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The Sri Lankan Conflict

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: May 18, 2009
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

The conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has lasted nearly three decades and is one of the longest-running civil wars in Asia. More commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, the LTTE wants an independent state for the island's Tamil minority. Following a fierce, year-long military offensive, the Sri Lankan government claimed in May 2009 that it had defeated the separatist group (NYT) and killed its leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran. But the group may continue to launch guerilla-type attacks on the country. For a lasting peace, experts say the government will need to find a political solution to the ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils that has plagued the country since its independence. †The European Union and Canada have joined the United States, India, and Australia in labeling the LTTE a terrorist organization, which has made it more difficult for the group to get financing from abroad. The civil war has killed nearly seventy thousand, and watchdog groups have accused both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military of human rights violations, including abduction, extortion, and the use of child soldiers.

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Historical Context

Sri Lanka has been mired in ethnic conflict since the country, formerly known as Ceylon, became independent from British rule in 1948. A 2001 government census (PDF) says Sri Lanka's main ethnic populations are the Sinhalese (82 percent), Tamil (9.4 percent), and Sri Lanka Moor (7.9 percent). In the years following independence, the Sinhalese, who resented British favoritism toward Tamils during the colonial period, disenfranchised Tamil migrant plantation workers from India and made Sinhala the official language. In 1972, the Sinhalese changed the country's name from Ceylon and made Buddhism the nation's primary religion. As ethnic tension grew, in 1976, the LTTE was formed under the leadership of Velupillai Prabhakaran, and it began to campaign for a Tamil homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, where most of the island's Tamils reside. In 1983, the LTTE ambushed an army convoy, killing thirteen soldiers and triggering riots in which 2,500 Tamils died.

India, which has its own Tamil population in the south, deployed a peacekeeping force in 1987 that left three years later amidst escalating violence. During the ensuing conflict, the LTTE emerged as a fearsome terrorist organization, famed for suicide bombings, recruitment of child soldiers, and the ability to challenge Sri Lankan forces from the Jaffna Peninsula in the north down through the eastern side of the island. The U.S. State Department placed the LTTE on its terror list in 1997. In 2002, Norway brokered a cease-fire agreement between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. Peace talks broke down the following year, but experts posit the fragile truce held in large part because of devastation related to the 2004 tsunami, which caused thirty thousand deaths on the island.

In August 2005, the assassination of Sri Lanka's foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, reignited the conflict. For the next two years, both the government and rebels repeatedly violated the cease-fire agreement. In January 2008, a cabinet spokesman said it was "useless talking to them [the LTTE] now" (AP), and the Sri Lankan government formally withdrew from the truce, prompting Nordic monitors to pull out of the country. Since the end of the cease-fire, the Sri Lankan military has been trying to root out the LTTE, and in May 2009, the government claimed that it had defeated the rebels and liberated the country.

Taking Control from the LTTE

In November 2005 national elections, candidate Ranil Wickremasinghe of the governing United National Party (UNP) lost narrowly to anti-LTTE hard-liner Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa allied his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) with two staunchly anti-LTTE political parties: the radical Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, People's Liberation Front) and the nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU, National Heritage Party) controlled by Buddhist monks. Muslim parliamentarians have also sided with this alliance against the militants.

In 2006, the government launched a military campaign to root out the LTTE, and by July 2007, it had seized control of the country's east. The governing coalition forged a partnership with the pro-government splinter of the LTTE, Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), and installed the leader of that party as chief minister of the newly created Eastern Provincial Council after May 2008 elections. Experts say this approach would likely be used in the north if the government succeeds in defeating the LTTE. However, rights groups allege the TMVP commits human rights abuses with impunity because of support from the central government. The Sri Lankan government denies these allegations (BBC), saying they are intended to discredit it and its allies.

Humanitarian Concerns

Watchdog groups have accused both the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE of engaging in widespread human rights abuses, including abduction, conscription, and the use of child soldiers. In August 2007, Human Rights Watch released a report that catalogues alleged abuses on both sides of the conflict. Amnesty International made similar accusations in its 2008 report on the state of the world's human rights.

Increased fighting in the country's north in early 2009 left more than 250,000 displaced; both the LTTE and the government were accused of placing civilians at risk. The last few months of fighting between the government and the militants resulted in huge civilian casualties and censure from the international community. European Union foreign ministers called for an independent inquiry into alleged war crimes (BBC) by both Tamil Tiger rebels and Sri Lanka's government. Watchdog groups also accused both sides of violating international laws of war. In April 2009, Human Rights Watch reported while rebels were preventing civilians from leaving the last tiny strip of land where they were fighting the government forces, the government forces repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled the area. UN satellite images suggested the government shelled "no-fire zone" (Guardian) where more than 50,000 people were trapped.

Both sides have also increasingly targeted the media. The government has cracked down on all independent Tamil news sources and denies access to conflict zones for journalists, according to a 2008 report from media watchdog Reporters without Borders. Three journalists have been killed since 2008. The LTTE tolerates no dissent in the areas it controls, while in the rest of the country reporters and editors critical of the government's war against the Tigers are labeled "traitors" and "terrorists," notes a January 2009 report by the International Press Institute. "A hostile environment of intolerance by the top political leadership has created a culture of impunity and indifference" for the attacks on the media, it says.

Funding and Support for the LTTE

Approximately one-quarter of the global Tamil population lives outside of Sri Lanka. Most of the diaspora resides in Canada, the United Kingdom, and India. While some of the Tamils who live overseas support LTTE efforts, the LTTE often uses intimidation to secure most of its funds from abroad. LTTE tactics include telling expatriates to contribute funds to protect the safety of family members back in Sri Lanka, as well as kidnapping affluent Tamils in Sri Lanka for ransoms secured overseas. Members of the Tamil community abroad say the culture of fear that surrounds such tactics is enough to coerce them to fund the LTTE. The U.S. State Department says the LTTE has also used charitable groups, like the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization, as a front for fundraising. These forms of funding have made the LTTE one of the wealthiest militant organizations in the world. In a January 2008 report (PDF), the Congressional Research Service said the LTTE continues to raise an estimated $200 million to $300 million per year despite recent declines in overseas financing.

India's Role in the Conflict

During the 1970s, India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) helped to train and arm the LTTE, but after the group's terrorist activities grew in the 1980s--including its alliances with separatist groups in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu--RAW withdrew this support. In 1987, India made a pact with the Sri Lankan government to send peacekeeping troops to the island. The Indian forces were unable to end the conflict and instead began fighting with the LTTE. India was forced to withdraw by Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1990. Rajiv Gandhi, prime minister of India at the time of the peacekeeping force deployment, was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber in 1991. Premadasa met a similar fate in 1993.

India has been wary of getting involved in Sri Lanka since then, but trade between the two countries has been on the rise. Bilateral trade increased from $658 million in 2000 to $ 3.2 billion in 2008, and India remains one of the country's leading foreign investors. Sri Lanka is also in talks to form a partnership (Bloomberg)with India's National Stock Exchange, which may include offering India a stake in Sri Lanka's bourse. The Asian Development Bank in 2008 said the rise in violence had not yet had an impact on growth (PDF), which has been driven by strong domestic demand and a robust private sector. But it says the escalating conflict could hamper economic growth. The United Nations Development Program's 2008 statistics show Sri Lanka ranks 104 out of 179 countries on the Human Development Index, which measures education, standard of living, and life expectancy.

India remains concerned about the conditions of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, as it stirs protests and tensions among its own Tamil population in the south. In February 2009, India's foreign minister expressed concern over the safety of civilians in Sri Lanka and said the only way forward would be the devolution of power from the center to the provinces. Under the 1987 accord with India, which was followed by the thirteenth amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution, Colombo agreed to devolve some authority to the provinces and make Tamil an official language of the state. But no government has fully implemented the provisions, say experts.

Washington's Role

Washington has not been a major player in the Sri Lankan civil conflict. According to the Congressional Research Service, the United States has provided more than $3.6 billion to Sri Lanka since its independence in 1948, most of it in the form of food aid. Military aid was suspended in December 2007 because of Sri Lanka's human rights violations, which are catalogued in the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights practices. Since 2008, the United States has also been working with the Sri Lankan government through the U.S. Agency for International Development on programs focused on democracy, governance, humanitarian assistance, and economic growth. It also awarded a five year, $12 million contract to support regional government in Sri Lanka's eastern and north central provinces.

It is essential that the government moves to give "a fair deal to the Tamils and integrate them more effectively in the fabric of the nation." -- Robert Rotberg, Harvard University

The LTTE campaigns regularly to be taken off the U.S. State Department's terrorist list. In August 2006, federal authorities arrested and charged eight suspects in New York with attempting to bribe U.S. officials to remove the LTTE from the list. The suspects, said to have close ties with LTTE leaders like Prabhakaran, are also charged with trying to purchase surface-to-air missiles, missile launchers, AK-47s, and other weapons for the LTTE.

The Future of the Conflict

By early 2009, many experts said the LTTE's conventional military capabilities had been largely crushed. It is "effectively finished except as a guerilla outfit" says Robert Rotberg of Harvard's Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution. However, he cautions the outfit could carry on a guerilla war for years, depending on the survival of its leader, Prabhakaran. Unlike the 1990s, when the government's claims that it had defeated the rebel force were quickly proved wrong, the army, a much stronger and less corrupt force, has managed to deal a hard blow to the Tigers. Moreover, Rotberg adds, the LTTE has run out of money because of the successful blocking of payments from the Tamil diaspora.

But the larger problem of integrating the island's minority Tamil population will remain even if the LTTE is defeated, say experts. It is essential that the government moves to give "a fair deal to the Tamils and integrate them more effectively in the fabric of the nation" says Rotberg. Ahilan Kadirgamar, spokesperson for the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, an independent group of activists working to promote democracy, says the government hasn't shown enough interest in moving on to the political process. Much of the country's politics in the last three decades has revolved around the LTTE, with successive governments attempting to wipe out or negotiate with the Tigers, says Kadirgamar. But the group's demise will open up possibilities for the discussion of a whole range of other issues, he writes (Himal), "including issues of economic justice, gender, caste, labor rights and democratization." Robert Templer, Asia program director for the International Crisis Group argues in Foreign Policy that the dream of an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka resonates powerfully across the Tamil diaspora and will certainly live on even after the defeat of the LTTE as a conventional military force unless the government works toward a more lasting solution. "The deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians-while their family members watch from afar-is a recipe for another, possibly more explosive, generation of terrorism."

Carin Zissis and Preeti Bhattacharji contributed to this Backgrounder.

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