Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was a Tamil insurgency and terrorist group, which fought for an independent state of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. LTTE was founded in 1976, and since 1983 was engaged in a civil war with government forces. The civil war between LTTE and Sri Lanka government lasted for 26 years and claimed approximately 60,000 human lives (Human Rights Watch, 2006, p. 1). The rise of LTTE movement started with ethnical conflict, based on Sinhalese discrimination of Tamil ethnic minority. Underrepresentation of Tamil minority in the government as well as social exclusion from Sri Lankan community resulted in a bloody insurgency of LTTE (Flynn, 2011, pp. 7-8). The lack of political opportunities caused the formation of hardliners who sought independence of Tamil by undemocratic means. LTTE evolved during 33 years of their existence and formed a complex structure which resisted Sinhalese domination in all possible spheres of influence on the territory of indigenous Tamil (northern and eastern regions). The research presentation will review LTTE’s activities, structure, and factors that contributed to its consideration as a terrorist group.
The emergence of LTTE and its structure
The history of insurgent movement in Sri Lanka dates back to 1975 when semi-criminal organization Tamil New Tigers emerged. It was reaction on Tamil United Front’s failure in establishing a legal political party due to Sinhalese domination in the government. The arrest of Tamil New Tiger’s leader Chetti Thanabalsingham resulted in Velupillai Prabhakaran’s taking control over the militant group. In 1976 Tamil New Tigers were renamed to LTTE. Under Velupillai Prabhakaran LTTE emerged as a new power, which consolidated diverse population of Tamils (Flynn, 2011, pp. 11-12).
Over the next 26 years LTTE fought the Sri Lankan government conducting guerrilla war, suicidal bombings, assassinations of Sri Lankan leaders, and recruiting new people. The government’s weak response enabled LTTE to create a mass organization with a complex structure. Formally, the organization had a political and a military wing, but in practice it is difficult to make such a distinction. Vividly visible failure of the political wing of the LTTE is that, despite the conclusion of the armistice in 2002, the LTTE did not make attempt to form a political party (South Asia Terrorism Portal).
The military wing consisted of the following units:
• Sea Tigers (the LTTE’s fleet consisted of several midget submarines, 200 to 500 speed boats with a fiberglass body as well as naval mines of various types, self-propelled underwater vehicles, coastal radar stations, and a dozen cargo ships registered in various ports around the world. LTTE’s fleet considerably surpassed regular Sri Lankan Navy, which made it difficult to diminish LTTE’s military force on the occupied coastal line);
• Air Tigers (although consisted of several light aircrafts, this is the first case in history where a recognized terrorist organization had its own Army Air Forces);
• Black Tigers (a division of suicide bombings, which organized terrorist attacks for the political, economic and military purposes). LTTE was the first organization that used "suicide belts");
• Regular and elite military units, air defense units, communication and intelligence services.
The number of LTTE members cannot be estimated precisely due to its complex structure and lack of data about children, guerilla fighters and women recruits. According to some estimates, LTTE’s membership before truce with Sri Lankan Government (2002) numbered 8 to 10 thousand fighters. Right after the truce LTTE started to recruit more fighters compulsory and by the end of 2002 had more than 16,000 members. The number of women involved to LTTE varies around 1/3 of the total number of fighters. LTTE is also notoriously known for unprecedented exploitation of children on the battlefield (South Asia Terrorism Portal). The recruitment process involves harsh indoctrination and training. All members of LTTE must be devoted to Prabhakaran’s noble cause – to free Tamil from Sinhalese oppression. LTTE can be characterized as an authoritarian organization (with Prabhakaran as a permanent leader) with non-rigid vertical control (relative autonomy of the individual battle groups).
Since 1983 LTTE launched operations against government forces in Sri Lanka, gradually taking more scope. By the summer of 1987 LTTE’s leaders moved to the implementation of an integrated strategy that combined the basic elements of guerrilla warfare and terror tactics. The growing military and technical capabilities of LTTE were provided by mercenaries from India, South Africa, Canada, Norway and the UK. It is obvious that conducting terrorist attacks and sustaining fleet, air force and regular army requires much funds. At this point Sri Lanka with Singhalese domination was not the best place to acquire funds. Therefore, the LTTE’s structure spreads beyond Sri Lanka. Many Tamils fled country due to safety reasons, although remained loyal to LTTE’s movement. According to Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense, Tamil’s diaspora number more than 1 million people worldwide, out of which 10% of Tamils supported LTTE (Ministry of Defense and Urban Development Sri Lanka, pp. 2-3).
According to Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense, LTTE created a network which covered 48 countries (Ministry of Defense and Urban Development Sri Lanka, p. 3). This enabled LTTE to collect money from all over the world and sustain all organizational cells. Those members of Tamil diaspora who criticized LTTE were severely persecuted so that organization could receive steady inflow of money from diaspora. When the inflow was not sufficient LTTE organized “fundraisings” in the other countries, represented by Tamil diaspora. Basically LTTE put additional pressure on members of diaspora using violence or threatening to family members. Each family had to pay certain fee for the sake of LTTE weekly; sometimes collectors visited them more than once a week. LTTE’s extortion reached so far that people had to sell their homes to pay contributions on time (Human Rights Watch, 2006, pp. 1-3). Although many Tamils in Sri Lanka and abroad supported LTTE, they were scared about their safety and distanced themselves from LTTE later on.
There were also alternative sources of LTTE’s funding, as by that time LTTE was recognized as a terrorist organization and countries with Tamil diasporas tried to monitor their activities. According to FBI’s official website, there were many cases when rich people donated huge amounts of money or purchased weapons and equipment for the military needs of LTTE. For example, Thiruthanikan Thanigasalam and Sahilal Sabaratnam were sentenced to 25 years in prison for buying and trying to forward to LTTE armaments worth over $1 million (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2010). Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense also claims that LTTE was involved in human smuggling, sea piracy, passport forgery, drug trafficking, and arms smuggling which increased the LTTE’s income significantly. The combination of the three factors of funding created contributed to LTTE’s sustainability significantly (Ministry of Defense and Urban Development Sri Lanka, pp. 7-9).
Terrorists or fighters for independence?
LTTE was defined as a terrorist group by the governments of Canada, Australia, EU, USA, Malaysia, UK, India etc. This research presentation will not treat this fact as granted and will evaluate LTTE’s actions from the positions of terrorists and nationalists. First of all it is necessary to mention that there are no terrorist organizations with similar to LTTE structure and range of activities. LTTE controlled Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka and functioned according to its leader’s directions. LTTE controlled social and political life of Tamil population and substituted national institutions on the controlled territory. It conducted both terrorist actions as well as guerilla war with Sri Lankan regular military forces. Alex Schmid, trying to conceptualize differences between terrorism and warfare, comes to conclusion that organization like LTTE can be considered military only if adheres rules of the war (Schmid, 2004, p. 203). Terrorists, on the contrary, completely disregard international principles of humanity mentioned in Hague Regulations and Geneva Conventions. LTTE was also involved into illicit activities which make it look like a criminal organization rather than liberating. Another factor which makes LTTE a terrorist organization was severe exploitation of children and women. Trying to consolidate its influence in the region LTTE conducted mass murders of both Singhalese and supportive to them Tamil people. Therefore, LTTE, although had many loyal Tamils, was never a legitimate power in Sri Lanka. People fled country to escape rigid policy of the Prabhakaran’s organization. After his death in 2009 LTTE was diminished and Tamils did not continue his liberation movement.
Ethnical contradictions in Sri Lanka gave birth to one of the deadliest terrorist organizations in the world. LTTE, founded by V. Prabhakaran, functioned on the territory of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka for almost 30 years and managed to create a complex organizational structure in 48 countries all over the world. Excessive exploitation of women and children, terrorist attacks on civilians, assassinations of political rivals, and extortions outside Sri Lanka were used by Prabhakaran to liberate the Tamil population from Singhalese oppression. However, extreme violence of LTTE caused frustration and fear among Tamils and the liberation movement generally was not supported by the Tamil community.