VII. LTTE Recruitment of Children

The LTTE has recruited and used children as soldiers throughout the two-decade-long civil war in Sri Lanka. Prior to the 2002 ceasefire agreement, the LTTE routinely used children in combat, including for mass attacks during major battles.106 Children often suffered high rates of casualties.

The LTTE used child soldiers in all capacities, including as infantry soldiers, security and intelligence officers, medics, combat and administrative support, and as trainers for other cadres. The LTTE also used children as suicide bombers, including girls, who may be less likely to undergo rigorous searches at government checkpoints. The LTTE gave cyanide capsules and grenades to its soldiers, including children, with instructions to ingest the capsule or blow themselves up rather than allow themselves to be captured by the Sri Lankan security forces.107

The LTTE carried out vigorous campaigns in Tamil communities in LTTE-dominated areas to promote their cause, often designed to attract children as new recruits. These campaigns included special events honoring LTTE heroes, parades of LTTE cadres, public displays of war paraphernalia, and street theater. In schools, LTTE cadres often gave speeches and showed videos, and gave teachers “history” lessons on the LTTE to administer to their students. Many children were attracted to the perceived status or glamour of serving as an LTTE cadre, or were persuaded that it was their duty to join the nationalist struggle as part of the LTTE.

Children from a disadvantaged background were particularly vulnerable to LTTE recruitment. Children who were orphaned, were from poor or abusive families, or who had little access to educational or vocational opportunities often believed that joining the LTTE offered a positive alternative to their circumstances.

Government abuses also fueled children’s participation in the LTTE. During the conflict, many Tamil children in the north and east were directly affected by abuses carried out by government security forces, including torture, interrogation, unlawful detention, execution, rape, and enforced disappearances. A 1993 study of adolescents in Vaddukoddai in the north found that one-quarter of the children studied had witnessed violence personally, often against members of their own family.108  In response, many children joined the LTTE, seeking to protect their families and community, or to avenge past abuses.

The LTTE also used coercion and force to recruit children into their ranks. LTTE recruiters abducted children on their way home from school or from their homes. Particularly in the east, the LTTE enforced a “one family, one child” policy, informing Tamil households that each family was obliged to provide a son or a daughter for “the cause.”

The LTTE’s recruitment and use of child soldiers continued even after the ceasefire was signed in 2002. In 2004 Human Rights Watch conducted an investigation of child recruitment, particularly in the districts of Batticaloa and Trincomalee.109 We found that the LTTE routinely visited Tamil homes to inform parents that they must provide a child for the “movement.” Families that resisted were harassed and threatened. Parents were told that if they did not comply their child would be taken by force, other children in the household or their parents would be taken in their stead, or the family would be forced to leave their home. In numerous cases, after a family refused to voluntarily hand over a son or daughter, a child was abducted from their home at night, or picked up by LTTE cadres while walking to school or attending a temple festival.

The LTTE typically targeted children of 14 to 16 years of age for recruitment, but in some cases it took children as young as 11 or 12. Girls were recruited in large numbers, and make up an estimated 40 percent of the LTTE’s child recruits.110

Former child soldiers told Human Rights Watch that after recruitment the LTTE allowed them no contact with their families. During military training they learned to handle weapons, including landmines and bombs, and were taught military tactics. Children who made mistakes were frequently beaten. Children who tried to run away were often beaten in front of their entire unit, in order to dissuade other children who might be tempted to escape.

Many of the former child soldiers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2004 were recruited by V. Muralitharan (Colonel Karuna), while he served as the LTTE’s eastern commander. Karuna had several thousand cadres under his command, including some 2,000 children, when he broke off from the LTTE in March 2004.  After the LTTE attacked and quickly defeated Karuna’s forces in April 2004, child soldiers serving under Karuna fled or were encouraged by their commanders to return to their families. UNICEF subsequently recorded 1,825 cases of children who returned home that month in Batticaloa.111

Within weeks of the split, the LTTE began to systematically target many of Karuna’s former child soldiers for re-recruitment.  LTTE members, often armed and in uniform, went from village to village, visiting former soldiers’ homes and organizing village meetings to insist that former soldiers report back to the LTTE. They used motor vehicles to make public announcements and sent letters to demand the registration or re-enlistment of former cadres. The LTTE threatened families that they would take children by force if they did not return. Parents told Human Rights Watch that the LTTE came to their homes at night to abduct their children, and that they were beaten if they tried to resist. By the end of 2004 more than 250 children had been re-recruited, often by force. Many others lived in constant anxiety, sometimes refusing to leave their homes or go to school for fear of LTTE abduction. 

UNICEF began efforts to document child recruitment by the LTTE in 2002, encouraging families to report cases, and establishing a database to maintain comprehensive records. From January 2002 through December 31, 2006, UNICEF staff received 5,956 reported cases of child recruitment by the LTTE. Of these, 1,012 (17 percent) were children under the age of 15.112 The recruitment and use of children under the age of 15 is considered a war crime (see Chapter IX).

The majority of children recruited by the LTTE are never reported, as many families are fearful of reprisals by the LTTE if they make a complaint, may not be able to reach a UNICEF office, or may be unaware of the possibility of reporting. UNICEF found that of children who were released or flee from the LTTE, only 37 percent were previously entered into their database.113

The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), which is responsible for monitoring the 2002 ceasefire agreement, has also received numerous reports of child recruitment by the LTTE. Between February 22, 2002, and December 31, 2006, the SLMM had ruled 1,743 cases of child recruitment by the LTTE as ceasefire violations. These cases made up more than 45 percent of all ceasefire violations reported to the SLMM.114

The LTTE has made numerous public commitments to end its recruitment and use of child soldiers, including pledges to the UN special representative to the secretary-general on children and armed conflict in 1998, and UNICEF officials in 2001 and 2003. None of these pledges were honored.

In 2003 the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government agreed upon an action plan for children affected by the conflict. A key provision of the plan was the LTTE’s agreement to end child recruitment and to release children from its forces. UNICEF, the main implementing partner for the plan, agreed to establish three transit centers to facilitate the return of children to their communities, particularly in cases where the child expressed a reluctance to go home, had special protection needs, or where his or her family was difficult to locate.

The first transit center opened in October 2003, but in its first year of operation received a total of only 172 children from the LTTE. Although the center had the capacity for 100 children it never held more than 49, and at times was completely empty. In 2005 UNICEF closed the facility as a transit center, and converted it for other use. The other two centers were built, but never used as transit centers, due to the low number of children released.

From 2002 throughout 2006 the LTTE released an additional 1,595 children who did not go through the transit centers but returned directly home. During the same period, however, the LTTE recruited at least four times as many new children into its ranks.115

In October 2006 the LTTE’s Tamil Eelam Justice Division announced a new Child Protection Act, to come into effect by January 1, 2007.116 The new law sets 17 as the minimum age of recruitment into the LTTE, and stipulates that children under 18 will not participate in armed combat.117

In a communication to Human Rights Watch, SP Tamilsevlan, the head of the LTTE political division, stated that the LTTE’s Child Protection Authority had been strengthened in order to monitor the implementation of the law. A document submitted to Human Rights Watch by Tamilselvan claims that field officers have been given written instructions on procedures to prevent underage recruitment, that all new recruits into the LTTE are screened at least twice, and that any recruits found to be underage are sent home.118

The LTTE claims that 197 underage children were released by the LTTE between June and November 2006. It states that an additional 115 children who were recruited during 2006 and are still under the age of 17 remain with the LTTE. Contrary to international standards, the LTTE does not acknowledge that children of age 17 should not be recruited, and takes the position that even if recruited below age 17, once children have turned 17 they no longer need to be released.119

Between 2002 and 2006, reported rates of LTTE child recruitment dropped by approximately 60 percent, possibly due to sustained international pressure by other governments, the United Nations, and non-governmental organizations. The LTTE continued to recruit children, however, and as hostilities escalated in late 2005 some parents informed international organizations that the LTTE had threatened them that the LTTE would not provide them with security when war broke out unless they provided a child.120 During 2006 UNICEF continued to record approximately 50 child recruitment cases a month attributed to the LTTE—nearly five times the number of children released by the LTTE during the same period.121

As hostilities escalated in late 2005 and 2006, the number of parents who reported child recruitment cases to UNICEF may have fallen even lower than previously, due to increased insecurity and additional pressures not to report.  Some parents, for example, reportedly have been told by the LTTE that “if you report to the internationals you will only see the body of your child.”122

Risks to children in the LTTE’s ranks also escalated as major military operations between the LTTE and government resumed. Children became increasingly vulnerable to injury, disability, and death from Sri Lankan army attacks against LTTE bases, and as they were deployed into military operations against governments targets.

Of the total number of LTTE child recruitment cases documented by UNICEF, 1,685 (including 683 who are still under age 18) remain unaccounted for and are believed to be serving with the LTTE. Due to underreporting, the true total of children in the LTTE’s ranks may exceed 4,000.

106 Rachel Brett and Margaret McCallin, Radda Barnen, “Children: The Invisible Soldiers,” 1998, p. 98. The case study was conducted for the UN Study on the Impact of Conflict on Children, prepared by Graça Machel and presented to the UN in 1996.

107 See, for example, Yvonne Keairns, Quaker United Nations Office, “The Voices of Girl Child Soldiers Sri Lanka,” January 2003.

108 DJ Somasundaram, Child Trauma (Jaffna: University of Jaffna, 1993).

109 See Human Rights Watch, Living in Fear: Child Soldiers and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, vol. 16, no. 13(C), November 2004,

110 UNICEF, “Recruitment Gender Analysis,” information supplied by UNICEF, December 11 , 2006.

111 Data supplied to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, January 12, 2007.

112 Data supplied to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, January 12, 2007.

113 Ibid.

114 Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, “Ceasefire Violations at a Glance,” cumulative statistics, February 22, 2002-December 31, 2006.

115 Data supplied to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, January 12, 2007.

116 Letter to Human Rights Watch from SP Tamilselvan, Head of Political Division, LTTE, December 5, 2006; “Tamileelam Legislature Enacts Child Protection Act,” Tamilnet, October 25, 2006, (accessed January 3, 2007).

117 Follow-up to the CPA Report, “Children and armed conflict in the Northeastern Part of the Island of Sri Lanka of August 2006,” Child Protection Authority, LTTE Peace Secretariat, December 2006.

118 Ibid., p. 5.

119 Ibid.

120 Charu Lata Hogg, The Royal Institute of International Affairs and the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, “Child Recruitment in South Asian Conflicts: A Comparative Analysis of Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh,” 2006, p 10.

121 Data supplied to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, January 12, 2007. During 2006 a total of 138 children were released by the LTTE, an average of approximately 12 per month.

122 Amnesty International, “Sri Lanka: A Climate of Fear in the East,” February 3, 2006, (accessed January 3, 2007).