Timeline: Conflict in Sri Lanka

Key events in the struggle between government forces and Tamil rebels.

Sri Lanka military army

Sri Lanka’s long-running conflict has pitted government forces against Tamil Tiger rebels [EPA]

Though picturesque, the island-country of Sri Lanka has been blighted by a long-running conflict between government forces and armed Tamil rebels. Thousands have died and many more have been made homeless by the unremitting violence.

Ethnic composition

The Sinhalese, who are in power in Sri Lanka, comprise about 73.8 per cent of the population and are concentrated in the densely populated southwest. They speak Sinhala, an Indo-European language derivative of Sanskrit.

Tamils in Sri Lanka form two distinct groups. The first group, the so-called Sri Lanka Tamils, are descendants of Tamils who lived on the island for centuries. They comprise approximately 18 per cent of the population and live predominantly in the north and eastern coasts.

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Caught in the middle

The second group are called the hill country Tamils or the plantation Tamils. They are the descendants of the labourers brought to Sri Lanka by the British and are about five per cent of the Sri Lankan population.

Tamils speak an ancient classical language which is said to be 4,000 years old.

They remain concentrated in the “tea country” of south-central Sri Lanka. Muslims form about eight per cent of the population.

Unlike the Buddhists, Christians or Hindus on the island, whose identity stems from the language that they speak, religion determines the identity of Sri Lankan Muslims who speak Tamil in Tamil-dominated areas and Sinhalese on the rest of the island.

The rest of the population consists of Burghers – descendants of European colonists, and tribesmen, known as the Veddahs.

Below is a guide to some of the key events in the island’s history since independence:

1948: Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, gains independence from British rule. Ethnic Tamils feel disenfranchised by the so-called “Citizenship Act” which denied citizenship to the Tamils and their descendants brought from India by the British to work on tea plantations

1956: Solomon Bandaranyake, then prime minister, enacts a law making Sinhala the only official language of Sri Lanka, alienating the Tamils. Peaceful protests by Tamils are broken up by a Sinhala mob and riots follow.

1957/65: Pacts are signed between the government and the Tamils giving them a measure of regional autonomy and freedoms in language and education, but the agreements remain largely on paper.

1970: New constitution enshrines earlier law making Sinhala Sri Lanka’s official language and makes Buddhism the country’s official religion, further alienating Tamils who are mainly Hindus and Christians.

1972: Ceylon becomes a Republic and is officially renamed the Republic of Sri Lanka. Velupillai Prabhakaran forms the Tamil New Tigers group to set up a separate homeland – the Tamil Eelam.

1975: Tamil New Tigers re-named Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

1978: LTTE proscribed as an illegal organisation.
1981: Riots in Jaffna. A state of emergency is declared.

1983: First guerrilla-style ambush by LTTE kills 13 soldiers. Rioting erupts, killing hundreds of people. About 150,000 Tamil refugees flee to India where Tamil military training camps are established.

1987: The Indian government cracks down on armed Tamil groups in India.
First suicide attack by LTTE kills 40. Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord signed and India agrees to deploy peacekeepers – the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), which quickly gets drawn into the civil war.

1990: IPKF withdraws from Sri Lanka. LTTE becomes the prominent Tamil armed group. Over 100,000 Muslims are expelled from LTTE dominated areas, many with just two hours notice.

1991: Rajiv Gandhi, then Indian prime minister, is assassinated by a female LTTE suicide bomber.

1993: Ranasinghe Premadasa, then president of Sri Lanka, is killed in a LTTE suicide bomb attack.

1999: Chandrika Kumaratunge, a former prime minister and later the first female president of Sri Lanka, is wounded in an assassination attempt during an election rally.
2002: Norway-brokered ceasefire between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government comes into effect. It holds for five years despite many incursions from both sides. A road linking Jaffna peninsula and the rest of Sri Lanka opens after 12 years.

2004: The LTTE splits. Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, also known as Colonel Karuna, commander for the Batticaloa-Amparai, breaks from the LTTE forming a pro-government outfit.

2005: The government of Sri Lanka and LTTE sign Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-Toms) by which the two entities agreed to work together to offer relief to the communities devastated by the Asian Tsunami. Lakshman Kadirgamar, Sri Lankan foreign minister, is assassinated by the LTTE.
2007: After weeks of heavy fighting, the Sri Lankan army takes back the LTTE-held town of Vakarai. LTTE air force attacks various Sri Lankan targets including Colombo airport. SP Thamilselvan, leader of the LTTE’s political wing, is killed in an air raid.

2008: The Sri Lankan government formally withdraws from the ceasefire with the LTTE and renewed fighting erupts. Amid attacks and counter-attacks, Sri Lankan forces seem to gradually gain the upper hand.

2009: After months of the military consistently advancing against the LTTE, the government declares victory.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president, says the country has been “liberated from terrorism” in a victory speech on May 19 following claims by the army that it has killed Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader.

The LTTE says it will “silence our guns” and admits the conflict has reached a “bitter end”, but dismisses claims of Prabhakaran’s death and vows that the Tamil struggle for a homeland will continue.

Source: Al Jazeera