The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon
Once I used to get headache while reading the anti-Pirabhakaran polemics penned by heavy hitters like Dayan Jayatilleka and H.L.D.Mahindapala, published in the Lanka Guardian magazine for which I subscribed and contributed regularly to its vibrant ‘Letters’ section. Then six years ago, after I became a member of the International Society for Humor Studies [a society for scholars engaged in humor research], my headaches disappeared when I realized that one should enjoy the humor in these anti-Pirabhakaran polemics.
A few months ago, Dayan Jayatilleka [whom I would label as the wayward son of a worthy father, journalist Mervyn de Silva] was piqued by Pirabhakaran’s use of ‘flame’ metaphor to pay homage to his fallen followers. In a commentary entitled, ‘The missing pages of the Prabhakaran’s messages’, he commented on the Year 2000 Heroes Day speech of Pirabhakaran, as follows:
“...Any student of Nazism would recognize the hypnotic use of the flame, the torches. ‘When I light the flame in the memory of our heroes, in these burning flames, in the unusual fire dance, I see a vision. Shining like the light thousands of human flames like a river of fire, shedding light, and leading the way...’ this could have come from a speech of Adolph Hitler at a torch-light parade in Nuremberg - the thousands of ‘human flames’ being Prabhakaran’s original contribution, adverting to the self-immolation by the black Tiger suicide bomber...” [Island: Weekend Express, Dec.16-17, 2000]
Dayan Jayatilleka’s gripe was that, Pirabhakaran has used the words ‘flame’ or ‘torch’ in his Heroes Day speech and thus it reflects his Nazi mentality. Little did this apologist for Premadasa could grasp in his petty thoughts that the ‘flame’ metaphor is popular in the vocabulary of freedom fighters.
An eminent opponent of Nazism who answered to the name of Charles de Gaulle had used this ‘flame’ metaphor in his famous resistance speech, delivered in the summer of 1940 in London. Gen. de Gaulle, who escaped to Britain to organize the Free French movement and was sentenced to death in absentia by a French court, rallied his fighters with the words,
“... I, General de Gaulle, now in London, call on all French officers and men who are present on British soil, or maybe in the future, with or without their arms; I call on all engineers and skilled workmen from the armaments factories who are at present on British soil, or may be in the future, to get in touch with me. Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and shall not die.”
Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Speeches,
Also, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s freedom fighter, in his memorable August 1947 ‘A Tryst with Destiny’ speech, also has used the ‘torch’ metaphor eloquently.
“...On this day our first thoughts go to the architect of this freedom, the Father of our Nation (Gandhi), who, embodying the old spirit of India, held aloft the torch of freedom and lighted up the darkness that surrounded us...We shall never allow that torch of freedom to be blown out, however high the wind or stormy the tempest. Our next thoughts must be of the unknown volunteers and soldiers of freedom who, without praise or reward, have served India even unto death...” [ibid, pp.234-237]
Not only freedom fighters, even John F.Kennedy, who signaled a youthful generational switch in American leadership used the ‘torch’ metaphor 40 years ago, in his 1961 Presidential Inauguration address. Study the following segment of Kennedy’s speech, written by his speechwriter Ted Sorenson.
“...We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of these human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world...” [ibid, pp.300-303]
Then, 30 months later, Martin Luther King Jr. began his now-famous ‘I have a Dream’ speech, also with the ‘flame’ metaphor as follows:
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity....”[ibid, pp.330-336]
In sum, the above four examples of notable speeches made by de Gaulle, Nehru, Kennedy and Martin Luther King reveal two facts. One is the bilious, pseudo-scholarship of analysts like Dayan Jayatilleka, which pollutes the press in Sri Lanka. Secondly, though Pirabhakaran is not an orator, his use of ‘flame’ metaphor in dedicatory speeches has precedence and nothing to be ashamed of.
For the past few years, projecting Pirabhakaran as a ‘Hitler’ in the Sri Lankan media has become a pastime for Dayan Jayatilleka (and his colleagues like H.L.D.Mahindapala). But in haste, he has been convoluting logic by no small proportions. Here is another excerpt of Jayatilleka’s bile, from a sermon entitled, ‘The Tamil National Question Revisited: The Package and Globalisation’.
“... In science, we draw certain conclusions if an experiment repeatedly failed, with disastrous results. Negotiations were not the answer to Adolf Hitler. Then why should it be the answer to South Asia’s Hitler, Velupillai Prabhakaran?...The convergence of Zionism and Eelamism constitutes a vital link. It was V.Karalasingham in his ‘The Way Out for the Tamil Speaking People’ who first alerted us to this tendency. Twenty years later, the MOSSAD dissident Viktor Ostrovsky unveiled the operational links between the Zionist military/intelligence apparat and the LTTE. It has often been reported that the Boston’s Tamil Brahmins gained entree to Washington’s Beltway through the good offices of the famed Zionist organization the B’nai Brith...” [Lanka Guardian, Feb.-Mar. 1998, pp.11-15 & 30-33]
Being a professional scientist, that pretentious, imperial ‘we’ in his passage irked me - especially as it came from a phony, who probably cannot distinguish Archimedes and Arrhenius or tell the difference between a frog and a toad. I wrote a letter to him, dated March 26, 1998. At that time, Jayatilleka was functioning as the editor of the Lanka Guardian. I provide excerpts of this letter, since it deals with his Hitler imagery.
I read from cover to cover the recent Lanka Guardian issue (Feb-March 1998) and wish to comment on items which carried your by-line.
I’m amused by your comment on V.Prabhakaran as ‘South Asia’s Hitler’. In the same feature, you tag the Tamils who live beyond the Sri Lankan borders as ‘Tamil Zionist’ lobby. Can’t you grasp the irony of this illogical, oxymoronic comparison? In my reading of the world history, Hitler and Zionists were opposed to each other in their goals. Boy! There is no doubt that you can write polemics and you have a passion and skill for this type of verbal pyrotechnics. Sad to say, you are a pauper in logic.
The name ‘Hitler’ has become a putty in the hands of paranoid politicians and petty journalists to throw on their opponents. George Bush used it effectively on Saddam Hussein, while killing innocent 200,000 Iraq citizens to satisfy his ego. The mere fact that Prabhakaran did not give false promises to win a nation-wide election to elevate himself as a leader show’s that the comparison of him to Hitler is inappropriate. On the contrary, your political mentor Premadasa, or for that matter his bete noire Sirimavo Bandaranaike behaved like Hitler in killing thousands of civilians (Sinhalese and Tamils) after winning the general elections with false premises.
As far as non-Sinhalese citizens of Sri Lanka are concerned, the Gestapo state exists in reality in the southern Sri Lanka. Recent experience of journalist Iqbal Aththas highlighted in the international press (or for that matter what happened to Richard de Zoysa) are examples of Gestapo style attacks on the human rights of Sri Lankan civilians. Unknown to elites like you, thousands of non-Sinhalese civilians suffer from this type of humiliation...
You are entitled to your views on Eelam. But if you read widely and think it pragmatically, you will comprehend that the global trend is for self-determination and separation of oppressed ethnic groups, and not toward integration with their perceived oppressors. This happens in Tibet (against Chinese domination), Chechen (against Russian domination), Kashmir (against Indian domination), Quebec (against Canadian domination), Scotland (against English domination), Palestine (against Israeli domination), Kurdistan (against Iraq-Iran-Turkey domination) and East Timor (against Indonesian domination)...”
Since I had analyzed the errors of interpretation presented by Viktor Ostrovsky, in my review of his book By Way of Deception [originally written for Tamil Nation, March 1992], I didn’t reiterate on this aspect of Jayatilleka’s distortion in this particular letter. As I expected, this letter went unpublished.
As a polemicist, Jayatilleka is fond of using the clichés Hitler and Zionists to smear Pirabhakaran and Tamils in the diaspora respectively. Even at the end of 1999, he was dangling both the ‘Hitler’s fan’ and ‘Zionist’ clichés to Pirabhakaran. In his diatribe, ‘The time of the Tiger’, Jayatilleka wrote that according to,
“iyekkam oldsters (such as Nithyanandans), Mein Kampf is also on Prabhakaran’s short list of favourite texts...What must also be borne in mind is that Mr. Prabhakaran’s nationalism is far from the mainstream Zionism of the Haganah and the Palmach; of Ben Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban and Yitshak Rabin...His is the equivalent of the other Zionism, that of the Irgun Zwei Leumi and the Stern Gang; of Jabotinsky, Menahem Begin, Yitshak Shamir and Ariel Sharon...” [Island Weekend Express, Colombo, Dec.11-12, 1999]
Jayatilleka’s comparison of Tamils in diaspora to Zionists can convince only the gullibles who are ignorant of the military links forged by the oppressive Sri Lankan cabinets of Jayewardene and Chandrika Kumaratunga with the Israeli army and intelligence-wallahs. I refrain from commenting on Jayatilleka’s observation that the veteran Tamil leftist V. Karalasingham was the first to point out the convergence of Eelamism and Zionism, since I have yet to read Karalasingham’s 52-page tract The Way Out for the Tamil Speaking People, which originally appeared in 1963, and was republished in 1978 - with a postscript in 1977 and an addition of another 35 pages.
What is funny about Jayatilleka’s polemics is that, even other Pirabhakaran-haters among the Sinhalese do not take his thoughts seriously. During the general election campaign last year, a hilarious exposé on Jayatilleka’s career was authored by Malinda Seneviratne of Sihala Urumaya group, with the caption, ‘Some mild thoughts on Dayan Jayatilleka’. I present an excerpt of this commentary which summarises the record of Premadasa, one of the two Hitler imitation type (HIT) leaders Sri Lanka had in the recent past.
“Being a sycophant of Ranasinghe Premadasa, I suppose Dayan is obliged to say nice things about the man. Premadasa was the architect of the most violent period of our post-independence history. True the JVP is not as innocent as their spokesmen claim. I don’t know from which piece of Marxist literature Dayan found solace (if he was a sincere Marxist) during those times of defending Premadasa, but 60,000 people being tortured and killed during a person’s tenure as head of state is a far cry from a positive experience... For the record, not a single Sinhalese is contesting from Jaffna from either the PA, the UNP or the JVP. If Prabhakaran proposed and carried out ethnic cleansing in Jaffna, these parties have effectively condoned it! The Sihala Urumaya did not only ‘pop up’ in Jaffna, we also campaigned. Which is a lot more than his old boss Varadarajah Perumal does in those areas, armed and under heavy guard though he is!...” [Island, Colombo, Oct.9, 2000]
Pirabhakaran - the ‘power buster’
As a country, Ceylon and its transmuted apparition, ‘Sri Lanka 1972’ had a lively existence from 1833 to 1983 - a total of 150 years. This was a creation of British colonialism, and the independent Ceylon [and later Sri Lanka] could hold only for 35 years. Since 1983, Sri Lanka as a country is in a comatose condition, near death. This state was induced partly due to inept leadership skills of the nominal power holders. But Pirabhakaran’s role as a power buster in the nominal post-independent Sri Lanka is nonetheless a marked one.
To comprehend what I mean as ‘power buster’, I introduce the concept of power, as analyzed by Bertrand Russell. His 1938 book named ‘Power: A New Social Analysis’ is what I consider now as my favorite book. I bought this book in 1988 - 50 years after he wrote it - when I was residing in Tokyo. That was the year, Pirabhakaran was out-smarting the nominal power holders in Sri Lanka and India [J.R.Jayewardene and Rajiv Gandhi] by challenging the accepted status-quo in the power equation. This is what Bertrand Russell had written in his introductory chapter, ‘The impulse to Power’.
“...The fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense in which Energy is the fundamental concept in physics. Like energy, power has many forms, such as wealth, armaments, civil authority, influence on opinion. No one of these can be regarded as subordinate to any other, and there is no one form from which the others are derivative. The attempt to treat one form of power, say wealth, in isolation, can only be partially successful, just as the study of one form of energy will be defective at certain points, unless other forms are taken into account. Wealth may result from military power or from influence over opinion, just as either of these may result from wealth. The laws of social dynamics are laws which can only be stated in terms of power, not in terms of this or that form of power... Power, like energy, must be regarded as continually passing from any one of its forms into any other, and it should be the business of social science to seek the laws of such transformations. The attempt to isolate any one form of power, more especially, in our day, the economic form, has been, and still is, a source of errors of great practical importance...”
After reading Bertrand Russell’s interpretation of power, I realized that the concept of caste can be (and need to be) looked through the functional paradigm of power. This led to the following thoughts.
Classification of Power-based Casteism
Pirabhakaran remains the only individual to produce a sustained, vehement challenge to the existing power-based casteism of the Sri Lankan society. By casteism, I do not mean the structural caste differentiation of Hindus and Buddhists, as anointed in birth. In a short correspondence to the Tamil Times six years ago, I have described the functional paradigm of power-based casteism. Excerpts are as follows:
“When one views the human society in anthropological terms related to power distribution, it becomes apparent that the division of four varunas [the original Hindu term for caste] existed and still exists in all the human societies of five continents. In terms of power distribution, the members of any human society can be categorized under four groups, which are roughly equivalent to the four varunas of Hindus. These are,
Power Holders (royalty in good old days, but heads of state and
These four castes exist in almost all nations, irrespective of the political system (democratic or socialist or dictatorial) that is practised. Even in the so-called ‘classless societies’ promulgated by Lenin and Mao, these four castes existed. The Politburo members, who owned dachas, were the power holders. The generals representing the armed forces and the top echelon officers of the KGB belonged to the power sharing caste. The editors of the now-disgraced Pravda newspaper represented the power peddling caste. Majority of the peasants represented the powerless caste. Power holders, when pushed from their pedestals (due to palace plotting) become power peddlers. Thatcher and Gorbachev are good examples of this transformed caste, who join the lecture circuit and earn a quick buck by other deals such as syndicated columns and book publishing...” [Tamil Times- London, May 1995]
One can illustrate the functional paradigm of caste classification in Sri Lanka as follows:
Taken as a whole, the power-based four-caste system has prevailed and still prevails in Sri Lanka. Those who belonged (and belong) to the power-holding caste, which nominally switches between the UNP and SLFP, have come to realize the damage Pirabhakaran has caused as a power buster. Within 15 years, the ‘Sri Lanka’ has been separated into ‘cleared zone’ and ‘non-cleared zone’. Pirabhakaran, by raising an army to challenge the existing status quo, has dissected the power base held by the power-holding caste. Now, the writ of the nominal power holder doesn’t float in the ‘non-cleared zone’ of Sri Lanka. For this, the power-holding caste places the blame covertly on the power-sharing caste - the military.
As one would expect, the power-sharing caste (military hierarchy in Sri Lanka) has a professional antipathy to Pirabhakaran. During the past 25 years, the list of Sri Lankan army commanders who have tried to capture Pirabhakaran ‘alive or dead’ is long indeed - D.S.Attygalle, J.E.D.Perera, T.I.Weeratunge, G.D.G.N.Seneviratne, H.Wanasinghe, L.D.C.E.Waidyaratne, G.H. De Silva, R.de S.Daluwatte, C.S.Weerasooriya, and now L.P.Balagalle. The tenures of each of these honchos at the top military hierarchy have been relatively brief. Why they have failed in their prime mission (as of now) should tell something about the strength of Pirabhakaran.
Being a military tactician, Pirabhakaran also knows that, despite all the outwardly expressed pleasantries, bouquets and medals of honor, the power-holding caste do not trust the power-sharing caste completely. Why? Power is such an aphrodisiac according to Kissinger dictum, that given appropriate inducement and push, the power-sharing caste may try to dislodge the power-holding caste from the throne, a la Gen. Zia ul Haq and Gen. Pervez Musharraf. This could be one reason why the retiring generals of the rump Sri Lankan state are continuously being posted to other countries as ambassadors - so that they are kept away from the networks of power in Colombo. The history according to the Sri Lankan army’s website, conveniently hides the unsuccessful army coups attempted by the past uniformed officers in 1962 and 1966. In the Sri Lankan army’s dictionary, unappetizing truths (even if they have become part of island’s history) has to be selective and hidden from exposure.
The role played by the power-peddling caste has been presented by two insiders of this caste, namely Mervyn de Silva and Ajith Samaranayake. Here are their observations.
“...When democratic leaders are in trouble, mavericks, rogue-operators and the covert agencies come into their own. One of their favourite instruments is the media, to whip up passions, to create confusion, to send wrong signals to increase tension. Wittingly or unwittingly, the politician, the journalist and foreign correspondent, the diplomat and the businessman are co-opted...” [Mervyn de Silva, Lanka Guardian, Oct.15, 1991, pp.2-6.]
Mervyn de Silva made this observation at the height of the ‘anti-Premadasa plot’ initiated by Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. While Mervyn was subtle and protective of his links to power, Ajith Samaranayake commenting on the same phenomenon six years later was more explicit.
“... One of the most striking phenomena of the last two decades has been the emergence of the mass media, not merely in its traditional role as the purveyors of information and opinion, but in its own right as a player in the political arena... Those who once reported on the comings and goings of politicians from behind the footlights have today come to the centre stage and delight in the narcissistic pleasure of watching their own images in the columns of newspapers and on the tube and hearing their own voices over the air... It was for the Wijewardenes and the Gunasenas to engage in the self-indulgence of thinking themselves as the kingmakers. Today, however, at many levels journalists themselves share the same fantasy... The incestuous nature of the Sri Lankan elite is such that these families have interlocking political interests sometimes supported by familial ties...” [Lanka Guardian, May 1998, pp.11-12]
While reading Samaranayake’s description of ‘delight in the narcissistic pleasure of watching their own images’, I could easily think of N.Ram of the Chennai Hindu group publishers, as one belonging to this power-peddling caste. Those who throw epithets and clichés on Pirabhakaran such as Dayan Jayatilleka and Mahindapala are members of this caste who lost their access to power due to the fall of their power-holding patrons. Once this happens, the members of this caste re-position themselves to prostitute their saleable skill to the new power-holders. Not only journalists, even politicians like M.H.M.Ashraff, Douglas Devananda and Nilan Tiruchelvam can be included in this caste.
The Route of Mao and Giap
To the pre-Pirabhakaran Tamil political leadership, the Tamil power meant only the number of constituencies won in the routine general elections, which could be bargained in the altar of parliament, which in turn with lapse of time had turned into a glorified fish market.
Pirabhakaran, in a refreshing bid to challenge the power-holding caste, which has been throttling the Eelam Tamils since 1956, followed the route of two Asian masters - Mao and Vo Nguyen Giap. He actively engaged the power-sharing caste, which by 1970s had been converted into a 99 percent Sinhala-Buddhist enterprise. If the Sri Lankan military had reflected the population ratio of the country, Pirabhakaran would have found it difficult to gather his recruits and establish his army. Here again, the insecurity of the power-holding caste following the army coups of 1962 and 1966 turned into costly mistakes which Pirabhakaran was able to exploit as a power buster.
The dimwits holding the reins of power in Sri Lanka should have known that race isn’t an important criterion in an army professional; ability and attitude are. Isn’t it right if one would state that the ethnic cleansing practised (since 1962) from a borrowed Nazi formula by the power-holding caste contributed significantly to the impotence of Sri Lankan army? [Continued.]