By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, May 18 -- One of the world's most ruthless and elusive rebel leaders, Tamil Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, was reportedly killed Monday by Sri Lanka's military in a firefight that signaled the effective end to one of Asia's longest-running military conflicts.
It was a day many Sri Lankans thought would never come, after more than a quarter-century of sporadic fighting, cease-fires and failed negotiations. Top military commanders bearing bouquets of flowers met the country's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his living room to deliver the news that the war was over. The Tamil Tigers, who had been fighting for a separate Tamil homeland, were officially defeated, they said, and the entire island for the first time in nearly 30 years was under one flag.
"We can announce very responsibly that we have liberated the whole country from terrorism," Sri Lanka's army chief, Lt. Gen. Sareth Fonseka, said on television, as rickshaw drivers honking in celebration passed dozens of sandbagged checkpoints in central Colombo where normally serious soldiers in flak jackets smiled their approval. Some women cooked or purchased rice and handed out small congratulatory packets to euphoric soldiers.
By dusk, a group of children in one neighborhood had raised a scarecrow-like effigy of Prabhakaran, who was vilified as a despot across much of southern Sri Lanka. Young girls danced and cheered his death, as hundreds of adults lined the road, clapping and waving the country's flag of a sword-wielding lion.
After a two-hour firefight, officials said, Prabhakaran was shot along with two commanders from his inner circle: Tiger intelligence chief Pottu Amman and Soosai, the head of the "Sea Tiger" naval wing, who used only one name. The three were killed as they were trying to flee the war zone in the country's north in an armored van accompanied by a bus filled with armed rebels. The Sri Lankan government sent cellphone text messages to citizens across the country announcing that Prabhakaran and his deputies had been killed.
"It's the end of an era," said M.R. Narayan Swamy, author of an unofficial biography of the rebel leader, who said the Tamil Tigers, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, are "finished . . . shattered beyond recognition."
The government requested that shops and homes hoist the country's flag for one week as a show of unity and national pride in a country that has been splintered by conflict between the country's ethnic Tamil, mainly Hindu, minority and its Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
But the war's end -- if it truly is the end -- opens up new questions in a nation where armed conflict between Tamil rebels and mostly Sinhalese government troops has been the defining narrative for more than a generation.
A Tamil rebel Web site, however, reported that Prabhakaran was alive and in hiding. The government has denied such reports and is conducting a DNA test on the body to disprove those claims.
"The end of this war is something that we genuinely didn't think could ever happen," said Rajinda Jayasinghe, 27, a civil society leader who is Sinhalese and works in the northern Tamil aid camps. "With the death of Prabhakaran, the symbol of the divisions between Sri Lankan people is gone. The real question now is, will there be goodwill towards Tamils? Will Tamils feel the government has their best interest in their hearts?"
In Tamil areas of Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital and a city with a history of ethnic riots, the change in mood was stark, with streets eerily silent as residents seemed to stay indoors.
Prabhakaran was widely seen by Tamils as their only hope against the discrimination and alleged human rights abuses by the Sinhalese-dominated government.
" Actually, now we are fearing. I know that people are celebrating the end of the war, but what does it mean for us? No one knows," said Jayea Baladhura, 32, a Tamil and former worker for a German aid agency. She had to move her mother and sister from the country's embattled north to live with her in Colombo.
Sri Lankan authorities are still concerned about the capability of Tamil fighters to launch suicide attacks in Colombo, as the Tigers are known for sophisticated and dramatic comebacks after government gains. There is already fear that a new generation of Tamil militants could rise if Sri Lanka's government ignores Tamil grievances.
"Today we have enormous challenges before us to ensure that these sacrifices were not in vain. We must grab this opportunity to rebuild our country, to restore confidence and reintegrate all members of the community," Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona told reporters.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the end of fighting is an "opportunity for Sri Lanka to turn the page on its past" and build a country that protects the rights of all people.
President Rajapaksa is expected to address the nation in a live speech from Parliament on Tuesday morning, and so far, many in his government predict his message will be one of reconciliation. They said he would seize the moment of triumph to unify the island by reaching out to the nation's Tamils, who represent about 15 percent of the island's 20 million people. Billboards on nearly every street corner here show a smiling, white-robed Rajapaksa in a maroon scarf, along with the caption: "One island, united against terror. Ready to build the nation."
In some parts of the city, those who hailed Prabhakaran as a voice for Tamil emancipation, discreetly mourned his death. Many Tamils feel that Prabhakaran and his Tiger fighters were the muscle behind Tamil politicians working with the mainstream government. Prabhakaran, a heavyset man with a bushy mustache, was an iconic figure across South Asia -- reclusive and underground like Osama bin Laden but with the larger-than-life persona of Latin American revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Prabhakaran consolidated power by killing off all potential rivals and many Tamil intellectuals and by leaving no apparent successor. He was rarely seen in public, except for propaganda videos showing him firing an automatic weapon amid the coconut groves of the dense jungle. He would emerge each November to honor those young Tigers killed in battle or in suicide missions.
Long before al-Qaeda, the Tigers invented the suicide belt and pioneered the use of suicide bombings, recruiting hundreds of female suicide bombers. Followers were given vials of cyanide to wear around their necks in case of capture.
Prabhakaran allegedly orchestrated suicide bombings that killed a Sri Lankan president, six cabinet ministers and, in May 1991, former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The United States has labeled the Tamil Tigers a terrorist organization.
Sympathy for the Tigers runs deep in the Tamil populations in Sri Lanka and abroad, where ethnic Tamils from the southern Indian city of Chennai to the streets of London championed Prabhakaran's cause.
The Sri Lankan government has been criticized by human rights groups for overstepping its powers. Officials marshaled public opinion to their cause by painting the conflict as a war against terrorism and courted China for weapons without restrictions on their use. They skirted dissent by journalists, aid workers and civil society groups, denouncing their scrutiny of the government and its war efforts as treasonous, rights groups said. "There needs to be a look at the real causes of this war," said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. "Otherwise there could be a second Prabhakaran."
The government also sealed the war zone, making independent observation by journalists and rights groups impossible. As the military campaign winds down, a humanitarian crisis is intensifying in the country's north, where as many as 300,000 mostly Tamil residents have been displaced by the fighting.
Many Tamils and aid workers say they are relieved the war appears to be over but are concerned about those left living in refugee camps.
"The lethal and cruel Tamil Tigers are gone," said United Nations spokesman Gordon Weiss. "The question is, at what cost?"