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The Sri Lankan Civil War

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Dead insurgents' bodies dumped in the trash, 1989

Robert Nickelsberg, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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A land mine victim from northern Sri Lanka waits for a prosthetic leg.

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Students study at Kilinochchi Central College in the Tamil heartland, in buildings scarred by bombs and bullets. 2003

Luis Enrique Ascui / Getty Images

For more than 25 years in the late 20th century and into the 21st, the island nation of Sri Lanka tore itself apart in a brutal civil war.  At the most basic level, the conflict arose from ethnic tension between Sinhalese and Tamil citizens.  Of course, in reality the causes are more complex, and arise in large part from Sri Lanka's colonial legacy.

Background to the Civil War:

Great Britain ruled Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, from 1815 to 1948.  When the British arrived, the country was dominated by Sinhalese speakers whose ancestors likely arrived on the island from India in the 500s BCE.  Sri Lankan people seem to have been in contact with Tamil speakers from southern India since at least the second century BCE, but migrations of significant numbers of Tamils to the island appear to have taken place later, between the seventh and eleventh centuries CE.

In 1815, the population of Ceylon numbered about three million predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese and 300,000 mostly Hindu Tamils.  The British established huge cash crop plantations on the island, first of coffee, and later of rubber and tea.  Colonial officials brought in approximately a million Tamil speakers from India to work as plantation labor.  The British also established better schools in the northern, Tamil-majority part of the colony, and preferentially appointed Tamils to bureaucratic positions, angering the Sinhalese majority.  This was a common divide-and-rule tactic in European colonies that had troubling results in the post-colonial era; for other examples, see Rwanda and Sudan.

Civil War Erupts

The British granted Ceylon independence in 1948.  The Sinhalese majority immediately began to pass laws that discriminated against Tamils, particularly the Indian Tamils brought to the island by the British.  They made Sinhalese the official language, driving Tamils out of the civil service. The Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 effectively barred Indian Tamils from citizenship, making stateless people out of some 700,000.  This was not remedied until 2003, and anger over such measures fueled the bloody rioting that broke out repeatedly in the following years.

After decades of increasing ethnic tension, the war began as a low-level insurgency in July of 1983. Ethnic riots broke out in Colombo and other cities.  Tamil Tiger insurgents killed 13 army soldiers, prompting violent reprisals against Tamil civilians by their Sinhalese neighbors across the country.  Between 2,500 and 3,000 Tamils likely died, and many thousands more fled to Tamil-majority regions. The Tamil Tigers declared the "First Eelam War" (1983 - 87) with the aim of creating a separate Tamil state in northern Sri Lanka called Eelam.  Much of the fighting was directed initially at other Tamil factions; the Tigers massacred their opponents and consolidated power over the separatist movement by 1986.

At the outbreak of the war, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India offered to mediate a settlement.  However, the Sri Lankan government distrusted her motivations, and it was later shown that her government was arming and training Tamil guerrillas in camps in southern India.  Relations between the Sri Lankan government and India deteriorated, as Lankan coast guards seized Indian fishing boats to search for weapons. 

Over the next few years, violence escalated as the Tamil insurgents used car bombs, suitcase bombs on planes, and landmines against Sinhalese military and civilian targets.  The quickly-expanding Sri Lankan army responded by rounding up Tamil youths, torturing, and disappearing them. 

India Intervenes

In 1987, India's Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, decided to directly intervene in the Sri Lankan Civil War by sending peace-keepers. India was concerned about separatism in its own Tamil region, Tamil Nadu, as well as a potential flood of refugees from Sri Lanka. The peacekeepers' mission was to disarm militants on both sides, in preparation for peace talks.

The Indian peacekeeping force of 100,000 troops not only was unable to quell the conflict, it actually began fighting with the Tamil Tigers.  The Tigers refused to disarm, sent female bombers and child soldiers to attack the Indians, and relations escalated into running skirmishes between the peacekeeping troops and the Tamil guerrillas.  In May of 1990, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa forced India to recall its peacekeepers; 1,200 Indian soldiers had died battling the insurgents.  The following year, a female Tamil suicide bomber named Thenmozhi Rajaratnam assassinated Rajiv Gandhi at an election rally. President Premadasa would die the same way in May of 1993.

Second Eelam War

After the peacekeepers withdrew, the Sri Lankan Civil War entered an even bloodier phase, which the Tamil Tigers named the Eelam War II.  It began when the Tigers seized between 600 and 700 Sinhalese police officers in the Eastern Province on June 11, 1990, in an effort to weaken government control there.  The police laid down their weapons and surrendered to the militants after the Tigers promised no harm would come to them.  Then, the militants took the policemen into the jungle, forced them to kneel, and shot them all dead, one by one.  A week later, the Sri Lankan Minister of Defense announced, "From now on, it is all out war."

The government cut off all shipments of medicine and food to the Tamil stronghold on the Jaffna peninsula, and initiated an intensive aerial bombardment.  The Tigers responded with massacres of hundreds of Sinhalese and Muslim villagers.  Muslim self-defense units and government troops conducted tit-for-tat massacres in Tamil villages.  The government also massacred Sinhalese school children in Sooriyakanda and buried the bodies in a mass grave, because the town was a base for the Sinhala splinter group called the JVP.

In July of 1991, 5,000 Tamil Tigers surrounded the government's army base at Elephant Pass, laying siege to it for a month.  The pass is a bottleneck leading to the Jaffna Peninsula, a key strategic point in the war.  Some 10,000 government troops raised the siege after four weeks, but over 2,000 fighters on both sides had been killed, making this the bloodiest battle in the entire civil war.  Although it held this choke-point, government troops could not capture Jaffna itself despite repeated assaults in 1992-93.

Third Eelam War

January of 1995 saw the Tamil Tigers sign a peace agreement with the new government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga.  However, three months later the Tigers planted explosives on two Sri Lankan naval gunboats, destroying the ships and the peace accord.  The government responded by declaring a "war for peace," in which Air Force jets pounded civilian sites and refugee camps on the Jaffna Peninsula, while ground troops perpetrated a number of massacres against civilians in Tampalakamam, Kumarapuram, and elsewhere.  By December of 1995, the peninsula was under government control for the first time since the war began.  Some 350,000 Tamil refugees and the Tiger guerrillas fled inland to the sparsely-populated Vanni region of the Northern Province.

The Tamil Tigers responded to the loss of Jaffna in July 1996 by launching a eight-day assault on the town of Mulliativu, which was protected by 1,400 government troops.  Despite air support from the Sri Lankan Air Force, the government position was overrun by the 4,000-strong guerrilla army in a decisive Tiger victory.  More than 1,200 of the government soldiers were killed, including about 200 who were doused with gasoline and burned alive after they surrendered; the Tigers lost 332 troops.

Another aspect of the war took place simultaneously in the capital of Colombo and other southern cities, where Tiger suicide bombers struck repeatedly in the late 1990s.  They hit the Central Bank in Colombo, the Sri Lankan World Trade Centre, and the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, a shrine housing a relic of the Buddha himself.  A suicide bomber tried to assassinate President Chandrika Kumaratunga in December 1999 - she survived, but lost her right eye.

In April of 2000, the Tigers retook Elephant Pass, but were unable to recover the city of Jaffna.  Norway began trying to negotiate a settlement, as war-weary Sri Lankans of all ethnic groups looked for a way to end the interminable conflict.  The Tamil Tigers declared a unilateral ceasefire in December of 2000, leading to hope that the civil war was truly winding down.  However, in April of 2001, the Tigers rescinded the ceasefire and pushed north on the Jaffna Peninsula once more.  A July 2001 Tiger suicide attack on the Bandaranaike International Airport destroyed eight military jets and four airliners, sending Sri Lanka's tourism industry into a tailspin. 

Slow Move to Peace

The September 11 attacks in the US, and the subsequent War on Terror, made it more difficult for the Tamil Tigers to get overseas funding and support.  The US also began to offer direct aid to the Sri Lankan government, despite its terrible human rights record over the course of the civil war.  Public weariness with the fighting led to President Kumaratunga's party losing control of parliament, and the election of a new, pro-peace government.

Throughout 2002 and 2003, the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers negotiated various ceasefires and signed a Memorandum of Understanding, again mediated by the Norwegians.  The two sides compromised with a federal solution, rather than the Tamils' demand for a two state solution or the the government's insistence on a unitary state.  Air and ground traffic resumed between Jaffna and the rest of Sri Lanka. 

However, on October 31, 2003, the Tigers declared themselves in full control of the north and east of the country, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency.  Within just over a year, monitors from Norway recorded 300 infractions of the ceasefire by the army, and 3,000 by the Tamil Tigers.  When the Indian Ocean Tsunami hit Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004, it killed 35,000 people and sparked squabbling between the Tigers and the government over how to distribute aid in Tiger-held areas. 

On August 12, 2005, the Tamil Tigers lost much of their remaining cachet with the international community when one of their snipers killed Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, a highly respected ethnic Tamil who was critical of Tiger tactics.  Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran warned that his guerrillas would go on the offensive once more in 2006 if the government failed to implement the peace plan.

Fighting erupted again, mainly focused on bombing civilian targets such as packed commuter trains and buses in Colombo.  The government also began assassinating pro-Tiger journalists and politicians.  Massacres against civilians on both sides left thousands dead over the next few years, including 17 charity workers from France's "Action Against Hunger," who were shot down in their office.  On September 4, 2006, the army drove the Tamil Tigers from the key coastal city of Sampur.  The Tigers retaliated by bombing a naval convoy, killing more than 100 sailors who were on shore leave.

October 2006 peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland did not produce results, so the Sri Lankan government launched a massive offensive in eastern and northern parts of the islands to crush the Tamil Tigers once and for all.  The 2007 - 2009 eastern and northern offensives were extremely bloody, with tens of thousands of civilians caught between the army and Tiger lines.  Entire villages were left depopulated and ruined, in what a UN spokesman termed "a bloodbath."  As the government troops closed in on the last rebel strongholds, some Tigers blew themselves up.  Others were summarily executed by the soldiers after they surrendered, and these war crimes were captured on video. 

On May 16, 2009, the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the Tamil Tigers.  The following day, an official Tiger website admitted that "This battle has reached its bitter end."  People in Sri Lanka and around the world expressed relief that the devastating conflict had finally ended after 26 years, hideous atrocities on both sides, and some 100,000 deaths.  The only question remaining is whether the perpetrators of those atrocities will face trials for their crimes.

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