So Prabhakaran did what any good entrepreneur would do, grew his business the old-fashioned way: ambushing convoys and assassinating government officials. The LTTE fought a slow stalemate against the army for 25 years after that, with fake “ceasefires” from time to time followed by assassinations to announce that it was back to business as usual, but the one steady factor was Prabhakaran, who got crazier and more conceited as the years went by. He wanted it all, and step one was killing anybody who was a career rival. Which he did, starting in 1986 when he used the old-as-the-hills technique of calling all the braintrust together for a big conference and then mowing them all down. I can’t believe anybody falls for that one, when it’s been Plan #1 for about three thousand years. But who knows, there are still suckers buying Chrysler, so you can’t underestimate stupidity.
The greedy goons running the LTTE were getting more and more pissed off and jealous because in the meantime, their Tamil friends over in Chennai were lording it over them with their Microsoft options and i-phones and kids majoring in comp sci at MIT. Worse yet, the richer those mainland Tamils got, the less they were interested in sending money to the LTTE boys hunkered down in the coastal scrub. Back in the 1970s it was that or pluck chickens, but when Microsoft is offering to send you to their corporate campus in Seattle, all expenses paid, the Pol Pot version of The Apprentice doesn’t seem like such a great option any more. The whole shape of the world (outside Africa anyway) was turning against guerrilla armies, and the LTTE had to figure out which way to turn.
At one level they were in a pretty good position; they held most of NE Sri Lanka, off and on, and their opposition, the Sri Lankan armed forces, was nothing to be afraid of. By 2000, the LTTE took Elephant Pass, a key route to their heartland in Northern Sri Lanka. They had other assets: a lot of money and sympathy from the 80 million Tamils around the world, and they had the BBC on their side too, because the Tamils’ were always the Brits’ pet tribe on the island, specially imported back in Victoria’s day to give the native Sinhalese fits.
But Prabhakaran was no Pol Pot. He was more like a businessman, and he kept his eyes on what he considered the prize, namely making every Tamil on the island his personal slave. There’s always a slave side to a guerrilla movement, because the people are their main asset, and you want to have good control over your asset. But Prabhakaran took it way too far, even for a Dear Leader type. Of course it didn’t help that he was hands down the ugliest revolutionary leader in history, a fat little toad tamped into a camo uniform.
Here I figured I was too ugly to be the Che of Fresno but maybe not. If this lumpy raccoon-eyed amphibian Prabhakaran can do it, then Generalissimo Brecher here we come.
Prabhakaran decided to settle for a ceasefire and set up his precious “state” in the north of Sri Lanka, and he went whole hog. Nobody loves bureaucracy more than an Indian, and the LTTE was suddenly turned into rubber-stamping, desk-grabbing, bribe-taking office pigs. Just imagine what the DMV office would be like in Hell and you’ve got the idea. Every cadre wanted payback for the years hunkered down in the bush from every poor sucker who needed a document stamped. They actually started a “living tax”—as in a tax on the fact that you were breathing. And being a guerrilla army, they made it real clear that if you didn’t pay your breathing tax, they had no problem about interrupting your oxygen supply.
When you think about the LTTE’s famous air force and navy from this angle, they don’t look so cool any more. I admit, I wrote how cool they were, but since I’ve been looking deeper I see they were part of the whole “legitimate state” bullshit business plan that sank the whole movement. They were just more showing off, more trying to be like the big boys. In hindsight it’d have been better for the LTTE to stick to what makes guerrilla armies strong: the AK, RPG and staying tight with the villagers.
This is what Mao would have called “mismanaging your prime asset.” Not that Mao would’ve used that capitalist-roader talk but what he taught his PLA cadres amounted to the same lesson: you better treat the people decent (Mao said, “Don’t take anything from the peasants, not even a sweet potato”), because it’s the people, not the land you claim, that keeps you strong. Here’s the key Mao quote that Prabhakaran and his little careerists should’ve memorized: “Lose land to keep people, land can be retaken; lose people to keep land, land and people both lost.”
That one sentence explains everything that happened to the LTTE. They terrorized the people, their only real asset. When the war resumed in 2002, the Tamils voted with their feet. They ran from the LTTE slavedrivers, even risked surrendering to Sinhalese soldiers instead of sticking with their “liberators.” The LTTE was so shocked at the way their peasant slaves were deserting them they made it policy to fire on Tamil civilians who were trying to flee LTTE-controlled zones.
A classic lesson in how to lose by not listening to Mao, by valuing land and fancy uniforms over sharing rice with the peasants. And now Prabhakaran has about a week or so left in his miserable life to go over Mao’s lessons in his head while he skulks in a bunker somewhere in his precious “Tamil Eelam.” Then the soldiers will kick the door in and the bastard will have a couple of seconds to decide whether to be a hypocrite right to the end, surrender and hope the UN gets him clemency, or die like he made thousands of trusting Tamil kids die, by swallowing the cyanide pills every LTTE soldier carried around his neck. If they even make cyanide necklaces in his collar size.
Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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