26th July 1998
We publish excerpts from "Childhood - A Continuous Casualty of the Conflict in Sri Lanka" by Rohan Gunaratna published in Jane's Intelligence Review July 1988
(Cont.. from last week)
In the same way that the media and the legal system is sympathetic to children, humani- tarian and human rights organisations reserve different rules when dealing with a potential threat from this source. Such factors and conditions make the child a perfect target for guerrilla and terrorist recruitment.
Today, the LTTE deploys these units in direct combat against Sri Lankan troops both in Jaffna and Wanni in the north and Trincomalee and Batticaloa in the east. In addition to gathering first-rate intelligence and participating in ambushes, they also form the first wave of suicide groups, assaulting across the minefields and razor wire that encircle Sri Lankan military installations.
Origins of the child fighters
After the ethnic riots of July 1983, sparked by an LTTE ambush of 13 soldiers, there was a massive exodus of civilians to India. The LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran selected Basheer Kaka, an LTTE leader from the deep harbour city of Trincomalee, to establish a training base in the state of Pondicherry in India for recruits under 16. Initially, the child soldiers - affectionately referred to as 'Tiger cubs' - received non-military training mostly primary education and physical exercise. By early 1984, the nucleus of the LTTE Baby Brigade, or Bakuts, was formed.
The LTTE began to seriously recruit women and children to its ranks only after it declared war against the 100,000 strong IPKF in October 1987.
Hitherto, the LTTE had trained only one batch of children in Pondicherrry in 1984 and one batch of women in Sirumalai, Tamil Nadu, in 1985. The only time that the LTTE engaged in forcible recruitment was just before and after the withdrawal of the IPKF both to replenish its depleted ranks and to prepare for an impending offensive.
The child fighters were originally a part of the Baby Brigade commanded by Justin, a Pondicherry-trained fighter. However, after 1987 the LTTE integrated children with other units to offset the heavy losses.
Today, the overwhelming number of children in LTTE fighting units has generated concern among many Tamils in Sri Lanka and overseas.
Since April 1995, 60 per cent of LTTE personnel killed in combat have been children. These trends are supported by Olivichu, the LTTE monthly video release which announces its death toll. Unlike the government, the LTTE is prompt and accurate in announcing the death of its martyrs.
During the Heroes' Week in October of each year, the LTTE invites families to attend the high-profile ceremonies in the graveyards of the 'great heroes'.
The LTTE portrays these functions as celebrations and the cemeteries as temples: attending children are welcomed and often leave with a strong sense of nationalism. The great hero families received a special status wherever the LTTE were in control. They paid no taxes, received preferential treatment in job interviews and were allocated special seats at all the public functions organised in LTTE controlled areas.
Economically deprived families thus did not object to their children joining the LTTE. "Sometimes, parents felt that they must let children go in order to be fed," according to UNICEF's Colombo representative, Brita Ostberg, who is critical of the LTTE's role.
The LTTE has an unwritten rule that every family should give a son or daughter to the cause.
Another feature that attracted young minds to the LTTE was the glamour and the perceived respect it was paid by society. Interestingly, the appearance of the young recruits was a strong factor in attracting youngsters to the movement. Tiger-striped uniforms, polished boots and automatic weapons act as magnets to the children.
LTTE members regularly visited schools, addressed students of the need to participate in the 'struggle' and screened films of their successful attacks against the Sri Lankan forces.
Those fighters entrusted with indoctrination and recruitment would often ask that students supporting the struggle for independence raise their hands and, without giving them an opportunity to hesitate, would then drive them to a training camp.
Recruitment and training
A typical unit of children is trained for four months in the jungle. Woken at 0500hrs they assemble shortly afterwards, fall in line and their leader raises the LTTE flag. Following this comes two hours of physical training, after which the recruits engage in weapon training, battle and field craft and parade drill.
During the rest of the afternoon time is spent both reading LTTE literature and performing more physical training. Lectures on communication, explosives and intelligence techniques continue into the evening. There is no communication between the camp and the children's homes during the training period.
There have been occasions when parents have travelled long distances, braving both Sri Lankan military and LTTE ambushes, in search of their children in the jungle training camps. Having spent days waiting outside the camps for a glimpse of their children, parents have been sent back, told that the cadets have chosen not to meet them.
The trained young fighters are prepared for battle by attacking unprotected or weakly defended border villages. In these attacks, several hundred men, women and children have been killed by LTTE child combatants armed with automatic weapons guided by experienced fighters.
The raids on these soft targets are followed by attacks on police posts and police-defended forward defence lines. Thereafter, the trained fighters are deployed in camp attacks.
The first major operation in which the LTTE deployed child combatants came after an LTTE suicide bomber, Pork, rammed an explosive-laden lorry into the Mankulam army camp (north) on 22 November 1990.
The second major operation involving LTTE child fighters occurred on 10 July 1991 when the LTTE attacked the Elephant Pass military Complex, located on both sides of the causeway linking the northern peninsula to the mainland.
The LTTE attempted to isolate the camp by building bunkers, trenches and other forms of strong defences around it.
For the first time the child combatants who witnessed heavy casualties became reluctant to move along the open ground between their positions and the target complex. The LTTE commanders shot their feet and humiliated them. The LTTE lost 550 cadres, most of whom were children.
From October 1995, the Sri Lankan military launched a series of operations to deprive the LTTE of territorial control of the Jaffna peninsula: the Tamil heartland. The LTTE northern command engaged in a tactical repositioning of its troops, withdrawing the bulk of fighters to the Wanni mainland. The Baby Brigade was temporarily dismantled and its units were placed under the LTTE military intelligence directorate.
The child forces were given training in small businesses selling ice creams, newspapers, fruits, lottery tickets and working in cafes and restaurants -and re-infiltrated into the peninsula.
After a while, many of them began to live with the parents, relatives and families of LTTE sympathisers, thus becoming the eyes and ears of the LTTE. With intelligence provided by members of the dismantled Baby Brigade, LTTE sparrow teams struck, killing Tamil informants and supporters of the government as well as Sri Lankan troops.
Initially, it was difficult for counter intelligence operatives to believe that the LTTE was using children to gather its intelligence on troop movements and dispositions. It was even harder for them to apprehend and prosecute children who were under 16 years of age. From late 1995 to mid-1996 the LTTE recruited and trained at least 2,000 Tamils largely drawn from 600,000 Tamils displaced in the wake of the operations to capture the peninsula. About 1,000 of these were between 12 and 16 years old and they were dispersed among the other fighting units.
Enter the Leopards
The physical and psychological war training of children as a formidable lethal weapon is an innovation of the LTTE. The high point of LTTE achievement in this direction was the formation of the elite Sirasu Puli, or Leopard Brigade.
The members of the brigade were children drawn from LTTE managed orphanages. Within the LTTE ranks, this brigade is considered to be its most fierce fighting force. Leopard fighters have a incomparable loyalty to Prabhakaran. Most see him as a father figure and equate a request from him to a directive from heaven.
The LTTE Baby Brigade lost heavily in two attacks: at the Weli Oya complex in July 1995 and during an assault on the Wanni defences on 1 February 1998. The Weli Oya victory, according to Sri Lanka's National Intelligence Bureau, was the biggest defeat the LTTE had suffered.
LTTE domestic and international thinkers, using computerised database, have alerted Prabhakaran to the possibility of having insufficient numbers of both adult and child combatants to continue the campaign without expanding the LTTE's geographic influence.
The International response
The LTTE has been able to conduct its underage campaign away from the international gaze. Like their adult counterparts in the LTTE, child fighters are required to consume a phial of potassium cyanide either when capture is imminent or when they are injured in the field. Enforcing the cyanide rule has, understandably, been difficult with children, John Burns of the New York Times, a regular commentator on Sri Lanka, highlights instances in which LTTE child fighters have failed to commit suicide.
Acknowledging that the LTTE has been using "Tamil boys as young as 10" to counterattack the advancing government troops. Burns states: "Although the Tigers send their fighters into battle with cyanide capsules strung around their necks, many of the youngsters did not swallow the poison, as instructed by Tiger leaders, when shot." Burns also cites instances where LTTE units have withdrawn under fire, "leaving wounded boys and girls lying in no-man's land, crying for help". As a result, there are more teenage than adult LTTE fighters in government custody.
The exposure given by Burns and an anti LTTE website by Umberto Gui has hurt the LTTE most. However, on the whole, there has been no international response to the LTTE attitude toward children.
The UN has repeatedly expressed concern over the misuse of children but without an impact at ground level. The UN special rapporteur on violence against women - Radhika Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan Tamil - has been a critic of the LTTE for its use of women and children in warfare.
After reviewing statistics on the LTTE's injured personnel, Garca Machel, former first lady of Mozambique and adviser to the UN Secretary General, stated that 20 per cent were between the ages of 10 and 14 during recruitment. Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar a Sri Lankan Tamil, believes that an entire generation of young Tamil children being systematically destroyed by the LTTE.
Successive governments have failed to stem the exponential growth of the LTTE. To date, the LTTE's rate of recruitment of children is higher than its level of fatalities. Although there have been proposals to broadcast in Tamil and to leaflet Tamil areas, exposing the use of children as cannon fodder, lack of priority to psy ops continues to draw in children to join the LTTE.
The only study on the role of the children in the LTTE is a sociological analysis by Peradeniya University sociology student Chamarie Rodrigo.
Her thesis, based on published literature and interviews, confirms the failure of the state to address the "misuse of children by power hungry leaders". The fear invoked by the LTTE prevents the criticism voiced by Tamils against the LTTE leader Prabhakaran from being heard. Prabhakaran's unwillingness to bring his son, Charles Anthony, and Dwaraka, his daughter, into the ranks of the LTTE is hurting the image of the supremo both domestically and internationally.
The ideological experiment of motivating children as combatants has been a highly successful one. The LTTE has been able to enhance its performance in battle by deploying child units. Therefore, it is likely that other contemporary groups will not emulate the success of the LTTE.
The most devastating result of this practice has been the recovery of small sized suicide body suits denim jackets with concealed explosives to be worn beneath the garments of an innocent-looking guerrilla or terrorist to create heavy casualties.
As these LTTE manufactured suits, recovered by the Sri Lankan security forces, could fit a child, there is concern as to whether the LTTE will indeed use children as suicide bombers. The LTTE, at the cutting edge of creation, innovation and invention, has deceived both the Indian and Sri Lankan security agencies by assassinating two heads of government. Security and intelligence agencies monitoring the LTTE claim that the faction retains the potential to use unsuspecting children as suicide bombers to target VIP in the near future.
Unlike on governments, the influence of international organisations on guerrilla and terrorist organisations is likely to remain limited. The persistence of child guerrillas and terrorists as a phenomenon is therefore likely to remain a possibility for future use in the international system.
By permitting their support structures for generating funds for weaponry to flourish in their cities, the West - the guardians of democracy and human rights - have tacitly supported many child-employing guerrilla and terrorist groups.
The host states of the West retain the potential to instigate sanctions against them; until they do, the Tamil Tigers - and other groups witnessing some of their successes will - continue to break accepted civilised standards in deploying child combatants.
The LTTE system of maintaining every one's records would prevent a teacher from refusing the entry of enlisted children to a classroom. In their book Child Soldiers: The Role of Children in Armed Conflict, Guy Goodwin-Gill and Ilene Cohn (Oxford 1994) state:
"Tamil children spend one or two hours per day out of school digging bunkers as a form of militarised civic duty and are eventually asked to join the LTTE. Enlistment is supposedly voluntary, meaning that no one is physically threatened. However, families are menaced with property confiscation or physical violence if they appear unwilling to contribute their sons for the cause.
"Other than projecting the military successes of the LTTE, a powerful image that attracted many youngsters to join the LTTE was the screening of films depicting Sri Lankan government atrocities. Although the state takes severe legal action against soldiers responsible for civilian atrocities, aerial bombing of LTTE public offices has damaged nearby churches, hospital and schools.
The LTTE has been partially successful in projecting these incidents as deliberate and calculated acts of genocide against the Tamil people.
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