Explainer: LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)

Sri Lanka gained independence from Great Britain in January 1948. Since then, the conflict between the majority Sinhala-speaking Buddhists and minority Tamil-speaking Hindus has been an essential part of Sri Lanka’s history.

Who are the Tamils?

Things were normal for centuries. The tension in Srilanka date to the British colonization of the country. When Britain took over the island in 1815 they started their own “divide-and-rule” there.

The British brought in thousands of Tamil laborers to work on tea plantations in the central highlands (Sri Lanka is a major global tea producer). The Sinhalese, Sri Lanka’s majority group are Buddhists and speak Sinhala. Tamils are mostly Hindu and speak Tamil. The Sinhalese are mostly found in the country’s south, west, centre, and east while Tamils are mostly found in the north and east of the island.

Since the 19th century, the Srilankan Tamils became the most progressive community among three and quickly climbed the ladders of civil service and governance. Even the highest job in the British rule was held by a Tamil – Ponnambalam Arunachalam. Sinhala Buddhists claim that Tamils, under the British, received special treatment. They pointed out that British built large number of schools in the Tamil-dominated north and east Srilanka. With better access to education, the Tamils came to dominate the civil service, law enforcement agencies, and even the medical and scientific fields. Majority Buddhist Sinhalese community were against the British favoritism towards the Hindu Tamils.

Sri Lanka got its independence in 1948. At this point of time, 60% of all government jobs were held by the Lankan Tamils who were less than 15% of the population. This brought plenty of resentment among the Sinhalese.

The origin of the conflict can be traced to the ‘Sinhala Only’ language campaign in the mid-1950s. ‘Sinhala Only’ Bill was introduced and passed in 1956 by S. W. R. D. Bandarnaike. The Sinhala Act of 1956 restricted government employment to Sinhala speakers only. It also made radical changes in university admission rules, which effectively reduced the number of Tamils entering the portals of higher educational institutes. Tamils accused the Sinhala government of being discriminatory by implementing anti-Tamil measures, thus effectively reducing them to second class citizens. This was followed by a massive riot against the Tamils in 1958 when Ceylon changed its official name to Sri Lanka. The riots left 200 Tamils dead.

Sinhalese aggressiveness led to large-scale violence between Tamils and the Sinhalese. The violence forced the Bandarnaike government to enter into a deal with S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, who led the Federal Party, the main party of the Tamils. The deal provided for equal status to Sinhala and Tamil languages. As well, it released greater powers to the local provincial councils in the Tamil-dominated north and the east of the island. Other Sinhala parties, in the Opposition, accused the government of a sell-out of Sinhala interests. Renewed ethnic violence claimed hundreds of lives. Bandarnaike government cancelled the deal in 1958. However, the next year, Bandarnaike was assassinated by a radical Buddhist monk.

Fueling the Fire

Following an agreement between India and Sri Lanka, a number of estate Tamils were sent back to India in the 1960s and 1970s. This brought down the Tamil population from 33 per cent to 25 per cent. Intake of Tamil students into educational institutes was also reduced. For instance, after this, the proportion of Tamil faculty in medical and engineering colleges fell to less than 25 per cent in 1974, from a peak of 78 per cent in 1969. The large-scale settlement of Sinhala and Muslims in Tamil-dominated areas also helped widen the divide between the Tamils and the other communities. In 1972, the Sinhala-dominated government made Sinhala the ‘only’ official language.

By 1970s, due to the events above the Tamils started demanding a separate nation for them – Tamil Eelam (the native name). The demand for a separate Tamil Eelam (Tamil Homeland) was first made by the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1976. TULF was born out of the Federal Party, with the clear objective of a separate nation rather than mere protection for Tamils in Sri Lanka. The same year saw the birth of Tamil New Tigers (TNT) by Velupillai Prabhakaran. The TNT, later renamed as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were several underground Tamil resistant groups that started a low-intensity war against the Sri Lankan government.

Indian involvement

As things started to get out of hand in Sri Lanka, India was worried. There was huge pressure from Tamilnadu parties for an intervention. Historically, Sri Lankan Tamils had a high level of support in Tamil Nadu and politicians including MG Ramachandran and Karunananidhi put enormous pressure on the centre. Indira Gandhi needed one of these to shore up her politics.

Thus, India started involving. All over TamilNadu there were camps in 1970s and 1980s, that started training the tigers. It is rumored that these were trained in the Arcot districts of TN where there are plenty of forests. Indira Gandhi helped train Tamil rebels. India trained 5 extremist organizations.

  • TELO
  • EROS
  • LTTE

They learned the deadly tactics of suicide bombing (LTTE was the world’s most advanced in this deadly skill).

In a short time, severe in-fighting among these groups emerged. the LTTE either eliminated or merged these with itself, thus emerging as the dominant voice of the Tamil population. Eventually, the other organizations either got merged or got destroyed by LTTE.

What is the organisational structure of the LTTE?

Prabhakaran is the ‘supremo‘ of the LTTE.

The LTTE has two wings – the political and the military. Both of these wings are controlled by a Central Governing Committee (CGM) headed by Vellupiali Prabhakaran who decides all aspects of organisational policy – supposedly in consultation with CGM leaders.

The political wing of the LTTE oversees the civil administration of its territory through departments such as the police force, law courts, administrative offices, planning and reconstruction, television and radio broadcasting stations, and so on. The political wing also has an international secretariat, which runs the global LTTE network and its foreign relations cell.

LTTE military ranks and grades are similar to those of the Sri Lankan army. Area commanders are responsible for tactical military decisions in their areas. At its height, the LTTE had over 10,000 armed combatants.

The various wings of the LTTE include:

• An elite guerrilla force known as the Charles Anthony Regiment
• The Black Tigers unit, which is responsible for conducting suicide attacks
• The women’s military wing
• The naval wing, known as the Sea Tigers
• Arms procurement network
• Research and development wing
• Secretive Intelligence Group
• Leopard Brigade (also known as Chiruthaigal)

Applications to join the Black Tigers are personally monitored by Prabhakaran. The applicants then go through a year’s training programme designed to prepare them for suicide missions.

Women have always played an important role in the LTTE armed forces and have their own brigades. Black Tiger women go through the same training as their male colleagues.

The Sea Tigers is the largest wing of the LTTE. Their personnel include sea-going units, onshore marine engineers, maintenance personnel, naval communications and intelligence cadres, and, the commando Black Sea Tigers.

Prabhakaran operated from a secret jungle base in the northeastern part of the country, granting few media interviews. He was reputed to wear a cyanide capsule around his neck — to swallow rather than risk capture. And he reportedly expected the same dedication from his troops. As a result, few Tigers have been captured alive.

To Prabhakaran’s supporters he was a hero fighting for the rights of his people. He was wanted by Interpol on charges including terrorism and organized crime.

Rajiv Gandhi, after his mother’s death, wanted a solution to the ethnic conflict. India signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord in July 1987.

India agreed to establish order in the north and east by sending Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) and stopped helping Tamil rebel groups (like the LTTE).

In 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a LTTE suicide bomber at an election rally in Tamil-dominated Indian state of Tami Nadu. Sri Lankan authorities allege that Prabhakaran was avenging Gandhi’s decision to send Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka. That year, India branded the LTTE as a terrorist organisation and banned it. In 1993, a LTTE suicide bomber killed President Premadasa.

Since then, the public support for the Lankan Tamils have reduced. Indian army provided increasingly strong support to the Srilankan army.

Victory over the Tigers was declared by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on 16 May 2009, and the LTTE admitted defeat on 17 May 2009. Prabhakaran was killed by government forces on 19 May 2009 that led to the eventually destruction of Tigers.

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