Manipulating Young Tamils in Sri Lanka

Youth are among the most impressionable and easily influenced in society. Malli in the film ‘The Terrorist’ is one such youth who found herself fighting in the violent separatist and terrorist organization the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), more commonly known as Tamil Tigers. Malli and her group come from the Northern and Eastern provinces in Sri Lanka and are fighting for independence from a majority Sinhalese Government, in a civil war that has lasted over twenty years. The conflict is another by-product of the process of decolonization from Britain which left a minority population of Tamils in the Jaffna Peninsula. The LTTE is well known for its violence, its use of child soldiers and as the first terrorist organization to adopt suicide bombing as a major tactic.

As the British exited Sri Lanka and it became independent in 1948, the political climate immediately following independence greatly influenced the development of a resistance movement among Tamil students and youth. Early government was lead by mainly Sinhalese representatives and numerous policies were passed that disadvantaged the Tamil minority. In 1956 the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act was passed making Sinhala the national language, isolating many Tamils from national participation. However, the pivotal moment for a growing Tamil independence movement came in the early 1970s with the introduction of communal quotas for university entry, effectively cutting off eligible Tamil students from college education. As opportunity and education became increasingly inaccessible for the Tamil minority, the idea of a separate and independent Tamil in Jaffna became very attractive to a disenfranchised youth. Throughout the 1970s, a revolutionary movement led by Tamil youth to challenge the Sinhalese Government became inevitable.

This young revolutionary group evolved into an armed struggle in the early 1980s and a civil war along cultural, ethnic and religious lines has devastated Sri Lanka since. The LTTE appear to have been very adept at arousing these sentiments among Tamil youth who are frustrated by the poverty and lack of opportunity in Tamil regions. By encouraging a separate cultural and ethnic identity among Tamils, the LTTE label the Sinhalese as their oppressors and are able to recruit many young Tamils to fight a common enemy. Other extremist and guerilla organizations like the PLO, Hamas and the Free Aceh Movement in Indonesia have employed similar tactics as the LTTE in recruitment. Impoverished youth in particular are able to see inequalities in their lives and when Tamil leaders espouse a doctrine for an independent Eelam, it makes sense to them.

However, cultural and ethnic causes are not enough to explain why so many young Tamils are willing to give up their life for an independent Eelam. The LTTE have created a culture of sacrifice and martyrdom by turning their fallen comrades into heroes and by issuing cyanide for captured Tigers. Malli is an example of one such Tamil who was inspired by the honorable death of her brother when she was just a small girl. Her superiors constantly reminded her and her group members about the honorable deaths of their comrades and it was easy to see the determination in their eyes to follow in the footsteps of those who went before. Unfortunately, some of these soldiers are only children who are easily influenced by the ideal of dying for their community. While LTTE leaders have denied actively recruiting children to their ranks, it is clear that the culture of martyrdom is inspiring young children to voluntarily join LTTE despite their age.

Youth and martyrdom are certainly not unique to the LTTE although they are described as the first terrorist organization to employ the use of suicide bombings. Recruiting child soldiers and suicide bombing has been utilized more recently by extremist groups such as Hamas and The Lord’s Army in Uganda. The most infamous example of a suicide attack in modern history was September 11, which likely would not have resulted in as many deaths had this tactic not been employed. There is always a danger for terrorist organizers that there volunteer suicide bomber will back out, as did Malli. The attack relies on the will of the volunteer and as most are young there is always the chance that they will decide that they have too much to live for. In the case of September 11, if one of the highjackers had felt any doubt, it is likely the whole plan would not have succeeded. Such a carefully plotted and grandiose plan relied on absolute devotion of the Muslim terrorists to their cause. For the most part, Malli was extremely devoted to the Tamil cause, as illustrated in the graphic murder of a government soldier with a machete. However, her pregnancy completely altered her thinking and made her feel that her life had another purpose beyond fighting for an independent Eelam.

Malli is a clear example of how youth are idealistic, impressionable and all too often manipulated into joining terrorist groups like the LTTE. Baader Meinhof, Brigate Rosse, FARC and the Shining Path are all examples of extremist and terrorist organizations that had their roots in youth and student protest groups. Language, ethnicity, nationalism and socioeconomic background are just a few examples that are exploited by terrorist leaders. However, the internal conflict of Malli that is so clearly evident in ‘The Terrorist’ and her ultimate choice not to carry out the bombing, makes us question the assumption that these youth are ‘brainwashed’ into carrying out such horrific violence. Just as these youth can be influenced into violent action, they can also be given options that exist outside of terrorism. Sri Lanka’s domestic problems are not simple and it is clear Tamils feel isolated and disadvantaged. Giving Tamil youth opportunity and hope in their communities will create peace far more quickly than continuing a protracted war. Given the option to progress in society peacefully, it seems logical that youth will choose this course of action over violence the vast majority of the time.