Is a Tiger changing stripes?

SUN JOURNAL

Sri Lanka: Recent statements and an appearance by the Tamil guerrilla leader raise hopes that he is committed to peace talks, but doubts remain.

April 19, 2002|By Vanessa Gezari | Vanessa Gezari,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka - The guerrilla leader emerges from the jungle dressed in a powder blue suit. Bodyguards in dark, gold-rimmed sunglasses surround him, weapons bulging from their hips.

No one has seen him in years - no one but his disciplined and brutal cadres. It has been so long that some Sri Lankans have begun to wonder whether he is alive.

At twilight, Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, sits beneath a white tent in this bomb-shattered town 150 miles north of the capital, Colombo, and utters words that many hope will change the lives of Sri Lanka's 18 million people:

"We are sincerely and seriously committed to peace. We will seriously consider renouncing the armed struggle if a solution acceptable to the people is worked out."

Prabhakaran is notorious in this pear-shaped island nation off the southern tip of India, where for the past 19 years he has led an armed struggle for an independent Tamil state called Eelam. Bombs and gunfights between the guerrillas and the army have killed more than 60,000 people, ruined towns and razed palm groves.

With Sri Lanka in the midst of its most promising peace process in years, Prabhakaran - whose Tamil Tigers have been declared terrorists in the United States and banned internationally - is sorely in need of a new image.

Speaking to the news media last week for the first time in more than a decade, Prabhakaran gave Sri Lankans reason to hope.

"We have never seen [Prabhakaran] in other times - we never saw him on TV or in the newspaper," says Jaiasuriya, a retired bank manager in Colombo who uses only one name. "Other people spoke, but not him. It is because of this that we believe things have changed now."

But it will take more than a news conference to turn Prabhakaran, one of South Asia's most reviled militant leaders, into a politician.

Born into a fisherman's caste in northern Sri Lanka, he became outraged as he grew up with discrimination against the country's minority Hindu Tamils by the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists who make up the majority.

In 1958 and again in 1983, mobs killed hundreds of Sri Lankan Tamils who were demanding the right to speak their own language and establish an autonomous homeland on the island.

Prabhakaran started building bombs and plotting assassinations in the name of Tamil separatism when he was a teen-ager. As a young man, he forced himself to lie amid bags of hot chili peppers and stuck pins in his fingernails to improve his endurance. He immersed himself in Phantom comics, and he says he learned to fight by watching Clint Eastwood movies.

He built an army of fierce young Tamil fighters, many of them women. He banned his cadres from drinking and sex, though he and several other high-ranking commanders of the Tigers are married. His fighters are said to be so loyal that they wear cyanide capsules around their necks to kill themselves in case they are captured.

Long before terrorism became a household word, the Tamil Tigers perfected the suicide attack. Prabhakaran is blamed for orchestrating the killing of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who died along with 18 others in 1991 when a female suicide bomber detonated a pack of explosives attached to her waist at a political rally in southern India. In 1993, a suicide bomber with the Tigers killed 23 people, including former Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

In battles and ambushes, the Tigers rush forward in waves, spraying bullets and brandishing knives while the Sri Lankan army, with its high-tech weapons, mows them down by the hundreds. The Tigers have videotaped the battles and circulated them around the world. The group's assassins have gunned down a handful of Tamil politicians who disagreed with their hard-line views.

The Tigers' struggle for a homeland has been surprisingly successful. Beyond the northern town of Vavuniya, Sri Lanka gives way to Tamil Eelam, a swath of territory that has been under the de facto control of the Tigers for the past 12 years.

The only road north - reopened to civilian traffic last week for the first time since 1990 - winds through a no-man's land of bombed-out schoolhouses and mined fields, past the group's police stations, where officers wear blue uniforms with the Tiger insignia.

Neatly lettered signs mark the group's government ministries of forestry and economic development. At the check posts, female Tiger cadres, dressed in belted blouses and with their hair tightly braided under cotton caps, smile shyly as they inspect a traveler's luggage.

"Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe is the prime minister of the people who have elected him," Anton Balasingham, the Tigers' chief political strategist, says. "Here in Tamil Eelam, Mr. Prabhakaran is the prime minister."

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