In over two decades of service with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Brig. Balraj, who passed away Tuesday after a heart attack, had been a courageous and skilled fighter and commander whose last years were spent institutionalizing the training of a new generation of LTTE field officers.
Although he joined the LTTE later than many of the other top commanders, Brig. Balraj had risen rapidly through the ranks on the strength of his shrewdness on the battlefield and courage under fire, fighters who served with him said this week.
Brig. Balraj had been ailing for some time and had been hospitalised for two weeks three months ago. He had undergone a heart-related operation in 2003, during the Norwegian peace process. The operation was conducted in a Singapore hospital and he had spent several months recuperating in Vanni thereafter.
Throughout his career, Brig. Balraj, one the LTTE commanders most feared by the Sri Lankan military, had always preferred to lead his troops from the front.
LTTE fighters who served with him say he preferred to direct his battles from amidst the exploding shells and flying bullets of the frontline – a few hundred metres from the enemy positions - rather than the confines of a command-centre.
He had been seriously wounded many times in his two decades of service, the healing often compounded by his diabetes.
Brig. Balraj had twice commanded the LTTE’s crack Charles Anthony Regiment. He was its first commander for two years from when the unit, designed for conventional warfighting, was established in 1991 and had led it again for another two years from 1995.
Brig. Balraj came to particular public prominence for his command of a daring operation in 2000 in which he led 1,200 LTTE fighters into the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) -held Jaffna peninsula to capture and hold a section of the key A9 highway linking the SLA base complex at Elephant Pass with the Jaffna rearbase areas.
The large LTTE strike force slipped into the heavily fortified peninsula by sea and trekked inland from Thalaiyadi to the Puthukkaattu Junction on the A9. With complex defences manned by thousands of Sri Lankan troops, such a move had hitherto been considered an impossibility.
It was also considered impossible for a lightly armed strike force, surrounded by thousands of Sri Lankan troops supported by artillery, tanks and airpower, to seriously disrupt the key highway for very long.
However, holding what became called the ‘Vaththirayan Box’, a perimeter of a few kilometres deep inside the Jaffna High Security Zones, with no hope of resupply unless the Elephant Pass base fell to the LTTE, Brig. Balraj and his troops battled the Sri Lankan forces for 34 days with only the weapons they had carried with them.
When the LTTE assault on the Elephant Pass base complex began, the SLA garrison there was unable to receive supplies from Jaffna due to Balraj’s ‘cut out’.
The SLA therefore launched repeated onslaughts against Brig. Balraj’s position to clear the A9 and save the Elephant Pass base. As the situation became critical, top Sri Lankan commanders converged in Jaffna to mobilise the relief effort, but to no avail: the ‘Vaththirayan box’ held until the Elephant Pass garrison collapsed before a major LTTE offensive. At least 4 Sri Lankan commanders were put in charge, one by one, against the Tiger forces led by Balraj.
Brig. Balraj’s raid gave lie to the assumption that no rear defence in depth of a state's conventional army could only be seriously threatened by an armed force supported by strategic air power.
Balraj (Balasegaram Kandiah) was born on 27 November, 1965. He hails from Kokkuththoduvaay in Mullaiththeevu district.
He joined the LTTE in 1983 as a part time member and became a full time member in 1984.
Fellow fighters remark that he had been wounded in combat even before he received his military training: he was in the 9th batch of the LTTE training program in Tamil Nadu.
In 1985 he departed for India from Vanni for military training. His batch, travelling under the supervision of a senior LTTE cadre, Kandeepan, was confronted by the SLA. Kandeepan and some of the other recruits were killed in the ensuing clash. Balraj was wounded.
When Balraj came back to Vanni from training in 1986, he served with Major Pasilan.
Colonel Theepan, the present Northern Forces Commander of the LTTE, recalled that in one heavy battle at Munthirikaikkulam, Balraj took part in an LTTE ambush in which fourteen SLA soldiers were killed and several weapons were seized.
Balraj later took part in several ambushes on SLA forces in Vanni during that year, demonstrating considerable courage and battlefield acumen, Col. Theepan said in his tribute on Thursday.
However, Balraj's defining moment as a field commander came later during the India - LTTE war. He fought side by side with Major Pasilan and Major Maran in Jaffna when the conflict erupted between the LTTE and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in 1987. Armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and a Rocket-Propelled-Grenade launcher, Balraj fought Indian forces at Koapaay, destroying battle tanks.
Later, as the LTTE shifted its base to Vanni moved and switched from urban- to jungle- warfare, Balraj was moved into the deep jungles of Ma'nalaa'ru, which is near his native place of Kokkuththoduvaay.
Balraj was wounded three times during direct confrontations with the Indian Army.
The Indian military launched its Operation Checkmate in several phases, once deploying the elite Gurkha regiment.
In one critical battlefront, Balraj launched a surprise frontal assault on the Gurkhas located in open terrain. The ferocity of the LTTE attack forced the elite soldiers to scatter into booby-trapped jungles where they suffered heavy casualties. This battlefront defined Balraj as a fearless commander.
When the conflict between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE resumed after the withdrawal of the IPKF, in what became known as Eelam War II, Balraj led key fronts in several battles and sweeping operations against the SLA.
In 1990 he was involved in the LTTE’s assault on SLA-held Maangku'lam – in the centre of the now LTTE-held Vanni region.
Balraj also participated in the LTTE’s first assault on the Elephant Pass base in 1991. Although the LTTE operation failed to capture base, it defined the movement’s forces evolution into a conventional war-fighting force.
Balraj commanded one of the four fronts in that battle, the only front in which the LTTE forces succeeded in capturing their assigned objective, in this case the barracks part of the base.
Subsequently, the SLA expanded the EP base into a complex which was the largest SLA installation in the island. Ten years later, it was Balraj’s raid which ensured its fall to the LTTE.
In 1993, the SLA launched a major offensive, Yarl Devi, against LTTE, under the command of Col. Sarath Fonseka, now a Lt. Gen. and overall commander of the SLA.
LTTE forces, under the command of Balraj, with Theepan as deputy commander, led a counter-offensive against the advancing SLA forces.
Taking up entrenched positions in unfavourable, open terrain at Puloappa'lai, the LTTE forces launched a surprise attack on the SLA, inflicting heavy casualties and destroying tanks and armoured vehicles.
The SLA offensive was routed in six days. Col. Fonseka was amongst the wounded. Balraj was also badly wounded in his leg.
Adele Balasingham, wife of the LTTE’s late theoretician, Anton Balasingham, recalls Balraj’s injuries in her book, ‘Will to Freedom’, based on her several years of experiences living with the LTTE.
"A measure of Balraj’s courage revealed itself to us when shrapnel smashed his right leg in the Yarl Devi battle of 1993. A decision not to amputate the limb was made and Balraj suffered excruciating pain of limb repair. Compounding his healing problems was unstable diabetes. After many months in bed and a great deal of pain, Balraj eventually walked again on his leg, but the injury left him with a permanent limp and a recurrent wound infection."
"Nevertheless, he viewed his injury a insignificant compared with the suffering and sacrifices of his cadres and continued to function as a field commander in the warzone."
During Eelam War III, which followed the short-lived peace talks with the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Balraj commanded important defensive battles against the massed formations of the SLA deployed to capture the Jaffna peninsula.
He led LTTE forces deployed as part of Operation ‘Tiger Leap’, a counter offensive with operations in sea and land and using surface-to-air attack.
After the mass civilian exodus from Jaffna compelled by the massive bombardment and ‘broad front’ assault by two divisions of SLA troops, the LTTE again shifted its rear base to Vanni.
Balraj subsequently led, as Coordinating Commander, the LTTE’s Operation Unceasing Waves I, the assault on the SLA base at Mullaiththeevu in July 1996. The Tigers seized artillery in Mullaiththeevu for the first time.
Later, in 1997 and 1998, he led several counter-attacks against the SLA’s Operation Jaya Sikirui, then the largest over offensive launched by the Sri Lankan forces.
In 1998 Balraj led a lighting assault into the then SLA-controlled town of Ki'linochchi, whose residents had fled when the SLA captured it in 1996, soon after the Mullaiththeevu battle. Balraj’s assault was part of Operation Unceasing Waves II, in which Ki'linochchi was again brought under LTTE control.
Operation Unceasing Waves III, the third in the series, was the massive LTTE counter-offensive in late 1999 and early 2000, which first recaptured in six days the vast territory the SLA had struggled for eighteen months to occupy and then overran the Elephant Pass base complex.
In 2001, Balraj played a key role in crushing the SLA’s massive Operation ‘Agni Khiela’, in which thousands of soldiers were deployed from the Muhaimalai frontline to capture Elephant Pass from the Tigers.
The abortive offensive was the last major engagement of Eelam War III as nine months later, the Norwegian-facilitated peace process began in earnest with a mutual ceasefire, later formalized into the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in February 2002.
During the lengthy peace process, the LTTE embarked, as part of its state-building project, to institutionalize the training of field commanders at different levels of responsibility.
Recognizing the unfolding generational shift in one of the world’s longest running liberation struggles, the LTTE sought to impart command knowledge and skills to talented and battle experienced soldiers.
Balraj, with more than 20-years of combat experience and skilled in various war-fighting strategies, had the assignment of developing the training programs.
In her book, ‘Will to Freedom’ Adele Balasingham notes her observations about several of the top LTTE figures, including Balraj.
“Incredible as it may seem, this fighting hero is a reserved man,” she writes.
“Balraj is known, loved and respected not only for his legendary military successes and undisputed and abounding courage, but also for his utter commitment and devotion to the cadres under his command. Sensitive and respectful of the sacrifice and tribulations they have endured, Balraj opts to spend as much time as possible in the camps with them.”
In 2003 Balraj suffered a heart attack underwent surgery in Singapore.
In 2004, Balraj was amongst the senior LTTE officers sent to the east. However, Balraj did not participate in the offensive operations and his exact role in the east remains a secret.
He was still there in December 2004, when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, killing thirty thousand people across the island’s northern, eastern and southern coasts.
Balraj, based in Vakarai, narrowly escaped the crashing waves and soon after, returned to Vanni, with a number of LTTE fighters. In Vanni he resumed direction of training programs for LTTE officers.
After the SLA launched major operations in the Eastern province in mid-2006, other top LTTE officers, including Col. Sornam, Col. Banu and Col. Jeyam, who had also been sent to the east, also returned in phases with their fighters.
Whilst the Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa said the LTTE had been routed in the east, observers now say the LTTE had opted not to fight in strategically unfavourable terrain and had instead gradually relocated its main forces to the Vanni to confront the SLA’s massed formations there.
Reports say that even as he was forced to rest in hospital by bouts of illness in the past year, Brig. Balraj had continued to engage himself in the military campaign, often visiting the Mannaar and Ma'nalaa'ru fronts where LTTE fighters are presently putting up stiff resistance against the SLA.
Speaking in May 2006, soon after the Sri Lankan government had launched its opening offensive against the LTTE in Champoor, in the Eastern Province, Brig (then Colonel) Balraj observed: "The Fourth Eelam War will be the final war, and a terrible war that will bring the long awaited liberation to our people and our homeland. We are certainly positioned to be victorious. The people are with us and our leader will lead us to victory."