Friday, 31 August 2012

LTTE, Indian media and Tamil Nadu factor

War on terror revisited: Part 31

An LTTE attack craft powered by four powerful OMBs in northern waters during Ceasefire Agreement (LTTE pic)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

A chance detection made by Tamil Nadu authorities in Oct. 2007 exposed a secret Norwegian supply route, which enabled the LTTE to procure urgently needed equipment as it battled the army on the Vanni front.

Having lost the Eastern Province in June 2007, the LTTE committed all its fighting strength to a campaign to thwart army operations on the Western flank in the Vanni.

Inquiries revealed that the detected consignment comprised propellers and spares for the Sea Tigers sent by Norway-based Gokulan, a known LTTE agent. The Tamil Nadu based recipient of the cargo bound for the Sea Tigers, was identified as Jayaraj Rathinam aka Vanni Arasu (36), editor of Tamil Mann (Tamil Soil), the party organ of Dalit Panthers of India, a close political ally of the ruling DMK. The suspect was quickly granted bail.

In spite of losing eight floating arsenals due to confrontations with the Sri Lankan Navy on the high seas, the LTTE still retained the capacity to acquire arms, ammunition and equipment and move them across the Gulf of Mannar to its bases north of Mannar (TN-Norway supply route to LTTE’s rescue; Lanka seeks Indian help to identify chemical recovered from Sea Tigers––The Island Oct 18, 2007).

The LTTE was still in control of the situation in the Vanni, though the army was conducting operations on two fronts, with the 57 Division and Task Force I making slow progress. In spite of experiencing severe difficulties caused by Navy action, the LTTE had a major ongoing procurement operation. India was used as the primary transit point in the operation. The equipment, once brought to Tamil Nadu, was re-directed to the Vanni mainland, across the Gulf of Mannar, where the Navy had maintained a heavy presence to thwart illegal shipments.

The LTTE operation involved a section of the Indian media, politicians, Tamil Nadu fishing fleets and some security authorities in Tamil Nadu. Successive governments had failed to take tangible action to counter the operation, though they knew the LTTE could never be defeated as long as it sustained a sea supply route. Although the Navy made some detections, the LTTE successfully used the Tamil Nadu supply route to replenish its stocks. The LTTE used Tamil Nadu fishing fleets, both as a cover and means to smuggle in weapons to Sri Lanka. To prevent the Navy from countering the operation, a section of the Indian media and politicians persistently alleged that the Sri Lankan Navy was targeting Tamil Nadu fish poachers. The LTTE also directed suicide attacks on navy patrols to discourage them from stopping Sea Tiger movements.

SLN media

The LTTE would have succeeded in its endeavour, if not for the naval operations aimed at curbing arms smuggling. The then Navy chief, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, went all out to disrupt LTTE supply routes. The Indian media reacted to the naval operation. Under heavy pressure, Captain D. K. P. Dasanayake, who had the unenviable task of handling Navy media at that time, performed exceptionally well in countering hostile propaganda. The navy media never allowed opponents to exploit the situation to their advantage, though sometimes they were overwhelmed by the powerful Tamil Nadu media. Whatever critics may have said at that time, the navy media successfully countered the LTTE propaganda campaign.

Even three years after the conclusion of the conflict, the GoSL is yet to examine the Indian connection and the circumstances under which the LTTE exploited its relationship with Tamil Nadu politicians to further its separatist interests.

Blast off Kachchativu

A Tamil Nadu trawler was sunk near Kachchativu on the night of June 16, 2007. The blast fuelled speculation that it was carrying a consignment of explosives for the LTTE. Although there had been four persons onboard the vessel at the time of the blast, investigators never made headway (Indian boat carrying LTTE cargo explodes?––The Island June 18, 2007).

It hadn’t been an isolated incident. The Sea Tigers operated amongst Tamil Nadu fishermen and their counterparts from Northern Sri Lanka. In fact, the LTTE desperately needed the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet to poach in Sri Lankan waters as their presence facilitated their clandestine operations. Indian officials, as well politicians too, realised the LTTE strategy, though they did nothing about it. Having met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M.K. Karunanidhi in Chennai, on May 31, 2007, Indian National Security Advisor Mayankote Kelath Narayan declared the Centre’s support for the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet. Immediately after Narayan’s statement, the navy noted a significant increase in the number of poaching Indian  vessels (Narayan’s ‘chandi’ talk spurs poaching in Lankan waters-The Island June 20, 2007).

The Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard were equipped to thwart LTTE operations. Had they been given a free hand, they could have achieved the desired results lessening the SLN’s burden. Unfortunately, they couldn’t help the GoSL efforts, though the SLN felt that the Indian Navy and Coast Guard never wanted to turn a blind eye to what was going on under their nose.

Indian and Sri Lankan navy officials regularly met to discuss ways and means of enhancing cooperation between them. Even after Indian National Security Advisor Narayan encouraged poaching, Indian and Sri Lankan navy officials met on board SLNS Sayura, an off-shore patrol vessel acquired from India, on July 13, 2007 near the international maritime boundary. It was one of the four meetings held annually, two of them onboard ships near the international maritime boundary. The June meeting was the first since the massacre of a group of Indian fishermen.

Kanyakumari massacre

The LTTE massacre of five Indian fishermen on March 29, 2007 and the complicity of a section of the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet in the LTTE arms smuggling operation came to light unexpectedly, thanks to a chance detection of six Sea Tigers off Tuticorin coast and the subsequent Maldivian Coast Guard interception of an Indian fishing trawler, Sri Krishna that had been commandeered by the Sea Tigers. It was perhaps the most important detection made by the tiny Maldivian Coast Guard, which also enabled the SLN to hunt the LTTE’s floating arsenals.

Let the circumstances under which the Maldivian Coast Guard sank the Indian trawler be briefly dealt with. The Island comprehensively covered the Kanya Kumari incident, helping the navy to set the record straight.

Unidentified gunmen on March 29, 2009, killed five Indian fishermen about 35 nautical miles off Kanyakumari, well within Indian waters. A section of the Indian media quickly blamed the SLN, though Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, at a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, cleared the SLN of involvement in the massacre.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi made a desperate bid to shield the LTTE, in spite of knowing its direct involvement in the massacre. In a letter to PM Manmohan Singh, Karunanidhi conveniently blamed a third party for the attack. Quoting those who survived the attack, the DMK leader wrote: "Two boats had approached the Indian boat from the Sri Lankan side and without any provocation and warning indiscriminately opened fire on the Indian fishing boat. All attackers numbering about 20 were youngsters either bare-bodied or in casual dress. The SLN strongly disputed Karunanidhi’s theory (Lanka challenges bid to shield Tigers-The Island April 5, 2007).

Amidst claims and counter claims, the Indian Coast Guard fired at a Sri Lankan fishing vessel on April 5, 2007, used by human smugglers near the international maritime boundary, within Indian waters, when it ignored an order to stop. The boat was returning after dropping some people at Danuskodi. Indian Coast Guard fire killed one of the three persons onboard the vessel. His body was left by colleagues at fourth sand banks (Indian Coast Guard fires at Lankan human smugglers––The Island April 9, 2007).

The Indian High Commission sought to refute The Island report. We stood by our report. By then, the LTTE’s role in the Kanyakumari massacre and the complicity by Tamil Nadu in the operation hadn’t been exposed.

On April 11, 2007, the Indian Coast Guard made a very important detection. To the credit of the Indian naval authorities, they didn’t try to shield anyone and revealed the detection of two Indian vallams, 26.5 nautical miles south-east of the Kanyakumari coast. The Coast Guard vessel responsible for the ‘catch’ was one among nine ships and three deployed on April 9, 2007, following the Kanyakumari massacre. The Coast Guard took 12 persons into custody. A section of the Chennai based media identified the arrested as armed Sinhala fishermen. Dinakaran, affiliated to the ruling DMK, on a front-page report declared that 12 Sinhala fishermen were in custody.

However, within hours, the Coast Guard acknowledged that the arrested group comprised six Sri Lankan Tamils and six Tamil Nadu fishermen. The Sri Lankans were identified as Gnanadasan (20), C. Rohan (23), S. Selvakumar (19), M. Pannibose (28), D. Aul (19), and Ravi Kumar (24). India ignored the SLN push for a joint investigation. The SLN felt India could help tackle LTTE terrorism by giving access to the SLN and other relevant agencies access to LTTE suspects in its custody. Following the interrogation of the Sri Lankan Tamils and Tamil Nadu fishermen, the Indian Coast Guard found ‘Maria’, which was drifting off Kanyakumari. Indian fishermen claimed that Sri Lankans were rescued from the ‘Maria’.

The SLN insisted that ‘Maria’ couldn’t have left Periyathurai, Jaffna on March 14 on a legitimate mission as claimed by Sri Lankan Tamils. The SLN asserted that ‘Maria’ could be one of two trawlers involved in the Kanyakumari massacre. India didn’t even bother to inquire into the possibility. (Indian Coast Guard seizes ‘Maria’, six Lankan Tamils-The Island April 16, 2007)

Kodiyakarai explosives haul

Although South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) always discussed ways and means of strengthening anti-terrorist measures and co-operation among member states, India declined to give access to those suspects in their custody. A chance detection by Indian authorities on Feb 13, 2007, off Kodiakarai, attracted the attention of the SLN, which made its own inquires, though India denied access to LTTE terrorists arrested in the company of Indians. The Kodiyakarai detection and subsequent events revealed the true extent of the LTTE’s influence, as well as complicity of some Indian officials in LTTE operation.

The Indian Coast Guard detected a suspicious looking trawler on Feb 12, 2007, in Indian waters and intercepted it the following day, 27 nautical miles south-west of Point Calimere. Three LTTE operatives, including a senior cadre and two Indians were arrested and an explosives-packed belt and bomb making chemicals were found onboard the vessel. The trawler was taken to Chennai port and held there pending investigations. The Coast Guard announced the recovery of about 2,000 kgs of high explosives hidden in a secret compartment of the vessel on Feb 19, 2007. The following day, Indian authorities destroyed the trawler in a controlled explosion, citing a security threat to the Chennai port. The GoSL expressed surprise over India’s decision to destroy the vessel as it had the expertise to remove explosives from the vessel (Mystery surrounds fate of India held LTTE boat with strap-line Lanka seeks access to five-member crew––The Island Feb 23, 2007).

That move effectively prevented a thorough inquiry into the explosives consignment as well as the ownership of the vessel. There couldn’t have been any dispute as regards the final destination of the trawler carrying 2,000 kgs of explosives. The Indian move also thwarted the SLN’s attempts to establish the identity of the origin of the explosives. India refused to give access to three LTTE personnel in custody. (Lanka wants access to ‘terror’ suspects in Tamil Nadu custody––The Island April 19, 2007).

‘Q’ branch revelation

Then unexpectedly the ‘Q’ branch of the Indian Criminal Investigation Department exposed an LTTE hand in the Kanyakumari massacre. Having interrogated six Sri Lankan Tamils and six Indians arrested off the Tuticorin coast on April 11, 2007, following a mechanical snag in their trawler, ‘Maria’, the ‘Q’ branch on April 27, 2007 said that Sri Lankans were members of a Special Sea Tiger squad deployed to ferry arms, ammunition and equipment from the LTTE’s floating arsenals to trawlers on the high seas. That revelation was made in a two-page note issued by Tamil Nadu Director General of Police, who identified the arrested Sri Lankans as one of the units involved in the operation. Under interrogation, they admitted that one of the units had attacked the Indian trawler, believing Tamil Nadu fishermen were monitoring their operation. Much to the embarrassment of Indian officialdom, the ‘Q’ branch investigation also revealed that a Tamil Nadu trawler ‘Sri Krishna’, missing since March 4, 2007, had, in fact, been commandeered by the Sea Tigers, to move weapons from floating warehouses to northern Sri Lanka. The 12-member crew comprised ten from Kanyakumari and one each from Thoothukudi and Kerala.

The revelation stunned the Indians. Sri Lankans claimed that except for the Captain of ‘Sri Krishna’, other members of the crew had been moved to the Vanni, where the LTTE accommodated them in a camp. (LTTE massacred Indian fishermen, seized large vessel with 12 men––The Island April 29, 2007). The local print media largely ignored the issue, whereas the electronic media turned a blind eye.

Indian National Security Advisor Mayankote Kelath Narayan didn’t mince his words when he justified the right of Tamil Nadu fishing fleets to poach in Sri Lanka waters. Having met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi in Chennai at the height of war in Sri Lanka, Narayan declared: "Fishermen are going there for their livelihood. We have told the Sri Lankan Navy not to fire at them, and they assured us that there will be no firing. By and large they are adhering to this. Fishermen will go wherever there are fish. To prevent them from crossing the international maritime boundary is asking for too much."