The Pirabakaran Phenomenon
Part 1

Sachi Sri Kantha
2 May 2001

Premature Obituary in the Madras Hindu


It’s time that the Pirabhakaran phenomenon be studied somewhat in depth. His adversaries from India and Sri Lanka have called him names - a Hitler, a Pol Pot, a megalomaniac and a mass murderer. The problem with these self-serving outbursts is that, the 20th century Indian subcontinent had not seen a leader like him. In ideals and action, the closest one who can be identified with Pirabhakaran is Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945), though there are noticeable differences in the lives between both. Thus, the critics of Pirabhakaran had groped in the dark to pigeonhole him into slots with which they are familiar. In this exercise, they fail miserably because, Pirabhakaran is a trend-setter (aligned in the ranks of Mao Ze Dong) and couldn’t be fit into pre-conceived slots. Thus, the only reference his critics (which include some prominent Tamils as well) make is to depict him as a tyrant. Their behavior is like the crybabies who scream when what they had in their hands does not work according to their whims.

Nevertheless, a couple of commentators and journalists who are knowledgeable (like Mervyn de Silva and Anita Pratap) had identified Pirabhakaran as an unusual brand of leader - in contrast to the tub-thumping variety of politicians in the Indian subcontinent who are dozen a dime in every decade. Mervyn de Silva, in selecting Pirabhakaran as the ‘Man of the Decade’ in 1990, wrote,

“As we look back to the 1980s, and study the decade as a whole, we are inclined to concede primacy to the Tamil threat to the unity, and indirectly, the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. In that struggle, there is one commanding personality, the LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, regarded by many western experts as leader of one of the toughest guerrilla organisations in the world, and by military analysts as a ‘genius’ in the theory of unconventional warfare” (Lanka Guardian, Jan.1, 1990).

Eleven years have passed since this assessment was made. Hitler’s rule could last only 12 years. Pol Pot’s dictum couldn’t fly more than 4 years. But Pirabhakaran had set the political agenda for nearly two decades now in Sri Lanka and India. An interesting, thoughtful comment I read in the Internet web page of one Sam Sloane (Ishi Press International, USA) following the verdict on Rajiv Gandhi assassination trial by the Indian Court is worth repeating here. Under the caption, ‘Who really killed Rajiv Gandhi?’ Sloane had written as follows:

“For nearly two decades, probably more people have seriously been trying to kill Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, than any other person in the world. On Wednesday, an Indian court sentenced Velupillai Prabhakaran to death in absentia, just for the little thing of killing Rajiv Gandhi. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

The judge in the Indian court came to the ridiculous conclusion that the only person who wanted Rajiv dead was Prabhakaran, and therefore he must be guilty, without any evidence linking him to Dhanu. I am no admirer of Prabhakaran, but I know for a fact that there were 16 million other Sri Lankans who wanted to kill Rajiv Gandhi, plus a number of Indians as well...”

Pirabhakaran’s Premature Obituary in the Madras Hindu

Before Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, the motley brand of spies belonging to India’s Intelligence Agencies had plotted to kill Pirabhakaran. Among my collection of Pirabhakaraniana, nothing beats the following news item, which appeared in the Hindu newspaper of July 24, 1989. The caption was, “Prabhakaran reported killed in LTTE shootout”. The text in full was as follows.

“Madras, July 23: The top leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Mr.V. Prabhakaran, was killed in a shoot-out by the Mahatiya 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 north-east of Vavuniya town. Various political sections in the North-Eastern Province of Sri Lanka have been talking about this over the last two days. Another indication is that a video-cassette is being circulated in which Mr. Mahatiya has proclaimed himself the leader of the LTTE. Mr. Mahatiya is also reported to be wounded in one version. When contacted in London, an LTTE representative, while not willing to credit the reports, declined to issue a formal denial.

LTTE watchers say that the basic difference between Mr. Prabhakaran and Mr. Mahatiya was that Mr. Prabhakaran opposed the line of talking with the Sri Lankan Government and collaborating openly with it against India and the other Tamil organizations. Mr. Prabhakaran was also against lining up with the Sri Lankan President R. Premadasa, in the course leading to a confrontation with India as he took the position that Sinhalese politicians could never be trusted. Besides, he was reportedly opposed to killing the TULF leaders, A. Amirthalingam and V. Yogeswaran, as he felt it would alienate the Tamil people of Sri Lanka and the people of India from the LTTE.

Mr. Mahatiya has, over the past two years, been the key figure in the military structure of the LTTE. He had become co-equal with Mr. Prabhakaran, if not the main leader in the military there while Mr. Prabhakaran remained the apparent political leader. Various political elements in the North-Eastern Province had become aware of a situation of dual power at the top in the organization which has gone on an extremely violent course over the past year and more.

In the last ten days starting from July 13 the top political leaders of the Eelam movement have been eliminated violently - the outstanding moderate political figure, the veteran A. Amirthalingam, his colleague, V. Yogeswaran and the leader of PLOT, Uma Maheswaran, who earlier lost to Prabhakaran in the violent struggle for supremacy in the militant movement.

Kittu also killed?

According to Sri Lankan Tamil sources here, Mr. Krishnakumar alias Kittu, lieutenant of Mr. Prabhakaran, was also feared killed in the shoot-out. The rival groups clashed in the Vavuniya jungles, from where Prabhakaran and others were driven out before being shot.

Some other prominent LTTE 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.

LTTE denial

However, in Colombo, an LTTE spokesman dismissed as ‘baseless rumours being spread by interested parties’ that Mr. Prabhakaran was killed in a shootout. He said there was no truth in the reports doing the rounds in Colombo that two senior LTTE leaders had heated arguments with Prabhakaran over the killings of two senior TULF leaders in the Colombo residence last week.”

This news item was an example of the sneaky designs of India’s spies who attempted to eliminate Pirabhakaran and install a pliable person at the helm of LTTE. It is to the credit of Pirabhakaran that he out-smarted the Indian manipulators. The TULF leader Amirthalingam was ruined by the Indian-wallahs because he surrendered his individuality to them. Pirabhakaran did not make this mistake.

I checked five books in my personal library, which describe the events of 1989 in Sri Lanka, and strangely not a single one mentions or comments about this bizarre news item of the Madras Hindu. These five books and their authors are as follows:

1.     The Broken Palmyra, by Rajan Hoole, Daya Somasundaram, K.Sritharan and Rajani Thiranagama; The Sri Lanka Studies Institute, Claremont, CA, 1990.

2.     India’s Sri Lanka Fiasco, by Rajesh Kadian; Vision Books, New Delhi, 1990.

3.     Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka, by Rohan Gunaratna; South Asian Network on Conflict Research, Colombo, 1993.

4.     Tigers of Lanka, by M.R.Narayan Swamy; Konarak Publishers, New Delhi, 1994.

5.     Assignment Colombo, by J.N.Dixit; Konarak Publishers, New Delhi, 1998.

This tells something about the quality (or lack of) these Pirabhakaran-watchers. However, two sentences in Rajesh Kadian’s book, specifically, attracted my attention.

 ”At a public meeting on 1 June 1989, a jubilant Premadasa echoed the LTTE’s demand that the IPKF be withdrawn. He even fixed a day - 29 July 1989 - the second anniversary of the now visibly tattered accord.” (p.133). 

Kindly check the dates once more. Is it a coincidence, that between these two dates, Amirthalingam was assassinated on July 13, 1989. Four days later, Uma Maheswaran was assassinated, and on July 23, “Prabhakaran (was) reported killed in LTTE shootout”, according to the Hindu newspaper?

Something fishy indeed! The same news item in the Hindu also mentioned that, Pirabhakaran “was reportedly opposed to killing the TULF leaders, A. Amirthalingam and V. Yogeswaran, as he felt it would alienate the Tamil people of Sri Lanka and the people of India from the LTTE”. 

It may not be wrong to infer that India’s Intelligence operators had planned assiduously to eliminate the then three leading figures among Eelam, viz, Amirthalingam, Uma Maheswaran and Pirabhakaran between June 1, 1989 and July 29, 1989. Pirabhakaran somehow escaped from this trap.

The hatred of the bosses of Hindu newspaper also largely derives from this impenetrability of Pirabhakaran. His impenetrability was a virtue for the Eelam Tamils’ campaign. He never allowed himself to be compromised. Thus, the only thing his adversaries could do was to throw mud and project him as a tyrant.

Time magazine interview

To the dismay of India’s court jesters of espionage, Pirabhakaran survived and less than an year later gave an interview to the Time magazine’s correspondent Anita Pratap, from Mullaitivu. This interview, which appeared in the Time of April 8, 1990, deserves to be posted in the Internet in full.

One should note that long before the likes of Chandrika Kumaratunga, Anuruddha Ratwatte and Lakshman Kadirgamar emerged in the Sri Lankan political scene, the Time magazine featured Pirabhakaran (younger but experienced in leadership skills than the now parading mediocrities) in two pages, as a newsworthy person. Even the then Sri Lankan president R. Premadasa did not receive this level of prominence in the Time magazine. Why? The probable reason is Pirabhakaran was different from other leaders who emerged from the Indian subcontinent in the last quarter of the 20th century. In this interview, Pirabhakaran reflected on the strengths and weaknesses of LTTE, what he gained from his confrontation with India and what his motive in peace talks. Here is the full interview. Note that the words within parentheses were in the original text.

Q: What made you confront India?

A: India claimed to have intervened in Sri Lanka to secure Tamil interests. In actual fact, India came to secure its own interests. There was never any genuine attempt to understand and solve our problems. India deliberately aggravated Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis. It destabilized Sri Lanka [by training and arming Tamil militants, including the Tigers] so that it could play a dominant role in bringing Sri Lanka within its sphere of influence.

What I can’t forgive is the way India claimed to have intervened to protect the Tamils and then launched this war against our people. On the third day after the war started, I sent an appeal to India to stop the attack because of the civilian casualties. But India mistook it as a sign of weakness and pressed ahead with the offensive, thinking they could crush us.

Q: But isn’t it true that India has consistently stood for a united Sri Lanka?

A: India used this excuse to impress the world that it was the protector of Sri Lanka. By adopting this line, India ensured that other powers were excluded from interfering in this region.

Q: You knew India was using the Sri Lankan problem to pursue its interests, but didn’t you also use India by taking advantage of Indian training and arms?

A: Yes, we also used India. We were aware of India’s strategy but made use of the opportunity to strengthen ourselves militarily.

Q: What gave you the courage to take on the world’s third largest army?

A: India failed to secure the release of twelve of my area commanders who were arrested by the Sri Lankan security forces. [When the captives later swallowed cyanide] their suicides made me determined to confront the Indian army. Some of my top colleagues cautioned me against it and wondered how long the LTTE could hold out. I gave them the Vietnam example - a small nation can fight a superpower with determination and dedication. When I was deciding to fight, the thought of winning or losing didn’t bother me. What you have to assess is whether you have the will to fight. People cannot give up their cause, their rights, for fear of defeat.

Q: Is there a lesson in this for India?

A: That however formidable a military power you may be, you cannot impose upon a people anything against their will.

Q: What guerilla technique was most useful to you?

A: We used land mines to great effect. They caused a lot of Indian casualties.

Q: What did you consider were the Indian army’s main strengths and weaknesses?

A: Their strength - and their weakness - was their huge manpower. It created difficulties for us. It restricted our mobility. But because they came in large numbers, they suffered many casualties. Also, they wasted a lot of time, energy and money on providing logistical support. Another major weakness was that the Indian army was not motivated. The soldiers didn’t know why they were fighting. They were confused. They came to protect Tamils, and then they had to kill them.

Q: And what in your judgment were the LTTE’s own strengths and weaknesses?

A: Our strength - and our weakness - was our overconfidence. Sometimes our cadres took impossible risks, like ambushing an Indian patrol at a point where there were no escape routes. This cost us casualties. We were sometimes careless. But also because of our overconfidence, our boys carried out some amazingly brave attacks.

Q: The Indians say they fought this was with one hand tied behind their backs because they wanted to minimize civilian casualties.

A: If they could indulge in such atrocities against our people with one hand tied behind their backs, I shudder to imagine what havoc they would have unleashed if both hands had been free. They used every technique - aerial strafing, dropping 250-kg bombs, artillery bombardment, harassment of civilians. These are excuses peddled by a defeated army.

Q: Some 6,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the war with the Indian army. Was it worth it?

A: Yes. We have proved that we will not allow any force to interfere with the freedom and independence of our people.

Q: But what have you gained?

A: I have gained self confidence, courage and the support of my people.

Q: What made you start negotiations with Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa?

A: Our people thought India would give us Tamil Eelam [a separate Tamil state]. Instead India [reached an agreement] against our will. So we thought it would be better to talk to the Sri Lankan government and work out a better deal. Besides LTTE will not allow a foreign force to intervene and dominate our people. Premadasa articulated the same viewpoint. He was determined to end the foreign intervention.

Q: Now that the Indian army has gone, many fear that confrontation with the Sri Lankan government - your historical enemy - is again inevitable.

A: We have had a long history of state oppression against our people. Earlier, the Tamils negotiated and were repeatedly betrayed, and so the armed struggle was born. If the Sri Lankan government resorts to state oppression against the Tamils and Muslims, then we will fight. But we hope the current peace will continue.

Q: How sincere do you think Premadasa is about solving the problems of the Tamils?

A: We started the negotiations on the basis of trust. We have that trust.

Q: How serious is the LTTE about participating in the provincial council elections?

A: We are very serious. We want to show India and the world that we are the authentic representatives of the people.

Q: Have you given up the demand for an independent Eelam?

A: We have not.

Q: Then what are you talking to Premadasa for? How can you enter the democratic mainstream if you still cling to your separatist cause?

A: We are entering the political mainstream. Our demand for self-determination will not be an impediment for us to enter the political process.

Q: Many people feel that your peace talks with Premadasa are only a tactical move.

A: We have not cheated or betrayed anybody. At the same time, if we are cheated or betrayed, we will react. But if somebody trusts us, then we will reciprocate.

Though this interview with Pirabhakaran appeared in the Time magazine 11 years ago, from his actions one can still feel that Pirabhakaran has not changed an iota from his professed goal. A decade is a long time in public life, and how many traditional politicians can say that they have not flip-flopped (or compromised) on their goals for status and accompanying bells and whistles. This adamancy, and what Thomas Edison called ‘stick-to-it-iveness’ (in his formula to success) is what makes Pirabhakaran ‘dangerous’ in the eyes of his adversaries.

Mahathya Affair

If Pirabhakaran’s will couldn’t be broken, the spies and their handlers had tried in vain by character assassination and smear campaign to make him an ‘unacceptable person’ among Tamils. They had failed in this as well. As a last resort, India’s spooks had plotted penetration into his movement to eliminate him physically. Until now, all efforts have failed miserably.

For record, here I provide a March 15, 1994 report from the India Today magazine, in the aftermath of Mahathya affair. I reproduce this feature authored by Rahul Pathak and P. Jayaram entitled, “No Longer Supreme: Pirabhakaran faces a revolt over Mahathya’s trial” in full. The malicious verbiage and the purported conclusion of this diatribe reveals something to us now, after the passage of 7 years. The main sources for this news report, are none other than anonymous intelligence-wallahs from India and Sri Lanka, and one unidentified ‘LTTE member’.

“Wherever they dream of a Tamil Eelam, his word is law. His followers have taken to calling him Chakravarty (emperor) and on his whim 113 persons have been executed over the past year. But Velupillai Pirabhakaran is now seeing the seeds of a powerful dissension sprout within the organization he has until now held together with iron discipline. Worse, he has not been able to stamp it out with the ruthlessness that has become his hallmark, according to Indian intelligence assessments.

In the span of a single year, Pirabhakaran has lost three of his closest lieutenants. Kittu, the party’s spokesman, was killed on January 16 last year, when the LTTE ship MV Ahat was overpowered by the Indian Coast Guard. An upset Pirabhakaran accused his two deputies, Mahatya and Yogi Yogaratnam, of leaking information to Indian intelligence agencies. He had them arrested, interrogated and was all set to have Mahathya eliminated when he suddenly decided to backtrack. His followers say it was a tactical move. His detractors insist it was a growing awareness of Mahathya’s power.

In some ways, the LTTE chief knew from the beginning that Mahatya would be a tough nut to crack. It was he who had led the operations against the IPKF as the regional commander of ‘Vanni’ - an area that comprised the volatile districts of Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi. It was he who had headed the People’s Front of Liberation Tigers, the party’s political front. And it was after falling out with him that Kittu found himself exiled to Europe. Mahatya was also the only man within the LTTE who had the stature to disagree with Pirabhakaran.

In 1989-90, during negotiations with the Sri Lankan Government, Mahathya favoured a political solution to the Tamil problem against Pirabhakaran’s conviction that only military might could win Eelam for them. The differences simmered further after the disastrous battle at Elephant Pass. Pirabhakaran blamed Mahathya for converting a certain victory into a crushing defeat. In May 1992, he divested his deputy of all his posts and things have been going wrong for the LTTE ever since.

Pirabhakaran’s own hide-out near Jaffna hospital was bombed in November 1992. His current favourite, the LTTE intelligence chief Pottu Aman, was attacked and his body guard killed on January 7, 1993. And on January 16, Kittu was drawn into a trap. Pirabhakaran saw Mahatya’s hand behind all this. Mahathya’s old friend Manickavasagar, known as the Engineer, was picked up and grilled by Pottu Aman. On the basis of his ‘confessions’, Mahathya, along with 120 supporters, was arrested on August 2, 1993. An LTTE court tried one of its most illustrious members. Its verdict, delivered on December 19 last year, was that Mahathya was guilty of not only luring Kittu to his death, but also of conspiring to kill Pirabhakaran and of being a RAW agent. Mahathya’s execution was set for January 16, the same date as Kittu’s death anniversary.

For once, the rest of the LTTE did not fall in line with the Chakravarty’s command. Mahathya’s supporters attacked their own camp at Chavakachcheri on January 6. On January 16, there were protest demonstrations in Jaffna while the LTTE’s office in Paris was torched. ‘Maybe people are unhappy, but Pirabhakaran has never bothered about public opinion,’ says a Sri Lankan intelligence man, who feels the man is still in control, in spite of the sniping by Mahathya’s group.

An LTTE member from Sri Lanka says that Mahathya has been so badly tortured that he has become a nadaipinam (walking dead) and is no longer in a position to challenge Pirabhakaran. By keeping him alive, he says, the LTTE chief gives the appearance of being reasonable. Mahathya’s followers, however, see this as a move to check the infighting that has now become rampant.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan Government has announced civic elections in the Eastern Province early in March. For Pirabhakaran, who had ensured the cessation of all political activity in his domain for the past four years, even a moderate turnout would be a major disaster. The Sri Lankans think he will weather the storm while Indian intelligence agencies are convinced he is facing his toughest test yet. But if Mahathya was indeed a RAW asset, there might be more to the Mahathya mystery.”

Mahathya - a mole of RAW

The last two sentences in this India Today report somewhat intrigued me when I read this for the first time. How come Indian intelligence agencies were “convinced” that Pirabhakaran was “facing his toughest test yet”, unless they were pulling the strings and praying to the God, that Pirabhakaran would be clipped by their designs. And now, we know who ate crow in this sordid episode. Also, the first part of last sentence, “But if Mahathya was indeed a RAW asset” had lot to hide than reveal about RAW’s treacherous attempt to trip Pirabhakaran. Initially, I was unconvinced that Mahathya could have been a traitor to the LTTE. But the accusation that Mahathya had become a mole of Indian intelligence agency gained credence, when he was left out in the charge sheet released by the India’s law enforcement officials in May 1992, for the Rajiv Gandhi assassination trial. One should note that Mahathya served as the nominal number 2 of LTTE during Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1992, before the rift between Pirabhakaran and him came into open.

Also, by fitting the information planted by the Indian spies in the now-discredited 1989 news item in the Hindu newspaper (presented above) with the hints provided in the 1994 India Today feature, ‘No Longer Supreme’, I came to infer that Pirabhakaran should be given the benefit of doubt in how he handled the Mahathya affair.

For information, I provide below, a letter I wrote on the Mahathya affair, which was published in the Lanka Guardian (April 1, 1994), edited by Mervyn de Silva. In this letter I had analyzed the rifts between No.1 and No.2 of other political organizations, to provide a perspective on what Pirabhakaran faced. It was entitled, “Rule rather than Exception”.

“The rift between V.Prabhakaran and G.Mahendrarajah (Mahathaya) of the LTTE follows a predictable pattern, any political (or for that matter, hierarchical) organization would face with time. A cursory glance at the Sri Lankan political history reveals that fallout had occurred between the leader and deputy leader of every party and this phenomenon is almost a rule rather than an exception.

The SLFP was formed by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1951, when he felt that he was not given respect at No.2 in the UNP of D.S. Senanayake, who was grooming his son Dudley Senanayake for the ‘throne’. The rift between the leader Dudley Senanayake and his then nominal No.2, J.R. Jayewardene came out in the open after the electoral defeat of UNP in 1970. In the SLFP too, after Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s elevation to the No.1 position in 1960, the then senior leader of the SLFP, C.P. de Silva (after being dumped to the No.2 position) felt that he had been insulted and he left the SLFP in 1964, making Sirimavo snort the act as a ‘stab in the back’. Later, the newly promoted No.2 in the SLFP, Maithiripala Senanayake, also fell out with Sirimavo Bandaranaike in the 1980s. For want of space, I omit examples from the traditional and ‘neo’-Left parties, where the nominal No.2 had parted company with the leader at the drop of a hat.

Among the Tamil political parties, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam (then No.2 to G.G. Ponnambalam) left the Tamil Congress in 1949 to form the Federal Party. G.G. Ponnambalam’s son, Kumar Ponnambalam also had to cross swords with Motilal Nehru (the purported No.2) in the ghost of a Tamil Congress, whose membership may not exceed hundred. Within the TULF (basically, the Federal Party, which was renamed), in the post-Chelvanayakam period, the relationship between the then leader Amirthalingam and his nominal No.2 in the ranks of seniority (C. Rajadurai and V.N. Navaratnam) were not cordial at best. As a result, Rajadurai left the TULF to join UNP, and V.N. Navaratnam retired from active politics after 1983. In the Ceylon Workers Congress, veteran leader S. Thondaman is now having a headache with his nominal No.2 M. Sellasamy. In 1960, Thondaman had to oust Azeez, who was causing trouble to him as then No.2 in the CWC.

The rift between the No.1 and No.2 of a political organization is not peculiar to Sri Lanka. Every strong leader (in the democratic USA and India as well as the ‘undemocratic’ Russia and China) had to face this ‘wall’ in his or her lifetime. Abraham Lincoln had two vice presidents in his short tenure of 5-year presidency period. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his 14-year period as the American president, had three vice presidents. In the Indian national scene, Indira Gandhi and later Morarji Desai (who was Indira’s nominal No.2, before being pushed out) as well as V.P. Singh, had to constantly look over their shoulders to assure that their ‘thrones’ were not toppled. While Indira succeeded, Morarji Desai and V.P. Singh succumbed. China’s revolutionary leader Mao Ze Dong had to tackle his No.2, Lin Piao, in a ‘not so comfortable manner’ to assure his position.”

In sum, Pirabhakaran had to survive from the crisis precipitated by India’s intelligence agencies, and it is not an exaggeration to infer that he borrowed a page from guerrilla leader Mao successfully, though unappetizing it had to be to him, to his movement and to Eelam Tamils in general. His decision was an unavoidable one and hard to swallow; but this comes within the parish of leadership (Mao and Castro are among others who were in Pirabhakaran’s situation before) to which he had elevated himself. [Continued]