‘Brig’ Theepan: Rise and fall of a northern fighter

Wednesday, 15 March 2023 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Thus ended the life of a courageous tiger commander who led from the front and refused to abandon his cadres. Theepan was like an old-fashioned ship’s captain opting to go down with his sinking vessel rather than abandoning his cadres

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) formed in May 1976, conducted a 33-year-long armed struggle until May 2009, to establish a separate state in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka. Although the LTTE known as the “tiger organisation” was basically a guerrilla outfit, it adopted positional warfare methods for a lengthy period of time by capturing and retaining territory like a conventional military. The tigers threw up many “unofficial” military leaders who were de ranks and positions similar to designations in the “official” armed forces.

Among the many military leaders of the LTTE, two men made their mark in guerrilla and positional warfare. One was Kandiah Balasegaram alias Balraj who died of illness in May 2008. The other was Velayuthapillai Baheerathakumar alias “Theepan” who was killed in April 2009. Both were posthumously promoted as “Brigadiers” by the LTTE hierarchy. Balraj and Theepan held the posts of deputy military chief in the LTTE and respect for their tactical skill in military combat.

This column intends to focus on Theepan this week. The life and times of “Brig” Theepan are indeed interesting. A trip down memory lane with the aid of my earlier writings would be helpful in gaining insight about this fallen northern tiger.

Velayuthapillai Baheerathakumar alias Theepan was from Kandawalai in the Kilinochchi district. He used to adopt the nom de guerre Sivatheeban and an alias Thavabalasingham at times. Theepan’s family had its origins in Varani in the Thenmaratchy sector within the Jaffna peninsula.

Baheerathakumar was a student at Chavakachcheri Hindu College in Sangathaanai. He was in the Bio group for his GCE A levels and obtained results that could have qualified him to enter Varsity as a Bio-Science student. But Baheerathakumar opted to be a militant instead of being an undergrad.


Theepan was a cousin of Thileepan alias “Curdles”, former LTTE commander for Thenmaratchy region who was killed in the Kaithaddy explosion of 14 February 1987. Curdles also known as “Kerdy” was also from Kandawalai where his father served as school principal for a long time.

According to knowledgeable circles it was Curdles who recruited his younger cousin into the movement. Baheerathakumar joined the LTTE in early 1984. He underwent arms training and assumed the nom de guerre “Theepan”. His communication codename was “Tango Papa”.

The LTTE had then divided the Northern mainland known as Wanni into two regions for their purposes. Mannar district was one region while the districts of Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Mullaitheevu formed another unit. Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahathaya was the commander then for the greater Wanni LTTE division. Newly recruited Theepan hailing from Kandawalai, was placed under Mahathaya’s Wanni command.


Mahathaya was quick to recognise Theepan’s potential. He took a liking to him and inducted Theepan into his bodyguard detail. 1987 saw some administrative changes within the LTTE resulting in Mahathaya relocating to Jaffna and becoming deputy-leader of the LTTE. The Wanni was re-divided into Vavuniya, Kilinochchi and Mullaitheevu districts. Jeyam, Suseelan and Paseelan were made the respective district commanders.

Theepan accompanied Mahathaya to Jaffna and functioned as his chief bodyguard. It was on 29 July 1987 that the Indo-Lanka accord was signed. Soon war broke out between the Indian army and the LTTE.

Subsequently Mahathaya got back to the Wanni and stationed himself at Paalamottai in the Vavuniya district. Theepan too was at Paalamottai. But LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had also relocated to the Wanni and gradually began running things his own way.

Theepan was placed in charge of Kilinochchi as military commander. Despite the overwhelming presence of the Indian army, Theepan managed to evade capture by moving from place to place within the district. The LTTE under Theepan carried out many attacks against the Indian army in Kilinochchi district. District-wise, K’nochchi had the second largest number of anti-IPKF operations. Only Mullaitheevu district had more. The LTTE in M’theevu was then led by Balraj.

“Lt. Col. Kilman”

It was during the Indian army period that Theepan’s younger brother also joined the LTTE. Like his elder sibling, he too rose rapidly from the ranks and was at one stage appointed as commander of the LTTE’s Charles Anthony infantry division. Theepan’s younger brother Velayuthapillai Sivakumar who used the nom de guerre “Kilman” was sent to Trincomalee district as commander in charge of the Charles Anthony division in 1993. He was killed in an accidental explosion there in 1994 and was posthumously elevated to “Lt. Col” rank.

Prabhakaran “re-unified” the Wanni command again in late 1988. He brought all three districts under one regional command. Balraj was made Wanni military commander and Maaran the political commissar. Theepan was appointed as deputy-military commander to Balraj.

The Indian army left Lankan shores totally in March 1990. War erupted between the Premadasa government and the LTTE in June 1990. Under Balraj’s leadership the LTTE conducted several successful operations against the Armed Forces in the Wanni. Chief among them were the overrunning of Mankulam and Kokavil camps.

Balraj’s Deputy

Theepan served as an efficient deputy to Balraj. Both were of the same mould being courageous fighters who led from the Front. There was great affinity between both as comrades.

When Balraj died of illness in May 2008, Theepan broke down while delivering an eulogy. Theepan said of Balraj then “Ennai Aruhil vaithirunthu Thalapathiaaha valarthedutha thalapathy, Avar En por Aasaan” (he was the commander who kept me at his side and nurtured me as a commander. He was my teacher of war).

Balraj along with Theepan participated in the 1991 attack on Elephant Pass which ended in failure. It is said that the Wanni contingent led by both of them was successful in taking Kurinchatheevu area structures and adjacent buildings. But others tasked with different objectives were not so successful. 673 tiger cadres perished in the abortive attack.

In 1992, Balraj was appointed as commander of the newly raised Charles Anthony infantry division. Theepan his deputy succeeded Balraj as Wanni region commander.

The Balraj-Theepan duo scored a significant success when the LTTE launched a successful attack on Janakapura (Mannkindimalai) in the Manal Aaru/Weli Oya region. It was codenamed operation “Ithayabhoomi” (heartland).

Two major battles where Theepan proved his prowess were at Poonagary during “operation Thavalai (Frog) and in the peninsula during “operation Yarl Devi”.

“Operation Thavalai” (Frog)

The amphibious “frog” operation of November 1993 was a combined effort in which cadres from different regions were mobilised. The sprawling army base at Poonagary and Naval base at Nagathevanthurai were simultaneously targeted.

Bhanu had to target Nagathevanthurai main camp while Theepan had to demolish the main camp in Poonagary. Bhanu discharged his duties efficiently and virtually demolished the navy camp.

But the LTTE ran into difficulties at Poonagary. The plan was to target the main camp as well as the satellite mini- camps simultaneously. Thus Theepan and his cadres had to infiltrate deep into the base complex.

Even as Theepan & co were crawling through the sprawling complex, another tiger team was detected at the periphery. As firing began, Theepan and his team had to run fast towards their target so as to retain some element of surprise at least.

This they did and it was a panting Theepan and cadres who commenced the attack on the main camp. Though successful “operation Frog” was not an overwhelming tiger victory as the soldiers rallied and converged at the Kalmunai point area thus avoiding total annihilation.

“Operation Yarl Devi”

Another incident where Theepan made an impressive showing was “operation Yarl Devi” in September 1993 where soldiers marched northwards into the peninsula from Elephant Pass. Balraj and Theepan were in charge of countering the incursion.

Balraj got injured on the first day of battle and thereafter it was Theepan’s lot to take charge. This he did and beat back the army at Puloppalai after letting troops advance.

Theepan’s deputies in this operation were Navaneethan and Naresh. They were in charge of Mullaitheevu and Kilinochchi districts respectively under Theepan the overall Wanni commander.

It is said that Theepan concealed cadres in fox holes within sand dunes for hours and hours thus springing a lethal surprise in ambushing advancing soldiers.

This northern fighter’s life was intertwined with that of the LTTE’s military fortunes. Theepan’s death along with other senior tigers came at a time when the LTTE was on the verge of total military defeat. In a sense, Theepan’s demise at Aananthapuram in April signalled the beginning of the end for the LTTE in May 2009 

Transferred to Jaffna

The LTTE’s deputy leader Mahathaya was arrested and executed on charges of treason in 1994. In the aftermath of that episode, Theepan was transferred to Jaffna from the Wanni. It was during this time that Chandrika Kumaratunga was elected and peace talks commenced in 1994.

Talks broke down and war erupted again. When “operation Leap Forward” took place, Theepan fought along with LTTE cadres in Jaffna to repel it. He was also part of tiger resistance to “operation Thunderstrike” in Jaffna.

“Operation Riviresa”

Then came “operation Riviresa”. Initially Balraj and Sornam were made joint commanders to counter it. But after a while Prabhakaran replaced both with Theepan and Bhanu. They were appointed as joint commanders after the Army had entered Jaffna municipal limits. Theepan’s assignment was to delay the army and prevent the take-over of Jaffna before Great Heroes Day of 27 November.

Theepan led a small force, offering fierce resistance even as all the main routes to Jaffna were being gradually blocked by the army. It appeared that the tigers defending the town area under Theepan would be boxed in and trapped inside Jaffna town.

But Theepan managed to prevent the fall of Jaffna till 27 November and then withdrew with his cadres by wading through the Pannai lagoon waters for quite a distance until the sea tigers led by Soosai evacuated them safely.

Former deputy defence minister Anuruddha Ratwatte hoisted the national flag at Durayappah stadium on 5 December 1995.

The LTTE withdrew from Jaffna peninsula by April-May 1996. Immediately after this, Prabhakaran summoned Theepan and ordered him to undertake “rekke” (reconnaissance) of the Mullaitheevu army camp and formulate an attack plan. This was done and M’theevu was overrun on 18 July 1996. Over a 1,000 soldiers were killed. With the LTTE relocating en masse to the Wanni the M’theevu camp “removal” became a military imperative.

“Operation Jayasikurui”

“Operation Jayasikurui” was launched by the army in 1997. The first phase saw the army taking Omanthai and Nedunkerny virtually without any resistance. Theepan was entrusted the defence of A-9 highway or Jaffna-Kandy road. He took up position in Puliyankulam.

It was then that Theepan mounted his famous “trench cum bund” defences. Theepan’s deputy in the defence of Puliyankulam was Sathasivam Sathananthan alias “Vikkees.” This entailed the digging of deep trenches and construction of fortified bunds alongside.

Vikkees was Theepan’s right-hand man in the realm of strategic defence. He served for many years on the Muhamaalai front and was later brought to Thunukkai to safeguard that strategic location. Vikkees died while defending it. This was a major loss to Theepan.

During Jayasikurui, the Theepan-Vikkees duo managed to hold off the army at Puliyankulam. Unable to break through the Puliyankulam defences, the army finally moved from Nedunkerny towards Kanagarayankulam and from there to Karuppattaimurippu along the old Kandy road axis. Puliyankulam had to be abandoned due to this strategic manoeuvre. 

Joint Wanni Commander

Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan alias “Col” Karuna then in the LTTE was appointed as Joint Wanni commander by Prabhakaran to withstand the “Jayasikurui” offensive. The other joint commander partner was none other than Theepan. A large number of Eastern cadres fought in “Jayasikurui”. Karuna’s main function as joint commander was co-ordinating defences and liaising between field commands. Ground based Frontline leadership was held by joint commander Theepan. He was the overall field commander.

Even as “Jayasikurui” was continuing, the LTTE attacked and seized Kilinochchi during February 1998. Theepan was tasked to infiltrate Karadipokku junction between Paranthan and Kilinochchi and prevent reinforcements reaching K’nochchi. This Theepan did and the town was taken from the Southern side.

“Unceasing Waves-3”

“Jayasikurui” was called off in 1998 and in 1999 the LTTE launched phase-three of “Oayaatha Alaigal” or unceasing waves. From Oddusuddan to Omanthai the waves engulfed targets and military installations fell like dominoes. Theepan as joint Wanni commander deserved the lion’s share in this tiger triumph.

The zenith of unceasing waves was the seizure of Elephant Pass. The highlight of that offensive was Balraj’s famous exploit of going by sea and landing behind enemy lines at Kudaarappu and then moving to Ithaavil on the A-9 and interdicting supplies till Elephant Pass fell.

Theepan’s role in this was the rapid military drive along the peninsula’s eastern coast from Sembiyanpatru right down to Vettrilaikerny-Kaddaikkaadu. Theepan and his forces attacked the Elephant Pass complex from the rear and played an important part in its downfall.

According to LTTE insiders, Balraj had been hesitant when Prabhakaran had explained what was required of Balraj. Landing on the east coast and moving to the centre in enemy territory and interdicting the main supply route was a formidable challenge. But when the tiger supremo told Balraj, what Theepan was required to do all doubts were removed for Balraj. Such was Balraj’s confidence in Theepan that he would not be let down.

Once Elephant Pass fell and the LTTE gained territory inside the peninsula those positions assumed great strategic value. Theepan was appointed in charge of LTTE defences along the Kilaly-Muhamaalai-Nagar Kovil axis.

“Northern Point Commander”

Theepan was given the title “Northern Point Commander” (Vadamunai Thalapathy) which virtually amounted to northern regional commander. His baptism of fire in this new assignment was when the armed forces launched “Agni Kheela” in 2001 on 24 April. Adopting deep defence tactics, Theepan foiled that attempt inflicting heavy losses on the armed forces.

It must be noted that despite many attempts, the armed forces were unable to dislodge the tigers under Theepan from positions along the Muhamaalai axis. The old-fashioned “Trench-bund” defences withstood the 53 and 55 division onslaughts several times.

Finally it was when the 58 division took Paranthan and moved up to Elephant Pass south that the LTTE was forced to abandon positions inside the peninsula. The tiger defences in the peninsula were never overrun completely. They were only abandoned by the LTTE who were compelled to withdraw from en masse from the peninsula.

Otherwise they would have been trapped inside.

Kilinochchi front

While being in overall charge of the Muhamaalai defences, Theepan was also delegated duties on the Kilinochchi front. With K’nochchi assuming importance and prestige, Theepan was tasked by Prabhakaran to protect the former de-facto administrative capital of the LTTE.

Once again, Theepan commenced his defence of Kilinochchi and environs by rapidly constructing an 18 km bund in an “L” shape. The 57 division despite many attempts was unable to breach these defences effectively. Finally it was the 58 which turned the tide by taking Paranthan.

Thereafter the retention of Kilinochchi became impossible. This was the situation later in the case of Muhamaalai-Elephant Pass also. Despite the army moving in three directions towards Kilinochchi town, the tigers under Theepan held on to their positions till 2009 dawned. This was to prevent Kilinochchi being taken by December as announced by the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Military juggernaut

The war then moved on to the areas east of the A-9. Theepan and other senior tiger commanders fought fiercely to retain territory. But it was too late. The overwhelming manpower and firepower of the armed forces was too much for the tigers. Relentlessly the military juggernaut rolled forward and tiger territory shrunk gradually.

Prabhakaran was the LTTE military chief. After the demise of Balraj in 2008 May, Prabhakaran had not appointed a deputy military chief for some months. But Theepan was made deputy military commander in January 2009. Under his leadership several counter-offensives and counter-strikes were conducted. But the armed forces were on the upbeat and withstood all such moves without wilting.


The end came for Theepan in April 2009 when he was holed up in Aananthapuram in Puthukkudiyiruppu to plan and begin a massive counter-offensive. Many top tiger commanders were also assembled there. But the LTTE got trapped when soldiers penetrated both flanks and linked up behind LTTE positions at Pachchaippulmottai. Thereafter a siege was mounted.

While Bhanu broke out through the military cordon with Keerthi and Lawrence, Theepan refused saying he would not abandon his cadres. “If I come out it will be with our fighters only,” an intercept heard him say.

After breaking out Bhanu participated in a major effort to break through the military cordon and rescue Theepan and other cadres. But they were unsuccessful. With several such attempts being repulsed the fate of those surrounded became sealed.

Meanwhile Theepan’s condition deteriorated as he had been injured twice on 1 April and on the 2nd. Some injuries were on his chest and there was internal bleeding also. Members of the LTTE’s Thileepan medical unit affixed two tubes to get the blood out. Theepan succumbed to his injuries on 4 April.

Theepan led from the front

Thus ended the life of a courageous tiger commander who led from the front and refused to abandon his cadres. Theepan was like an old-fashioned ship’s captain opting to go down with his sinking vessel rather than abandoning his cadres.

This consideration and affection for his cadres was a pronounced trait of Theepan. Despite his tough military reputation, Theepan was a soft-spoken, polite man with a gentle disposition and demeanour. He was very popular with the people.

Theepan was married to an ex-woman cadre from the LTTE. They had no children.

Northern fighter

This northern fighter’s life was intertwined with that of the LTTE’s military fortunes. Theepan’s death along with other senior tigers came at a time when the LTTE was on the verge of total military defeat. In a sense, Theepan’s demise at Aananthapuram in April signalled the beginning of the end for the LTTE in May 2009.


(The writer can be reached at [email protected].)

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