The death of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the enigmatic leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in a fire-fight with Sri Lankan forces on Monday probably marks the end of the legend of Tamil Tigers he had scripted and directed
Prabhakaran was a product the fifties when a whole generation of Tamils in Sri Lanka turned bitter against the government that proclaimed ‘Sinhala only’ the national language and hurt the pride of the Jaffna Tamil. He showed a violent and revengeful methodology for directionless Tamil youth to settle scores with an insensitive Sinhala chauvinist regime.
A man of many moods, Prabhakaran was no great orator, an essential skill to be a Tamil politician on both sides of the Palk Strait. In fact, he was a shy man who spoke in a low monotone. But still Prabhakaran had a charisma that enabled him to attract his followers who swore personal loyalty to him.
His credibility as a unique leader was carefully built by his daring operations - be it the raid on the Katunayake air base near Colombo in July 1991 or the assassination of President Premadasa of Sri Lanka. His ruthless killings cost him a lot. It turned him paranoid about his own safety. He was shy of publicity and it built an aura of mystery around him. The mindless killings managed to get the LTTE banned in 33 countries.
Prabhakaran’s LTTE was one among the over 30 Tamil militant organisations that thrived in the aftermath of the infamous Black July pogrom against Tamils in Colombo in 1983. In spite of their lofty “free Eelam” rhetoric, many of them degenerated into undisciplined gang of thugs. Prabhakaran, however, set out to make a distinct reputation for the LTTE as a disciplined body of Tamil fighters.
There was a streak of cruelty in the way he enforced his punishments whether using a burning tyre around the neck of the victim or using his pistol gang. Drug traffickers and prostitutes were mercilessly put to death. Yet this man’s iron discipline gave way when he fell in love with Mathivathani. And he breached his own rule that no cadre of LTTE would be allowed to marry. Such was the power of love. This personality contradiction was there in his attitude to the use of child soldiers. He was extremely kind to children orphaned due to military action. Yet he did not hesitate to use them as deadly suicide bombers in his Black Tiger squads. They became the cutting edge of naval operations. By 2008, 356 Black Tigers including 147 young women commandos did not hesitate to sacrifice their lives in land and sea operations.
He loved movies of martial arts; in fact gun-slinging Clint Eastwood movies were a favourite. Perhaps this was due to his love for weapons and the great faith in their power. Prabhakaran had limited education. Yet he showed a readiness to absorb latest technology to improve operational capability. That was how he had built up the LTTE’s capability to design rocket weapons and manufacture most of the munitions required for warfare. The air arm of the LTTE showed the innovative use of light aircraft for bombing.
Prabhakaran had great faith in using psychological warfare techniques as a force multiplier and quickly adapted the reach of the internet to spread confusion in the enemy ranks. He had a natural sense of military strategy, which over the years appeared to have grown a little stodgy.
Prabhakaran glorified death and sacrifice rather than survival and service as the essence of life. He was never comfortable with intellectuals or political pundits. He had little time for politicians or politics because he did not believe in words. In fact, that was the biggest weakness in his leadership skill set. He missed the political opportunities offered by the peace process in 2002 and preferred war because he believed in his own Tamil saying: “Saithu Mudi Illavittal Seththu Madi” — do or die. And he did just that.
Col. R Hariharan (retd.), a Military Intelligence and security analyst, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (1987-90)Contact: email: email@example.com