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.