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LTTE and Tamil People I : Preamble


April 21, 2009 at 7:00 am · Categories: English, Peace and Conflict, Politics | by Michael Roberts


This set of essays on “LTTE and Tamil People” submitted to Groundviews is a sequel to the four articles on “Suicidal Political Action” reproduced in from 2 April onwards. Both sets of essays are interconnected and involve a measure of repetition because they are set out as separate articles. All of them are a product of a comparative survey that I embarked on about five years ago: namely, reviewing the cultural ingredients which have motivated the projects of the jihadists (holy warriors) and mujahideen (fighters for cause) on the one hand and, on the other, the kamikaze and the karumpuli (Black Tigers) after – and this point has to be stressed — these forces had been generated by specific politico-military situations in particular contexts.


In all three instances notions of honour figured strongly in the inspirations for what we might regard as suicide for political cause (though the Japanese did not deem it as suicide, but defined it as “killed in action” – Ohnuki-Tierney 2006: xvi-vii). Fine-grained analyses of each arena may conceivably find differences within this broad commonality of a honour code, but I have not addressed that issue. Rather, I have focused on the conceptions of selfhood (that is, the category “person”) in each field. In my tentative thesis the jihadists, in keeping with the characteristics of all the Semitic religions, attach a greater degree of autonomy to the individual (here gendered male) than among the peoples of South Asia and East Asia where hierarchical notions have permeated societal interaction for centuries.


Within the Indian universe governed by the multi-stranded corpus we identify today as “Hinduism,” moreover, selfhood is informed by theories of substance. Thus, each individual is seen to be made up of particles and can, as individual, become a particle in another entity. This is the working out of the holographic principle, where the part also embodies the whole. Thus, while there are numerous named goddesses all over India and Sri Lanka, they are understood to be emanations of the one single Goddess. Some ardent devotees undertake arduous pilgrimage journeys in order to secure a fusion of self, however temporary, with the deity presiding over the holy destination. Indeed, some deities in the Indian lands are deified humans. The māvīrar have this potential prospect – though I am not contending that this objective was in their thoughts when they fought for the LTTE and Tamils, but am rather pointing to subsequent possibilities. Be that as it may, self-negation, or transcendence of one’s being, through fusion of self in ultimate endeavour has been one facet of the Tiger endeavour.


While the principle of self-negation seemed to be an important element in the inspirations for the Japanese “tokkōtai” (special attack) operation — [that is, the kamikaze as we label the project today] that was initiated by the Japanese military leaders in October 1944, my initial readings suggested that a nihilistic strain was more pronounced in this setting when placed in comparison with LTTE fighters. I was led to this idea by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s emphasis on the nihilist aesthetics permeating some of the diaries maintained by a few young kamikaze pilots (2006: 17; plus her 2002 book); and by the a-moral stress on the equivalence of “Life” and “Death” in the strands of Zen teaching adopted by right-wing Japanese patriots in the 1930s and also incorporated within the military’s Field Service Code during World War Two (Victoria 2003, 2004, 2006). However, in conversation in Adelaide in December 2008 Brian Victoria argued that in the Japanese case of self-sacrifice (both military and civilian) during the war there was a fusion of self in higher cause.


As background facts, note that during the process of imperialist expansion initiated by the fascist Japanese regime from the 1930s, the state “managed to promote and inculcate in the minds of the people the idea that all the Japanese, but especially the soldiers-to-be, must sacrifice their lives for their country” (Ohnuki-Tierney 2006: xiii). The “state dictum” for soldiers was that they must “never be captured by the enemy” (2006: 5). “Even where entire corps of Japanese soldiers faced utterly hopeless military situations, the soldiers were told to die happily. The policy led to the infamous mass suicides (gyokusai) on Atttu, Saipan and Okinawa islands and elsewhere culminated in the tokkōtai operation” (2006: 4).


The degree of coercion and voluntary participation among the civilians who committed suicide by grenade, leaping off cliffs or other means at Saipan and Okinawa remains a contentious subject. But there is no disputing the fact that the Japanese soldiers demonstrated admirable courage in hopeless battlefield situations just as the Tiger fighters have done in recent weeks (Jeyaraj 2009a, 2009b).


The contentious thesis here, then, is that within the ultra-nationalist mind-sets within the Japanese and Tamil arenas, the person — the individual — becomes subordinate to Cause (capital C), that is, to country, people and nation-state (or state-to-be, viz., Eelam). To put it in different words, once the LTTE secured the commanding heights in the struggle for cutantiram (liberation), the Sri Lankan Tamil Individual and the Collective, Tamil Eelam, have been regarded as one.


This reading of LTTE ideology informed my interpretation of the exodus activated – seemingly by a combination of persuasion and coercion –vis a vis the Tamil peoples of the northern Vanni from late 2008 as the Tigers were forced to retreat. It also directed my essays on Dilemmas in January/February (2009a 2009b).


Thus guided, I was convinced that the LTTE would not allow the civilians a choice, especially since the latter also provided a labour pool, a source of foodstuffs from the supplies sent by the government of Sri Lanka via the ICRC and a political bargaining chip (a stack of chips really). It followed that the LTTE would not agree to a ceasefire or if they did so (as occurred eventually when in dire straits around 22 February), they would not lay down arms. In other words, the civilian mass would be one of the ‘bunds’ in their fortress situation, a bund they could never forego (a) because this bund of people was vital to the survival of Eelam as cause and (b) because total sacrifice was deemed to be the duty of one and all.


In their moral anguish the human rights activists of compassionate heart took little note of this powerful element in the firmament embracing the northern Vanni. None of them spelt out the means by which the LTTE could be persuaded to release the people in their besieged territory (as pointed out in one comment in groundviews). Take Lionel Bopage’s first response in groundviews to my first Dilemmas article: “there is an urgent need for the involvement of an international body such as the UN, to create a safe passage to affected civilians and ensure their protection.” The peremptory demand bears an evangelical strain: an expectation of some miraculous happening through the agency of the UN or some other international outfit. Even with my limited expertise in the field of international affairs, this seemed to be a utopian anticipation: the UN machinery is quite cumbersome, while the global politics bearing on penetrations into the sovereign territory of nation states is labyrinthine (as events proved).


I wondered to myself at that point if some of the leading activists would offer to make up a team that would combine with LTTE sympathisers of the diaspora, say, the Editor of the Tamil Guardian, in order to helicopter into LTTE territory under a white flag organised by local ICRC personnel; and there, in that forlorn context, attempt to persuade the Tiger leadership to lay down arms and abstain from any bargaining demands (the other object of the LTTE exodus exercise). “Let the people go” voiced by personnel who are not enemies could have been a powerful appeal. If such a successful emergency intervention had taken place at that point, then, of course, I would have been pleased to eat all my words.


Dilemmas focused on the immediate situation in early February 2009. As Bopage knows well, I remain firmly committed to “a political solution which genuinely devolves power to address the issues that gave rise to the war in the first place” (Bopage’s words immediately after the part-sentence that I have quoted). Arguably, though of course debatably, the military defeat of the LTTE may facilitate that process, if — a big IF this — Sinhala triumphalism and the chauvinist forces within the governing coalition do not climb to reigning position.


Political devolution and a process of development that equalises job opportunities for the people of north and east are both integral to such post-war goals. This urgent project of the immediate future must enshrine the fundamental rights of Tamil, Muslim and all other citizens of Sri Lanka in ways that do not render them subject to the whims of new elected governments and all-powerful Presidents. The Sri Lankan Tamil peoples’ struggle for dignity and self-determination from the 1950s, after, all, did not seek this status as a gift from the Sinhalese, but as the rights of citizens of Sri Lanka. The principle of a consociation of nationalities within the Sri Lankan nation, or a “new form of confederative alliance that gives scope to the majoritarian force of the Sinhala nation without subsuming the Tamil nation and Muslim community” (Roberts 2000b), a principle that rejects the subordination of whole (Sri Lankan) within part (Sinhalese), must, as I have insisted consistently (Roberts 2000c, 2002, 2008a, b and c), be a pillar in this new scaffolding.


The nature of the possible political settlement in the coming months is not the issue I raise here. That vital focus has already been signalled by GROUNDVIEWS in its appeal for suggestions on the subject (see one note by me – Roberts 2009e). Important suggestions have been presented by web-articles by Rajan Philips, Dushy Ranetunge, et cetera. As self-evident, the terrain I cover in the two sets of articles addresses (A) the cultural ingredients conditioning and motivating the sacrificial dedication to cause demonstrated by the vast majority of Tiger fighters — not just the karumpuli; (B) the relationship between the LTTE regime and the Tamil people in the lands they ruled; and (C) the degree of coercion and/or popular participation in the exodus activated by the LTTE in the northern Vanni in late 2008 when the Sri Lankan army juggernaut got rolling and the LTTE mounted what must, in military terms, be considered a magnificent retreat in the circumstances.


Ironically, some GOSL spokesmen and some human rights agencies/activists seem to be agreed in their conclusion that the Tamil peoples of exodus were “forced” into moving with the retreating Tigers. This, in my view, is a sweeping generalisation. The fact that some 65,000 of these civilians have struggled out of Tigerland in the past three months is not proof of the government contention as generalisation.


That is to read the present into the past of, say, August-November 2008. We must allow for a change of minds. And I insist that the relationship between LTTE regime and people between 1990 and mid-2008 had some symbiotic strands and participatory faith/hope/ oneness. The kudumbum (māvīrar familie) and the kinfolk of active LTTE cadres had stakes in the regime – rather like the soldier families settled on Saipan by the Japanese state. In both instances I refuse to believe that all the civilians had no agency and were mere ciphers responding to the dictates of the command state when they joined in the exodus in Sri Lanka or jumped en masse off Banzai Cliff in Saipan in mid-1944. Readiness to negate one’s being for the higher purpose of an ultra-nationalist cause is a possibility that I present as counter-point to views that treat all the people as corks on water. This is a question, a quarrel really, about agency.



Bopage, Lionel 2009 “Colombo, English, Human Rights, IDPs and Refugees, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics,”, mid-February.

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2009a“Top Tiger leaders killed in a major debacle for LTTE,”, 6 April.

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2009b “Theepan of the LTTE: Heroic Saga of a Northern Warrior,” Daily Mirror, 11 April 2009.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2002 Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms and Nationalisms, The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History, University of Chicago Press.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2006 Kamikaze Diaries. Reflections on Japanese Student Soldiers, University of Chicago Press.

Roberts, M. 2000b “History as Dynamite,” Pravāda, vol. 6, no. ?, pp. 11-13. Also published in the Island Special Millennium Issue, 1 Jan 2000, pp. 43-44.

Roberts, M. 2000c “The Sri Lankan Identity,” Lanka Monthly Digest, November 2000, vol 7: 4, pp. 43-44.

Roberts, M. 2002 “Hyphenated Identities,” Lanka Monthly digest, August 2002, pp. 129, 131.

Roberts, M. 2008a “Split Asunder: Four Nations in Sri Lanka,”, 13 January 2008.

Roberts, M. 2008b “Addressing the Nations of Sri Lanka,” in, 27 January 2008.

Roberts, M. 2008c “Issues for Tamil Nationalism: Revisiting Publius,” www.groundviews.

org, 24 March 2008.

Roberts, M. 2009c “Dilemma’s At War’s End: Thoughts on Hard Realities,”, 10 Feb. 2009 and Island, 11 Feb. 2009.

Roberts, M. 2009d “Dilemmas at Wars End: Clarifications & Counter-Offensive,”, 17 Feb. 2009.

Roberts, M. 2009e “The Needs of the Hour,”, 1 April 2009.

Victoria, Brian D. 2003 Zen War Stories, London: Routledge.

Victoria, Brian D. 2004“The Ethical Implications of Zen-related Terrorism in 1930s Japan,” AAR Zen Seminar, San Antonio, November 2004.

Victoria, Brian D. 2006 Zen at War, 2nd edn. New, York: Weatherhill



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