Velupillai Pirapaharan, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the liberation movement fighting for a separate state called Tamil Eelam for the Tamils of Sri Lanka, is one of the great military strategist and foremost freedom fighters of the current era.
Pirapaharan was born 50 years ago, on 26 November 1954, the fourth child in a conservative Hindu family in the seaport town of Valvettithurai in northern Sri Lanka. He grew in a highly religious environment. His father, Thiruvenkadam Velupillai, is the trustee of an historic Hindu temple and his mother Parvathy is intensely religious.
His father, a state employee, wanted his children to follow in his footsteps. He wanted Pirapaharan to become a civil servant. He sent him to the best school in the area and Pirapaharan’s teachers and neighbours say he was a keen student, fiercely sensitive and emotional, intensely observant, extremely proud of his race, language, culture and heritage and highly innovative. He was a voracious reader. He had all the markings of a first class civil servant.
Becomes a Rebel
Pirapaharan matured into a successful rebel, a brilliant military strategist who redefined insurgency in South Asia. The turbulent political environment in which he grew up moulded his genius in that direction. He revolted against the indignities heaped on his language, religion and his people.
One and a half years after his birth, Tamil, his mother tongue, was denied its place and Sinhala, the language of the majority Sinhala people, was enthroned as the only official language of the island. The Tamil leaders, who staged a peaceful protest (satyagraha) opposite Parliament in Colombo on 5 June 1956, the day the Sinhala Only Act was enacted, were insulted, kicked and dragged by a government-organized Sinhala mob. Tamils in Colombo and in Gal Oya, the first Sinhala colonization project in the eastern province, were attacked and their houses burnt.
Tamil leaders offered to negotiate a political settlement. Federal Party leader Samuel James Velupillai Chelvanayakam negotiated with the Sinhala leader Prime Minister Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike and worked out an agreement known as the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam Agreement (briefly B-C Pact) in 1957. The Pact laid the framework for an autonomous administration for Tamil-majority northeastern Sri Lanka.
The agreement was torn up by Bandaranaike the next year due to Sinhala Buddhist pressure. Tamils living in Sinhala areas were attacked by Sinhala mobs in May 1958. Two incidents that occurred during that riot hurt the feelings of all Tamils, particularly the Hindus.
- First, an unruly crowd dragged the shivering priest of the Hindu temple in Panadura, a southern town, to the road, poured petrol over him and set him alight. He was burnt to death.
- Second, a mob plucked the child from the arms of a fleeing Tamil mother and threw it into a boiling barrel of tar.
Pirapaharan’s father related these painful incidents to his family. Three and a half year old Pirapaharan asked, “Why didn’t we hit back?”
Hitting back has become the talk and obsession of the Tamil youth since then. From 1961, soon after Sinhala government used the army to suppress the civil disobedience campaign launched by Tamil leaders against the implementation of the Sinhala Only Act, secret groups sprouted in the northeast. They pelted stones at army patrols and the army fired back. Two youths were killed in Point Pedro. Seven-year-old Pirapaharan attended the funeral.
Peaceful Protest Fails
Pirapaharan was 10 years old when Tamil leaders switched the mode of their struggle from peaceful protest to cooperation with the Sinhala leadership. Chelvanayakam signed an agreement with Dudley Senanayake, leader of the United National Party, a major Sinhala political party, in 1965. Senanayake abandoned the agreement, known as the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Agreement, again due to Sinhala Buddhist pressure.
The failure of the cooperation strategy caused a split in the Federal Party and bred severe uneasiness among Tamil youth. The breakaway group preached separation; the creation of a separate state, as the only option left for the Tamils. The youths went along with that reasoning. The 12-year-old Pirapaharan supported that group.
The next year, at the age of 13, he came under the influence of Venugopal, a teacher, who argued that non-violent democratic protest to win the rights of the Tamils had failed and the only option available to the Tamil people was armed struggle. Venugopal maintained that the Sinhalese would use their numerical strength to smother Tamil non-violent struggle, democratically through Parliament and violently using the mob and the armed forces of the state. That had been the experience of the Tamils of Sri Lanka since independence and of minority groups in other countries.
Venugopal’s reasoning struck the 14-year-old Pirapaharan as sensible. He told a hand-picked group of seven classmates from his village that they should arm themselves and fight the Sinhala police and the army. The group floated a fund to buy a revolver. They contributed 25 cents a week, their pocket money, to Pirapaharan, the leader and treasurer of that unnamed group. They raised 40 rupees in 20 weeks and Pirapaharan sold his ring for 70 rupees. With that treasure of 110 rupees, Pirapaharan and a friend went to Point Pedro where they heard a thug had a revolver for sale. Pirapaharan begged him to sell the revolver to them, promising to pay the balance 40 rupees later. They told the thug that they wanted the revolver to fight the army. The thug laughed and chased them away.
Pirapaharan was not deterred. He and his classmates exploded an experimental time bomb in the school toilet and got a scolding from the principal.
Founds the LTTE
Pirapaharan joined the Tamil Student’s Association in 1970 when he was 15 years and formed a secret armed wing. He burnt a bus when 16, joined seniors Thangathurai and Kuttimani and experimented with bomb making. He burnt his leg in an accidental explosion which left a black scar. He took the pseudonym kari kalan meaning black legged.
Pirapaharan founded the secret guerrilla group Tamil New Tigers (TNT) in 1972, the first organized guerrilla group in north Sri Lanka. Pirapaharan then concentrated his attention on selecting committed and active youths, training them and collecting weapons. He set up a training camp in Vavuniya.
Pirapaharan’s initial military operations were to eliminate the Tamils who collaborated with the government and to raise funds for his organization. The first victim was Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiapph, whom he shot on 27 July 1975, and the first target of robbery was the Puttur Branch of the People’s Bank, which he raided on 5 March 1976.
Pirapaharan transformed the loose TNT into the well-knit Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on 5 May 1976. He selected the Tiger emblem and Tiger flag and drew up a constitution and a strict code of conduct, the three pillars of which were: strict discipline (no smoking, no drinking and no sex life), total commitment to the cause of Tamil Eelam (severance of family attachments) and abstaining from joining rival organizations or forming new ones after leaving the LTTE. He was then 21.
The LTTE functioned as a hit-and-run urban guerrilla group for the next eight years (until late 1984). Pirapaharan, as the military commander, focused on destroying the special police intelligence unit the government built to gather information about militants’ activities and on bringing territory under his control by reducing the presence and restricting the movement of the police and the army.
Pirapaharan played a significant role, as the political head of the LTTE, in pushing the moderate political leadership to move towards the adoption, on 15 May 1976, of the Vaddukoddai Resolution which called for the establishment of the independent state of Tamil Eelam. He worked hard during the 1977 parliamentary election to get the Tamils of the northeast to give the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) the mandate to establish Tamil Eelam. When the TULF failed to act on that mandate and it became evident that the moderate leadership was not equal to the task, the people gave the mandate to the militants. Pirapaharan gradually assumed a political leadership role and undertook to realize the aspirations of the Tamil people through military means.
The year 1984 is a milestone in Pirapaharan’s march towards the establishment of the state of Tamil Eelam. He enunciated, in a series of interviews he gave Indian and international media, that Tamils can only win their political aspiration of self-rule through armed struggle and that the non-violent Tamil leadership had lost relevance, as the Sinhalese leadership was only interested in destroying the Tamils as shown in the July 1983 pogrom.
Pirapaharan switched in the latter part of 1984 from hit-and-run guerrilla warfare to sustained guerrilla warfare. He attacked police and army patrols, police stations and army camps and, by 1985, had succeeded in confining the police to their stations and the army to their camps. He took control of vast extents of territory in the northeast. During the three years – August 1984 to August 1987 – he built himself militarily. He established an efficient communication system, a naval wing, a weapons-procuring unit to make himself independent of Indian military assistance, well-equipped training camps, a women’s wing and a strong command structure.
Pirapaharan also laid down the foundation for an independent state – a basic administrative network, including law and order enforcement machinery, a dispute resolution system, an economic activity program and a powerful propaganda network. The 31-year old (in 1984) Pirapaharan also got married and relaxed the celibacy rule for his cadres. Anyone with five years of service in the LTTE was allowed to marry.
The LTTE, which in 1984 was primus inter pares among the five main Tamil militant organizations, LTTE, PLOTE, TELO, EPRLF and EROS, emerged the prime militant group by 1987. In 1985, India invited the LTTE, the other four militant groups and the TULF for the Thimpu talks, where Tamils placed four basic principles as the basis of a solution to the Tamil problem. These principles, known as the Thimpu Principles, are: Tamils are a nation. The Northeast is their homeland. Tamils have the right of self-determination. All those living in Sri Lanka have citizenship rights.
In 1986 32 year-old Pirapaharan was recognized by India and Sri Lanka as the main player in the Tamil question. He was flown by India to Bangalore in November 1986 to meet Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was negotiating with Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene. Pirapaharan rejected the Jayewardene formula for a solution: establishment of four provincial councils for the northeast- one for the north and three for the east and chief ministership of the north for Pirapaharan. He insisted on an autonomous northeast as the only alternative to a separate state.
India exerted pressure on Pirapaharan. His office in Chennai was searched by the police and he was fingerprinted like a common criminal. He protested, saying India had slighted the Tamil people, returned to the north and set up his base there. He continued his struggle from Jaffna.
Pirapaharan was recognized by India as the central figure in the resolution of the Sri Lankan ethnic problem again the next year. He was flown to New Delhi in August 1987 for consultations with Rajiv Gandhi. He found that India was more interested in achieving its foreign policy goals than achieving the aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamil people. He reluctantly accepted the Indo- Sri Lanka Accord after Rajiv Gandhi gave a specific undertaking to look after the interests of the Tamils. When he found that Jayewardene was taking Rajiv Gandhi up the garden path, he revolted and fought the mighty Indian army from 1987 to 1990. He outplayed India by forging an arrangement with President Premadasa who called upon the Indian army to leave the island. When Premadasa tried to cheat, he went back to war.
Pirapaharan fought the Sri Lankan Army from 1990 to January 1995 and again, after a short break for negotiations with President Chandrika Kumaratunga, from April 1995 to February 2002. His feats during this war were many and varied. He converted the guerrilla force into a conventional army. He built a powerful artillery unit that outmatched the Sri Lankan army. He built a strong navy. He withstood the 1995 capture of the Jaffna peninsula by the army and defeated the three year Operation Jayasukri, recapturing the territory the army captured in three years in just four days.
In the year 2000 he captured Elephant Pass military base, the biggest in the island, threatened Jaffna and came close to destroying the main divisions of the the Sri Lankan armed forces when Indian and international pressure forced him to halt the onslaught.
Pirapaharan is a master military strategist. He captured most of his weapons from the army and used them against the army. In the north, he has captured four major camps – Pooneryn, Mankulam. Mullaitivu and Elephant Pass. Palali in Jaffna and Thalladi in Mannar are the two remaining army camps. His strategy is simple and efficient. During offensive operations, he sends waves after waves to attack. During defensive operations, he draws the army in and destroys. He plans every operation and commands through his sophisticated communication network.
Pirapaharan signed a ceasefire agreement with former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on 22 February 2002. The ceasefire has held despite severe strain and, in the six rounds of talks with the government facilitated by Norway and backed by the international community, Pirapaharan has shown accommodation and has agreed to a broad framework for the settlement of the ethnic dispute.
The Oslo and Tokyo Declarations provide for a self-governing autonomous unit within a united Sri Lanka as the basis for the settlement. The Interim Self-Governing Authority proposals the LTTE submitted in October last year provide the basis for the sharing of power between the central government and the self-governing unit. He has now announced that his Interim Self Governing Authority is negotiable. The Kumaratunga government, struggling with internal contradictions, has not responded.
Pirapaharan is in a strong position. He controls over 75 percent of the territory of the northeast. He runs an efficient, effective, corruption-free administrative system. Tamil people living in the area under his control have accepted that system. And on 2 April, by electing the candidates who contested on behalf of the Tamil National Alliance, Tamil people of the northeast have democratically signified their acceptance of Pirapaharan as their undisputed leader.
Narayan Swamy, the Indian journalist who wrote two books on Pirapaharan says, “In 1983 he headed a group of not more than 49 people. Now, he has thousands under him. He controls (almost) the whole of the northeast – a third of the country’s (Sri Lanka’s) land area and two thirds of the coastline… With a mixture of diplomatic cunning, military genius and sheer audacity, Pirapaharan has deftly turned tables on both India and Sri Lanka. Asia has seen nothing like this since the Viet Cong humbled the mighty US over two decade ago in similar circumstances.