The Tamil Tigers, formally the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), arose in the 1970s as a separatist movement intent on splitting from the Sri Lankan government to create a Tamil state. They became regarded as a terrorist organization as time went on, eventually targeting Sri Lankan civilians, though you might also see them as one of the many freedom fighting forces around the world that resorted to extreme measures when faced with an insurmountable enemy capable of manipulating public discourse.
Though the Tamil Tigers are cited by the likes of the FBI as one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the world, and most Tamil Tigers stories are about violence and terrorism, the history behind the Sri Lankan Civil War is more complicated than can be explained in a simple good-versus-evil narrative. While the Tamil Tigers have written their names in suicide vest history, they were not simply attacking civilians for no reason.
Without a doubt, the LTTE has committed horrific acts of violence. However, one of the most important Tamil Tigers facts, and one that often gets lost in the narrative of power, is that the Sri Lankan government also committed atrocities, and has a history of persecuting the Tamil population on the island. As a result, members of the ethnic group formed one of the most well known paramilitary organizations in the world.
LTTE has gone to great lengths in its attempt to achieve the goal of seceding from Sri Lanka to create a separate Tamil state. The group took out President Ranasinghe Premadasa of Sri Lanka in 1993 and Rajiv Gandhi (pictured) - son of Indira Gandhi, India's first and only female prime minister, grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's first prime minister, who was himself prime minister from 1984 to 1989 - in 1991.
According to the FBI, this makes LTTE the only paramilitary organization to take the lives of two world leaders.
Civil wars and turbulent secessionist movements often include asymmetrical tactics deployed by the side with fewer resources. In addition to traditional forces, the Tamil Tigers may have invented a terrifying way to inflict damage on their enemy, suicide vests.
According to a profile in Time, LTTE created the device, which can hide in plain sight while providing extreme mobility, spontaneity, and ease of access to targets. The wearer of the vest is always among those to perish, which shows the extreme dedication to the cause for those who carry out strikes. This is a powerful psychological weapon. Since the vest was introduced, terrorist groups around the world have used them to try and achieve their aims through force.
History shows the notion of wearing detonating devices against a far more well-equipped military dates to at least the Sino-Japanese War, when Chinese soldiers wore erupting belts and strapped grenades to their bodies. However, the modern version of the device was the creation of the Tamil Tigers.
According to an article published by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Tamil Tigers have used the device in more than 200 strikes since 1987. "The organization has never been particularly mindful of the safety of passers-by and has never spared innocent bystanders who happened to be in the vicinity," the piece reads.
Insurgent groups have often pulled women into their ranks in an effort to increase participation and create a united population in support of their cause. The Tamil Tigers were no different; female soldiers were an important part of the organization. Women had their own military units.
Niromi de Soyza joined the Tamil Tigers in 1987, when she was 17 years old, and extensively documented her experience for a piece in The Telegraph:
The morning chill was still in the air and the dew dripped from banana leaves as we ran though fields and approached the road. As we attempted to cross it, we were ambushed from both sides in a barrage of automatic gunfire, grenades and mortars...
Everyone was screaming. We crashed to the earth as the gunfire grew heavier, now coming from behind as well. A helicopter gunship hovered above, strafing. We were surrounded. There was no cover other than a few palmyra and banana trees that dotted the landscape...
A grenade flew over from my left. As I scrambled to my hands and knees, I realised Gandhi, our area leader, was in its path. "Gandhi anna, duck!" I screamed. The grenade hit his head and exploded, ripping his skull apart and covering me with blood and tissue...
The world has changed since I left the Tigers, just as the Tigers themselves have changed. In this age of terrorism it is easy to dismiss all rebel groups as evil extremists, without considering the desperate circumstances that drive people to align themselves to such organizations.
I tell people that the only reason I joined the war was to defend my people, because I felt there was no other choice. I was not coerced to join the insurgency. As an idealistic 17-year-old, I believed in the power of the individual to make a difference.
M.I.A., or Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam, is a rapper with little regard for FCC rules about flipping the bird during a live Super Bowl halftime show. In 1975, her father, Arul Pragasam, helped found a Tamil separatist organization in England called Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students, or EROS. Initially designed as a Marxist intellectual movement, the group eventually became a militant organization, and was absorbed into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Described as the least militant of the major Tamil liberation groups of the 1980s, EROS had connections to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and African National Congress. Its members trained at PLO camps in Lebanon, and EROS was in part supported by the Indian government, which has a history of intervention in Sri Lanka.
Maya was born in London and moved to Sri Lanka, where she lived until she was 10, at which point her family moved to government housing in London. There, she found a love for music while she settled into her new country. While she isn't a part of a secessionist movement, M.I.A. is politically active and involved in issues like immigration, unrest in her home country, and inhumane treatment of prisoners globally.