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When the LTTE’s “Smiling Cobra” Thamilselvan was Targeted by the SLAF in an Air Strike

By
D.B.S.Jeyaraj

More than eleven years have passed since the War between the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) organization concluded. The lengthy conflict described at one time as South Asia’s longest war came to an end after the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. Many of the military triumphs achieved by both sides at different times during the course of the war are now being relegated to the realm of the forgotten.This column intends to focus this week on an incident that grabbed worldwide attention when it happened thirteen years ago.

Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan

On November 2nd 2007, the former political commissar or political wing head of the LTTE , Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan (spelled also as Tamilselvan and Thamilchelvan) was killed along with some other tiger operatives in an airstrike conducted by the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF). Thamilselvan was to a very great extent the public and political face of the LTTE as he frequently represented the LTTE at negotiations with national and international delegations, issued press statements, granted media interviews and engaged in talks with dignitaries on behalf of the LTTE. Since the LTTE’s reclusive numero uno Veluppillai Prabhakaran and other senior military leaders usually kept out of the limelight, it had been the lot of Thamilselvan to exercise a monopoly over media publicity.

Thus Thamilselvan’s death in an air strike by the SLAF caused shock waves at that time. It was regarded as a great blow to the LTTE in general and tiger leader Prabhakaran in particular. The LTTE and its overseas supporters were greatly upset. Many events mourning his death were organized. The majority of Sri Lankans however were happy and jubilant. Many in the southern provinces of the Island ecstatically lit crackers when they heard the news.Spontaneous celebrations were held.

It was a proud moment for the Sri Lankan Airforce then commanded by Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke. It was only a few weeks earlier on October 22nd that the SLAF Air Base at Saliyapura in Anuradhapura was attacked by a “Black Tiger” squad of the LTTE. Several Airforce personnel and LTTE cadres were killed. Around 20 Aircraft of different types were reportedly destroyed. It was a dark day for the SLAF and morale was low. But with the successful airstrike targeting a top -notch tiger, the SLAF seemed to have made amends for the Saliyapura debacle and redeemed its image in the eyes of the people.

Initially 40 year old Thamilselvan was killed along with five other tiger cadres in the early hours of thee morning on Friday November 2nd 2007. Subsequently another injured tiger also died. Two jet bombers ,an Israeli K-fir and a Russian built MiG – 27 had engaged in aerial bombardment at first light between 5.55-6. 00 am. The target area was suburban Thiruvaiyaaru about three km from Kilinochchi town in the Wanni region controlled extensively by the tigers at that time.

Thiruvaiyaaru Bombing

The others killed along with Thamilchelvan in the Thiruvaiyaaru bombing were Muthukkumaru Soundarakrishnan alias Lt Col Anpumani , Dharmarajah Vijayakumar alias Major Mikunthan, Karunanidhi Vasanthakumar alias Capt. Kalaiyarasan, Panchatcharam Sajeeban alias Lt Aatchivel, and Muthukkumaarakkurukkal Srigayathrinatha Sarma alias Lt Maavaikumaran.

Sivalingam Aathavan alias Major Selvam who was critically injured in the bombing passed away on November 9th and was buried with full military honours at Kanakapuram great heroes cemetery along with the others. He was from Kandaavalai in the Kilinochchi district. Anpumani also known as Alex , Mikuthan , .Kalaiyarasan aka Nethaji, Selvam were from the political wing. , Aatchivel and Maavaikumaran were Tamiselvan’s bodyguards.

Anpumani or Alex was a skilled photographer and known to many media persons. He was in charge of the strategic communications unit of the LTTE’s political wing. He also served as Tamilselvan’s personal assistant.Closely associated with Tamilselvan, Anpumani has accompanied the political commissar on trips to Europe.Mikunthan a skilled writer in Tamil was the propaganda secretary of the LTTE poliical division.Kalaiarasan was the administrator of the LTTE’s political secretariat. Selvam was co-ordinating secretary of the political division.

Thamilselvan who had been fuctioning from 1994 as the LTTE”s political commissar had been assigned additional quasi – military duties in 2007 . He was placed in charge of defences at Pooneryn as he was familiar with the area. Thamilselvan had been at Pooneryn for three days at a stretch from Oct 29th to Nov 1st in 2007. He returned to Kilinochchi town on November 1st afternoon.Kilinochchi was the place where the LTTE’s political headquarters, Peace secretariat and strategic communications unit were located in those days. It was in a sense the unofficial capital of LTTE controlled territory then.

Thamilselvan’s last official duties were at the communications unit from where he contacted several persons in Sri Lanka and abroad. Some well – wishers brought specially cooked food including mutton curry.The tiger political commissar and others stayed late into the night at the place , partaking of food and engaging in conversation.Thereafter at about 2. 30 am the stigers moved to a safe bunker located in Thiruvaiaaru. Given the prevailing security situation important tiger leaders used to sleep at night in well – fortified bunkers away from their homes. They also avoided sleeping at the same place on successive nights.

The “L” shaped bunker was well camouflaged. It had a lower and and upper compartments. Thamilselvan went to bed in the lower one while the others slept in the upper one. At about 4 – 4,30 am an IAI “Scout” unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) spy plane had hovered over the skies of Kilinochchi. Apparently the UAV flight was not linked to the air raid on Thamilselvan’s hide-out. The SLAF had acted on an intelligence tip-off that the Tiger political commissar had returned to Kilinochchi from Pooneryn and had bedded for the night at Thiruvaiyaaru. It was a nearly two hours after the UAV flight that the the two SLAF jet bombers came at first light and discharged their lethal cargo.Subsequently three other planes (2 MiG;s and 1 K-fir) also dropped nine bombs from 6. 20 am to 6. 30 am in the South of Kilinochchi in the area around the 155th milepost and St. Anthony’s church. Media reports said Two civilians were killed and six injured.

The first aerial mission had been bulls – eye on target when a bomb fell on the entrance of the bunker. There was a massive explosion and the entire structure collapsed and caved in. As stated earlier Six tigers including Tamilselvan were killedinstantaneously in their sleep. The seventh died days later of injuries.

Among top tiger leaders to reach the spot early were the then Tiger Intelligence chief Pottu Amman and Pappa head of the LTTE sports division. The destruction was so immense that a bulldozer was brought first to facilitate excavation. Thereafter the bodies were dug up manually.Most LTTE bunkers are strong and designed to withstand aerial bombardment. What troubled the LTTE then was the thought that a giant bomb had knocked out Tamilselvan’s bunker.

“Raatchathak Kundu”(Giant Bomb)

The LTTE accused the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime of having spurned peace moves by dropping a giant bomb and killing the “peace dove” Thamilselvan.“ The Sinhala nation did not open its heart and send a peace message. On the contrary, it is sending war-vultures that are dropping giant bombs. It has cruelly killed our peace dove”.The above sentences excerpted from Velupillai Prabakharan’s statement released after Tamilselvan’s death denote the concern of the LTTE about a “giant bomb”. The LTTE leader’s statement was unusually emotional and had an agitated tone to it.What was the bomb which Prabakharan referred to in Tamil as “Ratchathakkundu” or giant bomb.?

According to some reports in the LTTE media it was an American general purpose bomb called Mark 84 or MK 84.The largest of the Mark – 80 series of weapons, it is nicknamed “Hammer” for its considerable power.The Mark 84 has a nominal weight of 2,000 lb (908 kg), but its actual weight varies depending on its fin, fuse, and retardation configuration, from 1,972 lb (896 kg) to 2,083 (947 kg).

It has a streamlined steel casing filled with 945 lb (429 kg) of Tritonal high explosive. The Mark 84 is capable of forming a crater 50 ft (15.2 m) wide and 36 ft (11 m) deep. It can penetrate up to 15 in (380 mm) of metal or 11 ft (3.3 m) of concrete, depending on the height from which it is dropped, and causes lethal fragmentation to a radius of 400 yards (366 m).This free-fall general purpose bomb’s Length is 10 ft 9 in (3.3 m) ;Diameter is 18 in (457 mm)

The extensive destruction caused to Thamilselvan’s fortified bunker suggested that an extremely powerful bomb was used. Only one bomb fell on the bunker. It was a direct hit. The bomb could very well have been a MARK – 84.

First LTTE “Brigadier”

Thamilselvan was post-humously promoted in rank as “Brigadier” by LTTE supremo Prabhakaran. He was the first tiger to be made Brigadier.

Thamilchelvan was born on August 29th 1967 in Madduvil, a sprawling agrarian village in the Thenmaratchy sector of Jaffna district. He was the fifth among six children. There were five boys and a girl in the family. Thamilchelvan was the youngest among the boys.His eldest brother is Balasubramaniyam alias Moorthy who is also a senior member of the LTTE. Moorthy was a close confidante of former LTTE deputy leader Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahathaya. Moorthy was one of the LTTE delegates who participated in discussions with the Government in Colombo when Ranasinghe Premadasa was president.

Moorthy fell from grace after Mahattaya was executed as a traitor for allegedly collaborating with Indian spy agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing).Moorthy was detained and interrogated. He was released after a long period of incarceration. Demoted from his earlier positions, Moorthy functioned as a low rung cadre engaged in clerical work for the LTTE.He surrendered to the armed forces after the LTTE military debacle in May 2009 and was released after undergoing a period of rehabilitation.

Thamilchelvan had his primary education at the Madduvil Maha Vidyalayam and secondary schooling at Chavakachcheri Hindu College. His family was politically conscious and was for long active supporters of Shanmugadasan’s pro – Beijing Communist party. Thamilselvan’s father and elder brothers participated in many activities against caste discrimination. They were in the forefront of the protest demanding that the famous Pandrithalaichi Amman temple in Madduvil be throw open for all to worship. This was done in 1970.With the escalation of the ethnic conflict Thamilchelvan’s family like many other Tamil families shed their marxism and became increasingly Tamil nationalistic.

Nom de Guerre – “Dinesh”

Thamilselvan joined the LTTE after the July 1983 violence at the age of sixteen. The eldest brother Balasubramaniam alias Moorthy too had joined the LTTE earlier. By international standards Thamilselvan was a child soldier at that time. According to family members he had gone across to India for arms training by boat on June 13th 1984.Thamilselvan was a member of the fourth batch of recruits and received military training in the Thirumalai camp near Dindigul in Tamil Nadu. His nom de guerre was Dinesh.It was as Dinesh that Thamilselvan was known for a long time. Later the LTTE started a de- Sanskritisation process of Tamil names. Dinesh was a Sanskritized name but his real name Thamilselvan was a pure, Tamil name. So Dinesh transformed back into Thamilselvan, the name bestowed by his parents.

After training Thamilselvan was posted to Prabakharan’s security detail in India. One of his main duties was to function as bodyguard to the leader’s wife Mathivathany Prabakharan.She was an ardent Hindu devotee and Thamilselvan accompanied her to several temples. The young lad’s subservience and sense of duty impressed her very much. This in turn led to Prabakharan also becoming fond of him. Soon Thamilselvan became a trusted lieutnenant.

LTTE supremo Prabakharan was kept under close scrutiny by Indian intelligence officials crossed ove who did not want him to leave India and return to Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran managed to return from India to Jaffna on January 5th 1987. Before doing so ,the LTTE leader sent three of his trusted bodyguards first to Jaffna. Their duty was to inform then Jaffna commander “Col” Kittu and make was kept necessary arrangements and then return.Thereafter the trio accompanied Prabakharan to Jaffna clandestinely. The RAW was furious at his slipping out of their grasp.The trusted trio were Imran, Pandiyan and Dinesh (Thamilchelvan).

After returning to Jaffna , Thamilchelvan was assigned to the Thenmaratchy sector. He rose rapidly and soon became Thenmaratchy sectoral commander.What happened was that “Curdles ” the legendary Thenmaratchy commander was killed in an accidental explosion in Kaithady along with Ponnamman, Vasu and others on Feb 14th 1987.

The LTTE then appointed two cadres known as Kunchan and Daya as acting commanders. They were inefficient and so Naren a native of Jaffna town was appointed Thenmaratchy commander.This led to dissatisfaction among cadres from the region who wanted a son of the (Thenmaratchy) soil to lead them. The LTTE was thinking of appointing Abdullah , a Thenmaratchy cadre as divisional commander. But Abdullah along with Pulendran, Kumarappa and others consumed cynaide in October 1987.

This incident led to war breaking out with the Indian army stationed in North – East lanka. The Thenmaratchy sector was leaderless.So Thamilchelvan was made commander in October 1987. Pappa was his deputy.In 1991 Thamilchelvan was made military commander and later special military commander for Jaffna district.

Prabhakaran’s “Thagadu”(Sneaker)

Thamilchelvan’s rise was resented by many cadres who felt he was Prabakharan’s blue eyed boy. Thamilchelvan endeared himself to the leader but aroused resentment among colleagues. Many of his contemporaries have alleged that he used to “sneak” to Prabhakaran and nicknamed him as “Thagadu” a colloquial term for sneaker.

He was seriously injured in the Elephant pass battle of 1991 when he was Thenmaratchy commander and in the Pooneryn battle of 1993 when he was Jaffna district commander. Among other major battles he participated were “operation Yarldevi”, and the LTTE attacks in Silavathurai, Karainagar and Thachankaadu.

After the Pooneryn battle Thamilchelvan was on the verge of death and survived miraculously. Most of the flesh on a leg was stripped away.He sustained a permanent limp and had to walk with the aid of a walking stick after that.
With active military duty ruled out due to injury, Thamilchelvan was now utilised on the political wing.

Narendran alias Yogi the former political commissar was expelled from the movement after ex-LTTE deputy leader Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahathaya’s downfall. Mahathaya was executed as a traitor who allegedly collaborated with Indian spy agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing). At one point Prabakharan wanted to appoint Sornalingam alias “Col” Shankar in place of Yogi. But Balasingham who did not like Shankar intervened and persuaded Prabakharan to appoint Thamilchelvan instead as Political Commissar.

Political Commissar

As Political commissar Thamilselvan engaged in much political activity receiving delegations and participating in discussions. Thamilselvan undertook many trips abroad visiting western countries during the peace talk period.He also interacted widely with the media giving many interviews and conducting press conferences. He met with many important personalities in political discussions held abroad and at Kilinochchi. Thamilchelvan would summon the Tamil National Alliance MP’s to Kilinochchi and issue directives.

Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan

Thamilselvan received the Government delegations led by Kusumsiri Balapatabendi during the peace talks held from October 13, 1994 to March 28, 1995. He participated in all rounds of peace talks held after the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement on February 22, 2002 in Thailand, Norway, Germany and in Japan. Balasingham and GL Peiris led the respective delegations.Thamilselvan also presided over the LTTE conference in Paris on August 23, 2003. After the Paris conference Thamilselvan left for Switzerland to study the federal system there and in other European countries from August to September , 2003.

Thamilselvan presided over discussions held to finalise the proposals for interim administration in the North and East at the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in Ireland from October 03, 2003 to October 10, 2003. In 2005 Thamilselvan headed a LTTE delegation to Europe and toured Norway, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Italy, Netherlands, South Africa and Ireland. Thamilselvan also participated in the Geneva talks between the Government and the LTTE held from February 22 to 23, 2006 and again from October 28 and 29, 2006 in Geneva.

Pancharatnam Alias “George”

Thamilselvan’s inability to express himself in English resulted in excessive dependence on a translator cum interpreter. Pancharatnam alias George – an ex postmaster – accompanied Thamilselvan everywhere and became virtually indispensable to the political commissar. . There was a joke among Tamil circles that George and not Thamilselvan spells out the LTTE viewpoint publicly.Though inarticulate in English Thamilselvan understood the language well. Diplomats used to note that Thamilselvan used George only to interprete what he said in Tamil but responded without translation to what was said in English by the other party.

Media circles were aware that Thamilselvan craved publicity. He also had a penchant to get photographed. The walking stick man with a perpetual grin had become a permanent fixture in tiger photos.Thamilselvan spoke very fluently in Tamil and was never at a loss for words. Words flowed ceaselessly but the content was poor and shallow. His Tamil interviews were relished by certain segments of LTTE supporters. Many however felt that he mechanically repeated things glibly and called him “kilipillai” or parrot. Many Tamils referred to him as “Soonaa Paanaa” derived from his initials in Tamil.

LTTE’s Smiling Face

The be – spectacled Thamilselvan had an ever smiling face and amiable disposition. He went on to become the “smiling” face of the LTTE. His inter – personal skills were good.This benign countenance did not mean that the political commissar was “soft”. People who tried to override him or overwhelm him have found themselves unsuccessful.

Thamilselvan reflected Prabakharan’s thinking perfectly. At times diplomats found him to be uncompromisingly intransigient despite the smiling exterior. He used to shake his head from side to side smiling all the time. It was like the swaying Cobra displayed by Gypsy snake charmers.This led to a description in the media about him as a “smiling cobra”.

When charges were made about LTTE human rights violations he would deny them with a broad smile. He was noted for his ability to retain a perpetual grin on his face at all times.The plastered . permanent grin was resented by many Western journalists and diplomats who perceived it as patently insincere.

Colossal Misfit

In the opinion of this writer Thamilselvan was a colossal misfit as political commissar during the 2002 -2005 ceasefire period. Despite his efforts to convince the Europeans of the LTTE’s bonafides the EU went ahead and banned the LTTE. He also mishandled relations with the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission and facilitator Norway.The Geneva talks fiasco was due to Thamilchelvan’s exaggerated vanity when he insisted that he would sit down at the negotiating table with only a senior minister.

When the six rounds of talks with the Ranil Wickremesinghe Government took place in 2002-2004 ,Thamilselvan would describe them as productive and meaningful. But when the LTTE pulled out of talks ,Thamilselvan did a volte – face and said all the rounds of talks were meaningless and useless. Only Thamilselvan could say such things and labour under the illusion that he continued to retain credibility.

There have been many attempts on Thamilchelvan’s life including a close call when a claymore mine killed his chief body guard. The political commissar was travelling in another vehicle behind.The army’s deep penetration squad was suspected.He also had many narrow shaves during aerial bombardment and artillery shelling. Finally death caught up with him on that fateful day in November.

Thamilselvan was an unquestioning acolyte of Prabakharan. His loyalty was immense and was a trusted deputy cum confidante. His relationship with Prabakharan had been Thamilselvan’s passport to success within the movement. Being political commissar since 1994 Thamilchelvan became the political face of the LTTE in recent times. He personified the political dimension of the tigers. However politics did not guide the gun within the LTTE. The political wing only justified (and failed miserably) the actions of the military wing. Moreover except for those senior in age, most political wing cadres had to engage in military activity too.

Thamilselvan-Sasireka Wedding

Thamilselvan was married with two children, a daughter and son. Wife Sasireka hailing from Chulipuram in Jaffna was also a member of the LTTE until her marriage to Thamilselvan. Her nom de guerre in the LTTE was Isaichelvi. The daughter’s name is Alaimagal (meaning daughter of waves or Goddess Lakshmi) while the son is named Olivaenthan meaning king of light.

The Thamilselvan –Sasireka wedding was one of the first in a new scheme introduced by the LTTE supremo. Prabakharan whereby women cadres of the LTTE were to be paired off with male cadres through suitable matchmaking. Since arranged marriages are a part of Tamil social practice this scheme was seen as mass scale arranged marriage.

Prabakharan himself selected the bride for Thamilselvan. Sasirekha’s family hailing from Chulipuram in Jaffna once owned a lot of businesses in Bambalapitiya and sold them after July 1983.Her father was a retired Govt servant.Prabakharan and his wife Mathivathany acted as Thamilselvan’s “parents” while LTTE political adviser Anton Balasingham and wife Adele acted as the bride’s parents. Brahminic rituals were dispensed with at the wedding. Thamilselvan’s mother in Canada was not informed of the marriage until the last minute. When she asked the son why he did not inform them earlier Thamilselvan replied “I myself came to know only four days ago”.

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Thamilselvan’s children Alaimagal and Olivaenthan were only eight and four years of age at the time of their father’s death. Sasirekha continued to live in LTTE controlled territory. After the military debacle at Mullaitheevu in May 2009, Sasirekha and the children surrendered to the army as civilians and were housed at a special camp for families of LTTE leaders in the Vavuniya district. The family was later moved to Panagoda and housed at a chalet within the army cantonment due to the efforts of former LTTE eastern regional head Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan alias “Col” Karuna.

In May 2011 the family was freed from protective custody under a restricted release order enabling the family to live in a particular locality subject to certain conditions.Sasirekha opted to stay with her parents at Dehiwela.Finding it difficult to educate her children in Colombo, Sasirekha Thamilselvan sought the consent of Sri Lankan authorities to let her relocate to India with her two children. Sri Lankan authorities treated her case with compassion and set her free from the restricted release order.

Thereafter she moved to India legally with proper travel documents; The family maintained a low profile in India fearing that they would be discovered and politically exploited by the LTTE lobby consisting of people like Nedumaran,Vaiko, Seeman and Kolathoor Mani.

Living Peacefully In France

Finding the situation in India unsuitable to bring up her children under normal conditions, Sasirekha again decided to relocate to Europe.Obtaing help from close relatives , Sasirekha made arrangements to travel to France. She succeeded in her quest and arrived in France on April 24th 2014 The family has been living peacefully in France since then keeping aloof from all LTTE related activities in that country.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This is an Updated Version of an Article written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of NOVEMBER 7th 2020. It can be accessed here:

http://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/How-the-SLAF-killed-the-LTTEs-Smiling-Cobra-in-an-air-strike/172-199412