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Recalling Prabhakaran's end

May 12, 2010 13:09 IST
Nitin Gokhale, Defence Editor, NDTV, recalls his encounter with then Sri Lankan army chief General Sarath Fonseka soon after the LTTE's defeat last year. A fascinating column on how Velupillai Prabhakaran finally met his nemesis.

Exactly a week later, Sri Lanka will celebrate the first anniversary of the end of Eelam War IV that signalled the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the LTTE.

On May 19 last year, Vigyanmoorthi Muralitharan, better known as Colonel Karuna, was flown in into the battle zone in northern Sri Lanka to identify LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran's body.

That day Sri Lanka needed Muralitharan to certify Prabhakaran's death since Colombo knew the world would react sceptically to the news. And sure enough, even after state television began beaming the visuals of a dead Prabhakaran, dressed in his favourite military fatigues, eyes wide open, there was disbelief and shock across the globe.

After all, Prabhakaran was unarguably the world's most elusive, most innovative and some would say, most ruthless terrorist. His large army of Tamil Tigers had taken on and beaten back the Indian and the Sri Lankan armies in the past. And like in the past, many thought Eelam War IV, as the latest conflict had come to be known, would also result in a stalemate. But there it was.

Prabhakaran was dead and gone, the LTTE smashed militarily. So how did he die? Was he taken alive and then killed, as some Tamil Web sites have suggested? Or was he killed in battle, in the last-ditch attempt to break through the tight cordon placed by the Sri Lankan army in the final hours of the war?

Going by what Sri Lanka's army chief then, General Sarath Fonseka told me in an interview, three days after Prabhakaran's body was discovered, the LTTE chief was indeed killed in a fierce gun-battle.

This is how General Fonseka, described the final hours to me in an interview: "On 18th (May) night, the topmost LTTE leadership divided itself into three different groups. They attacked our forward defence line along the Nandikkadal lagoon and did manage to break through. But they had reckoned without our second and third tier defences. These three groups were led by Jeyam, Pottu Amman and Soosai. Prabhakaran and his closest bodyguards thought they had managed to escape, but in reality all these LTTE fighters, around 250 of them, had got trapped between our first and the second defence lines. After fierce fighting that night, almost all the top leadership got killed in the area. We discovered Prabhakaran's body on the 19th morning."

We will have to take General Fonseka's word as final.

For, this war, like every other war, had no witnesses.

So what was so different in this war that attracted worldwide media attention?

"This time, we were playing for a win, not for a draw," General Foneska told me in his office.

Looking pleased as punch, General Fonseka had apologised for keeping us waiting.

"Your army chief was on the line, congratulating us for our military success," he told me. That was the opening I needed to break the ice. "Well, I know that General Deepak Kapoor (then India's army chief) has been taking a keen interest in your operations," I remember telling the general.

"You know him?" he asked.

Before I could answer, Brigadier Udaya Nanayyakara, then the Sri Lankan army spokesman who had accompanied us to the interview, told his chief: "Nitin has been reporting on the Indian armed forces very closely for a long time, Sir."

That did it. It was as if an invisible bond had instantly developed between us: Me, a long-time student of the armed forces and the general, at the peak of his military career.

All the irritation over Dhanpal, my cameraperson colleague, and me being subjected to a two-stage, thorough security check that lasted an hour -- 'Take off your belt', 'Remove the shoes', 'Click the camera', 'Switch off the mobiles'-- vanished instantly.

I wanted to ask him several questions, but before that, he shot a query at me.

"So how do you rate our operations?" "No one can dispute the military victory," I responded and proceeded to ask him the ONE question that had been at the back of my mind ever since I had landed in Colombo for the fifth time since January 2009: "What made the difference this time? How did the LTTE, which always seemed to turn adversity into an advantage in the past, fail to stop the Sri Lankan army this time?"

He gave me one of the pithiest comments I have ever heard: "This time, we were playing for a win, not for a draw."

I say to myself: this guy is a television interviewer's dream. What a byte!

And sure enough, throughout the half hour, on camera, General Fonseka was candid, blunt, and aggressive by turn. Pleased with himself and his troops, giving me one quotable quote after another, or byte as we call them in broadcast journalism. Each of the answer is a potential headline.

And sure enough, we carried many of his replies as standalone stories over the next few days.

Just a week before I met General Fonseka for this landmark interview, no one was sure how the events would pan out in Sri Lanka.

My mind goes back to May 15, 2009. That evening, a source had called from Sri Lanka saying "It's all over, you should be here NOW."

I was not too sure whether Sri Lanka would find any news space given the fact that the entire nation was glued to the story of Indian election results in less than 12 hours from then.

Yet, as a precaution, I told the bosses that the denouement in Sri Lanka appeared to be near and I may have to rush to Colombo at very short notice.

The next day, May 16, as I prepared to do my bit on election results day, another source, in fact a very high official, called in at 7 am and said, "It is all over, bar the shouting. Try and be here by this evening."

Since this official had been dead right with information in the past too, I decided to take a chance. The bosses were also game.

So, as India was glued to its television sets getting the latest election results, I rushed to the airport at an hour's notice to catch a flight to Bangalore and from there to Colombo. By 4.30 that evening, I was in the Sri Lankan capital.

Am I glad I did that? Oh yes! By taking that off chance and believing in my sources, I was right there when the biggest war story of the decade unfolded.

A decade ago, one was fortunate to be in Kargil, reporting on the India-Pakistan conflict.

But there is one major difference between 1999 and 2009. I had reported Kargil for print, for Outlook magazine, to be precise.

This time, I was reporting the war in Sri Lanka for NDTV, a completely different medium which requires an altogether different set of expertise and resources.

In less than 12 hours after landing in Colombo, the difficulties of broadcast journalism combined with the obstacles posed by an obdurate and cussed bureaucracy, so very typical of South Asian nations, became apparent.

My colleague Dhanpal, incidentally a Tamil, reached Colombo International Airport early next morning and got stuck in Customs. They didn't let him out, saying the papers for the television equipment that he was carrying were not in order.

So began a battle of another kind. One was not sure if Dhanpal had been stopped because he was a Tamil. Assuming the worst, I made two or three calls and asked him to wait. Fortunately, a couple of hours later, a fresh set of requisite documents reached the obdurate customs officer and he let Dhanpal go, albeit reluctantly.

An hour after his arrival, we straightaway plunged into work. There were pieces to camera to be done, stand ups to be uplinked and phone calls to be made to different sources.

And then there was the constant stream of demands from the office to be met. "Do a phone in at the top of the hour," "Give the details of the latest battle casualties," "Our competitors are saying the army has sighted Prabhakaran, what do you have?" -- the demands were unending.

In retrospect, it was a timely move to be in the Sri Lankan capital because from that Saturday evening onwards, events unfolded with lightening speed and one could keep pace with requirements of television news only because in Dhanpal I had an experienced and unflappable colleague.

As Eelam War IV neared its climax, there was virtually not a minute's respite since one was reporting for both for NDTV's English and Hindi channels. Each desk had a different requirement.

The challenge was two-fold: To relay the information by putting it in the context for Indian viewers and second not go wrong on facts since NDTV 24x7 is the most viewed Indian channel in Colombo.

Reporting from Colombo posed another challenge. The high level of security in the Sri Lankan capital meant that you couldn't shoot in the streets. All my pieces to camera and stand-ups had to be therefore done from either the hotel lawns or in the hotel lobby, robbing the coverage, the actual feel of the place.

On a previous trip, me and another colleague, Sukumar, had been escorted to a police station because we were shooting on the street! But May 19 changed all that overnight. Prabhakaran was dead and the LTTE, decimated.

Suddenly it was as if the entire nation was liberated! Jubilant crowds thronged the streets, bursting crackers, stuffing the armed forces personnel with sweets and garlanding them. For the television cameras too it was a liberating moment. No one stopped us now.

We walked between processions, on the streets awash with Sri Lankan flags, local singers singing paeans to the soldiers at impromptu street corner gatherings, doing our walkabouts, our pre-recorded interviews and pieces to camera amidst the celebrations absolutely unhindered!

It was an historic news event, but also a sad one.

Through the day, we managed to remain on top of the news but as night fell and the prime time bulletins were over, the reality hit us both.

All said and done, Prabhakaran was an extraordinary personality. The outfit that he created and led had no parallel in the history of terrorism.

As we sat sipping our chilled beers, Dhanpal recalled, how, as a college student in Chennai in the late 1970s, he was part of a group that had mobilised support for the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka and how Prabhakaran was even then a celebrity in the Tamil brotherhood.

Unlike Dhanpal, I had no such personal memory but as a student of insurgencies and conflicts, I only had grudging admiration for Prabhakaran's military genius and innovative mind. After all, he invented the suicide bomber; he perfected the cyanide capsule culture and applied innovative and daring tactics to combat large professional armies. But in the end, not knowing when to quit and compromise cost Prabhakaran his life. So, in different ways both of us, felt sad at the turn of events.

Over the next three days, we managed to get exclusive, one on one interviews with Sri Lanka's defence secretary and General Fonseka among others. These interactions helped me confirm some of the conclusions that I reached about why Eelam War IV was different than earlier military campaigns in Sri Lanka.

General Fonseka, a battle-hardened veteran of many past duels with the LTTE, had correctly assessed that the Tamil Tigers had expanded greatly in numbers, but had perhaps lost the agility and stealth that had made the outfit such a formidable adversary.

The army commander in fact explained to me in detail the fresh strategy that he adopted. Selecting commanders who had previous field experience and were ruthless enough to implement unconventional and brutal tactics, General Fonseka outwitted and outnumbered the LTTE.

He formed small, highly mobile, independent and lethal commando teams, who often infiltrated behind the enemy lines to isolate and then demolish LTTE defences. Of course, General Fonseka was lucky to have Gotabaya Rajapakse, a former course-mate in the army, as the defence secretary. Gotabaya is also the president's brother. So, Messrs Rajapakse and Fonseka had the total backing of President Mahinda Rajapakse, who set a clear military objective for the armed forces: Demolish the Tamil Tigers militarily, no matter what the cost.

As General Fonseka said during the interview, this is any general's dream: Total political backing, no limits on buying war materials and recruiting manpower.

Sri Lanka took in 80,000 new recruits in the armed forces in the last four years. It secured a steady supply of weapons and ammunition from countries like China and Pakistan after India refused to help Colombo under domestic political compulsions.

The Tigers, on the other hand, were still stuck in the old mindset, employing conventional tactics like trying to hold on to territory. They finally paid heavily for those outdated strategies.

In less than a year, the Rajapakse brothers and General Fonseka are sworn enemies. The war hero now faces a court martial and is under military custody.

Mammoth egos and insecurities have led to such a sorry state of affairs.

So what next for Sri Lanka? There are several unanswered and unresolved questions over the rehabilitation of the Tamils and more importantly a reconciliation between the Sinhalas and Tamils. But more about it in the next column.

Nitin Gokhale is the Defence Editor, NDTV

Also Read:

  • 'Prabhakaran was a good weapon to use'
  • How India helped Lanka destroy the LTTE
  • How the Lankan army crushed the LTTE
  • It's confirmed: Prabhakaran is dead
  • Image: Prabhakaran with his family. Photograph: Rediff Archives

    Nitin Gokhale