SRI Lanka is split into two countries. One controlled by the Sri Lankan Government and the other where the LTTE’s writ runs. Travel between Colombo and Jaffna, the LTTE stronghold, is virtually impossible. For journalists, it is even tougher due to the ban imposed by the Sri Lankan Government . Outlook’s Chief of Bureau in Madras, A . S . Paneerselvan, recently made this daunting journey from Colombo.
He started out on September 28 on a wobbly train to reach Vavuniya— the legal as well as psychological boundary dividing the country. Being a Tamilian helped him merge into a crowd that was inching its way towards a check-point at Thandikulam. After being frisked by Sri Lankan soldiers, he boarded a bus till the last barricade . T here after, he crossed an iron bridge which read: "Beyond this at your own risk."
What followed was an arduous cycle ride through no man’s land to where the Tiger territory began. At the LTTE checkpost he was told he required a clearance from Jaffna to enter. His arrival was radioed to the powers-that- be in Jaffna and he was asked to wait in a nearby house. On October 1, he was taken to Killinochi, the last town on the mainland. Since the road between Jaffna Peninsula and the mainland is closed, he crossed the 22-km stretch in an overc rowded boat, reaching Jaffna on October 2. Besides talking to several local people, he interviewed LTTE’s chief theoretician Dr Anton Balasingham, and head of its civil administration’s Education and Tamil Language Affairs, Baby Subramaniam. Excerpts from the only interview granted to the media since the recent offensive was launched by the Sri Lankan Government .
Why did you kill Rajiv Gandhi?
I’ve the same answer for this oft-repeated question. We did not kill Rajiv Gandhi.
The investigations are over and the Special Investigation Team chargesheet clearly states that the LTTE had assassinated Rajiv.
No, the trial is still going on. The Indian Government so far has not proved the LTTE’s involvement in the assassination. As far as Prabhakaran’s extradition is concerned, it is an academic matter. Everybody knows it’s practically impossible for the Sri Lankan Government to catch Prabhakaran. The Indian Army was here for two years and couldn’t do it. The extradition request is a political move to discredit the LTTE rather than a practical way to get at the truth .
Why should the LTTE be targeted?
Any comments will have serious implications. We were not involved in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
Recent Indian intelligence reports say you are planning to eliminate top Indian leaders, including Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.
This is not true. I think some vested interests are spreading these rumours.
What is the role of the LTTE in India?
As far as the LTTE is concerned, we consider India a friendly ally. Even now, we don’t have any animosity towards the Indian Government and people. We are not involved in any insurrectionary or terrorist movements in India. The LTTE will not contribute to or get involved in the Indian secessionist politics. It is not going to act in any manner inimical to the national and the geopolitical interests of India. Our struggle for self-determination here is legitimate. It is primarily because of the intolerable state oppression.
But why should the LTTE generate such a fear psychosis in India?
Our struggle is not properly understood. And that has led to the problems between the Indian Government and the LTTE. India’s intervention at that time was to strengthen the hands of the Tamil freedom movement. Besides, they had their own political objectives. India thought it should align with the former Soviet Union to prevent the spread of US imperialism in the Indian Ocean. But now in a new world order old alliances have snapped. In this context, India feels that our liberation struggle is no longer valid. Therefore, it is untenable to maintain the present level of hostility towards us. We need the support of the people, political parties and the Indian Government.
But your internal discussions reveal that you still suspect India. In the Mahattaya case (the LTTE deputy leader who was arrested by the Tigers’ intelligence wing in 1993), it was charged that he was collaborating with the Indian State.
The struggle of the Tamil people is legitimate. We have nobody. We have no sympathisers anywhere— neither in Tamil Nadu nor in India. So the Indian position has helped the Sri Lankan racist state to intensify its operations. We are concerned that the Indian attitude— which is hostile— helps Sri Lanka in pursuing its ruthless policy against our people.
You have not answered my question. There is talk in Jaffna that the various jail - breaks by LTTE cadres in Tamil Nadu were not jail-breaks but efforts by India to send back some cadres who could gain access to Prabhakaran and kill him.
I can’t comment on that. There is some element of truth in the R AW intrigues. We know very well that they might send agents to kill LTTE leaders or assassinate Prabhakaran. We don’t want to talk about it.
What happened to Mahattaya?
He was arrested and subjected to interrogation for one year. We found him guilty and he was sentenced to death. He was involved in a plot to kill Prabhakaran and take over the LTTE.
Is there any room for a negotiated settlement now?
You will have to ask the Sri Lankan Government this question because it has ruled out a negotiated settlement. Our door for peace is open. We are for peace provided the Sri Lankan Government stops the war and creates conditions for normalcy in the north and east.
But they say you unilaterally called off talks and resumed hostilities.
Parleys were held for six months. There were four rounds of talks in Jaffna. Fifty letters were exchanged between Prabhakaran and Chandrika Kumaratunge. We asked for an embargo relaxation. We asked the government to permit the people to use the land route by relocating the Pooneryan camp. Mind you, we did not ask for the withdrawal of the camp. These were not the demands of the LTTE, but of the people. If the government wanted to act, it could have done so in 24 hours. If it is not prepared to meet this small demand, how can we expect it to resolve major problems.
What about the latest Lankan offensive?
There is a qualitative difference between the current offensive and the past ones. This is the first time that all troops have moved into the Peninsula. Forces have been pulled out of the east and consequently, we have taken it over. Colombo is under an illusion about winning the war. Even if they take over Jaffna, it will not be a military success. The North-east is a vast area and our guerrilla movement cannot be crushed in conventional battle. The Indian Army realised this truth after a two-year bloody conflict. The Lankan forces can take over the territory. But they cannot hold on. We’ll strike back.
But Jaffna Peninsula is not just a territory, it is the symbol and metaphor of the LTTE resistance. If the army captures Jaffna, will it not be able to start a dialogue with a weakened LTTE?
First, to take over Jaffna is not easy. Secondly, it took the Indian Arm y, a much larger and sophisticated force, two months to capture Jaffna. At that time we were a small force, but things have changed. We are stronger now. Suppose they succeed in taking over Jaffna , they cannot take over the entire territory. Do they want to leave the entire Wanni Jungle region and the other three districts in the east to us?
I am not talking about this aspect. What will the metaphorical and psychological impact of the capture of Jaffna be?
As a guerrilla movement, we do not attach any metaphorical or symbolical importance to any place. We attach importance to mobility. The LT T E will not talk from a position of weakness. Military pressure will not force us to talk. Concentrating only on the north actually means that the east is virtually free for us. We are not going to keep quiet there .
Do you mean the government is unaware of its vulnerability in the east?
There is no military strategy behind this war. It is the outcome of the government’s desire to dominate Tamils and destroy Jaffna, a desire which has been there for 2,000 years. It is not Chandrika’s strategy. Believe it or not, we have been fighting the Sinhalese for 2,000 years. The very idea of a military conquest of the Tamil people is wrong. It is essentially racism.
What about the present package announced by the government?
With bombs falling on our heads, we do not have time to discuss such proposals. We are at war with the government. We are clearing our guns and have no time to go through this document. The proposals were not sent to us. The proposal itself is a tragedy. It talks of peace through war. It is aimed at deflecting the international community’s attention from the ongoing repressions and genocide in the north .
Do you think you can win independence on military terms?
Independence is the wrong word. It is our right to decide our political destiny. That is the meaning of "right of self-determination". The LTTE is a result of the state military operation. For four decades we have had non-violent struggle. We are confident that one day the Tamils of south India, the Indian Government and the world community will recognise our legitimate struggle. But if Colombo decides to stop the war and settles for a negotiated settlement, we are prepared to accept it. We have even suggested that a federal form of autonomy is acceptable to us.
Very few believe that you are ready for a plural society. The forceful eviction of the Muslims from the north is cited as an example of your intolerance.
It was an unfortunate affair and we apologise. But there was communal tension and we asked them to leave the place without doing any harm to them. It was a mistake. We have told them that they have an inalienable right to live in peace in the North-east. Once normalcy is restored, they can return to their homes.
Prabhakaran has been compared by some to Mandela, by others to Arafat, Netaji, Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot. How do you describe him?
Prabhakaran is a national hero. He is a military genius too. One essential difference between Prabhakaran and the other leaders is his deep commitment to the cause. Even under Indian military pressure he was prepared to die rather than give up. He is generally misunderstood by others. Our methods of warfare are unacceptable to various people. But Prabhakaran as well as our movement had survived precisely because of these. This is the only struggle that has been going on for 20 years without any assistance from any where. The willingness of our cadres to die for our cause must be viewed as self-sacrifice rather than as self-destruction. This structure which has been created by Prabhakaran must be understood and not undermined.