Asia Time Online - Daily News
              Click Here
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    South Asia
     Aug 31, 2006
The Sea Tigers of Tamil Eelam
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - An attack-sea-craft manufacturing facility of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was destroyed recently when Sri Lankan air force planes bombed a boatyard in Tiger-held territory. The Sri Lankan Defense Ministry has said that 30-40 of the boats were destroyed in the attack. The pro-LTTE Tamilnet website rejected the claim, arguing that the planes had hit a
civilian boatyard.

The attack on the boatyard comes amid fierce fighting, which has

claimed more than 800 lives since August 11 when the Tigers launched a major offensive to retake control of the Tamil-dominated but government-held Jaffna Peninsula in the north. The attack was aimed at denting an important but little understood aspect of the organization's military infrastructure - sea power. The two sides have sparred on the seas several times over almost three decades.

In January, the Tigers blew up a Sri Lankan navy gunboat outside Trincomalee harbor. In May, it targeted a naval convoy comprising a troop-carrier vessel, which was ferrying more than 700 unarmed security forces personnel returning after home leave, and its accompanying naval fast attack craft. While the LTTE's flotilla of explosive-laden boats failed to damage the troop carrier, it was able to destroy two gunboats, killing at least 17 sailors.

More recently, the Tigers targeted another vessel carrying 854 unarmed soldiers to Trincomalee and simultaneously attacked the naval base there.

Some of the most spectacular confrontations between the two sides have taken place on the seas, and both sides have lost vessels in these confrontations. The Sri Lankan navy is said to have lost about half of its force to the LTTE's gunboats.

From the start of the insurgency, the Tigers have seen wisdom in fielding a strong maritime network. In the early 1980s, LTTE relied on fast dinghies and fishing boats equipped only with small arms and grenades. The boats were used primarily to transport cadres, weapons and supplies between its rear base in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the Jaffna Peninsula. Since then its naval and maritime infrastructure and capabilities have come a long way.

The LTTE has a separate naval wing - the Kadal Puli or Sea Tigers. This is a formidable fighting force, whose armory includes logistics craft, attack craft, suicide craft and other weapons and equipment. Vijay Sakhuja, a former officer in the Indian navy and currently senior fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, draws attention to the sophisticated technologies that the Sea Tigers use.

"Dual-use technologies such as [the] Global Positioning System, satellite communication systems, and water-sport and scuba-diving equipment are part of their inventories. They are known to use a variety of weapons from knives to improvised explosive devices, submersibles, mini-submarines and high-speed boats. LTTE [has] used rocket-propelled grenades, explosive-laden speedboats and even armor-piercing weapons," Sakhuja said.

The Black Tiger unit of the Sea Tigers has wrought considerable havoc on the Sri Lankan navy. The LTTE suicide attacks at sea are also said to have inspired other groups, including al-Qaeda. Tigers often boast that it was their suicide attacks on Lankan vessels, the Abitha and Edithara, that al-Qaeda emulated when it attacked a US destroyer, the Cole, in Aden in 2000.

Unlike the Sea Tigers' spectacular naval operations, the organization's commercial maritime operations have moved quietly. And like the Sea Tigers, the maritime network has contributed considerably to the LTTE's "war for Tamil Eelam". A part of its work involves carrying legitimate ocean cargo. It is also said to be involved in human smuggling and transporting contraband and narcotics, which provides the LTTE with funds. Most important, it ferries weapons and military equipment purchased abroad to the island.

Sakhuja says the LTTE's maritime assets and organization, which include a fleet of merchant ships, a large number of fishing trawlers, high-speed motor launches, and professionally trained crews, "can compete well with the maritime facilities of a small island state".

The Tigers' naval and maritime fleet puts it in a class apart from other militant organizations. "While most other maritime insurgency groups perform two tasks - carrying out raids and delivering supplies covertly - the LTTE engages in the additional tasks of ship protection and temporary sea control, both functions of a conventional navy," points out Martin Murphy in Jane's Intelligence Review.

Sakhuja said, "The LTTE is well endowed with capabilities and capacities to be considered as a small non-state sea power. It has all the attributes of a sea power, ie geography, oceangoing ships, ports/harbors, a fishing fleet, maritime trade, ship/boat building yards, an understanding of the seas among the political leadership, and now a navy."

The problem is that the LTTE doesn't see itself as a non-state actor.

The LTTE has been demanding de jure naval status for the Sea Tigers. In the blueprint it put forward in 2003 for the setting up of an interim self-governing authority, it also demanded control over marine resources and the right of access and exploitation over them.

Had the proposal been accepted by Colombo it would have given the Tigers control over two-thirds of Sri Lanka's coastline, legitimized LTTE dominance over the seas off the northeast (including the Palk Strait that separates India and Sri Lanka), and left it in charge on one side of Sri Lanka's international boundary with India. It would have legitimized a "third navy" (besides those of India and Sri Lanka) at India's southern doorstep. Not surprisingly, the proposal was unacceptable to Colombo and Delhi.

It was clear even as the 2002 ceasefire agreement was being signed that the seas would be an important flash point. The agreement distinguishes between government and LTTE-held territories on land, not at sea. As the only sovereign entity, Sri Lanka has exclusive right over the seas. The LTTE has challenged this. The attacks on Lankan naval vessels are attempts at challenging Colombo's sovereignty over the waters off land under Tiger control and to assert its right to use the sea.

The LTTE's repeated attempts to win for itself unrestricted movement in the seas of the north and east are driven by the fact that it is via these waters that its military and other supplies are brought into the island. It is keen to ensure that this supply is smooth. Besides, movement of Tiger cadres from the north to the east is possible only through the sea.

This is not possible by land as Tiger territory in the north and east is not contiguous; it is broken by land occupied by government troops. And under the ceasefire agreement, the LTTE would need government permission to move cadres across government-controlled land.

With fighting likely to increase in the coming months, the Tigers' need to move cadres between the north and east is likely to grow, as will the flow of weapons from overseas. The LTTE will need to be able to operate on the sea without restrictions. And the Lankan navy will want to choke Tiger movement on the seas. More clashes can be expected in the coming months.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

Had enough? Tigers turn on Pakistan (Aug 16, '06)

Tigers bait Sri Lankan government (Aug 5, '06)

Deadly arsenals dot Sri Lanka (Aug 5, '06)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110