The Sunday Leader

‘Prabhakaran’ — Selfish, Vindictive But A ‘Thamilean’ Hero

Shoot me, if I betray the cause” is Prabhakaran’s most defiant public statement. A few years later, he entered into the longest of all cease fire agreements in February 2002 with Wickremesinghe’s UNP government, brokered by the Norwegians. With much promise on a negotiated solution to the conflict, Prabhakaran sat through his first and only media conference, attended by over 200 local and foreign media personnel in Kilinochchi on April 10, 2002. Asked by a journalist, whether his statement to shoot him still stands, if he gives up “Eelam”, “Yes” he said. “If I betray my people”.

Prabhakaran: hero or villain to Tamils?

He was killed by the Sri Lanka Army on May 18, 2009, seven years after that. Prabhakaran’s death is still a speculative story. In what ever way he died, he could not achieve the “Eelam” he motivated thousands of Tamil youth to sacrifice their lives for.

It is said that revolutionary leaders who cannot achieve what they aspire for, before they are 50 years old, would die in vain, if they don’t simply fade off. This is said about Lenin, Mao, Castro, Ortega and even Gaddafi, as successful leaders who came to power. Prabhakaran was 56 years old and minus his “Eelam”, when he was killed. He nevertheless lived to be an icon of Thamil nationalism, in its savage best.

What impact does his long and ruthlessly authoritative dominance on Tamil society have on Tamil politics? What has he left the Tamil people to continue life with?
One year after his death, there were no reported events on the first death anniversary of Velupillai Prabhakaran — a man who came from nowhere to weave and control the largest, intricate networks of politics and business in the world and also decided the direction of Sri Lankan politics for almost 25 years, while holed up in a fortified bunker, in remote jungles of Mullaitivu.

Entrenched in the memories of Tamil people, he is no image that could be erased  by counter propaganda. As President Premadasa once said, there is nothing “adverse” in propaganda. All  propaganda by this regime, perhaps keeps Prabhakaran alive.

Prabhakaran is more than just a guerilla leader. More than just a hero for the Tamil mind, though with differences in how he is positioned, in different personal etchings of modern Tamil history. In how Prabhakaran is respected especially by the Tamil people in the Wanni, who lived through the bloodiest tragedy in independent Sri Lanka, during the last two years.

Now back in their old village home in the Wanni after two years and four months, a close knit “Mahaveer” family of nine civilians, displaced in 2007 August from a west coast village, travelled through Wanni and crossed the A-9 road before Kilinochchi was captured by the army. They reached the east coast in Mullaitivu in late April, 2009, to be landed in a Chettikulam IDP camp at the end of the war. There were just five devastated people left. Their father reunited with them after some months. The mother and the husband of the sister had died during the long arduous trek in search of safety to life.

The youngest sister and the son of the elder sister were wounded from shells. The other sister had gone missing, fallen sick and transferred to the Vavuniya hospital, says the surviving elder sister. With the elder son’s role and sacrifice as a LTTE cadre before the final war, the emaciated old father of this “privileged Mahaveer” family, he pulls a loud sigh into his groaning chest and murmurs, “Don’t talk about them…..see what they did to us ?” He wouldn’t say anything more about the LTTE or about Prabhakaran.

The eldest daughter, now in her late 20s, resents her father’s tone. She accepts the LTTE blundered. People were shot by LTTE cadres when they tried to cross over to government controlled areas during the last phase, she confessed. “My sister’s husband died from a LTTE shell fired at people. But those can’t be Prabhakaran’s orders,” she says and believes so.
A modern day avatar of Tamilean political culture, what leaves Velupillai Prabhakaran hated by one and trusted by another?

Prabhakaran is first influenced by dissenting Tamilean politics of Jaffna around 1969 – 70, but was baptised as one of the political twins of Sri Lanka’s father figure of Maoism, late N. Shanmugathasan, in forging the first armed Tamil group, the “Tamil New Tigers” (TNT) around 1972. While Wijeweera grooms himself in politics within Shan’s youth movement, Prabhakaran cuts his teeth in the radicalised politics of the armed “harijan” movement that was led by Shan in the late 1960s. It was Shan’s harijan movement in Jaffna that first used explosives in protests. TNT copied the technique thereafter.

With the first murder in SL Tamil politics, the murder of Jaffna Mayor Alfred Thuraiappah, Prabhakaran usurped control of the TNT that was reorganised as the LTTE in May 1976. He further consolidated his power within the LTTE around 1980, after a bitter conflict with Uma Maheswaran who was chairman of the LTTE at the time of the split. A more flamboyant activist, with a cosmopolitan outlook in politics, Uma thereafter formed PLOTE. Prabhakaran, nurturing a life long grouse against Uma, went on to become the world’s most ruthless, but innovative guerilla leader to wage war for a separate “Eelam” state as the self appointed sole representative of Tamil people.

This bloody and ruthless armed campaign for a separate Thamil State, initially funded and fashioned by the Indian government, was then patronised by the Sri Lankan born Tamil Nadu (TN) Chief Minister, M.G. Ramachandran, a venerated Tamil hero himself in TN cinema.

Prabhakaran thereafter moved away to be independent and developed his own ideology of Thamilean politics that attracted TN Dravidian extremists too, who today want to give Prabhakaran’s struggle a new lease of life with the launch of  “Naam Thamilar” (We Tamils) political party.

His brand of Thamilean politics carried a very special flavour. A convert to Christianity, his politics  had the stamp of Chola supremacy with Saivism, different to Hinduism in Jaffna. This new brand of Thamil culture embraced a sacrificial element in life in an obligatory sense. “Cholaism” with a sacrificial obligation, different to Sri Lankan Hinduism that has no trait of life sacrifice. Even “Sathi Pooja” as sacrifice is not a ritual in Sri Lankan Hindu belief.

Prabhakaran’s brand of Thamil politics, that gave “life sacrifice” a venerated greatness as “Thamil martyrdom” is one that binds all Tamils on either side of the Palk Straits into a single, historic Tamil nation.

This culture, with its ‘martyrdom,’ the masculinity and glory of performing martial art and the conviction of obligation one carries during one’s life time was brought into Tiger politics, through “war heroes’ cemeteries”, “heroes’ day” celebrations and “Mahaveer families” being given a privileged status in their Tamil society.

“This was only a personal  ‘cult’. You either accept the cult or you die.” An elderly teacher, who now  has no family to go to, was remorseful in her loneliness. “You any way die…or live as refugees”. She qualified her earlier statement to add that for 30 years, all the sacrifice the Tamil people were compelled to make, was only to have over 300,000 people in refugee camps and over 40,000 killed in vain. “I lost my husband….what for?” She asked and said, “Thambi was selfish,” in answer.

“Thambi” as “Annan or Thalavar” is accepted differently by the young. It is the culture in the Wanni and in the north and east they grew in, over the past two decades. They have lived through Prabhakaran’s rule, not as suppressed individuals and families, but as proud members of a common heroic history that was every where, around them. LTTE propaganda was  there to see, they believed that history and embraced the new “religio-political” culture. Thus the life and how it is accepted by the young Tamil people who were under LTTE control, is different to the JVP imposed ruthlessness on the southern society, during their 1988-90 insurgency.

What is now different nevertheless is the absence of a Tamil leadership, in a society that has been torn and shredded by bloody displacements, through heavy and incessant bombings, shelling and firing that is glorified as a “heroic war”.

It is not only the illogical and politically dumb and stupid elimination of democratic Tamil leadership, ordered by Prabhakaran that creates a vacuum now. It is the inability of existing Tamil leaders tied to the Sinhala regime which waged war that leaves Tamil people rudderless. They simply don’t have a “right” to politically voice the immediate needs of the uprooted Tamil people and when they do, they sound too hollow to believe them.

Meanwhile the TNA being a collection of different political personalities forced together under LTTE pressure, could not play a cohesive role for those 300,000 people caught in the war. Few Tamil people, elderly men all, back in their own Wanni land after six months in IDP camps, thus see no reason to talk politics. Staring at photos of smiling politicians from the debris that was their life time savings, had just one answer when asked about parliamentary elections concluded in April. “Why vote ? Our vote brings nothing to us” they said. For them, the LTTE brought war and it took away all things dear to them and the vote, “that always was empty promises”.

Life in political terms, will germinate slowly in broken and shattered minds, in the absence of trust in the people who offers them answers. There is no alternate cultural life to indulge in. None of the politicians and political parties and groups can still match the Thamilean culture that Prabhakaran and his LTTE established during the past, protracted conflict. In fact these left over Tamil leaderships represent exactly the opposite culture, the young would not want to live with.

A present day Wanni child would not know a history beyond the “Thamil heroic culture” in his or her “homeland”, where LTTE “brothers and sisters” fought a “Sinhala army”. Their heroism is understood as sacrifice for a separate state the Tamils have a right to. That historic belief is what Prabhakaran has left for the future. A historically fashioned political culture that tries to equate itself with that of the Chola empire in its warrior best.

Any claim therefore that the war was a “humanitarian operation” to free Tamil people from LTTE control, holds little validity for Tamil youth, who are still treated as “suspects” or “potential” threats. All the deaths, all the mutilations in life, all the devastations and displacement around them, are no proof of freeing them from the LTTE. The young live as aliens in this whole act of rehabilitation and resettlement, carried out by a government they would not have reason to believe as non hostile to them, the Tamils.

Thus with no political leadership for now, it is the sacrificial, Thamilean culture that Prabhakaran left as his legacy, with its historically venerated greatness of Thamil martyrdom, the young would keep as their political cud to chew on. It would be Prabhakaran’s history they would cherish, in the absence of any social reconciliation that could draw them into a different but more inclusive, democratic culture and expose them to a world with better opportunities. This was the political failure of Sinhala extremism that Prabhakaran was born to and grew through the ‘60s, to become the separatist “Thamil terrorist” and “Annan” of modern Thamil nationalism, all in his ruthless warrior image, even after death.

140 Comments for “‘Prabhakaran’ — Selfish, Vindictive But A ‘Thamilean’ Hero”

  1. Patriot

    It seems like M.I.A. has found a new enemy besides the Sri Lankan government. That would be New York Times writer Lynn Hirschberg, whose in-depth profile of the singer — with a portfolio of wonderfully varied portraits by Ryan McGinley — will appear in the paper’s magazine section this weekend. The comprehensive profile resulted in an online spat, which Pitchfork reports culminated in M.I.A. tweeting Hirschberg’s phone number for all t see as payback. The worst part of the spat? The Times article legitimately has us questioning our love for this brash pop star, who comes across as equal parts humorless ‘terrorist’ aspirant and attention-seeking brat.
    Hirschberg digs into M.I.A.’s family tree, investigating the oft-mentioned role the singer’s father played in the deadly Sri Lankan rebel group the Tamil Tigers, and instead finding that he was associated with the far-tamer Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students. For years M.I.A. has milked her father’s supposed militant past, draping herself in tiger-related paraphernalia and otherwise glorifying the group that “used mafialike tactics” and was known to “recruit child soldiers,” according to an official with the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum contacted by the Times. In Hirschberg’s telling, M.I.A. comes across with all the unfocused fervor of a college sophomore. Passionate, definitely; Noam Chomsky she is not. This wouldn’t be much of an issue normally — we don’t expect our pop stars to be intellectual heavyweights — but M.I.A. is one of Sri Lanka’s most famous exports. As the Times makes clear, such ill-conceived political stances from a vocal star have real-world results.
    Before she was on the main stage working her “terrorist schtick” — as her slightly disgruntled ex-boyfriend and DJ Diplo terms it — M.I.A. was a film student at Central Saint Martins in London. “During her interview for the school, [M.I.A.] says, she told the admissions officer that if he didn’t accept her application, she would become a prostitute or a crackhead or the best criminal in the world,” Hirshberg writes. (The college accepted, and the singer was graciously spared a life of sex, drugs, or crime.)



    • Suresh Jeywardena

      well said. We sinhalese are master of avoiding accusations and we are yet to feel sorry for what happened, not just from 83 but from 48. We are yet to try give them equal rights.

  3. Narasimha Vijendra

    Vintage Voter, you truly are a vintage class to connect July 83 to an election.

  4. Loku Banda

    If the Sinhalese had just paused and thought and acted with genoristy and tolerance there would have been no LTTE, Mahinda and Lanka would truly would have been a Singapore. But, now finally we are almost there – We have a dicatator, a huge harbor , multi ethnic community of Indians and Chinese and finally we are embracing other cultures(we are learning chinese in School). Man who said we are not the new Singapore.

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