Published:  02:50 AM, 12 August 2020

Tragedies of a civil war: The case of Sri Lanka


A "civil war" can be defined as a violent conflict between two groups within the same country. Throughout human history, civil wars have been fought as people adhering to a particular ideology have sought to establish their desired political system over others in their own country. Nations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Turkey, Angola, the Yemen, Nigeria, and Ethiopia have all experienced civil wars since the last one-hundred years.

The result has invariably been devastating human suffering. One example of such a tremendous tragedy is the Sri Lankan Civil War which took place between 1983 and 2009. For a quarter of a century, a neighboring country of ours was plagued by a brutal political conflict. This remains one of the most dreadful manmade disasters in the South Asian region.

In 1948, Sri Lanka emerged as an independent nation in South Asia after over a century of colonial rule under Great Britain. The country is divided into two major ethnic groups - the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority.

For 26 years, Sri Lanka went through a bloody civil war which was fought between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan state. The civil war left tens of thousands of people dead, affected the national economy negatively, created a sense of fear and terror across the nation, and created severe division amongst two distinct ethnic groups who are citizens of one country.

It is necessary to delve into the causes of this conflict to develop an understanding of why members of an ethnic group chose the path of militancy in order to establish their political rights and to learn about the massive atrocities that a state committed against its own people. It is also important to remember the tragic loss of human lives and the insufferable pain that innocent human beings had to endure due to a very lengthy period of violent conflict. 

The British colonized Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) in 1815. With complete political control over the nation, Britain established massive plantations of coffee, tea and rubber on Sri Lankan land. About one million Tamil men and women were brought from India by Britain to the island nation to work in these plantations.

One strategy that colonial powers implemented in their colonized countries was the policy of "divide and rule" - one particular community would be favored by the colonial ruler over other groups of people in the colony.

The British did exactly that in Sri Lanka as they provided better access to education to Tamil Sri Lankans than they did to the Sinhalese. Tamils were also preferentially appointed to bureaucratic positions, which meant that the Sinhalese people were discriminated against. Moreover, the Tamil-dominated regions in northern and eastern Sri Lanka are arid and have infertile land, which made it necessary for the Tamil inhabitants to pursue higher education to make a living.

A higher number of Tamils pursued education in English, which was the key to higher education in colonial Sri Lanka as the British authorities only provided state funds to schools that taught in English. Due to American missionary activities which had ample funding, northern Sri Lanka, which is a Tamil-majority area, had better access to both learning English, and pre-university education.

The more-educated Tamil people found employment in better-paying jobs, which meant that the Tamils earned more and eventually achieved more prosperity than their Sinhalese countrymen did during British rule. This created a society where a minority group possessed superior skills and enjoyed better employment than the majority did.

As Sri Lanka achieved independence, the Sinhalese majority had strong resentment of the Tamil minority. The Sinhalese were in control of the new government, and they immediately passed laws which discriminated against Tamil citizens.

The Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 stripped Tamils brought to Sri Lanka by the British off Sri Lankan citizenship, effectively turning them into stateless people. Sinhalese was made the official language of the nation, which made Tamil civil servants severely disadvantaged since they were not fluent in the language. Consequently, many Tamils lost their employment positions. After S.W.R.D.

Bandaranaike won the country's parliamentary elections in 1956, he implemented quotas which limited the number of Tamils who could enter the civil service, and higher education - especially in the fields of Medicine and the Sciences.

The number of Tamils who entered medical schools and those who pursued degrees in engineering fell by 50% and 67% respectively after the introduction of the quotas. The central government's recruitment of Tamils in general clerical services fell from 41% in 1949 to 7% in 1963. By the 1970s, only a mere 6% of newly recruited teachers were ethnically Tamil.

The number of Tamils who enrolled into universities in science-related subjects fell sharply from 35% in 1970 to 11% in 1974. While trying to address the injustices of the past, the Sinhalese-dominated governments of Sri Lanka discriminated against the Tamil population, marginalizing a whole ethnic group for no fault of their own.

The discriminatory policies may also have been a result of a majority people's desire to dominate a minority group due to the former's superior political power and influence. In 1976, the LTTE was founded by Velupillai Prabhakaran and it expressed a desire to establish a separate Tamil homeland comprising of the Tamil-majority areas of northern, and eastern Sri Lanka in order to achieve self-determination for Sri Lanka's Tamils.

Many Tamil Sri Lankans at the time became convinced that they would never be given equal rights by their government or, in other words, it was not possible for them to win their rights through democratic processes and hence, joined Prabhakaran's cause.

The Sinhalese-dominated government alienated a large segment of the country's Tamil population by establishing and implementing discriminatory policies and therefore, created fertile ground for a Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka.

In the July of 1983, Sri Lanka's civil war began. The country experienced ethnic riots across different cities. Tamil insurgents killed 13 army personnel which led to a violent backlash by the Sinhalese population against Tamil civilians.

Approximately 2,500-3,000 Tamils died due to the violence and thousands more were forced to seek refuge in Tamil-majority areas. The LTTE then proclaimed the First Eelam War which took place from 1983 to 1987 with the intention of creating an independent Tamil state in northern Sri Lanka named, "Eelam."

At the beginning, most of the fighting was conducted against rival Tamil groups and by 1986, the LTTE was the sole entity fighting for a separate Tamil state.The LTTE was a very lethal terrorist organization as it carried out suicide bombings across Sri Lanka, recruited child soldiers, and managed to challenge the might of the Sri Lankan Army effectively.

They were involved in massacres, bombings, robberies, ethnic cleansing, military offensives, and assassinations of both civilians and military personnel. In 1987, India sent a peacekeeping force to Sri Lanka which stayed there until 1990 to make efforts to end the conflict. In 1991, former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was assassinated by the LTTE since it was the former's decision to deploy the peacekeeping force.

To finance their activities, the LTTE collected funds from some Tamils living in foreign countries; they coerced many Tamils residing outside Sri Lanka to provide them money with threats of harming their close ones in Sri Lanka; they abducted wealthy Tamils in Sri Lanka and demanded hefty sums of money for their release;

the US State Department has stated that the terrorist outfit also used charity organizations as a front for raising funds.The LTTE abducted 600-700 police officers in Sri Lanka's eastern province in June 1990, with the goal of weakening the state's hold of the region.

Even though the captive policemen surrendered their arms after they had received assurances that they would not be harmed if they did as such, the LTTE murdered all the hostages in a jungle after forcing the victims to kneel before being shot. The Sri Lankan government reacted swiftly to this act of brutality by conducting an aerial bombardment of the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula and by cutting off food and medicine supplies to the region.

This led to the LTTE massacring hundreds of people in Sinhalese and Muslim villages. The Sri Lankan military and Muslim defense-units responded to that by subsequently conducting massacres in Tamil villages. Sinhalese schoolchildren were also massacred in Sooriyakanda by the government since the town was a stronghold for the Sinhalese splinter group, "JVP."

In July 1991, 5,000 LTTE militants surrounded the country's army base at Elephant Pass, an area leading to the LTTE stronghold of Jaffna. The militants captured the base for a month until 10,000 state military forces forced them out; the battle caused the deaths of 2,000 soldiers from both sides.

The Sri Lankan military at that time, nevertheless, was unable to take control of Jaffna from the LTTE even after attacking the region multiple times in 1992-93.In 1993, the then Sri Lankan President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, was assassinated in a plot possibly carried out by the LTTE. This was a period of extreme dreadfulness in Sri Lanka.

After Chandika Kumaratunga was elected President, the LTTE signed a peace agreement with her government in 1995. Merely three months after the signing of the agreement, the LTTE destroyed two Sri Lankan naval gunboats by planting explosives in them.

The government immediately retaliated by carrying out aerial bombardment of civilian areas and refugee camps in Jaffna and by sending ground troops to massacre civilians in Tampalakamam, Kumarapuram, and other places.

In December 1995, the government managed to successfully take control of Jaffna for the first time since the beginning of the civil war. About 350,000 Tamil civilians and LTTE militants subsequently retreated to the Northern Province's Vanni region. The LTTE responded to their loss of Jaffna by attacking Mullativu, which was protected by 1,400 state troops.

4,000 Tamil guerilla fighters defeated the stationed army even though the latter was supported by the country's air force. Over 1,200 of Sri Lanka's soldiers died in this battle and 200 of them had gasoline poured on them and were then burned alive even though they had surrendered.

During this period, LTTE terrorists conducted several suicide bombings in Colombo and other cities in the south; the targets included the Central Bank in Colombo, the World Trade Center of Sri Lanka, and the Buddhist Temple of Tooth in Kandy.

In 1999, a failed assassination attempt on President Kumaratunga took place. LTTE forces recaptured Elephant Pass in 2000, and in 2001, they broke a unilateral ceasefire agreement and went on a military offensive to take over Jaffna once more.

In July 2001, the Bandarnaike International Airport fell victim to an LTTE suicide attack where eight military jets and four airliners were destroyed. The Sri Lankan tourism industry was hit hard due to this incident. In 2005, Lakshman Kadirgamar, the then Sri Lankan Foreign Minister who was Tamil, but critical of the LTTE, was killed by an LTTE sniper.

The following year in 2006, crowded commuter trains and buses in Colombo were bombed by the LTTE while the government assassinated journalists and politicians who sympathized with the LTTE. Violence by both the government, and the LTTE resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians in the immediate years that followed.

The Sri Lankan government began a very forceful and extensive military offensive in eastern and northern Sri Lanka in 2006 to defeat the LTTE completely. The period from 2007-2009 was horrifying as tens of thousands of civilians were killed as they were helplessly trapped in the middle of all the fighting between the two sides.

Entire villages were massacred, and the United Nations labeled the whole affair "bloodbath." Approximately 250,000 people became displaced as a result of the fighting.

As the state forces advanced toward the last remaining LTTE strongholds, some militants blew themselves up while the Sri Lankan Army killed other militants who had surrendered. Prabhakaran was eventually killed by state forces. On 16th May 2009, the Sri Lankan government announced its victory over the LTTE, and the latter conceded defeat immediately afterwards.

According to UN estimates, the last few months of the offensive resulted in 40,000 Tamil civilian casualties. It is shameful that both sides in the conflict perpetrated such heinous crimes against innocent civilians or were otherwise negligent of the loss of human lives while conducting their attacks.

The years of war that the Sri Lankan people endured were a period of deep terror. Innocent Sinhalese, and Tamil men, women, and children suffered from killings, violence, a constant state of fear, and ethnic tension for over a quarter of a century. The LTTE, while claiming to pursue a noble cause of ensuring Tamil rights, conducted horrendous terrorist activities throughout the duration of the war that paralyzed the Sri Lankan nation.

The Sri Lankan government, while trying to neutralize the threat of the LTTE, engaged in terrorism by committing massive human rights abuses and by taking the lives of innocent people who were not involved in any form of violent activity.

With time, Sri Lanka must establish a state which ensures the rights of all its ethnic groups, and gradually create an inclusive and unified society. The sufferings of the Sri Lankans must be remembered and empathized with.

There should be far more accountability for the government in the matter of human rights. As ten years have passed since the end of the conflict, relative peace has been achieved, and peace is the only viable option in the long run for Sri Lanka.


The writer is a freelance columnist. Email: [email protected]


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