Historian Dr.  Michael Roberts Comments

In February 1999 a Kurdish nationalist leader, Ocalan, was caught by the Turkish authorities. Kurdish refugees in the Western world erupted in protest. In London a young girl Neila Kanteper set herself alight. In Sydney a young lad was caught on camera with petrol can and cigarette lighter as he threatened similar action. As I walked into the local newsagency in Adelaide that week the proprietor waved the picture of Kanteper in flames in front of me and in considerable alarm inquired how anyone could take such an extreme measure. He could not ever take such a step, he said. His remarks gain in significance from the fact that they were unsolicited and had not been preceded by prior conversation. I was in a hurry and did not explore matters further, but I conjecture that his bewilderment stemmed not only from the method of death by fire, but also from such terminal commitment to a collective cause. The question, therefore, is whether in similar circumstances an act of martyrdom involving death by hand-gun would produce the same level of astonishment. Relatively speaking, death by gun seems to be so much more acceptable to the Western world than death by flame.


During the dark days after the Soviet Union had closed down the push for greater Czechoslovak autonomy under Alexander Dubcek in 1968-69 by invading the country in collaboration with their stooges, a young university student named Jan Palach committed a dramatic act of self immolation in Wenceslaus Square, a site of considerable significance in Czech mythology. Palach had been jilted by his girl friend (information from Andrew Lass) and his personal depression matched that of Czech patriots. Whatever his motivation, his violent act struck a chord and he became a legend more or less overnight. He took two days to die and was visited in hospital by Czechoslovakia’s leading intellectuals, including the playwright Havel (subsequently the independent country’s President). And when, several decades later, the state of Czechoslovakia broke free of the Soviet yoke, Red Army Square was renamed Jan Palach Square. The national emblem of Wenceslaus now had a modern martyr as its symbolic companion.

            I met a Czech lady once in Adelaide who had fled her homeland together with her husband, a former political prisoner, a few months’ before Palach immolated himself in political protest. She had been in a refugee camp in Austria when they heard of Palach’s act. Though on the same side of the fence as Palach and those who developed the subsequent legend, this couple’s immediate reaction had been one of horror and shock. It was against their beliefs. She was referring, I believe, to the Catholic faith and its injunctions against suicide. Palach, then, had reached beyond local cultural ideas to the global order – and more specifically derived his inspiration from the acts of self-immolation committed a few years earlier by a few Vietnamese Buddhist monks protesting against Western imperialism.



These Vietnamese had been nurtured in a cultural setting of Buddhist ethics that encourages reflections on nature’s decay (for instance, the mal pujava or flower offerings common to Buddhist worship). In contrast to many North Western and Central European practices, moreover, it is probable that funerals in most Buddhist lands are proclaimed in public thoroughfares through flute, drum and decoration (for that is the practice in Sri Lanka). Again, it is conventional for dead persons to be cremated in the Theravada Buddhist countries as well as Hindu India.             Cremation is not usually favoured in Islamic countries. Indeed, the fellahin peasants in the Egyptian locality in which Amitav Ghosh resided were absolutely aghast when they learned that Hindus cremated their dead (see In an Antique Land). To follow the notions of the Sufis in Delhi among whom Arthur Sanitos conducted his research, the question a good Muslim would raise would be: how could the spirit of a cremated person sleep in peace? Would not the spirit be forced to wander? Thus informed, and without the benefit of expertise in Kurdish culture, I conjecture that the Kurdish protesters who played with fire were drawing on a globalised repertoire of symbolic death rather than their own special practices. I cannot say how the Kurds of the diaspora or the Kurds in their homelands would respond to these political acts of martyrdom through self immolation, but I suspect that they would not be bemused or horrified -- because their commitment to Kurdishness and the idea of a jihad could accommodate this variant practice.


When Indira Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi in 1984 at least ten people either committed suicide or attempted suicide, in several cases through immolation (Hindu 3 Nov. 1984). A mere handful within the context of India’s millions. But these instances, definitely acts at the extreme end of the scale of sorrowful response, occurred in the Dravidian south of the country. They point to a depth of emotional commitment to idols in the southern part of peninsular India that is not matched further north. This opinion gains support from the incidence of suicide and self-mutilation (by chopping off limbs) that took place when MGR, the famous Tamilian film idol and politician, suffered a stroke in October 1984 as well as three years later when he died on 24th December 1987.            Though contemporary circumstances must be an important component in any efforts to clarify such action, I believe that a powerful cultural strand of complete devotion to Hindu gods has been nourished for centuries in the Tamilian south in ways that promote such possibilities. Such themes are found in the Cankam (pronounced Sangam) poetry of the period 250 BC to 100 AD. They are inscribed in the folk classic known as the Periya Puranam produced by Cekkilar, apparently a Cola courtier, during the 12th century. The latter one presents stories of 63 Tamil saints whose devotion to Siva inspired fierce sacrificial acts against their loved ones as well as themselves. It is my thesis that such groundings have been among the factors that have enabled the Tamil Tigers to develop practices of martyrdom that sustain suicide bombers as well as cyanide suicides by combatants taken captive (see my “Filial Devotion in Tamil Culture and the Tiger Cult of Suicide,” Contributions to Indian Sociology 1996 vol 30, pp. 245-72).


The point of these global excursions on my part is to suggest that political self-immolation would not generate the same degree of horror among the generality of readers in such countries as Vietnam, Japan, Rajasthan, Kurdistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia and Tamilnadu as it did in Australia. The sense of repulsive fascination and horror certainly runs through some of the accounts in the Australian newspapers on the 19th February-and-thereafter that described Nejla Kanteper’s self-immolation in London. I suspect, therefore, that such sentiments of bemusement and distaste were pretty widespread through much of Australian society. Some Australians, I further suspect, would express antipathy to such practices and argue that migrants should not insert the struggles of their homelands into Australian society. In a few instances such thoughts may even be extended to attack the idea of multiculturalism.            Such lines of thinking, I claim, are not attentive to the nostalgia and depth of sentiment for their homelands aroused among some migrants (but not among all) by the experience of migration. This has not only been true of people from ”strange lands,” but of migrants from Latvia, Estonia. Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and such countries. And it was as true of the Anglo-Celtic migrants who conquered and settled Australia by force of number in the nineteenth century. Many Irish migrants certainly did not discard their loyalties or their antipathy to the English. One cannot expect people to leave their sentiments behind them. Nor can they jettison their cultural practices lock stock and barrel, even as they must accommodate themselves to the laws of the Australian state. A political act of suicide in public does break the law, but it is usually an act that does not harm others physically. And it is to the Australian’s credit that its reports on the 19th February 1998 highlighted the emotional commitment of the individuals concerned and indicated, though not quite in these words, that the acts of self-immolation were courts of last resort. As James Scott would say, they were (and are) weapons of the weak.


With death, one’s own death, by cyanide capsule one enters another realm. In the case of the Tigers it is part of the cult of martyrdom that has been built up as a binding force by its leadership. The initial exemplary act of cyanide suicide was that of Ponnadurai Sivakumaran in 1974, well before the Tigers were in existence. That act signalled his desire to protect his little cell of revolutionaries as much as his commitment to Eelam. It made him an immediate culture hero. But, as we know, suicide has been taken by the LTTE beyond protective defence to the realm of smart bomb and assassination job. Here, in this terrain, it is anything but a weapon of the weak. Rather it is an instrument of state, of terror, of cold-blooded killing. Where the victims are moderate parliamentarians and mediatory figures serving the Tamil cause in the manner favoured by Sarojini Yoheswaram and Neelan Tiruchelvam, the heroes and martyrs are the victims. In the circumstances in which the Tamils of Sri Lanka are placed today in the 1990s (and the situation is different from that of the 70s and 80s) such victims are the brave ones, far braver than the fighters on both sides with guns in hand. Mrs Yogeswaran I did not know. Neelan was a friend and a colleague-in-arms. This is my epitaph to Neelan, friend and Tamil Lankan martyr.