By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK, Aug 7 (IPS) – Sri Lanka’s vanquished Tamil Tiger rebels suffered another major blow with the arrest of their new leader on August 5.
Selvarasa Pathmanathan, an internationally-wanted operative, was reportedly arrested in a South-east Asian capital. His arrest, shrouded in mystery, has further tightened the noose around the remaining rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), whose supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed in a bloody showdown in north-eastern Sri Lanka in mid-May. Pathmanathan, who claimed the mantle of the LTTE leadership after Prabhakarn’s death, is a prized catch for the Sri Lankan government.
While Sri Lankan officials confirmed that the 54-year-old Pathmanathan was flown into Colombo accompanied by intelligence officials, they did not divulge which South-east Asian capital — Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore — that flight began in.
“Naming the country where he was arrested will raise issues like extradition treaties and if any laws were violated,” said an Asian diplomatic source, who requested anonymity. “It will also be seen as another case of rendition, which can be embarrassing for the country concerned.”
That explains why reports of Pathmanathan being apprehended in Bangkok were soon dismissed by the Sri Lankan government. Some media reports claim he was arrested in Kuala Lumpur. But Thai and Malaysian authorities have denied that Pathmanathan, known to many by his alias ‘KP’, was apprehended in their backyards.
The Sri Lankan government has much to cheer about considering Pathmanathan played a major role in strengthening the LTTE. During his many decades living outside Sri Lanka, he presided over a global network of arms smuggling, bolstering its military strength during its nearly three-decade long separatist struggle against Sri Lankan troops.
“This is a significant breakthrough for the government,” Iqbal Athas, a defence analyst for Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times newspaper said in a telephone interview from Colombo. “He holds the answers to a number of questions about the LTTE’s international operations.”
Among them, according to Athas, is the global fundrasing network for the LTTE that spans from Australia, on the one end, to Canada, on the other. “His international network to procure weapons and the support he received from groups around the world will be unraveled.”
However, Sri Lanka could have laid its hands on such information much earlier. In September 2007, Pathmanathan was arrested in Thailand, according to well-placed sources, but was subsequently released due to diplomatic bungling by Colombo.
That his luck ran out in South-east Asia is no surprise since this region has been his turf to build an underground LTTE network since the early 1990s.
The end of a long conflict in Cambodia led to its emergence as a major arms bazaar, attracting the likes of Pathamanathan. “During that period in the early 1990s, the LTTE bought its weapons in Cambodia, while Thailand’s role was the transit point,” says Anthony Davis, an Asian security analyst for IHS Janes, a London-based global information provider on defence and national security issues.
Malaysia has been important to the LTTE because of its large Tamil diaspora, while “Singapore was where lot of money transactions took place,” Davis told IPS.
In the past, the region’s governments and the local media have confirmed the presence of the LTTE’s network, ranging from money laundering to weapons trade. In November 2006, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen revealed that arms purchased in his country were being smuggled out to help the Tigers.
Years ago, Thailand was in the spotlight after reports emerged that the Tigers were using the country’s Andaman coast to boost its tactical strength against Sri Lankan troops. The Sea Tigers, the naval wing of the LTTE, allegedly received military training from Norwegian ex-special forces to mount underwater demolition strikes among other things.
According to Lloyd’s List, the London-based shipping publication, the Tigers had moved its operations to Thailand’s southern coast after being forced to end operations in Burma, another South-east Asian country, in 1996.
Presiding over this widespread network was Pathmanathan, who Davis describes as an “internationally sophisticated operative skilled as a banker, arms smuggler and [who is] well versed in intelligence.”
“He brought together a rare convergence of skills,” adds Davis. “He was a class of his own even at an international level.”
It was these skills that enabled Pathmanathan, a native of Jaffna peninsular, to take on many aliases and hold over 10 passports to dodge being arrested by governments that wanted him and Interpol, too.
The ‘KP Department’ that he set up also operated a fleet of ships and had a presence in other lucrative spots that were magnets for gunrunners, such as Afghanistan, Eritrea and Ukraine. At its peak, some security experts say, the ‘KP Department’ contributed substantially to the LTTE’s annual earnings which ranged between 200 and 300 million U.S. dollars.
Earlier this year, as the LTTE faced defeat, Pathmanathan was assigned a political role by the cornered Prabhakaran. He was asked to head the international affairs department of the rebels.
Pathmanathan, who is married to a Thai national from the city of Chiang Mai, pursued his new mission from Malaysia. It was in the latter country that he had a secret rendezvous with a Norwegian diplomat and also talked to a ranking United Nations official to secure relief measures for the cornered Tiger leadership in north-eastern Sri Lanka.
After Prabhakaran’s death, which effectively brought to an end the ethnic conflict that led to nearly 100,000 deaths, Pathmanathan declared that he was the new leader of the LTTE. To cement his new profile, he became more public. He gave a television interview to a British broadcaster and becoming more vocal on websites advocating the Tamil cause.
“He exposed himself after years of living an underground life,” says an Asian intelligence expert who has been monitoring the LTTE for years. “He was done in by all this new publicity.”