Three days in May (17th -19th) marked the second anniversary of the total military defeat suffered by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE). While a large number of senior LTTE leaders and military commanders including tiger supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran met with their end during this period the greatest LTTE military commander of them all died a year earlier.
Kandiah Balasegaran alias “Brigadier Balraj” the Deputy military chief of the LTTE was spared the ignominy of witnessing the military decline and fall of the tigers in 2009. Balraj regarded as second in command to Prabhakaran in the military sphere died of a heart attack at Puthukkudiyiruppu in the Mullaitheevu district on May 20th 2008.The third anniversary of his death is being observed now.
Balraj promoted posthumously as “Brigadier” had a formidable reputation as a fearless frontline tiger commander who led from the front. Among his many military feats the crowning achievement was the fight he put up in 2000 at Ithaavil on the A-9 Highway that interdicted transport between the Elephant Pass garrison and the supply lines along the Kilaly – Ezhuthumadduvaal-Nagar Kovil axis for 24 days at a stretch.
It was this manoeuvre that resulted in the fall of Elephant pass on April 22nd 2000.Subsequently in the period 2006 – 2009 all areas under LTTE control including Elephant pass were recaptured by the Sri Lankan security forces.Balraj was not alive then.
The military capability of Balraj was appreciated even by his opponents in the Sri Lankan armed forces. It is said that the armed forces regarded Balraj as the finest tactician-fighter in the LTTE and ranked him above his leader Prabhakaran in that respect.
A little known incident that occurred in 2003 illustrates the respect and regard with which Balraj was held by some officers in the Sri Lankan army. The Norway brokered ceasefire was then in progress and an ailing Balraj flew to Singapore with two bodyguards for heart surgery.
Upon his return Balraj found himself “surrounded” by 15 to 20 military officers of captain,major and Lt.Col rank at the Katunayake international airport. The Norwegian officials accompanying Balraj were perturbed as they thought the army officers intended causing harm to Balraj.
That was not so. The army officers with field experience in the north were aware of Balraj’s military prowess and exploits. Despite being enemies on the battle front these officers had a healthy respect for Balraj whom they regarded as a first –class fighter. Knowing that Balraj was returning from Singapore these officers had gathered merely to see him in the flesh. Some smiled and shook hands with Balraj. A few exchanged pleasant words.The Norwegians were relieved that no ugly incident occurred
The brief encounter at Katunayake demonstrated vividly the admiration with which Balraj was held by some military officers. These cheers from the “ranks of Tuscany” were due to the awesome military reputation of Balraj.
While earning the admiration of his military foes Balraj also commanded the respect and awe of LTTE cadre. Balraj who rose from the ranks earned this position through his military skill and courage. His military exploits were legendary making him an icon for many young tigers to follow and emulate.
While Balraj’s military valour was a source of admiration, he was also well –liked by both the people and cadres for his personal attributes. He was a simple , accessible person without pompous pretensions.
Balraj was one of those rare leaders in the LTTE who was genuinely admired and loved by the Tamil people he associated with. He was simple, courteous and accessible.
Balraj used to listen to the problems of the people and tried in his own way to help resolve them. In doing so he fell foul of some other senior LTTE leaders at times.
Many of the tiger leaders have been responsible for several human rights violations. But the deputy military chief was one against whom there were no serious allegations.
Balraj also incurred the wrath of other senior LTTE leaders when he voiced the concerns of ordinary people.
When the LTTE began interfering with the agriculturists of the Wanni by demanding that they sell their produce to the tigers at rock – bottom prices it was to Balraj that the farmers turned.
When the LTTE took over all sea produce and began exerting a monopoly, the affected fisherfolk turned to Soosai and Balraj.
When Balraj took up these issues with Prabakharan on behalf of the people the LTTE seniors in charge of finance, trade etc were offended.
The Wanni population during the times of LTTE domination was a blend of four types of society.
There were the original inhabitants of the Wanni; then there were the Jaffna people who came in some decades ago; there were also the Tamils who relocated to the Wanni after 1995 – 96 when the LTTE was sent out of Jaffna.Fourthly there was the LTTE, their families and the families of close LTTE supporters.
There were tensions among these four different segments. When such problems occurred the ordinary people preferred to seek the help of “understanding” people like Balraj. He was like a pacifier and bridge builder.
In one glaring instance two members of Pottu Amman’s intelligence division drove their vehicle recklessly and killed a young man.
The LTTE police force led by Nadesan (who later became political commissar) refused to take action. This led to enraged relatives storming the cop shop. It was Balraj who managed to douse passions.
Balraj was not an orator. But he had later developed his public – speaking skills. Balraj spoke directly without fanciful flourishes and touched the hearts of his listeners.
One reason that endeared Balraj to the ordinary people was his easy accessibility and simplicity.
While most LTTE leaders moved about in pajeiro vehicles with many bodyguards Balraj moved about on foot or bicycle.
He used motor vehicles only for long trips and travelled about with few bodyguards.
People could easily approach him and talk. He did not keep himself aloof. Even Tamil journalists who have met him were full of praise for the man’s opennness and inter – personal skills.
Likewise cadre under his command loved him because of his concern for them and his friendliness.
Apparently many of the top LTTE leaders got cut off and alienated from the people whose cause they claimed to serve. They also adopted a superior attitude towards low – rung cadre. This too was a contributory factor towards the decay and ultimate defeat of the tigers. Balraj was perhaps a solitary exception.
When Balraj died , LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakharan issued a condolence message. In that Prabhakaran stated “The man who was at the center of many of our Himalayan victories, the heroic military leader, who trained,guided and fought with our fighting formations and conventional brigades is with us no more.”
Prabakharan went on to say of Balraj ” His ability to move the fighting units, his focused actions and his martial characteristics struck fear in the hearts of the enemy. These same characteristics strengthened the conviction and morale of our fighters. They brought us victories”.
In that sense Balraj’s demise exactly a year before the defeat of the LTTE was like a bad omen for the tigers. After his death the LTTE got no military successes. Without Balraj there were no victories.
Even before his death Balraj’s health had deteriorated making it virtually impossible for him to be at the Frontlines regularly. Yet he used to visit the Manal aaru /Weli – Oya battlefront as frequently as possible and supervise/coordinate the military arrangements there.
Severely afflicted with coronary disease and a kidney ailment Balraj was receiving medical attention at Puthukkudiyiruppu when he died of a cardiac seizure at about 2 .00 pm on May 20th. A three – day period of mourning from May 21st – 23rd was declared by the LTTE.
Kandiah Balasegaran alias Balraj was born on November 27th 1965 in the coastal area of Kokkuthoduwaai in Mullaitheevu district. Interestingly, Nov 27th was observed as “Maaveerar Naal” or Great heroes day by the LTTE in later times. This was because the first tiger “Martyr” Sathiyanathan alias Shankar of Kambarmalai died on that day.
Balraj was one of the few top tigers born in the Northern mainland region known as the Wanni. Most tiger leaders who held top positions in the Wanni were born outside the region.
Though Balasegaran was in every sense a native son of the Wanni soil his family roots too were from the Jaffna peninsula. His ancestors hailed from Karaveddy in the Vadamaratchy division of Jaffna. Balraj’s great – grandfather had migrated to Kokkuthoduwai almost a century ago.
The family engaged in both seasonal fishing and agriculture. In recent times after being displaced from Kokkuthoduwaai , Balraj’s family relocated to the Mulliyawalai – Thaniyootru area in Mullaitheevu and engaged in agriculture.
Young Balasegaran was the fourth in a family of four boys and a girl. He was supposedly the brightest child in the family and his father Kandiah and mother Kannagi were very keen to send him to the university.
This was not to be as Balraj had opted to join the Tamil militant movement while doing his GCE advanced level.He had passed his “O”levels with flying colours.
None of his siblings joined the tigers but some nephews and nieces did so and the son of a brother who did so held a senior position in the LTTE.
Balraj had his primary education at Kokkuthoduwaai in Mullaitheevu district and secondary education at Pulmoddai in the Trincomalee district.
This was because Pulmoddai was closer to Kokkuthoduwaai than Mullaitheevu. There were also some close relatives in Pulmoddai.
Kokkuthoduwaai like Kokkilai and Nayaru were places where a large number of migrant Sinhala fishermen used to come and make “Wadiyas” during fishig season.
As a youngster Balraj used to interact with these Sinhala “visitors” and learnt Sinhala well. He was also able to speak English with reasonable fluency.
An interesting feature about the great tiger military commander is the fact that his militant roots were in the Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE).
After the original LTTE split between Umamaheswaran and Prabhan the former had formed the PLOTE .“Suntharam” of Chulipuram played a big role in the new organization until he was shot dead at Chitra press in Jaffna by the LTTE in 1982.
Suntharam had travelled the length and breadth of the North and East and formed clandestine PLOTE cells. Since the PLOTE in those days did not believe in “hit and run “tactics and was preparing for an all – out onslaught these cells were virtually “sleeper” cells.
Balasegaran was recruited by Suntharam while still a student.The youngster was impatient for some action but continued to be a member of the “dormant” PLOTE cell.Graffiti , handmade posters and distribution of leaflets were the modes of political protest.
Meanwhile Lawrence and Saba of the tigers had begun LTTE work in the area and were promoting the movement.
When the July 1983 anti – Tamil pogrom took place and thousands of Tamil youths started joining the militant movements to get military training.
Balasegaran also wanted to do so. But there was family pressure that he continue his studies and enter university. Thus he did not join the rush. Events however began overtaking.
Balasegaran was in Kokkuthoduwaai for school holidays when some youths burned a CTB bus after making crew and passengers dismount at gun point. This act was the first of its kind in the area and there was a backlash. The security officials began arresting youths on a large scale.
Many were assaulted and tortured. Several youths were forced to go underground to evade arrest. Balasegaran was one of them.
Realising that a normal school life was not possible for him any longer Balasegaran decided to join the militant movements. Wanting quick action he thought the LTTE was the best group to join. He severed connections with the “dormant” PLOTE and tried to become a tiger.
For most Tamils at that time all Tamil groups were the same. All were fighting for a common cause.
There was a school master from Jaffna named “Thaas” in the area who was in charge of recruitment for the tigers.Balasegaran approached him. Despite his PLOTE background he was selected and sent to Jaffna. This was in late 1983
Balasegaran found himself in the hands of a tiger operative known as “Bruce” or “Kannadi”. There was a hitch. Balasegaran’s PLOTE link made him suspect in the eyes of the LTTE.
Still the youth’s sincerity was patently visible. So the LTTE kept him but did not send him for military training in India. He was given limited local training and used as a “helper”.Officially he was not made a LTTE cadre but given the nom de guerre Balraj.
Balraj was fond of hunting. He had been on many expeditions in search of game like sambhur, deer and wild boar. As a result he became very familiar with the jungles of sprawling Mullaitheevu district. So the LTTE began utilising him as a guide to negotiate the less travelled jungle trails and tracks.
This was like a period of probation where Balraj’s conduct was scrutinised carefully and loyalty tested. Fate however intervened.
In mid -1984 Balasegaran was travelling in a tractor –trailer with the local tiger leader Lt.Kaandeepan and some other cadres. The army anbushed them at Othiyamalai in the Manal aaru/Weli –Oya region.
Balraj was unarmed and did not fight.However he was accidentally injured in the skirmish with the army though he himself was not a combatant.He was taken to India for medical treatment for injuries to his shoulder.
Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahathaya was now the LTTE military commander for the Wanni region comprising Vavuniya,Mullaitheevu and Kilinochchi regions. Mannar was administered separately.
Mahathaya was in Tamil Nadu for surgery when Balraj was receiving medical treatment.
The “senior” Mahathaya began interacting with Balasegaran and discovered that he was from the Wanni with thorough knowledge of the Manal Aaru/Weli Oya region.
Mahathaya liked what he saw. It was Mahathaya and not Prabhakaran who “recognized in him (Balraj) from the very beginning, the rare martial nature and characteristics that were natural to him”.
Initially it was Mahathaya and not Prabhakaran who helped Balasegaran”develop as an idealistic fighter with great skill and leadership”.
Mahathaya urged Prabakharan then in Chennai that Balasegaran be given military training in India and recruited into LTTE ranks. Prabakharan agreed reluctantly and authorised training for Balasegaran.
This was a departure from the usual LTTE practice where those from other groups were not taken in as regulars.
Though the LTTE chief was reluctant about Balraj ,he later discovered the military potential in him. Prabakharan liked the man and promoted him to unparalleled heights . He even got Balraj married to a close relative.
The fact remains however that Balraj was originally of the PLOTE and that he was a protégée of Mahathaya. In the LTTE propaganda barrage about Brigadier Balraj after his death two salient factors were missing.
One was his PLOTE antecedents and the other was his Mahathaya link.
After recovery Balasegaran was formally inducted into the LTTE in 1984 and given military training in Tamil Nadu as part of the ninth LTTE batch.. His nom de guerre as stated earlier was Balraj.
After training Balraj returned to the Wanni and was absorbed into Mahathaya’s bodyguard unit. Initially he was tasked with cooking meals for fellow fighters.Gradually he was utilised for regular combat also.
Balraj made his mark first in 1986 when he played an active role in taking over the Karadipokku junction in Kiinochchi in what was an abortive bid by Mahathaya to encircle the Kilinochhi military camp. He also participated in the attacks in Thirunagar and Munthirigaikkulam.
When Mahathaya was made deputy – leader of the LTTE he continued to be in overall charge of the Wanni. Jeyam, Suseelan and Paseelan were appointed as military commanders for the districts of Vavuniya, Kilinochchi and Mullaitheevu respectively.
Paseelan in whose memory the LTTE named one of its home made mortars (Paseelan 5000) recognized the military potential of Balraj and got Mahattaya to assign Balraj under his command. Balraj became Paseelan’s deputy and functioned in the Mullaitheevu district.He was stationed at the Manal Aaru – Weli – Oya region. He knew the terrain well.
In 1987 after the Indo –Lanka accord the Indian army was inducted into Northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Mahendrarajah alias Mahattaya the Wanni commander went over to Jaffna with a contingent of Wanni fighters to supplement cadres stationed in Jaffna. Balraj was one of them.
When war erupted with the Indian army on October 10th 1987, a fierce confrontation took place in the Kopay area. It was then that the LTTE lost its first woman fighter Lt.Malathi after whom a woman’s brigade was named later.
Balraj also fought in the Kopay area. He earned praise by firing on advancing Indian battle tanks with a Rocket launcher. One RPG shell fired by Balraj severely damaged an Indian tank.
When the war with the Indian army continued the LTTE supremo Prabakharan, deputy leader Mahathaya and other senior tiger leaders relocated to the Wanni. Prabakharan himself began camping out in the dense jungles of Mullaitheevu.Balraj also returned and resumed duties under Paseelan.
The LTTE Mullaitheevu commander Paseelan was killed in a clash in 1988 when the Indian Army launched an attack on the LTTE camp in the Thaniootru area.The leaderless LTTE was rattled but Balraj rose to the occasion by hastily assuming command. He managed to beat back the Indian army in that assault.
Thereafter Balraj was entrusted with the Mullaitheevu district command. One of the first operations planned and led by Balraj was an ambush of an Indian patrol near a school in Mulliyavalai. Anticipating re-inforcements, Balraj set up a “cut –out”position to confront Indian troops rushing to the aid of colleagues. Around 25 soldiers were killed in the two clashes.
These successes raised the LTTE morale. Balraj also became known as an efficient and skilful military leader.
One of his plus points was that he led from the front. He would inspire and galvanize tiger cadre by courageously leading them up front into the thick of battle. There was no “bull shitting” at the rear.
About 25 years ago this columnist interviewed former LTTE Jaffna district commander Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias “Col” Kittu for the Indian newsmagazine “Frontline”.
A pertinent point made by Kittu then was about the leadership qualities of LTTE commanders. Unlike others , Kittu said, LTTE field commanders lead from the front and do not direct operations from the rear.
Kittu observed that tiger commanders go out front and call upon cadre to follow by shouting “Come Up! Come up!” instead of egging fighters on from behind by ordering “Go forward! Go forward!!”
This tiger trait identified succinctly by Kittu was something Balraj had in ample quantity. Till he became seriously afflicted by illness Balraj always plunged into thick battle leading from the front.
This was a quality absent in many of the latter day crop of “heavyweight” tiger military commanders. This was a major cause for the LTTE military debacle in 2009.
Rapidly rising from the ranks,Balraj led a series of successful military operations.When the LTTE set up its first infantry division, Balraj was made its commander. It was named after Prabhakaran’s friend and deputy Charles Anthony alias Seelan who died in Meesalai on July 15th 1983.
It was in 1996 that Prabakharan gave Balraj his greatest military honour. He appointed Balraj as deputy – military commander.Prabakharan was then the military commander of the LTTE. Thus Balraj became number two in the military hierarchy.
But Balraj had to pay a ”price” for the honour prior to receiving it.
Balraj’s one – time patron and benefactor Mahathaya had fallen out with Prabakharan . Now Prabakharan wanted to detain and interrogate his deputy – leader.
Prabakharan sent three LTTE leaders to “arrest” Mahathaya. They were Sornam, Soosai and Balraj. This was perhaps Prabakharan’s perverse ruse to test Balraj’s loyalty. Balraj had to act against Mahathaya to prove his loyalty to Prabakharan.
This Balraj did. He went along with the others to apprehend the man who had given him his break and taken him under his wing.But then could he have refused to obey Prabakharan?
Hundreds of LTTE cadre surrounded Mahathaya’s place. Initially a young boy was sent to the house. He knocked on the door and rudely asked Mahathaya to accompany him. The LTTE deputy – leader gave a resounding slap and chased him away.
Then Balraj himself went to Mahathaya’s door. The deputy – leader was taken aback to find his former protegee entrusted with the task of arresting him. The fight went out of him.
When Balraj said “Engalode Vaango Annai” (Come along with us elder brother) Mahathaya promptly agreed. He instructed his 40 odd bodyguards not to resist and asked Balraj to ensure that nothing happened to them. He then went meekly with Balraj.
This was the “acid test ” that Balraj had to endure to prove his loyalty to Prabakharan. This betrayal of Mahathaya was Balraj’s stepping stone to greater success and recognition.
The LTTE’s new deputy – military commander began demonstrating his mettle in battle.Balraj’s military record makes interesting reading.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org
Click here for Part II: ‘Brigadier’ Balraj: Legendary commander of the LTTE