A decade ago, a ship loaded with tens of thousands of mortar bombs left the shores of Mozambique, dropped anchor at Madagascar and vanished. Weeks later, a fax machine at the US embassy in Colombo spat out a piece of paper that announced the vessel had been hijacked, raising alarm and concerns over Sri Lanka's ability to successfully complete a military offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
It is now widely believed the cargo meant for the Sri Lankan government was actually loaded on an LTTE-owned vessel — one of many run by a shadowy man called Kumaran Padmanathan, or Shanmugam Kumaran Tharmalingam, or Sadasivam Padmanathan, or Periya Dorai, or Kanakapillai, or simply KP as the man with a handful of aliases is known to the world.
The ship landed the mortar bombs off LTTE-held territory in northern Sri Lanka and soon after, the guerrillas rained them on the military, wresting control of the battle for a highway that connects Jaffna to the island's south. Nearly 10 years later, most of that highway is still under LTTE control.
KP, widely known as the chief arms buyer for the LTTE for decades after setting up a successful smuggling operation in the 1980s, was reported by Sri Lanka’s authorities to have been arrested in Thailand on Monday, raising hopes that the dreaded organisation could now be made to crumble. By Tuesday, the euphoria seemed to be eroding a bit after Thai officials announced they knew nothing about the Sri Lankan claims and India, which has a strong interest in the man due to his role in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, saying it was trying to confirm he had indeed been arrested.
“I’ve checked with related police bureaux — the Immigration Police, Metropolitan Police and Special Branch. There has been no report of a Tiger rebel arrested in Bangkok,” Thailand’s national police spokesman Lieutenant-General Ronnarong Youngyuen said. “If we’d arrested him, we would have made good publicity out of it,” he told
The CBI said it was waiting to hear from the Thais. “We have learnt about the reported detention and have requested the government of Thailand through diplomatic channels to confirm the same. We have also contacted Interpol Bangkok. We haven't got any response till now,” CBI Director Vijay Shanker told reporters on the sidelines of an Interpol Conference on cyber crime in New Delhi.
In Colombo, officials said they believed KP was under detention. A top official, who did not want to be named, said that KP was under heavy surveillance, a term security experts interpreted as a euphemism for sustained and intense questioning.
KP has several aliases and has worn many hats in his efforts to keep the arms pipeline open to the LTTE and bankrolling it — those of a businessman, arms dealer, smuggler and master forger with access to several bank accounts across the world. Sometimes known as an immigration officer’s worst nightmare because of the number of passports he is reported to juggle, KP has stayed ahead of intelligence agencies following him across the world — successfully managing the vast, multinational business empire built by the LTTE.
From high-end explosives like RDX, which the LTTE used to blow up the Central Bank building in 1996 and then the twin tower World Trade Centre in Colombo the next year, and surface-to-air missiles that brought down Sri Lanka Air Force aircraft, every and anything the LTTE needed was bought by KP.
He is reported to have been seen in different places, including Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Cambodia, striking deals with rebels and arms suppliers to ship weapons, explosives and dual-use technologies to help the LTTE keep fighting its war for an independent homeland. Arms bought in Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam are said to loaded on to LTTE ships from southern Thailand, which take them to the group's jungle stronghold in Sri Lanka. Malaysia and Singapore both have sizeable Tamil populations.
Some reports suggest KP is related to Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE supreme who lives in the jungles of the Wanni in northern Sri Lanka. He is reported to have set up several front companies across Southeast Asia to funnel money and arms to the group and also taken Thai citizenship. After Prabhakaran, he is the second most wanted man in Sri Lanka.
With inputs from PK Balachandran in Colombo and Agencies