International Papers

Will the Tiger Change His Stripes?

Journalists who attended Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s first press conference in more than a decade were underwhelmed by the experience. Prabhakaran founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam almost 20 years ago to fight for a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, who make up around 15 percent of the island’s population. Prabhakaran is the undisputed leader of the group, which has launched more than 270 suicide bombings (he is widely credited with inventing the technique), and whose victims include several Cabinet members, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa, and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. More than 60,000 people have died in the conflict.

According to Britain’s Guardian, Prabhakaran “has spent most of the past decade dodging assassination by hiding in a bunker,” but the post-Sept.-11 global war on terrorism necessitated an image change and a public appearance. Journalists attending the press conference endured security checks that lasted up to 10 hours; as the Financial Times observed, “Few recalled having their toes or inner ears frisked before.” The Daily Telegraph’s correspondent said Prabhakaran “appeared ill at ease [and] managed a smile on just two occasions in the two-and-a-half-hour question and answer session.” The Independent described Prabhakaran’s physical transformation—”He entered … minus combat fatigues, minus Kalashnikov rifle, minus moustache”—but wondered if that was enough to bring peace to Sri Lanka: “[T]he imagery was mixed: goons, guns, high paranoia; but a conscious effort to look mild, civil, open, to show willingness to take even impertinent questions. The answers, however, revealed a figure who is going to have to make a massive effort to escape the shadows of his own past.”

The Hindu of India said, “It was apparent all through the conference that the LTTE is wooing India with a vengeance.” Prabhakaran asked India to forget “tragic incidents” in the past, including the murder of Rajiv Gandhi, and to remove the LTTE from its list of terrorist organizations. Government sources told the Deccan Chronicle, “India was in no mood to lift the ban on the LTTE and was of the view that Prabhakaran should be extradited to India to stand trial” for Gandhi’s murder. More than 1,200 Indian soldiers were killed on a “peace-keeping” mission in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, and New Delhi has no desire to see a victory for separatists—even Hindu nationalists—so close to home. (The Chronicle also claimed that Prabhakaran’s spokesman changed the leader’s words when translating from Tamil into English—he did not say, as was widely quoted, that Gandhi’s killing was “a tragic incident,” but rather that it was a “dead issue.”)

Despite deeply entrenched positions, a cease-fire has held since Feb. 23, and next month the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE are scheduled to meet in Thailand for “talks about talks” as part of a Norwegian-brokered peace process. The Financial Times was optimistic that this round will be more successful than four previous attempts: The United States is now showing “unprecedented interest” in ending the conflict; India, which is home to 50 million ethnic Tamils, is “committed to a peaceful outcome”; and Sri Lankan voters have recently given overwhelming support to political candidates running on a pro-peace platform. In December, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe was “swept to power,” and last month his party “won 225 out of the country’s 230 municipal districts in what was viewed as a referendum on the peace strategy.”

Some observers still doubt that the Tiger can change his stripes. Prabhakaran offered no compromises, insisting that Tamils must have a homeland, a nationality, and the right to self-determination. The government is apparently willing to offer a federal solution, giving the Tigers autonomy in the areas they currently control in the north and east of the island, but that may not be enough. The Telegraph also reported that the Tigers are taking advantage of the cease-fire to bolster their control. “[T]hey are abducting children, re-arming, taking over the civilian administration and challenging the security forces’ authority.” Although Sri Lanka’s population is hungry for peace, they are not willing to give in to terror. An editorial in the Island declared:

Both Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe and President Kumaratunga must realise that they are responsible for the unity, integrity and sovereignty of the Sri Lankan state and cannot tolerate any potty cardboard Hitler claiming suzerainty over pockets of this island.