*Prabhakaran: In the Shadow of Che?

Velupillai Prabhakaran, the much-feared and notoriously secretive leader of the Tamil Tigers, is dead. The obituaries come pouring in, but it seems somewhat odd that Prabhakaran should be remembered with an obituary. An obituary is not merely a notice of the death of some well-known personality; it is an appreciation of a life that has come to a close. Perhaps, in the very appearance of obituaries of Prabhakaran in the New York Times and the Guardian, there is an implicit acknowledgment that Prabhakaran, who was among the most wanted ‘terrorists’ of the world, also had the approbation of many Tamils, in Sri Lanka and wider diasporic communities, who looked to him as the embodiment of their aspirations and the person most likely to turn the dream of Tamil autonomy into something like reality?

One famous photograph of Prabhakaran, the one featured in today’s Guardian, shows him seated below a large framed print of Che Guevara, flanked on either side by an armed bodyguard. Every armed revolutionary over the last several decades has attempted to lay claim to Che’s legacy, though it has been reliably said of Prabhakaran that he spent the greater part of the last twenty years, when he made rare public appearances and was holed up in his jungle hideouts, watching Clint Eastwood’s films and practicing the fast draw. Prabhakaran’s lifestyle was surely not calculated to earn him a large following as a renowned revolutionary. Leaving aside the question of whether the portly Prabhakaran could have been, in the market-driven economy of the modern world with an accent on the cool and the sexy, a match for the irrepressibly handsome features of a youthful but pensive-looking Che, Prabhakaran’s influence appears to have been confined to the band of the hard-core following that he had acquired among Tamils at home (and especially abroad).

It is true as well that Che’s posters are plastered everywhere, while Prabhakaran barely had a public presence in the ordinary sense of the term except in the posters and pamphlet literature of the LTTE. Once every year, on the occasion of Maveerar Naal, or Great Heroes Day, his speech to LTTE cadres would be keenly awaited for signs of his thinking or political and military strategy. And, yet, in a curious way, Prabhakaran seems to have held his own against Che, and might even have had a more lasting impact. His presence in the Tamil diaspora can only be underestimated at great peril: the anger even despair of his many ardent supporters in the Tamil diaspora may subside over time, but the diaspora’s dreams persist long after the country imagined as the ‘homeland’ has been transformed. Many Tamils will continue to swear by Prabhakaran even if fundamental political changes are effected in Sri Lanka. Secondly, there can be little question that while Che remains an enduring even romantic symbol of the revolution, or rather I should say the unfulfilled revolution, Prabhakaran did far more to transform insurgent warfare than anyone else one can think of in the last few decades. The LTTE, under his leadership, was among the first armed organizations to deploy the internet effectively to raise funds. Before there were Palestinian, Iraqi, and Pakistani suicide bombers, there were LTTE cadres who showed the way. Among their most prominent victims was Rajiv Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of Gandhi. Indeed, in virtually every innovation of insurgent warfare or (as some would say) terrorism, Prabhakaran’s LTTE has been the pioneer.

In death as in life, Prabhakaran remains elusive. I shall say more on that tomorrow.

10 thoughts on “*Prabhakaran: In the Shadow of Che?

  1. IT IS NOT TRUE THAT YOU SAY THAT ALL MILITANTS CLAIM THEY FOLLOW THE LEGACY OF CHE.BUT I DONT KNOW WATS YOUR NATIONALITY OR RELIGION OR ETHNICITY OR WHATEVER.BUT IF THE WOMEN OF YOUR COMMUNITY/NATIONALITY WERE RAPED BY HUNGRY DOGS OF THE OPPOSITE COMMUNITY;IF YOU WERE REJECTED THE BASIC RIGHT TO LIVE;IF YOUR MEN WERE HUNTED DOWN BY DEATH SQUADS OF THE MAJORITY;IF U WERE EXPOSED TO PROLONGED&CHRONIC TORTURES;IF U DID NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO EXPRESS UR VOICE INDEPENDENTLY LIKE U DO NOW; WHAT WOULD YOU DO;IF U WERE A REFUGEE IN UR OWN LAND; AND THE SUFFERINGS NEVER END.
    YOU WOULD BE RATHER URGED BY UR SELF TO DO SOMETHING FOR YOUR PEOPLE. THAT IS WHAT CHE & PRABHAKARAN WANTED TO DO.THE ONLY DIFFERNCES WAS THEIR RESULTS AND THEIR APPROACHES.PRABHAKARAN BEING FED WITH MORE VIOLENCE. AS THEY SAY ‘VIOLENCE BEGETS ONLY VIOLENCE’.

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  2. Hi professor,
    The fact that obituaries came pouring in after the death of Prabhakaran is a proof that he had followers in diaspora. The Tamils were clearly annoyed that their leader had passed away. Prabhakaran would help to bring about the Tamil autonomy. However, he was considered a terrorist by other authorities. Prabhakaran seems to have been more organized than Che. I think Che was more of a revolutionary leader while Prabhakaran had the motive of liberating his people. I would, therefore, say that Prabhakaran was not in the shadow of Che. This is because Che could not claim that his people were captured or being killed and raped by any opponent forces.

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  3. Obituaries are not written only by followers; indeed, they are less likely to write obituaries. My short essay does not intend a comparison of Prabhakaran and Che Guevara as such: I say in the ‘shadow’ of Che because Che became worldwide the model of the guerrilla. In this respect, every resistance fighter of this kind works in the long shadow of Che.

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  4. Hi Professor Lal,

    I enjoyed this essay. I do think it’s important we understand that a revolutionary should not have to be intensely visible or internationally known to have their accomplishments acknowledged. While figures such as Gandhi or Che evoked important changes to the status quo, there are many people who helped revolutionaries along the way, and did major and dangerous actions who do not get written about in history books. While it’s impossible to include everyone who’s ever done something to cause major shifts for society, it’s still imperative that we recognize that great people don’t do great things by themselves; there are people along the way who allow them to achieve success. With that being said, there are also figures such as Prabhakaran who have paved the way for other revolutionaries to gain prominence who deserve attention as well, but are not widely known.

    Keyaira

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    • Yes, of course I agree that “revolutions” are not caused by just those who are visible. A revolution is made by the masses, not just by “leaders”; who gets written into the history books and who doesn’t is something that we are increasingly called to think about. Unfortunately, Prabhakaran was far from being a revolutionary leader of the type that can be held up as a model: he exercised a tyrannical control over the cadres, led tens of thousands of Tamils to their death, was completely unscrupulous, and, at the end of the day, did not even have any great revolutionary ideas.

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  5. Professor,
    Although the comparisons of Che and Prabhakaran are often made, it is important to consider the motives of both leaders and revolutionists. Prabhakaran seems to have wanted to liberalize the Tamils from Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, the Tamils had been murdered and their women were raped by members of the Sri Lankan army. It would be correct to say that Prabhakaran was fighting for his people. The motive of Che was, however, to overthrow a Cuban dictator. Prabhakaran can be considered as both a revolutionist and a terrorist at the same time. A terrorist due to the involvement in warfare, and a revolutionist since he wanted the Tamils freed. I think he followed the footsteps of Che, to some extent.

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    • Hi Harold, I think you meant to say that “Prabhakarn seems to have wanted to liberate [not liberalizie] the Tamils from Sri Lanka”, by which in turn you mean that he wanted to help them achieve autonomy.

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  6. Hi professor,

    Prabhakaran might have followed the legacy of Che. However, his mission was more about saving the Tamil and bringing them independence from Sri Lanka. I think although he was considered a terrorist, it would not be bad remembering him with an obituary. This is because he even had supporters in the diaspora and was involved in war with Sri Lanka in order to liberalize the Tamils. Che was more of a symbol of unfulfilled revolution while Prabhakaran made several changes such as helping the LTTE to raise funds over the internet. In my opinion, Prabhakaran did more actions than talking to bring autonomy to the Tamils while Che did not do quite as much.

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  7. Hello professor,

    Prabhakaran idolized Che, it becomes visible how approach and motives of leading revolutions vary in these two cases but the greater picture is shared by the two. It is important to note the divided opinions on whether Prabhakaran was an evil terrorist or a revolutionist in fight for the liberation of the Tamils depend on the perspective of the reader. Revolutionists undoubtedly always undergo this split judgment, in my opinion. As your title suggests, Prabhakaran might have indeed never reached the level of acknowledgment Che has had and remains a shadow of Che. This is not only due to the variance of motives but also the fact that Prabhakaran can be viewed as a pioneer of other modern terrorist groups, which in my opinion, has a very negative connotation compared to how Che is viewed.

    Sundo Oh

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  8. Hello professor,

    Prabhakaran idolized Che, it becomes visible how approach and motives of leading revolutions vary in these two cases but the greater picture is shared by the two. It is important to note the divided opinions on whether Prabhakaran was an evil terrorist or a revolutionist in fight for the liberation of the Tamils depend on the perspective of the reader. Revolutionists undoubtedly always undergo this split judgment, in my opinion. As your title suggests, Prabhakaran might have indeed never reached the level of acknowledgment Che has had and remains a shadow of Che. This is not only due to the variance of motives but also the fact that Prabhakaran can be viewed as a pioneer of other modern terrorist groups, which in my opinion, has a very negative connotation compared to how Che is viewed.

    Sundo Oh

    Like

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