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Diplomacy and Conflict • Guerrilla Warfare

Until May 2009, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, was Sri Lanka's largest and most militant Tamil separatist group.

Influence and Legacy

Founded by the late Velupillai Prabhakaran in 1972 as the Tamil New Tigers youth group, which evolved into the Tamil Tigers, the LTTE gained infamy for its innovative techniques now widely used by insurgent groups worldwide, the most notable being suicide bombing. The LTTE fought for decades for the creation of an autonomous Tamil homeland. To that end, the group allied itself in 1985 with the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students, the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front, and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization. However, by 1986, the LTTE had turned against its new antigovernment partners, assuming control of most of the country's northern area—especially the strategically located Jaffna peninsula, where the group ruled the region as a de facto government. The withdrawal of thousands of Indian troops from Sri Lanka in March 1990 solidified the LTTE's power, but in 1993, the Colombo government mounted a successful campaign to oust the rebels from their Jaffna stronghold. The start of the campaign was spurred by an ambush of government troops in which hundreds of soldiers were killed.

The LTTE was long regarded as the primary obstacle to peace between the country's restive Hindu Tamil minority and the Sinhalese Buddhist government because of its terrorist activities, hard-line position, and intolerance of dissent. However, some short-lived progress was made in the early 21st century toward official peace talks between the LTTE and the government. LTTE members are blamed for the 1991 assassination by suicide bombing of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, the May 1993 assassination of Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa, and the December 1999 attack on Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, elected president of Sri Lanka just days later. They also killed scores of politicians, journalists, and others who opposed them.

Also in recent years, the LTTE formed their own navy and air force, and for a time—unlike most separatist movements—posed a real military threat to Sri Lanka's government. However, after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of September 11, 2001, the LTTE was classified as an international terrorist group, and funding for its cause began to dry up when foreign governments cracked down on the group's overseas support.


With the 2005 election of hard-line Sinhalese president Mahinda Rajapakse—a former labor activist determined to use the military to wipe out the LTTE—the group's fate was sealed. In early 2008, Sri Lanka's army increased its long-running offensive against the LTTE in the northeast, while Rajapakse banned reporters from the region, punished dissenters, and reportedly ignored the safety of Tamil civilians who were caught in the middle of the fighting. In May 2009, Sri Lankan troops cornered the remnants of the Tamil Tigers on a tiny sliver of land in the northeast, killing or capturing all LTTE combatants, and declared the end of the long civil war and of the LTTE itself. After the fighting ended, the military displayed what it claimed was the body of LTTE leader Prabhakaran.

Further Reading

Bose, Sumantra, States, Nations, Sovereignty: Sri Lanka, India and the Tamil Eelam Movement, 1994; Sengupta, Somini, "Ethnic Divisions in Sri Lanka Seem Wider than Ever," The New York Times, May 11, 2006; Tamil Eelam Home Page (http://www.eelam.com); Waldman, Amy, "Sri Lanka Faces the Divisions Within," The New York Times, January 8, 2003.

MLA Citation

"Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam." World Geography: Understanding a Changing World, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldgeography.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/130780. Accessed 21 Apr. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2180538

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