Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

LTTE and Tamil People II : Interflows

During the halcyon years of the LTTE, besides MāvÄ«rar Nāl on 27 November, the Tigers conducted nine other māvÄ«rar or tiyaki ceremonies every year. These were, on the one hand, subjectively meaningful engagements and, on the other, political propaganda. I have argued that the māvÄ«rar rites — within the context of past grievances and memories, as well as the sufferings of war — contributed substantially to the support for the LTTE project among SL Tamil peoples residing in the territories under their authoritarian sway (Roberts, “Suicidal,” 2009 c, d).

The māvīrar ceremonies included the deployment of pictorial imagery, whether as backdrop scenes, pandals, billboards or sculpture. The Tamil cultural heritage has been nourished for centuries by the colourful (sometimes florid) artistic expressions produced by specialists, known in English-Tamil as scenekāra, usually drawn from pupillary lines of kalaignan or siththirakkalagnan. The scenekāra usually painted the backdrop scenes for the lively dances and folk theatre known as kūttu (kuththu) that was a vital pillar within Tamil life ways.

The LTTE deployed these artistes in their activities, while at the same time encouraging their own personnel to develop their capacities in both traditional fields as well as modern modes of ideological transmission – as Trawick’s empirical material from the Eastern Province reveals from time to time (2007). Thus, DVDs, cassettes and videos supplemented kÅ«ttu in the propaganda activities of the LTTE.
So did music, a mode of communication that is integral to folk theatre. Martial, lyric and lament (oppāri pattu) music was pervasive during the days leading up to MāvÄ«rar Nāl; while DVDs and cassettes have been produced and disseminated widely in order to glorify the achievements of the Tigers. A well-known virtuoso in musical composition named Kannan was among the artistes contributing their skills to these new productions – in ways that were highly innovative in the opinion of the Leftist poet, Ponnampalam (my interview in Dec. 2004).

Among outside observers the standard response to the argument that the LTTE had considerable support among the Tamil residents in the north and east is to refer to “brainwashing” and “indoctrination.” This is an interpretation that concentrates on instrumental manipulation by powerful leaders. Insofar as my essays have spoken of “deployment,” this viewpoint has been accepted. But I stress here that I only accept it in part, presenting it as one factor among others.

Where I object to the indoctrination thesis is with its claim to catholicity, that is, I question the full stop introduced after the viewpoint is presented. The theory renders a quarter-truth into the only truth. It also treats all followers as cultural dopes, mere plasticine in the hands of leaders, to a degree that I cannot accept (indeed, I wonder if the same observers will not consider all Catholic devotees who attend mass every Sunday or all Buddhist devotees at Poson as brainwashed robots).

I have a third objection to this thesis. It places the leaders outside the cultural symbols and political grievances they deploy. In opposition I hold that the Tiger leaders were not in outer space, but working from within their experiential cultural milieu. Their force of voice, choice of symbols and own individual practices developed from speaking as true believers.

Thus, in counterpoint, I insist that the māvÄ«rar ceremonies were not simply staged manipulations by opportunistic leaders. I believe that there is deep emotional investment in their comrades among the LTTE leaders themselves. Pirapāharan wept when Sellakili died in action on 23 July 1983. He fasted for one day every year prior to the moment marking Shankar’s death (Schalk 1997). Schalk presents a perceptive contention when he conjectures that at twilight every 27th November since 1989, Shankar “is made a collective focal point for re-experiencing the mourning experience of Velupillai Pirapākaran” (2003: 400).

The LTTE cadres continuously affirmed their commitment to their goal via reference to their fallen. For instance, once the practice of burials was initiated circa 1989 the final rite of planting saw those present reciting the following phrase as a troop fired guns in the air: “Now we have lost you. But in the place of the gap you have created, we will follow the path you have taken and we will achieve ThamilÄ«lam” (information from S. Visahan). In brief, a profound current of subjective self-affirmation among its personnel has been one facet of the ‘martyrology’ and mass state liturgies that the LTTE has developed as a means of motivation, mobilization and legitimization of cause. If my outsider-voice does not carry conviction, then readers should digest DBS Jeyaraj’s powerful essay on the topic of MāvÄ«rar Nāl (2006).
Thus, on these grounds I argue that the Sri Lankan Tamil peoples’ homage to the dead on 27 November every year since 1989 has been a gathering of strength and an act of renewal. This set of practices respects, remembers, legitimizes, transcends and inspires. As such, the ceremony has been a binding moment between the Tigers and the people in Tigerland (and beyond one can add).

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By late 1990 the LTTE were widely admired by SL Tamil people because of the manner in which they had withstood the massive IPKF forces and because they were seen as bulwark protecting them from a threatening SL government. As Dayan Jayatilleke told a BBC team in late 1991, Pirapāharan was “a living legend” (BBC, 1991).

Our evaluations of the relationship between SL Tamils and the  LTTE regime-cum-leader are best served by attending to the four broad constituencies among the latter in the period 1990-to-2008: (A) those in Tigerland; (B) those in occupied territory in the north, that is within the Jaffna Peninsula and in Vavuniya North; (C) those in Colombo and the Sinhala-majority regions; and (D) migrants abroad.
The point here is that the Tamil people in Tigerland were fully alive to the severity of the LTTE regime and the limitations on free speech. But they were also caught in a structural pincer: between a rock (the LTTE) and a hard place (the government of Sri Lanka, or GOSL). In this bind I conjecture that even SL Tamils who had reservations about the LTTE preferred their ethnic own, that is, the Tigers, to the GOSL In partial contrast, I surmise that many Tamil migrants in the diaspora were not experientially versed in the difficulties of the LTTE regime. Thus, many were (and still remain) far more starry-eyed about the talaivar Pirapāharan and his LTTE than those subject to LTTE rule (thanks here to Devanesan Nesiah for stressing this). Just the other day some Tamil dissidents from the diaspora who had been brought to Lanka by GOSL to review the IDP situation and mediate political compromise were asked whether Pirapāharan was a hero in migrant circles. Their response was honest: “To some, he is a divine figure, as someone who had come to save Tamils. According to Hindu belief, there are Avathara pursusha, someone born to defend and save them. This image has come in [that is, taken deep root] and it will be very difficult to get rid of it” (Daily News, 6 April 2009).

Subject to these caveats, let me provide evidence of the awe in which Pirapāharan was held by the people within the regions commanded by the LTTE. To begin with a note by Anita Pratap, one of the few journalists to have interviewed Pirapāharan several times: “the Tiger credo has two parts – to fight for Eelam and to be loyal to Pirabhakaran till the last breath. By the time training is over, young Tiger recruits venerate Pirabhakaran. It is a carefully orchestrated indoctrination” (2001: 102, emphasis mine). Yes, indoctrination again! Pratap’s emphasis on indoctrination carries the imprint of the instrumentalist reasoning that dominates our world today. It should be qualified by Pratap’s own emphasis on the devotional regard for Pirapāharan as a brother (annai) with god-like qualities among LTTE personnel of all ranks and ages (Pratap 2001: 102-04 & 70-72).

One should note too that several female fighters in the Batticaloa region described Pirapāharan as “beautiful” and “a man of goodness, intellect, sacrifice” (Trawick 2007: 68, 81, 183). From her intimate interactions in 1997/98 and 2002 Trawick is led to this verdict: “The adoration of Prabhakaran is in line with the adoration (bhakti, pattu) offered to many human beings who are perceived as harbouring something divine, whether it is great musical talent, rhetorical power or the strength to keep a family together” (2007: 81).

This veneration was voiced even more forcefully at higher levels of LTTE officialdom. Brendan O’Duffy’s interviews with senior Tiger leaders at Kilinochchi in May 2003 “reinforce[d] the [evidence of] mythic reverential perceptions of the leader.” Indeed, Sanappah Master insisted that “he and others considered Prabhakaran as ‘God become man’.” (2007: 265). Elsewhere at the grass roots among the Tamil people one has the instance of an old lady who was found in the ghost town of Sampur in late 2006 as the Sri Lankan army marched in; she had been abandoned by her sons and was carrying a photograph of Pirapāharan. She called him “Ishwara” (Jayasuriya 2006). For Tamils, Ishwara denotes Lord SÄ«va (though in northern India the term stands for “the One and the Supreme God”).

In other words, our materialist, rationalist and instrumental reasoning must be diluted by attentiveness to experiential life and the sentimental chords that can bind leader and follower, while yet nourishing and animating patriotism – sometimes to the point of ultra-nationalist excess.

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O’Leary, and John Tirman (eds.) Terror, Insurgency, and the State. Ending Protracted Conflicts, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 257-87.
Pratap, Anita 2001 Island of Blood, New Delhi: Viking.
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Tempel und Tamilien in Zweiter Heimat, Wurzburg: Ergon Verlag, pp. 391-411.
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