By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, May 19 -- In a triumphant address to Parliament on Tuesday, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa called for national unity following the government's killing of the Tamil Tiger leader who waged an armed movement that violently split this country for a quarter-century.
But even as the president declared, to rousing applause, that the rebels were finished "forever," new questions surfaced about his nemesis, Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. The nearly mythical aura around the portly rebel leader, who was shot dead by soldiers Monday, has seemed to grow in death as questions lingered about exactly how he -- or even whether -- he died.
Just before Rajapaksa's nationally televised speech, a pro-Tamil Web site claimed that Prabhakaran, 54, was still alive. He continues "to lead the quest for dignity and freedom for the Tamil people," Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the foreign relations head of the Tamil Tigers, said in an interview with the Web site, TamilNet.
Added to contradictory media reports and government statements about the exact circumstances of the killing, the rebel statement contributed to a haze of uncertainty for many in this Indian Ocean nation, which has a long history of political conspiracies and tight controls on the media.
The government moved swiftly to counter rumors that Prabhakaran was still alive. Shortly after the president's speech, and as celebratory fireworks were set off in much of the capital, television stations interrupted programming with gruesome video footage of a body said to be that of Prabhakaran.
The body was bloated and dressed in the Tamil Tiger battle fatigues. It had Prabhakaran's distinctive mustache. A blue towel covered what remained of the skull. The army showed his dog tag with the marking "0:01."
Sri Lankan authorities' display of Prabhakaran's identification tags had the unintended result of creating even more doubt among many in the Tamil community. Some Tamils doubt that a man known for his paranoid secrecy and alleged cadre of body doubles would carry identification.
Forensic experts in Sri Lanka are conducting a DNA test to confirm that the body is Prabhakaran's. DNA testing takes 24 hours once the technicians start working on the sample. India also requested tissue samples from the body for its own DNA test, because Prabhakaran is wanted there for his role in the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Gandhi was slain when a woman with explosives blew up while pretending to touch his feet.
In the meantime, Rajapaksa sent Prabhakaran's former second-in-command, Karuna Amman, who defected to the government five years ago, to identify his former boss.
"I spent 20 years with the man, I know him," Karuna, who flew to the country's north Tuesday by special military escort, said in an interview. "There is no doubt that it is Prabhakaran. He is dead."
Karuna, who is now a federal government minister, added: "Though I am saddened that he is no more, the fact is he never listened to anyone. He always believed that violence is the only solution."
Sri Lanka's strict control on media and information has also fueled the conspiracy theories. Authorities have banned journalists from the combat zone in the north where government troops mounted their last major offensive against the rebels and from refugee camps where hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians are living.
Three Sri Lankan doctors who treated hundreds of wounded civilians in makeshift hospitals in the war zone have been arrested on charges of giving false information about the casualties to the media. Amnesty International has issued a statement saying it feared for the doctors' safety, adding that their relatives remain unsure of their whereabouts and that they do not have access to a lawyer.
Eleven journalists also have been killed in the past two years, according to human rights groups.
"Both sides have mastered propaganda," said Gordon Weiss, the United Nations' spokesman in Sri Lanka. "This has been a war lacking in independent information."
Prabhakaran moved among his jungle hideouts several times a week. He was known to kill those who displayed even a hint of disloyalty.
The debate over Prabhakaran's death started brewing over the weekend when the independent Sunday Leader newspaper ran a headline asking: "Is Prabhakaran Gone?" with detailed reports suggesting that he had blown himself up as early as Friday.
The government denied that version of events, but not before positing several contradictory accounts of its own. In one version, Sri Lankan commandos gunned down Prabhakaran as he tried to flee the combat zone in an ambulance.
An army spokesman, Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, said in an interview Tuesday that Prabhakaran's bullet-ridden body was found in the mangroves along the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, his last stronghold in northeastern Sri Lanka.
"The ambulance story was not true. These were innocent confusions in a chaotic moment," Nanayakkara said. "We are piecing together the specific facts. But we know for sure he is dead."
State television said the rebel leader's body was found with his inner circle: intelligence chief Pottu Amman and Soosai, the Tamil Tiger naval commander, who went by one name. The army said Tuesday that the discovery of Soosai's body was still being confirmed.
Keheliya Rambukwella, a minister who is the chief defense spokesman, said that no matter when Prabhakaran died, his remains would be treated with dignity.
For many Tamils, the key issue is whether Prabhakaran killed himself, which would be significant for his followers. All Tamil Tiger fighters carried cyanide capsules and were instructed to kill themselves rather than risk capture by their enemies.
At a busy vegetable and fruit market in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, Mailvaganam Rajkumar, 53, a Tamil business leader, said the competing accounts of Prabhakaran's death have deepened a sense of confusion in the Tamil community.
"We still don't know what to believe. Some people say he has gone into hiding. The government says they have confirmed his death," Rajkumar said. "We won't know for sure until we see his body with our own eyes."
Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.