Sri Lanka Army

Defender of the Nation

How Prabhakaran Went Down in Nanthe Kadal - The Last Battleground - Part I

RIGHT opposite the rusting and cannibalized hull of Farah 3, the Egyptian ship pirated by the Tamil Tigers, a monument is rising now from the sandy beach in Vellamullivaikkal to mark the historic event of May 16, 2009 – the day when the two divisions, 58 and 59, that advanced from the south and the north met, clearing the entire northern and eastern coastline of the last vestiges of Tiger threats to the territorial integrity and national sovereignty. In short, it meant that the military ring of the Security Forces had come full circle, covering every inch of the coastline, and closed all possible routes for Velupillai Prabhakaran to escape via the sea in the east.

This was the first step of the triangular trap closing in on Prabhakaran. The second step was the clearing of Tamil hostages held by Prabhakaran as a human shield. He was still holding a section of the Tamils as hostage — a serious obstacle to the advance of the forces determined to avoid civilian casualties. On the 16th morning the forces began their operations to clear the last of the hostages held by Prabhakaran. He too had no option but to let the people go because he was preparing to escape himself. This time he could not run by dragging the people to follow him. By the morning of the 17th the forces had cleared the hostages and they were free to confront the Tigers cadres without fear of collateral damage to the civilians.

The third major wing of the triangle was the results of the Indian elections announced on May 16. It blasted all his hopes of a rescue operation from his allies abroad, particularly India – the last refuge of desperate Prabhakaran on the run. The victory of the United Progressive Alliance of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh announced on May 16 blighted all hopes of any Indian intervention rushing to lift him out of his hideout in the sliver of land between the sea and the Nanthi Kadal (Nanthi Lagoon).

In his interview with President Mahinda Rajapakse the Editor of The Hindu, N. Ram, stated that the Tamils were expecting Prabhakaran to execute "a daring counter attack" at the last moment. In fact, D. B. S. Jeyaraj, who was quoted by Ram, was expecting Prabhakaran to do a Dunkirk – the place where the Allied Forces paused in World War II to recover and launch a massive counter-attack. The Tamil who had pinned their faith in Prabhakaran’s capacity to rise from the ashes like Phoenix refused to believe that the winner of previous battles could lose in the last encounter. They were expecting him to a pull a military rabbit out of his hat.

The Tamils were like Erik Solheim who thought that Prabhakaran was "a military genius". They firmly believed that even at the last minute he could turn tables on the Sri Lankan Forces. In fact Solheim, who was sucked in by the yarns spun to him by Anton Balasingham, told President Rajapaksa around March 2006: "Prabhakaran is a military genius. I have seen him in action…."  The President said: "He is from the jungles of the North. I am from the jungles of the South. Let’s see who will win!" (Lalith Weeratunga, at the President’s interview with Ram.)

Of course, by May 2009 Prabhakaran was virtually a dead man walking. He was fighting with his back to wall with depleted forces and material. He had lost all the strategic territory he held to launch a serious counter-attack. He had no external or internal force, or land to fall back. The power of his military bases spread out in 15,000 square kilometers had dwindled to 4 square kilometers in a sandy stretch in the neck of Jaffna. Worst of all, he had no strategy to launch a counter-attack and fight his way out. He was trapped in the tiny stretch of land between the sea in the east and the lagoon in the west with no viable exit plan.

President Rajapaksa summed it up precisely when he told Ram: "They (the Tigers) selected the best place for them: on one side the sea, then the lagoon, and there was a small strip. But then it was not they who actually selected the place: they ‘selected’ it but the armed forces made them go there. The No-Fire Zones were all announced by the armed forces. After Kilinochchi, they were saying: "No-Fire Zones, so go there." So all of them [the LTTE leaders and fighters] went there. These were not areas demarcated by the U.N. or somebody else; they were demarcated by our armed forces. The whole thing was planned by our forces to corner them. The Army was advancing from North to South, South to North, on all sides. So I would say they got cornered by our strategies."

The Dunkirk expected by the Tamils turned out to be a Dumb-kirk.

May 16 was the decisive day when the national and international forces closed in, once and for all, to seal the fate of doomed Prabhakaran.

After these three fateful events locked in – 1) meeting of 58 and 59 division closing any escape route by the sea, 2) the disappointing results of the Indian election, and 3) the freeing of the last of the Tamil hostages — the last hope for Velupillai Prabhakaran,who was holed up in the place where the Army wanted him to be, was to find an escape route by wading across the water-logged Nanthi Kadal sandwiched in the neck of Jaffna between the sea in the east and the Mullativu jungle in the west. 

Faced with the grim realities of May 16 he had to make a quick get away, avoiding the watchful eyes of the Security Forces who were posted at critical points on the escape routes leading to the Mullativu jungle. At this stage he was reduced to a man who could run but not hide or survive. It was too late for him. The Forces had anticipated his moves and were waiting for him to get out of the hole in which he was trapped. He was in a no-win situation with all hopes of any one of the actively involved foreign sources – particularly, Erik Solheim, or David Milliband, or, better still, a new Indian government favourable to the Tigers emerging victorious from the elections – fading out of his radar screen.  Contrary to Prabhakaran’s expectations there was none rushing to intervene and save him at the eleventh hour.

As stated by Lalith Weeratunga at the interview: "Kilinochchi was captured on the 1st of January 2009. And the whole operation was over on the 19th of May. So there was ample time [for them to get away]."  (The Hindu – July 7 2009)

But Prabhakaran miscalculated his tactical moves ever since he lost in Mavil Aru in July 2006. He deluded himself by saying that he was making "a tactical withdrawal" each time he lost territory. Eventually he led the biggest "tactical withdrawal" known in military history, dragging his cadres with him into the cold waters of Nanthi Kadal – the last battleground.

The Tamil Tiger leadership, which announced over Melbourne Radio from Vanni that they would eat the Sri Lankan forces alive for dinner if they dared to step into Killinochchi, was in total disarray not knowing which way to turn, or which source to tap to save trapped Prabhakaran and the last of his Tigers.

Erik Solheim confessed to BBC Hard Talk (June 13, 2009) that he was contacted by Tamil Tiger agents abroad to save Prabhakaran. But after Solheim had discredited himself by playing the partisan role of siding with his boozing buddy Anton Balasingham, he had ceased to be a credible figure for any rescue mission. Besides, he had no status because the Sri Lankan government, by this time, had kicked him out as a reliable negotiator. His past sins had caught up with him like the way the karmic forces had returned to catch up with Prabhakaran.

Earlier, David Milliband, the British Foreign Minister and Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, rolled in, somewhat like the hit men of the Tamil diaspora, to save Prabhakaran. But Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the no-nonsense and daring Defence Secretary, who stood his ground firmly, sent the two foreign ministers back to the caves from where they came.

In a desperate bid K. Pathmanathan, the arms procurer appointed as Prabhakaran’s sole representative abroad, contacted Western journalists to send messages to George Brown, British Prime Minister, and President Obama. While the leadership in exile were on their knees begging for mercy from Western powers the misguided Tamil diaspora, who believed (mistakenly) that they had the electoral numbers to force the Sri Lankan government to obey their will by demonstrating in streets of Toronto, London, Paris, Melbourne and Sydney, discovered to their horror that they were merely whistling in the wind with no power to manipulate the powerful Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka.

When Prabhakaran waded into the waters of Nanthi Kadal gingerly on the 18th night he would have known that the international leverage he had at the peak of his power, when he held the "military balance" claiming parity of status with the Sri Lankan government, had vanished into thin air. In Phuket and in Geneva Anton Balasingham was arrogantly flaunting the power of their "military balance" gained under Ranil Wickremesinghe’s failed Ceasefire Agreement.

Under the patronage of Ranil Wickremesinghe the Tigers had reached the peak of politico-military power. They were riding high in Phuket where the first of the many rounds of peace talks began. Vidar Helgesen, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Norway, was solemnly addressing Anton Balasingham as "Your Excellency". Erik Solheim, bamboozled by the spin of Anton Balasingham, was bending over backwards to elevate him to a status of a head of state-in-waiting in the Vanni. The late Lasantha Wickrematunga, the Editor of The Leader, wearing his other hat of an apparatchik of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government, was cozying up to Balasingham in Phuket and Geneva to get exclusives to boost the claims of the triumphant Tigers.

But all this pomp and glory were short-lived. In the last days when the forces were closing in on Prabhakaran none of them was there to hold his hand. He was a lonely man on the run, hunted by the Sri Lankan forces. There were no diplomats queuing up to meet him as in the days when he was in command of Killinochchi, through the blessings of  Ranil Wickremesinghe, the gutless wonder of Sri Lankan politics. On the contrary, they were sending messages urging him to surrender and spare the Tamils whom he was holding as hostage. He was internationally ostracized as an untouchable political pariah. The Tigers had lost the national and international goodwill that came with Wickremesinghe’s Ceasefire Agreement. (Part II tomorrow) (Courtesy: The Island)