Martyrs for a Homeland

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Captured in a photograph, taken minutes before the bomb blast that assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi, were girls waiting in line to present flowers. Indian authorities believe one of these girls was a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.

In an election rally explosion in October 1994 in the suburbs of Colombo, more than 50 Sri Lankans were killed-including Gamimi Dissanayake, one of the leading candidates for president. Seen just before the blast was a young woman reaching up under her T-shirt, probably pressing the detonator of a powerful bomb strapped to her body. The bomb was loaded with ball bearings to make it more deadly. The woman's head was later found on top of a building 80 yards away. The explosion was widely assumed to be the work of Tamil Tigers.

Why so young, so committed and why girls?

Faced with harassment and economic deprivation, young Tamils are ready to give up their lives. To them it is the ultimate sacrifice. They are ready to pay it. There is a growing pantheon of martyrs for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has fought a 17-year war of independence for northern Sri Lanka. Why do they feel this way? "The only way we can get our Eelam [homeland] is through arms. That is the only way anybody will listen to us. Even if we die" ("Ultimate Sacrifice," Far Eastern Economic Review, June 2000, p. 64).

The LTTE and other Tamil rebel groups want Tamil-dominated parts of Sri Lanka to break away and create a separate Tamil nation-Eelam-in the north and east.

Suicide bombers an effective weapon

In addition to the assassinations of Ghandi and Dissanayake, suicide squads have claimed the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Sri Lankans. Suicide bombers have disrupted political rallies leading up to recent elections, killing members of the public. More than just an effective weapon in the Tigers' arsenal, suicide bombers are a powerful symbol of control-the ultimate with which to hold Sri Lankan society to ransom.

Suicide squads undergo six months arduous training at a Tiger camp. At the end, they swear an oath of personal loyalty to the Tigers' leader and place an amulet containing a cyanide capsule around their necks.

Boy recruits are called Black Tigers while the girls are known as Birds of Freedom. They are normally aged from 14 to 16, with about three females for every two males.

Women and younger boys are often preferred to men for the simple reason they are not subject to the same kind of movement restrictions or body searches. The layers of a woman's clothing can more easily disguise the bulky suicide belt, which is conspicuous under a man's shirt and trousers. Adult male recruits are better to beef up combat forces.

Why young people are prepared to die

Their willingness to assume such an annihilative role is borne from a sense of frustration at the lot of the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka. Army intimidation is a fact of daily life and young Tamils can look forward to only the bleakest of economic prospects. As explained by Dr. Anila Liyanaga, a leading psychiatrist in Colombo: "It is a feeling that death and destruction is far better than life in the given circumstances" (Far Eastern Economic Review, June 1, 2000, p. 64). The harsh reality seen by many is that a Tamil in Sri Lanka is and will remain a second-class citizen to the Sinhalese. Decades of discrimination and anti-Tamil violence have convinced them they can never enjoy equal status with the Sinhalese in a united country.

The Tamil Tigers and other rebel groups want to run Eelam, the Tamil-dominated nation they propose, without Sinhalese interference. The resultant war has consumed 70,000 lives, drained the economy and continues to find ready human ammunition. It's a war that has diverted the energies of a potentially productive country and made everyday life a dangerous gamble.

Why no peace

People want democracy and individual rights, but also group rights, as well. In practice, this means conflict and secession as minority groups seek their own sovereignty and independence.

Witness East Timor, West Papua, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and the Palestinians in Israel. The fires of conflict are too often stoked by the media, which lavishes glory and fame on independence movements. To fight for freedom is portrayed as an honor. For every Palestinian who has killed an Israeli, there are hundreds of Kashmiris, Tamils, Eritreans and others eager to shoot at their enemies.

Newspapers, television and movies foment that sense of honor. They magnify each crisis, glorify each rebellion, and feed the fires of conflict. In Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, the ETA in Spain and France and in countless other places, people who have lived and worked together and even intermarried have gone on a rampage, killing, raping and robbing one another with gusto. This appalling carnage will one day painfully teach these people they must see one another as brothers, not hostile competitors or enemies. Sadly, there will be more of this "aversion therapy" until Christ intervenes to make them heed the lesson.

The tragedy of Sri Lanka

This tear-shaped tropical island nation in the Indian Ocean, just 50 miles southeast of India, has so much physical and human potential. It is close to the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which has long been almost a second home to many Sri Lankan separatists.

About the size of West Virginia and a bit smaller than the Republic of Ireland, Sri Lanka is home for about 18 million people. The largest ethnic group is the Sinhalese who make up about 74 percent, then come the Tamils and Muslims. The Sinhalese are both an ethnic group and linguistic identity, while some 93 percent also profess Buddhism. Sinhalese Buddhists see Sri Lanka as a refuge for Buddhism and although the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, it grants Buddhism the "foremost place." This honor angers Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike. Extreme Sinhalese claim Sri Lanka's destiny is to be wholly Sinhalese and wholly Buddhist.

Tamils are about 18 percent of the population and are a distinct ethnic and language group. Most follow the Hindu religion. Sri Lankans can't usually tell just by looking at someone whether they are Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim. Only when they speak does ethnic identity become apparent. Most Tamils live in the northern part of the country and the east coast, and this geography has encouraged many Tamils to envision a separate Tamil nation.

How the war is financed

The Sri Lankan government has an 80,000-member army, a 50,000-member police force and a 5,000-member Home Guard against an estimated 10,000 Tamil Tigers. But, the Tigers raise money from the thousands of Tamil immigrants who have fled to Australia, Britain, Canada and Germany. They have offices in Britain and France and portray themselves as a political entity, as well as a military force. Many overseas sympathizers finance their cause.

What could a government do under such circumstances?

It could eliminate the feeling among the ethnic minorities that the system is totally stacked against them. It could give all religions equal status. It could end the educational quota that favors Sinhalese over Tamils and others. But, yet, it can't do any of these things.

Author Lawrence J. Zwier in War Torn Island says: "In 1987 Tamils made up about 5 percent of the police force and were almost absent from the armed services-only about 2 percent of the total. To have an almost entirely Sinhalese army marching against Tamil areas is divisive and inflammatory."

What a heartbreak, too, that about 25 percent of Sri Lankan tax revenues goes to fighting their own citizens!

Parallels of martyrs for a spiritual "homeland"

The willingness of young Sri Lankans to be suicide bombers is borne from frustration and hopelessness for their future. What a contrast to Stephen (Acts 7) and Antipas (Revelation 2:13)! Here true Christian martyrs gave their lives inspired from hope, conviction, commitment and trust in a glorious future of a new world.

Moses chose to suffer affliction with the people of God, rather than enjoy Egyptian society. The book of Hebrews tells us he didn't fear the wrath of the king because "he endured as seeing Him who is invisible" (Hebrews 11:27). Similarly, Abraham desired a better country "that is, a heavenly country," because he was convicted God had prepared an eternal city for our future (verse 16). Saints are prepared to die for that city of God. What a contrast of hope to the hopelessness that drives young Sri Lankans to become suicide bombers.

Saints will again be martyred. "I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus" (Revelation 17:6). Men and women will have the strength to endure suffering for the greatest of causes, because they see a "homeland," invisible, yet tangible in their mind's eye, through God's Spirit and promises.

Hebrews 11:35 tells us: "Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection." It continues that others were mocked, scourged, chained and imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, slain with the sword, became destitute, afflicted and tormented. God's view of them was that the world was not worthy of them. They stood for the faith, exultant in being persecuted for righteousness sake and ready to give their lives as a testimony for God. Are we ready to do the same?

If the vision of the Kingdom of God is powerfully in our lives as it was with them, then if God so requires, we, too, would be willing to be a martyr for our spiritual "homeland." WNP