Colombo Telegraph

The Prabhakaran Phenomenon: Towards An Explanation

By Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

A Sri Lankan Tamil friend wrote to me wondering why thousands of Tamils, both within and outside the Island, devoutly followed the Tiger leader. Even more, why do so many – more in the diaspora, he thinks, than within Sri Lanka – still ‘believe’ in him? Why did they ignore evidence which pointed to major errors and crimes committed by him? Why do they refuse to see them even now? The murder of Rajiv Gandhi is just one instance of Prabhakaran’s fatal cocktail of crime and folly. Reviewing my anthology, Sri Lanka: Paradise Lost?, Dr Subramanyam Chandrasekharan states that on the day the Tamil Tigers killed Rajiv Gandhi, they also killed whatever chances they ever had of gaining Tamil Eelam. In other words, the war for Eelam was lost on 21 May 1991. (Dr Chandrasekharan is Editor of the New Delhi-based South Asia Analysis Group, and a former Deputy Director of Indian intelligence. The opinion of such an individual on this subject cannot be lightly dismissed.) Carl von Clausewitz, 1780 – 1831, author of the classic work, ‘On War’, as of other works such as ‘The Campaign of 1812 in Russia’ – a war in which Prussian Clausewitz fought on the side of the Russians – observes that Napoleon, though he didn’t realize it, had lost the campaign even as he crossed into Russia. It can be argued that the LTTE leader had lost the war quite a while before he was finally defeated. Prabhakaran had a goal, a desired end. But though he was often brilliant in tactics he was abysmal in strategy, both political and military. Military historians say that Hitler had the best army in the world of those times: brave and disciplined soldiers; brilliant officers. But the charismatic Führer, combining in his person both supreme political and military power, led them into disaster. (Ironically, führer – or “fuehrer” when the umlaut is omitted – means “guide”.) Hitler did not listen to advice, overruled his commanders, mistook dream for realistically-reachable ends, and remained inflexible to the end. So too it seems to have been with Prabhakaran with several countries actively helping the government; without a single fighter jet or helicopter, his soldiers (men and women) dwindled in number and exhausted.

Future generations will want to understand Tamil response to the Prabhakaran phenomenon. Neither competence nor space permit me to furnish a comprehensive answer, and I merely suggest for consideration just one possible factor, namely, the Tamil post-independence experience of exclusion, subordination and violence – violence (riots and pogroms) by mobs excited and encouraged by the state, and by the state itself via its armed forces. Reasonable and eloquent speeches in parliament, peaceful protest and satyagraha, had not the slightest effect. Independence from Britain and democracy came to the Tamils of Sri Lanka as a painful disillusionment. So-called democracy proved to be but majoritarianism and most undemocratic.

Since things are understood by comparison and contrast, I look elsewhere. The Bible warns of “false prophets” and this was because the Jews, suffering prolonged and extreme persecution, longed for a saviour; someone with divine or superhuman power who would rescue them miraculously. (In ancient Greek drama, when a situation seemed without any hope, there appeared a Deus ex machina – literally, the god from the machine. He suddenly descended onto the stage and put things right.) A people in a situation where they do not have the means or the hope of freeing themselves long deeply, if irrationally, for a saviour, be the “saving” of a spiritual or earthly nature. The greater and more prolonged the suffering; the less the grounds for hope, the greater the longing for a rescuer – and the desperate willingness to believe in one. The Jews have had several individuals either claiming to be the messiah or being so proclaimed by their followers. Among the early known messiahs is Simon of Peraea, a former slave killed by the Romans in 4 BCE.

The following is taken from Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God. Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. During the course of a pogrom which ended in 1667 in what is now Ukraine, entire Jewish communities were wiped out. The number and the nature of the cruelty unleashed filled Jews with horror and dread. A young Jew in Smyrna (Turkey), Shabbetai Zevi, believed he had been chosen to lead his people to freedom and safety. He met up with one Rabbi Nathan in Gaza who believed Zevi was the long longed-for Redeemer, and sent off letters to Jews in Egypt, Aleppo, Smyrna and elsewhere announcing that Zevi would soon defeat the mighty Ottoman sultan and lead the Jews to the Promised Land. “The news spread like wildfire and by 1666 the messianic ferment had taken root in almost every Jewish community in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and Iran” (Armstrong, op. cit.). During this time, “Jews experienced such hope and vitality” that the harsh world of their previous existence melted away. “They had a taste of something entirely different, and life for many of them would never be the same again. They glimpsed new possibilities, which seemed almost within their grasp. Because they felt free, many [were] convinced that the old life was over for good”. People of all classes accepted Zevi.

But though the Jews felt powerful, free and in control of their destiny, in reality their circumstances had not changed. In February 1666, Zevi set out to confront the Sultan, and was arrested near Gallipoli. The vast majority of Jews turned away from Zevi and returned to their normal (unfortunate) existence. “But a significant minority could not give up this dream of freedom. They could not believe that their experience of liberation during those heady months had been an illusion” (Armstrong. Emphasis added). So they continued to believe in Zevi. It was not Zevi but the hope and “dream” personified in him. The dream, wish or deep longing is, in turn, the result of persecution. To alter words from St Matthew (4:16), a people living in darkness thought they had seen a great light; those suffering in a land of shadow, fervently believed light had at long last dawned. Reality being unfortunate and unhappy, it is not easy to relinquish the dream. One remembers the words of Caliban in The Tempest: “that when I waked / I cried to dream again” (Act 3, Scene 2).

This is not to equate the Jewish and Tamil experience. Jewish suffering throughout the centuries perhaps ranks as the second worst blot in human history next to the African slave-trade, taking into consideration the “trade’s” numbers, nature and duration. But the above may go some way towards explaining what I call ‘the Prabhakaram phenomenon’. Significantly, there is no popular and desperate longing for a saviour among Jews today. They have their arsenal of the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (nuclear, biological, chemical) and the unconditional support of the United States. It is no longer the Jews but the Palestinians who need a redeemer: ironically, from the Jews. Indeed, in terms of their plight (abandoned by most fellow Arab nations and co-religionists; with the international community inured and indifferent); the treatment meted out to them by Israel; the seeming hopelessness of their cause, it can be said that the Palestinians are now as the Jews were until the end of the Second World War. Figuratively and in short, the Palestinians are now the Jews. In my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2, I quote W. H. Auden: “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”

Context goes a good way towards explaining the otherwise inexplicable. But, as I have written elsewhere, an explanation is not necessarily an excuse; to understand is not to absolve. The attempt here is neither to blame nor to exculpate but to offer a contribution towards understanding: whether it helps or hinders is for the reader, and not for me, to judge. Tamils have much honest and courageous “soul-searching” to do, not only in the interests of the past (History) but if they are to avoid treading false and self-damaging paths in the future. I end with words from Shakespeare’s Othello, Act 5, Scene 2, having added emphasis to the last two lines, though I am not sanguine the plea will be heard, much less heeded.

I pray you, in your letters,

When you shall these …deeds relate …

nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice.

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