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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Requiem for Prabhakaran

LTTE has been militarily defeated. Prabhakaran, its one and only leader, is dead - killed in battle. LTTE, the organization created by him in his own image was hailed as the most effective guerrilla force in the 20th century.

1 Profiles of Prabhakaran sketched by a cross section of political and military leaders both in Sri Lanka and India drew attention to his exceptional political and military skills.
2 An aura of mystery around LTTE fanaticism nourished the mystique of Prabhakaran.3 The cult of suicide attracted admiration from many IPKF commanders, who interpreted this as an obvious manifestation of LTTE cadres’ unflinching commitment to the cause and personal loyalty to Prabhakaran. I often argued with many of my erstwhile IPKF colleagues that I found no difference between the followers of a religious cult who willingly drank poison from a bowl on the promptings of their cult leader and the Tigers of the LTTE who swallow cyanide capsules and blow themselves up in suicide missions on orders of Prabhakaran. The parallel is eloquently described by Anna Brenchely thus:4 ‘Sects are usually hierarchical with a charismatic leader at the apex. His position is maintained with absolute ruthlessness and he has total control over all resources. There is no pretence of democracy -Brainwashing is continual to ensure their continued dedication and results in members’ willingness to sacrifice their lives, their families’ lives and all human decency to the cause. The leader determines what the cause demands of them. They acquiesce.’ What, then, is the difference between a religious cult of Jamestown type and the LTTE?5 Many of the devices used by Jim Jones, the cult leder, and Prabhakararan to gain the loyalty of their followers were similar. For example, both manipulated the minds of their followers; both instilled fear by physical punishments and executions of dissenters and both sold a dream that ‘they (the followers) were stepping into something great’ and ‘they could do something they couldn’t possibly believe they were capable of.’

The withdrawal of IPKF from Sri Lanka precipitated by President Premdasa in March 1990 in collaboration with the LTTE was portrayed in a section of the Indian media and amongst LTTE sympathizers in Tamil Nadu as the defeat of the third largest army of the world at the hands of the LTTE. This gave it a larger than life image and enhanced the mystique around Prabhakaran. This projection of Prabhakaran and the LTTE as invincible guerrilla force unwittingly prolonged the insurgent war.

History will however judge Prabhakaran very critically. The assessment of Prabhakaran as an exceptional guerrilla leader, particularly by military commanders, bureaucrats and political leaders that decided the policy framework for the implementation of Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 was flawed. It fluctuated from being naïve to the point of believing that the LTTE were ‘our boys’, who could be manipulated by intelligence handlers, to adorning them with exceptional skills and commitment.6

The progress of Prabhakaran as the leader of Tamil insurgency was both spectacular and tragic. Tamils had a cause to fight for. No community could live in peace in the face of discrimination to which the Tamils were subjected. The tragedy of the fight for their legitimate rights has been the descent from its moral high ground to the status of a terrorist organization.

As the insurgency progressed, Prabhakaran became convinced that it was his destiny to be the sole representative of Sri Lankan Tamils. This obsession resulted in the massacre of hundreds of TELO, PLOTE, and EPRLF cadres by the LTTE. The lack of unity amongst Tamil militant groups had many deleterious effects on the insurgent war. For example, it gave the government an opportunity to infiltrate the LTTE; the Special Task Force of the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) effectively employed the renegades in covert operations against them. Prabhakaran’s ruthlessness, his obsession with self and insecurity disenchanted even his closest aides like Mahatya, who was killed on his orders and later Karuna, his trusted commander in Batticaloa, rebelled and broke away from him that signalled the beginning of disintegration of the LTTE. Prabhakaran did the greatest disservice to the Tamil cause by eliminating an entire generation of Tamil intellectuals and political leaders thus creating a void in which the present President Rajpakshe will find it difficult to gather collegiums of Tamil leaders with whom he can negotiate the political devolution.

Prabhakaran was credited with military acumen and hailed as an astute strategist by many Indian commanders. He was indeed an accomplished military tactician, but in my view, lacked strategic sense. Prabhakaran failed to grasp the crucial role of India’s support for the attainment of his aim. The repudiation of Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, allying with Premdasa to compel India to withdraw the IPKF from Sri Lanka and the greatest folly of assassinating Rajiv Gandhi cost Prabhakaran his greatest asset, the sympathy and goodwill of the Tamils of India. Even more disastrous was the erosion of sanctuary in Tamil Nadu.

Muslims constitute nearly 7.1 percent of the population of Sri Lanka; the majority are concentrated in the eastern province of Batticaloa. Although Muslims, they speak Tamil. There is a sharp divide on the merger of the east and north on ethnic lines. While Jaffna is entirely Tamil dominated, Trincomalee has nearly equal percentage, around 33 percent, Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala population. In the event of a referendum, the Muslim vote would be crucial for the merger of the north and the east. Rather than keeping Muslims on the LTTE’s side, the opposite was done by terrorising the Muslim population.

The conduct of the insurgent war of the last decade and more showed him as being unclear about the military aim. He did in fact display a flash of strategic sense when after the capture of Jaffna by the IPKF in 1987, he decided to disperse his cadres in the forests of Wanni and Mulaitivu and begin a guerrilla war. After the withdrawal of IPKF from Sri Lanka in 1990 the LTTE was virtually in control of Jaffna for nearly five years till SLA was to wrest control of the province, but this time the LTTE chose not to give fight. Apologists for the LTTE again credit Prabhakaran with strategic sense in moving the bulk of his cadres from Jaffna to the jungles of Batticaloa and Wanni. What was overlooked was that the LTTE forced Tamil civilians to leave their homes in Vaikamam portion of Jaffna. This disregard for civilian lives and property again manifested in the recent fighting (2008-2009) at Kilinochi whose entire population was forced to vacate as shield to save his cadres and himself. The flaw in Prabhakaran’s strategic thinking had become glaring earlier when the LTTE chose to fight conventional battles against SLA defences at Elephant Pass in the year 2000 in a bid to regain control of Jaffna. After the LTTE had graduated from guerrilla attacks to conventional warfare, Prabhakaran displayed his trademark flair for mobility, thorough preparation and surprise, but his conceptualization of the nature of conventional war was demonstrably flawed. The attack on Elephant Pass in 2000 bogged down due to inadequate logistical support and an unfavorable balance of forces. He made the same mistakes again in the beginning of this year (2009). In the process, LTTE suffered many casualties, which had to be made up by recruiting children and women and herding thousands of civilians as a shield against the SLA onslaught.

The recently (May 2009) concluded ethnic war has brought into focus another horrifying aspect of Prabhakaran’s character. Thousands of civilians were kept as hostages at gunpoint in order to shield LTTE cadres and its command structure from certain annihilation by the SLA. Aerial photographs clearly show LTTE mortar and gun positions sited in the midst of civilian camps in designated ‘No Fire Zone’.

SLA has been accused of violating international norms of warfare and human rights. There are reports in the western media that around twenty thousand civilians were killed in the closing days of fighting in May this year. SLA, while accepting collateral civilian casualties, rejects the figures quoted in the western media as speculative. Here a question may legitimately be asked: When was the right moment to end the war? The dilemma is very often faced by commanders and political leaders who wage war. During the Second World War the dilemma of the Allies was finally resolved by dropping the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities. The decision was influenced by many factors; the overriding reason was to end the war quickly so as to avoid the terrible consequences of a prolonged war. (This is not to justify the use of the atomic bomb). Sri Lanka faced a similar dilemma in the closing days of the war. The choice was between decisively neutralizing the core group of the LTTE or agreeing to a ceasefire, which would have been disastrous for furthering the cause of peace and would have caused greater suffering to the Tamil population in the long run. Here the Indian experience comes to mind. By agreeing to a ceasefire in J&K in 1948, India inherited a festering legacy of conflict with Pakistan, which has taken a heavy toll of human lives, since the present phase of proxy war started in 1989.

In death Prabhakaran has left two horrendous legacies - no new or innovative techniques have emerged from the ethnic conflict, as they all had been tried and tested somewhere or the other sometime.7 Prabhakaran, however, has the dubious distinction of raising death and destruction to the level of a religion. The other is the idea to take a whole population hostage and use innocent civilians as a shield against the adversary’s onslaught. The debate on the lessons of this tragic conflict will go on for long in future. In the meantime, let us hope that Rajpakse will show the same determination in giving Tamils their legitimate political and economic rights as he displayed in defeating the LTTE.


1.Chandrika Kumartunga in an interview with Shekhar Gupta, India Today, 15 May 1995.

2. JN Dixit, India’s High Commissioner in Sri Lanka (April 1985-April 1989) in ‘Assignment Colombo’.

3.Lt Gen Depinder Singh, Overall Force Commander Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), July 1987-89 February 1988 in IPKF in Sri Lanka.

4.See Rohan Gunaratna, ‘The LTTE and Suicide Terrorism’, Frontline, Chennai, February 2000, pp 58-59.

5.Jim Jones had founded a Christian doomsday cult, the Peoples’ Temple, which was initially structured as an inter-racial mission for the sick, homeless and jobless at Indianapolis in the 1950s. After an expose in the mid 7os that raised suspicion of illegal activities within the Temple, the commune was moved to Jamestown, Guyana, on 400 acres of jungle land leased from the government. Some who left the temple claimed that the Temple was being run as a concentration camp and people were being held there against their will. The concern led Congressman Leo Ryan to visit the Temple in 1978. When about 16 inmates of the Temple decided to leave with Ryan, the congressman was killed by security guards of the Temple. Fearing retribution, the group decided to commit mass suicide on the promptings of Jones by taking a grape drink laced with cyanide. In all 909 died. Jones died of a self inflicted gun shot wound.

6.In a core group meeting when Rajiv Gandhi expressed his fear that at some stage Indian troops may have to militarily deal with LTTE, he was told by the intelligence representative: “These are our youths, whom we have dealt with. We can manage the eventuality.” In reply to another question by Rajiv about the time frame to subdue the LTTE, Gen Sundarji’s response was: “This should not be a matter of concern. The Indian armed forces can neutralize the LTTE in a fortnight or three to four months.” Dixit JN, 1988, Assignment Colombo, Konark, New Delhi, p337.

7.Edgar O’Balance,1989, The Cyanide War, Brasseys (UK), pvi.

By Brig SP Sinha

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About This Blog

Velupillai Prabhakaran

The rest of the world might never understand the violence Velupillai Prabhakaran stood for, but its imprint on Sri Lanka is wide and deep. For 26 years, the elusive leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had waged war with the government to win an independent homeland, or eelam, for the island's Tamil minority. The struggle claimed more than 70,000 lives--including, on May 18, Prabhakaran's. The government says he was killed, along with 17 of his trusted lieutenants, while fleeing an army ambush.

Prabhakaran, 54, was born to a middle-class family on the Jaffna Peninsula. Incensed by discrimination against Tamils and radicalized by a militant grade-school teacher, Prabhakaran founded the LTTE in 1976, a year after a group he headed claimed responsibility for killing Jaffna's mayor. By 1983 the guerrilla movement--which pioneered suicide bombings and the recruitment of child soldiers--escalated the fighting into a civil war.

At the height of his power earlier this decade, Prabhakaran led a de facto government that controlled vast swaths of territory and boasted its own systems of taxes, roads and courts. As the army closed in, he allegedly used thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields. By the final days, just 250 LTTE members remained. They died too, along with the dream of eelam.

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