The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon
What made me to write this biography?
Despite all the accusations peddled against him by the pompous and non-Tamil commentators like Dayan Jayatilleka, C.A. Chandraprema, H.L.D. Mahindapala and Gamini Weerakoon (the editor of Colombo Island newspaper), majority among the Tamils would say that Pirabhakaran passes the Mao’s scale of leadership approval. Like Mao, he has an incomparable 25 year-long track record as a guerrilla leader of repute. Nevertheless, Jayatillekas, Mahindapalas and Weerakoons continue to squeal the ‘sour grape’ tune loudly in the Colombo’s Island newspaper like the paranoid Aesopian foxes.
In relative terms, none among the more than one billion people living in South Asia now can parallel Pirabhakaran’s achievement in competence to be tagged as a second successor of Mao in military affairs, after the Vietnamese General Giap. This is not an exaggeration. Tamils have produced in the 20th century – hundreds of eminent lawyers, scientists, businessmen, musicians, sportsmen, actors and writers of international acclaim; but a military hero – none, until Pirabhakaran appeared on the scene. It is preposterously funny that those Sri Lankan army men who pitted against him and lost fair and square (Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne killed in August 1992) or those who retired for safer pastures without completing the assignment in hand (Gen. Janaka Perera) are being propped as ‘military greats’ by the Sinhala press of Colombo. This phenomenon is illustrated by the well known Tamil proverb, Aalai illa oorukku illuppai poo sarkarai. In English translation, it reads as ‘In a village without a sugar mill, the flower of Indian bitter tree is the sugar.’ Illuppai plant’s botanical name is Bassia longifolia and is used in the traditional medicine of Tamil culture.
Now that I have completed 40 chapters of this biography on Pirabhakaran, I wish to present my thoughts on why I write this biography and how some factors pulled me into this task. The first sentence in chapter 1, dated May 2, 2001, stated: “It’s time that the Pirabhakaran phenomenon be studied somewhat in depth”. When I wrote that sentence, I was under the impression that I would write a two-part or three-part sketch on the unforgotten facts of Pirabhakaran’s past, and move on to another weekly topic which capture my interest for a commentary. I had titled the column, ‘Pirabhakaran Phenomenon’ and emailed it to Nadesan Satyendra for posting in the Tamil Nation website he then maintained.
I was pushed to reconsider my decision of concluding my three-part feature on Pirabhakaran, by one particular offending piece which appeared in the Island (Colombo) newspaper on May 16, 2001 under the caption ‘Palavering with Prabhakaran’ and signed with a pseudonym, Leo Panthera. This critic had taken it upon himself (or herself?) to deliver a ten-point hostile tirade on what he (or she) considered as “a few ‘psychoactive’ characteristics that profile the man and his method”. There is something in stuffy Colombo’s hot air which breeds spineless, anonymous critics like malarial mosquitoes proliferating from bad air. This particular analyst with the pseudonym Leo Panthera, knowingly or unknowingly had scribed as his (or her) fifth point, the very two words I had chosen to caption my commentary for the TamilNation website. To repeat the words,
“The cult of the ‘cyanide capsule’ is an astonishing by-product of the Pirapaharan Phenomenon. If the man is a blood-thirsty crank how can he have this willing army of human robots prepared to die for the cause?”
This particular commentary by Leo Panthera made me to convert my three-part commentary on Pirabhakaran into a full-length biography of the leader of LTTE. And I have figuratively lived with Pirabhakaran for the past fifteen months. But instinctively for the past 12 years, I had felt that Pirabhakaran and Eelam Tamils deserved an extensive biography of the leader who had commanded the interests of the Asian region and beyond for the past 25 years.
Initially I checked my own merits and disadvantages of authoring such a laborious endeavor. Merits, I had a few. Disadvantages were equally bothersome, especially the lack of proximity to the subject of my focus. Three motives which propelled me to write this biography are as follows:
(A) A Thanksgiving
As disadvantaged as I am to the lack of proximity to the subject, I mourn the loss of two opportunities in the past which would have placed me at the University of Jaffna. But both opportunities were compounded with ‘once in a life-time’ chances so that I couldn’t reject the alternate choice of not being in Jaffna. First came in April 1981, when I was chosen for the permanent assistant lecturer position at the Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna. Simultaneously, I had an offer for postgraduate studies at the University of Illinois, with a graduate research assistantship stipend. It was an ‘Either This or That’ option. My attempt to negotiate a solution to the dilemma I faced with Prof. S. Vithiananthan, the then Vice Chancellor for the University of Jaffna, was not fruitful. As I had labored as a temporary assistant lecturer at the Dept. of Biochemistry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya for more than two years, I was eager to grasp the University of Illinois stipend and did so.
Five years later, in November 1986, when I visited Jaffna, after completing my Ph.D., my mentor at the University of Colombo, Prof. K. Balasubramaniam (who was then the Head of the Dept. of Biochemistry, at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna) invited me to join the department as a lecturer. Again, I was placed in an ‘either this or that’ situation and for selfish reasons was keen on continuing the postdoctoral research at the University of Tokyo, to climb the professional ladder. Thus, with heavy heart I had to choose against joining the University of Jaffna. If I would have returned to Jaffna then, that would have coincided with Pirabhakaran’s return to Eelam from Tamil Nadu.
Thus, I consider that writing this biography on Pirabhakaran is my thanksgiving to the sacrifices of more than 17,000 youths who had believed in his leadership. These young men and women were no ‘human robots prepared to die for the cause’ as the mean-spirited Leo Panthera had tagged them. They were intelligent and courageous human beings who stayed in the island to fight against state oppression and eco-vandalism of pristine Tamil homeland. Among them would have been talented tacticians, technicians, teachers, musicians, engineers and artists. Though their voices have been stilled, I felt that I had to write on their behalf.
(B) Inspiration from a Bargain Book
For me, the inspiration to write a biography on Pirabhakaran was first kindled as a small flame when he was in the middle of Indo-LTTE war, and his premature obituary had appeared in the Hindu newspaper [see, Part 1 of this series.] In the fall of 1989, when I was living in Philadelphia, I visited New York for a weekend. At the bargain pit of the Koch’s & Brentano’s Bookstore, I picked up an unusual book, War Zones: Voices from the World’s Killing Grounds (1988) by Jon Lee Anderson and Scott Anderson for $2.98, originally priced at $21.95. It contained a chapter on Sri Lanka.
The sibling authors, of whom Jon Lee Anderson had turned out to be a recognized war correspondent lately, had traveled for an year in 1986 to gather material for this book in the then five war zones of the globe: Northern Ireland, El Salvador, Uganda, Sri Lanka and Israel. The Sri Lankan chapter carried 42 snippets of interviews (undoubtedly mangled versions). The 42 individuals whose interviews had appeared in this book covered a wide spectrum; some well known and some unknown; some aged as high as 79 and one not even a teen and all others in between; some Sinhalese, some Tamils, one Muslim and even one British mercenary; some Buddhist priests and one Christian priest; some who met untimely deaths before the end of the 1980s and some who are still living.
I provide below the list of 42 individuals (in the order of appearance, and with the introductory words about them) whose comments appear in the War Zones book. Some were active participants in the war. Some, willingly and unwillingly, contributed to the war by their words and deeds. Some were mere by-standers and victims. To preserve the originality of the authors of the book, I have not altered their idiosyncratic spelling of some names of the interviewees.
Among these 42 interviewees, I was most interested in the interview of Kumarappa, one of Pirabhakaran’s trusted lieutenants. His photo also appears in the book, with one woman tagged as a woman ‘spy’ Kangaratnam Athuma Kirikith. By 1988, when the War Zones appeared in print, he had committed suicide (in October 1987), which was widely reported in the news media. But Andersons had written the following comment:
“It can be assumed that Athuma was executed within a few days of the interview. Attempts to intercede on her behalf with Tiger supporters in Batticaloa were futile.
Eleven days later, the STF launched a massive raid on Kumarappa’s base. In the battle, at least twenty one of the Tigers were reported killed, including Kumarappa. The Batticaloa Citizen’s Committee, however, charged the STF with executing twenty seven people at the nearby shrimp hatchery and estimated the attack’s overall death toll at nearly two hundred, mostly civilians.”
This information in the War Zones book stated that Kumarappa had been killed in action in 1986. This type of misinformation especially on the deaths - some deliberately intentional like Pirabhakaran’s in 1989, some due to carelessness - is replete in the published literature on Tamil Tigers.
For me, the material presented by Anderson brothers was appealing and important, but ‘just raw meat’. Can anyone feast and feel contented on raw meat and uncooked rice, however appealing it is to the eyes? Jon Lee Anderson may be a ranking war correspondent, but fact-checking appeared not his forte, from the manner he reported the death of Kumarappa. Nevertheless, the work of Anderson brothers inspired me to collect as much as information on Pirabhakaran and his army. Twelve years I kept on collecting materials from newspapers, magazines and books.
(C) Rejections and Wanton Omissions by the Print Media Editors
In the early 1990s, I was also an ardent letter writer to journals like Lanka Guardian, Tamil Times and Asiaweek on topics related to LTTE and Eelam. While quite a number of what I sent were published in these journals, an equal number went unpublished, or were mangled in print, though I kept the letters brief to the point of not exceeding 250-300 words. To prick the partisanship and pomposity of the print editors, sometimes I used sarcasm (and infrequently ‘shock phrases’ also) in these letters, relating to Pirabhakaran and his environs. Two letters I provide as examples.
The first was a completely rejected letter, sent to the Lanka Guardian on March 22, 1991; it dealt with the Valvettithurai bombing of the Sri Lankan army in January 1991, at the height of Persian Gulf War. By then, I have moved from Philadelphia to Osaka.
“While I perused the 72 cumulative pages of the three issues of the LG (Feb.1, Feb.15 and Mar.1, 1991) I received lately, I could not find any reference to the Valvettiturai bombing carried out by the Government’s Air Force between Jan.20 and 23 of this year. None of the regular columns mentioned about this bombing which occurred in the Northern region. However the 72 pages I read were replete with what I label as ‘intellectual masturbation’ on Trotsky (by Regie Siriwardene and S.Pathiravitana) and on the Gulf War (by Robert O’Neill, Bertram Bastiampillai and Izeth Hussain).
The LG also published a four page account on the destruction and damage to Iraq between Feb.2 and 8, as seen through the eyes of Ramsey Clark, a former Attorney General of the USA. I wonder why none of this type of reporting has been published on Valvettiturai bombing. Is damage to Valvettiturai, of less topical interest to the LG and its readers than Iraq and Trotsky?”
The second letter was a response to a particularly slimy editorial on terrorism and truth by the Asiaweek magazine in late 1994, in which Pirabhakaran was particularly named as a ‘terrorist’ along with Yasser Arafat and Gerry Adams. Here is the mangled letter of mine, which appeared in print in the Asiaweek magazine.
[Asiaweek, Hong Kong, Jan.6, 1995]
“In my opinion your sermon ‘In the War against Terrorists, Truth is the Best Weapon’ belongs to the world of fairies and angels [‘Keeping the Lid On’, Editorial, Nov.30]. I live in a real world where the truth is always hidden or restrained from revealing its naked beauty.
Truth is massaged and masked by the media in many countries. Truth is also decorated by almost every practising politician on this globe according to his or her fancy. It is an open secret that the intelligence services of many countries manufacture or clone truths according to their whims. So you have the alphabet soup of CIA, (formerly the ) KGB, MI6, Mossad, RAW and ISI working overtime to manipulate the political, ethnic and religious frictions prevailing in many countries. I find it perplexing that in your sermon, you have not bothered to mention these creators of ‘cloned truths’.”
What was deleted from print were the following passages:
“Truth is massaged and masked by the media in many countries, of which Singapore is an extreme example. To sell a thousand copies in Singapore, many competing international journals would compromise real truth for ‘massaged truth’. Have you forgotten that recently your sister magazine, Time, received a reprimand and apologized for shading the truth in its depiction of football great O.J.Simpson in its cover. Even Asiaweek sometimes twists the truth to suit its stand. For example, in a foot-note to my [previously] published letter (Letters, Nov.23, 1994), you have stated that you did not include the name of JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera in the list of Sri Lanka’s prominent assassination victims, because that list was ‘confined to political, civic and military leaders’. The massaged truth in your explanation is easily recognizable to all Sri Lankans, since Rohana Wijeweera was a politician and he even contested the 1982 Presidential election.
Show me a politician who trumpets the truth in its naked beauty and I will show you a saint. Even the reputation of a living saint like Mother Teresa has come under attack recently due to her past cozying with politicians who have had a penchant for truths of dubious variety.
You have identified Yasser Arafat, Gerry Adams and Velupillai Prabhakaran as representatives of ‘terrorists’. But why have you not written a word about the types of truths the CIA and Mossad had spread in the past about Mr.Arafat, or how the truth-manufacturing department of MI 6 works round the clock to slander the IRA or how the RAW released a truth about the violent death of Prabhakaran in the jungles of Vanni five years ago. If you have a sincere campaign to abolish all the Intelligence agencies in the world to save the real truths from their ‘cloned creations of truths’, you can count on me to raise my hand.”
These type of rejections and wanton omissions instilled in me a conviction that my views should reach the audience via a medium which can by-pass the peevish print editors. There is a bit of surliness in my part in that I’m playing the ‘gotcha game’ at Mervyn de Silva (the editor of Lanka Guardian, who had died) or at the editors of the Asiaweek magazine, which has folded now. But I feel that this is within the boundaries of peer review as practiced in science and what has been rejected discourteously need to be presented to a wider audience for proper evaluation; and internet is a godsend for writers like me.
‘The Difficult Art of Biography’
Thus, to transform the three-part feature on Pirabhakaran which I had in mind in May 2001 into a lengthy biography, I pumped up myself after reading a wonderful essay by Wilmarth Lewis on ‘The Difficult Art of Biography’ which appeared two months before Pirabhakaran was born [Yale Review, Sept.1954, vol.44(1): pp.33-40]. Some segments of this essay captivated me. To reproduce the first two paragraphs of what Lewis had stated:
“Just about everyone likes biography. The reason for this is not hard to find. It is the pleasure we get in identifying ourselves with real people who have attained eminence of some sort. By the magic of biography we are transported out of ourselves into kings and queens, generals, poets, lovers and bankers; we become Eleanor of Aquitaine or George Washington or Babe Ruth. Such being the power of biography, it is remarkable that of all the forms of the literary art it has had the fewest successes: there has been composed in our language only one life that everybody agrees is a masterpiece.
Writing on biography recently Sir Harold Nicolson gave the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of it: ‘the history of the lives of individual men, as a branch of literature’. ‘This excellent definition’, he goes on, ‘contains within itself three principles that any serious biographer should observe. A biography must be ‘history’, in the sense that it must be accurate and depict a person in relation to his times. It must describe an ‘individual’, with all the gradations of human character, and not merely present a type of virtue or of vice. And it must be composed as ‘a branch of literature’, in that it must be written in grammatical English and with an adequate feeling for style.”
As Lewis noted in the first paragraph of his essay, “It is the pleasure we get in identifying ourselves with real people who have attained eminence of some sort”. Tamils can identify with Pirabhakaran. He is a real man, who have attained eminence of some sort (or notoriety in the minds of his adversaries). Again, by his deeds he has transformed himself into the George Washington of Eelam and also equally the Babe Ruth of South Asian military games.
Lewis also wrote, “In collecting his materials the author who is writing the life of a contemporary has certain obvious advantages: he can interview his man and his family, friends and enemies. He can get answers that a biographer writing in the future will perhaps have to search many books to find, and which he may not find in the end. The contemporary has the additional advantage of knowing how his subject dressed and walked and ate; above all, how he spoke… The contemporary biographer has a still further advantage which is so obvious that it might be overlooked: the advantage of living in the same time as his subject.”
These lines of Lewis inspired me to invest my time on writing this biography now. By providence, Pirabhakaran and I share the same Tamil heritage, same native locality in Vadamarachchy region of Jaffna and same generational match up. I’m only 18 months older than him. Also, my younger sibling was born two days before him. Of course, due to lack of proximity, as of now, I haven’t interviewed him or his family or friends; but I have gathered assiduously documentary materials (for the past 20 years) generated by those who have interviewed him in person. I also have gathered arduously materials scribed by his ‘enemies’. The internet revolution since mid 1990s had enabled me to collect useful information on Pirabhakaran, which would have been impossible when Lewis’s essay appeared in print two months before Pirabhakaran’s birth.
Lewis concluded his essay with a cautionary paragraph as follows:
“Biography demands much of its practitioners: study, accuracy, insight and artistry. Its power and responsibility are immense. The subject’s life, his many thousand hours, may be set aside by posterity if his biographer is careless or frivolous, idolatrous, or unjust. Immortality on earth is the gift the biographer has to confer. If in the verdict of the best judges in his own and succeeding ages he has made the gift, he will have won, as his reward, immortality for himself.”
How competent am I as a biographer of Pirabhakaran?
As I scan the slate of Eelam Tamil writers, I can list at least nine who are competent to write a good biography on Pirabhakaran in English. These are, in alphabetical order,
1. Balasinghams (Anton and Adele): the best to provide an insider view of Pirabhakaran’s mind. Adele Balasingham has authored an autobiography, The Will to Freedom (2001).
2. M.K.Eelaventhan: Eelam activist, with long-term residency in Chennai, currently living in Colombo. As one with personal links with the old Federal Party leaders and the Eelam militants, I consider him as the under-rated talent who can describe best the generational switch in Tamil militancy.
3. D.B.S.Jeyaraj: leading journalist of current generation with contacts in Colombo, Chennai and elsewhere. He possesses investigative talent, but has gained a limy image of servicing few masters who are hostile to Tamil interests.
4. K.T.Rajasingham: journalist with decades of experience in covering the politics of Ceylon. He is currently serializing the un-told political history of the island, in a wider canvas.
5. T.Sabaratnam: elder ‘Lake House’ journalist with contacts in Colombo, and author of staid biographies on A. Amirthalingam and S. Thondaman.
6. Nadesan Satyendra: respected attorney with decades of insider knowledge in Sri Lankan politics, law and Tamil activism.
7. S.Sivanayagam: elder journalist with an intimate knowledge of events in Ceylon, India and mastery of English language.
8. D.P.Sivaram (Taraki): journalist with good analytical skill and insider knowledge of recent past.
Each one of the above-mentioned individuals possesses merits which are distinctly lacking in me to write a biography on Pirabhakaran in English. However, they also – as I view – have some burdens: advancing age, lack of motivation (if that is the appropriate word!), ‘unsettled’ life and ravage of indifferent health, ‘uncertainty’ of surrounding mileau and inaccessibility of reference materials are some of these. Not to be condescending, I have one merit over these individuals, in that I have had a tough apprenticeship in biography writing in 1990s.
In the inter-Olympic period between Barcelona and Atlanta, I figuratively lived with Einstein to write my Einstein Dictionary (1996), the first of its kind in science reference books. It has received critical acclaim among my peers for its unusual treatment of the scientist, who was chosen by the Time magazine as the person of the [20th] century. Since there are dozens of biographies on Einstein, I felt that I have to stand out from the crowd by authoring a dictionary-style biography. While laboring to make my work a success, by reading more than 100 books on the physics, philosophy and political activism of Einstein, I learnt the skill of (a) excavating concealed, covered-up or overlooked facts and weaving it into interesting story; and also (b) sifting gems from the piles of published muck.
But on Pirabhakaran, with the exception of Narayan Swamy’s Tigers of Lanka – From Boys to Guerrillas, biographies are lacking. Some published works provide significant mention about his (and LTTE) activities. Thus, as of now, I couldn’t adopt the dictionary-style biography on him. Rather, I had to focus on a full length conventional biography.
Types of Biographies
Biographies, depending on the focus of the biographer, can be of many types. These include,
Rajan Hoole et al’s Broken Palmyra (1990) and Rohan Gunaratna’s Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka (1993) were recording biographies on the origin and development of LTTE in general. Adele Balasingham’s The Will to Freedom (2001) was an autobiography with noticeable snippets on Pirabhakaran’s mind. Dixit’s Assignment Colombo (1998) was a crude type of acquaintance biography on Pirabhakaran.
In contrast to these works, I have chosen to write an analytical biography on Pirabhakaran, which is a cross between Erik Erikson’s Gandhi’s Truth (1969) and any of James Michener’s non-fiction work. The three ingredients enumerated by Sir Harold Nicolson for a biography, namely ‘history’, ‘description of an individual’ and ‘a branch of literature with an adequate feeling for style’, also merited my earnest attention. Either The Broken Palmyra or Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka cannot qualify as a biography on Pirabhakaran since in both the last two ingredients were missing.
Though it is customary to provide a list of consulted sources at the end of the work, for pragmatic reasons on information, I have opted to provide a list of sources which have been consulted in the writing of the past 40 chapters. Only the books and book chapters are mentioned. Journal and periodical articles are too numerous to be mentioned now.
[Note: Rather than the conventional alphabetical listing by the authors, I have preferred the chronological listing by the publication date.]
The sources have been categorized into three types: (A) Works with details on Pirabhakaran (B) Works on Ceylon/Sri Lanka (C) Works on Military history.
(A) Works with details on Pirabhakaran
(B) Works on Tamils/Ceylon/Sri Lanka
(C) Works on Military History