Facets of LTTE Chief Prabhakaran’s life
by DBS Jeyaraj, Daily FT, Colombo, May 13, 2020
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed 11 years ago in combat with the armed forces of Sri Lanka on 19 May 2009. The longest war in South Asia came to an end after the military debacle of the LTTE on the shores of Nandikadal Lagoon in the Mullaitivu District of northern Sri Lanka.
Though Prabhakaran is no more, the Sri Lankan Tamil people are yet to recover fully from the ravages of the lengthy war fought by the Tigers. At a time when the Sri Lankan media is being saturated with news about the COVID-19 pandemic and impending constitutional crisis, this article intends focusing on the life and times of the man who determined the politico-military course of the island nation for many years.
At the outset I would like to make it clear that this article is neither a biography nor a eulogy. It is not even a critique or analysis. What I hope to do is to try and shed some light at least on the man and his personality without attempting to glorify him. I shall do so by highlighting certain facets of Prabhakaran’s eventful life. Since I have written about him on previous occasions also, I shall be relying to some extent on those writings.
Family and childhood
Thiruvengadam Velupillai Prabhakaran was born on 26 November 1954. There were two boys and two girls. Since he was the youngest in the family of four children, Prabhakaran’s pet name became “Thamby” or younger brother. Prabhakaran’s pet name “Thamby” stuck to him throughout his life.
Prabhakaran’s father was Veerasamy Thiruvengadam Velupillai. Prabhakaran’s mother’s name was Paarvathipillai. Her maiden name was also Velupillai. Both are no more, having died of natural causes.
Prabhakaran’s family hailed from the northern coastal town of Valvettithurai, referred to generally as VVT. They were known as belonging to the “Thirumeni kudumbam” or Thirumeni family. Prabhakaran’s father Velupillai joined the Government clerical service and eventually became a district lands officer. I think he retired from Government service when the late Gamini Dissanayake was Lands Minister.
Prabhakaran studied at different schools in Jaffna, Vavuniya and Batticaloa because his father was constantly transferred. He was not a model student and did not even pass his GCE O/Levels. This does not mean that he was unintelligent or did not possess a thirst for knowledge. This was due to Prabhakaran being more interested in other things rather than in formal education.
An avid reader with a photogenic memory
Young Prabhakaran had a photogenic memory and was an avid reader. He was particularly fond of reading history – about historical battles and historical figures. The Indian freedom struggle fascinated him. He read the Tamil version of Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography ‘Satya Sodhanai’ in his early teens but was not enamoured of it and the principle of non-violence greatly.
Prabhakaran’s ideal leader and idol was Subash Chandra Bose, known as Netaji. At one stage Netaji disapproved of Gandhi’s “non-violence” and went on to form the Indian National Army (INA) to launch an armed struggle against the British. Netaji’s famous pronouncement was: “I shall fight for the freedom of my land until I shed my last drop of blood.” Prabhakaran subscribed to these sentiments wholeheartedly.
Hard as it may be for many to believe, there was a quiet, spiritual aspect also to Prabhakaran. The “ithihasam” (epic) ‘Mahabharatham’ enthralled him. The characters he identified with were Bheema and Karna. It is the ‘Mahabharatha’ that relates the tale of Lord Krishna advising the wavering Arjuna on the battlefield ‘Kurushetra’. The Pandavas and Gouravas (cousins) had assembled to do battle but Arjuna hesitates to fight against his kith and kin and lets slip his bow ‘Kaandeepam’.
Lord Krishna then tenders advice to him that each person is destined to fulfil his or her duty. It was the warrior’s duty to kill his adversary regardless of kinship. Killing the “body” of the enemy was part of heroic valour. The essence of Lord Krishna’s lecture is the ‘Bhagavat Gita’. Prabhakaran was greatly enamoured of principles enunciated in the ‘Gita’.
In the Tamil film ‘Karnan’ based on the ‘Mahabharatha’ Lord Krishna is played by N.T. Rama Rao and Arjuna by Mutturaman. The Gita episode is picturised as a song ‘Maranathai Enni Kalangidum Vijaya’. This was one of Prabhakaran’s favourite songs. It’s sung by Seerkali Govindarajan.
One person who opined that Prabhakaran had inculcated the philosophy of the ‘Gita’ was former Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Jyotindra Nath Dixit. This was during the time when LTTE was fighting the Indian Army. I could see that Dixit meant it as a “compliment” when he said this. On an earlier occasion, Dixit told me that of all the top Tamil militant leaders only Prabhakaran had “fire” in him. This was after Dixit met for the first time all leaders of the five big groups. Umamaheswaran – PLOTE, Sri Sabaratnam – TELO, Padmanabha – EPRLF, Balakumar – EROS and of course Prabhakaran – LTTE.
I also recall a conversation in early 1985 with former National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali. Long before the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, Athulathmudali predicted that all the Tamil groups would give up the struggle and fall in line. But not Prabhakaran, said Lalith then. “He will never compromise and will die fighting to the last,” he said. How true!
Prabhakaran was also fond of reading Tamil novels, particularly those with a historical background. His favourite historical novel was ‘Ponniyin Selvan,’ the magnum opus of ‘Kalki’ (R. Krishnamoorthy). He also liked the historical novels of Akhilan and Chandilyan. When the LTTE bought its first maritime vessel it was named ‘Kadal Puraa’ (sea dove) after a novel written by Chandilyan.
Yet, the Tamil novel read and re-read multiple times by Prabhakaran was ‘Kallukkul Eeram’ (Moisture within Stone) by R.S. Nallaperumaal. It is set against the backdrop of India’s freedom struggle against the British. The chief protagonist Rangamani is one who does not believe in Gandhi’s “ahimsa” mode of struggle and espouses violence as the appropriate method to liberate India. No wonder then that Praba loved this novel. But there is a change of heart in the end but for the real life protagonist there was no moisture in the stone.
Prabhakaran was very much interested in contemporary affairs and international politics. A former comrade at arms of Prabhakaran, Thalayasingham Sivakumar alias Anton Master told me how the LTTE subscribed to ‘TIME’ and ‘Newsweek’ those days. Praba would ask friends knowledgeable in English to translate and explain articles.
In later years when the LTTE developed into a full-fledged outfit, important articles from magazines and newspapers were translated into Tamil for Prabakharan’s consumption. Also many books on military affairs and warfare were translated into Tamil.
As a schoolboy, Prabhakaran like most youngsters of his age was fond of cycling and playing volley ball and soccer. But he was no sportsman and preferred to read or watch action films. He has been ridiculed often for telling an American journalist that he learnt his fighting techniques from Clint Eastwood movies. But what happened really was that the US scribe was questioning him whether he had been trained in Cuba. It was as a joke that Prabha responded citing Eastwood.
Another pursuit in boyhood was the targeting of squirrels, lizards, skinks, chameleons and small birds with a catapult. As a kid Praba would prowl about areas of dense vegetation searching for his quarry. His memory power was legendary. Prabhakaran would remember faces, names and the last time he had seen someone years ago. His eyes were always sharp and roving taking in the surrounding area and ever on the alert. His eyes were large and striking and was teased as “muliyan” (goggle-eye)
A stickler for discipline
Prabhakaran was also a “puritan” in many ways. He neither drank nor smoked and even advocated sexual abstinence for all in the early days of the movement. Order and cleanliness was almost an obsession. He was a stickler for discipline.
He was always neatly dressed preferring “bush shirts” and short-sleeved shirts. The bush shirt was helpful as it covered hidden firearms. It is said that even during the early stages of militancy when there was an acute shortage of funds, Prabhakaran would wash and iron his few clothes regularly and always maintain a dapper appearance.
He was a good cook and also fond of good food. He relished Chinese cuisine. Prabhakaran was also fond of pittu, coconut sambol and fried shrimp. He also liked iguana and tortoise flesh. He liked fruits and natural bee’s honey.
Usually LTTE cadres under punishment are assigned duties in the kitchen. Prabhakaran would encourage cadres to cook saying “only a good cook can be a good guerrilla”. He would often cook or help out in the kitchen when at home. A close relative who visited him once was flummoxed to see the feared guerrilla leader busily scraping coconuts in the kitchen.
Prabhakaran growing up in Valvettithurai got politically motivated in the late sixties and early seventies of the previous century. This was when former Kayts MP. V. Navaratnam broke away from the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) known as Federal Party (FP) in English.
Navaratnam, once described as the “golden brain” of the FP, formed the “Thamilar Suyaatchi Kazhagham” or Tamil Self-Rule party in 1968. Navaratnam abandoned the federal demand as being too little and too late and instead opted for “Suyaatchi” or “self-rule” a euphemism of sorts for a separate state.
There was a pedagogue named Venugopal master for whom Prabhakaran had great regard and respect. Venugopal master became an active supporter of Navaratnam. Several students including Prabhakaran became his followers and turned into ardent devotees of Tamil self-rule. The Suyaatchi Kazhagham also started a newspaper ‘Viduthalai’ (Liberation/Freedom). Navaratnam himself translated and serialised ‘Exodus,’ the famous novel written by Leon Uris. It was named ‘Namakkendroru Naadu’ (A Country of Our Own). Young Prabhakaran eagerly devoured it and became hooked on the dream of a country for Tamils.
The Tamil self-rule party was defeated in the 1970 polls. No candidate including Navaratnam won. But the seeds of self-rule sowed in the campaign had taken firm root in the heart and mind of “Thamby” Prabhakaran.
Birth of the LTTE
Prabhakaran teamed up with some others and formed the Tamil New Tigers in 1972. The Tamil new tigers called themselves TNT. The acronym TNT was also applicable for the explosive compound “Trinitrotoluene”.
The TNT made its mark in July 1975 with the assassination of former Jaffna MP and Mayor Alfred Durayappah as he was going to worship at the Ponnaalai Varatharajapperumaal (Vishnu) temple. Four youths including Prabhakaran were involved in the murder. Later Prabhakaran went on record that this killing was his “first military action”.
The TNT metamorphosed into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on 5 May 1976. The Tamil United Front (TUF) held its famous Vaddukkoddai Convention nine days later on 14 May 976. It was then that the TUF became TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) and adopted the Tamil Eelam demand formally.
When Prabhakaran was in the JSC (Grade 8) class, one of his textbooks was ‘Thirumavalavan’. This was about the Chola emperor Karikalan known as Thirumavalavan under whose rule the “pulikkodi” (tiger flag) had supposedly fluttered proudly from “Imayam muthal Kumari Varai” (Himalayas to Cape Comorin) . Thus Prabhakaran was fascinated by Karikalan and the tiger flag. “Puli” in Tamil denotes the tiger but the tiger on the Chola flag was the “Vengai” or cheetah. It was a far cry from the Bengal tiger embossed on the LTTE flag.
Prabhakaran known as Mani and Maniam earlier soon took the nom de guerre Karikalan. The Chola emperor got the name Karikalan because he was caught in a fire and had his legs burnt. Karikalan means “dark or black legs”. Prabhakaran too had a similar experience while experimenting with explosives in his youth. There was an explosion and his legs were burnt. The skin was dark for years. Thus the name “Karikalan” suited him appropriately. Later Prabhakaran’s wireless codename was HA or Hotel Alpha. This was derived from Karikalan where Kari became Hari and then HA.
When the LTTE was formed in 1976 Prabhakaran was only its military commander. The leader and chairman of the five-member central committee of the LTTE was Umamaheswaran. Praba was also a CC member. The LTTE fragmented in 1980 and Umamaheswaran formed the PLOTE. The LTTE under Prabhakaran had a working relationship with the TELO led by Thangathurai and Kuttimani. In 1981 the LTTE re-grouped under the absolute leadership of Prabhakaran. Thereafter it was a virtual one-man dictatorship.
Marriage and children
Cupid or “Manmathan” pierced Prabhakaran’s heart with his flowery arrows in 1983-’84. After ‘Black July’ in 1983, some displaced undergraduates were on a death fast at the Jaffna University premises in 1983 September. When the condition of some girls deteriorated, the LTTE broke the fast and abducted those who were fasting. They were brought to Tamil Nadu.
At one stage four of the abducted girls stayed at the residence of Anton and Adele Balasingham and used to accompany them to the LTTE office in Indranagar. The fairest and prettiest of them all was Madhivadhani Erambu. Her father Erambu was a schoolmaster from Pungudutheevu in Jaffna.
An incident on the day of the Indian festival “Holi” residence resulted in a new relationship blossoming between the Valvettithurai lad and Pungudutheevy lass. Soon Prabhakaran began visiting the Balasingham residence frequently. He brought flowers and sweets for Madhi. Prabhakaran had been a shy, introverted person and had never mingled with girls outside his family before. This was a new experience. Anton Balasingham encouraged the romance. They married in 1984.
Madhivadhani and Prabhakaran had three children. The eldest Charles Anthony was born in 1985. He was named after Praba’s best friend and military commander Charles Anthony alias Seelan who died in Meesalai, Chavakachcheri. The next was Duvaraga the daughter, born in 1986. She was named after a favourite bodyguard Mayooran whose real name was Duvaaragan. The third was a son born in 1997. He was named Balachandran after Madhivathani’s own brother who also joined the LTTE and died in combat. Prabhakaran and all his family members were killed during the final phase of the war in May 2009.
The ephemeral nature of power was illustrated vividly by the death of Prabhakaran who controlled what was perhaps the most powerful guerrilla organisation in the world and was raised to divine status as “Sooriyathevan” (Sun God) by his sycophantic followers. Despite being at the pinnacle of power for many years, his inability or unwillingness to be flexible resulted in Prabhakaran losing his movement, family, and above all, his life.
Finally the body of Thiruvengadam Veluppillau Prabhakaran, the 54-year-old supreme leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was found on Tuesday 19 May near the Mullaitivu lagoon known as ‘Nandikadal’ (Sea of Conches).