Velupillai Prabhakaran, the much-feared and notoriously secretive leader of the Tamil Tigers, is dead. The obituaries come pouring in, but it seems somewhat odd that Prabhakaran should be remembered with an obituary. An obituary is not merely a notice of the death of some well-known personality; it is an appreciation of a life that has come to a close. Perhaps, in the very appearance of obituaries of Prabhakaran in the New York Times and the Guardian, there is an implicit acknowledgment that Prabhakaran, who was among the most wanted ‘terrorists’ of the world, also had the approbation of many Tamils, in Sri Lanka and wider diasporic communities, who looked to him as the embodiment of their aspirations and the person most likely to turn the dream of Tamil autonomy into something like reality?
One famous photograph of Prabhakaran, the one featured in today’s Guardian, shows him seated below a large framed print of Che Guevara, flanked on either side by an armed bodyguard. Every armed revolutionary over the last several decades has attempted to lay claim to Che’s legacy, though it has been reliably said of Prabhakaran that he spent the greater part of the last twenty years, when he made rare public appearances and was holed up in his jungle hideouts, watching Clint Eastwood’s films and practicing the fast draw. Prabhakaran’s lifestyle was surely not calculated to earn him a large following as a renowned revolutionary. Leaving aside the question of whether the portly Prabhakaran could have been, in the market-driven economy of the modern world with an accent on the cool and the sexy, a match for the irrepressibly handsome features of a youthful but pensive-looking Che, Prabhakaran’s influence appears to have been confined to the band of the hard-core following that he had acquired among Tamils at home (and especially abroad).
It is true as well that Che’s posters are plastered everywhere, while Prabhakaran barely had a public presence in the ordinary sense of the term except in the posters and pamphlet literature of the LTTE. Once every year, on the occasion of Maveerar Naal, or Great Heroes Day, his speech to LTTE cadres would be keenly awaited for signs of his thinking or political and military strategy. And, yet, in a curious way, Prabhakaran seems to have held his own against Che, and might even have had a more lasting impact. His presence in the Tamil diaspora can only be underestimated at great peril: the anger even despair of his many ardent supporters in the Tamil diaspora may subside over time, but the diaspora’s dreams persist long after the country imagined as the ‘homeland’ has been transformed. Many Tamils will continue to swear by Prabhakaran even if fundamental political changes are effected in Sri Lanka. Secondly, there can be little question that while Che remains an enduring even romantic symbol of the revolution, or rather I should say the unfulfilled revolution, Prabhakaran did far more to transform insurgent warfare than anyone else one can think of in the last few decades. The LTTE, under his leadership, was among the first armed organizations to deploy the internet effectively to raise funds. Before there were Palestinian, Iraqi, and Pakistani suicide bombers, there were LTTE cadres who showed the way. Among their most prominent victims was Rajiv Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of Gandhi. Indeed, in virtually every innovation of insurgent warfare or (as some would say) terrorism, Prabhakaran’s LTTE has been the pioneer.
In death as in life, Prabhakaran remains elusive. I shall say more on that tomorrow.