London: Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels run a worldwide legal and illegal business empire generating revenue of $200-300 million (about Rs800-1,200 crore) a year to put towards guns, planes and attack boats, according to an analyst’s report.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been fighting for a separate homeland for minority ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka’s north and east regions for more than two decades, building a reputation as one of the world’s most fearsome guerrilla groups.
The Tigers deny any criminal activity.
The report in the August edition of Jane’s Intelligence Review paints a picture of a powerful global network of professional managers—both Tamils and others—across a string of countries with operations perhaps from shipping to drugs and extortion.
“Some of the money will go on arms, some of it on administrating areas controlled by the LTTE,” said Christian LeMiere, managing editor of Jane’s Country Risk.
“Shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles are almost certainly the most probable item on the wish list, but there will also be small arms and other weapons.”
The Tigers would not comment on the report, but have always denied involvement in criminal activities. They say their funds come from taxes in their territory and voluntary contributions from the wealthy Tamil diaspora, many of whom fled during the war.
The world’s wealthiest guerrilla group remained the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc rebels, because of their vast drugs revenues, he said, but the LTTE was quite possibly second. Weapons were smuggled in from South-East Asia and nearby parts of India, he said.
“But the progress of the war since 2006 has been against the LTTE, so it hasn’t done them very much good,” LeMiere said. There have also been a string of arrests of alleged Tiger weapons buyers in North America, Europe and Thailand.
The report said a network of Tamil charities proved an effective way of moving money. The Sri Lankan government says large amounts of money raised after the 2004 tsunami found their way to the rebels—a charge they deny.
Possessors of the world’s only rebel air force and a navy of fast attack boats, the Tigers were able to bomb the capital and airport this year with light aircraft probably smuggled into the country in pieces.
But the rebels have lost large amounts of territory in the east of the island to the army since late 2002 ceasefire collapsed last year and government jets have been able to raid their bases with impunity—hence their perceived desire for anti-aircraft missiles.
Analysts and diplomats blame both the Tigers and government for the renewed war and the roughly 4,000 deaths.
Western donors have cut aid to Sri Lanka over widely reported rights abuses.
The Tigers, who still control a de facto state in the north, have been widely condemned for their use of suicide bombing and are listed in the US, European Union and elsewhere as terrorists.
Jane’s says their freedom to operate overseas was reduced by a global crackdown on militant groups after 11 September 2001 attacks—although the Tigers themselves have always steered clear of attacking Western targets.