The reclusive Tamil rebel leader who has dispatched more suicide bombers than anyone in the world, is expected to surface Wednesday for his first public meeting with reporters in more than a decade.
It may be the most remarkable sign of a peace process now gathering momentum in Sri Lanka.
Velupillai Prabhamaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, has battled the government for 18 years. He has been branded a terrorist by the United States and Britain and is wanted by India for the assassination of a former prime minister.
Now, after a cease-fire he signed with the government in late February, the guerrilla strategist is comfortable enough to surface without fear of arrest.
During three months of successive cease-fires by the separatist Tamil rebels and the country’s new government, no one has been killed on Sri Lankan territory. That in itself is an achievement. The fighting here has claimed more lives at least 62 won in this small country of 19 million people than the United States lost in Vietnam.
There have been many recent scenes that have Western diplomats shaking their heads in amazement.
On the first visit in 20 years by a Sri Lankan head of government to the Northern Tamil town of Jaffna, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the new Prime Minister and a practicing Buddhist from the Sinhalese majority, was mobbed by rapturous Tamils last month when he showed his respect for Hindu tradition by taking off his shirt to enter a revered temple. Most Tamils are Hindu.
In government-held cities in the North and East, which would constitute the separate Tamil nation sought by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, large crowds have rallied openly for the Tigers, who are still formally banned in Sri Lanka.
The first face-to-face peace talks in seven years between the government and the rebels, brokered by Norwegian diplomats, are expected to begin in May or June. Sri Lankans of all ethnicities are relieved that the guns have fallen silent, and the governing party won strong endorsement for its strategy in an overwhelming victory in local elections last month. However, a terrible anxiety underlies the hope of a negotiated settlement.
Mistrust between the Tamil Tigers and the large Muslim minority in the East could derail progress toward a settlement. Tiger leaders did not grant interviews requested in a letter delivered to them in the rebel-held north or through intermediaries here in Batticaloa in the East.
People in eastern Sri Lanka, part of the territory rebels claim as the separate Tamil nation, say they know firsthand the brutalities committed both by government troops and rebels.
In government-controlled areas, where Tigers are allowed ever greater freedom to operate, many fear that the rebels will also have greater freedom to abuse their power.
Any effort for peace is haunted by ghosts. In 1990, the Tigers massacred more than 125 Muslims during evening prayers at two mosques here in the Batticaloa district. That same year, the Tigers gave Muslims in the Northern, Tamil-dominated Jaffna Peninsula 24 hours to get out. Tens of thousands who fled are still homeless and living in camps.
Muslims, who say the Tigers have stepped up their extortion from them since the cease-fire, have no direct representative in the peace talks, though their political support is crucial to the governing coalition.
'Who will represent the needs and rights of Muslims?” asked Nawaz Mohammed, now a human-rights activist, who said his 22-year-old sister was abducted and killed by the Tigers in 1990.
Some Tamils, too, said they are fearful. A 19-year-old Tamil woman described her harrowing escape earlier this month from a Tiger training camp after being conscripted at gung point in February. She and three other young women, one 17 and two 16, all had their long black hair roughly shorn. Despite threats of beatings if they ran away, the four spent five nights hiking, hiding and sleeping by day, until they stumbled on an army post.
The two youngest girls said they were kidnapped by the Tigers on March 26 as they walked through their village to a math tutor.
All four say they cannot go home. 'It’s very scary,” said the 19-year-old, talking of the Tigers roaming increasingly free. 'If I go back to my village, I’ll be spotted.”
Many people wonder whether the Tigers can change from a military organization to a political party that submits to elections. Will they 'evolve into a Stalinist or Sandinista regime?” asked Milinda Moragoda, one of the two key officials in the Sri Lankan government on the peace talks. 'I don’t know.”
Many analysts said they believe the newly elected government is inclined to let the Tigers rule the North and East of Sri Lanka for perhaps two to three years without elections while negotiators try to resolve the conflict.
Moragoda said the government would seek to ensure democratic safeguards for the substantial Muslim and Sinhalese populations in the East, as well as those Tamils who dissent from Tiger domination. In any permanent settlement, the government has ruled out giving the Tigers a separate state, but has been willing to discuss much greater autonomy.
Both sides are continuing to recruit troops and maintain their arsenals.
The Tigers are a formidable, disciplined military force, with an estimated 4,000 trained soldiers. Suicide bombings are their trademark. Prabhakaran has sent forth some 220 suicide bombers, compared with about 70 from Hamas in the Mideast, said Rohan Gunaratna, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Under the cease-fire, the Tigers have consolidated their position because rival armed Tamil groups have been required to turn over their weapons. The government is taking risks that would leave the Tigers refreshed and strengthened for war if talks were to break down, as they have before.
Fear of the Tigers is palpable in Battocaloa. A leading citizen was plain-spoken in an interview about the group’s terrorist tactics, then pleaded not to be quoted. 'If I stick my neck out, they’ll chop it off,” he said.
One of the few fearless – or fool-hardy – enough to commenty publicly is the Reverend Harry Miller, 78, a Jesuit priest from New Orleans who came to Batticaloa in 1948 and has been selected by the government to help monitor the cease-fire.
He said no one would dare speak out against the Tigers for dread of a severe retaliation.
Miller told of a family he knew that was pressured by the Tigers to give up a son and sent one who was mentally retarded. The Tigers, known as the LTTE, beat the young man badly and dumped him at the family’s home. He had to be hospitalized.
'Will the parents smake a report to the police?” the priest asked rhetorically. 'People do not report against the LTTE.”