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Opinion: Hero or Villain, Velupillai Prabhakaran’s Revolution in Sri Lanka Draws to a Close

April 27, 2009

By Bruce Matthews

Bruce Matthews is Emeritus Professor of Comparative Religion at Acadia University, Nova Scotia. He was a member of the Independent International Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP, under the Chairmanship of P.N.Bhagwati, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India), which worked in Sri Lanka for fourteen months as observers of a Presidential Commission on Human Rights Abuses. IIGEP resigned in April 2008, aware that its advice was ignored by both the Presidential Commission and the Government of Sri Lanka

Whatever else might be said about Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) founder Velupillai Prabhakaran (cold-blooded opportunist, mass assassin, megalomaniac – none of which is very helpful), for over three decades he has successfully fuelled a civil war in Sri Lanka with his unique blend of charisma and occasional strategic brilliance.  

The end is near now for this enigmatic, masterful personality, but the cause for which he and thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils have so unflinchingly fought will not be quickly by-passed. Security experts predict years of asymmetrical warfare will replace the current ground battles that have raged off-and-on in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces since the late 1980s. 

A Sri Lanka army of occupation comprised entirely of the Sinhalese victors will have to hold the ground of traditional Tamil territory for years to come, just as they have maintained a heavily fortified garrison in what remains of the once-vibrant and charming Tamil capital of Jaffna since its capture by state troops in 1995. In all of this, three things need to be kept in mind. 

 First, Sri Lanka has suffered the most grievous of all kinds of civil war because it has been based on ethnicity.  The sad irony here is that the Sinhala majority and Tamil minority share so much, culturally, sociologically and historically. Both communities have roots, however far removed, in India, and in fact both look even now to India as a source of moral support.  How to build on these strengths has always eluded the dominant Sinhala polity, whose leaders since independence in 1948 have lacked the imagination and nerve to give the Tamils an appropriate, honourable place in the structure of the state. 

Second, the ethnic civil war has deeply scarred the collective psyche of the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils everywhere. This is especially so for the Tamils who have seen their once flourishing population reduced by half, with many of its youngest and best seeking sanctuary in what has become a vast international diaspora, carrying with them all the emotional disfigurement of their homeland war.  It is also made visible in many ways on the island itself, not least of which is a surge of public war memorials to mark the fallen, often in garish, provocative taste. LTTE cemeteries mark a similar demonstration of the huge sacrifice its cadres have made. It will take decades of thoughtful political leadership to bring healing to these communities, neither of which is currently in an exonerating mood. 

Third, the LTTE seems determined to fight to the last man and woman. Although international appeals have been made to Prabhakaran to free the thousands of civilians trapped behind the lines, he must recognize that the presence of these civilians are strategically valuable to him in part because their plight receives much global attention. The LTTE would not look upon this as cynical or self-serving, but as a principled strategy based on ethnic allegiance to their great cause of political sovereignty. 

Prabhakaran has made many very serious errors in judgement over the years. These include the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in India in 1991; the ruthless elimination of distinguished, moderate Tamils  who worked for a more diplomatic or political solution;  the inexplicable boycott of the last presidential elections in 2005 – which deliberately propelled the current hawkish government into power – and in somewhat cynically buying time with every cease-fire or international effort to broker peace talks.  Perhaps it was Prabhakaran’s ill-fortune to have the LTTE swept into the post 9/11 global ‘war of terror’. Rather for him, it was always a liberation war fought by necessity in an uncompromising, do-or-die struggle. 

Now the question must be whether the Sinhala majority can, in its triumph, also ask for reconciliation and even forgiveness for its initial failure to recognize the legitimate and at one time entirely peaceful requests of the Tamils for cultural recognition in a Sinhala-dominated state. Ethnic exclusivism has always been a problem for the Sinhalese, and its bitter consequences have long flowed over into the now equally as exclusivist LTTE. Both examples are a deadly enemy of any mature pluralist state, which Sri Lanka surely deserves to become.

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