Sri Lanka politics and commentary

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Friday, May 22, 2009

The last days of Thiruvenkadam Veluppillai Prabhakaran

by D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Thiruvenkadam Veluppillai Prabhakaran is no more!

The body of the 54 year old supreme leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) was found on Tuesday May 19th near the Mullaitheevu lagoon known as “Nanthikkadal” (sea of conches). He had gunshot wounds in the head and forehead.

[Thiruvenkadam Veluppillai Prabhakaran]

Thus ended the life of the man who was once described by the LTTE’s political strategist, Anton Stanislaus Balasingham, as both “the president and prime minister of Tamil Eelam”. Army commander Sarath Fonseka announced the death officially at 12.15 pm on the 19th.


The ephemeral nature of power was illustrated vividly by the death of Prabhakaran who controlled what was perhaps the most powerful guerilla organization in the world and was raised to divine status as “Sooriyathevan” (Sun God) by his sycophantic followers.

The circumstances of his death were , just as in life , mired in controversy.His demise was anticipated before it happened. The discovery of his corpse was revealed in sections of the media even before it was found.Then the LTTE’s chief of International relations , Selvarasa Pathmanathan alias KP issued a denial of the death of his leader.

This has resulted in a bizarre situation where the Tamil diaspora remains overtly calm and cool while the media in Sri Lanka and abroad are going to town with news of his death as well as obituaries .

What is worse , there seems to be division among LTTE and pro-LTTE ranks overseas about how to respond to the leader’s death. One faction wants to acknowledge it , pay homage to Prabhakaran and proceed from there.

The others want to deny it and perpetuate the myth that the LTTE leader is alive. Elaborate efforts are on to circulate doctored images of Prabhakaran and also audio cassettes. The idea is to project an impression that Prabhakaran is safe in the north-eastern jungles leading a guerilla campaign with the participation of remaining cadres.

It remains to be seen as to how this charade will be played out in the future. At the heart of this diaspora dilemma is the fact that fund-raising will dwindle if the people realize that Prabhakaran is dead. Also there are many money-making concerns run by “front” persons on behalf of the enemy. Let us also remember that the “Mafia” had its roots in the freedom movement of Sicily.

Furthermore there is also the “cold war” going on between LTTE factions. The overseas branch officials are the loyalists of Castro who was in charge of Overseas administration. They resent the appointment of Selvarasa Pathmanathan alias KP as the new global tiger chief.

In addition the intelligence chief Pottu Amman has also established his own network of operatives and spies. At present the Castro and Pottu factions are ganging up to dislodge and undermine KP whose “strength” was his closeness to Prabhakaran.

While these sinister games are on the departed LTTE leader is being denied his due after death. Given the sycophantic praise showered on Prabhakaran by diaspora and Tamil Nadu acolytes during his lifetime one would expect a series of ceremonies worldwide to honour the memory of the man who fought for his cause for more than 30 years. But with the tiger camp divided there seems to be no indication about any of his supporters trying to write or talk about Prabhakaran’s death let alone paying tribute .

It is against this backdrop that I write this piece.

It is neither a biography nor an eulogy. It is not even a critique or analysis. What I hope to do is to try and shed some light at least on the circumstances leading to Prabhakaran’s death.

I have attempted to piece together the events preceding his demise and compile a brief account of his last days from various “informed” sources on either side of the ethnic divide.


It appears that Prabhakaran and the LTTE had not been unduly concerned about the advancing Armed forces for quite a while. The tigers were confident that the army would not be able to proceed beyond a certain point.

This assessment got skewered after the fall of Paranthan which was a major turning point. Paranthan was followed by Kilinochchi and then Elephant pass.

The hasty evacuation of cadres trapped in the peninsula through a “mini-Dunkirk” type of operation indicated that the tigers were indeed caught napping.

Even after losing the Jaffna-Kandy road or A-9 highway and all areas to its west the LTTE was yet confident of withstanding the army for a much longer period in areas east of the A-9 highway.

The final option was to “carve” out an area of about 350-450 sq km in Mullaitheevvu district with access to the coast and then defend it strenuously.

But the rapid progress of the Army during this phase took the LTTE by surprise. Within a relatively quick period the various military divisions and task forces had made sweeping strides into tiger territory.

As a result the LTTE and hundreds of thousands of civilians were boxed into a small space that kept on shrinking as the army began advancing.


It was then that the alarm bells began ringing. The civilian casualty toll also started rising as more and more people were crammed into less and less land while the armed forces intensified operations.

Now the diaspora got into the act. Tamils began engaging in world-wide protests and demonstrations. There was a powerful intensity to these.Tamil Nadu too started boiling. New Delhi was under pressure.

It was here that Prabhakaran made four grave miscalculations. Underestimating in two and overestimating in two.

He overestimated the impact and influence of the diaspora in the west and the pro-tiger lobby in Tamil Nadu. The unfolding civilian catastrophe was his trump card.

Prabhakaran thought the western nations could be made to exert adequate pressure on Colombo and make it call off the war. Likewise he thought the passionate emotions of Tamil Nadu could sway New Delhi into moving against the war.

If these were overestimation errors , he also underestimated badly the Rajapakse regime as well as the armed forces.

Prabhakaran did not expect the armed forces to keep on progressing relentlessly as they did.But despite heavy losses the military juggernaut kept on rolling forward.

More importantly he expected President Mahinda Rajapakse would cave into pressure and call it quits. Then again Rajapakse too did not succumb and went ahead with the military campaign.


But the biggest blunder of all was to believe wrongly that the LTTE could at some point deliver a crippling blow on the battlefront and exact a heavy casualty toll. This would demoralize the army and help reverse the process , he surmised.

The politico-military situation deteriorated but Prabhakaran living in a fool’s paradise was pretty sure that at some point the military drive would come to a halt. Thus he continued to stay put.

If Prabhakaran was so inclined he could have either relocated clandestinely to the Wanni or Weli-Oya/Manal Aaru jungles or escaped by sea to South-east Asia. But he did not do so.

Apparently he was relying very much on the massive counter-offensive being planned to destroy army defences in the Puthukkudiyiruppu region. But the debacle at Aanandapuram resulting in the deaths of 623 cadres including his northern force commander “Col” Theepan soured those plans.

Even as the army drew closer and closer to the beleaguered tigers the senior deputies began entreating Prabhakaran to withdraw from the war zone. But Prabhakaran , stubborn and obstinate, would not listen.

As the situation became increasingly perilous Prabhakaran’s point man overseas KP tried to salvage the situation. KP the LTTE’s former chief arms procurer proclaimed as wanted by Interpol was now the global tiger chief.


Using perhaps the wheeler-dealer techniques learnt through hands on experience in the arms bazaars of the world the talented Mr. Pathmanathan tapped into his vast reservoir of contacts . In a remarkably short time span KP was interacting with many influential people.

The diplomats of at least four western nations, UN functionaries in Geneva and New York,a foreign cabinet minister, a few prominent western journalists were all in touch with KP.

A tentative plan was conceived. Basically it envisaged the LTTE surrendering to a third party namely the UN but with firm guarantees from two powerful nations in the Western hemisphere. The possibility of troops from those countries landing in Mullaitheevu to supervise the “surrender” was also not ruled out

A three-tiered formula regarding the future of LTTE leaders and cadres was also mooted. The top leaders not exceeding fifty along with families were to be given safe passage outside Sri Lanka to a secret destination.

The middle-level functionaries were to face trial in Sri Lanka and be given comparatively light sentences. They were to be rehabilitated after being given some vocational training.

The low-level cadres particularly the new conscripts were to be given a general amnesty. They would be on parole for a period of time and be subject to monitoring.

There was a simple rationale behind this plan strongly backed by a very powerful country . The prevailing situation was seen as a “hostage” situation. The LTTE was seen as a ruthless group holding their own people as hostages.


So some form of negotiation was required where a bargain had to be struck in order to get the tigers to let the people go. This necessitated some “time and space “for protracted talks. Hence the request for an extended ceasefire known as the “humanitarian pause”.There was no plan to declare a permanent ceasefire.

Needless to say this project was shot down while in its conceptual stage. The defence establishment on the verge of military victory was not going to let the tigers off the hook under any circumstances. This reaction was predictable.

But what surprised some western diplomats involved in the project was the LTTE attitude. Apparently Prabhakaran was infuriated with KP. Prabhakaran rejected the very idea of surrender and reprimanded KP saying “Unakkum Porattatm vellum endru Nambikkai Illaiyaa ?” (Do you also not have faith that the struggle will succeed)

That was that!

But with parliamentary elections drawing near in India another opportunity arose. The emotional climate in Tamil Nadu and incessant propaganda by the tiger lobby made many candidates of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) and Congress jittery. Jayalalitha Jayaram’s new found love for Eelam was another cause for worry.


The DMK and Congress contesting as allies were depicted as traitors to Tamils as they were not concerned about civilians getting killed and injured in Sri Lanka by the tiger lobby . Some newspapers predicted a clean sweep for the opposition.

This resulted in a senior central govt minister from Tamil Nadu initiating a fresh attempt for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka. He even persuaded Sonia Gandhi to go along with the plan.

The LTTE was asked to issue a declaration that it was prepared to lay down its arms pending negotiations. Even the tiger declaration was drafted for LTTE approval.The Sri Lankan govt was also asked to proclaim a unilateral ceasefire.

But the LTTE failed to utilize the opportunity. The tigers consulted their chief supporters in Tamil Nadu like P. Nedumaran and Vaiko. Unwilling to let the Congress and DMK gain credit the duo advised the LTTE to reject the offer.So the LTTE said “illai” (no)

These moves were on with the concurrence of Muttuvel Karunanidhi the Tamil Nadu chief minister. The octogenarian leader, on a sudden whim, went on an indefinite fast.The situation was volatile.

A frantic New Delhi appealed to Colombo. Appreciating India’s concerns the presidential secretariat issued a statement that combat operations had ended and that heavy artillery or aerial attacks would cease.

Indian Home minister P. Chidamparam ran to Karunanidhi and “convinced” him that a ceasefire was on. “Kalaingar” as he is known created a world record by calling off his fast after 5 hours.

The crisis was managed. The war however continued in Sri Lanka.


Meanwhile the Sri Lankan govt had also declared two limited ceasefires. One was for three days from February 1st to 3rd. The other was for two days on April 3th and 14th. The purpose was to facilitate civilians moving out from the war zone.

But the LTTE imposed further restrictions and the number of civilians coming out dropped during ceasefire days. But the LTTE exploited the ceasefire in february to mount a very effective counter strike on Feb 4th. The april ceasefire was used to construct several new “trench cum bund” defences.

Time was running out. The govt resolved to get really tough. Brig. Prasanna de Silva commanding the 55 division was “transferred” to the 59 division stationed in the south of the “war zone”.

A three-pronged drive commenced with the 58 led by Brig. Shavendra Silva proceeding north to south, the 59 moving from south to north and the 53 commanded by Gen. Kamal Gunaratne proceeding from west to east

After intense fighting resulting in thousands of civilians being killed and injured the 55 and 58 linked up along the Indian ocean coast. The 53 hugged the lagoon banks and moved inwards. The people and tigers were trapped and boxed in.

In a fresh development there was heavy internal pressure on Prabhakaran. The 2002 ceasefire had seen a lot of cadres marrying. Most marriages were between male and female cadres. Many of these families had two or three young children.

The intensive shelling had resulted in a lot of deaths. Apart from those more than 800 tigers were seriously injured. Around 2000 family members were also injured. The LTTE leader had to do something.

There was also the very high levels of civilian casualties. The govt had stopped the ICRC ships from fetching the injured. The makeshift hospital was under attack and medical staff hiding in bunkers. The intensive shelling had caused much harm. Thousands had died. Thousands of injured people were dying without medical attention. There was a severe shortage of food and drinking water.

The LTTE had brought the civilians to this state promising protection. The tigers had also restrained the civilians from fleeing through force. The LTTE had to do something to save the lives of cadres and civilians. Even the kith and kin of tiger cadres were civilians in every sense of the word.

So Prabhakaran changed his mind again and asked KP to negotiate the surrender to a third party. But it was too late. The defence establishment poised to destroy the LTTE was not going to let that opportunity slip. Colombo stood firm.


So KP was informed that there could be no third party surrender. The LTTE had to surrender “individually” to the Army. KP’s statement of being ready to “silence their arms” and enter negotiations was of no avail.

When told of the situation, Prabhakaran was furious.KP was berated. Prabhakaran and the senior tigers went into a brain-storming session. A decision was reached to launch a tripartite venture.

One group of tigers including Prabhakaran was to break out from trapped positions and cross the lagoon and Paranthan-Mullaitheevu road or A-35 highway.. Thereafter the tigers would move into the vast Wanni jungles and operate . Some would move to the East.

A second group of tigers would contact the army and negotiate terms of surrender. The main objective was to obtain urgently needed medical treatment for injured cadres, family members and civilians.

The third group was to engage in fierce rear guard action. There was an impression among the tigers that the 58 commander Shavendra Silva was more “humane” than new 59 commander Prasanna Silva. The LTTE wanted to delay the 59 as far as possible to gain time to negotiate with 58.

The tiger contingent tasked to fight to the last was led by none other than Charles Anthony the eldest son of Prabhakaran. He was to be assisted by special commander from the east ,Ramesh.

Since Prabhakaran had often been accused of letting other people’s children die while cherishing his own, the LTTE leader’s first born was to be sacrificed. Incidently Charles born in 1985 had cut his teeth in active combat during the recent fighting. Earlier he was involved with the LTTE air wing and computer division.

The negotiation attempt was to be conducted by political commissar Nadesan and peace secretariat director Pulidevan. KP in Europe had interacted with several officials and diplomats. They in turn had been in touch with Colombo.

A Tamil National alliance (TNA) parliamentarian from the East Chandranehru Chandrakanthan had also contacted both the President and defence secretary in this regard. The LTTE was told explicitly to come out with white flags raised high.


Meanwhile the LTTE also released seven security personnel in their custody. Four were from the Navy captured by tigers off the Point Pedro coast in 2006 November when two Dvora gun boats were attacked. Three were soldiers taken prisoner on separate occasions in Muhamaalai and Paranthan last year.

The seven servicemen turned themselves in to the 59 and informed them of the tiger offer to surrender. They were advised to return and bring the tiger political leaders.

So Nadesan, Pulidevan and Vijitha the Sinhala wife of Nadesan came out with the released prisoners, carrying white flags.The idea was to negotiate terms of surrender with the army.

Subsequently all three were found dead in mysterious circumstances. The LTTE has charged that both were shot dead in cold blood. A Tamil website says that Nadesan’s wife an ex-police constable hailing from Matara district had remonstrated with the army to save her husband and got shot. She had come along for interpreting.

It is alleged that 35 tigers were following Nadesan a little behind to surrender. They too were shot dead.

But foreign secretary Palitha Kohona has said that some tigers who disapproved of surrendering to the Army had fired and killed Nadesan and Pulidevan.

The truth is yet to be revealed. Also unclear is the fate of those injured cadres and family members and other civilians who intended surrendering to the army.


While these moves were on the LTTE launched a massive attack on the armed forces shortly after midnight on Sunday. This was because of numerology as Sunday was the 17. Once midnight passed it was Monday 18th. There was a time when the LTTE would not engage in major operations on the 8th, 17th or 26th. Because No 8 was considered unlucky.Subsequently these superstitions became irrelevant but at this critical juncture the “Eight” phobia was on.

The attack was in three directions but mainly directed towards the Nandhikkadal lagoon area held by the 53 division. After fierce fighting led by Bhanu, the three tiger contingents broke through.

One was led by Jeyam, one by Pottu Amman and one by Soosai. The three contingents together numbered about 250-300.Almost all military leaders were part of the three groups trying to break out while the bulk of the political wing stayed behind to surrender.


A very large number of black tigers died in the assault as explosive-strapped boys and girls jumped on army positions and blew themselves up . This created the “gaps” for other tigers to penetrate the military cordon.

Though tigers breached the 53 division defences, the soldiers began an intensive artillery barrage in which many died. Also the army had set up layers of defence with more personnel at the back. The LTTE cadres who broke through were to some extent sandwiched later and cut down.

With the assault resulting in failure and many tigers being encircled several lTTE cadres began consuming cyanide. Similiary the tiger “defenders” led by Charles Anthony were also routed and several survivors swallowed cyanide to avoid capture. Charles Anthony was found dead with bullet injuries.The photograph being given wide publicity as that of being Charles Anthony is not his.

The group led by Soosai was initially successful in breaking out. Prabhakaran, wife Madhivadhani Erambu , daughter Duvaraga (23) and younger son Balachandran (11) were also part of the contingent led by Soosai who remained faithful to his leader until the last.

Duvaraga, an exceptionally beautiful girl and accomplished dancer had for a short time been a student abroad. She had returned after a while to be with her family and people. Duvaraga had been a member of the Malathy women’s brigade and had fought in recent battles.

The Prabhakaran family of four and forty-seven others managed to penetrate Nandhikkadal defence ring and move north to the Puthumaatalan area. A message sent on behalf of Prabhakaran to the remaining cadres in Mullivaaikkal stated “udaithukondu poyitram” (we’ve broken through and gone).


This message in turn was conveyed to KP in Europe who was naturally elated. It was expected that the 51 person group would take cover in shrub jungle during day and then move through the night to safety in the jungles. Once this message was sent Prabhakaran and the rest went silent. This was to be expected. Unfortunately this message gave false hopes to KP about the leader being safe.

Though Prabhakaran had at one time hundreds of cadres as bodyguards only 18 elite fighters accompanied him on the flight from Mullivaaikkaal.It has also been said that one bodyguard had a can of gasoline with him to burn the tiger leader’s body if ever he was killed or committed suicide. This was to prevent the enemy seizing his body.

But all these expectations were belied on that fateful day. Prabhakaran’s body was discovered before dawn on Tuesday May 19th lying on the Nanthikkadal bank. Soldiers of the 4th Vijayabahu infantry regiment led by Lt.Col Rohitha Aluvihare claimed to have found it.

[Charles Anthony, Madhivadhany, Duvaaraga and Prabhakaran-undated file pic]

Prabhakaran had been shot at point blank range. Four of his bodyguards were lying dead in the vicinity. Later on it was claimed that the bodies of Madhivadhany, Duvaaraga and Balachandran were found in a bushy patch about 600 metres way from where Prabhakaran’s body was found. Charles Anthony’s body was found elsewhere earlier. The entire family had been wiped out.

After news of Prabhakaran’s family being killed got media publicity an issue was raised in human rights activist circles about a “war crime” being committed. The killing of Madhivathany Prabhakaran and eleven year old Balachandran could not be justified in any way. So some sections of the defence establishment are trying to hide the truth behind the death of the family.

Also the bodies of many senior leaders and commanders too were discovered in stages. More than 350 bodies were found. The LTTE was virtually demolished.

The army announced that the bodies of people like Soosai, Bhanu, Lawrence, Pappa, Laxmanan, etc were found. There is some doubt as to whether the body of Pottu Amman or those of his family were discovered.

Expectations (shared by this writer too) that the LTTE leader’s body would never be discovered or found intact, were proved wrong. Pictures released by the Army and defence ministry showed him in uniform and later in his underwear. He was wounded in the head and forehead. The Army says he was not carrying the cyanide capsule (I doubt the army in this). In one picture Prabhakaran’s open eyes indicated that he was “startled” at the time of his death.

There is much controversy about the death of Prabhakaran. While some Tamil circles argue that Prabhakaran is not dead others are speculating about how he died. Many have raised doubts about the army version.

Some say the family was surrounded and therefore surrendered to the army and were later executed in cold blood. Others say Prabhakaran himself shot his family and then killed himself after being surrounded. The Army later put a “spin” to this reality, they allege.


Adding to the confusion was premature news about his death. It was anticipated on Saturday May 16th itself when the military intelligence received information that Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman had either been killed in shelling or taken their own lives. Both going “silent” during the week-end increased this suspicion.

There had also been speculation that the Army had killed Prabhakaran and other top tigers by Saturday May 16th itself. It was said that news of the killing was being withheld for President Rajapakse to return from Jordan and make the announcement himself (This writer too wrote about this).

But Rajapakse who returned on Sunday (May 17th) addressed the nation on Tuesday (May 19th) and as expected Wednesday (May 20th) a national holiday.Interestingly when President Rajapakse delivered his address the death of Prabhakaran had not been confirmed and so there was no reference to it.It was after the address that the news was confirmed.

Then on Monday May 18th there was news about three persons trying to get away in an ambulance. The vehicle was destroyed by the army and the charred body of one person was supposedly that of Prabhakaran’s. Sections of the media went to town with the news that Prabhakaran’s body had been found.

But that was wrong and it was only the next morning that the body was discovered. But news had been published already that it had been found. The subsequent discovery of his body on Tuesday does not take away the fact that the earlier news was wrong.

On Tuesday former eastern LTTE leader “Col” Karuna and ex-tiger spokesperson Daya master identified the body.Some journalists and army officers also confirmed it.

But KP created confusion by claiming that Prabhakaran was safe and alive. Presumably KP was relying on his earlier information that the tiger leader had broken through.This fuelled much controversy about the death.

Ultimately Gen. Sarath Fonseka made an official pronouncement that the LTTE leader was dead. Later President Rajapakse himself informed visiting Indian national security adviser MK Narayanan and Foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon that Prabhakaran was dead. India was told a death certificate would be provided.

If Prabhakaran is really alive as some allege and he turns up in the future the President and Army commander’s credibility will be severely eroded.President Rajapakse and Gen. Fonseka cannot be unaware of this and therefore must have been very certain indeed that Prabhakaran was dead.

The onus now is on KP to either admit the LTTE leader’s death or furnish proof that he is still alive. Meanwhile many Tamils will continue to believe that Praba lives.The myth will be perpetuated due to an emotional inability to accept reality and because of vested interests who cannot let the goose laying golden eggs simply “die”.

What is pathetic about the pro-tiger Tamil diaspora is that they are not only denying their departed leader tribute and homage but also depriving all the other senior tiger leaders due recongnition after death. The LTTE that made a fetish out of commemorating their dead (great heroes) is being denied any form of recognition let alone glorification after such mass death.


It is however imperative that the Government issue a comprehensive statement explaining the deaths of Prabhakaran and his family. Otherwise a dead Prabhakaran will be as controversial as a Prabhakaran living. A dead Prabhakaran projected as being alive can be even more troubling.

The Government must also be held accountable for the massive scale of human rights violations and alleged war crimes perpetrated.

The Govt must reveal how many civilians were killed or died in ths cruel inhuman war and under what circumstances.

The Govt must disclose the fate of those injured tiger cadres and civilians related to them.

The Govt must reveal the truth whether a number of LTTE members who surrendred or tried to negotiate surrender were executed in cold blood or not.

The Govt must disclose the exact number of tiger cadres or ex-tiger cadres in their custody and where they are and how they are being treated.

More importantly the Govt must shed its secretiveness about the hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians in IDP camps and allow access to them.

Prabhakaran who commenced his militant career with a single pistol had over the years built up the LTTE into a powerful movement running a shadow state and acquired the status of being “Tamil national leader” (Thesiyath Thalaiver)

Yet his inability or unwillingness to be flexible had resulted in Prabhakaran losing his movement, family and above all his life in a pathetic manner.

What illustrates the poignant irony of this situation was the sight of his former deputy “col” Karuna now a cabinet minister standing with army officers and looking down upon his former leader lying semi-naked in the sand.

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