Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Suicide Bomber Studies (SBS) Industry

A Tale of Two Women Scribes

by Sachi Sri Kantha, July 30, 2011

"The abuse that ordinary people suffer at the hands of the army becomes the primary motivating factor to join the Tigers," says Father Harry Miller, a Jesuit who heads the Peace Committee, a private body, in Batticaloa and who describes the suicide bombings as "inhuman." Others, like 19-year-old Kamaraj, have seen sacrifice in their family. "I lost two brothers in the war. Why should I stay behind?" he asks.

Black Tiger eulogy by Raji Shanmuganathan in Sooriya Puthalvarkal 1999

July 5th marked the Black Tigers Day in the history of Tamils. Though public commemorations appear muted for obvious reasons, there is no doubt the day was remembered in thousands of Tamil homes in Sri Lanka and the diaspora. I provide a scan of an elegy Tamil poem by Raji Shanmuganathan, that appeared in the Sooriya Puthalvarkal (1999) issue.

For years, I have had a fascination with the suicide bomber studies (SBS) industry and, in the past, I have chronicled the profiles of two men scribes (Dr. Rohan Gunaratna and Prof. Robert Pape). For equality, I thought, I should chronicle the profiles of two women scribes. Here they are.

Of the two, one is an academic, Dr. Mia Bloom (an American). The other is a journalist, Charu Latha Joshi, now Charu Latha Hogg (an Indian). Dr. Bloom has published academic papers and books on suicide bombers, which have Tamil Black Tigers as a significant component. Ms. Charu Latha Joshi-Hogg has published features about Tamil Black Tigers in international magazines, such as the Far Eastern Economic Review, and even in the BBC she has been introduced as a ‘Sri Lankan expert!’ Both have managed to visit the Northern and Eastern regions of Sri Lanka during 2000-2004, and interviewed Tamil natives. Of course, both were technically illiterate in Tamil. While Charu Latha is literate only in English and Hindi, Mia Bloom answered to me that she is fluent in Arabic, French, Hebrew, Russian and ancient Aramaic, in addition to English. So, their interactions with Eelam Tamils were mediated in English, by the Tamil natives who are fluent in English. To satisfy their visa considerations, they also cared to listen to the ‘official versions’ provided by the Sri Lankan government and media, dominated by the Sinhalese who have a visceral hatred for theLTTE.

My interaction with Dr. Mia Bloom

On April 25th, I sent an email to Dr. Bloom, which was as follows:

“Dear Prof. Mia Bloom:
From the material available in the internet about you, I gather that you have been to Sri Lanka and that you have done field work in the Tamil areas, about the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. I applaud you for your effort in reaching to the Eelam Tamils. As an Eelam Tamil myself, I like to know whether you are fluent in Tamil language (reading, writing and speaking) or like Prof. Robert Pape (University of Chicago), you depend on assistants to gather information about Tamils.
I'd appreciate if you can provide a response to my query, as I'm in the process of compiling a directory of American researchers who are contributing to the Tamil culture. Best regards.”

Few days later, I received an email from her. I provide excerpts.

“Dear Dr Sri Kantha
It is so nice to hear from you. I tried sending you an e mail off of a discussion forum two years ago as I used one of your quotes for my newest book about women (it was the Tamil Black Tigers' marching song that cited in Tisaranee Gunasekara, “The Inimitable Tiger,” Asian Tribune, April 30, 2006). The book came out two months ago entitled "Bombshell in Canada" and will be published in the US and UK this fall.

My research on the Tamils stems for the months I spent in Sri Lanka several years ago when I did my field research as part of a MacArthur grant. I worked then mostly in English and with Tamil translators although found that most of the LTTE leadership with whom I spoke did speak English. Thaya Master probably spoke better English than I did!

During my months there, I also circulated a survey which I had translated into Tamil (I was based at the ICES in Colombo 7 working with Radhika Coomaraswamy) and so I learned some Tamil to be able to give people the survey and ensure that the translators were in fact translating what I had asked.

There was one time when a woman who was not literate wanted to take the survey and when she responded in a way critical of the LTTE, the translator tried to change her answers... [note by Sachi: dots, as in the original.] so several years ago my ability to understand Tamil was preliminary at best. Now, sadly I fear that whatever I learned has fallen by the wayside.

My other sources of material have come from the Tamil expatriate community and activists here in the US and Canada as well as those affiliated with various organizations in Sri Lanka.

Finally, I also have access to US Government translations of all Tamil news papers and open source published materials (this was formerly the FBIS: Federal Broadcast Information Services which was cancelled abruptly by the government in the aftermath of 9/11 and became known as the "Open Source Center" -- which is anything BUT open).

In honesty I think very few non Tamils work in Tamil (I think Neil DeVota does as does Peter Schalk) but for the most part, the language is not easy to gain fluency outside of the region.

It has always been my hope that working with these linguistic limitations has not negatively impacted the overall findings of the research and this is where I often consult Tamil speakers in the field to ensure the accuracy of what I have written. Several Tamil Forums have been especially helpful in this respect. In contrast I am fluent in Arabic and have found for the most part even with this ability to read materials in the original language, the translations available by the open source translations have been accurate and reliable (although there are other issues with some of the Israeli sponsored sites regarding what IS translated and what IS emphasized). I am also fluent in French, Hebrew, Russian, and ancient Aramaic (which is not at all relevant for my research but I studied it as a child).

Regarding Dr Pape. He and I differ on many issues… [Note: dots inserted by Sachi, for proprietory reasons.] Best wishes
Yours very truly
Mia Bloom”

Then, on April 29th, I sent a 2nd email in response to the above.

“Dear Dr. Mia Bloom:
Thanks a lot for your detailed response to my query. I apologize for the delay in responding. Pleased to hear that you had used a quote that I had translated in your latest book. As of now, I haven't had a look at it. I will do so in the near future. But you had quoted that you had obtained the quote from Tisaranee Gunasekara's citation in the Asian Tribune. As far as I know, both Ms. Gunasekara and Asian Tribune were/are hostile sources to LTTE. The editor of Asian Tribune, is a kin of mine. But, I'm estranged from him, for his scoundrel behavior.

For your benefit, I provide the original material that I posted in the Sangam site in June 2004. In it, I have stated that the English translation wouldn't do justice to the Tamil original. That's why I asked you whether you are fluent in Tamil. I appreciate your frank response. Among the scholars you have noted, I was in touch with Neil Devotta and Peter Schalk. Neil Devotta doesn't know Tamil, but this was not so for Peter Schalk. He is fluent in Tamil. Whether you agree with me or not, my paradigm is that researchers should know the language of their research tribe. That Tamil speakers are fluent in English, is a cop-out at best. Researchers should not degrade to the level of journalists, who don't bother to learn the language.

For proper perspectives, suppose if I have to do research on Gen. MacArthur's tactics during the Second World War, I should learn English. If I'm illiterate in English, and I try to gather information about MacArthur from whatever available in Tamil, and attempt to write papers and books and pretend as a specialist on MacArthur, I'd be chased off from the podium as an impostor. You may not agree with me. But, as you show much potential in learning languages, I'd appreciate if you can learn Tamil and be fluent in it. Then, I'll be able to rely on your interpretation on suicide bombers. You might have heard of social anthropology Prof. Margaret Trawick who is fluent in Tamil. I bet that you can be in her league. Best of luck for your research. I attach my 2004 material as a pdf document.”

On June 2nd, I did receive an acknowledgment from Dr. Mia Bloom. It was as follows:

“Dear Sachi Sri Kantha
Thank you again for your e mail. I appreciate that understanding a language and a culture is necessary for real understanding. My primary field has always been the Middle East (and I speak several of the region's languages) but as I said before, certain fields require it (anthropology and sociology and literature). Many thanks for the translation. Best wishes
Mia”

I was pleased that Dr. Mia Bloom had the courtesy to respond to my email query, and rather surprised that she had made use of my Tamil to English translation of a Black Tiger poem for her latest book, that I posted in the Sangam site in June 2004. But, she had gathered it in a circular route, via anti-LTTE polemicist Tisaranee Gunasekara ’s citation of my translation in the Asian Tribune! I do take her explanation in good faith that due to my frequent peregrinations in work locations within Japan, chances of email contact going astray have been high.

Unlike Dr. Mia Bloom, I haven’t bothered to contact Ms. Charu Latha Joshi-Hogg.

On Charu Latha Joshi’s account about the Black Tigers

I provide below the complete text of Charu Latha Joshi’s description on Tamil Black Tigers. Of course, it was a half-baked treatment. But, something credible than the other half-baked nonsensical documents that have crept into the electronic medium and Wikipedia, and made their way to undergraduate and graduate students’ dissertations in the Western universities through copy and edit manipulations on a computer keyboard. In this feature, Charu Latha Joshi describes her visit to Batticaloa in 2000. Here is a list of Charu Latha Joshi’s sources for this feature:

  • Vasantharaja (an 18 year old Black Tiger): Ms. Joshi doesn’t inform the reader how she identified Vasantharaja as a Black Tiger! Did Vasantharaja carry a visible name tag in his neck identifying his status as a Black Tiger? Or did he willingly come forward to talk with her, merely because she was an Indian and a reporter for the Far Eastern Economic Review?
  • Dr. Anila Liyanage (a ‘leading psychiatrist in Colombo’) – a Sinhalese.
  • Father Harry Miller, (Jesuit priest) – an American from Lousiana state, who had been a long term resident in Batticaloa.
  • Major N. Gunasekera (Sri Lanka Army’s Batticaloa brigade commander) – a Sinhalese
  • Iqbal Athas (a defense analyst to anti-Tamil newspaper in Colombo) – a Muslim.
  • Markanda Narayana Pillai (a Tamil father whose 3 sons were in the LTTE)
  • Kamaraj (a 19 year old Tamil youth)

It is obvious that the views of four of the above identified sources (Dr. Liyanage, Fr. Harry Miller, Major N. Gunasekera and Iqbal Athas) would not be sympathetic to the LTTE. Again, Charu Latha Joshi failed to elicit any information about the army atrocities torture and rapes in the Eastern region, and report it for proper balance. Furthermore, none of the ranking LTTE personnel in that timeframe in the Eastern province (such as Col. Karuna, Karikalan or Kausalyan) were contacted by Charu Latha Joshi for this feature.

Suicide Bombers ; Ultimate Sacrifice

by Charu Lata Joshi [Far Eastern Economic Review, Hongkong, June 1, 2000]

He looks like any other 18-year-old Tamil boy. Average height, lithe frame, coal-dark eyes--features that make Vasantharaja almost indistinguishable from any of his high-school friends. But Vasantha is different. Vasantha will soon be dead.

In six months' time, the boy will leave his home province of Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka and travel out, perhaps to Colombo. There, he will strap a belt filled with explosives across his slight body and walk steadily toward a congested traffic light or a public meeting somewhere in the city. When he reaches his destination, Vasantha will press a button attached to his belt and instantly detonate an explosion that will kill him and possibly dozens of those around him.

In that instant, Vasantha will join the pantheon of martyrs of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which has fought a 17-year war for independence in northern Sri Lanka. The boy's picture will be framed, garlanded and hung on the wall of his training camp, to be revered by hundreds of other teenagers willing to sign their lives away for the cause.

Ask Vasantha why he is prepared to contemplate such a drastic action and the boy replies simply: "This is the most supreme sacrifice I can make. The only way we can get our eelam [homeland] is through arms. That is the only way anybody will listen to us. Even if we die."

In carrying out these desperate acts, the suicide bombers are more than just a particularly effective weapon in the Tigers' arsenal. They become a powerful symbol of control--the ultimate weapon with which to hold society to ransom. Their willingness to assume this role is born of a sense of frustration at the lot of the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka. Army intimidation is a fact of daily life for many Tamils, while young Tamils can look forward to only the bleakest economic prospects.

"It is a feeling that death and destruction is far better than life in the given circumstances," explains Dr. Anila Liyanage, a leading psychiatrist in Colombo.

Kokkurill, a village in the north of Batticaloa, is a typical example. Villagers say that during a 1990 crackdown on the Tigers, the Sri Lankan army arbitrarily arrested 183 people from the village, including women and children. In the years since, say the Tigers, the village has sacrificed more lives for the cause than any other in Sri Lanka: A hundred men from this village of 500 have already left to fight for the rebels, never to return.

"The abuse that ordinary people suffer at the hands of the army becomes the primary motivating factor to join the Tigers," says Father Harry Miller, a Jesuit who heads the Peace Committee, a private body, in Batticaloa and who describes the suicide bombings as "inhuman." Others, like 19-year-old Kamaraj, have seen sacrifice in their family. "I lost two brothers in the war. Why should I stay behind?" he asks.

Academics and prominent business people in the region insist the Tigers don't carry out forced recruitment; what pressure there is tends to be psychological. In areas run by the Tigers "young students are shown LTTE war movies and are given speeches by members of the political wing of the Tigers. That is all," says a schoolteacher. Every day, the teacher travels through checkpoints to get from his home in an army-administered district to his government-run school, which lies in an area controlled by the Tigers. Nearly a quarter of the Batticaloa electoral district, which has a population of over half a million, is under Tiger control.

International bodies such as the United Nations children's organization Unicef have for years expressed concern at child conscription by both the Tigers and the Sri Lankan army. But LTTE sympathizers deny that force is involved. "It is a people's movement and struggle and that is why young men and women join in without coercion," says Vasundhara, an economics lecturer in the Eastern Province University.

Others, who have been more directly affected by the war, appear to echo the depth of commitment to the Tigers' cause. Markanda Narayana Pillai, who lives in Kokkurill, has lost three of his four sons in the service of the Tigers. (One was a suicide bomber.) All three were given the title mahaveera--brave one--while his wife is called veeravati, or brave mother.

Pillai recalls the moment when he heard the news of his third son's death: "It was heartbreaking but I also knew that they had gone for a cause, for the country, for the people," he says. "I bore the sadness, with the thought that they were doing a very desirable thing." It is time now for Mahendran, 22, the family's sole surviving son, to consider whether he will follow in his brothers' footsteps.

"I am thinking of joining," says Mahendran. "The harassment that I and my parents have suffered at the hands of the army makes me want to take revenge." Mahendran claims to have been arrested and kept in custody seven times--without reason and without evidence, he says. "It is a question of Tamil pride, especially after so much sacrifice. There is no escape. One can't give it up now."

If Mahendran seeks to join the suicide squads, he will undergo six months of arduous training at a Tiger camp; at the end he will swear an oath of personal loyalty to the Tigers' leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran and place an amulet containing a cyanide capsule around his neck.

In reality, though, he is probably too old to be chosen. Prabhakaran, who personally selects recruits to the Black Tigers and the Birds of Freedom--the women's suicide wing--normally chooses young people aged between 14 and 16, and about three females for every two males. Women and young boys are often preferred to men for the simple reason that they're not subject to the same kinds of movement restrictions and body searches. Moreover, the layers of a woman's clothing can more easily disguise the bulky suicide belt, which is more conspicuous under a man's shirt and trousers. And then there's strategy: Maj. N. Gunasekera of the Sri Lankan army's Batticaloa Brigade Command says the Tigers prefer to use adult male recruits to beef up their combat forces.

The effect of a suicide attack can be devastating, creating panic and terror among ordinary citizens, who--more often than not--are also the bombers' main victims. But such attacks also send out a signal to decision-makers and the government: A successful terrorist attack confirms the inefficacy of the administration, demoralizes law enforcers and boosts morale among the Tigers and their followers.

"The suicide bombings are part of the LTTE arsenal and they have been used effectively to take on both VIPs and other strategic targets," says Colombo-based defence analyst Iqbal Athas.

Five years on, Sri Lanka appears no closer to resolving the Tamil question. And, in a vicious circle, this continuing failure to end the conflict is fuelling the Tigers' recruitment among the young.

In predominantly rural Batticaloa, the war has made farming no longer reliable as a source of employment and income. For young Tamils who do make it to high school, jobs are scarce and movement to the south of the country is restricted. The lack of opportunity and work in an area that has exhibited no visible signs of development for a decade is often cited to explain Batticaloa's high contribution to the Tigers.

"The fact is that despite all that the government announces, there is rank discrimination against Tamils in the most practical forms, at check points, at job interviews," says Father Miller. "The harsh reality is that a Tamil in Sri Lanka is and will remain a second-class citizen to the Sinhalese."

For these Tamils, President Kumaratunga's pledges of negotiation and devolution ring hollow. In Batticaloa, the Tigers continue to draw willing martyrs for their cause. And a war that has consumed more than 70,000 lives and drained the economy continues to find human ammunition.

*****