by Michael Roberts

(this was first published at

When young Murugathasan Varnakulasingham (aged 26) committed self-immolation in front of the UN headquarters in Geneva on 19 February 2009 he was protesting against international failures of intervention in the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in northern Sri Lanka, where he believed that large bodies of Tamil people faced extinction by the Sri Lankan government. “The flames over my body will be a torch to guide you through the liberation path,” he wrote in his parting letter.

There have been a few other protest suicides by Tamils in Tamilnadu and Malaysia, but Varnakulasingham’s altruistic act probably garnered the most attention. His funeral in London on 7 March 2009 was huge affair, conducted as an LTTE state funeral with red and gold flag over coffin. This response marks the profound resonances evoked by his act among Tamils in general and Sri Lankan Tamils in particular – perhaps even among those opposed to, or ambivalent about, the Tigers.

In surmise, let me mark a contrast. It is likely that the average British person who attended to news items about Varnakulasingham’s protest suicide would have been puzzled and that many would have reacted instinctively with distaste. Brits may empathize with tales of courageous sea-captains who go down with their sinking ship, but their conditioning within a cultural milieu that is highly individuated and values self-autonomy encourages such instinctive reactions to suicide by fire. When, within a similar milieu in USA, the Quaker, Norman Morrison, immolated himself in Washington on 2 November 1965 as a protest against American military operations in Vietnam, little public support developed [there was no direct link with subsequent anti-Vietnam agitation]. As I have conjectured, along one dimension Morrison’s dramatic act was an instance of speaking-and-witnessing-to-self as much as a public statement (Roberts 2007a: 868, 875).


Murugathasan Varnakulasingham’s Funeral Coffin

Murugathasan Varnakulasingham’s Funeral Coffin

Murugathasan Varnakulasingham’s Funeral Coffin

Courtesy of Nadia Sam-Daliri and Willesden & Brent Times

My interest here, therefore, is in suicidal political action for a specific political cause (SPC) as distinct from suicide arising from inter-personal friction or intense personal depression. To be sure, some inter-personal relations may have a political dimension: as when jilted boy kills himself in order to impose mental distress on the girl who jilted him; or when teenagers kill themselves to reprimand a parents for some act of chastisement. In such instances the ‘politics of power’ is of a restricted inter-personal character.

SPC, in contrast, usually calls for a selfless sacrifice of one’s life in order to promote a wider societal or political project, be it defence of country, furthering a nationality’s liberation or making a symbolic performative gesture that proclaims one’s cause to be worthy. Thus, the focus in my researches extends beyond suicide attacks (nowadays often labelled “suicide terrorism” in disparaging manner – a phrase I avoid). In “Suicide Missions as Witnessing” I presented a typology that embraced defensive suicide, suicide in protest (whether self-immolation or fasts-unto-death) and suicides in empathetic grief, besides the conventional category of suicide attacks (Roberts, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 2007a).

In thus expanding the parameters of survey I sought to move scholars beyond the ‘cavern’ of “suicide bombers” with its baggage of justificatory and propaganda motifs. There has been a huge industry on suicide attacks since 9/11, one that involves a war of legitimization or de-legitimization. In side-stepping this propaganda struggle, of course, I am not moving to neutral ground; but the path that has been taken in my various articles, I assert, opens the way towards a deeper understanding of the roots of selflessness in different settings and provides comparative material that will enable like/unlike cases to enlighten each other.

The mis-directions arising from a narrow concentration on “suicide terrorism” are only too evident in Robert Pape’s thesis on the strategic logic of suicide attacks (2003 & 2005). This work has secured the heights of academic attention and been widely cited as a gospel of interpretive fact (e.g. in Gambetta 2005). Its attachment to rationalist modes of analysis should not be allowed to obscure its shallow empirical grounding – as illustrated in the plethora of gross errors in assessing the story of the LTTE (see Roberts 2007b). Thus, typically, in a reading that attaches interpretative weight to temporality, Pape begins with the moment when the LTTE launched its first suicide attack on 5 July 1987 when a Tiger soldier (Vallipuram Vasanthan) with the code name of Miller drove a truck bomb into an camp set up at Nelliyadi by state forces that the LTTE deemed to be an invading army.

Pape seems to be blissfully unaware that after s/he had undergone training every Tiger recruit proclaimed an oath to commit suicide if required. This was a military initiation ceremony in assembly. As graphically depicted in the BBC documentary (“Suicide Killers”) filmed in LTTE territories in 1991, the induction of a batch of female fighters involves this chant in response to their female commander’s initial prompt:
“Our revolutionary organisation’s purified aim
           is for a free society to achieve Tamil Eelam
My life and soul and all this I sacrifice to
          our organisation’s leader, our brother, Mr Prabhakaran
We fully accept that for him we will be very faithful and trustworthy
         The aim of the Tigers – Tamils’ freedom.”

Thereafter each fighter marches up to the presiding commander and receives a cyanide vial, a kuppi, a totem that marks a commitment to selfless action, inclusive of suicide when faced with capture.

As one can imagine, this is an electrifying and stimulating moment, one that is bolstered by its seriousness of purpose and the LTTE’s self-belief in the justice of its cause. Yogi informed the BBC personnel that the kuppi had to be bitten not just swallowed, while Adele Balasingham told them in matter-of-fact manner that “the cyanide capsule has come to symbolise a sense of self-sacrifice by cadres of the movement, their determination, their commitment to the cause, and, ultimately of course, their courage.”

This selflessness had been displayed early on 6 July 1983 by the injured and cornered Seelan (nom de guerre for Charles Anthony) when he ordered a junior fighter to shoot him. In my view this is the first instance of defensive suicide in the LTTE’s history, though their martyr literature accords that distinction to Selvam Pakin who bit his kuppi on 18 May 1984. Significantly, the epitaph inscribed by the LTTE on Pakin’s commemorative monument reads: “having enjoyed cyanide, he died heroically” (quotation from Māvīrarkurippettu in Schalk 1997: 75, 76).
This degree of sacrifice for LTTE and Tamil cause has not been confined to other ranks. Several commanders, among them Pulendran, Kumarappa and the second-in-command, Kittu, have committed suicide in dramatic fashion when the occasion demanded such action. As the early adoption of such promises from their fighters indicate, the interpretative weight that Pape accords to the thrusts into the Jaffna Peninsula by the Sri Lankan army in 1987 as the main incentive for suicidal commitment – marked by Miller’s attack — simply does not hold water. This error is a product of tunnel-vision: the Western world’s concentration on “suicide bombers/attacks” and thus on the category that haunst the Western World ever since 9/11, namely, “terrorists.”

Self-negation for political project, life-gifted-as-weapon, or uyirayutam, was a firm lineament in LTTE action from well before 5 July 1987. It was initially a defensive tool meant to save individuals from torture and the release of information that would compromise their peers. The Tiger leadership would also have been aware that this symbol of commitment, this display of arppanippu (dedication, immense sacrifice), garnered admiration among Tamil peoples and gave them the edge over other militant Tamil outfits in the competition for support. Thus, cultural values guided instrumental action.


Pirapaharan pays homage - July 2005

Pirapāharan pays Homage to Miller & the Black Tigers, 5 July 2005

photo courtesy of TamilNet



Gambetta, Diego (ed.) 2005 Making Sense of Suicide Missions, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pape, Robert A. 2003 “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” American Political Science Review 97: 343-61.
Pape, Robert A. 2005 Dying to win. The strategic logic of suicide bombing, Random House.
Roberts, Michael 2007a “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,’ Studies in Conflict & Terrorism October 2007, 30/10: 857-88.
Roberts, Michael 2007b “Blunders in Tigerland: Pape’s Muddles on ‘Suicide Bombers’ in Sri Lanka,” Online publication within series known as Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics (HPSACP), ISSN: 1617-5069.
Schalk, Peter 1997 “Resistance and Martyrdom in the Process of State Formation of Tamililam,” in Joyce Pettigrew (ed.) Martyrdom and Political Resistance, Amsterdam: VU University Press pp. 61-84.


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