Brigadier Balraj: Brave LTTE Commander who led from the front

May 24th, 2008

by D.B.S.Jeyaraj

Kandiah Balasegaran alias “Brigadier Balraj” the Deputy military chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) died of a heart attack at Puthukkudiyiruppu in the Mullaitheevu district on May 20th. .

In a condolence message issued by him , LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakharan says “The man who was at the center of many of our Himalayan victories, the heroic military leader, who trained,guided and fought with our fighting formations and conventional brigades is with us no more.”

Prabakharan goes on to say of Balraj ” His ability to move the fighting units, his focused actions and his martial characteristics struck fear in the hearts of the enemy. These same characteristics strengthened the conviction and morale of our fighters. They brought us victories”.

“Colonel” Balraj who like former tiger political commissar Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan was promoted posthumously as Brigadier was responsible for many tiger victories on the battlefront.43 year old Balraj was a courageous fighter who led from the front in battle.

In recent times his health had deteriorated making it virtually impossible for Balraj to be at the Frontlines regularly. Yet he used to visit the Manal aaru /Weli – Oya battlefront as frequently as possible and supervise/coordinate the military arrangements there.

Severely afflicted with coronary disease and a kidney ailment Balraj was receiving medical attention at Puthukkudiyiruppu. He died of a cardiac seizure at about 2 .00 pm. A three – day period of mourning from May 21st – 23rd was declared by the LTTE.

Balraj was one of those rare leaders in the LTTE who was genuinely admired and loved by the Tamil people he associated with. He was simple, courteous and accessible.

Balraj used to listen to the problems of the people and tried in his own way to help resolve them. In doing so he fell foul of some other senior LTTE leaders at times.

Balraj after heart surgery in 2003 [Photo: LTTE]

Many of the tiger leaders have been responsible for several human rights violations. But the deputy military chief was one against whom there were none.

He also commanded the respect and awe of LTTE cadre. Balraj who rose from the ranks earned this position through his military skill and courage. His military exploits were legendary making him an icon for many young tigers to follow and emulate.

Kandiah Balasegaran alias Balraj was born in 1964 in the coastal area of Kokuthoduwaai in Mullaitheevu district. He was one of the few top tigers born in the Northern mainland region known as the Wanni. Most tiger leaders now in the Wanni were born outside the Wanni.

Though Balasegaran was in every sense a native son of the Wanni soil his family roots too were from the Jaffna peninsula. His ancestors hailed from Karaveddy in the Vadamaratchy division of Jaffna. Balraj’s great – grandfather had migrated to Kokkuthoduwai almost a century ago.

The family engaged in both seasonal fishing and agriculture. In recent times after being displaced from Kokkuthoduwaai , Balraj’s family relocated to the Mulliyawalai – Thaniyootru area in Mullaitheevu and engaged in agriculture.

Young Balasegaran was the fourth in a family of four boys and a girl. He was supposedly the brightest child in the family and his father Kandiah and mother Kannagi were very keen to send him to the university.

This was not to be as Balraj had opted to join the Tamil militant movement while doing his GCE advanced level.He had passed his “O”levels with flying colours.

None of his siblings joined the tigers but some nephews and nieces did so and the son of a brother who did so is now holding a senior position in the LTTE.

Balraj had his primary education at Kokkuthoduwaai in Mullaitheevu district and secondary education at Pulmoddai in the Trincomalee district.

This was because Pulmoddai was closer to Kokkuthoduwaai than Mullaitheevu. There were also some close relatives in Pulmoddai.

Kokkuthoduwaai like Kokkilai and Nayaru were places where a large number of migrant Sinhala fishermen used to come and make “Wadiyas” during fishig season.

As a youngster Balraj used to interact with these Sinhala “visitors” and learnt Sinhala well. He was also able to speak English with reasonable fluency.

An interesting feature about the great tiger military commander is the fact that his militant roots were in the Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE).

Affter the original LTTE split and Umamaheswaran had formed the PLOTE “Suntharam” of Chulipuram played a big role in the new organization until he was shot dead at Chitra press in Jaffna by the LTTE in 1982.

Suntharam had travelled the length and breadth of the North and East and formed clandestine PLOTE cells. Since the PLOTE in those days did not believe in “hit and run “tactics and was preparing for an all – out onslaught these cells were virtually “sleeper” cells.

Balasegaran was recruited by Suntharam while still a student.The youngster was impatient for some action but continued to be a member of the “dormant” PLOTE cell.Graffiti , handmade posters and distribution of leaflets were the modes of political protest.

Meanwhile Lawrence and Saba of the tigers had begun LTTE work in the area and were promoting the movement.

When the July 1983 anti – Tamil pogrom took place and thousands of Tamil youths started joining the militant movements to get military training.

Balasegaran also wanted to do so. But there was family pressure that he continue his studies and enter university. Thus he did not join the rush.Events however began overtaking.

Balasegaran was in Kokkuthoduwaai for school holidays when some youths burned a CTB bus after making crew and passengers dismount at gun point.

This act was the first of its kind in the area and there was a backlash. The security officials began arresting youths on a large scale.

Many were assaulted and tortured. Several youths were forced to go underground to evade arrest.Balasegaran was one of them.

Realising that a normal school life was not possible for him any longer Balasegaran decided to join the militant movements. Wanting quick action he thought the LTTE and not the PLOTE was the best group to join.

For most Tamils at that time all Tamil groups were the same. All were fighting for a common cause.

There was a school master from Jaffna named “Thaas” in the area who was in charge of recruitment for the tigers.Balasegaran approached him. Despite his PLOTE background he was selected and sent to Jaffna.

Balasegaran found himself in the hands of a tiger operative known as “Bruce” or “Kannadi”. There was a hitch. Balasegaran’s PLOTE link made him suspect in the eyes of the LTTE.

Still the youth’s sincerity was patently visible. So the LTTE kept him but did not send him for military training in India. He was given limited local training and used as a “helper”.Officially he was not made a LTTE cadre.

This was like a period of probation where his conduct was scrutinised carefully. Fate however intervened. Balaegaran was accidentally injured in a skirmish with the army though he himself was not a combatant.He was taken to India for medical treatment.

Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahathaya was now the LTTE military commander for the Wanni region. Mahathaya was in Tamil Nadu for surgery when Balraj was receiving medical treatment.

The “senior” Mahathaya began interacting with Balasegaran and discovered that he was from the Wanni with thoorough knowledge of the Manal Aaru/Weli Oya region.

Mahathaya liked what he saw. It was Mahathaya who “recognized in him (Balraj) from the very beginning, the rare martial nature and martial characteristics that were natural to him”.

Initially it was Mahathaya who helped Balasegaran”develop as an idealistic fighter with great skill and leadership”.

Mahathaya urged Prabakharan then in Chennai that Balasegaran be given military training in India and recruited into LTTE ranks. Prabakharan agreed reluctantly and authorised training for Balasegaran.

This was a departure from the usual LTTE practice where those from other groups were not taken in as regulars.

Though the LTTE chief was reluctant about Balraj later he diascovered the military potential in him. Prabakharan liked the man and promoted him to unparalleled heights . He even got Balraj married to a close relative..

The fact remains however that Balraj was originally of the PLOTE and that he was a protegee of Mahathaya. In the current LTTE propaganda barrage about Brigadier Balraj two salient factors are missing.

One is his PLOTE antecedents and the other is his Mahathaya link.

After recovery Balasegaran was formally inducted into the LTTE in 1984 and given military training in Tamil Nadu as part of the ninth LTTE batch.. His nom de guerre was Balraj.

After training Balraj returned to the Wanni and was absorbed into Mahathaya’s bodyguard unit. Gradually he was utilised for regular combat also.

Balraj made his mark first in 1986 when he played an active role in taking over the Karadipokku junction in Kiinochchi in what was an abortive bid by Mahathaya to encircle the Kilinochhi military camp.

When Mahathaya was made deputy – leader of the LTTE he continued to be in overall charge of the Wanni. Jeyam,Suseelan and Paseelan were appointed as military commanders for the districts of Vavuniya, Kilinochchi and Mullaitheevu respectively.

Balraj became Paseelan’s deputy and functioned in the Mullaitheevu district.He was stationed at the Manal Aaru – Weli – Oya region. He knew the terrain well.

When the war with the Indian army began the LTTE supremo Prabakharan, Mahathaya and other senior tiger leaders relocated to the Wanni. Prabakharan himself began camping out in the dense jungles of Mullaitheevu.

Lt. Col Navam was in overall charge of Prabakharan’s security in particular and Mullaitheevu defences in general. Balraj functioned as Navam’s deputy.

It was then that Balraj began interacting closely with his leader Prabakharan. The LTTE numero uno who at one time was reluctant to induct Balraj into tiger folds due to his PLOTE past was now greatly impressed by his unassuming simplicity and quiet efficiency.

After the withdrawal of the Indian army the tiger leader moved back to Jaffna with his retinue. There had also been a policy change of sorts where the LTTE was now as far as possible encouraging cadre from a particular locality to take up leadership positions there.

In keeping with this policy Balraj was made military commander for the Wanni in 1990. This was the opportunity Balraj had been waiting for to demonstrate his military acumen.

The A – 9 highway or Jaffna – Kandy road was then under the “nominal” control of the army from Vavuniya to Elephant Pass. The army had military camps in key areas.

The LTTE led by Balraj launched two attacks on the Kokavil and Mankulam camps and overran them. Later another attack was conducted against the Kilinochchi camp. Though it was not overrun the soldiers later evacuated and strengthened the Paranthan camp.

These victories raised the LTTE stock. Balraj also became known as a reputed military commander.

One of his plus points was that he led from the front. He would inspire and galvanize tiger cadre by courageously leading them up front into the thick of battle. There was no “bull shitting”.

More than 20 years ago this columnist interviewed former LTTE Jaffna district commander Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias “Col” Kittu for the Indian newsmagazine “Frontline”.

A pertinent point made by Kittu then was about the leadership qualities of LTTE commanders. Unlike others , Kittu said, LTTE field commanders lead from the front and do not direct operations from the rear.

Kittu observed that tiger commanders go out front and call upon cadre to follow by shouting “Come Up! Come up!” instead of egging fighters on from behind by ordering “Go forward! Go forward!!”

This tiger trait identified succintly by Kittu was something Balraj had in ample quantity. Till he became seriously afflicted by ill- ness Balraj always used plunge into thick battle leading from the front.

This is a quality absent in many of the present crop of “heavyweight” tiger military commanders.

Another operation where Balraj proved his military prowess was the Elephant pass operation of 1991.

This was the operation codenamed “Tharai – Kadal – Aahayam ” (Land – sea – Air )and led by Mahathaya to lay siege to the Elephant pass base and overrun it.The operation ended in failure and 673 LTTE cadre were killed.

Balraj and his fighters were tasked with the goal of penetrating the complex from the Kurinchatheevu sector.

Balraj and his men delivered results by infiltrating through the lagoon and overrunning the military installation set up in the former guest house premises and retaining it till the operation was called off.. They destroyed it when withdrawing.

The failure of other LTTE cadre to achieve their objectives led to overall failure of the operation. It was however a personal triumph for Balraj.

The LTTE in 1991 formed its first infantry brigade It was named after Charles Anthony , Prabakharan’s trusted deputy and close companion who died in Meesalai on July 15th 1983.

Balraj was Prabakharan’s choice to be the first special commander of Charles Anthony brigade. He served so until 1993.

Apart from leading military assaults and offensives Balraj also excelled in strategic defence. He was mainly responsile for defeating, preventing, restricting or nullifying several military offensives by the armed forces.

Some of these were “operation Wanniwickrema” in Vavuniya, Operation ” lightning” in Manal aaru/Weli Oya, operation “leap forward” in Jaffna, , operation” Yarl Devi ” in Kilaly /puloppalai and operation “Agni Kheela” in Elephant pass.

One offensive Balraj failed to thwart was the first phase of “operation Jayasikurui”in 1997 where the armed forces took Omanthai and Nedunkerny. Operation ” riviresa “in Jaffna where Balraj also participated in defence was another failure for the LTTE.

Balraj was in overall charge of LTTE defences during Jayasikurui till the fall of Puliyankulam. Thereafter erstwhile eastern LTTE regional commander “Col” Karuna took over defence arrangements.

Balraj’s finest accomplishment in defensive war was Agikheela on April 24th 2001. The armed forces had moved out from the Kilaly – Eluthumattuvaal – Nagar Kovul FDL’s in a bid to re- take Elephant pass.The LTTE inflicted heavy losses on the army.

Balraj was injured during Operation Yarl Devi in the fighting at Puloppalai. He sustained serious injuries on a leg when he was firing an RPG at a T – 55 tank.

The injury caused him to limp slightly when walking.Also the leg started paining when he walked for a long distance.

It was in 1996 that Prabakharan gave Balraj his greatest military honour. He appointed Balraj as deputy – military commander.Prabakharan is the military commander of the LTTE. Thus Balraj became number two in the military hierarchy.

But Balraj had to pay a ” price ” for the honour prior to receiving it.

Balraj’s one – time patron and benefactor Mahathaya had fallen out with Prabakharan . Now Prabakharan wanted to detain and interrogate his deputy – leader.

Prabakharan sent three LTTE leaders to “arrest” Mahathaya. They were Sornam, Soosai and Balraj. This was perhaps Prabakharan’s perverse ruse to test Balraj’s loyalty. Balraj had to act against Mahathaya to prove his loyalty to Prabakharan.

This Balraj did. He went along with the others to apprehend the man who had given him his break and taken him under his wing.But then could he have refused to obey Prabakharan?

Hundreds of LTTE cadre surrounded Mahathaya’s place. Initially a young boy was sent to the house. He knocked on the door and rudely asked Mahathaya to accompany him. The LTTE deputy – leader gave a resounding slap and chased him away.

Then Balraj himself went to Mahathaya’s door. The deputy – leader was taken aback to find his former protegee entrusted with the task of arresting him. The fight went out of him.

When Balraj said “Engalode Vaango Annai” (Come along with us elder brother) Mahathaya promptly agreed. He instructed his 40 odd bodyguards not to resist and asked Balraj to ensure that nothing happened to them. He then went meekly with Balraj.

This was the “trial by fire” that Balraj had to endure to prove his loyalty to Prabakharan. This betrayal of Mahathaya was Balraj’s stepping stone to greater success and recognition.

The LTTE’s new deputy – military commander began demonstrating his mettle in battle.

On July 18th 1996 the LTTE overran the Mullaitheevu camp killing more than a 1000 soldiers. Balraj co-ordinated the operation codenamed “Oyatha Alaigal – 1.”

In February 1998 the LTTE attacked Kilinochchi The soldiers withdrew after incurring heavy losses.. Balraj was in overall charge and adopted psychological warfare as a military tactic.

Then came “Oyatha – Alaigal – 3 in 1999 November when the LTTE in a series of co-ordinated offensives overran military camps in Oddusuddan. Karippattaimurippu, Mankulam, Kanagarayankulam, Puliyankulam etc.

Most military gains of “Jayasikurui” were reversed.

“Oyatha Alaigal” or unceasing waves was an on going operation with more battles to follow in the Jaffna peninsula. The greatest of these was the lengthy series of operations to take the strategic military base in the Elephant pass isthmus.

The key element in the LTTE’s “encircle and enfeeble”strategy was the interdiction of supplies along the A – 9 highway between Eluthumattuvaal and Iyakkachchi / Elephant pass. The besieged Elephant pass garrison had to be “cut off” and isolated.

In a bid to prevent such an eventuality the armed forces had fortified a rectangular area extending from Thaalaiyaddy – Maruthankerny along the Vadamaratchy east coast of the peninsula up ro the Puthukkaadu juction on the Jaffna – Kandy road.

This area known as the “Vathiraayan box”included Vathirayan , Pullaa veli, Soranpatru and Maasaar. Thus Elephant pass was assured of continuous supply from Eluthumadduvaal in the hinterland as well as Thaalaiyaddi in the littoral.

How the LTTE breached these impregnable defences amounted to a modern military miracle. It was Balraj’s crowning achievement.

In an ambhibean operation on March 26th 2000 , the sea tigers led by “Col” Soosai succeeded in transporting 1200 cadre from the mainland coast to the peninsular coast.

These cadre led by Balraj landed at Kudaarappu – Maamunai and then moved clandestinely into the interior by walking through the inland lagoon and marshy lands known as “kandal”.

Army posts in Soranpatru and Maasaar were overrun and the tigers reached the A – 9 road near Puthukkaadu junction.

Thereafter the tigers led by Balraj moved up and set up positions at a place called Ithaavil near Pallai thus blocking military supplies to Iyakkachchi – Elephant pass.

The next few weeks saw an intense battle where Balraj and his band of intrepid fighters held on to Ithaavil against formidable odds. There were many twists and turns but Balraj fought on stubbornly beating back attempt after attempt to dislodge him.

After 24 days of fighting the army gave in. Elephant pass was abandoned on April 19th. The LTTE hoisted its flag ceremoniously on April 22nd.

Balraj’s incredible military feat was analysed and dissected in military manuals.

The LTTE under Balraj had demonstrated that it could engage in offensive and defensive positional warfare in deep enemy territory and triumph against superior armed forces without air support.

It was hailed as a paradigm shift in the conduct of “limited wars”.

With this victory and the magnificient resistance displayed during “Operation Agnkheela ” in retaining Elephant pass the LTTE deputy – military chief’s reputation was further enhanced. He became a larger than life legend.

But things changed as Balraj’s health began to deteriorate. He had always had a “heart condition” and this began to worsen. In addition there was diabetes and kidney complications.

When the ceasefire was in progress Balraj went to Singapore with two bodyguards for advanced medical treatment. He obtained heart surgery there. Balraj’s visa application to enter Malaysia for further treatment was refused.

There was trouble on the domestic front too.

In keeping with the LTTE policy of arranging marriages within the movement Balraj too had married a woman cadre Varathaa.

She was a close relative of LTTE supremo who had personally arranged the marriage. Varathaa like Balraj had injured her leg in a battle.

Married life however was not a state of bliss. There was temperamental incompatibility and the couple had serious differences. At one stage the wife started “complaining” against Balraj in public places.

This led to arguments and squabbles. Then Varathaa went to the LTTE police station and registered a complaint that Balraj had assaulted her.She also complained to the LTTE leader who was her kinsman.

Prabakharan then intervened and admonished Balraj. He also separated the couple. This increased Balraj’s misery.

In a tragic twist Balraj’s separated wife was stung by a russel’s viper and died.

Though separated , Varadhaa’s death through snakebite caused inconsolable sorrow to Balraj.Apart from physical ill – health it is said that Balraj’s emotional state declined considerably after his wife’s death.

Due to his deteriorating health Balraj began to pursue a comparatively , sedate life. He was involved as a lecturer and instructor at the LTTE’s military academy for officers.

Balraj taught military stratehy, planning and tactics.He also provided specialised training for the LTTE commandoes and special forces.

He had earlier been a visiting instructor and demonstrator at various LTTE training camps. The recruits and conscripts liked to be taught y Balraj.

But there was no way in which his services on the military front could end.

In 2001 when “Col” Shankar was killed in a landmine attack by the army’s deep penetration unit a virtual state of emergency was declared y Prabakharan.

Balraj was directed to coordinate a defence strategy to counter the DPU and prevent further attacks. Balraj was engaged in this when the ceasefire was promukgated on Feb 23rd 2002 .

[Brigadier Balraj-pic LTTE]

During the ceasefire Balraj was sent to the east at one stage to strengthen LTTE defences. This was after the Karuna revolt.

Balraj was in Vaaharai when the tsunami struck on Dec 26th 2004. Balraj reportedly had a miraculous escape.

The recent past had seen his health deteriorate drastically. He used to spend most of his time in a hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu. Yet he would leave the hospital and undertake prolonged trips to the frontlines inspecting and supervising defences.

The raising of the 59 division and its deployment in Manal Aaru / Weli Oya created fresh difficulties for the LTTE. Contaiing the armed forces in this strategically important terrain was of crucial importance.

Once again Prabakharan turned to Balraj. Despite his ill – health Balraj began staying at te Frontlines for extended periods. This worsened his physical condition.

It was very recently that senior LTTE commanders Sornam and Bhanu were sent to Manal aaru to help ease Balraj’s burden.

Balraj like Soosai was genuinely popular with the peop0le and well – liked by tiger ares. This was due to the fact that both were simple , accessible persons without pompous pretensions.

Both got on well and Balraj went to Soosai’s aid when the latter got into “trouble” with the leadership over eastern special commander Ramesh.

When efforts were made by intelligence chief Pottu Amman to “penalise” Ramesh for alleged collaboration with Karuna it was Soosai who prevented it as Ramesh was married to his cousin sister.

Balraj threw in his weight behind Soosai and Prabakharan had to listen.Ramesh was let off lightly.

Balraj also incurred the wrath of other senior LTTE leaders when he voiced the concerns of ordinary people.

When the LTTE began interfering with the agriculturists of the Wanni by demanding that they sell their produce to the tigers at rock – bottom prices it was to Balraj that the farmers turned.

When the LTTE took over all sea produce and began exerting a monopoly the affected fisherfolk turned to Soosai and Balraj.

When Balraj took up these issues with Prabakharan on behalf of the people the LTTE seniors in charge of finance, trade etc were offended.

The Wanni is now a blend of four types of society.

There are the original inhabitants of the Wanni; then there are the Jaffna people who came in some deades ago; there are also the Tamils who relocated to the Wanni after 1995 – 96 when the LTTE was sent out of Jaffna.

Fourthly there is the LTTE, their families and the families of close LTTE supporters.

There are tensions among these four different segments. When such problems occur the ordinary people prefer to seek the help of “understanding” people like Balraj. He was like a pacifier and bridge builder.

In one glarig instance two members of Pottu Amman’s intelligence division drove their vehicle recklessly and killed a young man.

The LTTE police force led by Nadesan (who is now political commissar) refused to take action. This led to enraged relatives storming the cop shop. It was Balraj who managed to douse passions.

Balraj was not an orator. But in recent times he had developed his public – speaking skills. Balraj spoke directly without fanciful flourishes and touched the hearts of his listeners.

[At homage paying in Mallaawi, May 21, 2008-pic TamilNet]

One reason that endeared Balraj to the ordinary people was his easy accessibility and simplicity.

While most LTTE leaders move about in pajeiro vehicles with many bodyguards Balraj moved about on foot or bicycle.

He used motor vehicles only for long trips and travelled about with few bodyguards.

People could easily approach him and talk. He did not keep himself aloof.

Even Tamil journalists who have met him were full of praise for the man’s opennness and inter – personal skills.

Likewise cadre under his command loved him because of his concern for them and his friendliness.

Apparently many of the current LTTE leaders are cut off from the people whose cause they claim to serve. They also adopt a superior attitude towards low – rung cadre.

Balraj and Soosai are but a few exceptions.

Against this backdrop the death of Balraj will be an irreparable loss for the LTTE.

Even though ill – health had diminished his military ability , Balraj was still a force to be reckoned with.

His military experience and knowledge was a tremendous resource for the LTTE.

Above all he was an inspirational icon for young tiger fighters.

Brigadier Balraj’s demise would be keenly felt by the LTTE and its leader.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached on djeyaraj2005@yahoo.com

Entry Filed under: transCurrents


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