Twelve-year-old Balachandran Prabhakaran was shot five times in the chest in May 2009. In pictures, moments before his death, Prabhakaran appears alert, munching on something in a sandbagged army bunker. Subsequent photographs taken not even two hours later show his chubby, lifeless body sprawled on the ground, punctured by bullet holes analysts say were made by a weapon fired at point-blank range.
Depending on who you ask, Balachandran deserved what he got. His father, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was the undisputed leader of one of the longest-running insurgencies in modern history. As the chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Prabhakaran waged a violent campaign for an independent homeland for the minority ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka for two and a half decades. His fighters, including young girls, were known for suicide attacks on civilians and bloody ambushes on Sri Lankan soldiers. In May 2009, in the midst of a brutal assault by the Sri Lankan military in which many civilians were killed, Prabhakaran was killed and the Tamil insurgency quickly died with him.
Why does this matter now? Because speculation surrounding the photographs of Balachandran, taken moments before and after his killing, are drawing furious responses from Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils and human rights activists across the globe. J. Jayalalithaa, the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which is home to as many as 50 million Tamils, said Balachandran’s killing was “an inhuman act of extreme cruelty…. He was only 12 years. He was only a child. He did not commit any crime.” She compared the war on the minority Tamils by Sri Lanka’s government, made up almost entirely of members of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, to Hitler’s treatment of the Jews: “It reminds us of the ways the Jews were exterminated under Hitler’s Nazi rule in Germany, as Tamils in Sri Lanka are being killed in a similar fashion.”
The pictures of Balachandran surfaced because of a British documentary on the Sri Lankan civil war that will be aired at a UN Human Rights Council session next month. The session will focus on accusations of war crimes during the Sri Lankan government’s final assault on the Tamils, during which possibly as many as 40,000 civilians were killed.
And herein lie the roots of this scuffle. The powerful Jayalalitha, joined by other Indian leaders as well as Tamils and human rights activists worldwide, wants India to support the U.S.-sponsored resolution at the UN that calls for an independent investigation into Sri Lankan war crimes. But Delhi has numerous foreign policy concerns, and helping the Tamils in their quest for justice and rehabilitation is, perhaps, not the most important. Moreover, the Indian government in Delhi does not want to unduly anger Sri Lanka. Over the years Sri Lanka’s government has been cozying up to China, and Delhi isn’t interested in encouraging its close neighbor to the south to get any friendlier with its biggest rival. Pushing for an international investigation into Sri Lankan war crimes would most certainly accomplish that right quick.
[Photo (Wikipedia): Civilians flee the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009.]