Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Is Suicide Bombing a Threat to World Order?

by Margaret Trawick, Hot Spring, London, Jan-Feb. 2000, vol.5, no.1, pp.21-24

hus when you write, ‘In South Asia, the LTTE is the only suicide capable group’, you are quite wrong. Farmers whose crops have failed are a quite suicide-capable group, as Frontline itself will show you. Young people who have lost all hope of a happy future are another such group. The more you deprive them of hope, the more you push them to suicide. This point has been made so many times before, by so many people, one would think that you of all readers (do you read anyone’s writing but your own?) might have taken notice. If you want to stop suicide-bombing in Sri Lanka, stop the suicide epidemic there. Give people a reason to live. Ask your government to stop taking away people’s reasons to live – their educational opportunities, their opportunities to move from one place to another without fear of arrest, their opportunities to worship peacefully at churches and temples, their opportunities to work the fields, their opportunities to marry and have children and live normal lives. Leave them these opportunities and I guarantee the suicide rate will go down, and so will the number of people who join the LTTE.


Margaret Trawick


Prof. Margaret Trawick

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

Rohan Gunaratna, Sri Lanka’s prominent ‘expert’ on LTTE and international terrorism, has many good traits. [Otherwise, he cannot hold an academic position in Singapore.] But, modesty is not one of them! He is currently a faculty member of S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His profile lists a number of professional activities and “selected publications”. His earned degrees listed are M.A.(International Peace Studies), University of Notre Dame and Ph.D. (International Relations), University of St. Andrews. Missing is the information about his first degree! Was it a B.Sc. or a B.A.? As I mentioned previously, modesty is not a trait Gunaratna does possess (as he have been caught previously by bloating his resume with non-extant positions at the international agencies), one would expect that he should have included his first degree, which I guess he probably earned in a Sri Lankan university. Which university was it, I wonder? Gunaratna is also notable for flaunting his close links with CIA for propaganda value, whether CIA considers him as an asset or not. Usual pattern is that CIA ‘assets’ avoid flaunting their links to CIA.

Nine years ago, I contributed a cumulative commentary about Rohan Gunaratna’s traits, to this website. It was entitled, “On Rohan Gunaratna: the ‘Temple Drum’ of terrorism industry”. That it seems popular among Gunaratna-watchers in the internet is evident, when you google simply the name Rohan Gunaratna. As of now, this appears within the top five items listed in google search. Subsequently, I also received few email inquiries from strangers, including one from an American attorney who was defending an individual in a case, where Rohan Gunaratna was to make a cameo appearance.

Though I was in possession of an essay on suicide bombing written by Professor Margaret Trawick (a social anthropologist affiliated to Massey University, New Zealand) that preceded my commentary, I had inadvertently overlooked it. It had appeared in the Hot Spring journal (London) in 2000. The simple reason is that I don’t maintain a computerized file on my personal collection of printed Tamiliana (books, booklets, pamphlets, Tamil magazines, research papers, and newspaper clippings). Thus, I provide it here, for the anthropological angle on Black Tigers presented by Margaret Trawick. One merit in Margaret Trawick’s views is that though being an American, she has gained Tamil fluency in speaking and reading. One cannot say that about Gunaratna; he, while being a Sri Lankan Sinhalese, is not fluent in Tamil. Margaret Trawick makes critical comments on a Gunaratna feature that appeared in the Frontline magazine, owned by the House of Hindu, Chennai. It appeared in the Feb.5, 2000 issue of the Frontline magazine, edited by Narasimhan Ram. I’m pretty sure that even if the Frontline did receive Margaret Trawick’s rebuttal to Gunaratna’s essay, it would not have published it. Balance and fair-play are not requisites for the partisan journalism of Frontline.

I have one disagreement with Margaret Trawick. She had stated that Gunaratna “is so prolific”. Not so, if one counts his publications in peer-reviewed academic journals! When I checked the Web of Knowledge database (of Thomson Reuters) this week, only 8 of Rohan Gunaratna’s publications are counted from 1997 to 2010! He must have been pretty busy consulting, globe-trotting and offering his services to various intelligence agencies and news media that he lacked time to publish in peer-reviewed journals.

Now, let me offer what Margaret Trawick wrote about Rohan Gunaratna’s pet peeve. Please note that the materials presented within parentheses, in italics, dots as well as the sub headings within the article, are as in the original.

Article Proper

In a recent edited volume on the war in Sri Lanka, of which there are so many these days (edited volumes, that is) an article by myself was included adjacent to an article by Rohan Gunaratna. RG’s came before mine. I guess the editor decided that RG and I represented two extremes of a continuum, and he must have thought it would be amusing to juxtapose our two points of view. I don’t remember what RG said in that article, but I vaguely recall that it was the usual sort of stuff about how the LTTE poses a threat to world security and so forth and so on.

Tamil Article page 2

In Tamil Circle of 6 February 2000, Raveen Nathan has put us on to another of Rohan’s delights. This is in the magazine Frontline, to which Prabhakaran also subscribes. (I know this because I first read the mag in the waiting room of an LTTE politicial office. After I’d finished it, they sent it on to VP. Better than any dentist’s office, hm? But I ramble.) The article is entitled, ‘The LTTE and Suicide Terrorism’.

Rohan, if you are reading this, let me say that I am really dying (don’t take this literally) to meet you, because all your work is so entertaining, in a grisly kind of way. My favorite is that book you published a few years ago (for sale at all Colombo bookstores) about the LTTE, with a picture of a suicide bomber’s blown-off head. Yuck-o! Gross! Nightmare city! Anyone who liked ‘Sleepy Hollow’ will love your book. A vast market of teenage American horror-pic buffs awaits your exploitation.

Plus you are so prolific. Your work and your name turn up everywhere. And one has to admire the single-minded devotion, the passionate commitment, with which you promote your cause of getting the whole world to fear and hate the LTTE.

But man, you must be sweating and trembling all the time, thinking what the Tigers might do to you. I worry about you for this reason. The fact that such obsessive phobias are common does not make them any less painful for the sufferers. The good news is they are treatable. The first step toward healing must be taken by you, however. You must confront the fact that your fears are in your own mind. They are not out there in the real world. Sure there are beasts in the jungle, but the beast of your fancy is not among them. Once you see this, you can be helped. You will, I hope be relieved to learn of my own research findings, which indicate that the LTTE is nowhere near as dangerous as you imagine.

Here are some things to consider. First of all, the ‘suicide bomb syndrome’ of which you write is comprised of two components: (a) suicidal people, and (b) bombs. Sadly, on your home island, there live many many suicidal people, and also, on your island, are vast quantities of arms, munitions and explosives. Never mind how they got there. They are there. And your government keeps buying new ones, and keeps putting them in the hands of soldiers, who keep leaving the army and taking their weapons with them. Under such circumstances, it becomes quite easy for you or me or anyone else with a few thousand rupees to construct a suicide bomber.

Moreover, if you have ever contemplated suicide yourself (heaven forbid) you will know that one of the strongest deterrants to suicide attempts is the fear that they will fail, and/or that the person attempting the suicide will undergo extreme suffering in the process. That Sri Lankans in general are determined and brave people when it comes to suicide is attested by the fact that the preferred method of self-destruction there is consumption of pesticide, which leads to a very painful death indeed.

Now, as compared to swallowing pesticide, the beauty of blowing yourself up, as a means of putting an end to it all, is the instantaneousness and certainty of it all. You press the switch and blame-o! you’re gone. Your head flies off, you’re dead for sure, and you probably never feel a thing. Plus if you’re angry – as are many suicidal people – you leave a horrible mess behind, that other folks have to clean up.

In the case of the recent ‘aborted’ attempt on your President’s life, it would seem that quite a large number of people were angry with here. Among these people would be, not only a few Tamils, but also disabled veterans opposed to the war, and their families, and the families of young Sinhala boys who died or went missing in the war and never were even acknowledged. If I were the mother or sister of one of those boys, I would be raging mad, I tell you. If I had a chance to blow myself up, and take out the person who ordered the death of my son, or even just shame and disfigure here, would I do it? If I were the mother of one of those boys? You betcha!

Thus when you write, ‘In South Asia, the LTTE is the only suicide capable group’, you are quite wrong. Farmers whose crops have failed are a quite suicide-capable group, as Frontline itself will show you. Young people who have lost all hope of a happy future are another such group. The more you deprive them of hope, the more you push them to suicide. This point has been made so many times before, by so many people, one would think that you of all readers (do you read anyone’s writing but your own?) might have taken notice. If you want to stop suicide-bombing in Sri Lanka, stop the suicide epidemic there. Give people a reason to live. Ask your government to stop taking away people’s reasons to live – their educational opportunities, their opportunities to move from one place to another without fear of arrest, their opportunities to worship peacefully at churches and temples, their opportunities to work the fields, their opportunities to marry and have children and live normal lives. Leave them these opportunities and I guarantee the suicide rate will go down, and so will the number of people who join the LTTE.

War profiteering

This point, so often repeated, so glaringly obvious, is ignored by two kinds of people: those who desire the war to continue because they want revenge, and those who desire the war to continue because they profit from it. I think both kinds exist on your island.

Anonymous Tamil Poem 1999In your Frontline article, you mention a series of acts for which LTTE suicide bombers are held responsible. I believe they may have committed some of these acts. I am not at all certain they committed every one of them. One example is the bombing of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy about two years ago. At the time, I was living in Batticaloa district, in a village under the control of the LTTE. We read about the bombing in the newspapers. I asked one member of the LTTE, ‘Did the LTTE really do this?’ He answered, ‘We get blamed for any trouble that happens.’ I asked another. He answered, ‘I don’t know’. So, they could have been lying – one must not discount that possibility. I asked civilians. They said the LTTE did it to prove that they could do it, to prove that no matter how much security and defenses the Army put up, the LTTE could still get through. But, they added, of course they didn’t know, they were just guessing. These were civilians who did not support the LTTE, but were quietly happy that the Temple of the Tooth had been bombed, because so many of their own places of worship had been bombed. A couple of weeks later, the LTTE issued a public statement, categorically denying any involvement in the bombing of the Temple of the Tooth. This statement was published in one of the Tamil newspapers. Everyone ignored this statement. But why would the LTTE deny performing this act if their very aim was to prove that they could do it, and, on top of that, if the rural civilian populace, that formed their substrate, condoned this particular bombing? It is a big mystery. They might, after all, have just kept quiet.

But journals like Frontline and too many others take it for granted that the LTTE did this bombing, and that, and the other – often with no credible evidence at all. The recent package bomb explosion in Vavuniya exemplifies this trend. Anyone could have done it. But even Amnesty International has assumed that the LTTE were the perpetrators. We have been shown no proof of this, not even credible evidence. Friends, please – anyone can make a bomb. Condemn the act. That’s fine. But do not judge a party guilty of that act until you have proof. And please do not hide behind ‘widely believed.’

Fervid exponent

Now, back to Rohan Gunaratna. You have said in your Frontline article that ‘The LTTE in Sri Lanka is among the deadliest exponents of the [suicide bombing] syndrome.’ This is pure projection, Rohan. Try to see. You may not be deadly, but you yourself are the most fervid exponent of the suicide bombing syndrome that I know of. This ‘syndrome’ is a theory that you passionately want the world to believe in. It is your own pet theory. In other words, it is your invention. Give it up.

Consider: if the LTTE have conducted assassinations of political leaders and others, they are neither the first nor the only people to do this. If you are alarmed at the fact of assassination, this is reasonable. To imagine that suicide bombing is somehow more of a threat than other forms of killing is silly. Assassination by suicide bombing is demonstrably unreliable. You call it ‘lethally accurate’ but it fails more often than it succeeds. This is for the simple reason that the killer cannot aim at his or her target, and must decide on the spur of the moment, in the midst of a chaotic situation, when to detonate the explosive. If the LTTE are still using this inefficient method of assassination, that is their problem, not yours. Be glad they do not prefer snipers.

We have already addressed the issue of suicide. The LTTE have among their ranks a large number of young people who are ready to die. I can testify from experience that these young people have already decided to die even before they join the movement. They join it primarily for this reason. They do not expect to return to civilian life, where they foresee a bleak future or none at all. The LTTE trains them and sends them into combat. Black Tigers are included in (some, not all) combat missions. It is in combat that Black Tigers are probably most effective, because at the cost of their lives they make holes in enemy fortifications. Black Sea Tigers ram explosive-laden speedboats against ships and blow the ships up. If the LTTE had an airforce, they could bomb the shops and ground fortifications from the air, instead, and the attacks would be much more deadly. But they do not have an airforce, et cetera, so they make use of their own brave combatants instead.

They honor all those who died in combat, including enemy soldiers whose bodies they are left with. We cannot fault them for this, unless we fault the glorification of warfare throughout history and across the globe. In countless wars, countless combatants have gone unknowingly to their deaths, and have been honoured as heroes.

Strategy of the Poor

In this and most other respects, LTTE’s behavior is not new. So-called ‘suicide terrorism’ is another name for murder-suicide, which requires no special technology, and which happens every day during domestic disputes. It only becomes ‘terrorism’ when it is part of war. In warfare – precisely because this tactic requires no special technology, but only courage and commitment on the part of those who deploy it – suicide killing is a strategy of the poor. In spirit, it is the same as peasant insurrections of early centuries, in which the peasants knew they would be killed, and only hoped to do some damage to their overlords in the process. No rich and powerful nation need resort to this tactic to achieve its aims. It is therefore contradictory to argue that the spread of ‘suicide terrorism’ is a modern, well-financed, hi-tech development, on a par with the internet (where, in other articles, you claim ‘terrorism’ also has found a home, on the grounds that supporters of the LTTE have put up a few websites – along with millions of other people of extremely diverse tastes and opinions). What you call ‘terrorism’ looks like simple freedom of speech to me.

Ethnic Minorities

In a similar vein, you state: “The Vulnerability of any ethnic group driven by ethnic nationalism to the use of the tactic of suicide terrorism is demonstrated in the Sri Lankan case. At a global level, suicide terrorism is driven not only by religious but also ethnic nationalism. In the long term, a higher number of ethnic communities are at risk of experiencing conflicts driven by ethnic nationalism. Only four percent of the countries in the world have just one ethnic community. By understanding both the contexts of and the vulnerability of separatist groups to the use of suicide terrorism, the threat can be addressed proactively and comprehensively.”

This paragraph deserves more than one reading. Please correct me if I am wrong in drawing these implications from it. First, ‘suicide terrorism’ goes together with ‘ethnic nationalism’. Second, the four percent of the countries in the world that have only one ethnic community are the least ‘vulnerable’ to ‘suicide terrorism’ driven by ‘ethnic nationalism’. And third, ‘separatist groups’ are especially prone to the ‘use of suicide terrorism’. Therefore, the safest bet is to be or become a country with only one ethnic community, because that country will suffer no ethnic nationalism, and consequently no suicide terrorism. Or, in short, the ‘existence’ of an ethnic minority within a country conduces to suicide terrorism, because all perpetrators of suicide terrorism are members of ethnic minorities. It seems that you (RG) are suggesting that expulsion or elimination of ethnic minorities is the best way to combat the growing ‘threat’ of ‘suicide terrorism’.

In a subsequent paragraph, however, you seem to suggest that expulsion of ethnic minorities is not the answer to the problem. You say, ‘North American and Western European security and intelligence agencies assess suicide terrorism as a threat to Western security.’ How is it a threat to them? Because they are ‘witnessing both enhanced migration of displaced persons and their sustenance by fledgling diaspora and ethnic communities.’ Such groups might harbor suicide bombers who might strike at targets ‘far away from the theatres of conflict’ and the very possibility of such events ‘can have implications for states hosting migrant refugee communities as well as those intervening in conflicts.’ In short, to provide a home to refugees forced to leave their native homes is to foster international terrorism, in the form of suicide bombing.

So, where are these refugees to go? If you do not want the members of these minority ethnic communities to stay where they were born, and you do not want anyone else to give them a place to live, the only solution would be to kill them all. Is this what you are suggesting? Why not come out and say it then? I have read through your whole article carefully, and have not found you proposing any other solution.

Great Sense of Humor

After all, even ‘one suicide bomber can have a profound effect on the political, military, and economic contests, especially in peace-building situations.’ You cite the military occupations of Jaffna (by the SLA), Lebanon (by the US Marines and French paratroopers), and the whole of Sri Lanka by the IPKF as examples of ‘peace-building situations’. Great sense of humor, Rohan.

It gets even funnier. We find that ‘Even for states with sophisticated military and intelligence apparatuses, suicide terrorism is hard to combat.’ Well, yeah! These apparatuses cannot even deal with simple suicide. Somehow their presence seems to increase its incidence. What in the world went wrong?

Poor ol’ Wile E.Coyote. No matter what contraptions he builds, he cannot capture the roadrunner. The boulder always falls on his own head, the stick of dynamite always blows up in his own face. All he wants to do is devour the roadrunner, and instead he becomes the victim of his own devices, and his own obsessions. In his eyes, the roadrunner is a source of fury because it will not let him devour it. We laugh and laugh. But of course, there is no valid analogy between children’s cartoon characters and great nation-states dealing with deadly ‘suicide terrorists’.

Research Funding

And poor ol’ Rohan. ‘After nearly two decades of suicide terrorism’, you observe, ‘systematic research examining this phenomenon evades both the scholar and the analyst…’ In other words, you seem to have failed to get the picture. You blame ‘a lack of intensive research into group dynamics as well as the political, military and socio-economic contexts that spawn and sustain suicide terrorism’. In other words, to solve this problem, you need more research funding. Could this be the real reason why you are writing this article? Are you living on soft money? Is there a chance your grant may not be renewed? May I suggest a solution? Get a regular, honest job.

But, okay, this isn’t fair. After all, toward the end of your article, it seems as though you almost see the light. In the sentence just after the one quoted above, you say, “[W]idespread poverty and underdevelopment exist in the West Bank, Gasa, Lebanon, southeastern Turkey and northeastern Sri Lanka, which form the recruiting ground for the bulk of the suicide bombers.” Yes! Rohan, you are almost there! And you continue…

Raping civilian girls

“Instead of regulating the environmental factors and group dynamics, states respond to the threat in different ways…” Okay, okay, getting there. Think about the group dynamics of soldiers raping civilian girls. Think about the environmental factor of poverty…

“For instance, Israel responds reactively to the effects of suicide terrorism by destroying the homes of the suicide bombers and prosecuting potential suicide bombers.” Yes! Rohan, you are hot on the trail of the truth. Sri Lanka does the same thing, only worse. Don’t you see? Just a little bit more…

“As the result [of Israeli persecution] sucide attacks have become more ruthless…”

I think maybe you’re there, Rohan. Persecution of an ethnic group results in their striking back. And the more you persecute them, the more they will strike back. And ‘suicide bombers’ are ‘poor’, Rohan, they are ‘poor’. Very, very poor. They have nothing to lose by dying – don’t you get it? And if in their deaths they can do something to help their people, to drive away the oppressor, they will do it. This is absolute hard core human nature. Self-sacrifice to save the people you love.

You know the truth, the simple truth, just say it. Feed the poor. Stop persecuting ethnic minorities. No more terrorism. Problem solved. But having gotten so close, at the end of your article you back down again, and you say, “In Sri Lanka and other states, the effectiveness of the state response to suicide terrorism has not been assessed.” I think it has, Rohan. By lots of people. You just are too chicken to say it.

And the last page of your article is all about how more research has to be done, extensive and deep research, and this research must focus precisely on your specialty, ‘suicide terrorism’, which you are at pains to point out is quite distinct from other forms of suicide and also quite distinct from other forms of terrorism.

Least Studied Problem

And so you conclude, “As a political and social phenomenon as well as a security threat, suicide terrorism is a least studied problem.” And thereby you reveal, just as we suspected before, what your true motivation is. You are not really committed to fighting the LTTE. This research speciality is just your bread-and-butter. You need for the answer not to be found, because if it is, you’ve lost your current means of subsistence. Everyone needs to eat after all, and all of us academics have constantly to justify our work in one way or another. Now I can understand you. You are not sick, you are just doing your job. In a way I am relieved. But in another way, I am deeply saddened.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead.



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