THE civil war fought in Sri Lanka between the brutal Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam and the government ground on for quarter of a century, claiming perhaps 130,000 lives. In early 2008 the government launched an all-out assault on the Tamil Tigers, with the aim of their unconditional surrender. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were caught up in this final offensive, trapped in a war zone that got smaller and smaller until it consisted of a narrow strip of beach between two warring sides. The UN estimates that 40,000 civilians alone died in the five months before the war's end in May 2009, when the Tigers surrendered. Our interview here is with Frances Harrison, a former BBC correspondent who has written a powerful book about the war's final months, "Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka's Hidden War", from the accounts of Tamils who lived through the hell.
At the war's end the Sri Lankan government was jubilant, and much of the world relieved that the long conflict was over. At the time, the scale of civilian suffering was not appreciated. Not least, the UN had abandoned its mission in Tamil-controlled territory on the eve of the final onslaught. It has since struggled to come to terms with how it handled matters in Sri Lanka, leaving Tamils to their fate and failing to publicise the fact that the government was deliberately shelling civilians.
On November 15th the UN published an internal review, concluding that a "grave failure" had taken place in Sri Lanka—a systemic breakdown that led to the UN failing in its responsibility to protect civilians. The report fingers various UN agencies, from the Security Council down. The secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, says it will have profound implications for the institution. The case of Sri Lanka underscores how the UN struggles to learn from humanitarian tragedies. The hope is that it will do better this time.
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|Sri Lankan Civil War|
ශ්රී ලාංකික සිවිල් යුද්ධය
இலங்கை உள்நாட்டுப் போர்
The area of Sri Lanka claimed by the LTTE as Tamil Eelam, where the vast majority of the fighting took place
Indian Peace Keeping Force(1987–1990)
|Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam|
|Commanders and leaders|
J. R. Jayawardene(1983–1989)
Rajiv Gandhi(1987–1989) †
|V. Prabhakaran †(1983–2009)|
Sri Lanka Armed Forces:
Indian Peace Keeping Force:
|Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam|
(excluding Auxiliary forces):
(including Auxiliary forces):
|Casualties and losses|
(Indian Peace Keeping Force)
| 27,000+ killed|
|100,000+ killed overall (estimate)|
800,000 displaced at peak in 2001
|16 May 2009: Sri Lankan Government declared a military defeat of LTTE.|
17 May 2009: LTTE admit defeat by Sri Lankan Government.
19 May 2009: President Mahinda Rajapaksa officially declares end of civil war in parliament.
The Sri Lankan Civil War was an armed conflict fought on the island of Sri Lanka. Beginning on 23 July 1983, there was an intermittent insurgency against the government by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers), which fought to create an independentTamil state called Tamil Eelam in the north and the east of the island. After a 26-year military campaign, the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, bringing the civil war to an end.
For over 25 years, the war caused significant hardships for the population, environment and the economy of the country, with an initial estimated 80,000–100,000 people killed during its course. In 2013, the UN panel estimated additional deaths during the last phase of the war: "Around 40,000 died while other independent reports estimated the number of civilians dead to exceed 100,000." During the early part of the conflict, the Sri Lankan forces attempted to retake the areas captured by the LTTE. The tactics employed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam against the actions of Government forces resulted in their listing as a terrorist organisation in 32 countries, including the United States, India, Canada and the member nations of the European Union. The Sri Lankan government forces have also been accused of human rights abuses, systematic impunity for serious human rights violations, lack of respect for habeas corpus in arbitrary detentions, and forced disappearances.
After two decades of fighting and four failed tries at peace talks, including the unsuccessful deployment of the Indian Army, the Indian Peace Keeping Force from 1987 to 1990, a lasting negotiated settlement to the conflict appeared possible when a cease-fire was declared in December 2001, and a ceasefire agreement signed with international mediation in 2002. However, limited hostilities renewed in late 2005 and the conflict began to escalate until the government launched a number of major military offensives against the LTTE beginning in July 2006, driving the LTTE out of the entire Eastern province of the island. The LTTE then declared they would "resume their freedom struggle to achieve statehood".
In 2007, the government shifted its offensive to the north of the country, and formally announced its withdrawal from the ceasefire agreement on 2 January 2008, alleging that the LTTE violated the agreement over 10,000 times. Since then, aided by the destruction of a number of large arms smuggling vessels that belonged to the LTTE, and an international crackdown on the funding for the Tamil Tigers, the government took control of the entire area previously controlled by the Tamil Tigers, including their de facto capital Kilinochchi, main military base Mullaitivu and the entire A9 highway, leading the LTTE to finally admit defeat on 17 May 2009. Following the LTTE's defeat, pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance dropped its demand for a separate state, in favour of a federal solution. In May 2010, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the then president of Sri Lanka, appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to assess the conflict between the time of the ceasefire agreement in 2002 and the defeat of the LTTE in 2009.
Origin and evolution
Main article: Origins of the Sri Lankan civil war
The origins of the Sri Lankan Civil War lie in the continuous political rancor between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. The roots of the modern conflict lie in the British colonial rule when the country was known as Ceylon. There was initially little tension among Sri Lanka's two largest ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, when Ponnambalam Arunachalam, a Tamil, was appointed representative of the Sinhalese as well the Tamils in the national legislative council. In 1919 major Sinhalese and Tamil political organizations united to form the Ceylon National Congress, under the leadership of Arunachalam, to press the colonial government for more constitutional reforms. However, British Gov. William Manning actively encouraged the concept of "communal representation" and created the Colombo town seat in 1920, which dangled between the Tamils and the Sinhalese.
After their election to the State Council in 1936, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) members N.M. Perera and Philip Gunawardena demanded the replacement of English as the official language by Sinhala and Tamil. In November 1936 a motion that "in the Municipal and Police Courts of the Island the proceedings should be in the vernacular" and that "entries in police stations should be recorded in the language in which they are originally stated" were passed by the State Council and referred to the Legal Secretary. However, in 1944 J.R. Jayawardene moved in the State Council that Sinhala should replace English as the official language.
In 1948, immediately after independence, a controversial law was passed by the Ceylon Parliament called the Ceylon Citizenship Act, which deliberately discriminated against the Indian Tamil ethnic minority by making it virtually impossible for them to obtain citizenship in the country. Approximately over 700,000 Indian Tamils were made stateless. Over the next three decades more than 300,000 Indian Tamils were deported back to India. It wasn't until 2003–55 years after independence—that all Indian Tamils living in Sri Lanka were granted citizenship, but by this time they only made up 5% of the island's population.
In 1956 Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike passed the "Sinhala Only Act", which replaced English with Sinhala as the only official language of the country. This was seen as a deliberate attempt to discourage the Sri Lankan Tamils from working in the Ceylon Civil Service and other public services. The Tamil-speaking minorities of Ceylon (Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Moors) viewed the Act as linguistic, cultural and economic discrimination against them. Many Tamil-speaking civil servants/public servants were forced to resign because they weren't fluent in Sinhala. This was a prelude to the 1956 Gal Oya riots and the 1958 widespread riots in which thousands of Tamil civilians perished. The civil war was a direct result of the escalation of the confrontational politics that followed.
In the late 1960s documents relating to a separate Tamil state of "Tamil Eelam" began to circulate. At this time Anton Balasingham, an employee of the British High Commission in Colombo, began to participate in separatist activities. He later migrated to Britain, where he became the chief theoretician of the LTTE. In the late 1960s several Tamil youth, among them Velupillai Prabhakaran, also became involved in these activities. They carried out several hit-and-run operations against pro-government Tamil politicians, Sri Lanka police and the civil administration.
During the 1970s the Policy of standardization was initiated. Under the policy, students were admitted to university in proportion to the number of applicants who sat for the examination in their language. Officially the policy was designed to increase the representation of students from rural areas. In practice the policy reduced the numbers of Sri Lankan Tamil students who had previously, based on their examination scores alone, gained admission in a higher proportion than their participation in the examination. They were now required to gain higher marks than Sinhalese students to gain admission to universities. For instance, the qualifying mark for admission to the medical faculties was 250 out of 400 for Tamil students, but only 229 for Sinhalese. The number of Sri Lankan Tamil students entering universities fell dramatically. The policy was abandoned in 1977.
Other forms of official discrimination against the Sri Lankan Tamils included the state-sponsored colonization of traditional Tamil areas by Sinhalese peasants, the banning of the import of Tamil-language media and the preference given by the 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka to Buddhism, the main religion followed by the Sinhalese.
Prabhakaran—together with Chetti Thanabalasingam, a well known criminal from Kalviyankadu, Jaffna—formed the Tamil New Tigers (TNT) in 1972. This was formed around an ideology that looked back to the 1st Millennium Chola Empire—the Tiger was the emblem of that empire.
A further movement, the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), formed in Manchester and London; it became the backbone of the Eelamist movement in the diaspora, arranging passports and employment for immigrants and levying a heavy tax on them. It became the basis of the Eelamist logistical organization, later taken over entirely by the LTTE. The formation of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) with the Vaddukkodei (Vattukottai) resolution of 1976 led to a hardening of attitudes. The resolution called for the creation of a secular, socialist state of Tamil Eelam, based on the right of self-determination.
The TULF clandestinely supported the armed actions of the young militants who were dubbed "our boys". TULF leader Appapillai Amirthalingam even provided letters of reference to the LTTE and to other Tamil insurgent groups to raise funds. Amirthalingam introduced Prabhakaran to N.S. Krishnan, who later became the first international representative of LTTE. It was Krishnan who introduced Prabhakaran to Anton Balasingham, who later became the chief political strategist and chief negotiator of LTTE. The "boys" were the product of the post-war population explosion. Many partially educated, unemployed Tamil youth fell for revolutionary solutions to their problems. The leftist parties had remained "non-communal" for a long time, but the Federal Party (as well as its offshoot, the TULF), deeply conservative and dominated by Vellalar casteism, did not attempt to form a national alliance with the leftists in their fight for language rights.
Following the sweeping electoral victory of the United National Party (UNP) in July 1977, the TULF became the leading opposition party, with around one-sixth of the total electoral vote winning on a party platform of secession from Sri Lanka. After the 1977 riots the J.R. Jayewardene government made one concession to the Tamil population; it lifted the policy of standardization for university admission that had driven many Tamil youths into militancy. The concession was regarded by the militants as too little too late, and violent attacks continued. By this time TULF started losing its grip over the militant groups. LTTE ordered civilians to boycott the local government elections of 1983 in which even TULF contested. Voter turnout was as low as 10%. Thereafter, Tamil political parties were unable to represent the interests of the Tamil community.
Outbreak of civil war
Main articles: Four Four Bravo and Eelam War I
Supported by the ongoing politics of conflict in Sri Lanka, politicised Tamil youth in the north and east started to form militant groups. These groups developed independently of the Colombo Tamil leadership, and in the end rejected and annihilated them. The most prominent of these groups was the TNT, which changed its name to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the LTTE, in 1976. The LTTE initially carried out a campaign of violence against the state, particularly targeting policemen and also moderate Tamil politicians who attempted a dialogue with the government. Their first major operation was the assassination of the mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappah, in 1975 by Prabhakaran.
In May 1981 the burning of the Jaffna library by politicians from the ruling party using police and paramilitary forces resulted in the destruction of more than 90,000 books, including "palm leaf scrolls" of immense historical value. This violent example of ethnic biblioclasm was a major turning point in convincing the Tamil people that the government could not protect them or their cultural heritage and persuaded many of them to back a separate state.
The LTTE's modus operandi of the early war was based on assassinations, whereas the mode of operation for the UNP was through a series of checkpoints set up around the city. The assassination in 1977 of a Tamil Member of Parliament, M. Canagaratnam, was carried out personally by Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE. In July 1983 the LTTE launched a deadly ambush on Sri Lanka army patrol Four Four Bravo outside the town of Thirunelveli, killing an officer and 12 soldiers. Using nationalistic sentiments to their advantage, the Jayawardena organized massacres and pogroms in Colombo, the capital, and elsewhere (see Black July). Between 400–3,000 Tamils were estimated to have been killed, and many more fled Sinhalese-majority areas. This is considered the beginning of the civil war.
Apart from the LTTE, there initially was a plethora of militant groups (see list). The LTTE's position, adopted from that of the PLO, was that there should be only one. Initially, the LTTE gained prominence due to devastating attacks such as the Kent and Dollar Farm massacres of 1984, where hundreds of men, women and children were attacked during the night as they slept and were hacked to death with fatal blows to the head from axes; and the Anuradhapura massacre of 1985, where the LTTE indiscriminately opened fire, killing and wounding 146 civilians within Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Buddhist shrine. The Anuradhapura massacre was apparently answered by government forces with the Kumudini boat massacre in which over 23 Tamil civilians died. Over time the LTTE merged with or largely exterminated almost all the other militant Tamil groups. As a result, many Tamil splinter groups ended up working with the Sri Lankan government as paramilitaries or denounced violence and joined mainstream politics; some legitimate Tamil-oriented political parties remained, all opposed to LTTE's vision of an independent state.
Peace talks between the LTTE and the government began in Thimphu in 1985, but they soon failed and the war continued. In 1986 many civilians were massacred as part of this conflict. In 1987 government troops pushed LTTE fighters to the northern city of Jaffna. In April 1987 the conflict exploded with ferocity, as both government forces and LTTE fighters engaged in a series of bloody operations.
The Sri Lankan military launched an offensive, called "Operation Liberation" or Vadamarachchi Operation, during May–June 1987 to regain control of the territory in the Jaffna peninsula from the LTTE. This marked the Sri Lankan military's first conventional warfare on Sri Lankan soil since independence. The offensive was successful, and LTTE leader Prabhakaran and Sea Tiger leader Thillaiyampalam Sivanesanalias Soosai narrowly escaped from advancing troops at Valvettithurai. Key military personnel involved in the operation were Lt Col. Vipul Boteju, Lt. Col. Sarath Jayawardane, Col. Vijaya Wimalaratne and Brig. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa.
In July 1987 the LTTE carried out their first suicide attack. Capt. Miller of the Black Tigers drove a small truck carrying explosives through the wall of a fortified Sri Lankan army camp, reportedly killing 40 soldiers. The LTTE carried out over 378 suicide attacks, one of the largest suicide campaigns in the world, and the suicide attack became a trademark of the LTTE and a characteristic of the civil war.