The Tamil Tigers, officially known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, concentrate operations predominantly in Sri Lanka with the goal of achieving a separate state for the majority Tamil regions located in north and east Sri Lanka.
The rebel group gains much of its internal support from the Tamil agricultural workers and dislocated Tamil youths. Tamil Tiger operations have targeted both military and political objectives since the early 1970s. The United States, the European union, Canada, and India all consider the Tamil Tigers a terrorist organization. Under the leadership of its founder, Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE argues that they are freedom fighters.
Until the 1970s the Tamils insisted upon autonomy but did not resort to violent methods. After a long period of attempts to negotiate, Tamils adopted the belief that the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government was unwilling to negotiate. A number of militant organizations were created—including the New Tamil Tigers and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In 1979 the LTTE began a campaign of attacking military targets, including a July 1983 killing of 16 army soldiers that led to the killing of thousands of Tamil civilians. In response to the violence, LTTE membership dramatically increased. By 1984 the LTTE had begun higher intensity attacks and created a naval unit called the Sea Tigers. In 1987 a special elite unit of LTTE members known as the Black Tigers was formed. By 2001 the LTTE inexplicably dropped its call for a separate Tamil state and reduced its demands to regional autonomy. Norway negotiated a cease-fire, which as of mid-2006 was tenuous at best. In the summer of 2006 calls for a “Final War” for Tamil Eelam independence emerged.
The LTTE, in addition to its military activities, provides a host of government services. The LTTE’s de facto government funds schools, hospitals, police stations, courts, and other municipal services. The LTTE informal government operates under the precepts of socialism. The LTTE also has a political wing, the Tamil National Alliance, although formal attempts have not been made by the LTTE to create political parties.
External support for the Tamil Tigers has come from a number of Indian regimes. That support ended with a LTTE associate’s assassination of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. In addition the international arms of the Tamil Tigers, located in London and Paris, have facilitated a number of purchases of weaponry. Funding for activities originates in expatriate Tamil communities in the West. Other fund-raising activities include extortion and illegal trade as well as legitimate business fronts and charities. Many terror analysts note that part of the Tamil network includes cargo ships. This has prompted concerns over the use of the fleet in terror operations.
Very few Tamil rebels are captured alive. This is because of a rigorous training regime that includes political indoctrination emphasizing the importance of not being captured. Hence Tamil recruits typically wear a capsule of cyanide around their necks and are encouraged to commit suicide rather than face capture. In addition, the LTTE were one of the first modern terrorist groups to encourage suicide bombings. Much has also been written concerning the LTTE practice of recruiting children to fight in the rebellion. The rebel organization has participated in both a conventional war and attacks targeting civilians. The Tamil Tigers have also been accused of ethnic cleansing. Specifically, the Tamil Tigers attempted to remove all non-Tamil residents from the Tamil state of Jaffna in 1990.
Matthew H. Wahlert