Posted in SACRIFICIAL DEVOTION IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE on April 24, 2009 by galleonroberts
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. māvīirar 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 Tilīpan and Annai Pūpati.

   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;”[1] 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.[2] 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, Tilīpan and Annai Pūpati. 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 Yūkoku (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.


 [1] Sivaram cites the Kalingathu Parani as his authority. The latter is “a work which celebrates the victory of the Chola king Kulotunga and his general Thondaman in the battle for Kalinga [and] describes the practice in detail” (Lanka Guardian, 1 June 1992).

[2] S. Jayabarathi, “Self-sacrifice or Navakantam,” 4262/ navkantha.htm.


Posted in SACRIFICIAL DEVOTION IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE on April 23, 2009 by galleonroberts

Michael Roberts,

5 April 2009


The emergence of the LTTE was an outgrowth from Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism. Tamil nationalism in its turn was an outgrowth from SL Tamil communitarianism in the centuries prior to 1949/50, the moment when an explicit theory of nationality was presented in a sustained manner (Roberts 1999). Note, however, that Tamil nationalism in the period 1949 to the 1970s was a “sectional nationalism” nestling within “Ceylonese nationalism” (Roberts 1979a, 1979b).

   Tamil nationalism turned secessionist in the 1970s for reasons that have been widely canvassed in the historical literature and which do not need reiteration here (Wilson 2000; Sabaratnam 2001; De Votta 2004; Wickramasinghe 2006: 171-99, 252-301; Roberts 2007). The LTTE was among those who advocated such a goal, working initially with loose affiliation to the TULF. In the late 1970s and early 1980s radical socialist vocabulary figured prominently in LTTE propaganda – to a degree that even captivated some Indian media outlets. But we now know that the LTTE was quite fundamentally nationalist and that its socialism was largely veneer (though its anti-caste credentials were certainly sustained).

   The circumstances of secretive underground activity and war rendered its structures authoritarian. Once a de facto state was established from 1990 this feature developed into a totalitarian one-party state of fascist character (Manikkalingam 1995), albeit one that probably enjoyed considerable popular support. In other words, the ideology of the LTTE was ultra-nationalist, which is to say “chauvinist.” In effect they were a mirror image of the Sinhala chauvinists who were an important force in the political dispensation that the Tamils and the LTTE confronted from 1976 onwards – Sinhala chauvinists (encompassing Christians as well as Buddhists) who were a multi-stranded ‘front’ who secured ascendancy in southern politics in late 2005 with the election of the Rajapakse regime (partly courtesy of LTTE strategy).

   In contrast with the Sinhala extremists (and also the other Tamil fighting groups) the LTTE, as I have argued (2009c, 2009d), explicitly committed their personnel to gifting their lives in self-negating manner as a means towards their goal of Eelam. This measure of dedication (arppaNippu) secured the admiration of many SL Tamil people.

                                    *          *          *          *          *

The introduction above sets the stage for a comparative excursion in search of further insights into the phenomenon of nationalism, especially in its ultra form. The point here is that the LTTE is not unique in its sacrificial emphasis — at least in broad terms.

    An emphasis on sacrifice on behalf of the nation, with idioms drawn from a Christian lexicon, was pervasive among most of the European countries participating in the First World War. The heroic acceptance of potential death by so many males was preceded by the euphoria expressed when war was announced and the fanfare surrounding marching bodies of troops as the public in all major cities on both sides of the war acclaimed their patriotism (Koenigsberg 2008: 65; Ecksteins 1989: 197, 306). Even in the distant antipodes Australians joined the war effort with pride and trumpet: they wanted to show the world that they were worthy of nationhood by proving their worth in a “baptism of fire” (Toowoomba Chronicle, 30 April 1915 and Argus, 8 May 1915).

    In a slashing denunciation Richard Koenigsberg argues that “nationalism is a living religion” (2008: xiii). This theme meshes with Bruce Kapferer’s critique: the “nation,” he says, “is created as an object of devotion and the political forces which become focused upon it are intensified in their energy and passion. The religion of nationalism [shrouds] the political in the symbolism of [a] “higher” purpose …” (1988: 1). In this manner, he adds, nationalism can be “among the most liberating, but also the most oppressive … political energies” of our time.

    How true, one can immediately say with a sigh, this comment is for the story of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms in Sri Lanka over the last fifty years! But there is a further, critical embellishment in Kapferer’s work: he stresses that the “political nation [as] the object of devotion [can assume] messianic and proselytizing dimensions” (1988: 136).

    This dimension, the apocalyptic strain in LTTE ideology, has come to the forefront in the last six-to-eight months as the Tigers, so successful previously as conventional army, have been pushed into retreat and been besieged in their shrinking territorial spaces in the face of vastly superior numbers and armaments deployed by the government forces. They have responded not only with what must count as one of the most remarkable defensive retreats in the annals of modern warfare — given the degree to which they are outnumbered and outgunned; but also by persuading and pressing the Tamil peoples (those not conscripted) of the northern Vanni to move with them in an enforced exodus of near-biblical proportions.

    Indeed, if one of the reports from the governments propaganda engines can be believed, some Tamil “civilians” who have managed to evade this demand or to escape from the Tiger fold have reported that the LTTE leaders urged civilians to “come die with us (the LTTE fighters)” [see This specific news item emanates from government sources. While such reports must normally be regarded with extreme caution, this demand is precisely the type of action that my studies of LTTE ideology would have led me to anticipate. Indeed, the role of the kuppi and the manner in which it is treated as “a friend” (Roberts 2009a), as well as the extraordinary degree of dedication (arppaNippu) to cause revealed by so many Tigers over the years, is rooted in the same body of thought, an ideological corpus of ultra-nationalist sentiment with apocalyptic strains.

    While revealing similar strands to ultra-nationalism elsewhere, that of the Tigers and Sri Lankan Tamils nevertheless carries threads that are region and country specific. The veneration of Pirapāharan and the devotion to cause drawing inspiration, as I have indicated earlier (Roberts 2009c), from the warrior motifs in the Cankam poetry was meshed with the devotional energy of the bhakti religious movements of southern India. These orientations have also drawn sustenance from the practices of surrogate sacrifice that are commonplace in Tamil Saivite worship (Roberts 2005).

    Likewise, the pervasive practices of propitiatory offerings to deities and the attendant fulfilling of vows lead a few Tamils to indulge in extreme forms of self-punishment (e. g. rolling on the ground for miles, fire-walking) at festivals. While the numbers who resort to such self-flagellation may be small at any one festival, they add up to a significant minority over any one year. Such demanding acts of devotion, moreover, occur in the midst of a teeming crowd that exhorts and acclaims those pursuing such acts of ascetic mortification. The mass energy displayed by devotees at a Vel festival or Amman water-cutting ritual simply cannot be captured in words.

    To those of us who are agnostic or of secular orientation, such devotional fervour is perhaps as awesome as puzzling-strange. We may also be encouraged in our scepticism by (a) the findings of anthropologists who tell us that, just occasionally, vow-makers and devotees turn nasty and curse the very deities they venerate because calamitous happenings have not been prevented; or (b) by reading Robert Knox’s statement about 17th century Sinhalese villagers in the highlands whose fortunes had turned bad: “I have often heard them say, give him no sacrifice, but shit in his mouth, what a God is he” (1911: 132). Such stray counter-notes may even induce us sceptics-cum-outsiders to exclaim in ironic parody: “praise be to the lord (simple l).”

    Again, we outsiders may be comforted by the thought that the religious fervour displayed at a Kumbha Mēla, a Badrakāli Festival or a high moment at Lourdes is not a threat to other people. Our awe may gather volume and develop into distaste when a body of 909 devotees commit mass suicide in the manner of the People Temple, a Christian evangelical sect that made Jonestown into a horror story on 18 Nov. 1978. Awe turns into antipathy, however, when religious movements take up an explicitly political project in the manner of the Hindu Sangh Pariwar forces in India or Al-Qaida worldwide. In the face of such forms of explicitly religious nationalism (or “fundamentalism”), ironic parody of the type essayed in the previous paragraph is as puny as disingenuous.

    But, just as the odd devotee turns on the deities and curses them, it would appear that there are some civilian Tamils of the recent exodus who have turned their backs on the LTTE. Just the other day an “elderly man wearing a grimy T shirt and sarong and clutching a single bag” after he had struggled out of Tiger territory told (presumably via a translator) a Daily Telegraph reporter named Nick Meo, “angrily,” that “the people do not like the Tigers any more.” “They are trapped by them and they are scared. They want the Sri Lankan army to rescue them” (Island, 3 April 2009).

    This man was furious and his sweeping generalisation must be immediately modified. Patriotic sentiments have a capacity to capture the commitment of civilians as well as fighting cadres in ways that involve the fusion of self within collective – a topic that I will be elaborating upon through comparative forays (yes, qualified analogues) in an essay to follow. This is a capacity that cloistered intellectuals such as Shanie of the Notebook (Island, 28 March 2009) simply cannot comprehend. Nationalism is a powerful powder and there will be several true believers among the remnant civilian Tamil population hemmed in with the remnant Tigers. But relentless privation with little reward has also, quite clearly, reaped its little revolts among a suffering body of people.




Ecksteins, Modris 1989 Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, New York: Anchor Books.

De Votta, Neil 2004 Blowback. Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka, Stanford University Press.

Kapferer, Bruce 1988 Myths oif state, Legends of People, Washington: Smithsonian Instituion  


Koenigsberg, Richard A. 2009 Nations have the Right to Kill. Hitler, the Holocaust and War,    

     New York: Library of Social Science¸

Manikkalingam, Ram 1995 Tigerism, Colombo: a pamphlet.

Roberts, Michael 1979a “Meanderings in the Pathways of Collective Identity and Nationalism,” in M. Roberts (ed.) Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 1-90.

Roberts, Michael 1979d “Problems of Collective Identity in a Multi-Ethnic Society: Sectional Nationalism vs Ceylonese Nationalism, 1900-1940,” in Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 337-60.

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 2006b “The Tamil Movement for Eelam,” E-Bulletin of the International

    Sociological Association No. 4, July 2006, pp. 12-24.

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


    Roberts, Michael 2009c “Suicidal Political Action III: Imperatives,” www. transcurrents.

       com & http://

Roberts, Michael 2009d “Suicidal Political Action IV: LTTE Power & Popular Support,” &

Sabaratnam, Lakshmanan 2001 Ethnic Attachments in Sri Lanka: Social Change and Cultural

    Continuity, London: Palgrave.

Wickramasinghe, Nira 2006 Sri Lanka in the Modern Age. a History of Contested Identities,

     Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Wilson, A. J. 2000 Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, London: Hurst and Company.


Posted in SACRIFICIAL DEVOTION IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE on April 22, 2009 by galleonroberts

Michael Roberts

2 April 09


During the halcyon years of the LTTE, besides Māvīrar Nāl on 27 November, the Tigers conducted nine other māvīrar 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 māvīrar 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 kūttu 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 Māvīrar 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 māvīrar 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 Thamilīlam” (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 Māvīrar 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).

                                                *          *          *          *          *

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 Sīva (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.




BBC 1991 “Suicide Killers,” in Inside Story Documentary Series, late 1991

Jayasuriya, Ranga “Military gains which went obscure,” Sunday Observer, 29 Oct. 2006.

O’Duffy, Brendan 2007 “LTTE: Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Majoritarianism, Self-

  Determination and Military-to-Political Transition in Sri Lanka,” in Marianne Heiberg, Brendan

     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.

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 2006b “The Tamil Movement for Eelam,” E-Bulletin of the International

    Sociological Association No. 4, July 2006, pp. 12-24.

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


   Roberts, Michael 2009b “Suicidal Political Action II: Ponnudurai Sivakumāran,” www. &

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

      & http://

Roberts, Michael 2009d “Suicidal Political Action IV: LTTE Power & Popular

       Support,” & http://sacrificialdevotionnetwork.

Schalk, Peter 1997a “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.

Schalk, Peter 2003 “Beyond Hindu Festivals: The Celebration of Great Heroes’ Day by the

     Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Europe,” in Martin Baumann et al. (eds.)  

      Tempel und Tamilien in Zweiter Heimat, Wurzburg: Ergon Verlag, pp. 391-411.     

Trawick, Margaret 2007 Enemy Lines. Childhood, Warfare and Play in Batticaloa, Berkeely: University of California Press.


Posted in SACRIFICIAL DEVOTION IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE on April 21, 2009 by galleonroberts

Michael Roberts

13 April 2009


This set of essays on “LTTE and Tamil People” submitted to GROUNDVIEWS is a sequel to the four articles on “Suicidal Political Action” reproduced in from 2 April onwards. Both sets of essays are interconnected and involve a measure of repetition because they are set out as separate articles. All of them are a product of a comparative survey that I embarked on about five years ago: namely, reviewing the cultural ingredients which have motivated the projects of the jihadists (holy warriors) and mujahideen (fighters for cause) on the one hand and, on the other, the kamikaze and the karumpuli (Black Tigers) after – and this point has to be stressed — these forces had been generated by specific politico-military situations in particular contexts.

   In all three instances notions of honour figured strongly in the inspirations for what we might regard as suicide for political cause (though the Japanese did not deem it as suicide, but defined it as “killed in action” – Ohnuki-Tierney 2006: xvi-vii). Fine-grained analyses of each arena may conceivably find differences within this broad commonality of a honour code, but I have not addressed that issue. Rather, I have focused on the conceptions of selfhood (that is, the category “person”) in each field. In my tentative thesis the jihadists, in keeping with the characteristics of all the Semitic religions, attach a greater degree of autonomy to the individual (here gendered male) than among the peoples of South Asia and East Asia where hierarchical notions have permeated societal interaction for centuries.    

    Within the Indian universe governed by the multi-stranded corpus we identify today as “Hinduism,” moreover, selfhood is informed by theories of substance. Thus, each individual is seen to be made up of particles and can, as individual, become a particle in another entity. This is the working out of the holographic principle, where the part also embodies the whole. Thus, while there are numerous named goddesses all over India and Sri Lanka, they are understood to be emanations of the one single Goddess. Some ardent devotees undertake arduous pilgrimage journeys in order to secure a fusion of self, however temporary, with the deity presiding over the holy destination. Indeed, some deities in the Indian lands are deified humans. The māvīrar have this potential prospect – though I am not contending that this objective was in their thoughts when they fought for the LTTE and Tamils, but am rather pointing to subsequent possibilities. Be that as it may, self-negation, or transcendence of one’s being, through fusion of self in ultimate endeavour has been one facet of the Tiger endeavour.

     While the principle of self-negation seemed to be an important element in the inspirations for the Japanese “tokkōtai” (special attack) operation — [that is, the kamikaze as we label the project today] that was initiated by the Japanese military leaders in October 1944, my initial readings suggested that a nihilistic strain was more pronounced in this setting when placed in comparison with LTTE fighters. I was led to this idea by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s emphasis on the nihilist aesthetics permeating some of the diaries maintained by a few young kamikaze pilots (2006: 17; plus her 2002 book); and by the a-moral stress on the equivalence of “Life” and “Death” in the strands of Zen teaching adopted by right-wing Japanese patriots in the 1930s and also incorporated within the military’s Field Service Code during World War Two (Victoria 2003, 2004, 2006). However, in conversation in Adelaide in December 2008 Brian Victoria argued that in the Japanese case of self-sacrifice (both military and civilian) during the war there was a fusion of self in higher cause.

     As background facts, note that during the process of imperialist expansion initiated by the fascist Japanese regime from the 1930s, the state “managed to promote and inculcate in the minds of the people the idea that all the Japanese, but especially the soldiers-to-be, must sacrifice their lives for their country” (Ohnuki-Tierney 2006: xiii). The “state dictum” for soldiers was that they must “never be captured by the enemy” (2006: 5). “Even where entire corps of Japanese soldiers faced utterly hopeless military situations, the soldiers were told to die happily. The policy led to the infamous mass suicides (gyokusai) on Atttu, Saipan and Okinawa islands and elsewhere culminated in the tokkōtai operation” (2006: 4).

    The degree of coercion and voluntary participation among the civilians who committed suicide by grenade, leaping off cliffs or other means at Saipan and Okinawa remains a contentious subject. But there is no disputing the fact that the Japanese soldiers demonstrated admirable courage in hopeless battlefield situations just as the Tiger fighters have done in recent weeks (Jeyaraj 2009a, 2009b).

    The contentious thesis here, then, is that within the ultra-nationalist mind-sets within the Japanese and Tamil arenas, the person — the individual — becomes subordinate to Cause (capital C), that is, to country, people and nation-state (or state-to-be, viz., Eelam). To put it in different words, once the LTTE secured the commanding heights in the struggle for cutantiram (liberation), the Sri Lankan Tamil Individual and the Collective, Tamil Eelam, have been regarded as one.

    This reading of LTTE ideology informed my interpretation of the exodus activated – seemingly by a combination of persuasion and coercion -vis a vis the Tamil peoples of the northern Vanni from late 2008 as the Tigers were forced to retreat. It also directed my essays on Dilemmas in January/February (2009a 2009b).

  Thus guided, I was convinced that the LTTE would not allow the civilians a choice, especially since the latter also provided a labour pool, a source of foodstuffs from the supplies sent by the government of Sri Lanka via the ICRC and a political bargaining chip (a stack of chips really). It followed that the LTTE would not agree to a ceasefire or if they did so (as occurred eventually when in dire straits around 22 February), they would not lay down arms. In other words, the civilian mass would be one of the ‘bunds’ in their fortress situation, a bund they could never forego (a) because this bund of people was vital to the survival of Eelam as cause and (b) because total sacrifice was deemed to be the duty of one and all.

    In their moral anguish the human rights activists of compassionate heart took little note of this powerful element in the firmament embracing the northern Vanni. None of them spelt out the means by which the LTTE could be persuaded to release the people in their besieged territory (as pointed out in one comment in groundviews). Take Lionel Bopage’s first response in groundviews to my first Dilemmas article: “there is an urgent need for the involvement of an international body such as the UN, to create a safe passage to affected civilians and ensure their protection.” The peremptory demand bears an evangelical strain: an expectation of some miraculous happening through the agency of the UN or some other international outfit. Even with my limited expertise in the field of international affairs, this seemed to be a utopian anticipation: the UN machinery is quite cumbersome, while the global politics bearing on penetrations into the sovereign territory of nation states is labyrinthine (as events proved).

   I wondered to myself at that point if some of the leading activists would offer to make up a team that would combine with LTTE sympathisers of the diaspora, say, the Editor of the Tamil Guardian, in order to helicopter into LTTE territory under a white flag organised by local ICRC personnel; and there, in that forlorn context, attempt to persuade the Tiger leadership to lay down arms and abstain from any bargaining demands (the other object of the LTTE exodus exercise). “Let the people go” voiced by personnel who are not enemies could have been a powerful appeal. If such a successful emergency intervention had taken place at that point, then, of course, I would have been pleased to eat all my words.

     Dilemmas focused on the immediate situation in early February 2009. As Bopage knows well, I remain firmly committed to “a political solution which genuinely devolves power to address the issues that gave rise to the war in the first place” (Bopage’s words immediately after the part-sentence that I have quoted). Arguably, though of course debatably, the military defeat of the LTTE may facilitate that process, if — a big IF this — Sinhala triumphalism and the chauvinist forces within the governing coalition do not climb to reigning position.

    Political devolution and a process of development that equalises job opportunities for the people of north and east are both integral to such post-war goals. This urgent project of the immediate future must enshrine the fundamental rights of Tamil, Muslim and all other citizens of Sri Lanka in ways that do not render them subject to the whims of new elected governments and all-powerful Presidents. The Sri Lankan Tamil peoples’ struggle for dignity and self-determination from the 1950s, after, all, did not seek this status as a gift from the Sinhalese, but as the rights of citizens of Sri Lanka. The principle of a consociation of nationalities within the Sri Lankan nation, or a “new form of confederative alliance that gives scope to the majoritarian force of the Sinhala nation without subsuming the Tamil nation and Muslim community” (Roberts 2000b), a principle that rejects the subordination of whole (Sri Lankan) within part (Sinhalese), must, as I have insisted consistently (Roberts 2000c, 2002, 2008a, b and c), be a pillar in this new scaffolding.

   The nature of the possible political settlement in the coming months is not the issue I raise here. That vital focus has already been signalled by GROUNDVIEWS in its appeal for suggestions on the subject (see one note by me – Roberts 2009e). Important suggestions have been presented by web-articles by Rajan Philips, Dushy Ranetunge, et cetera. As self-evident, the terrain I cover in the two sets of articles addresses (A) the cultural ingredients conditioning and motivating the sacrificial dedication to cause demonstrated by the vast majority of Tiger fighters — not just  the karumpuli; (B) the relationship between the LTTE regime and the Tamil people in the lands they ruled; and (C) the degree of coercion and/or popular participation in the exodus activated by the LTTE in the northern Vanni in late 2008 when the Sri Lankan army juggernaut got rolling and the LTTE mounted what must, in military terms, be considered a magnificent retreat in the circumstances.

     Ironically, some GOSL spokesmen and some human rights agencies/activists seem to be agreed in their conclusion that the Tamil peoples of exodus were “forced” into moving with the retreating Tigers. This, in my view, is a sweeping generalisation. The fact that some 65,000 of these civilians have struggled out of Tigerland in the past three months is not proof of the government contention as generalisation.

    That is to read the present into the past of, say, August-November 2008. We must allow for a change of minds. And I insist that the relationship between LTTE regime and people between 1990 and mid-2008 had some symbiotic strands and participatory faith/hope/ oneness. The kudumbum (māvīrar familie) and the kinfolk of active LTTE cadres had stakes in the regime – rather like the soldier families settled on Saipan by the Japanese state. In both instances I refuse to believe that all the civilians had no agency and were mere ciphers responding to the dictates of the command state when they joined in the exodus in Sri Lanka or jumped en masse off Banzai Cliff in Saipan in mid-1944. Readiness to negate one’s being for the higher purpose of an ultra-nationalist cause is a possibility that I present as counter-point to views that treat all the people as corks on water. This is a question, a quarrel really, about agency.



Bopage, Lionel 2009 “Colombo, English, Human Rights, IDPs and Refugees, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics,”, mid-February.

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.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2002  Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms and Nationalisms, The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History, University of Chicago Press.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2006 Kamikaze Diaries. Reflections on Japanese Student Soldiers, University of Chicago Press.

Roberts, M. 2000b “History as Dynamite,” Pravāda, vol. 6, no. ?,  pp. 11-13. Also published in the Island  Special Millennium Issue, 1 Jan 2000, pp. 43-44.

Roberts, M. 2000c “The Sri Lankan Identity,” Lanka Monthly Digest, November 2000, vol 7: 4, pp. 43-44.

Roberts, M. 2002 “Hyphenated Identities,” Lanka Monthly digest, August 2002, pp. 129, 131.

Roberts, M. 2008a “Split Asunder: Four Nations in Sri Lanka,”, 13 January 2008.

Roberts, M. 2008b “Addressing the Nations of Sri Lanka,” in, 27 January 2008.

Roberts, M. 2008c “Issues for Tamil Nationalism: Revisiting Publius,” http://www.groundviews.

    org, 24 March 2008.

Roberts, M. 2009c Dilemma’s At War’s End: Thoughts on Hard Realities,”, 10 Feb. 2009 and Island, 11 Feb. 2009.    

Roberts, M. 2009d “Dilemmas at Wars End: Clarifications & Counter-Offensive,”, 17 Feb. 2009.    

Roberts, M. 2009e “The Needs of the Hour,”, 1 April 2009.

Victoria, Brian D. 2003 Zen War Stories, London: Routledge.

Victoria, Brian D. 2004″The Ethical Implications of Zen-related Terrorism in 1930s Japan,” AAR Zen Seminar, San Antonio, November 2004.

Victoria, Brian D. 2006 Zen at War, 2nd edn. New, York: Weatherhill


Posted in SACRIFICIAL DEVOTION IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE on April 10, 2009 by galleonroberts

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


Posted in SACRIFICIAL DEVOTION IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE on April 9, 2009 by galleonroberts

by Michael Roberts

(this was first published at

The LTTE, as we know, has fostered a sacrificial ideology as a vital force in their struggle for the liberation (cutantiram) of the Sri Lankan Tamil people, a just war in the view of a significant proportion of Tamils. The imperatives driving this readiness to sacrifice self for political cause were provided by this context of military-political goal. When initiated in the early 1980s, this gifting of individual life as weapon, or uyirautam, was informed by circumstances of military asymmetry.

    Thus, as argued in my previous essays (2006, 2009a, 2009b), political goal, relative weakness in power and the inspirational force in securing popular support prompted the Tiger leadership in their recourse to suicidal commitment – first as defensive tool and then as symbolic protest (Tilīpan, Annai Pūpati) or precision weapon in attack.

    These were the necessary conditions for the development of this method. The brief allusion to this set of political factors should not be held to obscure their central significance. Nor should we forget that the other fighting groups, EPLRF, PLOTE, TELO et cetera, did not adopt this tactic. I do not know why they did not.

     That emphasis marked, I turn to the cultural foundations promoting the LTTE’s policy in this regard. A clue to the significance of this dimension is provided in the reverberating popular response to Ponnudurai Sivakumāran’s act of defensive suicide in June 1974 (Roberts 2009b). Apart from the humiliating assaults on leading politicians at his funeral, “several [Tamil Youth League] members slashed their fingers and with the blood … placed dots on their foreheads, pledging collectively to continue the fight for an independent state” (Narayan Swamy 1994: 253).

    The influence of cultural strands within Indian Hindu civilisation in encouraging suicide for political cause did not strike me till 1995. I literally stumbled upon this line of inquiry. I was in Delhi then collecting secondary data on “communal violence” in India. This included a study of newspaper material on the anti-Sikh pogrom after Mrs Indira Gandhi was killed. A little footnote to this atrocious episode caught my attention: when the news of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination reached Tamilnadu at least ten people attempted suicide or committed suicide, in some cases by self-immolation; and these actions were attributed locally to grief associated with her death (The Hindu, 3 Nov 1984). The numbers are small, but should be assessed against the absence of similar tales from the Hindi-speaking heartland.

    However miniscule the numbers, this unusual tale of suicide in empathetic political alignment (at least as interpreted locally) led me further. I found that when MGR suffered a paralytic stroke in October 1984 “at least twenty-two people immolated themselves and cut off their limbs, fingers or toes as offerings to various deities” who were propitiated to spare MGR; while more than a hundred people are said to have attempted self-immolation (Pandian 1992: 18). When he died on the 24th December 1987, at least 31 of “his desolate followers” are said to have been “unable to contain their grief” to the point where they committed suicide (Pandian 1992: 17). Others in the principal Tamilian city of Madras went on “an orgy of violence” in the main thoroughfare of Anna Salai. Several of them assaulted the statue of MGR’s archrival, M. Karunanidhi, with crowbars and placed burning tyres around its neck in a symbolic killing (Frontline, 9-22 Jan 1988, p 122). What is more, at these sites of violence exclamations of despair, essentialised expressions, were voiced by MGR’s followers: “With MGR dead what is the use of living” (India Today, 15 Jan 1988, pp. 25-26).

    Thus activated, I read Ramanujan’s translations and exegesis (1985) on the Cankam poetry, including the warrior themes in the Purananuru. The Cankam poetry of the period 100 BC to 250 BCE emerged from oral traditions and flowed back into it (surmise confirmed subsequently by K. Sivathamby in conversation). In an article published in India (1996), in what was a monumental leap of speculation, I suggested that these lines of inspiring poetry had linked up with the bhakti movement in southern India dating from the latter half of the first millennium BCE and had then been carried through into the modern era by both literary and popular modes of transmission.

    In my thesis one of the linking texts was the Periya Purānam, a kāvya for Sivā through the tale of 63 Tamil Saiva Nāyanārs (saints), a tale that pressed the value of participation in the object of one’s devotion. The absolute devotion of these saints inspired them to indulge in fierce acts in sacrificial mode against their own loved ones and against themselves. In brief, their “emotional intensity of anpu [love]” drove them “far beyond normal moral boundaries” to an “excess of blood and death;” and this excess pleased Siva because it embodied total devotion (Hudson 1990: 375).

    My article was immediately disparaged by Peter Schalk (1997b). Since then Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam’s translation of some LTTE poetry in recent propaganda literature has indicated that both “Saivite symbolism” and motifs from the Purananuru feature within these evocative expressions (2005: espec. pp. 122-23, 126-30, 133, 139-400). Her conclusion is that three ideas run through the poetry and prose she has examined: “the hero as seed out of which new life springs…, the hero as history clothed in immortality, and the hero as victim who sacrifices himself to pay a debt …” (2005: 151).

    But before this article appeared I had returned to this topic as part of a series challenges directed against the highly instrumental/rational explanations of “suicide terrorism” that were being served up by in the academic circuit by several Western scholars, such as Robert Pape (Roberts 2005a, 2005b, & 2006a). Within the space of this short essay I can only provide brief and incomplete outlines of the work on the Indian and Saivite backdrop to what I call the “embodied practices” of sacrificial commitment among Tiger personnel.


                                                            *          *          *          *          *

Those familiar with ancient Indian history will be aware of the incidence of sati as well the practice among certain warrior lineages of fighter retainers and/or familial entourages committing mass suicide when their chief dies in battle. Way back in medieval times Indian Hindu practices spread to the Indonesian archipelago and secured deep roots within Bali in particular. When the Dutch imperial forces defeated the forces of Badung and reached the King of Badung’s palace, “the king, his wives, his children, and his entourage marched in a splendid mas suicide inot the direct fire of [the Dutch] guns…. Two years later, in 1908, this strange ritual was repeated in the most illustrious state of all, Klungklung: … the king and court again paraded… out of the palace into the reluctant fire of by now thoroughly bewildered Dutch troops” (Geertz 1980: 11).

    The instances of followers of chiefs committing mass suicide may have been episodic and few in ancient and medieval India; that is, one can hardly say that such devotional loyalty to a chieftain was widely generalised. But the point here is that it was valorised in both oral and literary traditions in some areas, notably in Rajputana and southern India (Cf. Jayabarathi n. d. & Sivaram 1992)..

   Throughout India, moreover, the heroic action of village chieftains was recognised by commemorating them with stone epitaphs known as natukal or vīragal, namely, “planted stones” or “hero stones,” which are considered part of a generic category referred to as hero stones (Settar & Sontheimer 1982; Rajam 2000). Such memorial stones were also planted for sannyāsi and women of sati. In all such cases the individuals were treated as special and thus buried, not cremated.

    In many localities such hero stones were invested with divine power: they became shrines where local people invoked a named deity. Southern India is replete with shrines and temples, both local and regional, which are dedicated to fierce deities, “divinities of blood and power” as Susan Bayly refers to them (1989: 27 ff).. In other words, we have here tales and embodied practices relating to the deification of human beings.

    When the cinema industry developed in the middle decades of the twentieth century, heroic figures from the past, such as Rājarāja Chōlan, Shivāji, Madurai Veeran and Kattabommān were among the central figures featuring in some films with MGR and Shivāji Ganēsan in lead roles. One such local hero, Madurai Veeran, developed into a “quintessential Tamil hero” (Shulman 1980: 355); while becoming, over time, a regional god in many parts of south India where he also serves as a male attendant and thus a guardian for “nearly all the village goddesses throughout Tamil country” (Whitehead 1921: 25, 114). Such deities are known generically as bhairavar and māvirar. Their (righteous) vengeance is widely regarded to be as bloody as devastating (Mines 2005: 129-35).

    Such avenging deities at the local level are in step with the character of such punishing higher deities as Kannaki and Draupadi. Likewise, the blood and gore associated with sacrifice (velvi) and punishment in Tamil Saivism is in keeping with the Hindu religion in general, a multi-stranded corpus that is founded on the proposition that “life is born out of darkness; Death himself is the Creator” (Shulman 1980: 42, also Bowker 1991: 157-58 & Mines 2005: 31).

    A fundamental principle within this religious schema is the idea of “creative destruction” and “creative sacrifice” – so that “the symbol of the new life produced from the sacrifice is the fiery seed” (Shulman 1980: 108 & 90-91). It is no surprise, therefore, that on one occasion Pirapāharan called forth a folk aphorism along these lines: “death is the breadth of life” (quoted in Schalk 2003: 396). 

                                                *          *          *          *          *

The traditions associated with nadukal (also written as nadugal) do not seem to have flourished in the Jaffna Peninsula in the last two centuries. The āgamic reforms pressed by Arumugam Navalar would have discouraged such forms of local practice. However, it is possible that some vestiges of this practice remained alive in the northern Vanni and Eastern Province. S. Visahan, for instance, has referred me to the Nacchiyar shrines in the Paranthan locality and their worship by his grandparents’ generation (personal communications). 


Col. Bork’s Nadukal venerated by LTTE official - courtesy of

Col. Bork’s Nadukal venerated by LTTE official - courtesy of




    Thus, it appears to have been radically innovative for the LTTE to import and implant this concept around the year 1989-1990 (Roberts 2005a, 2005b). This was an ideological innovation in support of a radical new practice for Saivite Tamils: namely, the burial of their deceased, in this instance Tiger fighters and personnel – where, previously, Saivite Tiger dead were cremated, while Christians and Muslim fighters were buried. When at some moment down the track an LTTE official (S. Elilan) garlanded the nadukal of Lt. Col. Bork (Mapanapillai Arasaratnam) — who was killed in a valiant effort to destroy the entrance to the Mankulam army camp on 23 November 1990 – at the Eachchankulam Maveerar Thuyilum Illam near Vavuniya (image in we have clear demonstration of this programme.

     As significantly, the LTTE dead are not usually called tiyaki or catci, but rather referred to as māvirar, literally “great heroes,” but often translated by the LTTE as “martyrs.” The first great ceremony for these māvirar was held on 27 November 1989, the anniversary of the first Tiger    fighter to die, viz., Shankar (alias Sathiyanathan). We are indebted to DBS Jeyeraj (2007) for the details on this meaningful event,

·        “Around six hundred LTTE cadres assembled at a secret venue in the Mullaitheevu district jungles of Nithikaikulam on November 27. The occasion was the newly proclaimed Great Heroes Day or Maaveerar Naal.”

·        “The LTTE leader was justifiably proud then of the performance of his organisation in having withstood the onslaught of 132,000 troops of the Indian army.”

·        “The first Great Heroes Day was a restricted affair of which the highlight was a highly emotional address delivered extemporaneously by Prabakharan to his enraptured followers.”

    Jeyaraj contends that “the Great Heroes Day observances provide [the LTTE] with the feeling that by sacrificing their lives they would grasp eternity and ensure immortality.” It is in line with this orientation for these burial sites to be depicted by the LTTE as tuyilam illam (literally “resting places”). Staunch Saivites who visit these sites do not necessarily have to cleanse themselves with a bath in contrast with their visits to polluted cemeteries. These tuyilam illam, therefore, are regarded as “holy places” and “temples” (, 27 November 1998, and Natali 2008: 297-99).

     In brief, in this manner the tuyilam illam imprint a sacred topography within the lands controlled by the LTTE. As Sangarasivam contends, the “laying of bodies … and the building of tombstones inscribe the presence of the honoured dead into the land [and] their physical substance coalesces with the soil of the land to create a culturally circumscribed sacred space” (Sangarasivam 2000: 300). In inspiring and animating their struggle for cutantiram in this manner the LTTE has synthesized the principle of utility with that of cosmic power.  


Tuyilam Illam at Vadamaradchchi, November 2004 - Picture by Michael Roberts

Tuyilam Illam at Vadamaradchchi, November 2004 - Picture by Michael Roberts




Māvīrar Nāl, 2004 - Sent by Tamil friend, no details

Māvīrar Nāl, 2004 - Sent by Tamil friend, no details





    Bayly, Susan 1989 Saints, Goddesses and Kings. Muslims and Christians in south Indian society,

         1700-1900, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bowker, John 1991 The Meaning of Death, Cambridge University Press.

Geertz, Clifford 1980 Negara. The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali, Princeton University Press.

Hellman-Rajanayagam, Dagmar 2005 “ ‘And Heroes Die’: “Poetry of the Tamil Liberation   

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     Purānam of Cēkkilār,” in Alf Hiltebeitel (ed.) Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees, Dehi:

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Jayabarathi, S. “Self-sacrifice or Navakantam,”


Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2006 “No public speech ceremony for LTTE Chief this year?”

    26 November 2006    in

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   Nationalist Discourse among the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka,” Contemporary South Asia 16: 287-301.

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     49:  67-93.             

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Roberts, Michael 2009a “Suicidal Political Action I: Soundings,” http://www.transcurrents.

    com &

Roberts, Michael 2009b “Suicidal Political Action II: Ponnudurai Sivakumāran,” http://www. &

Sangarasivam, Yamuna 2000 “The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Cultural Production  

       of Nationalism and Violence,” Syracuse University: Ph.D dissertation.

Schalk, Peter 1997a “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.

Schalk, Peter 2003 “Beyond Hindu Festivals: The Celebration of Great Heroes’ Day by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Europe,” in Martin Baumann et al. eds.) Tempel

      (und Tamilien in Zweiter Heimat, Wurzburg: Ergon Verlag, pp. 391-411.

    Settar, S. & G. D. Sontheimer (eds.) 1982 Memorial Stones, Dharwad: Institute of Indian Art History.    

    Shulman, David 1980 Tamil Temple Myths. Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva

         Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sivaram, D. 1992 “Tamil Militarism,” Lanka Guardian, 1 May 1992 et seq. in 11 parts.

    Whitehead, Henry 1921 [rep. 1981] The Village Gods of South India, 2nd edn, New Delhi, Cosmo



Posted in SACRIFICIAL DEVOTION IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE on April 8, 2009 by galleonroberts

by Michael Roberts
(this was first published at

Within the Sri Lankan context the ‘invention’ of self-abnegating devotion for cause among the Sri Lankan Tamils was not the work of either Pirapāharan or the LTTE. The initiator was young Ponnudurai Sivakumāran, a student member of a tiny cell (one that does not seem to have had a name) of budding resistance fighters in the early 1970s. Sivakumāran carried some cyanide and instructed his comrades to point to him if ever they were arrested. When he himself was cornered by the police on 5 June 1974 after a failed assassination attempt, he swallowed the cyanide in order to protect his comrades (Note 1). His was the first case of defensive suicide for cause, that cause being Thamilīlam, or Eelam in contemporary usage. This was prior to the formal birth of the LTTE in May 1976.

It was a path-breaking episode. Sivakumāran’s funeral, a cremation, in his home village of Urumpurai (mostly Vellalar caste and with high literacy) became an expressive moment, an outpouring of intense grief and anger, the stuff of dramatic politics. Popular action decreed the day to be a one of hartal, that is, a strike and demonstration of protest where all shops were closed and no work was done. Massive crowds journeyed to Sivakumāran’s home village. So too did venerable Tamil leaders, many of them lawyers of note. There, within the feverish fervour aroused by untimely death, these leaders were subject to assault by slippers wielded by angry young men (Note 2). Being “slippered” is the ultimate in insults within Asia. It is a slap that proclaims a heinous transgression. The victim is deemed to have no moral ground. He must cop his fate silently (Roberts 1985).

Clarified in terms understandable to those in the West one could say that the slippering of Tamil leaders was the equivalent of leading American Congressmen being spat upon in public with impunity, thereby being branded as ‘animals’ beyond the pale. But within Tamil history this act of symbolic punishment — there in Sivakumāran’s natal place — is significant in heralding the immediate future. The restive and violent young men were preparing, as we know with the advantage of hindsight, to oust their older, moderate parliamentary leaders.

Sivakumāran had also set the stage for altruistic self-sacrifice. He was likened to Kattabommān, a recalcitrant chieftain who was hanged by the British in southern India in the 1790s and subsequently resurrected in modern Tamilnadu as a “freedom fighter.” What is more, a statue was immediately erected in his honour by the people of the Jaffna Peninsula and thereafter a symbolic struggle occurred around this icon as the Sri Lankan army knocked it down– repeatedly after it was rebuilt (Note 3).

Sivakumāran’s sacrificial act seems to have inspired young Velupillai Pirapāharan and he began to carry cyanide from early one, perhaps the late 1970s or early 1980’s (surmise from his interview with BBC, 1991). The LTTE was both secretive and careful in its induction of personnel into the fighting cadre. Even in mid-1983 their core of fighters numbered around 27 to 35 men, certainly no more than 50 (Note 4). At some point around then the decision had been taken that all the fighters should commit themselves to biting the kuppi if they were in danger of being captured. This commitment was concomitant with the oath that they reiterated when formally inducted into the force: “The task (or thirst) of the Tigers (is to achieve) Motherland Thamilīlam” (Schalk 1997: 64, 74). A statement variously attributed to Kittu and Pirapāharan displays the goals behind such a technique:

It is this cyanide which has helped us develop our movement very rapidly. Carrying cyanide on one’s person is a symbolic expression of our commitment, our determination, our courage… As long as we have this cyanide around our necks we have no need to fear any force on earth! In reality this gives our fighters an extra measure of belief in the cause, a special edge (Note 5).

Initially from 1983/84 to 1987 the kuppi was a defensive tool. It was only after debate that it was adopted as an attacking weapon from 5 July 1987 onwards. The first strike was at a battlefront. Indeed, it is probable that most LTTE suicide strikes have been in battlefront contexts on sea and land (Hopgood 2005). However, those that have attracted world-wide attention have been their dramatic and devastating strikes in Colombo and elsewhere. Many of these have been rightly deemed atrocities because they embraced civilians.
As in other countries where suicide attacks have occurred, the recourse to such tactics has usually been a “weapon of the weak” – in the sense that suicide attacks are deployed by a party that is in a situation of military asymmetry in resources. However, in the story of Sri Lanka’s war the LTTE has found suicide strikes to be useful even after they had achieved a condition of approximate military stalemate. Suicide bombers are low-cost precision weapons and there is no restriction on their deployment. All that one requires is motivated men and women backed up by good organisation. Such resources the Tigers have had in full measure.

Hopgood, Stephen “Tamil Tigers, 1987-2002,” in Diego Gsmbetta (ed.) Making Sense of Suicide Missions, Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 43-76.

Narayan Swamy, M. R. Tigers of Sri Lanka, Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd., 1994
Roberts, Michael “‘I Shall Have You Slippered”: The General and the Particular in an Historical Conjuncture,” Social Analysis, 1985, 17: 17-48.

Roberts, Michael “Filial Devotion and the Tiger Cult of Suicide,” Contributions to Indian
Sociology, 1996, 30: 245-72.

Sabaratnam, T. 2003 et seq Pirapaharan,, serialised book on web.

Sahadevan, P. 2006 “Fighting for the Tamil Eelam: The LTTE’s Commitment to Armed Struggle,” in N. de Votta & P.

Sahadevan, Politics of Conflict and Peace in Sri Lanka, New Delhi: Manak Publications, pp. 298-343.

Schalk, Peter 1997b “Historicization of the martial ideology of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE),” South Asia 20: 35-72

Schalk, Peter 1997a “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.



(Note 1) Details from M. R. Narayan Swamy, Tigers, 29; my conversations with VIS Jayapalan; and Sabaratnam 2003 et seq, chap. 7: “The Cyanide Suicide.’ See Roberts ‘Filial Devotion and the Tiger Cult of Suicide’, Contributions to Indian Sociology 30 (1996) pp. 252-54 & 261-62 for an earlier account.

(Note 2) Narayan Swamy, Tigers, p. 29.

(Note 3) The flier depicting Sivakumāran with kingly headdress and sword on rearing horse in the manner of Kattabommān was kindly supplied by S. Visahan of the Tamil Information Centre in London (also once a class mate of Sivakumāran’s). For the statue, see picture by Raghubir Singh in the National Geographic, 1979, p. 138. Also see Schalk, ‘Historization,’ p. 61; M. R. Narayan Swamy, Tigers, 1994, p. 46n4 and M. Roberts, ‘Filial Devotion,’ p. 254. Note that the statue of the old Tamil stalwart, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, was also knocked down by army personnel. Subsequently, statues of ancient, revered Tamil poets as well as Gandhi were also disfigured.

(Note 4) Personal communications from S. Sivadasan, 1 August 2005 and K. Sivathamby, August 2005.

(Note 5) This statement is attributed to Pirapāharan in The Hindu of 5 Sept. 1986 as quoted in Sahadevan, ‘Fighting,’ p. 315; but it is repeated word for word by Kittu (Krishnasamy Sathasivam) when he provided Peter Schalk with a recorded interview in London on 30 March 1991 (Schalk, ‘Resistance,‘ pp. 76, 83).