'MGR bought the ships, Tamil Nadu ministers cleared weapons transit to Lanka,' ex-LTTE guerrilla to WION
K Pathmanthan talks about how India's former PM Indira Gandhi supported the LTTE Photograph: (WION)
Former top brass of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) K Pathmanathan was a recluse who lived overseas for most part of the 30 years of the bloody civil war in which more than 1,20,000 people were killed and thousands displaced. He collected funds from separatist-minded Tamil diaspora, bought weapons and shipped them to northern Sri Lanka – with the blessing of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran (MGR) and subsequent state governments. Since his arrest in Malaysia in August 2009, KP as he is commonly known, has been imprisoned, rehabilitated and now runs three orphanages for the children left destitute by one of the
bloodiest separatist conflicts in the world. WION’s Senior International Correspondent Padma Rao Sundarji travelled to the former Tiger capital Killinochchi for this exclusive interview with “KP”.
Q: From being a key member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to an orphanage father is quite a turbulent story. Start at the beginning. Why did you join the LTTE?
A: It was that kind of environment when we were students. He (LTTE Chief Velupillai Prabhakaran) had an appeal. Most students of that time joined either the LTTE or some other movement. I was one of them.
Q: What motivated you to join?
A: The political situation was very bad. There were riots. Tamil students were affected by standardization. And political leaders made emotional politics. All this created the environment.
Q: Which years do you speak of?
A: The Seventies.
Q: What were you studying at the time?
A: I was taking my O Levels when I joined the LTTE.
Q: How did you actually meet Prabhakaran ? How was he at that time?
A: He was a hero, famous among Tamil youth. It was an emotional situation in the Northern Province (NP) at the time. Students were looking for something to do. So also my friends and I. The then opposition leader Amruthalingam arranged a meeting. That’s how we got the opportunity to meet him.
Q: What was he like?
A: He was young, active and very serious. As a leader, he was a very strict man.
Q: What was he aiming for back then?
A: Actually we youth, we were aiming for a separate state.
Q: Right from the beginning?
Q: What were the reasons for doing so?
A: Riots happened. Also, students were affected by standardization (of marks for university admission). Unemployment, too, was a big problem in the NP. Political leaders motivated youth and made emotional speeches. Even the leaders spoke of a separate state. Students were affected.
Q: But did you feel chauvinism or hatred towards you in your everyday life? After all, you must have been meeting Sinhalese people every day...
A: Actually at that time, we hardly had a chance to meet any Sinhalese. We are on the Jaffna peninsula - on one side - so we didn’t meet them that often.
Q: Were there no Sinhalese people here at that time?
A: Very few, only about one or two. We met them of course...
Q: And they were okay?
A: They were okay.
Q: When did the LTTE go from being what was known as a freedom-fighting organization to a terrorist group?
A: Right from the beginning. We were keen to follow without thinking about other people. But the real change came mostly after the Nineties. Maybe the reason was that they had no choice.
Q: You were here. LTTE became a terrorist group and at some point in your life you decided to go to Malaysia. When and why?
A: From 2003 onwards, I was sidelined.
Q: Sidelined within the organization?
A: Yes. It was because I tried to make peace and to find a political solution from 2003 onwards. My attempts failed. Then in 2007 or thereabouts, I went to Malaysia.
Q: So were you here in the NP from 1983 through 2007?
A: No. I had already moved to Thailand in 1990 to operate from there…
Q: Why? You were already part of the LTTE leadership here…
A: I was given some work for the organization there.
Q: What work?
A: Many things. For example, shipments – of medicine, clothes…
Q: Those kinds of shipments? Or weapons?
A: Yes, money, everything.
Q: So when you went to Thailand, how did you establish your set-up?
A: We started shipping lines.
Q: Like a front for your actual work?
A: Yes, a front.
Q: What role did India play in the creation of the LTTE?
A: It was during the period of Mrs Gandhi. The political environment in Sri Lanka at the time was very different. JR Jayawardene was president. Sri Lanka also had a good relationship with Israel. India, at that time, was with the Soviet bloc. So the policies of the two countries clashed. At the same time, the Sri Lankan Tamil issue was a boiling issue even in India. All our political leaders met Mrs Gandhi. In the beginning, she tried to negotiate with the Sri Lankan government. Simultaneously, militant groups began to mushroom here. So she asked India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to support them. Of course, the Indian government was planning to keep them under their control. So they gave them full support, weapons, training, everything. This was the starting point with India.
Q: So you’re saying that India got involved primarily because it saw Colombo’s relations with the West as a kind of a rival affiliation.
A: Yes, that is global politics. But India was always the neighbouring Big Brother and liked to keep an eye on Sri Lanka. We had to accept that reality.
Q: I remember in the late Eighties, I met Velupillai Prabhakaran in a room in the Ashoka Hotel in Delhi. Do you remember those days?
A: Oh yes, when he went to meet Mr Rajiv Gandhi?
A: Actually, Rajiv Gandhi’s dream was quite different from what he tried to do in Sri Lanka. He tried to build peace here and a good relationship with Sri Lanka. He was a young, dynamic leader who also wanted to satisfy our, the Tamil side. He invited all leaders, politicians and militants. He met all the other groups like TELO and PLOTE too and they accepted the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord. But initially, Prabhakaran didn’t accept it. So PM Gandhi invited Prabhakaran to Delhi to explain and convince him. That was when he was at the Ashoka Hotel. Prabhakaran accepted and soon, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) arrived here.
Q: How was it when the IPKF first came in? How did the NP Tamils feel about them?
A: In the beginning, people here welcomed the IPKF. But day by day and as the LTTE strategy changed, they, too, turned against the IPKF.
A: Prabhakaran could never accept any other force. That is why the LTTE turned against the IPKF. And the people followed the LTTE.
Q: Let’s go back to Thailand where you were sent on this "job" of setting up shipping lines and getting supplies for the LTTE. How did it actually work? Collecting money from the diaspora, buying medicines, clothes but also weapons, and then shipping them. Can you describe the logistics of such operations?
A: Actually, it’s quite a normal global practice so it wasn’t difficult. Anyone can open a shipping company and anyone can operate ships.
Q: So it wasn’t scrutinized much?
Q: But where did you get the weapons from?
A: At that time and right from Lebanon up to everywhere, there were weapons markets all over the world…
Q: So the suppliers would send the weapons to you and you would forward them to Sri Lanka?
A: Yes. But sometimes, we would send our own ships to collect the weapons.
Q: So your shipping company was not just a front – you actually had ships….
Q: How many ships?
A: In 2003, we had about 13 ships.
Q: And where did the money to buy them come from?
A: It was actually mostly money from (laughs) – MGR (MG Ramachandran), the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister of the time….
A: Yes, really.
Q: So that must have been quite a lot of money?
Q: So your ships would collect the weapons and sail to Lanka….
A: Yes, via India. Sometimes, we would send a solitary container to India, some senior minister or another would clear it through customs, hand it to us and – we would then take it further south in India and transport it on a smaller boat to Lanka.
Q: And where would you land in Sri Lanka?
A: Mostly in Velavithhurai – Prabhakaran’s birthplace - and elsewhere along the coastal area.
Q: How would you manage to get past the radars of the Sri Lankan navy?
A: At that time, the Sri Lankan navy was not sophisticated.
Q: So you were never caught…
A: Only once, when one of our men was caught with weapons and arrested.
Q: And what kinds of weapons did you send?
A: Guns, artillery, pistols...
Q: When did the LTTE start the horrific practice of using child soldiers?
A: After the '90s. In the beginning, we were very serious and didn’t accept everyone who wanted to join the LTTE. We had very strict scanning procedures. But when the LTTE tried to become a regular army, there was a shortage of fighters. That’s when they started taking child soldiers.
Q: How young were the children they took?
A: I heard that some were 13, even 12 years of age.
Q: Did the children volunteer? Or were they taken by force?
A: Initially, it was voluntary. But in the last stages of the war, by force.
Q: And the suicide bombing? A very grisly invention of the LTTE. How did that start? And cyanide capsules which the cadres swallowed to avoid capture, suicide vests – who developed these ghastly ideas?
A: Actually I heard that Prabhakaran got these ideas from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and further developed and implemented them.
Q: But the LTTE came to be known as the inventor of the suicide bomb. Neither the IRA nor the PLO used them…
A: Yes. But the PLO gave the LTTE the idea of working with explosives whenever they bombed a stadium, a plane, etc.
Q: How did the LTTE prepare an eighteen-year-old to wear a suicide vest and go blow himself and others up? How does one mentally prepare young people? Were there drugs involved?
A: No, no, absolutely no drugs. The Tamil people respected their leader like a God. It was this emotional feeling that the LTTE exploited. It was brainwashing.
Q: You told me some years ago that you felt uncomfortable about these deadly inventions. Were there others in the LTTE who didn’t like them too?
A: Yes. Even LTTE political ideologue Anton Balasingham objected to these ideas. He also tried to stop these practices. But inside the organization, most supported these ideas. I too tried but couldn’t stop these things. Nobody listened.
Q: Prabhakaran did not listen?
A: No. He was absolutely his own man.
Q: But you are a father. Were you already a father at that time?
A: Yes, yes..
Q: Did you not feel any remorse at that time? How did your family react? Did they know that this was going on?
A: Actually, my family didn’t know that I was involved in this organization at that time. As a father?....
Q: I mean, you would gaze at your child, and then you’d see these children being marched off to their deaths…
A:…Yes, yes…I felt it was very bad. I felt we had to stop these child soldiers and that students had to study. There were so many things we tried to stop. Unfortunately, nobody listened.
Q: Did you want to end the war at some stage?
A: Of course. From 2003, I and Balasingham tried. By then, the LTTE had gone the farthest it could go. Many decades had passed. And in the interim, the world environment had changed. We could no longer fight against the world…
Q: Do you speak of 9/11 as a turning point?
A: Yes. That was the turning point and the reason why we had to negotiate.
Q: Can you describe the role of Norway? It played a significant role and was accused of shielding the LTTE and its leadership right till the very last minute in May 2009….
A: Norway, too, was trying to stop the war. Erik Solheim tried, until the end, to save these people and me. They played a significant role but one thing we (LTTE) on our side failed to do is to make a positive move. The LTTE leadership remained inflexible and unmoved from its position. India, too, tried to solve this problem but unfortunately, our leadership was not to be convinced.
Q: There is a lot of criticism about the West’s involvement. Sheltering people who had fled from here – a lot of LTTE escaped cadres, even after the war…What is it that made western countries take on, and support and allow transfer of money to the LTTE at that time by separatism-minded diaspora in those western countries?
A: Actually, western countries, even America and others, they gave an opportunity to the LTTE, one they didn’t give even to Hamas even after it had won an election.
Q: But what was the motivation to do so?
A: Their motivation should have been to stop this war in a democratic way. Norway, Germany, many countries even Canada – a lot of diaspora there, the UK, they allowed money transfers to support the LTTE here. But when the LTTE started to go wrong, then they started to act.
Q: But that change of heart came quite late..
A: Yes, but that was the end. If the world had not taken an anti-LTTE stance even then, the war would have continued.
Q: Did the LTTE have any connections with the Maoists in Nepal, the Naxals and Maoists in India, the ULFA in Assam. I have interviewed many and some have spoken of a kind of "club", if you like, of South Asia's underground groups…
A: The LTTE never had any connection with these organizations. Because from the beginning, Prabhakaran had a mindset that he doesn’t want to have any links with these groups because maybe he felt that some of them were interfering inside India. So right from the beginning, we had no contact.
Q: But I was told by the former Maoist Prachanda when he was still underground -today he is PM – that his Maoists kept in touch with the LTTE…
A: Yes, as ideologists and over political matters, perhaps so. But they never had any close relations, exchange programs like training etc..
Q: So there was no exchange of weapons and that kind of thing.
A: Prabhakaran was not even interested in the Maoist idea…He didn’t think it was practical or suitable for Tamils...
Q: We come to your arrest, the present. Tell us the story.
A: I was in Malaysia in 2009, when I was arrested unexpectedly. Then they brought me to Sri Lanka.
Q: Who arrested you?
A: The Malaysian intelligence. I came to know later that the Sri Lankan intelligence had worked with them. At that time, the defence secretary was Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. And the situation was very bad here because the media had all begun to portray me as the next LTTE leader.
Q: This was after Prabhakaran had been killed…
A: Yes. They brought me here on a Sri Lankan airlines flight and first kept me in a house for about two hours. Then they took me to meet Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. At that time, I felt that it was my last moment, that they are going to kill me. But then I spotted a statue of Buddha on the ground floor of Mr Rajapaksa’s house.
A: Yes, a statue of the Buddha - like the one I have here - with lights around it. When I saw it, I felt something different.
Q: What did you feel?
A: I felt like there is no need to worry, that nothing will happen to me...
Q: So you felt some sort of a silent communication…
A: Yes. I felt that I was being reborn. Feeling like that, I went into his room. He came downstairs and we talked. The meeting lasted for two hours or longer..
Q: What did Gotabhaya Rajapaksa want to know? Your whole story?
A: Yes, my whole story: where certain cadres were, information about their weapons, assets, what my future plans are, why Prabhakaran, even at the last moment, remained defiant, etc. After about two hours, he said okay, some officers will take care of you and they will accompany you. If there are any more questions to discuss, he said would call from time to time. Then I was taken to another place, a house in Colombo where I spent more than two years. Time to time, I had meetings with their officers, who would come to interrogate me. Time passed. I began to feel that remaining in Colombo is useless because nobody is benefiting from it. So, I told Mr
Gotabhaya that I wanted to do something for our community, I said I wanted to run orphanages. They agreed, gave me permission and I began this work.
Q: We are now in the Sencholai Children’s Home. Is this is a girl’s home?
Q: And where are these children from? Who are their parents?
A: Mostly, children affected by the war. Some children have single parents, some children have no parents. They are mostly from this region, Killinochchi and Mullaithivu - where we have two more orphanages. Most of the children – there are more than 350 here – are war-affected. Every child has a story, you can’t imagine how they suffered. Some children even have mental problems from the war. SI have been running these orphanages, and I spend time with these kids for the past five years.
Q: Did you feel that the army and the administration treated you kindly and fairly during those two years in Colombo? And what was your rehabilitation program consist of?
A: It has been more than seven years now of being under army control. I expected to be so, of course, but I thought I would be free one day. This rehabilitation has already lasted seven years. I think it’s enough. I am also getting old. I should be freed one day.
Q: Do you think you will be released?
A: Yes, I feel it should be so. Because everything can change in life.
Q: But have they treated you fairly?
A: Yes, all that’s okay.
Q: Has there ever been any physical violence?
A: No, no.
Q: During your own life with the LTTE, did you ever kill anyone yourself?
A: No. I never touched a weapon.
Q: I can understand your frustration at being in captivity for seven years. Is there any interference in your day-to-day affairs?
A: No, no interference. They are very kind and friendly -everything is okay. Only that as a human, I feel I also have a family, I also have
Q: Does your family come to visit you?
A: Yes, sometimes.
Q: Are you allowed to travel to see your family?
A: Not allowed.
Q: When the new government in Sri Lanka under President Sirisena came to power, they promised a lot of change. They criticized several moves made by the previous one under President Rajapaksa. If you compare the two governments in terms of how both treat you, how do you feel? Is there a difference?
A: Nothing has changed. It’s all the same.
Q: You are supposed to be a very rich man. Do the funds to run these orphanages come from your own wealth?
A: (Laughs): This is incorrect. We have well-wishers among mostly the diaspora and local people. We collect money from them to run the orphanages.
Q: Does the government help as well?
A: No, the government is only paying Rs 500 per month per child. That’s it.
Q: And the army helps?
A: No, nobody.
Q: You are 62 years old. What is your greatest regret? Do you feel you wasted your life?
A: No, but I feel sad. Many people lost their lives, their future, their education, their parents, many were disabled, many lost everything. All because of this war. I am also one of them, a victim of the war. So I feel sad for this and I regret it all on their behalf. I feel that is the only way I can help them.
Q: And do you feel guilty ?
Q: Is that guilt diminishing now, because you are working with the children and feel you are putting something back?
A: When I am here spending time with the kids, then yes, I feel it eases the guilt.
Q: At that time it was the LTTE, today it is the Islamic State, killing and plundering everywhere. Do you see a familiar pattern emerging? Do you have a message to convey to terrorist groups around the world?
A: Of course. As humans, we have to love other humans. Okay, everyone has problems, differences. It is in our nature. Religions have differences, that’s in our nature. But we have to love people. We have to live together. Whatever the differences may be. What the Buddha and what Vivekananda and even the Quran say. All religions say good things, no religion tells you to kill other people. So the whole world should unite and we have to give the next generation ample opportunity. Terrorism can’t achieve anything. What happened in the Middle East? What happened in Libya? In Iraq? It’s a new world order. We can’t achieve anything through violence. We should give new generations a chance.
Q: What do you think of PM Narendra Modi? Have you read or heard of him? He just visited Sri Lanka yesterday…
A: He is trying to do many things for India. He is a moderate leader and his economic policies are very successful in Gujarat. He needs more time to reform India, it’s not easy to do immediately.
Q: How should he deal with terrorism from Pakistan?
A: He is very strong and his position is correct. Nobody should tolerate terrorism.
Q: And how should he deal with the separatism that is being encouraged in Kashmir by a neighbouring country?
A: His way is correct because Kashmir is a local issue so you can’t allow any neighbouring country to get involved. This seems his policy and it is right. If you let them terrorize your area in your land, what is the point?
Q: There is also a lot of concern in India about Sri Lanka’s growing relationship and indebtedness to China. Are you also concerned about this debt crisis? Reportedly, lands are being leased to China, equity is being offered in exchange for debt….
A: China is investing all over the world - even in Africa, so also in Sri Lanka. Investment is investment, business is business. As long as they don’t meddle with our sovereignty, it’s okay. But I don’t think that our government will really lease out the Hambantota harbour to China for 99 years.
Q: As a 62-year-old father who has caused suffering and suffered, who has gone from rebel to reformer himself, what is the key message for the young people of this country and elsewhere?
A: Sri Lanka is a wonderful country. We have some differences as Sri Lankans between Tamils and Sinhalese and Muslims. But we have to find a solution in a peaceful manner. Not with arms. We have to work together as citizens of Sri Lanka. We have to build peace, we have to build the country for our next generation.