Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2589

H. L. D. Mahindapala traces the decline of Velupillai Prabhkaran’s power leading to Thoppigala –the new symbol of national pride

If the year 2004 was bad for Velupillai Prabhakaran then the year 2005 was worse. The first crack in the seemingly indivisible monolith of the LTTE appeared in April 2004 when Karuna, his most able commander, broke away asserting his own regional rights in the east. There were other factors like personal rivalries as well that made them lock horns. But the underlying factor of regional differences between the northern and eastern Tamils surfaced once again to divide the Tamil separatists.

To create the political fiction of a pan-Tamil movement, stretching like a single unbroken thread from Mannar in the western coast to Kumana in the eastern coast, the eastern Tamils were recruited hastily and opportunistically in the 50s and 60s by the vellahla leadership of Jaffna with offers of some senior positions in the federalist/separatist party. However, it was a movement that never consolidated itself into a rock-solid front of all Tamil-speaking peoples in all regions.

To begin with, the Jaffna Tamils referred to the eastern Tamils as “Batticoloa Tamils” – a label that immediately reduced the status of the “Batticoloa Tamils” below that of the so-called superior “Jaffna Tamils”. But the vellahla elite needed the “Batticoloa Tamils” (and anybody who spoke Tamils, including the estate Tamils and the Muslims of the east) to serve their over-ambitious separatist goals by manipulating mono-ethnic extremism, or better still, Jaffna jingoism.

The vellahla elite went all out to woo the Batticoloa Tamils by throwing some scraps from their table to the lesser Tamil-speaking folk from the east. Prabhakaran too beefed up his dwindling cadres with Batticoloa Tamils who were treated as equal in sharing the anti-Sinhala ideology but not in sharing positions in the Tiger hierarchy. Though he was not a vellahla he handpicked only the Jaffna-based cadres whom he could trust to key positions in his politico-military outfit. The tendency of the separatist movement, whether in the hands of the vellahalas, or the low-caste Tigers, was for the Jaffna-oriented leadership to dominate with other Tamil regionalists playing a secondary role. Consequently, the regional, economic, cultural and caste difference failed to hold them together cohesively for long as one community sharing one political destiny. The vellahlas of the north and the mukkuvars of the east did not see eye to eye on many competing issues.

Colonialism sharpened their differences. For instance, the vellahla Jaffna Tamils dominated the government service and the professional class with high political ambitions of creating a separate state with, of course, the vellahla elite sitting on top of all other Tamil-speaking people. The Batticoloa Tamils, however, were more from the agricultural and fishing communities and their political orientation and ambitions were neither directed nor congruent with the mono-ethnic extremism of the politically driven Jaffna Tamils. Invariably, the Batticoloa Tamils were recruited as aides by the Jaffna Tamils to serve their political ambitions and goals.

These are some of the factors that combined to push Karuna out of Prabhakaran’s grip. When Karuna began to feel the heat of the northern hegemony he complained loudly and quit crying discrimination. Much noise was made then claiming that this split would be the end of Prabhakaran. It didn’t. Despite Karuna’s blow, Prabhakaran was sitting pretty in total control of the political bases in the north and east left intact, thanks to the guarantees of borders underwritten by Ranil Wickremesinghe in his disastrous the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) (2002). In fact, Prabhakaran used the CFA to demand the disarming of Karuna. As for Karuna, he was hoping to build his own base in the east but he did not have the wherewithal to build a formidable base, let alone survive in the east in the east.

In reality, Karuna’s situation became precarious after President Chandrika Kumaratunga accused Wickremesinghe of selling the nation and dismissed him from three key ministries. The nation was hoping that she would reverse Wickremesinghe’s policies. But she did nothing of the sort. The most pragmatic option was to exploit the divisions within the LTTE to strengthen the Sri Lankan forces and to reclaim the arbitrary and illegal hand over of land to Prabhakaran in the CFA. Instead, she ignored military reports detailing the Tamil Tiger incursions into the strategic bases in the east, particularly the areas guarding the mouth of the Trincomalee harbor and turned a blind eye to the Tiger land grab. The cruelest cut, in the fashion of “et tu Brute”, came when she joined hands with the Tigers and opened the passage across Verugal river for the Tigers to attack Karuna’s cadres from the rear, forcing Karuna to retreat and even disband his cadres.

So both Wickremesinghe and Kumaratunga jointly and severally aided and abetted Prabhakaran to consolidate his position in the north and the east and to minimize the impact of Karuna’s breakaway. Apart from the initial shock of the sudden break up of what seemed to be the unbreakable monolith it had no direct bearing on Prabhakaran’s grip on the territories granted to him by Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe. Clearly, the political equation in the north and the east did not alter one whit even after Karuna broke away because Prabhakaran was sustained by the military and the political backing of Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe – the two key appeasers of Prabhakaran. Though Kumaratunga protested loudly about not being consulted in the granting of power and land to Prabhakaran under CFA, it was a secret fulfillment of her earlier dream, as she told TIME magazine, to hand over the rule of the north and the east for ten years to Prabhakaran.

Karuna at this stage was almost helpless and looking for a way out. The real impact of his breakaway that made a marked difference in national politics came later under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapakse. (More of it later). The initial impact was more ideological. First, he dealt an irreparable blow to the fictitious claim of Prabhakaran to be ‘the sole representative of all Tamils” and to the myth that he is “liberator” of the Tamils. Second, the pan-Tamil movement, which never took off even under S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, was buried once and for all by Karuna who resented domination by the northern Tamils.

Third, the Tamil propagandists and their NGO fellow-travelers were stunned by Karuna’s accusations of discrimination not against their common enemy, “the Sinhala-dominated government” but against “the Jaffna-dominated” LTTE. It was ironical for the Jaffna-dominated Tigers who thrived on claims of discrimination by the Sinhalese to be accused of discriminating against their own Tamil people.

With this accusation Karuna exposed the hypocrisy of the Jaffna vellahla elite who were guilty of the horripilating crimes of oppression, repression and discrimination of their own hapless low-caste – almost 48% of the Jaffna. This arrogant caste elite covered up the crimes of their Tamil leaders by diverting their politicized research on the Sinhala-Buddhist society. Neelan Tiruchelvam, Radhika Coomaraswamy, Prof. S.J. Tambiah, Poi-kiyana-sothy Saravanamuttu, to mention only a few, belong to this category of intellectual hypocrites who never dared to looked inside the cadjan curtain because it would undermine the rationale of their successful political campaign which projected the Tamils as the “victims” of Sinhala-Buddhist discrimination. They too were reluctant to abandon Prabhakaran – the prime source that generates foreign funds for NGOs -- and did not put in a good word for Karuna. To abandon Prabhakaran was to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.

So Prabhakaran continued to ride high and in terms of the physical impact – or in terms of hurting where it hurt most – it was not Karuna who did the damage. It was the tsunami of December 2004 that disjointed Prabhakaran. Nature came down in all it fury on the naval and military bases of Prabhakaran as if to remind Wickremesinghe and Kumaratunga that if they were not prepared to do their duty there are other who will. But defying the forces rising against him Prabhakaran decided to go down the elusive path Evil-lam undeterred. Used to his ritual killings (“a pathological killer”, Prof. James Jupp, ANU), most of which were videoed or photographed for him to view at leisure in his Vanni hideout, he feels it a blow to his ego and political status if he stops killings. Nor was he capable of grasping the new realities closing in on him. In hindsight, it is clear that he was heading for disaster.

The biggest blow came in 2005 when he voted to destroy his own future. After taking everything he could get from Wickremesinghe he cynically dismissed him by ordering the Tamils held in his open prison not to vote in the Presidential election of 2005. It is, of course, the greatest service he had ever rendered to save the forces he had been fighting all along. It was suicidal from his point of view though at the time he believed that it was a master stroke to fix the politics of the south.

There is no doubt that Wickremesinghe deserved the mulish kick he got from Prabhakaran. But this single fatal act isolated Prabhakaran politically, diplomatically and militarily. He had already torn to shreds the international contract that elevated him to the status of a supreme commander of all what he surveyed in the north and the east. His last remaining hope was in Wickremesinghe and Kumaratunga. Despite all his bravado, a scrutiny of events will establish that Prabhakaran was invariably saved by the Sinhala leadership -- from Premadasa to Wickremesinghe. But, for reasons best known to him. He decided to send his two best backers in the south into the political wilderness. It was a monumental miscalculations. But he hadn’t yet begun to slide down the greasy pole.

In the meantime, in London the most able salesman of Tamil atrocities and Tamils killings Tamils, Anton Balasingham, was failing in health. He was on his last legs. He used the standard theories available in the ideological market to justify Tamil violence, particularly the brutalities of Prabhakaran. All Tamil violence were justified as a part of the “liberation struggle” and, therefore, valid as against the violence of “the Sinhala-dominated government of Sri Lanka”. Of course, he never lived to answer the question whether Karuna could use the same slogan to “liberate” the eastern Tamils from the domination of the northern Tamils. Though well read his theoretical underpinnings were running out of validity with the escalating crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by his leader, Prabhakaran.

In his last days Balasingham, however, may have had a glimpse of what was coming. He lived to see the devastating impact of his own arguments being rejected out of hand by the international community by turning the screws on the Tiger diaspora. At the negotiating table he was lording it over, with the blessings of his boozing buddy, Erik Solheim, on the assumption that they had parity of status with the Sri Lankan government based on “military balance”. He lived just long enough to witness the battle of Mavil Aru (August 2, 2006) firing at his contentious “military balance” and blowing it to smithereens. But by December 14, 2006 he passed away leaving a gap in the international politics of the Tigers. His absence and silence fitted the new political climate, realities and the needs because everything he worked for was coming apart. His death completed Prabhakaran’s isolation. “Bala Anna” was not there anymore to spin yarns to cover up “Thamby’s” colossal sins.

In their heyday, Prabhakaran and Balasingham were able to strut the international stage, with diplomats queuing up at his door in Vanni, because of the refusal of Wickremesinghe and Kumaratunga to confront Prabhakaran and expose his hollow claims of being militarily invincible. Wickremesinghe – Kumaratunga negotiations were based on the assumption that their national forces did not have the capacity to fight and win. Paralysed by the failures of the past they feared to risk a face-to-face confrontation with Prabhakaran, thus reinforcing the myth of a military giant who must be appeased. Peace negotiations which only moved in the direction of surrender never brought hope to the war-weary Sri Lankans or strength and stability to the Wickremesinghe – Kumaratunga duo who were competing with each other to appease their Sun God, Prabhakaran.

Though this duo was lending their hand to Prabhakaran, Prabhakaran was not helping himself. In a perverse way, he was bent on inflicting wounds to his body politic -- all of which were beginning to take its toll by 2006. He had fire power but obfuscated by obsessive megalomania, he lost the brain power to turn the events that came his way to his advantage. Throughout his career he had risen to considerable heights by hitting indiscriminately in all directions. Violence constituted the be-all and end-all of his politics. But by 2006 he had come to the end of the line of his violent politics. He had to change tack but there was no one to tell him that his day has come and there is no future in violence.

It is in this frame of mind that Prabhakaran prepared to face the presidential elections of November 2005. His calculation was to defeat pro-Western Wickremesinghe, acceptable to the international community, and replace him with his rival, Mahinda Rajapakse, who Prabhakaran thought, would be rejected by the West for his anti-Western, pro-nationalist approach. The media too was projecting Mahinda Rajapakse as “a hardliner” and a pro- Sinhala-Buddhist “chauvinist”. With such adverse factors stacked against Mahinda Rajapakse it was assumed that Prabhakaran would have a cake walk to his next stage of wining Eelam.

In other words, Prabhakaran chose his own opponent in the next rounds of confrontations -- and it was fateful. Not only did he pick Mahinda Rajapakse he was pushing him, needling him, provoking him from the word go, testing his mettle. Rajapakse, who was feeling his way around, reacted cautiously. Wickremesinghe-Kumaratunga duo was waiting in the wings hoping that Rajapakse would fail, opening the way for them to recapture their lost power. Neither Prabhakaran nor the Wickremesinghe-Kumaratunga combination was ready to accept the will, the skill and thrills of what came in the wake of the new Commander-in-Chief, Mahinda Rajapakse, who changed the political map with a finality that is beginning to show the light at the end of the dark tunnel.

It began with Mavil Aru and the BBC announced that the Tigers occupied the high ground and the advancing forces would be sitting ducks for the Tiger marksmen. The diplomatic community was not fully convinced either. Sucked in by superior Tamil propaganda they were expecting the Tigers to give a bloody nose to the Security Forces which would then force the Sri Lankan government to return to the negotiating table. Hardly anyone (except, of course, the courageous and heroic forces) expected the army to move swiftly down from Mavil Aru to Thoppigala within a weeks and clear the east.

When that victorious day dawned President Mahinda Rajapakse was not the only proud Sri Lankan sitting on top of Thoppigala. The whole nation was sitting with him dancing for joy. Thoppigala was like the fabled pin head on which millions of angels dance simultaneously for their own happiness and glory. Despite its detractors, Thoppigala will rise above all modern icons and shine, in the Mahavamsa tradition, as the undying symbol of the indomitable spirit of a nation that stood on its own two feet and fought, against all foreign and local enemies, with courage and heroism to lift a fallen nation from the ashes to new heights of pride and dignity.

To all those self-sacrificing soldiers, sailors and airmen, who put their lives on the line without squabbling for spoils of power and prestige, I raise my cap off, from across the other side of the Indian Ocean and say: “Ye gods look down / And from thy sacred vials pour thy graces” upon these noble sons and daughters of Sri Lankan soil.

To be continued……..

- Asian Tribune –

Also Read:

1. Prabhakaran plummets from peak to pit

Share this


.