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Sri Lanka’s new chapter

[BBC, Saturday, 23 May 2009 11:33 No Comment]

The authorities in the capital of Sri Lanka have declared the rebel leader of the Tamil Tigers, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, dead and the war over. Chris Morris reflects on the life of Prabhakaran and considers whether there can now be reconciliation.

I was somewhat sceptical when the letter dropped onto my doormat in Colombo.

A summons to the fourth floor of CID (Criminal Investigation Department) headquarters.

"We’ve been asked to question you," it said, "about the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi."

A few months after the former Indian prime minister was killed by a suicide bomber at an election rally, I had interviewed the man thought to be behind the murder – the leader of the Tamil Tigers, Vellupillai Prabhakaran.

I had asked him why he had Rajiv Gandhi killed, and he had denied any involvement. India did not believe him, and neither did I.

‘Sun God’

The fourth floor of CID headquarters had a bit of a reputation back then. Rumours of people falling from windows. But they were polite enough with me. We had tea and biscuits.

"Where did you meet Prabhakaran," they wanted to know. "What was he like?"

It was a house in the Jaffna peninsula, with bodyguards as big as palm trees.

And the man himself?

Well, rather unassuming for a leader who was feted by his followers as a "Sun God" – who inspired them to swallow cyanide to avoid capture, or to blow themselves up for the cause.

"I had a brother," one of the policemen said to me, leaning just a little closer.

"He was also with the police, serving in the eastern province. After he surrendered, Prabhakaran had him and all his colleagues shot dead."

"So if there’s anything else you can tell me, I’d like to find the man who killed my brother."

It took another 18 years and tens of thousands of lives, but this week Sri Lanka did finally corner Vellupillai Prabhakaran.

Reconciliation?

Exactly how he died may never be known. TV pictures released by the army showed a corpse dressed in trademark fatigues, with eyes open wide. It looked like he had been shot in the head at close range.

Ironically, the man who identified the body had been the commander of the Tamil Tigers in the eastern province, when all those policemen were killed.

Col Karuna broke with Prabhakaran in 2004, fatally weakening the rebel movement.

Now, he is the minister for national reconciliation in the Sri Lankan government. Life is sometimes strange.

And what are the chances for national reconciliation?

The Tamil community in Sri Lanka is battered and bruised. Thousands of civilians have been killed in the last few months. Hundreds of thousands are now displaced and held in government-run camps.

They have no idea who will protect them, or even who they need protection from.

But Prabhakaran’s death, and the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers, presents an opportunity to break out of the stalemate of the past.

Certainly the outside world is concentrating on Sri Lanka as never before. India – where Rajiv Gandhi’s family are still in power – was never going to do that much while Prabhakaran was still alive. Now it is scrambling to push for a political solution.

It is not just about concern for the suffering of civilians just off its southern shores. Official India is also slightly spooked by the role China played in helping Sri Lanka win the civil war.

New friends

Beijing has provided huge stocks of weapons to Sri Lanka in the last few years, at the same time as it has been building a new deep water port on the island’s southern coast.

It has not gone unnoticed that China’s oil supplies from the Middle East pass through the waters of the Indian Ocean, along the sea lanes just south of Colombo.

And now that China has helped Sri Lanka defeat the Tamil Tigers, it may be looking to call in a few favours, as it slowly extends its influence across the region.

All this at a time when the Sri Lankan authorities are casting around for new friends.

They have bitterly resented Western criticism of their conduct of the war.

Suggestions that the treatment of civilians demands an investigation into possible war crimes are angrily rejected.

Those who speak out are quickly condemned, no matter who they are. A few days ago an effigy of UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband was burnt outside the British High Commission in Colombo.

"Tamil Tiger Headquarters" said the graffiti spray-painted onto the wall.

The real headquarters of the Tamil Tigers are in ruins. Sri Lanka’s northern jungles have become a wasteland – emptied of people.

Post-war challenge

The symbol of the rebel movement – a roaring Tiger on a red background, backed by two automatic rifles – dominated the north for most of the last 25 years. No longer.

And that has led to scenes of great rejoicing in the rest of the country. The fear of the bomb and the bullet, they hope, has finally been lifted.

And yet Prabhakaran is still a hero to many Tamils, particularly those in the diaspora, scattered around the world; many refuse to believe that he is really dead.

He was a man who knew how to fight a war, but had no idea how to win a peace.

Now we have to wait and see if those who defeated him are cut from a different cloth.

There is still scepticism, but there is also every chance to prove the sceptics wrong.

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