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Child Soldiers of The Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)

According to an April 2000 estimate, there are some 2,000 children in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) ranks. This is not unique to LTTE or Sri Lanka but is a global phenomenon. The number of child soldiers, some as young as seven years, participating in the various armed conflicts around the world is estimated to be about 300,000.

Battlefields with Child Combatants






Burma (Myanmar)





Congo-Kinshasa (former Zaire)




Indonesia/East Timor




Israel/Occupied Territories





Papua New Guinea





Sierra Leone


Sri Lanka







Participation in armed conflicts, even voluntarily, by children below the age of 15 is an offence, according to the Geneva Convention, 1948, and the two amendments to it, adopted in 1997, as well as Article 38 of the UN Convention on Rights of the Child. In the decade ending 1999, nearly two million child soldiers were killed in the various conflicts, worldwide.

Children are recruited at a time when there is a significant reduction in the numbers of available adults. Besides, analysts point that advances in technology have facilitated the recruitment of children. Weapons, now in vogue in armed conflicts, are light and automatic, and hence, easy for children to handle. Also, children are less likely to disobey orders and can easily be prodded to undertake daring assignments, many a time ending up in death.

Children join armed conflicts for different reasons. While some sign up voluntarily others are recruited by force. Those joining voluntarily do so on account of the poor economic condition of their family, or because they wish to avenge the suffering or death of a member of the family at the hands of 'the enemy', or simply because of the thrill it gives. Indoctrination through lectures at schools, screening of films, commemorative events such as Heroes Day plays a significant role in attracting children into the LTTE’s fold. Several accounts of from Sri Lanka support the above reasons.

Serious recruitment of children (and women) into the LTTE began after the LTTE decided to take on the Indian Peace Keeping Force, which was sent to the Island nation in 1987 as part of an agreement, between Sri Lanka and India, that sought to resolve the ethnic conflict in the former.

Even earlier, children formed a part of the Tiger cadres. Child soldiers were originally recruited into the LTTE’s baby brigade, commandeered by Justin. But, after 1987, they were integrated with adult units. Initially recruited from refugee children in India, they were reportedly sent to a training camp in the southern Indian port town of Pondicherry. Supervised by one Basheer Kaka of Trincomalee, the training then was non-military and essentially concerned with physical exercises and education.

Child cadres in the LTTE perform various duties. At one end, they are employed in the kitchen and in medical camps and are asked to do menial jobs. Also, they are posted in the supplies division where they distribute arms and ammunition to other cadres. Above these, they are assigned to gather intelligence and fight alongside adult cadres. Reports indicate that they also functioned as the bodyguards of Pottuamman, the LTTE’s chief of intelligence.

Normally, a training programme runs through four months. At times, owing to the exigency of immediate requirement on the battlefield, the programme was cut short by three months. The cadres, children, begin their day early. They are required to fall in at 5.00am. Thereafter, they go through physical training followed by training in battle and field craft and parade drill. Further into the day, child combatants read LTTE literature. Some more physical training and instruction on communications, explosives and intelligence gathering follow.

Induction onto the field commences with attacking less defended targets. For instance, they are sent to attack villages that do not have any significant armed cover. On the battlefield, the child combatants fought and died much like the adult soldiers. They participated, and still do, in daring attacks to capture weapons as well as territory.

The LTTE’s child soldiers saw their first recorded major action on November 22, 1990. In this attack on the Mankulam army camp, nearly a third of the Sri Lankan troops were killed and the camp was vacated by troops after two days of clashes. Their second major action was the attack on the strategic Elephant Pass Military Complex less than a year later, on July 10, 1991. The Tigers suffered heavy casualties in this attack. An estimated 550 LTTE cadres, including children, were killed in these clashes. Learning from its failures during the July 1991 operations, the LTTE changed the composition of its attacking groups. It put the child cadres together with elite Black Tigers cadres and scored astonishing results, one in 1993 and another in 1996––two army/navy complexes were overrun and an estimated US $ 100 million-worth arms and ammunition were seized by the Tigers. In the 1996 amphibious attack on the military complex in Mullaithivu, child soldiers shot dead some 300 troops after they were disarmed.

The fiercest of all LTTE-fighting units, analysts have noted, is the Leopard Brigade, or Siruthai Puli. It consists exclusively of children whose unswerving loyalty to Tiger chief Prabhakaran and their commitment have attracted considerable attention. Among their actions is the gunning down of 200 elite government troops on December 4, 1997, in Kanakarankulam, Wanni.

The child combatants themselves have suffered numerous casualties in various clashes. In October 1995, in the attack on the Weli Oliya military complex, regarded by analysts as the worst-ever set back to the child fighters, some 3,000 cadres, a vast majority of them children and women, were killed by government troops. Official sources disclosed that in one battle alone, in September/October, 1998, at Kilinochchi, over 500 child soldiers might have been killed. Around the same time, in all, an estimated 1,700 LTTE cadres had died in battles at Kilinochchi, Paranthan and Mankulam. The killed child combatants, along with several women fighters, constituted the frontlines in those battles. Soon after, the LTTE reportedly stepped up its recruitment drive among children in the eastern Batticaloa district to make up for lost cadres.

26 LTTE child soldiers, including four girls who surrendered to the armed forces at Mankulam, in early October 1998, disclosed that the LTTE kidnapped and recruited them into is fighting forces. Some of them were picked up from their homes while some others were hustled into a waiting vehicle.

The surrender of these child soldiers was accorded international publicity. Soon thereafter, at a meeting held in New York between Prof. G. L. Peiris, Sri Lanka’s Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister, and Olara Otunnu, the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Rapporteur for Children and Armed Conflict, Otunnu expressed his disappointment at the LTTE’s breach of pledge. The LTTE had earlier promised him that it would not recruit children under 17 years of age and would not deploy them before they attained 18 years of age.

Despite its assurances, the LTTE, reports indicate, has not given up on recruiting child combatants. A February 2000 report warned that the LTTE would be targeting children in the Wanni, where it was reportedly organising a vigorous recruitment drive. The report, citing the logic of numbers, said that the LTTE, in order to, make up 10,000 lost cadres, between 1995 and 1999, would have to target some 30 per cent of the school-going children who have come of age.

Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar's Address to the International Conference on War-Affected Children, Winnipeg, Canada, September 17, 2000

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