The only truly astonishing event about the conflict in Sri Lanka would be the capture or the killing in action of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers — until recently described as the world’s most successful and ruthless terrorist organisation.
After twenty-five years of see-sawing for military supremacy between the Tamil Tigers and the government Armed Forces, the decisive rout of the former should not have come as a surprise. With the US-led Global War on Terror providing the framework, the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) led by the Rajapakse brothers got its act together, pulled out a page from Prabhakaran’s manual of strategic communication by launching a vigorous public diplomacy campaign, enlisted international sympathy and support, transformed a ceremonial army into a modern professional one, and demolished the myth of the LTTE’s invincibility.
While Prabhakaran has not had to work overtime to bolster the perception of indomitability (a media rooting for the underdog takes care of that), he has never fallen into the trap – like politicians — of believing any bit of the illusion he has encouraged others to believe. One single trait that has kept him leaps ahead of the enemy, and competition, has been his far-sightedness. Add to that his extreme distrust of others.
While loyal to the faithful among his troops he has never displayed signs of worrying and troubling himself with over-solicitude for them. The reprisal for any remote sign of irreverence from even his most trusted aides would be death or the doghouse.
Taking a long view of his own survival and the geopolitical issues has kept him alive and kicking. It would be astoundingly out of character for someone who has learnt his basics of military strategy from Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War and Võ Nguyên Giáp, the Vietnamese general who defeated the Americans, to go into battle without an exit plan. A strategic withdrawal to live to fight another day and ensure he is not relegated to a footnote in the history books has guaranteed his endurance and longevity.
The war, it would seem, is over. Not for the LTTE.
All talk of Prabhakaran ending up as an unidentified carcass on the beaches of Mullaitivu after biting into the vial of cyanide he displays prominently around his neck is the stuff of a wishful obituary column. Yes, he would bite into it when cornered – but being the survivor he is, his exit strategy would preempt the need to lead the remnants of his faithful by example.
He has once again successfully rallied the international community behind his cause. The global outcry in support of the remaining 50,000 civilians cornered in the last strip of the battle zone and the increasingly insistent calls for an immediate ceasefire play perfectly well into his plans to save what is left of his dream and the group.
The dream of Eelam has evidently become an even more distant fantasy – but his unswerving loyalty to it will ensure the fight will continue. Having lost the support of over 100,000 Tamils who challenged his diktat and abandoned him to flee for the safety of the army camps, his hope will now reside largely with the Tamil diaspora. The 800,000 diaspora, who he specifically appealed to in his Hero’s Day address when he launched the ‘Final War’ in 2006, has been the group’s lifeline. Prabhakaran has mobilised the diaspora like very few other insurgent groups ever have. Providing the mainstay of his support (funds, networks, lobbyists) the diaspora has unwaveringly stood by him and kept up the sustained pressure for the Eelam ‘cause’ alive across the capitals of the world.
Simultaneously, the group will adapt and redefine its guerrilla tactics in the territories it recently lost. They will count on a lapse in vigilance by the triumphant armed forces and every slight delay on the government’s part to redress legitimate Tamil grievances.
He is unlikely to go into exile – entrusting his surviving commanders to work for his goal would be against his instincts – and experience. One Karuna Amman was enough.
It has become a truism that the only way out is a political solution, not military. Having thrust a very local issue into the international limelight, Prabhakaran has consistently reneged every opportunity to seek a political solution. Every attempt at one – that did not mention Eelam - during the last two decades was doomed to failure. A lasting solution is extremely unlikely with him heading the group. As long as he endures, so will his cause. Therefore, any talk of a lost cause and an endgame in Sri Lanka would be premature.
The military victory could well become another pause in the history of the conflict if the same degree of effort is not invested by the Rajapaksa government to set right the wrongs of previous administrations. And the international community would need to ensure it sustains its campaign against groups branded as terrorists.
None of which would amount to much if Prabhakaran continues to be out there, somewhere.
Shyam Tekwani is an Associate Professor in NTU, Singapore. He teaches Journalism and International Relations. A photojournalist earlier, Tekwani has been studying the Sri Lankan conflict since 1983 and has met the LTTE leadership on several occasions on battlefields and elsewhere