Tamils are a fiercely independent minority ethnic group in Sri Lanka, an island nation of the coast of India, that have faced discrimination and persecution at the hands of the Singhalese dominated Sri Lankan government. Seeking their own, independent Tamil country free of oppression in the north-east Sri Lanka, the Tamils founded a militant organization to wage war against the government called the Tamil Tigers. From 1983-2004, the Tamil Tigers employed guerrilla warfare tactics and suicide bombings to gain de facto control over the Tamil-inhabited coastal regions of Sri Lanka.
At the height of their power, the Tamil Tigers were a powerful, funded group with an extremely well-developed, efficient militia. They fought the Sri Lankan military to a stalemate, and the two sides agreed on a ceasefire that left the Tamils in control of their ethnic homeland. However, the 2004 Indian Tsunami, one of the largest recorded tsunamis in human history, ravaged the Tamil-controlled Sri Lankan coastline and left the Tamil Tigers in disarray. The government, realizing their position of strength, resumed their offensive against the weakened Tigers and annihilated them, ending the 25 year long conflict in 2009.
Tamil Persecution in Sri Lanka:
The Tamils are a strongly cultural ethnic group of over 65 million that inhabit southern India and north-eastern Sri Lanka. In the past, Tamil kingdoms ruled over southern India and Sri Lanka – but in the modern era Tamils are minorities in their nations, subject to persecution and discrimination. In modern day Sri Lanka, society is cleanly split into clear ethno-linguistic lines: 75% of Sri Lankans are native Sinhalese, while 20% are ethnic Tamils. These 6 million Sri Lankan Tamils primarily live in the northern and eastern coastal sections of the country, where they are the regional ethnic majority.
Tamils are extremely devout Hindus who speak Tamil, their own unique language, and form a distinctly different group than the Buddhist Singhalese who have always dominated the Sri Lankan government. These ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences have resulted in conflict between the two groups which culminated in government-sanctioned discrimination against the Tamils.
When Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, ethnic Tamils were denied Sri Lankan citizenship and over 300,000 Tamils were deported by the Sri Lankan government. The Tamil language was banned, Buddhism was given direct state sponsorship over Hinduism, and Tamil lands were colonized by Singhalese settlers. In Sri Lanka, the 3rd most devout country in the world where 99% of people say religion is important in their daily lives, these harsh governmental restrictions on Hinduism prompted fierce Tamil backlash.
Origins of the Tamil Tigers
After decades of harsh persecution, Tamils formed extremist militant groups and began to sabotage government factories. The most influential group, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) headed by Velupillai Prabhakaran united the Tamil resistance by pledging to create an independent separatist Tamil state in the north and east of the country called Tamil Eelam.
The Tamil Tigers were a strict militant organization that forbade drinking, smoking, intercourse, relationships, and demanded that all members sever ties with family and friends. Their hardline ideology, frequent use of suicide bombers, and use of cyanide capsules in the case of capture appealed to Tamil extremist cultural principles and attracted young Tamils. As the Sri Lankan government continued to persecute Tamils, causing disaffected Tamils to flock to their ranks, the influence and strength of the Tamil Tigers steadily grew.
The Tamil Tigers Declare War
The situation worsened in 1981, when the Sri Lankan government burned the Jaffna library, destroying any literature written in the Tamil language. Jaffna, a key Tamil city in the north, housed tens of thousands of important Tamil cultural documents and its library’s blatant destruction enraged Tamils nationwide.
The Tamil Tigers responded by ambushing the Sri Lankan army in 1983 at Thiruneivail, killing 13 government soldiers. Furious, the government sanctioned an ethnic rampage against Tamils known as Black July. Over 2,500 Tamils were killed in the violence as the country descended into chaos and overnight the Tamil Tigers ranks surged with new recruits. Weapons, food, and money began to pour into the LTTE’s warehouses from sympathetic Tamils in southern India. Emboldened and empowered, the Tamil Tigers declared war on the Sri Lankan government on July 23rd, 1983.
Suicide Bombing Campaign
The Tamil Tigers began conducting small scale attacks on Sri Lankan military compounds throughout the north-east. Adopting hit-and-run guerrilla style tactics, the Tamil Tigers slowly took control of the ethnic homeland on the Tamils. Throughout the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Tamil Tigers carried out over 378 suicide bombings, more suicide attacks than any other organization in the world. The Tigers even had a revered “Black Tigers” unit with individuals handpicked and trained for suicide bombing. In fact, the LTTE popularized suicide bombings so much that many modern resistance movements use of the tactic can be traced back to the Tigers.
With their aggressive suicide bombing campaign, the LTTE wore down the Sri Lankan military and wreaked havoc on the Sri Lankan economy by bombing banks, key government offices, and industrial centers.
Elephant Pass and the Jaffna Peninsula
Support for the Tamil Tigers grew in the northern Sri-Lankan city of Jaffna, an ethnically Tamil city, and soon the entire Jaffna Peninsula was under their control. Tamils around the country joined their cause and before long the LTTE controlled both the peninsula and the nearby mainland. However, Jaffna Peninsula is separated from the mainland by a thin strip of land called “Elephant Pass”.
As far back as the 17th century, the Dutch realized its strategic importance and fortified it with a military outpost. An invaluable supply route, whoever controlled Elephant Pass controlled access to Jaffna, the largest city in the Tamil-occupied north.Easily defensible because of its geography, the Sri Lankan military had built a modern, heavily reinforced base on the passageway that repeatedly thwarted the rebels.
The First Battle of Elephant Pass
In the First Battle of Elephant Pass on July 1991, over 5,000 Tamil Tigers launched a multi-pronged assault in order to capture the base, surrounding just 800 government troops inside. But every time the Tigers tried to cross the narrow strip of land to the base, they were repelled by concentrated government fire and artillery. The Tigers even equipped a bulldozer with armored steel plates and mounted machineguns on top and attempted again to push down the causeway, but even their new behemoth weapon couldn’t give them the edge.
Eventually, 10,000 Sri Lankan troops arrived to support the beleaguered government troops, and the Tigers were repelled. Thwarted once again and weakened by their losses in the First Battle of Elephant Pass, the Tamil Tigers turned their sights on other targets.
The Tamils Take More Land
From their bases in the north, the LTTE began wrestling military control of Tamil lands in the north-eastern part of the country. The Tigers were ruthless, and the 1990s were bloodied by massacres and atrocities committed by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military.
During the period, the Black Tigers conducted a massive wave of attacks. They carried out dozens of suicide bombings, destroying the Sri Lankan World Trade Center as well as the government-run Bank of Sri Lanka. Their efforts devastated the Sri Lankan economy, weakening the state and allowing the Tamils to seize more land.
Sympathetic to the Tamil cause, ethnic Tamils in India further supplied the Tigers with weapons and munitions. Growing strongly daily, the Tigers scored a massive victory when they took Mullaitivu, a jungle city in the heart of the Tamil homeland on the eastern coast.
The Second Battle of Elephant Pass
However, without control of Elephant Pass, the Tamil Tigers were still at the mercy of government troops who could cut LTTE supply lines and isolate the Tiger’s base of Jaffna at ease. Unable to ignore the Sri Lankan presence, the Tigers made a second attempt on the peninsula in the Second Battle of Elephant Pass in 2000.
Learning from their mistakes in the previous battle, the LTTE abandoned heavy weaponry, choosing instead to rely on speed and agility. This time, just 1,200 of the Tamil Tigers elite Black Tigers sprinted across the narrow strip of land, surprising the government defenders and storming inside. The Tamil Tigers quickly took up defensive positions and heavily mined the narrow entrance into the base. By the time military reinforcements had arrived, the Black Tigers were holed up inside the easily defendable fortress.
By doing exactly what the Sri Lankan military had done to them – focusing their artillery and concentered fire onto the narrow strip of land that accessed the base – just 1,000 Black Tigers held off a vastly larger government force.
Military Stalemate and Ceasefire
Finally in control of the Elephant Pass military complex, the Tamil Tigers now exerted de facto control over most of their ethnic homeland. From Jaffna in the north to Mullaitivu in the east, the LTTE had defeated the Sri Lankan military and held vast swathes of territory.
Without any military options, the Sri Lankan government had no choice but to recognize the stalemate. In 2004, a Norwegian-negotiated ceasefire between the LTTE and the government left the Tigers in control of the north-eastern provinces of the country and lifted the economic embargo on rebel territory.
After centuries of oppression and decades of bloody civil war, it seemed as if the Tamils were finally going to have their own country of Tamil Eelan. But unfortunately for the Tamil Tigers, nature had other plans.
The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami
On December 26th, 2004, Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tiger’s struggle was changed forever when a massive earthquake hit the ocean floor. With a magnitude of 9.3 and over 9 minutes of direct fault fracturing (the longest period of fault fracturing ever recorded), it was the 3rd largest earthquake ever documented. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunami was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history.
The earthquake created a monstrous, surging tsunami over 100 feet tall that decimated coastal communities in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India, killing 230,000 people. In Sri Lanka, the tsunami caused over 35,000 deaths and displaced over 500,000 people.
The coastal areas in eastern Sri Lanka (closest to the epicenter of the earthquake) were the hardest hit by the tsunami. The ethnic Tamil homelands were ravaged as the enormous wave of water swept away entire Tamil cities. The Tamil Tigers were significantly weakened as weapons depots, fortified positions, and even essential economic materials like crops and were obliterated.
Sri Lankan Military Takes the Offensive
However, while the Tamil coastal enclaves had been devastated by the tsunami, the Sri Lankan south and central highlands (controlled by the government) were still relatively intact.
Realizing the strength of their position, the government pulled out of peace talks in 2006 and resumed their offensive against the Tamil Tigers. Massing over 50,000 troops in the north, the Sri Lankan military assaulted Tamil positions that had already been reduced to rubble by the tsunami. In disarray and scattered, the Tigers were unable to formulate a comprehensive defense and government troops steamrolled across the country.
Even the defensible base at Elephant Pass which the Tigers had worked so hard to capture quickly fell to the government forces. Most of the LTTE’s leadership, including the Tiger’s supreme commander Velupillai Prabhakaran, were killed and the remnants of their forces fell back to their jungle fortress at Mullaitivu.
The Tiger’s Last Stand
At Mulliativu, the last major city under Tamil control, the Tigers committed themselves to suicidal last stand. With the LTTE’s command structure in tatters the military quickly advanced, leaving the Tigers with just 840 acres of land, roughly the size of New York City’s central park.
As the government advanced, the Tigers became more and more desperate, taking hostages and using human shields. With over 7,000 fighters crammed into the tiny area, experts feared a bloody fight to the death.
The military kept attempting to clear the zone, but they suffered heavy casualties from LTTE fighters who no longer cared for their own lives. Sweeping suicides occurred in Tiger camps as hundreds of fighters swallowed their cyanide pills rather than face capture.
Finally Selvarasa Pathmanathan, head of the LTTE’s Department of International Relations, declared the battle over and the Tigers laid down their weapons.
Aftermath of the Civil War
In total, over 11,000 LTTE fighters surrendered throughout the country, including nearly 600 child soldiers that had fought for the Tamil Tigers.
Tamil separatist movements have conceded defeat and ceased military action, while associated Tamil political institutions have dropped their demand for a separate Tamil state. After their dreamed Tamil Eelam seemed so close after 25 years of bloody, armed struggle, the Tamils were annihilated.
The Sri Lankan government has been working to reintegrate former LTTE fighters into society using their “National Action Plan for the Re-integration of Ex-Combatants” and empower the Tamil people by equalizing laws. However, widespread discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka continues. Unless the reintegration program is successful and Tamils receive equal treatment under the law, this conflict will reignite again within a generation.