T HERE is something slightly unsettling about VM Bhasekarenn, self-proclaimed "citizen
of Lanka today, and Eelam tomorrow."
His demeanor is one of benevolence laced with malevolence. His smile is dazzling,
open, avuncular but in contrast to his eyes - black, cold, menacing.
They vaguely resemble those of a Raksa, the devil-mask which has cast its charm on
many a Western wanderer to Sri Lanka.
Those eyes belong to a man who claims to have seen the inside of an Indian maximum
security prison cell for the past five years, and to be convalescing in Phnom Penh
for the next few months while he secures legal entry to Canada.
Convicted, so he said, indefinitely without a sentence for his suspected role in
the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, Bhasekarenn is a picture of affluence and
power within Phnom Penh's Tamil community.
It is difficult to grasp that this man - who sports a gold bracelet with bold initials
which do not match the name mentioned on legal documents presented to the Post -
is a complete stranger to Phnom Penh, as he insists, and that he has just served
time in prison.
Seated at a table in a greasy-spoon establishment in Phnom Penh, he oozed the confidence
of a person who is used to giving orders and not taking "no" for an answer.
As he sat, recounting his life as a Sri Lankan who became disillusioned about his
island-nation maintaining its territorial integrity and harmony in its inter-racial
relations, Bhasekarenn occasionally beckoned to other Tamils to whom he delegated
the odd-job or two.
Bhasekarenn was careful not to reveal how exactly he came to be jailed before being
released in July from Saidapet jail in Madras - a prison which he claimed is deceptively
dubbed by New Delhi as a "Special Camp for Sri Lankan Refugees."
All he would say is that he was "forced" to leave the country on condition
that he never go back. He said he was put onto an international flight under police
escort and flew to Phnom Penh, via Singapore, on July 9.
He claimed that the Indian authorities imprisoned him without any proper charges
being filed in court - only weeks after Rajiv was killed by a human-bomb - simply
on the grounds he was born and raised in Velvettiturai (VVT), the hometown of Velupillai
Prabhakaran, the 41-year old leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Bhasekarenn told how, as a child, he was a classmate of Prabhakaran's brother and
that as a kid he used to play with the future Tiger leader himself.
However, Bhasekarenn claimed that he has long lost touch with his childhood playmates,
and that he has no affiliation whatsoever with the LTTE or any other militant Tamil
Long before the Tiger supremo came into this world, VVT was notorious as a smuggler's
Having grown up there and amassed a wealth $10 million, a barely conceivable fortune
by Sri Lankan standards - in what he called "immovable properties" - Bhasekarenn
said he has lost most of it since civil war erupted in his country in 1983.
As a consequence of the inter-communal "poison" which set in over the years
- as well as what he described as India's meddling in Lanka's internal affairs -
Bhasekarenn, who claimed to be a peace-loving patriot, said he and many other Tamil
families have suffered immensely.
He has therefore come to embrace the cause of carving out a separate homeland for
the Tamils inside Sri Lanka - Eelam - but insisted that he has never taken up arms
or sided with any of the Tamil factions.
"I cannot live in Jaffna any longer," he said. "Why? We cannot live
there any longer because of actions taken by the Sri Lankan government.
"Because of all these troubles, I have lost my property in Sri Lanka, an opportunity
for my children to be educated there, and have become separated from my family.
"In the 1970s and 80s, I did not think along those lines. Now the conflict between
Sinhalese and Tamils has become a severe cancer. Every Sri Lankan has been poisoned
- we cannot be together any longer..."
By his account, Bhasekarenn's pain was sharpened last month when his father was killed
in a bombing by the Sri Lanka Armed Forces.
He is especially bitter because he said he was denied permission by Colombo and New
Delhi to attend the cremation rites, an important Tamil custom reserved for the eldest
Bhasekarenn maintained he was definitely not a Tiger, though he added, chuckling
mischievously, to his neighbor: "Besides, real LTTE people would never say if
they are in the LTTE."
But the Lankan man seated next to him volunteered that he was "closely associated"
with the Eelam cause for "quite some time", but asked that his identity
not be exposed.
He spoke at length about the discriminatory educational and language policies imposed
on his people by Sinhalese-dominated governments which had driven young Tamils to
rebellion, and about the fighting spirit of the Tamil Tigers.
"As a Tamil, I have only one choice - to take up arms," he said.
"If a youngster comes from Jaffna, he has no choice but to be part of the LTTE.
"When the Sri Lanka army comes to rape your wife and kill your mother and children,
what can you do? The next day you will join the LTTE.
"Why do the guerrillas go into Colombo and kill civilians? I can ask the same
questions about why the Sri Lankan army goes into Jaffna and kills civilians."
As for the physical prowess of the Tigers, who are renowned for strictly adhering
to abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and sex - as well as strapping cyanide capsules
around their necks before going into battle - he said that when the Tigers go into
fight, "our fighters have no stress, they are always happy."
Both men assured the Post that, contrary to reports about the Tigers having established
a front in Cambodia, LTTE agents are not operating out of Phnom Penh.
However, in parting, Bhase-karenn said he could neither "deny or confirm"
allegations that the LTTE is buying weapons from Cambodia.
"It is natural that they will look for arms wherever weapons are available,"
he said, fixing his questioner with those Raksa eyes.
The encounter with Bhase-karenn and friends ended in the same way it had begun.
The day before, as he sat in the driver's seat of a parked sedan, sussing out the
request for an interview, about 25 Tamil men stood-by on the pavement staring.
"Sorry, you will have to come back later," said Bhasekarenn. "I have
to take these people to the airport."
Suddenly, four Tamils emerged from nowhere and got into the car.
One in particular cut a figure straight out of a James Bond film. Handsome, well-groomed,
and dressed in a navy blue blazer, he looked as if he were about to fly by Concorde
to London, New York, Tokyo, or Sydney.
And then, they were gone.
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