This is the second part in a series on North Korea’s assistance to revolutionary movements in Sri Lanka. Click here for part one.
The mortars thumped through the night, drifting from several miles out to sea. By day Trincomalee was a pretty if somnolent port city, ringed by police checkpoints. In the backstreets, shaded by coconut palms, stucco bungalows gave way to multicoloured shrines, Hindu or Catholic. Fishing boats bobbed in the waters near Fort Frederick, a sweeping promontory occupied by the Navy. By night, with curfew imposed, I listened as artillery boomed south towards an area without government control.
“The finest natural harbor in the world,” Horatio Nelson rhapsodized. Later warriors would covet Trincomalee’s seven scallop-shaped bays, potentially deep enough for nuclear submarines to avoid sonar. Not surprisingly, the town was always a focal point in the war between by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) a.k.a. Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan state.
One of the Tigers’ most audacious attacks had taken place a month before my visit. On October 23, 2,000 a flotilla of boats, manned by LTTE guerrillas had smashed into the Trincomalee naval base at dawn. They detonated their explosives adjacent to an anchored troop transport, empty of personnel, destroying it. Three suicide boats were sunk in the harbour by naval gunfire. As a Mi-24 helicopter gunship circled the harbour to support troops fighting a land battle, a rocket streaked from the south, downing it with the loss of two pilots and two air gunners. The suicide attack itself left 18 Tigers and six government troops or sailors dead. North Korean technology had been behind much of it.
‘Terrifying human wave strikes, often launched at night, would overwhelm the government positions’
The Tamil Tigers are today defunct within Sri Lanka itself. Whatever remains of its international money and weapons procurement network is confined to Western capitals such as a Toronto, London, Paris and Oslo, cities with sizeable Tamil populations. The movement may well have a few guerrillas active in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It is also known that a few thousand members of the LTTE are unaccounted for, known not to have been killed in the war but never “rehabilitated” within the government’s network of detention centers afterwards.
It is a far cry from a decade ago, when the Tigers controlled 15,000 square kilometers of territory on the island, including two-thirds of the coastline. Much of this was with the help of North Korean weaponry, including rockets and specialized maritime equipment. Unlike the JVP, who never migrated beyond economic sabotage and the classic guerrilla tactics of hit and run, the Tigers were able to launch frontal strikes against Army bases in the north and east. Terrifying human wave strikes, often launched at night, would overwhelm the government positions. The Tigers would impose full control and their artillery would force back any offensive by government forces to reclaim this land.
Two years before the end of the war, I took a commercial plane up to Jaffna, the major Tamil city in the north, by then an island of government control surrounded by Tiger territory. Rather than flying directly over the Northern Province, the turboprop Fokker-27 detoured way out over the blueness of the Indian Ocean. North Korean surface-to-air missiles had blasted at least one commercial plane out of the sky in September 1998 and their proliferation thousands of feet below kept the main land routes to Jaffna closed.
A few hours later, I stood among the passengers on the dusty airstrip with our cameras handed over, wrapped in cellophane and not be given back until after we had taken a bus out of the High Security Zone. I watched a Ukrainian made Mi-24 helicopter wistfully – it would have made a terrific shot – as it droned like a great prehistoric insect over the watchtowers and palms fringing the air base. A North Korean-sourced SAM had downed one of those aircraft near Jaffna during the week of the naval attack in Trincomalee.
The October 23, 2000 suicide attack in Trincomalee came at the high point of the Tigers’ potency. That April the Tigers had overrun the key Army base at Elephant Pass, putting Jaffna within range of their artillery.
“I told (the leadership) there’s a 14,000 strong army in the Northern Province, they are very strong,” Vinyagamoorthy Muralitharan a.k.a. Colonel Karuna, a defector from the Tigers, told me in an interview immediately after the war, “the army was unnecessarily occupying Jaffna.”
The 9/11 attacks the following year, however, would be a disaster for the LTTE: Although they had never declared war on the United States or targeted Westerners, there was the issue of guilt by association. Suicide bombing technology, most notably the concealed explosive jackets worn by “Black” Tigers, was sold to other groups, including Islamists.
‘The post 9/11 posture of the Bush administration was exceptionally bad news for any guerrilla or insurgent organization’
Thus when war reignited in mid-2006, the Tigers, already weakened by defections and the deaths of some of its capable people, found themselves in a markedly more hostile international climate. The new Sinhalese-nationalist administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa had a friend in China, willing to sell an already bloated military new technology and block efforts to censure the Rajapaksa regime at the United Nations. The post 9/11 posture of the Bush administration was exceptionally bad news for any guerrilla or insurgent organization: it seemed as if no distinction could be drawn between them and the transnational jihad advocated by al-Qaeda. North Korean arms purchases did not help the LTTE cause either.
And when the Sri Lankan Navy began to exact its revenge, sinking LTTE vessels en route to Sri Lanka, American intelligence is believed to have facilitated the process. Between February and October 2007 six of the Tigers’ roughly dozen ships were sunk, depriving North Korea of an estimated $200 million in annual revenue.
American satellite guidance may have assisted the October 2007 sinking of the Matsuseema, a Tiger-owned 70-meter vessel, reputedly capable of carrying 30,000 tons of cargo. The Matsuseema went down, it was carrying communications equipment and high powered outboard motors, sourced in North Korea. All 12 of its crew were killed.
The Tigers were keen exponents of the Internet, in addition to running their own radio and television station. Even today the full YouTube playlist of LTTE propaganda would be long indeed. Among the footage of land battles, battle hymns and addresses from the leadership, clips of the Sea Tigers have been posted with aplomb.
At the height of the war, the organization ran two types of maritime operation. To source weaponry, the Tigers ran a fleet of merchant vessels known as “Sea Pigeons,” registered to legitimate companies and 90 percent of the time transporting legitimate goods like sugar, timber or glass. Much of the weaponry carried during the remaining 10 percent of the time was utilized by the second type of craft, known as “Sea Tigers,” a fleet of attack craft that clashed with the Sri Lankan Navy. Like their land-borne cousins, the Sea Tigers often carried out devastating suicide attacks.
Six months before the Trincomalee attacks, experts from Jane’s Intelligence Review analyzed film footage of eight Sea Tiger speedboats bouncing frothily across the waves. Each was powered by a Johnson or 200-Yamaha engine, in design very similar to a type of craft that North Korea has used in the attempted infiltration of the South. Some vessels in the footage also carried 60mm mortars which may have originated in North Korea. What was undoubtedly sourced there was the tripod-mounted 107mm Katyusha rocket. Capable of traveling for up to eight kilometers, the launcher in the film was double-barreled, a model that is unique to North Korea.
NORTH KOREAN SHOPPING TRIPS
Tamils form around 12 percent of the population of Sri Lanka. Many had prospered under British rule. After independence, increasingly populist Sinhalese politicians had pledged to redress the perceived marginalization of their race and religion. Attempts at peaceful protest by Tamils, aggrieved by the discriminatory laws that ensued, were usually met with violence: hundreds were killed in riots in 1958, 1977 and 1983, the last escalating into an all-out separatist war.
The Tigers were initially one of a handful of guerrilla groups, mostly low-caste youth with a handful of weapons, fighting a low-intensity war on the island’s northern and eastern fringes. That the other Tamil factions were eventually sidelined or simply exterminated by the LTTE is largely attributable to two factors.
One was the absolutism of the Tiger’s Annai (Big Brother) Vellupillai Prabhakaran. The alpha feline inculcated a rigorous puritanism in his fighters, overlaid with a blood-splattered cult of martyrdom. Male and female Tiger units trained and fought separately, ordered to forgo alcohol, tobacco and sex. New recruits were issued with a string necklace bearing a vial of cyanide, to be consumed in the event of enemy capture.
‘Prior to 9/11, the LTTE were the world’s most prolific and devastating exponents of suicide bombing’
The Tamil Tigers were ostensibly left-leaning nationalists, akin to the Viet Cong. Their chief theoretician, a London-educated academic named Dr. Anton Balasingham had written a screed called Towards a Socialist Eelam in 1978. In practice, however, the Tigers seemed much more like a throwback to the kamikaze of wartime Japan. At other times, they seemed to presage the Taliban or even al-Qaida. Prior to 9/11, the LTTE were the world’s most prolific and devastating exponents of suicide bombing.
The second factor was Prabhakaran’s nous in the area of arms of procurement. India, initially at least, taken a very different stance on the Tamil insurgency than it had on the JVP uprising a decade before. The 1983 massacre of Tamils had caused outrage among fellow Hindus across India.
The road to North Korea began in the mid-1980s when the Tigers and other rebel factions were being sheltered by the Indians. The Research and Analysis Wing, India’s CIA equivalent provided them with training and arms. But after Indira Gandhi was murdered by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, her son Rajiv began talking of a negotiated settlement, perhaps devolution for the Tamil areas. To the hard-line Prabhakaran, this was an unacceptable sellout. But luckily for the Tigers, war and anti-Tamil bigotry had forced huge numbers of Tamils overseas. They tended to be well-educated and industrious, traits that had worked to their advantage under the British and to their disadvantage after independence, with Sinhalese nationalism on the rise.
Many Diaspora Tamils were (and remain) instinctively hostile to the Sri Lankan state, more than happy to donate a few dollars or pounds from, say, their medical practice in Toronto or restaurant in London, whenever shadowy representatives of “the boys” came calling. And if not, refusal to pay up could have severe consequences for relatives back in Sri Lanka. By the height of the war, the LTTE’s international wing ran 42 offices around the world.
The flow of Diaspora donations, possibly augmented by such activities as people and narco smuggling, allowed for “Sea Pigeon” merchant vessels to travel the world, picking up choice weaponry. The Tigers anticipated the wave of the future. During the Cold War, few insurgencies needed to bother with independent weapons sourcing: there were always state patrons in Washington, Moscow, Peking, Tel Aviv, Havana or elsewhere, happy to outsource fighting a war to guerrilla outfits. KP’s activities would become routine in the 1990s, an era when globalization and new technologies allowed weapons, drugs or people, often sourced in “failed states” and funded by transnational crime, to flit unseen across increasingly porous national borders. But there still remained a few nations where it was business as usual: North Korea had already offered training and weaponry to groups as diverse as Hezbollah and the “official” IRA.
A year after the war erupted, Prabhakaran hired a man called Selvarasa Pathmanadan as the Tigers’ chief weapons procurer. Using the alias “KP,” he pressed their first ship MV Cholan into action, having seen bought in Singapore. KP briefly led the Tigers in mid-2009, following their military defeat. Having been subject to extraordinary rendition to Sri Lanka following his arrest in a Kuala Lumpur hotel, he was “rehabilitated” and now runs a charity in the Northern Province.
It was some time in 1989, according to terrorism expert Prof. Rohan Gunaratna, that a minister in the Mauritian government arranged meeting between the North Korean regime and agents of the LTTE’s international wing. With a Tamil minority of its own, Mauritius’ governments have generally been sympathetic towards Tamil nationalism: the Prime Minister Navin Chandra Ramgoolam stayed away from last year’s 23rd Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, hosted by Sri Lanka.
The ensuing decade saw the Tigers sharpen their claws. For the first five years, they controlled the major northern city of Jaffna and much of the surrounding peninsula. Government forces expelled them in late 1995 and then tried to re-open the strategic A-9 highway which then cut through Tiger territory. Both sides dug in and under pounding monsoons, the front line edged back and forth every few months, sometimes by only a few kilometers, as if the ghosts of Vietnam and the Western Front had come to the Indian Ocean.
Initially, Southeast Asia had been the obvious place to go hunting for artillery and rifles. Myanmar (Burma) had a dozen on-off separatist rebellions rumbling away. The end of the Cambodian war had left vast stocks of unused weaponry waiting for buyers. Moreover, it was easy to shift arms across poorly patrolled land or maritime borders. Tiger operatives, traveling on fake Indian passports to Singapore and then on to Malaysia, came in contact with KP. Between 1984 and 1990, his men controlled a small island off the coast of peninsular Malaysia, where members of the Sea Tigers trained in naval warfare. In December 1990, however, the Malaysian Special Branch raided KP’s home in Kuala Lumpur and four years later, he transferred to Thailand.
‘LTTE-run merchant vessels, originally purchased in Japan, regularly left North Korean ports between 1998 and 2009, carrying mortars and specialized communications equipment’
But the man who truly masterminded the North Korean-LTTE axis was one Ponniah Anandarajah a.k.a. “Ajah,” a Tamil with U.S. citizenship. A trained accountant and auditor, he had originally worked in the United States’ office of the World Tamil Co-ordinating Committee, one of numerous front organizations that American-based Tiger operatives had run prior to the State Department designating the LTTE as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. By the end of that year, Ajah had moved to Bangkok where he secured employment at the North Korean Embassy on Pattanakarn Road in the Suan Luang district. In his testimony for a state investigation into the final phase of the war, known as the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) Gunaratna testified that “Ayah” traveled regularly to North Korea to buy weaponry.
LTTE-run merchant vessels, originally purchased in Japan, regularly left North Korean ports between 1998 and 2009, carrying mortars and specialized communications equipment. They would dip below the equator to a point on the high seas, where special Sea Tiger vessels would pick them up. The Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun ran reports on the shipments in September 2007. Typically, these vessels bore no flags or identifying markers and when apprehended, fired on naval vessels. It is uncertain if North Korean nationals were killed or captured during the sinking of these ships.
Sri Lanka had never reopened its North Korean embassy after May 1971. Nevertheless, Sri Lankan diplomats went to North Korea’s embassy in New Delhi in 2007 and got the standard assurances that Pyongyang arms dealers had no truck with the Tigers.
Ponniah Anandaraja, now aged 65, was not in Sri Lanka when the last Tiger territory was overrun and the leadership exterminated in May 2009. He is thought to be keeping a low profile – he has an Interpol red notice on him – possibly in upstate New York where he has relatives. It is uncertain if he has any contact with the remnant LTTE factions who advocate a renewed armed insurgency.
Just after New Years’ Day this year, I took the train as far north as it currently runs: to Killinochchi, a town that once functioned as the “capital” of the LTTE-held mini state in northern Sri Lanka.
Although much of the once mortar gouged town has been rebuilt, monuments to the military have also gone up. A huge concrete cuboid surmounted by the “Lion” flag of Sri Lanka has been erected off a junction on Killinochchi’s main thoroughfare. It is fractured by a massive brass bullet and guarded by two soldiers in regimental finery. The Army, almost entirely composed of Sinhalese Buddhists, is present in massive numbers in the North, something that irks many Tamils.
‘…the Tamil Tigers, assisted by North Korean weaponry redefined terrorism and insurgency, specifically in the dark art of suicide bombing’
“First you militarize the whole area. Second, you bring the Sinhalese and settle them down. They already started these things,” says Suresh Premachandran, a Tamil opposition MP, voicing a local fear that the government plans to alter the North’s demographics in order to forestall future separatist aspirations.
Killinochchi was captured by government forces in the final months of a civil war that may have killed over 100,000 people. The end of the war was highly controversial: the March 2011 Darusman Report, instigated at the behest of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, claims that 40,000 civilians perished in early 2009, a figure the Rajapaksa government strenuously denies.
North Korea’s involvement with the LTTE was never ideological: the claw of land that compromised Tamil Eelam was irrelevant to the conceits of North Korea’s leaders.
In his remarks to the LLRC, Professor Gunaratna added: “it is important for North Korea to know what Sri Lanka knows today because it will be a deterrence…Sri Lanka should make a public announcement of its findings that the LTTE was provided weaponry by North Korea.”
Of course it is not hard to imagine what sort of response a “public announcement” would elicit from Pyongyang. But the Tamil Tigers, assisted by North Korean weaponry redefined terrorism and insurgency, specifically in the dark art of suicide bombing. Their legacy would ultimately explode on the streets of Western capitals when Islamist groups copied their methods. In that respect, the Kim dynasty’s carcinogenic impact on the international system is evident. Their influence must never be regarded as peripheral.
Top photo: Tom Farrell
Bottom photo: Francois, Flickr Creative Commons
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