Since July 23, 1983, separatists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or “Tamil Tigers” have waged open war against the standing government of Sri Lanka. In the summer of 2009, khakied troops of the Sri Lankan government’s armed forces advanced through the mango groves of the Jaffna peninsula, dotted with foxholes, picking between artillery pieces abandoned in the mud, fortifications unmanned and left to fall in. The thirty-week culmination of a thirty-year war left the Tigers with little chance of resisting the army’s ground advance. On 18th May, President Mahinda Rajapaksa officially declared victory in the civil war. It is estimated that 80,000 – 100,000 people have died as a result of the conflict, and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced. Among the number killed were an overwhelming number of civilian men, women and children.
Tamil Tigers – Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?
The Tamil Tigers are considered a terrorist organisation by 32 countries around the world, including the United States, India, Australia, the UK and other member states of the European Union. Their tactics have certainly earned them a reputation for ruthlessness, suicide bombing civilian targeting. They often used “Claymore” anti-personnel mines against military transports and police vehicles, and co-ordinated civilian bombing campaigns were commonplace. They remain the only internationally recognised terrorist organisation to have maintained a navy and air force. The Tigers occasionally staged flyby bombings of Sri Lankan cities like Trincomalee, within range of their light aircraft. But are the Tamil Tigers merely terrorists? The Sri Lankan government has earned equal criticism for its human rights record during the war, and there is in many cases anecdotal and in some cases recorded evidence to suggest widespread campaigns of civilian displacement, torture, summary executions and “disappearances”.
The Tamil Tigers’ Goals
Founded in May 1976, the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, waged a violent secessionist campaign against the government of Sri Lanka. Their ultimate aim was the establishment of an independent Tamil state in the north of the country, known as Tamil Eelam. Sri Lanka has long been divided along ethnic boundaries. The majority of the population (74%) are Sinhalese, and predominantly speak a language of the same name. Most of the remaining Sri Lankans (12.6%) are Tamils, mostly descended from immigration dating back to Medieval times, although many were brought across the ocean by Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialists hiring cheap labour for the plantations. Many Tamils from Tamil Nadu (on the mainland) come to find work in Sri Lanka.
History of Conflict and Tension Over Language Policy
Much of the ethnic tension that exists in Sri Lanka is a result of the “Sinhala Only” Act, otherwise known as “The Official Language Act”, which was passed by the Sri Lankan government in 1956. It stated that Sinhala was the official and only language of the country of Sri Lanka. This was seen as a powerful symbol of nationhood, a demonstration of independence for a country that had only gained its independence from the British Empire in 1948.
However, the Left hated it. Dr N.M. Perera moved a motion in Parliament that the Act “should be amended forthwith to provide for the Sinhalese and Tamil languages to be state languages of Ceylon with parity of status throughout the Island.”
He was rebutted by Dr Colvin R de Silva responded, in what some regard as famous last words: “Do we… want a single nation or do we want two nations? Do we want a single state or do we want two? Do we want one Ceylon or do we want two? And above all, do we want an independent Ceylon which must necessarily be united and single and single Ceylon, or two bleeding halves of Ceylon which can be gobbled up by every ravaging imperialist monster that may happen to range the Indian ocean? These are issues that in fact we have been discussing under the form and appearance of language issue.”
Sri Lanka’s first bold step away from British dependence had the effect of marginalising the small but vocal Tamil minority. With no accommodation for Tamil in the government, the civil service was almost entirely Sinhalese by 1970, whereas in 1955 the numbers had been much more equal. This amounted to disenfranchisement. The law was only amended in 1987, in the midst of the war. Tamil and Sinhala or both now recognised as the national languages of Sri Lanka.
A Conflict Resolved or Postponed?
The Sri Lankan army forces confirmed that the leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed on the morning of May 18, 2009. The announcement on state television came shortly after the military said it had surrounded Prabhakaran in a tiny patch of jungle in the northeast.
For millions of Sri Lankans, the end of the war means a return to some sense of normality. Homes are being rebuilt; lives are being put back together. The legacy of the Sri Lankan Civil War has a bitter one. Have the concerns of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka been properly addressed to avoid future conflict? Will the bereaved civilians of Sri Lanka ever forgive the Tamil Tigers for their campaign of terror, or their government for the lengths to which they stooped in order to rid their country of dissent? These are questions for the next decade.
Aves, Edward. (2003) Sri Lanka.
De Silva, K. M., & Wriggins, W. H. (1988). J.R. Jayewardeneof Sri Lanka: a political biography.
NorthEast Secretariat report on Human rights 1974 – 2004 (see Further Reading section).
Winnig, Heike, “Sri Lanka – Government of Ambiguity and Militarization” Retrieved Apr 23, 2010
Sri Lankan Civil War Wikipedia Page