Tigers unleash fury on fleeing ‘shields' By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - Running out of territory to defend or hide in, the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is resorting to desperate measures to prevent its
"human shields" - the Tamil civilians among whom it is expected to hide when
the Sri Lankan forces close in - from escaping. Last week, it carried out at
least three attacks on Tamil civilians attempting to cross over from territory
under its control to government-held territory.
Recently, 28 people were killed, including 10 civilians, and 64 others wounded
when a female LTTE suicide bomber blew herself up at a checkpoint at a refugee
center in Vishvamadu in Sri Lanka's war-torn north. The following day, LTTE
cadres shot at civilians crossing into government territory in the
Udayarkattukulam area of Mullaittivu, killing 19 and injuring 75. Then a woman
was killed and 13 others injured when Tigers
hurled a hand-grenade and fired at a bus transporting Tamil civilians out of
the war zone.
Over 250,000 civilians are said to be trapped in the small area in the jungles
of Mullaittivu that is under LTTE control. As the Sri Lankan armed forces
converge on this sliver of land, it is these civilians that the LTTE is
expected to use as shields. The LTTE's top leaders, including chief Velupillai
Prabhakaran, are said to be holed up there.
Although the LTTE claims that the civilians have chosen to remain with the
Tigers, the Sri Lankan government and aid workers say they are being forcibly
held back. The United Nations has issued a statement confirming that the Tigers
are killing civilians fleeing the war zone.
The spurt in attacks on civilians by the LTTE stems from fear that its
"shields" are deserting in large numbers. Some 30,000 Tamils are said to have
fled LTTE-controlled territory this year; most of them in the past fortnight.
The LTTE has used intimidation and extreme force several times in the past to
force Tamil civilians to accompany it on the run. In 1995, for instance, when
it lost control of Jaffna town, it forced its residents to withdraw with its
fighters to the jungle.
This is the first time, however, that it has carried out a suicide attack
targeting ordinary Tamil civilians to ensure that they do not leave the LTTE.
The LTTE has the dubious distinction of having eliminated the largest number of
top political leaders and security force personnel through suicide attacks. Its
victims include former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sri Lankan president
Ranasinghe Premadasa, the United National Party's presidential candidate Gamini
Dissanayake and defense minister Ranjan Wijeratne. President Chandrika
Kumaratunga was partially blinded in an LTTE suicide attack in 2000, while Sri
Lanka's army chief Sarath Fonseka and Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse,
who is also the brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, narrowly escaped death
in suicide attacks in 2006.
The LTTE has carried out innumerable suicide attacks on defense installations
and economic targets and these attacks have been successful in altering the
government's strategy. A meticulously planned and executed suicide operation on
Colombo international airport in 2000 dealt the tottering tourism-centric
economy a deadly blow, compelling the government to come to the negotiation
"Suspect" Tamils have not been immune to the LTTE's suicide attacks. Noted
Tamil constitutional lawyer and member of parliament Neelan Tiruchelvam was
killed in a suicide bombing and Douglas Devananda, leader of the anti-LTTE
Eelam People's Democratic Party and a minister, has been targeted by countless
Tiger suicide bombers.
Thousands of Tamil civilians have been shot dead by the LTTE. With the attack
at Vishvamadu, the LTTE has signaled that its suicide bombers will target Tamil
civilians if their actions undermine its interests.
The LTTE's suicide bombers belong to an elite unit, the Karum Puligal - or
Black Tigers. The Black Tigers undergo special training. The identities of its
members are revealed only after they attain "martyrdom" by carrying out a
successful operation. Black Tigers are highly "privileged" in the LTTE; they
get to eat their last meal with Prabhakaran (though in recent years the "last
supper" is often with intelligence chief Pottu Amman) on the eve of their
suicide mission. The Black Tiger martyrs occupy the highest rung in the
hierarchy of Tiger martyrs. They are revered by the LTTE, often referred to as
gods in propaganda literature.
The Tigers are world leaders with regard to suicide bombings. Not only have
they carried out more suicide attacks than groups like the Islamic Jihad, Hamas
and al-Qaeda put together, but also their contribution to suicide bombing
technology has been immense. The suicide bomb vest is an LTTE innovation, as is
the use of the "human bomb", where a person strapped with explosives detonates
himself to carry out the attack.
The Tigers claim to have inspired al-Qaeda. In an interview to the BBC some
years ago, Soosai, the commander of the LTTE's naval wing, the Sea Tigers,
said: "They are using our tactics. I think in Yemen they used our strategy of
suicide attack to blow up an American ship. That is exactly what we used to
do." He was referring to al-Qaeda's attack on the USS Cole in October 2000 in
which 17 US military personnel were killed. The Sea Tigers have a separate
suicide unit which has carried out a large number of attacks on the Sri Lankan
Terrorism experts looking for clues to understanding suicide bombing have often
turned to examining the socio-economic background of bombers and their
psychological make-up. While the motivation of cadres is important for the
successful completion of a suicide mission, examining suicide bombing as a
tactic and suicide bombers as cost-effective weapons in the arsenal of
terrorist groups is perhaps more useful in understanding why groups are
resorting to suicide bombings with increasing frequency.
It does not cost much to carry out a suicide bombing. And it is very effective
in triggering terror. And it is these low-cost, high-impact "weapons" that a
weakened LTTE is likely to use increasingly in the coming months. While the
focus of these attacks will be the capital, Colombo, the security forces
deployed in the north and east will bear the brunt, with their convoys and
camps likely to be targeted by suicide bombers.
But more immediately, it is Tamil civilians fleeing the LTTE's grip who will
have to watch out for suicide attacks. These attacks could increase as the
For decades, Prabhakaran was criticized for compelling his fighters to swallow
cyanide to escape capture or encouraging them to blow up their own bodies to
kill the enemy. Now there is talk of him committing suicide in the event of the
armed forces surrounding him, with some reports even predicting Prabhakaran and
his fighters will commit mass suicide.
A report in the Sunday Times, a Sri Lankan English newspaper, quotes
presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa as saying that the government has
"substantial" intelligence indicating that Prabhakaran is planning a mass
suicide with his hardcore fighters on the beaches of Mullaittivu, in the event
of the armed forces closing in on him.
According to Rajapaksa, Prabhakaran expects many civilians to join the mass
suicide. "It is not clear if the civilians were forced to put their names on
the death list or had done it voluntarily," he said, adding that the event,
which would be a major public show, would be videoed and shown to the Tamil
diaspora to keep their support to the Tamil Eelam cause alive.
Tamil historical writings are replete with examples of soldiers and civilians
taking their lives, even severing their heads to prove their loyalty to their
king. There have been instances too of Tamils in the southern Indian state of
Tamil Nadu killing themselves on the death of their leaders and heroes. It
would not be surprising therefore if some Tamils did kill themselves should
Prabhakaran commit suicide. But importantly, will they do so voluntarily or
will they be compelled under the threat of a gun to follow the LTTE chief?
While the military genius of its leaders and the fighting prowess of its cadres
won the LTTE the respect of many military strategists, its resort to suicide
bombings provoked deep revulsion, earning it the "terrorist" tag in several
If the LTTE is planning a mass suicide as Basil Rajapaksa claims, it is playing
a high-risk game. Mass suicide will no doubt showcase the motivation of the
Tigers to the international community and draw attention to the deep despair
that drives a section of Tamils to kill and die for a cause. But it will also
trigger a tidal wave of international revulsion with its methods.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in