Effective, Disciplined, and Feared: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam




For over three decades the Tamil Tigers resisted the occupation of Eelam by the Sri Lankan army. Regular contributor Sinthujan Varatharajah describes how they came about, their means of actions, their victories, but also some aspects of detrimental internal casteist dynamics. 

In July 1975, the mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappah was assassinated near a Hindu kovil in Jaffna. Duraiappah’s supposed assassins, 21 year-old Vellupillai Prabhakaran and his small armed group, the Tamil New Tigers (TNT), rose to sudden infamy across the Indian Ocean island — whether we call it Ceylon, Sri Lanka, Ilankai, or Eelam (when specifically referring to the Tamil parts). The assassination of the controversial Tamil mayor, who over the years had been branded by many locals as a traitor to the Tamil cause, marked the coming-of-age of the novel Tamil guerrilla group led by their young frontman. They were to change the history of the country and its people.

Over the decades, the group, renamed in 1976 to Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), now more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers or simply iyakkam (movement), was to become one of the most organized, effective, disciplined and feared guerrilla organizations globally. Often described as indestructible, the LTTE became the first guerrilla organization in modern history to establish an army composed of a cavalry, a navy and an air force. Starting off with only a handful of cadres in the 1970s, the LTTE was quickly able to emerge as the leading Tamil guerrilla force. At its peak, the Marxist group was made up of thousands of cadres from various socioeconomic, regional and religious backgrounds. From the early 1980s onwards, about a third of the LTTE’s members were Tamil women. This was, considering the patriarchal, orthodox and casteeist nature of Tamil society, revolutionary to say the least.

Known for their relentlessness commitment, their military finesse, political steadfastness, technological innovations and media savviness, the LTTE was highly effective in their struggle for an independent Tamil homeland. From 2002 until 2009 they even managed to run a de-facto state during the shaky ceasefire period (2002–2008) with Sri Lanka, paving the way for self-rule for Tamils from Colombo. However, following the inception of the War on Terror, the LTTE’s footing was increasingly under threat. 

The organization, so far believed to be indestructible, fell victim to the global drive to criminalize non-state actors who engaged in armed struggles against existing nation-states. As a result of intense and cunning lobbying efforts by the Sri Lankan state and the Sinhalese overseas diaspora, the Tamil liberation movement was over time declared by 31 countries as a “terrorist organization.” This changed the stakes of the resistance movement, its ability to source material, financial and political support from abroad, and therefore also its longevity. 

The so called “War on Terror” arguably turned the cards in favor of the Sri Lankan state. In 2009 it finally helped the Sri Lankan Army in its brutal destruction of the group in what many describe as a genocide. This wouldn’t have been possible, hadn’t the Sri Lankan government received tremendous support from around the world. 

Sympathies, intelligence and material support from capitals across Europe, the Americas (including the United States and Cuba), Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, China, Malaysia, Thailand, all the way to Australia were channelled towards the Colombo-based government. States that would otherwise be considered arch-enemies were somehow able to unite under a common agenda in the case of Sri Lanka. Why? The LTTE as an armed non-state actor had become so powerful and influential in its methods that the organisation amassed ideological enemies worldwide and had to be destroyed by any means possible. 

Based on its setup, methods and achievements, the LTTE was indeed in many ways a vanguard organization. It was arguably far ahead of its time and far ahead of similar groups across the world. The Tamil resistance group was to heavily change the course of history of this island, particularly the fate of Tamil people. And importantly, they were come to strongly influence armed struggles of stateless and oppressed peoples across the world. Their destruction was thus to become a lesson for other liberation movements elsewhere who carefully monitored the developments on the Indian Ocean island. 

Varatharajah Funambulist (3)
Self-built LTTE submarine. / Photo by Adam Jones (2014).

Accordingly, the LTTE quite literally became a global litmus test for how to deal with insurgent groups and people. The jungles and the beaches of the Vanni region where the 2009 genocide occurred turned into a global laboratory for similar cases to be played out elsewhere. Sri Lanka was later to capitalize from its victory by providing workshops for militaries around the world on how to crush armed resistance movements based on the example of the LTTE. Their tactics were later to be applied in places such as Myanmar, Colombia, and Kurdistan.

No External Body ///

When the LTTE was destroyed, the many sacrifices made by tens of thousands of ordinary Tamils who joined the organization (and those who were alternatively forced to fight for them) became history. Following their brutal defeat, the Sri Lankan flag was placed again, after years of absence, on top of Tamil land, towns, streets, people and cemeteries. But the victor’s justice didn’t just mean the destruction, re-engineering, occupation, and colonisation of Tamil lands and people, but also the rewriting of history. It came hand in hand with the erasure of experiences, memories, trauma and narratives of the Tamil population as a whole, including the many who were forcefully displaced.

Though the LTTE was flattened in the (inter)national discourse to become a mere “terrorist organization” — infamous for child soldier recruitment and suicide bombings, void of any political legitimacy — much of the Tamil population remembers the LTTE differently. 

For them, the LTTE remains the most important Tamil liberation organization fighting for the rights and dignity of their people. The LTTE wasn’t seen as an external body who, as some continue to accuse them, have hijacked the Tamil people’s cause. Instead, they were seen as a group that was born within their ranks and was thus made up of their own relatives, neighbors, classmates and strangers who all refused to accept the Tamil people’s fate within a Sinhala supremacist state. The group was indeed an intimate part of the Tamil social fabric, and continues to be even after its destruction.

Therefore, to understand the trajectory of the LTTE and Tamil people’s emotional relationship to the group, we are urged to look away from the (inter)national discourse towards the political circumstances that have given birth to the group. For that, we need to take the particular spatial locality and temporal moment the group was founded in into account. It provides us an opportunity to not only contextualize the group in the fragmented landscape it emerged from, but also work towards demystifying and devillifying them. 

Varatharajah Funambulist (1)
LTTE women’s wing group who defeated a unit of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces during the Indian occupation in the late 1980s.

A History of Disenfranchisement ///

In 1972, when the then seventeen year-old Vellupillai Prabhakaran founded the Tamil New Tigers, Ceylon (later Sri Lanka/Ilankai) had merely been independent for 24 years following more than 400 years of European colonial rule. At the time of British departure in 1948, the last European colonizers had left the island with a constitution that safeguarded the status of minorities within this newly founded multi-ethnic country. But when the young island-state was handed over to the Sinhalese ruling class, they soon started to one by one dismantle these minority protections. 

This process started in 1948, the year of independence, when the Citizenship Act was passed. It barred Tamils of indentured laborer descent (who made up 11% of the overall population at the time) the right to citizenship. This law later led to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of them to India. Effectively, Sinhala representation in parliament rose dramatically at the expense of Tamils. Eight years later, the Sinhala Only Act (1956) was passed which elevated Sinhalese to become the sole official language of the state. Tamil was downgraded and had no official place or use anymore. Tens of thousands of Tamil civil workers who had no proficiency in Sinhalese had to resign as a result and emigrate to other Commonwealth countries. Employment within the civil sector was from thereon de-facto reserved for Sinhalese people.

The language law touched the Tamil people’s right to equality and sense of dignity at its core and led to the emergence of a Satyagraha movement, a non-violent resistance movement inspired by the Indian independence movement. This growing Tamil disobedience movement was under the leadership of the Federal Party, a Tamil party which was formed as a breakaway fraction from the All Ceylon Tamil Congress. The party was fiercely pro-Tamil but was similar to most other Tamil parties in the country — except for the Ceylon Workers’ Congress — made up of upper-caste (Vellalar) male elites hailing from Jaffna. This came to influence their political decisions.

This particular social milieu that these men originated from was over decades shaped and conditioned by parliamentarian principles that were taught, learnt and practiced when Ceylon became a British crown colony and when colonial missionary schools were widespread across Tamil regions. They, as a result, held strong beliefs in the possibility of accommodating Tamil rights and a parity status within a united island and through parliamentarian means. In other words: they lacked the capacity to imagine achieving Tamil rights through other means than those they were exposed to.

Months of continuous Tamil protests, boycotts, hartals (strikes) and sit-ins across the island led by the Federal Party were increasingly met with sporadic outbreaks of racial violence by Sinhalese people. In 1958, the first systematic anti-Tamil pogrom broke out as an act of retaliation against Tamil demands for equality. Up to 1,500 Tamils were slaughtered while Tamil property was systematically destroyed by Sinhalese mobs across the island. The 1958 anti-Tamil pogrom triggered the first waves of Tamils fleeing the country. It became the signifier for the terrible future to come for Tamils under Sinhalese rule. At the time of the pogrom, Vellupillai Prabharakan, the leader of the LTTE, was only four years old. He would later attest to how the events of 1958 had deeply shaped his political views as an adult and pushed him to the politics he was to later practice.

With years passing and the situation of Tamils within the country worsening, frustration amongst Tamil youths increased. This frustration was no more just aimed at the Sinhalese-centric state and its representatives, but also towards older, upper-caste and bourgeois sections of Tamil society who continued to adamantly believe in parliamentarian means and a federal state framework as a solution to the so-called “Tamil question.” But in the face of the ever rising tide of anti-Tamil violence, Tamils increasingly felt helpless and defenseless. The state their leaders were busy negotiating with was no more upholding its supposed duty of protecting them but doing right the opposite: attacking them. 

The question of self-defense suddenly became central for Tamils, particularly to younger ones.

In 1972, when then 17 year-old Prabhakaran founded the Tamil New Tigers, he was part of a generation of Tamil youths who had grown tired of non-violent means of resistance which have over and over proven to be futile in the face of violent Sinhala fascism. Only the year before, in 1973, the Standardization Act was introduced. It left Tamil students requiring higher entrance grades than most Sinhalese to receive university admissions. Tens of thousands of Tamil youth were as a result barred from higher education, facing economic precariousness and uncertain futures. Youth unemployment rates amongst Tamils rose to an unseen level, producing a mass of angered, young and idle people without prospects for a safe and secure future. Prabhakaran and his peers were part of this very generation.

In the LTTE’s foundational year, a new state constitution was introduced which changed the name of the island from Ceylon into the Sinhalese name Sri Lanka. This new constitution also enshrined Buddhism the foremost position in this multi-religious country, deteriorating even further the stakes of Tamils in the country. Frustrated with the state of affairs, and with the appeasement politics of the Tamil political elite, Tamil youth of various socioeconomic backgrounds started in the 1970s to organize to self-defend against Sinhala supremacy. For them, the solution looked different to that fathomed by the Tamil political establishment. In their eyes, the only way to achieve Tamil rights and self-determination in times of Sinhala supremacy were through armed self-defense. 

One of the first were the Tamil New Tigers under the leadership of Prabhakaran. 


Varatharajah Funambulist (1)
LTTE bike platoon north of Kilinochi in 2004. / Photo by Qz10.

Challenging Casteism ///

Hailing from the small fishing town of Vellvettathurai, Prabhakaran and his peers were of Karaiyar caste origin (fishermen). This made the group stand out in a Vellalar-dominated Tamil political landscape, in which all leadership roles were allocated to Tamil Vellalars. Within this social fabric, they emerged as an anomaly that shook up the status quo — and their emergence was to naturally cause social ruptures.

In Jaffna, the Karaiyar caste formed the second largest caste group amongst Tamils. Unlike all other castes, who were not just weaker in numbers but also considered lower in ritual status by Vellalars, the Karaiyars had a long history of challenging Vellalar dominance. When the Tamil New Tigers were formed, they therefore also tapped into a history of anti-Vellalar rebellion. Their emergence was thus not only a critique of the existing Tamil polity, but also of the socioeconomic status quo within Tamil society and more specifically Vellalar supremacy. This was to deeply shape the politics of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. 

In 1976, following years of anti-Tamil violence, the Tamil demand for federalism was replaced for a demand for full-on Tamil independence from Sri Lanka by all major Tamil political parties. The burgeoning Tamil armed resistance movements integrated this demand into their mandates. From early on, the LTTE however didn’t just aspire to create an independent Tamil state, but also sought to establish a casteless and egalitarian society within it. This wasn’t just a matter of plain rhetoric for them, but also reflective in who the LTTE was made up of.

As a Karaiyar-led group, the LTTE often fell victim to its own beliefs. It was belittled by the Tamil ruling class, of whom many favored youth groups that were dominated by Vellalar young people. Each of them reflected a particular socioeconomic identity. Within only a few years, the LTTE however rose to become the most successful of them all. By the early 1980s, even many Vellalars started to join the movement. The Vellalar elites from thereon started to develop an ambiguous relationship to the group. This tension can be felt all the way to the present. 

The presence of Vellalars within the ranks of the LTTE never led to a parity status within the group. Until the very end of the war, a statistical overrepresentation of people of non-Vellalar background continued to exist. While many Vellalars ideologically and materially supported the group, those who died on the battlefields were often times cadres from non-Vellalar backgrounds. It reflects the deeply entrenched caste inequalities within Tamil society which to a large degree still remain unaddressed to date. While the LTTE was able to re-engineer some of the power dynamics for medium and oppressed caste members, they lacked a social and political strategy to create long-lasting effects on casteism amongst Eelam Tamils. Nonetheless, the LTTE’s role remains critical in this regard. For many non-Vellalars specifically, the LTTE became a platform for identification, mobilization and self-respect. They opened up spaces that couldn’t have been even imagined prior to their inception.

Varatharajah Funambulist (2)
Maaveerar Naal commemoration (Martyrs Day) in a (now destroyed) LTTE cemetery.

A Yearning for Dignity ///

On May 18 2009, Sri Lankan TV channels aired the images of an undressed and mutilated body of a Tamil man laying on the ground, surrounded by a mass of Sinhalese soldiers. The images originated in Mullivaikkal on the northeastern coast of Eelam where the most brutal mass killings of Tamils took place in 2009. The images were said to depict the body of Velupillai Prabhakaran whose murder symbolized the defeat of the LTTE. On that day, Sri Lanka’s civil war was suddenly declared as over. And Tamils were left to wonder what had happened, and what was left of their people, their resistance and their yearning for dignity and self-rule.

The brutal destruction of the LTTE and subsequent killing of 146,679 Tamils in 2009 alone didn’t just leave a deep void amongst Tamils but also a profound and unresolved trauma across different Tamil geographies and generations. 10 years later, Tamil mothers still protests for their disappeared and presumingly tortured and murdered relatives in Eelam. Meanwhile, Tamil rights are still trampled upon day in and day out. Many Tamils have subsequently lost hope in the post-war reconciliation rhetoric and a fair solution to their problems from the Sri Lankan state. As the level of frustration amongst Tamils is rising by the day again, the question of self-defense has become as critical as it has been in the past. 

Instead of asking if, the question seems to rather be one of when history will repeat itself.

To consider the LTTE means to place them into the landscape and time that has given birth to them. For most Tamils, the LTTE remains a necessity in the face of Sinhala fascism. For them, they are the ultimate fulfillment to their legitimate right to self-defense. Today, in light of Sri Lanka’s unwillingness to provide a meaningful resolution to the conflict in the absence of any armed Tamil resistance group, the LTTE’s role in providing dignity, pride and defense to Tamils has become ever so clear. The stakes of Tamils are clearly more fragile today than they were before.

Varatharajah Funambulist (4)
Tamil protesters in Ottawa, Canada on June 3, 2009 during the massacres in Eelam. / Photo by Matthew Jacques. 

The LTTE’s politics reflected the social origins of the group. It didn’t just advocate for racial justice, but also caste and later, to some degree, gender justice. By doing so, it upset some of the most fundamental pillars of Tamil society and changed not just the realities on the ground, but also Tamil people’s capacity to imagine a future different than their present. One in which dignity and self-respect is no more dependent on the caprices of a Sinhala or Vellalar polity; and one in which being Tamil can mean walking with your head held high and eyes directed straight ahead, into a future that isn’t tainted by death and loss. 

Taking up arms for Tamils wasn’t just a means to fight back, but also a way to understand that they too had a right to remain unharmed and safeguarded from the violence of Sinhalese people and their state; and that weapons do not just means erasure, but also hold the potential to create alternative futures. ■