Sri Lanka: Still Fire under the Ashes

ASIA--PACIFIC, 7 Dec 2020

René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

4 Dec 2020 – With the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan (LTTE) in mid May 2009, their proposal of a two-State solution for the island is probably dead forever.  The idea of creating a Tamil State from the north and part of the east of Sri Lanka was unrealistic from the start as Tamils live in all parts of the country even if there are concentrations in the north and east.

Sinhalese comprise 74 percent, the Tamils 18 percent and the “Moors” some 4 percent.  But reality is always more mixed than the impression given by statistics.  There has been a good deal of intermarriage, especially among the educated.  Moreover, all population statistics are contested. However, the LTTE was able to become the “voice” of the Tamil population and effectively silenced all serious discussion of other avenues of structuring the State.

The policies of the current President of Sri Lanka Gotabaya Rajapaksa are seen by some as a path to Sinhalese dominance which will reignite Tamil discontent.  As live coals under the ashes, the discontent is there but has not taken the violent form that it had taken under LTTE leadership from 1983 to 2009.

Conflict in Sri Lanka results from seeds planted at independence in 1948 if not before.  The conflict is centered on the appropriate structures of government.  Sinhalese leadership has stressed a unitary State with Sinhalese dominance.  The Tamil opposition proposed different forms of con-federal approaches with a devolution of authority to the provinces. The more radical LTTE demanded a two-state structure.

One can date the start of the violence between Tamils and Sinhalese from 1977 when a large number of Tamils gave up believing that their interests would be defended by a parliamentary system in which they were a permanent minority.  It was July 1983 when using the pretext of LTTE killing 13 soldiers near Jaffna, Sinhalese directed widespread violence against Tamil men, women and children.  The July1983 events led to the departure of many Tamils for India, Western Europe and North America where many became supporters of LTTE.

The Indian government which had many Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka as well as a large Tamil population in south India became increasingly concerned with the violence in Sri Lanka.  Thus from mid 1987 to March 1990 the Indian government sent a military peace-keeping force to Sri Lanka. The Indian effort is estimated to have cost the government of India over one billion US dollars and some 1000 soldiers killed – enough to discourage that form of peace keeping.  The Indian military presence, exacerbated by socio-economic factors such as unemployment and inflation, led to a violent revolt of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) a largely Sinhalese movement against the Sri Lankan government especially in the south of the country from 1987 to 1990. Both the government forces and the JVP adopted a tactic of “exemplary killings” as a means of instilling terror into the civilian population.

With the failure of the Indian peace-keeping effort, the government of Norway proposed an approach based on a negotiated Cease Fire Agreement with a multi-national Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) which would report to the United Nations.  The Cease Fire Agreement lasted officially from 2002 to 2008. The Agreement was repeatedly violated with impunity both by the government forces and the LTTE.  The monitors were unable to prevent acts of war or human rights violations.  The monitors never had sufficient powers, size, capacity or political backing to play an effective protection or confidence-building role.  Finally in 2009, the LTTE was defeated militarily in a series of bloody battles.

The issue of appropriate governmental structures remains.  There is a deep heritage of bitterness and fears in the minds of many with individual and family traumas.  This heritage makes calm discussion of governmental structures difficult.  However, if an earlier effort of reform were put into place, this could be an important contribution to peace.  In 1987, there was a 13th amendment to the Constitution which allows for the creation of “provincial councils”.  In practice these provincial councils have not been able to function as avenues for popular aspirations. However, the structure exists.  The hope is that wise leadership will manifest itself in these provincial councils and thus prevent a new round of violence based on desperation.


René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 7 Dec 2020.

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