The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon

Sachi Sri Kantha
[9 August 2002]

Valveddithurai’s Gift

From Cowards to Combat Warriors

Twenty five years is a short period in the life span of vibrant Tamil culture, but significantly long in an individual’s journey of life. To illustrate the impact of Pirabhakaran on Tamil attitude to military matters, I provide two observations made in 1977 (by a Tamil in the aftermath of anti-Tamil riots) and 2001 (by a Sinhalese in the aftermath of Katunayake Airport attack).

Anton Rasiah of Nuwara Eliya in 1977:

“…Tamils are essentially peace-loving cowards. How can they fight a ‘Liberation War’ when a slightest noise at their doorsteps makes them shudder in fear and flee? How can they defend their so-called ‘homeland’ if they cannot get together to resist a few thugs of their area. Just imagine them fighting a ‘liberation war’ with an invading army ha..ha.. The terrain of their ‘homeland’ does not even afford a secure hiding place when their enemy decides to launch a land, sea and air attack. Imagine the so-called ‘liberation army’ with their verties tucked up marching on empty stomachs, even before they launch their attack, as they are purely at the mercy of their ‘enemy’ for food and fuel supplies…” [a letter in Tribune weekly, Colombo, Sept.17, 1977, p.15]

Analyst C.A.Chandraprema in 2001:

“The attack on the Air Force base and the International Airport at Katunayake was supposed to be the LTTE’s way of commemorating the 1983 July riots. The Sinhalese public has changed a great deal since the anti-Tamil riots of 1983. In 1983, I remember there were Sinhalese mobs hunting down unarmed Tamils, but when a rumour went around that some Tigers had come to Colombo, there was total panic among the Sinhalese ‘chandiyas’. The Tiger cadres were supposed to have come to Slave Island in Central Colombo, but people fled in all directions as far away as Padukka and Avissawella! The only thing in the mind of the Sinhalese public was to escape the wrath of the Tigers.

Since that time however, the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan society in general, have become remarkably resilient. 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 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…” [in Island newspaper, Colombo, July 28, 2001]

Both of the above-cited observations by Rasiah and Chandraprema are faultlessly true. The natural terrain in Eelam, which Rasiah sarcastically pointed out, has not changed a bit, barring of course the environmental insult caused by the Sri Lankan army during the past 25 years. Then, who else other than Pirabhakaran’s army can claim credit for the partially listed debacles by Chandraprema?

Observations of a Doubting Tom

Chandraprema has been courteous in acknowledging LTTE’s combat spirit. But, between 1977 and 2002, there have been quite a number of doubting Toms who had to repeatedly eat crow for their errors in analytical skill. One of these is V.Suryanarayan of Chennai, the regular analyst for the Hindu news-group and a consultant to the India’s policy makers. He is also addicted to peppering his English writing with horrendous metaphors and pejorative adjectives. A segment from one of his commentaries, written in mid-1996, is reproduced below to reveal the inaccuracy of his analysis. Wrote Suryanarayan,

“…It deserves highlighting that the Tigers are past masters in guerilla warfare. But Prabhakaran does not have the human and material resources to build a conventional army.

A few significant features of the LTTE are worth recounting. A number of LTTE veterans have died on the battle field during the three Eelam wars – Pulendran, Kumarappa, Kittu, Victor, Radha, Santhosham, Charles Anthony, Akila and others. A few such as Mahathaya have been killed by Prabhakaran as ‘traitors’. Like Saturn which kills its own progeny, the LTTE has swallowed its own children. Unlike Prabhakaran and Balraj, most of the regional commanders – Soosai, Shankar, Jothi, Kapil Amman, Bosco, Sornam and Karuna – joined the movement after 1983. Whether the second generation has the fighting abilities and dedication of its predecessors, only time can tell. Lacking in manpower, the LTTE is compelled to recruit boys and girls of tender age. What is more, this baby brigade is not given rigorous training before being sent out to the front. A lack of committed and dedicated cadres could turn out to be the Achilles’ heel of the LTTE in the days to come.

The element of surprise, which was the hallmark of the LTTE attacks and which enabled it to inflict innumerable casualties and great damage on civilians and the armed forces alike, is slowly getting eroded…

The Sri Lankan Army is slowly but steadily emerging as a professional organization, vastly improved in numbers and equipped with sophisticated weapons…The Army today is definitely more combat-oriented. The Army, the Navy and the Air Force are better equipped. Arms purchases have been diversified, the major suppliers being Israel, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, the United States, South Korea, Pakistan and Indonesia. In contrast to the pre-1987 period, when the internationalization of the ethnic conflict led to severe strains in Indo-Sri Lanka relations, there is today greater appreciation in New Delhi of Colombo’s needs and compulsions…” [Frontline magazine, July 26, 1996]

Even with all such voluble orchestral support from Chennai columnists like Suryanarayan, the Sri Lankan Army has floundered in the battle field, and its recruits fled from the command to become deserters. If, according to the BBC News of July 6, 2000, the Sri Lankan security forces had to increase their efforts in tracking down 25,000 members of their military despite more than a dozen amnesties to turn themselves in, the second generation of LTTE’s regional commanders – Soosai, Shankar, Jothi, Kapil Amman, Bosco, Sornam, Karuna and others – who joined the movement after 1983, had disproved the doubts Suryanarayan expressed in 1996.

While visiting Colombo recently, Pakistan’s dictator-cum-President Pervez Musharraf, knowingly or unknowingly, had divulged a secret that “over 2,000 Sri Lanka military personnel had received training in Pakistan and this would continue”[source: The Island newspaper, Colombo, Aug.2, 2002; I quote this figure in the belief that there is no error and that one zero hasn’t been inadvertently added.] He also had added, “as a military man he wanted to pay a glowing tribute to the Sri Lankan armed forces. I praise the Sri Lankan armed forces for sustaining their effort for 20 long years. Full credit should go to them.” Whatever one thinks about Pervez Musharraf’s skills, he seems to be a shrewd businessman, paying compliments to his best customer who continues to shop despite shoddy service.

In the aftermath of the Operation Agni Kheela debacle of the Sri Lankan army in April 2001, an anonymous (undoubtedly a Sinhalese) “retired Lt. Colonel” had offered a stinging rebuttal to the compliments of dictator Musharraf and doubting Tom Suryanarayan in 2001. Some interesting segments of this rebuttal are reproduced below:

“The advancing forces broke out on the 24th April 2001 at the auspicious time of 1.48 hrs selected in Colombo by a Sil Meniyo who is also said to advice on strategies! But nothing went right from the commencement of the Operation. Troops were massacred and forced to retreat. Everything was over in 72 hours with troops having withdrawn to their original positions on the defense lines…

To advance a mere four kilometers, it cost the Army 400 men dead including 11 officers [Note by Sri Kantha: One wonders, how many of them were Pakistan-trained?] and almost 1,450 sustaining injuries out of which 500 and over being seriously wounded and another dozen officers in the seriously wounded category…

As seen from the defeats inflicted on us throughout the recent past, it is clear that the top brass has bungled the entire war by working against all established principles of war. Many holding high ranks cannot do a proper military appreciation/evaluation of a military problem and most are unaware of the mechanics of the ‘phases of war’. They are confused about the subtle differences between strategy and tactics. Most of them do not have the basic military degree, without which no officer can aspire to be promoted beyond the rank of Colonel in a professional Army. Furthermore, many of the top brass have risen to great heights without the experience of leading even a jungle patrol. These Generals therefore do not know how to plan a simple Operation. For example, when a tank is said to be ‘blind’ by night, they are used for night operations. Then again when tanks are said to be highly vulnerable in jungles and scrub, they are employed in such terrain, violating basic principles. Check on these and you will be surprised. Many Generals are clever at moving brigades/divisions on maps and sand models though they are totally ignorant of the finer points of the mechanics of war…” [The Island newspaper, Colombo, June 12, 2001] 

Through this reasonable criticism, the anonymous ‘retired Lt. Colonel’ has just paid compliments to Pirabhakaran and his military advisors. If some Operations turned out to be miserably handled by the Sri Lankan army, it merely reflects how much Pirabhakaran’s army has grasped the finer points of the mechanics of war.

From the achieved results in the battle front and the bulging rank of 25,000 army deserters, one could only infer that the quality of Pakistan’s military training for ‘over 2,000 Sinhalese army officers’ was nothing but sub-standard. Since Pirabhakaran’s army could not afford such ‘foreign-training’, the expertise needed to neturalize such disadvantage deserves exceptional talent. I would place this expertise as one of Pirabhakaran’s hard-earned gifts. Ignoring widely circulated snide remarks about Pirabhakaran’s lack of higher education as Aesopian ‘sour grapes’, Tamils have so far underestimated the expertise of LTTE’s trainers in molding a combat-hardened army.

Essentials in Military Psychology

On April 1, 1953, Frank Geldard (then at the University of Virginia) delivered an address under the title ‘Scientific Psychology in a troubled world’ at the University of Texas. Three months later it was published in the American Journal of Psychology (July 1953; vol.66, pp.335-348) with the caption, ‘Military Psychology: Science or Technology?’ When I read this lecture sometime ago, considering all the odds stacked against it, I was nothing but impressed by the achievement of LTTE in the battle-front for the past 20 years. I wondered, if not for Pirabhakaran’s leadership who else would have contributed to the six major categories outlined by Geldard, which are vital for a successful army.

1.     manpower resources

2.     personnel selection and classification

3.     human engineering

4.     military training

5.     proficiency measurement

6.     human relations

I reproduce some of Geldard’s observations with reference to the American army, since these are still highly relevant to assessing the performances of LTTE and the Sri Lankan army.

manpower resources:  “The procedure of screening out not only those who were manifestly psychotic but also those who were suspected of being emotionally unstable or who were judged to be capable of developing psychotic or neurotic symptoms under the stress of military service proved to be a costly one.”

personnel selection: “[consisting of] trait identification, assessment procedures, performance criteria, job analysis and work modification, and underlying statistical and mathematical theory.”

human engineering: “It is important that the fighting man vent his spleen on the enemy, not on his own equipment and weapons…We often forget that ‘machines cannot fight alone’, that human operators are necessary and that human limitations, both sensory and motor, have to be taken into account in the design of equipment.”

military training: “If sensory-perceptual capacities and limitations loom large in the picture of the human engineering area the other great content of experimental psychology, learning, occupies the center of the canvas in the military training area… Methods of warfare and weapon systems, becoming increasingly automatic and electronic, require skillful technicians to service them and skillful technicians have to be made that way through a long, expensive, and painstaking course of training.”

proficiency measurement: “In the military setting, as in more peaceful pursuits, school grades, instructor’s ratings, flights checks etc. leave much to be desired…wartime and peacetime demands on behavior are likely to differ. The requirements of combat are not entirely met by the skills of the technical specialist despite the heralding of push-button warfare.”

human relations: “There are common problems of incentives, leader-follower relationships, intra and inter-group communication, levels of aspiration, group and individual attitudes, coherence and homogeneity of groups, assimilation phenomena [to be taken care of.]”

Establishing and maintaining a standing army which doesn’t crumble after setbacks deserve the utmost degree of sacrifice and diligence. Much publicized recent gripes (some of them legitimate, but many hyped by self-anointed human rights activists belonging to the spurious University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna branch) relating to child combatants and human rights violations of LTTE have to be studied from the perspectives of maintaining a standing army or ‘militia’ in the terminology of America’s Founding Fathers.  How did the paragons belonging to the pantheon of American democracy conducted themselves? Didn’t they own slaves while fighting their revolutionary war independence against the imperial Britain? As Nobelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his eloquent 1997 essay entitled ‘Hypocrisy today’ pointed out, ‘did not the United States also self proclaim its independence? Meanwhile, the Kurds are not allowed even to self-proclaim.’ [The Daily Yomiuri, Tokyo, Aug.7, 1997].

As of now, it is beyond my means to evaluate how Pirabhakaran had succeeded in each of the six major categories presented by Geldard. But the results produced in the battle field attest for the success in Pirabhakaran’s leadership. Only those who are illogical and those who are number-challenged can deny the credit he deserves as a military leader. One of the claims of the Indian military personnel who led the Indian army against its confrontation with LTTE was that during the 30- month period (from Oct.1987 to Mar.1990), they had destroyed the second tier leadership of LTTE. This claim has some merits. But, it is to the credit of Pirabhakaran and the LTTE cadres who survived the Indo-LTTE war, that they had rebuilt the damaged pillars of LTTE army by rejuvenation.

Now, I wish to hypothesize what personal factors could have influenced Pirabhakaran to be molded as a military specialist. Attention should be drawn to two of these factors, which have been overlooked. One is his place of birth, and the other is his birth order.   

Valveddithurai in History

Valveddithurai (VVT), the home-town of Pirabhakaran, has a reputation as the ‘smuggler capital’ of Sri Lanka. When one thinks about it in depth, one fact becomes clear. The pejorative monicker to VVT is a recent (post-independent period) currency, following the demarcation of Ceylon as an independent nation. Before February 1948, the island Ceylon was a part of British Empire encompassing the current Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar (Burma) and Malaya. Palk Strait and Bay of Bengal were not considered as separating boundaries of different countries. Before the colonial era of Portuguese, Dutch and the British, Tamils living in the northern part of the island had their own flag and they wouldn’t have bothered about the dictates originating from Kotte or Kandy rulers. Thus, the legitimate life-style of generations of Tamil mariners who lived at VVT for a millennium or more was not thought of as ‘smuggling’. The pejorative monicker was more or less a creation of the Sri Lankan bureaucrats belonging to the Customs Department.

To emphasize my point, I provide two descriptions about VVT which appeared in the pre-1948 period and three descriptions about VVT written in the 1980 and 1990s. VVT has been a tongue-twister in the English language and authors have taken liberty with the spelling according to their fancy.

(1) by Emerson Tennent (1859)

“…In the evening we drove along the shore of Valvettitorre, a village about three miles to the west of Point Pedro, containing a much larger population, and one equally industrious and enterprising. There was a vessel of considerable tonnage on the stocks, the Tamil ship-builders of this little place being amongst the most successful in Ceylon. As we entered the village, we passed by a large well under a grove of palms and tamarind trees, around which, as it was sunset, the females of the place were collected, according to the immemorial custom of the East, ‘at the time of the evening even the time that the women go out to draw water’. In figure and carriage, the Tamil women are much superior to the Singhalese. This is shown to advantage in their singularly graceful and classical costume, consisting of a long fold of cloth, enveloping the body below the waist, and brought tastefully over the left shoulder, leaving the right arm and the bosom free. This, together with the custom of carrying vases of water and other burdens on their heads, gives them an erect and stately gait, and disposes their limbs in attitudes so graceful as to render them, when young and finely featured, the most unadorned models for a sculptor.” [in Ceylon, vol.2, pp.535-536]  

(2) Mudaliyar C.Rasanayagam (1926)

“Casie Chetty, in his History of Jaffna says, ‘There can be no doubt, the commercial intercourse of the Greeks and the Romans with Ceylon was confined to the Northern and North Western parts’ (Journal of Ceylon Branch of Royal Asiatic Society, vol.1, 1847-1848, p.77). The people of the Coromandel Coast had, from time immemorial, intimate commercial intercourse with the parts of North Ceylon. Many came and settled down at these ports, carrying on a brisk trade, and forming connections with families of the same caste as themselves, as is still the case at Point Pedro and Velvettythurai.” [in Ancient Jaffna, pp.86-87]

(3) W.Robert Holmes (1980)

“One of the important by-products of fishing is manpower which is acquainted with the sea. It was estimated in a newspaper article in 1979, that 150 men, especially from KKS [i.e., Kankesanthurai] and also from the neighborhood of Valvettithurai on the northern tip of Jaffna peninsula about five miles west of Point Pedro are seafaring in ocean-going vessels all over the globe today.

The previous sentence is one of the few in today’s newspapers in which anything good is said about the activities in and around Valvettithurai of which it is invariably affirmed, ‘VVT is the headquarters of the smuggling between India and Ceylon….’[in Jaffna 1980, p.366]

(4) Narayan Swamy (1996)

“VVT, where Prabhakaran spent much of his early years, was a small and closely-knit coastal town of some 10,000 Tamils with one Catholic church and three Hindu temples. One of them, dedicated to Lord Shiva, was a virtual family property of the Velupillais, and the young Prabhakaran would land there to lend a helping hand during all major festivals. VVT’s menfolk were civil servants, traders, fishermen or simply smugglers, thanks to the winding sea coast and the proximity to India. Boats would sail to Rangoon, Chittagong, Rameshwaram, Nagapattinam and Cochin laden with both legitimate cargo and contraband. Smuggling was considered a way of life in VVT and no one ever thought there was anything wrong with it. But it did earn VVT the sobriquet ‘smugglers’ paradise’ and close scrutiny from the Customs Department. It also legitimized crime and played a key role in providing a large number of volunteers when Tamil politics began getting sucked into the web of violence and counter violence.” [in Tigers of Lanka, 1996, 2nd ed, p.50]

(5) S.W.R. de A. Samarasinghe and Vidyamali Samarasinghe (1998)

“Prabhakaran, Veluppillai (1954 -  ): He is the leader of the most powerful of the Sri Lankan Tamil separatist groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Youngest of four children in a Jaffna middle-class family, he came from Velvatiturai, a village in the Jaffna peninsula inhabited largely by people of the Karaiyar caste whose traditional occupation is fishing or smuggling. Prabhakaran also belongs to the same caste….” [entry on Pirabhakaran; in Historical Dictionary of Sri Lanka, 1998, pp.109-110]

Among the six authors I have quoted above, Tennent (a reputed British civil authority of the mid-19th century) and Rasanayagam (a colonial Ceylon’s Tamil civil servant of early 20th century) did not associate VVT with smuggling. Rather, they make laudatory comments related to the marine enterprise and skills of the VVT natives. However, when Robert Holmes (an American missionary-teacher in the post-independent Ceylon), Narayan Swamy (a contemporary Indian journalist) and Samarasinghes (contemporary Sinhalese academics) wrote their descriptions in 1980 and 1990s, linking VVT with ‘smuggling’ has become the routine, though erroneous in historical context of the life style of its inhabitants. Thus, it is of relevance that the ‘law-breaking’ [or better, the rebellious spirit against the domineering Poo Bahs of the government – see below for additional details] was a well needed fertilizer in the formation of a legitimate Tamil army of Pirabhakaran. In this context, it also relevant to quote a paragraph from another keen observer of the Jaffna scene.

(6) by V.Navaratnam (1991), former Federal Party MP for Kayts:

“There were occasions when I addressed small compact gatherings of activists at Valvettiturai and Point Pedro who were campaigning fro the Tamilar Suyadchi Kazhagam candidate at the 1970 General Election. As was my wont in that campaign, I exhorted them to work ceaselessly for an independent Tamil State. I asked them to develop and foster the navigational skills of their ancestors, regardless of breaking revenue laws, and to keep alive the seafaring tradition of their towns. Many of those in the audience were young lads in their early or mid teens. I still remember their young eager faces and shining eyes burning with fire as they listened. In later years I used to wonder if some of them might have been Kuttimani and Thangadurai and Velupillai Prabhakaran and the many other heroes of Vadamaradchy whose names later became household words throughout Tamil Ceylon.” [in The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation, 1991, p.322]

The fact of being ‘Last Born’

One of the highly-discussed books in the 1990s was Born to Rebel (1996), a 653 page tome authored by Frank Sulloway. In this book, the American psychologist (then affiliated to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) after analyzing the biographies of over 1,000 historical figures who contributed to politics, science, arts and religion came to a simple but bold finding that, even after controlling for all other variables, the birth order of a person influences the type of his or her personality. I quote one paragraph from the Introduction of this book. Sulloway had written,

“It is natural for firstborns to identify more strongly with power and authority. They arrive first within the family and employ their superior size and strength to defend their special status. Relative to their younger siblings, firstborns are more assertive, socially dominant, ambitious, jealous of their status, and defensive. As underdogs within the family system, younger siblings are inclined to question the status quo and in some cases to develop a ‘revolutionary personality’. In the name of revolution, later-borns have repeatedly challenged the time-honored assumptions of their day. From their ranks have come the bold explorers, the iconoclasts, and the heretics of history.”

Pirabhakaran was a last born (on November 26, 1954) son among the four siblings to Mr.Thiruvengadam Veluppillai and Parvathi of Valvettithurai. He has an elder brother Manoharan and two elder sisters Jegatheswari and Vinothini. True to Sulloway’s findings, Pirabhakaran had turned out to be a ‘bold explorer, an iconoclast and a heretic of history’. Thus it is my inference that the cocktail of a combination of being a ‘last born’ son and being born in Valvettithurai brought out a military specialist the Eelam Tamils had wanted for long. (Continued)