“Those who bear arms acquire and wield an extreme measure of power. We believe that if this power is abused, it will inevitably lead to dictatorship.”
– Prabhakaran, from an interview with N Ram, 1986
The LTTE’s supreme leader and commander, Velupillai Prabhakaran, along with his wife, children and the entire leadership of the LTTE, have been completely wiped out by the Sri Lankan military. The LTTE began as a guerrilla unit during the 1970s; at its peak, it controlled vast territory and built up a conventional army consisting of an army, navy and air force. The group won many battles against the Sri Lankan Army, crushed all Tamil opposition groups functioning in Sri Lanka, and was seen as a deadly, brutal and disciplined organisation. In recent years, however, the myth of the rebels’ invincibility began to crumble, and within two years they were cornered into a small area, where they were brutally eliminated by the Sri Lankan armed forces.
Since the LTTE came into existence in 1976, more than 27,000 of its members have perished. The brutal war resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of civilian lives, and hundreds of thousands more displaced. Many civilians were disabled due to bombing and shelling. Although I blame the LTTE leadership for their suicidal politics, militarism and intolerance of criticism, I believe that the root cause of the problem was the Sri Lankan state’s failure to accommodate minorities within the democratic constitutional framework of Sri Lanka. The LTTE was a by-product of the majoritarian political landscape of Sri Lanka. However, the internal dynamics within the LTTE later developed as an authoritarian structure, and loyalty to the leader was the foremost precondition. The leader and the organisation had become synonymous.
Prabhakaran was not a natural born killer with evil qualities. It was the social and political conditions that created a hierarchical organisation and, in that juncture, Prabhakaran took a lead role. Yet in this process, he became a charismatic leader and a cult figure, and this in turn changed his personality. He began to believe that he was the supreme controller of the entire Tamil population, and had the right to punish or kill those who disobeyed his orders. He was there to decide what was right and wrong, what was good and evil. He was there to liberate the Tamil nation – and he would carry out his duty until the nation was liberated. All those who opposed his methods, meanwhile, he believed should be eliminated. It was this mindset that led to the escalation and continuation of the nightmare of civil war and untold suffering for a people and a country.
It was 1974, and I was 18 years old. As a Jaffna Tamil middle-class youth and immature idealist, I was influenced by the Tamil nationalist ideology and armed struggle, and was able to make contacts with a few of those who were already committed to this approach. One day, a short young man came to visit me with another man named Chetti, who briefly introduced the first man as Thambi, which means younger brother. That was my first encounter with Prabhakaran. I did not meet him again for a while, during which time Chetti had been caught and detained by the police.
On 27 July 1975, Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappa was shot and killed. Duraiappa was portrayed as a traitor to the Tamil cause by the TULF, a Tamil political party, because he had taken the side of the Sri Lankan government in the escalating unrest. I later came to know that Duraiappa had been assassinated by Prabhakaran. At that time, I was happy that a ‘traitor’ had been eliminated. After this incident, around August 1975, Prabhakaran came to my grandmother’s house, in my village. (I would normally stay at my grandmother’s house, as she was very fond of me.) At that time, I knew that he was a ‘wanted’ person, but Prabhakaran said that he wished to stay at my grandmother’s house for a while. Without any hesitation, I said yes.
During that time I was tutoring students, which offered the pretext by which I could ask Prabhakaran to stay at my grandmother’s house. My father was a very strict man, and he noticed that while other students went home, this young man continued to stay at my grandmother’s house. I was more scared of my father than of the police. Eventually, he called to ask why this boy was staying there. I told him that he had some problems with his parents, to which he responded: “You should not allow him to stay, as it is not in the interests of that boy. I will take him to his parents’ house.” I had no choice but to tell my father that he was a wanted man. My father was taken aback, and told me that if he was a wanted man, we needed to inform the police. I explained that this young man was a liberation fighter, fighting for the Tamil cause. I suddenly became courageous, and told my father, “One day the same thing could happen to your son, and then what would be your reaction?” My father had no choice but to accept my argument. This was the beginning of my contact with Prabhakaran and a few members of what was then called the Tamil New Tigers. This was eventually changed to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on 5 May 1976.
I was inspired by Prabhakaran’s dedication and discipline. He was always thinking of action, and he was a meticulous planner, efficient organiser and a perfectionist. He was extremely careful about his own safety and that of others. His knowledge was also very wide-ranging, even though his formal education was minimal (he had failed the GCE examinations on two attempts). He would talk for hours as to how we could build up an underground network, citing examples of Bhagat Singh and other Indian liberation fighters such as Netaji. He would say that the armed struggle was the only way forward, and that there was no point in engaging in peaceful protests. He read Captain Clive, who came as a clerk in the East India Company and was eventually able to lead the British army. He would talk about the Irish struggle. He was also fond of Tamil historical novels, which romanticised the valour of Tamil kings and warriors. He would talk about Israel, and how the Jews were able to establish a powerful country.
As he talked about such things he would also say that we were oppressed by the Sinhalese rulers, because the Tamils did not have a homeland. Our duty, he said, was to fight and liberate our country, and that for this reason we needed to give up family ties, and not indulge in love affairs or marriage. All of these desires, Prabhakaran told us, would be a hindrance to the cause. If you were prepared to fight for the country, he would say, you needed to have total dedication, which such desires would only undermine.
A few years later, the two of us went to see an English movie. It was a World War II story, in which the mission was to assassinate a Nazi commander in Czechoslovakia. A Czech family provided a safe house for the young men on the mission. After the commander was assassinated, the Nazis managed to capture the man of this family, and told him that if he cooperated with them, his family would be safe. The man decided to tell the truth. At that point, Prabhakaran turned to me and said, “This is why I insisted that family life is not suitable for the cause.”
Paranoia and philosophy
Prabhakaran’s timekeeping was perfect, though there was a reason for this. If another did not turn up at the arranged time, he would not wait, because he would sense some sort of danger. He would ask people to come to a station or bus stop, but he would not be there; instead, he would be waiting a short distance away, to see whether the individual had been followed. If he had the slightest doubt, he would simply leave. Due to his security-conscious mind, he was able to dodge the police, military and other dangers for more than 36 years. He became a wanted man in 1972, at which point he destroyed all photographs of himself save for his school identity card; he did not allow anyone to take his photo until 1982. He would leave no trace of himself; if he received a letter from another member, he would read and then burn the letter. I suppose he learned the skill of survival through the experiences of others who were caught due to their lack of security.
Prabhakaran’s ideology was derived from the Bhagavad Gita, the Indian national struggle, the history of the ancient Tamil kingdoms, the situation surrounding Jewish statehood and Adolph Hitler’s authoritarianism. His motto was, ‘Do your duty, but do not expect any benefit from it.’ He also believed that the soul is immortal, whereas the physical body is temporal. Any ‘death’ on the battlefield would thus involve only detaching the body, while the soul remains eternal. He believed that in order to fight against evil and establish dharma, it is essential to eliminate one’s enemies. On one occasion, in 1976, Prabhakaran and another LTTE member assassinated a police intelligence officer who was accused of spying on Tamil youths. After the assassination, he cycled to one of the hideouts and, coincidently, a song from a Tamil film called Karna (a figure from the epic Mahabharata) was playing on the radio. This song was about the discourse between Arjuna and Krishna, which explained the notion of dharma and the right to kill the enemy. He was very excited, and felt that his actions were thus justified.
He felt very strongly that the Tamil cause needed to be united behind one single organisation. His justification was that the Tamils’ ancient kingdoms were lost because the then kings of the Chera, Chola and Pandian kingdoms were not united. He therefore believed that all the other organisations should disband and should come together as one organisation. He also used the Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest to show how we should never allow other related organisations to grow in strength.
In the late 1970s, the organisation was tiny, and consisted of just 15 to 20 young men. During this time, Prabhakaran was influential in decision-making and organising. Although a central committee was selected, he continued to be the charismatic leader, and without his approval, no decision was made. Although he was not an authoritarian figure at that time, due to his dedication and experience, others inevitably looked for his approval. I also remember that he was very caring of the organisation’s members at that time, and looked after them well. If someone was ill, he would make sure that person was looked after properly, and he would become angry if anyone neglected a sick member. However, if the same person whom he looked after crossed some line in the future, he would not hesitate to kill him.
In the early days, the organisation carried out attacks on police intelligence officers and those portrayed as traitors. We also looted banks, and used the money to buy weapons and to organise camps. Each rupee a member spent was accounted for. Prabhakaran was also required to submit his expenses, and there was thus a strict equality maintained with regard to personal expenditure. The food cooked at the camps was the same for everyone. On one item, however, this equality was not maintained: the allocation of bullets. Prabhakaran would expend several rounds during practice, but allocated the rest of us only a few. His justification was that because he was wanted by the police, he had to practice more than the rest of us. At that time, he always carried a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver; it was his pet. Other than this, we had few weapons at that time, just some shotguns and three or four revolvers. Yet he would treat these weapons as sacred items – cleaning and oiling them every day, and making sure that they stayed in working order.
On such issues, Prabhakaran was puritanical, and believed the organisation to be sacred. Whoever defied its rules was seen as impure, and therefore needed to be kicked out – or killed, if he resisted. When the LTTE chairman, Umamaheswaran, was found to have been involved in a sexual relationship with a woman cadre, Prabhakaran became furious, and accused them both of having damaged the organisation’s sacredness. They were both forced to leave.
In 1980, there was a split in the organisation, as a majority of the members had begun criticising Prabhakaran for being a dictator, particularly due to his alleged involvement in the killing of two cadres. His critics said that he needed to be removed from the central committee, and that the organisation should be reformed with democratic principles. Pure militarism should not be welcomed, they continued, and his methods were wrong; instead, what needed to happen was the organisation’s leadership needed to go to the Tamil people, to hear what they had to say before taking any military action. Prabhakaran was hurt by this criticism, but refused to accept that he had made even a single mistake. As a result, the organisation split into two factions, and a majority of those who left later founded the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE).
Prabhakaran was very angry and disappointed at this turn of events, and accused those who left of having stabbed him in the back. He claimed there was no point in having a central committee, and instead wanted to be the supreme leader of the organisation. Many of the members, including myself, refused to accept this proposal, and he instead decided to leave. We tried to persuade him to reconsider, but he was adamant, saying that he would not agree to anything but a one-man leadership. Thereafter, he went to stay at his uncle’s house, where he met with two leaders of another militant group called the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), Thangathurai and Kuttimani. (These two were later massacred in the Wellikada Prison massacre of July 1983.) Both were from Prabhakaran’s village, and they knew him well. Prabhakaran subsequently agreed to work for them under Thangathurai’s leadership, and after a while he managed to convince the other LTTE members to join him.
After Kuttimani and Thangathurai were caught by the Sri Lankan Army in 1981, Prabhakaran was able to re-emerge as the group’s supreme leader. He refused to accept pluralism and difference of opinion, and saw those as a hindrance to the cause. He mercilessly ordered that opponents be killed, and continued to have loyal followers who carried out his orders without any question or hesitation. It was after Kuttimani and Thangathurai were caught, tortured and forced to reveal information to the security forces, that Prabhakaran introduced the suicidal cyanide capsule, which became the symbol of the LTTE’s dedication.
After the July 1983 riots and the mushrooming of other Tamil militant groups, the Indian state provided training and support to the Tamil militant groups, including the LTTE. I left and re-joined the LTTE a few times during the early 1980s as a result of the LTTE’s structure and the urgencies of the situation. Eventually, however, I left the organisation in 1984, as the internal repression within the LTTE had become intolerable. The rest is history.
(Published in HIMALMAG)