17 May 2010

Exclusive interview: leader of the Tamil Tigers

Two months after the Tamil Tigers’ leader was killed in the final push that ended Sri Lanka’s civil war, his successor gave his only face to face television interview to Channel 4 News.

Interpol listed him as wanted for terrorism and “crimes against life and health”. Male. Age 54. His only known distinguishing feature: “hair combed sideways”.

The many faces of Shanmugam Kumaran Tharmalingam, born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka; alias Selvarasa Pathmanathan, alias Kumaran Pathmanathan – or just plain KP.

For two-and-a-half decades, KP roamed the world on 23 different passports, racketeering and gun-running. He made possible the suicide bombings and other grisly excesses of the Tamil insurgency.

He was officially announced as the new leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in July 2009. “Against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s boastful propaganda that the Tigers have been annihilated,” the statement said, “it is our historic duty to rise up and fight for our legitimate rights.”

Picture reportedly of Tamil Tiger leader Selvarasa Pathmanathan (credit:Reuters)

“Like all liberation struggles, we will modify the form and strategies of our struggle according to times and demands,” the statement said.

He was arrested in a South Asian country on 5 August 2009, just weeks after Channel 4 News’ exclusively interview with him was aired.

After an elaborate international journey, Channel 4 News was secretly escorted to an undisclosed destination outside Sri Lanka, to meet the man who for 25 years the Colombo government has hunted and failed to track down. It was his first television interviewed face to face.

The Tamil Tigers’ dream is of an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who have claimed unfair treatment at the hands of Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese.

The rebels were militarily defeated in May 2009. In the final onslaught, their founding leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was shot dead. Under his orders, the Tigers assassinated many moderate Tamils who might have provided alternative leadership. So, KP became his anointed successor.

'They are dying'
As the Tamil Tigers laid down their arms at the end of the conflict. KP told Alex Thomson in an exclusive phone interview that the LTTE "are agreed to stop this war because our civilian people - they are dying."

He denied using Tamil civilians as human shields: "We never take the civilians with us. The civilians they are our relatives or they our family. Also they don't believe the Sri Lankan army will make security for them. So they stay with us.

"Absolutely we never shoot them. Sometimes some crossfire happens but why would we kill our own people?"

Read the full transcript here.

“Still we have fighting force; we can continue our armed struggle,” KP said. “We have our friends and fighters they are in the jungle. We silence the guns. They accept my leadership. We silence the guns; they are silent.

“They are waiting for my next instructions. We can continue the fighting years and years; it’s not that difficult.”

KP claimed to have between 1,500 and 2,000 fighters still in the jungle under his command, but said he had called an end to the armed struggle.

“The international community expect from us to find a political solution. But the Sri Lankan government, they are not ready to find a solution!”

“They are waiting for my next instructions. We can continue the fighting years and years; it’s not that difficult.” Selvarasa Pathmanathan

At no point did KP actually renounce violence. With 300,000 Tamils imprisoned behind barbed wire in camps, he warned that the armed struggle might be rekindled if Sri Lanka’s ultranationalist President Mahinda Rajapaksa did not release them and fails to deliver on promises to grant Tamils equal rights.

He said: “Actually it’s a concentration camps. It still more than 50 days they don’t allowed any free media. The people are every day dying. They don’t have enough food or medicine.

“They divide the children and the parents; they divide the husband and wife. And they keep them as slaves. They are keeping our people inside the camp and they treat them as slaves.

“It’s like a revenge. I don’t understand! If he wants to be a good leader he should find a way to release the people and find a way to solve the problem! They are going to create the armed struggle again if they go like this.”

Camp conditions
Channel 4 News's report on sexual abuse and disappearances from the Tamil refugee camp in the Sri Lankan city of Vavuniya led to Asia correspondent Nick Paton Walsh being expelled from the country.
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The government said the Tamils would stay in the camps until they were all “screened” for possible links to the Tigers. At the time the interview was broadcast, foreign aid workers told Channel 4 News that conditions in the camps had slightly improved, but that food rations are still inadequate and killer diseases remain prevalent.

One senior aid worker said: “I don’t think they can hide hundreds of bodies every day. But we don’t have access to the camps and we don’t have access to the figures. Nobody is able to make an independent assessment of these people’s needs. This raises suspicion and worry.”

“I don’t think they can hide hundreds of bodies every day. But we don’t have access to the camps and we don’t have access to the figures” Senior aid worker

The camps were a potent rallying point for the Tamil diaspora. The government claims KP extorted huge sums from the exile community to buy weapons and amass cash and assets worth between $1bn and $5bn.

KP made no apology for his part in a conflict in which more than 80,000 people died. They started it, he kept saying; they killed our people. His only expressed regret: the Tigers’ use of child soldiers.

“We don’t agree the child soldiers. Some time in the moment also inside the organisation, some errors, some people they took the child soldiers, I agree. But it’s some error we say that sorry for that. I don’t deny everything but some still there, some mistake I agreed. But I never agreed or accept the child soldiers.”

Sri Lankan High Commission response
There are three areas of concern with the allegations made by Selvarasa Pathmanathan.

Firstly the fact that he recognises himself as the new leader of the LTTE and has been selected as such, secondly that he believes his cadres are in the jungle awaiting his instructions to resume the struggle, and finally his allegation that people are dying in what he calls concentration camps.

With regard to these allegations: Firstly we do not recognise Selvarasa Pathmanathan as the leader of the LTTE.

There is no organisation called the LTTE existing in Sri Lanka at present for Selvarasa Pathmanathan or someone else to give leadership to.

The humanitarian military operations that concluded last May saw the total elimination of the LTTE along with their entire leadership and all military materiel.
Sri Lankan forces are in total control of the situation in the country and their forces are dominating every inch of the ground which was under LTTE control three years ago. So there are no LTTE cadres with weapons in the jungle as claimed by Pathmanathan.

We know that Interpol is after Pathmanathan, and that India is also after (him) and we are certain that he will be arrested very soon and will be charged for his involvement with procurement of arms for the LTTE and for many other atrocities.

We deny his assertion that the Sri Lankan government is unwilling to negotiate a peaceful political solution, as our government and all Sri Lankan governments since 1985 have always been willing to negotiate and the door has always been open for negotiation.Right now we are negotiating with moderate Tamils, like Anandasangaree the head of the main Tamil political party in Sri Lanka.

His claim that people are dying in the IDSL camps is untrue. It is a part of his propaganda campaign to bring disrepute to Sri Lanka and to mislead the international community.

The reason why we are responding to Pathmanathans allegations through Channel 4 News is that we believe Channel 4 News is a responsible media organisation.

Otherwise it is a waste of time and futile to respond to false statements made by a person like him.

Inevitably, KP paints himself as a freedom fighter; the Tigers are not the blood-soaked terrorists the President claims, he says.

“What is the problem? I don’t understand! OK, until May he say ‘Terrorist! Terrorist! Terrorist!’ In this freedom struggle even say Nelson Mandela, even say Arafat, Yassar Arafat, they are the wanted persons. So the Sri Lankan government, they use every tactic to wipe out our freedom struggle.”

“Save my people and give the freedom for them. Let them stay peacefully without the bombing sound and without shooting fire…It is my life dream – it’s nothing else.” Selvarasa Pathmanathan

The man who built the Tigers’ military might in charge, by default, of an organisation that’s been militarily crushed, but he had no option but to pursue a different path. KP’s claim of legitimacy as leader rested on the fact that he is the sole survivor of Prabhakaran’s inner circle. He was my best friend, he said, I don’t know how I’ll recover. He says they shared the same dream.

“Save my people and give the freedom for them. Let them stay peacefully without the bombing sound and without shooting fire. Let them free our children: go to school and they play and they catch our hand and play. It is my life dream – it’s nothing else.”

With that, the tall man in the baseball cap, who says he was learning to meditate to help take his mind off things, and who likes to go jogging, returned to his life on the run.

Execution video
Three months after Sri Lanka declared victory over the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, Channel 4 News broadcast footage apparently showing government troops summarily executing Tamils during the final push of the war.

Sri Lankan officials branded the video as a fake, but a UN investigation said it "appears authentic".

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