MEDIA AND THE THAMILEELAM STRUGGLE
The ‘Death’ and ‘Rebirth’ of Prabhakaran
The first-mentioned ‘sad’ event took place in the year 1989! The happy ‘rebirth’ occurred within 72 hours!
The Hindu of Madras, known as the “Mahavishnu of Mount Road” reported Prabhakaran’s “death” in its issue of July 24, 1989, under the headline – PRABHAKARAN REPORTED KILLED IN LTTE SHOOTOUT.
The report, along with a picture of the LTTE leader, said:
“The top leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Mr.V.Prabhakaran, was killed in a shootout by the Mahataya faction of the LTTE a few days ago, according to political sources in the North-Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. Mr.Mahatiya was the deputy leader of the LTTE.
His body is reportedly at a village called Ananthaperiyakulam, 20 km northeast of Vavuniya town… According to Sri Lankan Tamil sources here, Mr.Krishnakumar alias Kittu, lieutenant of Mr.Prabhakaran, was also feared killed in the shootout. The rival groups clashed in the Vavuniya jungles, from where Prabhakaran and others were driven out before being shot. Some other prominent leaders were also understood to have been killed or grievously injured. The sources said their information was based on a message the LTTE groups were passing among themselves, which was intercepted at Koriakulam village near Vavuniya. The sources added that people at Ananthaperiyakulam village had been paying homage to Mr.Prabhakaran by garlanding his portraits during the past two days…”
When I began newspaper life nearly fifty years ago, I was told of a golden rule in journalism: Check, recheck and check again before you publish anything. Apparently the “Mahavishnu” in its anxiety to finish off Prabhakaran the easy way did not bother either to check, or to recheck or check again before it went headlong into print.
I am reminded here of a story of a small provincial newspaper that once mistakenly reported the death of a local dignitary. The man stormed into the editor’s room and threatened dire consequences unless the paper carried a front-page apology in bold print. The editor, poor man, was deeply contrite and apologised profusely. But, he said, “Sir, we have a editorial policy in this paper, we do not as a rule contradict our own stories. We are however prepared to make suitable amends. We will put your name in the Births column tomorrow and give you a fresh start in life”!
The “Mahavishnu” of course did not feel the need to make any apologies. But it did have the good grace to quote in its issue of the 27th, a denial made by one of the LTTE representatives in London, Mr.Guhan, who said: “This is a planned false propaganda undertaken by the Government of India to sully the image of our organisation and to confuse the people… We are surprised and shocked that the world’s largest democracy could involve itself in this type of smear campaign.”
Meanwhile in Colombo, the Oxford-educated Sri Lankan Agriculture Minister Lalith Athulathmudali (once powerful under Jayawardene but later cut to size by Premadasa) announced the death of the LTTE leader at a meeting with foreign newsmen on the morning of July 24. He was certainly not wearing a mournful face when he made the announcement.
Under the more assured headline – PRABHAKARAN’S DEATH CONFIRMED, the Times of India of July 25 said in a DPA report datelined Colombo:
“…Sri Lankan military sources said posters had been displayed in Vavuniya, a Tiger stronghold, calling on people to go into mourning for Prabhakaran. They said Mahataya had called on the LTTE guerrillas by radio to recognise him as their new commander…”
India’s state-owned electronic media, both All India Radio and Doordarshan made their listeners and viewers happy across the sub-continent. Chief Minister of Northeastern province and the IPKF’s poodle Varadaraja Perumal said he was absolutely certain that Prabakharan was dead. No doubt he was seeing visions of a rosy future for himself. PTI reporting from Colombo managed to get hold of a man called Dr.G.S.Kanda – faction leader of the Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) – as saying:
“Prabhakaran’s death had put an end to an era in which the LTTE leader had diverted the Tamil liberation struggle to pursue his ambitions for power. The man who betrayed early revolutionaries like Thangadurai and Kuttimani... has reaped the fruits of his actions by being shot dead by his own followers…”
So the story spread like wildfire and went from mouth to mouth from Delhi to Madras to Colombo. The most grotesque crime against newspaper ethics was the one perpetrated by a Tamil daily in Tamil Nadu, the Dinamalar (founder: Rama Subba Iyer) and published simultaneously in five centres including Madras and Madurai. This high-voltage newspaper went to town on July 24 screaming with an 8-column headline on Page 1. The 2-inch high headline – PRABHAKARAN SHOT DEAD was followed by an entire page of shocking details that would have done credit to the best practitioners of spy fiction. Three double column pictures of the “deceased” Prabhakaran and Kittu and another double column picture of the “assassin” Mahattaya also adorned the page. The report began:
“New Delhi, July 24. Mahathaya who was the deputy leader of the Tigers has pronounced himself as the new leader of the Tigers. The audio-cassette in which he explains why he had to liquidate Prabhakaran and commander Kittu is being broadcast in various areas where Sri Lankan Tamils live. In some areas however, pictures of Prabhakaran and Kittu are being pasted and flowers laid… It is nearly a week since the killings happened, but they were successfully kept a secret. The Indian government’s intelligence however knew of the killings within 24 hours of their happening. For nearly two hours on the morning of the 17th, the Prabhakaran and Mahathaya factions fought an intense gunfight in the dense forest of Vavuniya. The report said that at least 30 to 40 were killed and more than a hundred were injured…”
The exhaustive report went on to say:
“The head of the Tamil provincial council Mr.Varadaraja Perumal stated last night that Prabhakaran’s body is being kept at Anandaperiyakulam, fifteen miles from Vavuniya. It is also reported that Prabhakaran’s body which is being kept embalmed will be taken to his hometown of Valvettiturai for interment either tomorrow or the day after…”
On the following day the Dinamalar exceeded even its previous day’s imaginative journalism. The main headline said – FRIGHTENING GUNFIGHT IN VAVUNIYA JUNGLE. The sub-headline said – Mahataya’s hunt for Prabhakaran’s supporters.
The report said:
“Following the killing of Prabhakaran, gunfights are continuing between the supporters of Prabhakaran and Mahattaya. Reports coming from there say that unceasing sounds of gunfight are being heard in villages within a radius of 15 kilometres… Indian intelligence sources point out that it has to be remembered that the Premadasa government is working closely with Mahattaya and arms with Sri Lankan markings are being supplied to Mahattaya…”
The paper had more juicy stuff for its faithful readers. The report continued:
“Meanwhile another report says that on the night of the day before an armed gang from the border of Anandaperiyakulam had appeared suddenly and at the point of guns had carried away Prabhakaran’s body into the deep jungle. It is presumed that Mahattaya’s supporters were responsible, because they feared that if the body was left there, there could be a sympathy wave for Prabhakaran among the people. EPRLF sources in Sri Lanka say that the body would likely be buried or cremated. Examples from history like Julius Caesar and the French Revolution show that if bodies of assassinated people are spared it could generate and build up popular sympathy…
Meanwhile sources in New Delhi say that for the past five days, supporters of Prabhakaran demoralised by his death are surrendering in numbers at the IPKF offices… A high official of the External Affairs Ministry in Delhi told our correspondent that the Indian government is closely watching events in Sri Lanka following these developments, particularly of any new changes in policy of the Premadasa government…”
The biggest laugh came when the paper carried the following boxed item calling their readers’ attention:
“We wish to draw the attention of our readers to the fact that we were the only daily newspaper that gave its readers yesterday the news of the killing of Prabhakaran without any reservation whatsoever. While other newspapers carried headlines with question marks and reports of a speculative nature, we were the only paper that gave extensive factual details of this very important event, backed by authoritative information. The attempt by some propagandists of a certain political party to dispute the Dinamalar news was shot down when official confirmation from government sources in Colombo yesterday evening supported our story.”
There is a small postscript to all these in which this writer himself figured. Living in India at that time, I sent a humorous “middle” to The Indian Post in Bombay which the paper carried in its issue of August 10, 1989 under the strap line – “S.Sivanayagam on how obituaries are not to be trusted.” Written wholly in a light vein, I had mocked at the Dinamalar without referring to the paper by name. The paper’s editor rose to the bait two weeks later. The Indian Post in its Letters column published the following letter in its issue of August 26 under the headline – A CLEVER TRICK, BUT WE’RE NOT AMUSED:-
“Apropos the item ‘Prabhakaran lives’ by Sivanayagam (Post, Notebook, August 10,) he has mentioned a photo published on the cover of ‘Nakeeran’, a local Tamil weekly, in which the LTTE chief Prabhakaran is shown reading Dinamalar which carries the news of his “death”. That photo was taken long time back, when Prabhakaran was living in Madras, by Sundaram of Subha Photo Studio, Royapettah, Madras. In the original photo Prabhakaran was reading “Vidhuthalai”, the Dravida Kazaga party paper. “Nakeeran” got the photograph and did a clever paste-up job to slander our paper. We don’t know why Sivanayagam has taken much interest to give credence to a paste-up photograph. He could have verified his facts before writing such an article. We are very unhappy to see the slander unleashed by Sivanayagam through your paper now.
Editor Krishnamurthy had of course every reason to be unhappy on having inflicted on his readers two days of atrocious journalism on July 24 and 25. Such a man cannot be expected to have a sense of humour either. Nakeeran and this writer of course had the last laugh.
It was obvious by now that stung by the IPKF’s debacle at the hands of the Tigers, some devilish mind in Delhi had taken the entire Indian media for a long ride. But it also showed up what wishful thinking it was on the part of Indian media giants to swallow that hoax, hook, line, and sinker!
Five years after the dust had settled on that “Death” episode, the “Defence Correspondent” of the Sunday Times, Colombo, writing in the issue of the paper dated November 27, 1994, came out with this fascinating report:
“Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE supremo, celebrated his fortieth birthday yesterday. According to many astrologers, the coming year will witness the violent death of Prabhakaran. But, Prabhakaran has defied death since he threw home made bombs to disrupt the celebrations at the Duraiappah stadium in Jaffna in 1970. For nearly a quarter century, Prabhakaran has been a successful fugitive. He and his band of rebels have successfully faced the professional armies of two nations – Sri Lanka and India.
“Today, it is no secret that so many parties are actively working towards his death. India, through its intelligence arm RAW, has been trying to liquidate Prabhakaran. Since the de-induction of the Indian army, RAW has been sending Sri Lankan Tamil operatives trained in the use of firearms and explosives to kill Prabhakaran. Up to now, RAW has been only successful in creating a division between Prabhakaran and Mahattaya. More recently, RAW operations have intensified. According to a senior Indian diplomat who wished to remain anonymous, “The Government of India sees the re-induction of Indian troops to apprehend Prabhakaran at the culmination of the Rajiv Gandhi murder trial as a great burden. Even though this will be the wish of Congress and I and the people of India, this will be a costly operation. There are other options India is pursuing. This could be interpreted as an effort by RAW to conduct a limited military operation with Israeli assistance, as advocated recently by a senior Indian leader in New Delhi.
“The Government of Sri Lanka did not seriously think of assassinating Prabhakaran until the Sri Lankan army came under the command of General Cecil Waidyaratne, an unconventional strategist. Many attempts, either to eliminate Prabhakaran or Pottu Amman failed, primarily because the defence bureaucracy’s interests lay elsewhere. Since the parliamentary victory of the People’s Alliance, all covert operations to eliminate Prabhakaran ceased. Such operations, even though are considered top secret, require approval at political level…”
“Prabhakaran’s personal security at the hands of “Brigadier” Sornam, is very tight. He is being guarded day and night by three rings of security. This makes the elimination of Prabhakaran a nightmare. Further, the security guidelines forbid even a Special District Commander (SDC) meeting Prabhakaran with his personal weapon. The SDC is the highest rank, next to the military commander of the LTTE, which is currently being held by Balraj, a one-time close associate of Mahattaya. The only possibility of killing Prabhakaran, according to a senior Army officer, is by an air strike based on prior intelligence or from within the organisation. While the possibility of Prabhakaran dying from an air strike is low, it is likely that he may be eliminated from within, particularly after the Mahattaya episode…”
One does not have to accept all what the Sunday Times correspondent said as correct or factual. But the openness and the lack of inhibition shown in discussing the ways and means of killing Prabhakaran is something which should be remembered by his friends and foes alike. Newspapermen who recently flocked to the Vanni to get a glimpse of Prabhakaran in person and then started whining at the heavy security checks they had to undergo should do well to read and digest this fellow scribe’s description of the dangers that surround the LTTE leader. A bogus Indian journalist supplied with a RAW Press accreditation card could not have been ruled out.