This article examines the uses of images of women fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam during and after the Sri Lankan civil war (1983–2009) to explore the contrasting mobilizations of visual representations of Tamil women cadres, focusing on the cultivation and framing of contradictory nationalist imaginaries by competing ethnic and state actors. In northern Sri Lanka, portraits of gun-bearing women fighters were wielded to signal revolutionary possibilities for the future of the Tamil nation-state as well as to inform the political socialization of its hopeful citizens. Meanwhile, images of Tamil women cadres were cast as gendered and ethnicized threats by the Sri Lankan state in what constituted a calculated form of visual ethno-political othering and weaponization. This article reflects on the ways in which such appropriations exacerbated the political precarity of and the denial of victimhood to Tamil women.
In the poem quoted in the epigraph, the late Subramaniam Sivakamy, alias Colonel Thamizhini (1972–2015), discloses the tensions between agency, violence, and emancipation faced by Tamil women.1 It potently invokes both the precarity and promise embodied by the visualizations of Tamil women fighters presented in this article. The head of the Women's Political Division of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Thamizhini was the highest-ranking woman cadre taken into state custody after the end of the civil war and, as such, exemplifies the fraught icon of the woman fighter.2 The predicament to which she alludes can be discerned in images of this figure.
Visuals of LTTE women fighters circulated widely during and after the Sri Lankan armed conflict (1983–2009) in ways that served contrasting political purposes. By the early 1980s, escalating ethnic violence, coupled with the Sinhala majority state's refusal to guarantee equal language rights and the introduction of discriminatory policies, intensified into full-blown civil war.3 Among those seeking to carve out an independent Tamil homeland, Tamil Eelam, the LTTE emerged dominant.4 In 2009 the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the group following a brutal military campaign riddled with credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.5
While the Sri Lankan armed forces restricted women soldiers' participation in combat operations, women fighters played a major role in the LTTE's martial successes. Debates on women Tiger cadres emphasize the contradictions of agency and coercion, tradition and feminism. Scholars have investigated the complexities of participating in armed struggle compelled by individual and collective experiences of state terror, atrocity, and sexual violence, along with the Sri Lankan state and the aspirant Tamil state's militarism and militarization.6 Others have also studied the LTTE's single-minded efforts at contriving and socializing a model citizenry founded on devotion to nation and sacrifice.7
This article expands these debates by exploring, specifically, the types of visual representations of women cadres that emerged during the war between the Sri Lankan state forces and Tamil militants. The many visual incarnations and encounters centering the likeness of women fighters accordingly encompass and illuminate the fundamental incompatibility of the island's imaginaries of nation. Within such a context, state and nonstate actors projected political aspirations and fears onto Tamil women's bodies. The LTTE's photographs replicated globalized tropes of gun-bearing women as icons evoking revolutionary potential and as integral to the (re)generation of nation and state.8 Meanwhile government-publicized imagery cast Tamil women fighters as hazards and threats to the sovereignty of the Sri Lankan nation and state and its majority Sinhalese citizenry.
Even as this analysis details the wide-ranging ways that Tamil women fighters appear in the visual field, it must take account of the continued sensitivity concerning imagery and iconography associated with the LTTE and tacit as well as explicit proscription regarding their use. In Sri Lanka the government destroyed virtually all the visual-material remnants of the LTTE after the end of the war, including memorials and cemeteries. Images that linger pose a risk to their owners and keepers. Meanwhile images transmitted to communities abroad during the war have resulted in sporadic preservation efforts.9 Accordingly this article describes visuals available in public and/or online circulations. These images were produced by the LTTE and international photojournalists and typically consist of combat photographs of women fighters, memorial portraits, and fragments of frontline footage in addition to surveillance tapes and identity card headshots disseminated locally by the Sri Lankan government. Questioning the role that the figure of Tamil women cadres played in consolidating nationalist imaginaries and the future of the ethno-state requires, then, discussion not of individual images but rather around them. Drawing on encounters from field research undertaken in northern Sri Lanka and the UK since 2017, partial, fragmented narratives and absent, concealed, or destroyed pictures, or those remembered and recalled that cannot be attributed, recorded, shown, or shared, inform this undertaking (fig. 1).
In developing this framing, I note Alan Feldman's observation that “the mise-en-scène of modern political terror is essentially sacrificial; as a ritual process, sacrificial violence creates generic subjects as raw material vulnerable to labile objectification, for the process of sacrifice requires actors who can assume multiple collective meanings and absorb and reflect back diverse and often contradictory collective fantasies.”10 Drawing from this insight, I examine the conflicting uses of images of Tamil women fighters and their local and internationalized transmissions. Images of women fighters encompassed the possibilities of a sovereign Tamil nation for the LTTE, taking inspiration from the generation and mobilization of images of militant women across diverse and contested contexts of political revolution and conflict. Through the Sri Lankan state's use of images, Tamil womanhood became conflated with, and reinforced imaginings of, terror and violence. Notably, trophy photographs and footage taken by government soldiers that emerged out of the war zone during the final phases of the war (2006–9) recorded, overwhelmingly, the horrific atrocities inflicted upon the bodies of women cadres.11 These reaffirmed suspicions directed at Tamil women as threats within the public imagination in the majority-Sinhalese southern portion of the island, revealing their heightened vulnerability vis-à-vis state security actors. In the postwar administered by a perpetrator state, Tamil women, othered and criminalized through hegemonic discursive and visual practices, continue to experience a resolute denial of victimhood and redress in matters of transitional justice and accountability.
Birds of Freedom
At its peak the LTTE established a de facto state in northern Sri Lanka, which operated alongside yet in conflict with the Sri Lankan state and consisted of structures of public administration, services and welfare, revenue collection, and economic development as well as army, navy, air force, and intelligence wings.12 Crucial to the Tigers' efforts was the early adoption of interlinked media and information technologies to establish a far-reaching international communication network. The group aimed to remake and actively control the image world of its desired Tamil nation-state.13 In tandem with these efforts at governance, the LTTE espoused terror tactics, which included politically motivated assassinations, the massacre of Muslim and Sinhalese civilians, and suicide bombings aimed at weakening the Sri Lankan state and economy and violently stifling opposition from within the Tamil community.14
The LTTE coerced and elicited support from would-be citizens of its aspirant Tamil state through a comprehensive cultural-ideological project, which was marshaled to cultivate a sovereign Tamil nation in its vision, both in the north and east of Sri Lanka and abroad where thousands of Tamils had fled. The LTTE underscored the importance of kadamai (duty) in service of the nation, which drew on ancient Tamil martial concepts to create new forms of political agency and participation.15 These principles strengthened the group's recruitment strategies bound to extensive visual practices, including the production and public display of ornate photographic portraits of martyred cadres; documentary and narrative filmmaking; photographic exhibitions and pamphlets; theater; music; and memorials, murals, pandals, hoardings, and public art installations featuring the heroic images of fighters as well as state atrocities. Such initiatives were intended to motivate enlistment and foregrounded themes of devotion to and sacrifice for the future of Tamil Eelam.16 As has been analyzed by Sharika Thiranagama, forced conscription was also common, and harsh consequences were meted out to those who did not comply.17 Photography and video were also circulated among diasporic Tamil communities in Europe, North America, and Australia to support fundraising.
Women were dynamic participants in the armed struggle as active combatants in equal step with men. Women Tiger cadres were identifiable by their tucked-in braids or short hair and uniforms of long, belted men's shirts and loose trousers or green tiger-striped ensembles. Women fighters deftly brandishing guns as well as heavy artillery became the subject of admiration. This awe, amplified by the “civilian face” of the movement and related image making, also motivated young people to join the iyakkam (movement).18 The social world of northern Sri Lanka became increasingly cut off from the rest of the island on account of a long-term state embargo to weaken the LTTE's stronghold and severe restrictions on movement. The region consequently became wholly cloistered in a visual-material world of the Tigers' making. A culture of public art led by the LTTE's Arts and Culture Wing sought to recalibrate the visual, material, spatial, temporal, and aural landscape of the northern peninsula, illustrating the necessity for and possibility of Tamil Eelam.
Women were initially involved in propaganda, medical and care work, and fundraising.19 With the movement's increasing militarism, women were enlisted and absorbed into combat roles on land and at sea and as part of the Tigers' battlefront film and photography units. They were trained in handling weapons and dispatched to undertake guerrilla attacks, assassinations, and bombings.20 Women also held equal membership in the Black Tigers (Karumpuli), the LTTE's suicide squad, who carried out numerous suicide attacks during the war. Consequently Tamil women fighters featured widely in popular cultural and literary imaginings of war in Sri Lanka and beyond as the empowered yet ambivalent and somewhat fetishized subjects of reportage and fiction.21
Within the conservative and hierarchical Tamil social world of northern Sri Lanka, women's place and presence were positioned by way of patriarchal logic and social regulation. As has been explored by Sitralega Maunaguru, women taking up arms marked a radical transformation of gender roles and a significant shift in the construction of Tamil womanhood.22 Central to this was the idea of the puthumai pen (new woman), which was also the title of an LTTE women's publication. The term emerged in the context of early twentieth-century Indian Tamil nationalist poetry that Tamil women activists in Sri Lanka embraced in the 1980s.23 This reconfiguring of womanhood continued to rely on women's role as biological reproducers. Maunaguru argues the new woman was presented as “a supernatural being performing two different but interconnected duties for the ethnic group” as she holds an automatic rifle in one hand and a child in another.24 Indeed this mirrored a popular visual template connected with various Leftist-inspired national liberation movements around the world.
In 1983 the LTTE founded the Viduthalai Pulikal Munani (Women's Front of the Liberation Tigers), and by 1984 a military camp for women was set up in Tamil Nadu, India, to train women fighters.25 In 1987 another camp that was fully administered by women was established in the Jaffna peninsula. This second batch of trainees was named Suthanthira Paravaikal or Birds of Freedom, a moniker used to refer to women cadres. Women were engaged in all aspects of LTTE military and administrative activity as part of the Sothiya Brigade founded in 1989 (named after the first commander of the women's unit) and the Malathi Brigade established in 1994 (named after Colonel Malathi, the first woman LTTE cadre killed in combat against the Indian Peace Keeping Forces).26 Adele Ann Balasingham (née Wilby), the Australian wife of the LTTE's chief political strategist and theoretician, Anton Balasingham (1938–2006), played a primary role in consolidating the women's wing, authoring various feminist treatises on its formation and role of women in liberation.27 In her foundational text, Balasingham declares that “the decision to break-out of this cycle of suffocating control is a refreshing expression and articulation of their new aspirations and independence,” further stressing that “it tells society that 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 such young women fly in the face of tradition, but they are the women who are the catalysts for social change.”28
This period was also defined by expanding political activism and resistance by Tamil women through the formation of the Northern and Eastern Mothers Fronts.29 These movements foregrounded women's roles as mothers and protested against both the Sri Lankan state and Tamil militant groups as a result of widespread enforced disappearances and summary killings of young Tamil men that took place in the 1980s. Schalk also gestures to the “Palmyra Group,” which he describes as a collective of “Tamil intellectuals who established themselves as the main ideological critics of the LTTE and their female fighters” by advocating for nonviolence.30 It is necessary to highlight that this group would become the University Teachers for Human Rights in Jaffna and played a crucial role in documenting human rights violations and atrocities by both the state and the LTTE.
Former women fighters continue to be among the most persecuted and marginalized following the end of the war in 2009. They have been subject to cruel processes of rehabilitation, horrific sexual violence and torture at the hands of state security personnel, social stigma, economic hardship, and enduring challenges to reintegration. The state-sponsored rehabilitation process for ex-combatants has been widely criticized on human rights grounds. Women cadres were trained in “feminine” vocational pursuits including “beauty culture” and bridal dressing in addition to being compelled into arranged marriages. Within such a setting, the state also explicitly prohibited imagery related to the LTTE as a danger to the “peace” that had been achieved by war victory. Tamils living in Sri Lanka concealed or were compelled to destroy photographs of themselves or loved ones indicating membership in the LTTE. Such images preserved by Tamil communities abroad continue to serve as the focal point of annual memorialization events. This highlights the dynamic nature of what Ariella Azoulay has theorized as the “event of photography,” notably in how its potentials are also feared and actively curtailed by the state. Azoulay defines an event of photography as an “infinite series of encounters,” concerned not merely with the photographer and the photographed but also its multiple spectators—in a process triggered by the very act of making of an image.31 A “spark of contingency” embedded in images makes contrasting uses and interpretations possible.32 This amplifies, in turn, the often politically generative, albeit sometimes incendiary, “eventfulness” of images.33 Karen Strassler expands this consideration to a wider repertoire of visual material in deliberating “image events” as the “political processes in which publicly circulating images become the material ground of struggles over the nation's past, present, and future.”34 The afterlife of images of Tamil women fighters across the diaspora further amplifies the eventfulness of photography, understood as its capacity to shape new, deterritorialized solidarity among those who are governed and to transcend the trappings of the sovereign power.35 In their dynamic circulations, these visuals of Tamil women fighters endure as a site onto which possibilities for what is a now a transnational Tamil political future are projected.
Liberation in Pictures
Image making was central to the state and citizen-making practices of the LTTE. The group enthusiastically invested in technologies and skills training for the production and dissemination of its ideological rhetoric in visual forms, including photography and film produced by Nitharsanam (Truth/Reality), the LTTE's media unit that specialized in battlefield camerawork. While photography was disseminated through local and international publications and exhibitions, videos were edited into films for public screening or used for training purposes.
The 2002 news documentary Truth Tigers, produced by an Australian news media outlet, notes that the battlefront camera teams (two for each unit of a hundred fighters) were “expected to be in the first wave of any attack recording images of a war fought on a scale few outside Sri Lanka could comprehend.” Women were actively involved in the production and dissemination of these images as camera operators as well as prominent radio and television personalities. Truth Tigers is focused on a twenty-one-year-old battlefront videographer named Nadhi who voluntarily enlisted at the age of fourteen. During the course of the film, she witnesses her best friend's death in combat—a reminder that frontline image makers often did not survive their missions. This is evidenced in the credits of various LTTE films that list the involved photographers and videographers as “martyred.” In 2003–4 the LTTE Women's Unit also produced a dedicated two-part documentary film titled Akkini Paravaikal (Volcanic Birds), which charts the formation of the women Tigers from battlefield exploits to the social challenges they encountered in their communities.36 Gajaani (a nom de guerre), an exiled LTTE woman war photographer interviewed by an Indian magazine in 2006, noted that there was “high respect for photography in the LTTE and among the Tamil people.”37 Having joined the LTTE as a fighter, Gajaani's superiors signed her up to a photography training program while she was recovering from a battle injury even though she was not especially interested in the medium at the time.38 The lessons proved formative, and in recognition of her accomplishments, she received a camera, which she used to engage in both documentary and frontline photography that circulated locally and overseas as part of the LTTE's media activity.39 “I don't think about death when I'm on the battlefield, I just try and get the best pictures of my cadres—that is my mission and I don't feel any fear,” Gajaani reflected in the interview, highlighting photography as an important extension of her skill as a fighter. Image making was thus purposefully entwined with militarism.40
Images were integral to the political socialization and mobilization of the Tamil community at home and abroad. Visuals such as those generated by Gajaani, Nadhi, and other LTTE photographers and videographers served an important political and economic purpose. In 2019 a selection of photographs from the war years taken by Gajaani was shown at a community-organized exhibition in London marking the tenth anniversary of the war's end.41 Other images were displayed at events such as Maaveerar Naal (Great Heroes Day) and Karumpuli Naal (Black Tiger Day) and incorporated into further forms of cultural production (fig. 2). These events stressed the shared nature of the liberation struggle but also its spirited transnational dispersal as political ideal and possibility. Moreover, such tributes deployed visualizations and narratives of the tyrannical Sri Lankan state's oppression and violence against Tamils. Even after the end of the war, these images remain central to nationalist expression among the Tamil diaspora, keeping alive hopes for Tamil Eelam.
The LTTE also relied on the international media to help conjure a carefully contrived imaginary of liberation that mirrored globalized visual tropes that drew from Hollywood war films and iconic representations of Marxist revolutionaries. In the 1980s and 1990s, the more sensational glimpses into the mysterious world of the Tigers came through the work of international journalists and documentary photographers and filmmakers who were granted limited access to capture the inner workings of “the most sophisticated and successful guerrilla organization in the world.”42 These pictures and consequent exposure highlighted the Tigers' makeshift methods as ingenious, foregrounding that their most skilled fighters were made up of bold young women and adolescents who had eagerly joined its ranks. This framing suggested that the struggle belonged to the Tamil people irrespective of gender or age and that collectively they sought to claim a Tamil homeland by whatever means necessary. The LTTE's feats were not limited to the north and east of Sri Lanka alone. Fierce acts of terror, notably bombings and suicide attacks, habitually ruptured daily life in southern Sri Lanka. Within such a setting, the figure of the Tamil woman combatant was wielded as menace and warning by the government media. Meanwhile state forces continued to ruthlessly target Tamil civilians in the north and east in a malicious cycle of reprisal.
Internationally the Tigers and their war for liberation were thus condensed into a series of striking portraits against the backdrop of the dense jungles of the Vanni that appeared in global news magazines. These portraits afforded the group with a progressive standing that positioned them within a global iconography of resistance, especially that of Latin America. In a 1987 encounter with Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, Indian photojournalist Shyam Tekwani captured two portraits in which the thalaivar (leader) actively mimics his idol Che Guevara by pointing a pistol directly at the camera lens. Other photographers including Greg Girard, Roger Parton, Robert Nickelsberg, and Stephen Champion documented fighters in arresting photographs that imbued the group with revolutionary distinction. Earlier images of the group showed slight, ragtag, sarong-clad young men with cyanide capsules strung around their necks deftly posed for visiting photographers. They were pictured wielding homemade grenades and Type 56s as they waged war. Later images began to show gun-bearing uniformed women and children defiantly stared down the camera, unapologetic in their demand for national liberation, even as the LTTE engaged in widespread child recruitment for its “baby brigades.”43 These young fighters—especially the girls, who were seen to be defying the conservative traditions of Tamil culture—thus became the desired subjects of image makers. In southern Sri Lanka, once more, such representations were recirculated to invoke suspicion and fear of and animosity toward Tamils and young Tamil women.
The group's reliance on image making became acutely evident during its tenuous ceasefire agreement with the Sri Lankan government, which was in effect between 2002 and 2005.44 During this time in the early 2000s, the LTTE's efforts in transforming itself into a legitimate state actor from a violent nonstate actor took place through the careful rebranding of the image of its leadership, its combatants, and its envisioned nation-state. Prabhakaran and other high-level commanders abandoned Tiger-striped camouflage-print gear for safari suits, while the fighters were organized into a more conventional military formation with smart formal uniforms. Media attention was directed to women who eagerly spoke in cautious English or confident Tamil to foreign journalists about their sacrifices and voluntary enlistment to achieve their shared dream of Tamil Eelam. The international media were granted even greater, although still controlled, access to film the LTTE's successes as a state actor dedicated to the institutional and spatial reorganization of the territory under its purview. This added to the group's standing, especially as international interest in the civil war increased, heralding a potent transformation over the years from motley insurgents to a capable and convincing state actor.
Photography scholars have critiqued conflict photography documenting non-Western wars, especially as it appears in news and documentary images, as a space and economy of exclusion and marginalization that fetishizes suffering entrenched in colonial tropes of racism, exoticism, and othering.45 However, it is necessary to note the ways in which the Tigers were shrewd in their management of contact and representation by way of the international media, understanding and skillfully maneuvering what access could achieve for their political aspirations. Following the group's decimation in the government forces' military victory in 2009, its images remain preserved internationally precisely because of their strategic global dissemination and subsequent digital trajectories and afterlives.
Portraits of gun-bearing girls and women served as a salient representation and fulfilment of the egalitarianism and freedom in line with the loosely Marxist ideals and aesthetics espoused by the LTTE in its early years, where other forms of equality were more challenging to capture within a photograph. They stood in stark contrast to another kind of image of Tamil womanhood that had long been in conspicuous public circulation. Since the colonial period, women tea pickers of Sri Lanka's Indian-origin Tamil community had been suspended in and commoditized into image form as the smiling, industrious bearers of burdens in promotional materials for the island's plantation and tourism industries.46 Portraits of women fighters emphasized their emancipation from the burdens of a conservative culture to ones that foregrounded their political ambitions and individual desire to take up arms. Here violence became an act and site of these women's agency, thus inherently beckoning the promise of revolution. For former women combatants (not unlike their male counterparts), uniformed portraits captured by the LTTE for official purposes were sometimes the only images of their younger selves. However, a ban on the LTTE and associated materials following the end of the war entailed that being in possession of such images of oneself or for memorial purposes risked immediate arrest or worse, compelling owners to destroy or carefully hide these away.
Portraits of women fighters also stand in visual opposition to the overwhelmingly male-dominated Sri Lankan military as an incarnation of the violent machismo of the oppressive Sri Lankan state that centered the martial virtues of men.47 Sexual violence against Tamil girls and women perpetrated by Sri Lankan soldiers and the Indian Peace Keeping Forces had been a cruel and pervasive reality in the north and east during the war years. This has been identified as a motivator for women's preemptive or consequent choices to join the armed struggle.48 As Hellman-Rajanayagam discusses, in the 1980s the LTTE was heavily criticized for initially claiming that women violated by Sinhalese soldiers were no longer fit to marry Tamil men on account of sexual impurity and loss of chastity.49 Following the establishment of the women's units, the positioning of shame and impurity gradually faded. The LTTE encouraged its veterans to marry women who had been raped to ensure their social standing.50
Images of women fighters thus tacitly drew attention to a broader commitment to national liberation that extended beyond the masculine constructions of nation and political self-determination. Such imagery in their local circulations also served as a potent draw within recruitment, where younger boys and girls revered their subjects. These images also distracted from the rigid gender hierarchies and norms in practice within the LTTE that actively demanded chastity of both men and women cadres, segregated men from women, prohibited romantic/sexual relationships between cadres, and regulated marriages. The resonance of these visualizations was felt beyond Sri Lanka and after the end of the war and continues to be transformed into poetry, art, and music.51 Annual tributes featuring hundreds of these portraits endure among Tamil communities abroad. The provenance of portraits and their makers are largely unknown; images are regularly digitally altered, reproduced, and shared, appearing on social media platforms and internet sites, archiving aspects of the struggle and community histories as well as virtual graveyards for veeravengaikal (heroes) (fig. 3).
“Maragena Marena Bombakari”
Tekwani notes that Prabhakaran initially prohibited photography of women cadres, but the restriction was lifted following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi at the hands of a woman suicide bomber in Tamil Nadu.52 As has been examined by Michael Roberts, Dhanu, a young woman dressed in a green and orange shalwar kameez (drawstring trousers and tunic) in the colors of Gandhi's Congress Party and carrying a garland of sandalwood pellets, detonated the explosive vest concealed beneath her clothing as she bowed in respect, instantly killing fourteen people, including Gandhi.53 In line with its practice of recording major operations for training and propaganda purposes, the LTTE had hired Haribabu, a local Chennai photographer, to record the event.54 While Haribabu died in the explosion, his camera did not. Images from the camera, which were widely publicized in the Indian media, revealed the final moments before the assassination, enabling investigators to identify the assassins and their involvement with the Tigers, which led to the group's ban in India.55 This episode points to another type of incidental image of Tamil women fighters circulated during the war, namely, the visual ephemera of suicide bombings. This was made possible by the rapid advancement to digital-visual technologies that began to take place from the mid-1990s through to the 2000s.
The Sri Lankan government media circulated images of women suicide bombers in the form of grainy CCTV footage or, in the cases where their identities were known, their National Identity Card portraits. These instilled new fears in the Sri Lankan public about the supposed threat embodied by Tamil women in public spaces. Especially memorable was the dissemination of CCTV footage that logged the suicide attack targeting the former minister of social services and welfare. During the war the LTTE attempted no fewer than twelve times to assassinate Douglas Devananda, a politician who led the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), a pro-government Tamil paramilitary group and political party.56 One such attempt occurred on November 27, 2007, when a disabled Tamil woman in a yellow and white sari with a bomb concealed beneath her blouse gained entry into the ministry premises in the capital city of Colombo on a public day. Although she failed to reach her target, she detonated the explosives hidden on her body, killing herself and a member of Devananda's staff.
The Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense circulated still images and footage to the media and via its official website of the maragena marena bombakari (a pejorative meaning “woman suicide bomber”), claiming that it was “possibly the world's first videoed suicide killer blast.”57 Sri Lankan government communications affirmed “the need to eliminate terrorism from our world” and justified the state-led indiscriminate military assaults in the north and east of the island to annihilate the LTTE despite significant local and international outrage regarding the rapidly spiraling civilian casualties. Extracted footage and stills from CCTV cameras placed on the premises shows the bomber, a woman with a slight limp, later identified as Sujatha Vagawanam. She calmly waits in a queue of those seeking an audience with the minister, conversing with a receptionist through a counter window amid a group of people. She finally offers up a few documents to the minister's aide before sitting down on a red velveteen chair at his desk for a while before standing up and tugging at her sari blouse. As she steeply falls backward, the room becomes clouded with gray smoke as survivors stumble in the aftershock and hurriedly disperse. A double portrait of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa adorning the walls of the office remains prominently visible throughout.
The footage, which was picked up by national media outlets, drew attention to two specific aspects of the attack that underscored Sujatha's gender and Tamilness, highlighting how “LTTE terrorists have introduced another innovative terror tactic to the world by placing a bomb between a woman's breasts.”58 The end of the video clip emphasized her Tamilness by showing a black-and-white National Identity Card portrait of the pottu-wearing woman and requesting that the public contact the authorities with information should they recognize her.59 As a consequence of suicide bombing and widespread distribution of interlinked images, Tamil women were subject to greater suspicion in the eyes of the Sinhalese public as well as increased scrutiny and abuse at the hands of the state security apparatus, particularly at the checkpoints ubiquitous in the Sri Lankan landscape during the war years. As discussed by Maunaguru, the LTTE also condemned travel by ordinary Tamil women to the southern Sri Lanka, describing them as sexually loose traitors to the cause because of the physical contact with Sri Lankan soldiers and policemen necessitated at checkpoints.60 Meanwhile Tamil women from or living in the south felt compelled to modulate outward indicators of their ethnic and religious identity by refraining from wearing pottu or vibhuti and adapting their dress to appear less visibly Tamil.61 During this period, Tamils were, more generally, compelled to endure longer checks, waiting, and routine harassment in the form of taunting, threats, arbitrary detention, and worse.
Images of Sujatha's mangled body, half exposed by her unraveled yellow and white sari and lying in a pool of blood amid various scattered chairs, were also widely disseminated in the local media. The violence of her destroyed body was made hyper-visible to the Sinhalese public as caution. In the aftermath of the end of the war, similar images of ravaged Tamil bodies from the northern war zone captured as trophy images by Sri Lankan state soldiers circulated in the thousands. A public thirst for such images and footage was enabled not only by the news but also by an informal economy of snuff films in the form of video CDs. Camera phone or compact digital camera photos and video evidenced, to their creators and consumers, the visceral, bodily destruction of a long-standing enemy of the notion of Sri Lanka as a Sinhala Buddhist homeland. These also contrived the Sri Lankan state and its military agents as the defenders and protectors of the island's territorial integrity.
Gruesome photographs of Tamil death taken by soldiers became a part of an international call for Sri Lanka's accountability on matters of war crimes and transitional justice. These photographs demonstrate above all the frightening intentionality of the carnage that underpin claims of genocide. What the personal photographs of soldiers do not display is the humanitarianism, heroism, and discipline that have become integral to Sri Lanka's political vocabulary and might augur its future success and stability. The images speak instead to the terrifying actualities of the Sri Lankan state and its consolidation of power through securitization. It is intertwined with Sinhala Buddhist nationalist rhetoric that permits the creation and demonization of various enemy others who demand brutalization in response to their threats to the state. Indeed the distribution of the image to cultivate a representation and expectation of what this enemy other might look like is epitomized in the case of Sujatha's suicide mission. Among such distributions, images of Tamil women were notable given the dangers that, through the state's intervention, became associated with Tamil women's bodies as a distinct threat to the sovereignty of the Sri Lankan nation-state. In the destruction of Tamil women's bodies, the perceived capability of women to (re)generate the nation was also savagely crushed. Its visual corroboration provided certainty to an audience eager to be assured that the war had been won.
Trophy images captured by soldiers as a record of war zone experiences emphasize the volatility of the photographic event. The same photographs and footage circulated with equal vigor as evidence of mass human rights violations carried out by state forces. They also functioned as commodities to satiate those who, keen to celebrate the victory of the Sri Lankan armed forces over the LTTE, endorsed these atrocities. Images recorded by soldiers and aid workers trapped in the war zone appeared most prominently in the documentaries Sri Lanka's Killing Fields (2011) and Sri Lanka's Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished (2012). These stressed the need for international action on the part of a global audience, which the films sought to reach. Underlined further is the transnational character of the photographic event these invoke, whereby images from soldiers' personal devices wound up in the possession of international advocacy groups demanding accountability from the Sri Lankan government. Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, similar atrocity images and footage from wartime television news reports were copied onto video CDs and sold to zealous Sinhalese consumers of the state narrative of “war victory” and “triumph over LTTE terrorism.”
Central to the Killing Fields documentaries are images of Isaipriya, a well-known news presenter, who was easily identifiable from her presence in programs broadcast by the LTTE. Isaipriya's cruelly abused body was among hundreds of dead women cadres photographed and filmed by Sri Lankan soldiers in various graphic states of injury, undress, and violation—breasts bared and trousers pulled down. Short video clips, as noted above, were often accompanied by commentary by soldiers who took repugnant pleasure in defilement and destruction by sexualizing women's bodies. Soldiers also photographed one another posing triumphantly alongside those whom they had killed, recording the scale of violence during the final months of the war. Such obscene displays and the violation of corpses and the accompanying image making enacted further desecration. Indeed the volatile event of photography, permitted by the contingency of the image, also constituted, in the hands of proponents of the Sri Lankan state forces celebrating the demise of the LTTE, a perpetuation of the soldiers' acts of atrocity. The Sri Lankan state made internationally publicized efforts to discredit those who disputed the authenticity of these images and the statements of witnesses and experts interviewed. The government also used the visuals within Sri Lanka to suggest it was being persecuted by the West for “liberating the whole country from LTTE terrorism,” stoking nationalist sentiment and antipathy against both the international community and the Tamil diaspora.
The diverse genres of images of Tamil women fighters generated out of the frontlines of combat included official memorial portraits, propaganda, journalistic images, fragments of CCTV, battlefield footage, and trophy photographs. Taken together, they illuminate wider contestations regarding the violent enactments of sovereignty deemed necessary to secure the territorial and ethnic integrity of competing nation-state projects. These visuals played a crucial role in the political socialization of Tamil and Sinhalese citizens and emphasize the fundamental incompatibility of the island's ethno-geographic imaginaries. Photographs of Tamil women fighters became a site onto which rival nationalist anxieties and ambitions were projected. The “eventful” circulation of images of women cadres embodies the egalitarian promise and prospect of nation and liberation while being weaponized by others as agents and instruments of terror. This, in turn, socialized a demand for vicious neutralization among the anti-Tamil Sinhalese public by transforming Tamil women and their bodies into exceptions and targets of horrific violence and destruction evidenced by way of prolific visual documentation by perpetrators. Sri Lanka's state of impunity that has followed the end of the war thus continues to emphasize a denial of victimhood, understood in legal terms as a person who has suffered harm as a result of a criminal offense, to Tamil women in particular, enabling silence and inaction in matters of justice and accountability.
This research is a part of Photodemos: Citizens of Photography—The Camera and the Political Imagination at UCL Anthropology. This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement no. 695283.
Thamizhini, “A Goddess Dreams,” in Ebeling and Holmström, Lost Evenings, Lost Lives, 153.
Thamizhini was captured and “rehabilitated” following the end of the war in 2009 and then released in 2013. A poet and writer, she penned a memoir of her experiences, Koorvalin Nilalil (In the Shadow of a Sharp Sword), before succumbing to cancer in 2015.
See DeVotta, Blowback.
See Brun, “Birds of Freedom”; Gowrinathan, “Committed Female Fighter”; Gowrinathan, Radicalizing Her; Hellmann-Rajanayagam, “Female Warriors, Martyrs and Suicide Attackers”; Maunaguru, “Gendering Nationalism.”
See Brun, “Birds of Freedom”; Schalk, “Historization of the Martial Ideology of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam”; “Resistance and Martyrdom in the Process of State Formation of Tamililam”; “Revival of Martyr Cults among Ilavar”; Thirangama, In My Mother's House; “Making Tigers.”
See Phu's examination of photographs of revolutionary Vietnamese women as symbols of social and cultural consequence and Yuval-Davis on the role of national and ethnic processes in relation to women as biological reproducers of the nation. Phu, Warring Visions; Yuval-Davis, “Women and the Biological Reproduction of ‘the Nation.’”
While no accessible or systematic archive exists, various materials have been preserved by members of the Tamil community abroad.
Between 2006 and 2009, fighting between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE intensified dramatically after the dissolution of the 2002 ceasefire agreement. The UN estimates that between 40,000 and 70,000 civilians were killed in the final months of the war, between September 2008 and May 2009. An additional 290,000 were internally displaced.
See Schalk, “Historicization”; Schalk, “Resistance and Martyrdom.”
Notable examples in the English language include Nayomi Munaweera's novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors (2012); Nihal de Silva's novel The Road from Elephant Pass, which was adapted as a film in 2008; Niromi de Soyza's memoir Tamil Tigress (2011); and Beate Arnestad's documentary My Daughter the Terrorist (2007). See also Heidemann, “Symbolic Survival of the Living Dead”; and Meegaswatta, “Violence as a Site of Women's Agency in War.”
See Butler, “Photography, War, Outrage”; Cole, “What Does It Mean to Look at This?”; Kleinman and Kleinman, “Appeal of Experience”; Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others; Sealy, Decolonizing the Camera;
Hellmann-Rajanayagam, “Female Warriors,” 8.
A stenciled image of a Tamil woman fighter appears prominently in Steve Loveridge's 2018 documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A centered on the life of British Tamil rapper MIA (Maya Arulpragasam), whose early art and music drew on experiences and such representations of the Tamil nationalist struggle.
Tekwani, “Man Who Destroyed Eelam.” The title of this section is the Sinhalese term for a female suicide bomber. The Sinhalese term for suicide attacks is maragena marena prahara (an attack of killing by dying), to distinguish them from siya divi nasageneema (suicide).
From a video clip titled “Sri Lankan Homicide/Suicide Bomber Attack terrorist” released by the Sri Lanka Ministry of Defense following the attack. The clip is annotated in both English and Sinhalese.
A pottu is a colored dot worn on one's forehead for Hindu religious or culturally determined decorative purposes.
Vibhuti, sacred ash from Hindu ritual, is applied to one's forehead.