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Home> Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Velupillai Pirabaharan > Interview with Chris Morris, BBC Colombo Correspondent, 1991
1 September 1991
BBC Colombo Correspondent Chris Morris interviewed Vellupillai Prabhakarn, leader of Tamil Eelam - in Jaffna on 1st September 1991.
Outside the Tamil Tigers’ main military training camp in the Northern Jaffna peninsula a message has been carefully painted on the wail. “Mother, don’t search for me, I will return with Tamil Eelam.”...
Jaffna has become a land of slogans, where the Tigers’ pervasive propaganda invades the senses. Voice of Tigers radio plays patriotic songs from loudspeakers in the centre of Jaffna city, while walls are covered with paintings and murals dedicated to fallen martyrs. Next to the ruins of an army camp which was blown up four years ago by a Tiger suicide bomber driving a van packed with explosives, is a mural depicting the moment of his death. “You are carrying a volcano on your shoulders”, reads the accompanying sign. “No-one can defeat you.”
The Tigers certainly aren’t lacking in confidence. But what marks them out from almost any other guerrilla organisation in the world is the extraordinary level of commitment which the movement inspires. The symbol of this dedication to the cause is the cyanide capsule, which every rebel fighter wears around his or her neck, once three months of initial military training has been completed. To prevent capture by the enemy, Tiger cadres regularly bite on their cyanide capsule bringing instant death and martyrdom and preventing secret from being exposed. To an outsider, the cyanide cult is bizarre, indeed a sinister, phenomenon. But for the young Tigers, it’s been made to seem almost natural.
At a training camp north of Jaffna, 200 young women, most of them in their teens, were going through their training routine. The day starts with the oath of allegiance to the cause, as a blood red Tiger flag is raised. Physical exercise and military training is then followed by political classes, instilling the Tigers view of history, and the wrong done to the Tamil people by the majority Sinhalese.
The movement’s leaders dismiss accusations that their methods are no more than brainwashing. They agree that many of their recruits are very young, but claim to have no conscripts. “The young people volunteer”, says political leader Yogaratnam Yogi, “because they have seen the atrocities committed against their family and friends.”
Indeed the young Tigers - while churning out the politically correct answer to questions about their motives for wanting to fight - are far from being soulless robots. They giggle and chatter while eating their dinner, and when the strict military discipline is relaxed, they share laughs and jokes.
Even Subha, a young girl who had both his arms blown off when a rocket propelled grenade exploded in front of the tree she was hiding behind, seems to smile more often than not. She is learning to write with a pen in her mouth, and load her rifle with her feet.
Such is the devotion and discipline which the movement is able to inspire. Its critics fear that in an independent state of Eelam, ruled by the Tigers, that same discipline would be extended to all walks of life, Already the Tigers demand to be recognised as the sole legitimate representative of the Tamil People, and allow no other political parties to function in the North of the country, most of which is firmly under their control.
The Tigers supreme commander Vellupillai Prabhakaran, is a man killed off by speculation more times than he would care to remember. It’s no exaggeration to say he has become a living legend among both his admirers and his enemies. Resplendent in his Tiger-striped military figures, he told me that the war was going welL. A question about the thousands of civilians - Tamils and Sinhalese - killed since the war broke out again in June last year didn’t make him nervous, “The Sri Lankan government now knows it can’t impose a military solution on the ethnic problem”, he said.
Mr. Prabhakaran brushes off criticism of autocratic methods, pointing to the extensive political and social network with the movement has now built up, He says the young teenagers recruited are well Looked after, and only fight when they want to. Even though his name is invoked in the daily oath of allegiance, he dismisses suggestions of a cult of personality or deliberate attempts to increase the mystique which surrounds him.
Even the Tamil Tigers’ recent failure to capture the Elephant Pass army camp, in one of the biggest battle of the war, appears not to have affected Mr.Pra–bhakaran’s confidence. “We learnt a lot”, he said, describing the battle as an important turning point in the rebel movement’s transition from a guerrilla force into a conventional army.
The Tigers say they lost more than five hundred fighters around the Elephant Pass army camp, and they’ve already produced a book containing the photographs of every one of the dead. Soon the same faces will be staring out from the freshly painted walls of Jaffna, inspiring more young Tamils to join the rebel cause and face an early death.
TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Q: First of all I’d like to ask you about the general military situation since the war against Sri Lankan forces broke out again in June 1990. Taking the eastern province first, how are things going there?
A: The situation in the eastern province is very complex, because in this region different communities - Tamils, Muslims and the Sinhalese people - are living together. And there are Sinhalese settlements in the Trincomalee and Ampara districts, and the government has put up several army camps to protect these settlements and they’ve also installed several army camps along the coastal belt. Even though there is a concentration of troops in the eastern province, one cannot say that it is under the control of the Sri Lankan government. Our military offensive activities are continuing there and there is a free mobility of our troops and cadres moving in various places. Villages and jungle areas of the eastern province are still under our control. Therefore the claim that the government has total control over the eastern province is untenable.
Q: But isn’t it fair to say that you are in a much worse position in the east now than you were before June 1990?
A: The assumption that the eastern province was under the control of the LTTE before the resumption of hostilities last year was incorrect. Because for a long time before the outbreak of hostilities the eastern province was under the control of the IPKF. And Sri Lankan army camps were functioning there. When the IPKF left the eastern province the Sri Lankan army camps and the police stations were still functioning there. Therefore the assumption that the eastern province was under the total control of the LTTE prior to the war is incorrect.
Q: In the north you still control most of the territory. Are you pleased with the way the war has gone there?
A: It is true that the LTTE controls large areas of territory in the northern province. We were able to destroy several important army camps during the war last year. Army camps at Kokkavil, Jaffna Fort, and Mankulam were destroyed and large areas came under our control. We can say that the military offensive operations by us in the last year have been satisfactory, and it has also given us new military experience.
Q: Nevertheless the army is claiming a major victory in the recent battle at Elephant Pass. Do you consider that that was a strategic mistake on your part?
A: The claim of a massive victory at Elephant Pass by the Sri Lankan government is simply a propaganda ploy. When we launched an offensive against the Elephant Pass army camp the camp was at the point of being over-run by the LTTE. There were eight hundred soldiers trapped inside the army base. To rescue these trapped soldiers Sri Lanka hard to send in reinforcements. A massive force of eight thousand troops was deployed for the rescue operation. And in the battle that ensued the army has suffered heavy casualties, and it has taken nearly twenty four days for the army to advance some five kilometres. I don’t think this can be characterised as a great military victory. In this war at Elephant Pass we have demonstrated that we can face a conventional army face to face, and this has shown a new phase in our development.
Q: Can you tell me something more about your moves to try to expand into a conventional army. How important is that for your military development?
A: Our armed struggle against the Sri Lankan state has a history stretching back fifteen years. During this period of history, we have evolved into a huge military force. We have been conducting a guerrilla type of warfare, and now we are transforming ourselves into a conventional type of military structure. This clearly indicates a massive development militarily, and it’s a significant turning point in the history of our struggle. The Sri Lankan government has to learn a lesson with regard to the development of the LTTE. The lesson is that the Sri Lankan government will never resolve the Tamil issue by opting for a military solution.
Q: As the size of your military force expands, there has been great criticism of the young age at which you enrol boys and girls into the LTTE. Why do you take people in when they are so young, and when do they become part of your actual fighting force?
A: We have never forcefully conscripted anybody into the movement. It is true that young people join our movement. It is because of the consequence of the worst form of state oppression. It is also because the society is faced with innumerable social problems. There have been occasions at which parents have brought their children and handed them over to us at public platforms. And we provide education facilities for the children, we have helped them with technical education, and we have instituted several projects and programmes for their educational development. But as some people allege, we have never sent these very young people to the battle front.
Q: Turning to your relations with India. They are particularly bad at the moment. Does that worry you?
A: Our organisation has had problems with India for quite a long time. The government of India intervened in the Tamil problem in 1983 and provided military assistance to various Tamil groups and created new Tamil militant organisations. In 1987 the government of India entered into an agreement with Sri Lanka and imposed a solution on our people. We were opposed to the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement, and as a consequence the war broke out between India and the LTTE. So for a long time India was acting on its own national interest, but we were upholding the interests of our people. As a consequence there have been contradictions between the LTTE and the government of India. The present hostility is a product of this long historical bitterness. Therefore we are really concerned and to some extent disappointed over the approach of the Indian government.
Q: Can you tell me more specifically about the clampdown on your activities in Tamil Nadu. What has been the worst aspect of that clampdown on your fight in Sri Lanka?
A: For a long time the LTTE have been used as pawns in the political chess game in Tamil Nadu. The government of India as well as the Tamil Nadu state government have been making calculated efforts to turn the Tamil Nadu people against our struggle. Deliberate attempts are being made to undermine the image of our organisation. But we can say confidently that there are vast sections of the people in Tamil Nadu who support the Tiger movement and the legitimate cause for which we are fighting. As long as there is this continuing support I don’t think our struggle will be in any way affected.
Q: Now I know you have denied any involvement in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. But the Indian investigators are convinced that you were responsible. In another development, your representative in London, Kittu, has been expelled by the British government. Aren’t you concerned that international opinion is turning totally against you?
A: Our movement is not in any way involved in the killing of Mr. Rajiv Gandhi. So far this accusation has not been corroborated. It is true that the government of India has been engaged in a massive disinformation campaign against our movement, based on this false accusation.
As far as Kittu’s matter is concerned, our people are deeply disappointed about the action taken against Mr. Kittu. Kittu was sent to London for medical treatment with the permission of the British High Commission. Kittu is a handicapped person and an authentic representative of our people. Having full knowledge of Kittu’s case, the decision by the government of Great Britain to expel him is unfortunate and we consider this action was irresponsible and inhumane.
Q: Your critics in Sri Lanka say that despite the formation of your political wing, the LTTE is primarily a ruthless military organisation. Can you hope play any political role in the future?
A: We have a political wing, it is a massive political structure, which has been involved in a variety of activities. In particular the political organisation runs our civil administration in the north and east. They are involved in food production, they are involved in relief and rehabilitation work, social services and the political organisation is also looking after the problem of the refugees. In every aspect, in all facets of social life, our political organisation is deeply involved. So the accusation that we don’t have a political structure, and we are simply a military organisation, is untrue.
Q: Can you comment on the current situation in Colombo. where President Premadasa appears to be facing a threat to his rule. Do you think the confusion in Colombo will have any effect on the ethnic conflict?
A: We are observing the situation very carefully, and it is premature on our part to make any public comments at this stage.
Q: There have been various attempts in the last few months to reopen some form of dialogue between the government and the LTTE. What do you think are the chances of anything along those lines succeeding in the coming months?
A: We have always been prepared for peaceful negotiations. But we have always insisted, and continue to insist, that there should be talks without conditions.
Q: In a broader sense, in your personal opinion, do you think there is a chance for Tamils and Sinhalese to coexist peacefully in the future within a united Sri Lanka?
A: It is up to the Sinhalese people and the Sinhalese politicians to determine whether we can live in this island peacefully as one people. As far as we are concerned the Sinhalese people should first of all recognise the very basis of the Tamil question. In other words, the Tamil homeland, the Tamil nationality and the right of our people to self-determination. If these basic principles are recognised, then there is a possibility for unity between the Tamil and Sinhalese peoples.
Q: Can I ask you one question about yourself. There’s a mystique grown up around you and people say you are extremely secretive. Can you tell me why you are so secretive, and why you so rarely appear in public?
A: This is an entirely wrong characterisation of my personality. It is true that I avoid public meetings, but in my day-to-day life I meet a lot of people, I address various seminars and I regularly meet a lot of people. So this assumption that I am alienated from the people is totally wrong.
Q: Finally can you tell ms what you have achieved by the last fifteen months of war. Thousands of Tamils and thousands of Sinhalese have been killed. What has the LTTE actually achieved as a result?
A: As a consequence of these fifteen months of war, we have impressed upon the government of Sri Lanka, that they cannot impose a military solution on our problem.
Q: And what about the future?
A: We sincerely feel that we are progressing towards the objective for which we have been fighting.