History of the Civil War in Sri Lanka

since 1983


Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kim, Kyung Mook
Term Paper, AP World History Class, November 2006



Table of Contents


I. Introduction
II. Origins of the Sri Lankan Civil War
II.a) Official Language Policy
II.b) The Universities Act of 1978
II.c) Riots
II.d) Other
III. Escalation 1983-1987, Eelam War I
III.a) Outbreak of the Civil War
III.b) Escalation of Violence
III.c) Attempts of Negotiation
IV. Indian Intervention (1987-1989)
V. The Administration of Ranasinghe Premadasa (1989-1993); Eelam War II
VI. Attempt to Find a Negotiated Solution (1993-1994)
VII. Eelam War III (1995-2002)
VIII. Recent News and Future Prospects
VIII.a) Ceasefire and Peace Talks
VIII.b) Beginning of Eelam War IV (2006)
VIII.c) Future Prospects and Possible Solutions
IX. Notes
X. Bibliography



I. Introduction


            The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon before 1972; it used to be a colony of Great Britain until it obtained political independence in 1948. Its civil war is an ongoing conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the LTTE. This conflict is due to ethnic discrimination of minority group, the Tamils, by the majority group, the Sinhalese. It has caused over 60,000 death tolls since 1983 when the war began.
The War up to the end of 2002 can be divided into five distinct phases: escalation, 1983-1987 (Eelam War I); Indian intervention, 1987-1989; the reign of Ranasinghe Premadasa, 1989-1993 (Eelam War II); and the attempt to find a negotiated solution, 1993-1994; and Eelam War III, 1995-2002. (1) This essay will cover from the origins of the war to the most recent news and then discuss the future prospects with possible solutions.


II. Origins of the Sri Lankan Civil War


            The origins of the Sri Lankan civil war lie in sharp disagreements over language, access to universities, and riots between Sinhalese and Tamils. These gradually escalated from the 1920s until the outbreak of civil war in 1983 (2) .
During the colonial period by the British, Tamils had benefited from favoritism under Britain and many agree that this "divide and rule" policy caused the roots of the conflict. After the independence in 1948, the minority Tamils no longer had support from the British.

II.a) Official Language Policy
In 1956, the SLFP (3) began the "Sinhala Only" campaign, which claimed Sinhala as the only official language of Sri Lanka. The bill was quickly enacted after the party's electoral victory, despite a bitter objection from the Left. This meant unemployment for many Tamils who were not fluent in Sinhala. The Government faced demonstrations from Tamils, which were repressed brutally by the Sinhalese nationalist gangs. By most Tamils the "Sinhala Only Act" is seen as a watershed and the foundation of the current civil war in the country.

II.b) The Universities Act of 1978
Under the British, Tamils who lived in northern and eastern regions gained easier access to English-medium education. Therefore, a large portion of students enrolled in universities were English speaking Tamils. During the 1970es university admissions were standardized in order to rectify disparities created in university enrolment during colonial rule, the main piece of the legislation being the Universities Act no.16 of 1978 (4) . Once the policy was enacted, the benefits enjoyed by Sinhalese students meant significantly less Tamil students gaining tertiary education.

II.c) Riots
There were two major riots before the civil war began; the first one in 1958 and the other in 1977. In both cases, Tamils were the major victims.
In 1958, the government resettled 400 unemployed Tamil laborers in Polonaruwa district, which angered the Sinhalese people. In May 25th, over 70 Tamil laborers in Polonnaruwa farms were murdered by a Sinhalese mob. The violence spread all over the country especially in Colombo and Panadura until 27th when the government finally declared state of emergency and restored order. Nearly 12,000 Tamil refugees had fled to camps near Colombo.
Riots broke out again in 1977, in response to an alleged assault on Sinhalese policemen. Up to 300 Tamils were killed and 25,000 fled their homes. These riots shattered the trust between communities and convinced the Tamil youths that armed insurrection was the only way..

II.d) Other Reasons
The number of other policies and events by the Sinhalese that were discriminatory to Tamils include: Denial of citizenship to estate Tamils; Sinhala colonisation of Tamil areas; Banning of Tamil media and literature importation; and destruction of the Jaffna Public Library. All of those contributed to set fire on the events of the Black July in 1983, and encouraged the Tamils to form militant groups that would start the civil war.


III. Escalation, 1983-1987; Eelam War I


III.a) Outbreak of the Civil War
The most prominent militant group was the LTTE. On 22nd July 1983, an attack on the military by the LTTE, which killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers, sparked riots by Sinhalese in Colombo, the capital. The official death toll was 367, but unofficial estimates are as high as 3,000 (5) , including the 53 Tamil political prisoners in the Wlikada Prison. The mobs created 135,000 Tamil refugees and damage of US$ 100 million. It is claimed that the government was using the dead soldier's funeral to instigate the riot.

III.b) Escalation of Violence
Throughout the 1980s, increased violence accumulated death tolls. Emergency Regulation 15A enabled security forces to dispose of bodies without inquest proceedings, which facilitated extrajudicial killings (6) .
On the first anniversary of the 1983 riots, Tamil guerillas killed 95 people. In August 2, a suitcase bomb exploded in airport, killing 32 people. In the same month, LTTE ambushed security forces, leaving estimated 100 people dead. In revenge, 100 Tamil shops and homes were destroyed. A week later, six soldiers died when their jeep ran over a land mine. Armed forces retaliated killing two Tamils and destroying 123 buildings. Chunnakam police station near Jaffna was destroyed, killing 19 Tamil prisoners, which both sides blamed on the other. In May 14, 146 Sinhala civilians were massacred at Anuradhapura. Between June 14 1983 and April 20, 1986, 272 Tamils were arrested by members of the security forces and were never seen again. Violence also broke out between Plantation Tamils and Kandyan Sinhalese in the early 1986. In the same year May, LTTE emerged as the most powerful extremist faction after killing around 150 members of TELO (7) . In 1987, government troops pushed the LTTE fighters to the northern city of Jaffna. In July, LTTE carried out their first suicide attack when a member drove a truck with explosives into Sri Lankan army camp, reportedly killing forty soldiers.
At this point the conflict reached its peak, as both sides engaged in a series of mass murder.

III.c) Attempts of Negotiation
There were three periods of negotiations before the Indian Intervention: a yearlong All-Parties Conference in 1984; eight months of a poorly maintained ceasefire from June 1985 to January 1986; and agreement conceded under pressure from CWC (8) in 1986. The LTTE requested for a separate state of Tamil - a politically impossible task - but Sinhalese nationalists objected to any proposal that gave Tamil more powers of administration in All-Parties Conference. In 1985, the Tamils produced the four "Thimpu Principles" but only one: citizenship for all Tamils in Sri Lanka, was conceded by the government in 1986. The other three: recognition of Tamil as a distinct national entity; an identified Tamil homeland with guaranteed integrity; and their right to self-determination, were rejected.


IV. Indian Intervention (1987-1989)


            India is geographically a neighboring country to Sri Lanka. During the colonial period, many Tamils who lived in Indian state of Tamil Nadu had moved to Sri Lanka. This caused deep sympathy for the discrimination against Sri Lankan Tamils. At the same time, the Indian government wanted to project India as the regional power in the area.
India became actively involved in 1987 when the Indian Air Force airdropped food parcels to Jaffna while it was under siege by Sri Lankan forces. Relations between the two nations were extremely strained until the announcement of Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord on July 29, 1987, which Sri Lanka was too weak to refuse. This accord demanded Sri Lankan government to grant official status for the Tamil language and LTTE to surrender their arms to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) sent to Jaffna. In October 1987, 17 heavily armed LTTE members were captured by IPKF and were turned over to the Lankan army. The members attempted mass suicide; killing 12 of them, and LTTE restarted its massacres of Sinhalese villagers. Within days, IPKF tried to demobilize the LTTE by force. Violence escalated between LTTE and IPKF and they ended up in a full-scale conflict. Due to the 'peace keeping' nature, the IPKF were unable to defeat the outnumbered LTTE. Simultaneously, nationalist sentiment opposed the presence of Indian in Sri Lanka. By the end of March 1989, IPKF was called back to India.
Later in 1991 when a member of LTTE assassinated the prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, India dismantled its aid network, and support for the LTTE among the Tamil politicians evaporated.


V. The Administration of Ranasinghe Premadasa (1989-1993), Eelam War II


            The LTTE took significant parts of the north as the IPKF withdrew. After a tentative ceasefire held in 1990, in which both major combatants had established their power bases, they turned on each other again. The government with Ranasinghe Premadasa as president, aimed to retake Jaffna. This Phase of war is called the Eelam War II.
During this period, both sides showed that they were capable of inflicting major damage on the enemy and civilians. Yet, neither displayed any hope of winning the war. The government placed an embargo on food and medicine entering the Jaffna. The air force relentlessly bombed the area, destroying the Naguleswaram, one of the five ancient holiest Hindu Shiva temples. The LTTE responded by attacking Sinhalese and Muslim civilians. The government death squads killed anybody suspected of being LTTE sympathizers. LTTE used 'ethnic cleansing' strategy of Muslim districts and massacred 120 Muslims at prayer. Lankan military attacked LTTE in the east successively. Security forces captured Pooneryn from the LTTE in 1992, and the LTTE captured it back the next year. The sight of burning bodies became a common feature along roadsides in the north and east. The largest battle of war was in July 1991, when the 5,000 LTTE troops tried to capture Elephant Pass, which cut Jaffna off from the rest of the island. It was resisted and kept by government after a month-long siege, losing over 2,000 men on each side. In February 1992, government offensives failed to capture Jaffna when military operations commander Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa was killed by a land mine. In September 1993, Government troops began another major offensive in the northern Sri Lanka but were ambushed by LTTE, resulting in over 150 deaths.
In May 1, 1993, while mingling with a crowd of supporters, President Premadasa was assassinated by a youth who approached him and exploded a bomb strapped to his body.


VI. Attempt to Find a Negotiated Solution (1993-1994)


            In the 1994 parliamentary elections, the UNP (9) was defeated. Amidst great hope, the SLFP came to power on a peace platform. In October 1994, the LTTE made four demands: lifting the embargo on nonmilitary goods to Jaffna, ending the ban on sea fishing, dismantling of the army base at Pooneryn, and allowing armed LTTE cadres to move freely in the Eastern Province. The government conceded the first two and said the other two could only occur after the cessation of hostilities. The LTTE accepted a cease-fire in January 1995, but at this point, neither side was willing to risk peace for fear of losing power to their internal rivals (10). Both sides began preparing for war.


VII. Eelam War III (1995-2002)


            The LTTE broke the ceasefire on April 19, 1995. Although started as a stalemate, Eelam war III took six years of another bloody fighting before a cease-fire was possible.
The LTTE suffered its biggest defeat in the war in July in the Weli Oya region. Weli Oya is the largest Sinhalese colonist in Eastern Province. Unlike in 1993 when the LTTE had successively destroyed the army base that was without a commander, this time, the army was prepared and killed hundreds of guerillas with little loss of life.
The new government then pursued a policy of "war for peace". The government troops had succeeded in bringing Jaffna under government control by December 1995, but holding the city tied down many of the government forces and weakened them elsewhere.
After March 1997, the government pushed a campaign to open a military supply route to the Jaffna Peninsula. If successful, the offensive would have split the LTTE forces and strengthen the government's bargaining position both with the LTTE and Sinhalese extremists. The result was a total failure. Government troops of 20,000 were simply not capable of doing what 50,000 men from IPKF had failed to do. The campaign created a great hardship for the people of the region and left another thousand young men dead.
In the meantime, LTTE terrorist attacks continued throughout Eelam War III. Bombs were exploded numerous times in populated cities. Among the 241 suicide bombers were one who attacked the central bank in Colombo in January 1996, one who bombed Sri Lankan World Trade Center in October 1997, one who detonated a truck bomb in Kandy in January 1998, damaging one of the holiest Buddhist shrines in the world, and those who committed suicide assault on Sri Lanka's international airport in July 24, 2001, causing $1billion worth of damage. Terrorism not only intimidates the Sinhalese, it provokes a military and civilian backlash against innocent Tamils, which helps drives Tamils into their hands.
In response to this bombing, the Sri Lankan government outlawed the LTTE and in July 1996, several leading countries, led by the U.S. declared the LTTE to be a terrorist organization. Especially after September 11, 2001, U.S. anti-terrorist activities not only put increased pressure on LTTE but also significantly interfered with their fund-raising activities.
In February 2000, Norway was asked to mediate by both sides. After a unilateral ceasefire from December 2000 to April 2001; LTTE launched another offensive. By the end of that month, the LTTE had further advanced northwards and secured the Elephant Pass military complex.
Exhaustion with the war was building. The Sri Lankan military continued to grow in number but weakened its will to fight. Up the end of 2002, the army had 5,141 deserters. It was becoming increasingly difficult for the army and the rebels to find new recruits to fight a war that looked endless. The rebels and the government signed a cease-fire agreement in February 2002. And so the Eelam War III ended.


VIII. Recent News and Future Prospects


VIII.a) Ceasefire and Peace Talks
This time, the ceasefire not only actually worked, but also had number of other achievements. Thousands of internally displaced families have returned home, food and medical support was supplied, and buildings were reconstructed while the politicians were doing the peace talks.
Through six rounds of peace talks from September 2002 to April 2003, the situation made a dramatic progress. Although the government did not agree with LTTE's demand that they bcome an interim administration in the north and east, they agreed to share power within the federal system in which Tamils would have autonomy in the north and east of the country. The LTTE in turn, agreed to accept regional autonomy rather than a separate state. LTTE promised to stop taking on child soldiers.

VIII.b) Beginning of Eelam War IV (2006)
For the next few years, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) has been working to keep the cease-fire going but recorded increasing number of cease-fire violations by the LTTE, and the government did not keep their promise to withdraw troops. LTTE has lost its power since then. In March 2004, Colonel Karuna betrayed the LTTE and went under government's control. The tsunami of 2004 damaged much of their equipments but above all, it has lost the international support. After a few failures of two-party meetings in 2006, ceasefire violations rose to a point of low-intensity warfare by July. On April 25, a Tamil suicide detonated a bomb at Army Headquarters, and another in June that killed 64 people on a bus. The government retaliated by air strikes on LTTE territory. In the late July, there was a 'declaration of war' from Colombo and the ceasefire became 'null and void'. And so, the Eelam War IV began.

VIII.c) Future Prospects and Possible Solutions
As Sri Lanka headed toward Eelam War IV, diplomatic initiatives were underway by many countries, to prevent a resumption of all-out war and to encourage steps toward a peaceful resolution (11). However, as LTTE committed numerous terrorist acts, there is little hope of reconciliation. The LTTE's stubborn demand for absolute independence of Tamils is worsening the situation. There is high probability that Eelam War IV will be another bloody conflict. On the brighter side, the government will try a wide range of diplomatic policies to put constant pressure on LTTE and at the same time, suggest various peace treaties.
In order to achieve the peace back in Sri Lanka, the government could adopt three possible options. The first policy option is to emphasize the inappropriateness of purely "majoritarian" decision-making in sharply divided societies. It was the discrimination against minorities that resulted the civil war from the very beginning. Second, where sharp cleavages exist in societies, political stability should be ensured, if not guaranteed, by devising institutional arrangements giving minorities easy access to the highest decision-making processes (12). Third, stop the restrictions and minor discriminations against Tamils. Today, Tamils are required to carry multiple forms of identification and are subject to searches and interrogation at any time. Non-Sinhalese areas are under the occupation of Sinhalese troops. These minor restrictions arouse antipathy among the people.
Even if the war is stopped and peace resettles, the problems ahead of Sri Lanka are vast. Tsunami reconstructions, removal of one million land mines, and fairer employment between the Tamils and Sinhalese are all just part of assignments left. Hope, is probably the best and the only word to describe my feelings toward the situation in Sri Lanka.


IX. Notes


(1)      Peebles 2006
(2)      Wikipedia : Origins of the Sri Lankan Civil War
(3)      SLFP : Sri Lanka Freedom Party
(4)      Wikipedia, Article : Policy of Standardization (Sri Lanka 1971)
(5)      Peebles 2006
(6)      Peebles 2006
(7)      TELO : Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation
(8)      CWC : Ceylon Workers Congress
(9)      UNP : United National Party
(10)      Peebles 2006
(11)      Peebles 2006
(12)      Silva


X. Bibliography


1.      Peebles, Patrik. The History of Sri Lanka. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006
2.      Wikipedia : Article Origins of the Sri Lankan Civil War
3.      Wikipedia: Sinhala Only Act
4.      Wikipedia: Policy of Standardization
5.      Silva, K.M., To Restore Peace to Sri Lanka's Fractured Polity
6.      Article Sri Lanka Close to Another Civil War as Ceasefire Fails, from M & C News
7.      Sri Lankan Civil War, from Boogie Online
8.      Timeline Sri Lanka, from BBC News