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Why Prabhakaran refused to meet Akashi

The refusal won't surprise those who have seen the Tigers grow from a ragtag group to be the world's most powerful rebel outfit.

india Updated: May 08, 2006 14:59 IST

Tamil Tigers chief Velupillai Prabhakaran's curt refusal to meet Japan's special envoy Yasushi Akashi is a well thought out public snub that will not surprise those who have seen the Tigers grow from a ragtag group to be the world's most powerful insurgent outfit.

Pride, dignity and self-respect are immensely important to Prabhakaran and closely linked to the struggle for Tamil Eelam, even if others consider the goal a mirage.

Almost two decades ago, in early 1987, Prabhakaran met V Balakumar, a leader of another Tamil group and now with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in Jaffna.

Prabhakaran had quit India for good after a tumultuous three and a half years in Tamil Nadu.

Balakumar asked Prabhakaran if he would go back to India, a country Sri Lankan Tamils then almost worshipped as their motherland.

"If India needs me, they can send a chopper and invite me. Otherwise I won't go," was Prabhakaran's reponse.

Balakumar argued that this would never happen and that India did not need the Tamils as much as the Tamils needed India.

The LTTE chief said: "I don't agree. If they need us, they can invite us."

Coincidentally, that is exactly what happened. In July 1987, after a complex interplay of fighting and diplomacy, India despatched two military helicopters to Jaffna to pick up Prabhakaran to ferry him to New Delhi for a meeting with then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Once things went sour for him, Prabhakaran swore vengeance. Gandhi got killed in May 1991.

After the assassination of Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August 2005, peace facilitator Norway changed gears.

It decided, among other things, not to settle in future for meetings with just SP Tamilselvan, the LTTE political wing leader, but insist on talks with Prabhakaran.

The argument was: since Colombo leaders met Erik Solheim whenever the latter desired, why should Prabhakaran be so choosy?

But that is not going to happen. Although Solheim met Prabhakaran in January this year, it is the latter who will continue to pick who he wants to meet - and when.

Western players who think that Prabhakaran will be eager to court them so as to gain some sort of legitimacy are sadly mistaken.

Not long ago, a once-high-profile Colombo-based diplomat insisted on meeting Prabhakaran.

The LTTE politely turned down the request and asked him to meet Thamilchelvan instead.

When the diplomat persisted, he was told, politely but firmly, that he should either settle for Tamilselvan or someone more junior!

Prabhakaran was just another player in Tamil militancy when he began to live in India in late 1983.

But the man grew rapidly in stature as the LTTE took on the Sri Lankan state and positioned himself within years as the sole player in the battlefield.

On his way back to Jaffna from India in August 1987, Prabhakaran took off his slippers (a Tamil trait to show courtesy) while entering the office of an Indian general in Chennai.

It is the same man who has refused to meet Akashi though Japan is one of the co-chairs to the peace process. Why?

A safe - and logical - guess is that Prabhakaran feels there is nothing for him to gain from such a meeting.

From the LTTE's perspective, the Norway-brokered peace process is unlikely to generate further dividends.

The outgoing chief of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission has already declared that the international community recognised the LTTE only for the sake of the peace process, which, like the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord, has become a 'peace trap' for the Tigers.

Significantly, while some Western diplomats think that Prabhakaran is only isolating himself by putting himself in a cage, the fact is he interacts with a fairly large number of people including from Tamil Nadu.

In Prabhakaran's eyes, a Tamil Nadu politician is a more valuable ally than a Western player despite the fact that the LTTE has a string of offices in the West.

If war breaks out again in Sri Lanka, the reactions in Tamil Nadu and India would be more crucial to its outcome than anything Tokyo might feel or do.