Resistance and Martyrdom

in the process of state formation of Tamil Eelam

by Peter Schalk,, UK, 1997

Professor Peter Schalk has written extensively on subjects related to the struggle for Tamil Eelam. This essay is excerpted from* Martyrdom and Political Resistance : Essays from Asia and Europe (Comparative Asian Studies, 18)  edited by Joyce Pettigrew published by VU University Press for Centre Asian Studies, Amsterdam. The book  is essential reading for those seeking to further their understanding of  the continuing struggles for freedom in many parts of the worlddenotes link to online bookshop 

“..New nations are formed within post-colonial states and old nations gain their freedom from recent empires. At a time like that, it seems pertinent to consider the role of traditions of martyrdom in shaping and sustaining political resistance. This collection of essays, dealing among others with Sikhs in the Punjab. Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and the IRA in Northern Ireland. explores the social variables that allow the martyr’s sacrifice to be effectively utilized by a political movement. The essays consider how various forms of social association as well as religious and historical tradition influence the place of the martyr in a resistance struggle and describe the differing social and political processes that affect martyr authentication….The LTTE’s main concept of heroism is the concept of tiyakam, ‘abandonment’ (of life). The heroic element within this concept of tiyakam was reinforced and differentiated by the glorification of a Tamil martial past. The LTTE tiyaki … receives no reward and is without compensation in cuvarkkam, ‘heaven’, or elsewhere, for his voluntary and representational dying. The LTTE hero is a ‘secular’ hero who expects no reward for himself…”

“…Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger guerrillas Tuesday announced they lost 17,211 of their fighters in their drawn-out guerrilla war for a separate homeland in the island’s northeast. The Voice of Tigers radio of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said 217 “Black Tigers” also perished since the first guerrilla cadre was killed in November 1982…” (AFP, Colombo, 19 June 2001)

 Non-violence in an LTTE context is relative to achieving the aim and can therefore be substituted by violence at any moment...
LTTE’s concept of martyrdom has incited strong emotions within the Tamil community…
Six main ideological sources for LTTE concept of martyrdom…
Tiyaki and tiyakam do not exactly correspond to the Judeo-Christian tradition ‘martyr’ and ‘martyrdom’…
Alongside tiyaki the LTTE uses the word mavirar ‘Great Hero’…
The LTTE heroine – and martial feminism
‘The art of martyrdom’ – and the cyanide capsule…
Uyirayutam – ‘life as a weapon’ – using one’s life in a frontal attack… the Black Tigers
A Black Tiger does not kill himself by reference to a religious authority or by reference to a compensation in the life hereafter…
Conclusion – LTTE ‘s main concept of heroism is the concept of tiyakam, ‘abandonment’ (of life)…


Non-violence in an LTTE context is relative to achieving the aim and can therefore be substituted by violence at any moment…

“…a famous saying by Pirapakaran when confronted with the Indian military superpower that urged him to surrender on 4 August 1987 was

‘The methods of war may change (but) the aim (of our war) cannot change”

Many LTTE fighters know this famous quotation in Tamil by heart. The saying is also printed on a calendar from 1988. If anything can explain the LTTE victories in the battlefield, it is this principle of assimilation of different strategies. Thus the acceptance of negotiations with the present administration in August 1994 does not imply that the immediate realisation of the ultimate aim is suspended. Negotiations may be more conducive than armed struggle for the realisation of the holy aim, which is never given up. When negotiations were not conducive, the LTTE took up arms again on 19 April 1995.

This flexible strategy by Pirapakaran reveals something important about the LTTE: that it focuses on the aim only and then chooses any method to reach this aim. The LTTE is thus still very far from Gandhiism. For Gandhi non-violence was not only a method; it was Truth itself, a holy principle that could not be replaced by violence. The practice of non-violence as method was at the same time a manifestation of the ultimate aim called Truth. Gandhi’s point was exactly this: to let the method itself anticipate the ultimate aim. The method itself already expressed Truth and was at the same time a way to Truth. So even if the LTTE uses the Gandhian method of fasting to death, it is still not based on Gandhian thinking because non-violence in an LTTE context is relative to achieving the aim and can therefore be substituted by violence at any moment. Indeed, in an LTTE text we read that ‘alappariya tiyakam’, ‘an immeasurable abandonment’ of life, or martyrdom, will lead to the tayaka vitutalai, ‘liberation of the motherland’.(8)


LTTE’s concept of martyrdom has incited strong emotions within the Tamil community…

The LTTE’s concept of martyrdom has incited strong emotions within the Tamil community. (9)The LTTE has produced an elaborate symbolism of death and metaphors for the survival of the holy aim, and a sacrificial commitment to the nation. There is also the establishment of a series of ‘state-sponsored’ calendrical rituals, all related to martyrdom. The LTTE has formed the year into a veneration of martyrs on five fixed occasions, and even made a calendar marking these original five occasions.

There are two elaborate rituals in the life of a martyr-to-be: his initiation, combined with an oath, and his ‘symbolic planting’. A LTTE martyr never ‘dies’. His body is planted as seed to be reborn. ‘The LTTE does not bury its dead, it plants them’, to quote a LTTE leader. This ‘plantation’ is a confidential death ritual consisting of recitation of a special text called ‘declaration at the sepulcher of the great hero’. Then there are innumerable commemoration rituals on the occasion of a martyr’s death. The life of the martyr and of civilians is marked along the road of life and the circle of the year. There is an LTTE ritual year related in totality to the concept of martyrdom. Life in Yalppanarn in space and time was up to December 1995 a celebration of martyrs. The LTTE year is a year of the martyrs. Even a daily walk reminds one of martyrs, as the LTTE has renamed lanes after their noms de guerre. No other movement has spoken like the LTTE of making the sepulchers of the martyrs cornerstones of Tarmililam:

‘The sepulchres of the Tigers shall glimmer as cornerstones for the new land which is to be born’. (10)


Six main ideological sources for LTTE concept of martyrdom…

There are six main ideological sources for the LTTE concept of martyrdom that rationalise armed struggle for cutantiram.

Firstly, there is the revival of a sacrificial language as expressed in the term arppanippu, meaning ‘dedication (of man to god)’.

Secondly, there is the Tamil bhakti tradition from the Gita providing concepts of dedication and ascetism and a cosmic perspective in which the battle for independence takes place.

Thirdly, there is a Christian element expressed in the concept of a catci, ‘witness’, ‘martyr’.

Fourthly, there is Subhasism, expressed in the justification of armed struggle and in the concept of balidan, ‘gift (of life) as sacrifice’.

Fifthly, there is Dravidian nationalism providing martial concepts to the LTTE (11) and the concept of a linguistic Tamil nation-state.

Sixthly, there is the martial feminism of the female Tamil fighters adapted to Tamil male concepts of female behaviour (Schalk 1994: 181-183) adopted by the female Tamil fighters.

All of the above have been taken up by Pirapakaran and have been interpreted by him from the viewpoint and interests of the armed struggle for Tamililam. Marxist influences in the 1980s introduced by Anran Palacinkam (Anton Balasingham) have disappeared. Pirapakaran did of course not pick these up piece by piece and stitch them together. The sources of inspiration appear in the Dravidian area of the 1950s and 1960s and were conveyed to Pirapakaran by mediation of different Tamil interest groups. Pirapakaran’s own intellectual contribution was to apply the martial trend in the Dravidian movement to the specific situation in Yalppanam by hornologising the Indian freedom struggle from British hegemony with the freedom struggle of the Ilam Tamils from Sinhala hegemony.


Tiyaki and tiyakam do not exactly correspond to the Judeo-Christian tradition ‘martyr’ and ‘martyrdom’…

In Tamil several words are used for ‘martyr’ and ‘martyrdom’, but common words in use are tiyaki (‘one who abandons’) and tiyakam (‘abandonment’). They do not exactly correspond to what in Judeo-Christian tradition is meant by ‘martyr’ and ‘martyrdom’. These concepts have been developed mainly in the 1980s and were officially promoted by the LTTE from 1989 onwards to rationalise armed and unarmed struggle, and personal and collective suffering in a specific historical situation of war in the process of state formation. In this situation, specific religious idioms that are available in Tamil culture were taken up by the LTTE. All these idioms centre on a sacrificial ideology as expressed in the cult of a tiyaki.

In English texts distributed by the LTTE one can find the word ‘martyr’ rather frequently. On a calendar from 1988 many dead fighters are depicted: those who died through fasting to death, those who took cyanide and those who died in battle. All are called ‘martyrs’. In the first proclamation of the Great Heroes Day in 1989, we can read in English: ‘Every freedom fighter who sacrifices his or her life is a martyr…’

The LTTE appeals then to a Western understanding of what a martyr is, but does not reckon with the fact that the West has a differentiated comprehension about this matter. Some would deny that a LTTE tiyaki is a martyr because he uses violence. Others would say that he is a martyr because of his representational death on behalf of others. There are some who will say that the word martyr has no meaning at all in an LTTE context, that it is only a persuasive term. Finally, there are the enemies of the LTTE who say that the LTTE has no martyrs, it has only terrorists, and only the soldiers from the other side can be called martyrs.

An LTTE ‘martyr’ has not chosen like the Christian martyr to suffer in the mind the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. He has taken up arms against the sea of troubles trying to end them by opposing them. The LTTE tiyaki is not a friend of submission through suffering to eventual death, and the concept of redemption is not explicit in his performance. Both submission and redemption are constitutive elements in a Western Judeo-Christian tradition of martyrdom alone. Although the LTTE uses in its English pamphlet the Western term ‘martyr’, its concept is not just a reproduction of this Judeo­Christian tradition. The LTTE is deeply dependent on the ideas prevalent in the Indian struggle for independence which revived the concept of the tyagi from the Bhagavadgita. That concept was taken over by the young Pirapakaran (born 1954) and the Sanskrit tyagi. ‘one who abandons (life)’ becomes the tiyaki in Tamil. The tiyaki combines what is unthinkable for a martyr in the original Judeo-Christian tradition, to get killed in the very act of killing, though in the mediaeval developments in Europe the hero and martyr were blended. In trying to communicate to Western readers this tiyaki concept, the LTTE has chosen the word ‘martyr’.


Alongside tiyaki the LTTE uses the word mavirar ‘Great Hero’

Alongside tiyaki the LTTE uses the word mavirar ‘Great Hero’, and also translates this word with ‘martyr’ into English. Mavirarnal is translated by the LTTE as both ‘Great Heroes Day’ and ‘Great Martyrs Day’. So when reading English pamphlets of the LTTE about martyrs, we can be sure that a Tamil parallel would write tiyaki or mavirar and convey the concept of a hero, not of a Judeo-Christian martyr.

Sometimes Tamil writers in English do not know on which leg they should stand and so they shift between martyr and hero in the same passage:

‘Heroes do not die. Their noble ambitions, aspirations and selfless devotion to the cause become the guiding light for their fellow comrades. These martyrs fought many victorious battles in the struggle for Tamil Ealam…’ (Anon. India and Ealam Tamil Crisis: 26).

They mean probably ‘hero’ for the modern LTTE fighter, who has taken the role of an Indian hero-to-be. There are four elements in this hero role that are significant for the LTTE:  the projected belonging to a group of maravar, i.e. professional fighters; the relentless toiling, the not giving up, or the permanent resistance; the fact that the hero is predestined to do evil in the form of killing, but the element of self-redemption is not made explicit anywhere in any LTTE text, still less the element of self-redemption for the people or for humanity; the hero has to die a violent death, for which he gets no compensation in this or the next life. The LTTE hero is a ‘secular’ hero.

There seems to be a relation between the gradually imposed and self chosen isolation of the LTTE from co-operation with other Tamil parties, the imposition of an embargo, and the isolation from the mainstream of the island’s politics on one side, and an intensification of the symbolism of resis­tance, among it the veneration of heroes. This public and organised veneration started under Indian military pressure, especially in 1989, and increased gradually. Great Heroes Day was increased to Great Heroes Week, the number of posters increased, their size also, the foundation of a special office for the administration of heroes, the construction of special cemetries for heroes, etc., started in 1989. Not that the concept of heroism was introduced in 1989, but the projection of this concept into public ‘state-sponsored’ rituals and the bureaucratisation and institutionalisation of them started in 1989.

Kittu, the European spokesman of the LTTE, until 1991 completely denied this relation between external factors and internal ideological development and maintained that these concepts were part of ‘the pure awareness of the Tamil people’ (12), but an LTTE document published in 1989 gives a motive for the rnobilisation of heroes, namely calculated forms of state oppression for decades which assumed the character of genocide and threatened Tami national identity (Mavirarnal 1989: 3).


The LTTE heroine – and martial feminism

Today a sacrificial ideology is in full development in the Tamil-speaking parts of Ilam with respect to women fighters and their ambition to establish a nation-state in Tamililam (Balasingham 1983, 1992). ‘Martial feminism’ rationalises the martial activities of Tamil women for the establishment of a new state in which woman attain civil rights. It is important to see this martial feminism in the wider context of a state fornation. The expressions ‘sacrificial ideology’ and ‘martial feminism’ are my own (Schalk 1994: 165) and my view is that the LTTE teaches both to women. On the occasion of International Women’s Day on 8 March 1992, the LTTE issued a statement by Pirapakaran in Tamil in which he acknowledged the contribution of women to the establishment of Tamililam. I quote here an extract of this speech:

“Today, young Tamil women are there, carrying arms to extricate this soil in the battlefield. They have performed an immense sacrifice (arppanip­pu) of a kind that amazes the whole world. With pride I can say that the origin, the development and the rise of the women’s military wing of the Liberation Tigers is one of the greatest accomplishments of our move­ment. This marks a revolutionary turning point in the history of liberation struggle of the women of Tamililam. Women can succeed on the ideal path towards their (own) liberation only through joining forces with a liberation movement. (Women) can change into revolutionary women who have heroism (viram), abandonment (of life) (tiyakarn), courage and self-confidence. Only when women join forces with our revolutionary movement that has formulated (a path) to liberation of our women, shall our struggle reach perfection.’ (13)

In another English translation made by the LTTE, they did not want to say clearly that women carry arms to extricate the soil in the battlefield. Instead they are said, euphemistically, to liberate the land. This is a ‘trendy’ translation. The smell of blood from the battlefield has disappeared from it. However, what is more important for our context is that the whole set-up of revived religious and martial archaisrns has disappeared in the translation of the LTTE. These revived archaisms are technical terms pertaining to religion and classical martial Tamil culture. They are arppanippu, ‘sacrifice’; viram, ‘heroism’; tiyakam, ‘abandonment’; and varalaru, ‘history’ (as a depersonalised subject or agent).

In the same speech, Pirapakaran mentions the need to eliminate male oppression, violence, the dowry system and casteism. Regarding state suppression, he does not mean the suppression from any state, possibly also from the state of Tamililam, but he means the Sinhala state that oppresses women alongside with the whole population. Sinhala state suppression is threefold. It is against ‘national liberation’, ‘social liberation’, and ‘economic liberation’. Having thus pinpointed the Sinhala state as oppressor, he then derives from that the primary necessity of liberating the soil from this state suppression. This liberating he regards necessary not only for women but for the whole inam, ‘nation’.

Regarding ‘male chauvinism’ and ‘male domination’, he points to the fact that present socialist countries have not fully succeeded in eradicating these. He therefore asks for something additional to a socialist transition of society. He asks for ‘a fundamental change in the ideological, or rather, the mental world of men and their perception of women.’ This change is to be achieved not by a restructuring of society alone, but additionally by achieving a change in their ‘distorted perceptions about women’. They should be taught to share the responsibilities of family life (but family life itself is not questioned by him).

He thinks that women also should change their minds about themselves. They should not see their present situation of oppression as a result of fate, of actions from former births or of the cultural configurations that determined their lives. On this point, his speech can be said to be very radical, as it is directed against the core values of Yalppanam society. What is missing in his speech is a statement that the common struggle of men and women is a training in and model for co-operation in a future society in peace. He does not say that what he expects in family life, namely ‘recognition of each other’s liberty’, ‘equality’, ‘dignity’, and ‘entering into a cordial relationship’, could be learned already in the common co-ordinated struggle itself.

Pirapakaran is very much appreciated by LTTE women, who praise him as King of the Tigers.’ The Executive Committee of the Women’s Front of the LTTE issued a statement on March 6, on the occasion of International Women’s Day 1992, that echoed his views. ‘The conservative nature’ of the social formation of Tamil society was pinpointed, as was its oppressive structures in relation to women as evidenced in the dowry system, the pervasive gender discrimination which was often legitimised by reference to ‘cultural traditions’, and its male dominance that was justified by tales from mythology. The Executive Committee also put forward the firm view that the partiipation in armed struggle for national liberation has contributed to equality among the sexes:

..the courage, determination and heroism of our women fighters has served to awaken their sisters and brothers, break down centuries old social barriers and ways of thinking and behaving and restructure society on a free and equal basis (Pirapakaran, International Women’s Day speech, 1992: 2).

The share of active female fighters in the LTTE was small until June 1990, but increased rapidly thereafter. An unconfirmed rumour was spread by the LTTE in Yalppanam that their share in December 1991 was 50%. These rumours are not unimportant to study. True enough, they are part of wishful thinking on the part of the LTrE, but they give nevertheless the ideal of the LTTE. Fifty per cent men and fifty per cent women is evidently the ideal, expressing total equality between the sexes in warfare.

The number of living women fighting at any time is of course a military secret, but in 1991, the LTTE made public the number 3000, and the source is no less than Adele Balasingham (1994). There is no way of checking this number. However, we have access to the women killed in the different martyrologies of the LTTE. On December 30, 1992, the total death toll of female fighters killed was 381(Schalk 1994: 165). LTTE official sources are available to 1 October 1992. Then the flow of information became sporadic and dispersed. The year 1991 was the most disastrous, with 203 women killed. Women have participated in some of the largest battles, such that of Anaiyiravu (Elephant Pass) in 1993.

Women soldiers had no reasons to expect any privileged treatment by Indian and Sinhalese soldiers, and so take cyanide before capture. Of all 338 women LTTE fighters killed up to 1 October 1992, nine had taken cyanide (Mavirarkuripettu, L 1987: 295, 298, 412, 431. 1988: 51, 58, 339, 1991:1614). There may be more of whom we do not know exactly how they spent the last minutes of their life. No death of a woman fighter is recorded before 10 October 1987. Probably they were not exposed to open combat before that date, though they were trained for armed struggle.

The young women were organised into female guerilla units operating side by side with men even as late as 1986. On 1 July 1987, the first training camp for women was established by Pirapakaran on the peninsula, but it was run by women only. On 26 September 1989, the second death anniversary of tiyaki Tilipan, the women took the next step and organised themselves in an independent unit having their own administrative structure, with the en­couragement of Pirapakaran. The first organisational form of guerilla units fighting side by side with men was abandoned. Women’s units were called vitiyal, ‘dawn’. In 1989, the presence of the IPKF made it necessary to organise the women in jungle areas.

The personal history of each woman killed is well known and well documented. The source are the martyrologies published by the LTTE in Tamil. We can come close to the female fighters who died on the battlefield by reading the notes and poems they left behind. Malati was the first women to die (at the age of 20) and therefore she is honoured by the LTTE with the epithet:

‘The first woman warrior (porali) who embraced heroic death (viramaranattain­ta) in the India-Tamililam war’ (Mavirarkurippetu, L: 172). ‘

She died on 10 October 1987 in a confrontation with the IPKF. Fatally wounded, she took cyanide. In the LTTE Office for Great Heroes at Kokkuvil, Yalppanam, there is a large painting of Malati symmetrically placed to the left of a Tiger emblem, and with a big painting of the first martyr, Cankar, placed to the right of that emblem. The text accompanying the painting of Malati says:

‘The first woman being a Great Heroine who attained heroic death (viracca­vaitta) in our Ilam liberation war’.

The painting was made in 1989 to commemorate the second year of her death.

A famous female poet called Vanati, a captain in the armed wing of the LTTE, was killed in the ‘historic’ battle of Anaiyiravu (Elephant Pass) in 1991 at the age of 27. Vanati is what we could call a hard-core LTTE poet, with a martial language that reflects experiences from the battlefield and its blood, death and destruction, but there is also the recurrent theme that the dead are suffering representatives for a new generation that has obtained freedom from Sinhala occupation of Tamil homelands. Her manuscript of poems which she left behind was edited and published by Jeya, who signed the pre­face as poruppalar, ‘responsible person’, for the Women’s Front of Liberation Tigers. Her freedom was and still is exemplary for about 3000 female fighters in the military wing of the LTTE.

It is worth looking at the martial terms Jeya uses in her introduction of Vanati. Her terms ‘heroism’ and ‘abandonment (of life)’ are from the same repertoire of martial terms that belong to men also. There is no separate sacrificial ideology for women in the LTTE. The reference to ‘blood’ throughout her poetry is frequent in any martial language: ‘This (woman) has filled her blood with heroism (viraitaiyum) and abandonment (of life) (tiyakttaipum)’ (Vanati, LTTE 1991: 17).

One of the most significant poems is ‘She, the woman of Tamililam!’ in which Vanati asks what is the ideal woman and answers that it is the woman who is an armed freedom-fighter, who renounces the normal role of women in a state of peace and who dies for the cause. She will not have even the normal funeral ceremonies performed for herself with red substance on her forehead kunkumam (extract of turmeric, dyed red). She will have red blood there (from a shot). She will tie a kuppi (cyanide) capsule around her neck (to kill herself in a hopeless situation of battle). Instead of a man, she has weapons, The poem ascribes her no other function than the function of a freedom-fighter. Vanati speaks from her own experience.

Her forehead shall be adorned not with kunkumczm (but) with red blood.
All that is seen in her eyes is not the sweetness of youth (but) the tombs of the dead.
Her lips shall utter not useless sentences (but) firmii declarations of those who have fallen down.
She has embraced not men, (but) weapons!
Her legs are searching not for a relationship with relatives
(but) looking towards the liberation of the soil of Tamililam,
Her gun will fire shots. No failure will cause the enemy to fall!
It will break the fetters of Tamililam!!
Then from our people’s lips a national anthem will sound!!!

A last poem, ‘the poem that has not been written,’ has been inscribed on a metal plaque and set up in a commemorative hail or ‘abode of commemoration’ in June 1993. This abode is dedicated to LTTE heroes who died at Anaiyiravu, especially in June and July 1991. The accompanying LTTE text to the poem on the plate says: ‘During the attack at Anaiyiravu on 11 July 1993, Captain Vanati attained heroic death (viramaranattainta). She wrote but could not complete this poem.’

The young female fighters of the LTTE meet a gender-related problem. It is not possible to legitimate their role as female fighters in tradition. There is no woman fighter in Tamil history. Traditional Tamil values for women in relation to society and especially in relation to men question the new type of martial woman. How do they overcome this lack of legitimisation in tradition of projecting the ideal of a Tigress?

By relating martial feminism to a sacrificial ideology in the context of state formation, the women rationailse the role of the female fighter. It is a kind of legitimisation by merit or charisma. Putiyappen, ‘the new woman’, who allegedly has become equal with men, can only be conceptualised as a free woman who has shaken off the shackles of Sinhala oppression. That is the fundamental motivation of the women to participate in armed struggle. This motivation they learned from the participation of women in other struggles, above all from the fighting women in Telangana in Andhra Pradesh, India, in the early 1950s and in the Burma-India adventure conducted by the Indian National Army in the early l940s. This ‘new woman’ in Yalppanarn society develops a Joan of Arc role, militant but virtuous, observing traditional values like karpu, ‘chastity’, the ascribed source of her strength.

That makes her acceptable to traditional Yalppanam society, i.e. to males. Maram, ‘valour’, and karpu, ‘chastity’, have been combined in the militant figure of Kannaki, well-known to most Tamils. She was promoted as the ideal woman by the Dravidian movement. Her statue is found on Marina Beach in Madras. Having cultivated the militancy of Kannaki, founded on ‘virtue’, males can reduce experiences of contingency about the militant acts of Tigresses, who in their Kannaki roles are no serious threat to the preservation of traditional gender distinctions in civil life.


‘The art of martyrdom’ – and the cyanide capsule…

The expression ‘art of martyrdom’ was coined in English by a leading LTTE advisor in Yalppanam in 1991 in an interview with this author. The advisor referred to the swallowing of cyanide from a vial by the fighters. Joining the movement, every cadre of the LTTE has to promise to take cyanide if necessary. Having started political schooling and military training, the young cadre has to take an oath of allegiance. This is followed by the distribution of the capsule. The vial is fully and consciously exposed hanging on a cord around the neck in processions and in daily encounters of the LTTE cadres and civi­lians.

This exposing and ritualisation of the capsule has given rise to the talk of a ‘cult’ of the cyanide vial. The vial is dear to the LTTE fighters and there is even an LTTE song praising the taking of cyanide sung in public at the Great Heroes’ Day on November 27. The ‘vial with cyanide’ (kuppi) is regarded as a friend especially by woman fighters facing rape before a cruel execution by the enemy. The agony of dying is expressed in the martyrologies, especially for those who witnessed others dying in a ditch by slowly bleeding to death or through convulsions. It is usually the surviving comrade that writes an epitaph.

It should be made clear that the LTTE consciously interprets suicide through cyanide in the situations mentioned as an act of tiyakam. This kind of suicide is regarded as an anticipation of death inflicted by the enemy. The cause of and responsibility for getting killed through cyanide is the enemy’s, and therefore it is not regarded as a suicide in the strict sense. Especially Catholic cadres need these distinctions to overcome scruples about this suicidal practice. The tiyakam meaning ‘abandonment’ is not a suicide, but a gift of oneself, according to the LTTE.

The glass vials are made in Germany. The cyanide is bought separately, in India, poured into the vial and closed by the LTTE. After about three months the poison discolours due to moisture and light, and has to be replaced. Having been cornered, some swallow the contents of two capsules but normally it is enough with one; the body collapses because it cannot take up oxygen. The taking of cyanide may lead to mental confusion and painful convulsions during the death struggle. Sodium cyanide is believed to be more effective than pottage cyanide. Having passed into the bloodstream, death is present within two minutes, but if the amount taken is too small death does not occur and the person may become an idiot, be crippled for life, or be saved. The taking of cyanide is, then, not always successful. The enemy can apply a stomach pump and save a life, only to torture the person concerned to extract information.

According to Yoki, a leading LTTE fighter and administrator, it was Pirapakaran who suggested using cyanide” (14) and according to Anton Balasingham it was a collective decision by the Central Committee of the TNT-LTTE in 1975 to introduce cyanide.(15) However, according to Kittu’6 this decision was not implemented until much later. In May 1984, the first cyanide case occurs. The memorial of the first cyanide case is laid out as follows:

Photo, Name, Birth dates.

The LTTE does not publish military grade and residence details. The epitaph of the first cyanide case, translated from Tamil is as follows:

Having been surrounded in a hideout in Valvettiturai by Sri Lankan soldiers and having enjoyed cyanide, he died heroically (Mavirarkurippetu, 1, No. 10).

Regarding this method of dying, there is no reference to any Tamil historical paradigm. Both the Indian National Army (INA) and the LTTE demand from their ordinary fighters who do not belong to the selected suicide squads that they should commit suicide when they are about to be captured or when they are wounded and thereby have become a burden to others (Schalk 1996). The LTTE has chosen cyanide to commit suicide, but in the beginning it experimented also with all kinds of instruments. These were not as effective. The Mavirarkurippetu has several formulas to describe the taking of cyanide by LTTE fighters. Broadly, there are four such circumstances when cyanide was taken: in a frontal attack by the enemy where there is threat of possible exter­mination or capture; when surrounded or in prison, after the infliction of a mortal wound when the LTTE fighter realises that there is no chance of survival and that he is an obstacle to his or her comrades; and after capture, facing torture and death.

We should not confuse this taking of cyanide with the killing of oneself in a suicidal squad known as the Black Tigers. A normal fighter does not want to die; he is not focused on dying, but on living. He wants to live because he wants to fight, but he can be forced to take cyanide to avoid a death worse than a death in battle, a death as traitor to the cause which he defended with his life. Every normal fighter calculates his or her chances to survive. The motivation for taking one’s own life is totally pragmatic, namely that the enemy shall be cheated of getting information through torture. Yoki is reported to have said regarding the purpose of taking cyanide: ‘What Pirapakaran found was that it is better to take cyanide and die. Then it is easy to build the organisation.’

Pirapakaran has developed his ideas himself by giving two reasons for taking cyanide, namely, ‘our fighters, through laying down their lives, protect our sympathisers and contacts and the people who give us support and assistance… Carrying cyanide on one’s person is a symbolic expression of our commitment, our determination, our courage’.” Kittu, the Jaffna commander, stated in an interview: ‘As long as we have this cyanide around our neck, we have no need to fear any force on earth! In reality, this gives our fighters an extra measure of belief in the cause, a special edge; it has instilled in us a determination to sacrifice our lives and our everything for the cause. While attacking, our fighters don’t count their lives. They will advance nonchalantly through an artillery attack or a hail of bullets’.(18)

One reason, then, for taking cyanide is to protect the community, and the other to deprive the fighter of his fear of death by carrying permanently the bringer of death close to his body. The cyanide capsule becomes a good friend. ‘The whole meaning of life: freedom alone, indeed, is greatness (won) by the cyanide vials, holding them with assurance’ (Mavirarkurippetu I).


Uyirayutam – ‘life as a weapon’ – using one’s life in a frontal attack… the Black Tigers

A fighter, a tiyaki-to-be of the LTTE, is aware that he or she has to envisage death in the act of killing the enemy, but there is a possibility that he or she may or may not survive. The fighter’s aim is to survive in order to continue to fight and to contribute, in the case of peace, to civil activities. However, there is a special group of fighters, males and females, who are aware that a certain attack will lead to the death of the fighter, that there is no hope of survival. Being aware of this, the fighter accepts death and accomplishes his task that leads to the elimination of the enemy, but also to his own death. The death of a normal Tiger is envisaged, but so is his survival. An elite fighter calculates only with his death. His act is a devotional sacrifice that only an elite group within the LTTE, the members of which have been selected by Pirapakaran, are allowed to perform. Each act is planned and calculated carefully in advance. It is never spontaneous or arbitrary. The fighter-to-die has got much time to prepare himself mentally for this task. Such an elite fighter is called karuppulli, ‘Black Tiger’, known by journalists and critics of the LTTE as ‘suicide killer’. The emblem of a karupulli is a human head, the face turned towards the observer, and on the head he wears a beret, he looks at first glance like Che Guevara, but looking closer, the observer discovers the face of Lt. Millar, who on 5 July 1987 committed the first act of dedicated self-sacrifice in the history of the LTTE. The LTTE remembers him like this in the Mavirarkurippetu:

Black Tiger Captain Millar
(Vallipuram Vacantan)


When in Nelliyati the Black Tiger had diffused a bomb on the Sri Lankan army, having been driven by a car, whilst striking there occurred his heroic death.

Black Tigers Day is celebrated every 5 July all over the Tamil diaspora and in ‘Tamililam’. In Toronto, a Captain Millar Memorial award is distributed to competing participants in general knowledge and art.

The ideal tiyaki is partly an imagined and idealised person. We cannot expect to interview a karuppulli; his identity is completely concealed. We find him or her idealised in obituaries, but also in films made by the LTTE; for example, tayakkanavu, ‘The dream of the motherland (homeland)’ produced by Nitarcanam, the official television station of the LTTE, in 1993.

The film deeply touched the Tamil public. It starts by showing a happy family con­sisting of parents, a daughter and a son, the tiyaki-to-be. They are all happy sitting in the garden celebrating a birthday. They feed each other with hands as signs of intimacy. They also have good relations with their neighbours. The son takes the neighbour’s young daughter to school on his motor-hike. One day the Lankan Air Force drops bombs on the school, and the boy can only take the dead body of his young friend to her parents. In his inner vision, he anticipates that this could have happened to his own younger sister tank­acci. He decides that he will enter the squad of Black Tigers. Having ob­tained his father’s permission, the film shows the hard training given to a Black Tiger and spends much time in describing the comradeship that develops within the group, especially between our hero and a comrade. The two comrades are shown feeding each other.

Our hero is very serious and dedicated. Even in his spare time he plays on his harmonium, especially the melody of the song called ‘The task of the Tigers is (to win) the Motherland Tarnililani’. It is a march that is played also in public state ceremonies. He does not tolerate that his comrade plays any sort of nonsense on his haniionium. He hits him and tells him to be serious.

Then comes the day when one of the Black Tigers in the group has to be selected to launch a suicidal attack on a Sinhala army camp by driving ex­plosives in a truck into the camp and letting it explode. The selection is done by lottery; each one of the Black Tigers in the squad has to pick a piece of paper. The boy picked a piece of paper on which was written vetri, ‘victory’, conveying to him that he had been selected.

He bids farewell to his comrades by giving each a part of his property. To his close comrade whom he had hit, he gave the harmonium and his diary with a picture of Pirapakaran, and they separated forever as friends. He also bids farewell to his family, and last of all from Pirapakaran himself. Then he went for his last task that he accomplished as calculated. The enemy camp was eliminated and he was killed by the explosion. The next day all read and talked about him. His picture was put up on a commemorative altar. Then the parents werc informed by two officials from the LTTE that he had reached viramaranarn, heroic death’. Above all his tankacci wailed. His comrade also wailed. His turn will come soon to make the next attack on a Sinhala army camp, incited by the heroic death of his comrade. The hero of the film is described as a tavan, ‘ascetic’, in his behaviour. Although he is of marriageable age there is no sign of a girlfriend, not even among the mourners. He has a tankacci, ‘younger sister’, and not a manaivi, ‘wife’.


A Black Tiger does not kill himself by reference to a religious authority or by reference to a compensation in the life hereafter…

We should also point out two differences between the devotional sacrifice of a Black Tiger and that of a Hamas shahid (martyr). Firstly, the LTTE claims that it attacks only military and not civilian targets, and secondly, that a Black Tiger’s sacrifice is made in a secular setting.

A Black Tiger does not kill himself by reference to a religious authority or by reference to a compensation in the life hereafter. The Harnas shahid believes that he is compensated in a life hereafter. True enough, the concept of ‘martyrdom’ has religious roots even in the LTTE, but it has been transferred to a secular setting. An ideal Black Tiger on the normative level is not religiously motivated. He is not made to believe that he will be compensated in next life.

A Black Tiger is an ilatciyavati, ‘idealist’, whose only satisfaction just before death, during his act of killing, is to have eliminated one obstacle for the realisation of Tamililam. Let us take one message by the LTTE on a postcard from 1991 on the third commemoration day ofTilipan, who fasted to death 26 September 1988. The Tamil text on the card depicting Tilipan and the roaring Tiger says without even indicating any compensation:

‘We are not afraid of death. We have no wish to live and to rule. Around us guns and iron wires are raised. All of us are indeed ready for death. Tomorrow, if a state of destruction of our people comes about, we shall raise arms, yes… If our people can get a fruitful independence (cutantiram), (then) regarding this, we are ready for death’ (Mutalavatu 1988).

Still more important than the saying by Tilipan is a passage of a speech by Pirapakaran in which he elaborates on the meaning of life for a fighter. The meaning is not to promote self-interest, but to die for cutantiram. That makes life lofty (unna). He says: ‘A liberation hero (vitutalai viran) will not live a normal life, he is not a normal human being. He is an idealist (ilatcitchiavati). Regarding independence (cutantiratn), for (this) lofty aim, he is determined even to sacrifice his life. So, the liberation heroes are rare among humans’ (Pirapakaran 1990: 216).

There is then the metaphor of the seed, but it is quite clear that the user of this metaphor is conscious about its being nothing but a metaphor. It has two connotations. First, the seed (vital) refers to the idea of cutantiram; the blood of the fighters will water this seed until it has become a tree”, that is, until cutantiram has been established. There is no individual survival implied in this metaphor, but there is the idea that the individual dying in combat contributes to the approach of cutantiram. Next, there is the metaphor about the killed fighter being himself a seed. In the soil of Ilam he has become a new seed, a flame of liberation; he will remain, having become a light to the land, says a LTTE Tamil text (Mavirarnal kayetu 1992: 2). It is evident that in this case the fighter’s body compared to a seed that grows again and again is a metaphor not for his physical and spiritual resurrection, but for his life being a source of inspiration for others. Therefore it is important to tell and retell the life story of a fighter.

Then there is the idea that there is an eternal life for the hero killed, but this expression is used metaphorically for the life that is remembered in history. Pirapakaran says:

‘The death of a liberation hero is not a normal event of death. This death is an event of history (carittira nikalvu), a lofty ideal, a miraculous event which bestows life. The truth is that a liberation fighter (vitutalai viran) does not die… Indeed, what is called ‘flame of his aim’ which has shone for his life will not be extinguished. This aim is like a fire, like a force in history (varalarru caktivaka, and it takes hold of others. The national soul of the people (inatin teciya anmavai) has been touched and awakened.’

To parents who have suffered the loss of a child in battle he says:

“Your children love the independence of the motherland more than their life. You must feel great and proud of being the parents of those who have given these extraordinary beings for a holy aim. Your children have not died; they have become history” (Pirapakaran 1990: 218).


Conclusion –  LTTE ‘s main concept of heroism is the concept of tiyakam, ‘abandonment’ (of life)…

It seems to be justified to speak about a veneration of heroes in the LTTE. Before December 1995, there was a special office for Great Heroes, a series of calendric rituals and a nationwide ‘state-sponsored’ organisation for veneration of the heroes. Of heroes and of the veneration of them, we can speak indeed, but not of martyrs and of a religious worship of them. However, the concept of representational dying that is common for the hero and martyr has been emphasised by the introduction of the word catci (witness)

The LTTE ‘s main concept of heroism is the concept of tiyakam, ‘abandonment’ (of life). The heroic element within this concept of tiyakam was reinforced and differentiated by the glorification of a Tamil martial past. The LTTE tiyaki lacks a constitutive element for a hero (and for a martyr). He receives no reward and is without compensation in cuvarkkam, ‘heaven’, or elsewhere, for his voluntary and representational dying. The LTTE hero is a ‘secular’ hero who expects no reward for himself.

The LTTE is aware that the celebration of Great Heroes Day alienates it from European postwar values and has therefore introduced the word ‘martyr’, in for example ‘Great Martyrs’ Day.’ There is a frequent use of the word ‘martyr’ in English pamphlets, but the loss by introducing this word is greater than the gain. The word becomes identified with a religion or a quasi-religion and is lumped together with religiously motivated suicide killers in other cul­tures. To distance the LTTE from being one religion among many, competing with them and thereby creating dissent and dysfunction, new secular rituals had to be constructed by LTTE ideologists to get the hero away from kinship based religious rituals, make him a property of the public and transcend parochial thinking. The veneration around him is not religious; it is commemorative and in its sentiment it does not transcend the honorific rituals that are usually performed even for living outstanding persons in public life in the Tamil land. The model for the veneration of the hero is the secular military salutation of fallen soldiers in the battlefield.

The LTTE is not a traditional movement. It is an outcome of a reversal of values that usually takes place in a process of violent state formation. Further, its martial ideology has borrowed elements from the Dravidian movement, from Subhasism, from Hindu temple ritual, from international feminist movements, from Marxism, from the Indian freedom struggle, and has been led by a clever guerilla leader. In order to overcome contingency problems about these loans, it has to present them in a traditional form. However, there is nothing more traditional than religion. LTTE terminology is rich in religious terms –  in a completely secular context.

‘Methods may change, the aim not’, says Pirapakaran, in the spirit of the original programme of the TULF. He is using many methods, among them different forms of armed struggle. One of the methods is the veneration of heroes. This veneration is highly expressive. It stipulates that every sepulchre of a dead hero is a seal by which the LTTE confirms its ownership on land. The connection between the teaching of ‘nationalism of Tamlilam’ and ‘forms of commemoration of the Great Heroes’ is explicit in the LTTE.

In the case of the struggle of the LTTE, we can observe a gradual increase of nation­alism expressed in the abandonment of initial socialist declarations of inter­national solidarity from the 1980s, and in the intensification of nationalistic symbolism, as in the public veneration of heroes, from 1989. This increase is due to a self-chosen isolation, after bad experiences in unsuccessful negotia­tions and warfare with India, the old ally that once trained LTTE cadres. It is also due to an imposed isolation or withdrawal of support by formerly sympathetic countries after violations of humanitarian law and rules of war by the LTTE. India is a typical example of that.

A total mobilisation of people and institutions for the bureaucratisation and institutionalisation of Tamil nationalism is evident, for example, in the organisation of hero veneration and in the celebration of Great Heroes’ Day on November 27. This institutionalisation of the symbols of Tamil nationalism is an attempt to fortify and enforce resistance on an ideological level, motivating and rationalising armed struggle. The veneration of heroes promotes the idea of representational dying for civilians, and above all it pro­motes armed resistance against the enemy. Veneration of a hero is a ritual form of heroic mourning with a predictable outcome. The veneration of the LTTE hero is mainly directed towards the future of armed resistance against the enemy. Therefore, the first action by the enemy in conquered areas is to destroy all visible forms of resistance pertaining to the veneration of heroes.

In new violent state formations a reversal of values often takes place; not only is violence integrated into every day life, but also new social roles representing reversed values are revived or created. In the Ilam of the Tamils, the reversal of values has revived even the role of the militant mother from a 2000 year old past martial society (Schalk 1992), and further, the role of the female fighter on the battle field has been introduced and idealised. Unusual age and sex groups are involved in fighting, if not by arms, then by words. This reversal of values in the violent process of state formation in Tamilam has effected even cultural performances.



1. Throughout this essay two renderings for a Tamil homeland are given: Ilam and Ealam. Ilam is the correct rendering. However. Ealam is also retained as in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE).

2. The most important LTTE sources are in Tamil. Among them are the speeches of its leader Vellupillai Pirapakaran. As decision-making in the LTTE is personalised, hierarchical and legitimated in his charisma, it is important to know what he, who represents the LTTE, says. His speeches are spread over different journals, pamphlets booklets, and there is one book with his collected speeches in Tamil. It is called Enatu makkalin vitutalaikkaka (For the Liberation of Our People). It was issued by the LTTE in Yalppanam in September 1993. The last speech is that of 19th August 1993. The LTTE has plans to distribute the book. These speeches can also be collected by each individual researcher by going through back numbers of Tamilila Vitutalai Pulikal, which is the LTTE’S official publication. A very important source of knowledge about the LTTE arc the Tamil diaries, reports from the battle field and collections of poems by individual fighters, issued by the LTTE in monographs. Women fighters have a special journal called Cutantirapparavaikal. Another set of important sources are the Tamil Tiger songs that have been issued on CD and cassettes. They represent a popular martial culture that is spread widely. There are also printed ritual manuals that prescribe the right performance of the five calendrical state ceremonies of Tamililam, among them Maviranal, the day of the Great Heroes, on 27 November. The Mavirarkurippetu, Diary of Heroes, is an LTTE martyrology printed in India. It is in Tamil, has no date of issue and is without pagination. I use my own page numbering. It is referred to as Mavirarkurippetu (I) for there is another Mavirarkurippetu (L) the L standing for Lanka, listing all dead heroes up until 1992.

3. Hansard 19-11-76. A translation to Swedish of this speech with comments is found in Schalk, 1988: 78.

4. The TULF Manifesto, 1977, no pagination, reprinted in Logos, 1977.

5. See Schalk 1994: 163-183, 1992: 44-142, 1996 (forthcoming). Hellman Rajartyagam 1993.

6. Press Release. Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam. London: 18.2.92. ‘In 1988, the LTTE pledged to abide by the Geneva Conventions relating to armed conflict, and its additional protocols. The LTTE is mindful of its obligations relating to armed conflict which has won recognition in international law and the LTTE does recognise the importance of acting, at all times, in accordance with humanitarian law of armed conflict. It has taken care to instruct its cadres accordingly and breaks in this regard are inquired into and suitable punishment meted out.’

7. The official translation of the LTTE is ‘The forms of struggle may change, but the objective or goal our struggle is not going to change.’ See Indo Sri- Lankan Accord.

8. See for example the Voice of the Tigers, February 1986: 6. We are firmly committed to the objective of achieving an independent state of Tamililam. It is also the political aspiration of our oppressed people. We are making supreme sacrifices in our struggle for political independence’.

9. Strong negative emotions are expressed above all by The University Teachers Human Rights, Yalppanam (UTHR, Tamils Lose Intellectual Bearings. University Report, no place of issue, University Teachers Human Rights, Yalppanam March  24,1991, p. 8: ‘The whole concept of National Heroes Week observed from 21-28 November is an instance of the indignity with which those in Jaffna are rewarded. The whole nation was ironical.’

10.Mavirarnal 27.11.89. Poster issued by the LTTE depicting a red rose and the text in Tamil. No place and date of issue.

11. Pirapakaran refers explicitly to writers within the Dravidian movement, for example Prabhakaran’s ‘How I became a freedom fighter’, Tamil Times 15th July. 1994: 18. For more on the Dravidian influence see Schalk (1996). For a comparison between the Dravidian movement in India and Lanka see D. Hellmann­Rajanayagam (1988: 38-66).

12. Recorded communication from Kittu in London, 30 March, 1991.

13. My translation from the Tamil. The Tamil original is on 4 pages without title issued on 8th March 1992 by the LTTE offices in London in London and Paris.

14. Oral statement by Yoki in Yalppanam to the present author in July 1992.

15. Statement by Anton Balasingham, the principal ideologist of the LTTE and advisor to Pirapakaran recorded in Yalpannam on January 1991.

16. Recorded statement by Kittu in London 30 March, 1991.

17. Recorded statement by Kittu in London 30 March, 1991.

18. Recorded statement by Kittu in London on 30 March, 1991.

19. Pirapakaran, Mavirakalin Vituialaipulikal 1990:11.

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