THE body of the young man lay on a scarlet bier. He was in his colonel’s uniform and beret, with white gloves that made his hands seem enormous beside his emaciated body. His face was set in a rictus of death that was somewhat like a smile. But the portly, mustachioed man who stood looking at him, in a short-sleeved white shirt and blue trousers, hands clasped awkwardly in front of him, was not smiling.
Velupillai Prabhakaran always said this was the moment, four years into the war in September 1987, when he gave up any faith in non-violence. The young man before him, Thileepan, had fasted to death to highlight the plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority and their demands for independence. The Sinhalese majority had paid no attention. So Prabhakaran pledged himself and his Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to a path of unremitting carnage.
The world had to notice when, in 1996, a truckload of explosives was driven through the gates of the Central Bank in Colombo, killing 90 and injuring more than 1,000. And it had to wake up to Tamil demands when, in 1991 (though Prabhakaran always ducked away from blame for it), India’s former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was blown up by a female bomber who had bent to touch his feet. By the time Prabhakaran was felled by a bullet in his last redoubt, his war had claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Sri Lankans.
And in fact his commitment to violence had been there from the beginning. On his first operation, bunking off school at 17 with his mates, he threw a bomb into a group of soldiers. His first “political” act, in 1975, was to shoot the mayor of Jaffna at point-blank range for betraying the Tamil cause, as he believed. After the founding of the LTTE, in 1976, leaders of rival groups and Tamils too moderate to agree with him were sought out and killed; he signed their death warrants. In person he was stocky, soft-spoken and with a pleasant smile, like a middle-order restaurant manager. But his wife, who first caught his eye by throwing a bucket of coloured water over him at the holi festival, burst into terrified tears when she had done it. And the girls he “cared for” at his special school in Vanni, his embryonic Tamil homeland in the north-east of the island, were trained to strap explosive belts underneath their dresses, a branch of warfare he had more or less invented.
He was a shy, coddled child, the son of a land officer. His parents, both pious Hindus, were followers of Mahatma Gandhi and his doctrine of ahimsa, or non-violence. But the books young Prabhakaran read, out on the veranda under the banana tree, were biographies of Alexander the Great and Napoleon. He treasured the Bhagavad Gita not for its spiritual riches but for the passage where Krishna told Arjuna that it was his duty to fight and kill even his relations. His great hero, “a beacon to me”, was not Gandhi but Subhas Chandra Bose, who had tried to drive the British out of India with armed force.
In night classes at the Aladi School he reinforced his outrage that Tamils were passed over for civil-service jobs and university places, and were sometimes beaten up in the streets. He practised martial arts, saved money for a revolver, and in 1972 slipped away into the jungle, where he lived for much of the rest of his life.
As a leader of terrorists he built up an impressive reputation. He waged war for 26 years. At one time, as much as a third of Sri Lanka was under his control. Prabhakaran divided his thousands of Tiger recruits into an army, a navy (with some light boats) and an air force (with flimsy aircraft), and raised money for weapons by extortion, robbery and arm-twisting of the Tamil diaspora. He refused to compromise the cause or make encumbering alliances. When India began to sponsor Tamil groups, he kept clear of them, and when Indian peacekeepers came to Sri Lanka in the 1980s he ended by fighting them.
No philosophy or ideology guided him, as far as anyone could tell. He did not like abstractions. Nor could he tolerate debate. Despite a peace agreement in 2002 a separate Tamil homeland, with its enemies eliminated, was all he would accept. In Vanni he more or less constructed one, neat and organised as he always was, with thatched huts and coconut groves along dirt roads. There was no power, but the place had its own banks and law courts. The Sinhalese army fenced it in with barbed wire and bombed it. Among the craters were the remains of lush gardens, and lagoons filled with lilies, that might have made the sort of Tamil paradise Prabhakaran carried in his head.
Both the Sri Lankan and Indian governments had arrest warrants out for him. He stayed mostly underground where, like some large grub, he was oiled twice a day by his bodyguards and fed on curry and Clint Eastwood movies, in which cops and cowboys shot themselves out of trouble. He had an escape plan, or several. His cadres would kill him, and burn the body; he would squeeze himself into a submarine; he would bite on the cyanide capsule that hung on a black string round his neck.
His people, confined in the end to a beach in north-eastern Sri Lanka and shelled by the Sinhalese army, could not get away so easily from the mayhem Prabhakaran had drawn them into.
Courtesy: The Economist