Tom Farrell describes one of the most formidable guerilla armies of modern times.
Typically, serving members of the Tamil Tigers wore distinctive combat fatigues banded into a tigerstripe pattern. Variations included a blue uniform for Sea Tiger ratings and a black-on-grey pattern for the Black Tiger suicide division.
Female fighters wore similar uniforms, but when on active duty their usual attire consisted of black pants and a shirt belted into a tunic. Female Tigers were also required to either cut their hair short or wear it tightly braided, long hair being regarded as a likely handicap in battle.
All Tigers, male or female, were issued with the kuppi (cyanide vial) and instructions to bite down and kill themselves in the event of capture. During the 26-year war, hundreds did so.
A Tiger’s weapon was considered his or her most sacred possession. If lost, the guerrilla would never be armed again. In the nine years between Prabhakaran founding the Tamil New Tigers and the outbreak of full-scale civil war in 1983, his group possessed around 30 firearms, mostly sourced from criminals. At that time, Tigers were one of several Tamil factions engaged in low-intensity warfare throughout the Jaffna peninsula.
Most members were young and low caste, moving between safe houses, and conducting the occasional bank robbery to raise funds.
In the early years of the war, a sympathetic India had provided sanctuary for 15,000 Tamil militants in Uttar Pradesh state, where they received training in infantry tactics, jungle warfare, and the use of explosives. However, unlike the other groups, the Tigers sought an independent source of weaponry.
From 1984 onwards, a Tiger operative named Kumaran Pathmanadan (KP) ran a special department for weapons procurement. The MV Cholan became the first of the LTTE’s ‘Sea Pigeons’, a fleet of up to 22 vessels prowling the world’s oceans and picking up shipments of weaponry, typically mortars, rocketpropelled grenade launchers, M-16 rifles, light anti-tank weapons, pistols, and grenades.
It was through the ‘KP Department’ that the Tigers were able to smuggle in components that allowed them to assemble a small fleet of Czech-built Zlin Z-43 propeller-driven aircraft. Launched from airstrips in the far north, the Vaan Pulikal (‘Air Tigers’) carried out nearly a dozen air-raids against government-held areas, including Colombo, in 2007-2009. Although the attacks were militarily insignificant, they had spectacular
propaganda value, since no other terrorist or insurgent group has yet managed to field its own air force.
The Soviet-aligned Indian government of Indira Gandhi had initially backed the Tamil factions to check the pro-American drift of Sri Lanka. But with 55 million Tamils on Indian soil, her son Rajiv was less than enthusiastic about the actual realisation of an independent Tamil Eelam, and in 1987 his government sought to bring the war to an end with a ceasefire and devolution package. However, the tens of thousands of Indian troops who arrived on the island that year soon found themselves at war with the Tigers.
After their withdrawal and Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, India ceased to be a safe haven. The KP Department developed strong links with Eritrea and the Horn of Africa. Weapons procurement was shifted to the ex-Soviet Union and South-East Asia. From 1997 onwards, North Korea became the major source of surface-to-air missiles for the Tigers.
For all their accessing of materials from overseas, however, the Tigers’ most extraordinary achievement was their ability to develop weapons of their own own – like the attack vehicles used at Elephant Pass, and the suicide vests of the Black Tiger elite.