by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Today April 4th is the third death anniversary of Velayuthapillai Bhagheerathakumar alias Theepan of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE). He died in the decisive battle of Aananthapuram along with several frontline commanders and hundreds of cadres of the tigers in that confrontation.
Theepan like Balraj was a fearless fighter and admirable tactician. He was holding the title of “Vadamunai Thalapathi” or Northern point commander at the time of his death.
Theepan refused to retreat from the battlefront without his comrades at arms and opted to face death along with them rather than escape from the front like Col Bhanu. Even the Sri Lankan armed forces were impressed by Theepan’s heroic courage. Complimentary references were made to him in the Defence ministry website then.
I wrote an article about Theepan after the death of this Northern warrior. It was first published in the “Daily Mirror” of April 11th 2009. An updated version was posted on my blog a few days later.
Incidently this article on Theepan was the last of my articles that was translated into Tamil for LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to read. He made it a practice to get some English articles written by a few journalists translated into Tamil for him to read. My articles were regularly translated and read by him.
I learnt that Prabhakaran had been particularly keen to read this piece on Theepan and got the translator to do it overnight and give it to him. After this article this person was not asked to translate any more articles. The main reason for this was due to the situation changing drastically after the Aanandhapuram battle and the state of abnormalcy which prevailed in the beleaguered areas under LTTE control. The translator too was injured in shelling later and is now living abroad.
I am reproducing the article now on my blog to commemorate the third death anniversary of Theepan.
Here it is Friends –
Theepan of the LTTE: Heroic saga of a Northern warrior
by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
“All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry,
And even the ranks of Tuscany
Could scarce forbear to cheer” -Thomas Babington Macaulay
I was reminded of the above lines from the original “Horatius” poem by Macaulay when I was reading a posting on the defence ministry website headlined “Driven to their deaths in vain”.
It was about the large number of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadres and leaders killed at Aananthapuram in the Puthukkudiyiruppu AGA division.
The tone and content departed to some degree from the usual defence ministry rants about terrorists and terror bodies etc. Despite the defence establishment constraints this piece though critical of the LTTE leadership was somewhat sympathetic and to a lesser extent , even appreciative of the fallen tigers.
It was not that the LTTE was being supported or praised but the courage and sacrifice of those tigers who died in vain was recognized and admired. Being fighters themselves the security forces were able to relate with respect to this phenomenon though the vanquished were from enemy ranks.
Here is an excerpt from it-“The men and women in the professional arms of the security forces value honour more than anything else. They fight for the cause they believe in and seek honour by contributing towards its realisation. This is the reason that the armed forces personnel are trained to respect the fallen enemy. We do not wish to insult Theepan, Vidusha, Durga, Gadhapi, Gopith, Nagesh, and the rest who died in the recent fighting. Indeed, they were the cream of the LTTE fighting cadre”.
Just as the “ranks of Tuscany” cheered the valiant efforts of Horatius , here the ranks of Sri Lankan defence forces were acknowledging-perhaps grudgingly-the bravery of the fallen enemy.
The Defence ministry could have gone to town about this victory but in a display of decency and good taste, it has refrained from doing so.
This is in striking contrast to the vocal warriors of the Sinhala Diaspora whose triumphalist cacophony has been disgustingly revolting.
The Tigers suffered a tremendous blow in the first week of April. In what may very well be the defining moment of the on going war, the tigers lost a vast array of illustrious fighting commanders as well as large numbers of cadres in a single battle.
Some of the military top brass in “off the record” discussions about the tiger debacle with trusted scribes had many good things to say about Theepan. His military record has earned the admiration of the security forces.
Also intercepts revealed that Theepan had refused to break out through military encirclement and escape without his cadres. This was another reason for the military upper echelons to be impressed by Theepan.
Among the fallen tigers “Colonel” Theepan is perhaps the single biggest loss to the movement.Theepan’s death has not been publicly acknowledged by the LTTE.
Nevertheless it is learnt reliably that Theepan and many of the fallen fighters were posthumously promoted by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in a low-key event held in Valaingarmadam. Theepan has been designated brigadiers for now.
The LTTE is planning to release the names and ranks of the fallen tigers sometime in the future. There is a strong possibility that Theepan may be posthumously promoted as Major-General. If that happens Theepan would be the LTTE’s first “Maj-Gen”.
There is a very big Question mark over the “militaristic” future of the LTTE. But if it was ever possible for the tigers to return to a “business as usual” situation the void left by Theepan can never be filled. It’s an irreplaceable loss.
The life and times of “Col” Theepan are indeed interesting.A trip down memory lane would be helpful in gaining insight about the heroic saga of this fallen northern warrior.
Velayuthapillai Baheerathakumar alias Theepan was from Kandawalai in the Kilinochchi district. He used to adopt the nom de guerre Sivatheeban and an alias Thavabalasingham at times .
Theepan’s family had its origins in Varani in the Thenmaratchy sector within the Jaffna peninsula.
He was a student at Chavakachcheri Hindu College in Sangathaanai. He was in the Bio group for his GCE A levels and obtained results that could have qualified him to enter Varsity as a Bio-Science student. But Baheerathakumar opted to be a militant instead of being an undergrad.
Theepan was a cousin of Thileepan alias “Curdles”, former LTTE commander for Thenmaratchy region who was killed in the Kaithaddy explosion of Feb 14th 1987.
Curdles also known as “Kerdy” was also from Kandawalai where his father served as School principal for a long time.
According to knowledgeable circles it was Curdles who recruited his younger cousin into the movement. Baheerathakumar joined the LTTE in early 1984.
He underwent arms training and assumed the nom de guerre “Theepan”. His communication codename was “Tango Papa”.
The LTTE had then divided the Northern mainland known as Wanni into two regions for their purposes. Mannar district was one region while the districts of Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Mullaitheevu formed another unit.
Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahathaya was the commander then for the greater Wanni LTTE division. Newly recruited Theepan hailing from Kandawalai ,was placed under Mahathaya’s Wanni command.
Mahathaya ,the man who recognized the talent of Balraj and propped him up in the LTTE was also quick to recognize Theepan’s potential. He took a liking to him and inducted Theepan into his bodyguard unit.
1987 saw some administrative changes within the LTTE resulting in Mahathaya relocating to Jaffna and becoming deputy-leader of the LTTE. The Wanni was re-divided into Vavuniya, Kilinochchi and Mullaitheevu districts . Jeyam, Suseelan and Paseelan were the respective district commanders.
Theepan accompanied Mahathaya to Jaffna and functioned as his chief bodyguard.It was on July 29th 1987 that the Indo-Lanka accord was signed. Soon war broke out between the Indian army and the LTTE.
One incident that took place during the early stages of the fighting was the capture of 18 Indian soldiers at Pandatheruppu by the LTTE. They were later released back to the Indian army.
There was a ceremony to mark this “hand-over” and a contingent of media persons were flown in without visas from Chennai to Palaly. Mahathaya personally handed over the 18 soldiers. Photographs taken on the occasion show a young Theepan standing dutifully behind Mahathaya.
Later Mahathaya got back to the Wanni and stationed himself at Paalamottai in the Vavuniya district. Theepan too was at Paalamottai. But LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had also relocated to the Wanni and gradually began running things his own way.
Lt. COL KILMAN
Theepan was placed in charge of Kilinochchi as military commander. Despite the overwhelming presence of the Indian army, Theepan managed to evade capture by moving from place to place within the district.
The LTTE under Theepan carried out many attacks against the Indian army in K’nochchi district. District-wise, K’nochchi had the second largest number of anti-IPKF operations. Only M’theevu had more. The LTTE in that district was led by Kandia Balasegaran alias Balraj.
It was during the Indian army period that Theepan’s younger brother also joined the LTTE. Like his elder sibling, he too rose rapidly from the ranks and was at one stage appointed as commander of the LTTE’s Charles Anthony infantry division.
Theepan’s younger brother Velayuthapillai Sivakumar who used the nom de guerre “Kilman” was sent to Trincomalee district as commander in charge of the Charles Anthony division in 1993. He was killed in an accidental explosion there in 1994 and was posthumously elevated to “Lt. Col” rank.
Prabhakaran “re-unified” the Wanni command again in late 1988. He brought all three districts under one regional command. Balraj was made Wanni military commander and Maran the political commissar. Theepan was appointed as deputy-military commander to Balraj.
The Indian army left Lankan shores in March 1990. War erupted between the Premadasa government and the LTTE in June 1990. Under Balraj’s leadership the LTTE conducted several successful operations against the Armed forces in the Wanni.Chief among them were the overrunning of Mankulam and Kokavil camps.
Theepan served as an efficient deputy to Balraj. Both were of the same mould being courageous fighters who led from the Front.There was great affinity between both as comrades.
When Balraj died in May 2008, Theepan broke down when delivering an eulogy.
Theepan said of Balraj then “Ennai Aruhil vaithirunthu Thalapathiaaha valarthedutha thalapathy,Avar En por Aasaan” (he was the commander who kept me at his side and nurtured me as a commander. He was my guru of war)
Balraj along with Theepan participated in the 1991 attack on Elephant Pass which ended in failure. It is said that the Wanni contingent led by both of them was successful in taking Kurinchatheevu area structures and adjacent buildings.
But others tasked with different objectives were not so successful. 673 tiger cadres perished in the abortive attack.
In 1992 , Balraj was appointed as commander of the newly raised Charles Anthony infantry division. Theepan his deputy succeeded Balraj as Wanni region commander.
The Balraj-Theepan duo scored a significant success when the LTTE launched a successful attack on Janakapura (Mannkindimalai) in the Manal Aaru/Weli Oya region. It was codenamed operation “Ithayabhoomi” (heartland)
Two major battles where Theepan proved his prowess were at Poonagary during “operation Thavalai (Frog) and in the peninsula during “operation Yarl Devi”.
The amphibious “frog” operation of November 1993 was a combined effort in which cadres from different regions were mobilised. The sprawling army base at Poonagary and Naval base at Nagathevanthurai were simultaneously targeted.
Bhanu had to target Nagathevanthurai main camp while Theepan had to demolish the main camp in Poonagary. Bhanu discharged his duties efficiently and virtually demolished the navy camp.
But the LTTE ran into difficulties at Poonagary. The plan was to target the main camp as well as the satellite mini- camps simultaneously. Thus Theepan and his cadres had to infiltrate deep into the base complex.
Even as Theepan & co were crawling through the sprawling complex , another tiger team was detected at the periphery. As firing began, Theepan and his team had to run fast towards their target so as to retain some element of surprise at least.
This they did and it was a panting Theepan and cadres who commenced the attack on the main camp. Though successful “operation Frog” was not an overwhelming tiger victory as the soldiers rallied and converged at the Kalmunai point area thus avoiding total annihilation.
Another incident where Theepan made an impressive showing was “operation Yarl Devi” in September 1993 where soldiers marched northwards into the peninsula from Elephant Pass. Balraj and Theepan were in charge of countering the incursion.
Balraj got injured on the first day of battle and thereafter it was Theepan’s lot to take charge. This he did and beat back the army at Puloppalai after letting troops advance.
Theepan’s deputies in this operation were Navaneethan and Naresh .They were in charge of Mullaitheevu and Kilinochchi districts repectively under Theepan the overall Wanni commander.
It is said that Theepan concealed cadres within sand dunes for hours and hours thus springing a lethal surprise in ambushing advancing soldiers.
The LTTE seized two T-55 tanks during these battles. The tigers used these for many operations later including one where they buried a T-55 in the sand at Challai and fired upon an unsuspecting Dvora that had come close to the beach.
Ironically the LTTE lost both T-55’s in the recent rounds of fighting. One was destroyed at Northern Puthukkudiyiruppu and the other was re-captured in the recent fighting in Southern Puthukkudiyiruppu.
The LTTE’s deputy leader Mahathaya was arrested and executed on charges of treason in 1994.In the aftermath of that episode, Theepan was transferred to Jaffna from the Wanni.It was during this time that Chandrika Kumaratunga was elected and peace talks commenced.
Talks broke down and the LTTE began fighting again. When “operation Leap Forward” took place, Theepan fought along with LTTE cadres in Jaffna to repel it.He was also part of tiger resistance to “operation Thunderstrike” in Jaffna.
Then came “operation Riviresa”. Initially Balraj and Sornam were made joint commanders to counter it. But after a while Prabhakaran replaced both with Theepan and Bhanu.
They were appointed as joint commanders after the Army had entered Jaffna municipal limits. Theepan’s assignment was to delay the army and prevent the take-over of Jaffna before Great Heroes day of November 27th.
Theepan led a small force, offering fierce resistance even as all the main routes to Jaffna were being gradually blocked by the army. It appeared that the tigers defending the town area under Theepan would be boxed in and trapped inside Jaffna town.
But Theepan ,managed to prevent the fall of Jaffna till Nov 27th and then withdrew with his cadres by wading through the Pannai lagoon waters for quite a distance until the sea tigers led by Soosai evacuated them safely.
Former deputy defence minister Anuruddha Ratwatte hoisted the national flag at Durayappah stadium on Dec 5th 1995.
The LTTE withdrew from Jaffna peninsula by April-May 1996. Immediately after this , Prabhakaran summoned Theepan and ordered him to undertake “rekke” (reconnaissance) of the Mullaitheevu army camp and formulate an attack plan.
This was done and M’theevu was overrun on July 18th 1996. Over a 1000 soldiers were killed.With the LTTE relocating en masse to the Wanni the M’theevu camp “removal” became a military imperative.
“Operation Jayasikurui” was launched by the army in 1997. The first phase saw the army taking Omanthai and Nedunkerny virtually without a fight.Theepan was entrusted the defence of A-9 highway or Jaffna-Kandy road. He took up position in Puliyankulam.
It was then that Theepan mounted his now famous “trench cum bund” defences.Theepan’s deputy in the defence of Puliyankulam was Sathasivam Sathananthan alias “Vikkees.”
Vikkees was Theepan’s right-hand man in the realm of strategic defence. He served for many years on the Muhamaalai front and was later brought to Thunukkai to safeguard that strategic location. Vikkees died while defending it. This was a major loss to Theepan.
Another of Theepan’s able deputies was Arivu.Lt. Col Arivu served as Theepan’s chief military intelligence operative for many years. He was sent on a special assignment to Trincomalee and was killed there a few years ago.
Among Theepan’s disciples the most efficient is reportedly Lawrence.He served for a long time on the Kilaly-Muhamaalai-Nagarkovil front and was later transferred by Theepan to the Navvi-Palamottai front. Currently Lawrence has been active in defending the Puthukkudiyiruppu region.
[Just put in caption “Gen Sarath Fonseka with Brig. Theepan, Also in the picture are Lawrence, Pulidevan (civils) and Arivu]
Incidently both Lawrence and Arivu accompanied Theepan for a meeting with Lt. Gen Sarath Fonseka during the ceasefire. An old photograph shows Theepan. Lawrence and Arivu along with LTTE peace secretariat director Pulidevan in civils chatting to Fonseka who was then Northern military commander.
During Jayasikurui, the Theepan-Vikkees duo managed to hold off the army at Puliyankulam indefinitely. Unable to break through the Puliyankulam defences , the army finally moved from Nedunkerny towards Kanagarayankulam and from there to Karuppattaimurippu along the old Kandy road axis.Puliyankulam had to be abandoned due to this strategic manouevre.
Nowadays , the newly sworn in national integration minister , Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan alias Karuna often boasts to the media that he was appointed as Wanni commander by Prabhakaran to withstand the “Jayasikurui” offensive. What Karuna fails to mention is the fact that he was only made joint commander of the Wanni . His partner was none other than Theepan.
Another point conveniently glossed over by Karuna is that the overall field commander during “operation Jayasikurui” was Theepan and not the erstwhile Eastern regional commander.
While it is correct that a large number of Eastern cadres fought in “Jayasikurui” Karuna’s main function as joint commander was co-ordinating defences and laising between field commands . Ground based Frontline leadrship was by the other joint commander Theepan.
Even as “Jayasikurui” was on the LTTE attacked and seized Kilinochchi during February 1998. Theepan was tasked to infiltrate Karadipokku junction between Paranthan and Kilinochchi and prevent reinforcements reaching K’nochchi. This Theepan did and the town was taken from the Southern side
“Jayasikurui” was called off in 1998 and in 1999 the LTTE launched phase-three of unceasing waves. From Oddusuddan to Omanthai the waves engulfed targets and military installations fell like dominoes.It was a tiger triumph and Theepan as joint Wanni commander deserved the lion’s share.
The zenith of unceasing waves was the seizure of Elephant Pass. The highlight of that offensive was Balraj’s famous exploit of going by sea and landing behind enemy lines at Kudaarappu and then moving to Ithaavil on the A-9 and interdicting supplies till Elephant pass fell.
Theepan’s role in this was the rapid military drive along the peninsula’s eastern coast from Sembiyanpatru right down to Vettrilaikerny-Kaddaikkaadu.Theepan and his forces attacked the Elephant pass complex from the rear and played an important part in its downfall.
According to LTTE insiders , Balraj had been hesitant when Prabhakaran had explained what was required of Balraj.Landing on the east coast and moving to the centre in enemy territory and interdicting the main supply route was a formidable challenge. But when the tiger supremo told Balraj , what Theepan was required to do all doubts were removed for Balraj. Such was Balraj’s confidence in Theepan that he would not be let down.
Once Elephant pass fell and the LTTE gained territory inside the peninsula those positions assumed great strategic value. Theepan was appointed in charge of LTTE defences along the Kilaly-Muhamaalai-Nagar Kovil axis.
Theepan was given the title “Northern point commander” (Vadamunai Thalapathy) which virtually amounted to northern regional commander. His baptism of fire in this new assignment was when the armed forces launched “Agni Kheela” in 200 on April 24th. Adopting deep defence tactics, Theepan foiled that attempt inflicting heavy losses on the armed forces.
It must be noted that despite many attempts , the armed forces were unable to dislodge the tigers under Theepan from positions along the Muhamaalai axis. The old-fashioned “Trench-bund” defences withstood the 53 and 55 several times.
Finally it was when the 58 division took Paranthan and moved up to Elephant Pass south that the LTTE was forced to abandon positions inside the peninsula. The tiger defences in the peninsula were never overrun completely. They were only abandoned by the LTTE who were compelled to withdraw from en masse from the peninsula.
Otherwise they would have been trapped inside. Even then with Soosai and Rathinam Amman’s assistance, Theepan managed to evacuate his cadres safely to the mainland in a “mini-Dunkirk” . The tigers defending inside the peninsula were ferried across the Chundikulam lagoon from Kommaatty to Ooriyaan and by sea from Kattaikaadu to Challai.
While being in overall charge of the Muhamaalai defences, Theepan was also delegated duties on the Kilinochchi front. With K’nochchi assuming importance and prestige,Theepan was tasked by Prabakharan to protect the former de-facto administrative capital of the LTTE.
Once again , Theepan commenced his defence of Kilinochchi and environs by rapidly constructing a 18 km bund in a “L” shape. The 57 division despite many attempts was unable to breach these defences effectively. Finally it was the 58 which turned the tide by taking Paranthan.
Thereafter the retention of K’nochchi became impossible. This was the situation later in the case of Muhamaalai-Elephant pass also. Despite the army moving in three directions towards Kilinochchi town ,the tigers under Theepan held on to their positions till 2009 dawned. This was to prevent Kilinochchi being taken by December as announced by Defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse.
The war then moved on to the areas east of the A-9. Theepan and other senior tiger commanders fought fiercely to retain territory. But it was too late. The overwhelming manpower and firepower of the armed forces was too much for the tigers. Relentlessly the military juggernaut rolled forward and tiger territory shrunk.
After the demise of Balraj in 2008 May, Prabhakaran had not appointed a deputy military chief. But Theepan was like the de-facto deputy military commander. Under his leadership several counter-offensives and counter-strikes were conducted. But the armed forces were on the upbeat and withstood all such moves without wilting.
The end came for Theepan last week when he was holed up in Aananthapuram in Puthukkudiyiruppu to plan and begin a massive counter-offensive. Many top tiger commanders were also assembled there. But the LTTE got trapped when soldiers penetrated both flanks and linked up behind LTTE positions at Pachchaippulmottai. Thereafter a siege was mounted.
While Bhanu broke out through the military cordon with Keerthi and Lawrence , Theepan refused saying he would not abandon cadres. “If I come out it will be with our fighters only” an intercept heard him say.
After breaking out Bhanu participated in a major effort to break through the military cordon and rescue Theepan and other cadres. But they were unsuccessful. With several such attempts being repulsed the fate of those surrounded became sealed.
Meanwhile Theepan’s condition deteriorated as he had been injured twice on April 1st and on the 2nd.Some injuries were on his chest and there was internal bleeding also.Members of the LTTE’s Thileepan medical unit affixed two tubes to get the blood out . Theepan succumbed to his injuries on April 4th.
Thus ended the life of a courageous commander who led from the front and refused to abandon his cadres. Theepan was like an old-fahioned ship’s captain opting to go down with his sinking vessel rather than abandoning his cadres.
This consideration and affection for his cadres was a pronounced trait of Theepan.It is said that Theepan took a personal interest in their welfare and communicated with them easily. He also maintained links with their families and would visit each family of a departed cadre to console.
Despite his tough military reputation, Theepan was a soft-spoken, polite man with a gentle disposition and demeanour. He was very popular with the people.
Theepan did not get involved in the internal politics and intrigues within the LTTE.He accepted Prabhakaran’s leadership and unquestioningly carried out to the best of his ability, the tasks assigned to him.
Theepan was married to an ex-woman cadre from the LTTE. They have no children.
This northern warrior’s life was inter-twined with that of the LTTE’s military fortunes.
Theepan’s death along with other senior tigers comes at a time when the LTTE is on the verge of military defeat. In a sense, Theepan’s demise signals the beginning of the end.
I began this column by quoting lines from Macaulay on Horatius. Let me endthis with a verse from Willian Butler Yeats on the Irish easter uprising of 1913.”Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone with O’Leary in the grave” says Yeats.
With Theepan’s death, Tamil Eelam too seems “dead and gone”. Like Yeats, one can only ponder” was it for this the wild geese spread” and “for this that all that blood was shed” and also on “all that delirium of the brave”.
Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone
It’s with O’Leary in the grave – William Butler Yeats