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|April 11, 2002|
The Rediff Special/George Iype
After attending V Prabhakaran's press conference on Wednesday, Assistant Managing Editor George Iype reports on the LTTE leader's attempts at transforming his image.
Velupillai Prabhakaran, who heads the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam -- the organisation demanding a separate Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka -- is eager to shed the image of a ruthless guerrilla leader. Instead, he wants to don the role of moderate political master of the Tamils in the island republic.
LTTE officers and Tamil ideologues sympathetic to Prabhakaran say that after battling the Sri Lankan Army for nearly two decades, the leader of the world's most brutal guerrilla force wants peace.
Throughout the two-and-a-half hours of interaction with international journalists at an LTTE base in Kilinochchi -- his first press conference in over a decade -- on April 10, the LTTE chief uttered the word "peace" at least three dozen times. He repeatedly said he wants to forget the past.
"He wants peace. He is craving for peace because war has not led us anywhere so far," said an LTTE leader at the organisation's administrative office in Kilinochchi.
"Just hold on. You will see Prabhakaran the peacenik during the press conference," the officer had foretold.
Sure enough it was not the man the world sees as a ruthless ogre who appeared at the venue of the press conference on Wednesday. Clad in a safari suit, the LTTE chief looked more like the typical Tamil politician. The tone and tenor of his voice only amplified what his lieutenant at Kilinochchi had predicted.
Here was Prabhakaran the peacemaker.
Throughout the encounter, Prabhakaran gave enough hints to suggest that he wants to change -- from being a guerrilla commander to a political moderate. Towards that end, his prescriptions were more dramatic than what everyone expected. He said he wanted to forget the past. He did not admit that he had ordered the killing of India's former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi; but his silence suggested that he did not want to abdicate responsibility for one of the many ghastly acts committed by his cadres.
"I do not want to dig into the past," Prabhakaran said of the assassination. Rajiv Gandhi was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, on May 20, 1991.
"If he digs into the past, his deeds will haunt him forever," quipped a Western journalist.
The head of the LTTE has built a formidable army in the last two years. Some 10,000 Tamil Tigers man the 'Tamil Eelam' Prabhakaran rules in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.
The twenty-year-old ethnic conflict has left more than 64,000 people dead. "Every Sri Lankan family has been devastated by the ethnic conflict one way or the other. So Prabhakaran has realised, though lately, that he can achieve nothing by killing people," pointed out Arthur Kullaratna, a senior government official in Colombo.
Many believe Prabhakaran, 47, now wants to get rid of his brutal image. There were times when he killed whoever he considered an opponent within the LTTE. He eliminated those whom he perceived as the LTTE's opponents, like Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa on May 1, 1993, and plotted Rajiv Gandhi's assassination for the latter's deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka to crush the LTTE.
No longer does Prabhakaran reveal himself as the embodiment of brute force. For a man who once outlawed marriage for his fighters -- consisting of young boys and girls -- LTTE insiders reveal that Prabhakaran does not insist on the diktat any longer.
"Our leader now moves around with his wife Mathi Vathani. It is public acknowledgment that he is willing to allow us to get married," said an LTTE cadre at the organisation's administrative office in Kilinochchi.
So will he stop recruiting children into the LTTE and training them as bare-footed fighters? "There were times when we recruited child soldiers because of the compulsions of war with the Sri Lankan Army. But we no longer recruit children. We will henceforth recruit only youngsters of 18 and above into the LTTE," Prabhakaran said.
Prabhakaran dropped out of school to fight for a Tamil homeland at 16. He is reputed to have recruited thousands of children, some as young as 10, to fight the Sri Lankan Army.
The LTTE chief is also the world's best-known advocate of the cyanide capsule. Each LTTE fighter -- including Prabhakaran himself -- wears a special amulet holding a cyanide capsule and is bound by oath to swallow it in the face of unavoidable danger from the enemy.
Asked if he wanted to continue the practice of the cyanide capsule, he said: "If our demands are met with a right, acceptable solution to the Tamil problem, I am ready to give up this practice."
While the LTTE chief is on a peace mission, the faces of local Tamils on the war-wrecked, muddy roads of Kilinochchi are etched with fear. If the peace process collapses, the Tamils will once again lapse into an area of darkness.
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