Guerrilla leader’s Canadian link – The sister of the Tamil Tigers’ leader speaks about her life in Toronto.
Vinothini Rajendran’s 11th-floor apartment is decorated with plastic flowers, a poster of Lord Krishna and framed photos of the little brother she left behind in Sri Lanka.
It has been years since she saw him. He never writes or calls, but she accepts that is just the way it is when your brother is Velupillai Prabhakaran, one of the world’s most notorious guerrilla leaders.
“It must be God’s wish that he should become such a man,” says Ms. Rajendran, who immigrated to Canada more than a decade ago and lives with her husband, Bala, in a modest apartment in east Toronto.
Despite being the sister of the Supreme Commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Mrs. Rajendran has lived incognito in Toronto since 1997, but she agreed to tell her story.
For 25 years, her brother has led the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, in a civil war in Sri Lanka. His objective: independence for the ethnic Tamil minority.
A folk hero to Tamil nationalists, Prabhakaran is wanted by Interpol and has been condemned internationally for his tactics, which have included hundreds of suicide bombings and the assassination of senior politicians, including India’s Rajiv Gandhi.
Yesterday, Human Rights Watch accused the Tamil Tigers of forcing civilians to fight and preventing them from fleeing the war zone. The abuses come as the rebels are attempting to repel an intense government military offensive.
“During the past 25 years, the LTTE has killed large numbers of civilians, committed political assassinations in Sri Lanka and abroad, and carried out suicide bombings,” wrote the New Yorkbased rights group. “It has systematically eliminated most political opposition within the minority Tamil community and is responsible for killing many journalists and members of rival organizations. In the areas under its control, the LTTE has ruled through fear, denying basic freedoms of expression, association, assembly and movement.”
Sri Lanka has vowed to kill Prabhakaran and wipe out the Tamil Tigers over the next few months. Last week, the military said it was within “kissing distance” of the rebel stronghold, Killinochchi, but Ms. Rajendran says her brother is in no danger.
“They won’t be able to catch him,” she says.
Variously known as the Sun God, Supremo and Thambi (“Little Brother”), Prabhakaran, 54, is the son of a middle-class bureaucrat who served in Ceylon’s post-colonial government.
Ms. Rajendran describes her father as “very kind and soft talking.” He was highly disciplined. He never took bribes and abstained from all vices, alcohol and cigarettes included. He worked as a district land officer and volunteered as a trustee at the local temple. “He was a religious-minded man, a Hindu,” she says. The family lived in Valvettithurai, a coastal village on Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna peninsula, in a small house with a veranda and a banana tree, enclosed within a fenced compound.
Vinothini was the third-born child. She was two years old when Prabhakaran was born at Jaffna Hospital on Nov. 26, 1954. “As a child, I was the pet and the darling of the family,” Prabhakaran told the magazine Velicham in 1994. “My childhood was spent in the small circle of a lonely, quiet house.”
Vinothini would play with her baby brother, and fight with him. “He was as normal as any boy,” she says. “Normal, only he was reading a lot.” The house was full of books. Their mother was “a voracious reader,” Ms. Rajendran says. They would borrow books from friends or the library.
Like his mother, Prabhakaran devoured history books, particularly stories about the Indian fighters who fought the British for independence. “It was the reading of such books that laid the foundation for my life as a revolutionary,” he once said.
The Tamil-dominated northern region of Sri Lanka is a dry zone; much of the soil is ill suited to farming. “So the people depended on education and government jobs,” Mr. Rajendran explained.
But following independence from Britain in 1948, the island’s ethnic Sinhalese majority tried to limit Tamil access to universities and civil service jobs. Tamil youths grew disillusioned with the government and turned to militancy.
Around the same time Prabhakaran took up arms, his father spoke to a friend and they agreed that Vinothini and Bala would marry. The family erected a temporary building in their compound to accommodate wedding guests and shelter them from the sun and rain. The ladies prepared vegetarian dishes in the kitchen. No invitations were required; everyone knew they were welcome.
Prabhakaran was the best man. As is customary, he came by the groom’s house the day before the wedding to pay his respects. “He was a very quiet man,” Mr. Rajendran says. “He was smiling and his eyes were piercing. He was lean.”
A few months later, Prabhakaran formed the Tamil New Tigers, or TNT, to wage an armed struggle against the Sri Lankan state security forces. The group would later evolve into the Tamil Tigers.
“At that time, we knew he was doing
something, but we didn’t know it was so serious,” Mr. Rajendran says. They thought he was only putting up political posters. They only learned of his paramilitary activities when police came calling at the family home in 1972. Prabhakaran slipped out the back and disappeared.
“After that he stopped coming to the house,” Ms. Rajendran says. Prabhakaran told the Indian journalist Anita Pratap that, “As soon as the Tiger movement was formed, I went underground and lost contact with my family … They are reconciled to my existence as a guerrilla fighter.”
The Rajendrans were living in the capital, Colombo, when Prabhakaran ignited the civil war with an ambush attack against Sri Lankan soldiers. Mr. Rajendran promptly lost his job at an import-export firm; his employer found out about the family connection and didn’t want any trouble.
“I was asked to leave,” he says.
They spent a week at a refugee camp and then sailed back to Jaffna. Six months later, Mr. Rajendran went to Jeddah to work as a deckhand on a ship on the Red Sea. Mrs. Rajendran stayed in Jaffna, but the police gave her a hard time about her notorious brother so the family decided to leave for India.
Thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils had sought refuge around Madras. The Rajendrans registered with the police and rented a house. Mr. Rajendran taught English and ran a consultancy service that helped Tamils submit applications to immigrate to Canada and Australia.
Prabhakaran was also exiled in India at the time, running his guerrilla war from a Madras safe house. The Rajendrans saw him there at a family function, a cousin’s wedding. “He came in a jeep with four or five boys,” Mr. Rajendran says. They saw him again just before he returned to Sri Lanka. “He talked to us and said he is going.”
Tired of refugee life in southern India, the Rajendrans travelled to Canada, arriving on Oct. 27, 1997. They have returned to Sri Lanka only once, in 2003, to help Ms. Rajendran’s parents move back to Sri Lanka from India. It was the first time she had seen her homeland in almost two decades. The north was a desolate landscape of ruined buildings, destroyed by incessant shelling. The lush gardens of her youth had gone to weeds.
A red-and-yellow Tamil Tigers flag hangs in her living room in Toronto, but Ms. Rajendran says she is not politically active. Neither she nor her husband attends Tamil community events in Toronto, with the exception of Heroes Day, the annual commemoration of fallen rebels.
Ms. Rajendran does not work; her English is awkward. Her husband works part-time at a furniture store. His hands shake like he is nervous, but he explains he has Parkinson’s Disease.