Saturday, October 06, 2007

Case of the vanishing Tiger


SRI Lankans in Colombo are puzzled over the whereabouts of Shanmugan Kumaran Tharmalingam (a.k.a Kumaran Pathmanathan), chief procurer of arms of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The Sri Lankan defence ministry website stated that “reliable sources from Thailand reveal that LTTE’s chief for cross-border terrorist activities, Kumaran Padmanathan, alias KP, has been arrested in Bangkok on Sept 10.”

However, Thai authorities dismissed the report, saying they were not aware of the arrest, if any was made. And Thai police told the media that a thorough check showed that the last time it arrested any LTTE member was in 2003, and he was extradited to Sri Lanka on Aug 15, 2007.

The local newspapers in the teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean are awash with speculation of KP’s supposed disappearance while in Thai custody.

The latest, by the main opposition United National Party, alleged that the Sri Lanka Government had facilitated his release as it had a pre-presidential poll deal between the president and the LTTE.

KP is some sort of an enigma in the conflict-ravaged country where the government is engaged in a two-decade-long military operation to tame the Tigers fighting for a separate homeland and who control areas of the north.

“He is a master of disguise,” said Rauff Hakeem, Sri Lanka’s Posts and Telecommunications Minister, who shared Ramadan delicacies with me at his Colombo residence. However, Rauff, who is the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader, said he was not aware of KP’s present whereabouts.

According to F. Rovik, who is a lawyer with R-Senter, a Norwegian human rights organisation, KP travels widely “with more than 20 passports to his name, and possessing the ability to pass himself off as a middle class Tamil.”

It is believed the 52-year-old Sri Lankan, who is the second most wanted man in Sri Lanka (number one is LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran), has obtained Thai citizenship and is married to a Thai woman.

In India, he is wanted for his alleged role in Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991.

There is no surprise in Sri Lanka that KP’s supposed detention is in Thailand as the LTTE has a colourful existence in the kingdom, which is about 2,200km from northern Sri Lanka.

For example, when the Phuket Marine Police arrested LTTE agent Christy Reginold Lawrence on April 9, 2000, he led them to his shipyard where they found a half-built mini submarine, which could accommodate two to three people.

The Sri Lanka Government revealed that it was similar to a submarine it seized from the LTTE in Jaffna in the early 1990s.

The Tigers, Rovik noted, have been active in Thailand for two decades, using the country to acquire weapons and train cadres and as a transit point for weapons smuggling.

“LTTE has established several front companies and has a broad net of contacts in shipping, military and the police as well as among arms dealers.

“The front companies include shipping companies, trading firms, restaurants and hotels,” he wrote in a published report Peace in Sri Lanka: Obstacles and Opportunities.

Rovik wrote that Thailand’s long coastline, porous borders, modern infrastructure, corrupt officials and a history of gun running since regional conflicts of the 1950s, make it an ideal location for weapons traders and buyers.

“Experts say that some of the arms sold in Thailand are rusty leftovers from the Cambodian conflict, but brand new weapons are also freely available, either smuggled from China or obtained illegally from legal manufactures,” he noted.

“There are more than 10,000 trawlers and other vessels roaming the Thai seas, making it difficult to monitor weapons smuggling.”

He added that the Tigers' front companies and sympathisers in Bangkok had an extensive logistics network.

“Munitions have moved not only through Phuket but also Ranong and Krabi on the Andaman cost, as well as Sattaship on the Gulf of Thailand,” he pointed out.

However, Rovik said LTTE had very limited support, if any, among Thai politicians or the public in general.

“The fact that they have operated in Thailand for so long is purely due to corruption and liberal Thai policies,” he explained.

Whether Thai policies are liberal or not, the fact is KP remains as elusive as ever.

(Published in The Star on Oct 6, 2007, in The Statesman on Oct 10, 2007 and in The Brunei Times on Oct 11, 2007)