The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon
Part 12

Sachi Sri Kantha
[25 August 2001]

In the eyes of Foreign Journalists

Someone has recorded that journalists write only the first draft of history. I can extend this pithy maxim by adding that historians (as well as individuals concerned, by means of autobiography and memoir) then scribble the second draft of history, which in turn is scrutinized by the ‘Old Man’ Time, who serves as the ultimate arbiter of record keeping.

Pirabhakaran became a focus of attention to the journalists in 1986. He was only 32 then. For the past 15 years, this journalistic peeping via the ‘key-hole’ on Pirabhakaran has continued unabated. A rarely available, exclusive interview with Pirabhakaran is a career-booster for any budding journalist in Sri Lanka or India. Even the doyen of Sri Lankan journalists, Mervyn de Silva, yearned for one interview from Pirabhakaran, but was unsuccessful. In 1987, the year which I designated as the ‘year of paradigm shift’ (see, Pirabhakaran Phenomenon – part 10), two biographical essays on Pirabhakaran which appeared in the international magazines, established his stature beyond the South Asian region, as a young leader of note. These were as follows:

1.     ‘A Man of Surprises’. Asiaweek (Hong Kong), August 16, 1987, p.16; an anonymous feature.

2.     The roar of the Liberation Tigers. Newsweek, November 9, 1987, p.26; authored by Ron Moreau and Sudip Mazumdar.

Though Eelam Tamils know the factual details, I wish to reproduce these in full, for the benefit of international readership, since both features seem complimentary to each other in minor details. But a skeptical eye is helpful for two reasons. One is about the little factual inaccuracies in names, numbers and dates, which pepper these ‘first drafts of history’. The other is to check the embellishments which adorn these features, since truth doesn’t reveal its beauty to journalists who are unlettered in the Tamil language and Tamil cultural practices. In addition, complete reliance on ‘Sri Lankan military intelligence experts’ (invariably Sinhalese), unnamed ‘Tamil source in Colombo’ and unnamed ‘Indian diplomat’ by the foreign journalists for information on LTTE also have added distortions to the truth to diverse degrees.

‘A Man of Surprises’
[Asiaweek, August 16, 1987]

[Note: This biographical essay appeared following the Rajiv Gandhi-Jayewardene Accord of July 1987.]

Plump and pleasant-faced, Velupillai Prabhakaran hardly seems cast in the same mould as Che Guevara, the charismatic Argentine-born revolutionary on whom he patterned himself. Out of his customary army fatigues, Prabhkaran, 33, looks like a minor politician. In fact, he is a tough, skilled guerrilla tactician who honed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) into the most powerful of the forces fighting for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. When his guerrillas began turning in their arms to Indian peacekeeping troops last week, it was only because Prabhakaran had ordered it.

Born a member of the low Karaya fishing caste in Valveddithurai village in northern Jaffna, Prabhakaran learned early about discrimination. He could not enter the same temple grounds or drink from the same well as the village upper-caste Brahmins. Valveddithurai was then a haven for smugglers, and the young Prabhakaran or Thambi (Little Brother), as he was also called, - learned to fear the baton-wielding policemen from the Sinhalese-dominated south who were sent to Jaffna to suppress smuggling. Reports of harassment and torture of local Tamils were frequent.

Influenced by Tamil poet Ponnudurai Sivakumar and Marxist activist Tissa Weerasingham, the two personalities from the early Tamil militant movement, Prabhkaran joined the Tamil Youth Front in 1973. [Note: the description that Sivakumar was a poet is a glaring error.] The same year, his name appeared on police dossiers. Fearing capture, he fled to Madras, capital of India’s southern Tamil Nadu state. He was then just nineteen.

In Tamil Nadu, Prabhakaran received military training in a program thought to have been funded by India’s intelligence agency. On returning to Jaffna in 1975, he joined the Tamil New Tigers (TNT), and within a year had established himself as head of the 100-member militant band. ‘From the beginning Prabhakaran was ambitious and power-hungry. He hated taking orders from others and this was matched by the charisma of a natural leader’, says a Sri Lankan military intelligence expert.

In the early morning of July 27, 1975, Jaffna’s mayor, Alfred Duraiappa, was about to get out of his car to enter a Hindu temple when three young men walked up and shot him dead with .38 police pistols. One of the hit men was Prabhakaran. The assassination not only marked the beginning of the Tamil separatist movement, it established Prabhkaran as the movement’s dominant leader. Personality clashes with deputy Uma Maheswaran, however, finally led to the TNT disbanding in 1980. Prabhakaran then joined the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, another militant Tamil group headed by Thangadurai. When the TELO leader was captured by security forces, Prabhakaran jockeyed for top spot, but was outmanoeuvred by ‘Tall Sri’ Sabaratnam. Prabhkaran soon quit TELO to organize the Liberation Tigers.

‘Prabhakaran was a strict disciplinarian. Training of our cadres was highly regimented and they were banned from what he considered vices – smoking, drinking and the like’, recalls his lieutenant, Sivasubramaniam Kanagaratnam, alias Capt. Raheem. Adds a Colombo-based military officer: ‘Anybody who stepped out of line of this tough disciplinary code was killed and their families destroyed’. However, Prabhakaran in 1984 flouted his own strictures against sex and marriage when he wed Madhi Vadani, an undergraduate from Jaffna University.

In 1982, the Tiger Chief was ambushed in a Madras bazaar by erstwhile comrade Maheswaran, who had formed his own guerrilla band. In the ensuing shoot-out both were injured, and later arrested by south Indian police. But Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G.Ramachandran, who acted as the militant’s benefactor, had them released on bail. Singled out for favour was Prabhakaran, who often used Tamil Nadu as a sanctuary. The relationship cooled somewhat when the chief minister, at New Delhi’s prompting, ordered state police last November to disarm all guerrillas, including Prabhakaran.

After Sri Lanka’s ethnic riots of July 1983, thousands of Tamils living in southern Sri Lanka fled to India and to a comparative safety of Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula, a militant stronghold. The LTTE launched an intensive recruitment drive and by the end of 1984, its cadres had swolledn to more than 10,000. To fulfill his single-minded quest for power, Prabhakaran ordered a vicious campaign against rival guerrilla groups. The Tigers killed at least 1,700 militants, including TELO’s Sabaratnam. The usual form of execution was to tie the victim to a lamp post and shoot him or her at point-blank range. ‘One of Prabhakaran’s main problems now will be to protect himself and his comrades from the wrath and vengeance of the survivors of these groups’, a military observer told Asiaweek.

Prabhakaran himself is a master in the art of survival. He successfully escaped capture and death when, during the Sri Lankan Army’s May [1987] offensive in Jaffna, he was marked for assassination. Now that the fighting seems over, however, he may require a different kind of skill. ‘He has proved himself to be a shrewd and capable leader’, notes Dr.Neelan Thiruchelvam, a moderate Tamil intellectual, ‘but his political ideology remains hazy and without direction’. The Tiger boss has bluntly refused a political role as chief minister of an amalgamated Northern and Eastern province, and even his closest comrades do not know what his next move will be. But, as his close lieutenant, Raheem, points out, ‘Prabhakaran is a man of surprises.’

In hindsight, one can chuckle at the 1987 comment of Neelan Tiruchelvam that “his [Pirabhakaran’s] political ideology remains hazy and without direction”. It turned out to be that, rather than Pirabhakaran who had not shifted an iota from his political stand since 1983, it was Tiruchelvam who exhibited direction-less, hazy political ideology, between 1987 and 1999, by shifting his allegiances from TULF, to UNP and subsequently SLFP.


The roar of the Liberation Tigers
[Newsweek; November 9, 1987]

[Note: This biographical essay appeared, when LTTE was engaged in fighting the Indian army in Eelam.]

Velupillai Prabhakaran may not be a household name elsewhere, but in Sri Lanka he has become the stuff of legend. He is the wily guerrilla leader whose outnumbered Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) bloodied the Indian Army in Jaffna, then slipped away to fight again another day. He is a strict disciplinarian who neither smokes nor drinks. He wears a magnum revolver, and once kept a leopard cub as a pet. He has slipped past police and soldiers many times – once disguised as a Catholic priest, another time as a peanut vendor. For inspiration he likes to watch Clint Eastwood video cassettes. He is a 33-year old family man with two small children, but he is also addicted to the sound of gunfire. But above all, Prabhakaran is a man obsessed by a dream; to carve out an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka.

In pursuit of that dream, Prabhakaran turned to political violence at an early age. Born in Valvettithurai, a fishing town on Sri Lanka’s northern coast, he grew up burning with outrage over the discrimination Tamils had to endure in Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-dominated society. He dropped out of school and became a militant Tamil separatist. In 1973 he fled to India, one jump ahead of Sri Lankan police. But in 1975 he returned home and – at the age of 21 – led a three-man hit squad that assassinated the mayor of Jaffna. Prabhakaran took over the Tamil Tigers, and by 1983 had molded them into a tough and disciplined fighting force ready for battle. That year, on July 23, he and a group of his guerrillas ambushed a Sri Lankan military convoy in the Jaffna peninsula. The Tigers killed 13 soldiers. Prabhakaran, it is said, personally cut down nine of them with his machine gun.

The convoy ambush caused a quantum leap in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. Outraged by the killings, Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese went on a rampage all across the country. In Colombo alone, Sinhalese mobs killed more than 300 Tamil men, women and children. The anti-Tamil violence gave Prabhakaran a pretext to declare an all-out guerrilla war in defense of his own people.

But he had no intention of allowing any separatist group other than his own Tamil Tigers to lead the struggle in the name of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil state he hopes one day to establish. Prabhakaran has targeted his rivals ruthlessly as he has the Sinhalese. A year ago Prabhakaran’s Tigers killed more than 100 rival militants, then paraded the bodies through Jaffna as a warning to other potential challengers. And even after the Indian-sponsored peace treaty was signed last July, the LTTE killed scores more rivals in order to establish absolute Tiger supremacy in the administrative areas proposed in the agreement.

Those who know him maintain that Prabhakaran has no political ideology. He sometimes mouths Marxist jargon, and admires Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. But at heart he is a freedom fighter – not a revolutionary. The ideology that drives him is little more than the dream of becoming the father of a new country, the independent state of Tamil Eelam. How he would govern such a state is far from clear. ‘Prabhakaran is not politically astute and doesn’t have a detailed grasp of Tamil aspirations or how to achieve them politically’, one Tamil source says. ‘He’s only interested in the big picture; how to establish Tamil Eelam’.

The Indian officials blame Prabhakaran for the breakdown of the Indo-Sri Lankan peace accord arranged last summer by India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. ‘He had it within his power to give momentum to the process of bringing peace and normalcy’, says an Indian diplomat. ‘But he didn’t deliver. If he hadn’t been unreasonable, we could have avoided this terrible tragedy’. The Indian offensive against Jaffna gave Prabhkaran a new lease as a guerrilla leader. ‘He couldn’t play the institutional, diplomatic game with any success’, says a Tamil source in Colombo. ‘But now he’s doing what he knows best – fighting’. Somewhere in Sri Lanka, Prabhakaran and 1,200 survivors of the Jaffna siege are still at large. Sooner or later, they are bound to strike another blow for Tamil Eelam.”

Analysis of Pirabhakaran’s Excesses 

While reading the two biographical essays, one can note the rendering of two facts which mark the early career of Pirabhakaran. One is the 1975 assassination of Duraiappah, in which Pirabhakaran is identified as one of the three hit-men. The other is the ruthless nature of Pirabhakaran’s LTTE which elevated itself to power in 1986, by decimating the competing Tamil militant factions. As once noted by Sirimavo Bandaranaike (when she was out of power), “Facts sometimes do not give us the whole truth” (Lanka Guardian, June 1, 1990, p.10). Journalists, being in a hurry to beat the deadline, do not bother to reflect on the question of ‘why’ LTTE had to take such a drastic action, which left an unpleasant taste in the Eelam campaign.

At least one Indian journalist, K.P.Sunil, who also authored a biographical essay on Pirabhkaran to the Illustrated Weekly of India (Bombay) of June 7, 1987 with the caption ‘Cornered’ had provided the following suggestion.

“While the LTTE was consolidating its position [between 1983 and 1985], several other militant groups like the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Army (TELA), the Tamil Eelam Army (TEA) and several other minor groups with similar goals and objectives, but with marginal differences in ideology, had sprung up. With the proliferation in the number of militant groups, the Eelam movement started losing its identity and Pirabhakaran probably encouraged by his superior military strength and strike power, decided to assimilate lesser groups through military action rather than through a process of dialogue (emphasis added).

In 1986, at Pirabhakaran’s initiative, the LTTE decimated TELO, which in 1980 had been its ally in the Neerveli Bank raid (when Rs. 8 million was looted) and also in some of its initial encounters with the Sri Lankan army. Soon after, EPRLF was declared an enemy and became the target of Tiger attacks.”

K.P.Sunil was correct in identifying the factor why Pirabhkaran made a swift move against his one-time Eelam Tamil allies. I would also add that the two militant groups which Pirabhakaran had targeted, namely TELO and EPRLF, had become ‘intelligence-hazards’ to the vital growth of LTTE during that time. Being on the pay-roll of India’s intelligence wallahs, both TELO and EPRLF, by 1986, had lost track of their original mission and vitality and thus were becoming of nuisance value.

Regarding Pirabhakaran’s role as an assassin of Alfred Duraiappah, I present the following analogy. A notable number of Americans (such as Jimmy Stewart, George McGovern and John Glenn) who later became famous in their chosen professions, served as bomber pilots during the second world war, and did kill quite a number of civilians in Europe by their actions. The only misfortune these civilians living in Germany and Italy had was that they were living under the dictates of Hitler and Mussolini. But, none would dare to label Jimmy Stewart, George McGovern and John Glenn as killers or as assassins. In a similar vein, the homicide of Duraiappah has to be treated as a symptom of tension-filled phase, which engulfed Jaffna in January 1974, with the untimely death of ten Tamils at the end of the Fourth International Tamil Research Conference.

In this context, I also like to cite the observations of Dutch anthropologist Peter Kloos, made in his 1997 study, ‘The Struggle between the Lion and the Tiger’. Kloos informs the reader that he conducted a four-month field work in Sri Lanka (July-October 1993). Contrary to what I had argued in an earlier section (Pirabhakaran Phenomenon – part 10), Kloos favors 1983, as the year of the beginning of civil war. He began his analysis with the sentences,

“Sri Lanka is at war – with itself. Since 1983 a permanent civil war of exceptional cruelty is raging, especially in the north and the east of the island. This civil war is sometimes characterized as an ethnic conflict between a Sinhala majority and a Tamil minority. To some extent it is – but such a characteristic may unduly overemphasize ethnic homogeneity of either population, and underestimate internal differences and conflicts that contribute to the construction of ethnic identities.” [in The Politics of Ethnic Consciousness, edited by Cora Govers and Hans Vermeulen, London: MacMillan, 1997]

Then, Kloos also identified two problems which researchers had to face in studying the Sri Lankan civil war. The first is, “It is not possible under present circumstances to carry out the research one would like to do. It is impossible to carry out research in the LTTE-controlled north of Sri Lanka and among the LTTE themselves, unless one becomes a Tiger. This, however, implies giving up independency of views.” The second problem is that “ethnic identity is a dynamic as well as an elusive phenomenon; dynamic in the sense that it is being reconstructed all the time, elusive because it can hardly be objectified.”

I think that these two problems identified by Kloos is very relevant (though completely ignored by other academics) in analyzing the main criticism against Pirabhakaran (and LTTE) that he doesn’t serve the Tamil interests since he and his group has killed so many Tamils who disagreed with his views. In his concluding remarks, Kloos had observed:

“The fiercest fights in the mid 1980s were between several Tamil secessionist groups rather than between these Tamil groups and the Sri Lankan Government. Although this intra-Tamil struggle has to some extent been documented (see, Hoole et al. 1990; Narayan Swamy, 1994) it is not very clear why the LTTE won that struggle: it may have had the most ruthless and uncompromising leader of the almost forty Tamil insurgent groups that had come into existence in the 1970s. The emergence of the LTTE may thus have been predicated on the extreme personality characteristics of their leader, but such an individual factor does not explain why he was successful… Fear for Tamils created the Tigers, one could with some exaggeration say, but fear for the Tigers resulted in seeing a Tiger in any young Tamil (LTTE attacks, real or supposed, are usually followed by razzia’s in Colombo, in which often hundreds of young Tamils are remanded). In these processes of escalation, cause and effect are hard to distinguish from each other…” (ibid)

I, for one, believe that the thoughts of Kloos are well worth comprehending. His references to the books of Hoole et al. and Narayan Swamy relate to the books The Broken Palmyra and Tigers of Lanka respectively. [Continued]