By Ravi Nessman
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Velupillai Prabhakaran, who died May 18 at 54, transformed a small band of poorly armed rebels into one of the world's most sophisticated and ruthless insurgencies and then made a string of miscalculations that led to the total defeat of his Tamil Tigers at the hands of the Sri Lankan military.
Sri Lanka announced that it had finished off the last of the rebels in the northern war zone and killed Prabhakaran and his top deputies. Although the death has been widely reported and hailed by the government, a formal DNA identification was pending.
To his followers, Prabhakaran was the steadfast heart of the struggle to establish a breakaway state for Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority. But his many detractors saw him as the brutal ruler of a suicide cult who repeatedly sabotaged peace deals in his pursuit of power.
Over more than a quarter-century of civil war, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam perfected the art of suicide bombings, assassinated top politicians, including former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and fought the Sri Lankan government to a near standstill.
At the height of his power, Velupillai Prabhakaran (Ve-LU'-pi-lay PRAH'-bah-ka-ran), a portly leader with a bushy mustache and a Browning pistol, ruled as a virtual dictator over a shadow state of hundreds of thousands of people across a swath of northern Sri Lanka that had its own flag, police force and court system.
His guerrilla force was armed with heavy artillery and a rudimentary air wing that once bombed Colombo's international airport. Its navy consisted of small attack craft, suicide boats laden with explosives, crude submarines and large smuggling ships that plied the Indian Ocean.
The rebels reportedly made as much as $300 million a year from arms and drug smuggling, a network of fake charities and donations from Tamil expatriates.
Prabhakaran was a shadowy figure who rarely appeared in public, preferring to communicate in a sort of state of the nation radio address he delivered every November.
Tamil Tiger troops, some of them forcibly recruited when they were children, saw Prabhakaran as their unquestioned leader. He ordered them to abstain from sex, cut personal ties and carry glass vials of cyanide on necklaces, so they could kill themselves upon capture.
"He is their brain. He is their heart. He is their god. He is their soul. And the whole organization runs around him," said Indian journalist M.R. Narayan Swamy, who wrote a biography of the rebel leader.
Prabhakaran orchestrated surprise attacks on Sri Lankan bases that killed hundreds of Sri Lankan troops and retaliated against government offensives with devastating counterattacks.
The group's penchant for suicide attacks, including the 1998 bombing of the Temple of the Tooth, Sri Lanka's holiest Buddhist shrine, led the United States, European Union and India to outlaw it as a terror organization. The group also assassinated several Sri Lankan politicians, including then-President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993.
Although Prabhakaran was sometimes hailed as a master strategist, he made a series of misjudgments over the years that led to his downfall.
He alienated his strongest allies in India by sending a female suicide bomber to kill Gandhi in 1991, apparently in retaliation for Gandhi's sending to Sri Lanka an Indian peacekeeping mission that turned sour.
During negotiations that followed a 2002 cease-fire, he rejected a deal that would have given the rebels broad autonomy over the north and east but not full independence, according to a diplomat with knowledge of the offer. It was widely seen as the best deal he could ever get.
Prabhakaran said he could not accept anything less than a separate Tamil state, called Eelam. "Thousands of my boys have laid down their lives for Eelam," he told Indian journalist Anita Pratap in 1990. "Their death cannot be in vain."
In 2004, a top commander known as Colonel Karuna ran afoul of the Tiger leadership and split from the group with thousands of his fighters.
Prabhakaran then called a Tamil boycott of the 2005 presidential election, which helped propel the hard-line Mahinda Rajapaksa to victory. After new peace talks failed, the rebels cut off the water supply to more than 60,000 people in eastern Sri Lanka, provoking an unrelenting government offensive that drove the group out of the east, captured its administrative capital of Kilinochchi and eventually destroyed it on the battlefield.
In January 1984, Prabhakaran met Mathivathani Erambu, a college student who participated in a hunger strike in Jaffna. They were married that October in the southern Indian city of Chennai and had a daughter and a son.
Bloomberg News contributed to this report