Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE):

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Syed Rifaat Hussain[1]


Amongst the violent non-state actors operating in the world today, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is the best known. Since its emergence in the early 1970s, LTTE has waged a relentless armed insurgency in the North and East of Sri Lanka in pursuit of its goal to secure a homeland for the Tamil people.  LTTE-led armed Tamil insurgency, besides killing over 64,000 people, has posed mortal dangers to the political independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Sri Lankan state. This paper   focuses on the genesis and rise of LTTE as a violent non-state actor, its tactical and strategic behavior as an armed entity and its ability to sustain itself as a viable militant outfit. These issues are examined against the backdrop of the changing dynamics of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and the various failed attempts including the 2002 ceasefire agreement to end the conflict. The paper concludes by examining the prospects of the LTTE’s survival as a banned entity which has been forced to yield tactical ground to the Sri Lankan armed forces in the latest spiral of the conflict following the abrogation of 2002 peace accord. Author

Violent non-state actors (VNSAs) present several challenges to the authority of the state. First, some groups have developed capabilities to strike high-value targets across the globe through asymmetric means. The 9/11 attacks on the United States and the 7 July 2005 London bombings  epitomize this trend. The increased capacities of VNSA’s have resulted from such factors as interconnectedness and openness of modern societies which afford them global mobility and influence, easy availability of modern weaponry and explosives, enhanced opportunities to collect and transfer funds necessary for operations, and inherent difficulties faced by states to detect and control their operations.[1] Second, by employing standard terrorist and insurgent tactics some VNSAs have tended to undermine prospects for regional peace and stability. For instance, the 2001/2002 military confrontation between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan was provoked by a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament which New Delhi believed had been perpetrated by a terrorist group backed by Islamabad. Third, the activities of VNSAs present mortal dangers to the internal stability and national cohesion of many developing states. The rise of armed groups and the challenges they pose to state authority make them a “tier-one security problem”[2] in the contemporary global environment. The vulnerability of the state in developing countries has been particularly compounded.

The rise of VNSAs  to global prominence is linked to the phenomena of failing states marked by “weakened capacity, deeply divided societies, devastated economies, squandered resources, traumatized populations….international organized crime and black market networks.”[3] How state failure promotes VNSAs is well depicted by Chester Croker who notes that: “self-interested rulers….progressively corrupt the central organs of government,” and they “ally themselves with criminal networks to divide the spoils.” Consequently, the authority of the state is “undermined….paving the way for illegal operations.” In conjunction with these developments, “state security services lose their monopoly on the instruments of violence, leading to a downward spiral of lawlessness…” and, “when the state failure sets in, the balance of power shifts…in favour of armed entities [groups] outside the law” who “find space in the vacuums left by declining or transitional states.”[4]

LTTE as a Violent Non-State Armed Group

Although terrorist groups form a distinct category of violent non-state actors, bracketing the LTTE with such outfits is problematic. If terrorism is defined as politically motivated violence that deliberately targets civilians, it cannot be holistically be applied to the LTTE because its recourse to violence is primarily directed against the coercive capacities of the Sri Lankan state. Yet, the LTTE is guilty of enacting what Thomas Thornton calls “enforcement” and “agitational” terror.[5] Enforcement terror describes the insurgent organization’s security system, the disciplining of its members, and the execution or punishment of alleged or real informers to deter them from cooperating with the regime. Agitational terror, by contrast, advances the organization’s public agenda. Indeed, one could condemn terrorist methods without delegitimizing the terrorist groups and converting them into international outlaws. In practice, even Western countries have not consistently equated the tactic and its users. As pointed out by Tom Farer:

“Over decades….the United States looked the other way while the Irish Republican Army successfully solicited financial backing from ethnic-Irish communities in the United States. During the Central American war of the 1980s, the Regan Administration continued its support for opponents of Nicaragua’s leftist governments, the so-called “Contras,” despite their attack on the civilian population and did nothing to shut off financial support for right-wing paramilitary death squads in El Salvador.”[6]

However, the LTTE could easily be defined as a guerrilla movement. As it will be argued, below the LTTE is clearly committed to changing the status quo and has used physical violence to pursue its declared aim of establishing a Tamil State (Eelam). The LTTE’s motivation is predominantly political since, as an entity which is “supposed to represent the grievances of the Tamil community,” it has waged war on the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan state essentially as a “parallel process of state-building primarily by military means.”[7]

The LTTE has also set up a parallel civil administration within the territory under its control. It has established structures such as a police force, law courts, postal services, banks, administrative offices, television and radio broadcasting station. The most prominent of the LTTE ‘state structure’ is the ‘Tamil Eelam Judiciary’ and the ‘Tamil Eelam Police.’ Formed in 1983 and with its headquarters at Kilinochchi, the Tamil Eelam Police reportedly has several wings, including traffic, crime prevention, crime detection, information bureau, administration and a special force. LTTE cadres collect taxes, its courts administer their version of justice and the entire law and order machinery is LTTE-controlled.

As part of its violent campaign the LTTE has murdered government ministers, local politicians and moderate Tamil leaders. LTTE fighters have attacked naval ships, oil tankers, the airport in the country’s capital, Colombo, and Sri Lanka’s most sacred Buddhist relic, the Temple of the Tooth. They have also attacked the Colombo World Trade Centre and the Central Bank, as well as the Joint Operations Command, the nerve centre of the Sri Lankan security forces. Unlike other suicide terrorists, LTTE fighters do not deliberately target civilians, but nevertheless many become collateral casualties. In the attack on the Central Bank in 1996, for example, ninety people were killed.[8]

The LTTE leader, Prabhakaran, has justified armed struggle in the following words:

[I]t is the plight of the Tamil people that forced me to take up arms. I felt outraged at the inhuman atrocities perpetrated against an innocent people. The ruthless manner in which our people were murdered and colossal damage done to their property made me realize that we are subjected to a calculated program of genocide. I felt that the armed struggle is the only way to protect and liberate our people from a totalitarian Fascist State bent on destroying an entire race of people.[9]

The alleged “atrocious behavior” of the successive Sinhala-dominated governments as an underlying cause of the Tamil militancy is a widely held belief. For example, the deputy editor of the Daily News, T. Sabaratnum, in his three volume study of the rise of the LTTE states:

The Tamil community has been subjected to a well thought out and carefully executed scheme of extermination. Through state-aided Sinhala colonization the extent of land under Tamil control was gradually eroded; through the disfranchisement of the Indian Tamils their numerical strength was severely reduced; through the enactment of the Sinhala Only policy they were rendered officially illiterate; through  the enshrinement in the constitution of the unitary character of the state they were inextricably enslaved; and through repeated unleashing of state and mob violence they were denied the fundamental right of secure existence.[10]

While there may not be agreement on the precise number of suicide attacks carried out by the LTTE, there is little disagreement on the scale of such attacks. Robert Pape calculates that between 1987 and 2001 a total of 143 Tamil Tigers carried out seventy six suicide attacks killing 901 people. According to Jane’s Intelligence Review there were 168 LTTE suicide attack in this period. Ricolfi estimates these numbers to be 191. Sugeeswara Senadhira claims that the number of suicide missions undertaken by the  LTTE in the last two decades is more than 270.[11] The LTTE themselves claim to have carried out 147 suicide operations during 1987-1999 but they claim responsibility publicly only for military attack, not for attacks on civilians, politicians or economic targets. The most important feature of these suicide attacks is the nationalistic fervor underpinning them: “the LTTE’s ideology is entirely secular one of national liberation. Their commitment is fuelled by hatred of the enemy and a desire to take revenge for their attacks, not by God.”[12]

Suicide terrorism has been one of the most potent weapons of the LTTE in its protracted armed conflict with the Sri Lankan state.  Since its first suicide attack on 5 July 1987 when “Captain Miller” drove a truck laden with explosives into a Sri Lanka army camp at Nelliady in Jaffna, blowing himself up, suicide attacks have been regularly used by LTTE as “an emphatic statement to the Sri Lankan government and the international community that the LTTE is a force to be reckoned with.”[13] Moreover, besides creating panic and anxiety among ordinary citizens, a successful suicide attack also “confirms the inefficacy of the administration, demoralizes law enforcers and boosts morale among the Tigers and their followers.”[14] According to one estimate as of 1 August 2006, the fatalities among members of the Black Tigers (the LTTE suicide wing), and the intelligence wing of the Black Tigers in suicide attacks totaled 316.  The LTTE’s own numbers stand at 273. Of these, 23.73 percent have been carried out by women.[15] The use of female suicide bombers is mainly due to operational considerations as “females are not subject to the same kind of movement restrictions and body searches [as men]…and the layers of a woman’s clothing can more easily disguise the bulky suicide belt which is more conspicuous under a man’s shirt and trousers.”[16]

Despite having waged a wide variety of violence and warfare against the Sri Lankan state, the LTTE, unlike many other violent armed groups, has also directly participated in several rounds of peace talks with the Sri Lankan government to end the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.[17] The LTTE’s ability to wage peace along with war not only makes it a unique violent armed group that carries “guns” and “ideas” simultaneously but also raises the larger question of the role of norms in impacting its bebaviour. Given the fact that non-state actors are becoming increasingly more responsible for effecting political outcomes, it is imperative for theories of norm socialization to be extended to violent non-state actors such as the LTTE to see whether these groups are cognizant of normative and ethical arguments or whether they operate in a moral vacuum.[18] There are at least two reasons which make the LTTE an apt case to study from the perspective of the impact of norms. First, the LTTE’s long history of armed struggle spanning over three decades ensures that there are sufficient grounds to test a long term process like norm socialization. Secondly, focusing on the LTTE enables one to examine whether international norms have an effect on older terrorist groups and movements, and how far the fallout of 9/11 has added pressure on such groups to reexamine their strategies.  A recent study found that the “LTTE has consistently made arguments justifying their use of violence within the vocabulary and discursive contours of the international community, both before and after 9/11.” This suggests that violent non-state actors are not impervious to the discourse and normative pressure emanating from the international community. Prabhakaran’s speeches reveal an increasingly conscious effort to resist a collective identity with ‘real terrorist’ groups and thus an acknowledgement of the basic norm that is against killing civilians.[19]

Background to the Conflict in Sri Lanka

Before analyzing the rise of the LTTE as a violent non-state actor, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka between Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority. Even though the conflict in Sri Lanka is a complex, multi-actor, multi-level, multi-faceted and multi-causal phenomenon that defies a uniform description, there is no gainsaying the fact that the ethnic enmity amongst the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities functions as a structural cause of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict. As pointed out by Neloufer de Mel:

[T]he ethnic category remains a significant paradigm in working out a negotiated settlement to the conflict that would involve devolution of power by region with linguistic autonomy. It shapes the civil-military balance, for there is a fine line between a highly ethnicized Sinhala army controlling Tamil militants in the name of public law and order, and a regulative state constitutive of Sinhala hegemony. The ethnic category over-determines many of the policies and strategies of the war so that while it may not be its sole animating factor, it is nevertheless pivotal within Sri Lanka’s militarization in how it has pitted the Sinhala community against Tamils in mutually exclusive ways.[20]

Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon until 1972, is a multi-ethnic, multi linguistic and multi-religious state with a population of about 20 million as of 2006. The people of the island are broadly divided into six categories: Sinhalese account for 74 percent of the total population; Sri Lankan Tamils 12 percent, Indian Plantation Tamils 5 percent, Muslims 7 percent, Brughers 1 percent and aboriginal tribes constitute insignificant numbers.[21] On the basis of religion, the Sinhalese are either Buddhists or Christians and the Tamils (both Sri Lankan and Plantation) are Hindus or Christians. Burghers are mostly Christians; and aborigines follow their native faith. Sinhalese mostly speak Sinhala, which belongs to the Indo-European group of languages with a mix of vocabulary and syntax of Dravidian languages. Tamils speak Tamil, a Dravidian language. Muslims speak Sinhala and Tamil, and Burghers speak English. The aborigines converse in native tribal languages. The majority Sinhalese began migrating to the Island from North India around 500 B.C. and settled in the northeastern or dry zone. Buddhism came to the island in the third century B.C. and became an integral part of Sinhalese culture. The Sri Lankan Tamils also known as Jaffna Tamils, the dominant majority group, trace their lineage to the Tamil invasions from India of 300 AD. They live mainly in the northern and eastern districts. The Plantation Tamils also known as Indian Tamils trace their heritage to the colonial period when they migrated to Sri Lanka from the Indian province of Tamil Nadu to work on the tea plantations during the British rule. The Indian Tamils are heavily concentrated in the highland districts. Since they lived on settlements separate from the Jaffna Tamils, the Indian Tamils did not assimilate into the greater Tamil society. This lack of integration resulted in both the Sinhalese and Jaffna Tamils viewing them as “foreigners.” The third group, the Muslims, are not a majority in any district but live as large minorities in two districts – Mannar and Ampari.

Sri Lanka gained independence on 4 February 1948 when the British, after having ruled the Island since 1815, decided to transfer power to the Sri Lankan people by implementing the constitution drafted by the Second Royal Commission (popularly known as the Soulbury Commission).

The leaders of the Tamil pleaded before the Soulbury’s Commission for an equal share of power along with the Sinhalese majority. The Soulbury Commission tried to allay Tamil apprehensions by providing certain safeguards including the stipulation that the Parliament would not enact discriminatory legislation against a particular ethnic or religious minority to which all other groups were not simultaneously subjected.

Strains between the Tamil minority and the Sinhala majority first appeared over the status of plantation Tamils who were rendered both stateless and voteless by three pieces of legislation passed by the post-independence government of Sri Lanka led by the United National Party (UNP). The All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), representing Sri Lankan Tamils, supported this legislative move which stripped nearly one million Plantation Tamils of their right to become citizens of Ceylon and sought their compulsory repatriation to India. The ACTC’s anti-Plantation Tamil stance a caused split in the Congress, with S. J.V. Chelvanyakam forming the Federal Party (FP) which eclipsed the ACTC and became the dominant force claiming to represent the interests of the Tamil people.

The tensions between Tamil minority and Sinhala majority turned violent when the former launched “Satyagraha” (peaceful non-cooperation) in June 1956, against declaration of “Sinhalese” as a sole official language by the charismatic Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, whose Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) won the 1956 election by promising to make Sinhala the only official language, as against the existing two-language policy. The “Sinhala Only Act” alienated the Tamils as this move was “seen by the Tamils not only as a means of denying them opportunities of government employment but also as an instrument of cultural oppression and a denial of Tamil identity.”[22] Tamils, who had made up 60 percent of the professionals employed by the state at Independence (1948), fell to under 10 percent by 1970. In the administrative service, the drop was from 30 percent to fewer than 5 percent during the same period, and most dramatically in the armed forces, Tamils went from 40 percent to less than 1 percent.[23] In the riots that gripped certain parts of Colombo and Eastern province, 150 people, mostly Tamil, died and thousands were injured. Extensive damage was done to the property and shops owned by the Tamils in these areas.

On 20 January 1956, the Tamil members of Parliament decided to form themselves as a United Front to pursue the following goals: (1) preserve their language and culture, (2) maintain the identity and freedom of the Tamil speaking people and, (3) provide their traditional home. They called upon the Tamils to struggle for the creation of a Tamil state which will offer to federate with the Sinhalese State on terms of complete equality if acceptable to both the nations, or elect to remain independent. The Federal Party’s Convention held at Trincomalee on 18-19 August 1956 unanimously adopted a resolution which became a landmark in the Tamil struggle to secure equality of treatment for the Tamil language and their rightful place in the Island’s policy. The resolution made four key demands:

(1)   Replacement of the Constitution by a rational and democratic one based on the federal principle and the establishment of one Tamil linguistic state, incorporating all geographically contiguous areas in which the Tamil speaking people were numerically a majority.

(2)   Restoration of the Tamil language to its rightful place, enjoying parity of status with Sinhalese as the official language.

(3)   Repeal of existing citizenship laws and enactment of fresh laws on the basis of a single test of residence; and

(4)   Immediate cessation of colonizing Tamil areas with the Sinhalese.[24]

In a bid to accommodate Tamil sensibilities, Prime Minister Bandaranaike entered into an agreement with the Federal Party leader S.J.V. Chelvanyakam which assured that “without infringing on the position of the Official Language Act, the language of administration in the Northern and Eastern provinces should be Tamil and any necessary provision should be made for the non-Tamil speaking minorities in the Northern and Eastern provinces.”[25] The Bandaranaike-Chelvanyakam Pact could not be implemented due to pressure from the Sinhala-Buddhist forces which saw the agreement as whetting the Tamil appetite for separatism while eroding the gains of the Sinhala Only Act. The radical Tamils, on the other hand, dubbed the Pact as capitulation before the Sinhalese majority.

In 1959, a radical Buddhist monk assassinated Prime Minster Bandaranaike which propelled his widow, Sirimavo, into politics. The following year, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was elected as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.  Discrimination against the Tamil people continued unabated as Sirimavo’s government passed an Act which made Sinhala the language of courts. The peaceful satyagraha protests organized by the Tamil political parties were brutally suppressed as the Sirimavo government responded to the unrest by declaring a state of emergency.

In 1965 an attempt was made to assuage the feelings of the Tamil community through the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact. This Pact called for action to make Tamil the language of administration and record in the Northern and Eastern provinces. It sought to establish District Councils with power vested with the government to give directions in the national interest and called for amending the Land Development Ordinance to give priority to Tamil speaking landless persons in northern and eastern provinces and Tamil speaking persons in other part of the country. The measures contained in the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact could not be implemented due to the crusade launched by the Buddhist clergy with the backing of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

The language issue continued to dominate Sri Lankan politics in the 1960s and early 1970s but it now widened to include other Tamil grievances such as access to higher education, absence of economic opportunities, unequal land distribution and agricultural settlements which Tamils described as “colonization.”[26]

The passage of the 1972 Constitution further aggravated the widening ethnic divide due to the removal of minority safeguards in the preceding Soulbury Constitution and the pride of place accorded to Sinhala Buddhism. The 1972 Constitution stated that the Tamil Language Regulations “shall not in any manner be interpreted as being a provision of the Constitution but shall be deemed to be subordinate legislation.” As noted by K.M. de Silva, “the new balance of forces, of which the principal feature is the dominance of the Sinhalese and Buddhists in the Sri Lanka polity, was effectively consolidated…Indeed, the new Constitution accurately reflected the balance of forces.”[27] The 1972 Constitution also subjugated the judiciary to the control of the legislature by eliminating appeals to the Privy Council on constitutional issues. This measure was a response to a Supreme Court finding against the 1956 Sinhala Only Act.  For moderate Tamils “it exemplified the futility of constitutional politics.”[28]

Disappointed and feeling frustrated that their non-violent tactics were not working to secure their right to be educated in their mother tongue, right to represent their people in the legislature and also ensure their share of government, the Tamil leaders openly talked of secession. Various Tamil parties united to form the Tamil United Front (TUF) and began discussing the idea of a separate state of Tamil Eelam. The emergence of TUF represented the coalescing of a Tamil response to the consistent transformation of the multi-racial, albeit unitary. Sri Lankan state into an overly Sinhalese-Buddhist one. Soon after the 1972 Constitution was adopted, the leader of the Federal Party, the precursor to the Tamil United Liberation Front (ULF), S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, resigned his seat in parliament in protest.[29] The electrocution of seven Tamil civilians attending the International Tamil Conference in Jaffna in 1974, attributed to firing and baton charge by the police, further hastened the introduction of militancy into Tamil nationalist struggle.

The mounting feelings of estrangement nursed by the Tamil youth were further aggravated by the first Janatha Vimukti Peramuna or People’s Liberation Front (JVP) armed insurrection[30] of 1971 which was ruthlessly crushed by the Sri Lankan government. Despite its failure, the JVP insurrection had a great impact on Tamil youth as it made them see armed struggle and violence as answers to their problems of alienation, discrimination and unemployment.[31] Taking a cue from the success of the armed struggle of the Bengalis in East Pakistan which led to the birth of Bangladesh as an independent country in December 1971, and reacting to the ultra-nationalist rhetoric of the Tamil United Front (TUF), a coalition of Tamil mainstream political parties, the Tamil youth adopted a militant posture and began joining Tamil militant organizations in large numbers. In 1976, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) succeeded the TUF, and at its first national convention held in Vaddukoddai, resolved “that the restoration and reconstitution of the free sovereign secular socialist state of Tamil Eelam based on the right of self-determination inherent to every nation has become inevitable in order to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil nation in this country.”[32] The deepening alienation of the Tamil people stemming from the “lack of any attempt to accommodate or even consider their views in the framing of the constitution was a major contributory factor to the emergence of the Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976.”[33] The hardening of the Tamil position reflected a similar stance within the Sinhala community which in 1977 brought to power the nationalist government of Junius Jayewardene at the head of a rejuvenated UNP.

In response to the TULF’s Vaddukoddai Resolution, the Sri Lankan government invoked the Sixth Amendment which “prohibited political parties and individuals from demanding or advocating a separate state for the Tamil-speaking people as a solution to the intractable ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.”[34] This measure led the TULF to boycott parliament as it attempted to limit loss of support to nascent and more militant Tamil groups, including the LTTE.[35] In the aftermath of the 1977 general elections, more anti-Tamil riots occurred that “served to increase the alienation of the Tamil people, which in turn led to a further increase in support for the secessionism.”[36]

Founding and Early History of LTTE

The Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was founded by Vellupillai Prabhakaran on 5 March 1976, the day he conducted a successful bank robbery in Puttur. As a politically motivated youth who felt inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the Great and Indian Freedom Fighters, Prabhakaran at the age of seventeen joined the Tamil Students League (TSL), founded by Kuttimani and Jagan in 1970.[37] In 1975, a faction of the TSL broke away and began calling itself the Tamil New Tigers (TNT). This splinter group comprised a handful of people led by Chetti Tanabalassingham, an ordinary criminal who “taught Prabhakaran how to handle arms and explosives.”[38] On 27 July 1975, Prabhakaran assassinated Alfred Durayapa, former mayor of Jaffna. According to M. R. Narayan Swamy: “It was Prabharkaran’s first murder, and the first major assassination by Tamils. The assassination created a sensation in Sri Lanka. It also made Prabhakaran famous. His name soon acquired a halo and for the first time Jaffna youth began hearing about a secret group which called itself the Tamil New Tigers.”[39] Prabhakaran reportedly killed Tanabalassingham to assume the leadership of TNT and renamed the group as Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 1976. The immediate antecedents of the founding of the LTTE lay in the proliferation of many Tamil militant outfits who “felt that peaceful political agitation by the old men had got nothing for the Tamils, and, it was the boys turn to secure rights for the Tamils.”[40] Even before the 1970s some elements within Tamil political parties had adopted a more militant course of action.

A clear indication of this changing trend away from the constitutional path toward political militancy was the formation of an underground group, Pulip Padai (the Army of Tigers) in August 1961 at the historic Koenwaran temple in Trincomalee. Standing in its holy precincts facing the sea, Pulip Padai members took “a solemn oath to fight for a Tamil homeland.”[41] In 1969, another informal group named Tamil Liberation Organization (TLO) was formed which included the future LTTE leader Prabhakaran amongst its founding members. TLO pledged to plunge itself headlong into a violent struggle. The formation of the Tamil United Front (TUF) in 1972 led to the creation of the Tamil Elaingyar Peravai (Tamil Youth League) in January 1973. TYL split in 1975 with one group backing the TUF leadership, the other, calling itself Eelam Liberation Organization (ELO) committed itself to waging armed struggle. In February 1972, two well-known Tamil leaders Chelvanayakam and Amritalingham went to Madras, India, where they issued a statement that they “would fight to establish a full independent state, and that they would need not only the support of the people of Tamil Nadu but the people of India.”[42]

The second half of the 1970s witnessed the expansion of militant outfits and intensification of armed militancy by Tamil youth.  The Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Eelam People’s Revolutionary Front (EPRLF), Eelam Revolutionary Organization (EROS) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) all surfaced during this period. In 1977, a militant group called the Tamil Eelam Liberation Army (TELA) was set up along the lines of the Irish Republican Army. The emergence of Tamil youth militancy, triggered by the adoption of the 1972 constitution and the “pogroms of 1977, 1979, 1981 and 1983, and the consequent exit from parliament of the Tulf MPs”[43] created a situation in which the youth militants led by the LTTE were able to stake a claim to being the sole representatives of the Tamil people and arrogate to themselves the right to wage armed struggle on their behalf.

According to government figures, between 1976 and July 1983, 73 persons were slain by the Tigers underground militants, and from 1978-83, the Tigers were responsible for more than 265 bombings, robberies, assaults and other criminal acts.  Reacting to the armed struggle launched by LTTE, the government of President Jayewardene banned the LTTE in 1978 and promulgated the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1979 which gave extraordinary powers to police and army. In July 1979, President J. R. Jayewardene sent a brigade-strong Army contingent to Jaffna, and ordered its commander to “wipe out terrorism” in six months. The anti-terrorism drive launched by Colombo reportedly led to extra-judicial killings and disappearances and forced many Tamil insurgents to seek sanctuary in South India. In December 1979, the contingent commander reported to President Jayewardene that “the mission had been successfully completed.”[44] Soon after its founding, LTTE moved very quickly to establish its international linkages. In 1980, with the advent of Anton Balasingham’s Marxist influence and over a dispute with another leader, Prabhakaran left the LTTE and joined Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TEOL) for a while. On 27 November 1982, the first LTTE cadre “Shanka” was killed in action and that day is celebrated as the LTTE’s “Hero’s Day.” On 15 July 1983 an LTTE cadre named “Seelan” was injured and at his own request was shot dead by another to prevent his capture by the army. A week later, LTTE carried out an ambush of an army patrol in Jaffna in which thirteen soldiers were killed.  This LTTE attack sparked the “Black July” anti-Tamil riots in which hundreds of Tamil were killed and their business destroyed by Sinhalese mobs with active connivance[45] of the Sri Lankan security forces. The Black July anti-Tamil riots redounded to LTTE’s advantage as they “opened a floodgate of young Tamils to various Tamil militant groups”[46] in their thirst for revenge. In 1984, Prabhakaran ordered all LTTE cadres to wear the cyanide vial and to use it rather than be captured. He wore one himself to institutionalize the “Cyanide culture” within the organization. During its formative phase, some of the high ranking LTTE leaders received training from Palestine Liberation groups like Al Fatah (military wing of the PLO) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in various training centers in the Middle East. It is widely believed that the “use of suicide terrorist tactics, networking with Tamil diaspora for funds, propaganda and other services, arms transfers, and methods of motivating its cadres”[47] were techniques that LTTE had borrowed from its early training experience with the PLO.

Organization and Military Structure of LTTE

Notwithstanding its claims to be a democratic organization, the LTTE, in reality, is an authoritarian and hierarchical outfit which is controlled by Prabhakaran who enjoys absolute power as its supreme leader.  As noted by N. Manoharan: “Prabhakaran has profoundly influenced the LTTE…as regards to its member’s characteristic paranoia, fanatical bravery, relentless pursuit of vengeance, and disregard for human life.” [48] Prabhakaran’s overarching influence is reflected in the pledge of allegiance made by LTTE cadres to the Eelam struggle and also specifically to Prabhakaran. He is both Chairman of the Central Committee of the LTTE and Commander-in-Chief of its military wing. Below him are a Deputy Commander and at least eight Special Commanders in charge of the Sea Tigers, Intelligence, Ordnance, the Black Tigers, Military Intelligence, Military Planning, the Women’s Wing, and the Charles Anthony Brigade.[49] Each of the Northeast’s eight districts is placed under the charge of an Area Commander who is accountable to Prabhakaran. Cadres of eight regional commands constitute political and military wings which are “further sub-divided according to their specialized roles in several combat units in the military wing.”[50] Cadres do not receive any remuneration and are ranked only posthumously on the basis of their service and the circumstances of their death.[51]

Sea Tigers

LTTE is the only militant organization in the world which has an effective naval arm – the Sea Tigers. The Sea Tigers unit was formed in 1984 and was later reorganized on a large scale as “Sea Tigers of Liberation Tigers” with their own distinct emblem.[52] From their initial role as an arms smuggling mechanism for LTTE, the Sea Tigers have evolved into an offensive arm for the organization. Their principal aim is to undertake combat operations against the Sri Lankan Navy including suicide attacks. The Sea Tiger’s fleet consists of 15-m fiberglass boats of 250 horsepower mounted with light and heavy machine guns and grenade launchers. These boats are frequently rigged with explosives and they have destroyed more than 30 Sri Lankan navy crafts.[53] The emergence of LTTE’s sea power in 1991-1992 posed a direct threat to the Sri Lankan forces, as “the supplies of the army in the north were mostly sea oriented.”[54] In 1992, the Sri Lankan Navy came under increasing pressure from LTTE’s sea-borne suicide attacks, sea mines and sea Tiger commando raids conducted by Black Tigers. In May 1995, the Sea Tigers led the successful attack on the island of Mandathivu off the Jaffna peninsula and in 1996 they played a vital role in attacking the coastal army base of Mullaitivu. They were responsible for the deaths of 19 Sri Lankan Navy personnel who were ambushed in a May 2006 naval engagement. The Sea Tigers have played an important role in making the seas unsafe for Sri Lankan naval traffic and in crucial campaigns they have acted as a deterrent against the landing of Sri Lankan forces. They have also facilitated the LTTE’s land operations by transporting troops to crucial battlefields. They have also taken part in attacks on major bases. The Sea Tigers have multiple classes of vessels, including an armor plated “stealth” craft with a top speed of more than 35 knots, as well as a submersible commando vessel similar to a World War II Chariot and designed for special operations within naval bases and commercial ports.[55] Apart from their smaller attack aircraft, the Sea Tigers also possess a number of larger merchant vessels which are mainly used for carrying weapons and other equipment for the Tigers.

Air Tigers

The Air Tigers are the latest addition to the growing military capabilities of the LTTE. They have acquired an airstrip near Iranamadu, south of the LTTE’s main base at Killionchchi in 2002. Two light aircraft were spotted at the airstrip by a military drone in January 2005. According to US intelligence sources one of the aircraft was Czech-built Zlin Z 143.  The LTTE pilots are thought to have been trained at flying clubs in France and the UK and Tamil expatriates working with foreign airlines are reported to have helped the LTTE establish their air wing. The LTTE credits Colonel Shankar (alias Vythialingam Sornalingam), who worked as an aeronautical engineer with Air Canada, as the founder of its air wing. The LTTE revealed their air capabilities with a bombing raid on the Sri Lankan Air Force’s main base on 25 March, 2007. The attack on the Katunayake Air Base killed three SLAF (Sri Lanka Air Force) personnel and injured another 16 and caused damage to two helicopters. The main target of the attack – the fixed-wing aircraft – escaped undamaged.[56] The day after the attack, the LTTE released photographs showing six members of its air wing with the LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran and a light aircraft that was identified as a Z 143. The photographs showed four improvised gravity bombs attached to a Z 143 by a metal frame. These bombs are fairly large and are fin-stabilized.  They are estimated to contain 25 kg of C4 explosive, according to Sri Lankan military sources quoted by Jane’s sources.[57] On 24 April 2007, LTTE carried out their second air raid when its planes bombed an army engineering unit in northern Sri Lanka which killed six soldiers and wounded 13.[58] On 22 October 2007, in a coordinated ground and air assault on the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) base at Anuradhapura, LTTE managed to destroy eight aircraft including one Mi-17 Hip-H, two Mi-24 assault helicopters, a BT-6 and a K-8 training aircraft, a King Air 200 reconnaissance aircraft and an Avro 748 transport aircraft.[59] Sri Lanka has been forced to respond to these LTTE air attacks by upgrading its air-defense capabilities and acquiring new MiG-29 combat aircraft and Mi-24 helicopter gunships from Russia.[60]

Black Tigers

The Black Tigers or “Karum Puligal” in Tamil, are the elite force of the LTTE. They are trained to hit high value targets through suicide attacks. Although the LTTE were not the first to employ suicide bombing, they have managed to turn it into a vicious art form. Highlighting the importance of Black Tigers for the LTTE cause, Prabhakaran stated: “With perseverance and sacrifice, Tamil Eelam can be achieved in 100 years. But if we conduct Black Tiger operations, we can shorten the suffering of the people and achieve Tamil Eelam in a shorter period of time.” [61]

The Black Tigers have the ability to attack land, sea, and air. The group pioneered the suicide jacket, a vest composed of several bombs for a suicide bomber to wear easily. They also pioneered the idea of hiding bombs inside the body. Victims of this group include a Sri Lankan President, the head of the Sri Lankan navy, a minister of national security, an opposition leader, and a former prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi.[62]

An important organizational trait of the LTTE is that each branch of the service is divided by gender and has a secondary gender based leadership under the operational control of the respective unit/Wing leader, but under the administrative control of the Women’s Wing leader.[63] Female emancipation seems to be the primary driving force for women to join the LTTE.

LTTE’s Objectives and Strategies

On 5 May 1976, Vellupillai Prabhakaran formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Nine days later came the Vaddukoddai Resolution, which called for “restoration and reconstitution of the Free Sovereign, Secular and Socialist State of Tamil Eelam based on the rights of self-determination inherent to every nation.”[64] The Vaddukoddai resolution was predicated on the notion that self-determination had become “inevitable in order to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil Nation in this country.”[65] Imbibing the underlying philosophy of the Vaddukoddai resolution, the LTTE’s primary goal has been the creation of a Tamil homeland for the Tamils of the northeast. According to Prabhakaran:

It is wrong to call our movement “separatist.” We are fighting for independence based on the right to national self-determination of our people. Our struggle is for self-determination for the restoration of our sovereignty in our homeland. We are not fighting for a division or a separation of a country but rather, we are fighting to uphold the sacred right to live in freedom and dignity. In this sense, we are freedom fighters not terrorists.[66]

He further told Pratap, the Indian journalist who interviewed him: “I named the movement ‘Liberation Tigers since the Tiger Emblem had deep roots in the political history of Tamils, symbolizing Tamil patriotic resurgence. The tiger symbol also depicts the mode of our guerrilla warfare.”[67] From a modest beginning in the early 1970s, LTTE today has over 10,000 hardcore cadres. Its overarching aim is to establish a separate Tamil state (Eelam) through armed struggle.

The Tigers’ strategy has four key components:

  1. Preparing for war in peacetime, in line with the Maoist doctrine of retreat and recuperate;
  2. Attempting to attain control over the Tamil struggle to gain legitimacy as the sole representative of Sri Lankan Tamils;
  3. Subordinating the political struggle to the military one. As a strategic process the LTTE has combined both war and politics; yet the war option has always prevailed over the political option.
  4. Combining guerrilla and conventional warfare tactics in battle.

LTTE’s armed struggle may be divided into six distinct phases. The first phase spanned the years 1983 to 1987. The second phase covered the years from 1987 till 1990. The third phase lasted from 1990 till 1994. The fourth phase of the war covered the years from 1995 till 2002. The fifth phase lasted from year 2002 till 2007. The sixth phase spans the period from 2007 till to date. Each of these phases has entailed significant changes in LTTE’s tactics, concentration of military activities, targets and the degree of its external support.

The first phase (1983-1987) witnessed highly intense military confrontations between half-a-dozen insurgent groups and the Sri Lankan armed forces. During this phase LTTE not only tried to develop itself into a highly motivated fighting organization of between 3,000 and 4,000 dedicated full-time cadres but also established an independent arms procurement and supply network by drawing on the growing global diaspora of Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates and refugees. During this phase LTTE received material and financial assistance from neighbouring India which “due to its geo-strategic interests, stepped up political, military and financial support for the Sri Lankan Tamil militants after the 1983 ethnic riots.”[68] Between 1983 and 1987, the Indian Intelligence Agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) trained “an estimated 1200 Tamils in the use of automatic and semiautomatic weapons, self-loading rifles, 84 mm rocket launchers, heavy weapons and in laying mines, map reading, guerrilla war, mountaineering, demolitions and anti-tank warfare.”[69] According to Rohan Gunaratna, a leading Sri Lankan expert on Tamil insurgency, by 1987 over 20,000 Sri Lankan Tamil insurgents were provided sanctuary, finance training and weapons either by central Indian government  state government of Tamil Nadu or by the insurgent groups themselves.”[70] According to a recent study, “Tamil Nadu became a military academy for Tamil militants, where they learnt guerrilla tactics ranging from hit-and-run to frogman warfare.”[71] In addition to acquiring guerrilla training and modernized weapons arsenal, the LTTE was able to set up communication facilities and to move freely between India and Sri Lanka.[72] As a result of the massive support it received from New Delhi, by 1986-1987, LTTE “clearly emerged as the dominant Tamil fighting force.”[73]

Drawing upon its superior dedication, organization, leadership, and tactical skills and partly because of its ruthless proficiency in killing rival groups, the LTTE managed to engage the Sri Lankan military decisively. Adopting an unconventional war strategy, the LTTE attempted to weaken the central government’s authority and restrict the movement of its security forces by staging ambushes and mine attacks. Responding to the  LTTE’s attempts to take over the civil administration in the “liberated areas” of the north and east, which was perceived as a “unilateral declaration of independence,” Colombo launched a massive military offensive along with the economic blockade. President Jayewardene declared that his government was determined to fight the militants until “either they win or we win,” and that his government would accept “help from the devil himself, if necessary to fight terrorism” by Tamil militants.[74]

During the second phase (1987-1990) the main focus of the LTTE’s armed struggle was to defeat the counterinsurgency operations launched by the 70,000 strong Indian peacekeeping forces which were invited by Colombo  as part of the July 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Agreement (IPSA). Under the terms of the ISPA, the government of India assumed exclusive responsibility for monitoring and enforcing compliance to the agreement. “If any military groups operating in Sri Lanka do not accept this framework of proposals for a settlement,” the agreement stated, India “will take all necessary steps to insure that Indian territory is not used for activities prejudicial to the unity, integrity and security of Sri Lanka.”[75] In the agreement and ancillary documents concrete measures to this effect were specified. These included collaboration between the Indian and Sri Lankan navies and coast guards to interdict guerrilla movements between Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka, deportation by the Indian government of Sri Lankan citizens [on Indian soil] involved in terrorist activities or advocating secessionism, and even more remarkably, ISPA decreed that all Tamil guerrillas would have to surrender all weapons in their possession to specially designated Sri Lankan authorities within seventy-two hours of the signing of ISPA. In return, the Sinhalese President would grant a general amnesty to all Tamil fighters and to all Tamil political prisoners incarcerated in Sri Lankan jails and his government would “make special efforts to rehabilitate militant youth with a view to bringing them back into the mainstream of national life.”[76] Finally, the Sri Lankan army and other security forces would revert to their pre-May offensive positions and be confined to their barracks for an unspecified time frame. How favorable ISPA was for Colombo can easily be seen in the following remark made by President Junius Jayewardene: “the major gain [of the government side from the ISPA] is that [Tamil] terrorism is over….India is [now] willing to tackle this terrorist problem as an active partner with me…Earlier, they were training the terrorists.”[77] Given the pro-Colombo bias of ISPA, LTTE’s supreme leader, Prabhakaran, proclaimed that “a working arrangement has to be made on the ground that will insure the safety and security of the Tamils. Unless that working arrangement is established, the question of the LTTE disarming does not arise. It is better to fight and die than surrender the weapons in an insecure environment and die on a mass scale.”[78] Three months after an uneasy peace, Prabhakaran declared war on the Indian peace-keeping force. Defending its decision, the LTTE said that the “Indo-Sri Lankan Accord fails to situate the essence and mode of our struggle as a liberation struggle, as a struggle for self-determination. Instead the Accord places our national struggle entirely on a fallacious promise reducing it to a simple problem of a discriminated minority group in a pluralistic social formation.”[79] The LTTE lost 711 of its members confronting the Indian forces, but membership in the Tiger movement more than tripled between 1987 and 1990, with almost 10,000 fighter mobilized by the time of the Indian withdrawal in March 1990. LTTE fighters moved rapidly to establish their control over the north and the east in the wake of the Indian pull out. By April 1990, the entire northeastern region came under LTTE administration. During this phase the LTTE also augmented its military capability as it “surreptitiously received weapons and supplies to fight the Indians from their old enemy, the Sri Lankan armed forces, under orders from the Premdasa government….and also captured large quantities of arms and ammunitions left by the Indians to their Tamil collaborator militias, who collapsed and disintegrated virtually without a fight as the Indian Peacekeeping Forces (IPKF) withdrew.”[80]

The de-induction of Indian troops marked the renewal of fighting between the LTTE and the Sri Lanka armed forces, initiating the third phase (1990-1995) of conflict in which the LTTE engaged in a series of set-piece battles and hit-and-run operations to maintain its control over the north while ceding control to the government forces of territories in the east. The assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 by an LTTE female suicide bomber led to an Indian ban on LTTE as a terrorist organization. On 1 May 1993 an LTTE suicide squad assassinated the Sri Lanka President Premdasa. His slaying brought Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to power. She pledged a new deal to the Tamils to end the ethnic conflict once and for all. In August 1994, she extended her “hand of friendship” to the LTTE and in a message to the nation declared that she “would build a society without any discrimination where all the minority communities would enjoy equal rights as equal citizens.”[81] From 1994-1995, the Chandrika government held four rounds of talk with the LTTE but these foundered on the rock of the latter’s unwillingness to budge from its declared aim of the creation of Tamil Eelam.

In April 1995, the LTTE blew up two Sri Lankan navy gunboats in the Trincomalee harbor which marked the collapse of negotiations and the failure of Chandrika peace offensive, plunging the country into the fourth phase of armed conflict. Using the 100-day truce for “fresh recruitments, training, re-grouping and planning,”[82] the LTTE intensified its military campaign against the Sri Lankan government by launching a four-pronged attack against government troops stationed in Manditivu Island which left 100 soldiers dead.[83] President Kumaratunga responded to the LTTE military offensive by stating “If peace cannot be achieved by peaceful means, we will resort to any means to restore it.”[84] Characterizing the LTTE as an “impeccable enemy of the peace process,” the government launched a series of military offensives – Operational Leap Forward, Operation Thunder Strike, and a three-pronged Operation code named “Riviresa” (Sun Rise) which resulted in the government forces taking control of Jaffna in December 1995.[85] The loss of Jaffna, besides resulting in a large-scale dislocation of LTTE men and machinery, forced the organization to shift its headquarters to Mullaitivu and Killionchchi. With territorial gains as its key objective, the LTTE returned to long drawn guerrilla warfare. In 1996, it repulsed an attack on Mullaitivu military camps in which 1400 Sri Lankan soldiers were killed. From 1996-1999, the LTTE escalated suicide bombings which included a suicide attack on President Kumaratunga in December 1999.  The other major suicide attacks were on the Central Bank in Colombo,  the World Trade Centre, and the holy Buddhist temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy.  In April 2000, the LTTE captured the strategic Elephant Pass and positioned itself to take the town of Jaffna and the air and naval bases at Palaley and Kaneksanthurai respectively. In line with its strategy of talking peace from a position of strength, the LTTE declared a unilateral cease-fire on 24 December 2000 and renewed it every month until April 2001. The parliamentary elections held in October 2001, brought to power the United National Front led by Ranil Wickremasinghe. Consistent with his electoral pledge to hold peace talks with the LTTE, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe proposed a ceasefire which was to be followed by a political solution to the ethnic problem. The LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government signed the Cease-fire Agreement (CFA) in February 2002 which was brokered by Norway. Valid for an “indefinite period,” the CFA called for a federal solution to the crisis in Sri Lanka with the creation of a semi-autonomous province under the control of the Tamil leadership. The CFA also had several important provisions relating to the cessation of military operations and confidence-building measures.

The conclusion of the CFA initiated the fifth phase of ethnic war characterized by deepening international engagement aimed at giving elusive peace a chance. Norway was named mediator, and it was decided that they, together with the other Nordic countries, monitor the ceasefire through a committee of experts named the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). Peace talks began in Phuket, Thailand, on the 16 September and additional rounds followed in Phuket, Norway and Berlin. The issues covered during these talks included: prisoners of war (POW), child recruitment, disarmament of the LTTE, looking at Federation as an option, human rights violations, de-mining, continued violence and resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons. The six rounds of talks were marked by tensions over continuing incidents of violence, differences over key issues of de-escalation and the removal of High Security Zones (HSZs). As a result of these talks, both sides agreed to the principle of a federal solution and the LTTE dropped its long standing demand for a separate state.[86]

The advent to power of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the head of a Sinhalese coalition in November 2005 that promised to revisit the terms of the CFA between the government and the LTTE led to marked escalation of armed violence on both sides and put the country on the warpath again. Having remained in force for over six years and having witnessed countless violations[87] of its key provisions by both sides, the CFA was unilaterally abrogated by the Sri Lankan government in January 2008.

The annulment of CFA marked Sri Lanka’s plunge into a full-scale war with government forces managing to drive out the LTTE from the east and going on the military offensive in the north. As a consequence of military offensive launched by the  government forces prior to the annulment of the CFA, over 1000 LTTE cadres have been killed including former political wing head, Parami Tamilselvan and Shanmuganathan Ravishankar, alias, Charles, head of the LTTE’s intelligence apparatus. According to data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, the LTTE has lost 4, 318 cadres since 1 January 2008 which is significantly greater than the 3,345 cadres it lost over the whole of 2007 and 2,319 fatalities in 2006.[88] These enormous manpower losses, coupled with the deleterious effects of the split caused by Col. Karuna’s defection in March 2004 and the banning of the LTTE as a terrorist entity by many countries including the United States, EU and UK have raised doubts about the ability of the LTTE to survive as a cohesive military force and have undermined its claim to be the sole representative of the Tamil people.


The LTTE’s unrelenting armed struggle for a homeland for the Tamil people over the past three decades has witnessed many setbacks but these reverses have failed to dissuade its leadership and the 10,000 strong cadres from thinking and acting like a state. As perceptively noted by Jayadeva Uyangoda, “In the LTTE thinking, war-making has fundamentally been a process of state-making for the Tamil nation.”[89] Caught in this “quasi-state” trap, the LTTE has found it impossible to forgo its claim to be treated as a political co-equal of the Sri Lankan State. This effort by the LTTE at potential state-making primarily through military means seems to have become an untenable proposition in the face of the heavy military losses inflicted on it by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the past few months.[90] The LTTE’s state-making project has suffered a huge setback with the virtual elimination of its presence from the Eastern Province and the evident erosion of some of the public support for its ongoing military campaigns. Emboldened by the territorial gains made by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the East, the Army Chief Sarath Fonseka on 9 February 2008 declared, “LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran should realize that he cannot go ahead with his military campaign. They have no option other than to give up their struggle and enter the political mainstream.” [91] In the same vein, President Mahinda Rajapakse stated on 12 June 2008 that his government would not resume peace talks with the Tigers until the organization agreed to disarm.[92]

The elevation of the Thamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TVMP) leader, Sivanesthurai Chandrakantham alias Pillayan, to the position of Eastern Provincial Chief Minister following the May 2008 Eastern Provincial Council elections that were boycotted by the LTTE and its allies should also be a cause for grave concern for the LTTE. The installation of the breakaway former LTTE leader as Chief Minister means that the Sri Lankan government will not only maintain military control over the east but would also accelerate its effort to weaken the LTTE’s administrative grip over the areas under its control. By devolving powers over police and land to the Eastern Provincial Council for the first time ever, the Sri Lankan government has not only made it easier for the TVMP to reinvent and legitimize itself as a “democratic force” but has also given it the opportunity to transform its armed units into a legitimate police force and also “reassure the Tamil people that their fear of government sponsored Sinhalese settlements in the north and east will be less likely in the future.”[93] The empowering of TVMP, the arch-rival of LTTE, essentially means that the latter will come under increasing political pressure by the Tamil community to dilute its demand for a separate Tamil state and negotiate for a greater power and rights for the Tamil people. Yet, deviating from its state-making project is not an option for LTTE. Faced with this existential challenge, the LTTE will continue to wage armed struggle in the belief that the war for Tamil Eelam cannot be carried forward without popular backing and such support can only be garnered through persistent acts of violence against the Sinhalese government. Sustaining Tamil public support for armed struggle which, in a transformed world based on  the global  war on terror, seems to be a self-defeating proposition and  is the greatest challenge facing the LTTE in the times ahead.

Syed Rifaat Hussain is Professor of Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad and a former Executive Director, Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS), Colombo, Sri Lanka. He can be reached at The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect his institutional affiliation.

[1] George P. Shultz and Coit Blacker, Preventive Force: Issues for Discussion (Gottenba, Japan: May 2008), pp. 13-14. The enabling influence of globalization on terrorism is well noted by Tom Farer: “For Al Qaeda and its ideological off-springs have arrived, not by chance, coincident with the integration of national economies into a global economic order vitally dependent on transportation and communications networks vulnerable to catastrophic attacks by militants able to access the very instrumentalities and technologies that have made integration possible.” Tom Farer, Confronting Global Terrorism and American Neo-Conservatism: The Framework of a Liberal Grand Strategy (London: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 2.

[2] Richard H. Shultz, Douglas Farah, Itamarah V. Lochard, Armed Groups: A Tier-one Security Problem (Colorado: USAF Institute for National Security Studies, 2004).

[3] Monty Marshall and Ted Robert Gurr, Peace and Conflict, 2003 (College Park, MD: Centre for International Development and Conflict Management, 2003), p. 1 and 15.

[4] Chester Crocker, “Engaging failing states,” Foreign Affairs (September/October 2003): 34-35.

[5] Introduction in Marianne Heiberg, Brendan O’ Leary and John Tirman, eds. Terror, Insurgency, and the State: Ending Protracted Conflicts (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), p.  7

[6] Tom Farer, Confronting Global Terrorism and American Neo-Conservatism: The Framework of a Liberal Grand Strategy (London: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 18-19

[7] Jayadeva Uyangoda, Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Changing Dynamics, Policy Studies 32 (Washington: East-West Center, 2007), p. 42.

[8] Louise Richardson, What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Terrorist Threat (London: John Murray, 2006), p.138-9.

[9] Reporter, 1986. Vellupillai Pirapaharan’s Interview, The Week, March 3, 1986.

[10] T. Sabaratnum, Pirapaharan downloaded from internet on May 5, 2008. Available at

[11] Sugeeswara Senadhira, “Suicide Bombings: The Case of Sri Lanka,” in Security and Terrorism: Suicide  Bombing Operations, Issue No. 5 (March 2007), p. 32

[12] Ibid.,

[13] Neloufer de Mel, Militarizing Sri Lanka: Popular Culture, Memory and Narrative in the Armed Conflict (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2007), p. 194.

[14] Sugeeswara Senadhira, op. cit. p. 34

[15]Neloufer de Mel, op. cit. p. 194.

[16] Sugeeswara Senadhira, op.cit. p. 33.

[17] LTTE participated in the following peace talks: 1985 Thimpu Talks, 1989-1990 Premdasa-LTTE talks, 1994-95 Kumaratunga-LTTE talks and 2001-2002 Cease Fire Agreement brokered by Norway. For an excellent analysis of internal and external factors which prompted LTTE to come to the negotiating table  for talks with the Sri Lankan government  see Pushpa Iyer, Coming to the Table: Decisions and Decision-Making in a Non-State Armed Group, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, (Ph.D Dissertation) (Fairfax, Virginia: George Mason University, September 2007).

[18] Theories of norm socialization based on constructivist philosophy hold that ideational forces are an important determinant of human behaviour.  One of the important ways to detect the impact of norms on behaviour is to examine the discourse of norm breakers or violators. By examining shifts in rhetoric or discourse of the entities under observation, one can gain important clues to behavior change. However, a significant limitation of the theories of norm socialization is their predominantly state-centric focus which leads them to ignore the important issue of the impact of norms on non-state actors especially VNSAs. As a result the question of their socialization into norms remains understudied and under theorized. For a good summary of the first wave of norm socialization literature see M. Finnemore and K. Sikking, “International Norms Dynamics and Political Change,” International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Winter 1998): 887-917.

[19] Deepa Prakash, Bombs and Bombast: Counter Terrorism Norms and Discourse of the LTTE (Unpublished Paper, 2007), p. 6.

[20] Niloufer de Mel, op.cit, pp. 32-33.

[21] N Manoharan, Democratic Dilemma: Ethnic Violence and Human Rights in Sri Lanka (New Delhi: SAMSKRITI, 2008), p.45.

[22] S.W.R. de A. Samarasinghe, “The Dynamism of Separatism: The Case of Sri Lanka”, in Ralph R. Premdas, S. W. R. de A. Samarasinghe and Alan. B. Anderson, eds., Secessionist Movements in Comparative Perspective (ICES and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung: London, Pinter Publisher, 1990), p. 51

[23] Robert I Rotberg, Creating Peace in Sri Lanka: Civil War and Reconciliation, (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 1999), p. 19

[24] Atvar Singh Bhasin, India in Sri Lanka Between Lion and Tigers (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004), p.28.

[25] Lionel Guruge, eds. Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Problem And Solutions (Colombo: Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2006), p. 24

[26] The term “colonization” refers to state-sponsored settlement schemes built around irrigation schemes that were perceived by the Tamils as an encroachment into the “traditional homeland” in the North-East aimed at changing the demographic composition.  In rural Sri Lanka, land is a primary economic asset as well as an important basis of social and political mobilization. Since State is the primary owner of land resources in the country, the political leadership of Independent Sri Lanka identified land irrigation development in the sparsely populated Dry Zone and settlement of excess population from the rest of the country in newly developed colonization as major tasks to be attended to. The Tamils became increasingly concerned over the disproportionate benefits of such schemes being given to the majority ethnic group and its adverse implications for ethnic balance and ethnic relations in the affected areas as well as the safety of minority communities.  For an excellent discussion of the land issue as driver of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka see Shahul H. Hasbullah, P. Balasundarampillai, Kallinga Tudor Silva, Addressing Root Causes of the Conflict: Land Problems in North East Sri Lanka (Colombo: Foundation for Coexistence,  2005).

[27] K.M. de Silva, A History of Sri Lanka (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 530.

[28] Brendan O’ Duffy, “LTTE: Majoritarianism, Self-Determination, and Military-to-Political Transition in Sri Lanka,” in Marianne Heiberg, Brendan O’ Leary, and John Tirman, eds. Terror, Insurgency, and the State: Ending Protracted Conflicts (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), p. 260.

[29] S.J.V. Chelvanyakam won the Kanesanthruai by election in February 1975 and after winning the elections made the following statement favoring separatism: “We have for the last 25 years made every effort to secure our political rights on the basis of equality with the Sinhalese in a united Ceylon…It is a regrettable fact that successive Sinhalese governments have used the power that flows from independence to deny us our fundamental rights and reduce us to the position of a subject people…I wish to announce to my people and to the country that I consider the verdict at this election as a mandate that the Tamil Eelam nation should exercise the sovereignty already vested in the Tamil people to become free.” Quoted in Devanesan Nesiah, “The claim to self-determination: a Sri Lankan Tamil Perspective,” Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 10, No. 1 (March 2001), p. 62

[30] The Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP, or People’s Liberation Front), a left-wing, mainly Sinhalese group headed by Rohana Wijeweera, launched in 1971 an armed insurrection to seize power in Colombo. Hundreds of JVP cadres, both boys and girls, attacked ninety-three police stations between the 5th and 11th of April but were able to capture only five using mostly home-made weapons.  The insurrection was brutally suppressed by the Sri Lankan government. More than 10,000 youth died in the failed armed insurrection.

[31] As pointed out by Balasingham, persistent frustration led Tamil Youth “to abandon the Gandhian doctrine of ahimsa which they realized was irreconcilable with revolutionary political practice….Confronted with a political vacuum and caught up in a revolutionary situation created by the concrete conditions of intolerable national oppression, the Tamil youth sought desperately to create a revolutionary political organization to advance the task of national liberation” Anton Balasingham, Liberation Tigers and Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle (Madras: Political Committee of LTTE, 1983), pp. 23-25.

[32] Apratim Mukarji, Sri Lanka: A Dangerous Interlude (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2005), p. 146.

[33] Devanesan Nesiah, “The claim to self-determination: a Sri Lankan Tamil Perspective,” Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 10 No. 1 (March 2001), p. 62

[34] Brendan O’ Duffy, “LTTE: Majoritarianism, Self-Determination, and Military-to-Political Transition in Sri Lanka,” in Marianne Heiberg, Brendan O’ Leary, and John Tirman, eds. Terror, Insurgency, and the State: Ending Protracted Conflicts (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), p. 261

[35] Ibid.,

[36] Jagath P. Senaratne, “Reflections on the Secessionist Insurrection in Sri Lanka: Consequences for Sri Lanka, and Lessons for the International Community,” in Sridhar K. Khatri and Gerth W. Kueck, eds. Terrorism in South Asia: Impact on Development and Democratic Process (New Delhi: Shipra Publications, 2003), p. 256.

[37] Harkirat Singh, Intervention in Sri Lanka: The IPKF Experience Retold (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2006), p. 21 and 151.

[38] Ibid. p. 151

[39] M. R. Narayan Swamy, Tigers of Lanka: From Boys to Guerrillas (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004), p. 56.

[40] Shaheen Akhter, Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Domestic, Regional and International Linkages (1983-1993) (Unpublished Ph. D Dissertation: Islamabad: Department of International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, 2007), p.107

[41] M. R. Narayan Swamy, op.cit. p. 24

[42] Harkirat Singh, Intervention in Sri Lanka: The IPKF Experience Retold (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2006), p. 20

[43] Nesiah Devanesan, “The claim to self-determination: a Sri Lankan Tamil perspective,” Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 10, No. 1 (March 2001), p. 64

[44] Jagath P. Senaratne, “Reflections on the Secessionist Insurrection in Sri Lanka: Consequences for Sri Lanka, and Lessons for the International Community,” op.cit. p. 256.

[45] Commenting on the Sri Lankan  government’s role in the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, Neil Devotta writes: “The 1983 riots thus saw every major institution in the country fail to live up to its obligations and responsibilities to protect its minority citizens; on the contrary, those institutions representing the state apparatus coalesced to attack the Tamils.” P. Sahadevan, Neil Devotta, Politics of Conflict and Peace in Sri Lanka (New Delhi: Manak Publications, 2006), p. 21.

[46] M.R.Narayan Swamy, op. cit. p. 96.

[47] N. Manoharan, Democratic Dilemma: Ethnic Violence and Human Rights in Sri Lanka (New Delhi: Samskriti, 2008), p.83.

[48] N. Manoharan, Counterterrorism Legislation in Sri Lanka, Policy Studies 28 (Washington: East-West Centre 2006), p. 18.

[49] P. Sahadevan and Neil Devotta, op.cit. p. 320-321.

[50] Ibid., p. 321

[51] The Army can be further broken down into 4 main Brigades (known as Padaipirivu with strength around 1,200 persons each) which are used for more conventional warfare. The Brigades consist of the Charles Anthony Padaipirivu, the Jeyanthan Padaipirivu, the Vithusha Padaipirivu, and the Leopards Padaipirivu. The Charles Anthony Padaipirivu is considered the first conventional fighting formation of the LTTE. This unit, which was created 18 years ago, is responsible for Prabhakaran’s safety; though it also participate heavily in major operations. It is composed of Tamils from the north known for their loyalty to him. The Jeyanthan Padaipirivu (created in 1993) employs both guerilla attacks and conventional warfare in achieving their goals. The Vithusha Padaipirivu, or Women’s wing, is composed of the Malathy Brigade, the Sothiya Brigade, the Kutti Sri Mortar Brigade, the female portion of the Sea Tigers, and the members within the Black Tigers. The Malthay brigade is commanded by Col. Vithusha and acts as a regular fighting unit. The Sothiya Brigade is also a regular fighting unit. The Kutti Sri Mortar Brigade is the main artillery unit for the LTTE. The Leopard Brigade (also known as ‘Chriithaigal”) is known as the fiercest fighting unit within the LTTE. This unit includes experienced cadres from other LTTE formations as well as youth from LTTE managed orphanages who are given the extensive training. The Leopards are best known for spearheading the Katunayake airbase attack in 2001 which nearly decimated Sri Lankan Air Force. This information draws heavily upon Elizabeth Marsh, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam: Structure and Attacks (Unpublished Paper, November 2, 2006), pp. 3-4.

[52] Shaheen Akhter, op.cit., p. 271

[53] Channa Wickremesekra, “Peace through military parity? The Tamil Tigers and the Government Forces in Sri Lanka,” in Daniel P. Marson et al. eds. A Military History of India and South Asia: From the East India Company to the Nuclear Era (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), p.182

[54] Shaheen Akhter, op. cit., p. 272

[55] Channa Wickremesekra, “Peace through military parity? The Tamil Tigers and the Government Forces in Sri Lanka,” op.cit.

[56] “The Tiger Air Force” Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre Briefing March 29, 2007.

[57] Ibid.,

[58] Iqbal Athas, “LTTE’s second air attack kills six,” Janes’s Defense Weekly, May 2, 2007.

[59] Garth Jennings and Craig Caffrey, “Sri Lankan Air force confirms loss of eight aircraft following the LTTE attack,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, October 31, 2007.

[60] Iqbal Athas, “Sri Lanka bolsters air defences,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, May 16, 2007.

[61] Rohan Gunaratna, “The LTTE Suicide Terrorism”, Frontline, Chennai, Vol. 17, No 3 (February 2000).

[62] Perry, Alex “How Sri Lanka’s Rebels Build a Suicide Bomber” Time Magazine. May 12, 2006,8599,1193862,00.html/

[63] A. Gunawardena, Suicide Terrorism: Is there a Counter? LTTE ‘Black Tigers’ –

The Sri Lankan Experience, (M.Sc Dissertation, University of Leicester, 2003), p. 16.

[64] For the text of the Vaddukoddai Resolution see http://www.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Anita Pratap, “If Jayawardene was True Buddhist, I would not be carrying a gun,” Sunday, 11-17 March 1984.

[67] Ibid.,

[68] Shaheen Akhter, op. cit., p. 306

[69] Ibid.

[70] Rohan Gunaratna and Arabinda Acharya, “India’s Role in Ethnic Crisis in Sri Lanka,” in M.B. I. Munshi, ed. The India Doctrine (Dhaka: Bangladesh Research Forum, 2006), pp. 270-71.

[71] Shaheen Akhter, op. cit., p 309.

[72] Rohan Gunaratna and Arabinda Acharya, op. cit. p. 271.

[73] Sumantra Bose, “Flawed Mediation, Chaotic Implementation: The 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Agreement,” in John Stedman, Donald Rothchild and Elizabeth M. Cousens, eds. Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements (Boulder, Co.: Lynne Reiner Publishers, 2003), p. 634.

[74] Quoted in Rohan Gunaratna and Arabinda Acharya, op. cit. p. 274

[75] Ibid. p. 641.

[76] Sumantra Bose, “Flawed Mediation, Chaotic Implementation: The 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Agreement,” op.cit. p. 643.

[77] Ibid. p. 644

[78] M. R. Narayan Swamy, op. cit, p.252

[79] Quoted in Rohan Gunaratna and Arabinda Acharya, op. cit. p. 275

[80] Sumantra Bose, “Flawed Mediation, Chaotic Implementation: The 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Agreement,” in Stephen Stedman, op. cit. p.  653.

[81] Avta Singh Bhasin, op.cit. p. 266

[82] Shaheen Akhter, op.cit. p. 454.

[83] Ibid.,

[84] Amit Baruah, “Back to war: The Jaffna Offensive”, Frontline, 28 July 1995.

[85] Shaheen Akhter, op.cit. p. 454.

[86] On October 31, 2003 the LTTE put forward The Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) proposal as a solution to end the war. The ISGA proposal suggested that an interim administration would be led by the LTTE giving them powers over development, reconstruction, resettlement, raising and disbursing revenues, trade, foreign aid, natural resources, land issues and administrative structures. The government rejected the document and refused to use it as a base for further discussions.

[87] Violations to the ceasefire agreement included, among others, the non-disarmament of the para-military groups by the government, continued child recruitment by the LTTE, human rights violations, such as abductions and harassment, and political killings. According to the SLMM website there were 4173 violations up until the end of 2006.  Of these the LTTE was responsible for 3827 and the government of Sri Lanka for 346 violations. Justifying Colombo’s decision to abrogate the Cease fire Agreement, Government’s Defence Spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, claimed that the “LTTE had violated the Ceasefire Agreement more than 10,000 times since it was signed in February 2002.” He went on to state that the “the atrocities and terror tactics that the LTTE used on the civilians has not stopped. They made an agreement with the CFA, but underhand they continuously practiced violence and so we simply did not see the point in continuing the ceasefire.” Lanka Paranamanna, “LTTE violate CFA 10,000 times: Rambukwella” The Nation, January 6, 2008.

[88] Ajit Kumar Singh, “Locked in Carnage,” South Asia Intelligence Review, Vol. 6, No. 49 (June 16, 2008) p. 3.

[89] Jayadeva Uyangoda, Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Changing Dynamics Policy Studies 32 (Washington: East-West Center, 2007), p. 40.

[90] Apart from losing cadres in large numbers in battle against the Army’s ground forces, the LTTE has suffered severe material damage inflicted by more than 50 air raids carried out by the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) in 2008, which targeted the outfit’s communication centres, training centres, and military bases often visited by senior leaders in the LTTE’s last citadels in the Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi Districts. See Ajit Kumar Singh, “LTTE: Rising Desperation,” South Asia Intelligence Review, Vol. 6, No. 43 (May 25, 2008). P. 2. Available at

[91] Ibid.

[92] “When they are weak they call on the international community to arrange a ceasefire. During this period they train and rearm and then fight back. This time if they want to talk, they should disarm first,” President Mahinda Rajapakse said. He went on to add: “This man (Prabhakaran) and the three or four henchmen surrounding him are blood-thirsty killers. They have no feelings. It is very difficult to deal with them.” Quoted in Ajit Kumar Singh, “Locke in Carnage,” South Asia Intelligence Review, Vol. 6, No. 49 (June 16, 2008), p. 3

[93] Jehan Perera, “Pillayan success may pave the way for future LTTE entry,” Daily Mirror May 20, 2008. A9


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