Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Prabhakaran: The Life and Death of a Tiger

Velupillai Prabhakaran, 54, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE) who was declared killed by the Sri Lankan government on May 18, had decades to think about how his end would come. It could have come from the cyanide capsule that he - like many Tiger fighters - wore around his neck, a pledge to commit suicide in case of capture by the Sri Lankan Army. He had been fighting a war for an independent homeland, or eelam, for the island's Tamil minority since 1983, and the Army pursued him throughout the jungles of the north and east for decades. In 2002, during a press conference near the beginning of a four-year-long ceasefire, Prabhakaran revealed that he had asked his aides to kill him if capture was near and he was unable to kill himself.

The end, when it came, happened in an armored vehicle in which Prabhakaran was trying to flee with his trusted lieutenants, according to the Sri Lankan government. The group came under fire, and Prabhakaran was one of 18 top LTTE leaders killed in the early morning ambush, the government said. On May 19, the Army released images to Sri Lankan television of Prabhakaran's body, still in its uniform, in which his face is clearly visible. For the generation of Sri Lankans who have grown up knowing only a nation in conflict, the image of Prabhakaran has loomed over their lives, either as enemy or savior. More than 70,000 people have been killed in 26 years of war in Sri Lanka, and there are those who will not believe the elusive figure is gone until they see proof.

The rest of the world might never understand the violence Prabhakaran stood for, but its imprint on Sri Lanka is wide and deep. At the height of his power, just before the 2002 ceasefire, Prabhakaran was the unquestioned leader of a de facto government that controlled more than 15,000 square kilometers of territory in the north and east of Sri Lanka and had its own system of taxes, roads and courts. By the final weeks of conflict, he was believed to be using thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields against the advance of the Sri Lankan military. At the time of his death, 250 core LTTE members stood with him. Few will mourn the end of a man who ruthlessly ordered the murder of his opponents, demanded absolute fealty and pioneered the use of suicide bombings.

Prabhakaran was the youngest of four children, born in a middle class family in Valvettiturai, a fishing town on the northern coast of Sri Lanka's Jaffna peninsula. Very little is known about his early life. "My childhood was spent in the small circle of a lonely, quiet house," he said in a 1994 interview. He described a deep-seated anger against the military and remembered an 8th grade teacher who exhorted students to take up arms against them. "It is he who impressed on me the need for armed struggle and persuaded me to put my trust in it," he said. Jaffna was then considered the heart of Tamil culture and literature in Sri Lanka, and also the center of the growing Tamil nationalist movement, calling for greater autonomy for Tamil-majority areas to protest what they considered discrimination against Tamils by Sri Lanka's Sinhala-speaking majority. The most radical groups wanted complete independence and struck out at symbols of the Sri Lankan state, including fellow Tamils whom they considered collaborators.

Prabhakaran's own life as a fugitive began in 1975, with the assassination of Alfred Duraiappah, then mayor of the northern city of Jaffna. A group calling itself the Tamil New Tigers, of which Prabhakaran was a leader, claimed responsibility. The next year, Prabhakaran founded the LTTE. What began as a guerrilla movement escalated into full-scale civil war in July 1983. The LTTE killed 13 Sri Lankan Army troops in an ambush in Jaffna. In retaliation, as many as 3,000 Tamils, mainly in Colombo, were killed in several days of violence at the end of July. Human rights groups and other researchers say that Tamil homes and businesses were systematically targeted by organized mobs. The 1983 violence, known as Black July, marked the beginning of Sri Lanka's civil war and the rise of Prabhakaran from radical nationalist to feared terrorist. "The '83 July holocaust has united all sections of the Tamil masses," Prabhakaran said in a 1984 interview with an Indian magazine. Sri Lankans came to fear the month of July, which the LTTE commemorated with bombings and assassinations.

Over the following decades, Prabhakaran honed his movement into a cult of personality that glorified violence. "Armed struggle is the only way out for the emancipation of our oppressed people," he said in 1984. The LTTE steadily acquired massive caches of conventional weapons but pioneered two of the most brutal tactics of modern guerrilla warfare: child recruitment and suicide bombing. Children as young as 10 were used to kill women and children in remote rural villages, according to a 1996 UN report. In combat in the 1990s, between 40 and 60 percent of the dead Tiger fighters in Sri Lanka were children under the age of 18, according to a 2004 Human Rights Watch report. In 1987, the LTTE established the Black Tigers - suicide cadres, many of them young women, who would be honored with a private meal in the company of Prabhakaran before being sent out on their missions. Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in 1991 was the apotheosis of this new tactic. Killed by a female suicide bomber on a campaign trip in a small town in Tamil Nadu, Gandhi had been targeted because of his decision to send in Indian peacekeeping troops to Sri Lanka in 1987 while he was Prime Minister. The Tiger leader became a wanted man in India, and the tide of public opinion in India turned decisively against the LTTE. India has a large population of ethnic Tamils, and many of them had been sympathetic to the cause of oppressed Tamils in Sri Lanka. In 2002, when pressed by journalists on his involvement in the killing, Prabhakaran refused to comment. "It is a tragic incident that happened 10 years ago," he said. "We are not in a position to make a comment."

The group's attacks continued to grow more audacious, culminating in a 2001 suicide mission at the international airport in Colombo. By the time of the 2002 ceasefire, the LTTE was essentially governing Sri Lanka's northern and eastern provinces and had the trappings of a state military complete with a rudimentary air force and navy. Prabhakaran appeared with fanfare to sign an agreement with the Sri Lankan government that year, but during four years of negotiations that followed, neither side could agree to political compromise on autonomy for Tamil-majority areas. Confrontations between the Tigers and the government increased, and the assassinations resumed. The LTTE itself began to splinter, and one of Prabhakaran's top lieutenants, known as Karuna, broke away. With Karuna's help, the eastern provinces came under control of the government in 2007.

That left Prabhakaran with control of the north, secured by several thousand soldiers. But the transformation from running a guerrilla force to a conventional army may have been the leader's undoing. The nation's current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, took office in 2005 and vowed to pursue a military solution. In a conventional war against an Army many times its size, the LTTE was sure to be outmatched, and eventually it was. Prabhakaran never again appeared before the press after 2002, but continued to release photos and speeches every year. "With its greed for land, Sinhalam [Sri Lanka] has entered a militaristic path of destruction," he said in his last speech in November 2008. "It has sought to build the support of the world to confront us."

Prabhakaran was correct. The LTTE had been banned by the U.S., the European Union and several other countries as a terrorist organization, and Rajapaksa pursued what he called a "war on terror" against the LTTE despite the repeated concerns of the UN and other groups about human rights violations and civilian casualties inflicted by both sides. More than 220,000 Tamil civilians are still being held in the north in internment camps, and it is not clear when they will be allowed to go home. The United Nations estimates that 40,000 to 60,000 are en route to the camps from the war zone. Another two million Tamils live in Colombo, under increased monitoring by the state. Nearly all of Sri Lanka's moderate Tamil politicians have been eliminated by the LTTE, which insisted that it was the only legitimate political voice for the Tamil minority. With the end of the LTTE, the Tamil National Alliance may play a greater role in negotiations for Tamil rights. There is still some hope of a political settlement that will grant Tamils some protection and greater autonomy; the Sri Lankan government is expected to ask for millions in international aid to rebuild the north. But the dream of eelam may be dead.

In its final offensive, the Sri Lankan Army hunted Prabhakaran for months, even as rumors floated that he might have escaped by boat to the Persian Gulf, East Africa or Southeast Asia. By the end, he was reduced to his core group of about 250 loyalists. The body of Prabhakaran's son, Charles Anthony, was recovered first and displayed on television within hours of his death. Prabhakaran's life ended in Mullivaikal, a strip of land on the northeastern coast, a place not much different from where he began.

Sources: Time Magazine and Yahoo News


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