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Tamils are a fiercely independent minority ethnic group in Sri Lanka, an island
nation of the coast of India, that have faced discrimination and persecution at the
hands of the Singhalese dominated Sri Lankan government. Seeking their own,
independent Tamil country free of oppression in the north-east Sri Lanka, the Tamils
founded a militant organization to wage war against the government called the
Tamil Tigers. From 1983-2004, the Tamil Tigers employed guerrilla warfare tactics
and suicide bombings to gain de facto control over the Tamil-inhabited coastal
regions of Sri Lanka.

Tamil Persecution in Sri Lanka:

The Tamils are a strongly cultural ethnic group of over 65 million that inhabit southern India and
north-eastern Sri Lanka. In the past, Tamil kingdoms ruled over southern India and Sri Lanka
but in the modern era Tamils are minorities in their nations, subject to persecution and
discrimination. In modern day Sri Lanka, society is cleanly split into clear ethno-linguistic lines:
75% of Sri Lankans are native Sinhalese, while 20% are ethnic Tamils. These 6 million Sri
Lankan Tamils primarily live in the northern and eastern coastal sections of the country, where
they are the regional ethnic majority.
Tamils are extremely devout Hindus who speak Tamil, their own unique language, and form a
distinctly different group than the Buddhist Singhalese who have always dominated the Sri
Lankan government. These ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences have resulted in conflict
between the two groups which culminated in government-sanctioned discrimination against the

Tamil inhabited areas of India and Sri Lanka

When Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, ethnic Tamils were denied Sri Lankan citizenship
and over 300,000 Tamils were deported by the Sri Lankan government. The Tamil language was
banned, Buddhism was given direct state sponsorship over Hinduism, and Tamil lands were
colonized by Singhalese settlers. In Sri Lanka, the 3rd most devout country in the world where
99% of people say religion is important in their daily lives, these harsh governmental restrictions
on Hinduism prompted fierce Tamil backlash.
Origins of the Tamil Tigers
After decades of harsh persecution, Tamils formed extremist militant groups and began to
sabotage government factories. The most influential group, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam (LTTE) headed by Velupillai Prabhakaran united the Tamil resistance by pledging to
create an independent separatist Tamil state in the north and east of the country called Tamil

Areas that the Tamil Tigers claimed for Tamil Eelam

The Tamil Tigers were a strict militant organization that forbade drinking, smoking, intercourse,
relationships, and demanded that all members sever ties with family and friends. Their hardline
ideology, frequent use of suicide bombers, and use of cyanide capsules in the case of capture
appealed to Tamil extremist cultural principles and attracted young Tamils. As the Sri Lankan
government continued to persecute Tamils, causing disaffected Tamils to flock to their ranks, the
influence and strength of the Tamil Tigers steadily grew.
The Tamil Tigers Declare War
The situation worsened in 1981, when the Sri Lankan government burned the Jaffna library,
destroying any literature written in the Tamil language. Jaffna, a key Tamil city in the north,
housed tens of thousands of important Tamil cultural documents and its librarys blatant
destruction enraged Tamils nationwide.
The Tamil Tigers responded by ambushing the Sri Lankan army in 1983 at Thiruneivail, killing
13 government soldiers. Furious, the government sanctioned an ethnic rampage against Tamils
known as Black July. Over 2,500 Tamils were killed in the violence as the country descended
into chaos and overnight the Tamil Tigers ranks surged with new recruits. Weapons, food, and
money began to pour into the LTTEs warehouses from sympathetic Tamils in southern India.
Emboldened and empowered, the Tamil Tigers declared war on the Sri Lankan government on
July 23rd, 1983.
Suicide Bombing Campaign
The Tamil Tigers began conducting small scale attacks on Sri Lankan military compounds
throughout the north-east. Adopting hit-and-run guerrilla style tactics, the Tamil Tigers slowly
took control of the ethnic homeland on the Tamils. Throughout the Sri Lankan Civil War, the
Tamil Tigers carried out over 378 suicide bombings, more suicide attacks than any other
organization in the world. The Tigers even had a revered Black Tigers unit with individuals
handpicked and trained for suicide bombing. In fact, the LTTE popularized suicide bombings so
much that many modern resistance movements use of the tactic can be traced back to the Tigers.
The Tamils are the fathers of modern-day suicide bombing- The New York Times (2006)
With their aggressive suicide bombing campaign, the LTTE wore down the Sri Lankan military
and wreaked havoc on the Sri Lankan economy by bombing banks, key government offices, and
industrial centers.
Elephant Pass and the Jaffna Peninsula
Support for the Tamil Tigers grew in the northern Sri-Lankan city of Jaffna, an ethnically Tamil
city, and soon the entire Jaffna Peninsula was under their control. Tamils around the country

joined their cause and before long the LTTE controlled both the peninsula and the nearby
mainland. However, Jaffna Peninsula is separated from the mainland by a thin strip of land called
Elephant Pass.

The narrow Elephant Pass causeway

As far back as the 17th century, the Dutch realized its strategic importance and fortified it with a
military outpost. An invaluable supply route, whoever controlled Elephant Pass controlled access
to Jaffna, the largest city in the Tamil-occupied north.Easily defensible because of its geography,
the Sri Lankan military had built a modern, heavily reinforced base on the passageway that
repeatedly thwarted the rebels.

The First Battle of Elephant Pass

In the First Battle of Elephant Pass on July 1991, over 5,000 Tamil Tigers launched a multipronged assault in order to capture the base, surrounding just 800 government troops inside. But
every time the Tigers tried to cross the narrow strip of land to the base, they were repelled by
concentrated government fire and artillery. The Tigers even equipped a bulldozer with armored
steel plates and mounted machineguns on top and attempted again to push down the causeway,
but even their new behemoth weapon couldnt give them the edge.
Eventually, 10,000 Sri Lankan troops arrived to support the beleaguered government troops, and
the Tigers were repelled. Thwarted once again and weakened by their losses in the First Battle of
Elephant Pass, the Tamil Tigers turned their sights on other targets.
The Tamils Take More Land
From their bases in the north, the LTTE began wrestling military control of Tamil lands in the
north-eastern part of the country. The Tigers were ruthless, and the 1990s were bloodied by
massacres and atrocities committed by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military.

A heavily armed Tamil Tiger

During the period, the Black Tigers conducted a massive wave of attacks. They carried out
dozens of suicide bombings, destroying the Sri Lankan World Trade Center as well as the
government-run Bank of Sri Lanka. Their efforts devastated the Sri Lankan economy, weakening
the state and allowing the Tamils to seize more land.

Sympathetic to the Tamil cause, ethnic Tamils in India further supplied the Tigers with weapons
and munitions. Growing strongly daily, the Tigers scored a massive victory when they took
Mullaitivu, a jungle city in the heart of the Tamil homeland on the eastern coast.
The Second Battle of Elephant Pass
However, without control of Elephant Pass, the Tamil Tigers were still at the mercy of
government troops who could cut LTTE supply lines and isolate the Tigers base of Jaffna at
ease. Unable to ignore the Sri Lankan presence, the Tigers made a second attempt on the
peninsula in the Second Battle of Elephant Pass in 2000.
Learning from their mistakes in the previous battle, the LTTE abandoned heavy weaponry,
choosing instead to rely on speed and agility. This time, just 1,200 of the Tamil Tigers elite Black
Tigers sprinted across the narrow strip of land, surprising the government defenders and
storming inside. The Tamil Tigers quickly took up defensive positions and heavily mined the
narrow entrance into the base. By the time military reinforcements had arrived, the Black Tigers
were holed up inside the easily defendable fortress.
By doing exactly what the Sri Lankan military had done to them focusing their artillery and
concentered fire onto the narrow strip of land that accessed the base just 1,000 Black Tigers
held off a vastly larger government force.
Military Stalemate and Ceasefire
Finally in control of the Elephant Pass military complex, the Tamil Tigers now exerted de facto
control over most of their ethnic homeland. From Jaffna in the north to Mullaitivu in the east, the
LTTE had defeated the Sri Lankan military and held vast swathes of territory.

Tamil control (2004)

Without any military options, the Sri Lankan government had no choice but to recognize the
stalemate. In 2004, a Norwegian-negotiated ceasefire between the LTTE and the government left
the Tigers in control of the north-eastern provinces of the country and lifted the economic
embargo on rebel territory.
After centuries of oppression and decades of bloody civil war, it seemed as if the Tamils were
finally going to have their own country of Tamil Eelan. But unfortunately for the Tamil Tigers,
nature had other plans.
The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami
On December 26th, 2004, Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers struggle was changed forever when a
massive earthquake hit the ocean floor. With a magnitude of 9.3 and over 9 minutes of direct
fault fracturing (the longest period of fault fracturing ever recorded), it was the 3rd largest

earthquake ever documented. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunami was one
of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history.

Range of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami

The earthquake created a monstrous, surging tsunami over 100 feet tall that decimated coastal
communities in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India, killing 230,000 people. In Sri Lanka, the
tsunami caused over 35,000 deaths and displaced over 500,000 people.
The coastal areas in eastern Sri Lanka (closest to the epicenter of the earthquake) were the
hardest hit by the tsunami. The ethnic Tamil homelands were ravaged as the enormous wave of
water swept away entire Tamil cities. The Tamil Tigers were significantly weakened as weapons
depots, fortified positions, and even essential economic materials like crops and were obliterated.
Sri Lankan Military Takes the Offensive
However, while the Tamil coastal enclaves had been devastated by the tsunami, the Sri Lankan
south and central highlands (controlled by the government) were still relatively intact.
Realizing the strength of their position, the government pulled out of peace talks in 2006 and
resumed their offensive against the Tamil Tigers. Massing over 50,000 troops in the north, the Sri
Lankan military assaulted Tamil positions that had already been reduced to rubble by the
tsunami. In disarray and scattered, the Tigers were unable to formulate a comprehensive defense
and government troops steamrolled across the country.
Even the defensible base at Elephant Pass which the Tigers had worked so hard to capture
quickly fell to the government forces. Most of the LTTEs leadership, including the Tigers
supreme commander Velupillai Prabhakaran, were killed and the remnants of their forces fell
back to their jungle fortress at Mullaitivu.
The Tigers Last Stand
At Mulliativu, the last major city under Tamil control, the Tigers committed themselves to
suicidal last stand. With the LTTEs command structure in tatters the military quickly advanced,
leaving the Tigers with just 840 acres of land, roughly the size of New York Citys central park.
As the government advanced, the Tigers became more and more desperate, taking hostages and
using human shields. With over 7,000 fighters crammed into the tiny area, experts feared a
bloody fight to the death.

A Sri Lankan soldier takes a position in Mullaitivu

The military kept attempting to clear the zone, but they suffered heavy casualties from LTTE
fighters who no longer cared for their own lives. Sweeping suicides occurred in Tiger camps as
hundreds of fighters swallowed their cyanide pills rather than face capture.
Finally Selvarasa Pathmanathan, head of the LTTEs Department of International Relations,
declared the battle over and the Tigers laid down their weapons.
This battle has reached its bitter end- Selvarasa Pathmanathan
Aftermath of the Civil War
In total, over 11,000 LTTE fighters surrendered throughout the country, including nearly 600
child soldiers that had fought for the Tamil Tigers.
Tamil separatist movements have conceded defeat and ceased military action, while associated
Tamil political institutions have dropped their demand for a separate Tamil state. After their
dreamed Tamil Eelam seemed so close after 25 years of bloody, armed struggle, the Tamils were
The Sri Lankan government has been working to reintegrate former LTTE fighters into society
using their National Action Plan for the Re-integration of Ex-Combatants and empower the
Tamil people by equalizing laws. However, widespread discrimination against Tamils in Sri
Lanka continues. Unless the reintegration program is successful and Tamils receive equal
treatment under the law, this conflict will reignite again within a generation.