Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

LTTE and Tamil People IV : Dedicated Tamils

In the previous essays within this cluster I have dwelt on the dedication to cause displayed by the Tamil Tigers and identified various inspirations or conditioning factors: namely, the Cankam poetry, the warrior tales from Indian history, the embodied practices of self-punishment exercised by religious devotees and the ‘everyday’ acts of surrogate sacrifice that are integral to Saivite Tamil life ways. It was noted that the LTTE leaders marshaled and deployed symbols associated with these practices in the course of their propaganda and indoctrination work. Such processes sacralized the project of Eelam, rendering it “holy.”

But I surmise that in this work of propaganda the Tiger leaders made their choices as true believers. Their selections gained energy (a) from the context of threats posed by the government of Sri Lanka, (b) the subjective engagement of the leaders themselves in the practices (e. g. māvÄ«irar liturgies) they espoused; and (c) a self-belief in the virtue of their goals, a conviction that was, indeed, entrenched to the degree of dogma. An implicit force that facilitated a responsive reception of their work of inculcation was the medium of Tamil and the overarching ‘parasol’ provided by the concept of Tamilttay, or “Mother Tamil.” In consequence there was a fruitful interflow between people and cultural producers,

The argument, then, is that patriotic sentiments bound LTTE leaders, their cadres and the SL Tamil people in both the territories they controlled in the period 1990 and 2008 (Tigerland in short-hand) and those outside their immediate reach within Lanka and abroad.

From early-mid 2008, as we all know, the overwhelming superiority of men and armaments deployed by GOSL forces, now working far more intelligently that in the 1990s, began to take effect. The LTTE forces were rolled back by this juggernaut both northwards to Pooneryn and then eastwards towards the shores around Mullaitivu. Thus threatened, indeed, probably from way back in 2007, the LTTE increased its range of conscription. In this policy it was exercising its legitimate rights as a de-facto state — though it has been infringing modern restraints by incorporating children (that is, in my book, those under 15 years) into its ranks.

An army does not consist of fighters alone. The catering corps, the supply corps, engineering corps, etc are essential cogs in a complex machine. It is probable that the new LTTE recruits, especially middle-aged men and women, had minimal combat capacity and mostly worked in these critical support services, especially the work of constructing bunds and ditches.

It is also evident that due to the exigencies of context and retreat these new conscripts did not wear uniforms. Though these elements were (are) by any definition part of the LTTE army, I chose to call them “auxiliaries” for this reason – the full meaning in implicit intent being “auxiliary soldiers” (Roberts 2009a and 2009b). It also follows that the “civilians” in the shrinking space of Tigerland were continually reduced in number by this ongoing process of recruitment.

That said, there is no doubt that a significant number of “civilians” who had been induced and/or coerced into an exodus by the LTTE were under severe threat to life as a result of the furnace of war and the bombardments by state artillery and aircraft. While the numbers circulated in, say, early 2009 by NGOs, Tiger spokespersons and media outlets everywhere have clearly been overblown, the fact of potential catastrophe was undeniable.

But, equally undeniable, in my argument is that the LTTE was the primary agent behind this awesome and critical scenario. From a military and pragmatic point of view the LTTE policy of the sharks (themselves) taking the sea of people with them was a strategic move that was (and is) as brilliant as ruthless. It set up an unprecedented scenario in the history of warfare. This strategic innovativeness had its flip side. In creating conditions that invited the GOSL forces to create civilian carnage in the process of their advance, the LTTE was enacting a “war crime” as both Kumar Rupesinghe (Sunday Island, 5 April 2009) and Rohini Hensman (2009) – neither of whom are Sinhala Buddhist extremists, indeed, anything but – have asserted.

On a priori grounds we can conjecture that the Tigers have adhered to this heartlessly brilliant strategy because (1) the “civilians” provided a labour pool and a source of news recruits; (b) restrained the GOSL forces in some measure (but not completely) by serving as a protective screen; (c) providing a mass of potential war-victims whom the LTTE propaganda machine could use effectively so that the civilian body became a bargaining resource towards a potential political ‘settlement’ that would enable the LTTE to remain as a major player in Sri Lanka itself; and (d) providing a source of food and medical supplies because the GOSL were ready to send such goods via ICRC channels even in the midst of demonic warfare – a “weird” phenomenon in the estimate of a Welsh-Aussie historian with whom I play tennis regularly (though apparently this is quite normal for human rights activists).

My present set of essays, complemented by those in the transcurrents site, has attempted to emphasise another factor that impacted on the LTTE’s policy of enforcing a peoples’ exodus: the LTTE’s ultra-nationalist ideology of regarding the Tamil individual and the Tamil people-nation-state as ONE, inextricably bound to each other in ways that demanded the gifting of self – uyirayutam, or “life-(gifted)-as-weapon” – for the collective. So, self-negation in this instance is deemed a form of fulfillment, rather like an arduous pilgrimage or rolling on the ground for miles in the course of a meaningful religious festival invoking a deity’s beneficial power.


There has been just a touch of this type of excess in the course of the agitation mounted by Sri Lankan Tamils in migrant circles beyond Sri Lanka, though the protests also replicate the energy and practices of mass political agitation on behalf of a wide variety of causes, say, anti-G20, anti-nuclear, green environmental issues, anti-Israeli atrocities, et cetera, witnessed in agitations during the modern era.

Viewed in sum, the protests in Toronto, London, Sydney and other venues have all been fierce; indeed, they have bordered on the hysterical. The frenetic character of these responses is compounded by some of the commentary from pro-Tiger spokespersons entering responses in various web sites. The vision is Manichean: it is the GOSL that is responsible for the potential catastrophe, the LTTE has no hand in the producing the setting.

The tunnel-vision is further compounded by gross exaggeration: the government is said to be pursuing a policy of “genocide.” This is, of course, an emotive and powerful slogan, bound to catch media attention, and, more vitally, stir other Tamils, both Sri Lankan and from elsewhere. No thought is given to the fact that the scales of civilian death bear no comparison with the figures surrounding the ‘exemplary’ victims of genocide in the recent past, namely, the Jews of Europe in Hitler’s time, the Khmer under Pol Pot and the (mostly) Tutsi people of Rwanda in the 1990s. That such a profligate use of the term for smaller figures of victimization belittles the large-scale massacres and is a form of unintended defamation of these peoples is not a concern among those who wield this propaganda weapon. But, as the general thrust of my essays anticipates, such rhetorical excess is to be expected from ultra-nationalist thinking in its crisis moments.

We need, however, to reflect on the conviction with which these one-sided, Manichean perspectives are voiced by Tamil migrants, sometimes young first or second generation students. They seem to be genuine in their views. I take them at face-value. Their expressions reveal both authenticity and depths of anguish. But their tunnel-vision and bloated exaggerations also bear the imprint of dogma rooted in nationalist sentiment and wholly partisan dedication to cause.

This degree of commitment has, as we know, also witnessed dedication to privation in the course of their lengthy protests (e. g. overnight vigils). Such vigour, of course, is a universal aspect of protest agitation. Some greenies, for instance, chain themselves to trees in the path of logging work. But among the Tamils on behalf of LTTE and people today one has seen a specific “Asian” (and thus Tamil) touch, viz., the tactic of hunger fasts – though these have not yet been taken to the ultimate point pursued by TilÄ«pan and Annai PÅ«pati.

A fast is just one method of protest suicide. In the medieval practice of “navakandam, (or avippali)” described by Sivaram, “a warrior … slice[ed] off his own neck to fulfil the vow made to korravai – the Tamil goddess of war – for his commanders’ victory in battle;” while Jayabarathi’s description of this act and its preceding rites contends that it was protest against an unjust act by a king or the marking of unjust humiliation. Varnakulasingham in Geneva and a few Tamils in Tamilnadu and Malaysia took one of these paths of protest: a majestic death by fire. They negated their being in this world as a gift in aid of the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle and the Tiger firmament. That is why I began the first set of articles in transcurrents with Varnakulasingham’s action and attention to the appreciative response that it generated among Tamils in Britain (2009c).

All along, and as I began the second cluster of essays on 2 April, I had no doubt that the Tiger fighters would mostly fight to the bitter end (an easy prediction that). But I was beginning to consider, with awe and apprehension, the possibility that we might witness some mass suicides among the pro-LTTE civilians remaining on the coastal fringe north of Mullaitivu. This was before the military debacle suffered by the LTTE at Aanandapuram (Jeyaraj 2009). That may have reduced the scale of possibility, but the end-point of war has not yet been reached, so ….

In all such thoughts I have been informed by my desultory knowledge of the suicidal Japanese resistance and acts of mass suicide that occurred during World War Two. The brief comments in my “Preamble” now require some summary clarification of that setting by drawing upon a few instances. That requires another article on that topic, one that will serve as a long footnote to my principal focus.

But it is appropriate to conclude this article with details of a Japanese protest suicide that bears comparison — in broad terms that admit difference too — with the acts of Chinnasāmi (in Tamilnadu January 1964), Varnakulasingham, TilÄ«pan and Annai PÅ«pati. That is the case of seppuku by Yukio Mishima.

Mishima is (was) the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka, one of Japan’s greatest novelists and a right-wing extremist steeped in the samurai traditions. On 25 November 1970 he led a tiny private army and seized the headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Force in a hopeless enterprise which was the precursor to his protest act: namely, standing on a balcony and reading a manifesto advocating rebellion and, then, in theatrical gesture, committing seppuku – an act against self that was capped, literally, by a compatriot chopping his head off.

Significantly, though Mishima’s political philosophy has been described as “essentially Nietzschean and nihilist” (Starrs 1994: 94, 6-9), there seem to have been strands of Zen thinking in his perspectives. His novel YÅ«koku (Patriotism) centred on an abortive rebellion of an extreme right-wing group of military officers on 26 February 1936. In brief, Mishima was a fascist or, in Asian terms, a chauvinist (rather akin to Gunadasa Amarasekera on the Sinhala side and, perhaps, Pudhuvei Rathnathurai on the Tamil side).

As pertinent to this instance is the fact that Mishima’s The Way of the Samurai is an appreciative commentary on the Hagakure, the famous eighteenth-century text written by Zen priest Jocho Yamamoto, which is widely regarded as an embodiment of the bushido code. Cast as a critique of modern society, The Way of the Samurai contends that the Hagakure is “a living philosophy that holds that life and death [are] the two sides of the same shield” (quoted in Moeren 1986: 109-10). Thus, in effect, Mishima celebrated a powerful theme in Buddhist-influenced Japanese aesthetics and philosophy, namely the “transcience of life,” an understanding encoded in popular culture by the image of falling cherry blossoms (Moeren 1986: 107, 111) — which, as Ohnuki-Tierney has revealed (2002), were a powerful metaphor for the kamikaze pilots.

Fascist he was, but Mishima also lived by his dogma: he implanted his body, so to speak, within the texts inscribed by his pen.

Hensman, Rohini 2009 “Who is Responsible for the Civilian predicament in the Wanni?” Daily Mirror, 18
April 2009, p. 49.
Jayabarathi, S. “Self-sacrifice or Navakantam,”
Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2009a“Top Tiger leaders killed in a major debacle for LTTE,”, 6 April.
Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2009b “Theepan of the LTTE: Heroic Saga of a Northern Warrior,” Daily Mirror, 11 April 2009.
Moeren, Brian 1986 “The Beauty of Violence: Jidaigeki, Yakusza and ‘Eroduction’ Films in Japanese Cinema,” in D. Riches, ed., The Anthropology of Violence, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 104–117.
Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2002 Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms and Nationalism. The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History, University of Chicago Press.
Roberts, M. 2009c “Dilemmas At War’s End: Thoughts on Hard Realities,”, 10 Feb. 2009 and Island, 11 Feb. 2009.
Roberts, M. 2009d “Dilemmas at War’s End: Clarifications & Counter-Offensive,”, 17 Feb. 2009.
Roy Starrs, 1994 Deadly Dialectics. Sex, Violence and Nihilism in the World of Yukio Mishimo, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.