Suicide Terrorism: Why Are Sri Lanka's Women Blowing Themselves Up?

Why do women in Sri Lanka feel they need to choose death over life to assert their power?
"While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him" -- Mikhailovich Dostovsky

The tiny island nation of Sri Lanka has been plagued by terrorism for the past 25 years. Citing irreparable differences with the majority ethnic group, the armed militant group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelaam (LTTE) is demanding 35 percent of the country's landmass and over 75 percent of its surrounding sea for a separate Tamil state. Constituting only 6.5 percent of the country's population, over half of the country's Tamils currently live amongst th majority Sinhalese.

It was the LTTE that reshaped conventional warfare by introducing suicide bombers -- in particular, the female suicide cadre. The LTTE arguably still remains the global leader in suicide terrorism, carrying out two-thirds of the world's suicide attacks. The real "men of steel" for the LTTE have been its female suicide bombers, who account for 40 percent of its suicide activities. It's difficult to understand how a woman would choose to become a human bomb.

Suicide bombings have become a convenient way to secure political objectives for many groups worldwide. Suicide terrorism was non-existent in global politics before emerging in the mid-1980s. Since then, it has spread across the globe, growing ever more gruesome. Today, suicide missions are being carried out in Iraq, in Palestine against the Israelis, in Lebanon, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Turkey, Russia and Uzbekistan.

It was on July 5th, 1987 that the LTTE carried out its first suicide bombing. The attack on the Nelliyady Army Camp claimed the lives of 40 Sri Lankan troops. To date, LTTE suicide missions number over 100, resulting in over 1,400 deaths, including two world leaders. In 1991, Idian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a female LTTE suicide cadre on Indian soil. After placing a garland around Rajiv's neck, she blew herself up, killing them both instantly along with many others. Sri Lankan President Premadasa was killed at a May Day rally in 1993 by an aid who was working at his presidential home -- a man whom he trusted but who was in actuality a LTTE suicide cadre, planted for the task. A host of Tami leaders have also been targeted, negating the LTTE's argument that it represents the rights and needs of the Tamil people.

Why Suicide Terrorism?

Much study has been dedicated towards identifying and evaluating the psychological and sociological motives for suicide terrorism. The suicide unit of the LTTE calls itself the Black Tigers -- of this, one-third are women who are venerated for their acts in LTTE cemeteries. With no body to bury, their granite tombstones watch over an empty grave. Before embarking on their mission, suicide cadres are given a special meal of their choice with the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabakaran and a handsome monetary benefit is given to the family of those who are successful in their suicide missions. And each year on July 5th, the Black Tigers who have given their lives to the cause are celebrated by the LTTE, with Prabakaran lighting a lantern for each.

In her book, Women Fighters of Liberation Tigers (1989), the Australian wife of LTTE theoretician, Adel Balasingham describes the decision of Tamil women who join: "they are not satisfied with the social status quo; it means they are young women capable of defying authority; it means they are women with independent thoughts; young women prepared to lift up their heads."

But this still does not explain why a woman would need to choose death over life to assert her power.

All suicide missions are generally successful -- there have only been a few cases where vigilant military and even the public have been able to identify suicide bombers before an attack. A female suicide cadre sent to assassinate the current Prime Minister of Sri Lanka was apprehended on January 5, 2000 by the police before she could carry out her mission. Having been sent from the rebel-held territory in Sri Lanka's jungles, it was only natural that she not be aware of the fashion trends in Colombo. So after watching her for a few days, the police apprehended her and removed the suicide kit strapped to her bra, stopping her from biting the cyanide capsule that all LTTE members are compelled to wear in an amulet. She is still in prison.

Recently the Norwegian government funded the movie My Daughter the Terrorist, which explores the paths of two female Black Tigers. The film raises an important question for me - how can a government, especially one that has been acting as a peace facilitator in Sri Lanka, agree to fund a movie when suicide and suicide bombing are deplored the world over? Though there have been different interpretations of the film, the Sri Lankan embassies have objected saying it sends the wrong signals to youngsters by glorifying suicide bombers on film.

But it also makes an important point about how politicized the world has become. Though many become cadres believing that the militant outfit is giving its all for "the cause," it's more likely that these men and women have been brainwashed and even drugged. Throughout the world, militant groups often sedate their cadres, sometimes in their food, to ensure loyalty and obedience. This partially explains how young men and women could choose to remain in the most challenging of conditions -- often in the jungles, exposed to the elements, enduring the mosquitoes, without proper nutrition or even clean sheets or towels.

Though no official statistics exists, some reports claim that there are as many as 5,000 child recruits in the LTTE, accounting for 30 percent of the group's brigade. Young boys, forcefully taken by the LTTE from their mothers' arms, grow up knowing nothing more than hero worship for their militant leader. Childhood pranks are soon replaced by shooting at government armed forces in cold blood. Young girls are also taken against their wills, forced to strip and change into tiger attire - their dreams of home replaced by rigorous, early morning training sessions, LTTE indoctrination, tasteless meals and ultimately, a suicide mission.

Is this what these women suicide cadres want from life? Is this what they really want to be remembered as? Have they simply buried their old identities, giving up the desire to have or career or a family? Or is there something more to this gruesome exploitation of women? Even the LTTE leader's only daughter did not become a member of the elite Black Tigers, showing the obvious hypocrisy of the LTTE's philosophy -- she was sent overseas to study and has never experienced what any of these LTTE women have had to endure.

I think the LTTE is turning to women for its suicide missions because they are less conspicuous and can easily blend into a crowd. Men are prone to greater scrutiny and their movements watched. Similarly, the LTTE targets children as they are able to move quickly in the country's thick jungles and easily escape detection.

The LTTE would have us believe that these women are prepared for their "cause," but we really do not know what goes on in their minds -- none of the journalists I know have ever been able to question these women before their deaths. But a lot can be gleaned from the suicide cadre who was apprehended before carrying out her mission. Today she begs for clemency, begs to be given a new lease on life and asks to be pardoned. She is cooperating with the authorities, helping them obtain vital information about LTTE hideouts and operations. She is also undergoing psychiatric treatment in the course of her rehabilitation and hopefully someday, will lead a peaceful life.

Though we may never really understand what makes these terrorists tick, we do know that the leaders of these groups have brainwashed their followers into carrying out tragedies that serve only their personal desire to achieve power outside of the democratic framework that is accepted by the rest of us. Politicized and polarized, they are hidden in Sri Lanka's jungles, waiting to use their bodies as human shields and bombs for a leader who will stop at nothing to secure a separate state.
Shenali Waduge is a working mother of two from Sri Lanka. She received her Bachelors and Masters degrees from the University of Delhi in India. Shenali regularly contributes to the Asian Tribune and Lankaweb.