June 24th, 2006
Sri Lankan rebels ready to die for cause info
| Source: Associated Press |
AT A TAMIL TIGER REBEL BASE, Sri Lanka - Past the paved road lined by minefields, down a sandy track hemmed in by coconut palms and thatch huts, the gate appears, a metal boom bookended by bunkers made of logs and sandbags.
It's not visible until you're on top of it, and the tiger-striped camouflage of the lone sentry is the only sign this is a base of the Tamil Tiger rebels.
"The people who need to know — our soldiers, the villagers who aid us — they know we are here," said Muttiah Jayanthy, 33, one of the base's top officers. "If there is war, the government will feel our presence."
A surge in violence has left Sri Lanka dangerously close to resuming a war best known for its suicide bombings — a vicious conflict that for 18 years pitted rebels from the Hindu Tamil minority against the government dominated by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority.
The Tigers agreed to let The Associated Press make a rare visit to a front-line rebel base on the condition that its location not be revealed. The trip was tightly controlled, and only a dozen of the 2,000 fighters said to operate out the base were made available to speak. But it provided a rare snapshot of how the Tigers think — and what they are preparing for.
In interview after interview this week, the fighters talked of their readiness to die for a Tamil homeland. One said she had volunteered to become a suicide bomber, known as a Black Tiger; another admitted she was once a child soldier.
Much of what they said was stock rhetoric, with repeated references to "historic responsibility" and "occupation forces." How much they had been ordered to say, how much came from indoctrination and how much was heartfelt was hard to judge.
But none showed doubts.
"Only by war can we get our homeland back, our identity, our dignity," Jayanthy said.
Using a Tamil homeland as an inspiration — along with a feared intelligence network — the Tigers have shaped a cult-like force whose fighters carry cyanide to swallow if they are captured, an agonizing death that hundreds have chosen.
Only the top commanders are given ranks; soldiers must wait until death.
"It is a final judgment on how we lived and fought," Jayanthy said.
The rebels' secretive chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is reverently referred to as "The Leader." He's rarely seen by outsiders, although pictures of the chubby commander are omnipresent in Tiger territory.
The Tigers will not say how large their force is, but they are estimated to have 5,000 to 7,000 fighters, and as many as half are believed to be children pressed into service. Backed by artillery and small naval gunboats, the rebels have waged guerrilla campaigns and have bested Sri Lanka's 66,000-strong army in conventional battles.
Their battlefield discipline is matched by a puritanical streak — tobacco and alcohol are banned, and they must wait until their mid-20s to marry, even then only with their commander's permission.
The Tigers have turned a half-century of discrimination against Sri Lanka's 3.2 million Tamils into a well-developed narrative of oppression. Nearly all can rattle off the offenses — the adoption of Sinhala as the sole national language in 1956; decades of anti-Tamil riots; and the 1981 burning of the Jaffna library that destroyed ancient Tamil manuscripts and modern archives.
Discrimination prompted the Tigers to take up arms in 1983. The resulting war on this tropical island of 19 million people — nearly three-quarters of them Sinhalese — left more than 65,000 people dead before the 2002 cease-fire.
By then, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as the rebels are officially known, had eliminated most competing Tamil militant groups and carved out wide swaths of the north and east where they've created a functioning country.
These days in "Tamil Eelam," as the Tigers call the homeland they claim, there are schools, tax collectors and sports associations.
So why go back to war?
"Until all of Tamil Eelam is liberated, we have only war," said Kumaran Sivapathasundram, a 26-year-old fighter, explaining that many predominantly Tamil areas are still government-controlled, including the capital of an ancient Tamil kingdom, the city of Jaffna.
At the base — really just a few cement buildings inside a perimeter of bunkers disguised as thatch shacks, with swaying palms masking it all — capturing territory was the major topic.
One fighter said more suicide bombings were needed — and she'd already volunteered.
"I would like to be a Black Tiger," 26-year-old Priya Selvachandran said with a smile. "Because as a Back Tiger I can kill more soldiers."
Female suicide bombers are not uncommon. Last month, a woman disguised to look pregnant tried to kill Sri Lanka's top general, who was wounded in the blast that killed eight.
Selvachandran scoffed at the suggestion that such bombings, along with the Tigers' murderous suppression of dissent, had alienated many Tamils.
"It our responsibility to protect all Tamils from oppression, and we are supported in our efforts," she said. "They understand our methods."
The Tigers know some of their methods are unpopular, particularly their use of child soldiers.
At the base, every fighter said they volunteered at age 18.
But all also fit a pattern — they were the only members of their families fighting, common in the Tamil heartland where human rights groups say the Tigers demand one child from every family.
One fighter also tacitly acknowledged having joined as a child: 23-year-old Thiyagarash Piruthivu said she had been fighting since 1998, but insisted she was 18 then.
She told how that year — when she would have been 15 — she sneaked across the front lines and found a rebel base. Pressed for details, she could offer none.
No matter how she joined, she now sounds like a believer.
Showing off her cyanide capsule — a 2 1/2-inch glass tube filled with powder — she declared: "I will never be caught. I will live in Tamil Eelam or I will die."
Tamil Tiger rebels stand at their base at an undisclosed location in northern Sri Lanka,
Thiyagarash Piruthivu , 23, a Tamil Tiger rebel shows her cyanide capsule, at an undisclosed location in northern Sri Lanka,
A Tamil Tiger rebel adjusts the bullet vest of her fellow fighter at their base
Muttiah Jayanthy, 33, a Tamil Tiger rebel takes position in her bunker at their base
A Tamil Tiger rebel commander, left, briefs her fellow fighters at their base
A Tamil Tiger rebel looks on against a photograph of Liberation of Tamil Tiger Eelam leader Velupillai Prabhakaran,
Tamil Tiger rebel Patrol Party return to their base