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A Critique of the Black Tigers Portrayal

By terrorism expert Robert A. Pape

by Sachi Sri Kantha, July 5, 2010

In this critique, first, I present verbatim excerpts from Robert Pape’s 2005 book that are full of simplifications and distortions. Secondly, I point out critical lapses in his description of chronological events, and interpretation. Lastly, I introduce a review by Michael Roberts entitled, “Blunders in Tigerland: Pape’s muddles on ‘Suicide Bombers in Sri Lanka.”

Robert Pape University of ChicagoIn my previously posted introduction to R.K. Narayan’s short story ‘Dodu’(1934), I noted that (1) the contemporary incarnations of Dodu fall into two types: the paradeshi Dodus and swadeshi Dodus. (2) While the writings of paradeshi Dodus are rich with cryptoracist ignorance, that of swadeshi Dodus are characterized with obscurantist piffle.

Here, I tackle the case of a paradeshi Dodu: Prof. Robert Pape (born 1960), the University of Chicago academic. July 5th being the Black Tigers Day in Eelam Tamil lore, it is apt to check Pape’s skewed portrayal of our brothers and sisters. His choice of loaded words such as ‘cult-like’, ‘brainwash recruits,’ etc. in referring to Black Tigers without clear definitions is unfortunate.

The same derisive words can equally apply to the work ethic of members belonging to authentic American institutions such as the FBI and CIA. For reference, I provide two descriptions about FBI recruitment principles, which appeared in the National Geographic magazine of June 1961.

“An applicant for appointment as special agent, must be a male citizen between 25 and 41, a graduate of a state-accredited residence law school or a four-year resident accounting school with at least three years practical accounting experience, and willing to serve anywhere in the US or its possessions.

‘All applicants’, the document advised sternly, ‘must be able to perform strenuous physical exertion and, further, must have no physical defects which would interfere with their use of firearms or with their participation in raids, dangerous assignments, or defensive tacts.

An applicant who meets these qualifications and passes the required tests must also survive a rugged investigation of his background. If, after all this, he remains in the running, he is accepted by the FBI…”

Another description in the same feature notes: “Mr. Hoover has placed his personal stamp upon the FBI to a degree equaled in few organizations. His men live by a rigid code of discipline and personal conduct. One seldom sees an overweight agent; the slightest sign of paunch brings a curt warning to get more exercise – or else. Even clothes must meet FBI standards. On duty, an agent must wear a conservative suit, never slacks or sports jacket; ties will be quiet; hats will be worn…”

Black Tigers Day poster July 5

I ask, if it is OK for the then director of FBI, Mr. John Edgar Hoover, to place ‘his personal stamp upon the FBI to a degree equaled in few organizations,’ then what was wrong with Prabhakaran placing his personal stamp upon the LTTE regarding ‘a rigid code of discipline and personal conduct.’

In this critique, first, I present verbatim excerpts from Robert Pape’s 2005 book that is full of simplifications and distortions. Secondly, I point out critical lapses in his description of chronological events, and interpretation. Lastly, I introduce a review by Michael Roberts entitled, “Blunders in Tigerland: Pape’s muddles on ‘Suicide Bombers in Sri Lanka

Excerpts from Robert Pape’s book ‘Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism’

[Note: I provide 1,490 words from the section entitled ‘Suicide Terrorism in Sri Lanka’ that appears in chapter 8 of the book. For convenience, I have ignored the footnotes 25 to 36 and explanations from this reproduction. However, the subheadings, the dots and quotation marks that appear are reproduced faithfully from the original.]

Suicide Terrorism in Sri Lanka

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are the world’s leading suicide terrorist organization. From 1987 to 2001, the Tamil Tigers carried out 76 suicide terrorist attacks involving a total of 143 male and female Black Tigers – many operating in teams – against a variety of political, economic, and military targets in Sri Lanka. These figures represent more suicide attacks than any other terrorist organization and more total suicide attackers than from all of the Palestinian suicide terrorist groups combined. The Black Tigers achieved an extraordinary degree of tactical success, killing a total of 901 people, including two world leaders – India’s former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lanka’s President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. The Tamil Tigers also achieved significant coercive success, twice compelling the Sri Lankan government to engage in serious sovereignty negotiations.

Black Tigers Day poster poem July 5From the standpoint of explaining suicide terrorism, what matters is not the exact date that the Tamil Tigers shifted from ordinary armed resistance organized around guerrilla warfare tactics to the use of suicide operations. The key question is what enabled the Tigers to conduct protracted campaigns of suicide terrorism involving a stream of many individuals who willingly accepted certain death in order to carry out their missions.

Two main explanations have been offered thus far. The first argues that local competition between the LTTE and other Tamil guerrilla groups encouraged the LTTE to use the extreme tactic of suicide to distinguish itself from its rivals. The second explanation stressed the ‘cult-like’ behavior of the group in which the Tamil Tigers separate their fighters from the general population and brainwash recruits to follow the leader’s orders without conscious choice.

The principal implication of both these arguments is that the sources of the Tamil Tigers’ use of suicide terrorism lay in the internal dynamics of the group and have little to do with the political grievances of Tamil society or the relationship between the Tamils and their Sinhalese opponents. Yet, neither explanation is consistent with the facts. The argument that rivalry with other Tamil guerrilla groups accounts for the LTTE’s use of suicide terrorism fails because the Tigers had already eliminated all of their major rivals and many of their smaller ones by 1987 and so had already become the preeminent political and military power within the Tamil community before the onset of suicide operations. The argument that the LTTE is a cult isolated from Tamil society is also off the mark. Tiger recruits scoff at the idea that coercion determines their willingness to make extreme self-sacrifice. As a woman cadre in the political and intelligence wing of the LTTE said:

“It is very hard to force anyone to make this kind of sacrifice. A lot of us know what we are getting into by joining. We’ve heard it from friends and relatives who have joined…And besides, if we forced people to join the LTTE and fight the Sri Lankan army, how could we possibly trust our own cadres to carry out a mission in battle?”

As we see below, evidence shows that the Tamil community does support martyrdom as a means of national resistance.

I argue that the logic of religious difference provides a more compelling explanation. Fear of religious persecution, not internal dynamics within Tamil society or the LTTE, largely accounts for the pervasive use of suicide terrorism in this case. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese majority are predominately Buddhists, while the Tamil minority is overwhelmingly Hindu and Christian. Especially after the new Sinhalese constitution took effect in 1972, the Tamil community has increasingly come to believe that the Sinhalese government is deliberately pursuing policies that seek to stamp out core attributes of Tamil national identity, and that Buddhist religious goals are the driving force behind this program. In response, the Tamil community has supported higher and higher intensities of armed resistance and individual self-sacrifice in order to preserve the ability to perpetrate its national heritage without interference from others. Suicide attack became the signature weapon of the LTTE’s national liberation strategy when all other means had failed.

Sinhalese Occupation of the Tamil Homeland

Sri Lanka is an island-state off the coast of India. In 1990, it had a population of about 17.2 million people, composed of 74 percent Sinhalese (predominately Buddhists), 18 percent Tamils (mainly Hindu), and 8 percent other (mostly Muslims). The Tamil minority are concentrated in the northern and eastern regions and call this land ‘Tamil Eelam’, the term for their ancestral homeland since Hindus first began migrating to the island in the sixth century BC.

Sri Lanka first experienced suicide terrorism in July 1987, in the form of a suicide truck bombing carried out by the LTTE against a Sinhalese military barracks and modeled after the spectacular suicide bombing of the US Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983. Before this point, there were no suicide attacks in Sri Lanka, even though the Tamil community had been politically and economically disadvantaged since the island achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1948 and became a functioning democracy governed by the Sinhalese majority. Indeed, before the early 1970s, Tamil militancy hardly existed.

In the 1970s, Sinhalese and Tamil relations changed markedly. In 1972, the Sinhalese government adopted a new constitution that accorded Buddhism ‘the foremost place’ and directed the state ‘to protect and foster’ it. In the late 1970s, the government started a series of large agricultural projects that asserted new, uncontested rights to Tamil lands. By 1989, these projects had resettled 163,000 people (92 percent Sinhalese and 7 percent Muslim) on Tamil lands; in other words, the settlers constituted a group roughly 7 percent the size of the Tamil population living in the north and eastern regions of the country (about 3 million people). A defining moment for Tamil perceptions of the consequences of Sinhalese dominance occurred in July 1983. Following an LTTE assault on a Sri Lankan army camp that killed thirteen soldiers, a major riot broke out against Tamils living in Colombo. Hundreds of Tamils were killed, more than 100,000 fled the city, and – perhaps the most significant event – the Sri Lankan government waited days before calling in security forces to restore order.

The rise of Tamil militancy parallels the increasing Sinhalese encroachment on Tamil culture and resources. Numerous Tamil militant organizations sprang up during the debate over the new constitution. The LTTE started as a handful of mainly college students in 1972 and formally took the name in 1976, but was only one of dozens of new Tamil guerrilla groups. Following the 1983 riots, the LTTE and a small number of other Tamil militant groups dramatically surged in size. The LTTE grew from fewer than fifty armed militants engaged in minor acts of violence to an estimated 3,000 guerrillas who began conducting large-scale military operations against a variety of Sri Lankan military and political targets. At the same time, the LTTE solidified its dominance as the main Tamil insurgent organization, effectively coopting or destroying its Tamil rivals by late 1986. In response, the Sri Lankan army began operations to root out the Tamil militants, culminating in a major offensive against armed insurgents against the LTTE headquarters in the main Tamil town, Jaffna, in the first half of 1987.

The Tamil Tiger’s first suicide attack was carried out by a special unit devoted to this purpose called the ‘Black Tigers’. This suicide attack was part of the effort to stymie the Sri Lankan military offensive against Jaffna. On July 5, 1987, a Black Tiger named Captain Miller drove a truck full of explosives into the Sri Lankan army camp in Vadamarachchi and exploded the vehicle and himself near a military barracks, reportedly killing seventy Sri Lankan soldiers. The inspiration for the attack came from Lebanon. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Tamil Tigers had sent fighters to train with the PLO and other terrorist groups in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Prabhakaran was especially impressed by Hezbollah’s 1983 suicide attack against the US Marine barracks in Lebanon and concluded that the same tactic could be employed to compel the Sri Lankan government to accept Tamil independence.

Shortly thereafter, however, an external event changed the conflict. In August 1987, India sent troops to Sri Lanka in an effort to broker a peace agreement called the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord. Although initially supported by the Tamils, including the LTTE, the agreement collapsed when the Tamil militants refused to surrender their weapons prior to the implementation of a popular referendum over the ultimate status of the Tamil regions of the island. From October 1987 to April 1990, the Indian army sought to disarm the LTTE by force, but ultimately abandoned the mission when both the LTTE and Sri Lankan government joined forces against it. Although the LTTE fought the Indian army tenaciously, it did not launch a single suicide attack during the period of Indian occupation. From 1990 onward, the civil war between the Tamils and Sri Lankan government resumed with more force than ever.”

A selection of Dr. Pape’s Omissions and Distortions

(1) India’s direct involvement in the Sri Lankan Tamil issue, since July 1983 has been diligently omitted. No mention is made of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and most importantly the dirty work of India’s intelligence agency RAW. To show that Pape’s reading of recent history is spotty at best, I provide the following passage from the Economist magazine of May 19, 1984, captioned ‘The innocents and the terrorists’:

“Stanley and Mary Allen from Akron, Ohio, a home-spun young couple, just married, went to Tamil country in northern Sri Lanka to work on a scheme to provide drinking water for the local people. On May 10th eight guerrillas broke into their home and marched them off. Six days later the innocents were freed unharmed and unransomed after reproachful comments by other officials of India’s Tamil Nadu state, and by 20 Tamil prisoners whose release had been demanded in a ransom note (along with 1.4m pounds in gold). Even terrorists can get embarrassed.

The kidnappers were from a group that calls itself the Eelamist People’s Revolutionary Front (Eelam is the name given by separatists to their would-be Tamil state). Its secretary-general Mr. K. Pathmanathan, who is believed to have had training in Lebanon, was picked up in Delhi with five colleagues and questioned. Mrs Gandhi, who has an election coming up, is anxious to woo her Tamil voters, but not to the extent of allowing India to become embroiled in a terrorist war: she has enough problems in Punjab. It was recently reported that three new terrorist groups had been formed in the Indian sanctuary of Tamil Nadu.”

Note that the K.Pathmanathan (conventional spelling being, K. Padmanabha), mentioned in this feature is a different individual from his namesake, who is currently in Sri Lankan government custody. He was assassinated in Madras in 1990. One of the “five colleagues” of this Pathmanathan was Douglas Devananda, currently a Tamil collaborator minister in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet.

(2) Information on other Tamil rival ‘groups’ is missing, and who supported them? The Economist magazine feature of 1984, quoted above provides some clues to this question.

(3) Why LTTE leadership opted to decimate the rival Tamil ‘groups’ has not been explained. This was because they were functioning as slave labor to Indian intelligence agency RAW’s designs and Tamil liberation was not their prime motive. The only motive RAW had for these rival Tamil ‘groups’ was to be of nuisance value to its then ‘enemy’ – the Sri Lanka government.

(4) Those who went to Bekaa Valley for training in PLO camps were not from LTTE. One of the important participants in Beka Valley training was Douglas Devananda, the Tamil collaborator minister in Sinhalese government since 2000. This sort of nondescript training at PLO camps by non-LTTE militants pulled in Israel into Sri Lankan war, when Lalith Athulathmudali (a pro-Israeli Sinhalese politician) served as the first national security minister in 1980s.

(5) The July 5, 1987 suicide attack by LTTE cadre was initiated due to Sri Lankan air force attacking the ‘guerrilla camp’ and killing 80 civilians. [see, Barbara Crossete’s news report, ‘Sri Lanka Air Force raids Tamil guerrilla bases’, New York Times, April 22, 1987]. Tamil Tigers wanted to hit back at the Sri Lankan military, causing maximum agony with minimal loss. That was primarily a shrewd military strategy.

(6) Surely, that Rajiv Gandhi and Ranasinghe Premadasa are “two world leaders” is a hyperpole of first order, promoted by the partisan Colombo media since 1993. The same Colombo media poured scorn on Gandhi during his tenure of primeminister ship, from 1984 to 1989. Rajiv Gandhi’s claim for ‘world leadership’ rests solely on his pedigree as the son and grandson of India’s prime ministers who had long tenures from 1947 to 1964 (Nehru) and 1966-1977 and 1980-1984 (Indira Gandhi). Premadasa’s achievement in leadership skills hardly merits a footnote in the annals of 20th century world history. Both Rajiv Gandhi and Premadasa (1) didn’t see eye to eye on the issue of induction of IPKF in Sri Lanka in 1987, and (2) had a fractious relationship when their tenure period that overlapped (from January 1989 to November 1989) are issues of relevance. Furthermore, the promoted Sri Lankan police view that Premadasa was assassinated by a Black Tiger assassin has been strongly questioned by authors, who are not LTTE sympathizers. Pape hasn’t read the works of Rajan Hoole (2001) and Bradman Weerakoon (2004), especially the latter was a bureaucrat Man Friday to the assassinated president.

Lastly, I would also bring to readers’ attention a review by Sri Lankan-born historian/political scientist Michael Roberts (currently residing in Australia) entitled “Blunders in Tigerland: Pape’s muddles on ‘Suicide Bombers in Sri Lanka” [Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics, Working Paper No.32, November 2007, 54 page text] that is available in electronic media. A pdf file of this review is attached for those who are interested. In footnotes 75 and 76 of this review, Dr. Roberts makes reference to my past contribution to this website, about Robert Pape’s cryptoracist ignorance. I should warn the readers that Dr. Roberts is senior to me, and I consider him as a fellow Sri Lankan-born academic colleague, but he is not a friend of mine. I have never met him. His period of stay at the University of Peradeniya and my period at the same university did not overlap. I have disagreement with Dr. Roberts’ interpretation about my thoughts, and I have corresponded with him only via a couple of emails, after I read his 2007 Working Paper.

Cited Sources

Jacob Hay: The FBI: Public Friend Number One. National Geographic, June 1961, pp. 860-886.

Rajan Hoole: Sri Lanka, The Arrogance of Power – Myths, Decadence & Murder. University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), Colombo, 2001, pp. 284-288.

Robert Pape: ‘Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism’ , Random House Trade Paperback, New York, 2006, pp. 139-142.

Bradman Weerakoon: Rendering Unto Caesar. Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo, 2004, pp. 300-304.


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