De facto sovereignty and public authority in ‘Tigerland’: governance practices and symbolism

Niels Terpstra & Georg Frerks, in Modern Asian Studies, Vol 52, No 3, Special Issue, May 2018, pp 1001-42 … Article entitled   “Governance practices and symbolism: ‘de facto’ sovereignty and public authority in ‘Tigerland’.”…. SEE

Abstract: This article focuses on how the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgency performed de facto sovereignty and public authority in Northeastern Sri Lanka. It is situated within the wider academic debate on governance by state and non-state actors. We venture to unravel the complex linkages between the LTTE’s governance practices and legitimation strategies by looking at narratives, performances, and inscriptions. While monopolizing the justice and policing sectors, in other sectors the LTTE operated pragmatically in conjunction with the state. The organization tried to generate and sustain public authority and legitimacy through a variety of violent and non-violent practices and symbols. It ‘mimicked’ statehood by deploying, among others, policing, uniforms, ceremonies, nationalist songs, commemorations of combatants, and the media. This not only consolidated its grip on the Northeast, but also engineered a level of support and compliance. We conclude that the LTTE’s governance included practices that were created and carried out independently from the Sri Lankan state, while others took shape within a pre-existing political order and service provision by the state. The article elucidates the LTTE’s mimicry of the state, as well as the operation of parallel structures and hybrid forms of state-LTTE collaboration. This facilitates a nuanced understanding of rebel governance beyond a simple state versus non-state binary.


Journalistic and policy accounts of rebel groups are not rarely dominated by one-sided images of warlords, organized crime, human rights abuses, child soldiers and natural resource plunder. Scholarly research, however, increasingly demonstrates that in many cases rebel actors perform substantial forms of governance often in tandem with predatory practices.[1] It can be argued that they possess de facto sovereignty and execute public authority, as highlighted in this special issue. However, there is a limited understanding of the empirical manifestation and practical dynamics of rebels’ sovereignty and public authority, and the political legitimacy they derive from it. This reminds us of a similar observation with regard to states made by Ferguson and Gupta:  “The metaphors through which states are imagined are important (…). But the understanding of the social practices through which these images are made effective and are experienced is less developed. This relative inattention to state practices seems peculiar, because states in fact invest a good deal of effort in developing procedures and practices to ensure that they are imagined in some ways rather than others.[2]

This applies, we would argue, even to a larger degree to non-state actors involved in governance. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka are a clear case in point: they accounted for severe predatory behaviour towards civilian populations paired to the performance of substantial governance practices at the same time, leading to a de facto sovereignty and public authority. Some of these governance practices, including those of the Tamil Eelam police force and judiciary functioned independently from the Sri Lankan state, especially in areas under full LTTE control. Other practices  were however to a larger or lesser degree shared with the Sri Lankan state, particularly in sectors such as health care and education, and in zones of contested territorial control.

Whereas it has since long been accepted in academic literature that various forms of governance or ‘governmentality’ can be exercised by a variety of actors at the same time, this article hopes to shed light on the specific ways and dynamics through which this has been done in LTTE-controlled areas in Sri Lanka and how that has been perceived and experienced by the local population, thereby paying attention to processes of legitimation and power. First we introduce our theoretical considerations and discuss the emergence of the LTTE, which will be followed by a discussion of the LTTE’s sovereignty and law enforcement; the LTTE’s public service provision; the existence of hybrid rule and authority; and finally the LTTE’s symbolic legitimation of its rule. Following Schröder and Schmidt we pay attention to narratives, performances and inscriptions.[2] We conclude that the empirical manifestation of LTTE governance is more complex than a simple state vs. non-state binary would suggest, ranging from mimicry of statehood and parallelism to hybridity.




The article has shown how the LTTE exercised de facto sovereignty and public authority in the areas under their direct or indirect control. Though this implied – in the words of Hansen and Stepputat –  ‘the ability to kill, punish, and discipline with impunity’[201], there was also a bottom-up aspect to it where the LTTE attempted to acquire popular consent and compliance through other mechanisms than coercion. This constellation around the LTTE’s de facto sovereignty and public authority was the first central argument of our article.

The LTTE’s governance varied per sector. Whereas the LTTE had monopolized justice and policing in the uncleared areas, in other sectors and geographical areas governance services were fulfilled more pragmatically. The LTTE allowed other actors – both state and non-state – to work for the basic needs of the population as long as it would not interfere with their military strategies and help boost their legitimacy. Despite the fact that the military and political struggle of the LTTE was distinctively anti-state, concrete governance practices displayed various forms of political hybridity in which the governance structures of the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state overlapped, intertwined and sometimes collaborated. Our study showed clearly that a focus on governance practices and mechanisms, as evinced in the Foucauldian notion of governmentality, is a better heuristic device than only looking at institutions per se. This has enabled us to discern the multiplex interrelationships and manifestations of governance between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state as well as with international non-governmental agencies. This forms the second central argument of this article.

Our study has further indicated that performing sovereignty and public authority by the LTTE was not confined to the ability to maintain law and order and the instrumental delivery of public services only, but also required a broader legitimation to assure compliance, if not popular consent. Next to the use of ideology and coercion, this involved several symbolic dimensions in which the rebel group legitimized both its struggle against the enemy and its rule over the population. Following Schröder and Schmidt, we discussed the role of narratives, performances and inscriptions to understand how this came about in practice. A first element used extensively was a politico-historical narrative on the oppression of the Tamil people by the Sinhalese (state) and the necessity of a liberated Tamil Eelam. It also involved a political programme outlining the transformations envisaged under Eelam statehood. Through state ‘mimicry’ and state-like performance the LTTE could show the people that it was able to effectively deliver a series of governance services. Another important element in the symbolic dimension of LTTE rule entailed the elevation of the struggle and the heroic status of LTTE cadres fighting – and dying in the fight – against the government. Cemeteries, commemorations of the ‘heroes’, flags and other national symbols were the visible inscriptions of the struggle and the sacrifices made and were widely respected within the Tamil community. The various symbols were not only physically present in the public space, but were also disseminated through the media and propaganda. Through the symbolic legitimation of its struggle, the LTTE implicitly and explicitly attempted to legitimize its rule over the Tamil population and the nascent statehood of its projected Tamil Eelam. Integral to the LTTE’s efforts to exercise sovereignty and public authority were attempts to create, gain and maintain a level of consent and legitimacy, both internally and externally, next to the use of coercion to assure compliance. This forms the third central argument of our article.

The conclusion of our analysis is that a simple binary of state versus non-state actors is not suitable to grasp the empirical manifestation of LTTE governance. We distinguished a more differentiated picture in which state mimicry and state-like performance, parallel structures, hybrid forms of governance and co-optation and different forms of legitimation were combined in a multiplex pattern that varied over time and place. We conclude that the LTTE’s de facto sovereignty and public authority were based on  a number of governance practices that were operated by the movement independently from the Sri Lankan state, while other practices took shape within the pre-existing political order and service provisioning by the state.


An EDITORIAL NOTE: I have altered the title by flipping for marketing reasons and have included both Introduction and Conclusion because they provide our readers with  deeper understandings of the essay.  FULL VERSION CAN BE ACCESSED AT

NIELS is at the Centre for Conflict Studies, Utrecht University Email:

GEORG is at the Centre for Conflict Studies, Utrecht University, the Netherlands, and the Netherlands Defence Academy, the NetherlandsEmail:


[1] Amongst others, see Z. Mampilly, Rebel Rulers. Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life During War, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2011; T. Hagmann and D. Péclard, ‘Negotiating statehood: dynamics of power and domination in Africa’. Development and Change, vol. 41(4), 2010, pp. 539-562; S. Podder, ‘Non-state armed groups and stability: reconsidering legitimacy and inclusion’. Contemporary Security Policy, vol. 34(1), 2013, pp. 16-39; T. Raeymaekers, K. Menkhaus and K. Vlassenroot, ‘State and non-state regulation in African protracted crises: governance without government?’ Afrika Focus, vol. 21(2), 2008, pp. 7-21

.[2] J. Ferguson and A. Gupta, ‘Spatializing States: Toward an Ethnography of Neoliberal Governmentality’. American Ethnologist, vol. 29(4), 2002, pp. 983-984.

[3] I. Schröder and B. Schmidt, ‘Introduction: Violent Imaginaries and Violent Practices’, in B. Schmidt and I. Schröder (eds) Anthropology of Violence and Conflict, Routledge, London and New York, 2001, pp. 1-21.

[201] Hansen and Stepputat, ‘Sovereignty revisited’, p. 296.

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