The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon
When I heard about the death of movie legend Anthony Quinn on June 4, memories of my school days flooded my thoughts. It was 1967 and after I saw his signature performance in the movie ‘Zorba the Greek’ at the Savoy theater in Wellawatte, his Zorba character was a continuous presence in me for nearly two years. For solace, I picked up his confessional autobiography ‘One Man Tango’ from my bookshelf and scanned the pages.
One anecdote which Quinn had mentioned relating to the trainee phase of his career where he met another movie legend Marlon Brando captured my interest. What Pirabhakaran decided to carry out on July 5, 1987 at the Eelam battlefront was in the same league of what Quinn saw in Brando, while acting in Elia Kazan’s drama troupe in New York.
First to Quinn’s anecdote:
“Brando was an instant legend among our group. He flouted convention in Streetcar [named Desire] and in acting class - and from what I could gather, in the rest of his life as well. His improvisations in our Actors’ Studio sessions were prominent for the way he managed to mock the process and still do provocative work. Once, when he were asked to do a dance and freeze our poses at the clap of the instructor’s hands, Marlon wound up locked in a headstand. We were then supposed to do a bit based on our frozen postures, and when Marlon’s turn came he delivered his premise with deadpan seriousness.
‘I have a stomachache’ he announced to the rest of the class ‘and I’m standing on my head hoping I can pass it out of my mouth’. The others pretended at shock, but I thought the insult was marvelous....”
I quote this passage from Anthony Quinn because the words and phrases used by him to describe Brando’s action are apt for Pirabhakaran’s action on July 5, 1987 as well. An ‘instant legend’ who ‘flouted convention’ ‘in the rest of his life’; ‘improvisation’ by which he ‘managed to mock the process and still do provocative work’ and ‘delivered his premise with deadpan seriousness’.
If Pirabhakaran was the Brando, my conjecture is that, his peers and competing rivals to the Eelam leadership in mid-1980s (Uma Maheswaran, Sri Sabaratnam, Pathmanabha, Varadaraja Perumal and Douglas Devananda) turned out to be Rodney Dangerfields. For those who do not know who Rodney Dangerfield is, it is suffice to note that he is an American stand-up comic, in the same age category of Brando, and who became noticeable with his trade-mark quip ‘I don’t get any respect’. Though Dangerfield couldn’t be a trailblazer in the movie kingdom, he did receive notice for his self-parodying comic acts. Similarly, if we leave out those who have left the scene, the acts of Varadaraja Perumal and Minister Devananda provide comic relief to Eelam Tamils.
Now, to the event of July 5, 1987.
Suicide bombers: a counter-weapon for aerial terror
The authors of the Broken Palmyra, had observed: “During [the first half of] 1987, the Sri Lankan use of airpower had a deliberate vindictive purpose. Civilians were expected to get killed. Its main effect was to keep the LTTE shifting houses...”(p.132). I would infer that, as pointed by Emory Bogardus [see, The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon - part 5] citing the examples of Japan’s Imperial Army’s bombing in China and Hitler’s bombing in London, that the main purpose of the aerial terror by the Sri Lankan army was to deplete the morale of Eelam Tamils. Pirabhakaran showed leadership skill to restore the battered morale by incorporating suicide bombing as an unique weapon of his LTTE army.
The Broken Palmyra book records that landmark event in the Eelam liberation war as follows:
“On July 5  the LTTE launched a suicide attack against the Sri Lankan army camp at Nelliady Central College... Miller, a member of the LTTE’s new Black Tigers drove a van packed with explosives through the school gates into the front building. The government claimed that 20 of its soldiers died. Publicising its action through notice boards as a ‘great achievement’, the LTTE claimed 100 soldiers killed. Other sources said the government figure was much nearer the truth...” (p.134)
Even if one accepts the government’s mortality figures, by that single daring penetration into the army camp, LTTE demonstrated that they had in possession one powerful counter weapon to the aerial terror perpetrated by the Sri Lankan army. Commenting on the suicide bomb attack, the authors of the Broken Palmyra had inferred that,
“with many people, the LTTE had redeemed its reputation after running away in the face of Operation Liberation. This again pointed to the fickleness of public opinion in Jaffna...” (p.135)
One can very well argue whether the public opinion in Jaffna was fickle as painted by the anti-Pirabhakaran propagandists or more appropriately whether the authors of the Broken Palmyra lacked basic knowledge on military maneuvers to analyze the strategy adopted by Pirabhakaran.
Until I left Sri Lanka, I was also ignorant (like the authors of the Broken Palmyra) of how an army has to function to achieve its aim. That was 20 years ago. Then, during my graduate studies at the University of Illinois, I had the good fortune to have three mentors who were veterans of the Second World War and the Vietnam War. These three touched my life in multiple dimensions.
My thesis advisor Prof. John Erdman (born 1945) served in an engineering unit of the American army in the Vietnam War. My host father Prof. Stan Stolpe (born 1912) was a corporal under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Philippines during the Second World War. My third mentor Prof. Upson Garrigus (born 1917) served the American army in the European theater of the Second World War. While I was following graduate studies in lecture rooms and laboratory, I also learnt some facets of military life style (discipline, morale and punishment) from conversations with my American mentors. Among the three, Prof. Stolpe was most informative. Since he was my host father, I was invited to his house every Sunday for lunch. While feasting on the lunch prepared by my host mother Virginia, MacArthur stories were also served to me in ample quantities by Prof. Stolpe for nearly four years. I mention this detail to press the fact that I assess the actions of Pirabhakaran and his army from what I learnt from my American mentors, who served in the Second World War and the Vietnam War.
Since 1987, Pirabhakaran’s use of suicide bombers has been a staple for half-baked analyses of journalists, analysts and academics in Sri Lanka and India. Like prostitutes plying the same trade at different locations with varying degrees of make-ups for different customers, some like Rohan Gunaratna earn their living by re-hashing the once written script in umpteen seminars and anti-LTTE pieces to the partisan press in Sri Lanka and India. Regarding the suicide bombers of LTTE, these ‘seminar papers’ are replete with details of ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘how’. But, they do not describe or analyze ‘why’ the suicide bombers were incorporated in the LTTE army. First, I provide two examples of such analyses on LTTE’s suicide bombers.
The view of Rohan Gunaratna
The following is an excerpt from an article, ‘Suicide Terrorism: Emerging Global Patterns’ authored by Gunaratna. Though the same story is told, as provided by the authors of the Broken Palmyra, the description of the motive and the number of casualties reported falls between the 20 and 100, cited by Rajan Hoole and his colleagues.
“...The first LTTE suicide operation was conducted on July 5, 1987, to stall the advance of the Sri Lankan military to capture Jaffna town. An LTTE driver Wasanthan alias Captain Millar volunteered to drive a vehicle full of explosives into the makeshift army camp in Nelliady. Although the suicide operation was not the reason to abort the mission to capture Jaffna, the LTTE propaganda claimed that Captain Millar’s success of killing 40 soldiers in Nelliady frustrated the intentions of the government to recapture the heartland of the Tamils. The LTTE did not conduct suicide operations during the IPKF period but initiated a series of suicide attacks with the political assassination of Ranjan Wijeratne and Rajiv Gandhi in March and May 1991. These off the battlefield strikes were developed in Eelam War III, when the LTTE integrated suicide bombers into their land and sea fighting forces.
“...The LTTE used suicide bombers to destroy the Joint Operations Command, the nerve centre of the Sri Lankan security forces; the Central Bank; the World Trade Centre; the sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic, the most hallowed Buddhist shrine in the world; and the oil storage installations in Kollonnawa. The LTTE also used suicide bombers to kill the navy chief Admiral Clancy Fernando, a Brigade commander of the Jaffna peninsula Brigadier Larry Wijeratne, and several others at the forefront of counter-insurgency operations. For instance, Chief Inspector Nilabdeen, the head of the anti-terrorism unit, in a suburban police station escaped with injuries, but Razeek, a former Tamil militant integrated to the army, was killed in May 1999...”
[The Colombo Chronicle, a Sri Lankan web magazine, January 5, 2001]
Gunaratna, while providing information on ‘what (victims)’ and ‘when’ components related to the LTTE’s suicide bomb attacks, conveniently hides the ‘why’ component in the military story. However, he conceded in the concluding segment of this article that, “There are distinctions between the LTTE and Hamas suicide attacks. While all the LTTE suicide attacks were aimed at destroying a political, military, economic or religio-cultural target, the other groups used it as a tool of terror.”
I would also like to stress that, though Gunaratna has attributed the assassination of Ranjan Wijeratne to an LTTE suicide bomber, other sources in Colombo and India have expressed differing conclusions. If one agrees to the view that Gunaratna’s opinion is accurate, LTTE’s consideration of Ranjan Wijeratne (who was then a ranking member of President Premadasa’s Cabinet) as a legitimate military target was no different from the position held by the American army regarding the elimination of Japan’s Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in 1943.
The view of Sabil Francis
Sabil Francis is identified as a research scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. I located his article entitled, ‘The uniqueness of LTTE’s suicide bombers’ [article number 321, dated February 4, 2000] in the website of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. I quote excerpts from the sophomoric analysis of Francis.
“...Though the LTTE was founded in 1974, suicide bombing was only accepted as a tactic in the late 1980s. The first instance of a suicide bombing was on July 5, 1987, when Captain Miller of the LTTE Black Tigers drove a van full of explosives into a military camp at Nelliaddy. More than 128 soldiers were killed. [Note: this number exceeds even what was cited by the authors of Broken Palmyra!]
“...What are the motivations of the Black Tigers, who regularly indulge in ‘Dry Runs’ that could terrify normal person? None of the classical theorists on guerrilla warfare like Mao, Lenin or Che have advocated suicide bombing. The only comparable instance are Islamic militants in the Middle East. Their ideology believes that they will go straight to heaven. The LTTE is officially atheist and the cadre, being Hindus, believe in reincarnation of the soul....”
Francis attributes the motivation of LTTE suicide attacks to “mass cult hysteria that the LTTE consciously cultivates by rituals” and “judicious use of symbols rooted in Tamil myth”. Here I would say that this Indian ‘research scholar’ misses the woods for the trees. The LTTE is being led by Pirabhakaran, who is now recognized as a military leader of repute to be born in the post-Second World War period. Suicide bombing has to be considered as one of the arsenals he uses to annihilate his adversaries. He developed this counter-weapon to boost the morale of his troops he led.
If classical theorists of guerrilla warfare like Lenin, Mao and Che have not advocated the use of suicide bombing, there are valid reasons. The circumstances faced by Lenin, Mao and Che Guevara differed markedly in Russia, China and Central-South America respectively. Lenin’s forces did not face aerial bombing in the first two decades of the 20th century. Che Guevara, though a brilliant theorist of guerrilla war, couldn’t succeed in the field (excluding Cuba) with his strategies. It may be true that Mao may not have employed suicide warriors against his adversaries, though this need verification from authentic Chinese sources. However, Mao had stressed strongly in his manual for guerrillas, that the success of a protracted war depends on taking factors into consideration which reveals the weaknesses of the enemy.
I would also mention that Vo Nguyen Giap (who received guerrilla training in Yenan, North China under Chinese communists in 1940) used suicide bombers in his confrontation with the French army in the early 1950s. Here are the relevant passages from John Pimlott, written to the reference book War in Peace (1945).
“... Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap were proponents of Mao Tse-tung’s theory of revolutionary war and to understand that it is to understand much of their success. Mao emphasized the factors of time, space and will in his writings; the revolutionary should trade space (territory) to gain time and use that time to mobilize the political will of the people...
“... Once the Viet Minh emerged from rural areas and tried to take their enemy on in open battle, however, French military superiority should have tilted the balance. Indeed, when Giap entered this phase too soon in 1951, his forces were roundly defeated at Vinh Yen, Mao Khe and Phat Diem by a combination of French defensive measures - prepared, entrenched positions surrounded by barbed wire and minefields - and superior weapons.
“Giap’s favoured tactics were to send in small suicide squads to break through the defences and follow up with wave upon wave of infantry attackers. These tactics were countered in 1951 by artillery (often firing on to predicted target areas), machine guns, aerial strikes (particularly those using napalm) and, of equal importance, the tenacity of French defenders. But when these advantages were undermined, as at Dien Bien Phu where artillery was useless against Viet Minh positions in the surrounding hills, aerial supply and support was curtailed by the deployment of Chinese anti-aircraft weapons and French defences were weakened by a policy of encroaching entrenchment, the Viet Minh could, and did, prevail. The French were, in the final analysis, out-fought.”
in Peace: Conventional and Guerrilla Warfare since 1945;
I’m not sure whether Pirabhakaran would have checked military source-books like the one quoted above. Considering the deployment of suicide squads and ‘wave upon wave infantry attackers’ used in the battles by LTTE since 1987, my inference is that Pirabhakaran followed the steps of legendary Giap, in establishing a battalion of suicide warriors to counter the aerial terror perpetrated in Jaffna.
Mervyn de Silva’s Observation
Among the many commentators on Pirabhakaran, I consider Mervyn de Silva as the one who had a grasp in reading Pirabhakaran’s mind. He recognized Pirabhakaran for what he is; a different type of leader and a rarity in the South Asian politics. Eleven years ago, when the cordial bonhomie between President Premadasa and Pirabhakaran came to a dead-end, Mervyn de Silva wrote the following perceptive commentary entitled, ‘Prabhakaran makes his move’.
“... Mr. Prabhakaran, for he is a militarist, meaning a man who uses military means for political ends. And by military means, in this unconventional war, we do not mean set-piece battles. Creating chaos and division in the rear of the enemy is a military tactic...
“Upto the IPKF’s pullout, the central concerns of President Premadasa and Mr. Prabhakaran converged. For different reasons, of course. The LTTE leader wanted the IPKF off his back and his men out of the jungle. President Premadasa wanted to disarm the ultra-nationalist JVP by grabbing its principal ideological-propagandist weapon what the JVP called ‘Occupying Hanuman (monkey) Army’.
“After that, politics took command for both. This meant for Prabhakaran, ‘Eelam’ ideally, or regional autonomy as close as possible to an independent state. Before that he would like things done - such as the repeal of the 6th Amendment, which makes the espousal of any separatist cause, illegal. More symbolic than anything else but yet it is also a test of the government’s (and the Sinhala-dominated Parliament’s) bona fides.
“And then, the Provincial Council - its dissolution followed by elections. Both have been delayed. And a condition laid down - surrender of arms before the polls. In his eyes, delays, conditions, uncertainties. So, he decides to do something about it, a warning to the government, to the Sinhala Establishment, perhaps even to his own negotiators. Start a fight, which is what he knows best. By this, he can also achieve something else - have his raw, teenage recruits bloodied, test the responses and fighting skills of the Sri Lankan security forces.”
[Lanka Guardian, June 15, 1990, pp.3-4]
Unlike other commentators who puff their commentaries with verbiage, Mervyn de Silva was a writer with relevant words. I considered that his above assessment of why Pirabhakaran ended his truce with President Premadasa was faultless. Premadasa was also a politician with ‘fire-in-the-belly’ and ‘street-smart’ toughness. In the same issue of the Lanka Guardian, following his commentary, Mervyn de Silva had printed the answers provided by Premadasa’s then lieutenant Ranjan Wijeratne, with the caption “Fighting Ranjan on Tigers”. After a passage of 11 years, the pomposity shown by Wijeratne is worth re-reading.
The incomplete mission of Ranjan Wijeratne
The seven-part question directed at Minister Wijeratne was as follows:
(a) Whether the government has promised the LTTE not to move out its forces without notifying the LTTE?
(b) If so promised, who was responsible for ordering the said soldiers to move out, thereby subjecting them to injuries?
(c) From this incident it is clear that the LTTE maintains illegal checking points in the North and the East. Has the government empowered them to do so?
(d) If no such powers have been granted, will the government take steps to do away with these checkpoints?
(e) Will the government adopt legal action against the LTTE with regard to the said attack?
(f) Will the government compensate those injured and the dependents of the killed?
(g) What steps will the government take to prevent the repetition of similar incidents?
Minister Ranjan Wijeratne was then in an euphoric phase, following his liquidation of JVP elites. His bombastic responses to the above questions were as follows:
(a) I have given a pledge to get at their (the LTTE) necks.
(b) The said troops were traveling from one point to another. The LTTE met them and opened fire. We have been making every effort to avoid bloodshed. At this stage I ask Amnesty International to follow the LTTE’s doings and not to accuse us of genocide. Taking note of the LTTE’s actions we will deal with them accordingly.
(c) Now they are running with their shoes out. Very soon their pants will go too.
(d) There will be no LTTE or watch posts soon.
(e) We are not going to courts. We will use the barrel. That is what they use on us.
(f) We will do that.
(g) Flatten the LTTE.
This response was delivered in June 1990. Six months later, when the global attention was fixed on the Gulf War, the Sri Lankan army played its card in the Colombo’s political table. This is how the Economist magazine reported the scene in January 1991.
“...Sri Lanka’s generals began pressing to resume the fight once it became clear that the ceasefire was not sticking. For perhaps the first time, the army really flexed its political muscle. That, it seems, was decisive. The army says the Tigers are now vulnerable. They have been weakened by a clamp-down on their activities in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, from where they used to get much of their arms and fuel.
“The army has been promising to wipe out the Tigers ‘within six months’ for at least the past five years. It has grown dramatically in size, from some 12,000 in 1984 to 60,000-plus today. But it is still fighting against a guerrilla force that most people think can hold out almost indefinitely. The Tigers still command a good deal of support in the north and east of the country, which may have been increased by the government’s policy of bombing suspected guerrilla targets from the air. Sympathy for the Tigers, the government claims, is beginning to fade. It will have to fade much more before the Tigers’ days are numbered....”[Economist, January 19, 1991, p.34]
As if to corroborate this report of Economist, at the height of the Gulf War, Vadamarachchy region was bombed by the Sri Lankan army on January 20, 1991. Two months later, I sent a short letter to the Lanka Guardian captioned ‘Valvettiturai Bombing’, and Mervyn de Silva in his wisdom, did not publish it. I wish to bring to light this unpublished letter.
“While I perused the 72 cumulative pages of the three issues of the Lanka Guardian (Feb.1, Feb.15 and March 1) 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 material on Trotsky (by Regie Siriwardene and S.Pathiravitana) and on the Gulf War (by Robert O’Neill, Bertram Bastiampillai and Izeth Hussain).
“The Lanka Guardian also published a four page account on the destruction and damage to Iraq between Feb.2 and 8, as seen through the eyes of Ramsay 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 Lanka Guardian and its readers than Iraq and Trotsky?”
Two weeks before I mailed this letter to Mervyn de Silva on March 22, 1991, I also had come to learn that Minister Ranjan Wijeratne, who was spearheading the fight against the LTTE, had died in a mysterious bomb blast in Colombo. [Continued.]