Sri Lanka: Revisiting the Tamil Tigers Spy Chief

Pottu Ammaan was autocratic in running the intelligence wing. He also had a cruel streak which made him a much-dreaded man within and outside the LTTE

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A family photo of LTTE’s much-dreaded intelligence chief Shanmuganathan Sivashankar alias ‘Pottu Ammaan’. [ Special Arrangement]

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran along with many senior LTTE leaders was killed in the military confrontation with Sri Lanka’s armed forces in May 2009. With that military debacle in the Mullivaaikkaal area of Mullaitheevu district, the LTTE – known as the tigers – ceased to be a functional entity in the island.

Among those reported dead in May 2009 was the LTTE’s much-dreaded intelligence chief Shanmuganathan Sivashankar alias ‘Pottu Ammaan’. Though Ammaan is spelled by many as Amman with a single ‘A’, this writer uses a double A because it is phonetically more accurate in terms of pronunciation. Incidentally ‘Ammaan’ in Jaffna Tamil usage denotes maternal uncle. Many senior LTTE leaders were addressed respectfully as Ammaan by members of the movement in those days.

LTTE Intelligence chief Pottu Ammaan was at the time of the LTTE’s military defeat, the de-facto No. 2 of the tigers. The de-jure No. 2 was Baby Subramaniam who was second only to Prabhakaran in terms of seniority within LTTE ranks. However it was Pottu Ammaan who functioned operationally as the No. 2. Though reported dead and subsequently pronounced legally dead, the fact remains that Pottu Ammaan’s body or remains were never found. This has led to much speculation about the LTTE intelligence chief not being dead.

This writer has over the years received many queries from readers about Pottu Amman. Many of them ask me whether Pottu Ammaan is yet alive. The fires of doubt in their minds is fuelled by persistent rumours and occasional media reports of a sensational nature. Several readers have also been wanting to know more details about the LTTE intelligence chief. It is against this backdrop therefore that this two-part article focuses on Pottu Ammaan with the aid of some of my earlier writings.

Sivashankar Alias ‘Pottu’

Shanmuganathan Sivashankar alias Pottu Ammaan a.k.a. Pottu functioned for more than two decades as the pivotal head of the LTTE’s powerful intelligence division. Pottu served the LTTE for nearly 30 years having joined the movement in the early 80s of the previous century. When the LTTE launched its attack on soldiers in Thinnevely on 23 July 1983 it had only 23 full-time members and seven part-time helpers. Pottu was one of the original 30. Though his family resided in Naayanmarkattu, they were from neighbouring Ariyalai.

There was a time when Ariyalai in Jaffna was second only to Valvettithurai (VVT) in providing recruits to the LTTE. Senior leaders like Santhosham master, Kannaadi Prem and Bhanu were residents of Ariyalai. Veteran LTTE leader Basheer Kaakaa and Pottu were also from Ariyalai but were residents of Nayanmaarkattu adjacent to Ariyalai. However from childhood, Sivashankar had moved with Ariyalai kids of his age and used to hang out more in Ariyalai than Naayanmaarkattu.

Sivashankar’s father Shanmuganathan was also known as Shanmugalingam. He had been working as a clerk in Nuwara-Eliya district for many years. The family lived in Jaffna because of schooling for the children. At one point of time, several LTTE members including Charles Anthony alias Seelan had rented out the front room adjoining the Verandah as a “safe house” and stayed there for a while. It is said that Pottu’s father continued to reside in the hill country till the late 90s. Since very little was known to the Sri Lankan authorities about Pottu the son was supremely confident that his father was in no danger.

Pottu studied at Maheswari Vidyalayam, Canageratnam MMV (Stanley College) and Jaffna Hindu College. Tall, handsome and smart, he was very popular with his friends. Apparently he did not excel in studies or sports but won a lot of essay competitions. Sivashankar was recruited to the LTTE by former tiger Batticaloa district commander Basheer Kaakkaa and ex-LTTE Trincomalee district commander Santhosham. This was in late 1981. Earlier he had worked as part-time helper. Upon joining the LTTE as a full-timer, Sivashankar was assigned the nom de guerre Kumanan. But as the days went by he became known as ‘Pottu’ which interestingly enough was a nickname used by friends from school days.

Origin of the nickname Pottu

The origin of that nickname Pottu is rather amusing. Pottu is the mark or thilak placed on one’s forehead. Usually Santhanam (sandal) or Vermillion (Kunkumam) is used for daubing a pottu in temples or on auspicious occasions.

The rise of the Tamil nationalist , Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) also known as the Federal Party and in later times the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in Tamil politics led to the dominance of concepts like struggle and sacrifice in Tamil political discourse. A militant manifestation of this tendency was the custom of placing ‘Irathappottu’ or bloody thilaks.

Aroused by the hawkish sentiments of Tamil political leaders, highly emotional youths would mount platforms, prick or cut their thumbs and place the oozing blood as ‘pottu’ on the foreheads of the leaders pledging their blood and life for the Tamil cause.

Apparently young Sivashankar too had on one occasion climbed on to the stage in a frenzy, ripped his hand with a razor blade and placed bloody pottus on the foreheads of Tamil leaders Appapillai Amirthalingam and Vetrivelu Yogeswaran. This was during the highly emotive 1977 election campaign where the TULF espoused a separate state called Tamil Eelam. Yogeswaran was the TULF candidate for Jaffna electorate then.

Sivashankar’s emotional gesture was perceived hilariously by his friends. He was teased and called Pottu after that. The name struck and later when he joined the LTTE the Pottu name lingered on and his new comrades too began addressing him as such.

As Pottu’s seniority increased the suffix ‘Ammaan’ was added. As stated earlier Ammaan means maternal uncle in Jaffna Tamil usage. Seniors in the militant movement are addressed as ‘Annan’ (elder brother) ‘Master’ or ‘Ammaan’. Apart from the official nom de guerre Kumanan, other names used by Shivashankar occasionally were Moorthy, Kuyilan and Kuruvi. But it was as Pottu that he was known best. His international radio sign was ‘Papa Oscar’.

‘Vediyarasanân’ (explosion king)

In later years when the LTTE began triggering off explosion after explosion in Colombo and other areas, some tiger leaders like the LTTE’s former political adviser Anton Balasingam referred to Pottu facetiously as ‘Vediyarasanân’ (explosion king). Interestingly Vediyarasan is also the name of the legendary warrior-king who ruled Neduntheevu or the Island of Delft. Tamil folk dramas are staged about Vediyarasan in the ‘Naattukkoothu’ tradition still.

First LTTE batch

The July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom with its consequences was a watershed in Tamil politics. India played an active role by providing arms training for Tamil militants known as ‘boys’ then. Sivashankar alias Pottu went to Uttar Pradesh in North India for arms training as part of the first LTTE batch. The 1st batch comprised trainees who were a blend of ‘old’ members and new recruits. Among Pottu’s comrades in the first batch were Kittu, Ponnammaan, Soosai, Aruna, Victor, Curdles, Pulendrhian, Rajesh, Gnanam, Imran, Pandian, Ganesh, Paduman and Kanthan.

After getting Indian training Pottu functioned briefly as Prabhakaran’s bodyguard. It was during this period that Pottu became a fanatical follower of his leader. He served his leader with slavish devotion. Pottu’s personal loyalty to Prabhakaran was unswerving and unquestionable.

Pottu was entrusted in mid-988 with the responsibility of administering the LTTE’s intelligence wing. He remained in charge for 21 years until May 2009.

The evolution and growth of the LTTE intelligence division has been quite remarkable. Being a guerrilla organisation the LTTE lacked resources in signals, electronic, imagery or technical intelligence. But these were compensated for greatly by excessive reliance on HUMINT or Human Intelligence.


The LTTE Intelligence wing was initially formed in December 1983. It was called the Tiger Organization Security Intelligence Service or TOSIS. Its first head was a family member of a well- known smuggler in Valvettithurai. This person now living in a Western country bore the nom de guerre Vasanthan. The first head of TOSIS also had a pilot’s license. Vasanthan left the LTTE after the 1987 Indo-Lanka accord.

The TOSIS mainly functioned from Chennai during those days. Its role was minimal and somewhat nominal. The Indian intelligence agency RAW (Research and analysis wing) held some elementary training sessions for TOSIS. One of the early ‘intelligence’ tasks was the monitoring of maritime movement in Trincomalee harbour. The LTTE also ran a military office (MO) in Chennai headed by Thalayasingham Sivakumar alias Anton Master. The MO was more or less a prototype of a military intelligence unit.

Meanwhile the former LTTE Jaffna commander ‘Col’ Kittu set up his own local intelligence outfit. It was headed by ‘Ideas’ Vasu who also was from VVT. Vasu along with Ponnammaan and Curdles was killed in the Kaithady bowser explosion of 14 February, 1987. After Prabhakaran returned to Jaffna from Tamil Nadu in January 1987, he formed another intelligence unit called BETA-2. This was supervised by the former LTTE deputy-leader Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahathaya.

Took over in 1988

The TOSIS was re-located to the northern mainland known as Wanni in 1987. The BETA-2 and all other regional intelligence outfits were merged with it. The TOSIS underwent a renaissance after Pottu took over in 1988. He was ably assisted by Bosco alias Potko who at one time was studying to be a Catholic priest.

The LTTE gained much territorial control after the Indian army departed in March 1990. Using Jaffna as the base, Pottu began expanding, streamlining and developing the intelligence division. While Potko attended to administrative functions Shanmuganathan Ravichandran alias Charles was in charge of external operations. Charles who adopted the name Arulventhan later was a direct recruit of Pottu Ammaan. Charles was introduced to Pottu by the latter’s bodyguard Kili during the Indian army period. External operations was a euphemism for attacks outside the North-East particularly Colombo.

Charles was sent to Colombo during the ‘peace talks’ period with President Ranasinghe Premadasa. It was during this phase that the LTTE infiltrated Colombo easily. Charles diligently set up a clandestine tiger network. After war resumed in June 1990, this outfit got into action. Among the early operations was the car bomb assassination of deputy defence minister Ranjan Wijeratne and vehicle bombing of JOC headquarters in Colombo.

The intelligence division was in the meantime being revamped. The LTTE made a systematic study of the chief intelligence agencies of the world. According to ex-LTTE members who had been intelligence operatives, the training manuals of Pakistan’s intelligence agency the Inter State Services (ISI) were obtained and utilised for training intelligence wing cadres. The LTTE also copied many methods and stratagems of Israel’s Shin Bet and Mossad, say former LTTE members.

One attribute gleaned from the Israelis was to utilise Thamizh as the language of operation for intelligence purposes just as Israel used Hebrew. Though known as TOSIS once the LTTE’ intelligence division became totally Tamilised as it progressed. Special branches were begun within the intelligence division.

One such unit was called the ‘Viseda Vevu Pirivu’ or special reconnaissance unit. This was headed by Sashikumar or Sashi master who was decorated by Prabhakaran personally for the successful operation of 8 August 1992. This was the explosion at Aralithurai where a vehicle was blown up killing several top security officials including Denzil Kobbekaduwe and Vijaya Wimalaratne.

Demarcated intelligence division

In 1993, the intelligence division was demarcated into the ‘Thesiya Pulanaaivu pirivu’ (National intelligence division) and ‘Iraanuva pulanaaivu sevai’ (Military intelligence service). Pottu was in overall charge of the entire intelligence division in general and national intelligence service in particular.

Sashi master was placed in charge of military intelligence. He held this post till 2004 when Prabhakaran appointed Charles in his place. Sashi was placed in charge of special operations and training.

After Charles was killed by the Army in January 2008 in Mannar, Sashi master was re-appointed in charge of military intelligence. Sashikumar and ‘Col’ Sornam fought to the end in Mullivaaikkaal and died on 15 May.

National Intelligence Division

The LTTE National Intelligence Division had five known departments. The intelligence gathering section known as ‘Thagaval segarikkum pirivu’ was headed by Kapil Amman who was also the deputy chief of intelligence. The research and publications department known as ‘Aaivu matrum veliyeetu pirivu’ was headed by Maathavan master.

The special operations department known as ‘Viseda seyatpaadu pirivu’ was under Janan master. The infamous ‘Karumpuligal’ (Black tigers) suicide unit was also under this section. The ‘Payitchi matrum Tholil nutpa [pirivu]’ (Training and technology dept.) was under Aathavan master. The administrative department known as ‘Nirvaakappirivu’ was under Shankar. After he was killed by the Army’s LRRP in 2001, Gaddafi took charge.

Military intelligence service

The military intelligence service headed by Sashikumar alias Sashi master had five known departments. The ‘Viseda Vevu’ or special reconnaissance department was headed by Charles aka Arulventhan and later Irathinam Amman. The administrative department known as ‘Nirvaagapirivu’ was also supervised by Sashi master.

There were also three ‘Iraanuva thagaval segarippu pirivugal’ (military intelligence gathering units) for the Army, Navy and Air Force. These units had to gather information about all army, navy and airforce installations, movement of personnel, etc. These were headed by Gauthaman.

Intelligence division cadres were carefully screened with background checks before recruitment. New recruits underwent intensive training that lasted at times for nearly a year. Trainees were kept in isolation and had to wear masks for group sessions so that their faces were not seen by each other.

Training was varied. The black tiger suicide squad members were given specialised training that included how to walk in crowded streets without knocking on people while wearing an explosive laden suicide jacket or belt. Sinhala language lessons with proper emphasis on the ‘accent’ was also imparted to those carrying Identity cards with Sinhala names.

Field agents

A typical LTTE cell located outside the North-East had four to six members. They were called ‘Velikkala muhavarhal’ or field agents. One did not know the other and each was assigned separate duties. Each cell was handled or coordinated by a ‘pirathhana muhavar’ or principal agent. At times the principal agent interacted directly with the field agents. At times an intermediary called ‘Idainilaiyaalar’ was used. 

An elaborate network of safe houses, storage facilities, dead letter boxes, etc. was set up by the LTTE intelligence. Earlier the tigers utilised Tamils of North-Eastern origin for setting up the supportive network. Later they focused on Indian Tamils. Gradually the tigers began enlisting Muslims and Sinhalese using enhanced financial remuneration as an incentive. The ceasefire period from 2002 February was a windfall. An intricate network was established.

A noteworthy feature of this phenomenon was the infiltration of Police and Armed Forces. Initially a media personality was used to cultivate potential double agent recruits in the Police and Armed Forces. Huge sums of money and in some instances expensive property were given as incentives. Most of these officers were Sinhala or Muslim. Some of these personnel were later identified and apprehended. Sri Lankan officials were immensely impressed by the extent to which Pottu Ammaan had elevated the LTTE intelligence division.

Bosco alias Potko

The LTTE’s intelligence wing was a mere fledgling when Pottu took over. It was Pottu Amman who developed it to unbelievable levels. As mentioned earlier, he was aided greatly by Bosco alias Potko who at one time was a student in a Catholic seminary.

Some of Pottu’s old acquaintances were initially flabbergasted at Pottu’s metamorphosis as Beria to Prabhakaran’s Stalin. Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria was the dreaded Chief of Secret Police in the Old Soviet Union during the dictatorial rule of Josef Stalin.

One of his classmates now in Canada told me once that Sivashankar was a ‘mokkan’ (idiot) in studies. He was amazed at Pottu’s growth in later life and observed, “I just don’t know how he is running the intelligence division so well nowadays.” But then academic brilliance is not a pre-requisite to run an intelligence outfit. What is required is lateral thinking, practical approaches, devious, cunning, organisational skills, shrewd judgement of men and matters, and above all perpetual paranoia about everything.

Expertise in playing cards

An indicator of Pottu’s ability and talent was his acknowledged expertise in playing cards. He was very fond of playing cards. A former LTTE colleague of Pottu told me that he (Pottu) could be woken up from sleep at night for a game of cards. He was always ready for cards. On one occasion, the tigers had to flee from a safe house because an army patrol was approaching. Pottu had apparently forgotten to take away a bag of home made grenades with him but had not forgotten to take away his pack of cards. Pottu was not the intelligence chief at that time.

Pottu was apparently a marvel at ‘Three Naught Four’ and was able – within a short time – to gauge which cards were being held by his adversaries. He would play his cards accordingly. Pottu had the uncanny ability to both bluff as well as call the bluff of his opponents. This was a trait which stood him in good stead as intelligence chief.


Pottu Ammaan however was autocratic in running the intelligence wing. He also had a cruel streak which made him a much dreaded man within and outside the LTTE. Once in 2002, Pottu Ammaan was a ‘surprise’ participant at a political discussion between the LTTE and MPs from the newly formed Tamil National Alliance (TNA). I asked LTTE political strategist Anton Balasingham then in London about Pottu’s inclusion in a political discussion. Balasingham chuckled and replied that Pottu was included to intimidate (verutta) the MPs.

The much-dreaded Pottu Ammaan’s reign of terror came to an end in May 2009. How and why that happened would be delved into in grater detail in the second part of this article

DBS Jeyaraj

David Buell Sabapathy Jeyaraj (popularly known as David Jeyaraj or DBS in short) is a senior journalist and political commentator based on Toronto, Canada

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