By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 18, 2009
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, May 17 -- Cornered into a tiny patch of jungle about the size of a football field, the Tamil Tiger rebels -- who once operated a shadow state complete with a law school, a tax system, a navy and even traffic police -- vowed Sunday to lay down their weapons for good, in a stunning and unprecedented admission of defeat in Asia's longest-running war.
"This battle has reached its bitter end. It is our people who are dying now from bombs, shells, illness and hunger. We cannot permit any more harm to befall them," Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the Tigers' chief of international relations, said in a statement posted on the TamilNet Web site. "We remain with one last choice -- to remove the last weak excuse of the enemy for killing our people. We have decided to silence our guns."
President Mahinda Rajapaksa scheduled a news conference for Tuesday morning in Parliament. He is expected to make an official declaration of victory over the rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Sri Lanka's military vowed to recapture "every inch of land" and refused to relent in its assault on the rebels. The assault continued Sunday despite calls from President Obama and the United Nations, with both expressing concern for tens of thousands of civilians -- some reportedly huddled in trenches with little water or food.
Although Sri Lanka's military announced Sunday that all civilians who had been trapped in the country's northern war zone -- an estimated 63,000 -- had escaped, journalists are barred from the war zone, and the situation there could not be independently verified.
Sri Lanka's violent struggles attracted worldwide attention over the years from human rights activists and world leaders. Pope Benedict XVI said Sunday that he was praying for peace and reconciliation. He asked humanitarian groups to do everything possible to care for terrified civilians in Sri Lanka. "There are thousands of children, women, old people for whom the war has taken years of their lives and hope," Benedict said at the Vatican.
In Washington, Sri Lankan Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya credited Obama's recent public statements with helping to end the crisis. In an e-mailed statement, he said the Tigers "effectively folded shortly after President Barack Obama told the world that the terrorists were holding innocent Tamil civilians as hostages. He was one of the few world leaders to note that fact so forcefully."
In this deeply divided Indian Ocean island nation, many said the war will not really be resolved until the capture or death of the Tamil Tigers' elusive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Some here call him "Sri Lanka's Osama bin Laden," for his leadership of a violent movement and for the government's inability to find his hiding place.
Under the rebel commander, the Tigers became one of the world's most deadly guerrilla armies, labeled as a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries for hundreds of suicide attacks on soldiers and civilians. The Tigers invented the suicide belt and pioneered the use of suicide bombing.
"Prabhakaran's on the run. He's in hiding. He's facing real danger as we speak. The next few days will decide his fate," said M.R. Narayan Swamy, author of an unofficial biography of the rebel leader. "He will have to commit suicide, because being captured would be the ultimate humiliation. The third scenario is death at the hands of the enemy, which would propel him as a hero in the eyes of those who consider him as an icon."
Prabhakaran allegedly orchestrated suicide bombings that killed a Sri Lankan president, six cabinet ministers and former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. He trained an elite squad of suicide bombers, the Black Tigers, and was infamous for hosting elaborate feasts for his recruits before sending them to their death.
The assassination of Gandhi was apparently to punish India for its military intervention in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. But Gandhi's death ended any sympathy the international community had for the Tigers.
Prabhakaran's second in command, Karuna Amman, the former 20-year military commander of the Tamil Tigers who in 2004 defected to the government's side and whose nom de guerre is Colonel Karuna, said in a recent interview that Prabhakaran would never surrender. Prabhakaran's guerrillas are under orders to swallow cyanide capsules, which they wear around their necks, if they are captured, he said.
Prabhakaran's battle for an independent ethnic Tamil homeland on this teardrop-shaped nation off the southern tip of India was funded by Tamil expatriates in the United States, Britain and Canada, some of whom have said they were pressured to give millions of dollars to the cause. The Tigers also ran guns between extremist groups in the Middle East and Asia.
"He's a mad recluse. He never goes to the battlefield. But he knows his crimes. He knows he should never be captured," said Karuna, once a teenage bodyguard for Prabhakaran and now a member of Parliament. "I always told Prabhakaran that the Gandhi killing was an enormous tactical error. After that, 20 countries banned us as a terrorist organization."
Karuna also said Prabhakaran "killed a lot of Tamil intellectuals."
"That's why he couldn't come to the political mainstream," he said. "That's when the war turned into a war for Prabhakaran's survival. It had nothing to do with the Tamil people."
Prabhakaran and a few bodyguards are probably holed up on a thin ribbon of coast in northern Sri Lanka and are surrounded by five infantry divisions, Udaya Nanayakkara, a brigadier in the Sri Lankan army, said in an interview.
"The Sri Lankan intelligence forces claim that Prabhakaran is hiding in the coastal belts; I feel so, too," Nanayakkara said, adding that the rebels had been "crushed" and that "Prabhakaran's days are numbered."
To shame the Tigers, Sri Lanka's Defense Ministry recently published a Prabhakaran family photo album that shows him swimming in a fancy pool and living what appears to be a pampered lifestyle in the middle of a war zone. The album was found in his bunker by Sri Lankan troops.
The ministry dubbed him a "smiling psychopath." The album had pictures of Prabhakaran relaxing with his mother, father, wife and three children. There were pictures of family boat outings and birthday parties. In rebel propaganda, he was almost always pictured with a stern face and wearing a camouflaged uniform with a beret.
Prabhakaran enforced strict discipline on his troops and banned alcohol. He made it compulsory for every member to learn to cook. Tiger-run restaurants in Kilinochchi had earned a name for their seafood and spotless guesthouses for visiting journalists.
But in recent months, international opinion of Prabhakaran has once again plummeted, especially after his forces used hundreds of thousands of civilians trying to escape the fighting as human shields. Ethnic Tamils, who are Hindu and Christian, make up about 15 percent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people. They began a largely nonviolent campaign in the 1960s to make Tamil one of the nation's official languages and to abolish quota systems for universities viewed as discriminatory and controlled by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
"But now, a quarter-century after it all began, the Tamil community has been left begging for food and water from the same community which was supposed to be liberating them," said Swamy, the author. "The Tigers could have transformed itself into a democratic organization. That never happened."