Q&A: Sri Lanka’s civil war

Like most other conflicts in South Asia, colonial policies led to this rift.

sri lanka

There have been many ceasefire agreements between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE at various points, but they all collapsed for one reason or the other [GALLO/GETTY]

Q: Where is Sri Lanka? What is the racial mix?

A: The Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka is located about 31km off the south eastern coast of India. It is a multi-ethnic country, with a population of 18 million people and the majority of whom are Buddhist. It also has a significant number of Hindus, Christians and Muslims besides smaller communities like the Burghers (descendents of European colonials) and the Veddas (aboriginals).

Are Sinhalese the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka? What about the Tamils? Where did they come from and when?

The original inhabitants of Sri Lanka were the Veddas, who are now concentrated in central hill region of the island.

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The Sinhalese are supposed to have arrived in Sri Lanka (called Tambroparne by the ancients) in late 6th century BC, probably from northern India. A few centuries later, Buddhism was also brought in from India by missionaries sent by Ashoka, the Mauryan emperor. The religion flowered around Anuradhapura (kingdom from circa 200 BC to circa AD 1000) and Polonnaruwa (from about 1070 to 1200).

The Tamil speaking population of Sri Lanka form two distinct groups. The main group is the so-called Sri Lankan Tamils whose ancestors arrived from southern India over more than two millennia. The other group is variously called Indian Tamils, Plantation Tamils, Hill Country Tamils or Estate Tamils. The ancestors of this group were brought from India by the British to work on plantations in the central hills.

What are the main causes for the rift between the Sinhalese and Tamils?

Like most other conflicts of South Asia, the origins of this rift can be traced backed to colonial times.

The Sinhalese say Tamils received preferential treatment under British rule (1796-1948) and point to the disproportionate number of Sri Lankan Tamil civil servants, doctors and lawyers at the time of independence.

Although many Sinhala nationalists may not agree with this view, most historians say that the roots of the conflict stem from the “divide and rule” policy adopted by the British during their occupation of Sri Lanka. Correspondence filed in London’s British Library gives credence to this claim.

The Sinhalese say Tamils received preferential treatment under British rule [GALLO/GETTY]

The reasons for Tamil predominance in the professions were many. The principal one was the large number of affordable English-language missionary schools set up in Jaffna and other Tamil areas in the north. Students from these schools were much better equipped for university admissions than those from Sinhala schools.

The affirmative action steps the Sri Lankan government took to redress the situation favoured the Sinhalese and enraged Tamils who felt disenfranchised.

Did the Sinhalese carry out ethnic cleansing as claimed by the Tamils?

The Tamils say that despite historical evidence to the contrary, the Sinhalese look upon them as interlopers. The Tamils say the Sinhalese have tried in a number of ways to:
• disenfranchise them
• alter the demographics of Tamil dominated areas
• remove them from government employment
• reduce their access to higher education
• isolate Tamils from any support they might get from their brethren in India
• separate Sinhalas and Tamils
• ethnically cleanse Sri Lanka of Tamils

Was there always a demand for a separate Tamil homeland? If not, when did the demand take root?

Initially, the Tamils did not demand a separate homeland. After independence and till the 1970s, the Tamil leaders mostly demanded an autonomous province comprising the Tamil-speaking regions of the north and the east. Sri Lankan governments even signed two agreements to this effect, but withdrew them later because of Sinhala objections.

Tamil leaders then felt that a separate state was the only solution available. In 1974, all major parties representing Tamils came together under the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) banner. In 1976 the TULF adopted a resolution at Jaffna calling for a separate state, Tamil Eelam.

This move was driven by the educated, unemployed youth who felt that the Sinhalese-dominated government would never accede to their demands. To fight for their objectives, they spawned a number of armed groups. One of them was the Tamil New Tigers, formed in 1972. It later became the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which then went on to dominate the civil war.

If LTTE was only one of a number of armed Tamil groups, what happened to the others? How did it become the dominant group? 

 Opinions about why the LTTE split with other Tamil groups differ [GALLO/GETTY]

Initially, the LTTE co-operated with the others in their attacks on Sri Lankan army and government targets. In April 1984, the LTTE joined other major armed groups — the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS),  and the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) –to form the the Eelam National Liberation Front.

However, in February 1986, the LTTE launched a military attack on the TELO, the largest of the other armed Tamil groups. Over the next few months, the entire TELO leadership and several hundred volunteers were hunted down, and the group ceased to be a potent force. A few months later, the LTTE attacked training camps of the EPRLF, forcing it to withdraw entirely from the Jaffna peninsula.

There are differing opinions about the reasons for the LTTE taking on other Tamil groups. Some analysts have suggested that the rift was caused by its unhappiness over the fact that most of the funding from Tamils overseas went to the TELO.

The LTTE claimed that the rift was caused because of the close links the other groups had with India. However, all the Tamil groups, including the LTTE, had received varying degrees of support from India including help in setting up training camps.

For sure, the LTTE looked at India with suspicion, believing that in supporting the Tamil rebels it was only furthering its own agenda. It was particularly apprehensive that RAW, an Indian intelligence agency, had infiltrated TELO and EPRLF and was using them agaisnt it.

It has also been suggested that the LTTE believed the struggle for a separate or independent homeland would only be effective if the other groups, who were much more willing to compromise, were not around.

After cowing down others, the LTTE consolidated its position as the main armed group fighting for the cause of Tamil Eelam. Factors that aided the LTTE in gaining pre-eminence were its tough leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran; its strong ideological base; and its discipline and efficiency.

What happened to the various ceasefire agreements between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE?

There have been many ceasefire agreements between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, but all of them collapsed for one reason or the other.

The Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord: The first major agreement, this was signed on July 29, 1987 by Rajiv Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, Junius Jayawardane, the then prime minister of Sri Lanka and the LTTE. According to this pact, the Sri Lankan government agreed to create a separate administrative unit for the northern and eastern Tamil-dominated areas.

This Tamil province was to have its own governor and elect its own provincial council with a chief minister and cabinet of ministers. The Sri Lankan Government also agreed to declare a general amnesty and lift the state of emergency. In return, the armed Tamil groups were to surrender their weapons and return to the political fold.

The Indian government in turn agreed not to give any further aid to Tamil fighters and to deploy a peacekeeping force (the IPKF) to supervise the disarming of Tamil groups.

The accord collapsed almost immediately after its signing and the IPKF quickly became embroiled in the civil war instead of merely acting as peacekeepers. It pulled out of Sri Lanka in 1990 after three years of conflict.

The Norway Mediation: The ceasefire agreement that lasted the longest was the pact between the LTTE and the government, signed on February 22, 2002 after Norwegian mediation.

Under this agreement, Norway and the other Nordic countries agreed to jointly monitor the ceasefire through the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. Despite scores of violations by both sides, the ceasefire lasted for almost five years but finally collapsed on December 3, 2006 when Norway refused to be an intermediary anymore.

Source: Al Jazeera