Too many loose ends in Lankan army’s version
of Prabhakaran’s death.
Precisely because he is many things to many people, LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran’s death has been greeted with joy by the Sinhalese, grief by his Tamil supporters, and relief by many who hope his death will bring peace to Sri Lanka.
But is he really dead? I was sceptical of the first report, which said he was killed while fleeing the war zone in an ambulance. No way. Prabhakaran would not do something so idiotic. Remember, the Sri Lankan army told us that Prabhakaran and his cadres were surrounded in a tiny patch of land, less than 1 sq.km. The area was so small and so well surrounded that anyone coming out on a bicycle would be spotted and stopped. So logically, what chance would an ambulance have of sprinting past unnoticed? If he had to flee from such a tiny war zone, he would have scurried out through an underground tunnel.
And then came the picture of Prabhakaran’s corpse. The first question: if he was killed in an ambulance, how come his body was discovered in a lagoon? The picture looked fake. Top of the head was blown off, but the face was clear and the eyes wide open. Prabhakaran’s most distinguishing feature are his eyes, which seemed artificially wide, as if someone was trying to prove it was indeed him by grabbing attention to his eyes. It reminded me of the front-page picture of the terrorist killed in a shootout in Ansal Plaza in New Delhi a few years ago. I had said then that I found it hard to believe that the terrorist had died that way with the gun in his hand. I have seen innumerable civilians, soldiers and guerrillas lying dead in battlefields. They don’t look like this. Forensically, I did not see how it was possible that a guy involved in a massive shootout could die so perfectly posed. Subsequent investigations reinforced these doubts.
That is the same feeling I had when I saw the picture of Prabhakaran’s corpse. Far from setting my doubts to rest, the picture convinced me that something was fishy. The initial version was that soldiers had “shelled” the ambulance, which caught fire and was destroyed. If you pummel an ambulance with artillery shells or rocket propelled grenades, it will explode. So, if Prabhakaran were inside, his body would have been blown to bits. At the very least, charred. And when his dog tags and identity cards surfaced, the whole thing seemed even more of a set-up. Besides, Karuna’s and Daya Master’s identification of Prabhakaran’s body has as much credibility as a confession extracted in police custody. I am not saying that I know for sure Prabhakaran is alive. What I am saying is that this version of his death does not ring true.
If he knew there was no way out, he would not only have killed himself but have made sure his body was not found. There are two reasons for this. One, he is a keen student of military history and knows if his body were found, it would be desecrated by the victorious Sinhalese soldiers. All triumphant soldiers have done this through history. I can vividly recall the dead Afghan leader Najibullah hanging from a Kabul lamp-post, cigarette stuffed in his nose, body bloated and beaten black and blue by the victorious Taliban. I have seen videos of dead female LTTE soldiers being stripped naked and paraded by gleeful Sinhalese soldiers.
Prabhakaran is an extraordinarily proud man, one who believes he is fighting to restore the honour and glory of the Tamils. He will not allow himself to be desecrated. So not only will he swallow his cyanide, have his bodyguard shoot him to make his death doubly sure, but he will ensure that his body is blasted to bits, so that no corpse ever surfaces.
That brings me to the second reason why he would ensure his body was never found. Remember, one of his favourite heroes is Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Even today, there are people who believe that Bose is still alive. The mystery and the mystique remain. If Prabhakaran’s body is never found, no one can be sure whether he is really dead or alive and the conspiracy theories will spin forever. Purpose served, especially if he is dead. I don’t think he was killed, more likely he took his own life. If I were to pick a day that he decided to commit suicide with his top cadres, it would be May 16.
In my last article published in THE WEEK (Crouching Tiger, May 3) on what I expected Prabhakaran’s next move to be, I had written, “He will be watching the Indian elections closely to see which dispensation takes charge in New Delhi. He will be watching to see if there is a popular upsurge of support in Tamil Nadu for the plight of Tamils across the Palk Strait. …He will be watching President Barack Obama who rightly analysed that conflicts stem from our perception of the other.”
On May 13, Obama urged the Tigers to “lay down their arms” and the government to stop the “indiscriminate shelling that has taken hundreds of innocent lives”. Tiger spokespersons said they were willing to accede to Obama’s request, but the Sri Lankan government refused to slacken or halt the final onslaught. On May 16, the Indian election results came out and the Congress made a resounding comeback. Staunch LTTE supporters like Vaiko were routed. Prabhakaran has been waging this battle alone for the last three years and he knows what it has cost him-his cadres, the Tamil civilians and the diaspora. It has been truly horrific. Surviving another five years with a hostile Congress establishment at the helm in India and an impotent international community is very hard.
In the past, after he was routed, Prabhakaran started all over again from scratch. That is why I had said I could envision him continuing the war. But with Congress’s victory, and adamancy of the Sri Lankan state to disregard even the American president, I can see why he saw the futility of continuing his struggle, deciding then to fight unto death.
In his introduction to an absolute must-read 1964 book, The World of Yesterday by Austrian author Stefan Zweig, Harry Zohn talks about the three times that Zweig had to start his life all over, caught up as he was between the two world wars. Writes Zohn: “Too exhausted to start a fourth, Zweig took his life in Brazil soon after completing his autobiography, at a time when the prospects for the realisation of all that he had ever striven for looked particularly bleak.” Zweig and Prabhakaran are complete opposites. But this, I think, sums up Prabhakaran’s mood on May 16. What lends some credence to my theory is that several members of the Tamil diaspora said they began getting calls from their LTTE contacts in Vanni, tearfully bidding farewell. That most of the top rung of the LTTE’s military wing are dead, points to mass suicide.
Rumours began circulating in the blogosphere on May 16 that Prabhakaran and 300 of his top cadres had committed mass suicide. In fact, Sri Lanka’s army web site posted an item at 17:51 on May 17 from the battlefront: “Self-ignited LTTE explosions [were] heard and witnessed in close vicinity. Likelihood of Tigers committing suicide en masse or burning of LTTE assets on their own has not been ruled out.” Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced victory and end of war. On May 17 afternoon, the LTTE issued a statement: “This battle has reached its bitter end. We remain with one last choice-to remove the last weak excuse of the enemy for killing our people. We have decided to silence our guns.” The statement blamed the silence of the international community, the impunity with which the Sri Lankan government ignored urgent appeals, used words like “desperate” and “saddened”, referred to “bitter end” twice. And added: “Against all odds, we have held back the advancing Sinhalese forces, without help or support…. Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out any longer.” It reads like a suicide note.
For an even more absurd reason, I am inclined to believe that he could have committed suicide on May 17. Prabhakaran was very superstitious and once confessed to me that the number 8 is very unlucky for him-even though he was born on November 26. So he never undertook major offensives on 8th, 17th and 26th of a month. I reported that. And the Sri Lankan army took it easy on those days. But Charles Anthony, his son, couldn’t care less about superstition. Many of the operations he commanded were on 26th, precisely to surprise the army. On April 26, 2006, an LTTE suicide bomber tried in vain to assassinate Sri Lankan army commander Sarath Fonseka. From this superstitious perspective, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the likely date of Prabhakaran’s suicide is May 17. When Prabhakaran told me about his superstition regarding numbers, I read Cheiro. According to Cheiro, people born with the birth number 8 are destined for great successes and great failures! If he has indeed committed suicide, this prediction certainly rings true for him!
On May 18 at 3 a.m. Vanni time, the LTTE political chief B. Nadesan and its peace secretariat director Puleedevan telephoned their European contacts requesting them to ask the ICRC to evacuate about 1,000 of their wounded cadres and LTTE’s civil officials. But a few hours later, the Sri Lankan defence ministry claimed they had found the dead bodies of Nadesan, Puleedevan and Anthony. The LTTE accused the Sri Lankan government of “treachery”. Their version is that their international contacts told them that arrangements had been made with the Sri Lankan military to discuss “an orderly end to the war”. So as instructed, Nadesan and Puleedevan, unarmed and carrying white flags, contacted the 58 division of the Sri Lankan troops operating nearby. But they were shot and killed. If this is true, under international conventions, this would be a war crime. The number of dead bodies shown on Sri Lankan web sites indicates that this war ended with a bloody massacre.
Sri Lankan army released pictures of Anthony’s corpse on May 18. Up until then, they had been releasing old pictures of a bulky Anthony in battle fatigues. But now two photos were released-one in which he is alive and the other his corpse. The strange thing is in both pictures he is wearing the same blue shirt. The explanation then could be that he, with Nadesan and Puleedevan, had gone dressed in civilian clothes with white flags to the 58 division. Pictures were taken, where he looks clean-shaven, relaxed and neat. And then something went wrong and a massacre followed some time later (the dead Anthony’s face has stubble). All Tiger fighters wear combat fatigues, so if he was fighting, Anthony should have been wearing battle dress. But the army’s version is that Anthony and others arrived dressed in civilian clothes on what was a suicide mission. But then that doesn’t explain the picture of Anthony alive.
Intriguingly, it took another whole day before the government released the picture of Prabhakaran’s body. If Prabhakaran did indeed blow himself up along with his top cadres, then there can be no body to parade. In which case, the government came up with a Prabhakaran “double”. How weird is that? But the answer could be simple-the army was under pressure to show a dead body as proof. If the Sri Lankan military has evidence that Prabhakaran did indeed blast himself, then they can be certain he will not surface to dispute their claim. On May 20, Sri Lanka’s defence ministry web site carried a bizarre announcement: “We are not going to comment on how he died.”
But the story gets more curious. The LTTE is silent about Anthony, but has issued a statement that Prabhakaran is alive and safe. But few believe the LTTE, so rumours are now rife that Prabhakaran will give a television interview to prove he is alive. That will be a bombshell if it happens, suggesting he had waged an elaborate war of deception, complete with his own “double”. Any move he makes will be picked up by the Sri Lankan intelligence. But that is if he is alive. A Sinhalese blogger said: “He is alive and well-in hell.”
But all these conspiracy theories can be quelled. The international community can force Sri Lanka to share the DNA tests done on Prabhakaran and Anthony and verify if they match Prabhakaran’s sisters’ who live in Canada and Europe. India and the four co-chairs-the United States, Europe, Japan and Norway-should insist on this.
Anita Contests on AAP Ticket From Kerala But Loses Gracefully
I could not have contested this election had I not been a war correspondent. Indian politics is a war zone with its own deadly arsenal of landmines, lethal gas, bombardments and guerrilla ambushes. As newcomers in a new party, we had no idea what to expect, or from where to expect it. The opposition to AAP, and in particular ethical candidates entering India’s political fray, is insidious. Tricksters exploit inexperience to win confidence. An example—if the electoral details given about any one of your 10 proposers are wrong, your nomination is rejected. I sought the Delhi AAP legal cell’s advice and my trickster failed in his devious mission.
Kill or be killed is not the credo of a war correspondent. To stay alive is. Battle zones teach you when to charge ahead, retreat or change course in situations that change daily, even hourly. To survive, one has to adapt and improvise. Despite concerns, I forged ahead to canvass in my opponent’s stronghold. When dead fish surfaced in the Periyar river, polluted by factory effluents, I changed course and rushed to be with the anguished fishermen. It’s a sixth sense that guides you like a GPS to spots where trouble erupts. Experiencing people’s outrage over the floating dead fish convinced me this situation could aggravate. Next day, when anti-pollution activists were arrested, I was close at hand and joined them in the police station. The people’s joy when they beget empathy is immeasurable. The most enduring image of this election for me is the radiant Malayali smile. It lights up their faces.
Contesting this election reaffirmed my belief that both hell and heaven exist on this earth; devils and angels operate right here in our midst. Help fails to come from where you expect, but it arrives gift-wrapped with no strings attached from unexpected quarters. Give up hope and all is lost. Clinging even to a single straw of hope is a lesson I learnt well. It kept me slogging despite all odds in this election.
I did not win, but nor did I lose. AAP is only three months old in Kerala and my campaign was a mere two weeks, but still I got the highest votes among AAP candidates in south India. The result: I have never been congratulated so much for losing! The media and public claim that over 50,000 votes is not a defeat, but a victory in Kerala, deeply polarised as it is between the Congress and the CPI(M). Anil George, an active AAP member and a volunteer counting agent, said when he expressed dismay at my getting only six per cent of the vote, his BJP counterpart retorted, “What are you complaining about? It took us 21 years to get that much!”
I think more women should join politics. Right now, even the Election Commission’s nomination forms assume the candidate is a man! Independent, competent and knowledgeable women are needed in all aspects of political decision-making. Only then can policies be holistic and sustainable. I see my role as a woman politician much the same as I did a woman journalist’s 35 years ago—breaking down barriers for women to enter a male domain.