Is Eelam Over?
And though their hopes and dreams were shattered
let their deaths not be in vain
We must keep forever burning
freedom’s torch, the victor’s flame.
The Tamil Tigers are over, Eelam is over. So claimed the Sri Lankan government on the 18th of may – a claim which was echoed by many sections of the Indian media as well. Gory images, of what the Lankan government claimed to be, the bodies of Velupillai Prabhakaran and his son, Charles Anthony were telecast on news channels. The Lankan government also claimed that the entire top brass of the Tigers, including Pottu Amman and Soosai, were killed in the “final assault” on the Tigers. Till now, however, the Tigers have confirmed only the deaths of Nadesan and Pulidevan. They claim that the high command is still alive and active.
Yet, the images had their effect. Many in my family were horrified when they saw the image of a “dead Prabhakaran” on TV. Some wept. So would have thousands of Tamils across the world, for the charismatic leader of the LTTE meant many things to them. A cherished son to the old, an inspiring Annan to the young, a Sooriyathevan (sun god) to some fanatic supporters, a revolutionary icon, a romantic hero, a guardian. Above all, he symbolized hope. Even those Tamils to whom he was a ruthless despot now feel that the strongest voice that represented their cause has been silenced.
On the other side of the racial divide, among the Sinhalese, there was jubilation. Many news channels showed vulgar public display of triumph by the Sinhalese in Colombo. They were seen bursting crackers, beating drums, feeding sweets and cakes to “their heroes,” the security personnel. For them, it was not merely a victory of the army over the LTTE – it was the establishment of Sinhalese superiority over the Tamils. A Tamil contact from Sri Lanka told me that Tamils were harassed in many parts of the country, especially in the capital city. He said that Tamils were forced to shell out money to Sinhalese mobs so that they could buy sweets for the victory celebrations. Back home in Tamil Nadu, a friend who is closely associated with the Sri Lankan Tamils Protection Movement (SLTPM) said that if at all there is justice in the world, the Sinhalese would pay with their blood for every drop of tear shed by the Tamils. The victory of the Lankan army, if anything, has only accentuated the existing Tamil-Sinhala divide.
After the news channels flashed disturbing images of “Prabhakaran’s body,” many theories emerged on his death. Some say he committed suicide. Some say that a close aide shot him. The Lankan army claims that they finished him off – and the Sri Lankan government has given half a dozen versions of the final encounter. Pro-LTTE outfits say that the body is not Prabhakaran’s, that it is a decoy. They also claim that the Lankan Army has used this ploy to divert attention from the large scale massacre of Tamil civilians that occurred in the last one month and to demoralize the Tamils. In fact, even the Tigers don’t seem to be unanimous in their stance. Selvarasa Pathmanathan, LTTE’s head of International Relations, claimed on May 24th that Prabhakaran “attained martyrdom fighting the military oppression.” This was promptly denied by the Tiger’s intelligence wing the very next day. Controversy, it appears, would not elude the elusive leader ever.
So is Prabhakaran dead? Or will he remain a mysterious disappearance like Subash Chandra Bose? The loopholes in the government’s versions have been pointed out by many experts on the issue. At the same time, unless there is a concrete proof that he is alive nothing much can be said on the Tigers’ contention that he is still active. What needs to be analyzed at the moment are the factors that led to the fall of the Tigers.
How the Tiger was trapped
The single greatest factor that contributed to the defeat of the Tigers was their transformation from guerilla warfare to conventional warfare. The Tigers were considered masters of guerilla warfare, placed on par with the Viet-Minh. They waged successful battles against the Sri Lankan army in Eelam Wars I, II and III and managed to capture huge swathes of territory. During the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka from 1987-90, the LTTE, who had a cadre strength of around 3000, were able to secure a decisive victory over a 100,000 strong army by deploying guerrilla strategy.
For an insurgent outfit, the greatest asset is fluidity. By Maoist terminology, the discontented Tamil masses were the “water” in which the guerilla fighters, the “fish,” could swim freely. But the transition to conventional warfare restricted the fluidity of the Tigers. In their transition, the Tigers flouted two main rules of insurgency – not to engage in battles that cannot be won and to be on the move continuously. The conventional mode of war is more suited for a state’s army – not for non-state actors. The Tigers functioning as a state’s army, providing no space for criticism and self-criticism, weakened them internally.
The defection of Karuna in March 2004, partly engineered by the Lankan government, came as a great blow to the LTTE. Karuna, who was the Eastern commander of the Tigers, took along with him a sizeable group of experienced fighters. They provided the Lankan army the much needed inside information on the Tigers. Soon after his defection, the Eastern provinces under the control of the Tigers fell to the military offensive like a house of cards.
‘World opinion,’ or the opinion of politically and economically powerful countries of the West, turned against what they dubbed ‘terrorism’ post 9-11. The governments of these countries saw no difference between one group and another – any non-state actor waging an armed struggle against a recognized state was considered terrorist. The eventual proscription of the LTTE in the US, Canada and the EU hit them where it hurt the most – their endless supply of funds from the Tamil Diaspora.
The political isolation of the Tigers in the South-Asian region, though it didn’t matter initially, worked against them in the long run. India, Pakistan and China, each having strong economic interests in Sri Lanka, went head over heels in their attempts to woo the Lankan government. While Pakistan and China were overt in their military assistance to Sri Lanka, India could not afford to do so, fearing a backlash in Tamil Nadu. It, however, covertly provided military equipment, training for Sinhalese soldiers, intelligence inputs and radars. Plus, Israel and Russia also provided military support to Sri Lanka through arms deals. One similarity about all these countries is that all face some form of secessionist-liberation struggles back home. Without any support from any government in the region, the Tigers were fighting a full fledged war against not one, but six forces. They were outnumbered and outgunned.
To sum it up, an analogy can be drawn between the predicament of the Tigers and the fate of Abhimanyu in the Mahabharata. Like Abhimanyu, the Tigers entered a form of battle that they were partially accustomed to. They fought against larger forces, with all odds against them. And like Abhimanyu, they fought valiantly to the last. The dubious role of Jayadratha, the character who prevented the Pandavas from reaching Abhimanyu in time, is best suited for India. In the past, India had prevented many an arms consignment from reaching the Tigers at crucial times in the war. So what was the role of the Lankan army in the Kurukshetra of the Vanni jungles? Similar to the role of Dushasan’s son who dealt the death blow to a battered and bruised Abhimanyu. They killed a wounded Tiger.
The idea of Eelam
“There is no end for Prabhakaran,” thundered Vaiko at a massive rally organized by the SLTPM on May 21st in Chennai. There is an element of truth in his statement. Prabhakaran was synonymous with an idea. An idea of Tamil Eelam, that emerged as a concrete concept after the Vadukkodai resolution of 1976. An idea of an independent state that the Tamils could call home. An idea of an egalitarian society sans bias, sans discrimination where free men and women would progress and prosper. An idea of struggle for justice and freedom. Prabhakaran is among those individuals who were identified with certain ideas and who survive in public memory through the ages. Prabhakaran used to say that history was his guide. The history of Prabhakaran and the Tigers serve as guides for any future action towards securing justice for the Tamils. Whether he is alive or dead, the idea of Prabhakaran lives in the hearts of millions of Tamils world over. And as long as that survives, the dream of Eelam will persist among the Tamils and will haunt Sri Lanka as a nightmare. This critical moment in the timeline of the Eelam struggle signals only the end of a phase, not the struggle as such. Tamil Eelam is not over. It has reached a new beginning.