The Prabhakaran phenomenon: towards an explanation

Letter to EditorV.Prabakaran

by Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Berlin, Germany.

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 mixture 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 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.) Prabhakaran had a goal, a dream, a desired end; he was often brilliant in tactics but abysmal in strategy, both political and military.

Future generations will want to understand Tamil response to the Prabhakaran phenomenon. I cannot furnish a comprehensive answer but 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.

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 for a saviour, be the “saving” of a spiritual or earthly nature. The greater and more prolonged the suffering; the less cause for hope, the greater the longing for a rescuer – and the 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 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). 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, and they were still “dependent upon the goodwill of their rulers”. 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 lives. “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” (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.

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 numbers, nature and duration of the latter. But the above may go 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); the treatment meted out to them; 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. In that earlier sense, the Palestinians are now the Jews.

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. 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 pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these […] deeds relate
[…] nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice.

(Shakespeare, Othello, Act 5, Scene 2. Emphasis added.)