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Unmasking of Prabhakaran
Brig (Dr) S P Sinha (Retd)

In the recent history of Sri Lanka Vellupillai Prabhakaran has become synonymous with the Sri Lankan Tamils’ fight for independence. The transformation of Prabhakaran from a popular insurgent leader to an acknowledged terrorist has been tragic. He has come a long way since he gained notoriety for the assassination of the Jaffna Mayor, Alfred Duraiappah on 27 July 1975. His name soon acquired a ‘halo’. The cyanide pill, which the Tigers of the "Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam" (LTTE) carried hung around their neck, to be swallowed rather than allow themselves to be taken prisoner, has reinforced that image. The cyanide pill and the suicide bomber became the defining emblem and the creed of the Tigers.

The unceremonious withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) from Sri Lanka in March 1990 before it could decisively tame the LTTE gave Prabhakaran an aura of invincibility. The international media played up the failure of IPKF to achieve a decisive victory over the LTTE despite its overwhelming superiority in numbers and in the process, unwittingly perhaps, further reinforced Prabhakaran’s image as a great insurgent leader. Political and military leaders of both Sri Lanka and India have hailed him as an accomplished guerrilla leader and a political strategist. Profiles of Prabhakaran and the LTTE, the organisation created by him in his own image, sketched by a cross section of political and military leaders would draw attention to his mystique. Here are a few:

"Regardless of the criticisms and prejudices that I may have about this young man, I cannot help but acknowledge his deep idealism and his political and military skills. His commitment to the creation of a Tamil Eelam, in my judgement, is unalterable… Events over the years have shown him as an accomplished political strategist and military tactician."

-- JN Dixit, India’s former High Commissioner, in Sri Lanka (April 1985 - April 1989) in Assignment Colombo1

"In sum they (LTTE) created the most fearsome militant group the world has ever seen with each member possessing an extra-ordinary fanaticism. They have also been eminently successful in maintaining an aura of mystery, which in turn has nourished their mystique. This mystique was most evident in the case of Vellupillai Prabhakaran who was the undisputed leader of the LTTE.’’

-- Lt Gen Depinder Singh, PVSM, VSM, Overall Force Commander, Indian Peace Keeping Force (July 1987 – 29 February 1988) in IPKF in Sri Lanka2

"I have a high regard for the LTTE for its discipline, dedication, determination, motivation and technical expertise; but find little justification in its senseless, mulish, destructive insistence on continuation of military means in the search of an honourable solution to the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka.’’

-- Maj Gen SC Sardeshpande, UYSM, AVSM, General Officer Commanding 54 Inf Div (6 January 1988 – March 1990) in Assignment Jaffna3

"… I did not expect anything else from the Tigers. It is the most ruthless and most effective guerrilla organisation in the 20th century. But that doesn’t mean we are saying that they are useless, so we must kill them. So, we tried our best keeping in mind that we were dealing with a merciless megalomaniac who has killed every single person who has opposed him…"

-- Chandrika Kumaratunga in an interview with Shekhar Gupta, senior Editor, India Today, 15 May 19954

Prabhakaran is charismatic, physically brave and his commitment to the cause of an independent Eelam is beyond doubt. Although he would like to see himself as a leader of not only Sri Lankan Tamils but also of Tamils in southern India, the events of nearly two decades of civil strife have shown that he lacks the political skill, temperament and flexibility of response to lead the Sri Lankan Tamils out of the vortex of violence into which he has led them. Over the years, his concern for his fellow Tamilians and the goal of creating a just and free society have been overtaken by his egotism to the extent that he now believes that he alone represents the aspirations of all Tamils.

It is not intended here to go into the racial history of Sri Lanka but merely to recapitulate that by the end of the ‘70s the cumulative effect of discriminatory policies of successive Sinhala majority governments had completely alienated the Tamils. The ambush of an army patrol code-named "Four Four Bravo" on 23 July 1983 by the LTTE near Tinneveli in which 13 Sri Lankan soldiers were killed triggered the anti-Tamil riots in Colombo and adjoining areas in which more than a thousand Tamils were killed. The July riots turned the ethnic strife into an all-out civil war.

The escalation of violence by the LTTE in the subsequent years forced the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) to launch a massive offensive against the LTTE. Within a week of the start of operation "Liberation" on 26 May 1987, the LTTE stronghold, Vadamarachi, had fallen and the SLA was poised to launch its offensive on Jaffna, which was averted due to India’s intervention. Prabhakaran, with his back to the wall, reluctantly agreed to the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, but he had no intention of implementing the accord. In an ironical twist to the events, the IPKF, which was inducted into the North and East of Sri Lanka to protect Tamil interests, ended up fighting the LTTE. Prabhakaran then collaborated with Premadasa to compel India to withdraw the IPKF from Sri Lanka. After the withdrawal of IPKF in March 1990, the LTTE was in virtual control of Jaffna Peninsula, most of the Northern Province and some pockets in the East. This situation lasted till Chandrika Kumaratunga was elected President in 1994, when Prabhakaran rejected the devolution package offered by her and unilaterally broke the ceasefire. Thereupon, the SLA launched a massive offensive that resulted in the loss of Jaffna for the LTTE. In yet another reversal of fortunes, the LTTE was to recapture the Elephant Pass in April 2000 and much of the land lost in the Northern Province. Since then the SLA has consolidated its position in Jaffna Peninsula but the LTTE has carried out some spectacular attacks in the heart of Colombo. In a daring attack on the Katunayake Air Base and the adjoining Bandaranaike International Airport on 24 July 2001, the LTTE destroyed 11 aircraft, which included two Kfir bombers, two MI-17 helicopters, one MIG 27 fighter, three Chinese K8 trainers and three Airbus planes. The loss virtually grounded the Sri Lankan civilian airlines and its Air Force.

Most of the suicide attacks on civilian targets by the LTTE has been in the Sinhalese majority South, particularly the capital, Colombo. But the terrorist attacks in the South have left Tamils living in the Sinhalese majority area vulnerable to reprisals. In choosing the South for terrorist attacks, Prabhakaran has shown that he is prepared to abandon the Tamil population in the South, particularly the plantation Tamils, at the mercy of Sinhalese marauders. So much for Prabhakaran’s commitment to the Tamil cause!

Tamil insurgency had a popular cause in its early days but the clashes between the different rival militant groups resulted in the destruction of Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and other smaller groups. In these clashes LTTE cadres killed something like 800 cadres of TELO and other militant groups. By mid 1980, Prabhakaran’s hegemony over Jaffna was complete. His advent as the undisputed leader of the LTTE also marked a paradigm shift in the level of violence against innocent civilians. In one of the first acts of terrorism carried out by LTTE on 14 May 1985, 146 civilians, mostly Buddhist monks, were killed in cold blood at Anuradhapura.5 In consequence, the moral authority of the Tamil campaign was forever lost.

The cult of suicide has attracted admiration for the LTTE even from some military leaders of India and Sri Lanka. The willingness to swallow the cyanide pill by the LTTE cadres has been seen as commitment to the Tamil cause. But it is argued here that there is no difference between the followers of a religious cult who willingly drink poison from a bowl on the prompting of the cult leader and the "Tigers" of Prabhakaran who swallow cyanide. Anna Brenchley eloquently describes the parallel thus:

"Sects are usually hierarchical with a charismatic leader at the apex. His position is maintained with absolute ruthlessness and he has total control over all resources. There is no pretence of democracy. Brainwashing is continual to ensure their continued dedication and results in members’ willingness to sacrifice their lives, their children’s lives and all human decency to the cause. The leader determines what the cause demands of them. They acquiesce."6

What, then, is the difference between followers of a religious cult who indulge in mass suicide and the Tigers of LTTE?

LTTE is also known for its suicide attacks. Known as Black Tigers, the suicide bombers are a glorified lot. The glorification of Black Tigers is part of the process of indoctrination and manipulation of their minds. A variety of subterfuges are used to manipulate their minds. LTTE considers Prabhakaran to be a demi-god and to meet him in person is considered a rare honour. Prabhakaran has very carefully cultivated this image. Before the mission, a Black Tiger eats his or her "Last Supper" with the leader, which is considered the greatest honour. But for most independent observers a sense of abhorrence to this whole drama is inescapable.

The choice of targets for the suicide bomber reveals the mind of Prabhakaran. One of the first targets of an LTTE human bomb using the suicide belt was Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated by LTTE suicide bomber Dhanu, flowers in her hair and all decked up, at Sriperumbudur on 21 May 1991. Rajiv Gandhi more than any Indian leader, was sympathetic to the legitimate demands of Sri Lankan Tamils and helped them in their fight to win a place of equality. And yet, he was assassinated on the eve of Lok Sabha elections in 1991, because Prabhakaran feared that Rajiv would not be favourably disposed towards him and the cause of an independent Eelam. Similarly, on the eve of the 1994 Sri Lankan election, the LTTE assassinated UNP presidential candidate, Gamini Dissanayake, for fear that a government under him would receive Indian assistance. Prabhakaran did not hesitate to order the elimination of Premadasa, with whom he had collaborated to force the withdrawal of IPKF from Sri Lanka. The incumbent Sri Lankan President, Chandrika Kumaratunga had the good fortune to have survived an attempt on her life in another perfidious act by an LTTE suicide bomber. Ironically, Chandrika, amongst the Sri Lankan politicians has shown the greatest sensitivity to Tamil aspirations.

The LTTE suicide bomber is motivated by many factors. It will be too simplistic to assume that motivation comes primarily from commitment to the cause and loyalty to Prabhakaran. In the last two decades, death and destruction have ravaged Tamil society. A whole generation of young Tamils have been scarred by the brutalities of the Sri Lankan security forces on the one hand, and the fascism of Prabhakaran on the other. Caught as they are between the devil and the deep sea, many young Tamils see self-destruction as a form of revenge and martyrdom.

It is not that Prabhakaran is intolerant of political opponents only; he is equally intolerant and suspicious of his own comrades. Anyone whose loyalty to him is even remotely suspect is instantaneously eliminated. The killing of Mahatya, for long his second-in-command, is an example.

It has been argued that Prabhakaran is the sole representative of Sri Lankan Tamils. All major Tamil parties and groups under the banner of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) openly backed candidates approved by the Tigers in the parliamentary elections held in December 2001. But the University Teachers Human Right (UTHR), a respected and independent group of Tamil academics, formerly of Jaffna University had this to say:7

"The taming of TULF (Tamil Eelam Liberation Front) has an abject lesson in terror tactics of LTTE. One cannot play safe with the LTTE. The TULF Members of Parliament killed by the LTTE thought themselves to be playing safe. They all but acknowledged its totalitarian claim, never criticised it publicly and remained obligingly silent when LTTE killers one by one picked off their own colleagues.8 People are thus driven to be cautious to the point of not risking doing anything that may be taken amiss by the LTTE. It is a degree of terror the State cannot match."

The terrorist attack in the USA on 11 September 2001 by the Al Qaida network of Osama bin Laden that killed nearly 3,900 people and the consequent international campaign against terrorism has compelled Prabhakaran to moderate his style and rhetoric. His recent assertion that the Tamil struggle is "neither separatism nor terrorism" is only a clever ploy to gain international sympathy. The hardening of world opinion has forced Prabhakaran to revise his strategy. The present truce between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government has been forced on him by the countries like the US, the UK, Canada and Australia turning the financial screws on the LTTE. That the LTTE would be unable to continue its terror in Sri Lanka without the financial support collected via transnational regions is quite obvious.

While killings by LTTE are presently finely targeted to kill or paralyse by fear any person or group showing signs of independence, it has found newer ways to consolidate and expand the gains made by terror. Dr Rajini Thiranegama, a senior lecturer in Jaffna University and a founder member of UTHR, later believed to be murdered by the LTTE, had this to say about the LTTE:

"The LTTE religion is hierarchical. The common man counted for little except as devotees. Militants from other groups, whatever their contribution, were counted as animals or anti-social elements. Only the LTTE could make sacrifices, be counted as martyrs and become gods. One should not underestimate such a religion which has a semblance to the official religion of the Third Reich."

There is optimism in the Sri Lankan government circles over the latest truce and the Memorandum of Understanding the Tigers signed with it in February 2002 as a part of the peace process brokered by Norway. In the backdrop of past experience of negotiating with the Tigers, Wickremasinghe is taking a huge risk in trusting Prabhakaran. Prabhakaran had no faith in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and he had made up his mind to sabotage it even before the negotiations were concluded. The rest is history. The LTTE entered into negotiations with Premadasa with the sole purpose of getting the IPKF out of Sri Lanka but the honeymoon between the two lasted only till the IPKF was pulled out from the island. Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE after he had served its purpose. Chandrika Kumaratunga would have met the same fate except that she survived the assassination attempt.

Many analysts have cited the example of the Oslo peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians as a way ahead in resolving the Sri Lankan crisis. But where is the Oslo peace plan today? Writing in an article, "The J&K Peace Process: Chasing the Chimera" KPS Gill and Ajai Sahni observe, "Despite popular contemporary rhetoric, unfortunately a sentiment in favour of peace is insufficient foundation for an effective process to secure peace. In a context where even a single player considers violence a legitimate instrument of policy, the resolution of disputes demands for firmer grounding in facts and the Oslo peace process was as divorced from such a foundation as could be conceivable.9" In the context of ethnic war in Sri Lanka, Prabhakaran has not given up violence as a legitimate means to achieve his goal of an independent Eelam. The past record of negotiations between the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka leads one to conclude that the Memorandum of Understanding signed in February this year is only a clever ploy by Prabhakaran to bid for time and gain international recognition. He also knows that public memory is short and hopes that the indignation of the Western countries over the 11 September terrorist attack would peter out sooner than later.


1. Dixit JN, 1998; Assignment Colombo; p 320, New Delhi, Konark

2. Singh, Depinder (Lt Gen); The IPKF in Sri Lanka; p 121, NOIDA, Trishul Publications

3. Sardeshpande SC (Lt Gen), 1992, Assignment Jaffna, p IX, New Delhi, Lancers

4. Chandrika Kumaratunga; In an interview with Shekhar Gupta; India Today, New Delhi 15 May 1995

5. Narayan Swamy MR; 1994, Tigers of Sri Lanka: Boys to Guerrillas; p 223, New Delhi, Konark

6. See review article of Adele Balasingham’s book Women Fighters in Liberation Tigers by Anna Brenchely titled Lady Macbeth in the Jungles of Eelam; Frontline (Chennai); Feb 23, 1996

7. Excerpts from the information Bulletin No 28 of UTHR (Jaffna) published in the newspaper The Island, Colombo, 2 Feb 2002

8. The reference is to the killing of Amrithalingam and Yogeshwaran in cold blood on 13 Jul 1989 in Colombo

9. KPS Gill and Ajai Sahni; The J&K Peace Process: Chasing the Chimera; Faultline; Writings on Conflict and Resolution, Vol. 8, Apr 2001, Bulwark Books, New Delhi






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