frontline Interview with V. Prabhakaran 1987
V. Prabakaran, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader, is a key player in the dramatic developments represented by the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement and its implementation. He was invited to New Delhi before the agreement was signed, raised apprehensions and objections, met Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for a frank discussion of the situation and the problems, and returned to Jaffna in early August. On August 4, Prabakaran made a speech that drew wide attention: in it, he analysed the situation from the LTTE’s standpoint, expressed his dissatisfaction with the agreement but also his closeness to India and said the LTTE would hand over arms basically because it “loves India” and did not want to clash with the Indian peace-keeping force. A week later, a Frontline team comprising writer T.S. Subramanian and photographer D. Krishnan met him for this session in Jaffna. Soon after this, fresh Indian assurances led to the LTTE deciding to go ahead with the handing over of arms.
For his first extended interview after returning to Jaffna from Tamil Nadu in January 1987, Velupillai Prabakaran, the Supreme Commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, meets representatives of Frontline and The Hindu in the second week of August in Jaffna. The interview, conducted in Tamil, lasts over an hour.
The LTTE leader looked cool and relaxed. He sets the ball rolling by suggesting that we should go to the Eastern province where the Sri Lankan soldiers, he alleges, are still harassing Tamil civilians.
There was a media story that when the Sri Lanka armed forces began their offensive against the Vadamarachchi region of the Jaffna peninsula on May 26, you were trapped in Velvettiturai and you managed to escape. Is this version true?
(Smiling): I moved to Jaffna on the night of May 25. They began the offensive the next day morning. They attacked Velvettiturai thinking that I was there.
What is your assessment of the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement? What are your apprehensions about it? You say there is a shortfall in relation to your expectations. What are the main areas of dissatisfaction?
As far as the agreement is concerned, they say that there will be a referendum in the Eastern Province even on the merger of the North and the East. Moreover, they say the referendum will be decided by a simple majority. It is not a question of the merger of the North and the East. It is our homeland. There is no question of any negotiation on this.
There are some further complications. It is an agreement between the Government of India and the Sri Lankan government, as far as we are concerned…. In 1983, there were only a few Sri Lankan army camps in the North and the East. But now there are some 200 camps. The Sinhalese settlements could not be removed or dissolved without removing these army camps and, in fact, the camps ‘legitimised’ the Sinhala settlements. An important aspect (in the agreement) is that there is no room at all for the removal of the camps. To stop such settlements and prevent atrocities, the Indian Army should stay there.
But a strange thing is that there are no Indian Army camps beyond the Elephant Pass or Jaffna peninsula. But today, Indian Army camps have been established at Kodikamam, Achuveli, Palai, Vannankerni, Yakkachi junction, Thalaiyadi coast, Pandatharippu and Kankesanthurai Light House. There is no need (for Indian Army camps) in these places, because there are no Sinhalese here. But the Indian Army has set up camps there.
We say the 200 (Sri Lankan) Army camps should be removed. But the Indian Army is establishing more camps. This itself has led to doubts and dissatisfaction among the people, at a beginning stage. There is no atmosphere of safety for the refugees to return. Security and surveillance zones have not been lifted yet. The Indian Army camps have been established. This has led to dissatisfaction among the people. They came to the LITE’S office to give petitions and we told them to give the petitions to them [the Indian peace-keeping forces].
You said the text of the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement was not given to you.
They took away the copy. Mr J.R. Jayewardene today says there will be a referendum. The Bill has not been moved in Parliament.
[At this point, Yogi, one of the political organisers of the LTTE, intervenes to say that there are “technical difficulties” in the passing of the Bill. The Sri Lankan government is not sure of getting the two-thirds majority required to pass it. “So, the changes in the Constitution cannot take place,” Yogi says.]
The question of cut-off points should be settled. The Government Agents say that people who had fled their places after 1983 could return. But people left their places even before 1983. There are two important aspects in this agreement. One is related to our homeland consisting of a unified North and East. The second is our land. Both are complicated problems, major complications. The agreement has not solved these two questions. This is the fundamental problem.
What is your attitude towards the Government of India and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi?
I mean your standpoint.
As they took into consideration their own interests and hurriedly arrived at the agreement, they have not looked after the grievances of the people who have been affected for so long.
There are refugees in Mullaitivu. People are taking out processions. But before that, we have to lay down our arms. However, the people’s problems have not been solved. The problem is that people must return to their land. To facilitate that, the [Sri Lankan] army camps should be removed. But the Indian Army is not prepared to remove the [Sri Lankan] army camps and this will not bring about a solution. If this had been discussed before the agreement was arrived at, we would have laid down certain conditions. We would have said the Army camps should be removed. But this has not taken place. When we say the Army camps should go back to the position that obtained on May 25, then why do they establish more Indian Army camps in Kodikamam? People are not able to go back first; the refugees are unable to return. [At this point, Prabakaran asks his bodyguards to bring the Jaffna Tamil newspapers and says we should know the situation. He reads out the title of a local newspaper’s editorial, “Nobel prize is calling”.]
Addressing the public meeting on the Sudumalai Amman temple grounds on August 4, you said you had a heart-to-heart discussion with Rajiv Gandhi. You also mentioned that he gave you some assurances and then you relented. What are the assurances?
Mr Rajiv Gandhi gave the assurance that we, the Tamil people, will be protected in the North and East. But people are not able to return to the East.
The Indian Army has gone there but the Tamil people are not able to go there – because there is an increasing opposition from the Sinhalese Home Guards and the Sinhalese people. There are army camps there in individual houses, schools and cooperative stores. But the Indian Army has not been deployed in such places. The Ceylon Army has not been evacuated, the problem has not been solved. Another thing is the people’s lack of faith arising out of the non-removal of the Ceylon Army. Even if the Indian Army goes, occupies such places and later vacates, the Sinhala army will come back. Further, we wouldn’t have arms.
What did Rajiv Gandhi say about the removal of 200 army camps?
V. PRABAKARAN: “WE have not been properly respected.”
We opposed the agreement on this point. Nobody was prepared to consider it.
Yes, in Delhi [firmly].
In the future political set-up of the North and East, what is the role you envisage for the LTTE, once the laying down of arms is completed?
When we say political role, we have contacts with people at the organisational level and we are strengthening it. We are strengthening our organisation in the East also. We are already working with the people in Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts. This is not a difficult task.
Is the LTTE strong in the East?
In the East our people are active even in areas where there are Sinhalese. When the people hoisted the LTTE flag at Mudur, they were shot dead. The Indian Army and the Government Agent wanted the flag to be removed. To that extent, people are conscious of things.
Will you accept a multiparty, competitive political system? You said earlier that there should be a one-party democracy on the lines of Yugoslavia.
This is important and you should know our position. We have not achieved Tamil Eelam. I had expressed my views on a political set-up for Tamil Eelam. But there is no separate country now. This is an agreement imposed on us. In this [set-up] everyone is equal, everyone is the same. We will fight for our political objective. We will take the Eelam political objective in a sustained manner before our people.
What I said then was to be done after the establishment of our own state. But there cannot be any compatibility between one-party rule and what obtains now. What is taking place now is this. Sri Lanka and India have concluded an agreement. The Indian Army is here and is asking for our weapons. If we don’t do that, we will have to fight the Indian Army. To avert that, we accepted these arrangements, but we have not abandoned our political objective.
There are conflicting or varying reports on what you said during the press conference you held in Jaffna on August 5. While one report said that you would not allow the “anti-social” militant groups to contest the elections, other reports said you would allow other groups to contest. Which is true?
Everybody will be allowed to contest elections. We will place our views before the people.
What is the role you see for the TULF [Tamil United Liberation Front] as the elected representatives of the people?
You are aware of what they did before. What do they know but the job of fighting elections? They will go back to fighting elections. We don’t want power to pass into their hands – that is our intention and our stand. Let the people decide. They will contest elections. We will stand against them in the furtherance of our cause. The people will decide on whose side they will stand.
At the Sudumalai public meeting, you said the LTTE would take to different forms of struggle. What are they? Will it be a mass-based struggle, a revolutionary party, a non-violent struggle or will you take to armed struggle again?
We will resort to a mass-based struggle.
But isn’t LTTE a purely military organisation?
Today, the LTTE is a mass-based organisation. You would have noted our May Day rally. There is military rule here during the time of the rally. Military helicopters are firing from above. At the same time, the Sinhalese people in the South are not able to celebrate May Day. In this kind of dangerous situation, if we are able to mobilise 200,000 people and take out a rally in the burning sun, it does mean we are a mass-based organisation. We have built up such a strength. If ours had been merely a militant organisation, people would not have attended the May Day rally in such a massive way.
What is your attitude towards the Muslims in the East?
We don’t look upon the Muslims as a separate category; we consider them an integral part of the Tamils. It is a question of people united by language and differentiated by religion. [At this point, Yogi made a remark to the effect that it was the Sri Lankan government which separated the Muslims from the other Tamils.]
President Jayewardene has been appealing to the people in the East to vote against the merger in the referendum. What will you do if the Muslims vote against the merger?
We have not planned for that situation. It is something that is going to happen in the future. We can respond to the problem only at that stage.
In a system where there are going to be elections – a competitive political structure – what are the problems you foresee?
We have already met such political competition. We are no strangers to such competition. Let the people decide ultimately whom they want. Let them choose for themselves a proper leadership to free themselves from this confusion.
What will be the future of your cadre, estimated to number 5,000?
We will devise a proper plan for their future life. We will not abandon them. We will find a way out for them to continue their livelihood…. We will create job opportunities. Those who want to study will be allowed to study. We will arrange for them technical training. All of us will remain disciplined and create opportunities in a collective way.
What was the reaction of your cadre to the agreement and to the pro- position of handing over arms? Did they oppose the handing over of arms?
As far as the cadre are concerned, they have much faith in me personally. That is why they deferred to my word. But even today there is no protection. Dangers arise for us from the cadres of the other armed organisations and from the Sri Lankan Army.
Was there any opposition?
As regards opposition, I myself was not willing. Then, imagine the feelings of the cadre. There is no security. So many cadre have died.
What happens to the cyanide capsules that your men wear round their necks? Are they necessary when there are no arms?
I think the capsules are needed most, they are indispensable now. They are the only weapons for the cadre to protect themselves in the Eastern province from hoodlums, the rival groups and the Sinhala army. Not only that, they would continue to wear them in remembrance of those comrades who fought along with them and sacrificed their lives. [At this point, Prabakaran asks Yogi, one of the political organisers of the LTTE, whether he sports the cyanide capsule. Yogi pulls out the capsule tied to a string around his neck. It is made of white-and-black plastic. Prabakaran also pulls out his capsule from under the collar of his shirt and shows it to us. When we ask him whether we can photograph him at this moment, he politely declines the proposition.]
How do you feel when your fighters are killed? For example, you have named your son Charles Antony in memory of a loyal LTTE fighter who was killed in a clash with the Sri Lanka Army in July 1983.
As far as our feelings are concerned, we have been very deeply affected in our hearts. Having fought so much, having sacrificed so many lives and having lost 20,000 people… all this has been subordinated to India’s strategic interests. Not only that, we, the representatives of such martyrs, have not been properly respected. Hence in this kind of situation… during the interim arrangement… we feel that we want to demonstrate to the Government of India the support we have from the people. India has not given us our due. Without consulting us, they have arrived at an agreement. Hence, we would like to enter politics with the people’s support and with the goal of Tamil Eelam. That will be the fitting reply.
Today’s Tamil papers in Jaffna quote an LTTE representative as saying the organisation would not fully surrender arms.
Yes, we made the statement. It is better to fight and die than surrender the weapons in an insecure environment and die on a mass scale!
What are the shaping influences on your life?
Ra. Su. Nallaperumal’s serial Kallukkul Eeram (“It is wet inside the stone”) published in Kalki magazine. I have read it five times. It revolves round the Indian freedom struggle. Mr Nallaperumal balances the ahimsaic struggle and the armed struggle. Generally, I read anything on any freedom movement. I used to read books on Joan of Arc, Napoleon and so on. I was always interested in history. Shivaji was the first guerilla to have fought against Mughal rule. When I was young, I always had a picutre of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. I used to keep his picture on my table when I used to study. I had written on my table, “I will fight till the last drop of my blood for the liberation of my motherland.”
Thank you Mr Prabakaran.