Prabhakaran: The Life and Death of a Tiger

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AFP / Gety

Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Tamil Tigers, stands in front of an eternal flame at an undisclosed location in northern Sri Lanka

Velupillai Prabhakaran, 54, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who was declared killed by the Sri Lankan government on May 18, had decades to think about how his end would come. It could have come from the cyanide capsule that he — like many Tiger fighters — wore around his neck, a pledge to commit suicide in case of capture by the Sri Lankan army. He had been fighting a war for an independent homeland, or eelam, for the island's Tamil minority since 1983, and the army had pursued him throughout the jungles of the north and east for decades. In 2002, during a press conference near the beginning of a four-year cease-fire, Prabhakaran revealed that he had asked his aides to kill him if capture was near and he was unable to kill himself.

The end, when it came, happened in an armored vehicle in which Prabhakaran was trying to flee with his trusted lieutenants, according to the Sri Lankan government. The group came under fire, and Prabhakaran was one of 18 top LTTE leaders killed in the early-morning ambush, the government said. On May 19, the army released images to Sri Lankan television of Prabhakaran's body, still in its uniform, in which his face is clearly visible. For the generation of Sri Lankans who have grown up knowing only a nation in conflict, the image of Prabhakaran has loomed over their lives, either as enemy or savior. More than 70,000 people have been killed in 26 years of war in Sri Lanka, and there are those who will not believe the elusive figure is gone until they see proof. (Read "Behind Colombo's P.R. Battle Against the Tamil Tigers.")

The rest of the world might never understand the violence Prabhakaran stood for, but its imprint on Sri Lanka is wide and deep. At the height of his power, just before the 2002 cease-fire, Prabhakaran was the unquestioned leader of a de facto government that controlled more than 15,000 sq km of territory in the north and east of Sri Lanka and had its own system of taxes, roads and courts. By the final weeks of conflict, he was believed to be using thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields against the advance of the Sri Lankan military. At the time of his death, 250 core LTTE members stood with him. Few will mourn the end of a man who ruthlessly ordered the murder of his opponents, demanded absolute fealty and pioneered the use of suicide bombings.

Prabhakaran was the youngest of four children, born in a middle-class family in Valvettiturai, a fishing town on the northern coast of Sri Lanka's Jaffna peninsula. Very little is known about his early life. "My childhood was spent in the small circle of a lonely, quiet house," he said in a 1994 interview. He described a deep-seated anger against the military and remembered an eighth-grade teacher who exhorted students to take up arms against it. "It is he who impressed on me the need for armed struggle and persuaded me to put my trust in it," Prabhakaran said. Jaffna was then considered the heart of Tamil culture and literature in Sri Lanka, and also the center of the growing Tamil nationalist movement, which called for greater autonomy for Tamil-majority areas to protest what they considered discrimination against Tamils by Sri Lanka's Sinhala-speaking majority. The most radical groups wanted complete independence and struck out at symbols of the Sri Lankan state, including fellow Tamils whom they considered collaborators.

See pictures of Tamil Tiger territory in Sri Lanka.

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