Heroes’ Day Speech, a cry for help                                                                    

Come November and there is a sense of expectation in political, diplomatic and military circles as well as among the general public. In the first week of the month, the country eagerly awaits the Budget proposals.

Then, as ‘Budget fever’ wanes, there has been another event which is looked forward to in recent years: the annual ‘policy speech’ of Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

This year, the latter was much anticipated and with good reason: the Tigers were being subjected to arguably their toughest test yet, as the military was marching in on them and cornering them to their strongholds in the Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu Districts.
Also, after the capture of the strategic base at Pooneryn, President Mahinda Rajapaksa had recently called upon the LTTE to lay down arms, renounce separatism, so negotiations aimed at ending the ethnic issue could resume. Therefore, whether Prabhakaran would respond in any manner to this ‘offer’ was also an issue of interest. 

There was also some speculation as to whether the speech would materialise at all, given the constraints under which the Tiger supremo must undoubtedly be operating.

The speech was a reality, but, its tone and tenor is surprising and appears to reflect the low levels of confidence permeating through the LTTE at this point in time.

If observers expected a significant paradigm change from Prabhakaran in his Heroes’ Day Speech, they would have been disappointed. There were no such revelations. Indeed, much of the speech was devoted to the rhetoric that has been a hallmark of the event over the past few years.

But, there were several pronouncements that highlight the LTTE’s current dilemma. The terrorist organisation has been inflexible in recent times in its pursuance of armed conflict, although it publicly proclaims that it is seeking a ceasefire.

As a result, it has become increasingly isolated in the eyes of the world, resulting in being banned in many key nations. This year’s pronouncements by Prabhakaran underscore the constraints placed upon the LTTE as a result.

The LTTE leader argues that his movement has been ‘denigrated’ as a terrorist organisation and that its’ ‘humanitarian activities’ have been branded as ‘criminal’ activities. This has only aggravated the racist attitude of the majority community, Prabhakaran argues.

The Tiger chief is clearly affected by the apparent support the war has had in recent times, in the south of the country. His assertion that ‘from politicians to spiritual leaders, from journalists to ordinary people, their voice is raised only in support of the war’ is not quite correct, but is a reflection that the current military operations against the LTTE have the tacit support of the majority community.    

But, unlike in recent years, when Prabhakaran is known to have crowed about his successes with gross exaggeration, this week’s pronouncements have a defensive, defeatist and defiant note.

The current war is a ‘defensive’ war by Prabhakaran’s own admission and the Tiger chief qualifies that by stating that the present challenges he faces will be overcome. Significantly absent from such pronouncements are proud boasts that the ‘Tigers’ would emerge victorious soon, the type of remark that has characterised past speeches.

Then, there is the obvious pleading to the neighbour across the Palk Straits, India. Prabhakaran stops short of grovelling at its feet and seeking pardon for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, but attempts instead to convince that country that at no stage did the LTTE consider India as an ‘enemy’ force.

The Tiger chief clearly puts a premium value on the recent support he has been deriving in Tamil Nadu and must surely want more. So, he claims that the south Indian state has ‘perfect understanding’ of the crisis and urges them to ‘raise their collective voice firmly in favour of Tamil Eelam.’

There is, of course, the usual lip service paid to peace talks where Prabhakaran asserts that the LTTE has ‘never hesitated’ to participate in peace talks, ignoring conveniently that many such negotiations were arbitrarily terminated by the Tigers, often for flimsy reasons.

Again however, there is no commitment to any specific peace effort and no mention of President Rajapaksa’s offer to resume talks after laying down arms and renouncing separatism. There is no concerted war cry either, only a muted call to ‘continue with the struggle.’

Velupillai Prabhakaran’s speech, therefore, does reflect the predicament he finds himself in. The LTTE has been cornered militarily and support from the international community is thinning, given its past record of atrocity after atrocity, even while Colombo was making generous concessions.

He cannot also call for full scale war for that would only brand him even more as a terrorist. Hence, he chooses to focus on the one issue that is left for him to evoke international sympathy: the plight of the civilians in the North who are affected, displaced and at times literally caught in the cross-fire.

This he does, and elaborates on the support received for this cause from neighbouring Tamil Nadu. But, even that could run out in the context of the recent spate of terrorist attacks in Mumbai targeting foreigners, which are dealt with elsewhere in this page.
Prabhakaran’s Heroes’ Day S peech for 2008 then is more a cry for help and an admission that recent events have hurt the Tiger chief and his organisation considerably. In it, the one thing that Prabhakaran is not, is being a hero.