by Michael Roberts

(this was first published at

My previous essays have scrutinised the factors and ingredients that directed suicidal action for political cause among Tamil peoples (Roberts 2009a, b, c). Special attention has been directed towards the LTTE project. Here it is critical to recall that all Tiger fighters bind themselves to suicidal action, not just the Black Tigers.

     Committed to armed struggle from the 1970s and initially working underground, the LTTE was necessarily a centralised organisation with a top-down command structure. To expect anything other than a dictatorship, with Pirapāharan at the apex, in the 1980s and 1990s is to assume a position utopian. But the LTTE also moved decisively towards a monopoly of the violent path among Sri Lanka Tamils (SLT). In April-May 1986 they ruthlessly eliminated the TELO Eelamists and thereafter proceeded to strangle or eliminate the other Tamil fighting groups as well as the TULF. They also deployed Black Tigers to eliminate leading figures in those forces deemed inimical to their interests, among them Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991.

    The LTTE was able to secure ascendancy over the other SLT militants in part because of their extensive sea-faring networks and their early development of a brown-water navy under the guidance of Captain David and then of Soosai (both with roots in VVT). These links also contributed to a logistical capacity to bring in supplies through an international shipping company flying under Pan-Ho-Lib flags. That arm was just one limb in the ramified links that rendered the LTTE into a transnational corporation by the 1990s if not earlier.

   By mid-late 1989 they had shown the Tamil people that they had the capacity to keep the 100,000-to-130,000 force IPKF at bay. By mid-1990 they had outmanoeuvred the Sri Lankan government and set up the rudiments of a de-facto state controlling most of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. By then, too, they had the makings of a conventional army and were able to fight the GOSL forces on many fronts, both conventionally and in guerrilla fashion.

    In this hot war the dialectical principle postulated by Mao Tse Tung came into play: “there is a unity in any contradiction.” As with the more free-flowing engagements of the 1980s, there were many atrocities against civilians (usually an unambiguous category at this point) by both sides in the 1990s, especially in the Eastern Province. Though outnumbered, between 1991 and 2000 the LTTE achieved a series of striking battlefield triumphs at Pooneryn, Mullaitivu, Puliyankulam, Kanakarayankulam and Elephant Pass. With the exception of a handful of cases, moreover, the Tigers never took prisoners: all captured and wounded GOSL personnel were killed (ABC documentary, “Truth Tigers,” 15 May 2002). It is probable that some such killing occurred on the GOSL side as well.

   In the territories controlled by the LTTE – Tigerland in short, in differentiation from Sinhalaland – the LTTE regime was draconian, especially for those suspected to have links with the EPRLF, PLOTE et cetera (e. g. UTHR Bulletin No. 5). The severe character was revealed in late 1995 when the GOSL forces broke out of their beachhead at Palaly and proceeded to conquer the western two-thirds of the Jaffna Peninsula, including its revered symbolic centre, Jaffna town. In a brilliant military step the LTTE enforced an exodus, in effect taking the sea of people with them as they made a tactical withdrawal to the northern Vanni.

    Anecdotal evidence from several of those subject to this enforced shift from their familiar locale indicates that the enforced exodus was widely resented by some SLT people subject to this privation. In time many of them returned – presumably with LTTE acceptance because the re-population of the western parts of the Jaffna Peninsula enabled the Tigers to (a) tie more GOSL forces down within this area; (b) encouraged the SLT people in that part of the Peninsula to regard the GOSL command as an “occupation army” and (c) permitted the LTTE to sustain an underground government with a capacity to tax the people as well as mount occasional attacks.

   During the period 1996-2008 the LTTE seems not only to have secured the loyalty of many Tamils in this “occupied area,” but also, quite remarkably, managed to induce a “collective amnesia” whereby those who had cursed the LTTE during the exodus of 1995 now blamed the whole act of migration on the GOSL forces (I cannot cite sources here because of security concerns).

    Writing from afar and in surmise, I would say that this shift in popular attitudes towards the LTTE regime is not surprising. The criticisms directed at the LTTE (in sotto voice) in late 1995 were context-specific and did not necessarily amount to any approval of the opposing regime (even though Chandrika Kumaratunga had been received with rapture when she visited the area during the peace negotiations earlier in 1995). Few Tamils would have forgotten the policies of discrimination that had generated the Eelam struggle some decades back. Nor could they forget the terrors directed against Tamils in the south in mid-1977 and July 1983.

     Again, the capture of Jaffna town and the triumphalism displayed by the government forces on that occasion was heart-wrenching to many a Sri Lanka Tamil person, whether migrant or resident. Such reactions, therefore point to a fundamental force linking people to regime: what I call “Tamilness,” something that had even wider pan-Tamil dimensions embodied in the concept of “Tamilttāy” namely, “Mother Tamil” (Ramaswamy 1997). In other words I am referring to Tamil patriotism founded upon culture and language and amenable to affiliations with a named territory — in this instance the area deemed to be “the traditional homelands” of the SLT.

    “Tamilness” here refers to Sri Lankan Tamil patriotism. Insofar as leading SL Tamils had proclaimed their community to be a “nation” from 1949 onwards, this ideology had climbed to the political heights available to a modern nationalism (Roberts 1978 and 1999). The right of self-determination underpinned the demand for a separate state postulated at Vaddukoddai in 1976.

   The LTTE was, now in the 1990s, at the forefront of this nationalist thrust. In the result, by the late 1990s they were able persuade even the remnant TULF elements to accept them as the “sole representative of the SL Tamils.” Along one dimension one can say that this was a prize wrested by sheer power and intimidation. But, along another overlapping dimension, it is clear that it was a product of success. The military victories of the LTTE were a source of pride to many a Tamil. Like the German Liberals who bowed before Bismarck in the year 1870, the Tamil parliamentarians decided to worship at Pirapāharan’s feet.

    The Tiger victories had been garnered in part by the LTTE’s organisational capacities. But they also were self-evidently due to the bravery of their soldiers, both male and female. Standing out were those who had fallen in battle, the māvīrar. Their self-negating sacrifice was admired.







    The LTTE exploited this resource to the full. From 1990 through to the 2000s they incrementally built up the annual commemoration of their fallen fighters into a massive logistical exercise and ceremony where the Tamil people mourned and yet celebrated these losses, thereby transcending grief in the interests of a higher purpose. My visit to Jaffna and Kilinochchi in November 2004 and conversations with the late Joe Ariyaratnam (reporter) revealed how the fortnight-long activities leading up to Mavirar Nal on 27 November involved a multi-media evocation of sacrifice-for-cause. Popular participation was massive. Through this means a community of suffering tinged with pride was generated.

    This brief visit, then, confirmed what anyone could have logically expected to be the outcome of years of propaganda by an efficient organisation working within the context of war and the memories of past grievances: there was considerable popular support for the LTTE in Tigerland. A brief dialogue in Sinhala with a visiting Tamil businessman and one of the proprietors at a cheap guesthouse in Jaffna Town (where I was residing) suggested that such strands of support extended to people in the occupied lands of the Peninsula as well. For the proprietor to remark “apit koti” — as spontaneous unsolicited response to a story of Tiger sacrifice in the Eelanādu — spoke volumes (Roberts 2005b: 77-78 ).   


    To be partial to the LTTE within circumstances threaded by Tamil patriotism in the sense Tamilttāy suggests to me that those wholly or partially oriented to the LTTE and its achievements would also be supportive of its quest for Eelam, a demand favoured even by moderate parliamentarians from 1976. This does not preclude other considerations in the attachment to LTTE and/or place. Nor does it mean that some Tamils in these regions were not ambivalent about the LTTE or even silently opposed.


Pongu Thamil Pageant at Vavuniya, 2003 - Courtesy of

Pongu Thamil Pageant at Vavuniya, 2003 - Courtesy of



    It is difficult enough in functioning democracies, even with sociological and/or opinion surveys, to assess why and to what degree people support a particular government. It is well-nigh impossible to speak for the people within an authoritarian regime that restrains and punishes dissent. But, subject to this cluster of qualifications, I still hold by one of the contentions3

 within my article Dilemmas I, namely: that the “semi-juridical status” secured by the LTTE during the early 2000s, both within Sri Lanka and in the international sphere, rested in part upon “the support of many – but not all – Sri Lankan Tamils” (“Dilemmas,” 2009h). I abide by this claim in opposition to a counter-assertion by Devanesan Nesiah to the effect that “there is no such wish [for Eelam] prevailing in the majority of the population, what is sought is internal self-determination” (2009).


    Nesiah’s contention, it seems to me, is a perspective favoured by a small body of Protestant Vellalar Tamils. It discounts the investment in the struggle for Eelam by so many young Tamils, whether Saivite, Protestant and Catholic, fighting under the tiger emblem of the LTTE. Nesiah seems to cleave to a rational outlook and assessments based in either/or terms. In contrast I give weight to the power wielded by the cultural symbols and political grievances that animate nationalism; and thereby render leaders and people extreme. At the furthest end of this nationalist extreme is the sacrifice of self as soldier and cases of suicidal political action. Sivakumāran, Tilīpan, Annai Pupati and Varnakulasingham are among those who join the māvīrar as testimony to its inspirational force.


Billboard shrine for Annai Pupati at Junction in Eastern Province, 19 March 2004 - Courtesy of

Billboard shrine for Annai Pupati at Junction in Eastern Province, 19 March 2004 - Courtesy of





Nesiah, Response, http://www.groundviews,org, 19 February 2009.

Ramaswamy, Sumathi 1997 Passions of the Tongue: Princeton University Press.

Roberts, Michael “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation,” Modern Asian Studies, 1978, 12: 353-76.

Roberts, Michael 1999 “Nationalisms Today and Yesterday,” in Gerald Peiris and S W R de A

    Samarasinghe (eds) History and Politics. Millennial Perspectives. Essays in honour of Kingsley de Silva, Colombo: Law and Society Trust, pp. 23-44.

Roberts, Michael 2005b “Saivite Symbolism, Sacrifice and Tamil Tiger Rites,” Social Analysis 49:  67-93.             

Roberts, Michael 2009a “Suicidal Political Action I: Soundings,” &

Roberts, Michael 2009b “Suicidal Political Action II: Ponnudurai Sivakumaran,” &

Roberts, Michael 2009c “Suicidal Political Action III: Imperatives,” &

Roberts, Michael 2009h “Dilemmas at War’s End: Thoughts on Hard Realities,” February 2009,  in

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