The Sri Lankan Conflict

by Carin Zissis


(November 09, New York, Sri Lanka Guardian) The fragile 2002 cease-fire between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been repeatedly violated by both sides. Prospects for peace look grim; a recent surge in violence threatens to kill the agreement and rekindle the long civil war. India, the island’s neighbor to the north, hesitates to get involved and repeat the embarrassment of its 1980s role in the conflict. The European Union and Canada have joined the United States, India, and Australia in listing the Tigers as a terror group, creating obstacles to their support abroad. But the rebels, while pursuing their goal of an autonomous Tamil region, have managed to present repeated challenges to the government.

What is the history of the conflict in Sri Lanka?

Ethnic conflict has marked Sri Lanka’s history since the country, formerly known as Ceylon, gained independence in 1948. Its main ethnic populations are the Buddhist Sinhalese majority (74 percent), Hindu Tamils of both indigenous and Indian descent (8 percent), and Muslims (7 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 sole official language. In 1972, the Sinhalese changed the country’s name from Ceylon and made Buddhism the nation’s primary religion. With tensions rising, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam began their separatist campaign for the predominantly Tamil north and east of the country. In 1983, thirteen soldiers were killed in an LTTE ambush of an army convoy, setting off riots in which 2,500 Tamils died, as well as sparking a civil war that has claimed nearly 65,000 lives and led to the displacement of more than 200,000 people.

India, which had given the Tamil militants weapons and training, deployed a peacekeeping force in 1987 that left three years later amidst escalating violence. During the ensuing conflict, the Tamil Tigers emerged as a fearsome terrorist organization famed for suicide bombings, recruitment of child soldiers, and the ability to challenge Sri Lankan forces in the largely Tamil areas running from the Jaffna Peninsula in the north and down the eastern side of the island. The Tigers were placed on the U.S. State Department’s terror list in 1997, and 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 30,000 deaths on the island.

Where do the Tamil Tigers get their support?

Robert Rotberg of Harvard’s Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution describes the Tigers as a “thuggish” group that evolved from an anti-discrimination activism group to a mafia organization. Human Rights Watch reports that 800,000 Tamils – as much as a quarter of the Sri Lankan Tamil population – left the island because of the civil war, and the majority of the diaspora community resides in Canada, the United Kingdom, and India, which has its own Tamil population in the south. While some portion of Tamils living overseas support LTTE efforts, the Tigers often use intimidation to secure the lion’s share of their funds from abroad. LTTE operatives’ 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 Tigers. Although it is difficult to ascertain how much money flows into LTTE coffers, the group is thought to be one of the wealthiest militant organizations in the world, and extortion of funds from the Tamil diaspora increased during 2005 as the Tigers prepared themselves for the current conflict.

What is the political background to the current conflict?

Sporadic violence has continued throughout the cease-fire, including the Tigers’ August 2005 assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, a moderate Tamil opposed to the separatist group.

A few months later, in national elections, candidate Ranil Wickremasinghe of the governing United National Party (UNP) lost narrowly to anti-LTTE hard-liner Mahinda Rajapakse. In a move some experts regard as part of an LTTE plan to restart the war, the Tigers had prevented voting by Tamils, who would most likely have cast ballots for the moderate Wickremasinghe, in the north and east areas under LTTE control. The Tamil National Alliance party, which garnered less than 7 percent of the vote in those elections, is a coalition of four groups, including the LTTE, which defends Tamil interests and seeks an autonomous region for the ethnic group. Rajapakse allied his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) with two staunchly anti-LTTE political parties: the radical Marxist Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, People’s Liberation Front) and the nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) controlled by Buddhist monks. Muslim parliamentarians have also sided with this alliance against the militants. The Tigers view the anti-LTTE coalition, known as the United People’s Freedom Alliance, as unlikely to make concessions allowing for an autonomous Tamil region, and therefore withdrew from April peace talks scheduled in Oslo . In April, the Tigers attempted to assassinate high-ranking Sri Lankan General Sarath Fonseka. That was followed by a series of attacks and suicide bombings.

What is the status of the conflict?

Both sides have accused the other of violating the cease-fire. The situation reached a critical point in July, when the Sri Lankan army launched an offensive with the goal of gaining access to a waterway in disputed territory around the eastern, predominantly Muslim town of Muttur. Conflict also broke out in Jaffna, a Sri Lankan city controlled by the government but with mostly Tamil residents, where the LTTE began an August offensive.

What is Europe’s role in peace negotiations?

Following the 2002 cease-fire, Norway worked with the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers to set up the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to supervise the agreement and mediate in negotiations. The body was composed of roughly sixty members from five Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland) and headquartered in Colombo, the capital, with district offices in the north and east.

Negotiations handled by the SLMM had largely broken down by the time the LTTE refused to take part in April’s Oslo talks. Then, in May, the European Union joined the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Canada, and Australia in listing the Tigers as a terrorist organization, in effect stopping the flow of funds from the Tamil diaspora in Europe to the militants. The LTTE retaliated by demanding EU members of the SLMM withdraw, halving the size of the body to solely Norwegian and Icelandic nationals. The SLMM has also lost ground with the Sri Lankan government, which rejected the monitors’ claims that the military had a role in a massacre of Tamil aid workers in Muttur. Teresita C. Schaeffer, former U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the SLMM “has become irrelevant.”

What is the role of India in the conflict?

India, which has its own Tamil population in the southern province of Tamil Nadu, made a pact with the Sri Lankan government to send peacekeeping troops to the island in 1987. But the Indian forces were unable to end the conflict and instead began fighting with the LTTE in Tamil areas of the island. India was forced to withdraw by Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1990, and 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.).

Although many Sinhalese would like India to play a bigger role in the current crisis, Schaeffer likens its previous involvement in Sri Lanka to that of the United States in Vietnam. She says India “certainly isn’t going to get involved in cease-fire monitoring under these circumstances.” But she also says India wants negotiations to resume, because it does not want to see a renewed conflict resulting in a flow of refugees to its shores, or an independent Tamil state that could stir up problems in Tamil Nadu.

What is the role of the United States?

Washington has not been a major player in the Sri Lankan civil conflict. However, the United States does lend rhetorical support to the Sri Lankan government’s efforts in the peace process out of general concern that the LTTE’s terrorism not be rewarded at the negotiating table. The Tamil Tigers, for their part, campaign 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 Tigers from the list. The suspects, said to have close ties with heads of the LTTE including leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, are also charged with trying to purchase surface-to-air missiles, missile launchers, AK-47s, and other weapons for the Tigers to use in the escalating conflict.

What is the future of the conflict?

Experts believe the Tigers are bent on reigniting the civil war to reach its goals. “This is the most depressing thing of all, that the LTTE considers war inevitable,” says Schaeffer. To that end, the militants have targeted moderate Tamil leaders. On August 12, the anniversary of the death of Foreign Minister Kadirgamer, Ketheshwaran Loganathan, a Tamil political activist and deputy head of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process, was killed at his home. Within the LTTE there has been factionalism; the Tigers have recently become embroiled in fighting in the east with a breakaway group under a commander known as Karuna, who split from the LTTE in 2004 and is rumored to have military ties. But even with infighting, the LTTE has “amazing staying power,” says Harvard’s Rotberg. The Sri Lankan army, a well-trained force currently 150,000 strong, has failed to put down an insurgency numbering fewer than 10,000 and with a large number of child soldiers.
- Sri Lanka Guardian