'Pol Pot' turns Tigers' heroes into traitors: The martyr's death of a popular Tamil commander has unleashed a purge among the guerrillas, writes Tim McGirk in Jaffna

TWO contrary forces were tugging the hundreds of Tamils who had massed at a Jaffna political rally: the macabre fascination of witnessing a man being executed, and the fear that, any second, a plane from the Sri Lankan air force would appear out of the tropical sunset and drop a bomb on them.

Bombings and public executions are becoming commonplace in the 'liberated' zone known as Tamil Eelam, on the northern tip of Sri Lanka. It is a society run on rumour, secrecy and the cult of martyrdom. Boy soldiers wear talismans around their necks containing a cyanide capsule. In this regime, led by Prabakharan, the elusive guerrilla chief, suicide is preferable to capture, fanaticism to common sense. And, overnight, heroes can turn to traitors.

As it happened, the enemy artillery shells fell wide, and the executions - rumours, again - either had taken place secretly or the Tiger command were adding to the charges against the victims.

The rally was to mark the death on 16 January last year of a commander, Kittu. The fishing boat carrying Kittu and seven Tamil guerrillas fell under Indian navy surveillance as soon as it sailed from Singapore. According to one reliable version, Kittu radioed Prabakharan for orders and was told to die rather than surrender. This Kittu did by blowing up the boat, himself and the crew. It was a good martyr's death.

A bright man with an easy laugh, who often toured the guerrilla units with a small monkey perched on his shoulder, Kittu was also Prabakharan's close friend and most trusted adviser. Rumours spread that Kittu had been betrayed to the Indians, and by last July Prabakharan had placed his two most senior commanders, Yogi and Mahattya, under arrest.

It was the possibility of Mahattya and Yogi's execution, Tiger-style, blindfolded and with a revolver shot to the brain, that drew the large crowd to the temple lake in Jaffna. The Tamils awaited with a mixture of curiosity and horror. Both commanders were popular and viewed as moderates capable of at last striking a truce with the Sri Lankan government, one that would give the Tamils greater autonomy over the north and eastern parts of the island and end this 10-year-long civil war that has left thousands dead on both sides and more than 500,000 refugees.

Both Yogi and Mahattya were replaced by inexperienced soldiers in their early twenties, whose only qualifications were their combat prowess and unswerving loyalty to Prabakharan, 39, a secretive man who is a brilliant strategist. His Tigers, fewer than 8,000, have kept Sri Lanka's army of 90,000 at bay.

Many of those who believed in the struggle for a homeland for the island's three million Tamil minority now fear that the Tigers have begun to devour themselves. Nine 'betrayers' were publicly shot during the past few weeks, and the investigation into Kittu's death has spiralled into a purge of more than 100 top cadres. Even the movement's ideologist, Anton Balasingham, is reportedly suspect.

In an atmosphere where bombs and shells pelt down regularly, and where the 800,000 Tamils on the Jaffna peninsula are besieged by an economic and military blockade, conditions are ideal for producing legions of boys and girls willing to die for their chief. Prabakharan is often compared to the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, for his ruthlessness. But he also runs his force like a fanatical cult. His child soldiers, often as young as 13, are banned from drinking, sex and singing non-revolutionary songs.

In schools, children are shown a recruitment video for the Black Tigers - the Tamil squad of suicide killers, widely held responsible for the deaths of the Sri Lankan president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, last May and of the former Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991. In the video, a boy leaps jubilantly in the air when his name is picked for a mission, and he is shown dutifully sweeping the barracks before he hops into a bomb-laden car and blows himself to bits. The only perk for the assassins is they are treated to a lavish supper with Prabakharan before their final mission.

I visited a hospital ward full of guerrillas wounded in the assault on Pooneryn base last November in which more than 1,200 government soldiers were massacred. None of the injured Tigers was older than 17; many were 14. Having put down their guns, they returned to childish pleasures, crafting discarded medical tubes of plastic into delicate little fishes. If not for the cyanide capsules hanging from their necks, it would have been impossible to tell these boys were soldiers.

COLOMBO - At least 15 passengers were killed and up to 40 injured when a bomb believed to be planted by Tamil Tigers exploded in a crowded bus in north-central Sri Lanka, Reuter reports. The bus, carrying mostly Sinhalese, was nearing a police checkpoint when the bomb went off near an army camp at Rambewa in Anuradhapura district, about 200 km (125 miles) from Colombo.

(Map omitted)

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker