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Saturday, 14 September, 2002, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
Tamil Tigers' changing stripes
Tamil Tiger rebels
The Tigers are shaking off their violent reputation

Meet Daya Master - and be surprised. Impish. It's the only way to describe him really.

Wearing a Koh Samui, Thailand, T-shirt, he has a cheeky, boyish grin, and chuckles constantly. His laughter - infectious, full of fun - is extraordinary.

Extraordinary and surprising, because this really is not what you'd expect of a representative of one of the world's most ruthless rebel movements, the Tamil Tigers.

The Tigers I met were friendly, charming, even a little submissive

But then this is a movement going through radical changes as it commits itself to Sri Lanka's embryonic peace process and tries to transform itself from a ferocious fighting force into a modern political organisation.

Today, it's all about image, and Daya Master is the master of this. Forget any military offensive now, the Tamil Tigers are set on a serious charm offensive.

I met Daya Master in the heart of Tamil Tiger territory in the Vanni region of northern Sri Lanka.

Public image drive

He's called "Master", because - while only in his early 40s - he's one of the movement's venerated elders.

Tamil Tigers logo
The Tamil Tigers are trying to change their old image

Daya Master is to all intents and purposes the Tigers' public relations man, their "Mr Fixit" for photo opportunities.

He arranges "programmes" as he calls them, for outsiders to see the Tigers doing what they do best now.

"Want to see a political class?" he asks. "No problem", he laughs. "Our police training academy? Sorted", he grins.

"And you really must see some Tigers in the jungle", chuckle, chuckle, "spreading the new message of peace to isolated villages."

It's all about walking the walk and talking the talk, to coin a phrase that I'm sure Daya Master would love, though regrettably I failed to put it to him.

Obviously, there's a huge propaganda drive going on here.

Daya Master and his organisation want to tell you that the Tigers are an enlightened, gentle outfit committed to good works - a kind of latter day philanthropic society for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority.

Ferocious reputation

Reading between the lines, the message is also: Don't believe all those horrible things you've heard about us over the 20 years of this brutal civil war.

Aftermath of a suicide bombing, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka's bloody conflict has cost thousands of lives

After all, The Tamil Tigers most of us imagine are suicide bombers and ferocious killers, women and children in their ranks, ready to die by taking a cyanide pill rather than surrender in battle.

Such were the Tamil Tigers I had in my mind's eye before I ventured into their territory.

Who can tell? Access to the frontline in northern Sri Lanka was not easy during the war, but few would argue that your typical Tamil Tiger was the kind to invite you in for a cup of tea and biscuits.

Today that's exactly what he seems to be.

Now it's almost an open door policy with the Tigers, and the new, modern image is there for all - who can - to see. Come and look at us, the Tigers now say, see what we're doing and in the process dispel your preconceived ideas.

Certainly when you meet the joking, clownish Daya Master it's difficult to marry the two images.

Where in this "new man" Tiger is the savage killer of years gone by. Could this man really, I asked myself, be part of such a fearsome force?

The question cropped up again and again in my mind as I travelled round Tamil Tiger territory.


The Tigers I met were friendly, charming, even a little submissive. Surely not, I thought to myself.

As I nibbled the biscuit or banana offered by my hosts, I would listen to whatever they had to say - while not really listening, but trying to look beyond their words and into their eyes to see if I could really see the notorious Tamil Tiger of the battlefield.

These Tigers really do seem to have changed their stripes ... at least for now

If I'm honest, I just couldn't.

Certainly atrocities did happen - driving around northern Sri Lanka it's hard not to imagine some of the horror that took place amidst the scenes of apocalyptic destruction.

But there seems little doubt now that a real change is taking place. The Tigers appear ready for peace, to help the hundreds of thousands of Tamils displaced by war, disabled by land mines, or mentally scarred by what they've seen

The Tigers are helping themselves, but they also need help from outside.

That may yet be a dividend of the current peace process, but in the meantime they know they need to create a new image if they are to win over not just their doubters and enemies inside Sri Lanka, but also all those countries like Britain, America, Australia and Canada that still ban the Tigers as a terrorist organisation.

The Sri Lankan Government may have lifted its ban, but the international community remains to be convinced.

So step forward Daya Master, your time has come. This may not be a laughing matter, but everyone in this conflict wants to look on the bright side. And what's your message?

A nod and a wink, another bout of chuckles - and yes, Daya Master, I get the joke: these Tigers really do seem to have changed their stripes - well, at least for now.

Peace efforts




See also:

13 Sep 02 | South Asia
05 Sep 02 | South Asia
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