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Gotabaya Rajapakse is a true believer. His life’s mission was to wipe out the LTTE. While there are those who considered this to be an impossible task, Gotabaya had no such qualms. He believed that he could accomplish in three years what others had failed to achieve in over two decades.

His approach appears to have been similar to the one used to crush the JVP in the late ’80s — that is, fight fire with fire. As in that other bloody crackdown, his strategy was not just to defeat the enemy on the battle field, but also to destroy its support base. He did not differentiate between those who provide money and services, such as safe houses out of fear and intimidation, and those who do so out of conviction. Both met with the same punishment.

People who objected to “disappearances” and extra-judicial killings were not human rights activists, they were “anti patriotic busy bodies” at best, or LTTE sympathisers at worst. The systematic elimination of those suspected, or perceived, to be LTTEers, both in the   south and in the Jaffna Peninsula, was so successful that the armed forces were able to declare that the peninsula has largely been cleared of LTTE infiltration.

Wiped out the JVP hardcore

In a sense Gotabaya Rajapakse could be identified as a re-embodiment of Ranjan Wijeratne, who, as deputy defence minister and foreign minister in President Premadasa’s government, presided over the crackdown that wiped out the JVP hardcore as well as thousands of others who were perceived to be JVP sympathisers. Although the methods used yielded results in the short term, that episode took the country back by at least a decade.

Wijeratne also used the JVP crackdown as a cover to go after the underworld. Dozens of underworld leaders were killed by a special army unit that worked outside the control of legal law enforcement agencies. The killings were blamed either on the JVP or on the many goon squads that operated in the country at that time. Recent mysterious killings appear to be uncannily similar.

In the midst of the cold war the Western world had no sympathy for a bunch of left wing insurgents trying to overthrow a democratically elected government, and so, by and large, they turned a blind eye to the massive human rights violations that took place under Wijeratne’s tutelage.

What probably puzzles Gotabaya and the government is why the same international community is up in arms when the current government decided to use those same methods to battle a group of ‘terrorists.’

Unfortunately for Gotabaya and the government, the world has changed since the 1988-89 JVP crack down. There is no sympathy towards governments, even those that are democratically elected, that violate the basic human rights of its people, even in the guise of fighting ‘terrorism.’ Besides, if the target is a minority race that has been discriminated against over decades, the issue becomes even more potent.

Temporary set-backs

For Gotabaya Rajapakse, air attacks on Colombo were temporary set backs; and international concerns over human rights violations are headaches that his brother the President has to cope with.

Perhaps, as an American citizen, he believes, along with President George W. Bush, that terrorists and their supporters have no human rights and that the laws of the land do not apply to them. And being the President’s brother, Gotabaya gets to do what he wants to do.

The Bandaranaikes and the Rajapakses have this in common; politics is “the family business” for both clans. While his three brothers took to politics, Gotabaya joined the army.

He was not an outstanding officer of the calibre of Kobbekaduwa or Wimalaratne, but he was considered to be a solid, reliable soldier. In an army that was often seen as corrupt, he had the reputation of being a financially honest man. In the early ’80s, selection for Staff College training was an indication that one’s military career was on the right path.

In 1983, Gotabaya, was sent to Staff College in India and his future appeared to be bright. But then, for reasons known only to him, Lieutenant Colonel Gotabaya Rajapakse quit the army in 1991 and emigrated to the United States of America. And that would have been that, had brother Mahinda not been made President in 2005.

Single minded commitment

Having lived for one and a half decades in the United States, Gotabaya returned to the island with a single minded commitment to a cause — the elimination of the LTTE.

In the face-off between Velupillai Pirapaharan and Gotabaya Rajapakse the country sees two people with matching mindsets squaring off against each other. Both are hardnosed, uncompromising, inflexible; both displayed single minded commitment to their cause; both showed minimal concern for democracy, human rights, and international repercussions. And both held on to a simple philosophy;  either you are with us, or you are against us.

At the end it was Gotabaya Rajapakse who triumphed.

— Montage


Velupillai Pirapaharan was an exceptional man. He had to be. To dominate a country and set its agenda for two and a half decades is no mean task. True he got lots of help from an unimaginative and weak leadership of the Tamils and the Sinhalese.

Yet to establish the pre eminent terror organisation in the world is no mean task. To do that Pirapaharan had the right ingredients, single minded commitment, the ruthlessness and the ability to inspire others. But most important was his absolute conviction that his way was the only way to win the rights of “his people,” and his way to use terror against all opponents — the Sinhala state, the Tamils who had enough of him and even Rajiv Gandhi.

While almost all other Tamil rebels groups — there were at least 32 in the mid ’80s — had a political ideology, Pirapaharan had none. He was not a socialist, a communist or a capitalist. His sole objective was the creation of a separate state for the Tamils under his absolute rule. Democracy was anathema for him. There was no room for dissension or criticism. He was after all a product of the country’s political system where power is a tool to be wielded ruthlessly.

Charismatic personalities

Most leaders who inspired people and won their total loyalty either had charismatic personalities or were brilliant orators. Pirapaharan was neither. But his strength was that he understood his weakness. Instead, he crafted a myth by being elusive. Only a few cadres have ever seen him and he rarely made public speeches. The few who did meet the leader were the suicide cadres just before leaving on a mission.

The 1983 riots propelled this rag tag rebel group into a major force. In the first decade   Pirapaharan achieved his first aim — to be  ‘the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people.’ To achieve that he murdered the elected Tamil political leadership and then wiped out all the other Tamil rebel groups.

When the Muslims — the other ethnic group that speaks Tamil — refused to play ball and accept him as their leader, he evicted 80,000 out of the Northern Province and ordered his cadres to massacre as many as possible in the east. His hope was to force the Muslims to flee and make the north and east an exclusive Tamil area.

That too failed and he no longer was the sole leader of the ‘Tamil speaking people’ but the sole leader of the ‘Tamil people,’ a slight but significant amendment that must have hurt his ego no end.

A creation of the Sinhalese

However, Pirapaharan was a creation of the Sinhalese. If not for him, the Sinhalese would have never even thought of treating the Tamils as equals. It is Pirapaharan’s use of terror that forced the Sinhalese to even discuss devolving power and to abolish laws and systems that made them second class citizens.

The ‘Sinhala Only’ policy, the standardisation of university entrances were all aimed at keeping the Tamils down. It is Pirapaharan that gave the Tamils a sense of dignity. Pirapaharan succeeded where the democratically elected Tamil leadership failed for two and a half decades. What the Tamil political leaders failed to achieve by appealing to reason, Pirapaharan did by using fear.

 The tragedy for the Tamils in particular and the country as a whole was that Pirapaharan was politically naïve. If his single minded commitment was what made the LTTE what it became, then his inability to be flexible and realistic ultimately led to its down fall. A successful guerrilla leader knows when to turn his battlefield success into political victories. Pirapaharan failed to understand the new world order post 9/11.

Terror no longer acceptable

The use of terror was no longer an acceptable weapon to achieve freedom. There were no longer ‘freedom fighters’ in this world but mere terrorists. The 2004 peace process with all its faults may have been Pirapaharan’s last chance to win the legitimate rights of his people. The LTTE since then faced the real threat of being irrelevant in the search for a political solution to this issue.

Unless the Sinhalese are magnanimous in victory and any solution offered by the government leads to meaningful devolution, the death of 100,000 people and the suffering of many millions would be in vain.

But whatever happens, Velupillai Pirapaharan will go down in history as having failed in his mission — to create a separate state exclusively for Tamils in the north and east of the country.

— Montage




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