By D. B. S. Jeyaraj
Thambirajah Subathiran alias “Robert” was assassinated in Jaffna by a sniper of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Twelve years ago on June 14th 2003 while the Norway facilitated ceasefire between the Sri Lankan Government led by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the LTTE was in force. “Robert “was the deputy leader of the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front(EPRLF)faction led by former North –Eastern chief minister Annamalai Varathaajapperumal at the time he was killed. Two articles about Robert and his killing were written by me then for “The Sunday Leader” in June 2003. I am reproducing both articles without any changes in one post under a new heading on my blog to mark the 12th anniversary of his death,This is the first of the two articles ~ D.B.S.Jeyaraj
Thambirajah Subathiran alias Robert was shot dead on Saturday, June 14 at about 6. 15 a.m. in Jaffna. Subathiran generally known by his nom de guerre Robert was the deputy leader of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) faction led by Annamalai Varatharaja Perumal, former chief minister of the North-Eastern Provincial Council.
The rival faction is led by Suresh Premachandran. The two groupings are described in the media as Suresh Faction and Varathan Faction respectively. With Perumal living in India for reasons of security the actual de-facto leader of the Varathan faction was Subathiran. In terms of ground reality, it deserved to be called EPRLF Robert faction because it was Robert who provided day to day leadership in the north-east for the party.
Robert was staying in the EPRLF party office premises on Hospital Road in Jaffna.The two storeyed building was in the vicinity of Vembadi Girl’s High School. It was daily routine for Robert to exercise every morning on the balcony. He was exercising as usual on that fateful day while two of his comrades stood by watching. Suddenly there were three or four “plops” in succession. A bleeding Subathiran collapsed. He was rushed to the Jaffna Teaching Hospital nearby. Despite the close proximity Robert died before admission. A postmortem revealed later that bullets piercing his shoulder and chest had hit his lungs, arteries and ribs.
The firing had come from a room in a three-storeyed building in the southern area of Vembadi School. A rifle of the ‘sniper’ variety, presumably fixed with a silencer had been used. The assassin or assassins had fired in a south-eastern direction from a distance of approximately 200 metres. The class room was not in use and was usually kept locked. It was found that a square aperture had been made in the wiremesh covering the window to facilitate ‘sniping.’ A table had been dragged to the window and two small sandbags were mounted on it to help place perhaps the rifle. The colour of the sand indicated that it had come from Vembadi school grounds.
There were tell-tale signs the assassins keeping vigil overnight to target Robert in the morning. An empty Coca Cola bottle, half empty water bottle, a half empty mixture packet , a nearly empty Lemon Puff biscuit packet and some chocolate labels were left behind. These suggested that the assassins had been hiding in the room from the previous evening or night.
It was patently clear that the assassins were skilled marksmen as it was only Robert whom they had taken out despite two others being on the balcony. The gun was obviously powerful and sophisticated and would have had telescopic sights necessary for sniping. Taking aim and firing precisely from a particular angle at a distance of around 250 metres was certainly not the handiwork of amateurs.
The testimony of the school’s two watchmen is interesting if true. According to them they had not known anything till two persons came down on the 15 morning and gave them the “key” to the locked room used for the killing. They were carrying a large bag and had no visible firearms on their person. One was a male in trousers and the other a female in school uniform. If these assertions are correct then the gun must have been dismantled and put in the large bag. But how did they get the key to the locked classroom?
EPRLF members suspect complicity or at least knowledge of the killing by the watchers. On the previous 14th evening the party had received a report that the Nallur area Tiger Political Commissar Eswaran was seen at Vembadi school. When the EPRLF men questioned the watchers that evening they had flatly denied it. The watchers Manickam Ilankumaran and Muttukumaru Chandranathan have been taken into custody and have been remanded until further notice for questioning. Recent attempts by interested parties to secure their release on bail have so far proved futile.
Finger of guilt
The finger of guilt as usual points to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tigers have in typical fashion neither denied nor condemned the assassination. Given the recent pattern of political killings in the Tamil areas there are strong grounds to believe that the LTTE is responsible for this murder too. The LTTE however depicts these killings as law and order problems for which the police should take responsibility. Since these incidents take place in government controlled areas the onus is on the state, argues the LTTE. Its Political Wing Chief S. P. Tamilselvan evaded a direct answer when the Norwegian facilitators and monitors broached the subject recently.
In spite of the wall of silence prevailing in the north-east the Tamil people are well aware of who is responsible for what. They know fully well that these types of killings began after Tiger cadres were allowed unfettered entry into government controlled areas to do political work in terms of the ceasefire. This was preceded by the handing over of arms in the possession of Tamil militant groups as stipulated by the ceasefire. Given the fact most of the political activists killed are connected to political organisations opposed to the Tigers and that the LTTE has warned these Tamil political rivals to leave the Tamil areas, it does not require much intelligence to realise what is happening.
Despite the denials, the Tigers often give the game away through sheer arrogance. The LTTE never issues a statement expressing sympathy or condolences when such persons are killed even as a subterfuge to disclaim responsibility. The deafening silence maintained by the LTTE when such murders take place is an indirect indictment of the Tigers. Moreover, why is it that the Tigers who poke their noses into each and every aspect of life in the Tamil regions exercise their authority and prevent such killings? If the Tigers are indeed innocent, then why cannot they clear their name by detecting those responsible and bringing them to justice? Surely the much dreaded LTTE intelligence wing whose tentacles probe every nook and cranny in the north-east can use their expertise and apprehend the culprits? The Tigers have not done that and there are no signs that they will do so in the near future. The reasons then seem obvious and do not need even elementary deduction.
Two recent incidents add weight to the charge against the Tigers. On December 16 last year, the EPRLF Vice Chairman, Mandoor Pradeshiya Sabha in the east, Poopalapillai Alagathurai was abducted by the LTTE. Two identified Tigers – Mylvaganam Paramanathan and Ramiah Rasakutty took him away for questioning. Alagathurai’s dismembered body was found floating in the lagoon on December 22. The acting district judge of Batticaloa ruled after the inquest that the LTTE was responsible for the murder.
The second incident was also in the east.Kathirgamathamby Navasooriyam of the EPRLF was killed while shaving at a barber saloon in Putur, Batticaloa, on May 19. Thereafter some Tamil soldiers of the national guard arrested V. Paraneetharan and T. Sathiyaraj, two members of the LTTE in the area and handed them over to the police. After interrogation the police released Paraneetharan. Sathiyaraj was produced in court and remanded. The LTTE has launched widespread agitations demanding his release. Recently two Sinhala policemen were abducted by the LTTE. Col. Karuna the Eastern Tiger leader has said that they will be released only if Sathiyaraj is set free.
Even though the disappearances and killings of Tamil political dissidents in the north-east have been going on for a long time, there has been very little response to the phenomenon from both official circles as well as the human rights cum peace activist lobby. This was presumably due to a reluctance to ‘upset’ the LTTE in any way. It was felt perhaps that reprimanding the Tigers could lead to a disruption of the so called ‘peace process.’ There was also a feeling that all of these people were para-military or informants because of erroneous reporting by the media.
The killing of Subathiran however has shattered this perception. He is the de-jure No. 2 and de-facto No. 1 of the EPRLF (V) organisation. He is a political leader in his own right whose killing cannot be ignored easily. Thus, the political establishment and media organs have been forced to take notice. Subathiran’s funeral at Kanatte on June 19 was well attended with several politicians and media persons being present. The Indian Deputy High Commissioner too was an attendee.
It is noteworthy in that context to refer to a belief gaining wide currency in Jaffna that Subathiran was killed because of an “Indian connection.” It was reported in the media that a helicopter carrying some Indian officials had landed at the Jaffna Central College grounds recently. Speculation was rife that the officials concerned were RAW operatives. The Jaffna grapevine is now humming that these officials had a 45 minute meeting with Subathiran. The Tigers apparently were upset by this and in a pre-emptive bid had killed Subathiran.
It seems highly unlikely that if Indian intelligence personnel had indeed been in touch with Subathiran they would have done it so openly and brazenly. Cloak and dagger activity is not done so visibly. Only morons would have dared to conduct such a meeting in Jaffna with a Tiger omnipresence. Neither RAW nor Subathiran could be called imbeciles. Besides if a face to face meeting was necessary, Robert could have discreetly visited Colombo.
However implausible this suspicion could very well have been the immediate cause for the LTTE in targeting Robert. With Robert being the mainstay of the EPRLF the LTTE would have certainly wanted him out of the way. The Tigers know that the easiest way to wreck an organisation is to eliminate key figures. The mode of assassination however suggests a sense of urgent priority and in that case Robert’s murder may have been expedited due to this reason.
Whatever the motive, the killing of Subathiran cannot be viewed in isolation and can only be seen as part of the overall picture of prevailing violence in the Tamil regions after the ceasefire. The BBC recently stated that at least 36 persons have been killed for political reasons in the north-east during the past 16 months. According to figures compiled by independent journalists in London, at least eight of these were from the EPRLF Varathan group. Another four EPRLF men have gone missing and are presumed to be dead. Also three other EPRLF men including senior Batticaloa Leader Nesarajah alias Nivas who had joined the Eelam People’s Democratic Party have also been reported missing.
Against this backdrop the killing of Robert – the EPRLF’s north-east commander comes as no surprise. Nevertheless, Subathiran’s murder at this juncture has drawn widespread attention to the post-ceasefire phenomenon of political assassinations. These tragic killings cannot be glossed over in the interests of “peace” any longer. More importantly it raises serious concerns about setting up an interim administration under LTTE control for the north-east in an environment where the fundamental right of life is being denied to those holding divergent political opinion.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thambirajah Subathiran a Fighter for Tamil Rights:Remembering Robert on his 12th Death Anniversary
By D. B. S. Jeyaraj
Thambirajah Subathiran alias “Robert” was assassinated in Jaffna by a sniper of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) Twelve years ago on June 14th 2003 while the Norway facilitated ceasefire between the Sri Lankan Government led by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the LTTE was in force. “Robert “was the deputy leader of the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front(EPRLF)faction led by former North –Eastern chief minister Annamalai Varathaajapperumal at the time he was killed. Two articles about Robert and his killing were written by me then for “The Sunday Leader” in June 2003. I am reproducing both articles without any changes in one post under a new heading on my blog to mark the 12th anniversary of his death,This is the second of the two articles ~ D.B.S.Jeyaraj
“My son is 46 years old but refuses to marry because he has dedicated himself to the upliftment of our Tamil people. Whenever I press him to marry he laughs it off saying that he is already married to the Tamil nation.”
Seventy two year old Ratnammah Thambirajah, seated on a leather armchair at her residence in Toronto was repeating these words to the steady stream of visitors calling on her to express their sympathies over the killing of her son, Thambirajah Subathiran alias Robert in Jaffna on June 14.
A native of Udupiddy and resident of Nunavil in Chavakachcheri, she was now in Canada where her only daughter Thavarajini Balakumar was living. The old woman who had earlier in Sri Lanka lost her brother and husband, both retired police officers to the TELO and LTTE respectively, was now deprived of her only son but seemed unaware that she had lost him.
“How many times I asked him to leave his politics and come here. I told him to go anywhere in the world and that I will send him the money for it. I even offered to set up a business for him in India if he left politics. But he refused saying that he can’t desert his people and movement,” she kept on saying.
Even as the widowed mother went on and on about her son many visitors over the week-end realised that she was still ignorant that Subathiran had died. Ratnammah had only been told that her son had been shot and injured so as to spare her a terrible shock. The idea was to break the news gently in stages.
Could not believe
Ratnammah had tuned in to a Toronto based Tamil radio and heard that her son was killed. She did not believe it. ” They have got it wrong. They announced that my son is dead. He is not dead only wounded. He will recover when I go to him,” she told a friend who listened with tears welling up in her eyes.
Ratnammah and Thavarajini left Canada on Monday, June 16 for Colombo. The Sri Lankan Consulate in Toronto opened up specially for half an hour on Sunday, June 15 to issue an emergency travel document to Ratnammah enabling her to go to Sri Lanka. The cremation was on Thursday, June 19 at the Hindu section of Borella Kanatte cemetery.
Large crowds paid their respects as Subathiran’s body lied in the Jayaratne Funeral Parlour at Borella. Many politicians and journalists were present at the funeral. Earlier his body lied in state at the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) office at Hospital Road in Jaffna. The EPRLF office as well as the EPDP office at Stanley Road blared mournful music over loudspeakers. Various statements expressing condolences and condemnation over the killing were issued.
Subathiran born on December 24, 1957 was educated at Jaffna Central and Manipay Hindu Colleges. His father Thambapillai Thambirajah was a retired police sub-inspector hailing from Nunavil East in Chavakachcheri. His mother born in Udupiddy was the sister of former ASP Kuttipillai Kumar.
The retired police officer had crossed the path of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) led by the legendary Thangathurai alias Thanganna. The TELO was determined to kill Kumar who always carried a gun for his protection. It was known however that Kumar being a devout Hindu did not carry a gun on Fridays. He was buying plantains at the market for his grand daughter on a Friday when Jegan of the TELO closed in on him. Kumar’s hand went instinctively into his pocket reaching for a gun that was not there. Kumar’s hand came out with a handkerchief that fluttered briefly as Jegan gunned him down.
Subathiran’s family was affected in both the 1977 and 1983 communal violence. In 1977 Thambirajah was on duty elsewhere when his house in Kalutara was attacked by mobs. Ratnammah escaped by hiding in a Muslim neighbour’s house. All their belongings were burnt. Ratnamma relocated to Jaffna but Thambirajah continued to serve in the south. In 1983 he was assaulted by mobs in Kirulapone with some fellow Sinhala policemen collaborating. After discharge from hospital the disgusted policeman retired from the force and went home to Jaffna.
Their troubles did not end. The PLOTE took over their house in Udupiddy given as dowry. So they moved to Thambirajah’s house in Nunavil. The LTTE later took over the Udupiddy house and made it a camp. In 1987 during the Vadamarachchy operation led by Denzil Kobbekaduwa the Udupiddy house – being an LTTE base was destroyed.
It was amid these circumstances that Subathiran acquired militant tendencies as a student. He joined the General Union of Eelam Students (GUES) that went on to form the nucleus of the EPRLF. He had a charismatic personality and was able to recruit a large number of youngsters to the movement. Though the EPRLF was conducting a well planned political programme the 1983 violence and consequent Indian involvement compelled that movement to embark upon a militarisation process.
Subathiran took the pseudonym Robert and underwent military training at the EPRLF camp in Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu. He did not receive direct Indian training in Uttar Pradesh. Robert however soon became the EPRLF commander for Jaffna while Douglas Devananda was overall chief of the People’s Liberation Army – the military wing of the EPRLF.
Robert and Ramesh were responsible for the EPRLF’s successful heist of the Jaffna post office amounting to around Rs. 11 lakhs. He was also involved in the Chankanai bank robbery. Robert also led the attack on the Kilinochchi police station and participated in the abortive attack on Karainagar naval base led by Sinnavan under the direction of Douglas.
In 1985 Robert was travelling on a motor cycle with another cadre, Kumar and travelling along Beach Road in Gurunagar by the army cantonment when soldiers recognised Kumar. They fired and killed Kumar while Robert was captured. His importance however was not realised and Subathiran spent more than two years in detention at Gurunagar, Palaly, Elephant Pass and Boosa. He, along with his close friend Sritharan alias Sugu were released after the Indo-Lanka Accord.
Robert followed the EPRLF line faithfully during the IPKF period and at one point was nominated as a provincial councillor. His father Thambirajah worked as security supervisor under the provincial council. An LTTE plot to kill some important EPRLF provincial councillors was foiled by Thambirajah. This led to him being marked by the Tigers. Robert’s father Thambirajah was seized by the LTTE on November 11, 1989. Eyewitnesses saw him struggling and kicking his captors and the vehicle.
The LTTE informed Robert’s mother that her husband was being interrogated. In May 1990 Thambirajah’s mother died. His wife entreated the LTTE to release him so that he could perform the last rites according to custom. The Tigers then told her that her husband had tried to escape from custody by wresting a gun from his guards and had been killed in the fracas. He was cremated on November 17, 1989 at Madduvil, the Tigers said.
Reunion in Madras
Robert meanwhile fled Sri Lanka with other EPRLF cadres after the IPKF withdrew. He went to Orissa and was leader of a refugee camp there. His mother Ratnammah having lost her husband and being parted from her son became an openly defiant critic of the LTTE. The Tigers in 1992 took her by force on a boat to India and left her there. It was an ‘expulsion’ form of punishment. She was reunited with her son in Madras and later returned to Colombo from where she went to Canada.
Robert returned in the mid ’90s to Sri Lanka. After the armed forces recaptured Jaffna, he returned to Jaffna and commenced political work. The atrocities of certain EPRLF sections had alienated the movement from the people. It was due to the untiring efforts of Robert who apologised publicly for past excesses that the EPRLF re-established itself in Jaffna again. The 1998 local authority polls saw the party win seats on several councils. It got 15% of the total vote. Robert was elected Jaffna municipal councillor.
The EPRLF split after the return of Varadaraja Perumal. Robert joined the Varathan faction and became its deputy leader. He was virtually its head as Perumal spent most of his time in India. Robert was also a tower of strength to the Jaffna municipal council and supported the TULF administration in the face of LTTE threats.
In spite of danger he refused to come to Colombo and remained in Jaffna, rallying EPRLF cadres. Maintaining cordial relations with moderate politicians of all hues Robert strove manfully to keep the EPRLF afloat amid turbulent political waters. He never lost sight of the original goal of Tamil emancipation but moderated it now to the vision of regional autonomy along with democracy, pluralism and enforcement of human rights. Though having bade a firm farewell to arms and the Eelam dream Robert continued to remain what he was essentially – a mighty fighter for the rights of Tamils – until the very end.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com