ESSAY: The self-determination movement of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.

(Reading time: 18 mins)

By Greg Marat

“War does not determine who is right. Only who is left” – Bertrand Russell. Photo: Eranga Jayawardena (2011)
“War does not determine who is right. Only who is left” – Bertrand Russell. Photo: Eranga Jayawardena (2011)

Executive Summary

The Sri Lankan based terrorist organisation of Liberation Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) first captured international attention when they assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 (former Prime Minister of India) and went on to assassinate the president of Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993.

The 1991 assassination provoked the Indian military forces to intervene in the civil war but it was short lived as the troops were later withdrawn by the Indian government (Garagan 1993).

At the peak of their power, the militia consisted of a highly-developed guerrilla militia and was able to carry out many high profile attacks.

These consisted of several high ranking Indian and Sri Lankan politicians. They also managed to occupy nearly 80% of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka (15,000 square kilometers) (Suthaharan 2005:89).

During these years, the LTTE emerged as the most irrepressible and dangerous terrorist actor in South Asia.

They were one of the first terrorist organisations in the world to develop and use women in suicide bombings.

They were also one of the first militant organisations to acquire an air force and the first terrorist group to utilise cyber terrorism (Monoharan 2005).

After 26 years of conflict in Sri Lanka, the LTTE has been claimed to be defeated military by the Sri Lankan government.

The remaining rebel fighters laid down their arms and surrendered in 2009.

This followed one of the biggest hostage rescue operations in the world (179,000 refugees).

Even though their operations currently remain to be ceased, the LTTE is still banned as a terrorist organisation in 32 countries.

However, they still have support amongst the Tamil diaspora and Tamil population in the South of India (Tamil Nadu) and the North of Sri Lanka (Bandarage 2008:156-176) (Herman 2009).

This paper will firstly describe the evolution of the LTTE from its rebel roots to becoming one of the most ruthless terrorist organisations in the world.

It will mainly focus on how the group was organised, financed, it’s tactics and how effective they were at obtaining their ultimate political goal of a separate state.

Finally, it will conclude by arguing the LTTE movement was counterproductive towards the self-determination movement of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.

The Evolution of the LTTE

Sri Lanka received independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. Since then there has been an ethnic divide between the Sinhalese majority (81%) and the Tamil minority (11%) (MOW 2013).

The divide between the two races is rooted in the grudges between Sinhalese and Tamil regional kingdom wars, dating back to the year 170 B.C.

However, more recently (mid 1900s), the tension between the two groups was fuelled by the British preference to Tamils during colonial times.

The majority of the labour jobs were given to the Tamils. This was due to the Sinhalese population refusing to them on those labour jobs.

The tension remained peaceful for decades passing the colonial independence.

However, this changed when a conservative Sinhalese women (Sirimavo Bandaranaike) was elected president by the Sri Lankan public in 1968 (Bandarage 2008:54-77) (World Press 2013).

In 1971, she implemented a policy to change the state language from English to Sinhalese.

This caused a sudden drop in Tamil students and an increase in Sinhalese students in the local universities.

As a counter movement for these racially profiled policies, the Tamil Student League (TSL) was created.

This group advocated for the fair enrolment of Tamil studnets.

However, unsolicited kidnappings by the government and grassroots organisations saw the fall of TSL and their political ambitions (Mahavalirajan 2009).

The fall of the TSL and the continued suppression by the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhalese majority gave way to the creation of a dangerous outfit, the LTTE.

Although an advocate groups for the rights and a separate state for the Tamil minority were their political ambitions, the movement took a drastic turn for the worse when they started carrying out violent hit-and-run operations against Tamil politicians who were associated with the government (Rinehart 2012:110-139).

How they were organised and financed

By the late 1970’s, the LTTE managed to train and establish a highly professional guerrilla military force. The group was kept small and was ruthless and accurate at carrying out their attacks against the police, politicians and other government related targets.

They were commonly misunderstood for being Marxists, as what they were objecting to was not capitalism but the human rights of the Tamil minority.

In 1976 the Tamils in the East formed a political party named the TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front); they went on to win 18 out of the 168 seats and approximately 7% of the popular vote.

It seems that at this stage they were a legitimate political party that represented the human rights and the right to self-determination of Tamil people, and for the first time in the island history (Nubbin 2014).

After the election, the TULF leader, Amirthaligam stated that the TULF should remain separate from LTTE and should be representative of the political movement of the Tamil people (Rinehart 2012:110-139).

However in 1977, a surprising move was made by the TULF leader Amirthaligam.

A letter of references and funding obtain by wealthy Tamil leaders was referred to the LTTE by Amirthaligam.

The following year Amirthaligam, in association with a London based Tamil activist group, the S.K. Vaikidavasan formed a front for the LTTE named the WTCC (World Tamil Coordination Committee).

The WTCC became the main source for shadow money laundering for the LTTE (Vinod 2005) (Sabarathnam 1996).

At the peak of its international support, the LTTE had 52 offices globally, most of which, either laundered money or engaged in arms procurement and shipping.

This continued for several years until the turning point of the Black July riots (ethnic riots) in 1983. Initiated in Colombo (the most populated city in Sri Lanka), it spread to all parts of the country.

During a week of chaos, the majority Sinhalese attacked Tamil civilians and either destroyed or looted Tamil businesses.

The week ended with creating 150,000 homeless people, 5,000 business and 10,000 homes being destroyed while the number of deaths ranged from 400 and 3,000 Tamil civilians.

Events preceding that saw a mass exodus of Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka while others joined the LTTE (Suthaharan 2005:93) (Kristian 2006:1024) (Amarasingam 2011) (BBC 2013) (Hoole 2013).

The simple rebel group LTTE has now turned into a military insurgence.  The Black July riots saw a breaking up of numerous Tamil families.

Some family members were left in Sri Lanka, while others escaped to mostly India and Western countries.

This in turn helped the cause of the LTTE where they gained empathy and support from all around the world.

It also presented them with an opportunity to extort the family members who were overseas while their relations were left behind.

At the peak of the Insurgency, the LTTE has a net worth between US$ 200-300 million (Patranobis 2008).

The LTTE financial portfolio boasted from overseas business ventures to investments in media 
organisations, shopping centres, fuel stations and restaurants.

It managed to oversee organisations of charity such as the Tamil’s Rehabilitation Organisation.

Although some of the funding to the LTTE arrived from legitimate sources, most of the funding arrived from arms smuggling, drug trafficking, people smuggling and extortion (Suthaharan 2005:87-110).

A cargo company named “Otharad Cargo (U.A.E)” provided the front for the arms operations for the LTTE.

The Mackenzie Institute claims that the LTTE used this shadow company to smuggle weapons and explosives.

They also claim that the LTTE managed to steal a shipment of more than US$ 32,400 of mortar ammunition from Tanzania purchased by the Sri Lankan government.

Alongside the arm smuggling, the LTTE also had a very lucrative drug trade. In 2010, LTTE was in charge of a one billion dollar market in Montreal, Canada.

The Otharad Cargo Company also assisted by smuggling drugs using their merchant ships (Dawn 2009).

People smuggling was the second most effective method that the Tigers used to generate revenue.

The majority of the people smuggling consisted of Tamils.

They were getting smuggled mostly to Western countries.

The economic refugees were always charged higher prices than the usual cost of travel.

The LTTE also charged an exit fee to refugees to depart the LTTE occupied areas.

Even since the military defeat of the LTTE, major financial revenue to the LTTE arrived from people smuggling operations.

Since 2010, there have been over 600 operations to countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia (Fernando 2011).

The tactics they used

The studies done by the International Institute for Strategic Studies states that the LTTE was the first terrorist organisation to invent explosive belts and vests for suicide bombings.

This was one of the signature moves of the suicide branch of the LTTE, Black Tigers (BT).

In accordance data received by the LTTE, the BT managed to carry out approximately 378 suicide attacks from 1987 to 2008, with the male to female ratio of these attacks being approximately three to one (Waduge 2013).

Although most of these attacks targeted military objectives on the north and east of the Island, civilians have been targeted on many occasions (Herath 2012:28-65).

An example of this can be observed by the 2001 Colombo International Airport attack which ended up killing 16 people (World Press 2010).

The most symbolic target was the 1998 attack on a Buddhist temple which killed eight civilians. It is considered the holiest temple for the Singhalese people.

This was only just one of many instances that the BT attacked Buddhist temples.

These attacks were symbolic in the sense that nearly most Sinhalese people are Buddhist (70.19%) and Tamils are either Christian or Hindu (Kwintessential 2013).

The BT never targeted temples nor Christian churches.

This implies that they were a racially motivated separatist outfit rather than a secular terrorist group.

Racism divided them, not secularism.

Religion and nationalism are deeply rooted in the country’s history.

Evidence of this can be seen by the research done by the Gallop poll in 2009, where 99% of Sri Lankans believed that religion was a major influence in their lives (Gallup World 2009).

Despite the rationale behind attacking Buddhist places of worship, the BT carried out high profile attacks outside and inside the island.

The attacks included the successful assassinations of Rajive Gandhi (former Indian Prime minister), Ranasigher Permedasa (former president of Sri Lanka) and the attempted assassination of Chadrika Kumarathunga (then president of Sri Lanka).

Similar to the suicide bombers of Izz ad-din al_Qassam Brigade (Hamas), the suicide bombers of BT were glorified by their families and given a hero status in the local community.

One of the privileges that were given to becoming a BT suicide bomber was that they were allowed to have their last meal with the leader of the LTTE, Prabhakran (Suthaharan 2005:91) (Garagan 1993).

Another tactic they used was the recruitment of child soldiers. It is estimated that the LTTE had approximately 6,000 child combatants since 2001.

As a result of immense pressure both by the UNICEF and the Human Rights Watch, the LTTE released 135 children who are less than 18 years of age.

The LTTE also didn’t operate within the Geneva Convention on war (Perera 2009). They would consistently execute prisoners of war, evidence of this could be seen by the 1990 incident in the Eastern Province where 600 police officers were taken captive and then blindfolded and executed.

In 1993, 200 government soldiers received the same fate. During the end of the war (2009), the LTTE was also accused of having committed war crimes (Ferdinando 2011).

During the final months, they attacked civilians as well as Sinhalese and Tamil buildings. They continued to execute prisoners of war while holding remaining civilians as human shields without access to medicine, food and clean water (SLMOD2010).

They were also the first terrorist group that utilised cyber terrorism.

One of the key fundraising avenues for the LTTE was online identity theft and credit card fraud. Notably, there was a cyber-attack on the Sheffield University (Sheffield, UK) where they used the IDs of academics and in ways to secretly fundraise for the cause (i.e. letters of recommendations, false asset allocation) (Asian Tribune 2006).

In 2007, the Norwegian government captured six members of the LTTE attempting to defraud approximately US$ 4 million in Norwegian currency in a credit card scam.

There was also a barrage of online Tamil separatist movements that collected funding to sustain the LTTE campaign (SATP 2013).

They still continue to operate today, despite the fall of the LTTE (Rinehart 2012:110-139).

Sea piracy was another method that the LTTE used to fund their operations. They hijacked several vessels and ships in the vicinity of the waters outside Sri Lanka.

The most notable abduction was the MV Sik Yang, a 3,000 ton cargo ship from Malaysia which sailed from India which went missing in 1999, and the fate of the crew of 15 is unknown to this day.

Another instance was the abduction of MV Farah III, a Jordanian ship which was heading to India with 14,000 tons of rice which was taken over by the LTTE and the crew was forced to abandon the ship (Marine Buzz 2009).

The active and passive supporters

The LTTE gain both international support and domestic support during their military campaign due to the substance of which the government of Sri Lanka was still stampeding on the rights of the Tamil people.

The Tamil diaspora communities around the world were the major supporters of the LTTE. They expressed concerns about the treatment of the minority Tamil population in Sri Lanka by the Sri Lankan governments in the past and the present (Suthaharan 2005:95).

Since the 1970s, the international headquarters of the LTTE has been located in London. By 1998, the LTTE network had spanned to at least 54 countries, most of which were Western countries (i.e. UK, Australia, Canada, Germany and France).

These networks were sustained mostly by the diaspora community in those countries. The LTTE was also supported by countries such as North Korea, Ukraine, Thailand, Malaysia, Panama, Ethiopia and Eritrea (Suthaharan 2005:97).

In 1994, Ukraine supplied the LTTE with 60 tons of explosives while North Korea became the primary country that delivered arms and ammunition (Bandarage 2008:177).

The Sri Lankan government has also accused several INGO’s (International Non-governmental organisations – mainly the Red Cross and the UN) of being apologist to the LTTE cause (Waduge 2010).

However, the accusation including the most recent of the Red Cross doesn’t seem to hold any substance.

The Red Cross establishment in Sri Lanka goes back to more than two decades, and the ICRC (International Committee of Red Cross), in close partnership with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS), has been working to assist the population affected by the prolonged armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE (SLRC 2013).


The LTTE resorted to every tactic at their disposal to achieve their goals of creating a separatist state.

This was not achievable due to the sheer numbers and the funding of the government forces.

However, their ideological goals of self-determination and a separatists movement still remains in the Tamil minority as the Sri Lankan government continues to ignore addressing the inequality of the ethnic divide.

This has the potential to cause further conflict as the problems that initiated the roots of the TSL, TULF and later the LTTE still lingers on in Sri Lankan social structures, culture and society (Suthaharan 2005:99).

The LTTE is a product of thousands of years of tension between the Singhalese majority and the Tamil minority.

The student activist group TSL’s transformation into the most dangerous terrorist outfit in the world was mostly due to the continued repression by the Sinhalese majority and the past Sri Lankan governments.

The purpose of the TSL and the TULF was not initially to resort to violence against the Sinhalese majority but a political solution to the continued inequality they faced as being a minority.

When their voices went unanswered by the government and the international community, they decide that succession was only possible path to self-determination.  The rise of the LTTE was mostly due to the inequality that existed in Sri Lankan society.

Inequality of the two ethnic groups was its primary manifestation, a problem that the Sri Lankan government still has failed to solve (Kristian 2006:1029).

Even though the LTTE was defeated, the Tamil minority is still not represented in the Sri Lankan government nor their right to self-determination.

This is very similar to the rights of the people of Palestine who are fighting for a separate state, ironically which the Sri Lankan government recently voted in favour of in the United Nations General Assembly (Charbonneau 2012).

As long as there is inequality between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority, there will always be the risk of terrorist group such as the LTTE rising again, if not worse than the LTTE (Kristian 2006:1037).


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ESSAY: The self-determination movement of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.

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