Tigers No More

The Tamil Tigers are on the run. Their ‘capital’ Kilinochchi has fallen to the Sri Lankan military and Tamil Eelam, their self-declared homeland in the island’s northeast, is doing a reasonable impression of an American bank; it has shrunk to around a tenth the size it was a year ago.

In Colombo, Sri Lanka’s all-conquering commander, President Mahinda Rajapakse, has the bloodlust, imagining himself the incarnation of Dutugemunu, the 2nd century BC Sinhalese king who slew the Tamil monarch Elara, or so goes the propaganda adorning the capital’s billboards. The Tigers, Rajapakse dictatorially decrees as he takes control of the country’s media, will be eliminated by year-end at the latest. If that happens, Rajapakse will be the first leader in generations to rule a unified Sri Lanka, geographically at least.

But with his troops poised pincer-like to squeeze that last 10 percent of Eelam into oblivion, a delicate diplomatic dilemma is emerging which could reveal, to use an apt regional metaphor, who is the elephant in this particular South Asian room; what to do with Prabha?

Prabha is, of course, is Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the Tigers’ reclusive 54 year-old ‘great leader’ who founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the mid-1970s and who for the last decade has run a de facto state of around 2 million people with Asia’s closet approximation of Stalinism outside North Korea.

Recherche du Temps Perdu

Prabhakaran is presumed to be hunkered down somewhere inside the remaining patches of Eelam, gathered mostly around the coastal hamlet of Mullaitivu and defended by a few thousand Tiger cadre confronting the 50,000 soldiers of 100 Sri Lankan brigades, and their Israeli-supplied air force. Born a few villages north, albeit in a town long under Colombo’s control, it’s long been an open secret in Sri Lanka that Mullaitivu has been Prabhakaran’s headquarters, preferring its coastal possibilities over the LTTE’s notional capital, Kilinochchi well inland.

All of which presumes that Prabhakaran has not already left the island, spirited away somewhere by his ragtag navy, the Sea Tigers, as many Lankans believe. The speed and relative ease in which the Tigers yielded ground last year suggests Prabhakaran’s much-celebrated military prowess has deserted him, or that he’s not around to exercise it. More likely he is still there but, never the Tamil Montgomery that LTTE propaganda would have it, is making do with what little the Tigers have. Rajapakse’s gains in the north – and Prabhakaran’s vulnerability – have as much do with the LTTE’s paucity of funds and materiel as with Colombo’s military muscle. It became deeply unfashionable after 9/11, as well as internationally illegal, to sustain proscribed political movements, even those claimed to be freedom fighters.

True, the Tamil diaspora has been a reliable source of funds, either by choice or by the extortion of ‘patriotic donations,’ usually a third of income. But as discriminated as they’ve been in Sri Lanka, Tamil expatriates value their adopted citizenships nearly as much as their ethnicity and are wary of openly supporting the movement while abroad. A succession of raids and prosecutions in Australia, the UK and Canada over credit card scams and petrol station fraud have also severely dented fund-raising. LTTE leaders in Australia and Britain have been shut down and jailed. Though the movement’s history says it’s never wise to count out the LTTE, the movement seems on its knees.

But where would Prabhakaran go, if it came to that? Were the LTTE to fall, who would have Prabhakaran if he survived Eelam’s eclipse and chose not to bite into his cyanide capsule necklace that he also demands his guerrillas wear as a symbol of fealty?

This is a man who has killed, or at least tried to, most of the foreign friends he might need now. It’s hard to see any Lankan neighbour providing him sanctuary – Sri Lanka is not important enough nor possesses much of anything to want geopolitical leverage over. The only two SAARC countries that much matter regionally – India and Pakistan – have both been targeted by the LTTE over the years and, post-Mumbai, are hardly likely to welcome one of the world’s most feared terrorists to their shores. Nepal, now that it is run by Maoists after a successful insurgency? Prachanda is busy proving he’s a legitimate leader and, besides, the way to landlocked Nepal is via India, now run by a woman who’s a widow and, it could be argued, in power because of the LTTE’s vengeance.

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Apres le Guerre, Le Deluge

The LTTE is friendless; there’s no upside for anyone in harboring Prabhakaran. He has never held internationally-recognised political office so possesses none of the cachet that goes with statecraft, even among tyrants cloaked in freedom fighter robes. True, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe is a despot but he wasn’t once and at least has been in office so he can call on the favors of old friends say, in Singapore, where he is purported to bank. Prabahakaran has none of this.

The genuine Tamil cause has its sympathisers in the West but Prabhakaran is no Mandela. In a post 9/11 Age of Terror, no Western country – even those home to a sizable Tamil diaspora (Canada/Australia/UK/US/Switzerland) – would countenance hosting an exile who’s wanted by Interpol and runs a movement proscribed as terrorists. The LTTE lost considerable support from the West when it decided to boycott Sri Lanka’s 2005 elections, this while the 2002 ceasefire agreement was still in place and Sri Lanka was at relative peace. Had they joined the democratic process then, the LTTE and its Tamil civilian proxies could have maneuvered as kingmakers. Instead, they blew it. The Tigers’ boycott brought Rajapakse and his three grasping brothers to power in Colombo. The Tigers’ expected friendly payback from him but he subsequently reversed what the Tigers gambled was a softly-softly approach to go after them with menace once secured in office.

True, the Tigers have long enjoyed sympathies across the Palk Strait in India’s Tamil Nadu, notably when its charismatic ex-movie star chief minister, the late MG Ramachandran, ruled the state. Prabhakaran’s folk hero status in Tamil Nadu was at its most luminous in the 1980s under MGR. He allowed Prabhakaran to operate out of Madras (modern-day Chennai), met him often and allowed Tiger militants to train in Tamil Nadu camps that were covertly sponsored by Indian intelligence.

But here again, Prabhakaran screwed up. In 1991, he made probably his biggest mistake, ordering the suicide bomber assassination in Madras/Chennai of then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in revenge for Gandhi despatching the ill-fated Indian Peacekeeping Force to the island from 1987-90. The Tigers have never formally taken responsibility for Gandhi’s killing but they have repeatedly tried to apologise for it. The movement’s late ‘chief theoretician’ Anton Balasingham told me and anyone visiting Kilinochchi when one could that it was “a great tragedy.”

That was in 2003, when India was ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party, Lanka’s warriors were talking peace and the LTTE had renounced independence for Eelam. The BJP were tossed out the following year and the Congress Party came to power, a Congress now ruled by a woman - Gandhi’s widow, Sonia – who in the great sub-continental tradition of dynastic succession would not have been were it not for the LTTE’s killing of her husband. Today, Tamil Nadu is ruled by an ally of Congress while in Sri Lanka, Rajapakse long ago tore up the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire and banished the Scandinavians from the island.

The LTTE knew it had problems in India. Just before his own (natural) death in 2006, Balasingham saw fit to elaborate on his earlier statement on Rajiv’s assassination, saying that “as far as that event is concerned, I would say it is a great tragedy, a monumental historical tragedy for which we deeply regret and we call upon the government of India and people of India to be magnanimous to put the past behind.”

But Delhi was unmoved, calling it a “facile, casual statement that changes nothing. Who are they trying to fool?” The LTTE’s political wing has since kept up the crawling. In October, its chief went on Indian TV to assure Congress and Sonia that the LTTE was India’s “only true friend” in Sri Lanka.

But this week, as the Lankan military closed in on Mullaitivu to present the very real prospect that Prabhakaran might be captured, the Congress Party sought to remind Colombo and the Tigers who’s boss in the region, morally and politically. The LTTE was a banned organization, its spokesperson said, and Prabhakaran was still wanted in India to face trial for Gandhi’s murder. “He is an assassin and we would be very happy if he was extradited to India. We want him to be prosecuted and convicted her for the grave crime he committed,” the spokesman said. As revealing as that statement is about due legal process, perhaps more interesting is that India and others believe the LTTE’s circumstances are so dire that it can make that statement, that the end seems nigh for Prabhakaran, and the LTTE. Not even Norway will take him.

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L'Etat, C'est Moi

Rajapapkse’s most senior general, Sarath Fonseka, has become a Sinhalese hero and would like to simply kill Prabhakaran and his hierarchy, or press him to kill himself and decapitate the LTTE. But that’s what generals do in war, kill the enemy. And while killing Prabhakaran would solve the potential extradition stand-off with India, it risks making a martyr of him, a rallying point for whoever replaces him. The Tigers take martyrdom very seriously, as evidenced by the many well-tended LTTE cemeteries across the Vanni, themselves presenting a reconciliation headache for Colombo and its relationship with the Tamils if Rajapakse’s forces do prevail in the north-east.

Of course, if Prabhakaran were to be captured, Rajapakse would have to give him up for extradition to an insistent India. But it’s hard to see him doing that, as he savors the triumph of victory, not least because it risks the popularity among the island’s majority Sinhalese his so far successful prosecution of this war has won him. Prabhakaran’s scalp would be a genuine war trophy, one for the Rajapakses to savor and politicize as they turn the island into the elective dictatorship many Lankans believe is in their future.

One is minded here of Peru’s Alberto Fujimori in 1992 after he captured the similarly-fabled Abimael Guzman, the self-styled ‘Presidente Gonzalo,’ head of Peru’s Maoist insurgents Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path. Rather than kill Guzman and martyr him for his Senderistas to fight again, Fujimori chose to humiliate him, publicly parading his incarceration. It had the effect of neutralizing Shining Path and demystifying Guzman before his followers as a mere – and ultimately powerless – mortal. Seventeen years on, Guzman is still inside, ironically sharing a cell with Fujimori’s corrupt former intelligence chief who nailed him, and perhaps soon with Fujimori – now on trial in Lima for abuses of office - himself.