COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka’s president declared his country “liberated from separatist terror” Tuesday as state television broadcast images of the Tamil Tiger rebel leader’s body after it was recovered from the battlefield.
But in his victory address to parliament, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appeared to reach out to the minority Tamils, for whom the rebels had said they were trying to carve out a homeland. He also alluded to promises to forge a power-sharing agreement with them.
“Our intention was to save the Tamil people from the cruel grip of the (rebels). We all must now live as equals in this free country,” he said, briefly speaking in Tamil.
Meanwhile, TV footage showed a bloated body resembling the rebel leader, still dressed in a dark green camouflage uniform, laid out on a stretcher on the grass. A blue cloth rested on top of his head, apparently to cover a bullet wound. His open eyes stared straight up.
“A few hours ago, the body of terrorist leader (Velupillai) Prabhakaran, who ruined this country, was found on the battleground,” army chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka told state television.
Prabhakaran’s body was later identified by Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, a former rebel commander known as Col. Karuna, who defected from the group and is now a government minister, the government said in a statement.
Defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said they government might conduct a DNA test as well. He declined to reveal what the plans were for the disposal of the body.
The death of Prabhakaran (PRAH’-bah-ka-ran), the unquestioned leader of the Tamil Tigers, would make it far more difficult for the rebel movement to reform and continue its nearly three decade separatist war.
Speaking before the announcement, a rebel official abroad denied Prabhakaran was killed and said the Tamil Tiger leader was in a safe place.
With the war on the northern battlefields over, Rajapaksa delivered a victory address to parliament early Tuesday.
Recounting how the rebels, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, once controlled a wide swath of the north and east, Rajapaksa said that for the first time in nearly 30 years, the country was unified under its elected government.
“Our motherland has been completely liberated from separatist terrorism,” he said, declaring Wednesday a national holiday.
The rebels, listed as terrorists by Canada, India and several other countries, had been fighting for a homeland for the mainly Hindu Tamil minority after decades of marginalization at the hands of governments dominated by the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority. Tamils make up nearly 20 per cent of the country’s 20 million people. About 75 per cent are Sinhalese.
Rajapaksa has said in the past he would negotiate some form of power-sharing with the Tamil community following the war and he alluded Tuesday to the need for an agreement.
“We must find a homegrown solution to this conflict. That solution should be acceptable to all the communities,” he said. “That solution, which would be based on the philosophy of Buddhism, will be an example to the whole world.”
He also called upon Sri Lankans – especially Tamils – who fled the country to return and help it rebuild.
“There are no minority communities in this country. There are only two communities, one that loves this country and another that does not,” he said.
But there were also signs that the tension between the government and the Tamil community in the north would continue.
Rambukwella said the government hoped to resettle the estimated 265,000 Tamils displaced by the fighting as soon as possible. But when they return to their villages, they will be accompanied by a heavy deployment of troops.
“They are now used to a certain type of lifestyle; they quarrel (with) each other, and we need a law and order situation to be maintained,” he said. “We will perhaps need another 40,000-50,000 (troops).”
The war killed more than 70,000 people over the past quarter-century. Another 265,000 ethnic Tamils were displaced in the recent offensive and many of them have been sent to crowded camps in the north.
Prabhakaran turned what was little more than a street gang in the late 1970s into one of the world’s most feared insurgencies. At the height of his power, Prabhakaran controlled a virtual country in the north and a rebel army of thousands backed by artillery, a navy and a nascent air force.
He was also branded a terrorist abroad and his fighters waged hundreds of suicide attacks, including the 1991 assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and forcibly recruited child soldiers.
A rebel official overseas, Selvarasa Pathmanathan, denied Prabhakaran had been killed.
“Our beloved leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is alive and safe. He will continue to lead the quest for dignity and freedom for the Tamil people,” he said in a statement posted Tuesday on the rebel-affiliated TamilNet website. He offered no further details or evidence to support the claim.
With the rebels’ conventional forces eliminated, many in Sri Lanka were waiting to see what concessions Rajapaksa was willing to make.
“Now (there) is a historic opportunity, and hopefully things will change. But the demonstrable record so far is not particularly encouraging,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a political analyst and executive director of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Though Rajapaksa promised political compromise, the defeat of the rebels leaves a vacuum in the Tamil leadership.
Prabhakaran killed many community leaders seen as a challenge to his authority. Others moved abroad, while many of those who remained active in politics either allied themselves with the government or were linked to the rebels and effectively sidelined.
The bloody end to the war, which reportedly killed thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians, could also complicate peace efforts.
Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in Geneva on Tuesday that he is relieved the war appears to be over in Sri Lanka.
But he wants the government to address the “concerns and aspirations” of the Tamil population.
Ban told a news conference that “we urgently need to treat the wounds of a war that has alienated the communities on the island for almost three decades.”
The UN chief said he would travel to Sri Lanka on Friday. He hoped to visit camps for the thousands of people uprooted by the war.