The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is an island nation in the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of India. Its population is about 74% Sinhalese and 18% Tamil; the rest of the population is a mixture of other ethnic groups. In April 1987, more than 100 commuters were killed when terrorists—most likely Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers)—exploded a bomb in a bus station in the capital city of Colombo. This type of attack was typical in the Tigers’ long war of independence against the Sri Lankan government. The organization was founded in 1976 and champions the Tamil people of Sri Lanka against the majority Buddhist Sinhalese.
The goal of the movement was to carve out an independent state from Sri Lanka, geographically in the north and east of the island. To accomplish this, the Tamil Tigers used conventional, guerrilla, and terrorist tactics to attack government, military, and civilian targets. A unit known as the Black Tigers specialized in terrorist attacks, often committing suicide in the process. Sinhalese forces and irregular gangs often used extreme violence to repress the Tamil uprising.
About half the members of the Tiger movement were teenagers. Indoctrination of potential Tigers included spiritual purity, nationalist militancy, a higher morality, and a glorification of death. At the conclusion of training and indoctrination, young Tiger initiates were given a vial of cyanide, which was worn around the neck to be taken if capture is inevitable. Songs, poetry, and rituals glorified the Tamil people and nation. The Tamil Tigers were very shrewd with public relations, making extensive use of the media, video, and the Internet; they also established a foreign service presence in numerous countries. They also apparently became adept at transnational organized crime, raising revenue for the cause by trading in arms and drugs.
Estimates of membership numbers ranged between 6,000 and 15,000 fighters. They were well organized and disciplined. Women, called Freedom Birds, took on important leadership positions over time as Tamil male leaders died. About one third of the movement were women.
Some Tamil Tiger attacks were spectacular. In May 1991, a young Tamil woman detonated a bomb, killing herself and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In 1996, Tigers surrounded and annihilated a government base, killing all 1,200 troops. Also in 1996, a Tiger bomb at Colombo’s Central Bank killed scores and injured 1,400 others. In 1997, the new Colombo Trade Center was bombed, causing 18 deaths and more than 100 injuries. The Tamil Tigers operated a small naval unit of speedboats (the Sea Tigers) that intercepted Sri Lankan shipping. Fighting centered repeatedly on the Jaffna peninsula in the north, with both sides capturing and losing bases. By 1997, the war had claimed at least 58,000 military and civilian lives, including 10,000 Tigers. By 2002, the combatants had fought to a stalemate. In early 2002, both sides agreed to Norwegian mediation to negotiate terms for a lasting peace settlement. Several hundred thousand Tamils eventually fled the island, with more than 100,000 living in India and about 200,000 in the West.
Beginning in 2006, the Sri Lankan government began a massive expansion of its armed forces, doubling its size by late 2008. After a protracted and massive government offensive, the Tamil Tigers were overrun in May 2009, thus ending the 26-year conflict.
Is terrorism a legitimate tactic in a war for national independence? Does the quest for national freedom justify the use of terrorist tactics?
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