Is it the end of struggle?

By V. Suryanarayan

(May 20, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Is it true? Has Prabhakaran met his inevitable end? Sri Lanka watchers in India will find it difficult to believe, for the simple reason that those who are opposed to the Tigers have claimed that Prabhakaran has been killed on earlier occasions also. To illustrate, during the IPKF interregnum, the Indian media had headlines in the front page that Prabhakaran has been killed. Two days later the LTTE published a photograph of Prabhakaran, alive and kicking. No wonder, on this occasion, the international media is demanding definitive proof from the Sri Lankan government before they sit down to write the obituary of Prabhakaran.

Delving deeper into the subject, it is but natural for Prabhakaran to bite the cyanide capsule. Prabhakaran had told his close comrades that even his dead body should not reach the hands of the enemy; therefore, he exhorted his colleagues to pour petrol over his dead body and set it aflame. The official statement is awaited as yet; hopefully the Tigers will also give their version and we can come to our own judgment as to how this Tamil leader, who, at the same time, evoked the admiration and loyalty of his followers and the intense hatred of his opponents spent his last moments. Did he leave behind a final message to his followers in Sri Lanka and abroad?

When the armed struggle gathered momentum after the communal holocaust in July 1983, many Sri Lanka watchers in India, including this author, justified the violence of the Tamil militants as a justifiable response against State terrorism. We drew a distinction between the oppressor and the oppressed. Unfortunately, by his many acts of omission and commission, the sympathy and goodwill that Prabhakaran enjoyed among the international community gradually dissipated. The killing of his one-time close comrades in the Tamil struggle — Sabaratnam, Padmanabha, Amirtalingam and Yogeshwaran — the assassination of president Premadasa, Lakshman Kadiragamar, Neelan Thiruchelvam and Ketheeswaran, the massacre of Sinhalese civilians in Anuradhapura, the ethnic cleansing in the Jaffna peninsula when the Tamil speaking Muslims were forced to flee their homes, the brutal killing of the faithful in the mosque in Kathankudy, the attack on the Dalida Maligawa, the forcible conscription of young children into the baby brigade — all these created a sense of revulsion among his one-time sympathisers. The killing of Rajiv Gandhi in the prime of his life by the suicide squad of the LTTE created a big chasm between the Tigers and the Indian public. In many ways, we, in Tamil Nadu, are yet to recover from that catharsis.

How does one explain the rapid decline and downfall of the Tigers? When the Tigers concluded the ceasefire agreement with the Sri Lankan government in 2002 and entered into negotiations to ‘explore’ the possibility of a federal solution within a united Sri Lanka, their major objective was to win back international support as a national liberation organisation. The Tigers repeatedly affirmed that they were not a terrorist organisation, but were leading a national liberation struggle. These attempts did not succeed; on the contrary, more and more countries, including United States, Canada, Australia and the European Union banned the LTTE and severely curtailed the activities of its front organisations. Prime Minister Ranil Wikramasinghe successfully created an ‘international safety net’ so that if the LTTE reneged on the peace process, Colombo could mobilise the support of the international community.

Equally important, the wide international network, assiduously built up by the Tigers to fuel its war machine was destroyed over the years. The fleet of ships, which used to bring arms and ammunition to the LTTE-controlled areas, was successfully destroyed by the Lankan air force; on many occasions, with the assistance of intelligence inputs from India. Attempts by the Tigers to acquire surface-to-air missiles were nipped in the bud by the FBI. As far as Colombo was concerned, it successfully diversified its arms purchases. China, Pakistan and Iran emerged as major suppliers. Colombo resorted to savage bombing of the Tamil areas and the Tamil civilians, caught between the ruthless Tigers and the inhuman Lankan armed forces, became victims of the savagery of both sides.

The fairly long ceasefire brought the simmering differences within the LTTE into the open. The revolt led by Karuna was a manifestation of the deep discontent felt by the eastern guerillas that they were being used by Prabhakaran as cannon fodder. Colombo exploited the rift to its advantage, liberated the Eastern Province and conducted elections, which put Pillaiyan as the chief minister. The loss of the east was a major setback for Prabhakaran, for it exploded the myth that the Tigers were the sole representatives of the Tamils.

When the ceasefire agreement was abrogated and a full-scale war began, the Tigers were on the defensive. Though they put up stiff resistance, their major strongholds — Kilinochchi, Paranthan, Pooneryn, Elephant Pass and finally Mullaithivu — fell one by one. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Tigers even declared that they were prepared to lay down arms to enable the civilians to move into safe areas, but Colombo, intoxicated with military victory, was determined to go for the final kill. The international community, including India, which drew a distinction between the LTTE terrorists and innocent Tamil civilians, could not pressurise Colombo to declare a ceasefire. The ‘No-fire Zones’ were subjected to savage artillery attacks. The war against the LTTE degenerated into a war against Tamil civilians.

The political ascendancy of Rajapaksa synchronised with his consolidation of the Sinhala vote bank. The war against the Tigers was portrayed as a ‘patriotic war’. Rajapaksa was able to lull New Delhi into inertia by his assurance that Colombo would implement the 13th Amendment sincerely once the war was over. In fact, the electoral victory in the Eastern Province was an acid test, whether Colombo would implement the 13th Amendment in letter and in spirit. Even police powers have not been devolved to the Eastern Province. The recommendations of the Tissaa Vitharana Committee and expert committee report are gathering dust. Flush with military victory and keen to broad base, it is very doubtful whether Mahinda Rajapaksa will give a fair deal to the minorities so that they can retain and foster their Tamil identity while remaining citizens of Sri Lanka. In other words, though the Tigers have been destroyed as a conventional army, the reservoir from which Tamil militancy can derive its sustenance will continue to plague the island republic.

About the author:V Suryanarayan, formerly senior professor in the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, is currently a senior research fellow in the Centre for Asia Studies, Chennai
-Sri Lanka Guardian