By Col. R Hariharan (Retd)
The death of Balraj (given name Balasegaran Kandiah), one of the competent and battle-scarred commanders, due to heart attack on May 20, 2008 could not have come at a worse time for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which is fighting a losing war with its back to the wall. His death is sure to aggravate the organisation's ever increasing problem of dwindling number of field commanders with operational experience. And that could affect future operations.
Balraj's cameo of guerrilla career eloquently presented by the TamilNet and better informed columnists like DBS Jeyaraj give a glimpse of the making of a modern guerrilla commander from an ordinary civilian. It also represents the milestones of the LTTE's growth from a rag-tag outfit to a monolithic and modern insurgency outfit with multiple capabilities, with its attendant bureaucratic trappings and ponderous ways. Balraj’s career growth from an armed cadre to a loyal trustee at the time of internal crisis in the LTTE did not stop there. He went on to command the Charles Anthony Brigade, the LTTE's first conventional military outfit.
To start with, Balraj had suffered from two handicaps that could have put an end to his career in the LTTE. The first was his earlier affiliation with the PLOTE – an organisation Prabhakaran had sworn to eliminate. The second was his latter day association with the much maligned LTTE leader Mahattya, who was sentenced to death for his alleged disloyalty to Prabhakaran. Balraj not only overcame these handicaps but gained Prabhakaran's confidence. He proved his loyalty to Prabhakaran in the internal struggle for power and later showed his battlefield capability in 1999-2000 in the LTTE's Unceasing Waves III (Oyatha Alaikal III) operation that led to the investment and capture of Elephant Pass resulting in a resounding victory for the insurgents.
When we had interacted with Balraj during the days of the Indian Peace Keeping Force, he was neither a senior leader nor a military commander of proven competency, but a green horn member of the 9th batch of LTTE cadres trained in India. He cut his military teeth in operations against the IPKF.
By 1989 Balraj quickly climbed the leadership ladder when the sub unit leaders from earlier eight batches were almost liquidated during operations with the IPKF. In fact, when the IPKF operations engulfed the rest of the peninsula and pushed Prabhakaran to seek refuge in the steamy jungle confines of Wanni, Balraj's proximity to the leader increased. But Balraj over the years went on to become a multi-faceted guerrilla leader with conventional warfare capability. He put in two decades of war and peace to develop his competencies. The latter day entrants have neither the luxury of such a long exposure in leadership role in operation nor the time horizon to enable them to emulate Balraj.
Conventional armies have a clearly laid down succession process which comes into play automatically at times of war. However, the LTTE despite its claims of conventional capability is essentially an insurgent force. In the LTTE, to fill the berth of a senior military commander like Balraj, the successor will have to fulfil twin requirements – proven operational experience, and unswerving loyalty to its supreme commander Prabhakaran. Balraj, in his quarter century of service in the LTTE came out successful on both the counts.
Insurgent bodies which are highly paranoid crack both at the operational and leadership level when they come under severe operational pressure. So far Prabhakaran, despite the aberration in mishandling Karuna and losing him, had warded off such a development thanks to commanders like Balraj. But as the juggernaut of security forces inches forward beyond Adampan today, and probably towards Mullaitivu tomorrow, Prabhakaran needs experienced commanders who understand the nuances of conventional warfare and fight steadfast a battle of attrition. The moot point is can Prabhakaran find them?
As it is there are just a handful of experienced field commanders left alive. They are aging, and some of them like Soosai are not in good health. And as the war continues more heads will roll. The newly inducted commanders, unlike the earlier ones, are more likely to be post 1983 products who were blooded at the cadre level only in the last Eelam war between 1995 and 2000. Their active conventional operational experience at a little higher level would have been in response to the security forces offensives during the last two years.
The security forces have superior force levels and fire power than the LTTE, and as the war progresses further into the north, their superiority is likely to increase. In the face of such odds, only the commitment of LTTE commanders and their ability to inspire the cadres can compensate for LTTE's organic limitations (as it probably happened at Muahamalai in April 2008). But thanks to the LTTE's emotive but self-defeating tactics of suicide bombing both in land and sea, the LTTE gallery of martyrs is already filled with names of potential leaders who could have made the difference with their experience and motivation.
Even in the present situation, Prabhakaran's unique ability to pick the right person to lead his teams should not be under estimated. In the past he had demonstrated an uncanny ability to bounce back in the face of defeat with such commanders. It was enabled by the 1983 vintage veterans like Mahattaya, Karuna, Balraj and the like who are no more available.
Can Prabhakaran do it all over? Will the new commanders have the same level of personal loyalty, commitment and military competency? The answer will probably emerge in the battlefronts in the coming months.
(The writer, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail: email@example.com)