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Enigma decryption

Inside an Elusive Mind. Prabhakaran, by M Narayan Swamy

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Mathematicians term proofing of complex theorems enigma decryption. Veteran journalist M R Narayan Swamy has accomplished nothing less than enigma decryption by authoring an incomparable biography of Sri Lanka's ultra-secretive guerrilla supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran. The fruit of more than 100 interviews in three continents over two years, Swamy's chronologically sound and factually dense book unveils an intimate portrait of the legendary chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Prabhakaran is a "devilishly compelling figure", enjoying semi-divine status in the eyes of his constituency and evoking fanatical commitment from his followers. Right from the July 1983 Thinnaveli ambush, his soldiers have seldom hesitated to lay down their lives for the Desiya Thalaivar (national leader) and his vision of an independent Tamil state in northeastern Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran's "unrelenting propensity to kill" for the cause and rapacious control of LTTE-controlled areas have also given critics ammunition to deride him as a megalomaniac of Stalinist proportions. Swamy's portrait touches both sides of the coin - Prabhakaran the revolutionary and Prabhakaran the control freak.

Prabhakaran's cult figure image among Sri Lankan Tamils owes to the vacuum created by the steady decline of the democratic Tamil political tradition. Gandhian S J V Chelvanayakam's Tamil Federal Party failed to pacify angry and directionless Tamil youth chafing under Sinhalese chauvinism and state repression. Methods of peaceful protest and petition in the face of increasingly discriminatory majoritarian policies by Colombo seemed hypocritical and treacherous to a new generation of radicals.

Prabhakaran, born in 1954 in Valvettiturai, Jaffna, was a child of this disquiet and disenchantment with political solutions. When a Sinhalese mob set a Hindu priest on fire in the anti-Tamil riots of 1958, he questioned, "Why did we not have the capability to hit back? Why shouldn't we take up arms to fight those who have enslaved us?" (p 24)

Early in life, Prabhakaran experimented with improvised bombs, attaching incense sticks to pilfered chemicals. In his teens, he burned a state-owned bus. In 1972, he dropped out of school and slipped away from home to escape police crackdowns on Tamil militants. Igniting the now-famous elusiveness, Prabhakaran destroyed all his photographs in the family album before fleeing.

Leading a harsh underground life in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Prabhakaran forged new ties and alliances among likeminded Sri Lankan Tamil youths. In 1974, he was blamed for half a dozen bomb blasts in Jaffna. In July 1975, 21-year-old Prabhakaran came to national limelight after assassinating Jaffna's pro-Colombo mayor in broad daylight. With instinctive alertness, Prabhakaran eluded the police dragnet. Even as a greenhorn, he was paranoid about security and kept details of plots and plans to himself, sharing them only on a need-to-know basis.

In 1976, Prabhakaran formed the LTTE and announced the death penalty for those who quit or betrayed the group. Bank robberies, thefts of rifles from security personnel and dynamite from factories, and targeted killings of policemen formed the staple of the LTTE's infancy. Bicycle-bound LTTE "boys" became deliverers of death for agents of the state. Prabhakaran's own firing skills were brilliant and largely self-taught (he used to devour weapons magazines and "Teach Yourself Shooting" books).

In 1978, Prabhakaran shot a Tamil MP in Colombo point-blank, launching the first militant strike outside the troubled northeast. Bastiampillai, a police officer believed to be practically invincible, was gunned down by the LTTE in April. Two months later, Prabhakaran used a time bomb to blow up a Sri Lankan aircraft outside Colombo.

Growing pangs in LTTE involved the invariable personality clashes and dissent. By 1979, Prabhakaran quarreled with Uma Maheswaran, a senior leader. Anton Balasingham, the newly-appointed LTTE ideologue, tried in vain to thaw the feud. Amid allegations and counter-allegations over the murder of two LTTE activists close to Uma, and the group majority gainsaying Prabhakaran's demand to be assigned overriding powers, the latter resigned in early 1980.

Old buddies soon came back to Prabhakaran, who rebuilt his base from Tamil Nadu. In 1981, LTTE cadres killed two Sri Lankan army soldiers, the first attack on the military by Tamil rebels. By 1982, Jaffna police stopped carrying out routine functions fearing Tiger retribution. Across the Palk Strait in India, a shootout in the city of Madras between Prabhakaran and Uma ended in the former's arrest by Indian police. Then premier Indira Gandhi, perceiving a role for the Tigers in India's strategic interests, helped Prabhakaran's release and escape back to Sri Lanka.

In 1983, Prabhakaran issued a diktat against voting in elections and projected the LTTE as the only authentic voice of Tamil nationalism. The horrific anti-Tamil riots of that year legitimized Tamil chauvinism and militancy like never before and also heightened Indira Gandhi's interest in training and arming groups like the Tigers. India's patronage turned the race to join militant groups "from a trickle to a torrent". (p 84)

Prabhakaran accepted Indian assistance, but remained circumspect about this tryst from the genesis. The LTTE was the only militant army that did not provide Indian authorities real names and identities of its members being trained in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Unlike other pro-India Tamil outfits, Prabhakaran refused to ease exacting entry norms in the interest of quality (al-Qaeda's growth is also attributable to selective recruitment). Tiger trainees were repeatedly confronted with simmering tensions between Prabhakaran and India. One Prabhakaran follower said, "We should keep a distance from the Indian establishment all the time." (p 100)

Prabhakaran emphasized time and again that Tamils needed to fight "our own battle" for Eelam. Democratic parties like the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) were derided as "India's pets" lacking self-reliance. In 1984, without cognition of Indian intelligence, Prabhakaran set up a super secret wing to procure sophisticated weapons and explosives abroad. This gave birth to the LTTE shipping line and intelligence wing. He also imported anti-snooping equipment on suspicion of his office or home being bugged by the Indians.

In the mid-1980s, the LTTE relentlessly attacked police and military installations in Sri Lanka, switching from hit-and-run operations to sustained guerrilla warfare. Prabhakaran reluctantly joined hands with fellow militant groups to raise the scale of anti-government activities to full-scale internal war. The umbrella organization, the Eelam National Liberation Front (ENLF), however, threatened Prabhakaran's independence of thought and action. Alarmed that the LTTE's unique identity was submerged in the Front, he pulled out in no time.

The 1985 Anuradhapura massacre of Sinhalese civilians by the LTTE prompted Indian mediated government-rebel talks at Thimpu. Prabhakaran openly opposed negotiations, saying that the Sinhalese could never be trusted. His contempt for the Indian government was equally unmistakable for forcing both sides to the table. Prabhakaran realized that Delhi would never allow Sri Lanka's break-up, a policy that collided with his goal of separate statehood for the Tamils. He grew wary of Sri Sabarattinam, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) commander, who was over-reliant on India and rumored to be commissioned to weaken the LTTE. Intending a blitzkrieg, he ordered a decimation of TELO guerrillas across Jaffna, and warned civilians against helping or harboring escapees. According to the Tigers, TELO was pulverized "to prevent the Indian army from landing in Jaffna". (p 137)

Persecution of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan army in response to LTTE pogroms of Sinhalese civilians gave Prabhakaran more and more soldiers in 1986-7. The aura of Prabhakaran was another factor goading new recruits into the LTTE fold. Indian efforts to force the Tigers back to peace talks when they were growing into the most formidable player in the northeast raised Prabhakaran's ire no end. He began to allege that Rajiv Gandhi was "angry with him" and that Indian intelligence was planning his assassination through the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), enough cause to initiate another lightning obliteration of another rival organization. In July 1987, when India's backdoor diplomacy was leading to possibilities of a ceasefire, Prabhakaran unleashed "Captain Miller", the LTTE's first suicide bomber of the Black Tigers squad.

Prabhakaran agreed to the India-Sri Lanka peace accord under duress. He claimed to being "betrayed by the government of India, by Rajiv Gandhi. I have been stabbed in the back." (p 162)His concurrence was only a tactical move to get out of Delhi and return to Jaffna. When the Indian peacekeepers landed in Sri Lanka, LTTE officials thundered, "This will be the Afghanistan of India." As Indian troops spread out far and wide in the northeast, Prabhakaran resented their lording over his fiefdom. He made an aide, Dhileepan, observe hunger strike in Jaffna protesting "Indian military hegemony" and also alleged Indian propping up of rebel groups that Prabhakaran had crushed to pulp.

In October 1987, the LTTE shot dead five Indian commandos and heralded Prabhakaran's biggest gamble. His game plan was to attract Tamils unhappy with the LTTE but now suffering from the mass casualties caused by Indian forces. Verily, the LTTE's dominance over Sri Lankan Tamils swelled in the war against India. Executing Tamil collaborators and traitors was high on Prabhakaran's agenda during this David versus Goliath battle. His secure operations headquarters in Mullaitivu was so well fortified that "even sunlight could not penetrate". The Tiger boss never slept in the same place two nights in a row, and kept some of his closest aides unaware of his whereabouts.

Prabhakaran, the master strategist, also patched up with archenemy Sri Lankan president Premadasa to weather the Indian threat. From June 1989, in the most unbelievable twist, Colombo supplied arms to the LTTE to drive the Indians out. By 1990, the victorious Prabhakaran was the de facto ruler of one-third of Sri Lanka. He set about purging all internal Tamil opposition on charges of aiding the Indian army. Within the LTTE, Prabhakaran weathered possible coups by former number twos like Mahattaya and Kittu. No sooner had the Indian peacekeepers beaten a hasty retreat, Prabhakaran turned against his new friend, Premadasa, by announcing "Eelam War II".

In September 1990, Prabhakaran flagged off the diabolical mission to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi, who was on a comeback trail in Indian politics. In a remarkable sleight of deception, he sent two personal emissaries to Rajiv indicating that the Tigers were willing to make up with the former premier. This put Indian intelligence on the wrong trail and gave the perfect alibi to the LTTE's most high profile suicide bombing in 1991. A "sleeper agent" of the LTTE then went on to penetrate Premadasa's presidential staff and blew the Sri Lankan president to bits in 1993. In 1995, Gamini Dissanayake, the opposition's presidential nominee, was similarly dispatched. Increasing resort to Black Tiger operations reinforced Prabhakaran's image as "someone who could reach anywhere and decimate any opposition". (p 237)

Chandrika Kumaratunga, the current Sri Lankan president, never inspired much confidence in Prabhakaran. He was skeptical of her sincerity and convinced she was acting in tandem with the military. "Eelam War III" broke out in 1995 with even more deadly consequences for civilians on both sides. The LTTE brought down government aircraft using newly-acquired surface-to-air missiles and repulsed wave after wave of army advances. "Prabhakaran proved again that he was a military genius meeting the challenge of a much larger and powerful force." (p 259) In December 1999, Chandrika narrowly survived a Black Tiger attack and went blind in one eye.

As a tenuous ceasefire now holds in Sri Lanka, Prabhakaran has objected to scaling down the Tiger's buildup and armament. Whether he can emerge out of the moniker of lord of the jungle and turn into a normal political leader capable of making pragmatic compromises remains to be seen.

Swamy is unsure if he can metamorphose into a statesman like Yasser Arafat during Camp David or Xanana Gusmao after East Timor's independence. What is certain is that the enigma called Prabhakaran holds the key to peace in Sri Lanka.

Inside an Elusive Mind. Prabhakaran, by M Narayan Swamy, Konark Publishers, New Delhi, September 2003. ISBN: 81-220-0657-4. Price: US$8.70, 290 pages.

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Oct 4, 2003


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