Terrorists in the eyes of some, freedom fighters to others, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, were until their final defeat in 2009 one of the world’s most committed, effective and ruthless militant organizations. The LTTE was founded in the early 1970s, one of a string of paramilitary groups established by young Tamils in response to the decades of official discrimination meted out by the Sinhalese governments of Colombo to the Tamils of the north and east. The failure of the older Tamil leaders to secure political justice for Tamils and the heavy-handed behaviour of the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan Army and police in Tamil areas drove many young Tamils to espouse violence. All these groups of young militants called for the establishment of an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the island, to be called Eelam (“Precious Land”), and a number received training from special Indian government forces who were initially sympathetic to their cause.
Prabhakaran: elusive leader
The LTTE gradually rose to pre-eminence thanks to its ruthless suppression of all competing political groups and the assassination of rival politicians, and by the beginning of the civil war in 1983, the LTTE had become the leading player in Tamil affairs. At the heart of the LTTE’s mystique lay their founder and leader, the enigmatic Velupillai Prabhakaran (born 1954). Legends about this reclusive figure abound. According to some, he was a shy and bookish student with a fascination for Napoleon and Alexander the Great, who turned militant when he saw an uncle burnt alive by Sinhalese mobs, and who later trained himself to endure pain by lying in sacks of chillies. Known as Thambi, or “Little Brother”, Prabhakaran was held in quasi-religious veneration by many of his recruits, and proved a consummate political survivor who evaded capture for two decades until finally being ambushed and killed by the SLA in May 2009. He also proved a gifted military strategist, although reports suggest that much of the LTTE’s earlier engagements were based on the study of Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger videos – a classic example of life imitating (bad) art.
The LTTE began life as a classic guerrilla operation, harrying the (to begin with) far better-equipped and numerically superior forces of the Sri Lankan Army and later the Indian Peacekeeping Force with hit-and-run attacks, before retreating back into the countryside and mixing with local populations. These guerrilla tactics were combined with gruesome, attention-grabbing attacks such as that at Anuradhapura in 1985, when dozens of civilians and pilgrims were gunned down by LTTE soldiers in the symbolic centre of Sinhalese culture. The LTTE also pioneered the practice of suicide bombing (whose technology they are believed to have exported to militant Palestinian organizations such as Hamas), with notable attacks against Colombo, the international airport and the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, amongst many others. Suicide bombers have also been used in a string of high-profile political assassinations – victims included former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, making the LTTE the only militant organization to have assassinated two world leaders. As the war progressed and the LTTE acquired better armaments and military know-how, they gradually began to function more as a conventional army – exemplified by their seizure of Elephant Pass, at the southern end of the Jaffna Peninsula, from the heavily entrenched forces of the SLA in 2000.
The tigers: past, present and future
The LTTE’s ability to take on and defeat the huge forces of the Indian and Sri Lankan armies reflected its legendary discipline and commitment to the cause, fostered by relentless political indoctrination and quasi-monastic discipline. In addition, hardly any LTTE fighters were ever captured alive, thanks to the phials of cyanide which all cadres wore around their necks. They also – by Asian standards at least – had impeccable feminist credentials. The shortage of men of fighting age led to many women – the so-called “Freedom Birds”, memorably described by British writer William Dalrymple as “paramilitary feminist death squads” – being absorbed into the LTTE military apparatus and often pitched into its toughest fighting engagements.
Attitudes towards the LTTE have always been sharply divided. In the early years of the civil war they were often seen as heroes who were prepared to lay down their lives in the fight against Sinhalese oppression. As the conflict dragged on, however, opinions changed thanks to the LTTE’s systematic assassination of rival Tamil politicians, their massacres of innocent Sinhalese civilians, Muslims and suspected “collaborators”, their use of child soldiers and abduction of young Tamils to fight for the LTTE, the widespread extortion of money from Tamils at home and abroad, the ethnic cleansing of areas under their control and their indiscriminate use of suicide bombers – all of which led to their being proscribed as a terrorist organization by over thirty governments worldwide. In addition, their apparent use of thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields during the concluding stages of the war would most likely have seen their generals charged with war crimes, had any of them survived.
Virtually the entire leadership of the LTTE was killed by the end of the war (as well as a large proportion of its fighters). Rumours of surviving LTTE activists attempting to resurrect the organization regularly circulate, although it seems unlikely that the Tigers will rise again in any meaningful way, not least because of their widespread atrocities against their own people, which has effectively destroyed whatever popular support they once enjoyed. The fact that the LTTE are held responsible for the deaths of over eight thousand of their fellow Tamils proves that it was ultimately the Tigers, far worse than any Sinhalese government, which ended up oppressing and brutalizing the very people they had once claimed to protect.