The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon
Part 15

Sachi Sri Kantha
[22 September 2001]

Demand of Discipline


“A leader is useless when he acts against the prompting of his own conscience, surrounded as he must be by people holding all kinds of views. He will drift like an anchorless ship, if he has not the inner voice to hold him firm and guide him”

- Mahatma Gandhi, in Young India, Feb.23, 1922.

Eelam of mid-1980s: the frontier territory

When Pirabhakaran landed in January 1987, the then Tamil Eelam could easily be visualized as resembling that of a frontier territory depicted in many a Hollywood Western story line, which entertained us decades ago. High Noon, Shane and Gun Fight at O.K.Corral are some classic movies, which come to my mind.

If one re-reads Kiddu’s answers in his 1987 interview to the Asiaweek magazine (presented in Part 14 of this series) in 2001, the analogy appears so apt. The old social order, which was maintained by the Sri Lankan state, had begun to rot. Then, there emerged quite a number of puppet gangs, whose strings were pulled by the Indian Intelligence operatives. These puppet gangs lacked a flag and lacked a vision as well, though for convenience and masquerade carried the ‘Eelam’ tag in their banners: - Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, Eelam People Revolutionary Liberation Front, People Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, Eelam People Democratic Party etc. Pirabhakaran’s entry in Jaffna was more or less like that of the Sheriff in the frontier territory, riding up on his horse and marking his area of influence:

‘Listen boys, you’ve been trouble around here for a long time, so get out of town by sun rise, and don’t ever let us see you back around these parts again’

The decimation of TELO and EPRLF and later Tamil National Army (TNA), by the LTTE, between 1986 and 1990 had to be interpreted along these lines. There was much agony among the Eelam Tamils for deterioration of discipline, especially after the introduction of ‘gun culture’ in the early 1980s. But, discipline in the island’s public life per se had begun to disintegrate two decades before that, when the Sinhalese politicians wrongly believed that the maniacal mantra ‘Ape Anduwa’ (Our Government) would serve as the panacea for their lack of tact and leadership skills.

Demand of Discipline

The curse of post-independent Sri Lankan politics is the lack of discipline among the politicians who became the representatives of people. This came to be felt strongly since the ascension of Sirimavo Bandaranaike as the prime minister. The only Sinhalese politician of note who cared for a little dose of discipline, when he was offered the proverbial ‘power-stick’ was that irrepressible eccentric Wijayananda Dahanayake. He even dictated, during his short tenure of power (late 1959 to early 1960) following the assassination of padre Bandaranaike, that the ‘D’ in his name stood for ‘discipline’. He was a school teacher during colonial times, before he plunged into politics in mid 1940s. Thus, Dahanayake knew something about the value of discipline. When the SLFP kitchen-plotters couldn’t stand the heat generated by Dahanayake, they dumped him in early 1960 and with that, the essential ingredient which could have saved the island was also thrown out. Rather than the importance given to ‘the country’, ‘the people’, and even ‘the party’, the key-word in the SLFP came to be ‘family’ (read it as, Bandaranaike family) and with that Ceylon’s future as a viable and productive country was sealed.

When Dahanayake cared about discipline, he was in his late 50s, and Pirabhakaran was only 6 years old. The only island leader, following Dahanayake, who cared about discipline came to be Pirabhakaran, and when he instilled the significance of discipline for his cadres, he himself was youth in his 20s. In his strong adherence to discipline, Pirabhakaran stands peerless among other Sri Lankans. But other successful freedom fighters (Mahatma Gandhi for instance) have instructed their followers on the importance of discipline. Arm chair critics, bourgeoise scholars and pretentious Poo Bahs who are more literate, but less intelligent than Pirabhakaran, fault the LTTE leader for his monkish demands in discipline highlighted by ‘No smoking, No drinking and No sex’ for his cadres.

To assess the success of Pirabhakaran’s discipline, I provide two features which have appeared in the Time magazine (Asian edition), in a span of six years.

1.     Edward Desmond’s feature entitled, ‘Inside the Tiger Mind’ (Time magazine, Sept.16, 1991)

2.     Tim McGirk’s report from Jaffna entitled, ‘Running Away from the Tigers’ (Time magazine, November 17, 1997)

Since both features appeared in the Time magazine, there exists an element of coherence. The first feature (reproduced in entirety) appeared exactly 10 years ago, when LTTE had established itself solidly in the northern Eelam, following the withdrawal of India’s army. It describes the Pirabhakaran’s leadership style and his adherence to strict discipline. The second feature, which appeared in 1997, describes the mind-set of a Sri Lankan army. It presents snippets of the mind-set of a Sri Lankan army’s foot soldier (a deserter), revealing glimpses of the lack of discipline and why he was absconding from his ‘employer’, despite the fact that in 1997, LTTE had ‘lost’ Jaffna.

Now, to Edward Desmond’s feature.

Inside the Tiger Mind: Tamil fighters are forged from discipline, nationalism and worship of their leader
Time magazine, Asian edition, Sept.16, 1991]

“Just 300 meters beyond the northern-most checkpoint of the Sri Lankan army is a crude barrier across the road. Close by stands a serious-looking young man, not more than 16 years old, dressed in camouflage fatigues and carrying an AK-47 rifle. He looks over the Tamil peasants and a journalist passing through on their way to Jaffna and politely but firmly tells the reporter, ‘Don’t take pictures, and there is no need to talk to the people.’

The sentry’s stern directive is a measure of the Tigers’ remarkable obedience. Tigers do what they are told, whether on guard duty or in battle. The ultimate symbol is the vial of cyanide dangling on a string around the sentry’s neck – a vial carried by all the fighters, including their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Rather than be captured, more than 600 of the guerrillas have committed suicide by taking the poison.

To-the-death determination has been the Tigers’ most effective weapon in their struggle against the bigger and better-equipped armies of Sri Lanka and, in the late ‘80s, India. It has also ensured the guerrillas’ absolute domination of the Jaffna area. Whenever Tiger recruiters visit Jaffna University, they ask students, ‘Who does not want to become a member of the Tiger’s student wing?’ No hands go up. No one would dare.

The Tigers remain visibly popular among Tamil civilians, despite the fact that the guerrillas tolerate no dissent. Informers, complainers, questioners all risk the same punishment; a bullet in the head. The body of the victim is usually tied to a lamppost with a stark explanation provided on a placard: THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO TRAITORS. A group of Jaffna University professors complained two years ago about the Tigers’ heavy-handed tactics. One of the academics was shot dead; the others went into hiding in Colombo.

But the weapon of fear alone does not explain the Tigers’ success. Firm resolve is instilled during intense training and indoctrination. Says Prabhakaran: ‘Commitment comes from strictly enforced discipline’. The guerrillas, men and women alike, are not allowed to drink, smoke or have sex. Anything but unquestioning acceptance of the Tiger credo – to be loyal to Prabhakaran and to fight and sacrifice body, life and soul to achieve an independent state of Tamil Eelam – is taboo. Small infractions result in humiliating tongue lashings, usually in front of other Tigers; severe offenses such as rape, murder or bribe taking bring an instant death sentence. Last month a Tiger who had killed a civilian in a dispute was publicly executed.

Tigers are expected to live austerely. They have no personal possessions except their weapon and a change of clothes. Family ties are cut; the new family is the Tiger legion. A Tiger’s weapon, usually an AK-47, becomes the most important object in his life. The guerrillas are warned never to let the rifle touch the ground; they are told that at least 10 comrades might have died in the effort to capture it. Says Anton Balasingham, a spokesman for the guerrillas; ‘We teach them to transcend their egos and material pleasure, to subordinate their lives to a noble cause.’

Discipline is effective because the Tigers’ cause, in the minds of the typically poor and middle-class young Tamils they recruit, is just. The Tigers demand the creation of Eelam; they are convinced that the ethnic Sinhalese who dominate Sri Lanka’s population and government will not give the Tamil minority a fair share in education, jobs and government. Over and over, recruits are told of atrocities by the Sri Lankan army, a point driven home by propagandists who produce pictures of mutilated bodies and describe torture in horrifying detail.

The Tigers develop a passionate veneration of Prabhakaran, their 36-year-old political and military leader. There is Prabhakaran the war hero, who led the now famous ambush of a Sri Lankan army patrol in 1983 that touched off the Tamil-Sinhalese war. There is Prabhakaran the incorruptible, who refuses to deviate from his goal of Eelam despite military pressure from India, despite offers of money and power from Colombo and New Delhi that turned the heads of less resolute Tamil leaders. There is also the Prabhakaran who embodies the spirit of a glorious Tamil past, especially the Chola dynasty, a line of belligerent kings in southern India who in the 11th century invaded what is now northern India, Java, Sumatra and Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran plays on such history in political classes; he borrowed the Tiger symbol from the Cholas’ imperial crest.

It is in the end Prabhakaran whose will binds the Tigers. His followers call him Annai, or elder brother, and talk of him with wide-eyed awe, their only far the possibility that they might let him down. ‘He is mother, father and god all rolled into one’, says a guerrilla named Sunil. Government soldiers tell of a badly wounded female Tiger they captured at Elephant Pass. Her dying words were not a call for mother but for ‘Annai, Annai’. [p.20]

For reasons of shock, slant and surprise as well as due to deadline pressure, journalists are known to use words and phrases which sometimes appear less accurate, unless the context and nuance is understood clearly. In the above sketch on Tiger psychology, some specific citations need comment. First, Desmond describes that ‘firm resolve is instilled during intense training and indoctrination’. Here, ‘indoctrination’ is not the appropriate word. By the same yardstick, my daytime job also involves ‘indoctrination’ – teaching undergraduate and graduate students the discipline of lab research and related protocols. I also ‘indoctrinate’ students about how to communicate effectively with non-Japanese and even with laboratory rats. Secondly, details on the mention of ‘the group of Jaffna University professors’ who complained about the ‘Tigers’ heavy-handed tactics’ was also technically inaccurate in that only four individuals made that ‘group’, and none of them were ‘professors’ at that time, by the American or British criteria of academics.

Tim McGirk’s 1997 report presents a Sri Lankan army’s foot soldier, who is on the run. He was also upset that his discipline-challenged superiors stole his food ration.

Running away from the Tigers
[Time magazine, Asian edition, November 17, 1997]

“Corporal Rana is on the run. A tank gunner, Rana, 26, is one of the Sri Lankan army’s 23,000 deserters. He fidgets with a lucky amulet hanging around his neck, one that has shielded him in battle against the Tamil Tigers and, more recently, from arrest by military police. He was not the only soldier to go AWOL [absence without leave] from his 800-man unit; Rana reckons 300 others slipped away into the jungle or simply never returned from home leave. After serving nine straight months inside a war zone, facing a fanatical enemy who embraces martyrdom on the battlefield, Rana (not his real name) couldn’t take it any longer. Besides, he says, the officers stole his food rations. So during a furlough, Rana ran away. Now he spends his time at his parents’ village home, dodging the police and teasing his hair out into a ‘50s-style quiff. ‘This amulet? A Buddhist monk made it for me before I went away to war’, says Rana, still fingering the tiny golden cylinder. ‘There’s a prayer inside. It’s supposed to guard me.’

Slender as a flower stem, this talisman is nearly identical to ones worn by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who for the past 14 years have been waging a campaign of guerrilla attacks, assassinations and suicide bombings for their goal of creating a separatist state in the north and northeast of this Indian Ocean island. But the Tigers’ amulet contains not a protective prayer but a lethal dose of cyanide in the event of capture. It is a negative talisman of sorts, and a potent one, asserting the Tiger’s readiness to die for the cause. That shows the difference in attitude between the army and the Tamil rebels toward this grisly conflict that has left more than 50,000 combatants and civilians dead; the soldiers just want to survive, while the Tigers welcome death as a kind of devotional sacrifice. Says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, an analyst at the Center for Policy Alternatives, a think-tank in Colombo: ‘The average Sri Lankan doesn’t know what he’s fighting for. It’s an unreal war’.

Such doubts are not shared by the Tigers. The LTTE’s elusive chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, 43, is not only a genius guerrilla tactician but also a deft manipulator of symbols. He has tapped an undercurrent of martyrdom in Tamil folklore and films (his favorite actor is said to be Clint Eastwood) to create an army –mainly of impressionable teenagers – some as young as 11 and 12 – ready to pop cyanide or become suicide bombers for their leader. This fanatical loyalty, senior military officers concede, has enabled Prabhakaran’s 8,000 to 10,000 insurgents to inflict punishing losses on a Sri Lankan army ten times that size…”

The last paragraph of Tim McGirk’s commentary read,

“The army is readying for a major assault against Prabhakaran’s jungle bases in Mullaitivu district. But the army, like the Tigers, is running short of men. When only 450 volunteers signed up during a national-wide recruitment drive with a goal of 10,000, authorities tried to lure back Corporal Rana and the 23,000 other deserters. Several amnesties have been announced – soldiers were given back their full rank and salary - but when the final offer expired on Oct.24, some 10,000 runaways were still missing. Among them was Rana. ‘When I read about the battles, sometimes I feel like going back to my unit’, he says. ‘My friends tell me it’s better now’. One improvement they have mentioned; an officer who stole his rations have deserted too.” [p.24-25]

The punch-line that the officer who stole the food rations of foot soldier Rana also deserted the Sri Lankan army is humorous and ironic. It reveals that the officers in the Sri Lankan army may have surplus food and drinks, but they starve from surplus dose of discipline.

What is Discipline?

The 1991 feature on LTTE mentions about the importance of discipline to its success. That the Sri Lankan army couldn’t break the backbone of LTTE, during the passage of ten years vindicates the beliefs and claims of Pirabhakaran related to discipline. What in fact is discipline?

To answer this question, I quote an excerpt from a talk of physician Franklin DuBois delivered in 1952, entitled, ‘The security of discipline’.

“From time immemorial discipline has been recognized as an essential ingredient of man’s life. Experience has demonstrated that objectives can be achieved and individuals can be happy only if human energies are directed in an orderly fashion. Since a person’s desires often conflict with the desires of others, society has set up regulations for the common good, to which each member of the group must adhere or suffer a penalty…

Discipline defined:

“To arrive at helpful conclusions, one must first have an understanding of what is meant by discipline. The immediate and restrictive connotation is apt to be what is done to an individual when he is disturbing to others, but we shall deal with the broader concept that discipline is a process of training and learning that fosters growth and development. Its derivation is the same as that of disciple: ‘one who learns or voluntarily follows a leader’ (Webster). Discipline is, therefore, primarily the process of ‘making a disciple’…

While discipline may carry with it an idea of punishment, this should be only the discomfort that logically follows the pursuance of a selected course of action and is voluntarily accepted as incidental to the attainment of a desired goal. One speaks of the discipline of medicine, of art, of athletic training, when one refers to hardships foreseen and endured in an undertaking that leads to the chosen objective. Like the athlete, the child in training must learn to accept the restriction of many of his impulses. Discipline is, in essence, adherence to the rules of life; not a hardship to be endured intolerantly, but an educational opportunity to be welcomed enthusiastically, since it is only through discipline that lasting satisfactions can be obtained… [Mental Hygiene, July 1952, vol.36, no.3, pp.353-372]

Merit in sexual discipline

Radhika Coomaraswamy is one of the intellectual Poo Bahs, who happen to be a literate Eelam Tamil. She has critiqued the sexual discipline of young LTTE women, in her 1996 Rajani Thiranagama Memorial Lecture (Sunday Times, Colombo, January 5, 1997). I cannot let this criticism go untouched. The title of Ms.Coomaraswamy’s lecture was, ‘LTTE women: is this liberation?’. She has begun her lecture with the pompous claim:

“I am often asked, as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, what I feel about the women cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). As someone who has been entrusted with the task of attempting to protect women victims of violence, how do I respond to a situation where women become the perpetrators of violence?”

Then, she identified herself with one of the giants among freedom-fighters by the statement, “As women concerned with non-violence, we can only be critical of the dynamics which have led to this process [of militarisation]. As people concerned with human rights, we have to question and challenge any discourse which attempts to promote this perverse militarisation of civil society as a step towards the realization of equal rights among women.”

Having pretentiously identified herself as a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence principle, Ms.Coomaraswamy, in her lecture, subsequently ridiculed Gandhi’s other cherished values (of self-sacrifice, austerity, sexual discipline and freedom from the fear of death) as follows:

1.     “LTTE is also clear that the ideal woman remains a virgin; sexuality is seen as an evil, debilitating force… Self-sacrifice, austerity and androgyny are put forward as ideals.”

2.     “Death, not life, is celebrated. The greatest feat for a woman is to die a martyr. This celebration of heroic death is an aspect of most nationalist movements, but in the LTTE it is a major factor which determines and conditions the life of women who have dedicated themselves to the cause.”

3.     “They [LTTE women] are denied sexual or sensual experiences. This refusal to accept hybridity, sensuality, sexuality, the social mixing of human beings as an important part of everyday life, is a foundational principle of nationalist ideologies and the LTTE is no exception.”

It is surprising that Ms.Coomaraswamy has conveniently overlooked the mission of LTTE women. They are in combat duty and not functioning as cabaret artistes or fashion models or casual sex workers. Combat duty, as well as convent life, demands eschewing sexual thrill. Those who undergo special training and adhere to disciplining their minds can achieve higher goals than ordinary mortals who allow their minds to sexual gratification.

Mahatma Gandhi has shown the lead in this adoptive strategy and Pirabhakaran has followed the steps of Gandhi, in inculcating sexual discipline among his cadres. In one of his early works, to appear in print, (‘A Guide to Health’, originally published in Madras by S.Ganesan in 1921), Gandhi preached about sexual discipline. Following passages are excerpted from the chapter on Sexual Relations: 

“Many are the keys to health, and they are all quite essential: but the one thing needful, above all others, is Brahmacharya… What do we mean by Brahmacharya? We mean by it that men and women should refrain from enjoying each other. That is to say, they should not touch each other with a carnal thought, they should not think of it even in their dreams. Their mutual glances should be free from all suggestion of carnality. The hidden strength that God has given us should be conserved by rigid self-discipline, and transmuted into energy and power not merely of body, but also of mind and soul.” [Mahatma Gandhi, The Health Guide, 1965 edition, pp.145-166]

This Health Guide of Gandhi, first appeared when he was 42, and a quarter century before India received its independence. Ms. Coomaraswamy’s lament on the ‘celebration of death’ seen among the LTTE women has been answered by Gandhi 80 years ago, as follows:

”…Brahmacharis: They know no fear of death, and they do not forget God even in the hour of death; nor do they indulge in vain complaints. They die with a smile on their lips, and boldly face the day of judgement. They are true men and women; and of them alone can it be said that they have conserved their health…[ibid]

Kindly note that Gandhi had used the word brahmachari in a gender-neutral context. His healthy advice on sexual discipline seems more relevant for achievers, considering the pathos in the careers of John F.Kennedy and Bill Clinton, who were found lacking in this component.


Sexual discipline in Sri Lankan army

While Pirabhakaran has strictly enforced sexual discipline for his army, how does his rival army face the situation? The qualitative distinction between the two armies is revealed by the following feature, which appeared in the Sri Lankan government’s mouthpiece, Ceylon Daily News of June 19, 1999, under the caption, ‘Casual sex thrives in war climate’. Excerpts:

“Anuradhapura as we know it, was a town of religious and archeological importance. It bore witness to the rich spiritual and cultural heritage of the country. Today it has a different story to tell. During the last few weeks there were reports about unholy activities in Anuradhapura. According to the reports, young women from several parts of the country come to the town to provide pleasure for money to young men, some of them in the army…

Supplying women to young soldiers has become a hotel and guest-house based business now. Three wheeler drivers mediate between the two parties. From time to time, Anuradhapura police has been raiding these places, and rounding up women who loiter around the hotels and send them to the remand prison. Once they are presented in court, most of them are released on a 500-rupee bail, which is normally paid by the hotelier…

For hoteliers in Anuradhapura, this is a very good business. A room is rented out for 400 or 500 rupees per night. They hire women and keep them for their customers. Hoteliers are very supportive and protective of these women. ‘Sometimes these women who are rounded up and brought to the police station refuse the food given them by the police. Then it is the hotelier who supplies food for them and in the courts it is the hotelier who bails them out.’

Over the years, Anuradhapura became a camp town and a transit point for the armed forces who travel to and from the North. Invariably, they have a stop-over in Anuradhapura. Those who come from the South get off here and stay in camps until the time for their next flight to the war front. Some soldiers with nothing particular to engage in, loiter in the town where they meet these women…

Altogether there are around 40 hotels in Anuradhapura engaged in this trade. Some of these are well-equipped residential houses which have been rented out for 10,000 to 20,000 rupees per month…

This situation arose in Anuradhapura, because it is a transit point. Young soldiers come here. They look for a way out to release their repressed minds and bodies. In the town, they have very limited ways to enjoy themselves.

[According to Dr.Kithsiri Kaldera, former head of the STD clinic in Anuradhapura hospital] ‘There’s no cinema, no theatre, not even a park. We should look at the problem from their point of view. Many of these men have a common mentality about their lives and future. They seem to think this way: ‘As we are people who are destined to get killed sooner or later, [we] have to make most out of it for the short spell we are here, whether it is good or bad.’…

Women flock to the town around the 20th to 30th of the month – the time when the soldiers’ pockets are full.”[Malini Govinnage, Ceylon Daily News, June 19, 1999]

Govinnage’s Anuradhapura report, while confirming the moral bankruptcy of analysts like Ms.Coomaraswamy, simultaneously attests to the sound strategy of Pirabhakaran in enforcing sexual discipline among his cadres. (Continued)