May 19, 2009
The death of Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in a fire fight with Sri Lankan forces on Monday probably marks the end of the legend of Tamil Tigers he had scripted and directed. Without a Prabhakaran to lead, motivate and discipline them it might be near impossible to build another Tamil Tiger organization in the near future.
Prabhakaran is a product of the fifties when a whole generation of Tamils in Sri Lanka turned bitter against the government that proclaimed ‘Sinhala only’ was the national language and hurt the pride of the Jaffna Tamil who was the cock of the walk dominating all walks of life. He showed a violent and revengeful methodology for directionless Tamil youth to settle scores with an insensitive Sinhala chauvinist regime that had let loose violence to control Tamil aspirations for equity.
A man of many moods, Prabhakaran was no great orator, an essential skill to be a Tamil politician on both sides of the Palk Strait. In fact, he was a shy man who spoke in a low monotone. But still Prabhakaran had a charisma that enabled him to attract his followers who swore personal loyalty to him. His credibility as a unique leader was carefully built by his daring operations - be it the raid on the Katunayake air base near Colombo in July 1991 or the assassination of President Premadasa of Sri Lanka. His ruthless killings cost him a lot. It turned him paranoid of his own safety. He was shy of publicity and it built an aura of fear around him. On the other hand the mindless killings managed to get the LTTE banned in 33 countries.
The LTTE of Prabhakaran was one among the over 30 Tamil militant organisations that thrived in the aftermath of the infamous Black July pogrom against Tamils in Colombo in 1983. In spite of their lofty Free Eelam rhetoric, many of them degenerated into undisciplined gang of thugs when Sri Lankan government started losing control of Jaffna by 1985-86. It was in this period Prabhakaran set out to make a distinct reputation for the LTTE as a ruthless, disciplined body of Tamil fighters. It was this ironclad discipline that helped him build his insurgent body into one of the most dreaded terrorist force with land, air and sea capability.
There was a streak of cruelty in the way he enforced his punishments whether using a burning tyre around the neck of the victim or using his pistol gang. Drug traffickers and prostitutes were mercilessly put to death. He plotted and killed rival Tamil militant group leaders and cadres who wanted the very same Tamil Eelam he dreamed of because he believed only he could get it. So he did not suffer from any qualms in killing those who stood in his way. And his victims included the high and the mighty including Rajiv Gandhi, Amirthalingam, and Premadasa.
Yet this man’s iron discipline gave way when he fell in love with Mathivathani. And he breached his own rule that no cadre of LTTE would be allowed to marry. Such was the power of love. This personality contradiction was there in his attitude to the use of child soldiers. He was extremely kind to children orphaned due to military action. Yet he did not hesitate to use them as deadly suicide bombers in his Black Tiger squads. They became the cutting edge of naval operations. They did not mind either to sacrifice their lives: by 2008, 356 Black Tigers including 147 young women commandos perished in operations to fulfill the wish of the 'thalaivar' (leader).
He loved movies of martial arts - gun slinging Clint Eastwood movies were a favorite. These videos were the bill of fare of entertainment for cadres in training. Perhaps this was due to his great faith in the power of the weapon.
Prabhakaran had limited education. Yet he showed a readiness to absorb the latest in technology to improve operational capability. He was always on the look out for the latest developments in communication and weapon technology, enabling him to build up the LTTE’s capability to design rocket weapons and manufacture most of the munitions required for warfare. The air arm of the LTTE showed the innovative use of light aircraft for bombing. His thirst for shock action was facilitated by technology innovations.
Prabhakaran was first among insurgent leaders in realizing the value of psychological warfare techniques as force multiplier. He quickly adapted the reach of the internet to spread confusion in the enemy ranks. He had a natural sense of military strategy which over the years appeared to grow a rather stodgy.
Prabhakaran glorified death and sacrifice as the essence of life. He was never comfortable with intellectuals or political pundits. He had little time for politicians or politics - believing actions spoke better. His loyalty was to his cause and not his words or promises made to politicians. In fact, that was the biggest weakness in his leadership skill set. He failed to see the political opportunities offered by the peace process 2002 and preferred war. The man who decided the life and death of thousands with a gun in his hand, stuck to what he preached:“Saithu Mudi Alladu Seththu Madi” – do or die. And in the end he appears to have done just that.
All the while many an instigating fundamental tarries on.