They are, or were, one of the world’s most organized terrorist groups and you probably know Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam by their shorter name, the Tamil Tigers. The separatist organisation, born in 1975 and composed of Sri Lankans of Tamil ethnicity, has been fighting for an independent state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, called Tamil Eelam, since then.
Tamils represent over 10% of the country’s population and they feel persecuted by Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority, the Sinhalese. Differences between the two range from language to religion (the Sinhalese are mainly Buddhists whereas the Tamils are mostly Hindu) and their grudge has its roots in British colonialism. When the Island was called Ceylon, the Tamils were favoured by the colonial overlords and as soon as independence was achieved, the Sinhalese majority decided that the country’s official language and religion were to be its own, excluding the Tamils from any discussion.
The fight between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government started soon after (circa 1980) and has been one of the longest and deadliest in Asia and the World. Acknowledging its inferior numbers, the group pioneered a number of techniques that have become common practice among terrorist groups. They perfected suicide bombings by introducing the suicide belt and pioneering the use of women.
The means produced the intended ends and, since 1980, an estimated 80,000 civilians have lost their lives in the confrontation between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. The separatist group has been responsible for 200 suicide attacks, a dozen of high level assassinations, including two world leaders (1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and 1993 assassination of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa)- they are the only terrorist group to have done so.
They are known to have contacts with several criminal groups in Asia, and, reportedly, received military training from the Palestine Liberation Organization. They have also been said to have an operational alliance with Al-Qaeda, a tie that experts believe to be false.
Behind the fierceness of the Tamil Tigers is a complex organisation that manages and finances the guerilla effort. The group has separate departments responsible for procuring arms and explosives for the military branch (which has between 8,000 and 15,000 troops) but the economic side has not been forgotten. The group relies of donations from Tamils living in Western Europe and Canada, as well as on criminal activities (such as drug, arms and human trafficking to the UK and parts of Europe). It also owns a series of stocks and real estate investments in various parts of the world, and a large number of Asian grocery stores throughout the planet.
In 2009, the group was disbanded after a government offensive killed the Tigers’ founder and leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, but many believe that the group will respond and return in the near future. Among those that feel that way is the Sri Lankan government. Commemoration of Prabhakaran’s death and displaying the Tamil Tigers’ flag have been prohibited throughout the country, a clear sign that the government still fears the apparently extinct separatist movement.