Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, until 1972 known as Ceylon, is an island nation south of India that has seen ongoing hostilities from a terrorist group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) since the middle of the 1980s. The Tigers are just one of several Tamil groups that have demanded separation / independence from the Sri Lankan government — or fled the island in fear of being caught up in the violence — but the Tigers have been notorious for setting off explosions that kill innocent people, security forces from Sri Lanka and others elsewhere through the years. This paper delves into history of LTTE, the reasons why they use violence to deliver their messages, the specific tactics they employ, their terrorist demands and the chances for peace between the LTTE and the government. As of this writing, the thirty years of violence has for the most part ended and although ethnic relations between the Tamil and government still not smooth.
Thesis / Hypothesis: After thirty years of war and tensions, while Sri Lanka is attempting to return to a relatively stable state — and the Tamil Tigers have been officially defeated — there are nonetheless ongoing and serious violations of human rights by the government.
History of the Tamil Tigers and their Demands for Autonomy
Sri Lanka was occupied by Chinese and European forces (including the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French and English) dating back to the 16th century A.D., and gained its independence from Britain in 1947, according to the Canadian Broadcast Company (CBC, 2010). Before the occupation, in the 5th century BC, on the island from northern India and among the clans that settled, the Sinhalese emerged as “the most powerful” (BBC, 2013).
But looking at the modern situation, there was an ongoing struggle between the Tamil Hindu minority and the majority Sinhalese, and in the 1970s “the Tamil secessionist movement emerged” (CBC). The were formed in 1972 and by 1983 the LTTE had begun to flex its radical muscles; in fact the LTTE “massacred an army patrol in the north” in 1983 (CBC, p. 3). That attack was met with two days of violence against Tamils in the north as Sinhalese “mobs went on arampage, killing several thousand Tamils and burning and looting property” (CBC, p. 3).
How serious has the violence perpetrated by the LTTE actually been in Sri Lanka? The international community has sought to cool down the tensions but the violence has continued; indeed, the United Nations estimates the number of lives lost at close to 100,000 over the years. The escalating violence visited upon the government and businesses by the LTTE has seriously damaged the country’s reputation — which harms tourism — and has also negatively impacted the economy of Sri Lanka.
Among the groups that have attempted to stop the violence is “The Elders,” an independent organization of retired leaders from around the world; the list of those leaders has included such icons as Nelson Mandela, former President Jimmy Carter, former UN executive director, Kofi Annan, and Desmond Tutu, among others. The Elders have stated that the Sri Lankan government has arrested “8,000 suspected ex-combatants without charge or access to legal representation” and moreover, The Elders basically blamed Sri Lankan leaders for failing to address “the political marginalization of ethnic minorities” and that has been “at the root of Sri Lanka’s 30 years of war” (CBC, p. 5).
The Human Rights Watch organization has charged that the Sri Lankan government has “failed to undertake any meaningful investigation of violations of the laws of war” (CBC, p. 5). A truce was established in February 2002, brokered by Norwegian intermediaries, but the Sri Lankan government “formally withdrew from the truce” in January 2008, albeit there had been a “resurgence of fighting” that in reality had shown the truce to be ineffective (CBC, p. 5). In 2009 the Sri Lankan government declared that it had defeated the LTTE, and had killed its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran; subsequent to that, an estimated 300,000 citizens of Tamil ethnicity were rounded up and herded into “internment camps” (CBC, p. 6).
When does a Freedom Movement become a Terrorist Campaign?
Author Muttukrishna Sarvananthan explains (in the Third World Quarterly) that while the LTTE wished to be referred to as a “liberation movement” they were in fact terrorists. He arrives at this conclusion even though he points out that “In the real world all liberation struggles and terrorist struggles have a combination of both legitimate acts of violence and terrorist acts” (Sarvananthan, 2007, p. 1193). The distinction between the two, Sarvananthan asserts, is the “different means of achieving an end” (1193).
While some “legitimate acts of violence are predominant and terrorist acts are sporadic in liberation struggles,” in struggles that are definitely terrorist in nature, acts of terror “are predominant” (Sarvananthan, 1193). Sarvananthan goes on in the peer-reviewed article to assert that the LTTE most certainly qualifies as a terrorist organization because LTTE “has killed more civilians (Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims) than the armed forces personnel” of the Sri Lanka government (1193). In fact the LLTE killed more people of their own ethnicity (Tamil peoples) than the state security forces.
Sarvananthan squashes the argument put forward by another scholar (Kristian Stokke) who wrote that the LLTE was similar in goals and strategies to the three groups that fought for their independence from South Africa (the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party). That comparison is “ludicrous,” Sarvananthan, because the three African groups were fighting against apartheid in South Africa and the LLTE terrorism is not at all similar to the African struggle (1193).
Tamil Tigers’ Political Strategies and their Violent Aggression
According to Simonsen et al. (2010) the LTTE controlled a good deal of the eastern coastal and northern sections of the country albeit they have conducted violent operations throughout the country (358). The LTTE has targeted government and public facilities in its drive to become a separate nation within the nation of Sri Lanka. Ultimately the LTTE would like to bring down the Sri Lankan economy with its terrorist acts that include suicide bombings. Among the most damaging bombings conducted by the LTTE included the truck bomb in 1996 that ruined the and the huge bomb that was exploded as an attack on Colombo’s World Trade Center in the heart of the country’s financial district (Simonsen, 357).
The United States gave the LTTE the official designation of a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” in 1996. But the LTTE discounted the label of terrorism, claiming that its attempt to gain autonomy and independence was a response to “institutional racism and violence” perpetrated against Tamil citizens by the Sri Lankan government (Nadarajah, et al., 2005, p. 88). That said, there is no doubt that since it emerged as a just a small group of militant fighters in 1972, the LTTE grew into force of “several thousand fighterssupported by heavy artillery and a large naval force,” Nadarajah continues (89).
The label of “terrorism” has been attached to the Tamil Tigers and for good reason, and in fact that label has “undermined the political project” that the LTTE set out to establish; there has been no “international legitimacy” attached to the LTTE due to the violence and carnage its strategies are linked to (Nadarajah, 88). While it clearly has been a terrorist organization, the LTTE did in fact establish a country within a country while it continued to control certain sections of northern Sri Lanka. It build a “civil administration structure” which included a police force, justice system, and a humanitarian assistance arm”; in addition, the LTTE also set up a system of taxation and a customs department at its borders (Nadarajah, 89).
There had been violence, mostly sporadic, but the main thrust of violence is said to have originated following Tigers’ launch of a “landmark ambush of an army convoy in July 1983,” which killed 13 Sri Lankan soldiers and created a cultural shock to the state. The response to that event is called the “Black July” anti-Tamil pogrom. The government had officially criminalized the LTTE and the pogrom began, according to Sebastian Rasllngam (writing in The Sri Lanka Guardian), “..as a spontaneous Sinhala reaction to the killing of the 13 soldiers” (Rasllngam, 2012). Rasllngam, who was living in Sri Lanka at the time, said “the emotional truth of the pain” was perhaps greater than the actual slaughter of Tamil people that took place. Mobs began burning Tamil villages and slaughtering innocent people who were part of the Tamil community. Witnesses said Tamil citizens were dragged from their homes and beaten or killed; reports indicated that there were beheadings
“Mobs armed with petrol were seen stopping passing motorists at critical street junctionsand stopping buses to identify Tamil passengers[many of whom] were “knifed, clubbed to death or burned alive” (BBC News, 2003). Up to 3,000 people were killed — along with an estimated 18,000 homes burned — in the July, 1983 pogrom. The pogrom initiated a large exodus of refugees, who fled to India and Western countries, Rasllngam continues.
In concluding his narrative, Nadarajah asserts that the international community in large part identified the LTTE as a terrorist organization, but not because the LTTE represented a “threat to their international interests,” but rather because those nations (including the U.S.) disapproved of LTTE’s “political objective of establishing a separate Tamil state” (Nadarajah, 99).
Five Reasons for the Ultimate Demise of the Tamil Tigers
Rajat Ganguly writes in the Third World Quarterly that the first development that brought the LTTE to the negotiating table is that the Sri Lankan government showed that it was more willing to talk to the LTTE. The previous administrations had been very reluctant to have any conversations with the LTTE. Secondly, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which was made up of four Tamil parties that in the past had been “victims of the LTTE-sponsored violence” but by 2001 had backed the idea that the Tamil Tigers should be part of negotiations with the government, made political gains in Parliament. Those political gains led to the strengthening of the Tamil Tigers’ hand in talks with the government (Ganguly, 2004, 905).
The third development was that the LTTE was struggling to continue to raise needed funds from Western countries. Following the attacks on the U.S. On September 11, 2001, the American-led “global war on terror” turned attention towards the LTTE’s terrorism, and allies of the U.S. And others cast a negative shadow on the LTTE’s struggle for independence (Ganguly, 906). Moreover, the other activities that the LTTE engaged in — “smuggling, gunrunning, and drug trafficking over the years” — helped solidify the LTTE image as a “sinister and criminal organization” (Ganguly, 906). That negative image — which conveyed a scene where “ruthless terroristshad massacred thousands of innocent civilians” — was a huge stumbling block in terms of the LTTE being able to raise funds (Ganguly, 906).
The fourth development involved large shipments of Israeli weapons that were supplied to the Sri Lankan government. The defence budget of Sri Lanka jumped to $1 billion following full diplomatic ties with Israel; also, Israeli military officers provided training to the Sri Lankan army, further putting the staggering LTTE army on the defensive (Ganguly, 906). All these events gave the Sri Lankan military forces a great deal of confidence, Ganguly continues.
The fifth development noted by Ganguly was that the Tamil Tigers were “suffering from war fatigue and faced problems in recruiting new personnel” in order to continuing their attacks on the government. They were tired, beaten, and willing to seek a deal of some kind, Ganguly explained.
In conclusion, while Sri Lanka is working towards a most positive, less violent future, it is worthwhile to examine the past through the literature, which this paper has done. The interviews that will take place with people who escaped the violence will bring a human and personal aspect into this research. But it can be said without equivocation that the Tamil Tigers were a ruthless and violent organization that killed its own people in its corrupt passion to win points and keep its territory. It will go down in history as a force that the government of Sri Lanka could not easily bring down, and although the Sri Lanka government conducted its own brand of ruthlessness and ethnic cleansing — in response to the ongoing LTTE-led crisis — in the end the majority of Sri Lankans wanted peace and opposed independence for the Tigers.
BBC NEWS. (2013). Sri Lanka Profile. Retrieved July 14, 2013, from http://www.bbc.co.uk.
BBC NEWS (2003). Twenty years on — riots that led to war. Retrieved July 14, 2013, from http://news.bbc.co.uk.
Canadian Broadcast Company. (2010). In Depth: The History of Sri Lanka. Retrieved July 8,
2013, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2009/02/04/f-sri-lanka.html.
Ganguly, R. (2004). Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict: at a crossroad between peace and war. Third World Quarterly, 25(5), 903-918.
Nadarajah, S., and Sriskandarajah, D. (2005). Liberation struggle or terrorism? The politics of naming the LTTE. Third World Quarterly, 26(1), 87-100.
Rasllngam, S. (2013). The 1983 “Black-July” Pogrom and Police Inaction. The Sri Lanka
Guardian. Retrieved July 14, 2013, from http://www.srilankaguardian.org.
Sarvananthan, M. (2007). In Pursuit of a Mythical State of Tamil Eelam: a rejoinder to Kristian Stokke. Third World Quarterly, 28(6), 1185-1195.
Simonsen, C.E., and Spindlove, J.R. (2010). Terrorism Today, The Past, The Players, The
Future. Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.