The body identified as that of the Tamil rebels'
leader, Velupilai Pirapaharan, was carried Tuesday
through Sri Lankan troops -- Courtesy
Memories of a much-mythologised rebel
leader by a former LTTE fighter
“Those who bear arms acquire and wield an extreme
measure of power. We believe that if this power is
abused, it will inevitably lead to dictatorship.” –
Pirapaharan, from an interview with N. Ram, 1986
LTTE’s supreme leader and commander, Velupillai
Pirapaharan, along with his wife, children and the
entire leadership of the LTTE, have been completely
wiped out by the Sri Lankan military. The LTTE began as
a guerrilla unit during the 1970’s, at its peak, it
controlled vast territory and built up a conventional
force consisting of an army, navy and air force. The
group won many battles against the Sri Lankan Army,
crushed all Tamil opposition groups functioning in
and was seen as a deadly, brutal and disciplined
recent years, however, the myth of the rebels’
invincibility began to crumble, and within two years
they were cornered into a small area, where they were
brutally eliminated by the Sri Lankan armed forces.
the LTTE came into existence in 1976, more than 27,000
of its members have perished. The brutal war resulted in
the loss of tens of thousands of civilian lives, and
hundreds of thousands more displaced. Many civilians
were disabled due to bombing and shelling. Although I
blame the LTTE leadership for their suicidal politics,
militarism and intolerance of criticism, I believe that
the root cause of the problem was the Sri Lankan state’s
failure to accommodate minorities within the democratic
constitutional framework of Sri Lanka.
LTTE was a by-product of the majoritarian political
landscape of Sri Lanka. However, the internal dynamics
within the LTTE later developed as an authoritarian
structure, and loyalty to the leader was the foremost
precondition. The leader and the organisation had become
Pirapaharan was not a natural born killer with evil
qualities. It was the social and political conditions
that created a hierarchical organisation and, in that
juncture, Pirapaharan took a lead role. Yet in this
process, he became a charismatic leader and a cult
figure, and this in turn changed his personality.
began to believe that he was the supreme controller of
the entire Tamil population, and had the right to punish
or kill those who disobeyed his orders. He was there to
decide what was right and wrong, what was good and evil.
He was there to ‘liberate’ the Tamil nation – and he
would carry out his duty until the nation was liberated.
All those who opposed his methods, meanwhile, he
believed should be eliminated.
this mind-set that led to the escalation and
continuation of the nightmare of civil war and untold
suffering for a people and a country.
1974, and I was 18 years old. As a Jaffna Tamil
middle-class youth and immature idealist, I was
influenced by the Tamil nationalist ideology and armed
struggle, and was able to make contacts with a few of
those who were already committed to this approach. One
day, a short young man came to visit me with another man
named Chetti, who briefly introduced the first man as
Thambi, which means younger brother. That was my first
encounter with Pirapaharan. I did not meet him again for
a while, during which time Chetti had been caught and
detained by the police.
July 27, 1975, Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappa was shot
and killed. Duraiappa was portrayed as a traitor to the
Tamil cause by the TULF, a Tamil political party,
because he had taken the side of the Sri Lankan
government in the escalating unrest. I later came to
know that Duraiappa had been assassinated by Pirapaharan.
that time, I was happy that a ‘traitor’ had been
eliminated. After this incident, around August 1975,
Pirapaharan came to my grandmother’s house, in my
village. (I would normally stay at my grandmother’s
house, as she was very fond of me.) At that time, I knew
that he was a ‘wanted’ person, but Pirapaharan said that
he wished to stay at my grandmother’s house for a while.
Without any hesitation, I said yes.
that time I was tutoring students, which offered the
pretext by which I could ask Pirapaharan to stay at my
grandmother’s house. My father was a very strict man,
and he noticed that while other students went home, this
young man continued to stay at my grandmother’s house. I
was more scared of my father than of the police.
Eventually, he called to ask why this boy was staying
there. I told him that he had some problems with his
parents, to which he responded: “You should not allow
him to stay, as it is not in the interests of that boy.
I will take him to his parents’ house.” I had no choice
but to tell my father that he was a wanted man.
father was taken aback, and told me that if he was a
wanted man, we needed to inform the police. I explained
that this young man was a liberation fighter, fighting
for the Tamil cause. I suddenly became courageous, and
told my father, “One day the same thing could happen to
your son, and then what would be your reaction?”
father had no choice but to accept my argument. This was
the beginning of my contact with Pirapaharan and a few
members of what was then called the Tamil New Tigers.
This was eventually changed to the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam on May 5, 1976.
inspired by Pirapaharan’s dedication and discipline. He
was always thinking of action, and he was a meticulous
planner, efficient organiser and a perfectionist. He was
extremely careful about his own safety and that of
others. His knowledge was also very wide-ranging, even
though his formal education was minimal (he had failed
the GCE examinations on two attempts).
would talk for hours as to how we could build up an
underground network, citing examples of Bhagat Singh and
other Indian liberation fighters such as Netaji. He
would say that the armed struggle was the only way
forward, and that there was no point in engaging in
read about Captain Clive, who came as a clerk in the
East India Company and was eventually able to lead the
British army. He would talk about the Irish struggle. He
was also fond of Tamil historical novels, which
romanticised the valour of Tamil kings and warriors. He
would talk about Israel, and how the Jews were able to
establish a powerful country.
talked about such things he would also say that we were
oppressed by the Sinhalese rulers, because the Tamils
did not have a homeland. Our duty, he said, was to fight
and liberate our country, and that for this reason we
needed to give up family ties, and not indulge in love
affairs or marriage. All of these desires, Pirapaharan
told us, would be a hindrance to the cause. If you were
prepared to fight for the country, he would say, you
needed to have total dedication, which such desires
would only undermine.
years later, the two of us went to see an English movie.
It was a World War II story, in which the mission was to
assassinate a Nazi commander in Czechoslovakia. A Czech
family provided a safe house for the young men on the
mission. After the commander was assassinated, the Nazis
managed to capture the man of this family, and told him
that if he cooperated with them, his family would be
safe. The man decided to tell the truth. At that point,
Pirapaharan turned to me and said, “This is why I
insisted that family life is not suitable for the
Paranoia and philosophy
Pirapaharan’s timekeeping was perfect, though there was
a reason for this. If another did not turn up at the
arranged time, he would not wait, because he would sense
some sort of danger. He would ask people to come to a
station or bus stop, but he would not be there; instead,
he would be waiting a short distance away, to see
whether the individual had been followed. If he had the
slightest doubt, he would simply leave.
his security-conscious mind, he was able to dodge the
police, military and other dangers for more than 36
years. He became a wanted man in 1972, at which point he
destroyed all photographs of himself save for his school
identity card; he did not allow anyone to take his photo
until 1982. He would leave no trace of himself if he
received a letter from another member, he would read and
then burn the letter. I suppose he learned the skills of
survival through the experiences of others who were
caught due to their lack of security.
Pirapaharan’s ideology was derived from the Bhagavad
Gita, the Indian national struggle, the history of the
ancient Tamil kingdoms, the situation surrounding Jewish
statehood and Adolph Hitler’s authoritarianism. His
motto was, ‘Do your duty, but do not expect any benefit
from it.’ He also believed that the soul is immortal,
whereas the physical body is temporal.
‘death’ on the battlefield would thus involve only
detaching the body, while the soul remains eternal. He
believed that in order to fight against evil and
establish dharma, it is essential to eliminate one’s
enemies. On one occasion, in 1976, Pirapaharan and
another LTTE member assassinated a police intelligence
officer who was accused of spying on Tamil youths.
the assassination, he cycled to one of the hideouts and,
coincidently, a song from a Tamil film called Karna (a
figure from the epic Mahabharata) was playing on the
radio. This song was about the discourse between Arjuna
and Krishna, which explained the notion of dharma and
the right to kill the enemy. He was very excited, and
felt that his actions were justified.
Need to be united
felt very strongly that the Tamil cause needed to be
united behind one single organisation. His justification
was that the Tamils’ ancient kingdoms were lost because
the then kings of the Chera, Chola and Pandian kingdoms
were not united. He therefore believed that all the
other organisations should disband and should come
together as one organisation. He also used the Darwinian
concept of survival of the fittest to show how we should
never allow other related organisations to grow in
late 1970s, the organisation was tiny, and consisted of
just 15 to 20 young men. During this time, Pirapaharan
was influential in decision-making and organising.
Although a central committee was selected, he continued
to be the charismatic leader, and without his approval,
no decision was made. Although he was not an
authoritarian figure at that time, due to his dedication
and experience, others inevitably looked for his
remember that he was very caring of the organisation’s
members at that time, and looked after them well. If
someone was ill, he would make sure that person was
looked after properly, and he would become angry if
anyone neglected a sick member. However, if the same
person whom he looked after crossed some line in the
future, he would not hesitate to kill him.
early days, the organisation carried out attacks on
police intelligence officers and those portrayed as
traitors. We also looted banks, and used the money to
buy weapons and to organise camps. Each rupee a member
spent was accounted for. Pirapaharan was also required
to submit his expenses, and there was thus a strict
equality maintained with regard to personal expenditure.
food cooked at the camps was the same for everyone. On
one item, however, this equality was not maintained —
the allocation of bullets. Pirapaharan would expend
several rounds during practice, but allocated the rest
of us only a few. His justification was that because he
was wanted by the police, he had to practice more than
the rest of us.
that time, he always carried a Smith & Wesson .38
revolver, it was his pet. Other than this, we had few
weapons at that time, just some shotguns and three or
four revolvers. Yet he would treat these weapons as
sacred items – cleaning and oiling them every day, and
making sure that they stayed in working order.
such issues, Pirapaharan was puritanical, and believed
the organisation to be sacred. Whoever defied its rules
was seen as impure, and therefore needed to be kicked
out – or killed, if he resisted. When the LTTE chairman,
Umamaheswaran, was found to have been involved in a
sexual relationship with a woman cadre, Pirapaharan
became furious, and accused them both of having damaged
the organisation’s sacredness. They were both forced to
1980, there was a split in the organisation, as a
majority of the members had begun criticising
Pirapaharan for being a dictator, particularly due to
his alleged involvement in the killing of two cadres.
His critics said that he needed to be removed from the
central committee, and that the organisation should be
reformed with democratic principles.
militarism should not be welcomed, they continued, and
his methods were wrong, instead what needed to happen
was the organisation’s leadership needed to go to the
Tamil people, to hear what they had to say before
taking any military action. Pirapaharan was hurt by this
criticism, but refused to accept that he had made even a
single mistake. As a result, the organisation split into
two factions, and a majority of those who left later
founded the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil
Pirapaharan was very angry and disappointed at this turn
of events, and accused those who left of having stabbed
him in the back. He claimed there was no point in having
a central committee, and instead wanted to be the
supreme leader of the organisation. Many of the members,
including myself, refused to accept this proposal, and
he instead decided to leave. We tried to persuade him to
reconsider, but he was adamant, saying that he would not
agree to anything but a one-man leadership.
Thereafter, he went to stay at his uncle’s house, where
he met with two leaders of another militant group called
the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO),
Thangathurai and Kuttimani. (These two were later
massacred in the Welikada Prison massacre of July 1983.)
Both were from Pirapaharan’s village, and they knew him
well. Pirapaharan subsequently agreed to work for them
under Thangathurai’s leadership, and after a while he
managed to convince the other LTTE members to join him.
Kuttimani and Thangathurai were caught by the Sri Lanka
Army in 1981, Pirapaharan was able to re-emerge as the
group’s supreme leader. He refused to accept pluralism
and difference of opinion, and saw those as a hindrance
to the cause. He mercilessly ordered that opponents be
killed, and continued to have loyal followers who
carried out his orders without any question or
hesitation. It was after Kuttimani and Thangathurai were
caught, tortured and forced to reveal information to the
security forces, that Pirapaharan introduced the
suicidal cyanide capsule, which became the symbol of the
the July 1983 riots and the mushrooming of other Tamil
militant groups, the Indian state provided training and
support to the Tamil militant groups, including the LTTE.
I left and re-joined the LTTE a few times during the
early 1980s as a result of the LTTE’s structure and the
urgencies of the situation. Eventually, however, I left
the organisation in 1984, as the internal repression
within the LTTE had become intolerable. The rest is