The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon
Part 21

Sachi Sri Kantha
[3 November 2001]

‘Pol Potist’ Label: Facts and Fantasy

‘It is difficult to say what truth is, but sometimes so easy to recognize a falsehood.’

- Einstein, in a letter to Jeremiah McGuire,
October 24, 1953.

Pirabhakaran: viewed by Pulitzer prize-winning journalists

While digging through my personal collection of old Time magazine issues, for teaching American English usage to my undergraduate students, I bumped into the August 12, 1991 issue, which featured the cover story, ‘Busybodies & Crybabies: What’s happening to the American character?’ There I located a one-page commentary by Margaret Carlson with the caption, ‘The Busybodies on the Bus’. First, I quote an excerpt from this revealing piece:

“American society’s busiest busybodies are in the press, where, under cover of the US Constitution, they expose, scold and ridicule public figures, and sometimes win Pulitzer Prizes for it. In the putative national interest, reporters have taken on the roles of mother superior, party boss, neighborhood snoop and cop on the beat… in its police function the press relies less on the Constitution than on the Ten Commandments, although not all of them. ‘Thou shalt not steal’ is much less interesting than ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’…”

I cite this piece since it touches on the game of Pirabhakaran-watching practiced by Pulitzer Prize winning journalists. Also, I like to note that the ‘Busybodies & Crybabies’ syndrome is not endemic to Americans. Indian as well as Sri Lankan power brokers also suffer from this character malady. The current Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga has suffered from this malady since her ascent to power in 1994.

Pirabhakaran: as seen by Joseph Lelyveld

As recently as last week, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist has commented on Pirabhakaran and LTTE. The New York Times magazine of October 28 [2001], carried a feature entitled, ‘All Suicide Bombers are not Alike’, written by Joseph Lelyveld. He had been introduced as “a writer and editor for the New York Times for nearly 40 years. He is the author of the Pulitzer prize-winning book, ‘Move Your Shadow’.”

Lelyveld received his Pulitzer honor in 1986 under the ‘general non-fiction’ category. To comprehend the September 11 horror experienced by the Americans, he had traveled to Gaza, Cairo and Hamburg and filed his story. To be fair, Lelyveld’s take on Pirabhakaran is far more accurate than Rohan Gunaratna, the self-anointed ‘Pirabhakaran specialist’ of Sri Lankan Intelligence Arm. After all, unlike the fart-catchers [‘a servant who follows his master closely enough to be aware of his master’s breaking of wind’ states the Slang and Euphemism Dictionary of Richard Spears, 1982] of Indian and Sri Lankan press, 40 years of work at the New York Times should have endowed him with some semblance of balance in reporting.

I stress that New York Times is not an oracle. But, compared to competition, it has earned its merits. Here is what, Lelyveld had written, comparing the Japanese kamikaze fighters of World War II and the Black Tigers of Eelam.

“At first the kamikazes volunteered to die for the emperor, under the impression that their hopeless missions could turn the tide of battle in the Pacific and save Japan from invasion. Off Okinawa in 1945, more than 1,000 dived to their deaths over 10 weeks, taking with them some 5,000 American sailors (a toll roughly equivalent to that taken by the two airliners in Lower Manhattan on Sept.11). As it became clear that the war had been lost, the Japanese command continued to make suicide its tactic of last resort, sometimes telling young recruits being trained to serve as human guidance systems on bombs and torpedoes little more than that their missions might be ‘dangerous’.

In the widely overlooked struggle of the Tamil minority for an independent homeland in Sri Lanka, the role of Hirohito is played by the movement’s shadowy leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, who has dispatched more suicide missions than anyone else now on earth. The leader offers an ethos of sacrifice rather than a promise of heavenly rewards, stressing the suffering of the Tamils and the oppression of the majority Sinhalese when he dines with Black Tigers – those Tamil Tigers who have volunteered to die – before sending them off on missions from which there can be no return. Like them, he is said to wear a cyanide capsule around his neck to avert capture and torture by government forces. In the best of times, Tamils have a high suicide rate, unlike Palestinians (whose suicide rate is well below that of Israelis or ours). But Tigers who appear to be unstable or depressed don’t get taken into the elite Black Tigers units whose members are convinced, it seems, that they can do something really useful with their lives by ending them. Often they operate as squads, one bomber following another in order to hit the emergency forces that rush to the scene of the first bombing. It’s doubtless just an odd coincidence but striking, nevertheless, that in the mid-1990’s Prabhakaran’s suicide bombers hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Colombo. Yet, in September, the Tamil Tigers branded the attack in New York ‘a colossal human tragedy’ and ‘brutal crime’. They then launched one of their patented seaborne suicide attacks on a troop carrier.

The world views of the Japanese, Tamil and Palestinian suicide bombers were as distinct as the contexts in which they operated…”

[New York Times magazine, Oct.28, 2001]

While I agree with Lelyveld that the worldviews of the Japanese kamikaze pilots and Tamil Tigers are ‘distinct as the contexts in which they operated’, I disagree with his comparison of Hirohito and Pirabhakaran. In Japan, by convention, this name is always prefixed with the title ‘Emperor’ and not used alone, but Americans are least bothered about the conventions of other nations! I know this better than Lelyveld for two reasons. First, unlike Lelyveld, I have lived, studied and worked in Lanka for 28 years and Japan for 14 years. I also have lived in America for 6 years. Secondly, unlike Lelyveld, I am fluent in Japanese and Tamil languages. This brings me to the point made by Margaret Carlson in 1991 (cited above) that Pulitzer prize alone doesn’t grant instant knowledge or wisdom to a journalist, however reputed he is, to comprehend the world beyond his reach.

Lelyveld also makes another self-prattling statement: “Wondering in the days after Sept.11 how self-annihilation had gone from being a tactic for spreading gory mayhem on a local scale to a weapon of mass destruction, I started reading up on kamikazes and the Black Tigers of the Tamil movement in Sri Lanka.” This is a strip-tease act, on the part of Lelyveld. He does not reveal ‘what materials did he read?’ He also does not reveal whether he read the Japanese literature on kamikazes and the Eelam Tamil literature on Black Tigers. I doubt it. Suppose how much credibility I will get, if I’m unlettered in English and I try to analyze the thoughts and maneuvers of MacArthur during the Second World War and Korean War from what is available in Tamil and Sinhalese languages. Also, I wonder whether he has bothered to read this series on ‘the Pirabhakaran Phenomenon’.

One should not be harsh on Lelyveld. He has, at least linked (without any justification) Pirabhakaran to Hirohito, whom Japanese revered. But the fallibility award for linking Pirabhakaran to a (now) reviled Asian figure should go to another Pulitzer prize-winning journalist John F.Burns of New York Times. His piece, ‘Asia’s Latest Master of Terror’, written in 1995, is widely cited in the anti-Pirabhakaran websites generated by the Sinhalese groups.

Pirabhakaran: as seen by John Burns

First I provide the few sentences of the piece from John Burns, related to Pirabhakaran. Then, I explain why the portrayal of Burns suffers from lack of reality. According to Burns,

“It is a safe bet that not too many people outside Sri Lanka and its neighbor India know much about the Tigers; fewer still would recognize their leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran. But they should. He has shown a blood thirstiness in dealing with opponents that has been compared with some of the cruelest figures in recent Asian history, including Pol Pot of Cambodia.

Mr.Prabhakaran, who is 40 years old, leads a movement whose deeds in scale, pale alongside the genocide committed by Pol Pot’s Khemer Rouge in the 1970s; the Tigers have never had more than 10,000 fighters, and their victims number 25,000 at most. But what they lack in scope, they make up in brutality as they fight to separate Sri Lanka’s Tamils, a Hindu minority, from the Buddhist majority…” [New York Times, May 28, 1995]

My criticism of John Burns is based on the following issues. First, he doesn’t state who has compared Pirabhakaran to Pol Pot. He throws in a smear statement, ‘He [meaning Pirabhakaran] has shown a blood thirstiness in dealing with opponents that has been compared with some of the cruelest figures in recent Asian history, including Pol Pot of Cambodia’. Reader is not provided with the information whether this comparison was offered by Pirabhakaran’s adversaries or by an unbiased observer. Secondly, Burns failed to mention who did the counting on LTTE’s ‘25,000 victims’, and what percentage of these victims are Sri Lankan armed forces. [For a breakdown on the statistics of LTTE’s victims, refer to The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon – part 14]. Last but not the least, Burns has failed to comprehend that LTTE is mainly composed of Hindu and a noticeable percent of Christian youth; but Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge were composed of 99 percent Buddhists. Pirabhakaran is a Hindu. Pol Pot was a Theravada Buddhist. This fact is hidden by the Sinhalese commentators and the anti-LTTE scribes of India.

Sources who tagged the ‘Pol Potist’ label on Pirabhakaran

Since John Burns had not bothered to identify the source who tagged the ‘Pol Potist’ label, I did some searching and found two references in 1990 and 1991. One is Mahindapala, ex-editor of Colombo Observer who was a fart-catcher to President Premadasa. The other one is N.Ram, the self-pretentious busybody based in Chennai. I cannot vouch whether these are the first reports, but these appear to be the earliest in my research collections.

Deanna Hodgin, who reported on Sri Lanka, for a cover story entitled, ‘An ethnic inferno in island paradise’ to the Insight magazine wrote,

“Balasingham says the organization (LTTE) is socialist but has lately been trying to distance itself from its formerly avowed Marxism. ‘The Marxist rhetoric is just an excuse to settle a one-party state with Prabhakaran at the head’ says M.Mahindapala, the editor of the Colombo-based Observer newspaper. ‘The history of Marxism has shown that, instead of the dictatorship of the proletariat, it becomes the dictatorship of the party, which becomes the dictatorship of one man. In that way, the LTTE could create a state like Pol Pot’s.” [Insight magazine, Oct.22, 1990]

One should note that during 1989-90, Pol Potism of Sri Lankan kind was unleashed by the then ruling elites in Sri Lanka, who while parrot-mouthing Buddhism killed innocent Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims. Mahindapala held a noticeable rank in the power elite circle as a torch carrier for the Premadasa-brand of Pol Potism. Thus, it appears to me that Mahindapala was one source for John F.Burns’s comment on Pirabhakaran. Once this ‘Pol Potist label’ had appeared in the New York Times, though softened by Burns with a negating note [‘a movement whose deeds in scale, pale alongside the genocide committed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge’], Mahindapala continues to perversely distort this negating note by repeating in his diatribes from Australia where he resides now, that New York Times had called Pirabhakaran as the current Pol Pot of Asia. Though he was an editor of Colombo Observer, he finds it difficult to present exactly what John Burns had written in his 1995 piece.

Six years ago, I wrote a critical letter about Mahindapala’s distorting view on Pirabhakaran to the Lanka Guardian, which Mervyn de Silva graciously did publish. I specifically included the name of Premadasa (not illogical in its context), to whom Mahindapala served as a fart-catcher. At that time, I was unable to check the original report of Burns which appeared in the New York Times of May 1995. Excerpts:

Prabhakaran Compared

“As a Prabhakaran-watcher, I thank H.L.D.Mahindapala for bringing to my attention, the New York Times feature (May 28, 1995) of John Burns on Prabhakaran (Lanka Guardian, Oct.15). In it, Prabhakaran’s blood-thirstiness in dealing with opponents has been stated as comparable to that of ‘some of the cruelest figures in recent Asian history, including Pol Pot’. Even if one takes this opinion on its face value, one wonders who are the other cruelest figures in recent Asian history, whom John Burns had in mind. If one takes a body count of innocent victims (not military opponents), Mao Ze Dong, Indira Gandhi, Suharto and Ranasinghe Premadasa should enter this cruel leaders Hall of Fame without any difficulty. Isn’t Prabhakaran, then in good company?

Unlike Mahindapala, I do not consider the New York Times as the oracle of the twentieth century. I provide a few examples where this venerable newspaper had to eat crow. These are culled from the book, The Experts Speak; The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation, by Chris Cerf and Victor Navasky (1984).

A New York Times editorial ridiculed in 1921 the attempts on rocket propelling by space science pioneer Robert Goddard as one who ‘seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools’. In Nov.5, 1932, the same ‘unimpeachable source’ of Mahindapala, predicted the re-election of the then President Herbert Hoover over Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On July 14, 1972, the same New York Times commented that Senator Thomas Eagleton as a ‘casting director’s ideal for a running mate’. Few weeks later it was revealed that he had undergone psychiatric shock therapy and was dropped by the Democratic Presidential candidate George McGovern. If the New York Times could not predict developments correctly about the events within the USA, how reliable is its assessment on events in Sri Lanka?

As to verbal abuse from opponents, Prabhakaran is not the first rebel leader to be sneered at by his contemporaries. Almost 200 years ago, the father of America, George Washington was roasted by Philadelphia Aurora as follows: ‘If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington. If ever a nation was deceived by a man, the American nation has been deceived by Washington. Let it serve to be a warning that no man may be an idol.’ Does Mahindapala know that quite a large segment of American citizens who were loyal to the British Crown were chased by Washington’s patriotic gang to Canada and West Indies? One who cites New York Times for support should also bother to learn the revolutionary history of America… [Lanka Guardian, Nov.15, 1995, p.17]

Apart from Mahindapala, the other journalist who has used the ‘Pol Potist’ term pejoratively to Pirabhakaran during the past 10 years is N.Ram. In an article ‘Understanding Prabhakaran’s LTTE’, which appeared in the Lanka Guardian of Feb.15, 1991, Ram has commented,

“LTTE leadership has a distinct Pol Potist streak in its character, methods and, above all, disregard for human life.”

Ram was one of the busybodies who believed that the Rajiv Gandhi-Jayewardene Accord of 1987 was the next best thing to ‘thosai’ in Tamil culture. He espoused the line that LTTE was the nauseating fly in the political thosai batter prepared by the India’s power elites for consumption by Eelam Tamils. But, as the following excerpt from the Hindu newspaper editorial shows, even in mid-1988 LTTE was not considered as ‘terrorists’ by Ram’s parent institution in Chennai. Here, Pirabhkaran is prefixed with a positive adjective ‘resourceful’.

“It might be too much to claim that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, generalled by the resourceful Mr.V.Prabhakaran, is close to being brought to its knees. The Tigers clearly retain at least a residual military capability and a substantial political influence. However, there can be no serious doubt that they have been tremendously weakened, for reasons which are perfectly obvious. They have lost not merely their major staging bases but also most of the sanctuaries; nowhere are they safe from the highly mobile strike capability of the IPKF; and they will face a quite hopeless situation if the present mode of hostilities continues much longer. It would be a serious political mistake to regard the Tigers as some kind of liberation movement capable of waging a form of inexhaustible guerilla warfare through winning the hearts and minds of the people; it would be equally unsound to write them off as a political force, or consider them ‘terrorists’….”[Hindu International edition, June 11, 1988]

Thus, it is safe to infer that when Pirabhakaran became unavailable to be tapped as a ‘source of information’ or as a ‘puppet’ to the designs of India’s policy makers, he came to be tagged with the ‘Pol Potist’ label by N.Ram.

Similarities between Pol Pot regime and the post-1970 Sinhalese governments

Contrary to Mahindapala and N.Ram, I take the view that similarities between Pol Pot and Pirabhakaran are akin to the similarities between salt and white sugar. But the similarities between the post-1970 Sinhalese governments and Pol Pot regime (April 1975-Jan.1979) are like that of lime and lemon. Let me list the similarities.

(1)  Who prided themselves as pious Buddhists? Pol Pot’s henchmen and the ruling elites of Sri Lanka.

(2)  Who were supported by the Communist China with aid and arms? Pol Pot and the Sinhalese governments.

(3)  Who received the official sanction for their actions from Uncle Sam? Pol Pot and the Sinhalese governments.

(4)  Who killed their own ethnics in numbers exceeding 20,000, in the name of socialism? Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime in alignment with the Communist Party, during the April 1971 insurrection. In fact, this exhibition of state-sponsored terrorism pre-dated Pol Pot’s rule in Cambodia by merely 4 years, and could have inspired Pol Pot’s gang to an extent, considering that Sirimavo Bandaranaike received support from China for extinguishing the JVP rebellion.

(5)  Who recognized the Pol Pot’s regime in Sri Lanka? Again, Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s socialist power brokers recognized Pol Pot’s regime between 1975 and 1979. When Mrs.Bandaranaike organized the 5th Non-Aligned Movement’s Conference in August 1976, guess who represented Pol Pot’s regime for that conference? The current leader of Cambodia, Hun Sen, who was then the foreign minister to Pol Pot’s regime. Subsequently Hun Sen parted company with Pol Pot and returned to power as Vietnam-backed leader of Cambodia. That’s another story.

The link between the noxious strand of Theravada Buddhist activism cum half-baked communism in Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Bandaranaike clan’s Sri Lanka is a virgin territory for exploration. 95 percent of the Cambodian population practises Theravada Buddhism, and 70 percent of the Sinhalese also practise Theravada Buddhism. Power-holders in both countries have been nominally these Theravada Buddhists. But the loud-mouths of Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism such as Susantha Goonetilleke and Nalin de Silva, for whom Pirabhakaran appears as a demon, would never bother to explore this territory for obvious reasons of discomfort. In this context, the following news report from the Ceylon Daily News in 1999  by Nemsiri Mutukumara makes interesting reading. Excerpts:

“Ambassador [Karunatilake] Amunugama made an official visit to Phnom Penh where he met Cambodia’s Foreign Minister and other high ranking government officials. He also paid a courtesy call on the high ranking Bhikku Sangha of Cambodia and expressed his gratitude personally for accepting the Sri Lanka invitation and attending the Buddhist Conference last year. Currently, Sri Lanka educators are providing consultancy service and educational administrational techniques in regenerating Pali and Buddhist education to the bhikku Sangha and Buddhist women….

Recalling his first overseas visit as Cambodian Foreign Minister, Mr.Hun Sen has expressed his pleasant memories of the Non-Aligned Nations Summit Conference held at the BMICH in Colombo in 1976 presided over by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. His meeting with Sri Lankan leaders of the day is considered absolutely beneficial for Cambodia, the Prime Minister has said…”[Ceylon Daily News, Dec.28, 1999]

I found this comment by Hun Sen quite appealing. He visited Colombo in 1976, as a 25-year old Foreign Minister of Pol Pot regime. That was supposed to be his first overseas trip. But one can read more from that remark, related to what was happening in Cambodia then. Also, it somewhat reinforces the fourth point I had stated above on state-sponsored terrorism as well. As recently as last July, Nuon Chea (who was Pol Pot’s deputy, and then ranking above Hun Sen) declared,

“I was not a big person in the Khmer Rouge. I was in charge of education, not the military. I fulfilled my duty to my nation and to Buddhism. Anyway, how do you know that all the skulls in the killing fields stem from the Khmer Rouge period? Many people died during [local coups], the US bombings and the Vietnamese invasion. No one thinks about that.” [Asiaweek magazine, July 20, 2001]

Nuon Chea sounds like President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s elderly uncle, in denying his nefarious role during Pol Pot’s regime. The bottom line is Pol Potists were noxious Theravada Buddhists cum half-baked Communists and Pirabhakaran is neither a Buddhist nor a Communist. Theravada Buddhism is a great religion and many millions in the world practise it strictly according to the book. But the combination of Theravada Buddhism cum half-baked communism in the hands of ruling power elites was a noxious mixture. It was covertly supported by China. It poisoned the fields of Cambodia during Pol Pot’s regime and the southern Sri Lanka in 1971, followed by the torturing and killing of Tamils, which began with incarceration of Tamil youth who opposed the 1972 Republican Constitution of Sri Lanka. While Pol Pot’s regime was loading it over the innocent Cambodian peasants between 1975 and 1978, Eelam Tamils also suffered in 1977 following the general election. The newly anointed J.R.Jayewardene government accused the defeated SLFP-CP sympathizers as instigators of terrorism against the Tamils, who had voted for a plebiscite on Eelam in the Northern and Eastern provinces. But the apologists for the Buddhist ruling elites ignored the evidence that the ‘Indian' Tamils who were living in the Central provinces of Sri Lanka and who did not vote for a plebiscite on Eelam were equally tortured and killed by the Pol Potist elements among the Buddhist community in Sri Lanka.

Another vital parallel between the Pol Potists in Cambodia who destroyed the educational elements in the society between 1975 and 1978 and the Theravada Buddhists in Sri Lanka was seen in the ‘bibliocaust’ (book burning) practised by the Buddhist hooligans during the 1977 torture against the Eelam Tamils. The ‘trial run’ for the 1981 Jaffna Public Library bibliocaust was conducted in the houses and rented apartments of Colombo suburbs where Tamils lived. Personally, I mourned the loss of my friend M.K.Eelaventhan’s valuable book collection on Eelam Tamil heritage. India’s ‘busybody’ journalists like N.Ram and Praful Bidwai who began tagging LTTE idiotically, with the ‘Pol Potist’ appellation in early 1990s, are ignorant (or conveniently hide) the fact that Pol Potism in Sri Lanka practised by the Theravada Buddhists cum half-baked Communists ante-dated the ascent of Pirabhakaran. That is why, China patronized the Pol Potist ruling elites in Cambodia and Sri Lanka equally. Ruling elites of China never patronized Pirabhakaran, though next to Giap, he has remained as the best exponent of Mao’s teachings on warfare in Asia. (Continued).