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Sri Lanka: what lies behind the latest violence?

This article is over 12 years, 11 months old
The Sri Lankan government has launched a brutal crackdown on areas held by Tamil rebels. Ken Olende examines the conflict – and its roots in the divide and rule tactics of the British Empire
Issue 2137

After more than 25 years of civil war, the government of Sri Lanka believes it is on the verge of finally crushing the rebel Tamil forces on the island.

In the past year the government has broken a shaky ceasefire agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers – and gone on the offensive.

A brutal advance into rebel areas has seen government forces retaking all the towns that had previously been controlled by the Tigers. There is growing concern over the number of people caught up in the conflict.

According to Amnesty International, “More than 300,000 civilians are now trapped in the north eastern part of Sri Lanka as the fighting intensifies.”

The army shelled a hospital in rebel held territory last Sunday, killing at least nine people and issued an implausible statement saying that the attack was carried out by Tamil forces in order to “discredit” the government.

Sri Lanka’s hardline president Mahinda Rajapaksa has called on the Tigers to allow non-combatants to leave the battle zone. But he has refused to countenance a ceasefire to make such an evacuation possible.

He has also tried to keep journalists out of the areas where fighting is taking place, making reports sketchy and hard to verify.

This comes at the same time as a wider crackdown on dissent in the country’s media. Journalists critical of the government’s strategy have been targeted.

Newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramatunga was shot dead by unknown gunmen last month.

The government believes its current offensive can finish off the rebels once and for all – and seems unconcerned by the level of civilian casualties this policy creates.

But the Tigers still hold an area of about 115 square miles, which is under intense bombardment.

Sri Lanka has allocated more than £565 million to its annual defence budget – 22 percent of total state expenditure. This has allowed the army to double in size in recent years.

In a classic counter-insurgency technique previously used by the British in Kenya and the US in Vietnam, the government started moving civilians to “model villages” – guarded camps that will isolate them from the Tamil guerrilla forces.

To understand what’s behind the current fighting we have to look at how European imperialism impacted on Sri Lanka. The island country, previously known as Ceylon, lies off India’s south east coast. It has been central to trade routes in the Indian Ocean for 2,000 years.

The Portuguese colonised Sri Lanka from 1505, but were eclipsed by Dutch colonialists in the following century. British forces took control of the island at the beginning of the 19th century.

They developed tea and coffee plantations in the central hills, and brought in large numbers of Tamil workers from south India as labourers. These workers joined a separate Tamil population that had already been established on the island for centuries.


Today Sri Lanka has a population of about 20 million, 80 percent of whom are from the Sinhalese ethnic group. But the country also has significant minorities, the largest of which are the Tamils.

The British had built a local base of support by manipulating ethnic divisions on the island. They favoured the indigenous Tamil minority – mostly Hindus with a small number of Muslims – and discriminated against the largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority.

Sri Lankan nationalism developed mainly among the Sinhalese community, framed in terms of Buddhism. This movement won independence in 1948, and ever since then all Sri Lanka’s governments have discriminated against Tamils.

The country’s strong trade union and socialist movement never managed to bridge the gap between the communities. Sri Lanka was unique in having both mass Communist and Trotskyist parties – and both were involved in the development of the union movement.

Tragically by 1970 both these parties were drawn into government alliances with the main Sinhalese nationalist party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). This fatal compromise prevented them from promoting a decisive break with the politics of ethnic nationalism.

The SLFP tried to shore up Sinhalese support by making Buddhism the country’s official religion. By the late 1970s anti-Tamil discrimination had sparked the growth of a Tamil separatist movement.

Initially this involved a legal party called the Tamil United Liberation Front and the guerrilla fighters of the Tamil Tigers. The Liberation Front won all parliamentary seats in the Tamil north and east parts of the country in the 1977 elections.

The Tamil Tigers demanded independence – but the government responded by attempting to preserve the integrity of the state by force.

This led to both widespread anti-Tamil riots and an increase in attacks by the Tigers. The conflict descended into civil war.

More than 70,000 have died in the fighting since 1983. Some people are now calling for foreign military intervention in Sri Lanka. But this has already been tried once – and it failed.

The Indian army intervened in 1987. It was called a “peacekeeping force” and expected to be in a non-combat role. But Indian soldiers quickly ended up clashing with the Tigers, and were compelled to withdraw in 1990.

The Sri Lankan government launched offensives in the 1990s that devastated most of the north of the country. The Tamil Tigers carried out bombings in the capital Colombo, and wounded president Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1999.

She lost elections in 2001, and in February 2002 the new prime minister signed a ceasefire with the Tamil Tigers.

Talks collapsed in April 2003 and in November the president sacked the government. Elections produced a coalition government.

Even if the Tigers are routed by the current offensive, the cycle of ethnic nationalism and violence will not end. Sri Lanka desperately needs an opposition that breaks from the ethnic politics that have plagued the country since independence.


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