Where is Prabakaran?

Print edition : June 05, 2009

An undated picture supplied by the Ministry of Defence shows Prabakaran and his son Charles Anthony (second from right). The picture was discovered by the soldiers in a hideout in northern Sri Lanka.-REUTERS An undated picture supplied by the Ministry of Defence shows Prabakaran and his son Charles Anthony (second from right). The picture was discovered by the soldiers in a hideout in northern Sri Lanka.

THE question that is uppermost on the minds of every Sri Lanka watcher pertains to the whereabouts of the 53-year-old Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) supremo, Velupillai Prabakaran. As the curtains fall on the conventional phase of Eelam IV and the Sri Lankan military is on the verge of ousting the remaining cadre and leaders of the LTTE from the 1.5-square-kilometre area along the Mullaithivu coast, there is no trace of Prabakaran or his family members.

You may hate or love him but no one can ignore the master strategist and ruthless militant leader. Ever since he chose to veto the India-Sri Lanka Accord signed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene in July 1987, Prabakaran has been the icon of Tamil militant politics. Although he was in the forefront of Tamil militancy after he was believed to have killed Jaffna Mayor Alfred Durriyappa in 1975, it is the guerilla war he led against the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) from October 1987 to March 1990 that pitchforked Prabakaran into international limelight.

Since the departure of the IPKF and the cold-blooded elimination of all Tamil militant groups by the LTTE under the command of Prabakaran, all issues relating to the management and resolution of the ethnic conflict in the island have revolved around him. He has led four conventional wars so far. He emerged stronger at the end of the first three. In the fourth war, Prabakaran, for the first time in his career, is faced with a monumental defeat.

The LTTE is a monolithic outfit with a single leader and no second in command. It was only logical that the focus was on Prabakaran throughout Eelam IV. Therein lies the significance of the question as to where he could be at the moment and what is he plotting. Either he is in the battle zone or he must have made good his escape long before the military marched into the last remaining territory under the Tigers. There is no third possibility.

Those who believe he is very much in the thick of the last moments of the war and those who are convinced that he had vanished long before offer sound logic to buttress their theses. The military commanders believe that Prabakaran is among the remaining cadre and leaders. It is essentially based on the premise that the remaining Tigers would not continue their resistance in the face of inevitable elimination at the hands of the military unless Prabakaran was present amidst them.

The last time the military believed that it almost got the LTTE chief was sometime in the second week of April. That was days before Puthukkudiyiruppu, the last major township under the control of the Tigers, fell into the hands of the troops. The commanders are under the assumption that Prabakaran slipped out three or four days before the troops succeeded in encircling the Tigers in the vicinity of Puthukkudiyiruppu. It was in this area that the troops discovered the underground luxury bunkers from where Prabakaran presumably operated.

Ever since, no one has heard from him through the intercepted communication among Tiger leaders or seen any satellite images or unmanned aerial vehicles of him. Senior functionaries of the LTTE, Daya Master and George Master, who surrendered to the military after crossing over along with 1.15 lakh civilians in the fourth week of April after the military succeeded in breaching the 3-sq-km long LTTE earth wall at Puthumathalam, have not thrown much light on the presence of Prabakaran in the area.

In the eventuality of Prabakaran still being amid the cadre, putting up a fight to the finish, will he surrender or swallow the cyanide capsule he is seen wearing around his neck or shoot himself to death? Or will he be killed by one of his loyalists?

His former trusted lieutenants such as Col Karuna, who broke ranks with the LTTE in 2004 and is now part of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, and arch rival and Minister Douglas Devananda are votaries of the school of thought that Prabakaran does not have the courage to face death and will escape or has already escaped from the battle scene.

The possibility that Prabakaran is no longer in the battle zone gained credence on the night of May 15 when Sri Lanka Navy units identified the family members of the LTTEs Sea Tiger wing leader Soosai when they rescued a boat carrying 11 civilians.

The military said that a large sum of money was found in the possession of Soosais family members. If Prabakaran was actually present in the war zone, would he have allowed one of his senior leaders to send his family members away through the sea route? Irrespective of whether or not Prabakaran is inside the war zone, it is difficult to believe that he is the same man who proclaimed in his November 27 Heroes Day Speech that the LTTE would never allow the military to take over the North.

Of course, for the first time in a formal speech, Prabakaran conceded that the military had made unprecedented gains. It read more like a mercy petition to India to bail out his cadre from the relentless campaign by the government forces. However, it bore no signs of remorse for the ruthless campaign the LTTE has conducted since 1987 with India as villain number one. The speech indicated no empathy for the people of India though it was delivered a day after the terror attack on Mumbai.

The speech spoke volumes about the state of the LTTE in the thick of Eelam IV. In Prabakarans own words, the LTTE is pitted against the Sri Lankan forces in an intense war as never before. It is a rare confession from a man who has kept up the fight for Eelam in defiance of the good counsel of the whole world.

The speech made it clear that Prabakaran was banking on Tamil Nadu to build pressure on New Delhi so that it prevailed upon Colombo to halt the offensive and resume talks, and on the Tamil diaspora to mobilise the international community to bail out the Tigers. In contrast to his 2007 speech wherein he had accused New Delhi of abetting the genocide of Tamils being carried by the Sinhala state, the Tiger chief appealed to New Delhi to remove the ban against his outfit.

There were some glaring contradictions in his speech. On the one hand he said that the LTTE was faced with a war like never before, on the other he dismissed the military offensive as neither novel nor huge. Similarly, in his bid to reach out to India, he talked of how his organisation never posed a threat to the geopolitical interests of any country, but in the same breath he boasted about the past record of the LTTE in taking on forces much mightier than ours.

A portion of a particular paragraph in the 2008 speech was partly philosophical and prophetic and partly fanciful. It read, All human suffering springs from unbridled desire. Unless one extricates oneself from the clutch of greed, one will not free himself from the fetters of sorrow. With its greed for land, Sinhalam has entered a militaristic path of destruction. It has sought to build the support of the world to confront us. It is living in a dreamland of military victory. It is a dream from which it will awake. That is certain.

B. Muralidhar Reddy

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