Suicide Bombers of Sri Lanka


by Dr.Daya Somasundaram
University of Jaffna


The phenomena of suicide bombers in Sri Lanka share some similarities with but also have some marked differences with what is seen in other parts of world today. Increasing discrimination, state humiliation and violence against the minority Tamils brought out a militancy and the phenomena of suicide bombers. The underlying socio-political and economical factors in the North and East of Sri Lanka that caused the militancy at the onset are examined.

Some of these factors that were the cause of or consequent to the conflict include: extrajudicial killing of one or both parents or relations by the state; separations, destruction of home and belongings during the war; displacement; lack of adequate or nutritious food; ill health; economic difficulties;

lack of access to education; not seeing any avenues for future employment and advancement; social and political oppression; and facing harassment, detention and death. At the same time, the Tamil militants have used various psychological methods to entice youth, children and women to join and become suicide bombers. Public displays of war paraphernalia, posters of fallen heroes, speeches and video, particularly in schools and community gatherings, heroic songs and stories, public funeral rites and annual remembrance ceremonies draw out feelings of patriotism and create a martyr cult. The religio-cultural context of the Tamils has provided meaning and symbols for the creation and maintenance of this cult, while the LTTE has provided the organisational capacity to train and indoctrinate a special elite as suicide bombers. Whether the crushing of the LTTE militarily by the state brings to an end the phenomena of suicide bombers or whether it will re-emerge in other forms if underlying grievances are not resolved remains to be seen.

The decimation of the Liberation Tigers of Thamil Eelam (LTTE), its top leadership (including Prabhakaran), their supporters, and over 20,000 Tamil civilians by the Sri Lanka state in May 2009 (University Teachers for Human Rights, 2009) could have put an end to the phenomena of suicide attacks in Lanka. The successful crushing of a till-then powerful separatist movement by military means has profound implications for modern counter-insurgency strategy the world over. Already countries like Pakistan are seeking to emulate the ‘Lanka model’ to address their own local insurgencies (BBC, 2009). The Sri Lankan state also feels justified in continuing with the Malaysian ‘Bhumiputra’ model of governance in dealing with minorities whereby the majority, ‘sons of the soil’, are given privileged status. The discriminatory state policies and repression of minority rights may have been one of the original causes of the ethnic conflict (Hoole, 2001) and subsequent evolution of suicide terror tactics by the weaker rebels. Thus, it is not only of historical and academic interest, but of paramount importance in designing counter-insurgency strategies and solutions to try to understand what happened.

The Black Tiger suicide cadres of the LTTE shared similarities with other suicide bombers across the globe but also had significant differences (Gunaratna, 2000; Chandran, 2001a, 2001b; Bloom, 2005; Hassan, 2008a). The Black Tiger suicide attacks evolved as one of several militant strategies of the LTTE. The first suicide truck bombing was carried out by ‘Captain’ Miller of the LTTE who drove a truck packed with explosives into a Lankan army camp at a Nelliaddy school on 5 July 1987, reportedly killing over 100 soldiers. Apparently Miller was deeply upset by the LTTE pulling out of Vadamarachy, the northern part of the Jaffna Peninsula, under the onslaught of the state forces and personally instigated this course of action. Miller became a folk hero and 5 July has ever since been publically celebrated in a grand way as Black Tiger Day by the LTTE. The military effectiveness, emotional repercussion among the cadre and public, and spectacular media and propaganda value may have led the LTTE to adopt the same strategy. Some of the original militants are said to have undergone training in the Middle East and the leaders would have at least been acutely aware of what was happening there in terms of the use of suicide bombers.

Thus, it is said that suicide terror ‘outbids’ other methods available to a weaker, non-state guerrilla force. Subsequently over 300 (see Table 1) mostly successful suicide attacks have been carried out by the LTTE (SATP, 2009) making it the most prolific in the world! Like Hizbullah, Hamas and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Black Tigers are an elite, highly trained and indoctrinated, specialised unit within the overall militant organisation that also included such conventional wings as air, sea, anti-aircraft, anti-tank, artillery, demolition, women, young, special units, political, and other units. Unlike many Islamist jihadi groups with multiple, smaller, semi-autonomous, ‘home-grown’ origins, the Black Tigers are found only within the monolithic LTTE in Sri Lanka.

They have only carried out one attack overseas in India, killing former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi. The targets have been carefully chosen with alleged military, political, economic or symbolic value (see Table 1). Military and political leaders, including Tamil leaders considered by the LTTE to be against them (‘throhi’ or traitors), military, strategic, political, symbolic and economic institutions or infrastructure, pre-emptive strikes and plain military objectives have been targeted by a variety of suicide methods. These have included vehicles, such as trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, boats and planes with explosives, and people with explosives strapped to them. There is intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, meticulous planning, rehearsals, compartmentalised cells with support teams and, where possible, dry runs before the actual mission. According to the LTTE, civilians have never been targeted directly but are so called collateral damage.

There have been warnings to the public not to go close to possible targets. Sometimes ‘sleepers’ have lived in the target area for years as ordinary civilians with economic resources, amidst alluring temptations, cultivating social relationships without raising suspicion before carrying out their mission. Very rarely has there been any wavering, fear, signs of doubt, misgiving or uncertainty and the attacks have been carried out with extraordinary precision. This shows a high degree of commitment, singleness of purpose, devotion to cause, allegiance to the leader, motivation, clarity of mind about day-to-day functioning, skill and loyalty maintained over long periods of time (over three years in the case of President Premadasa) in adverse environments and without the need for regular support, ritualistic practices or encouragement. Only in more recent times has the state managed to ‘harden’ potential targets with increased security measures and thwart intended aims.

In joining the Tamil Tigers, the cadres commit themselves to die and wear a cyanide capsule (usually on a necklace) at all times to be used in the event of imminent capture, ostensibly to avoid giving information under torture. This pattern of suicide is similar to what the sociologist Emilie Durkheim (1951) called ‘altruistic suicide,’ in which the individual feels so closely identified with a group and committed to the cause, that he is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good, or ‘fatalistic suicide’ where there is high degree of control and indoctrination. An estimated one-third of the LTTE’s combat deaths up to 1992 can be attributed to these forms of suicides (Schalk, 2003). Thus, they could be technically considered suicide cadres. Among the veteran cadres that I have interviewed or treated over the years (admittedly those with psychological problems), there is a strong death wish (perhaps a result of the harsh realities of battle, death of comrades, and hopelessness of fatal outcome). Almost all of them have a strong desire to join the elite Black Tigers; in fact, it is seen as an honour and opportunity to be worthy and useful. The recruiters are looking for able and skilled combatants to be used as instruments in the war, precision weapons of high effectiveness by the weaker party in an asymmetrical war fight.

Table 1: Suicide attacks by LTTE — some illustrative examples

Female suicide bombers do not arouse suspicion and are less often checked thoroughly for cultural reasons, blend in more easily with civilian populations, and are able to conceal the explosive devices within their clothes and body. Thus, they are said to be able to penetrate and gain access to their targets more easily; however, this changed with increased intelligence, enhanced security measures and the ‘hardening’ of targets. They also tend to be more committed and purposeful in carrying out their missions. According to Nelfouer De Mel, the phenomena of female suicide bombers has raised issues of ‘autonomous choice, agency, feminist politics, cultural role models, and the gendered nature of sacrifice/martyrdom’ (Bloom, 2005) within a more general female emancipation or empowerment through militancy in a traditional, patriarchal society (Hellmann-Rajanayagam, 2008).

The Tamils of Sri Lanka have traditionally been a relatively peaceful society.

Although there has been considerable internal violence, for example, in terms of domestic violence, child abuse, caste violence, and suicide, the incidence of external aggression, killings and large-scale civil violence were not seen. In fact, only a few decades ago, before the onset of the current civil or ethnic war, a single homicide would bring on a general paralysis, rumours, extreme fear and apprehension, so much so that people would stay indoors for weeks or even months on end (Somasundaram, 1998).

A single killing would become a major issue, discussed in the media and people would talk about it for weeks. The war brought about a gradual habituation to violence and killing that became part of the day-to-day social climate.

The Tamils had often been stereotyped as somewhat submissive. Thus, the term, ‘Demala,’ used by Sinhalese to describe Tamils had a derogatory tone to it. The 1983 pogrom (Piyadasa, 1984; Roberts, 2003) can be seen as an attempt to teach the ‘Tamils’ a lesson, to send them running with their tails between their legs. Indeed, I believe the Sanskrit root of the term Dravidian, means ‘to run.’ It is only more recently, after the militant reaction to the violent suppression that the term ‘kotiya’ has replaced this stereotype and with it some grudging respect! So the question arises how the Tamils, youth in particular, could have become militant so quickly; even how the notorious Black Tiger suicide cadres developed. It would appear that social sanction for a group to behave violently can bring out aggressive acts they had learned or seen, for example, in the media.

Although it is generally accepted that certain ethnic groups have special martial abilities (in the Indian subcontinent, the Gurkhas, Sikhs and Rajputs are famed for their fighting prowess), this may as well be a sub-cultural influence, depending on how the males are brought up in the community, their expectations and training. Thus, it is significant that an overtly peaceful society, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, have been able, when provoked, to develop quite competent (a competency artificially bolstered by modern easy to use light weaponry) military capacities so quickly, capacities able to stand up to the aforementioned regiments during the ill-fated Indian intervention in Sri Lanka (Hoole et al., 1988). In the final analysis, the outcome of this historical confrontation may well have proven that between two well-trained and equipped fighting units, the decisive factor is their motivation.

The defeat of the LTTE by the Sinhala state from 2006 to 2009 may also be due to the crucial difference in motivation and moral — a deterioration in the LTTE and an upsurge among the state forces (UTHR-J, 2009). The development of the Tamil militancy and the LTTE suicide bombers can only be understood in terms of the socio-cultural and political contexts. I would like to look at the motivation for the militancy in general, and the elite suicide cadres among them in particular, as arising from the confluence of several push and pull factors. The use of push-pull categorisation has been used more recently in relation to child labour by the International Labour Organisation’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour 1 and, more specifically, child soldiers 2 (Somasundaram, 2001).

In reality, the causative factors will not fall neatly into dichotomous categories, but show overlaps and exceptions. The suicide cadres are chosen from among the ordinary LTTE who show extreme capacity, commitment and, particularly, aptitude for these types of operations. They are in a sense the creme de la creme.

The organisational character of the LTTE and their martyr cult would have then moulded, indoctrinated, trained and honed them into the elite Black Tigers (Arnestad & Daae, 2007). The causes were more clear and valid at the beginning of war; the complex picture has changed with time and the same factors may not be operative now. Towards the end of the fighting, recruitment became more coercive, and selection and choice minimal.

Push Factors Social Jaffna Hindu society before the war was very much under the caste system and the lower castes were suppressed by the higher, mainly the Vellala caste who held the authority. The caste system has been responsible for considerable covert violence throughout history. For many from the lower castes, joining the militant movement became a way out of this oppressive system. Similarly, for the younger women who experience widespread socio-cultural oppression

See their website:


against their sex, it is a means of escape and ‘liberation’ (Trawick, 1999; Hellmann-Rajanayagam, 2008). The LTTE cadres, particularly the leadership, have been drawn particularly from the Karaiyar caste (traditionally fisherman living along the coast but have a reputation of being seafarers, warriors, mercenaries and smugglers). It is noteworthy that the LTTE developed a fairly powerful naval wing, Sea Tigers, and suicide Black Sea Tigers who would ram their explosive laden crafts into the bigger Lankan Navy boats.


Many of the youth and children who joined the militant forces are from the lower socio-economical classes. Economical pressures within the family and lack of opportunities in the wider society drove many youth to join. Many youth felt their avenues for advancement blocked by the discriminatory acts of the state, with many not able to find employment, opportunity for higher education or vocational training, economical assistance in the form of loans or schemes, or other openings that they saw youths from the majority ethnic group exploiting to their benefit.

Under the dowry system, some parents having female children for whom they could not provide encouraged them to join. Thus, looking from a socioeconomic perspective, the vast majority of the youth who joined the militancy were from the lower disadvantaged socio-economic class. It is ironic that the vast majority of the state forces involved in the direct fighting were also from the same disadvantaged socio-economic class. However, there was a noticeable difference in their motivation, particularly under the duress of battle or rigours of training. This may well show that fanatical belief in a cause or perceived threat to group identity (to be discussed later) can override economic motivations.


Lack of food, especially nutritious food, is another important indirect stressor but perhaps not a direct motivating factor. Studies in the Jaffna General Hospital show that there has been a statistically significant increase in Low Birth Weight (below 2.5 kg) babies from 19% in 1989 to 23% in 1991 and even 25% in 1992. The cause for this can be found in the malnutrition of pregnant mothers. In 1987, Theivendran 3 found that all the pregnant mothers, as well as the lactating mothers, examined in 12 refugee camps within the Jaffna municipality, were anaemic. He also found that 41% of the infants and 73%

R. Theivendran, “Unpublished Study of Miscarriages among Refugees”, pers. comm. D. Somasundaram / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 416–441 of the children of 1–5 years were below the 3rd percentile expected weight for their age, showing chronic 2nd to 3rd degree Protein Calorie Malnutrition. Similar malnutrition (68% below the 3rd percentile in 1–5 year olds) was found in the Kotpali refugee camp by the SCF (Council of Non-Governmental Organisations, 1992). Deprivation of food and chronic hunger are themselves stressors that cause apathy, listlessness, irritation and failure to thrive. Furthermore, low birth weight and malnourishment in infants increases the risk of immediate and long-term morbidity and mortality, including psychiatric disorders. Protein malnutrition in the critical period of development of the nervous system (that is, from conception to about two years after birth) leads to permanent brain damage causing Mental Subnormality.

According to the Council of Non-Governmental Organisations (1992) and Sivarajah (1993), the reasons for this widespread malnutrition are attributed to the shortage of protein due to the fall in the fishing and poultry industries and perhaps also due to poverty caused by unemployment, loss of working equipment, agricultural fields and savings; as well as shortages and high prices of food — all indirect effects of war.

Parents have been known to send one or more of their children to join when facing difficulties in feeding the family. They have expressed satisfaction that at least that child will have enough to eat. The LTTE has also used their ability to feed their cadres with good food in their propaganda for recruitment and were mindful of the regular diet of their cadres.


Another stressor, again not a direct motivating cause, is ill health due to reduced resistance as a consequence of malnourishment and psychological stress, poor sanitation and overcrowding in the refugee camps, epidemic spread of communicable diseases, poor health services, shortage of drugs, and uncontrolled multiplication of disease vectors, like mosquitoes, due to a lack of spraying. Diseases on the increase in children included respiratory tract infections, gastroenteritis, dysentery, typhoid, resistant cerebral malaria, tuberculosis, rheumatic fever and craditis, and the so-called fatal ‘septicaemia.’

Lack of quality healthcare in the North and East is appalling (Somasundaram, 2005a). The lack of access to health and malnutrition may produce a milieu of deprivation, a perception of inequity that could turn into a direct motivating factor.


Displacement is the source of several stresses, as described by Prof. Raphael (1986): D. Somasundaram / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 416–441 The loss of home, a strange environment, the breakdown of family ritual, separation from parents, from familiar neighbourhood and environment, and from school and friends, the loss of toys and treasures, and crowded and strange accommodation are all likely to be stressful for the child.

Almost all families were displaced during the 1995 exodus (UTHR-J, 1995b), and a high proportion had been displaced at other times, particularly during the Indian intervention in October of 1987 (Hoole et al. 1988). All the indices of psychological disturbances are more marked in the displaced students (Arunagirinathan et al., 1993). Refugee camps become breeding grounds for recruitment.


Disruption in regular schooling and education has been a prominent stressor in this war (inability to attend schools due to: displacements; unavailability of schools due to destruction or use as camps); indefiniteness about national exams; lack of a secure, calm, lighted (no electricity), quiet environment for learning; irregular attendance due to transport difficulties and disturbed situation, students being detained, conscripted, indoctrinated or forced to partake in political activities; seeing the emigration of fellow students; lack of opportunity to continue their education (refugee children being unable to go to school due to a lack of uniforms, exercise books and the like); and shortages and delays in receiving school text books and materials; etc.

The beginnings of Tamil militancy were a reaction to the discriminatory state policy in education, particularly changes in university admission procedures favouring the majority community. Unfortunately, recent developments in the educational system have turned this once cherished endeavour into an area of deprivation. The non-attendance and dropout rates increased dramatically in the North in the late 1990’s, becoming the highest on the island (Save the Children, 1998). A recent study of the performance of students in basic skills, such as in language and mathematics, shows the north-east coming last in the island (National Education Research and Evaluation Centre, 2004). Ironically, what started out as a struggle for better educational opportunities has had the opposite effect, even to point of being classified as a ‘deprived’ district. Under these circumstances, militancy has become an alluring alternative to education.

Death of Parent(s) and/or Relatives

Death or disappearance of one or both parents have left many children orphaned or as members of one-parent families. Some left to join when they directly witnessed the brutal killing of their parent(s) by the state, others left later when pressures built up in the family. Some reported a burning desire for revenge as a reason for joining.


During the fighting, many structures were destroyed, including homes, schools, temples, churches and other social institutions. Seeing the destruction of a till then permanent structure, his or her home, and/or social and religious institutions can be the collapse of everything secure and strong of the child’s known world, creating a vacuum that can never be filled. A variety of emotions can result: From anger, resentment and devastation, to hopelessness and indignation.

Humiliation, Harassment, Detention, Death

Tamil youth are specifically targeted by the state security forces in their checking, and cordon and search operations, and generally detained for interrogation, detention, torture, execution or even rape. During the so-called ‘Operation Liberation’ in 1987, the youth were either summarily shot (Hoole et al., 1988) or shipped off in chains to the Boosa camp in the South by the army en mass. So, when faced with the possible entry of the army, many youth will rather join than face, in their eyes, certain detention and death.

Fifteen per cent of the 600 disappearances in 1996 within Jaffna were children. In a more recent example of direct cause-and-effect, in May 1999, a senior school prefect of a leading school in Jaffna was detained when his parents had taken him to the camp. When he was not released in the subsequent days, all the schools in the Jaffna district went on strike. Finally, he was released without any charges. Contusions and abrasions were found on his body. While he was in detention, five other students from the same area left to join the movement.

In addition to the pogrom of 1983 against the Tamil minority ethnic group (Piyadasa, 1984; Roberts, 2003), it was the continuing deaths, destruction and violence by the state that was perceived as being directed against the Tamils that lent legitimacy to the militancy that attracted the allegiance and blind loyalty to whichever movement that was at hand. Many were humiliated in the way they or their families were treated at check-points, search operations, or in dealings with state officials. This left a burning resentment just below the surface. In some drama workshops in the North, skilled practitioners of the Theatre Action Group (TAC) brought out these emotions from disgruntled youth and paved the way for their easiy recruitment into the militancy.

Once recruited, the LTTE could harness and direct this emotion against a perceived enemy through indoctrination and training to create the Black Tigers. The cynical manipulation of cadres by the LTTE leadership was seen in the final battle, where waves of suicide squads were sent to slow down the inevitable advance of the Lankan army while the leaders were looking and negotiating for terms of surrender (UTHR-J, 2009).


In the civil war that has been in progress in north-east Sri Lanka for almost two decades, children have been traumatised by such common experiences as frequent shelling, bombing, helicopter strafing, round-ups, cordoning-off and search operations, deaths, injury, destruction, mass arrests, detention, shootings, grenade explosions and landmines. A recent study in the Vanni found that over 90% of the students have undergone a direct war experience (VIVO, 2003). Studies focusing on children in war situations, for example, in Mozambique (Richman et al., 1988) and the Philippines (Children’s Rehabilitation Center, 1986) report considerable psychological sequelae. A detailed Canadian study of children in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, in addition to their studies in Yugoslavia, Palestine and Iraq, found considerable more exposure to war trauma and psychological sequelae in the ethnic minority Tamil children (Health Reach, 1996). In northern Sri Lanka, extensive epidemiological surveys in 1993 of 12 Vaddukoddai cluster schools (Arunakirinathan et al., 1993), adolescents in Jaffna (Geevathasan, 1993), and Killinochchi schools (Somasundaram, 1998) showed widespread war stressors (Table 2).

Table 2: War Stress in Adolescents; n=613 (percentages)

Type of War Stress Number (percentage)

Direct war stress

Threat to life 154 (25%)
Injury 45 (7%)
Detention 39 ( 6.%)
Torture 23 ( 4%)
War death of relation 195 (32%)
Witnessing violence 156 (25%)

Indirect War Stress

Displacement (before 1995) 241 (39%)
Lack of Food 92 (15%)
Economic problems 208 (34%)
Mean number of stresses (per child)

Table 3: Common Symptoms in School Children (Vaddukodai) (n=305)

Symptoms Percentages

Sleep disturbances 270 (77%)
Separation anxiety 122 (40%)
Hyper-alertness 152 (50%)
Sadness 131 (43%)
Clinging 137 (45%)
Withdrawal 76 (25%)
Decline in school performance 183 (60%)
Irritability 223 (73%)


Aggressiveness 140 (46%)
Cruelty 92 (30%)
Anti-social behaviour 134 (44%)
War games 165 (54%)
War vocabulary 195 (64%)

Table 4: Psychosocial Problems in Adolescents; n=625 (percentages)

Psychosocial Problems Numbers (percentages)

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 194 (31%)
Somatisation 200 (32%)
Anxiety 211 (34%)
Depression 179 (29%)
Hostility 279 (45%)
Relationships problems 210 (34%)
Alcohol and drug abuse 41 (7%)
Functional disability 220 (35%)
Cognitive Impairment
Loss of memory 275 (44%)
Loss of concentration 297 (48%)
Loss of motivation 201 (33%)

The impact of the war on their growing minds (Tables 3 and 4) and the resulting traumatisation and brutalisation will be the primary motivating factors for their future militancy.

Future (Employment and Education)

As mentioned, opportunities for and access to further education, sports, foreign scholarships, or jobs in the state sector (Table 5) have been progressively restricted by successive Sinhalese governments, despite the lip-service paid to maintaining ethnic ratios.


One example of an outstanding grievance, the use of the Tamil language, remains unimplemented. The Report on the Abused Child and the Legal Process of Sri Lanka submitted to the National Monitoring Committee on the Children’s Charter by Samaraweera (1997), says, ‘The legal process operates virtually entirely, certainly in the texts we examined, in Sinhala or in Sinhala and English. When a child who speaks only Tamil encounters the law, as we were able to observe on numerous occasions during our research, s/he is at a considerable disadvantage, and may even be completely shut out. The Tamil-only speakers are dealt with by the legal process very much on an ad hoc basis . . .’

What is true for the legal system is similar to all other areas of public functioning in Sri Lanka today: S/he invariably faces humiliation. When a Tamil youth is checked or detained, they are often harassed, beaten or tortured. In a study of former detainees in Vavuniya, all were found to have been tortured (Doney, 1998). In addition, there are the cumulative effects of chronic civil violence and suppression on a community, described as a ‘repressive ecology’ (Baykai et al., 2004), that cause a break-up off social capital, resources, structures and functioning, called ‘collective trauma’ (Somasundaram, 2007). The greatest impact of this kind of structural violence and oppression is on the younger generation. Over time the discrimination and violence against the minority Tamils have become institutionalised, entrenched within the system, so much so that the state terror and oppression are hardly conspicuous

In these circumstances, it would be easy to understand why youth and children join. It would be much more effective in the long-term and a more permanent solution to bring pressure on the state to dismantle the socio-economic and political oppression that the particular group faces. Ultimately, militancy and dying as a Black Tiger is a political message, a signal of frustration from those without access to power; a method, however misguided, that is resorted to when other alternates appear to fail; and a message about perceived injustice and inequity.

Pull Factors


In the beginning, youth joined the militant movements out of altruistic beliefs to safeguard their threatened ethnic identity (Somasundaram, 1998). For example, when in the 1983 riots Tamils as a group were humiliated, the youth took up arms to prevent a complete eclipse of the group’s identity. They joined whichever Tamil militant group was available. That they did so in the thousands with complete dedication, determination and resourcefulness is a mark of the deep threat that was felt at the core of their beings, a fear for their identity as a group. It was left to the youth to redeem the Tamil identity and honour, to take up the mantle and meet the challenge for group survival with a violent defiance. It could be said that this was the prime motivating factor at the beginning of the Tamil militancy.

Konrad Lorenz (1963) described such strong motivation as ‘militant enthusiasm.’

Due to the powerful emotional charge involved, challenges to group identity often end in confrontation and conflict, particularly when obstructed or suppressed violently in situations of inter-group tensions, perceived injustices and inequities. Unfortunately, leaders are well versed in the art of cleverly exploiting this reservoir of energy and turning it to their own purpose by appealing to patriotism, language, religion and such mystical concepts as soil and blood. Such appeals have the power to strike deep chords in one’s being, evoking ultimate loyalties and emotive passions. With time, the early motivating factors changed to more mundane ones.

After they eliminated the other Tamil militant groups taking complete totalitarian control, together with the subsequent Indian intervention in 1987, the Tamil Tigers started using children and women as older men were no longer joining. In time, the older youths matured enough to become disillusioned with the way the struggle was being directed. The intra- and inter-group internecine warfare soon disenchanted most. The vast majority of youth have been fleeing aboard, using complex routes and all their family resources and ingenuity to find asylum in foreign countries, choosing assimilation to the margins of their host culture. However, this widespread Tamil diaspora continued to support financially, vocally and even emotionally the violent nationalist project back in their erstwhile homeland. Yet, neither they, nor their children ever came back to join the militancy and sacrifice themselves for the cause.

To a large extent, under the Tigers, recruitment had been ‘voluntary’ until the situation became desperate towards the end of the fighting in 2008–2009.

Earlier, for a very short transient period, the Indian Army-backed EPRLF (another Tamil militant group) forcefully conscripted youth for their makeshift Tamil National Army, many of whom were later killed by the Tigers. Child recruitment by the Tamil Tigers became institutionalised after 1990. The Tigers themselves deny that they used child soldiers, but it has been variously estimated that 50% may be women and 20–40% may be children (UTHR-J, 1995a; Unicef and SCF, 2000). Methods of recruitment have changed more recently with conscription and abductions being reported from the last days in the Vanni (UTHR-J, 2009). It is among those who are unable to find a way to flee aboard, those of the lower socio-economic class trapped in the North and East with no other avenue of escape that have become the catchment population for the militants. Once in the LTTE, the atmosphere within the group, trauma from repeated battles, and a heightened sense of dedication may result in some volunteering to become Black Tigers.

Psychological Methods

Youth and children, because of their age, immaturity, curiosity and love for adventure, are susceptible to ‘‘Pied Piper’ enticement through a variety of psychological methods. Public displays of war paraphernalia, funerals and posters of fallen heroes; speeches and videos, particularly in schools; and heroic, melodious songs, poems and stories, drawing out feelings of patriotism and creating a martyr cult, have all created a compelling milieu. Following the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, a whole subculture has grown up around the Tamil militancy, in particular the LTTE which claimed to take up arms to defend the Tamils, their honour, dignity, homeland ( Eelam) or Tamil motherland (Tami thaiyaham) and culture. The LTTE cadres swore an allegiance to the leader, Prabhakaran, with their life, with the cyanide capsule (kuppi) worn around their neck as a symbol of their complete sacrifice (thiyaham).

When they died in battle or in service, they were eulogised as ‘ Mavirar’ (great heroes), bodies taken in state by vehicles all over the region with funeral music wailing over loudspeakers in street corners and buried (vithaikapaduthal,sowed as seeds) in special cemeteries called Thuyilam Illams (sleeping homes) as memory stones (natukal or ninaivukal when their bodies were not available). Their pictures appeared in posters pasted all over the north-east, in the media (including daily papers, periodicals, publications and internet sites), and glorified in songs, poems, stories, drawings, dramas, videos, statues, loudspeakers and speeches.

Mavirar families were also given special status in LTTE controlled (‘uncleared’) 4 areas with privileges in accessing services, respect at ceremonies and exemption from giving further children to the LTTE (increasingly ignored in the final months). Annual commemoration celebrations were held all over the north-east with massive public participation and abroad among the Tamil diaspora on special days, such as Mavirar Nal (27 November, when the first martyr died) and 5 July (Black Tiger Day) with ritualistic practices and cultural performances. Pictures of the Mavirar are posted all over the media, on walls, as cut-outs, in special pandals erected for this purpose with decorations (in red and yellow). LTTE songs are played over loudspeakers and flames ( theepam, signifying the flame of the eternal spirit or soul) are lit at auspicious times. A pride of place is given to acknowledged Black Tiger martyrs at these ceremonies and on the day specially reserved for them, 5 July.

This is a great public honour and spectacle that obviously helps in the LTTE propaganda, their public image, control over the populace, and recruitment. Prabhakaran himself is reported to have a last supper with the cadres before their mission, a picture of which is released posthumously. It is said that meeting the reclusive leader who inspires awe and reverence befitting a living god can itself be motive enough for volunteering for such missions. Although the LTTE claim to be secular, there is a ‘sacralisation of the national.’ All these ceremonies and manifestation contain rich cultural, religious and historical symbols and motifs which are a syncretism of Hindu and Christian beliefs and practices (Hellmann Rajanayagam, 2005; Roberts, 2005; Natali, 2008). This martyr cult gives inspiration, beliefs, purpose, zeal and meaning to LTTE cadres and Black Tigers which would encourage and sustain them in their sacrificial actions and death. The anticipated power of this cult is seen by the compulsion of the Sri Lankan state forces to destroy and bulldoze the Thuyilam Illams when

they capture that territory and suppress the ceremonies. However, the real In state-controlled (‘cleared) areas belonging to a Mavirar family became a liability and members had to actively hide that relationship or risk being harassed, assaulted, monitored, abducted, arrested, detained or killed. test of the long-term survival of these religio-cultural practices and beliefs would be seen by whether they revive when the grip of the state relaxes and for how long it continues.

The severe travel restrictions by the Tigers on leaving areas controlled by them, and applied particularly in the younger age group, created a feeling of entrapment, as well as ensuring that there was a continuous source of recruits.

More recently, the Tigers introduced compulsory military-type training in areas under their control, instilling a military thinking. Everyone, beginning from Grade 9, is compelled to undergo training in military drills, the use of arms, and mock battles, as well as being made to carry out military tasks, such as digging bunkers and manning sentry posts. Government rations, other benefits and travel are allowed only to those who have been trained (UTHR-J, 2000).

Paralysis of Socio-Cultural Institutions

Tamil society had prided itself as belonging to an ancient, cultured civilisation; however, when children started being used in the war, the social structures and religious institutions failed to protest. In fact, they remained silent and passive. This was in part due to the milieu created by the actions of the Sri Lankan state in its indiscriminate bombing, shelling, detention and torture.

It was also due in part to the general social deterioration due to the war, as well as due to the coercive power of totalitarian control exercised by the Tamil militants through intimidation and brutal elimination of all alternate structures and individuals. Thus, the Tamil militants were allowed to function freely within society, attracting children to their fighting units through their propaganda and psychological pressure exercised within the vacuum left by the abdication of social institutions. There was also popular and social sanction for the whole martyr cult (as described above), including the Black Tiger suicide missions. They became revered heroes. As Mia Bloom (2005) argues, it is when the suicidal terror and violence resonates with the public (for whatever reason, be it state suppression or terror) and finds social sanction, that it is likely to sustain itself successfully. However, the Tamil public and social leaders do not perceive these acts as suicide or terror perpetrated against civilians, but as the LTTE choosing ‘legitimate’ military or political targets to eliminate using a weapon of war.

In an unequal contest where the weaker, non-state actor does not have the same resources or heavy weaponry, the LTTE sees using a human bomb as a precision instrument, as a means of delivery of the payload to inaccessible but strategic targets. Civilian victims or terror is not the intended goal. They only have admiration for the cadre who dedicate themselves as live weapons ( uyir ayutham) for this type of altruistic sacrifice (thatkodai). A potential counter D. measure then would be to look at the reasons for this popularity or sanction and work to reduce it. In the Lankan example, the state has gone after the LTTE organisation militarily and repression thereafter, rather than solving the underlying root causes. It may not be in a position to resolve the ethnic origins as it is too emotional and intractable. Thus, it becomes an intriguing question of whether given the same material conditions, that is violent repression of the Tamil minority; a denial of their legitimate rights; the religious-cultural context where there is sanction and honour for altruistic suicide; and perhaps the most vital, militant organisational capacity for training and producing such cadre, the phenomena of suicide bombers would again manifest itself ?

However unlikely, the precedence and the role models from elsewhere in the world would make one extra vigilant in taking all precautions to prevent a resurgence of similar, organised or semi-autonomous, ‘home-grown’ varieties from emerging.

Collective Trauma

Due to decades of war and the consequent destruction of social institutions, structures and processes, society faces a collective trauma or what was called ‘Loss of Communality’ by Kai Erikson (Somasundaram, 2007). The Tamil community had learned to be silent, non-involved and stay in the background. They have developed a ‘deep suspicion and mistrust.’ People have learned to simply attend to their immediate needs and survive to the next day. Any involvement or participation carried considerable risk, particularly at the frequent changes in those in power. At these shifts in power, recriminations, false accusations, revenge and so on was very common. Those with leadership qualities, those willing to challenge and argue, the intellectuals, the dissenters and those with social motivation have been weeded out. They have either been intimidated into leaving, killed or made to fall silent. Gradually people have been made very passive and submissive. These qualities have become part of the socialisation process, where children are now gradually taught to keep quiet, not to question or challenge, to accept the situation, as too-forward behaviour carries considerable risk. Thus, living and growing up in the ‘repressive ecology’ (Baykai et al., 2004), joining the militants and volunteering for suicide missions become a way out.

Collective events and consequences may have more significance in collectivistic communities than in individualistic societies. This broader, holistic perspective becomes paramount in non-Western, ‘collectivist’ cultures which have traditionally been family and community oriented, the individual tending to become submerged in the wider concerns (Hofstede, 2005). In collectivist societies, the individual becomes embedded within the family and community so much so that traumatic events are experienced through the larger unit and the impact will also manifest at that level. The family and community are part of the self, their identity and consciousness. The demarcation or boundary between the individual self and the outside becomes blurred. For example, Tamil families, due to close and strong bonds and cohesiveness in nuclear and extended families, tend to function and respond to external threat or trauma as a unit rather than as individual members.

They share the experience and perceive the event in a particular way. During times of traumatic experiences, the family will come together with solidarity to face the threat as a unit and provide mutual support and protection. In time, the family will act to define and interpret the traumatic event, give it structure and assign a common meaning, as well as evolve strategies to cope with the stress. Thus, it may be more appropriate to talk in terms of family dynamics rather than of individual personalities. Similarly, in Tamil communities, the village and its people, way of life and environment provided organic roots, a sustaining support system, nourishing environment and network of relationships. The village traditions, structures and institutions were the foundations and framework for their daily life. In Tamil tradition, a person’s identity was defined to a large extent by their village or

uur of origin

(Daniel, 1984). Their uur more or less placed the person in a particular sociocultural matrix. Durkheim’s altruistic form of suicide or self-sacrifice (thatkodai) to the greater cause of the threatened community would be better understood from a collectivistic perspective. Suicidal terror arouses feelings of aversion and horror in individualistic societies and may not be possible in individuals who value self-interest. Typically, suicide bombers are analysed in terms of individual psychopathology or as arising from ‘hate.’ The pattern of thinking and experiencing the world are radically different in individualistic, independent societies compared to collectivistic, interdependent communities (Nisbett, 2003). Altruistic suicide in the form described here may only be seen in the context of collectivistic societies (Riaz Hassan, pers. comm.).

Alternate Behaviour

At a generalised meso-level, it is said that suicide rates are remarkably constant for each society, but show a marked fall during war (Durkheim, 1951). War is said to increase social cohesion against a common enemy and this gives meaning to life. However, the drop in suicide rates may be due to war providing an alternate channel for suicidal behaviour (Burvill, 1980) or an opportunity to externalise aggression (Lyons, 1979). Suicide rates in Jaffna have shown the same trend during the war (see Figure 1) with a marked fall during periods of intense fighting (Somasundaram and Rajadurai 1995; Somasundaram, 2009).

Those who may commit suicide during normal times may die from other causes during war. Neeleman (2002) described the phenomena of ‘contextual effect modification’ within the context of war modifying the expected suicide risk by opening up other ways of dying. Thus, the drop in suicide rates could instead be due to war providing an alternate channel for suicidal behaviour (Burvill, 1980) or an opportunity to externalise aggression (Lyons, 1979).

This psychodynamic explanation describes suicide similar to depression as a form of aggression turned inwards towards the self, whereas war provides an outlet for the aggression to be turned outwards towards a common enemy (Lyons, 1979). Burvill (1980) hypothesised that war may provide an alternate opportunity for suicidal behaviour, but rejected it based on the figures from Australia. However, some support for the view that participation in war can function as an alternative to suicide comes from clinical observations during the war here. Adolescents in a mental state caused by intense frustration or interpersonal conflict that made them think of suicide and would have led to suicidal attempts in normal times often said that they would rather join the militants and die in combat where at least their lives would have been honoured on posters (a common method of commemorating dead combatants here). The director of a counselling centre in Jaffna in a seminar for medical officers described the current social ethos as one where adolescents or youth faced with severe family conflict or environmental stress will at times threaten or carry out two possible alternatives — one is suicide and the other, is joining the militants (Anandarajah, pers. comm.). The ‘cult of martyrdom’ and sacrificial devotion have become increasingly attractive to frustrated and rebellious youth in the modern world resulting in ‘suicide terrorism’
(Roberts, 2007).

Whereas suicide is common among the elderly elsewhere in the world (Durkheim, 1951), a study of suicide in Jaffna showed highest risk in the 25–34 age group (Ganesvaran et al., 1984). The authors conclude that this phenomenon may be related to ethnic violence and revolt among the youth. Dissanayake and De Silva (1974) found a similar high risk for suicide and attempted suicide among the youth (aged 15–34 years) for Sri Lanka as a whole and attributed it to unemployment and unrest among the youth as manifested in the 1971 JVP insurgency.

It is noteworthy that the suicide rate for Sri Lanka as a whole was the highest in the world, as it was in Jaffna before the war (Ganeswaran et al., 1984). Attempted suicide in Jaffna is also high among the youth and commonly follows stress (Ganesvaran & Rajarajeswaran, 1989). Our study (Somasundaram and Rajadurai, 1995) shows that the drop in the suicide rate with war is more marked for males (by 300%) than females (by 180%), and is more marked for the 15–24 age group (from 62.4 to 25.4 per 100,000) than for the 25–34 age group. Males in the adolescent 15–24 age group are an overwhelming majority among those joining the militants. This also is the age group which had the highest suicide rate before the war started.

However, if we look at the Mavirar statistics for Jaffna (Natali, 2008) and assume that one-third would be deaths by suicide, the numbers far exceed those that would be expected from the alternate hypothesis. Thus, we would have to look at additional factors discussed above for the large numbers joining the militancy and dying as Mavirar. Of these, a select number would be the Black Tigers from 1987 onwards.


Sri Lanka has been subject to political repression and chronic military violence for over 20 years. The rise of Tamil militancy and the phenomena of suicide bombers can be understood from the ecological context as an interaction of pull-and-push factors. By understanding the myriad of causes that motivate youth towards militancy and self-sacrifice, it should be possible to address the basic needs and issues involved so that we have a more equitable, just and peaceful society and world.


I would like to acknowledge the illuminating discussions with Michael Roberts, Riaz Hassan, Sambasivamooorthy Sivayokan, Kulanthai Shanmugalingam, Rajan Hoole and a host of others which have clarified this sensitive subject.

Courtesy: Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 416–441

You may also like


A house fire in Anuradhapura has claimed the lives of a mother and two children.


A mother, daughter and son have been burnt to death following a fire in Anuradhapura. The Police said the fire sept through a house in Alayapattuwa in Anradhapura. According to the Police, the father of the house sustained injuries in the fire. The woman is aged 30 and the children aged 10 and 5. (Colombo […]


Showers will occur at times in Eastern and Uva provinces and in Matale district, the Department of Meteorology says.


A former top FBI official has been arrested in the US while returning after a business trip to Sri Lanka. Charles McGonigal, who was the special agent in charge of counterintelligence in the FBI’s New York Field Office, is under arrest over his ties to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire who has been sanctioned by […]


SpareTime Foundation has pledged to support the Indira Cancer Trust by sponsoring children living with cancer and their families. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed last week at the Trust Office. As SpareTime Global Limited’s educational initiative through the ‘Sponsor A Child in Sri Lanka’ program, the foundation has taken the responsibility to sponsor children’s […]


Rebel police officers rioted in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince on Thursday following the killing of more than a dozen colleagues by criminal gangs. The rioting officers blame the government for not taking action. More than 100 demonstrators blocked streets, burned tyres, broke security cameras and damaged vehicles. Local media said several officers broke through the gates […]

Entertainment:View All

Technology:View All

Local News

Local News

Sri Lanka News

@2022 - All Right Reserved. Designed and Developed by Rev-Creations, Inc