Who Speaks for Peace?

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Who Speaks for Peace?
As the brutal leader of the Tigers silences all critics, Sri Lanka's moderate Tamils find they have no voice

Sporting an honorific normally accorded to parliamentarians and judges, The Hon. Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the world's most successful terrorist group, has emerged from the seclusion of the Sri Lankan jungle and onto the Internet. As his Tamil Tiger insurgents tighten their grip around Jaffna town, Prabhakaran, supreme leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), is taking his struggle online. His e-propaganda gives no hint as to whether he will do business with the Norwegian facilitators who traveled to Colombo and New Delhi last week to explore prospects for a settlement to Sri Lanka's civil war. But his mission seems frighteningly clear. In homilies about death and martyrdom, Prabhakaran billboards the violent vision that has driven his 6,000 armed followers to fight to the death for a Tamil homeland. I understand the dignity of life, he says, but our right is much more dignified than life.
But what about those Sri Lankan Tamils at home and in exile who aren't convinced that a Tiger victory would usher in a new era of racial harmony, democracy and freedom? Prabhakaran, 46, will stop at nothing to further his cause. He has ruthlessly ordered the death of anyone who has opposed him or his view of an independent Eelam: a homeland for Sri Lanka's estimated 2.4 million Tamils. By eliminating all opposition, Prabhakaran has become the sole remaining symbol of Tamil pride, and his Tigers the only protector of Tamil rights. Today it is nearly impossible to separate the Tamil cause from the LTTE. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) once represented a moderate alternative, but its most prominent representative, Neelan Tiruchelvam, was killed by a suicide bomber last year. His crime: he helped draw up Colombo's devolution package for the Tamils, which the Tigers nixed. No one can say the Tigers have mass support, says Varatharaja Perumal, former head of the provincial government for the Tamil-dominated north and east of the country that was set up in 1988 as part of an Indian-brokered peace deal and abandoned when the Indian army pulled out. They have established themselves by terror, physically and psychologically.

Perumal himself is a marked man. He and a group of former Tamil guerrilla leaders decided to support Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's bid for a negotiated settlement based on limited regional autonomy for Tamils. They now live and travel under armed guard in Colombo, fearful of assassination. Many Tamils say they feel trapped between an uncompromising guerrilla leadership and a suspicious Sri Lankan army. Above all, they fear an army defeat, remembering the pogrom in 1983 that left more than 1,000 Tamils dead, hunted down by axe-wielding Sinhalese mobs. The slaughter followed the Tigers' most daring assault � an ambush of a two-vehicle army patrol near Jaffna town in which 13 Sri Lankan soldiers were killed. The attack and backlash marked the start of a full-scale insurgency. It also enraged public opinion in India, especially among India's 52 million Tamils. India covertly helped to train and arm the many Tamil guerrilla groups that emerged; that training, however, has stopped.

India today has outlawed the ltte, and its navy waits off Jaffna ready to help evacuate the Sri Lankan army if necessary. A trickle of refugees has made the dangerous, six-hour boat journey to India's Tamil Nadu state across the Palk Strait separating the two countries. But so far most Tamil civilians have stayed. As the Tigers fight their way toward Jaffna from the east, more than half of the town's 110,000 inhabitants have moved westward to temporary shelters in schools and other buildings or to live with relatives.

The story of Sri Lanka's Tamils has long been one of nervous waiting. There are an estimated 145,000 Tamil refugees in southern India. More than 6,000 live in crowded conditions in Mandapam camp on the outskirts of the temple town of Rameswaram. Some have been waiting as long as 10 years for the fighting to end so that they can return home. Ariyadas Kumar, a 27-year-old fisherman, was among the 54,000 refugees who returned to Sri Lanka when the Tigers last controlled Jaffna and the northeast, between 1990-'95. But Kumar and his family fled to India again in 1996 to escape the crossfire. This time they are waiting for genuine peace before returning across the strait. The constant threat of violence has turned Sri Lanka's Tamils into an unsettled people and driven many permanently abroad. But for The Hon. Velupillai Prabhakaran, violence is control and death a worthy sacrifice. A liberation warrior's death is not a normal death occurrence, he says on his website. This death is a historical incident. It is a miracle of high ideal becoming a reality. With this affected religiosity, the world is witnessing nothing less than the apotheosis of a suicide killer.

With reporting by R. Bhagwan Singh/Rameswaram and Meenakshi Ganguly/New Delhi