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Diplomacy and Conflict • Guerrilla Warfare

Considered a folk hero by some and a ruthless terrorist by others, Velupillai Prabhakaran was the founder and leader of Sri Lanka's now-defeated separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, until his death in May 2009. In a country dominated by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, the Hindu Tamils have for decades been seeking a homeland in northernmost Sri Lanka—to be called Eelam—just across the Palk Strait from southern India. While many Tamils have taken a moderate path toward their goal, Prabhakaran and his Tamil Tigers took a fiercely militant approach, and gained a reputation as one of the world's most formidable guerrilla forces.

Early Life and Political Views

Velupillai Prabhakaran was born on November 26, 1954 in the Tamils's de facto capital, Jaffna, at the northern tip of Sri Lanka. The youngest of four children born into a middle-class family, Prabhakaran's birth came at a time when Tamil–Sinhalese relations were moving toward serious conflict. During his childhood, Prabhakaran moved several times with his family when his father was transferred to different cities. Prabhakaran first attended school in Batticaloa on Sri Lanka's east coast, then studied in Vavuniya before his family settled in Valvettithurai, where he spent most of his early years.

Valvettithurai was politically conservative and therefore receptive to the more moderate Tamil groups. Prabhakaran's political views, however, were molded by his father, who would hold spirited discussions on the nation's worsening ethnic relations, lamenting the Tamils's fate. Prabhakaran grew up during a time of increasing tension between the Tamil Hindu minority and the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. He often attended political meetings with his father, at which speakers railed against "Sinhalese atrocities" and called for establishing a Tamil resistance movement.

Tamil–Sinhalese relations had been set on a collision course in 1956 when the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) came to power after the party's "standardization" campaign, in which the SLFP demanded that Sinhala be made the country's official language and Buddhism the country's official religion. Prabhakaran's own experience with militancy began in the early 1970s. The Sinhalese majority's ongoing promotion of standardization—which the Tamils viewed as a brazen attempt to legitimize racial discrimination—served to radicalize many young Tamils. Prabhakaran joined several Tamil youth groups through which he arranged street protests.

The Tamil Tigers

In 1972, when he was 17 years old, Prabhakaran founded the Tamil New Tigers, a small youth group that would evolve into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It was during this period that Prabhakaran first turned to violence, working with his cohorts to set off small bombs to harass the Sinhalese. However, Prabhakaran remained an obscure activist until 1975, when he assassinated Jaffna mayor Alfred Duraiyappah. Suddenly everyone knew his name, and although three of his accomplices were arrested, Prabhakaran was never caught. He went underground, relying on Tamil safe houses to shelter him from authorities while he continued to preach Tamil militancy.

On May 5, 1976, Prabhakaran founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, financing his new organization with funds he had obtained by leading a raid two months earlier on the People's Bank at Puttur, escaping with cash and jewelry. That same year Tamil politics was electrified by the founding of the Tamil United Liberation Front, an alliance of several moderate Tamil groups that vowed to fight for a Tamil homeland—without resorting to violence. Meanwhile, Prabhakaran and his Tamil Tigers were setting up militant training camps in Sri Lanka's forests, and by 1977 were gunning down policemen.

Prabhakaran began recruiting and training young men for his organization, and formed a five-member leadership council of the Tamil Tigers. He drafted a constitution that all members were required to sign, which called for the establishment of a casteless Tamil society by armed struggle, and warned members against tainting their loyalty to the Tigers with family ties or romantic relationships. Prabhakaran's all-out war against Sri Lanka's military began in earnest in 1983, when he and his Tamil Tigers ambushed an army convoy to avenge the death of Prabhakaran's top assistant.

The Tamil Tigers eventually grew to more than 10,000 members, and the war with Sri Lanka's government claimed about 80,000 lives. Although expressing sympathy for the plight of Sri Lanka's Tamils, the world community condemned Prabhakaran for his terrorist activities, such as planning numerous suicide bombings to assassinate political adversaries, including Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. His group also took credit for a 1999 attempt on the life of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, then Sri Lanka's president, in another suicide bombing; the president lost an eye in the attack. Prabhakaran was also accused of recruiting child soldiers and forcing them to fight in the front lines, as well as engaging in other criminal activities. After the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, the Tamil Tigers faced increased pressure, as foreign governments cracked down on overseas fundraising for the militants, who had been classified as an international terrorist group. Prabhakaran changed his tone slightly in November of that year when for the first time he appeared to drop the demand for an independent Tamil homeland. However, Prabhakaran remained on Interpol's most-wanted list, charged with murder and terrorism.

Decline and Death

With the election of ultranationalist Sinhalese president Mahinda Rajapakse in 2005, Prabhakaran's—and the Tamil Tigers's—days were numbered. Although he began his career fighting for workers's rights, Rajapakse's attitude toward the separatists was decidedly hard-line. He was determined to defeat Prabhakaran and his fighters on the battlefield once and for all, and observers accused the president of using tactics as ruthless as those of Prabhakaran to do so—reportedly ignoring the safety of civilians and banning all news coverage of the battle. The military increased its long–running offensive in early 2008 after the government formally abandoned a cease-fire that critics contend was being ignored. Government troops finally cornered the remnants of the Tamil Tigers on a tiny sliver of land in the northeast, where Prabhakaran died. Although the cause of Prabhakaran's death—whether in battle or by suicide—is not known, the Tamil Tigers confirmed Prabhakaran's death several days after his body was displayed by the military.

"Sinhalese atrocities" "standardization"
Allen Raichelle
Senior Editor Allen Raichelle, one of ABC-CLIO's longest-serving writer-editors, is a graduate of Boston's Emerson College and was a member of Boston University's Graduate Creative Writing Program. He has written and edited articles for almost all of ABC-CLIO's Solutions databases, and also helped develop several of these databases, including World Geography, United States Geography, World Religions, Pop Culture Universe, and The African American Experience.

Further Reading

Cornwell, Tim, "The Most Dangerous Men in the World," The Scotsman, February 23, 2001(http://www.thescotsman.co.uk); Jayaram, P., and Roy Denish, "Back on the Brink," India Today, May 15, 2000 (http://www.india-today.com); Power, Tamil, "The Story of Vellupillai Pirabhakaran" (http://www.tamilpower.com/leader.htm).

MLA Citation

Raichelle, Allen. "Velupillai Prabhakaran." World Geography: Understanding a Changing World, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldgeography.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/323737. Accessed 21 Apr. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2180538

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