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Inglorious End for Prabhakaran-'India Today'

THE prestigious ‘India Today’ in its June 1st issue summarizes the Rise and Fall of Prabhakaran and attributes his arrogance to his end. It also states the politico-military unity between Rajapaksa and Fonseka gave the offensive decisive thrust as a reinvigorated Army with fresh recruits using guerilla tactics prevailed over the languishing LTTE.

Here is the full report compiled by Raj Chengappa after a brief visit to Sri Lanka;

In the northern coastal town of Velvettithurai, where Vellupillai Prabhakaran was born, there is a Tamil saying that in the face of a ferocious storm, the palmyra tree, unlike a reed, doesn’t bend but breaks. This is an aphorism that Prabhakaran’s supporters use to explain why one of the world’s most ruthless guerrilla leaders decided to die fighting to the bitter end along with his trusted lieutenants instead of trying to get away.

It was an inglorious end for a man who was chief of a rebel army, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which just three years ago controlled a third of Sri Lankan territory, bestowing on him a cult-like status among his followers, who had for more than quarter of a century carried out one of the most successful insurgent movements to secure Tamil emancipation and who had patented the macabre art of suicide bombings to mercilessly eliminate his foes and strike terror among his opponents.

His death and the total defeat of his army shattered any hope of establishing an independent Eelam and left a million Tamils homeless and vulnerable.

The decimation of the LTTE army also gave the Sinhala majority their greatest military triumph since the island’s Independence in 1948. As spontaneous celebrations broke out in Colombo, an emotional President Mahinda Rajapakse, the architect of the military offensive, told Parliament on May 20, “For almost three decades the laws enacted by this legislature were not in force in one-third of our land.

From now on it is only the laws enacted by this sovereign Parliament that will be in force in every inch in Sri Lanka. Our motherland has now been completely freed from the clutches of terrorism.”

Yet even as the President spoke, there was no definite confirmation from the troops in the North that the Tiger chief had in fact been killed. The previous day, government sources had indicated that all the top leaders including Prabhakaran had been killed in a final assault in a lagoon near Mullaitivu town.

There was talk of how he had tried to escape in an ambulance along with three deputies and a rocket strike on the vehicle had charred their bodies beyond recognition. But in the evening when an LTTE leader based in the Far East claimed Prabhakaran was alive, the media was agog with speculation.

Army Chief Sarath Fonseka told India Today that he had got a call from his commander just after the President’s address in Parliament informing him that they had recovered the body of Prabhakaran and that identification was positive. So he went on national television and formally announced the death of the Tiger chief. But as in the case of Che Guevera, the Latin American revolutionary, the Sri Lankan Government was forced to produce further proof.

So the Sri Lankan Army released photographs and videos of Prabhakaran’s body in battle fatigues with a gunshot wound over an eyebrow and the top of his scalp completely blown away. Doubts were again raised as to whether it was Prabhakaran’s double that had been found and jokes cracked that morticians in Colombo would soon go out of business with the army becoming an expert in the art of dressing up bodies. So the army sent out Karuna, Prabhakaran’s former lieutenant who had defected years earlier, and a recently arrested LTTE functionary to verify that it was indeed the Tiger chief.

Another area of controversy among experts was, that given his military prowess, why didn’t Prabhakaran have in place a Plan B to escape out of Sri Lanka, as the army dragnet closed in around him. That would have enabled him and his top lieutenants to regroup and fight another day. Fonseka believes that the reasons why Prabhakaran didn’t give up the fight was either because he was loathe to surrender and believed in his invincibility or he couldn’t find a country that would provide him shelter.

Or maybe he had hoped that the Lankan Tamil diaspora would mount enough international pressure over the collateral damage to civilians and get them to force the Government to declare a ceasefire. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse says dismissively: “Prabhakaran didn’t really have a Plan B, C or D. The LTTE chief was not such a great strategist as he was made out to be.”

That was evident especially in the past five years. At the peak of his power in 2004, Prabhakaran could have agreed to a peace pact that would have resulted in unprecedented devolution of powers to the North and the East provinces where a majority of the Tamils reside.

Possibly even more than what the Tamils would have got under the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 1987 signed between the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and President J. Jayawardene.

But Prabhakaran was so chuffed that he failed to see that international opinion had irrevocably altered against terror organisations like his after 9/11. With US and Europe clamping down on illegal funds, LTTE suddenly found its regular sources, especially from the diaspora drying up.

Meanwhile, in order to sow the seeds of political divisions among the majority Sinhala parties, he had the Tamils boycott the 2005 presidential elections to ensure the defeat of prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party. That brought the People’s Alliance candidate Mahinda Rajapakse, who had run a Sinhala chauvinistic election campaign, to power. Prabhakaran believed that the rivalry between former President Chandrika Kumaratunge and Rajapakse would further weaken the Sinhala ability to battle with him.

But he hadn’t counted on Rajapakse’s resolve and canniness to launch a sustained military offensive against him. By appointing his brother Gotabaya as defence secretary and giving Fonseka carte blanche to eliminate the Tigers, Rajapakse put into place a rare and decisive politico-military unity.

Backed by the President, Fonseka began to overhaul the sluggish and effete Sri Lankan Army. Instead of using seniority, he promoted meritorious officers to command the divisions that he was to push against Prabhakaran. He then got the Government to add almost 80,000 additional troops with adequate equipment. Rajapakse made it clear that he would shop anywhere to buy weapons, relying largely on China and to some extent Pakistan to give him the bulk. India had no option but to look the other way as it had decided after the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1990, it would no more provide military support to enhance Sri Lanka’s offensive capability.

Equally important was that Fonseka changed the tactics of the Sri Lankan Army by forming special infantry units of eight members each to carry out guerrilla strikes in the Wanni jungles similar to what the Tigers used to do. Fonseka was determined to learn from the lessons of the past and instead of trying to secure control of the highways he moved his troops into the jungles and began a systematic flushing out operation. Prabhakaran mean-while had converted his force into a near conventional army. He himself was pushing 50, resulting in a middleaged sluggishness that affected the LTTE’s flexibility. Desertions from his top rung of leaders, especially that of Karuna, saw his authority being challenged and his cadre split.

When the army took control of the Eastern Province in April 2007, Prabhakaran wasn’t too perturbed. He believed that once the army started marching North where the majority of the LTTE’s cadres were holed up, it would be so stretched that the LTTE could easily inflict telling blows and get it to retreat. Fonseka raised two additional divisions in a short span of time and began to push the LTTE into a corner.

That was when Prabhakaran resorted to using Tamil civilians as a human shield to slow the army’s progress. It worked for a while as the resultant collateral damage saw international opinion turn against the Sri Lankan Army and the US and Europe came down strongly on the deteriorating human rights situation. In the final month, Prabhakaran and his top cadres were pushed to a narrow strip of mangrove forests. The chance to slip out of the cordon had receded and the LTTE finally collapsed in a rush.

Fonseka puts the number of LTTE cadre killed at 22,000. The Army’s own loss is over 5,000 and some 15,000 injured. There are no authentic accounts of how many civilians died but they run into thousands. Worse, a terrible human tragedy is unfolding with around three lakh Tamils huddled into temporary tents and unable to return to their devastated villages. Rehabilitating them would have to be the Government’s topmost priority.

India had set up medical facilities to provide immediate relief and has already committed Rs 100 crore toward rehabilitation. It is now promising another Rs 500 crore in relief measures. The world too is stepping in to help out. But the aid comes with riders: put an end to human rights violations, including muzzling the press and also work towards a more lasting peace. Mahinda Samarasinghe, minister for disaster management and human rights, acknowledges: “Winning the peace is going to be as challenging for us.”

That would mean not only ensuring the rehabilitation of the displaced Tamils but also, as Indian officials told Sri Lanka, “addressing the root causes of the conflict”. Tensions are expected to rise once the Sri Lankan Army sets up garrisons to guard the newly captured LTTE areas. With the Tamils finding hardly any representation in the army, it would lead to suspicions and unrest if such a major contingent of Sinhalas with guns becomes a permanent presence in these areas. That Rajapakse did not come out with a formula for greater devolution of powers to the Tamils before war ended is considered a mistake.

Given the air of triumphalism that prevails among the Sinhalese, Rajapakse may find it hard to push for any major concessions for the Tamils. Countries like India are pushing him to implement the 13th Amendment that enshrined the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord and gave devolution of powers to the provinces.

These have proved some what unsatisfactory in most of the other provinces because not only are they heavily dependent on the Central Government for funds but Colombo too has control over all law and order issues. Already Pillayan, the new chief minister of the Eastern Province who defected from the LTTE, is complaining about being hemmed in and wanting true devolution of powers.

Rajapakse’s assertion of “homegrown” solutions has had the international community, including India, raise its eyebrows in concern. The President wants to first hold elections in the Northern Province but finding credible alternative Tamil leaders is a tough task. Most of them are considered as quislings to the cause. There is also talk of Rajapakse going in for a presidential poll later this year which under the Sri Lankan Constitution would allow him to stay on till 2017 if he wants too.

Since his party runs a coalition government having had to poach from others to keep its majority, he would push for an early dissolution of Parliament too and hope that his widespread popularity would ensure adequate seats. But this would take almost a year, by which time the plight of the Tamils and their sense of alienation would only get worse. The economy too is in a shambles and in urgent need of investments. In the past, the Government used the war as an excuse for poor performance. Now it has none. Military victory has come at a high cost. Now the Government has to find ways to fund, not only rehabilitation of the refugees but also economic growth too.

Rajapakse’s advantage is that he has proven his leadership and is wildly popular. He has the clout to persuade the Sinhalese and make a grand gesture to the Tamils and their demands. The President knows that he has to unify the two communities and end years of distrust. Otherwise there may be a revival of militancy and another Prabhakaran could be born. Unlike most war presidents, Rajapakse has the opportunity to win the peace as well. The title of peace president is his for the asking and doing.