There was panic when my wife and I carrying our Sri Lankan passports reached the immigration desk of Siam Reap International Airport in Cambodia last week. Sri Lanka! Sri Lanka! shouted the immigration officer and his loud voice attracted a few other officers manning counters. After talking about something in their own language they separated us from other travellers and took us into virtual custody.
In the airport building, a senior immigration officer began to question us about the intention of our visit etc, and then photo copied all our travel documents. Later however, we were allowed to enter the country.
Some friends who had been to Cambodia before warned us in advance of this type of harassment by Cambodian authorities towards Sri Lankans; but we never expected the embarrassing and humiliating experience we endured.
It was no different when we were on our way out from Phnom Penh Airport where we were questioned again.
Why is this ‘special treatment’ for Sri Lankans? I asked an officer. Because Sri Lanka is in the special watch list together with Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and few other countries. Many of your countrymen coming into our country are not genuine tourists, they do illegal things, he said. But he was puzzled when I asked him What kind of illegal things?
The immigration officer was doing his jobvigilance over Sri Lankans visiting Cambodia, although he had no clue on the reasons behind it. Little did he know that it was due to a request made by Sri Lanka itself a couple of decades ago.
During that time, the main focus of the government of Sri Lanka was Tharmalingam Shanmugam Kumaran alias Kumaran Pathmanatha – or KP and his underground network. Having realised that his network was extensively active in Southeast Asia, successive Sri Lankan governments made every effort to trace KP and unearth his network.
KP headed the most important department of the LTTE – international finance and procurement.Leading intelligence agencies put him on par with well-known arms dealers, and even above them. His profile would certainly be a book by itself with an unbelievable collection of international operations that misguided most of the world’s intelligence networks.
After the black markets in weapons in the Balkans and East Europe shifted to the far-east in the mid 90s, KP too shifted his focus to Southeast Asia and established a strong operational network in that region. It included food chains and restaurants in Cambodia and Indonesia, computer hardware shops in Laos, small ad hoc businesses in Myanmar, both underground and open businesses in Malaysia and Thailand and financial businesses in Singapore. Highly corrupt systems in many of these countries and their porous international borders made KP’s life easier and clandestine transportation activities along the Mekong River that connected six countries safe. Once these transit countries – mainly Malaysia -tightened their grips, Indonesia became a better option as the archipelago had many ‘relaxed’ ports. Many LTTE ships that were destroyed by the Sri Lankan Navy in international waters originated from Indonesia. The Sri Lankan government continuously requested its Southeast Asian counterparts to be vigilant of KP and his network and assist Sri Lanka in its efforts to curb terrorism. In late 90’s Thailand arrested some maritime equipment including a primitive submarine belonging to LTTE in Phuket.
The writer still remembers the closed door meeting in 2003 Ranil Wickremesinghe had with then Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak who was also holding the portfolio of Defence. Later we realised that the intention of this secret meeting was to request the Malaysian government to tighten its grip on the LTTE and to take steps against clandestine weapons smuggling via Malaysian ports.This meeting resulted in several arrests of fugitives and weapons awaiting to be in Malaysia.
In mid-2000, a fully-fledged school was built by Sri Lanka in a poor village called Twantay, close to Myanmar’s capital of Yangon – close to Yangon River. Under the leadership of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, then Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake had opened the school.Though the plaque said that it was a gift from the people of Sri Lanka to the people of Myanmar, one could easily understand the diplomatic strategy behind the move. The riverside village had been a key weapon transit point of the LTTE along the Mekong and Yangon rivers, through the Twantay Canal to the Yangon International Port for smuggling.
Thus was the sophisticated Southeast Asian network of KP, the high-flying international fugitive who had a self-proclaimed motto catch me if you can. But he was caught in Malaysia a few months after the killing of Tiger chief, Prabhakaran in 2009.
We hardly hear of KP now; what has happened to him after the polls; whether he is enjoying an alleged luxurious life as claimed or behind ‘real’ bars awaiting trial after the filing of a legal case by the JVP- we do not know.
But one thing we know is that his network is not sophisticated anymore. Though the US annual country report on terrorism claimed that the LTTE’s financial and international political networks are still active, the terrorist group is not in a position to engage in arms smuggling and similar operations. Of course, the military defeat of the LTTE in Sri Lanka does not mean that it was uprooted in total. The diaspora and LTTE political activities are scattered but active in many parts of the world.
Hence, it is high time that Sri Lanka conducts a full-scale review on the situation and revise the requests made from foreign governments. It is important it keeps an eye on LTTE operatives but not at the expense of the dignity of Lankan citizens who face immense embarrassments just because they hold Sri Lankan passports.
However Sri Lanka does not deserves to be in the same category of Iraq or Syria, as the Cambodian immigration officer claimed.