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Death of Tamil leader leaves followers confounded

Globe and Mail Update

Even in death, Velupillai Prabhakaran's eyes remained his most compelling feature, wide open and clear, as though focused on a goal.

For more than 30 years, Sri Lankan Tamils relied on those eyes, and the single-minded focus behind them, to achieve their goal: a separate homeland called Tamil Eelam, free from the “racist Sinhala state” that Mr. Prabhakaran had always insisted was bent on his people's destruction.

The loyalty they returned to Mr. Prabhakaran could well explain their lingering denial of his death Tuesday, even as grisly footage of the Tamil Tigers' founding leader, face frozen in a death stare with a bullet wound in his forehead, made the online rounds.

“A lot of our Tamil people, and a lot means most of them, don't believe this story,” a onetime associate of the rebel leader, now living in Toronto, said Tuesday. “I also don't want to think that way, that he's dead.”

Whether they want to or not, Tamils will eventually have to reconcile their devotion with their erstwhile leader's ultimate failure to bring about Eelam before his death on the weekend, during a brutal last drive by the Sri Lankan army to end 26 years of on-and-off civil war with the Tigers. Once they do, that devotion will die along with him, observers say.

“My feeling is that his defeat spells an end to a good part of that grip he had over the Tamil people,” a grip based mainly on his undisputed success at building the Tigers into an efficient fighting force, said Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto history professor and expert on international security.

“He didn't deliver; he brought death and destruction and he came to a kind of inglorious end,” Dr. Wark said, “so right there, a good part of the mythos of Prabhakaran is going to just kind of vanish into thin air.”

The remainder of the rebel supremo's grip, derived from his ability to coerce Tamils at home and abroad to follow his vision to the exclusion of all others, appears equally doomed now that he's no longer around to enforce loyalty, Dr. Wark said. “His capacity to exercise terror from beyond the grave is zero, and I think for that reason as well, he will rapidly become a kind of ghost, or has become a ghost already.”

It would be a quick and ignominious fate for a man whose tactics – suicide attacks on civilians, killings of two world leaders and scores of Tamil rivals, recruitment of child soldiers – have played out in gruesome, full-colour reality for the better part of three decades, despite Mr. Prabhakaran's unlikely packaging. Slight, portly and soft-spoken, the mustachioed leader appeared anything but menacing, and was most often photographed smiling, though from behind piercing dark eyes.

“He's really human, an ordinary human,” the Toronto man, who grew up in a neighbouring village to Mr. Prabhakaran and helped him during the Tigers' formative years, recently told The Globe and Mail. “But always he is very much focused [and] nothing can divert him from this focus; that's why he has been able to carry this struggle, the honest truth of the cause.”

This bloody-minded consistency – reinforced by Mr. Prabhakaran's personal moral code, including strictures on his soldiers' use of alcohol and tobacco, and bans on sexual promiscuity and killing people while they're eating – earned him more loyalty than any charisma he had, the man said.

“It's not a cult,” he said. “The respect came because of his focus and from his not wavering from that focus.”

Some were also held in thrall by Mr. Prabhakaran's status as a highly prized fugitive, earned after his first political assassination – he shot the Tamil mayor of Jaffna for being too co-operative with the Sinhalese-led government in Colombo – in 1975, when he was just 20.

“There is an admiration, but there is also a sense of responsibility and protection towards him that they feel,” said another Toronto man, who served two years with the Tigers, describing his unit's first meeting with the leader in 1984.

It happened one morning at a jungle training camp in India's Tamil Nadu province, where the man had put in six months of gruelling drills after helping to build the camp. He was milling about with other soldiers when “suddenly somebody came and told us that Prabhakaran was almost there.”

The young recruits gathered at the camp entrance to watch a jeep pull up and their leader climb down from it, rifle in hand. “He was walking and he had a .22 rifle with him,” the man said. “He was shooting at the birds. He has good aim, actually; very good.”

Mr. Prabhakaran addressed the troops with stories of his own life as a soldier after he founded the armed movement in 1972, interviewed the recruits one-on-one and accompanied them to the firing range, where “he actually told them how to hold the rifle,” the man said. When a rookie misfired a grenade short of his target, spraying the commander's thighs with shrapnel, he did not punish him or hold a grudge. Mr. Prabhakaran even taught his men how to maintain adequate blood circulation while riding a bicycle, the Tigers' earliest form of transport around northern Sri Lanka, for long distances.

“He is a very practical man. That is his strength … and a limitation, too.”

While it appealed to many a Tamil's sense of grievance over Sinhalese discrimination, Mr. Prabhakaran's eye-for-an-eye sense of justice and his failure to anticipate the worst of its consequences turned the man off. Fearing his questions might get him killed, he fled the movement in 1984 and the country soon afterward.

In the ensuing years, Mr. Prabhakaran used increasing force against the Sinhalese, but also against Tamils who failed to share his vision. The compliant remainder enjoyed the protection of a de facto Tiger government in parts of the north and east, while their kin in Canada and abroad sent money home to pay for it, often willingly, but sometimes under threat of reprisal.

The talk among some Tamils now, even as their leader lay dead among the corpses of his people, their would-be Eelam a scorched wasteland, is not of reconciliation with the Sinhalese majority, but of a renewed struggle for independence.

“It is the duty of the diaspora to take this [forward], because we totally believe that we can't live together,” Mr. Prabhakaran's old associate in Toronto said.

Dr. Wark has his doubts, especially if the Sri Lankan government, spurred on by international pressure, follows its victory over the Tigers with sincere measures to address Tamil grievances.

“Their attention is going to be focused less on the hallowed legacy of their former leader and more on [the question], can this Sri Lankan government change its stripes?” he said. “I think that'll be a big test.”

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