Friday, October 11, 2019

Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers: A History of the Conflict

Originally known as Ceylon (“the Holy Island”), Sri Lanka is located near the southeastern coast of the Indian subcontinent, in the Indian Ocean. Its population of 21 million resides in an area of about 65,600 square kilometers.

The Sinhalese (“lions”) are the largest ethnic group, constituting 73.8 percent of the population, while the Tamils (“tigers”) constitute 12 percent, and the descendants of the Arab traders (“Moors”) constitute 9 percent. The main religions are Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, respectively.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Portuguese and Dutch controlled the island. In the eighteenth century it became a British colony, and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tamils were brought by the British from southern India to work in the tea, coffee, and coconut plantations.

The origin of the struggle between the two dominant ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, can be traced back to the British policy of “divide and conquer.” Despite their numerical inferiority, under the British the Tamils held a disproportionate number of positions in the public service and were over-represented in government institutions.

In 1948, the island became a British Commonwealth Dominion, with independent control over foreign relations and defense. The Sinhalese majority sought to assert its religion, its language, and its culture on the entire country at the expense of the Tamil minority. The Ceylon Citizenship
Act was passed, denying citizenship to the Tamil plantation workers who had come from India. As a result, the Tamils began promoting the establishment of a federal system with a Tamil autonomy.

In 1956, Solomon Bandaranaike, a Sinhalese, was elected Prime Minister. The Sinhala Exclusivity Act was passed, establishing Sinhalese as the official language and limiting the number of Tamil employees in the public service.  In 1957 and 1965, agreements were signed discussing the status of the Tamil language and decentralization of part of the political power through its transfer to the provincial councils, but neither was honored because of Sinhalese objection within the government.

In 1972, the island received independence from Great Britain and changed its name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. The new constitution continued the policy of discrimination, making Buddhism the dominant religion in the country and establishing restrictions on the number of Tamils attending
universities.  As a result, many Tamil communities began migrating to the northern and northeastern parts of the country.

Although at a certain point more than forty-two official Tamil groups operated in Sri Lanka, there was no meaningful Tamil representation in the political system. This vacuum was quickly filled by armed groups.

In 1976, an unknown eighteen-year-old by the name of Velupillai Prabhakara established the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). His charismatic and dictatorial leadership style allowed him to lead the organization for over three decades.

In 1981, the Sinhalese took to the streets in a violent campaign against the Tamil minority and set fire to the Tamil public library in Jaffna. The library held over 100,000 rare ancient manuscripts and was considered the main Tamil cultural institution.

Two years later, riots broke out in what was later termed “Black July,” following the killing of thirteen Sinhalese soldiers by Tamil rebels. For several days, a retaliation campaign was carried
out, during which masses of Sinhalese, with the aid of the army, raided Tamil homes, looted their property, and killed thousands. The “Black July” riots led hundreds of thousands of Tamils to flee the country and marked a watershed in the civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.

At the time, following pressure from its Tamil citizens in the state of Tamil Nadu, India offered support in negotiations between the rival groups. It assisted in establishing training camps in Indian territory and later sent its “peace force” to oversee implementation of local ceasefire agreements.

It was not long before the Indians were dragged into military involvement by Tamil rebels. The “peace force” did have some success, but it lost over 1,500 soldiers.  In light of these losses, criticism at home, and the elections in India and Sri Lanka, India retreated from its peace initiative in 1990.

The lack of external intervention allowed the LTTE to establish its position as the dominant Tamil organization, and the suicide attacks against military targets expanded to assassinations of politicians and civilians.

Upon its establishment, the LTTE formed ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in London, including training of Tamil rebels in Middle Eastern refugee camps. The relationship expanded and later included Hamas, Hizbollah, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,headed by George Habash.

In 1990, the Tamil Tigers attacked a Sri Lanka military base using chlorine gas, wounding more than sixty soldiers, and a year later, the group carried out a naval suicide attack against a Sri Lankan supply ship. In 1991, a female suicide bomber assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi Premadasa on Sri Lankan soil, and in 1993, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed in a suicide attack.

In 1997, the world’s first cyber attack was carried out against Sri Lankan embassies around the globe, as over 800 e-mails a day flooded the embassies and paralyzed embassy networks for almost two weeks. Through the LTTE, stolen Norwegian passports made their way to al Qaeda in 1993 and reached operatives such as Ramzi Yousef, one of the planners of the attack on the World Trade Center. It is possible that Tamil rebel merchant ships were used to transfer weapons to al-Qaeda as well.

In 1990, the Tamil Tigers began to expel tens of thousands of Muslims from the areas under their control in northern Sri Lanka and reinforced their military and civilian control in the north, particularly the Jaffna district. Up to the year 2000, a de facto state called Tamil Eelam governed the northern provinces, with a flag and a national anthem, a court, a police force, and even a taxation system, alongside the official Sri Lankan system.

In 1999, Norway—which was considered a neutral country with no colonialist past or hidden political and economic agendas—began to assist in the negotiations. Norway’s involvement in negotiations for the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO had made it a favorable mediator.

Two years later, the Tamil Tigers declared a unilateral ceasefire, and a short time after that, a joint memorandum of understanding was signed. Under Norwegian auspices, six meetings were held, but repeated violations on behalf of Sri Lanka led the LTTE to announce in 2003 that the talks were suspended.

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