Monday, October 16, 2006

What militants look like

The word ‘militant’ occurs with increasing frequency in our daily news and lives. What it means, though, is hazy to most people. No one seems to know what ‘militants’ do, or what they are like.
The answer is, they are usually like regular people.
I recently met a quiet, middle aged man from Sri Lanka at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi. He spoke softly and laughed easily. He seemed very like a college teacher. It turned out that he was the leader of a militant group that had attempted to take over a country.
D Sitharthan is the head of the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). He knows LTTE leader V Prabhakaran from childhood. They were friends for a time, until their goals and paths diverged. Sitharthan went on to join PLOTE, a group founded by a former LTTE chief known as Mukundan who had left the Tigers in 1980 after a power struggle with Prabhakaran. Mukundan and Prabhakaran faced off in a gun battle in the streets of Chennai in 1982. Both of them escaped unhurt, but both were subsequently arrested by the Tamil Nadu police. Both were released on bail.
The LTTE later fought a bloody battle with other Tamil separatist groups in Sri Lanka. It destroyed all of them, including PLOTE. By 1986, there was no doubt which group was the king of the Sri Lankan jungle: it was the Tigers.
That apparently got the PLOTE leaders thinking. They figured they needed a base somewhere. North and east Sri Lanka were under LTTE control. The rest of the country was dominated by the Sri Lankan armed forces. There was no room for them anywhere on the island.
So the PLOTE leaders did some ‘out of the island’ thinking. They decided to take over the Maldives.
On November 3, 1988, 80 PLOTE men, backed by some Maldivian dissidents, landed in the Maldives capital, Male. Sitharthan says they were in control of the city for four hours. They were forced to flee the next day, when Indian commandoes landed on the island. The militants had made a mistake: they had not attacked communication facilities, because they planned to use those themselves. Unfortunately for them, the people they planned to overthrow used them first.
Sitharthan now laughs about that attempt. He looks embarassed at the mention of the incident. His group gave up arms after the Indo-Sri Lanka peace accord of 1987, he says. They are re-arming again, though, because of the failure of the accord.
The PLOTE is now a marginal force in Lankan politics. Sitharthan himself lives in Colombo, and is much like any other political worker, though he does seem more direct and honest than the average politician.
His predecessor Mukundan is dead. He was shot dead in Colombo.
Most of the people I have met who might be called militants are like Sitharthan. On the surface, they are quiet, friendly people. Except, of course, for the fact that they believe very, very strongly in a certain political goal — and they will do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. The generally live quietly eventful lives. Some of them, like Mukundan, die sudden, violent deaths.

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