone in large quantities to Sri Lanka.  These are generally shipped from Gujarat.  Sri Lanka is also emerging as an important transit point for smuggling narcotics in container cargo to the Far East and the Western countries.  There are indications that the smugglers have joined hands with the Sri Lankan militants and trade in arms and explosives.  Reports with the Narcotics Control Bureau have indicated that South Africa has emerged as a major market for consumption of methaqualone, popularly known as ‘Mandrax’ tablets.

On 10 February 1997 the Indian Express ran a story according to which the Sri Lanka police had seized 375kg of heroin smuggled from South India to a locality off Negombo for eventual shipment to Europe.  The smugglers were suspected to have links with the LTTE.

A report by Dhar[xxxvii] on the seizure by the Thai navy of an illegal shipment of arms belonging to the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur, provided further confirmation of the existence of close connections between Naga, Manipur, Assam and Sri Lanka Tamil rebel groups.  The report also refers to rebel gunrunning through Bangladeshi ports.

According to a report carried in The Hindu of 25 June 1998, Tamil Nadu continues to serve as a transit area for heroin.  Drugs are sometimes sent through Tamil Nadu to Colombo to be forwarded to other destinations.  About 25kg of heroin have been seized by the NCB South Zone units from June 1996 to May 1997, and 30 persons, including seven Sri Lankan nationals, were arrested during this period.  The 31 August 1998 issue of The Hindu reported that a Sri Lankan national who had booked his flights under the name of Raji was arrested at Madurai airport carrying an unusually large consignment of heroin 27kg valued at Rs 27 crores (270 million).  He had travelled from Colombo to Mumbai on 27 August, and then to Ahamedabad, and was on his return journey through Mumbai and Madurai.  This report points to the continuing importance of narcotics from the Golden Crescent for the smugglers from Sri Lanka.

All these sets of information do not necessarily indicate that the LTTE (or one of its front organisations, or a gang masquerading as an agent of the LTTE) is as yet a major player in the outward movement of narcotics from the principal producing areas of Asia. It is, indeed, probable that such a Sri Lanka Tamil group has always been outranked by those of several other tribes and nationalities, especially those with Mongoloid associations.  But what the information does suggest is that the LTTE is likely to figure among those who are involved in it and share in its proceeds. Burmese segments of the Golden Triangle alone had, in 1996/97, an estimated 163,100 hectares under Papaver somniferum, which was believed to have the potential of producing up to 2,560mt of raw opium, or, when refined, the equivalent of almost 500mt of high quality heroin, valued wholesale in Western markets at a staggering $2.5 billion.[xxxviii]  It should thus be clear that even a microscopic share of the related transactions would represent really big money.

There are two other considerations of salience to an assessment of the importance of the LTTE’s involvement in the bulk haulage of narcotics from Asian sources. These, though already referred to, deserve to be highlighted. One is that, among the various syndicates that are believed to be engaged in this component of the global narcotics trade in continental Southeast Asia, the LTTE is one of the very few that has its own fleet of ships. The other is that the LTTE also stands out as an organization that has both the capacity as well as the need to launder the drug money, and/or to channel the earnings from the trade in narcotics to large-scale transactions in the widely dispersed clandestine markets of arms and ammunitions.

Procurement of Weapons

In propaganda publications of the LTTE and its sympathizers one comes across the assertion that the Eelam war is being waged largely with arms, ammunition and other military hardware captured by its cadres in the course of inflicting defeats on the armed forces of the government of Sri Lanka. It is, of course, well known that on several occasions the LTTE did achieve spectacular battlefield victories, and that some of these culminated in hauls of weapons and equipment including a few items of undamaged heavy artillery. There has also been an episode of the LTTE being enriched with weaponry from Sri Lanka government sources when, as part and parcel of “military/geopolitical strategy”, the government did supply a consignment of firearms to the LTTE with the objective of enhancing its capacity for guerrilla attacks on the Indian Peace-Keeping Force, and thus hastening the withdrawal of the Indian army units from Sri Lanka.[xxxix] While it would be unrealistic to perceive these losses and blunders as inconsequential from the viewpoint of their impact upon the course the LTTE insurrection, it would certainly be absurd to accept the claim that weaponry from Sri Lankan sources – grabbed or gifted – has constituted anything but a minute fraction of the LTTE arsenal except perhaps over brief spells at the onset of the conflict.

There could be no doubt whatever that, from the early stages of direct military confrontations between the Sri Lanka government forces and the LTTE, the latter has had a supply of weaponry from sources outside Sri Lanka. The weight of evidence also points to the fact that such foreign supplies, barring a few “donations”, and one much publicized episode of plunder, have been derived in the form of purchases by the LTTE from several clandestine arms markets, at least some of which operate with a measure of official collaboration (or tolerance) in the countries where they are located.

The “donations” were received mainly from India. There is hardly ever disputed that, from 1983 to 1987, direct support from India in the form of money, weapons and training, and indirect support in the forms of diplomatic pressures exerted on Colombo were major ingredients in the early successes achieved by the Tigers. However, even at that stage, the LTTE and even some of the other militant groups in Sri Lanka were attempting to establish independent sources of arms supplies.  Contemporary reports indicate that it was the LTTE, already enjoying a substantial inflow of funds (drug transactions and donations from the Tamil diaspora) and an emerging network of international contact that achieved success in these attempts.[xl]  By the late 1980s, The LTTE operatives had access to the dealers of arms originating in the north-western periphery of the Indian sub-continent, and a significant presence in the arms markets of Southeast Asia, having established its own offices in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur for coordinating its transactions in the region.[xli]

There is, indeed, a long list of countries from which the LTTE is reported to have purchased arms since the time leading towards the onset of the ‘Second Eelam War’ (resumption of hostilities following the breakdown of peace negotiations between President Premadasa and representatives of the LTTE in mid-1990). These include European sources such as Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Ukraine; 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 South and Southeast Asia – notably, those in some of its main port cities, and certain rebel-held areas of the Southeast Asian interior. Some of these reports have appeared in newspapers, and are evidently based on official “intelligence sources” such as those of the United States and India. Research institutes and individual researchers engaged in military and strategic studies have also contributed to the dissemination of related findings.

Arms Procurement Operations in Southeast Asia

When snippets of information extracted from various sources[xlii]are fitted together, it appears that during the 1990s the LTTE has been able to establish an integrated network for the procurement of weaponry, emerging, on the one hand, as one of the principal clients in some of the clandestine markets of arms, ammunition and other military hardware, and, on the other, as an intermediary in the supply of weapons to several insurgent groups of the Indian sub-continent. This network has an intercontinental reach that extends into distant sources of arms in East Asia, West Asia, Europe and Africa. Its core components, however, appear to be located in Southeast Asia.

The arms procurement capability of the LTTE has, of course, been part and parcel of its shipping and smuggling capability referred to in the previous section of this study. The related evidence shows that, until about the late 1980s, the LTTE contraband trading in Southeast Asia was directed mainly from its office in Kuala Lumpur. Subsequently, when the government of Malaysia began to exercise increased vigilance over economic crimes committed on its territory by aliens,[xliii] the LTTE found it prudent to shift (or to diffuse) its operational nucleus elsewhere. The foremost aspect of this change was represented by the establishment of several small bases – one at Twanty on the Irrawady delta for which, evidently, it obtained official permission from the government of Myanmar[xliv], and the others in the Thai townships of Phuket and Trang, located along the Andaman Sea. These bases have continued to serve as staging posts for the LTTE-owned ships plying in the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. They also provide easy maritime and overland access both to the arms markets of Southeast Asia – notably those of Cambodia and Laos – as well as to the region’s main international gateways and centres of organized crime such as Singapore, Dhaka, Bangkok and Hong Kong where the LTTE continues to have its dummy firms and operatives. That the LTTE had gained a firm foothold in Phuket and Trang, despite sporadic and perfunctory law enforcement constraints, is evidenced by several recent reports such as those on the training in naval warfare (especially in undersea techniques of destruction) imparted by Norwegian ex-servicemen to ‘Sea Tiger’ trainees in Trang, and the chance discovery by the police of a cache of sophisticated military equipment along with a partly completed attempt by Tiger operatives to assemble a mini-submarine at a dockyard in Phuket.[xlv]  Furthermore, in recent years, some of the larger arms deliveries to the theatre of war in northeast Sri Lanka are believed to have been trans-shipped along the 1,800 km voyage across the Bay of Bengal from Phuket and Trang.

There is further evidence that, with the consolidation of its Southeast Asian network of arms procurement, Cambodia became one of the most important sources of weapons for the LTTE. Experts believe that at least one consignment of the Russian manufactured surface-to-air missiles (SAM) which the Tigers deployed during the third round of the ‘Eelam War’ which commenced in April 1995 with the collapse of the cease-fire of 1994-95 was obtained from Cambodia.[xlvi] According to an eye-witness account of the arms market in this country, typically, there are about 40 or 50 vendors in Phnom Penh who regularly and with hardly any restriction hawk a wide range of wares which includes 9mm handguns, AK 47s, SAMs, and B40 rocket launchers. A report published in the Phnom Penh Post [xlvii] which contained detailed information on LTTE activities in this city during 1996 stated, inter alia, that the “… notorious LTTE arms procurer Selvarajah ‘KP’ Pathmanathan has been visiting Phnom Penh for negotiating an arms deal with the Khmer Rouge”, and that about fifty LTTE operatives have also arrived in the city and were frequenting a safe house that had been established there. Similar press reports have appeared from time to time in 1997 as well.

Gun-Running from Pakistan and Afghanistan

As a source of the basic wherewithal of narco-terrorism – drugs and weapons – the Golden Crescent has a standing of global pre-eminence. The area so named stretches across the North-West Frontier Province (NEFP) of Pakistan, central Afghanistan and eastern Iran where, as recent estimates by Rais[xlviii] indicate, the opium poppy is grown each year on about 65,000 ha. The core of the Golden Crescent – a tribal locality lying astride the Afghanistan-NEFP border –  is believed to account for about 25-30% of the heroin that enters world trade.  The production of opium over much of this area does not seem to have even the type of rudimentary law enforcement constraint which the narcotics producers encounter in the Golden Triangle.

The abundance of military hardware available for sale in this area has been attributed both to the long-standing indigenous tradition of exquisite craftsmanship applied to the manufacture of firearms in Darra Adam Khel (a locality about 40 km southwest of Peshawar), as well as to the vast “war surplus” from the flood of external support with which the mujahideen were inundated in the course of their resistance to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s.[xlix]  Thus, a variety of infantry weapons including rocket launchers, grenades, and handguns such as Kalashnikovs, M-16s, Uzis and Berettas (or acceptable counterfeits thereof) could be bought in this area, even in large quantities, evidently at somewhat lower prices than in the clandestine arms markets elsewhere in the world, provided the buyer has the necessary contact.

The political impact of the narcotics-weapons nexus of the Golden Crescent on Pakistan and its neighbours has been vividly portrayed in several recent writings. Presented below are a few brief extracts from the works of two scholars in Pakistan.[l] that are of special salience to the present study.

“For decades successive governments (of Pakistan) did not pay enough attention to the issue of illegal drugs, which allowed considerable time to the drug Mafia to spread its tentacles over vital elements of society.  The drug barons have emerged as a respectable class in Pakistan through various schemes of the government that allowed whitening of the black money. … The black money sustains a parallel underground economy.  Expressed as a percentage of the GDP, the underground economy of Pakistan was 20 percent in 1973, which according to a study of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, increased to 51% during 1996”.

The clandestine trade in narcotics and arms generates huge amounts of money which has the capability to destabilize even elected governments in Pakistan. …  It is also jeopardizing the good neighbourly relations between the South Asian states …. The cross-border smuggling of illegal arms enables the anti-state elements to provide a boost to the secessionist movements. … Surprisingly, in some cases, the authorities are themselves involved in the smuggling of narcotics and arms.

As in our earlier analysis of the Tiger operations in Southeast Asia, the extent to which the LTTE has succeeded in its attempts to tap the potential of the Golden Crescent cannot be assessed with precision. The related information is not only fragmentary, but also, in relation to certain aspects, mutually incongruent. But such information does point to the likelihood that, although Pakistan’s official policy has throughout been unequivocally against the LTTE campaign, over the years, there have been several major arms deals between the LTTE and the suppliers in Pakistan/Afghanistan. To start with, there were the occasional reports from about the mid-1980s on shipments of firearms dispatched from Karachi reaching the Tigers, and of Sri Lankan Tamils (possibly under the direction of the LTTE) serving as conveyers of the Pakistani drug dealers. Then, by about the early 1990s, such transactions appear to have become more substantial. Here again, the LTTE’s acquisition of shipping capability appears to have been a vital ingredient in its advances. By the mid-1990s, these dealings had become important enough to attract the attention of intelligence agencies of the United States and India. A retrospect written in July 2000 by Raman[li] on the general theme of  ‘support for terrorist groups in South Asia’ contains the following information on subject of the Tiger links with Pakistan at this time:

“The second (incident in 1993) was the report from the US intelligence officials that the arms an ammunition found on the LTTE ship carrying  Kittu (see Text Box 4) … were actually given to the LTTE by Pakistan’s narcotics baron (sic.) in return for the LTTE’s help in transporting narcotics consignments to western ports in its ships registered in Greece, and that these arms and ammunitions were loaded into the ship at Karachi under the supervision of the ISI and the Pakistan navy.  … Mr. Sharif (Pakistan’s Prime Minister) was shocked when this information was brought to his notice by the US Embassy in Islamabad. The ISI had kept him informed of its terrorist operations in India, but not of its links with the LTTE and its assistance to the narcotics barons.  It was this which ultimately made Mr. Sharif succumb to Washington’s pressure to remove Lt. Gen. Javed Nasir, then the DG, ISI, and the other officers suspected of promoting terrorism”.

A further report by the same author[lii], focusing more specifically on the subject of the LTTE -Afghanistan/Pakistan connections, has asserted:

“In the second half of 1994, the LTTE had helped the Harkut-ul-Ansar (since renamed as the Harkut-ul-Mujahideen – HUM), the terrorist organisation of Pakistan run by the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), in smuggling at least two shiploads of arms and ammunition from Karachi for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) of  the Southern Philippines.  In return for the LTTE’s assistance in safely carrying these items to the Southern Philippines, the HUM and the ISI gave to it an undetermined quantity of anti-aircraft guns with ammunition and surface-to-air shoulder-fired missiles.  … It (the LTTE) was also reported to have received replenishments of this (missile) capability in return for assisting the HUM in shipping to a port in Turkey consignments of arms and ammunition meant for the Islamic terrorists in Chechnya”.

The foregoing assertions find at least partial confirmation in the comment made by Chalk[liii] that Afghanistan has been one of the main sources of weapons for the LTTE, and his more specific reference to the “current speculation”  that its “… deadly and accurate US-made Stinger missiles (were) acquired from Afghanistan”.

There is only a thin scatter of information obtainable from published documents on purchases of weaponry by the Tigers from sources outside Asia.  Apart from passing references to distant arms markets such as those in eastern Europe where the presence of LTTE agents has been noted,[liv] there have been only a few accounts that contain factual details on such procurement operations, even in what could be considered the most authoritative writings on this subject. For instance, in August 1995, an LTTE vessel identified as MV Swanee conveyed 50 tons of TNT and 10 tons of RDX over the long and circuitous voyage from the Ukrainian port of Nikolayev to be down-loaded off the coast of Sri Lanka to Tiger speedboats operating from their bases in the northeast of the island. It was, from all account, a perfectly flawless operation. In this transaction, arranged as it was by a Dhaka-based LTTE front company named Carlton Trading, the Ukrainian Council of Ministers which approved the sale was evidently duped by forged documents which indicated the end-user as the Bangladesh Ministry of Defence.[lv]  Among the questions that remain unanswered in this story is that of how an official body at the apex of government could be persuaded with this type of obvious bluff – a small and virtually unknown private firm in Bangladesh masquerading as the agent of the government of that country in the purchase of RDX unless, of course, the government itself is a participant in the clandestine arms market.  Moreover, there is reason to believe on the basis of information received after the completion of this operation that it had been monitored by the intelligence agency of a friendly country from start to finish, but that no attempt was made to forewarn the government of Sri Lanka of this delivery.[lvi]

An even more daring plunder of arms capture took place in May 1997 when LTTE operatives had obtained the connivance of an Israeli firm (acting as intermediary in an arms deal between the Sri Lanka government and the Zimbabwe Defence Industries) to load a consignment of  mortar bombs (valued at US$ 3 million) intended for delivery in Colombo to an LTTE-owned freighter named Stillus Limassul at the Mozambican port of Beira.[lvii] Here again, one of the more puzzling aspects of the story is why it was necessary for the government of Sri Lanka to obtain the services of an intermediary private firm of a country with which it does not even have diplomatic relations for a transaction with the government of another friendly country.

A Retrospect

There are certain conclusions of thematic significance which I wish to draw from the synthesis of information attempted in the earlier sections of this essay. That much of this information has been extracted from a limited range of secondary sources, and that such sources vary widely in their levels of reliability are made sufficiently clear in the bibliographic notes placed at the end of the essay. There have, indeed, been only a few products of genuine expertise (which I myself sadly lack) in the study of Sri Lanka’s conflict from perspectives of organised crime committed at a supra-national plane in the name of secessionism. These, despite their scholarly worth and their vital salience to the understanding of the conflict, have remained a distinctive category at the periphery of the mainstreams of research on the subject of the ‘Ethnic Conflict if Sri Lanka – one which the large majority of writers have tended to by-pass. This could well be due to the fact that what these scholars have unearthed does not blend neatly with the dominant  paradigms of the voluminous literature on the  ethnic conflict of Sri Lanka.

Perhaps the most obvious conclusion that emerges from this synthesis relates to  the abundance of resources which the LTTE has at its command. Since the late 1980s when the confluence of several fortuitous circumstances enabled the LTTE to  gradually established its hegemony over the Eelam movement, inadequacy of funds has hardly ever been a constraint upon its continuing campaign of war, terrorism and propaganda. Among the various indicators of the vastness of its financial resources is its ability to meet the exacting demands of clandestine arms markets. Such demands often include not only the payment of black-market prices for the goods purchased, but also the maintenance of a protective cover of bribery and muscle-power as safeguards against official detection of the goods in transit. It has the capacity to write off the occasional losses that have resulted from military setbacks in Sri Lanka and changes in the effectiveness of law enforcement outside the country. Even more significantly, over the years, the Tiger cadres have gained the extraordinary skills and acumen required for effective manipulation in the ruthless underworld of criminals and gangsters in alien societies, despite the handicaps of language barriers, skin colour, and the absence of  shared ideological interests.

There are two of critically important advantages which the LTTE has continued to enjoy in the arena of international transactions. One is the deviousness that often characterises inter-government dealings even between supposedly friendly countries. The other is the corruption rampant at almost all levels of government in the principal venues of LTTE operation. These observations apply in particular to several countries of South and Southeast Asia in which, regardless of declared government policy (general or specific) towards clandestine transactions that have geopolitical implications, there are institutional systems and/or individual decision-makers that act seemingly with scant regard for such policy. In certain instances this could be attributed to centrally directed but secretive deviations from declared policy for the sake of what those holding the reins of government perceive as national interests.  Such an explanation seems plausible, for instance, in the case of certain covert dealings which the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW, the intelligence agency of the Government of India) is alleged to have had with the LTTE even after the induction of the IPKF into Sri Lanka. More often, however, the incongruities between policy and practice are consequences of either the vulnerability of the civil and military officialdom to bribery (as illustrated earlier in the context of an LTTE arms deal with sources in Pakistan), and/or the existence of the politician-policemen-gangster nexus which Bertil Lintner (1989), Jayant Lele (1995), S S Gill (1998) and Rasul Bakhsh Rais (1999) have so vividly described in different settings.

There is a persuasive body of evidence to conclude that official policy (or the absence of a consistent official policy) in certain western countries towards organised crime linked to Sri Lanka’s secessionist movement has also contributed enormously to the elevation of the Tigers to their present status of eminence among the terrorist organisations of the world. Related official attitudes usually tend to be rationalised with reference to principles of democratic governance and fundamental human rights. Quite obviously, none can challenge the legitimacy of such ideological commitments, especially if, as it sometimes happens, they are not tainted with excessive inconsistency, self-interest and bias. One cannot, however, be unmindful of the frequent contradictions between precept and practice. The extracts from the editorial of a leading Canadian daily[lviii] reproduced below could illustrate both the way in which such ostentatious commitments find expression in the political affairs of these countries, as well as the fact that it takes a major calamity which reverberates in one’s own country to expose the fundamental flaw of the perceptions that were given expression in the civil rights rhetoric of the early 1960s – “Violence in the pursuit of liberty is not crime”.[lix]

“The federal Liberal Party will have to change its benign attitude towards Canadian groups that have links with terrorist organisations.  In plain sight, Liberal MPs have supported the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils (FACT), which has been identified by the U.S. government and our intelligence agency as a front for the Tamil Tigers, a terror and military organisation that regularly uses suicide bombers against civilian targets in Sri Lanka.  In June 2000, Tiger supporters in Canada held an outdoor party celebrating the Tigers’ campaigns.  Jim Karygiannis, a Toronto Liberal MP, proudly attended this celebration and hoisted the Canadian flag alongside the Tamil Tiger flag.  Imagine the uproar if Mr Karygiannis had raised the Marple Leaf next to the flag of Hamas or al Qaeda.  Yet the Tigers have killed more people than both these organisations combined. Despite this, neither Mr Chretien’s government not the Liberal Party of Canada has done or said anything publicly to distance themselves from Mr Karygiannis”.  …

“Last May, opposition MPs were smeared as racists when they asked why Paul Martin, Minister of Finance, and Maria Minna, Minister of International Development, attended a Toronto event sponsored by FACT.  But the time for such multicultural posturing came to a definitive end on September 11 (2001)”.

Finally, there is the crucial issue of how the multi-faceted external impulses of the secessionist campaign impact upon the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the ethnic conflict of Sri Lanka.  To recapitulate briefly the main consideration relevant to this issue, the LTTE has established over the years a massive empire of business and commerce with a global spread for which the Eelam war provides the motive force. The information synthesised in this essay on the related transactions of the LTTE leaves little room to doubt that its business must continue for its war effort to flourish and that the war must continue for the business to flourish.

Bibliography

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ENDNOTES

[i]     According to Chalk (2000) , by 1998,  the LTTE had offices and cells in at least 54 countries.

[ii]     Davis (1996 b)

[iii]     This estimate was reported in the July 1996 issue of the Toronto-based monthly journal

[iv]     The Hindustan Times of 26 October 1997, citing the Times of London

[v]    According to information communicated personally to the author in July 1995 by several residents in      Toronto, Tamil businessmen in the city were required to pay up to 20% of their profits to the LTTE. In addition, each Tamil family was required to pay the LTTE the minimum of a Canadian dollar per day. Davis’ (1996 a) estimates on this indicate that in Germany, France and Switzerland regular monthly extractions from Tamil families range (in US$ equivalents) from about $40 to $50 per month.

[vi] .    Hellmann-Rajanayagam (1994): 37

[vii]      Narayan Swamy (1994): 28

[viii] .    Inspector General of Police,  Administration Report, 1984: 18;  Steinitz (1985);  Ratnatunga (1988): 72-76;  Fernando, 1989: 53, 205, 252;  Jayewardene & Jayewardene (1987): 227-229;  Tullis LaMond, (1991): 23;  Davis (1996 a & b): 473;  McDowell (1996): 239

[ix] .    Anon. (1995):9;  Davis (1996 b)

[x].   What could be considered the commencement of serious media attention to the LTTE involvement in transcontinental drug trafficking  is represented by Crellsamer (1985) and an article carried in the Asian Wall Street Journal of September 1985. This latter publication speculated that Sri Lankans are likely to have brought into Western Europe about 1,500 kg of Heroin.

[xi] .   Anon. (1995)

[xii] .   Cited in Rasul Bakhsh Rais, 1999

[xiii] . Basing himself largely on results of personal investigations on the Tamil diaspora in Switzerland, McDowell (1996: 238-248) has provided information on these involvements.

[xiv] .  Davis (1996 a): 473

[xv] .  Anon. (1995)

[xvi] .  Anon. (1995)

[xvii] .   Davis  (1996 a):473

[xviii] .  d’Oliveira (1997) , quoting UN reports, stated that in 1994 the Indian authorities had seized 45 tons of methaqualone, while the seizures of this substance from all other countries amounted to 7 tons. According to a  news report carried in the Hindu (May 17, 1998) there is a growing demand for Mandrax in the South African drug market which is being catered to by smugglers from Sri Lanka and India

[xix] .  Frontline, 8 December 1998:60

[xx].    United States Drug Enforcement Administration, 1996: 2;  Mc Dowell (1996) : 239;  Bonner (1998)

[xxi] .   Davis (1996 a): 473

[xxii] .  Many institutions, ostensibly a’political , either operate directly under the LTTE high command or serve to camouflage the clandestine activities of the LTTE.  According to authoritative sources such as the US State Department (1996) and Peter Chalk (2000), the World Tamil Association, World Tamil Movement, “Federations of Tamil Associations” (in  Canada, Australia, Switzerland and France), Illankai Thamil Sangam in  USA, Tamil Coordinating Committee of Norway, and the International Federation of Tamils in the UK  are some of the better known umbrella organisations to which these institutions are affiliated.  These organisations also act as powerful lobby groups for the Eelam cause.

[xxiii]   The information furnished here on the maritime activities of the LTTE has been extracted from Bonner (1998); Davis (1996 a, 1996 b, 2000);  McDowell, 1996;  Mckenzie Institute (1996); Gunaratna (1997);  Chalk (2000); and several reports carried in Indian, Thai and Sri Lankan newspapers.

[xxiv]    Report prepared by David Osler of Lloyd’s List cited in ‘Sri Lanka News Update’ of 20 March 2000, Sri Lanka Embassy, Washington DC

[xxv] .  Ford (1996): 6-7

[xxvi] .  US Department of State (1997)

[xxvii] .  Linter (1989): 71 & 212

[xxviii]    Davis (2000)

[xxix] .  UN International Drug Control Programme,  1997

[xxx]   As noted earlier (p. 5, above) certain points along the west coast of India, including the city of Mumbai, had already (i.e. by the early 1980s) gained in importance for the trans-shipment of drugs from the Golden Creascent.

[xxxi]    Hazarika (1994): 204-206

[xxxii]    Mitra (1995)

[xxxiii]     Verghese (1996): 59

[xxxiv]     Verghese, op. cit.  123

[xxxv]     Verghese, op. cit.  133

[xxxvi]     Davis (1996 a): 471

[xxxvii]     Dhar (1997)

[xxxviii]     UN Drug Control Programme (1997): 21 & 126

[xxxix] .   That the Sri Lanka army delivered 2 consignments of ammunition (a total of 150,000 rounds) to the LTTE in either late 1987 or early 1988 has been fairly well authenticated.  For a comprehensive analysis of the background to this transaction, see Jayatilleka (1995: 29-35)

[xl] .  According to Davis (1996 a: 470-471), one of the main causes for collapse of PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organization for Tamil Eelam), the largest among the Tamil insurgent groups of this time, was the heavy losses in incurred in several attempted arms deals with the Palestinian militants.

[xli] .  Kumaran Pathmanathan (“KP” alias Tharmalingam Shanmugam) who has been identified in several writings as the principal coordinator of global arms procurement for the LTTE, is reported to have headed the Kuala Lumpur Tiger office in the late 1980s.

[xlii]       The most important among these from the viewpoint of information on arms procurement are Bonner (1998);  Chalk (2000); Davis (1996 a, 1996 b, 2000);  Mackenzie Institute (1995).

[xliii]       An important event in this process was the seizure by the Malaysian authorities in 1990 of military equipment from the LTTE vessel Sunbird in the port of Penang. This is believed to have served as a forewarning to the Tigers of the increasingly hostile attitude of the Kuala Lumpur government towards their illegal activities.

[xliv]    The Government of Myanmar withdrew this permission in 1996, in response to representations   made by the Government of Sri Lanka. Yet, the LTTE-owned ships have continued to operate in the Burmese sea-ports.

[xlv]      According to reports, this was a chance discovery  by the Thai police. Whether there has been any official follow-up action is not known.

[xlvi]     Sunday Leader (a private sector English weekly published in Colombo), 20 October 1996 .

[xlvii]     Vittachi (1996)

[xlviii]     Rasul Bakhsh Rais (1999)

[xlix]  According to Ali Shah (1999), the manufacture of firearms has for long been a “traditional craft” among certain tribal groups living in the Afghan frontier area. In recent times it is said to have developed into a labour-intensive modern industry possessing the capacity to produce high quality replicas of some of the best brands of modern light weapons.

[l] .  The first set of extracts is from Rais (1999). Professor Rasul Bakhsh Rais is the Director of the Area Study Centre for Africa, North & South America, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. The second is from Dr. Sayed Wiqar Ali Shah (1999) of the Department of History in the same university.

[li] .  Raman (2000): 7

[lii].   Raman (2001): 2

[liii].   Chalk (2001): 7

[liv] .Bonner has pointed to the likelihood of the Tigers obtaining arms from sources in Russia, Lithuania and Bulgaria.  This is confirmed by Davis (2000) according to whom “(M)ost of the hardware the Tigers critically need (artillery and mortar rounds, surface-to-air missiles, big-caliber machine-gun ammunition) is bought in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and North Korea.

[lv] . The earliest published account of this episode is found in Davis (1996 b).  The information furnished in several later publications (for example,  Gunaratna, 1997;  Chalk, 2000) correspond closely to the facts recounted by Davis.

[lvi] .  Personally communicated information from a senior officer of the Sri Lanka Ministry of Defense

[lvii] . This hijacking was initially reported in the Sri Lanka press,  mainly on a speculative basis, and as an illustration of the clumsy (and possibly, corrupt) handling of arms procurement by the government of Sri Lanka. One of its most detailed accounts has been furnished by Winchester (1998).  Chalk (2000)  has also furnished a summary of the story.

[lviii].    Editorial of the National Post of October 1, 2001

[lix].    A statement of late President John Kennedy, which soon became an embarrassment to him in the wake of the urban race riots in the United States the suppression of which required presidential intervention.

 

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Filed under anton balasingham, asylum-seekers, authoritarian regimes, economic processes, governance, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, insurrections, landscape wondrous, life stories, military strategy, nationalism, people smugglers, politIcal discourse, power sharing, prabhakaran, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, suicide bombing, Tamil civilians, Tamil migration, tamil refugees, Tamil Tiger fighters, travelogue, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, vengeance, war reportage, world events & processes

One response to “Secessionist War and Terrorism in Sri Lanka: Transnatonal Impulses

  1. Shan

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