Resistance and Martyrdom
in the Process of State Formation of Tamil Eelam
Professor Peter Schalk has written
extensively on subjects related to the struggle for Tamil Eelam. This essay is excerpted from*
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 world. * denotes link to
Amazon.com 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
"...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)
in an LTTE context is relative to achieving the aim and can therefore be
substituted by violence at any moment...
concept of martyrdom has incited strong emotions within the Tamil
main ideological sources for LTTE concept of martyrdom...
and tiyakam do not exactly correspond to the Judeo-Christian tradition
'martyr' and 'martyrdom'...
tiyaki the LTTE uses the word mavirar ‘Great Hero’...
LTTE heroine - and martial feminism
art of martyrdom’ - and the cyanide capsule...
- 'life as a weapon’ - using one's life in a frontal attack... the Black
Tiger does not kill himself by reference to a religious authority or by
reference to a compensation in the life hereafter...
- LTTE ‘s main concept of heroism is the concept of tiyakam, ‘abandonment’
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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’.
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
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
(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)
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
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
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’
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
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
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 of
Tilipan, who fasted to death 26 September 1988. The Tamil text on the card
depicting Tilipan and the roaring Tiger says without even indicating any
‘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
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).
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
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
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:
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.’
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:
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.
Mavirakalin Vituialaipulikal 1990:11.