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Thursday, May 21, 2009

The tiger has been put to sleep

The tiger has been put to sleep

P.K. Balachandran

(19 May 2009)It was 37 years ago (in 1972) that an 18-year-old Velupillai Prabhakaran, a school dropout from Valvettithurai in the northern district of Jaffna, started an armed struggle to secure an independent country for the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The struggle for Tamil Eelam (which was to cover a third of the land of Sri Lanka and two thirds of its coastline in the north and east) had noteworthy, even historic, achievements in the field of conventional and guerrilla warfare as well as organisational methods. But it also had a horrific and blood-soaked side to it, which ultimately brought about its collapse in 2009.

Central to the armed struggle and its vanguard, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (founded on May 5, 1976) was Prabhakaran. He gave the broader movement and the LTTE, the ideology, organisational methods, strategy and tactics. The movement and the LTTE were a monolith, presided over by Prabhakaran and Prabhakaran alone. This has led many analysts to conclude that the Tamil separatist movement, as we have known it for the last three decades, has died with the death of Prabhakaran.

Suicide bombers

It was Prabhakaran who introduced the concept of the ‘suicide bomber’ in the field of terrorism and some methods of guerrilla warfare. It was he who introduced the ‘belt bomb’, the standard suicide bomber’s kit, when Dhanu, a woman LTTE cadre, blew herself up to kill former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991. Suicide bombing and suicide bombers had become so integral to the LTTE that the organisation had a whole unit of suicide bombers called the ‘Black Tigers’.

The LTTE was the first terrorist group in the world to have a land army, a navy and an air force. These units were equipped with modern field, naval and anti- aircraft guns. The LTTE’s boats incorporated radar dodger technologies. Its military engineers showed innovativeness of a high order, producing their own long-range guns, mortars, mortar bombs and anti-personnel mines. Its naval engineers were in the process of building a submarine when the Sri Lankan army finally caught up with them in March this year and thwarted this unique project.

The LTTE under Prabhakaran had a global network, which no other terrorist organisation has had. Its clandestine network for collecting funds and safeguarding them, and for buying weapons and transporting them, was unparalleled. It operated a large fleet of ships, which did both legitimate and clandestine business.

Diaspora support

Politically, the LTTE had the support of the large Tamil diaspora concentrated mainly in the Western world. The diaspora of hardworking, enterprising and politically motivated Tamils were a major source of funds and an influential political lobby too.

At home, in areas where it dominated the political scene, the LTTE was intolerant in the extreme. It brooked no rivals or even an alternative political path to Eelam. Opposition was eliminated. Inside the organisation, only Prabhakaran’s writ ran. Anyone challenging him or presenting an alternative view was marked, tortured and eliminated.

Members of the LTTE and the Tamils bowed to Prabhakaran almost instinctively. Some authorities on the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle like Rajan Hoole, say that the roots of this predisposition lay in the Jaffna Tamil society, which believed in and practised authoritarianism in its social and political life. The Jaffna caste and family structures are rigid and authoritarian. So, transferring obedience to a group like the LTTE and a leader like Prabhakaran was easy. But others say that the brutal and authoritarian ways of the LTTE and Prabhakaran were tolerated because the Sri Lankan state was not solving the Tamils problem by addressing their long-standing and legitimate grievances. The Tamils had been asking for the right to use their language in areas they were predominant in, and for some regional autonomy. But these demands were seen as separatist and not met at all. The people supported the LTTE because the Sri Lankan state gave them no other choice.

As M R Narayan Swamy says in his book Inside an Elusive Mind, Tamils supported Prabhakaran overlooking the fact that he had ordered over a dozen assassinations, killed hundreds in internecine warfare, led an armed struggle which resulted in the death of over 60,000 people, and alienated powerful countries which could have helped the Tamils secure some justice within a united Sri Lanka.

Even today, as the majority Sinhalese rejoice over the death of Prabhakaran and the destruction of LTTE’s military machine, the Tamils are worried that there may be no one to take up their cause and fight with the single-minded devotion that Prabhakaran and his outfit did. Even among the Tamils who detested the LTTE, there is a feeling of being defenceless and being at the mercy of Sinhalese triumphalism, which could take on an aggressive anti-Tamil and anti-minority form if unchecked by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The Tamils, whether supporters or opponents of the LTTE, are hoping that the international community, led by the human rights conscious West, will pressure the Rajapaksa government to give some kind of autonomy and ensure their equality in a multi-ethnic Sri Lanka.

Prabhakaran, the man

Born into a middle-class family on November 26, 1954, Prabhakaran left school as well as his father’s house in Valvettithurai in his early teens to teach himself, through many trials and few errors, the art of guerrilla warfare, developing strategies considered to be the most ingenious and ruthless in the world.

Prabhakaran was 18 when he formally began the ‘Tamil New Tigers’ (TNT) in 1972 with a few friends. Three years later, on July 27, 1975, he carried out his first political assassination by shooting dead Alfred Duriappah, the mayor of Jaffna, as he left a Hindu temple and was about to get into his car. All the young men involved in the murder were tracked down by the police, except Prabhakaran.

“The killing was a defining moment in the country’s Tamil politics as it was the first instance of a nascent militancy taking a bloody turn, an ominous development that would eventually threaten Sri Lanka’s sovereignty,” says Narayan Swamy.

On May 5, 1976, after completing three years of underground life, Prabhakaran formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as the successor to Tamil New Tigers (TNT).

“I named the movement ‘Liberation Tigers’ since the symbol of tiger had deep roots in the political history of the Tamils, representing Tamil patriotic resurgence. The tiger also depicts the mode of our guerrilla warfare,” Prabhakaran told a journalist a year later.

Providence had always proven to be with Prabhakaran though he was described by journalists who had interviewed him as being ‘stunningly ordinary’.

His ‘stunningly ordinary’ looks may be one main reason why he had stayed alive for so long, avoiding arrest and death, both through luck and meticulous preventive methods. He had survived attempts on his life by not only the Sri Lankan military and the police but also by rival Tamil militant groups and rivals within the LTTE. For the past thirty-odd years luck had been a key ingredient in Prabhakaran’s life. One of Prabhakaran’s first major strokes of luck was in 1982 when the young guerrilla who was then in hiding in Tamil Nadu was marched off to a police station after a public gunfight with his earliest ally turned enemy, Uma Maheswaran.

“From every angle Prabhakaran’s arrest seemed to spell the end for the 27-year-old fugitive from justice,” says Narayan Swamy, adding, “Prabhakaran had a powerful combination of luck, local Tamil sympathies, a pliable police, opportunistic politicians, interested intelligence operatives and a seemingly obliging Indian government on his side.” Prabhakaran was released.

One of his narrowest escapes from death was during the occupation of northeast Sri Lanka by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) that had arrived in 1987 to promote peace but ended up fighting the Tiger rebels in a full scale war. At the height of the war with the LTTE the IPKF had surrounded Prabhakaran’s northern jungle hideout but not before the guerrilla had decamped leaving his pet leopard cub, Sita.

“He was in such a hurry that he left his pet behind, and the Indians paraded photographs of the dead cub to prove that they had really got close to Prabhakaran,” says Anita Pratap who was one of the first to interview the elusive guerrilla.

With each passing year, Prabhakaran’s LTTE grew in deadly stature, especially after young women and men, barely out of their teens, were recruited to become human bombs after the LTTE leader created the squad called the Black Tigers, who have, to date, carried out scores of attacks, targeted assassinations as well as mass killings.


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