Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eleam (LTTE) leader Veluppillai Prabhakaran was born on 26 November 1954. If he were among the living, Prabhakaran would be celebrating his 69th Birth Anniversary today (Nov 26). This article intends focusing on the life and times of the man who determined the politico-military course of the island nation for many years.
I have in the past written extensively on the LTTE and its supremo. As such I do not intend re-inventing the wheel all over again. Instead I would be focussing in this piece on some lesser known facts of the LTTE leader’s personal history with the aid of earlier writings.
At the outset I want to emphasise that this article is neither a biography nor an eulogy. It is not even a critique or analysis. What I hope to do is to try and shed some light on the man and his personality without attempting to glorify him. I shall try do so by highlighting certain facets of Prabhakaran’s eventful life.
Thiruvengadam Veluppillai Prabhakaran was born on November 26th 1954. He was the youngest in a family of four children – two boys and two girls. The two sisters live in Canada and India. The brother resides in Denmark. Prabhakaran’s father was Veerasamy Thiruvengadam Velupillai. Prabhakaran’s mother’s name was Paarvathipillai. Her maiden name was also Velupillai. His parents who lived in the northern mainland, Wanni, later surrendered to the armed forces and were placed under protective custody Both are no more now having died of natural causes.
Prabhakaran’s family hailed from the Northern coastal town of Valvettithurai referred to generally as VVT. His father joined the Government clerical service and eventually became a district lands officer. I think he retired from Govt service when the late Gamini Dissanayake was Lands minister.
Prabhakaran’s family was of respected lineage in VVT. They were known as belonging to the “Thirumeni kudumbam” or Thirumeni family. Prabhakaran’s ancestors constructed the famous Sivan temple of VVT. His father should have been the chief trustee but declined to be so as he was in govt service. So his younger brother became chief trustee instead.
The LTTE leader’s father was a duty conscientious mild-mannered gentleman well respected and well-liked. People of VVT used to say that even the grass wouldn’t get crushed when Mr. Velupillai treads on it. Later many comparisons were made about father and younger son. In fact the father disapproved of the son’s path and was not on speaking terms with Prabhakaran for many years.
The name Prabhakaran denotes the Sun or Sooriyan. Later his sycophants and acolytes began calling him “Sooriyathevan” or “Sun God”. Being the youngest in the family he was called “Thambi” or younger brother. This pet name continued to be in vogue when he entered militant ranks as he was then perhaps the youngest of all. Prabhakaran also adopted various names like Mani, Manivannan, Maniam and “Karikaalan”. It was the latter nom de guerre that he used mostly during the early days.
Karikaalan refers to Thirumaavalavan of the Chola dynasty that flew the “Vengai” or Cheetah flag.Colleagues of an earlier vintage referred to him as “maniyathhar”. Contemporaries continued calling him “thamby”. In later years young tigers used to call him “Annai” or elder brother. After a while it became “Thalaiver” or leader. Formally it was “Thesiya thalaiver” or “national leader”. Colloquially he would be called “perisu” or the big one.
Prabhakaran studied at different schools in Jaffna, Vavuniya and Batticaloa because his father was constantly transferred. The schools he studied for many years at a stretch were Government College (Now Mahajana) B’caloa and Chidampara College, VVT. He was not a model student and did not even complete his GCE O’levels.This does not mean that he was unintelligent or did not possess a thirst for knowledge. It was due to Prabhakaran being interested in other things rather than in formal education.
As a schoolboy, Prabhakaran like most youngsters of his age was fond of cycling and playing volley ball and soccer. But he was no sportsman and preferred to read or watch action films.
He has been ridiculed often for telling an American journalist that he learnt his fighting techniques from Clint Eastwood movies. But what happened really was that the US scribe was pointedly questioning him whether he had been trained in Cuba. It was as a joke that Prabha responded citing the all – American Clint Eastwood as his guru and not El Commandante Fidel Castro as implied by the American journo.
Another pursuit in boyhood was the targeting of squirrels, lizards. Chameleons and small birds with a catapult. As a kid Praba would prowl about areas of dense vegetation searching for his quarry.His photogenic memory was legendary. Prabhakaran would remember faces, names and the last time he had seen someone years ago. His eyes were always sharp and roving taking in the surrounding area and ever on the alert. His eyes were large and striking and was teased as “muliyan” (goggle-eye).
When Prabhakaran was in the JSC (Grade eight) class one of his textbooks was “Thirumavalavan”. This was about the Chola emperor Karikalan under whose rule the “Pulikkodi” (tiger flag) had supposedly fluttered proudly from “Imayam muthal Kumari varai” (Himalayas to Cape Comorin) .
Thus Prabhakaran was fascinated by Karikalan and the tiger flag.“Puli” in Tamil denotes the tiger but the tiger on the Chola flag was the “Vengai” or cheetah. It is a far cry from the Bengal tiger on the LTTE flag now. In any case there are no tigers in Sri Lanka. We have only the leopard here. But then we have no lions either but our national flag has one. In a sense the rifle-crossed tiger flag was a direct response to the sword-bearing lion flag.
Prabhakaran known as Mani and Maniam earlier soon took the nom de guerre Karikalan . When arrested by the Indian Police in Pondy bazaar in May 1982, it was that name which is on Indian police records. Later Prabhakaran’s wireless codename was HA or Hotel Alpha. This was derived from Karikalan where Kari became Hari and then HA.
The Chola emperor got the name Karikalan because he was caught in a fire as a boy and had his legs burnt. Karikalan means “Person with dark or black legs”. Prabhakaran too had a similar experience while experimenting with explosives. There was an explosion and his legs were burnt. The skin was dark for years. Thus “Karikalan” suited him appropriately.When Prabhakaran died he was identified by former LTTE spokesperson Daya Master by these dark scars.
Prabhakaran was an avid reader. He was particularly fond of reading history-about historical battles and historical figures.Some of the famous historical figures he admired were Napoleon and Alexander. The Indian freedom struggle fascinated him. He read the Tamil version of Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography “Satya Sodhanai” in his early teens but was not enamoured of it greatly.
Prabhakaran was also fond of reading Tamil novels particularly those with a historical background. His favourite apparently was “Ponniyin Selvan” the magnum opus of “Kalki” (R. Krishnamoorthy). This is about Prince Arulmolivarman who evolved into the great Chola emperor Raja Raja Cholan.He also liked the historical novels of Akhilan and Chandilyan. “Venkayin Mainthan” and “Kayal Vizhi” by Akhilan and “Yavana Raani”, “Kadal Puraa” and “Jalatheepam” by Chandilyan were his favourites by these two. When the LTTE bought its first maritime vessel it was named “Kadal Puraa” (sea dove) after Chandilyan’s novel.
Yet, the Tamil novel read again and again by Prabhakaran was “Kallukkul Eeram” (moisture in a stone) by RS Nallaperumaal. It is set against the backdrop of India’s freedom struggle against the British.The chief protagonist Rangamani is one who does not believe in Gandhi’s “ahimsa” mode of struggle and espouses violence as the appropriate method to liberate India. No wonder then that Praba loved this novel. But there is a change of heart in the end by the novel’s protagonist, but for the real life protagonist there was no moisture in the stone.
Indian Freedom Struggle
The Indian Freedom Struggle impacted on Prabhakaran greatly. His ideal and idol was Netaji or Subash Chandra Bose. Netaji had ideological differences with the Mahatma about the mode of struggle for independence. At one stage he disapporoved of Gandhi’s “non-violence” and went on to form the Indian National Army (INA) to launch an armed struggle against the British. Subsequently Chandra Bose joined forces with the Germans and Japanese to fight the British. He died in a mysterious aeroplane accident. Netaji’s famous pronouncement was “I shall fight for the freedom of my land until I shed my last drop of blood”. Prabhakaran subscribed to these sentiments whole-heartedly.
Apart from Netaji , Prabhakaran was also impressed by the Sikh freedom fighter Bhagat Singh who was sentenced to the gallows by the British rulers.
Two freedom fighters from Tamil Nadu also made an impact on young Prabhakaran.One was Vaanchinaatha Iyer who shot the Tirunelvely district collector Ashe dead at the Maniaachchi railway station. When chased by the Police Vaanchinaathan shot himself. The other was Thiruppoor Kumaran who withstood heavy beating by the Police but would not let go of the Bharatmatha flag. He was hailed as “Kodi Kaatha Kumaran” (Kumaran who saved the flag)
Prabhakaran was very much interested in contemporary affairs and international politics. A former comrade at arms of Prabhakaran, Thalayasingham Sivakumar alias Anton Master told me how the LTTE subscribed to ‘TIME’ and ‘Newsweek’ those days. Praba would ask friends knowledgeable in English to translate and explain articles to him.
In later years when the LTTE developed into a full-fledged outfit, important articles from magazines and newspapers were translated into Tamil for Prabakharan’s consumption. Also many books on military affairs and warfare were translated into Tamil.
1958 Anti -Tamil Violence
Prabhakaran’s attitude and political thinking was shaped by contemporary events and environment. The gruesome tales he heard as a four year old child about the 1958 anti-Tamil violence impacted greatly.One day Prabhakaran’s home had a woman visitor whose legs were scarred by burns. Upon inquiring the little boy was told that the woman’s home had been set on fire by a “Sinhala” mob. She had escaped with burns.Young Praba also heard the infamous story of the Brahmin priest in Panadura being burnt to death in a bonfire and also about the infant thrown into a tar barrel. All these tales made an indelible impression as a child.
Prabhakaran growing up in Valvettithurai got politically motivated in the late sixties and early seventies of the previous century. This was when former Kayts MP. V. Navaratnam broke away from the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) known as Federal Party (FP) in English.
Navaratnam, once described as the “golden brain” of the FP, formed the “Thamilar Suyaatchi Kazhagham” or Tamil Self-Rule party in 1968. Navaratnam abandoned the federal demand as being too little and too late and instead opted for “Suyaatchi” or “self-rule” a euphemism of sorts for a separate state.
There was a pedagogue named Venugopal master for whom Prabhakaran had great regard and respect. Venugopal master became an active supporter of Navaratnam. Several students including Prabhakaran became his followers and turned into ardent devotees of Tamil self-rule.
A Country of Our Own.
The Suyaatchi Kazhagham also started a newspaper ‘Viduthalai’ (Liberation/Freedom). Navaratnam himself translated and serialised ‘Exodus,’ the famous novel written by Leon Uris. It was named ‘Namakkendroru Naadu’ (A Country of Our Own). Young Prabhakaran eagerly devoured it and became hooked on the dream of a country for Tamils.
The Tamil self-rule party was defeated in the 1970 polls. No candidate including Navaratnam won. But the seeds of self-rule sowed in the campaign had taken firm root in the heart and mind of “Thamby” Prabhakaran.
Soon “thamby” began losing interest in meetings and non-violent agitation.These were too tame for him. Greatly inspired by tales of Israel’s Hagannah and Irgun, Prabhakaran became firmly convinced that perceived Sri Lankan state oppression could be resisted only through force.It was then that Prabhakaran wanted to buy a gun and practise shooting.
There was a notorious “chandiyan” (thug) then in Point Pedro called Sambandan. He sold guns illegally. When Prabhakaran approached him for one, Sambandan priced an old pistol at 150 rupees.Prabhakaran and some like-minded youths pooled their resources and came up with the princely sum of 40 rupees. Undeterred Prabhakaran sold his gold ring to augment finances. This had been given to him by his elder brother in law.As was the custom the younger brother of the bride, Prabhakaran ,poured water on the bridegroom’s feet when he entered the bride’s house and got rewarded with a gold ring.
This was how Prabhakaran acquired his first firearm.Prabhakaran began training clandestinely. A retired soldier from Pt Pedro helped him train.
Forming the LTTE
When the LTTE was formed on 5 May 1976 Prabhakaran was only its military commander. The leader and chairman of the five-member central committee of the LTTE was Uma Maheswaran. Praba was also a CC member.The LTTE fragmented in 1980 and Uma Maheswaran formed the PLOTE.
The LTTE under Prabhakaran had a working relationship with the TELO led by Thangathurai and Kuttimani. In 1981 the LTTE re-grouped under the absolute leadership of Prabhakaran. Thereafter it was a virtual one-man dictatorship.
Prabhakaran was also a “puritan” in many ways. He neither drank tea,coffee or liquor nor smoked.Praba even advocated sexual abstinence for all in the early days of the movement. Order and cleanliness was almost an obsession. He was a stickler for discipline.
He was always neatly dressed preferring “bush shirts” and short-sleeved shirts. The bush shirt was helpful as it covered hidden firearms. It is said that even during the early stages of militancy when there was an acute shortage of funds, Prabhakaran would wash and iron his few clothes regularly and always maintain a dapper appearance.
He was a good cook and also fond of good food. He relished Chinese cuisine. Prabhakaran was also fond of pittu, coconut sambol and fried shrimp. He also liked iguana and tortoise flesh. He liked fruits and natural bee’s honey.
Usually LTTE cadres under punishment are assigned duties in the kitchen. Prabhakaran would encourage cadres to cook saying “only a good cook can be a good guerrilla”. He would often cook or help out in the kitchen when at home. A close relative who visited him once was flummoxed to see the feared guerrilla leader busily scraping coconuts in the kitchen.
Hard as it may be for many to believe there was a quiet, spiritual aspect also to Prabhakaran. The “Ithihasam” (epic) Mahabharatham enthralled him. The characters he identified with were Bheema and Karna.Prabhakaran also read the Tamil translations of Swami Vivekananda’s writings and speeches avidly. Another spiritual person he looked up to was Thirumuga Kirupananda Vaariyaar popularly called “Vaariyaar”.
It is the Mahabharatha that relates the tale of Lord Krishna advising the wavering Arjuna on the battlefield “Kurushetra”. The Pandavas and Gouravas (cousins) had assembled to do battle but Arjuna hesitates to fight against his kith and kin and lets slip his bow “Kaandeepam”.Lord Krishna then tenders advice to him that each person is destined to fulfil his or her duty. It was the warrior’s duty to kill his adversary regardless of kinship. Killing the “body” of the enemy was part of heroic valour. The essence of Lord Krishna’s lecture is the “Bhagavat Gita”. Prabhakaran was greatly enamoured of principles enunciated in the ‘Gita’.
In the Tamil film ‘Karnan’ based on the ‘Mahabharatha’ Lord Krishna is played by N.T. Rama Rao and Arjuna by Mutturaman. The Gita episode is picturised as a song ‘Maranathai Enni Kalangidum Vijaya’. This was one of Prabhakaran’s favourite songs. It’s sung by Seerkali Govindarajan.
Madhivadhani Erambu There was a time when Prabhakaran wedded himself to the Tamil Eelam cause ,vowing to be celibate till a separate state was achieved. Despite these lofty ideals, “Manmathan” or cupid struck Prabhakaran with his five-flowered arrows in 1983-84.
Some displaced undergraduates were on a death fast at the Jaffna university premises in 1983 September. When the condition of some girls deteriorated the LTTE broke the fast and abducted those fasting. They were brought to Tamil Nadu.
At one stage four of the abducted girls stayed at the residence of Anton and Adele Balasingham and used to accompany them to the LTTE office in Indranagar. The fairest and prettiest of them all was Madhivadhani Erambu. Her father Erambu was a schoolmaster from Pungudutheevu in Jaffna.
During the Indian “Holi” festival people spray coloured powder and coloured water on each other. Madhivadhani held a bet with her friends and boldly drenched Prabhakaran with turmeric dissolved water. Praba was furious and berated her. Madhi started weeping.
Hours later when the tiger supremo was leaving the office , he found her in a corner sobbing.He went up to her and spoke softly asking her not to cry. Madhivathani looked up at him with tear-filled eyes. Praba’s heart was pierced. The tough Tiger Supremo was smitten by the doe-eyed beauty whose name Madhivadhani meant “moon like face”
Thereafter Prabhakaran began visiting the Balasingham’s frequently. He brought flowers and sweets for Madhi. Prabhakaran had been a shy, introverted person and had never mingled with girls outside his family before. This was a new experience. Anton Balasingham encouraged the romance. \They married in 1984.
Initially there was a hitch. The LTTE code of conduct at that time tabooed marriage. So the top commanders were summoned to Tamil Nadu and a Central committee meeting convened.There a new regulation was introduced enabling those with five years experience to marry.
The Madhi-Praba marriage took place in a temple with senior tiger commanders including Selvarasa Pathmanathan alias KP in attendance as “Maappillai Thozhan”or Best Man.
Prabhakaran and Madhivadhani had three children. The eldest was named Charles Anthony born in 1985. He was named after Praba’s best friend and military commander Charles Anthony alias Seelan who died in Meesalai, Chavakachcheri.
The next was Duvaraga the daughter born in 1986. She was named after a favourite bodyguard Mayooran whose real name was Duvaaragan.
The third was a son born in 1997. He was named Balachandran after Madhivathani’s own brother who also joined the LTTE and died in combat.
Prabhakaran and his family were killed during the final phase of the war in May 2009.The demise of Prabhakaran along with family members and senior commanders marked the end of an eventful chapter in the long drawn out struggle of the Tamil people to achieve equal rights in the Island of Sri Lanka.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org