As guerilla leaders go, he is easily one of the most successful ones in history. The Sri Lankan establishment says Velupillai Prabhakaran has fled Sri Lanka and could either be in Thailand or Malaysia; those in India who have fought him are equally certain he cannot have escaped and will never allow himself to be captured alive. But the man who is revered, admired and detested, depending on where you’re standing, is clearly in retreat. The question is, what happens to his legacy.
There is just one painting on the wall in the Sri Lankan Army Commander’s office in Colombo. It portrays a Sinhalese king on an elephant with a vanquished Tamil chieftain cowering at his feet. This is a stylised portrayal of the war between Duttugemunu and Elara in the second century BC in which Sinhala prince Duttugemunu defeated in single combat, Elara, the aging King of Anuradhapura for 40 years. Elara had in his youth led an army into Ceylon from south India according to the chronicle Mahavamsa which describes the incident. To call Elara a Tamil and Duttugemunu, a Sinhalese, is to load modern ethnic consciousness with meanings it did not possess in ancient times. But now more than ever, it is this battle that Sri Lankans, Tamil and Sinhalese, are reminding themselves of, as the Sri Lankan Army has captured Kilinochchi, Elephant Pass and Jaffna and has taken the war into the Wanni jungles and claims it is on the verge of eliminating the militant Tamil movement forever.
Despite being a numerical majority, the Sinhalese have lived in Sri Lanka on the brink of paranoia for the last 100 years or more, scrabbling for space on the tiny island, conscious that 24 miles of water is all that separates them from being overrun by their Tamil minority and 60 million more of them across the water.
The Tamils in Sri Lanka have fashioned their political consciousness not just from the certain knowledge that they can never get fair treatment from the Sinhalese, but also from the confidence (till recently) that race and blood are thicker than water. When the Indian Peace Keeping Forces, returning from Sri Lanka in 1990 were met with Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) placards saying “Indian Tamil Killing Forces”, it was this confidence that spoke out. Things changed after the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi but although first accused in the case, Prabhakaran, stand discredited in India because of this, the sympathy for the Tamils of north-east Sri Lanka is latent but very much present in Tamil Nadu.
On the other hand, who is the man so many Tamils are ready to kill themselves for? His first murder was committed when he was barely 21 — Alfred Duraiappa, the government agent in Jaffna, was killed by Prabhakaran for being a collaborator. Since then, the line between a Left-wing liberation fighter and a murderer has been blurred. How else would you describe a man who ordered blowing up of buses and trains full of poor women and children only because they were Sinhalese?
The war in north-east Sri Lanka is at its most decisive phase ever. Following the election of Mahinda Rajapakse as President in November 2005, Prabhakaran warned the new President that unless there was a constitutional package for the Tamils within one year, he would bear the consequences. LTTE escalated the hit-and-run attacks by inviting government forces to lift the blockade of a water source in Maavil Aaaru in July 2006 which served Sinhalese in Trincomalee district. This was a grave strategic miscalculation on part of Prabhakaran.
The fall of Thoppigala, a large tract of rocky jungle terrain and one of the biggest bases of the LTTE in the eastern province in 2007 was the second major military setback for the LTTE. The demerger of the Northern and Eastern province — a victory won by the Tamils with the help of India after the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, because it represented the ‘homeland’ — was also lost following a court case that the Rajapakse government pushed to smash the quasi-legal basis for claims of a homeland.
But the current phase of the war — the fall of Kilinochchi, supposedly the political capital of the LTTE, and capture of strategically crucial territory of Elephant Pass and Jaffna — has the Tamil fighters boxed into a small territory of thick jungle that the Sri Lankan army is pounding. The east is gone to pro-government Tamil leaders Karuna and Pillayan; the cultural capital Jaffna has fallen too.
All this would have been fine if the Tamils of Sri Lanka had won some kind of victory for ethnic rights, for at the heart of the war is the conflicting demand of Tamil statehood with Sinhalese nationhood and the incompatibility of Eelam within a unitary state. This sadly, is nowhere near being addressed.
The problem is: In guerilla warfare, there is no victory or defeat, and a political solution is the only answer. The military can only create conditions which are conducive from the government’s point of view for a political settlement. India is fond of pointing out smugly that it resolved the Punjab and Mizoram ethnic disturbances through a political solution, recognising the problem was a political one.
But the Tamils are 19 per cent of the Sinhalese population, roughly the size of the Muslim minority in India. True, it is only a numerical parallel. But could we ever have done to the Muslims what the Sinhalese have done to the Tamils? And would we be ready for the consequences?
This columnist, while on a visit to Jaffna in 2000, met the Bishop of Jaffna, and argued with him naively that the greatest gift God has given human beings is the ability to forget. The Bishop looked around him, at the bullet marks and graves around him and said softly: “We will never forget”.