A short essay on the Sri Lankan civil war
The civil war in Sri Lanka had its roots in the British decision to replace the culture of the cinnamon with tea and coffee. In search of cheap labour, they resettled Tamil labourers from South India (from lower castes) on the island and thus managed to keep wages at the lowest on the island.
Tamil workers settled in the closed world of plantations and in other areas as the Jaffna peninsula and the east coast of the island. They retained their language, their traditions and their religion. A majority of them were, and still are, Hindu while the Sinhalese are predominantly Buddhists. According to a census established in 1946, there were nearly 800,000 Tamils in Ceylon making up 12% of the population.
The British favoured the early emergence of an anglicised elite, capable of handling political affairs and attain a model of “home rule” as autonomy was then named. A nationalist party was founded in 1918, on the model of the Indian National Congress. When men and women were given the right to vote in 1932, the island undertook a smooth decolonization unlike in India.
After attaining independence, the fledgling democratic regime that was set up was regarded by the minority Tamil community as capable of ensuring its rights. At the same time, on the occasion of the celebration of 2.500th anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment in 1956, an extremist Sinhala movement led, among others, by Buddhist monks called for the revival and protection of the Sinhalese culture against Anglophone elites and Tamils. The same year the government enacted Sinhala as the only official language of the country, causing the ire of the Tamil community.
In 1959, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. Violent riots broke out between Tamils and Sinhalese. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the widow of assassinated former prime minister, came to power with the support of a left-wing party and lead a socialist policy of nationalization that included industries, land and tea plantations which until then belonged to British companies. She also planned to repatriate 500,000 Tamils to India with the tacit agreement of the Central Government of India which feared the spread of Tamil separatism to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
In 1972, the country adopted the Sanskrit name of Sri Lanka, “resplendent island”. However, ethnic tensions escalated into civil war. The extremist movement of “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” (LTTE), led by their leader Vellupilai Prabakaran triggered a wave of attacks and lead a guerrilla war against the Sri Lankan army. At the same time, moderate and democratic political movements by Tamil were sidelined.
In 1987, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi obtained the signature of an agreement that guaranteed a certain autonomy to the northeastern province and gave the Indian army a role in peace-keeping in the Tamil areas. The LTTE however refused to disarm and resumed guerrilla warfare in the impenetrable jungles that were its stronghold. The LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, which caused them to lose any support from the Indian authorities.
After the 9/11 attacks, LTTE was listed as a terrorist organization and cash flows from expatriate Sri Lankan Tamil community dwindled. In 2004, southern Sri Lanka was also hit hard by the December 2004 tsunami with a dreadful toll of nearly 40,000 dead or missing.
While mediation efforts by Norwegian authorities did not come through, the assassination of Sri Lankan foreign minister in 2005 marked the end of any hope for a peaceful negotiated settlement. When the LTTE refused to settle for anything but independence, the then president, Mahinda Rajapakse, decided to launch an all-out offensive that led to a “final assault” in 2008. The conflict ended on May 17, 2009 with the fall of the last Tamil stronghold and the death of V. Prabhakaran and a total casualty of about 70,000 since the beginning of the armed conflict.
Today, the challenge to the country is to find the means to peacefully reconcile and ensure justice to all Sri Lankan citizens alike.