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COLOMBO, Jul 16 2003 (IPS) - Talk about the Tamil Tigers’ suicide cadres and many in both the majority Sinhala community and minority Tamils here in Sri Lanka react with fear.
”Their commitment is scary," says Lakshman Wickremasinghe, a Sinhalese. His thoughts are echoed by Nadaraja Sivaganashan, a Tamil. ”They don’t care who, when or what, they will kill themselves."
Both of them think suicide bombings by the Tigers have not ended for good, despite the cessation of hostilities that has been in place since February 2002 in the Tigers’ campaign for their own homeland.
The use and effect of suicide bombings in Sri Lanka’s two-decade-old ethnic conflict was underscored this month, which marks the 16th anniversary of the Tigers’ first official use of this weapon on Jul. 5, 1987.
On that day, Captain Miller, a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as the Tigers are formally known, drove an explosives-laden truck into an army camp housed at a school in Nelliady in the northern Jaffna peninsula.
Since then, the Black Tigers, as the suicide cadres are known, have been emulated by the likes of Hamas in the Palestinians’ campaign against Israeli occupation, and by the al-Qaeda network of terrorists.
Lasantha Dahanaike, a human rights investigator based in the United States, says that poverty, repression – and the anger and desperation stemming from these – are responsible for the evolution of the suicide cadre culture.
"I don’t condone it, but it is the most effective weapon against an army that has modern weapons at its disposal. They (suicide cadres) are using their best weapon,” said Dahanaike, a Sri Lankan who has also done research on the suicide attacks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In other words, the use of suicide bombers depends heavily on the particular situation in a conflict. If the situation on the ground continues to be a breeding ground for such desperate moves, suicide attacks will continue, he adds.
On Jul. 5, Miller and other LTTE cadres who followed him were commemorated by the LTTE all over Tamil-dominated areas in the North and East. At least 243 Tigers have since followed in Miller’s footsteps, including 53 women.
Female suicide cadres were responsible for two of the most spectacular Tiger attacks – the one that killed Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the assassination attempt on Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1999. Kumaratunga survived the attack, but lost an eye.
The background of Black Tiger Kandasmy Lingeswaran is typical. Born to a poor fishing family in Jaffna, he witnessed his family and community harassed by government forces. He joined the LTTE and like most cadres, was willing to give up his life for the Tigers’ elusive leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, and what he believes is the Tamil cause.
"If war breaks out, I will fight. And in war you make sacrifices," Lingeswaran said during an interview soon after he was released by the government during a prisoners-of-war swap in September.
”For some, particularly for those who have lost a loved one during an ethnic riot or killed by a soldier, Prabhakaran is a demigod," said author Rohan Gunaratna in his book, ‘International and Regional Security, Implications of the Sri Lankan Tamil Insurgency’.
Media reports that emerged during the investigation into the Gandhi assassination revealed that Dhanu’s motivation for becoming a suicide bomber stemmed from her rape by Indian soldiers stationed in Sri Lanka during the late 1980s.
From the time a cadre is singled out to be a Black Tiger, he or she courts mythical admiration. The Black Tiger is separated from ordinary cadres and severs all contact with family and friends. Before embarking on a suicide mission, he or she will partake in a special meal with Prabhakaran.
In death, Black Tigers are venerated. In LTTE cemeteries, suicide cadres have pride of place with granite tombstones over graves that hold no bodies.
Shrines built in memory of them dot Sri Lanka’s north-east. At the location of the attack in Nelliady, which is now under government control, the Tigers erected a statue of Miller last year. It was here that the main commemoration ceremony in Jaffna took place earlier this month.
The Tiger rebels also look after suicide cadres’ families after their demise. For the likes of Lingeswaran, in death he may be able to give his poor family something that he never could in life, a comfortable life and respect. Miller’s mother too was among the chief guests at the Jul. 5 ceremony.
The newest addition to the suicide wing is the Sea Tigers. Footage of such attacks has shown them speeding toward Sri Lankan Navy crafts in explosive-ridden crafts, waving and acknowledging the cheers of cadres on other boats.
A suicide cadre is a potent weapon that can not be detected very easily, says government military spokesman Brig Sanath Karunaratne. "It is a one-way soldier and there is very little stopping. Once you get someone into that mentality, there can be no limit," he told IPS.
For instance, Babu, the LTTE cadre who killed President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, had infiltrated the President’s staff through a household staffer and remained inactive for almost two years before carrying out the suicide attack.
For its part, the LTTE realises that the Black Tigers give them an unmatched edge. "The Black Tigers are the strongest force of a much weakened people,” said Amithaab, an LTTE official at the Nelliady ceremony.
The Tamil daily ‘Sudar Oli’ recently quoted Prabhakran as paying tribute to suicide cadres. ”No weapon and no technology on earth, can stop the determination of the LTTE’s suicide bombers. The suicide squad came into being at a critical juncture in the history of the Tamil liberation movement and has taken it to the next stage."
In many ways, this month’s ceremony in Nelliady was a means for the Tigers to tell the Sri Lankan government and other parties involved in the peace process that it is still a force to reckon with militarily.
For the time being, the Black Tigers are hibernating. They have only been put on public display once, during the Heroes Day celebrations in November, when they marched with black face masks.
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