Far Eastern Economic Review - June 01 2000 Issue






Ultimate Sacrifice: Faced with harassment and economic deprivation, young Tamils are ready to give up their lives

By Charu Lata Joshi/BATTICALOA

Issue cover-dated June 1, 2000

HE LOOKS LIKE any other 18-year-old Tamil boy. Average height, lithe frame, coal-dark eyes--features that make Vasantharaja almost indistinguishable from any of his high-school friends. But Vasantha is different. Vasantha will soon be dead.

In six months' time, the boy will leave his home province of Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka and travel out, perhaps to Colombo. There, he will strap a belt filled with explosives across his slight body and walk steadily toward a congested traffic light or a public meeting somewhere in the city. When he reaches his destination, Vasantha will press a button attached to his belt and instantly detonate an explosion that will kill him and possibly dozens of those around him.

In that instant, Vasantha will join the pantheon of martyrs of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which has fought a 17-year war for independence in northern Sri Lanka. The boy's picture will be framed, garlanded and hung on the wall of his training camp, to be revered by hundreds of other teenagers willing to sign their lives away for the cause.

Ask Vasantha why he is prepared to contemplate such a drastic action and the boy replies simply: "This is the most supreme sacrifice I can make. The only way we can get our eelam [homeland] is through arms. That is the only way anybody will listen to us. Even if we die."

In carrying out these desperate acts, the suicide bombers are more than just a particularly effective weapon in the Tigers' arsenal. They become a powerful symbol of control--the ultimate weapon with which to hold society to ransom. Their willingness to assume this role is born of a sense of frustration at the lot of the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka. Army intimidation is a fact of daily life for many Tamils, while young Tamils can look forward to only the bleakest economic prospects.

"It is a feeling that death and destruction is far better than life in the given circumstances," explains Dr. Anila Liyanage, a leading psychiatrist in Colombo.

Kokkurill, a village in the north of Batticaloa, is a typical example. Villagers say that during a 1990 crackdown on the Tigers, the Sri Lankan army arbitrarily arrested 183 people from the village, including women and children. In the years since, say the Tigers, the village has sacrificed more lives for the cause than any other in Sri Lanka: A hundred men from this village of 500 have already left to fight for the rebels, never to return.

"The abuse that ordinary people suffer at the hands of the army becomes the primary motivating factor to join the Tigers," says Father Harry Miller, a Jesuit who heads the Peace Committee, a private body, in Batticaloa and who describes the suicide bombings as "inhuman." Others, like 19-year-old Kamaraj, have seen sacrifice in their family. "I lost two brothers in the war. Why should I stay behind?" he asks.

Academics and prominent business people in the region insist the Tigers don't carry out forced recruitment; what pressure there is tends to be psychological. In areas run by the Tigers "young students are shown LTTE war movies and are given speeches by members of the political wing of the Tigers. That is all," says a schoolteacher. Every day, the teacher travels through checkpoints to get from his home in an army-administered district to his government-run school, which lies in an area controlled by the Tigers. Nearly a quarter of the Batticaloa electoral district, which has a population of over half a million, is under Tiger control.

International bodies such as the United Nations children's organization Unicef have for years expressed concern at child conscription by both the Tigers and the Sri Lankan army. But LTTE sympathizers deny that force is involved. "It is a people's movement and struggle and that is why young men and women join in without coercion," says Vasundhara, an economics lecturer in the Eastern Province University.

Others, who have been more directly affected by the war, appear to echo the depth of commitment to the Tigers' cause. Markanda Narayana Pillai, who lives in Kokkurill, has lost three of his four sons in the service of the Tigers. (One was a suicide bomber.) All three were given the title mahaveera--brave one--while his wife is called veeravati, or brave mother.

Pillai recalls the moment when he heard the news of his third son's death: "It was heartbreaking but I also knew that they had gone for a cause, for the country, for the people," he says. "I bore the sadness, with the thought that they were doing a very desirable thing." It is time now for Mahendran, 22, the family's sole surviving son, to consider whether he will follow in his brothers' footsteps.

"I am thinking of joining," says Mahendran. "The harassment that I and my parents have suffered at the hands of the army makes me want to take revenge." Mahendran claims to have been arrested and kept in custody seven times--without reason and without evidence, he says. "It is a question of Tamil pride, especially after so much sacrifice. There is no escape. One can't give it up now."

If Mahendran seeks to join the suicide squads, he will undergo six months of arduous training at a Tiger camp; at the end he will swear an oath of personal loyalty to the Tigers' leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran and place an amulet containing a cyanide capsule around his neck.

In reality, though, he is probably too old to be chosen. Prabhakaran, who personally selects recruits to the Black Tigers and the Birds of Freedom--the women's suicide wing--normally chooses young people aged between 14 and 16, and about three females for every two males. Women and young boys are often preferred to men for the simple reason that they're not subject to the same kinds of movement restrictions and body searches. Moreover, the layers of a woman's clothing can more easily disguise the bulky suicide belt, which is more conspicuous under a man's shirt and trousers. And then there's strategy: Maj. N. Gunasekera of the Sri Lankan army's Batticaloa Brigade Command says the Tigers prefer to use adult male recruits to beef up their combat forces.

The effect of a suicide attack can be devastating, creating panic and terror among ordinary citizens, who--more often than not--are also the bombers' main victims. But such attacks also send out a signal to decision-makers and the government: A successful terrorist attack confirms the inefficacy of the administration, demoralizes law enforcers and boosts morale among the Tigers and their followers.

"The suicide bombings are part of the LTTE arsenal and they have been used effectively to take on both VIPs and other strategic targets," says Colombo-based defence analyst Iqbal Athas.

Five years on, Sri Lanka appears no closer to resolving the Tamil question. And, in a vicious circle, this continuing failure to end the conflict is fuelling the Tigers' recruitment among the young.

In predominantly rural Batticaloa, the war has made farming no longer reliable as a source of employment and income. For young Tamils who do make it to high school, jobs are scarce and movement to the south of the country is restricted. The lack of opportunity and work in an area that has exhibited no visible signs of development for a decade is often cited to explain Batticaloa's high contribution to the Tigers.

"The fact is that despite all that the government announces, there is rank discrimination against Tamils in the most practical forms, at check points, at job interviews," says Father Miller. "The harsh reality is that a Tamil in Sri Lanka is and will remain a second-class citizen to the Sinhalese."

For these Tamils, President Kumaratunga's pledges of negotiation and devolution ring hollow. In Batticaloa, the Tigers continue to draw willing martyrs for their cause. And a war that has consumed more than 70,000 lives and drained the economy continues to find human ammunition.

By Charu Lata Joshi / BATTICALOA - Sri Lanka