Velupillai Prabhakaran (1954-2009) was a Sri Lankan militant leader and the founder of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). He founded LTTE with the intent of forming a separate country for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. He died on 18 May 2009, aged 54, after the Sri Lankan Army killed him in a firefight.
Velupillai Prabhakaran was born on Friday, 26 November 1954 (age 54 years; at the time of death) in Valvettithurai, Dominion of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He completed his formal education at the Government College in Batticaloa and Chidampara College in Valvettithurai. He later dropped out of school after completing class 10.
A childhood image of Velupillai Prabhakaran
While studying in class 8, Velupillai was motivated to join the Tamil nationalism movement in Sri Lanka after listening to the speeches of a schoolteacher who used to ask students to start an armed revolution against the discriminatory laws of the Sri Lankan government against the Tamils. Talking about it, he said,
Mr.Vernugopal, a Tamil teacher from my village, used to din into our years that the Tamils should take up arms. He was an ardent supporter of the Federal Party’s Youth Front; later, feeling that the party was not militant enough, He teamed up with Mr.V.Navaratnam and was one of the founders of the ‘Suyadchi Kazham’ (Self-Rule Party). It is he who impressed on me the need for armed struggle and persuaded me to put my trust in it. My village used to face military repression daily. Hence even as a child I grew to detest the Army. This hatred of military repression, combined with Mr.Venugopal’s persuasive stress on armed struggle and the thirst for liberation generated an inner dynamism within me and friends of my age flocked behind Mr.Vernugopal.”
While studying in school, he began participating in protest movements against the government. In 1969, he joined the Thangathurai-Kuttimani group, a militant organisation. He gradually worked his way up the ranks of the cadre due to his leadership and organisational skills. He became a part of a student organisation named Tamil Manavar Peravai in 1970. The organisation was established to advocate for equal rights for Tamil students. In 1971, he took part in a black flag demonstration against the visit of the then Posts and Telecommunications Minister to Velanai. Thereafter, he began participating in the standardisation debates as a Tamil Ilaynar Peravai (TIP) member.
Prabhakaran’s photo taken during his teenage
Height (approx.): 5′ 7″
Hair Colour: Salt and Pepper
Eye Colour: Dark Brown
Velupillai Prabhakaran was born into a middle-class Tamil Hindu family in Sri Lanka. His ancestors, belonging to the Thirumeni Kudumbam (aka Thirumeni family), had built the Sivan Temple at Valvettithurai.
Parents & Siblings
His father, Veerasamy Thiruvengdam Velupillai, was a district lands officer. He died in January 2010. His mother’s name is Vallipuram Parvathy (deceased).
Velupillai Prabhakaran’s parents
He has two sisters and a brother. His sister Vinodini Rajendran moved to Toronto, Canada in 1997.
A photo of Vinodhini Rajendran
His sister’s name is Jagdeswari Mathiyaparanam. His brother’s name is Manoharan Velupillai. Prabhakaran was the youngest among his siblings.
Manoharan Velupillai, elder brother of Velupillai Prabhakaran
Wife & Children
His wife’s name is Mathivathani Erambu (deceased). He got married to her on 1 October 1984. She died on 18 May 2009.
A photo of Velupillai Prabhakaran taken after his marriage
He had two sons and a daughter. His son Charles Anthony was the head of the Information and Technology department of the LTTE. Velupillai named him after one of his most trusted lieutenants, who was killed in a gunfight with the Sri Lankan forces. Charles was killed in a gunfight with the Sri Lankan Army on 18 May 2009.
Velupillai Prabhakaran with Charles Anthony
His younger son Balachandran Prabhakaran was twelve years old and was reportedly killed by the Sri Lankan Army after capturing him on 18 May 2009; however, the Sri Lankan Army denied having shot him. His daughter’s name is Duvaraga (deceased). Her body was recovered by the Sri Lankan Army on 18 May 2009.
Velupillai Prabhakaran with his wife, son Balachandran, and daughter
Velupillai Prabhakaran considered himself an atheist.
Forming of the TNT
Velupillai Prabhakaran left his house in 1972 and founded the Tamil New Tigers (TNT), a Tamil militant organisation, on 22 May 1972. He had to leave his parent’s house after the police came looking for him. Talking about it, in an interview, he said,
The cops came knocking at my parent’s front door. My mother opened the door and they (cops) barged into my house looking to arrest me. Luckily, I was not at home then and hence evaded capture. The cops while leaving my house bragged about capturing me someday to my parents and siblings. After this, I knew I had to leave and I asked my parents not to expect anything from me in future as I have dedicated my life to the Tamil cause.”
On 17 September 1972, Prabhakaran led the TNT and attacked a carnival at the Duraiappah Stadium with crude bombs destroying the stadium. In 1974, when Sirimavo Bandaranaike visited Jaffna City to conduct a political rally, the group detonated several bombs. The group gained notoriety after murdering the mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappah, on 27 July 1975. Duraiappah was shot dead by a masked TNT operative while he was visiting a temple at Ponnaalai. after the assassination, the Sri Lankan police put all the members of the TNT on the wanted list. The political assassination was in retaliation to the killing of several Tamil people by the police during the Tamil conference in 1974. Thereafter, TNT, under Prabhakaran’s leadership, began conducting armed robberies and assassinations.
Velupillai Prabhakaran had always wanted to start a guerilla revolution; therefore, on 5 May 1976, he brought some organisational changes to TNT and renamed it Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Velupillai Prabhakaran during the training session with the newly formed LTTE
On 14 February 1977, Prabhakaran masterminded the killing of P. C. Karunandhi, who was tasked by the Sri Lankan government to investigate the crimes committed by the LTTE. On 24 January 1978, Prabhakaran ordered the killing of a Sri Lankan politician named M. Canagaratnam. He was killed for leaving the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and joining United National Party (UNP). On 5 December 1978, the LTTE, under Prabhakaran’s leadership, robbed approximately $1 million in cash from the People’s Bank at Nallur. During the robbery, the militants also killed a police constable. Since its formation, the LTTE regularly attacked police and military personnel. In July 1983, the LTTE ambushed Four Four Bravo, a fifteen-man strong patrolling party of the Sri Lankan Army, and killed thirteen of them including an officer at Thirunelveli, a city near Jaffna. According to the LTTE, the ambush was carried out in retaliation to the kidnapping and sexually assaulting of three Tamil school girls by army personnel. Following the attack, Sri Lankan troops from the military garrison in Palaly destroyed the Tamils-owned shops, killing fifty-one Tamil civilians. There were widespread riots in Sri Lanka after the attack that led to the death of more than three thousand Tamils and left 1,50,000 homeless. This marked the beginning of the Sri Lankan civil war. Prabhakaran turned LTTE into a formidable fighting force by smuggling state-of-the-art weapons, imparting modern military training to its cadre, and recruiting children and women in the ranks.
Velupillai Prabhakaran holding a smuggled Russian AK-103 rifle
It is also believed that he went to Cuba, where he received training in tactics and guerilla warfare from the Cuban Army. In 1984, Prabhakaran established the naval branch of the LTTE called the Sea Tigers, consisting of gunboats, troop carriers, and patrol vessels.
Velupillai Prabhakaran inspecting the Sea Tigers during a ceremony
Prabhakaran adopted the tactic of eliminating high-value targets through suicide bombing as a result of which he founded the Black Tigers, primarily consisting of women and children, in 1987. Several sources reported that before sending someone on a suicide bombing mission, Prabhakaran honoured them by having a meal with them.
Velupillai Prabhakaran’s photo taken with the members of the Black Tigers
In July 1987, when India sent its military under the flagship of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF), Prabhakaran delivered a speech in August 1987 and talked about the stance of the LTTE. It was reported that a new chapter in Tamil nationalism began as more than 1,00,000 people attended his speech. In 1987, Prabhakaran devised a plan according to which the LTTE leaked false information on Prabhakaran’s presence at a football ground in Jaffna to the IPKF. His plan was a success as the LTTE cadres, laying an ambush at the football ground, managed to inflict heavy casualties on the Indian troops who had reached the stadium in search of him. From 1987 to 1990, during its battle against the LTTE, IPKF lost 1,165 soldiers.
Velupillai Prabhakaran (left) with his friend while fighting against the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF)
Prabhakaran masterminded the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India. He was assassinated on 21 May 1991 by Kalaivani Rajaratnam, a member of the Black Tigers, through suicide bombing. Prabhakaran never announced that the assassination was done at his command. His treasurer, Kumaran Pathmanathan, during an interview in 2011, said that Prabhakaran made a mistake by assassinating Rajiv Gandhi. He apologised to the Indians for Prabhakaran’s actions. Talking about it, he said,
I want to say to the Indian people and especially to the Gandhi family… I want to apologise for Prabhakaran’s mistake. Please forgive us. We beg you…. Sorry for all this. We know the feelings of the son (Rahul) of Rajiv Gandhi…. How father and daughter are attached. Rajiv’s assassination was well planned and done actually with Prabhakaran and (LTTE intelligence chief Pottu Amman). Everyone knows the truth.”
After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the Madras High Court sentenced Prabhakaran to death. When journalists asked questions regarding the assassination, Prabhakaran said that it was an “unfortunate event” and that “there was no need to dig into an event that occurred a decade ago.” On 1 May 1993, he masterminded the assassination of President Lankabhimanya Ranasinghe Premadasa. In the 1990s, the United Nations (UN) published a report according to which 40% to 60% of the dead rebels were kids below the age of 18. In 2004, Colonel Karuna, a trusted senior aide of Prabhakaran, surrendered to the Sri Lankan government and began aiding the authorities by providing information about the whereabouts of the vital installations of the LTTE. In 2005, he passed an order in the LTTE-controlled territory that barred the Tamils from casting their vote during the Presidential elections. On 12 August 2005, Prabhakaran ordered the assassination of the then Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka Lakshman Kadirgamar. The assassination was condemned by the international community and was termed a “senseless murder.” Later, the United States of America, the European Union, and many other countries designated LTTE as a terrorist organisation.
Formation of the Air Tigers
The Air Tigers, also known as the Tamileelam Air Force (TAF), was the air wing of the LTTE. In 1998, it was reported by the LTTE-run Voice Of Tiger radio station that LTTE had several aircrafts in its inventory which sprinkled flower petals on the graves of the killed LTTE rebels; however, the government refuted the claims as propaganda. In the same year, a report surfaced that an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) had taken photos of airstrips constructed by the LTTE for aerial operations. Later, several sources reported a Tiger helicopter flying over Batticaloa conducting aerial reconnaissance. Over time, the LTTE bought several aircrafts such as the Czech-made Zlín Z 43 light aircraft, R 44 Astro, two Australian-made AirBorne microlight aircraft, and several Bell and Tiger helicopters. Later, several light aircrafts were modified indigenously to carry high-explosive bombs for bombing raids against the government forces. The Air Tigers did not begin their combat air operations till 2007. After the Cease Fire Agreement was scrapped in 2006, the Air Tigers conducted several bombing raids at Katunayake Air Force Base, Palali military base, and Colombo.
A photo of Velupillai Prabhakaran taken with the rebels of the Tamileelam Air Force
The signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA)
After becoming the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in 2001, Ranil Wickremesinghe sought a ceasefire with the LTTE as he believed that the war can only be ended through peace talks. On 22 February 2002, a ceasefire agreement was signed under the facilitation of Norwegian Ambassador Jon Westborg. According to the agreement, both the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) and the LTTE decided to immediately stop their aggressive military operations in the country, which had caused a huge loss of life and material. The agreement also laid down the provision for establishing an international peace monitoring group called the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). As a result of signing the agreement, the situation in Sri Lanka became peaceful, which led to increased tourism in the country. According to international observers, the CFA was a false front poised by the government and the LTTE to bolster their military as well as their political stance. In 2003, the Sri Lankan government asked for financial and military aid from the United States of America. On the other hand, the LTTE strengthened itself by acquiring more arms, ammunition, and equipment through smuggling. According to a report submitted by the SLMM in 2007, the LTTE was accused of violating the CFA on 3830 occasions. In contrast, the Sri Lankan government violated the CFA’s guidelines only on 351 occasions. In an interview, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka Lakshman Kadirgamar said,
During the ceasefire period, the LTTE was infamous for using violent means including suicide bombers, smuggling in 11 shiploads of weapons, forcibly conscripting adults and children, torturing, extorting and denying democratic and fundamental rights to the trapped civilians within the illegally usurped territory.”
A photograph taken during the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in the presence of the Norwegian ambassador
The LTTE was accused several times of killing or kidnapping the Sri Lankan Army’s intelligence officers, including the then commanding officer of Army Intelligence (AI), Colonel Tuan Nizam Muthaliff. In October 2003, the LTTE presented the Sri Lankan government with a proposal to form an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) in the northeastern districts of Amparai, Batticaloa, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee, and Vavuniya. The demand for ISGA was never accepted as the UNP-led government fell in 2004 after President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved the parliament.
Resuming hostilities and LTTE’s defeat
In 2006, the peace treaty between the government and the LTTE was scrapped after the LTTE killed several civilians and off-duty military personnel. They also attacked and captured the Mavil Aru reservoir and closed the water supply from the reservoir, which affected approximately 15,000 people living in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. Following the scrapping of the accord, the Sri Lankan military launched an all-out offensive against the rebels. In 2008, the army managed to destroy approximately 250 LTTE bunkers and strongholds in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. This led to the withdrawal of the LTTE from forward locations to the inner areas of their strongholds. On 16 July 2008, following a heavy gunbattle between the rebels and the army, the army managed to capture a major naval base of the LTTE at Vidattaltivu. The naval base was essential for the rebels to smuggle weapons and ammunition. On 2 September 2008, the battle for Mallavi took place in which the army defeated the rebels. The town of Mallavi was considered to be the operational hub for the rebels.
An LTTE cadre firing a heavy machine gun while fighting against the advancing Sri Lankan forces
Prabhakaran made a public speech in 2008 for the last time. In his speech, he said that the Sri Lankan government was on its way to destruction through militarism. By early 2009, the Sri Lankan Army had captured a major proportion of the territory previously controlled by the LTTE. By May 2009, the LTTE was surrounded by the Sri Lankan Army from all sides on a 1.92 square kilometre of land. The armed forces had also destroyed the LTTE’s air and water wing as well. On 18 May 2009, the Sri Lankan government announced that the government forces have secured a victory over the rebels. After the victory of the government, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave a speech in the parliament and said,
We have liberated the whole country from LTTE’s terrorism. Our intention was to save the Tamil people from the cruel grip of the LTTE. We all must now live as equals in this free country. We must find a homegrown solution to this conflict. That solution should be acceptable to all the communities. We have to find a solution based on the philosophy of Buddhism.”
According to a report published by the United Nations (UN), approximately 75k civilians died during the civil war that lasted over 25 years in Sri Lanka.
During the final phase of the war, the Sri Lankan Army established three tiers of defence lines around the last stronghold of the LTTE to prevent the escape of LTTE fighters, especially Prabhakaran. By 18 May 2009, Prabhakaran was left with approximately 250 loyalists as others were either killed in action, captured, or surrendered. The Sri Lankan Army received intelligence that Prabhakaran and his rebels would try to break the defence lines through the mangrove islands of Nandikadal in groups of thirty as a result of which they cordoned off the area. On 18 May 2009, several media channels began circulating fake news that Prabhakaran was killed in a rocket attack during an ambush while trying to escape the cordon in an ambulance. On 19 May 2009, at around 7.30 am, the Sri Lankan troops came into contact with the LTTE fighters led by Prabhakaran himself. The gunfight lasted for two hours during which Prabhakaran and many top-ranking militants were killed. His body was recovered from the mangrove by a sergeant of the army. From his body, a pistol, a Chinese-built Type 56 assault rifle with a scope, a satellite telephone, a dog tag with his serial number 001, and several rounds of ammunition were recovered. On the same day, at 12.30 pm, General Sarath Fonseka, the former Sri Lankan Army commander, released an official statement in which he told the media that Prabhakaran was killed in action. General Fonseka said,
On 18th (May) night, the topmost LTTE leadership divided itself into three different groups. They attacked our forward defence line along the Nandikkadal lagoon and did manage to break through. But they had reckoned without our second and third tier defences. These three groups were led by Jeyam, Pottu Amman and Soosai. Prabhakaran and his closest bodyguards thought they had managed to escape, but in reality all these LTTE fighters, around 250 of them, had got trapped between our first and the second defence lines. After fierce fighting that night, almost all the top leadership got killed in the area. We discovered Prabhakaran’s body on the 19th morning.”
Velupillai Prabhakaran’s LTTE id card found by the army during the moping operations
On 24 May 2009, his body was sent for post-mortem to determine his identity. Through DNA testing and identification from Karuna, a surrendered LTTE commander, it was determined that the body was of Velupillai Prabhakaran. Following his death, several sources claimed that he was captured during the gunfight and killed later on by the Sri Lankan Army; however, the army denied having executed him. Karuna later said that to avoid getting captured by the authorities, Prabhakaran shot himself, a claim denied by the Sri Lankan Army. After his death, many people claimed that Velupillai Prabhakaran was not dead. In 2009, a Tamil website claimed that Prabhakaran was alive and as proof, they sent a photo of Prabhakaran watching his death news on a news channel to France 24. The claim was quashed by France 24, which said that the photo was photoshopped. In the same year, an Indian politician named Vaiyapuri Gopalsamy (aka Vaiko) claimed that Prabhakaran was alive. On 13 February 2023, P. Nedumaran, a Tamil nationalist leader and former congressman, claimed that Prabhakaran was alive. He also said that he was in touch with Prabhakran’s family and that Prabhakaran shall make a public appearance in 2024 and reveal his plans on resurrecting the LTTE and independence of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. During an interview, while talking about it, he said,
I want to say that Prabhakaran is still alive and doing well. I am happy to tell the Tamil diaspora about that. All the rumours and questions about him might be thus answered. He will announce his next plan (to liberate) Tamil Eelam very soon, by himself.”
The Government of Sri Lanka later released refuted the claims of Nedumaran.
- Food: Pittu, Coconut Sambol, Fried Shrimp
- Velupillai Prabhakaran was also known by his nicknames Karigalan, Thambi, Thalaivar, Anna, Thambiyanna, and Thamizh Thesiya Thalaivar.
- He earned the name of Thesiyath Thalaiver (leader of the land).
- Velupillai Prabhakaran always wore a cyanide capsule around his neck to avoid getting captured alive.
- He was always introduced to the media by the spokesperson of the LTTE as the Prime Minister and President of the Tamil Eelam.
- Prabhakaran forbade the LTTE rebels from consuming alcohol and tobacco. He also asked his followers to practise chastity; however, after he got married, Prabhakaran changed the rule of chastity and allowed the rebels to get married after working with the LTTE for five years.
- Velupillai Prabhakaran followed a non-vegetarian diet. He liked iguana and tortoise meat.
- After he was killed, the soldiers found his bulletproof limousine and four other vehicles that were burnt.
The torched vehicle of Velupillai Prabhakaran
- It is believed that he had diabetes. After his death, diabetes pills and insulin was recovered from his possession.
- In an interview, when a journalist asked Prabhakaran where he had received military training, Prabhakaran jokingly replied that he was trained by Clint Eastwood, an American film star.
- In the early 1970s, Velupillai Prabhakaran and his friends wanted to buy a countrymade pistol but did not have enough money. The cost of the pistol was Rs 150, and he and his friends could manage to gather Rs 40. Prabhakaran later bought the weapon by selling his gold ring.
- In 1994, he started a bank named The Bank of Tamil Eelam, which had six branches and over a hundred employees.
A Sri Lankan lady holding her Bank of Tamileelam chequebook and passbooks
- In May 2009, the Sri Lankan Army found $12 million from Prabhakaran’s son, Charles Anthony, after he was killed in a firefight with the Sri Lankan Army.
- While giving an interview, Velupillai Prabhakaran said that he was motivated to fight for Tamil nationalism after reading about the Indian freedom struggle, especially by the movements started by Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose.
- Velupillai Prabhakaran adopted Tiger as the symbol of the LTTE as he believed that the Tamils of Sri Lanka traced their roots back to the Chola empire.
- He passionately followed his hobby of reading. In an interview, he said that he developed the habit of reading during childhood and used to borrow books from a local library. He was also passionate about cooking and believed that a good guerilla fighter has to be a good cook. He also used to help the LTTE chefs in preparing meals for the LTTE cadres.
- Prabhakaran used to teach the rebels of LTTE about the geo-political scenario of the world by translating the news articles published by various international magazines into Tamil.
- Velupillai Prabhakaran liked playing soccer and volleyball.
- After creating a separate nation for the Tamils in Sri Lanka, Prabhakaran wanted to create a secular Tamil society, based on the communist principles of Carl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.
- Prabhakaran has been depicted in several films such as Methagu (2021), Prabhakaran (2008), and Captain Prabhakaran (1991).