The history of the Tamil Tigers

Formed in 1975, the group has vowed to carve out a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka.

Tamil Tiger fighter separatist

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was one of the many groups that came into
existence to fight for Tamil rights in Sri Lanka[EPA]

The conflict between Sri Lanka’s government forces and armed Tamil rebels has raged for nearly 60 years. Thousands have died and many more have been made homeless by the fighting.

Here we answer questions about the Tamil rebels, their composition and their stated goals.

When was the LTTE formed? 

Since Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain in 1948, the Tamil minority has felt increasingly marginalised and politically disenfranchised. In that very year, Solomon Bandaranayake, the country’s first prime minister, made Sinhala, which is spoken by the majority of Sri Lankans, the official language.

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After 1948, the Tamils also became the targets of numerous riots that swept through the island nation. Believing that these riots were instigated by the Sinhalese authorities, Tamils began calling for an independent state and for an organisation to protect their rights.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was one of the many groups that came into existence to fight for Tamil rights. 

Formed in 1975 with its base in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka, the group vowed to form a separate state called Tamil Eelam.  
Is the LTTE the only armed Tamil rebel group?

No, initially the LTTE was one of many Tamil armed groups.

Other prominent armed groups included the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOT), the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS) and the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF).

These armed groups lost ground and became obsolete as the LTTE killed their leaders and absorbed their trained cadres.

What is the organisational structure of the LTTE?

Prabhakaran is the ‘supremo’ of the LTTE [AFP]

It is very hierarchical.

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 CGM deliberates both on operational military strategies as well as the administrative governance of LTTE-held territories. 

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. These include two grades of enlisted ranks, non-commissioned officers and commissioned officers.

The units also follow a similar structural pattern with squads as the smallest and the regiment as the largest military unit.

Area commanders are responsible for tactical military decisions in their areas. At its height, the LTTE had over 10,000 armed combatants. The numbers have since dwindled.

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)
• Military Offences Group

Applications to join the Black Tigers are personally vetted 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 which work in tandem with the regular infantry, artillery and naval units.

Black Tiger women go through the same training as their male colleagues.

The LTTE’s most famous suicide mission was against Rajiv Gandhi, a former Indian prime minister.

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. 

The LTTE craft vary from heavily armed gunboats and troop carriers to ocean going supply vessels, all most all designed and built indigenously.

The Sea Tigers are reported to possess radar-evading stealth boats (probably North Korean built) but their attempts to build submarines failed when their base in Thailand was discovered. Some reports claim that they have mini-submarines bought from international arms dealers.

The arms procurement department, which is responsible for sourcing cutting edge military technology, is the LTTE’s oldest international wing. Its members do not have military training but they do receive intensive instruction in a number of other areas including document forgery, gunrunning, communication technology, international freight shipping and investing.

When did LTTE start using suicide bombings?

LTTE began using suicide bombings on July 5, 1987, when a truck laden with explosives was rammed into a building housing Sri Lankan soldiers. 

How does LTTE function as a government?

Though labelled a terrorist organisation by the US, UK, the EU and many others, the LTTE has operated a civilian government in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

The group believes that operating a civilian government will allow it a seamless transition once an independent state is declared.

Each of the civilian government departments has many employees on its payroll. The Sri Lankan government claims that contrary to LTTE propaganda, the salaries of most of these employees come from the Sri Lankan government treasury and not from the LTTE.

About 20 divisions function at each district level through committees, structured on a functional and departmental basis.

Some of the LTTE civil administration includes departments of economic affairs, finance, foreign affairs, labour and recruitment, planning and development, traffic, criminal complaints, judiciary, education, health, banking and communications.

How does the LTTE fund itself?

The LTTE’s financial infrastructure is among the most complex and most secret of any terrorist group.

It has investments in stocks and money markets, real estate, restaurants and a large number of Asian grocery stores throughout the world. 

Its shipping operations carry legitimate goods and also engage in the smuggling of drugs, arms, gold, and has also been indicted for human trafficking to UK and parts of Europe.

The bulk of LTTE funds are known to come from illegal means such as robbery, extortion, forgery, international arms sales and siphoning of monies from donations provided by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), aid organisations and other benevolent entities.

Does the LTTE have any links with other armed groups?

An LTTE suicide bomber killed Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 [EPA]

Although not widely known, the LTTE has close links with many armed groups around the world. In one of its documents released as far back as November 1998, it declared its resolve to work in solidarity with the various national liberation movements, socialist states, and international working class parties.

The LTTE is known to have worked with Palestinian factions in the Middle East from whom they received advanced military training from 1978 to 1980, the Maoist Naxalite movement in India and the Khalistan movement which was agitating for a separate Sikh state in northwest India.

The LTTE shipping fleet has provided logistics support to Harakat-al Mujahideen, a Pakistani group with al-Qaeda affiliations, to transport a consignment of weapons to the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the Philippines.

They also maintain close contact with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

The LTTE is said to have sent two combat tacticians and explosive experts to the southern Philippines to train members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

On March 10, 2007, Falk Rovik, the chief spokesperson for Norwegians Against Terrorism, stated in Toronto that the LTTE gave hundreds of stolen Norwegian passports to al-Qaeda in exchange for money.

Doese the LTTE have bases outside Sri Lanka?

The LTTE, which opened its first overseas office in London in 1984, has front organisations in India, Botswana, Myanmar, Cambodia, Denmark, Germany, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Qatar, South Africa, Switzerland and Thailand, besides others.

Sources that keep a watch of terrorist activities and organisations claim that the LTTE maintains branches in 54 countries.    

Source: Al Jazeera