Prabakaran had everything. Territory. A committed rank and file. Lethal weaponry. International support and friends in the West. Shyam Tekwani tracks the alarming rise and astonishing fall of a man caught between escape and death image.
By Shyam Tekwani
(May 17, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) More vividly than anything that came afterwards in the Sri Lanka war, I remember his first handshake. The hand was soft, the grip delicate and limp. On that occasion in Madras, as he contentedly claimed credit for assassinating the Tamil Mayor of Jaffna and later, the slaughter of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers that ignited the conflict following the anti-Tamil riots of 1983, Velupillai Prabakaran’s dainty handshake seemed in harmony with his soft voice.
A few more meetings and a couple of years later in 1987 — after successfully evading a media ban to reach the frontlines in Jaffna — I found myself reporting in the company of Prabakaran’s ragtag troops in their war against the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). In the bougainvillea-lined mud tracks, while attempting to photograph his boys gunning down the Indian soldiers in an ambush, I was transfixed by the memory of that handshake as I watched the blood seep from an ill-fated jawan’s head and mingle with the Jaffna dirt.
The other memory is his startled expression when I congratulated him on his newborn towards the end of a long discourse on Eelam. Soon after his fleeting pause, it became clear that he had lost interest in going on and on with his vision of Eelam. He was less voluble, withdrawn and then abruptly left the room. It was left to the master’s voice, Anton Balasingham, to cautiously quiz me on how and what I knew of the addition to his leader’s family.
These two memories define, at any rate for me through all my experiences over the last 25 years in Sri Lanka, the man who has finally destroyed the dream he almost made true. Both the memories give a certain insight into the mind of the man. First, deceive all into believing the contrary about your capabilities — deception is the core of all his strategy. Second, never trust your own shadow — paranoia dictates his behaviour. These traits contributed to the amazing rise — and eventually the astonishing fall — of the leader of the most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world.
To suggest that Prabakaran worked to a master plan in building and shaping his image of invincibility and developing the organisation from a ragtag bunch of boys into the outfit that inspired awe and envy would be to bestow upon him the title of a genius — which he is not. From the beginning, he adopted a twofold strategy — consisting on the one hand of an ‘international political campaign’ by galvanising the diaspora and international opinion in his favour and on the other by bleeding the economy and weakening the state through acts of terror. His success in sustaining the conflict for over a quarter century came from a combination of his own cunning and the lack of purpose, unity and determination in his enemies.
THE PROPAGANDA CARPET BOMB
“Today we're engaged in the first war in history — unconventional and irregular as it may be — in an era of e-mails, blogs, cell phones, Blackberries, instant messaging, digital cameras, a global internet with no inhibitions, cell phones, hand-held video cameras, talk radio, 24-hour news broadcasts, satellite television. There's never been a war fought in this environment before.” That was former US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld in 2005 referring, of course, to his woes stemming from the unnecessary war in Iraq.
If propaganda wins wars, then the IPKF, which saved Sri Lanka from becoming another Lebanon, fell victim to a weapon far more effective than the deadliest conventional weapon in Prabakaran’s jungle arsenal — his propaganda tool, the media.
Central to Prabakaran’s guerilla strategy — over two decades before Rumsfeld made his observation — was a powerful communications network and a sympathetic media. Hence, his exclusive interviews to handpicked influential publications while he was enjoying the hospitality of the Indian government in Madras during the mid-80s, when I first got to shake his hand. From the outset, it was not difficult to win the support of the media, particularly in the West. Prabakaran played his underdog cards adroitly with the help of his advisor Anton Balasingham and his Australianborn wife, Adele and the LTTE’s media headquarters in London.
In November 1986, on the eve of the SAARC summit in Bangalore, the police under instructions from the Chief Minister MG Ramachandran, raided and seized arms and sophisticated communications gear from the assorted Eelam groups operating out of Tamil Nadu. Prabakaran went on a much publicised fast-untodeath in Madras quoting Mahatma Gandhi, whom he said he was emulating in peaceful protest for the return of the equipment. He demanded the immediate return of – not his rocket launchers, SAM missiles and AK-47s — but his lifeline to the world, his wireless sets. By this time, he had the media eating out of his hands and the romanticisation of Prabakaran - already in motion — now entered the process of deification. Everything was returned to him in good order along with a glass of fruit juice that he sipped to declare his victory.
Less than a year later, I walked into a scoop in the Jaffna peninsula. IPKF Mi-24 helicopter gunships were on the attack in Chavakachcheri, an LTTE stronghold. People around me were killed, most of them civilians. And my cameras were the only media instruments witnessing the deaths. A week later, when I surfaced in Colombo and rushed to the phone in my hotel room to break the exclusive story, I was dismayed to find that the attack was already the big story in the media. Prabakaran had already beaten me to it — even though there was no electricity to light up his bases in the jungles. Even as the body count in the damaged market area was in progress, his ‘boys’ had radioed their souped-up version of the ‘bombing’ from their jungle hideouts to their ‘media’ headquarters in London from where a telex was sent out to every major international publication. Photographs of death and destruction from an assault during Operation Liberation (or Vadamarachchi Operation) by Sri Lankan gunships six months earlier were circulated as evidence of the Chavakachcheri attack.
The LTTE’s powerful communications network transmitted daily situation reports (sitreps) from Jaffna to its media headquarters in a Western capital where the sitreps were distributed as press releases though telex machines (later with the introduction of fax machines and the internet, it was able to readjust its media budget) to media and governments in Western capitals. Printed material was was a prime means of LTTE propaganda till the early 1990s, when the group went to great expense to publish multilingual and expensively produced four-colour booklets and pamphlets with profuse illustrations. These publications were distributed to the local and international media and select government organisations.
The LTTE’s high degree of familiarity with modern telecommunications enabled it to occupy a very definitive niche in the international public eye, in spite of the fact that it is party to a conflict in a small south Asian nation, largely ignored by the West, and the fact that its acts of violence have impacted only Sri Lanka and occasionally India.
The reason counter-terrorism practitioners began to focus their attention, after 9/11, to Sri Lanka is Prabakaran’s global reach. His group is an integral part of the international terror network. Tactical and technical contagion is a fact of terrorist tactics. From hostage-taking, to hijacking to car-bombs, new methods have been quickly absorbed and copied among terrorist groups worldwide. Witness the Taliban’s use of civilians as human shields during the Pakistani-led assault in Buner district last week.
Years before the world heard of Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda, Prabakaran was pioneering a new method of guerrilla warfare — the suicide bomber. Innovations in the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and the rampant use of child soldiers and new media technologies — were quickly copied as regular methods of warfare following the invasion of Iraq in 2002.
Prabakaran has successfully operated in volatile environments where his ability to change has been the group’s linchpin not only of effectiveness, but also of survival. While Prabakaran has had ample motivations for change — technological developments, counterterrorism measures, and shifts in people’s reactions to terror attacks — the change has not occurred automatically.
AS ADAPTIVE AS A CHAMELEON
Prabakaran’s ambition to sever the island in two has been the only constant in his life. Sustaining that for 30 years required a continuous evolution and a firm hand. The practices he adopted were based on selectively chosen models appropriated from a range of religious and political traditions and rituals for a variety of political and publicity goals. The flavor of the 1980s, for him, was Marxist rhetoric. When his oft-repeated desire for a single party socialist government in his imagined Eelam drew gasps of horror, the Lenin portrait in his den was summarily removed and Marx was forsaken in all conversation. He then abandoned ideology to aggressively build the cult around his persona. An adoring media lent as zealous a hand as his followers to help build his cult to mythical proportions — tales of his marksmanship, valour and genius became commonplace. Soon, taking an oath in his name by his cadres, celebrating his birthday, and displaying his portrait everywhere became mandatory. Adele introduced the concept of feminism to recruit girls. In her words, “Nowhere in the world has male chauvinism been eradicated and it certainly has not disappeared from the Tamil society. However the male cadres show a great deal of respect, appreciation and pride in the women combatants’ achievements.” From Hinduism, he borrowed the practice of deifying his martyrs and erecting shrines where people were expected to make offerings and pray on a day designated as holy. Western military traditions provided him a model to build his army while Hollywood, apart from inspiring movies of bravery and heroism, taught him to produce slickly produced audio-visual presentations for profit and for goodwill.
IN HIS OWN IMAGE
Acutely conscious of the power of propaganda and his image as the most lethal weapon in his arsenal, Prabakaran ensured that everybody in his group understood how to use it. Cadres were not to interact with anyone outside the fold. His photograph — and only his — would be the single image that hung on the walls of all denizens in his territory. Every street corner would have his speeches or Eelam national songs playing from the loudspeakers at all hours every day. Every offer of a ride in the Balasingham’s air-conditioned SUV, with Adele at the wheel, in the Jaffna peninsula perforce meant listening to Prabakaran blaring from the only cassette she would insert into the music player.
Calendars, posters, CDs, DVDs, newspapers, magazines, radio stations, TV stations — he had them all out years before the world had heard of the al Qaeda propaganda machinery. And while the word ‘web’, at any rate for most of us in south Asia in 1993, triggered images of the common house spider, the LTTE had its first website running on the server of a university in the United States. This conveniently coincided with an increasingly unfriendly media following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. A computer academy funded and run by professionals from among the diaspora in the Vanni region ensured that the ‘brains trust’ of the LTTE kept abreast with the latest know-how.
A wing of the group (Internet Black Tigers) is credited with the first ever cyber attack (1997) known to the world when it downed the networks of Sri Lankan embassies across the world for a fortnight. In the same year, it was able to hack into a university in the United Kingdom, steal legitimate email IDs and solicit funds for a fictitious hospital in Colombo. And as recently as last week, a group calling itself Kalai Amman Electronic Warfare Unit hacked into the Sri Lanka Army website and defaced its home page. Social network sites were quickly adopted and a search on YouTube yields several hundred videos of the group.
During one of our initial photo sessions (in the early 1980s), Prabakaran was awkward, uncertain of what was expected of him and very receptive to being directed. When it was suggested he change into combat fatigues, he went one further and emerged from the room with his pistol fully loaded. Within seconds, framed by his bodyguards and a huge cut out of a Tiger, with a huge portrait of Lenin in the background, he was in his elements and an hour later eagerly asked for copies of his performance. Several photo sessions later and in Jaffna while fighting for his supremacy against the IPKF, he reveled in playing the role of actor and director with consummate ease. He would tease a twinkle into his eyes with as much ease as a flash of fury. There was bluster in his voice, preparedness in dealing with questions and animation in his conversations but his grip had lost none of its daintiness.
He would play to the gallery with sardonic witticisms, refrain from any response in English, ponder a bit to deliver a quotable quote and strike the pose that struck him as just right for the occasion. In one of his hideouts during the IPKF operations, he called for his leopard cub and while bantering with his friend and deputy, Yogaratnam Yogi, posed gleefully for the camera stroking his pet — much like a prosperous zamindar back from a hunt.
It was essential to his strategy to get the message across that he had a committed following — and that this commitment came from man, woman and child. The cyanide pill was the emblem of commitment — which he generously arranged for me to photograph as his boys gamely posed with them around their necks. (It is another story that while every instance of a cadre biting into the vial during the course of assorted battles captured headlines, there was barely any mention of the many more who threw the vial away for safety).
While Prabakaran majestically posed for the camera with his ‘cubs’ (as he called the children he recruited), there were a few restrictions: He did not like being photographed while satiating his enormous appetite for food. No photographs of his female cadres and none of his dead and dying. These sanctions were lifted after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
Prabakaran quickly developed a media unit – photographers and videographers – which documented every battle and assassination that the group conducted. This served two purposes — as a teaching aid, it came closest to the real thing next to classroom simulations. Besides, it provided archival material for the history books that would be written once Eelam became a reality. This obsession for a visual record proved disastrous for the LTTE — it led the investigators of Rajiv Gandhi’s murder right to its doorstep.
Visiting the group’s training camps in the peninsula after Rajiv Gandhi’s murder, the first thing I noticed were the baby-faced boys, some not even in their teens. Their field training began with an oath on their leader: “To achieve Tamil Eelam, my life and soul, all this, I sacrifice. We’ll be very faithful and trustworthy to our elder brother, Mr Prabakaran, the leader of our revolutionary organisation. I now begin my training. The thirst of Tigers is Tamil Eelam.” This was also repeated at the end of the day when their flag was lowered down the mast.
Their history lessons were an endless litany of hatred against the enemy — only comprising rapists, butchers and racists — and the glories of ancient Tamil kingdoms and kings. Classic indoctrination. The classroom instructions centred around battlefield strategies (on a blackboard with a piece of chalk and some war movies), case studies (reconstructed with videos and photographs) from their previous battles and assassinations and finally a film from an extraordinary video collection of B-grade Hollywood action movies. Rambo was the popular choice.
In the prevailing environment of anxiety and hopelessness, Prabakaran was crafty enough to whip up hatred and give a machine gun to his potential recruits among the boys and girls. The romance of the gun, for a teenager fed on a limitless diet of action movies, hatred for the identified enemy, a sense of purpose and an assurance of immortality, is an aphrodisiac far more potent than the promise of seventy-two virgins in paradise.
The thrill of adventure for a 12-year old Rambo-in-the-making is a mesmerising experience. It invests in him power he could never dream of. The only occasion when I accepted their offer of testing a Kalashnikov was instructive. I fired into the horizon across the sea. As we sauntered away feeling like real men after a few rounds, I suddenly froze in horror. I became aware of my posture and swagger, feeling invincible and indestructible — and realized that, despite the stiffness in my shoulder caused by the weapon’s recoil — my arms and legs moved exactly like Rambo, like in the movie I had watched with them in their classroom. If I, a 30-something man of the world, could feel this magical glow of indestructibility shield me from death, it was not difficult to imagine the effect on a 12-year old who knows no other life than the one under Prabakaran’s incantations. The added incentive was that as a cadre, bed and board were provided for on a priority basis in any hamlet that one walked into, brandishing the gun.
If this was not motivation enough, there was then the promise of immortality. Poems and shrines were built in the memory of those who submitted their lives for the cause.
BEHIND THE LINES
One of the essential experiences of embedding yourself with the LTTE was the interaction with the wild-looking boys, bare-footed and ragged. They were your mates, guides and guardians during the tour of the frontlines and combat zones. When you lived alongside them, shared food and experiences under fire, you tended to bond with them. Survival often depended upon this sense of comradeship. Camaraderie, which relaxed their adherence to the strict code of discipline they were sworn to as they pulled out a deck of cards to kill time between attacks, could lead to bias — however much one guarded oneself against it – especially when in skirmishes in the jungle your camera kit and their Kalashnikovs got entangled.
But you never met the same lot ever again. They were either killed before your next trip or rotated to another location. It was rare to learn anything about them through querying the new batch — since each of them operated under a nom de guerre. One looked for a familiar face on the sea of posters and cutouts of martyrs scattered across the peninsula. Likewise, the innumerable shrines that kept multiplying between visits — shrines in honour of the valorous and where people went to pray with their incense sticks and flowers. There would be an odd sighting or two or a rare letter from some family member sharing their grief of their dead son.
Occasionally, a smartly dressed, wellfed stranger would approach you on the street in New York, a wedding in London, a restaurant in Paris or in the shadows of a temple corridor in Thanjavur and identify himself as being a member of the party you accompanied on such and such a trip. Or you would recognise a face in the papers — making the wrong kind of news in a country which had granted him citizenship.
ADELE BALASINGHAM AND THE FREEDOM BIRDS
The Freedom Birds — as the girls were now called — were the ace up Prabakaran’s sleeve. With the IPKF steadily depleting his manpower among the rank and file, Prabakaran had to turn even more to the girls and children to replenish his forces. The task of inducting the girls was assigned to “Auntie” Adele Balasingham. Girls, at this point, were banded together as the Students Organisation of Liberation Tigers (SOLT) and were used in peripheral roles as befitted their status in Jaffna society – in servitude, ushering in crowds at an event, distributing pamphlets, reciting poems extolling the greatness of their National Leader or singing paeans in honour of a recent suicide bomber. Adele’s task was made easy by the prevailing oppressive caste and class system and the alleged atrocities of the IPKF. She offered the guarantee of emancipating the girls from the traditional role of Tamil women by fighting shoulder to shoulder with the boys in pursuit of their freedom. A few months after the murder of Rajiv Gandhi, during a conversation in Jaffna, she would proudly claim: “The most historic development for the Jaffna woman in recent years is her confidence.”
Following the death, by cancer in 2007, of her husband Anton Balasingham, the self-described theoretician, chief negotiator and political advisor to Prabakaran, Adele continues to actively work for her leader quietly and away from the media glare from her base in London.
Gopalaswamy Mahendraraja, better known by his nom de guerre Mahathaya, Prabakaran’s extremely popular deputy, could have easily been mistaken for Prabakaran by anyone whose only awareness of the LTTE leaders was based on a perfunctory glance at media photographs. They were built alike and sprouted thick moustaches. In Prabakaran’s presence, Mahathaya was almost hunched in servility, respectful and barely uttering a word until spoken to. His transformation on the battlefield, however, was amazing.
Mahathaya’s silence was compensated by Yogi‘s loud voice. It was with Yogi that Prabakaran seemed to share an easy relationship. Laughing and joking over a Chinese lunch, the two seemed to be best buddies. Yogi strutted with his convent-educated English — much in the manner of a subordinate who wants to appear as an equal in the presence of people he seeks to impress; Mahathaya was diffident and respectful in the presence of authority, his leader. On the battlefield, as I joined the motley bunch Mahathaya led against the advancing army, I could barely associate him with the deputy who almost scraped in servility in the presence of his boss. Yogi was the well-scrubbed, smooth and oily politician, Mahathaya the dutiful and popular army commander.
When Mahathaya marched into Trincomalee at the head of a big army of freshly uniformed cadres along with Yogi to watch the back of the last IPKF soldier disappear from view in March 1990, they took to the podium to thank the big crowds the LTTE had corralled at the town’s stadium. Yogi included the media in his thanksgiving and singled out a couple of us by name as those who had fought as much as they for their struggle. Barely over a year later, with Rajiv murdered and the investigation clearly pointing to the LTTE as his killers, Yogi’s first reaction upon greeting me in Jaffna was a bitter utterance of “yellow journalist” accompanied by a ferocious mouthful of spit at me, while Balasingham and Adele watched in grim silence. World opinion was beginning to weigh heavily against them. Their nerves were clearly on edge.
Prabakaran denied any role in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and instead set into motion an elaborate exercise to disprove Dhanu’s (Rajiv Gandhi’s killer) link with the LTTE. Meetings were set up with her ‘parents’, neighbours, and ‘friends’ all over the peninsula. At the end of the long day, after a snack of hot vadas at their thatched roof headquarters near Jaffna town, when my increasing skepticism of their charade began to get the better of their gentle persuasiveness, Balasingham and Yogi pushed back their chairs and declared the meeting over. The parting shot was as astounding as it was petty — pay for the vadas you just ate. When I awoke the next morning, the bicycle I depended on to traverse the peninsula was gone. Their fabled public relations machinery was beginning to crack and yet unknown to the world, trouble was brewing within.
A year later, in a move that stunned his followers, Prabakaran struck against Mahathaya who he had anointed as his deputy during the war against the IPKF in 1987. Accusing him of treachery and collaborating with the Indians against him, Prabakaran placed Mahathaya in custody, liquidated most of Mahathaya’s troops and decisively crushed a potential rival to his supremacy as leader. Mahathaya was executed after a prolonged period of torture in December 1994. Yogi, whose loyalty too came under suspicion, was consigned to the doghouse to expect a similar fate. After years in anxious oblivion, he reappeared as head of the LTTE’s History Division on Black Tigers Day, the commemoration of suicide bombers, in July 2006. He spoke on the occasion and asked, “Weren't bombs made to blow up and kill men? So why is there such a cry when only a man becomes a human bomb?” He was subsequently rehabilitated to his current position as military advisor in the Vanni. Balasingham and his wife Adele rose even more higher in their leader’s estimate. The Balasinghams — who posed no threat of any sort to their master — became the face of the organisation across Western capitals and were an essential part of all negotiating teams at various times.
THE TAMIL ‘STATE’
Prabakaran’s moment of triumph in ejecting the IPKF (March 1990) out of his domain, powered him with greater confidence. He felt vindicated in his belief that Eelam was a reality within his grasp. His surviving boys had gained invaluable experience during the thirty months of ‘vanquishing the fourth-largest army in the world’; the girls had proved their worth and were now battle-hardened; recruiting was never easier, his stock with his donors, the Tamil diaspora, was at its peak; and the media doted on him as their new darling.
It was at this point that he tightened the security around him and set about the task of constructing a state within a state. He reintroduced taxation on his population, decreed the LTTE flag as the Tamil national flag, set up courts, police stations and ‘ministries’ that oversaw agriculture, education, rehabilitation and economic development. But his main preoccupation was in developing a conventional armed force. Military traditions — a formal ranking system, uniforms, gun salutes, parades, ceremonial funerals of flagdraped cadres killed in action — became the norm. Sarongs and flip-flops gave way to smartly pressed uniforms and spit-andpolish boots. Twenty years before he acquired the half-a-dozen ZLIN-143 aircraft to boast of being the only terrorist group in the world to possess an air wing, I was led to the LTTE’s “ordnance factory” in Manipay in 1985 to witness and photograph the aircraft his “aeronautical engineers” were assembling. The fact that it had a 200cc motorcycle engine to power it did not mask his intent to attempt building a conventional Armed Force, with its land, air and sea wings. “Geographically”, he stressed at the very beginning, “the security of Tamil Eelam is interlinked with that of its seas."
He then turned against his benefactor, the Sri Lankan president, Ranasinghe. Premadasa, who had colluded with him to evict the IPKF and kept him on his toes until Prabakaran had him killed by a suicide bomber three years later in1993.
In his annual Heroes Day speech — that he delivers a day after his birthday — Prabakaran, in November 2006 made his first direct appeal to the diaspora in funding the ‘Final War’ he had launched in July after the European Union joined a growing list of countries that had proscribed the group. Funds were drying up. “We express our gratitude to the Tamil Diaspora, our displaced brethren living all around the world, for their contribution to our struggle and ask them to maintain their unwavering participation and support.” This was in marked contrast to rebuking them for being “quitters” and “losers” in the late 1980s. Donations, however, have not always been voluntary.
Following the crackdown on the LTTE by Canada and The European Union in 2006, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police released a report on their 4-year investigation (Operation Osaluki) into the Canadian fundraising efforts of the Tamil Tigers. The report revealed that the LTTE subjects Sri Lankan Tamils living in Canada and other Western countries to intimidation, extortion and even violence to ensure a steady flow of funds for its operations.
When Rajiv Gandhi was on the political comeback trail in May 1991, Prabakaran wasted no time in executing a pre-emptive strike. He dispatched his homegrown poet, Kasi Anandan — who had only a year ago thrilled the victorious LTTE cadres at a gathering in Trincomalee with his description of the IPKF as the Italian-Parsi Killing Force — to lull any apprehensions that anyone might have about the former Prime Minister’s security. The ruse, clearly, worked.
Except that Prabakaran’s fool-proof plan did not count on having his photographer killed with the evidence against him intact on his body. The murder of Rajiv Gandhi by the world’s first woman suicide bomber set in motion a process that has finally come to destroy his ambition. India proscribed the group and though it took the United States six years to follow the lead and the 9/11 attacks to give the proscription some teeth, the new security climate induced other passive supporters of the LTTE in Western capitals to ban the outfit in their countries.
With international opinion against him, Prabakaran retreated into his hideouts, eased himself out of the media spotlight, only granting even rarer access to international media to lamely deny any hand in his dastardly act. He now began wearing the black thread of his cyanide vial outside his shirt in an ostentatious display of his commitment to the cause. The holster with his pistol now found place outside his camouflage shirt signaling that he was no more ‘Thambi’ (younger brother) or ‘Anna’ (elder brother) to his followers nor merely the National Leader of Tamil Eelam but the Supreme Commander of the LTTE.
The recently released photographs from the treasure trove of albums that the Sri Lankan troops found in the fleeing Prabakaran’s house are very instructive. The black string holding the vial of cyanide has disappeared in a number of images where he is with his family. Neither is his son, equally portly, seen to be wearing one even with his combat fatigues.
From the very beginning it was apparent that he would make ‘people’ his buzz word. First, declare he was on the path he had chosen for their sake, to liberate them. Second, attack the enemy over the shoulders of civilians to provoke an enraged counterattack that would kill innocents and garner him publicity at low cost. Finally, shield himself from attacks by closing all their exits at the point of his guns.
The bulk of LTTE’s attacks against the IPKF were initiated around the core strategy of using civilians as shields. The IPKF helicopter gunship attack in Chavakachcheri was one such classic example. The LTTE positioned its gunmen in the most crowded part of the town — the market — to fire provocatively in the directions of the choppers that were flying at a safe distance from ground fire. At the Chavakachcheri morgue where families of victims were hurling anti-Indian abuses at me, a middle-aged woman took me aside. Apologising for the hostility of the mourners, she muttered, “Hitler killed not his own people, but Jews. But Prabakaran is killing Tamil people.” Civilians as human shields clearly appears to be a central part of Prabakaran’s strategy to escape from his present entrapment.
How then did an insurgency, that seized legitimate political grievances as a foundation for terrorism and sustained martyrdom by quasi-religious zealotry, fail in its objective?
From being credited as the world’s most successful and ruthless terrorist to losing nearly all of 15,000 sq.kms of territory in two years requires some doing. Both Prabakaran and the government of Sri Lanka have had their turns grabbing and then losing territory.
In July 2001, marking the anniversary of Black July of 1983, Prabakaran staged stunning attacks on the Sri Lankan Air Force base and the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo, wiping out half the country’s civil aviation fleet, in addition to a few military aircraft. With Sri Lanka’s army in a deadlock, the navy restrained and the air fleet neutralized, the success of this attack, once again, placed Prabakaran at the upper end of the plank that Colombo and he had been see-sawing upon for two decades.
Barely two months later, the planes that brought the twin towers crashing down in New York on September 9, laid the ground for the emergence of a new world order where the world was divided into the good guys rooting for a global war on terrorism and the bad guys who attacked governments in pursuit of their evil goals. The seed was thus sown for Prabakaran’s decline and the slow destruction of Eelam. He was beginning to get undone by an event thousands of miles away and over which he had no control.
It was not that Prabakaran did not attempt to adapt to the new world order. To shift the spotlight away from himself, he declared a ceasefire, came out of hiding, without his moustache and his falling hair dyed brilliantly black, sued for peace under Norwegian facilitation and announced his first press conference in a dozen years. His many websites removed all material that would be deemed offensive (virtual training camps where one could learn to forge a passport or make a bomb, for example) in the new environment, and wore safari suits to mould himself in the image of Nelson Mandela, the statesman he was quoting profusely on his sites and in his conversations.
His first and only international press conference (April 2002) at his administrative headquarters in Killinochchi was a disaster. His experience with the media, confined to a few one-on-one interviews with select journalists, had not prepared him for this. He seemed bewildered and clearly out of his depth facing a mixed pack of journalists whose two-day uncomfortable wait was alleviated only by the non-stop screening of LTTE propaganda videos. His image makeover, as a clean-shaven, safari-suited statesman, failed to impress anyone. Announcing his idea of peace involving the Norwegians as peacemakers, he first fumbled and then chose the safer option of avoiding all questions — mostly related to the murder of Rajiv Gandhi and his own demand for a separate state - and passed on the microphone to his interpreter Balasingham. Balasingham declared that his leader was the President and Prime Minister of Tamil Eelam and that he and Mr Prabakaran were the "same'' and that he was the LTTE leader's “voice.” This set the tone for what was to follow.
After six rounds of talks for peace between September 2002 to March 2003 across four countries, Prabakaran was back to what he had perfected over the years since the Thimpu talks in 1985 — stonewall, provoke and renege on an agreement and fully lay the blame for the breakdown of talks on the other party.
The from-the-very-beginning futile exercise took its toll on three of the four LTTE delegates. Balasingham, the “chief negotiator” was gravely ill and had to remain in Europe along with Adele for his prolonged treatment. Karuna Amman (Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan), Prabakaran’s commander in the East, was being wooed by peacemakers to part ways with his leader. Meanwhile, the global war on terrorism was increasingly being read as the global war on Islamic terror, which meant the international community was too preoccupied to bother about non- Islamic outfits like the LTTE.
The CFA (Ceasefire Agreement) went into cold limbo. Skirmishes broke out and violations of the agreement accumulated. The Scandinavian countries comprising the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission recorded 3,830 violations by the LTTE against 351 by the Government of Sri Lanka between 20 February 2002 and 30 April 2007.
In March 2004, Prabakaran tried averting the crisis he saw coming his way by summoning Karuna to Jaffna on an official pretext. Karuna had learnt his lessons from the Mahathaya experience. He ignored the summons and split the seemingly monolithic outfit, taking with him a big chunk of the battle-hardened fighters he had trained. With the East in turmoil, Prabakaran saw his Eelam beginning to shrink. Months later, the tsunami further breached the LTTE’s wall of impregnability, damaging its bases along the northeastern coast.
Chandrika Kumaratunga, then heading the government after having survived a suicide bomber attack, quickly learnt from Prabakaran’s successful diplomatic offensives. She dispatched her Tamil Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, to world capitals on a mission to get the international community to act against the LTTE’s interests in their respective countries. Kadirgamar was beginning to notch up diplomatic successes, having got the United Kingdom to proscribe the group in 2001. He was killed by a LTTE sniper in August 2005 just when he seemed on the verge of getting some more countries to proscribe the group.
And when the elections came the following year (2005), Prabakaran compounded his earlier mistakes. He ensured — by forbidding Tamils to cast their vote — the victory of somebody who, he believed, was yet another politician even more infirm of purpose than his predecessors and therefore of immense value to his plans, little realising that he would finally be meeting his nemesis in the Rajapakse administration. Peace is inimical to Prabakaran’s existence. The new government started office, as all new governments in Colombo were wont to do, with a call for peace. After one round of ceasefire talks in 2006, Prabakaran was back to business. His woes of the three previous years in his new avatar of ‘statesmanpolitician’ were proving to him that he just was not cut out to be a man of peace.
In his 2006 November annual speech, after his attempts to assassinate the Chief of the Army and the Secretary of Defence in Colombo, he rued, “We postponed our plan to advance our freedom struggle twice to give even more chances to the peace efforts, once when the tsunami disaster struck and again when President Rajapakse was elected.”
He set out to reassert his authority over the East — and faced an army that was well-armed and well-trained and motivated as never before and one that was working with unprecedented intelligence provided by his breakaway commander, Karuna. Prabakaran lost the East — and from there on, he lorded over an unending series of military defeats.
From among the many reasons being attributed to his incredulously rapid downfall, the one that would without any trouble resonate with those who have dealt with Prabakaran would be his sense of supreme self-importance. He is seen as a megalomaniac who hijacked the legitimate grievances of the Tamils to gratify his vision of himself and failed to see that the switch from guerilla band to conventional army would be disastrous.
For the sanguinary among us — the chief reason for his downfall was the failure of his legendary Black Tiger suicide bombers and his celebrated Intelligence chief, Pottu Amman.
For someone who pioneered the use — and masterminded remarkable innovations — of suicide bombers, Prabakaran’s Black Tigers seemed to have reached a dead-end. President Chandrika Kumaratunga was the first miracle of the Eelam war — as the first ever survivor of a Black Tiger attack, at an election rally in December 1999.
Then came the failures in 2006 that cost him everything — General Sarath Fonseka, Commander of the Sri Lanka Army became the second survivor of a suicide attack in April. Prabakaran’s trusted tool of political persuasion, the Black Tiger, was beginning to let him down. And when Gotabaya Rajapkse, the Secretary of the Defence and the brother of the President escaped a suicide attack in December, it was curtains for Prabakaran. The last two failures led to his destruction. Clearly, Prabakaran was facing a short supply of efficient Black Tigers. He was desperate enough to use recruits whose mental aptitude didn’t match their ferocious commitment. A woman bomber sent to kill the Tamil Cabinet Minister, Douglas Devananda, in his Colombo office in November 2007, triggered her bra bomb when she discovered her target was not available for the day, killing herself and the Minister’s secretary.
MEETING HIS MATCH
The other factor that led to his precipitous defeat is that Prabakaran did not count on the troika (the President, the Army Chief and the Defence Secretary) calling his bluff. His elaborate deceptions of invincibility had begun cracking — first, with the exit of Karuna and then by the steady inroads that the specially trained units of the Sri Lankan Army’s commandos were making. The chronic political oneupmanship in Colombo over the Eelam war between the two national parties — the UNP and the SLFP — which had contributed largely to the growth of the LTTE and the prolongation of the war, was contained by the Rajapakse administration. The Rajapakse brothers pulled out a page from the Bush counter-terrorism doctrine — niceties be damned.
With international assistance — material and moral — for the war on terror pouring in from China, Pakistan and the US, the defence budget was increased dramatically; state of the art equipment procured, and counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency training enhanced. By mid-2006, Canada and the European Union joined the growing list of countries proscribing the LTTE. This clogged Prabakaran’s supply lines and fund collection and contributed to diminishing his ability to fight back the surge of a newly professionalised force. In the Rajapakse brothers, Prabakaran finally met with an enemy as ruthless and unswervingly committed in their goal as he.
As he presides over the destruction of his dream, Prabakaran must already be plotting his next move even as he plans his escape from the ever-shrinking space he is left with to hide in. Staying alive, going back to the basics and brushing up on Sun Tzu. His financially formidable supporters among the diaspora will be told that it is only territory that has been lost and as long as they are behind him he will deliver unto them the dream he has been promising them. Until then, Eelam will, like Khalistan, continue to live on in the virtual world.
His long-term objective, however, will be to foil every effort made by Colombo to redress Tamil grievances and also ensure that he, and only he, remains the sole leader of the Tamils. No moderate Tamil leader or group will be allowed to take his place. Any attempt to nurture a new leadership will be foiled by assassinations and acts of terror — just as he had, in the mid-80s, done the biggest disservice to the Tamil cause by systematically wiping out the leaders of the other militant Tamil groups that existed and decimating their organisations in a move to emerge as the sole representative of the Tamil cause. Elections will be prevented by violence. Prabakaran will patiently wait for complacency on Colombo’s part and any ensuing security lapses to stage devastating acts of terror. In essence, he will start all over again and could potentially claw his way back if allowed to.
The key to ensuring that Prabakaran goes down the same road and fades away as Idi Amin did lies in the sincerity, determination and tenacity of the Rajapakse government (and every other that follows it). Rolling back every discriminatory law and practice against the Tamils and guaranteeing them equal rights and opportunities would need to be its first priority. Ignoring the Tamil diaspora, however much it may rankle, would not be beneficial for Colombo. Colombo only has to remember that the rise and dominance of Prabakaran was largely dependent on Colombo’s policies and attitudes.
As an immediate goal, Prabakaran will be counting on the few Black Tigers lurking in Colombo to blow up at least one of the troika. This would give him a respite, however brief, and save him from biting into the vial he sometimes carries around his neck.
And should he be forced to feed on the cyanide, it would mean the absolute destruction of his fantasy and the organisation he has so brutally cultivated around himself. His death would splinter the group, leaving his surviving lieutenants scrambling for the throne and the vast financial empire Prabakaran has industriously built across three score countries. His son and heir apparent, Charles Anthony, is not considered a serious contender for the top job.
In this hour of unprecedented defeat, the bluster and the belief in his personal immortalitywill not have dimmed. IwonderifPrabakaran’shandshakehaschanged. For an answer to that, over to the friendly Arakan rebel inMyanmar or the sympathetic politician in Europe, whose extendedhandwelcomesPrabakaranashore as he searches for a sanctuary. In all likelihood, Prabakaran — with all his chips down—would impress his saviour with a firm, masculine shake of the hand.
The author is a former photo-journalist, currently teaching media and international relations at NTU, Singapore.He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -Sri Lanka Guardian