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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 23, May 23, 2009

Rise and Fall of Prabhakaran

Saturday 23 May 2009, by M R Narayan Swamy

Even by the standards of the violent life he led, Velupillai Prabhakaran’s dramatic death was macabre and bloody. Pursued relentlessly by soldiers mandated to crush him and his Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Prabhakaran had taken his last stand with his most senior and trusted colleagues close to a lagoon in Sri Lanka’s Mullaitivu district, his home for years. All escape routes had been cut off although rumours, which it is possible the Tigers may have floated to blind the enemy, persisted that the guerrilla may have sailed off to Myanmar, possibly with a view to carry on the fight another day.

There are also strong indications that the LTTE got into secret, indirect negotiations with the US via Norway during those last days of Prabhakaran and a possible surrender was being negotiated. Diplomatic sources with knowledge of these contacts say it all began in February, a month after the military overran Kilinochchi town, which served as the political hub for the LTTE after it signed a Norway-brokered truce with Colombo in February 2002.

But Sri Lanka would have none of it. It certainly did not want to make up with the top LTTE leadership, in particular Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman, his feared intelligence chief. It is possible Colombo accelerated the military offensive around this period to avoid facing a situation where it would be forced by the new US Administration to give a fresh lease of life to the Tigers. In the process, however, Sri Lanka ended up facing a humanitarian disaster.

As Colombo unleashed every kind of ammunition, air strikes included, hundreds (some say thousands) of innocent Tamils died along with LTTE guerrillas. Many more were wounded and maimed. The civilian victims were those who had been forced by the LTTE to retreat when it started withdrawing towards the interior of Mullaitivu early this year, unable to cope with the speed and deathly nature of the military push.

It is clear in retrospect why the LTTE was so reluctant to let go the civilians despite international outcry. Their presence—and the stink raised by their deaths —was the only way to prolong the war in a bid to let the covert negotiations with the US succeed. Such was the LTTE’s desperation that it even shot at civilians who tried to escape from the conflict zone although it kept denying this.

But eventually, the mass of men, women and children, many of whom had been starving and without a wash for days and even weeks, managed to flee when the military overcame rebel resistance to repeatedly shatter massive mudwalls the LTTE had erected around its last fiefdom. Once the civilians were out of the way, there was no stopping the military, which was itching to crush the Tigers to end the world’s longest running insurgency.

On Monday, May 18, soldiers sighted Prabha-karan around 4 a.m. Later accounts would say that the soldiers were surprised because they were under the impression that the man may have killed himself in a massive explosion that rocked the area sometime earlier. Prabhakaran was then with 18 of his most loyal bodyguards. Heavy fighting broke out between the soldiers and the guerrillas, lasting 90 minutes to two hours. Eventually, the man who had more than anyone else spearheaded a violent and uncompromising struggle for Tamil Eelam lay dead in his battle fatigues, the top portion of his head blown off. By then his son Charles Anthony, being groomed to succeed him, was also dead. And so were Soosai, the Sea Tigers chief, Pottu Amman (who with Prabhakaran was wanted in India for the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi), and LTTE political head B. Nadesan. In a few short hours, the LTTE had been truly decimated, at great human cost.


The story of Prabhakaran is the blood-soaked story of Tamil Eelam, an independent state Tamil militants wanted to carve out of the Tamil-majority areas of the north and east of Sri Lanka. It is a region that is separated from Tamil Nadu by a strip of sea. The movement arose as a result of Sinhalese obduracy bordering on pettiness and the parallel realisation that the parliamentary politics pursued by veteran Tamil politicians of another era would not be able to procure equality for the community.

Born into a Hindu middle class family in Jaffna on November 26, 1954, Prabhakaran was the youngest of two sons and two daughters. His father, a strict disciplinarian, was a junior government employee. Growing up amid escalating Tamil-Sinhalese tensions, Prabhakaran took to militancy while still a teenager. He quit his home for good one night in 1972 when the police came hunting for him.

Prabhakaran’s first major act of violence was the 1975 assassination of Jaffna’s pro-government Tamil mayor Alfred Duriappah. The next year, he set up the LTTE. It remained an unknown group until it released its first media statement in 1978. These were Prabhakaran’s formative years when the LTTE saw many ups and downs. He was arrested—for the first and last time—in Chennai in May 1982 after a shootout with a rival militant from Jaffna. He got bail and made it back to Sri Lanka, returning to India in late 1983 after New Delhi took Tamil militant groups under its wings following anti-Tamil violence in Colombo. That followed an ambush by Prabhakaran and his small band near Jaffna University on the night of July 23 that killed 13 soldiers.

Prabhakaran decided early on that India could not be trusted to help him achieve Tamil Eelam. So even as he took sanctuary and material assistance from India (like other militant groups), he set up his own secret network to procure arms and ammu-nition from the world. Fearing that New Delhi might prop up others to undermine him, he took the initiative and destroyed the most powerful rival Tamil militant group TELO in April-May 1986. After a run-in with the Indian administration in Tamil Nadu, the LTTE chief quit India for good in January 1987. In July that year he flew to New Delhi and met Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and gave his reluctant approval to an agreement New Delhi and Colombo signed in a bid to end Tamil separatism.

After a perfunctory surrender of weapons, Prabhakaran took on the Indian Army deployed in Sri Lanka’s northeast under the accord. The war lasted till the Indians went home in March 1990, after losing nearly 1200 men. Prabhakaran began to lord over large areas of the northeast. Jaffna became a de facto Tamil Eelam. But he lost it in December 1995. The LTTE, however, continued to dominate the military field although it could not win an outright victory. The continuing stalemate led to Norway’s intervention..

By then, however, the once militant group had perfected suicide bombings and turned cold-blooded assassinations into a fine art. Prabhakaran spared no one who he thought was a foe. Tamil politicians as well as militants were targeted without mercy. So were Sri Lankan political leaders. In May 1991, Prabhakaran committed his first major blunder. On his orders, a woman suicide bomber blew up Rajiv Gandhi while pretending to touch his feet at an election rally at Sriperumbudur near Chennai on May 21, 1991. India outlawed the LTTE the next year, the first country to do so.


Over a period of time, repeated jaw-dropping assassinations and military feats gave the impression that the LTTE had become invincible. By the time Norway stepped in, Prabhakaran was the de facto emperor of the northeast, including those areas he did not physically control. He had his own army, navy, a rudimentary air force, a deadly intelligence wing, a police force et al.

However, instead of using the internationally backed peace process to take his case forward, he tripped it by continuing to resort to assassinations and forcing young Tamils from poor families to join his army. Even sympathetic Western powers were annoyed over the LTTE tactics. Eventually, the Tigers were declared terrorist in more and more countries, from the US and Canada to the European Union.

Besides the unilateral withdrawal of the LTTE from the peace process in April 2003, what seriously undid the group was the biting revolt by Karuna, the group’s commander for the entire eastern region. The LTTE crushed the rebellion but Karuna escaped, a development it never recovered from.

Prabhakaran committed another major blunder by asking the Tamils to boycott the November 2005 presidential elections. This led to the defeat, by a narrow margin, of Ranil Wickremesinghe, the rival contender who as Prime Minister had signed the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE in 2002. The victor was Mahinda Rajapaksa, viewed as a Sinhalese hardliner. The LTTE calculation was that it would sharpen the ethnic conflict to its advantage. It was a gross miscalculation.

Prabhakaran was by now in a hurry. After saying he would give Rajapaksa one year, the LTTE began to provoke the military less than a week later. Events galloped fast. An audacious attempt to assassinate the army chief at his own headquarters in the heart of Colombo failed in April 2006. By the middle of the year, war had erupted. The LTTE now tried to kill Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary of Sri Lanka and a brother of the President. That too failed, irrevocably turning both survivors against Prabhakaran.

In 2007, the LTTE lost its entire eastern region to the government, for the first time in 15 years. It thought, wrongly, that the military would not dare to attack the north, the LTTE citadel. One reason for this thinking was its belief that it could never be vanquished in the battlefield. But Colombo was now determined to bring the Tigers to heels. It slowly began to capture territory in the north. Prabahakaran, his reading very much wrong, mocked at the President in his annual speech in November 2008, daring him to seize the north. Sri Lanka took on the challenge. Killinochchi fell at the dawn of this year. The LTTE screamed foul, accusing Colombo of committing carnage. As months rolled by, it asked the international community to intervene. Sri Lanka adamantly refused to halt the war. Just as a new government began to unfold in India, Prabhakaran lay dead.

The author is Executive Editor with IANS, New Delhi, and a long-time Sri Lanka watcher. He is the author of two books on Tamil militancy: Tigers of Lanka (1994) and Inside an Elusive Mind (2003). The latter is an unofficial biography of Prabhakaran.

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