An Institutional History of the LTTE

by Joanne Richards, The Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding, The Graduate Institute of Geneva, November 2014

LKA-geschichte-ltte-e [PDF in English]



Episodes of armed violence are often followed by countering claims and divergent accounts of past experiences. The Sri Lankan civil war is no exception. After 26 years of military operations and the official defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, controversies over the conflict and its aftermath continue unabated.

The CCDP hereby presents Working Paper 10, written by Dr. Joanne Richards. It provides a detailed account of the institutional history of the LTTE – including both the civilian and military wings of the organisation – from its creation as a political movement in 1976, through the commencement of its military campaign in 1983, up until the defeat in 2009. The Working Paper also analyses the complex societal dynamics in which the civil war evolved.

Given the sensitive nature of the subject matter, the text has undergone an extensive blind peer review and fact-checking process. The aim was to produce a concise and accessible reference document for the benefit of the public at large. Every effort was made not to pass judgment on contentious events, but to flag competing claims and interpretations when they arose during the research process.

The Working Paper was mandated by the Swiss Federal Office for Migration. Currently there are over 40.000 persons of Tamil origins residing in Switzerland, and the CCDP is pleased to be able to contribute to public debates surrounding this diaspora community with our in-house expertise on armed groups and conflict dynamics.

Needless to say, the views expressed in this Working Paper are solely those of the author and do not reflect institutional views in any way. The text thus also does not claim to be the conclusive document about the LTTE. Instead, and as the series title suggests, it is a publicly available document that seeks to offer an informed contribution to on-going discussions.

Keith Krause
CCDP Director
November 2014


Joanne Richards2-crop100x150.jpg1. Introduction

This report provides an historical overview of arguably one of the most sophisticated non-state armed groups ever assembled, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Based in the north-east of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), the LTTE established a complex, yet highly structured military wing accompanied by a supporting political wing and international network. This report charts the development of each of these component parts (military, political, and international), from the LTTE’s inception in 1976 to its defeat in May 2009, with particular emphasis given to the post-2002 era.

To fully understand the institutional development of the LTTE, it is often necessary to grasp how the dynamics of armed conflict in Sri Lanka prompted the LTTE to evolve and change. Consequently, rather than divorcing the LTTE’s institutional development from its historical context, in this report, both are presented side by side.1 The analysis begins with some background remarks on the Sinhalese and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka and the rise of inter-communal conflict which led to the emergence of the LTTE.2 The report then moves on to examine the institutional set up of the LTTE’s military wing, political wing, and international network.3

While this discussion provides a detailed overview of the LTTE’s key organizational structures at home and abroad, the final section of this report examines how these military and political structures were dismantled and destroyed in a series of final battles waged between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army (SLA).4 This concluding section also discusses the breakaway LTTE faction known as the “Karuna group,” and the continued survival of the LTTE’s international network. The information contained within the following pages draws from a thorough review of the academic and policy literature on Sri Lanka, articles retrieved from Tamil websites and the Sri Lankan and Indian press, confidential embassy cables, and the Jane’s Intelligence Review. It should be noted however, that these sources – and the sources on which these sources rely – are not always impartial (see Annex 1 for a brief discussion of this point). Commentators on both sides of the conflict have often written about the LTTE in a way which favours their own viewpoints and allegiances, selectively omitting or misrepresenting certain facts while including others.5 In addition, because north-eastern Sri Lanka was often closed to outsiders during periods of armed conflict, the historical record of the LTTE not only contains certain biases but is also sometimes incomplete, particularly prior to the 2002 ceasefire.

To address these issues, the information presented in this report has, where possible, been cross-checked and triangulated with other sources, including external experts. Furthermore, while the sources used herein were selected due to their relevance to the topics covered, a variety of sources (with differing biases) were sought in order to piece together coherent accounts of events. While it was very often possible to compile and cross-reference different sources of information, in other instances, corroborating sources were unavailable. This report therefore uses the qualifiers “reportedly,” “allegedly,” and “according to one source” to indicate that a claim has not been triangulated. Claims which exhibit obvious bias are omitted, and missing and contradictory information is also flagged. More generally, because information on the LTTE is often scarce or politicized, the findings contained within this report should not be interpreted as uncontested facts but should, instead, be treated with caution.


1. It should be noted that this report does not follow a strict historical narrative, but instead focuses on the historical development of each of the LTTE’s component institutions in separate, thematic sections. This allows readers to refer only to the sections they deem most relevant to their particular interests.

2. These background remarks (discussed in sections 1, 2, 3, and 4 of this report) cover Eelam War 1. Phase one of Eelam War 1 began in the mid-1970s, whereas phase two began in July 1983 and ended in July 1987. On the Eelam Wars, see Samaranayake 2007: 176.

3. These sections (5 and 6) cover Eelam War 1, Eelam War 2 (July 1991 – December 1994), Eelam War 3 (April 1995 – February 2002), and the period prior to the start of Eelam War 4.

4. This concluding section (section 7) covers events after February 2002, and includes Eelam War 4, which began with the resumption of hostilities in 2006 and ended with the LTTE’s final defeat in May 2009.

5. This point has also been made by Austin 1994: 61 and Salgado 2004: 5

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