The Rise and Fall of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam -Part 2
“The successful growth of the LTTE came at huge cost to the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. Vertically the LTTE ascended, but horizontally the Sri Lankan Tamils descended. This was the unpleasant and inconvenient truth that the LTTE and acolytes often denied and did not like to hear it being said in the past” was the final paragraph of the first part of this article published last week. The intention was to draw attention to the pathetic plight of the Tamil people of the north and east due to the long war.
World War I was only four years long – from 1914 to 1918. World War II was six years – from 1939 to 1945. This war for Tamil Eelam went on and on for more than 25 years with an intensity and ferocity that debilitated the Tamil people immensely. The Tamil-majority areas experienced a staggered ‘scorched earth policy,’ cunningly implemented in phases by different regimes. Death, injury, destruction, displacement, etc., were part of daily life.
Fishing dwindled. Agriculture diminished. Industry became virtually non-existent. The economy decayed and unemployment was rampant. Single parent families, widows, orphans, etc., were widely prevalent. Education, the mainstay of Tamils, suffered considerably. Many schools ceased to function. Hospitals got run down. People were displaced from their homes under the pretext of setting up security zones.
The quality of life decreased. Infant mortality rates, malnutrition, stunted growth etc., were areas where Tamils in the north and east were affected more than people elsewhere. The social fabric of Tamil society got torn asunder badly, cultural life shrank, values got brutalised, and ethical norms started crumbling. These were the effects of long-term war on a small, powerless people.
The worst impact was demographic. Tamils left the country in very large numbers. Equally large numbers have moved to areas outside the north and east. Only 48% of the Tamils in the island are reportedly living in the north and east now. The Tamils may have proved a point by taking up arms against the State dominated by the numerically larger Sinhala people, but ultimately, demography was also defeating the Tamils.
After decades of fighting that debilitated and diminished the Tamil people, no concrete gains were made by the LTTE in winning back the lost rights of the Tamil people. Death, displacement and destruction enveloped the Tamil areas for many years. Despite all this suffering and sorrow undergone by the Tamil people, the LTTE had achieved nothing tangible in its perennial quest for Tamil Eelam.
LTTE Oblivious to Reality
The writing on the wall was discernible to any sensible observer of the military situation from 2007 onwards. Yet, Prabhakaran and his followers were oblivious to reality even as the army advanced. “Kitta Varattum, Thittam Irukku” (“Let them come near. We have a plan”) was the parrot-like cry by the top leaders as the enemy neared. Apparently, Prabhakaran and the LTTE were not unduly concerned about the advancing armed forces for quite a while, as the Tigers were confident that the Army would not be able to proceed beyond a certain point.
This assessment got skewered after the fall of Paranthan, which was a major turning point. Paranthan was followed by the fall of Kilinochchi and then Elephant Pass…….the hasty evacuation of cadres trapped in the peninsula through a “mini-Dunkirk” type of operation indicated that the Tigers were indeed caught napping.
Even after losing the Jaffna-Kandy road or A-9 highway and all areas to its west, the LTTE was yet confident of withstanding the Army for a much longer period in areas east of the A-9 highway. The final option was to “carve” out an area of about 350-450 sq km in Mullaitheevu District with access to the coast and then defend it strenuously.
But the rapid progress of the Army during this phase took the LTTE by surprise. Within a relatively quick period, the various military divisions and task forces made sweeping strides into Tiger territory. As a result the LTTE and hundreds of thousands of civilians were boxed into a small space that kept on shrinking as the Army began advancing.
It was then that the alarm bells began ringing. The civilian casualty toll also started rising as more and more people were crammed into less and less land while the armed forces intensified operations. Now the pro-Tiger Tamil diaspora got into the act. Tamils began engaging in world-wide protests and demonstrations. There was a powerful intensity to these. Tamil Nadu too started boiling. New Delhi was under pressure.
Four Grave Miscalculations
With the wisdom of hindsight it could be seen that Prabhakaran had made four grave miscalculations. Underestimating in two and overestimating in two. He overestimated the impact and influence of the diaspora in the west and the pro-Tiger lobby in Tamil Nadu. The unfolding civilian catastrophe was his trump card. Prabhakaran thought the Western nations could be made to exert adequate pressure on Colombo and make it call off the war. Likewise he thought the passionate emotions of Tamil Nadu could sway New Delhi into moving against the war.
If these were overestimation errors, he also underestimated badly the determination of the Rajapaksa regime as well as the armed forces. Prabhakaran did not expect the armed forces to keep on progressing relentlessly as they did. But despite heavy losses, the military juggernaut kept on rolling forward. More importantly, he expected then President Mahinda Rajapaksa would cave into international pressure and call it quits. Then again Rajapaksa too did not succumb and went ahead with the military campaign.
With Parliamentary Elections drawing near in India along with State polls in Tamil Nadu the emotional climate in Tamil Nadu rose to a high. Incessant propaganda by the Tiger lobby made many candidates of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) and Congress jittery. AIDMK Leader Jayalalitha Jayaram’s new found love for Tamil Eelam was another cause for worry. The DMK and Congress contesting as allies were depicted as traitors to Tamils as they were not concerned about civilians getting killed and injured in Sri Lanka, the Tiger lobby charged.
Some newspapers predicted a clean sweep for the opposition in Tamil Nadu elections scheduled for May 2009. This resulted in P. Chidambaram, the senior Central Government Home Minister from Tamil Nadu, initiating a fresh attempt for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka. He even persuaded Sonia Gandhi to go along with the plan. The then DMK Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi who was then a Rajya Sabha MP was associated in this venture. These moves were on with the concurrence of Karunanidhi.
The LTTE was asked to issue a declaration that it was prepared to lay down its arms pending negotiations. Even the Tiger declaration was drafted for LTTE approval. The Sri Lankan Government was also asked to be ready to proclaim a unilateral ceasefire.But the LTTE failed to utilise the opportunity. The Tigers consulted their chief supporters in Tamil Nadu like P. Nedumaran and Vaiko. Unwilling to let the Congress and DMK gain credit the duo advised the LTTE to reject the offer. So the LTTE said “illai” (no).
Lock-off and Surrender Plan
Meanwhile the LTTE Chief had appointed Selvarasah Pathamanathan alias “KP” in charge of LTTE’s international relations. KP was assigned the task of bringing about a ceasefire and provide breathing space for the beleaguered LTTE. The talented Pathmanathan tapped into his vast reservoir of contacts. In a remarkably short timespan KP was interacting with many influential people. The diplomats of at least four Western nations, UN functionaries in Geneva and New York, a foreign cabinet minister and a few prominent Western journalists were all in touch with KP.
A tentative plan was conceived. Basically it envisaged the LTTE announcing a “lock-off” of its arms and surrendering to a third party namely the UN with firm guarantees from two powerful nations in the Western hemisphere. The possibility of troops from those countries landing in Mullaitheevu to supervise the “lock-off and surrender” was also not ruled out.
A three-tiered formula regarding the future of LTTE leaders and cadres was also mooted. The top leaders not exceeding 50 along with families were to be given safe passage outside Sri Lanka to an undisclosed destination. The middle-level functionaries were to face trial in Sri Lanka and be given comparatively light sentences. They were to be rehabilitated after being given some vocational training. The low-level cadres particularly the new conscripts were to be given a general amnesty. They would be on parole for a period of time and be subject to monitoring.
There was a simple rationale behind this plan strongly backed by a very powerful country. The prevailing situation was seen as a “hostage” situation. The LTTE was perceived as a ruthless group holding their own people as hostages. So some form of negotiation was required through which a bargain had to be struck in order to get the Tigers to let the people go. This necessitated some “time and space” for protracted talks. Hence, the request for an extended ceasefire known as the “humanitarian pause.” There was no plan to declare a permanent ceasefire.
This proposal was opposed by Colombo while in its conceptual stage. Heated arguments ensued between leading Western diplomats and top Government officials. The Sri Lankan defence establishment on the verge of military victory was not going to let the Tigers off the hook under any circumstances. This reaction from Colombo therefore was predictable.
But what surprised some Western diplomats involved in the project was the LTTE attitude. Apparently Prabhakaran was infuriated with KP. Prabhakaran rejected the idea and reprimanded KP. The 17-page letter sent by KP to Prabhakaran explaining the lock-off/surrender proposals received a three word reply in Tamil: “Ithai aetka mudiyaathu” (“this is unacceptable”).That was that!
Prabhakaran’s Fool’s Paradise
Another huge blunder of Prabhakaran was to believe wrongly that the LTTE could at some point deliver a crippling blow on the battlefront and exact a heavy casualty toll. This would demoralise the Army and help reverse the process, Prabhakaran appears to have surmised.
The politico-military situation deteriorated, but Prabhakaran living in a fool’s paradise was pretty sure that at some point the military drive would come to a halt. Thus he continued to stay put. If Prabhakaran was differently inclined, he could have either relocated clandestinely to the Wanni or Weli-Oya/Manal Aaru jungles or escaped by sea to South-East Asia long before the situation grew dire. But he did not do so in the early stages.
It appears that he was relying very much on the massive counter-offensive being planned to destroy army defences in the Puthukkudiyiruppu region. But the military debacle on 4-5 April 2009 at Aanandapuram resulting in the deaths of 623 cadres, including his northern force commander “Col.” Theepan soured those plans. This writer then wrote that the LTTE could not recover from the Aanandapuram defeat and that this could be the defining moment of the war. That observation was proved correct subsequently.
Time was running out. The Government resolved to get really tough. Brig. Prasanna de Silva commanding the 55 division was “transferred” to the 59 division stationed in the south of the ‘war zone’. A three-pronged drive commenced with the 58 led by then Brig. Shavendra Silva proceeding north to south, the 59 moving from south to north and the 53 commanded by Gen. Kamal Gunaratne and task force 8 led by Col. Ravipriya proceeding from west to east.
After intense fighting resulting in very large numbers of civilians being killed and injured, the 55 and 58 linked up along the Indian Ocean coast. The 53 supported by TF8 hugged the lagoon banks and moved inwards. The people and Tigers were trapped and boxed into a small tract of territory in the twin canal area of Mullivaaikkaal consisting of Vellamullivaaikkal and Karaiyamullivaaikkaal.
Last-ditch Tripartite Venture
Six weeks after Aanandapuram, the finale came in mid-May. A beleaguered Prabhakaran and his senior Tigers went into a brain-storming session. A decision was reached to launch a last-ditch tripartite venture.
One group of Tigers, including Prabhakaran was to break out from trapped positions and cross the lagoon and Paranthan-Mullaitheeivu road or A-35 highway. Thereafter the Tigers would move into the vast Wanni jungles and operate. Some would move to the east.
A second group of Tigers would contact the Army and negotiate terms of surrender. The main objective was to obtain urgently needed medical treatment for injured cadres, family members and civilians. The third group was to engage in fierce rear guard action. The Tiger contingent tasked to fight to the last was led by none other than Charles Anthony, the eldest son of Prabhakaran. He was to be assisted by special commander from the East, Ramesh.
The LTTE launched a massive attack on the armed forces shortly after midnight on Sunday, 17 May. The attack was in three directions but mainly directed towards the Nandikadal lagoon area held by the 53 division. After fierce fighting led by Bhanu, the three Tiger contingents broke through. One was led by Jeyam, one by Pottu Amman and one by Soosai. The three contingents together numbered about 250-300. Almost all military leaders were part of the three groups trying to break out while the bulk of the Political Wing had either surrendered beforehand or stayed behind to surrender. Many of the Political Wing surrendees were subsequently reported “missing”.
A very large number of Black Tigers died in the assault as explosive-strapped boys and girls jumped on Army positions and blew themselves up. This created the “gaps” for other Tigers to penetrate the military cordon. Though Tigers breached the 53 division defences, the soldiers began an intensive artillery barrage in which many died. Also the Army had set up layers of defence with more personnel at the back. The LTTE cadres who broke through were to some extent sandwiched in between and later cut down. With the assault resulting in failure and many Tigers being encircled, several LTTE cadres began consuming cyanide.
Similarly, the Tiger “defenders” led by Charles Anthony were also routed and many survivors swallowed cyanide to avoid capture. Later Charles Anthony was found dead with bullet injuries. Also the bodies of many senior leaders and commanders too were discovered in stages. More than 350 bodies were found. The LTTE was virtually demolished. The bodies of Pottu Amman and family were never found.
Prabhakaran’s Final Hours
The group led by Soosai was initially successful in breaking out of the military cordon. Prabhakaran was with this group. They took cover in the shrubs by Nandikadal lagoon. Prabhakaran split from Soosai and embarked on a perilous mission to cross the lagoon by night and reach the safety of jungles in the early hours of the morning on 18 May.
Though Prabhakaran had at one time hundreds of cadres as bodyguards, only 18 elite fighters accompanied him on the final flight from Mullivaaikkaal. It has also been said that one bodyguard had a can of gasoline with him to burn the Tiger leader’s body if ever he was killed or committed suicide. This was to prevent the enemy seizing his body.
But all these expectations were belied on that fateful day.
Prabhakaran’s body was discovered before dawn on Tuesday. The bodies of six bodyguards were found nearby. All indications were that Prabhakaran had committed suicide by placing a gun inside his mouth and firing upwards.
The body of the 54-year-old supreme leader of the LTTE was found on Tuesday, 19 May near the Mullaitivu lagoon known as ‘Nandhikkadal’ (Sea of Conches). Soldiers of the 4th Vijayabahu infantry regiment led by Lt. Col. Rohitha Aluvihare claimed to have discovered it. The then Army Commander Sarath Fonseka announced the death officially at 12:15 p.m. on 19 May.
Thus ended the life of the man who was once described by the LTTE’s political strategist, Anton Stanislaus Balasingham, as both “the President and Prime Minister of Tamil Eelam”. The ephemeral nature of power was illustrated vividly by the death of Prabhakaran who controlled what was perhaps the most powerful guerrilla organisation in the world, and was raised to divine status as “Sooriyathevan” (Sun God) by his sycophantic followers. The circumstances of his death were, just as in life, mired in controversy.
Tamils Paying the Price
Prabhakaran who commenced his militant career with a single pistol had over the years built up the LTTE into a powerful movement running a shadow state and acquired the status of being “Tamil National Leader” (Thesiyath Thalaiver). Yet his inability or unwillingness to be flexible had resulted in Prabhakaran losing his movement, his family, and above all, his life in a pathetic manner.
In the case of Prabhakaran there was hubris and nemesis. Firstly, he failed to comprehend that Tamil Eelam was a forbidden state due to geopolitical realities and that the armed struggle could not proceed beyond a point. Secondly, he was insecure about his own security in a post-war situation of normalcy. He knew he had created too many enemies including India and feared retribution.
And so like a compulsive gambler, Prabhakaran risked the entire existence of the Tamil people as a vibrant ethnicity in Sri Lanka for the elusive goal of Tamil Eelam. It was an all-or-nothing gamble for him. He was comparable to an invading military general who burns his boats so that his soldiers have no choice other than to fight on for victory or face death. There is no turning back. If the soldiers win the war, the general will be praised for his steely determination. If they lose, there won’t be anyone left to tell the tale.
Ultimately that is what happened. Prabhakaran and the Tigers are no more but the irredeemable harm caused to the Tamil people lives after them.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an updated version of an Article written for the “Political Pulse” Column in the “Daily Financial Times” ” of May 26th 2021. It can be accessed here:
The Rise and Fall of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam -Part One can be accessed at –