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Ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka

From Academic Kids

Since independence (from the British Empire in 1948), the struggle between majority Sinhala-speaking Buddhists and minority Tamils (mostly Hindu) was a regular feature of political life in Sri Lanka. There was also occasionally significant personal and property violence, and since 1983 there has been on-and-off civil war, mostly between the government and the LTTE – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Tens of thousands have died from various events, which has included government organized genocide of Tamils via street riots in the early 80s, retaliations by the LTTE, village-scale slaughters on both sides, government "disappearances", etc. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are displaced internally or have fled to Tamil Nadu and around the world. The largest concentration of Lankan Tamils outside the country is in Toronto.

Contents

Background and origins

Concerns about minority representation were expressed and given some attention during the independence struggle, but nothing was incorporated into the new governmental structure. Official and unofficial governmental preference for Sinhalese became a sore spot with Tamils as they lost employment and educational opportunities.

Sinhalese argue that Tamils received preferential treatment under British rule. By the time of independence, there were more British built schools in Tamil dominated Jaffna than in the rest of the island. There also was a disproportionate number of Tamils in the civil service, medicine and law.

Tamils claim that there was a disproportionate number of Tamils in medical schools, law schools, etc. by way of merit. Nation-wide exams were given, and a disproportionate amount of Tamils students would get higher averages, and thus gain entry into prestiguous university/vocational programs. Tamils claim that measures taken by the Sinhalese-majority governments discriminated against them and took away this meritocracy. Examples include the Sinhala-only Act of 1956, which restricted many government jobs to Sinhala speakers, and changes in university admissions policies which greatly reduced the number of Tamils getting higher education (by requiring Tamils to achieve much higher marks on nation-wide exams than Sinhalese needed).

In the decades after independence, Tamils supported a more federal system through the Federal Party. The concept of a separate nation, Tamil Eelam, was proposed by the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF) in 1976. TULF was a coalition of Tamil parties who went on to campaign in the 1977 elections for an independent state for Tamils in Sri Lanka. They won and went to Parliament to represent the northern and eastern provinces. The government banned TULF representatives from parliament for advocating an independent state. Talk and nonviolence actions continued, but youths started to form militant groups, some funded by bank robberies, and military presence in the north also grew.

A deadly attack on the military in the north sparked riots in Colombo and elsewhere in 1983. Thousands of Tamils died in the violence, and many more fled Sinhalese-majority areas. This is usually taken as the beginning of the ethnic conflict. Attacks and counterattacks became common, and support on both sides for violence grew.

Initially there was a plethora of different resistance groups. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's position, attempting to learn from the PLO, was that there should be only one. Over time the LTTE, often bloodily, merged with or eliminated almost all the other groups.

Indian involvement

India's involvement has been motivated by a mix of issues – its leaders' desire to project India as the regional power in the area, worries about India's own Tamils seeking independence, and a genuine concern for the Sri Lankan Tamils' plight. Uncoordinated in the 1980s, the central and state governments (and even different agencies within them!) supported both sides in different ways.

In the late 1980s the Indian government negotiated an agreement with the government of Sri Lanka on the Tamils' behalf (without consulting the armed resistance). India promised military support if needed, and Sri Lanka agreed to concessions, including Constitutional changes to grant more local power (this was eventually enacted as the 13th Amendment). India got agreement from all of the Tamil resistance groups including, grudgingly, the all-important LTTE.

The Sri Lankan government was facing a mostly unrelated uprising by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in the south, and called in the Indian military immediately after the agreement was signed. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was formed, and initially oversaw a cease-fire and modest disarmament of the militant groups. The Sri Lankan government pulled its troops south and put down the JVP rebellion, but dragged its feet on reforms. The LTTE's trust in both governments dissolved and the IPKF ended up fighting the LTTE. Nationalist sentiment among the Sinhalese led to the government's call for India to quit the island, and eventually even supply the LTTE with weapons and munition.

Rajiv Gandhi, India's Prime Minister during their involvement, was assassinated on May 21, 1991, by a presumedly LTTE operative. Indian support for the LTTE dropped to near zero, and even in Tamil Nadu (home to 60 million Tamils) feelings are still mixed. India's central government has been firmly against the LTTE since, although they do still speak up for Tamils' rights.

In the 1980s and 1990s, successive governments officially revoked some of the discriminatory policies, recognizing Tamil as an official language and introducing a district based quota system for university admissions with Tamil majority districts having the lowest cut-off points. Sinhalese and Muslims today claim they are reverse discriminated. Tamils deny the latter claim, and see the changes that have been made as too little too late.

The 1990s

The LTTE took significant parts of the north as the IPKF withdrew, and established many government-like functions in the areas under its control. Amidst great hope, in 1994 elections brought the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to power on a peace platform. After failed peace talks, the government pursued a "war for peace" line, and retook Jaffna (the largest city in the north). Repeated attempts by the government to take control of the land route from the south to Jaffna gained ground but ultimately failed. The LTTE then rolled the government out of much of the territory it had taken, but never succeeded in re-taking Jaffna.

The Government forces often attacked civilian buildings such as temples, churches and schools in a bid to stem the growing resistance. These were often safe havens for refugees fleeing the air raids and their destruction resulted in a high amount of Tamil casualties. LTTE suicide and time bombs were exploded numerous times in populated city areas and public transport, killing hundreds of civilians.

The LTTE's often-terrorist political and economic attacks continued. In December 1999 the LTTE attempted the assassination of President Kumaratunga (she lost one eye among other injuries); they also bombed the central bank in January 1996 (see Central Bank Bombing). In January 1998, the LTTE detonated a truck bomb in Kandy, damaging the Temple of the Tooth, one of the holiest Buddhist shrines in the World. In response to this last bombing, the Sri Lankan government outlawed the LTTE and with some success pressed other governments around the world to do the same, significantly interfering with their fund-raising activities.

The suicide rate on the island climbed to become first in the world per capita.

A significant peace movement also developed in the 1990s, with many organisations holding peace camps, conferences, trainings and peace meditations, and many other efforts to bridge the two sides at all levels.

Tentative peace

In 2000 the LTTE began to declare their willingness to explore measures that would safeguard Tamils' rights and autonomy as part of Sri Lanka, and announced a unilateral ceasefire just before Christmas 2000. Their July 2001 assault on the international airport destroying half of the air force's planes, and damaging several of SriLankan Airlines's planes dampened the economy (e.g. tourism plummeted), and Sinhalese hopes for a military solution. In parliamentary elections toward the end of the year the United National Front (UNF) came to power on a peace platform.

For the first time since the 1978 constitution introduced a strong presidency, one party held the Presidency (Chandrika Kumaratunga, Sri Lanka Freedom Party) and the other, Parliament (with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, United National Party). This co-habitation was extremely uneasy. The new government reciprocated another unilateral LTTE ceasefire offer at the end of 2001. The two sides formalized it in a Memorandum of Understanding signed in February 2002. Norway is mediating, together with the other Nordic countries it also monitors the ceasefire through the SLMM and many other countries are offering substantial financial support if peace is achieved.

Some Sinhalese and Muslims have refused to support any concessions unless the LTTE disarms and becomes a democratic political entity.

The LTTE temporarily pulled out of the peace talks in 2003, saying that insufficient attention was being put on developing an interim political solution. The government eventually produced a proposal, and the LTTE a counter-proposal, which President Kumaratunge responded to by taking over several defense-related ministries. Peace talks remained suspended. In 2004 she took over additional ministries, and dissolved Parliament, calling for an election, which has now brought her United People's Freedom Alliance to power.

During the election, LTTE commander Karuna of Batticaloa-Ampara split from the group's main leadership, claiming insufficient resources and power were being given to Tamils of the eastern part of the island. The LTTE officially sacked him, small-scale violence erupted, and tensions were extremely high. After the election, brief fighting south of Trincomalee led to a rapid retreat and capitulation of the Karuna group, their leaders eventually fleeing to Colombo. It has now been revealed that a ruling Muslim politician was involved with Karuna's escape.

The cease fire between the LTTE and the government has largely held through all of this, and negotiations are expected to recommence in the near future.

See also

External links

Additional references

  • Assignment in Colombo, J. N. Dixit (Indian High Commissioner during the 1980s negotiations that led to the IPKF presence) -- ISBN 8-122-00499-7
  • Significant lacunae - differences among Tamils (Indian Tamils, north/east, Muslims), pre-war political history and violence and non-violent actions, peace movement, non-India foreign involvement (e.g. arms sales), JVP's position, women fighters, government deserters
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