The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon
Part 3

Sachi Sri Kantha
[23 May 2001]

Learning from Mistakes

If there is one attribute which consistently has helped Pirabhakaran in his climb to success, one can say that he possesses the sixth sense in learning from the mistakes of self and rivals, so as to switch them into benefits for his group. Legendary chess champions and other great sportsmen like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan were blessed with this skill. There is no disagreement that during the past two decades, Pirabhakaran has made a few mistakes. He himself has acknowledged openly to a couple of these. Before I present Pirabhakaran’s acknowledged mistake, I wish to share some general thoughts on mistakes.

No sane human can brag that he or she is immune from mistake in his or her life. This is particularly true for leaders. A true military leader learns from his mistakes before it becomes costlier in terms of lives and limbs. This learning from the mistake is what contributes to the resilience and what makes or breaks a leader’s hold on his followers. On mistakes and leadership, the thoughts of Isoroku Yamamoto, the legendary Admiral who led Japan to her early military successes in the Second World War, is worth to ponder.

“A man of real purpose puts his faith in himself always. Sometimes he refuses even to put his faith in the gods. So from time to time he falls into error. This was often true of Lincoln. But that doesn’t detract from his greatness. A man isn’t a god. Committing errors is part of his attraction as a human being; it inspires a feeling of warmth toward him, and so admiration and devotion are aroused. In this sense, Lincoln was a very human man. Without this quality, one can’t lead others. Only if people have this quality can they forgive each other’s mistakes and help each other.”

[H.Agawa - The Reluctant Admiral: Yamamoto and the Imperial Navy,

Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1990 printing, p.85]

As an aside, I note that my academic lineage tangentially links to Admiral Yamamoto, via Professor Osamu Hayaishi, who was my mentor at the Osaka Bioscience Institute. Professor Hayaishi (now 81, and still active) is one of the eminent, internationally recognized biochemists of our times. After graduating from the Osaka University School of Medicine in 1942, he served as a rookie medical officer in the Japanese Navy for three years. During the four years I was a member of his research group, I always appreciated his inquisitiveness in finding something to learn from the mistakes made in experiments. He felt more happy when we reported the mistakes we made in experiments, than when we reported ‘good results’. Little by little, I also grasped the value of learning from mistakes and I have a feel that Admiral Yamamoto’s thoughts on mistakes and leadership were passed to me by Professor Hayaishi. If one accepts the wisdom, ‘To err is human’, then success is blessed for those who learn from their mistakes, by recognizing their mistakes first. Politicians are the last breed everywhere to acknowledge their mistakes and Sri Lankan politicians are no exceptions. Has Chandrika Kumaratunga ever acknowledged until now that her 1994 election pledge to abolish the executive presidency was a mistake?

At least three causes can be attributed to any mistake; namely, inexperience, incompetence and vanity. Also, self protection (or in the case of a leader, protection of his group from adversaries) can be a fourth vital cause for mistakes. Children and teenages make mistake mainly due to inexperience. That’s why they receive guidance from elders (parents and teachers) in the society. Adults make mistake mainly due to incompetence and vanity.

A leader whose mistakes result from vanity can be expected to lose his or her leadership status sooner than later. Amirthalingam’s tactical mistakes between 1977 and 1983 in his deals with the then ruling UNP, as well as India’s Intelligence-wallahs, propelled the next generation of Eelam Tamils into the leadership stakes. Here is an example of how Pirabhakaran gained from the mistakes of his rivals (Uma Maheswaran and Sri Sabaratnam) for the Eelam leadership in mid 1980s, while living in Madras. This was in relation to the bond he came to develop with MGR, who was then the popular and powerful Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. The following excerpt is from Narayan Swamy’s book, Tigers of Lanka.

“...Nobody could surmise what their relationship was like. ‘It was some chemistry’, said Panrutti S.Ramachandran, MGR’s hatchet man on Sri Lanka. And the relationship lasted almost until MGR’s death in December 1987, even after the IPKF cracked down on the LTTE. Others in Madras thought MGR saw in Prabhakaran the replica of the big screen hero that he himself was, fighting for a just cause. But there were two other factors to the MGR-Prabhakaran bonhomie. And they had to do with TELO supremo Sri Sabarattinam and PLOT’s Uma.

“Sri, in contrast to Prabhakaran, moved close to Karunanidhi, hailing him and privately rebuking MGR. His belief that TELO was New Delhi’s favourite and so could get away with murder possibly led him to commit this political sacrilege. It was also at Sri’s initiative that he, Pathmanabha and Balakumar called on Karunanidhi after the formation of the ENLF in April 1984.

“Uma, on the other hand, began as a MGR favourite. They were so close at one point after the 1983 riots that MGR would publicly put his arms over Uma’s shoulders while talking to him, as if they were long lost chums. But Uma fell out because of his close links with S.D.Somasundaram, an AIADMK leader who by the middle of 1984 had rebelled against MGR. Uma disregarded advice from colleagues that he should avoid getting involved in Tamil Nadu politics and maintain a distance from Karunanidhi. Uma’s aversion to Mohan Das, the police officer, also proved to be his undoing. The Tamil Nadu police naturally turned against Uma. The eclipse of Sabarattinam and Uma eventually helped Prabhakaran to become MGR’s favourite.”

[M.R.Narayan Swamy - Tigers of Lanka, 2nd edition, 1996, pp.129-130]

One can infer a couple of salient facts. In mid-1980s, Pirabhakaran was on par with Uma Maheswaran and Sri Sabaratnam for the leadership contest among Tamil rebels. The ‘make or break point’ came from how each of these three aspirants for Eelam leadership projected their personalities to MGR. The mistakes made by Uma Maheswaran and Sri Sabaratnam were that they were hastily tilting towards S.D.Somasundaram (then a senior leader of AIADMK who was becoming a thorn to MGR) and Karunanidhi respectively. In 1984, MGR suffered a serious, debilitating stroke, and in hindsight one can note that Uma Maheswaran and Sri Sabaratnam were framing their plans for the post-MGR scenario. Opposingly, Pirabhakaran was more closer in MGR’s orbit. Luck and providence made MGR to live for another three years, while holding the rank of the chief ministership, which permitted growth and sustenance for LTTE. Thus, incompetence resulting from lack of intelligence (as proved by their servile reliance on India’s Intelligence-wallahs) and vanity cost much to Uma Maheswaran and Sri Sabaratnam, and they lost the battle of Eelam leadership to Pirabhakaran. Now, to Pirabhakaran’s acknowledged mistake - the 1991 Battle of Elephant Pass.

1991 Battle of Elephant Pass

The seeds for the success of capturing the Elephant Pass by LTTE in 2000 were sown in the 1991 Battle of Elephant Pass. For record, I reproduce the Time magazine’s report [Sept.16, 1991], written by Edward Desmond.

“Elephant Pass may one day be remembered as the key battle in the long-running war of the Tamil Tigers to gain an independent homeland in Sri Lanka. But for which side? After 24 days of fighting, last July, government troops carried the day, but the Tigers’ defeat only hardened support among the island’s Tamils for the fanatical guerrilla fighters who refuse to give up the struggle. If nothing else, the battle of Elephant Pass marked a new level of fury in a war that has already claimed 18,000 lives and is likely to take many more.

“For eight years the Tigers had kept the armies of Sri Lanka - and, between 1987 and 1990, India - at bay with the classic guerrilla tactics of ambush and evasion. Two months ago, they tried something new: a conventional assault on a well-entrenched army of detachment at the head of Elephant Pass, a narrow 2-km stretch of dunes and marsh that connects the Sri Lankan mainland to the Jaffna Peninsula, a Tiger homeland. The guerrillas intended to overrun the base and regain control of the causeway, a decision that gave the army a rare opportunity to fight the elusive Tigers in the open, where its artillery and attack helicopters could be better used.

“The battle lasted more than three weeks. Despite months of preparation, the Tigers failed to capture the army base. In the end they withdrew; at least 564 of them had died. Nearly 200 government troops were also killed, but the army had won its firtst large-scale engagement with the Tigers. Senior officers assumed the setback had thrown the Tigers off-balance and rushed to follow up on their advantage.

“Last week the army launched an offensive of its own, Operation Lightning Strike, aimed at taking the Tiger’s largest stronghold, deep in the Mullaitivu jungle of northern Sri Lanka. According to army sources, 13 soldiers and more than 200 Tigers, including three area leaders, were killed in the skirmishes. Says Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, who heads the field operations against the Tigers: ‘Nothing is going to stop us now. Our mission is to seek them out, kill as many as possible and destroy their fighting capability’. Such confidence looks premature given the Tigers’ history of quick recovery from setbacks and the broad backing they enjoy among Sri Lanka’s 2.4 million Tamils...

“But even if Tamil morale remains strong, the military position of the Tigers has weakened considerably. Their 8,000-strong fighting force lost almost one-tenth of its manpower at Elephant Pass. Worse, their underground supply network in Tamil Nadu, the Indian state across Palk Strait, is being destroyed by Indian security forces searching for the assassins of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi...

“The Tigers prepared meticulously for the assault on Elephant Pass. For nearly a year, under cover of darkness, they dug trenches leading up to the barbed wire-encircled compound. They dotted the surrounding landscape with bunkers built of railroad ties and sandbags to shield themselves against artillery fire, even set up some fake outposts complete with uniformed dummies. Facing the formidable challenge of crossing the open terrain, the guerrillas turned bulldozers and tractors into armored cars by covering them with steel plates. They deployed antiaircraft guns, mortars and a homemade rocket system that could hurl a 50-kg device 1,000m.

“By May the government forces were certain that an attack was coming and doubled the garrison’s strength to 1,000 men. When the assault began on July 10, nearly 3,000 Tiger fighters, including 500 women, surged through the trenches, firing their AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades at the base; though outgunned, the besieged soldiers fought back. Heavy Tiger antiaircraft fire prevented helicopters from landing in the camp to drop supplies and take away the wounded; a sergeant major turned surgeon, amputing the limbs of injured troopers by following radioed instructions.

“The garrison was losing ground when the government made a daring decision. Naval units landed 8,000 fresh troops on a beachhead 10 km from the base. Under fire from the moment it hit the beach, the relief column sometimes covered less than 500m a day as the Tigers tried desperately to stop it by mounting headlong charges. ‘It was amazing how they came at us in waves’, recalls Brigadier Vijaya Wimalaratne, an officer with the amphibious force. After 24 days the relief troops reached the camp and broke the siege.”

[Time magazine, Sept.16, 1991]

Pirabhakaran’s acknowledgment of a mistake

“Vilupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tigers, told TIME that his assault failed because his forces could not move food and ammunition to the front owing to heavy strafing by helicopter gunships and fixed-wing planes. The Tigers’ armored bulldozers proved too slow or bogged down in the sand. Key commanders were lost early on. Prabhakaran admitted he failed to anticipate the amphibious landing but claimed that the Tigers had won a moral victory. ‘We have shown the world that we have evolved from a guerrilla force to one that can fight a conventional war with a modern army’, he said. ‘We learned the logistical problems of conventional war. Now we can fight future battles better.’ [ibid]

Backbones supporting the Leadership

Previously I had presented [The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon, Part 2] the view of Emory Bogardus emphasizing the importance of followers in strengthening the leadership. How the followers react to a mistake by the leader also can topple a weak leader. But Pirabhakaran’s strength lies in moulding strong followers in his group. The lack of success in the 1991 Battle of Elephant Pass did not deflate Pirabhakaran’s followers. According to the same Time magazine’s report,

“In Jaffna last week, the guerrillas appeared unaffected by the setback. In a hospital ward where 60 young women lay recuperating from wounds, the atmosphere was cheerful. Said Sumathi, 16, who lost her right leg in battle: ‘All I want is to get an artificial leg so that I can get back to the field. If I stay home, how will we get Eelam [the independent Tamil homeland]?...Says Varadan, 16, a guerrilla recruit: ‘It is better to die fighting than wait in the village to be picked up and tortured to death.’ [ibid]

Edward Desmond closed his report with a pithy sentence, “The Sri Lankan army may have the momentum, but the war is far from over.” In a couple of months, ten years will lapse since this line was written. But the battles which followed the 1991 Battle of Elephant Pass proved that Pirabhakaran learnt from his mistakes. This is no mean achievement.

Lessons from the Power of Silence

Mahatma Gandhi was a master in using silence as an effective weapon in his freedom campaign against the British imperialism. Not many have realized why Gandhi began his ‘vow of silence’. A study of Dalal’s reference work, Gandhi 1915-1948; a detailed chronology (Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, 1971) provides some clues. In page 36, Dalal notes, under the date 1921 Feb.7,

“Probably from this day MKG [referring to Gandhi by initials] began to observe Monday as silence day, with three exceptions: (a) when he was in mortal danger, and speaking would render aid, (b) when somebody else was in danger and speaking would render aid, and (c) when Viceroy or similar dignitary called speaking was necessary. Silence usually started at 3:00 pm on Sunday and lasted for 24 hours; but time could be altered to suit needs.”

The latter half of the last sentence is thought-provoking; “time could be altered to suit needs”. It is not wrong to infer that Gandhi developed this new method to prevent leaks of his plans to his adversaries via the blabber mouths surrounding him. He was shrewd enough to realize that British rulers were trying to outsmart him by planting spies in various garbs. When one studies the specific dates in Dalal’s chronology of Gandhi’s activities, one can trace a trend that whenever Gandhi was scheduled for campaigns or for some discussions with his lieutenants like Nehru or for negotiations with his adversaries, he had observed his ‘vow of silence’. Of course, he duped the gullible media-vultures by telling some eccentric reasons for his ‘vow of silence’. Developing this ‘wall of impenetrability’ by a simple but eloquent method was Gandhi’s style of tackling the ‘intelligence arm’ of his adversaries.

I believe that, Pirabhakaran also had grasped the significance of Gandhi’s ‘vow of silence’ in building up his army. He rarely makes himself accessbile to media-vultures and gossip mongers. This is another variant which distinguished him from the leadership of Amirthalingam. The TULF leader lost his credibility by ‘opening his mouth’ to literally everyone (UNP leadership, SLFP leadership, ever-present ‘western diplomats’ in Colombo some of whom were operatives of the Intelligence Agencies, media-vultures in India and Sri Lanka, RAW and other Intelligence-wallahs of India) thereby compromising the cards he held in the roulette game of politics. Amirthalingam would have thought that by talking, he was carrying out effective propaganda for the Tamil cause. But he was not intelligent enough to realize that those who were listening to him had their own agendas. Contrastingly, Pirabhakaran became a keen student of Gandhi in applying the ‘vow of silence’ to his support his other maneuvers. Thus, he is castigated as ‘reclusive’ by the media-vultures who feast on the verbal muck of publicity-seeking politicians.

Anti-oratory leadership

Pirabhakaran has been called many things by his adversaries, but ‘orator’ is not one. Pirabhakaran is not an orator. Period. This is one of his virtues, which flies on the face of his critics who compare him to Hitler. One of the hallmarks of Hitlerism is mass-manipulating oratory. Chaplin parodied this Hitler behaviorism eloquently in his first talkie, ‘The Great Dictator’, showing how microphones curl and dance with every utter and grunt emanating from Hitler’s demoniacal mouth. Those who had this gift of Hitler and who made much political hay in Sri Lankan platforms and parliament were undoubtedly, padre Bandranaike (in mid-1950s) and Premadasa (from 1970s to early 1990s). These two politicians, in reality, can be cast as Hitler-imitating-types [HITs in short] in the 20th century Sri Lanka. Comparisons of the political careers of padre Bandaranaike and Premadasa to that of Hitler deserves some attention and I will touch on it subsequently. One should note that those - such as Chandrika Kumaratunga and Dayan Jayatillaka - who are ardently tagging the Hitler ‘label’ to Pirabhakaran are those who had proximity to the two HITs of Sri Lanka; Chandrika to padre Bandaranaike (by birth) and Dayan Jayatillaka to Premadasa (by patronage). In being a non-orator, Pirabhakaran is in league with the calm and composed Chelvanayakam.

Tamils in India and Eelam had enjoyed tub-thumping oratory of their political leaders for decades. Oratory is an important art form, which has value in society. But the downfall of Tamils in political arena came when, politicians came to be praised as leaders solely due to their oratorical skills. Pirabhakaran broke this viscious trend by his silence and reclusive habit. As a consequence, Tamils and non-Tamils came to place much significance in every word he uttered in his annual Heroes Day Speech, delivered in November. [Continued]