An afternoon with an ex-rebel leader

KP 2        As I entered the premises of the famous Sencholai children’s home in the northern Sri Lankan district of Kilinochchi, a girl in her early twenties asked me in Tamil what I was doing there. My Sri Lankan friend told her that we were asked to come by Mr. Pathmanathan. While my friend was explaining to me that she was a rehabilitated ex-LTTE combatant now working at the orphanage, she went inside and brought chairs for us to sit. “Mr. Pathmanathan will be here in a while,” she said in Tamil.

Elusive. Secretive. Notorious. These are some of the words used by journalists and law enforcement officials to describe Selvarasa Pathmanathan, alias Kumaran Pathmanathan or simply KP, who served as the chief arms procurer for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE).

I was expecting the man, who dodged even the most advanced intelligence agencies in the world for at least a decade, to be indeed secretive, and not at all welcoming.But the 58-year-old KP’s demeanour came as something of a shock. His light handshake and the welcoming smile on his face were a long way from what one might expect from an ex-rebel leader. The way he greeted me and his talk-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick speaking voice were so mild-mannered that I figured there must be a good reason for it. “I always speak the truth. I always smile and I don’t lie. That’s what is different about me,” he said.

Hailing from the Tamil cultural heartland of Jaffna, KP put in place a well-established global network that helped the LTTE to become the world’s most heavily armed terrorist outfit, earning the grudging respect of even its enemies. For years he evaded capture by using more than 23 aliases, over 200 passports and multiple bank accounts in London, Frankfurt, Denmark, Athens and Australia. “That time it was easy because nobody watched or monitored such networks before the September 11 attacks. After 9/11 only these operations came to international attention,” he explained.

The international community’s negligence in monitoring and cracking down on illegal arms trade was put to good use starting 1980s by KP and his network, which was better known as the KP Department. He supplied the Tamil Tigers with state-of-the-art weapons ranging from AK-47s to surface-to-air missiles. “I was informed by them about what they want. Then I would buy and ship those to them,” he said. For this high-risk job, he hopped from country to country; India, Singapore, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia among others. “Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are transit points. Many ships come and go from these ports. So it was easy,” he said.

 

KP did not want to risk anything by using merchant ships to smuggle in weapons. Instead, he set up the LTTE’s own shipping line that ferried both legal cargo and illegal contraband to the northern and eastern coastlines of Sri Lanka. I asked whether he had used Maldivian merchant ships or Maldivian territories for his arms smuggling operations. But he simply said that “the Maldives was not suitable” for his operations. “It wasn’t necessary for us to go there because the Maldives isn’t an international shipping location compared to Indonesia or Thailand,” he said. “There was no need for us to use Maldivian merchant ships because the LTTE was quite established, and it had 15 ships.”

Despite being a trusted associate of LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, KP was facing major difficulties in running his network. Some senior leaders, KP accused, wanted more control over the organisation’s overseas operations headed by him. “There were power struggles among some people in the leadership. I was tired and stressed out. That’s why I discussed with [Prabhakaran] and side lined. I told him that I would stay away from the organisation for some time. He also accepted it,” he said.

In late 2002, KP “retired” from the organisation he had helped to build, married a Thai national and began leading a quiet, family life in Thailand. But in late 2007, KP’s peaceful life was interrupted when Thai police raided his residence. He luckily evaded capture as he was not present at his house at the time of the raid. But KP, a  wanted man by both the Interpol and the Indian government, was forced to move to neighbouring Malaysia. There he continued his quiet life. “Even when I was away from the organisation, I followed news and media reports. I knew this one was going to come to a sad end, and that a lot of people were going to lose their lives,” he said. With the hopes of “stopping the war”, KP came out of retirement in January 2009 as the head of the LTTE’s newly-created International Relations Department.

But when KP returned, the situation had changed. The LTTE had lost much of its military capability and supply ships, and was losing its strongholds one after the other. “From 2008 onwards, I passed a message to him that we had to do something. But until Kilinochchi was nearly captured by the government forces, he just ignored it,” he recalled the conversations he had with the Tiger supremo during the last stages of the 26-year long war.

A desperate Prabhakaran, however, later turned to KP to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with the international community and Colombo. KP had several discussions with the UN and Norway, and submitted a proposal to the Tiger chief “that would have ensured the safety of the LTTE leadership”. But to his dismay, the proposal, under which the LTTE would hand over their arms in return for the safe evacuation of its top leaders to either “two African countries” or “one in Asia”, was rejected by Prabhakaran. “At that time, some people were saying negative things about me to him. They were misleading him by giving him false information,” he said.

With KP’s ceasefire proposal rejected, it was a matter of time before the advancing Sri Lankan government forces crushed the rebel fighters and wiped out the terrorist organisation that pioneered suicide bombing. “I tried my best to bring peace and stop this war, but it was too late,” KP recalled. Within days, KP lost “my best friend”. I asked him how Prabhakran’s death affected him emotionally at the time. “It was a big loss for me. So for a few days I was very sad and very emotional,” he said.

With Prabhakaran dead, KP was the most senior Tiger leader alive. In a restructured LTTE, he became its Thalaimai Seyalar, or General Secretary, in July 2009, and announced the organisation’s willingness to negotiate with the government to find a peaceful solution. But KP’s streak of good luck seemingly came to an end in August 2009 when Malaysian authorities arrested him in Kuala Lampur and extradited him to Sri Lanka.

 Prabhakaran (L), ‘KP’ (C), theoretician Anton Balasingham and senior military commander ‘Col.’ Shankar (R).

 

But, back in Colombo, KP was lucky once again. In an extraordinary turn of events, he forged “a mutual trust” with Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, while in custody in suburban Colombo. “The Defence Secretary gave me a chance to help the war-affected people,” he said. However, as expected, KP’s transformation has been a matter of controversy both in Sri Lanka and abroad. He is a “traitor” who has made a “deal” with the Sri Lankan government for his own survival, his critics say, while others say his story is an inspiration to the Tamil Diaspora. But KP denies those allegations, “The reports that I helped the government find LTTE assets are not true. I was far away from the organisation and the country for a long time. It’s impossible for me to know anything about the organisation or its assets,” he said.

Whether the rumours are true or not, the Sri Lankan government has been extremely lenient towards the former rebel. KP was never charged, and in last October, he was moved from Colombo to Kilinochchi, then de facto capital of the Tamil Tigers. I asked KP whether he was still in protective custody. “No, I’m not. I’m free to meet anyone I want, go anywhere and do anything,” he said, with a big grin on his face.

As a free man, the former LTTE chief is now successfully re-establishing himself as a welfare worker. His North-East Rehabilitation and Development Organization (NERDO), he says, is helping the war-affected people, especially the children, through donations, vocational training programmes and educational opportunities. “The children have to study. During the war, for three to four years, some children had never seen a school. Even some Tamil children cannot write Tamil alphabets,” he said.

As we spoke, a van full of children passed by the NERDO-run orphanage once or twice, and KP waved at them. “They’re from this orphanage. Since today is a holiday, I arranged for them a tour of the town,” he said, noticing the surprise look on my face. Is his assistance to the Tamil people a way to strengthen his future political career, I asked. “I’m ready to do what the people want me to do. Even now I’m doing what the people want,” he hesitantly said. I pressed again, but his answer was very vague: “We haven’t reached a conclusion yet. Still we are studying the community and what the people need.”

As we stood up to depart, I asked him one final question, “Do you regret being involved in the LTTE?” He looked at the ground for a while, and said: “We did many mistakes like recruiting child soldiers. Our people are suffering because of the war. I regret for being a part of it, and I’ve apologised to my people.” And with that, the ex-rebel turned welfare worker turned around and walked towards a group of people waiting outside for him.

The following are some excerpts of the interview:

Ali Naafiz: How is the move from Colombo to Kilinochchi?
Kumaran Pathmanathan:
It has been good so far. When I was in Colombo I wasn’t able to get involved as much as I want in the organisation’s work. Earlier I could only visit here just once a month, but now that I’m here I can give my fulltime to it.

AN: What are the projects being carried out by NERDO?
KP:
We have set up some vocational training centres, especially for young girls and boys. We are also helping some war-affected people by donating water pumps, bicycles, and conducting some livelihood programmes for them. We are running three orphanages; this is one, and the other two are in Mullaitivu area. The children have to study. During the war, for three to four years, some children had never seen a school. Even some Tamil children cannot write Tamil alphabets. So this is the problem here.

AN: Do you face any difficulties in running the organisation?
KP:
No, because we are helping the community. But we face financial difficulties. If I had enough finance I would have set up a big institution where children can receive free education and free tuition. I have many ideas. We plan to build a free tuition centre on the next lane. People are so poor here, and the families cannot afford to send their children to private tuition centres. But in Sri Lanka, the children are passing the exams because of private tuition. So I want the people, especially those in the Wanni area, to study. If you compare this area to Colombo or even Jaffna, it’s very backward in terms of education. People here are mostly farmers, and after the war there are not many opportunities to earn a good income. You might have seen some children on the roadside collecting some steel or bomb fragments to sell.

AN: What is the procedure to enrol children in the orphanage?
KP:
Normally, the court will send children to the orphanage. The child protection department also selects the children and send them here.

AN: There are many children who have lost their parents in the war. Do you have any specific programmes for those kids, or do you plan to conduct any?
KP:
We have special programmes for those children to help with their education. Under these programmes, we are paying around Rs.1,000 every month to some 300-400 children for their education. We started this programme three months ago. The first batch that we are helping is in Mullaitivu area. But we plan to increase this assistance, and expand these programmes to Kilinochchi area. Our goal is to help at least 5,000 children with their education.

AN: You mentioned about the financial difficulties you are facing. How do you obtain funding to run the organisation, and how do you plan to increase the funding?
KP: We have friends in the [Tamil] Diaspora who are supporting us. We have established our network, but it’s not enough. We are expanding [our fund raising activities] day by day. We have reached out to some international NGOs as well, but they haven’t responded yet. Also the government doesn’t provide much assistance to NGOs because they have their own development plans. They cannot support these projects.

AN: Are you satisfied with the progress of the development in the war-affected regions?
KP:
The development projects are going on. The only thing is that the people need some livelihood programmes, and help with rebuilding their lives. It’s good to see the roads being constructed and electricity being provided to the households, but the main problem is unemployment. That’s why we need more livelihood programmes. The ordinary people are suffering because they don’t have proper ways to get income. The infrastructure development is tremendous, but the people cannot enjoy these highways and electricity.

AN: You were responsible for the procurement of arms for the LTTE. You ran a global network, known as the KP Department, which had links in different parts of the world. How did you manage to run it at such a massive scale for such a long time?
KP:
That time it was easy because nobody watched or monitored such networks before the September 11 attacks. After 9/11 only these operations came to international attention. The whole Tamil community also supported that cause.

AN: What implications did the 9/11 attacks have on the LTTE, especially your network?
KP:
After 9/11, America considered every organisation as a terrorist organisation. So they started monitoring everything done by not just LTTE, but every organisation like us. I would say that was the turning point. It basically affected everything, from arms supply to the internal management of the LTTE. The international community also gave the LTTE a chance to negotiate [with the Sri Lankan government] and find a peace solution. But the LTTE backed away from the peace talks, and it was again on the radar of many countries including America.

AN: Did the LTTE ever plan to invade an island of Maldives and use it to launch attacks against the Sri Lankan mainland?
KP:
No. The LTTE never had such a plan.

AN: Did the LTTE smuggle in weapons through the Maldivian territories?
KP:
No. It wasn’s necessary for us to go there because the Maldives isn’t an international shipping location compared to Indonesia or Thailand. If any shipment came to the Maldives, they would confiscate it, because a small number of ships come to the Male port. But Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are transit points.

AN: Did the LTTE use Maldivian merchant ships to smuggle weapons?
KP: There was no need for us to use Maldivian merchant ships because the LTTE was quite established, and it had 15 ships. Maldives isn’t suitable for these kinds of activities.

AN: In 1986, an Air Lanka flight bound to the Maldives was attacked by the LTTE. A Maldivian was also killed in the attack. Were you involved in, or aware of, the attack?
KP:
I’m sorry, but I have no knowledge of the LTTE’s attacks. Since I operated mostly from out of the country, I wasn’t briefed about the LTTE’s military activities. My work was very different, and I never discussed such plans with anyone even on the phone. The head office was here and they planned the attacks from here.

AN: At one point, the LTTE controlled almost the entire north and east of Sri Lanka. Why did the LTTE choose not to declare independence?
KP:
Declaration of independence was never an issue, but the problem was that the international community was not willing to accept such a claim. They could have declared it, but it wouldn’t have made any difference. They needed the recognition. Without it, what’s the use of such a declaration?

AN: The LTTE was running a de facto state in the areas they controlled. Media reports have said that some western countries were ready to recognise LTTE as the sole representative of Sri Lankan Tamils and accept its declaration of independence. Why did not the LTTE appoint a government and transform itself into a civilian governing body?
KP:
In order to declare independence, they would need at least some countries to accept it. But no country was ready to recognise the LTTE or accept such a declaration. In every discussion we had with western countries like Norway, we were told that they could not accept a separate state. I think one time in 2004 or 2005 even Prabhakran asked the world leaders to accept their rights. But no one, not even the UN or the US, opened their mouth. In the case of East Timor, the world accepted its declaration of independence. But they were not willing to accept the LTTE’s claim. Instead, they asked the LTTE to find a peaceful solution.

AN: The Sri Lankan government forces were much more advanced than the LTTE and had the backing of the international community. But the LTTE kept fighting till the last minute. Was there ever any hope of achieving a separate state for the Tamils?
KP:
Inside the leadership, they had discussions about holding an election; select some MPs and a prime minister. But for them, I think, the time was not right for them to call an election. Also, sometimes the LTTE made advances, sometimes the Sri Lankan government forces made advances. Prabhakaran got only one chance, but he wasn’t willing to change his policies.

AN: But during the peace talks brokered by Norway, Prabhakaran was a bit lenient. In fact, at the press conference he gave in Kilinochchi, he openly spoke about democratic principles.
KP:
But he never gave up his demand for a separate state. From time to time, he made several claims. But he never changed.

AN: Was that the LTTE’s biggest downfall?
KP:
You’re right. It was one of their biggest mistakes. But everything also changed after 9/11. The world did not recognise Hamas, which had an elected government. They never gave the chance to them. But the international community gave a chance to the LTTE to negotiate. But the LTTE did not accept it, and broke their trust.

AN: Was the LTTE genuinely interested in the Norway-brokered peace talks? Or was it just another ruse to rearm itself?
KP:
Every time when there were peace talks, the LTTE rearmed them. Even the last peace talks were used by them to get more weapons. The LTTE had only one goal; that was a separate state for the Tamils.

AN: You must have had several discussions directly with Prabhakaran. Did he ever express a genuine interest in a peaceful solution?
KP:
He was always interested in the armed struggle. After the 1990s, I never met him. We always spoke on the phone.

AN: After the 9/11, did you try to explain the situation to Prabhakaran?
KP:
I told him then that the 9/11 attacks had affected everything. We discussed about it several times. Here also there were many difficulties, including economic difficulties. That’s why the last peace talks started. We talked seriously about the negotiations. But after one year of negotiations, something went wrong here. There were power struggles among some people in the leadership. I was tired and stressed out. That’s why I discussed it [Prabhakaran] and side lined. I told him that I would stay away from the organisation for some time. He also accepted it.

AN: What were you doing during that period?
KP:
I stayed away from the organisation from 2002 to 2009. I just stayed in Thailand till 2007. After that, I moved to Malaysia and lived a quiet life there.

AN: You have an Interpol red notice issued against you, and you are also wanted by the Indian government in connection with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Were you involved in that assassination?
KP:
Like I said I was not briefed about the LTTE’s military activities and plans. I had no connection with that assassination. After my arrest, I was not questioned by any foreign party. But I have had discussions with some Indian officials two times. They were not interrogations, but discussions like the one we are having now. About the Interpol notice you mentioned, I didn’t know that there was an Interpol red notice against me.

AN: Interpol still lists you as a wanted person. The notice can be seen on its website as well. Still you did not know?
KP:
I didn’t know. I was not informed by anyone.

AN: In January 2009, you were appointed as the head of the International Relations Department. What were you asked to do?
KP:
Even when I was away from the organisation, I followed news and media reports. I knew this one was going to come to a sad end, and that a lot of people were going to lose their lives. So I wanted to stop that. I knew the war was going to end. I wanted to stop that war.

AN: What were your efforts to stop the fighting?
KP:
From 2008 onwards, I passed a message to him that we had to do something. But until Kilinochchi was nearly captured by the government forces, he just ignored it. I then told him that this one was going wrong. He also discussed it with me. He also knew that we had to again go for a ceasefire agreement or something of the sort. But anyhow it was too late. I tried my best to bring peace and stop this war, but it was too late. Some people surrounding him were stubborn and they weren’t listening. But I discussed with the UN and Norway and submitted a proposal to him. The LTTE was to hand over their arms, and in return the top leaders would be transported to a foreign country. It would have ensured the safety of the LTTE leadership.

AN: Which countries offered to give protection to the LTTE leadership?
KP:
Two African countries and one in Asia. I communicated with the governments of those countries, and they were willing.

AN: What was Prabhakaran’s reaction to the proposal?
KP:
It was during the last stages of the war. At that time, some people were saying negative things about me to him. They were misleading him by giving him false information. So he expected something different from me. It was rejected.

AN: What happened to the LTTE’s funds and assets after its demise?
KP:
I have no knowledge of that. You see, from 2002 onwards I was side lined. So there were new networks and new people responsible for fund raising activities. Even when I joined the organisation in January 2009, I wasn’t asked to be involved in any fund raising activities.

AN: The LTTE was one of the most ruthless terrorist organisations the world has ever seen, and yet, with the demise of its leader, the organisation ceased to exist. But in the case of al-Qaeda, the death of Osama bin Laden did not destroy the organisation completely. What was different in LTTE’s case?
KP:
After the JVP [a Sri Lankan opposition party] insurgency, especially their first insurgency in 1971, everyone thought that they were finished. But they were reborn. So now the government, especially the Defence Secretary [Gotabhaya Rajapaksa] knows that even if one person is there, the organisation may be reborn somehow. He understands it.

AN: Are you saying that there is no chance for another Tamil uprising?
KP:
No! Absolutely not!

AN: What would you say about the human rights allegations against the government?
KP:
It was a war. If you look at any war, there would be some mistakes by both the parties. But the war is over now. LTTE also made some mistakes, but it is no more. At the same time, the government forces might have made some mistakes. They might not have. But going deep into those mistakes is not good for our country. What good will it does to the war-affected people? We want to rebuild our country and we want our people to live in peace. Past is past.

AN: But don’t you think that punishing those responsible for those abuses would help the reconciliation process?
KP:
Reconciliation should come from the heart. Do you think if you punish someone, reconciliation would come? If you are to punish people from the government’s side, where’s the LTTE? How will you punish them? Both parties made mistakes, but the LTTE is gone. There are some LTTE cadres in western countries as well. But are those countries ready to hand over them? So we have to think about what’s possible and what’s good for our country.

AN: After your arrest in Malaysia, you were transferred to Colombo. There are media reports that you have since helped the government recover LTTE assets. At what level is your cooperation with the government?
KP:
The Defence Secretary gave me a chance to help the war-affected people. The Defence Secretary and I have built a mutual trust. We have met a couple of times and discussed several matters. The reports that I helped the government find LTTE assets are not true. I was far away from the organisation and the country for a long time. It’s impossible for me to know anything about the organisation or its assets. Nowadays people are writing what they want. But they have to come here and find the real facts; the situation here, what the children need and what the war-affected people are doing.

AN: What is your opinion about the upcoming northern provincial elections?
KP:
I say, let the people decide what they want.

AN: Do you have any political ambitions?
KP:
I’m ready to do what the people want me to do. Even now I’m doing what the people want.

AN: Does that mean you would be contesting the elections?
KP:
We haven’t reached a conclusion yet. Still we are studying the community and what the people need.

AN: In an interview given right after Prabhakran’s death, you had expressed your commitment to continue working for the freedom of the Tamil population. But since then you have completely changed your ideology. What led to the transformation?
KP:
When I was in Malaysia, I had some contacts on the ground here. They informed me that some 2,000 cadres were remaining. So I had that hope, but I never intended to start the armed conflict again. Even in that interview I had said that we would be silencing our guns, and that we were ready to talk with the government. After I was arrested and brought here, the environment here was very different. When I saw with my own eyes the suffering of the people, I knew I had to do something. It is because of this war that they are suffering. Everything they had has been lost. I saw that the people were suffering; the children were crying for their milk. I say, let the government and TNA [Tamil National Alliance] talk and come to a political solution. But I want to feed the people first.

AN: Do you regret being involved in the LTTE?
KP:
Yes, I regret. I have apologised for my people and my country.

AN: The LTTE is accused of recruiting child soldiers, and other human rights abuses. Is there a particular thing that you regret the most?
KP: I regret many things, and the recruitment of young children as soldiers is one thing. Even inside the LTTE, they tortured many people. After I came here only I was able to meet people and know their wrongdoings. I’m surprised why they did so many mistakes.

AN: Are these social welfare programmes your way of apologising to the people?
KP:
No, this is a different matter. The war was my past. I could have just said sorry to my people and stayed quietly without meeting the public, without doing anything. But I feel from my heart that I want to help the people who are suffering here. Even when I was in Thailand, I had been to many orphanages. So I feel that I want to help the children and the elders. This is from the heart.

AN: The rising tensions between hardline Buddhists and minority groups, especially the Muslims and Christians, are alarming. Do you think it could escalate into a conflict?
KP:
No, not a conflict. These are small misunderstandings and disturbances that we have to sort out. But there is no chance for another conflict. Every country has small issues to sort out. I think there are enough experienced people in the government. They can sort it out.

AN: The ethnic conflict also began at a small level, but later escalated into a full-fledged armed conflict that went on for almost three decades. Don’t you think the same could happen again?
KP:
I don’t think so. I believe the Defence Secretary got enough smart people and ways to handle these small disturbances.

AN: There are reports that the hardline Buddhist group, which is creating these tensions, is backed by the highest levels of the government, including the Defence Secretary. What if the government is not willing to solve these issues?
KP:
I haven’t yet asked him about this issue. But I think he is talking with them because it will be easier for him to handle them. May be he wants to keep in touch with them. But he will never allow anyone to disturb the peace in the country, because he’s the one responsible for bringing peace. He may be trying a different approach and strategy.

AN: Some Tamil groups did not support the LTTE’s armed struggle. Since you were one of the leaders of the organisation, some of the anti-LTTE groups might not be happy with you living in the Tamil community. Do you face any difficulties?
KP:
No. The Tamil community is alright. They also feel like this is a new era now.

AN: What is your opinion about the protests being carried out by Tamil Nadu students?
KP:
I think it’s exactly what our politicians did during the 80s. They used the students for their political agendas. Like that, the Tamil Nadu politicians are also using them. These students have not visited Sri Lanka, and they don’t know the real story. I think they should finish their studies first, because it’s going to affect their future.

AN:  Would their protests make a difference in Sri Lanka?
KP:
No. If you visit Mullaitivu and those areas, you will see that our people are very happy. Poverty aside, they can now ride their bicycles freely. They are still economically not stable, but they are enjoying the peace. For them, these protests are nothing. If the students or Tamil Nadu politicians want to help the people, they can come here and help in improving the people’s living conditions.

AN: In the interview given after Prabhakran’s death, you had also said that Prabhkaran was your best friend. His death must have taken an emotional toll on you. What was your reaction when you first heard of his death?
KP: Yes, he was my best friend. It was a big loss for me. So for a few days I was very sad and very emotional. But it is the past. That’s it! (Haveeru)

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