Gruesome Bodies: Osama, Pirapāharan, Wijeweera

Michael Roberts, 10 May 2011

Rohana Wijeweera, Velupillai Pirapāharan, Osama bin Laden. In that temporal order their bodies were sent to the realms beyond quietly and secretly after they were shot dead.

If grapevine gossip that eventually emerged can be relied upon, Wijeweera, the leader of the Janathā Vimukthi Peramuna insurgency in Sri Lanka,[1] was summarily executed by bullet to head at the Kanatte Cemetery in Colombo on the 13th November 1989 and then cremated. In my conjecture Pirapāharan received a bullet to his head while traversing the swampland on the inland side of Nandhikadal Lagoon with a few of his fighters in May 2009; so that those Sri Lankan soldier behind the gun was probably not  aware that it was the famous Tiger leader he had bagged till the corpse was retrieved. Osama bin Laden was executed on 1/2 May 2009 during an American Seal commando operation at Abbottabad in Pakistan.

In all three instances the state forces that carried out these operations made sure that the corpses were not buried at a site that could become a mausoleum and icon for inspiration in the future. With Wijeweera and Pirapāharan the act of cremation was in accord with the common practice among Buddhists and Saivites generally. TheUSgovernment claims that Osama’s corpse was treated in the manner favoured by Muslims before it was confined to the unfathomable sea (though we have no means of testing this statement).

Wijeweera’s corpse was not photographed and displayed to demonstrate his demise. The JVP insurgency was in freefall by that stage in November 1989 as they had been progressively decimated by death squads directed by the state in the localities in which they had held sway as a “junior government” for some time.[2]

Sri Lanka is normally rife with conspiracy theories, but on this occasion in 1989 virtually everyone was sensible. They believed both the official announcement and grapevine circuits retailing the story of Wijeweera’s death. Indeed, the lounge rooms ofColombowere \pulsating with information that everyone in the JVP politbureau had been discovered and executed with the exception of Somawansa Amarasinghe, who had been whisked abroad through the machinations of Sirisena Cooray, a kinsman who was a leading government minister.

Few mourned Wijeweera’a execution, many were delighted and there were few sanctimonious human rights crusaders on the local ground at that point. What is, now in hindsight, striking about Wijeweera’s execution is that few sympathisers went into a state of denial about the veracity of the tale. However, it may be that prudence dictated silence. Public expressions may have led to a death knock on the door.

This widespread acceptance contrasts with Tamil migrant reactions to Pirapāharan’s death and Muslim responses to the announcement of Osama’s demise. Denial in both domains is an indication of emotional commitment to the cause which each iconic leader stands for. As such, it reveals profound anguish. Such anguish in its turn can promote prolonged bitterness directed towards those responsible for the killing. This phenomenon has been only too evident in migrant Tamil circles worldwide from 2009 to this day and there are similar signs of this type of current through much of the Islamic world, presumably being strongest among those attached to Salafi/Wahhabi ideology.[3]

Displaying Pirapāharan’s Body

As soon as Pirapāharan’s body was identified, it was carried on a stretcher and a mass of soldiers assembled to view the corpse and take their photographs. Thereafter, Daya Master and Karuna, two leading Tigers of the recent past were shown the body so that a positive confirmation could be arrived at. These images, as well as photographs of the corpse in uniform or in the nude with loin cloth, were then portrayed in the public realm.

We are in a different cultural universe here from the modern Western mores that have directed the US President’s decision to refrain from displaying pictures of the slain Osama. His explicit reasoning has three overlapping threads: (A) since they themselves were “absolutely certain” that it was Osama’s body, it served no purpose trying to sway incorrigible people who would deny the truth whatever was done; (B) that the disfigured face was “too gruesome to display” as a propaganda tool; and (C) that such a display would “inflame anti-American sentiment.”[4]

Since the tale of the killing-job aroused embittered reactions among quite a few people in the Islamic world, reason C seems as weak as superfluous. Reason B thereby secures primacy. It is this explanation that provides scope for our reflections. Obama and his advisors considered the image of the dead Osama was too horrendous to disseminate “as a propaganda tool” because “that is not who WE ARE. We do not trot out trophies.”[5] In this manner Obama seized the moral high-ground and stood forth politically correct. His audience as well as his measuring rod were constituted by the American world and the West. It appears that in typical hegemonic fashion Obama believed that he was adhering to a universal value. It is the Western world’s specific sensibilities that Obama is addressing and then imposing on the world writ large.

I question this. Both in the Arab Muslim world and in most ofAsia, people regularly view corpses in attending to the funerals of kin or friends. There is greater equanimity and less revulsion in facing manifest death; or even gory death. I have seen horrendous photographs of accidents and murders in the façade window of a major newspaper inThailandwhich would NEVER have been displayed inAustraliaand the West.

Again, in my limited experience inSri Lankathose struck down by road accidents are not immediately shrouded as they would be in the West. One morning in the late 1960s inSri LankaI emerged on my scooter unto the main Peradeniya-Kandy road on my way to work and there, right in front of my vehicle, I saw the mangled body of a young Muslim boy under the wheel of a bus. When I retuned for lunch at noon the corpse was still there under the same wheel. The image remains indelible in my mind’s eye, albeit without any traumatic influences.

Quite a few people in Sri Lanka will rush to horrific accidents to view the carnage. When a KLM plane flew into a mountain in the early 1970s there were bus-pilgrimages to the area taking sight-seeing groups who were ready to make the trek for this ‘sight-seeing pleasure’ and curiosity. It is only Lankans who are politically correct and wholly Westernized who present sanctimonious commentary that castigates the government for the manner in which they displayed Pirapāharan’s corpse.[6]

We would all profit from journeys into what can be called the “ritual liturgy” (a term borrowed from John Holt[7]) permeating the world of Buddhist and Saivite religious practices. There is a vibrant vocabulary and visual imagery of hell and damnation associated with punishing gods and demons. A glance at the lowest levels of wall paintings within some Buddhist temples will display gruesome pictures of the punishments inflicted on bad people. Such imagery is absorbed in taken-for-granted ways by regular visitors and mesh with the messages they receive from other media or during their engagements with the exorcist rites known as tovil in the Sinhala world.

These orientations also fuse with the awesome punishments which individuals invoke on their enemies in the course of propitiations before kattadiyās and äduras who serve as intermediaries for punishing deities. These are acts of righteous revenge in the eyes of the supplicants. Such practices are widespread throughout Sri Lanka and India, albeit organised in local variations. Without exposure to the vibrant and wholly real character of such engagements it will be difficult for those imprisoned in Westernized cloisters to comprehend the embodied nature of such beliefs. However, they could perhaps gain some insight into  to these realms by reading the works of, say, Diane Mines and Bruce Kapferer among a host of possibilities.[8]

In review and in brief, Obama’s pragmatism in refusing to broadcast the horrific remains of Osama was in line with Western mores and thereby good, pragmatic politics in relation to his constituency. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his aides were equally pragmatic. In their reasoning the image of Pirapāharan-downed-and-bloodied would convince some Tamil doubters, though not all. More vitally, it would display just punishment in ways that would please their Sinhalese-Moor-Malay-Burgher constituency and boost the sense of triumph that was already on its rise to a peak. So, in this field of disposing with corpses, we end up with that which is obvious: good politics inSri Lankacalls for different steps from those suitable for contemporaryAmericaor contemporaryEurope. In broad generalization, and thus with all the caveats attached to such overviews, one can say that what is horrid fare for the Western goose is palatable meal for the Asian gander.

[1] JVP = Peoples Liberation Front. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the insurgency of the JVP in the southern regions of  Sri Lanka, let me note that their operations developed into an underground civil war from July/August 1987 after the Indo-Lanka Accord boosted the support for the JVP. The JVP had extensive networks everywhere and had the capacity to paralyse the government and bring the city of Colombo to a halt whenever the JVP decreed a hartal via overnight posters and graffiti. It is unlikely that we will ever discover how many people, mostly youth, were killed by the security forces, including its secret death squads. Victor Ivan puts the figure at 40,000 (email to author, 4 May 1989) while Chandraprema writes that roughly 8,000 were killed up to July 1989 and 15,000 after that (Sri Lanka: The Years of Terror — The JVP Insurrection 1987-89, Lake House, 1991, p. 312).

 [2] Victor Ivan reckons that the JVP killed about 6,000 people (officials, security personnel, its political opponents). Their killings began with the killing of Daya Pathirana, a student leader atColomboUniversity in a different grouping that was opposed to the JVP, on 15 December 1986. Given JVP techniques and threats one can be certain that the normal judicial process could not have coped with the process of bringing the perpetrators of their acts to justice. So, what eventuated was vicious and violent politics.

 [3] The concepts ‘Salafi” and “Wahhabi” refer to ideological currents within the Sunni branch of Islam and are often used interchangeably. In fact it is best to consider them as overlapping ideologies that are not synonymous. Indeed, each brand is also multivalent in itself.

 [5] Cynics will wonder how such sensitivity did not extend to the act of assassinating one ofUSA’s enemies in the manner realpolitik. In short, it is the realpolitik of good face that directs this slant.

 [6] Tisaranee Gunasekara, “Overdosed with nationalism,” Sri Lanka Guardian, 8 May 2011,

[7] Holt, The Religious Works of Kirti Sri, Oxford University Press and The Buddha in the Crown,New York,OxfordUniversity Press, 1991.

[8] Diane Mines, Fierce Gods, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2005; Bruce Kapferer, A Celebration of Demons, Bloomington, Indian University Press, 1983; Legends of People, Myth of State, Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988 and Feast of the Sorceror, University of Chicago Press, 1997.


Filed under historical interpretation, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, Rajapaksa regime, terrorism, unusual people, world events & processes

2 responses to “Gruesome Bodies: Osama, Pirapāharan, Wijeweera

  1. Pingback: Death and Eternal Life: contrasting sensibilities in the face of corpses | Thuppahi's Blog

  2. Pingback: US Assassination of Osama Bin Laden involved Pakistan’s ISI | Thuppahi's Blog

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