The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon
Pirabhakaran on his childhood and formative influences
Pirabhakaran has been infrequently featured and interviewed in non-Sri Lankan newspapers, and news magazines since 1984. When he was residing in Tamil Nadu, between 1983 and 1986, few interviewers like N. Ram and Anita Pratap were able to bring out some of the little known facts about his juvenile phase, by their penetrating questions. During that period, Pirabhakaran made him relatively accessible to journalists covering the international magazines like Newsweek and Asiaweek as well.
However, after mid-1987, he had curtailed his access to name-brand scribes and ‘run-of-the mill’ wordsmiths who were keen on establishing their career rather than covering the Eelam Tamil issue with fairness. This has led to the spread of untruths and half-truths in the international newsmedia about Pirabhakaran, drafted by frustrated journalists who were unable to meet him face to face. To compound this issue, the news-peddlers from the Colombo press (especially the likes of Mahindapala, Jayatilleka and Weerakoon) conveniently mixed their racist prejudices into the newsfeeds they had easy access. Thus, it is pertinent to present information on his juvenile period, as Pirabhakaran has expressed himself in his mid-1980s interviews.
I had tabulated the following partial (chronological) list of Pirabhakaran interviews which had appeared in the non-Sri Lankan newsmedia. These contain vital personal details and views provided by him, and thus form the primary sources on his life.
1. to Anita Pratap. Sunday magazine, March 11-17, 1984.
2. to Anita Pratap. Sunday magazine, Sept. 29-Oct. 5, 1985
3. to India Today magazine, June 30, 1986.
4. to Sudip Mazumdar. Newsweek magazine, August 11, 1986.
5. to N. Ram. The Hindu, Madras, Sept. 4 and Sept. 5, 1986.
6. to Bhagwan R. Singh. The Week magazine, Dec. 7-13, 1986.
7. to India Today magazine, Aug. 15, 1987.
8. to T. S. Subramanian, Frontline magazine, Aug. 22-Sept. 4, 1987.
9. to Anita Pratap. Time International Edition, April 9, 1990.
10. to the Sri Lankan correspondent. Economist magazine, March 6, 1993.
11. to Anita Pratap. Time International Edition, December 19, 1994.
12. to Ananthi Sooriyapiragasam, B. B. C. Tamil Service, April 27, 1995.
Responses to Anita Pratap:
Anita Pratap was one of the Indian journalists who gained early access to Pirabhakaran. She had first interviewed him for the Sunday magazine in 1984, when Pirabhakaran was not yet 30. A few of the questions by Pratap elicited the responses related to his unusual development as a rebel.
Pratap: “Could you elaborate on some of your personal experiences that compelled you to believe that an armed struggle was the only solution for the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Were you, your family members and friends, directly victimized by the discriminatory policy of the Sri Lankan government?
Pirabhakaran: The shocking events of the 1958 racial riots had a profound impact on me when I was a schoolboy. I heard of horrifying incidents of how our people had been mercilessly and brutally put to death by Sinhala racists. Once I met a widowed mother, a friend of my family, who related to me her agonizing personal experience of this racial holocaust. During the riots a Sinhala mob attacked her house in Colombo. The rioters set fire to the house and murdered her husband. She and her children escaped with severe burn injuries. I was deeply shocked when I saw the scars on her body. I also heard such stories of cruelty. I felt a deep sense of sympathy and love for my people. A great passion overwhelmed me to redeem my people from this racist system. I strongly felt that armed struggle was the only way to confront a system which employs armed might against unarmed, innocent people.
Pratap: At what point of time did you lose faith in the parliamentary system? What precipitated this disillusionment?
Pirabhakaran: I entered politics at a time – in the early [nineteen] Seventies – when the younger generation had already lost faith in parliamentary politics. I entered politics as an armed revolutionary. What precipitated the disillusionment in parliamentary politics was the total disregard and callousness of the successive governments towards the pathetic plight of our people.
Pratap: How did you come to start the Liberation Tiger movement?
Pirabhakaran: I originally formed the movement with a group of dedicated youths who sincerely believed that armed struggle was the only way to liberate our people.
Pratap: What was the reason for identifying yourselves as ‘Tigers’?
Pirabhakaran: I named the movement ‘Liberation Tigers’, since the tiger emblem had deep roots in the political history of Tamils, symbolizing Tamil patriotic resurgence. The tiger symbol also depicts the mode of our guerrilla warfare.
Pratap: When you decided to form the ‘Liberation Tigers’, what was the reaction of your family members and those close to you?
Pirabhakaran: As soon as the Tiger movement was formed, I went underground and lost contact with my family.
Pratap: When did you last meet your family members? Are they reconciled to your outlawed existence?
Pirabhakaran: I have not seen my family members for the last 11 years. I do not think they regard me as an ordinary person leading an ordinary life. They are reconciled to my existence as a guerrilla fighter. ”
Responses to N. Ram:
Two questions posed by N. Ram, then an associate editor of the Hindu newspaper in 1986, brought out from Pirabhakaran, the formative influences on his character. His responses to these two questions are reproduced in full.
N. Ram: “Could you give us an idea of your personal heroes in revolutionary struggles or liberation movements or in any sphere of life… people and experiences that have inspired you? And perhaps thereby give us some insight into your own political evolution from the time you were a schoolboy?”
Pirabhakaran: “From my boyhood, the struggle that attracted me most was the Indian freedom struggle. The role of Netaji attracted me very much. I was brought up in an environment of strict discipline from childhood. I was not permitted to mingle freely with outsiders. I used to feel shy of girls. Great store was laid by personal rectitude and discipline. My father set an example through his own personal conduct. He would not even chew betel leaves. I modeled my conduct on his… he was a government officer, a district land officer. A very straightforward man. People say in our area: ‘When he walks, he does not hurt even the grass under his feet, but his son is so…’
Even while criticising me, they marvel at the fact that such a son was born to such a father! He was strict, yes, but also soft and persuasive. In my own case, he reasoned rather than regimented and his attitude was that of a friend… He would give me certain pieces of advice and discuss things with me. As I said, I grew up as a shy boy… especially in the matter of mingling with girls.
The life of Subhas Chandra Bose attracted me specially. Even as a boy, I would delve into Gandhiji’s books on Experiments with Truth, on celibacy and so on. Subhas attracted me particularly since even as a boy he went in search of spiritualism and, finding the life of a recluse dissatisfying, returned (laughs). Yet repeatedly, he retreated into spiritualism… during moments of great difficulty and crisis. I followed this history and these stories with fascination. He became my special hero and some of his orations gripped me. For example: ‘I shall fight for the freedom of my land until I shed my last drop of blood. ’ These words used to thrill me whenever they came to me. Then the story of Bhagat Singh fascinated me.
In other words, the biographies and histories of those who hit back at the perpetrators of injustice, those who counterattacked (the unjust foe) were my special favourite. Because in our land, the Sinhalese behaved so cruelly towards us… we would hear stories about this and read about these cruel acts in books and newspapers… Later I read about this particular episode that took place during the 1958 attacks on Tamils… They broke into a temple, Panadura, found a Brahmin priest sleeping, tied him to his cot, poured petrol over him and burnt him alive. Ours was a god-fearing society and the people were religious minded. The widespread feeling was: when a priest like him was burnt alive, why did we not have the capability to hit back? That was one atrocity that made people think deeply. In another episode, they threw a child into a drum of boiling tar. This left a very deep imprint on my mind and in the minds of those around me. If such innocent lives could be destroyed, why could we not strike back?
In such moments, these heroic examples and models from the Indian freedom struggle came to me. Magazines retold these stories on special occasions such as India’s Independence Day celebrations… This practice continues. Consider another example of Tiruppur Kumaran – in his ahimsa there was a steely determination. If I was attracted by the experience of armed struggle against injustice, I was drawn by the moral force of ahimsa as well. I was inspired by examples of grit and determination. I began to think along these lines early in life. Why can’t we follow their examples? Why can’t we start an armed struggle?
I used to read books on the rise of Napoleon and his exploits. This kind of history held special appeal… In the Mahabharata, the roles of Bhima and Karna were specially attractive to me… the spirit of sacrifice appeared crucial. People respond to characters in the Mahabharata in various ways. I value the character and role of Karna the most, on account of his readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice… I read some of Vivekananda’s sayings and the urge grew in me to work towards a strong youth force. I plunged into this line of thinking… At what age? These feelings and ideas began to take shape when I was 16 approximately.
I used to listen to the religious discourses of Kripanantha Variar… I used to go to all these events… those connected with religion. I would go and observe political meetings… attend dramatic performances… In my place, they used to enact plays on Socrates and so on.
So quite early on, we absorbed all these influences and the feeling grew in us that we must do something! Looking at our historical background, we had to take up arms to fight for our rights. The lesson was that they could do all this because we were defenceless and disarmed. Why should be remain so? We should take up violence to counter and overthrow their violence… Only after that did I engage in this movement. ”
N. Ram: “The impression among outsiders who have observed the development of the LTTE is that you – as its leader – have only recently begun to take a deeper or more detailed interest in politics…whereas earlier, you used to live in mainly in the realm of military ideas. You were considered shy and did not meet people easily, which would make it difficult in politics. Now they find you speaking out on a number of political issues.”
Pirabhakaran: “In reality, it has always been clear to me that an armed struggle takes shape only against a political background. If I had been a man without political clarity… I went underground around 1973 and you know that leading an underground life is a very difficult proposition. I have led an underground life for a long time… between 1973 and 1983, it was a very difficult period for us, with the army on the rampage… to escape their net was very difficult. If we were able to go through this experience and are able to stand firm today, then surely you will concede that we could not have been political innocents or carried on without a political background!
But one thing is true, despite this political background. My natural inclination makes me lay less emphasis on words. In serious politics, it won’t do to concentrate on talking; you must grow through action and then talk! You would have observed that only as we grew in our activities, in our activities in the field, did we come up to a position of meeting various people and explaining our ideas – only then did our words carry some value. Words must be matched and indeed preceded by content. This is crucial for our relations with our people.
If people respect our fighters more, it is because of this extra discipline. Certain exemplary personal attributes, a certain personal rectitude; that is why our people are attracted to LTTE fighters. When you speak of a political outlook, people will respect you only if you prove yourself in action. Action gives your programme a political content. When we say during this period, ‘They will use the army to attack us, we will resist and counterattack and we will protect you’, well… only when we actually do it, do we establish our political credibility and role.
That is why we have given due attention to military affairs in our organization. You know the character of your struggle. In a situation where the Sri Lankan state feeds its army on racism and chauvinism and through that army and through forced colonization, tries to displace and subjugate us. Only a political organization with military strength is capable of effective resistance. Look all around the world… any real struggle has had a military background. Even if the Indian freedom struggle was conducted on the basis of ahimsa, Netaji’s Indian National Army had a special place…There is definitely a place today in Indian history for Subhas! His was an action-oriented political approach.
And take the Indian state today. If India is able to stand up in the community of nations, it is in no small measure due to the strength of the Indian armed forces; else, the Chinese would bring their frontiers up to Delhi. !” [The Hindu, Madras, Sept. 5, 1986]
What is notable about this interview of Pirabhakaran by N. Ram for the Hindu newspaper is that, it appeared nearly three weeks after the now-famous Newsweek magazine’s interview of the LTTE leader. Once Pirabhakaran became news-worthy for international audience, he became respectable for an interview in the eyes of the managers of the Hindu newspaper. It was to Sudeep Mazumdar, the Newsweek interviewer, Pirabhakaran offered his celebrated answer of Clint Eastwood being a vicarious trainer for his military skills.
The 1986 Newsweek magazine interview
Though few of the answers to the 13 questions posed by Sudip Mazumdar to Pirabhakaran have lost their value with the passage of time and later unanticipated political developments, still this 1986 Newsweek magazine interview retains its glamor for the responses delivered and the expressed wishes of LTTE’s leader, then aged 31. Since he was living in Madras then, he had been courteous to his host country. But in his responses Pirabhakaran had shown that he is one who would not bend his knees to dance to the tunes of his host country. This interview is reproduced in full to show that, unlike the then parading Eelam militant leadership of other groups, Pirabhakaran has matched his words with deeds.
The Eye of the Tiger
[Newsweek International Edition, Aug. 11, 1986, p. 48]
For the past 14 years Velupillai Pirabhakaran has led an armed struggle to create a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka’s volatile northeastern region. Pirabhakaran, 32, commands the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the strongest of Sri Lanka’s numerous Tamil separatist groups. It is generally acknowledged that peace negotiations with Colombo are unlikely to prove effective without LTTE’s involvement. Last week, shortly before his group rejected Colombo’s latest proposal for peace talks, Pirabhakaran spoke with Newsweek’s Sudip Mazumdar in Madras. Excerpts:
Mazumdar: Your opponents charge that innocent civilians are often killed in your military offensives. How do you respond?
Pirabhakaran: The LTTE has never killed any civilians. We condemn such acts of violence. There were occasions when we had to kill homeguards. But they are not civilians. They are trained [non-combat draftees who] carry guns.
Mazumdar: How many troops do you have under your command and where do they train?
Pirabhakaran: That’s a secret. I can tell you we are strong enough to take on the 51,000 strong Sri Lankan military and well enough equipped to carry on protracted guerrilla warfare.
Mazumdar: Why do you think LTTE has taken the lead among other guerrilla groups?
Pirabhakaran: Discipline and order are most important. We emphasize personal morality and a sense of patriotism. Our cadres carry cyanide pills with them to avoid falling into enemy hands. Most of all, the people are behind us.
Mazumdar: Critics charge that you rely on drug trafficking to raise money for your military activities. How do you respond?
Pirabhakaran: Our people support us financially. We capture arms and ammunition from the enemy and also buy them on the international market. We don’t get support from any other country. Here in India we are living as political refugees and the government of India extends moral support to our existence here. We have imposed a strict moral code on ourselves, not to use even liquor. How can one suspect us of drug trafficking which we condemn?
Mazumdar: Press reports say that you received military training in Cuba. How did you manage to acquire your know-how?
Pirabhakaran: Through sheer personal training. I use my natural instincts and I watch war films and westerns by [American movie actor] Clint Eastwood. If I were trained in Cuba, I would have been a better fighter.
Mazumdar: What is your assessment of the latest round of negotiations between moderate Tamils and the Sri Lankan government on devolution of power to Tamils?
Pirabhakaran: The proposals [put forward by Colombo] are insufficient even to start negotiations. We have enunciated four principles as the basis for talks; the traditional homeland of the Tamils must be recognized; Tamils should be [officially] recognized as a [separate] nationality; their rights to self-determination should be recognized, and the civil rights of stateless Tamils should be recognized. A framework should be worked out incorporating these principles. Then we will consider [negotiations].
Mazumdar: How serious do you think President Junius Jayewardene is in solving the Tamil problem?
Pirabhakaran: This so-called peace initiative by Jayewardene is an attempt to hoodwink the world. That these negotiations are eyewash is clear from the fact that even while the talks were on the military killed nearly 150 innocent Tamils. Talks with Jayewardene? Possible, but only on the question of demarcation of our boundaries [as two separate nations].
Mazumdar: Why do you think India allows you to operate from here?
Pirabhakaran: Purely on humanitarian grounds. There is genocide going on in Sri Lanka. India knows we are fighting against genocide and trying to protect our people.
Mazumdar: Opponents charge that India is abetting ‘terrorists’ by giving you sanctuary, while New Delhi blames Pakistan for training Sikh terrorists? What is your view?
Pirabhakaran: There is a fundamental difference here. Our people are facing genocide whereas the Indian Army is not committing genocide in
Mazumdar: India favors a negotiated settlement of the ethnic problem and opposes your goal of a separate Tamil state. What is your view?
Pirabhakaran: The world is constantly changing; so is politics. We rely on the hope that changing circumstances will finally lead to India’s recognition of our struggle. India has recognized various liberation movements. At a later stage India may be compelled to recognize us as it did the PLO and SWAPO.
Mazumdar: What do you expect from the United States?
Pirabhakaran: We want to appeal to the American people to realize that we are a nation of people facing genocide. And we appeal to the U. S. government to stop all aid to the Sri Lankan government which will be used for the destruction of our people.
Mazumdar: What kind of a political system do you envisage for an independent Tamil state?
Pirabhakaran: We want to establish a socialist society. Ours will be a unique socialist model, neither Soviet nor Chinese nor any other.
Mazumdar: Have you ever considered calling for India’s military intervention to stop what you call genocide?
Pirabhakaran: India’s military intervention is not necessary because we have a fighting force capable of facing the military. In fact, India’s intervention may allow other international forces to meddle in Sri Lanka and create [chaos]. ”
In retrospect, one can infer that Pirabhakaran’s answer to the second question that, “We are strong enough to take on the 51,000 strong Sri Lankan military and well enough equipped to carry on protracted guerrilla warfare” had stood the test of time. Even quite a segment of LTTE’s non-combat sympathizers then would have felt that, without India’s covert assistance, the chances of LTTE being neutralized by the Sri Lankan army (which had been receiving overt help from Pakistan and Israel) were considerable. But, as he had revealed in his 1986 interview with N. Ram a few weeks later, Pirabhakaran had made his actions speak louder than words.
For reality check, here is the latest statistics from the Sri Lankan army’s causalities since 1983. According to Gnana Balagalle, the Chairperson of the [Sri Lankan] Army Seva Vanita Sanvidhanaya, “In Sri Lanka, we have over 16,000 disabled soldiers due to the two decades of ethnic conflict. The number of missing soldiers amounted to over 3,000 while over 18,000 have sacrificed their lives fighting the war. ” [The Island, Colombo, Aug. 29, 2002]. This newsreport by Sanjeevi Jayasuriya also mentioned that though over 3,300 are listed as ‘missing in action’, “the LTTE claims it holds only seven security forces personnel as prisoners of the conflict.” Thus, the 3,300 MIAs have to be added to the tally of 18,000 killed personnel.
Responses to T. S. Subramanian:
Subramanian, the reporter for the Frontline magazine interviewed Pirabhakaran in Jaffna, immediately following the Rajiv Gandhi-Jayewardene Peace Accord in August 1987, and before the commencement of Indo-LTTE war. Two questions which elicited revealing responses from Pirabhakaran were the following:
Subramanian: “What happens to the cyanide capsules that your men wear round their necks? Are they necessary when there are no arms?
Pirabhakaran: I think the capsules are needed most. They are indispensable now. They are the only weapons for the cadres to protect themselves in the Eastern Province from hoodlums, the rival groups and the Sinhala army. Not only that; they would continue to wear them in remembrance of those comrades who fought along with them and sacrificed their lives.
[Note by Sri Kantha: This response was practically demonstrated by twelve of LTTE’s cadres on October 5, 1987; Lt. Col. Kumarappa, Lt. Col. Pulendran, Maj. Abdullah, Capt. Nalan, Capt. Ragu, 2nd Lt. Ananthakumar, Lt. Thavakumar, Lt. Anbalagan, Capt. Karan, Capt. Miresh, 2nd Lt. Reginald and Capt. Palani. ]
Subramanian: What are the shaping influences on your life?
Pirabhakaran: Ra. Su. Nallaperumal’s serial Kallukkul Eeram (Its’s wet inside the stone) published in Kalki magazine. I have read it five times. It revolves round the Indian freedom struggle. Mr. Nallaperumal balances the ahimsaic struggle and the armed struggle. Generally, I read anything on any freedom movement. I used to read books on Joan of Arc, Napoleon and so on. I was always interested in history. Shivaji was the first guerrilla to have fought against the Mughal rule. When I was young, I always had a picture of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. I used to keep his picture on my table when I used to study. I had written on my table, ‘I will fight till the last drop of my blood for the liberation of my mother-land’.”
The canard of being a Hitler fan
Pirabhakaran’s fascination with Subhas Chandra Bose has been mischievously projected as he being a fan of Hitler, by extension. In the aftermath of the Jaffna offensive by the LTTE in 2000, Ian MacKinnon reported for the Newsweek magazine as follows:
“How has Prabhakaran, 46, a soft-spoken fan of Clint Eastwood movies who likes to quote the thoughts of Mao Zedong, outmaneuvered the Sri Lankan forces? He seems to hold almost cult-like powers over his followers. Prabhakaran founded the Tamil Tigers in 1976 when he was 22, in response to government discrimination against the country’s Tamil minority. His rebels have been fighting a full-fledged was with Colombo for 17 years; about 60,000 people have been killed. Prabhakaran, a socialist who has said he is inspired by such disparate leaders as Hitler, Napoleon and Che Guevara, gets funding for and weapons from the Tamil diaspora…” [Newsweek International, May 29, 2000]
It appears that reporter Ian MacKinnon’s passing mention of Pirabhakaran being inspired by Hitler, is based on the LTTE leader’s expressed fascination with the career of Subhas Chandra Bose, who linked with Hitler for a few years in the early 1940s, as part of his anti-British activism. That Pirabhakaran himself gained inspiration from Hitler is baloney and not based on any factual record.
MacKinnon has hidden the real facts that colonial Ceylon produced its share of Sinhala Aryan Hitler-imitators such as A. E. Goonesinghe (1891-1967) and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike (1899-1959) who dreamt of conquering power in the 1930s by spell binding oratory and using goon-squads to target the skulls of opponents. Both of them even competed with each other in the Colombo Municipality elections in 1920s. Another fact deserves notice; both Bandaranaike and Goonesinghe became household names when Hitler was at his prime in the 1930s, and both exploited the ‘Aryan’ shrill of Hitler in the local politics of the island. While Goonesinghe’s star faded in the early 1950s, Bandaranaike exploited the ‘Heil Sinhala’ demagoguery to reach the pinnacle of prime-ministership in mid 1950s. Then Federal Party militant Amirthalingam was a notable victim of ‘Heil Sinhala’ goon-squad attack when Bandaranaike gained power in 1956. Even Sinhalese journalist Tarzie Vittachi who courageously penned the acclaimed Emergency ‘58 book had to escape from the island for fear of his life and limb from such goon squad threat.
The 1980s decade saw the second generation of Sinhala Aryan Hitler-Mussolini imitators in power, who made a mockery of parliamentary democracy, after being voted into power in 1977. These two became the target of derision for Pirabhakaran. If J. R. Jayewardene (1906-1996) postured as the Mussolini-clone in Asia, Ranasinghe Premadasa (1924-1993) – the erstwhile protégé of A. E. Goonesinghe – played the role of Hitler-imitator with better professional success than his mentor. But Jayewardene and Premadasa – the tweedledum and tweedledee of the 1980s decade – were cunning politicos who could mask their Hitler-Mussolini act with supple democratic façade such as referendum and by-elections. To top their act, they also buttressed their Hitler-Mussolini act with Morarji Desai-style of ascetic Gandhism (donned by Jayewardene) and Marcos-brand of populism (paraded by Premadasa and his partner in life - Hema). This detail is needed to comprehend Pirabhakaran’s revulsion of Sinhalese parliamentary leadership of the 1970s and 1980s, as he has stated in his 1984 interview with Anita Pratap. The current crop of pulp history writers, in particular H. L. D. Mahindapala and Dayan Jayatilleka, who were servile flatterers of Premadasa are involved in the game of upgrading the image of their master as a cross between Jefferson and Lincoln, while exhibiting their name-calling talent on Pirabhakaran. Thus, MacKinnon’s mention of Pirabhakaran being inspired by Hitler can also be inferred as nothing but a ‘plant’ by media-savvy Jayatilleka to mask the despotism of Premadasa.
‘Even the Grass is a Weapon for the Courageous’
Some Sinhalese analysts, especially Jayatilleka, are fond of quoting a few idioms and proverbs in Tamil (which they have learnt casually from their Tamil contacts) to critique Pirabhakaran’s thoughts and actions. One which has been used in the past is the proverb, Puli pasithaalum pullai thinnaaathu [in translation: Tiger will not eat grass even in hunger.] In my reading, a better Tamil proverb featuring grass to describe Pirabhakaran’s action is Vallavanukku Pullum Aayutham [in translation: Even the grass is a weapon for the courageous.] Only a talented person fully drenched with an attitude depicted by this proverb could lead an army, using the video cassettes of Clint Eastwood’s westerns as inspiration. Unbelievable to the ordinary souls in 1986. But Pirabhakaran is not an ordinary individual.
Pirabhakaran’s remark to the Newsweek magazine about his fascination with Clint Eastwood’s movies elicited a humorous commentary from a journalist, then living in Japan. I reproduce his thoughts, since though it appears patronizing to Pirabhakaran, the joke was on the Poo Bahs of American culture. Wrote Jared Lubarsky,
“Make My Day Department: The leader of a Tamil separatist group in Sri Lanka, dear friends, was asked in a magazine interview last week if he had received any military training in Cuba. He denied it. ‘I use my natural instincts’, he said, ‘and I watch war films and Westerns by Clint Eastwood.’
Think of all the people who devote whole careers to bringing the representative best of their own cultures to audiences in other lands. Goethe Institute, British Council, USIA – thousands of folks on the public payroll, and earning every penny of it. Cultural agencies work hard; they take their role seriously because they know it can have real political consequences. That’s one thing they all have to disavow, of course: politics. But anything a culture in transition puts on display from another – and all cultures are in transition – changes the way people see and think. An exhibition, a lecture, a festival; somewhere down the line, these things are going to alter the very shape of the host country and the way it behaves in the world community: cultural bureaucrats give a lot of thought to the images they send abroad. It must make the people at the USIA feel a little low, I suppose, to think that they come in behind Dirty Harry as a force for social change in the Third World.”
“I find it a little disconcerting myself, that this particular freedom fighter learned his notions of warfare from Eastwood sphagetti Westerns. As far as I can tell, Eastwood’s loftiest strategy in these movies is to shoot the shit out of anything that moves. That doesn’t bode well for the future of Sri Lanka.
Then again, why should we expect things to be otherwise? If the president of the United States [Note by Sri Kantha: Then, Reagan was the President] can derive his whole outlook on life from the movies, why shouldn’t a Tamil Tiger? Matter of fact, why should he be the only one? …” [Mainichi Daily News, Tokyo, Aug. 8, 1986]
Lubarsky’s humor aside, serious students of history will not deny that Clint Eastwood and his use of gun is the most potent symbol of American culture; far more potent than the creations of Americans like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Henry Ford, Ansel Adams and Andy Warhol. If one scans the American history from 1620, when the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth aboard Mayflower ship, the gun helped the European immigrants to defend, conquer and establish their thriving vibrant culture. Ballads, folk poetry and art in the earlier centuries, as well as novels and movies in the 20th century extolled the virtue of the gun. If not for the gun, Washington and his gang couldn’t have bested the rule of King George III. Thus, Pirabhakaran was not wrong in identifying Eastwood’s gun as his guiding light to liberate Eelam Tamils from Sinhalese oppression.
Though Lubarsky wrote this humorous piece in 1986, in the aftermath of Clint Eastwood’s critical success of his movie Unforgiven in 1993, the Time magazine provided a profile of the Hollywood icon to felicitate his oeuvre, with a caption ‘Go Ahead, Make My Career’. Some points made by Paul Witteman who penned this profile are interesting to note. According to this profile,
“[Clint] Eastwood plans his productions like military campaigns and compares his role to that of an officer in combat. ‘Making a film takes on a life of its own’, he says, ‘You guide that life along like a platoon leader, getting everybody kind of enthused to charge the hill’. ” [Time International edition, April 5, 1993, pp. 44-45]
I found this comment from Clint Eastwood somewhat fascinating. Come to think of it, there appears a symmetry between the movie idol (Eastwood) and the fan (Pirabhakaran), which had gone unnoticed. While Eastwood prepared his movies like military campaigns, Pirabhakaran gained inspiration for his military campaigns from Eastwood’s Westerns. Also the character traits which came to identify Clint Eastwood’s phenomenal success – prudence, intelligent shyness, self reliance, suspicion of the intentions of strangers and dogged determination – are the identified virtues of a pioneer American. These same traits also have some resonance in Pirabhakaran’s success as a Tamil leader.
One quote of Clint Eastwood mentioned in the Time magazine’s 1993 profile is also a memorable one. “Hollywood pays too much attention to home runs. Singles and doubles can win the game when longevity is the goal. Besides, if all I ever did was hit one home run, the only thing I’d be now a celebrity has-been.” Even Pirabhakaran’s record in the field attests to the fact that, like his idol, he also concentrated on singles and doubles in the 1980s. In contrast, some of his rivals to the leadership like Uma Maheswaran and Padmanabha were fooling themselves by aiming for ‘home runs’ with the never-materialised support from the Sinhalese peasants and masses. [Continued.]