The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon
Part 11

Sachi Sri Kantha
[17 August 2001]

1987 - Paradigm Shift in Eelam

One reason why I took some effort to differentiate the muddling terminology of civil unrest, civil strife and civil war (see, Pirabhakaran Phenomenon - part 10) is to debunk the logic of some Rip Van Winkles among the non-Tamils, who still live in fool’s paradise by not coming to terms with Pirabhakaran’s elevation as a civil war leader. A typical example is a polemic piece authored by a regular contributor to Colombo’s partisan press, who uses the pseudonym ‘Leo Panthera’. Under the title, ‘The logico-semantics of Waging War’, this polemicist had expressed the following argument on Pirabhakaran. I quote a portion:

“Are we faced with a war, a rebellion or the machinations of a criminal outfit? Believe it or not there is no consensus on this foundational issue that must surely determine the parameters of the counterforce that we employ to quell the disturbance.

By common agreement a ‘war’ is the unhappy result of a conflict between states that has escalated to such levels that resolution is possible only through the use of arms. Is the ‘Eelam War’ of this nature? One would think not - but we have clarion calls from the so-called ‘International Community’ beseeching the ‘two sides’ to come to an amicable agreement. Here the unspoken assumption is that ‘Eelam State’ exists de facto or is ‘aborning’ if a poetical expression is allowed. Indeed, the state-controlled press carried recently a lengthy statement from the Media Minister (a Cabinet-rank official) begging ‘the two sides’ to forget the past and make it post-haste to the negotiating table.

If this is the official position it makes a paradigm shift with regard to which the public must be appraised and educated - not slipped in surreptitiously. If that which menaces the state is a rebellion, foreigners must be asked to keep off. If any kind of war is contemplated, it must be against those alien powers that are aiding and abetting the insurgents. Finally, if Prabhakaran and his gang are criminals - their unparalleled record of brutality and terrorism vouches for this - the culprits should be caught, put on public trial and hanged rather than being humbly invited to the negotiating table...” [Island, Colombo, June 29, 2001]

This laughable proposition can only appear in Colombo press. This Pirabhakaran-hater, it appears, has yet to wake up from Rip Van Winklian somnolence during which 15 years have passed by, proving that he (or she?) feints ignorance to the international coverage of events in Sri Lanka, which I have cited in the part 10 of this series. It is a pity, that this polemicist has yet to glance even what the Sri Lankan army has presented as history in it’s website, launched on January 1, 2001. The paradigm shift, which Leo Panthera writes about, had occurred in 1987. According to the Sri Lankan army’s history, Eelam War-I had begun actively in 1987. I quote:

“During the past fourteen years, there were many operations conducted against the LTTE. ‘Operation Liberation’ was conducted to wrest control of the Vadamarachchi area in the Jaffna peninsula, and was aimed at forcing the LTTE to enter negotiations...”

In these two sentences, the Sri Lankan army has acknowledged that its opponent in war was LTTE, and not any other Tamil militant factions. It also states that, it conducted many major operations during the past fourteen years (and counting!) and the aim was ‘at forcing the LTTE to enter negotiations’. By extension, LTTE’s leader Pirabhakaran has remained the civil war leader of Eelam Tamils for the past 15 years. The likes of Leo Panthera pollute the partisan press in Sri Lanka and India, and until they clear their muddled thoughts, Pirabhakaran-bashing will continue for sure. Eelam Tamils should comprehend why this happen, and I provide an explanation.

Grief Stages of the Sri Lankan State

In 1969, Zurich-born American medical doctor Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (born 1926) published a trend-setting book, On Death and Dying. In this book, she presented her novel idea of five stages of grief, which occurs in patients who await the death. I was introduced to the thoughts of Kubler-Ross, when I took a summer course on ‘Death Education’ in 1983 at the University of Illinois. I was taught by Prof. Barbara Sirvis that the five stages of grief, formulated by Kubler-Ross are:

Stage 1: Denial - the patient denies the forthcoming loss of life, and react by withdrawing from routine and social contacts.

Stage 2: Anger - the grieving patient becomes furious at the person who inflicted the hurt (for instance, who transmitted the disease) or at care-givers (doctors misdiagnosed the malady).

Stage 3: Bargaining - the patient then makes bargain with the God, pleading like ‘If I repent for the sins, will you allow me to live a little longer?’.

Stage 4: Depression - During this stage, the patient gives up hope of survival, though undercurrents of anger and sadness still persist.

Stage 5: Acceptance - The final stage of grief, during which anger and sadness prevailing in stage 4 tapers off, and the patient learns to accept the impending reality of death.

To remember these five stages, I ‘acronymized’ them as DABDA stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Later it dawned on me, that not only people but even nations or states can die, for which history provide many examples. When states are in such a moribund condition, the citizens of such states also pass through Kubler-Ross formulation of five stages of grief. The current Sri Lankan state is a good example.

Repetitive outbursts on Pirabhakaran by the Sinhalese in the parliament, multi-media and Internet can be understood, if we tag the five DABDA grief stages to the impending death of the Sri Lankan state. Some polemicists like Leo Panthera (quoted above) are in the first stage of grief - Denial. These folks can be labeled as Rip Van Winklians of Lanka. Many of the Buddhist clergy and media scribes in Sri Lanka are in the second stage of grief - Anger. They identify Pirabhakaran as the one who has caused the grief and vent their anger on him. Quite a number of Sinhalese politicians (belonging to SLFP and UNP) are in the third stage of grief - Bargaining. For the past 15 years, Jayewardene, Premadasa and Chandrika Kumaratunga have been making use of ruses to bargain for power, with Pirabhakaran. In my view, Sri Lankan military personnel fall into two stages. Politicians (the big-wigs) among the military are in the ‘Bargaining’ stage of grief. The foot soldiers (and their families) who face the brunt of LTTE’s power are in the fourth stage of grief - Depression. From what appears in the partisan press in Colombo, a notable percent of non-affluent Sinhalese public also have reached the Depression stage. See an example illustrated below. As of mid-2001, only a minority among the Sinhalese have reached the final stage of grief - Acceptance of impending death of Sri Lankan state.

Some recent examples of Depression (as revealed in Colombo Press)

It is a good exercise for anyone, who come across any commentary or criticism on the current plight of Sri Lankan state, to comprehend the mood of the writer by classifying the commentary’s tone, according to the five stages of grief, formulated by Kubler-Ross. Three examples are given below.

An opinion-piece, which appeared in the Island (Colombo) of August 9, 2001, aptly authored by a “Depressed Citizen, Mt. Lavinia”, illustrates my point. It commented on the recent Katunayake raid by the LTTE’s commandos. Excerpts:

“It is reported that the Bandaranaike International Airport and the adjoining Air Force Camp were guarded by more than 300 security personnel on that fateful day (24.7.2001) when our aircraft received massive damage from only 20 LTTE cadres. Instead of firing at the terrorists, some security men were sleeping, some hid themselves, and others ran away to save their lives, leaving the terrorists a safe passage to destroy everything at sight...

The security staff, of course, had come back to lock the stable door after the steed was stolen, and gain the commendation of the president for restoring normalcy in double quick time! This had been the ‘modus operandi’ of our security officers even when the LTTE attacked, inter alia, the Central Bank, Oil Tanks, Galadari Hotel, Harbour and Dalada Maligawa...

By the way, let not the Minister of Tourism waste the hard-earned money of the tax payers in trying to promote more hotels, and particularly in advertisements till the end of the accursed Eelam war. However much we may advertise, the foreigners are no fools to rush in where angels fear to tread, at the risk of their life and limb....”

In contrast to the verbal gymnastics of ‘Leo Panthera’ (who is in the Denial stage of grief), this ‘Depressed Citizen’ makes no bones about the moribund state of Sri Lanka, by yearning for the ‘end of the accursed Eelam war’. I provide another example of fush depression-tinged writing from C.A.Chandraprema, a regular commentator to the Island newspaper. Excerpts from his commentary entitled, ‘Katunayake debacle: Incredible power of total indifference’ are as follows:

“The LTTE has in the many years since 1983, grown as an organization and they have carried out many spectacular attacks. They have bombed to smithereens the one and only Central Bank, they have bombed the one and only oil refinery. In their attacks on military bases, the number of Sinhalese casualties are at World War Two levels. Nowhere else in the world does one find trained soldiers getting wiped out by their thousands in one go in internal conflicts. The casualty rates in the Sri Lankan army are enough to even frighten India....

The foreign media and the international community probably thinks the Sri Lankan polity may now be literally tearing their hair in anguish over the [Katunayake] Air Base attack. But those living here will know that this is hardly the case. Of course if an attack like this had taken place in the USA or the UK, the public will be feeling humiliated and furious. To feel humiliated, one has to have a sense of shame.

But the Sinhalese have no sense of shame. They lost it long ago. The country’s main air base has been reduced to ashes but nobody in the Air Force or the government has resigned, nobody has been court martialled, nobody has been sacked without pension, nobody has been demoted. After the Katunayake debacle the President even thanked the armed services for their efficiency. All that will happen is that the debris will be cleared after the insurance companies have looked at the remains and life will continue as usual. You see, the Sinhalese cannot afford to have a sense of shame. If they had a sense of shame, considering all the things that have happened over the past two decades, they would all be dead of apoplexy by now!...” [Island, Colombo, July 28, 2001]

Another regular analyst K.Godage wailed on the same day’s issue of the Island newspaper that the LTTE attack on Katunayake was a revenge attack. When one reads Godage’s analysis, one can see how he describes his stage of depression, which was filled with undercurrents of anger and sadness. Excerpts:

“Shock, deep sadness and insecurity pervades this country today, for we have been badly let down once again. The questions being asked are, ‘Who is responsible for our security?’ ‘Is anybody accountable to anybody, leave alone us the people, whom they are least concerned about?’ The words ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’ have lost their meaning in this country...

‘Disgraceful, quite unbelievable, shocking, pathetic’ were some of the words that came to mind, when I first heard of the attack. These thoughts were overtaken by anger and I am certain that millions around this country felt the way as I did. In recent years we have had six major attacks by the LTTE in the city. Does not the sheer ineptitude of those responsible make you sick in the guts? And we are said to be on some sort of war footing... Do not those responsible feel ashamed of themselves? Is there no self-respect left? I suppose SHAME is something unknown to the authorities. The LTTE leaders may be considering us as a pack of morons and imbeciles - and who can blame them? ....”

After providing his ‘two penny-worth’ of advice, such as upgrading of Intelligence of the state’s security apparatus by enlisting ‘foreign assistance’, to the authorities concerned, Godage concluded his sermon to the ruling mandarins,

“If the country’s main international airport cannot be secured from terrorist attack what more? Can any foreigner have any confidence to even visit this country, leave alone invest. The hotel cancellations are just coming in - and we can expect doom and gloom in the months ahead. What a let down!”

I would add that Godage should focus more on upgrading the ‘intelligence’ of politicians who cling to the ropes of power in Sri Lanka.

To be fair by K.Godage, he had included in his commentary, nine specific massacres perpetrated by the Sri Lankan army on Tamils from July 1983 to 1985, with a qualifying note that “The LTTE in their charge against the armed forces of Sri Lanka [has] cited the following instances of mass massacres. I cannot vouch for their authenticity of some of the incidents cited but according to them the following massacres occurred.”

Taken together, what one can gather from these depression-tinged writings of Sinhalese public is that they circumstantially pay compliments to Pirabhakaran’s strategic skills as a leader of an army. But Eelam Tamils should not forget that Pirabhakaran earned his merits the old-fashioned way; by trial and error, by experimentation and improvisation, and by specifically adhering to the three components of Edison’s formula for success - ‘stick-to-it-iveness’, common sense and hard work. What is remarkable is the fact that, during the past two centuries, he never had the benefit of a military role model among Tamils in India, Eelam, Malaysia or Singapore, to follow.

Brearley’s Thoughts on Leadership

It is opportune at this moment to introduce the thoughts on leadership, as presented by a sportsman, who knew his beans. Mike Brearley (born 1942) was a former England test cricketer, who is recognized for his winning record as a captain in the 1970s. Clear thinking, calmness under pressure and decisiveness were his fortes in delivering success as a leader. Currently, he practices as a psychoanalyst, and I enjoyed reading his recent essay, published in the British Medical Journal. I introduce this essay on leadership for the readers, to assess Pirabhakaran’s performance during the past 15 years.

Brearley’s eight thoughts on leadership skills are as follows:

1.     Seen from a distance a successful team may look well organized and cohesive; get closer up and you see, in my experience, the vigour and rivalries of a group of strong personalities. It is like a lively argumentative family.

2.     The aim of a team is not to remove individuality but to harness it in the intents of the whole.

3.     When a team works well all its members share aims. Selfishness is modified when our ends and identifications broaden.

4.     The good leader gives weight to both forces, the needs of the individual and those of the team. He or she will foster an atmosphere in which members of the group feel free enough to have their heads, without slipping over into selfishness. It can be a fine line.

5.     These tensions - self interest versus group interest, freedom versus equality, conflict versus cohesion - appear in all teams. Both elements in the contrast need attention, and a sensitive leader helps the balance to veer in relation to the prevailing wind, keeping the boat on course. The leader’s task requires flexibility. He or she needs to be firm and capable of strong, decisive action but has to listen, consult and give people their heads.

6.     Another area of flexibility lies between delegation and taking decisions (and responsibility) oneself. In the ordinary running of a team the confident leader can allow, from moment to moment, different individuals to be in charge, provided always that he or she can when necessary reassume control.

7.     There are always tendencies within a group to go against the task of the team, and at such times the leader’s responsibility is not only to listen and facilitate, but also to persuade, enlist and confront. At such times a leader needs courage and a willingness to fight the source of infection, as well as tact and freedom of mind.

8.     Another requirement is to have the capacity to free oneself from the prevailing emotional valencies...Team leaders need, as Freud said of members of his profession, courage.

In my opinion, Pirabhakaran scores well in each of the eight demands of leadership, presented by Brearley. What is noteworthy is that, Brearley had the benefit of a first class degree from Cambridge University before he embarked on his success as one of the two winningest test cricket captains (the other being, Ray Illingworth), England produced in the past five decades. But Pirabhakaran’s formal education was limited to secondary school in Jaffna. In addition, the level of risk and responsibility is more daunting for Pirabhakaran than what was faced by Brearley during his captainship of the cricket team. First, whereas Brearley led only 10 men, Pirabhakaran has to lead now around 10,000 young men and women. Secondly, whereas Brearley’s opponents in the field consisted of only 11 men at any time frame, Pirabhakaran has to face an opponent, who is ten-fold higher in head-count. Thirdly, whereas cricket, for Brearley, is only a summer game; but civil war for Pirabhakaran is a more serious effort.

Being a Classics scholar, Brearley closed his essay on leadership with the following paragraph, which is worth reproducing:

“Good teams, in whatever sphere of life, require a wide range of qualities that are in creative tension with each other. The Greek historian Xenophon, writing about the situation in 504 BC when the Greek City States were faced with threats of invasion from Persia, listed the personal requirements for an elected general: ‘ingenious, energetic, careful, full of stamina and presence of mind...loving and tough, straightforward and crafty, ready to gamble everything and wishing to have everything, generous and greedy, trusting and suspicious’. The situation has not changed much since 504 BC”. (British Medical Journal, Nov.4, 2000; vol.321, pp.1141-1143)

Judging from his track record, since 1987 to the most recent Katunayake raid (which generated the above-mentioned depression-tinged breast-beating by the Sinhalese public), none will dare to question if one asserts that Pirabhakaran fits the bill - word for word - of what Xenophon wanted in an elected general. [Continued].