The making of a militant leader

    ‘Only Tamil Eelam can be a secure outcome for us and there can be no alternative to this.’

September 1986 was a sensitive time for India’s engagement with the Sri Lankan Tamil question, and with the militant groups, above all the LTTE and its complex and then little known supremo. We reproduce here excerpts from a wide-ranging interview by N. Ram for The Hindu with Velupillai Prabakaran in Chennai. The interview was published in two parts on September 4 and 5, 1986.

In this extended tape-recorded interview, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Mr. Velupillai Prabakaran responded to questions such as whether a political settlement was in sight or would the armed conflict in the Tamil areas continue. Was Eelam negotiable?

The LTTE chief also explained his own political evolution, the ideology, strategy and tactics of his organisation. Mr. Prabakaran’s responses in Tamil have been translated.

Mr. Prabakaran, how do you characterise the situation on the ground in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, in terms of military activity and in terms of the problems people face? What is the nature of the crisis?

Our land is a militarily occupied, besieged territory. When you look at our territory, big military camps have been set up even in small areas. (To his aides: let’s use the map now, that’s important). There are certain specific areas where there is a big military concentration. Even today the army shot dead five defenceless Tamil civilians in Batticaloa district. It’s a situation where civilians cannot be up and about in safety. The people there live in fear of being gunned down by the troops at any time as they move about on the streets…

Now, broadly speaking, how would you describe the position and influence of the other militant organisations? How do they stand in relation to your activity in the Tamil areas? And, on the other hand, in relation to the army?

No semblance of civil society

As for the army, there are no signs or trappings of civil administration there. This is the condition that has evolved. There is not even a semblance of civil society. People can’t live peacefully in their homes. At any moment, their houses could come under attack, at any moment the army could surround their villages and shoot them down. No genuine enquiry is ordered into such incidents. So long as there is no enquiry into atrocities, we can’t describe the administration as normal, can we? As far as the (militant) organisations are concerned, even as we are waging an armed struggle in this larger territory, the other organisations are waging a fight in particular small areas. In general, what is the situation of the (militant) organisations? They function as a military wing to protect the people, as people’s self-defence armed contingents. The state’s army functions there as a racist, destructive military force; we carry on as a national people’s army for the liberation of the Tamil people…..

A new offensive?

…What is your assessment of the negotiations between the TULF and the Sri Lankan Government? What do you think will be its likely outcome?

Our view is that the talks have not acquired a proper shape. From the available information, we learn that even among those who went for the talks, no clear, definite position has emerged. It does not appear that a concrete framework has taken shape. Our assessment is that their effort is still to search for a framework.

According to a newspaper report, a reference was made by one of the TULF leaders to the difficulty of trying to find a black cat in a dark room...

They should be asked that question. They don’t have an outline. When you refer to “homeland”, what is our homeland? What must one talk about? About provinces and provincial councils? Or do we contemplate powers for ourselves above that level? They don’t seem to have any plan on these matters.

Earlier, you had discussions with the TULF relating to the negotiating process. You were reported to have assured the Government of India that you would not do anything to scuttle the process. What has happened to change this situation?

It was the good intention of not wanting to be an obstacle to the talks promoted by India that made us avoid expressing any opinion on the TULF going into the talks. At the same time, the TULF leaders came and briefed us on what had gone on in the talks (in the first round), then went to Delhi for consultations but upon their return went to Colombo without any deliberation with us. While talking to us, they had made it clear that they could not come to any concrete conclusion. As a result of these consultations between the TULF and the LTTE, confusion arose in the minds of our people. The doubt was whether we were privy to these talks conducted by the TULF. In a situation where they were talking (to the Sri Lankan Government) in an unplanned way, we were obliged to remove the confusion in the minds of our people by making public the relationship between the TULF and the LTTE and by exposing the TULF in the popular arena. We were put in a situation of having to expose before our people the role the TULF was playing in these talks. ….

…Do you take the commitment to Eelam as a serious political proposition for the Tamil side — not just speaking for yourself or the LTTE? Or is it a bargaining position, meaning you won’t give this up until an alternative — a lesser political proposition — would come on the agenda? Do you seriously believe that the struggle for Tamil Eelam can be waged on a political front under the present circumstances and seeing the position taken by India?

“Backward-looking mode”

Certainly. If you look at our historical background, our experience of struggle over 30 years or so has brought us inescapably to this determination. Therefore we consider that only Tamil Eelam can be a secure outcome for us and there can be no alternative to this. The demands have evolved in stages. In 1961, our people in their struggle for a federal set-up conducted a satyagraha that brought the administration to a standstill. In 1961 itself, the demand for a federal solution was sharp and intense. What is taking place today seems (laughs ironically)... a backward-looking process…

I would like to ask you a few questions on your ideological outlook and politics. Various things have been said and written about you and the LTTE, and obviously everyone goes through some kind of political evolution.

I would like to get an insight into how you see yourself, your political evolution and ideology, over time. To start with, how would you characterise the ideology of the LTTE?

Socialism and Tamil Eelam form our political ideology, our cause.

When journalists or external observers try to interpret the Tamil militant phenomenon, they characterise some of the organisations as “nationalist” in orientation or perspective and some others as “socialist” or Left. For example, they would say the LTTE (and earlier TELO) came to the struggle from a "nationalist" angle whereas EROS and EPRLF brought a somewhat different outlook with an emphasis on socialism or left-oriented politics. Would you like to comment on this differentiation?

To me the activities of all the (militant) organisations look the same. What is the difference in the practice of those who are supposed to be committed to "nationalism" and those who profess the other thing (laughter)? You know that brands of socialism vary according to who professes and interprets it. Everyone claims to be a socialist. You can judge the product only when those who profess socialism put it into practice. We advocate a socialism that fully reflects our people’s interests and aspirations, a socialism that harnesses the creative abilities of the masses. Some time ago, I made reference to the ’Yugoslav pattern’ (in a positive light). We consider it socialist experimentation—where democracy has to be enhanced in the political process. Through workers’ self-management, democratic participation is allowed in a socialist setup.

Yugoslav pattern

Our objective is to allow, to a great extent, people’s democracy in a socialist system. We do not consider the ’Yugoslav pattern’ to be our model. We will work out our own pattern in the future. Let’s look, for a moment, at another thing Yugoslavia has sought to do. It tried to create a ’third force’ during Nehru’s time, in cooperation with him; that was the origin of the nonaligned movement. They have an active role in (progressive) struggles; at the same time, they take an independent stand without aligning themselves with anyone. Aspects such as these appeal to us; we consider these aspects seriously and think along these lines. We are thinking of a pattern of socialism that is suited to our people, our culture, our historical heritage. We have a special social structure and, in fact, in our land there are no big capitalists. There is, however, a numerous middle class.

One idea that has been put forward (in an interview you gave recently and perhaps in other statements as well) is that your organisation believes in a one-party state after the achievement of liberation. That has raised apprehensions...

It depends on what the people want and go for. They can choose freely the party they want. Take, for example, India. Has not the Congress party dominated political life here over a long period? Does not it rule even today? You mention the doubts and suspicions our position has given rise to. My impression is that they are created mainly by those who want to become leaders without fighting! What we said has made a special impact on the minds of those who have stood aloof from the struggle, but nurse high leadership ambitions.

Look at the entire range of socialist countries. What prevails there? Is it not one party which, having worked for the revolution and having been approved by the people, wields power? Look at Cuba, the Soviet Union, every socialist country... By the way, I consider this in the nature of a necessary examination. Journalists can be regarded as the examiners of politicians. You represent the public and mediate between us and the people. What we are able to convey to you with effort and precision, as in an examination, reaches the people. But, in truth, you are the danger for us (laughter)!


There are several external perceptions of what you stand for. Many people see you as a disciplined, capable leader who is able to summon the spirit of sacrifice from his ranks. On the other hand, they call attention to your “ruthlessness”. For example, a recent despatch from Colombo published in the New York Times: “To the world’s roster of guerilla leaders whose strategic brilliance is matched by their ruthlessness, people here say they have added a new name... Velupillai Prabakaran.” The implication is that your actions lack a humanistic or broad democratic content. How would you respond to this criticism?

To be frank, military discipline is ruthless intrinsically. In any country, military discipline has special attributes. Whether it is a ‘communist’ or ‘democratic’ country, the regulations and rules for an army are of a nature apart. Look at any military activity: the objective of victory is valued more than the consequences. Victory matters most in military affairs! On the other hand, we are authentic fighters for the people. Our critics point only to our ruthlessness towards the enemy. But can we afford to be peaceable in our ways in the face of a ruthless enemy? We certainly cannot, that’s the truth. But you know we maintain high standards of discipline and morality in our practice.

…Could you give us some examples of this discipline?

What is this discipline? Consider this in relation to anti-people, antisocial activities. When we keep a person in our organisation, he is by definition one who fights for the people. If he indulges in action inimical to the interests of the people or in antisocial activities and we support it or put up with it, then be sure that this struggle will lose its way and will be pushed in a quite different direction. Instead of standing out as a fighter for the people, he turns into the people’s enemy. Consider also this aspect—the status or those under arms in society. Those who bear arms acquire and wield an extreme measure of power. We believe that if this power is abused, it will inevitably lead to dictatorship. That is why we keep our military organisation in such a strict state of discipline. But please note that we exercise our ruthlessness against the ruthless guys. Otherwise, we cannot win.

But there have been instances of innocent Sinhala civilians killed by your organisation. The Anuradhapura massacre...

We have denied responsibility for that and we have condemned that.

Special edge

It has been reported that all your fighters carry cyanide capsules strung round their necks. Is this an exaggeration?

Yes, we have adopted this measure from the very start. As a consequence, many comrades have sacrificed themselves. You won’t find people from our movement in jail — at any rate, not more than you can count on your fingers... perhaps two or three persons, but even then not those involved in the inner circle of our activity. That is to say our fighters, through laying down their lives, protect our sympathisers and contacts and the people who give us support and assistance. Otherwise, the great mass of the people who support us and their families would be herded into jail. But that is not the only reason for this practice.

It is this cyanide which has helped us develop our movement very rapidly. Carrying cyanide on one’s person is a symbolic expression of our commitment, our determination, our courage. For example, Kittu, our Jaffna area commander, has stated in an interview: “as long as we have this cyanide round our neck, we have no need to fear any force on earth!” In reality, this gives our fighters an extra measure of belief in the cause, a special edge; it has instilled in us a determination to sacrifice our lives and our everything for the cause. While attacking, our fighters don’t count their lives. They will advance nonchalantly through an artillery attack or a hail of bullets.

…Could you give us an idea of your personal heroes in revolutionary struggles or liberation movements or in any sphere of life..... people and experiences that have inspired you? And perhaps thereby give us some insight into your own political evolution from the time you were a schoolboy?

From my boyhood, the struggle that attracted me most was the Indian freedom struggle. The role of Netaji attracted me very much. I was brought up in an environment of strict discipline from childhood. I was not permitted to mingle freely with outsiders. I used to feel shy of girls. Great store was laid by personal rectitude and discipline. My father set an example through his own personal conduct: He would not even chew betel leaves. I modelled my conduct on his..... he was a government officer, a district land officer. A very straightforward man. People say in our area: “When he walks, he does not hurt even the grass under his feet, but his son is so.....” Even while criticising me, they marvel at the fact that such a son was born to such a father! He was strict, yes, but also soft and persuasive. In my own case, he reasoned rather than regimented and his attitude was that of a friend..... he would give me certain pieces of advice and discuss things with me. As I said, I grew up as a shy boy.....especially in the matter or mingling with girls.

The life of Subhas Chandra Bose attracted me specially. Even as a boy, I would delve into Gandhiji’s books on experiments with truth, on celibacy and so on. Subhas attracted me particularly since even as a boy he went in search of spiritualism and, finding the life of a recluse dissatisfying, returned (laughs)….I followed this history and these stories with fascination. He became my special hero and some of his orations gripped me. For example: “I shall fight for the freedom of my land until I shed my last drop of blood.” These words used to thrill me whenever they came to me. Then the story of Bhagat Singh fascinated me.

In other words, the biographies and histories of those who hit back at the perpetrators of injustice, those who counterattacked (the unjust foe) were my special favourite. Because in our land, the Sinhalese behaved so cruelly towards us..... we would hear stories about this and read about these cruel acts in books and newspapers..... Later I read about this particular episode that took place during the 1958 attacks on Tamils.....they broke into a temple at Panadura, found a Brahmin priest sleeping, tied him to his cot, poured petrol over him and burnt him alive. Ours was a god-fearing society and the people were religious-minded. The widespread feeling was: when a priest like him was burnt alive, why did we not have the capability to hit back? That was one atrocity that made people think deeply. In another episode, they threw a child into a drum of boiling tar. This left a very deep imprint on my mind and in the minds of those around me. If such innocent lives could be destroyed, why could we not strike back?

…. If I was attracted by the experience of armed struggle against injustice, I was drawn by the moral force of ahimsa as well. I was inspired by examples of grit and determination. I began to think along these lines early in life..... why can’t we follow their example? why can’t we start an armed struggle?

I used to read books on the rise of Napoleon and his exploits..... this kind of history held special the Mahabharata, the roles of Bhima and Karna were specially attractive to me..... the spirit of sacrifice appeared crucial. People respond to characters in the Mahabharata in various ways. I value the character and role of Karna the most, on account of his readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice..... I read some of Vivekananda’s sayings and the urge grew in me to work towards a strong youth force. I plunged into this line of thinking..... At what age? These feelings and ideas began to take shape when I was 16 approximately. I used to listen to the religious discourses of Kripananda Variar..... I used to go to all these events..... those connected with religion..... I would go and observe political meetings-attend dramatic performances..... in my place, they used to enact plays on Socrates and so on.

So quite early on, we absorbed all these influences and the feeling grew in us that we must do something! Looking at our historical background, we had to take up arms to fight for our rights. The lesson was that they could do all this because we were defenceless and disarmed. Why should we remain so? We should take up violence to counter and overthrow their violence...Only after that did I engage in this movement.

The impression among outsiders who have observed the development of the LTTE is that you — as its leader — have only recently begun to take a deeper or more detailed interest in politics..... whereas earlier you used to live mainly in the realm of military ideas. (You were considered shy and did not meet people easily, which would make it difficult in politics.) Now they find you speaking out on a number of political issues...

In reality, it has always been clear to me that an armed struggle takes shape only against a political background. If I had been a man without political clarity..... I went underground around 1973 and you know that leading an underground life is a very difficult proposition. I have led an underground life for a long time..... between 1973 and 1983, it was a very difficult period for us, with the army on the rampage..... to escape their net was very difficult. If we were able to go through this experience and are able to stand firm today, then surely you will concede that we could not have been political innocents or carried on without a political background!

But one thing is true, despite this political background. My natural inclination makes me lay less emphasis on words. In serious politics, it won’t do to concentrate on talking; you must grow through action and then talk! You would have observed that only as we grew in our activities in the field did we come up to a position of meeting various people and explaining our ideas — only then did our words carry some value. Words must be matched and indeed preceded by content. This is crucial for our relations with our people. If people respect our fighters more, it is because of this extra discipline. Certain exemplary personal attributes, a certain personal rectitude—that is why our people are attracted to LTTE fighters. When you speak of a political outlook, people will respect you only if you prove yourself in action. Action gives your programme a political content. When we say during this period, "they will use the army to attack us, we will resist and counterattack and we will protect you", well.....only when we actually do it do we establish our political credibility and role.

That is why we have given due attention to military affairs. You know the character of our struggle. In a situation where the Sri Lankan state feeds its army on racism and chauvinism and, through that army and through forced colonisation, tries to displace and subjugate us, only a political organisation with military strength is capable of effective resistance. Look all around the world..... any real struggle has had a military background. Even if the Indian freedom struggle was conducted on the basis of ahimsa, Netaji’s Indian National Army had a special place..... there is definitely a place today in Indian history for Subhas!

And take the Indian state today. If India is able to stand up in the comity of nations, it is in no small measure due to the strength of the Indian armed forces. Else, the Chinese would bring their frontiers up to Delhi!

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