sri lanka war, sri lanka civil war, sri lanka tamil
Eranga Jayawardena/AP
Sri Lankan army soldiers patrol the site of an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Saturday, Aug. 30,
2008. (AP)

Is the Sri Lankan Civil War Nearing an End?

September 23, 2008 12:31 PM
by Denis Cummings
The Sri Lankan government claims that it is close to victory over the Tamil Tigers after 25 years, but observers are unsure if a true victory can ever be achieved.

Military Advancing into Tamil Territory

The Sri Lankan government has been waging a war since 1983 against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant group fighting for a homeland for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. The war has often appeared unwinnable and unending, but recent gains by the government military suggest that there may be an end in sight.

The military is advancing into the traditional LTTE stronghold of northern Sri Lanka and may be close to seizing their headquarters in Kilinochchi, where leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is suspected to be. The north is the last remaining territory held by the LTTE, who have lost control of seven of nine districts it held just two years ago.

The government has been known to exaggerate its gains, but it is clear that it is making significant progress. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who guaranteed that the Tigers would be defeated by the end of 2008, says that the military will continue moving north “until every inch of land is recaptured and every terrorist is killed or captured.”

The Sri Lankan military appears ready to attempt a decisive strike against the Tigers. The government has ordered international aid groups out of the north, saying that their safety cannot be guaranteed. The Tigers are resorting to desperate means, such as forcibly recruiting women and children and reportedly preparing a human shield in Kilinochchi.

Even as the military closes in on the LTTE, many observers wonder if the government can ever achieve peace through victory. The brutal campaign against the LTTE has left thousands of Tamils dead or displaced and further increased the divide between the Tamils and Sinhalese.

Background: Military gains and government human rights abuses

Since the election of hard-line President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, the government has pursued the war more intensely and made impressive gains against the Tigers. Last summer, the Sri Lankan military won a rare decisive victory, seizing Tamil land in the east. It was a devastating blow to the Tigers, who were left with control of just the northern districts.

Rajapaksa decided to turn up the pressure against the Tigers, declaring that they would be defeated by the end of 2008. In January 2008, he declared an end to the cease-fire, doubled the defense budget to $1.5 billion and added 40,000 recruits. Thus far, the escalation has proven to be a success, with the military seizing the Mannar peninsula in July and Mallavi in early September.

Western countries and NGOs have criticized the government for waging an often brutal campaign against the LTTE and the Tamil people, however. The government has done little to protect civilians and recently forced out aid groups, leaving Tamil refugees searching for food and shelter.

“Although most of the 200,000 people internally displaced by violence have left makeshift camps, thousands are unable to return to villages and seaside areas now under military control,” writes Jason Motlagh in The Christian Science Monitor. “The resettled often find homes destroyed or looted. Checkpoints and guards are a fixture of daily life. Distrust of the central government persists.”

Fearing terrorist attacks, the government has cracked down on anybody they suspect to be a Tamil militant. “It has gone to the depths, there is no freedom,” says a Tamil man in the northern city of Jaffa. “Whether you are three or 65 years, they will stop and check your ID card. Now they are suspecting every citizen.”

In response to the human rights abuses, Britain and the United States pulled development aid. However, Sri Lanka is now receiving aid from China and Iran. “With friends like China and Iran behind them,” writes The Daily Telegraph’s Peter Foster, “Sri Lanka no longer needs to allow the human rights concerns of Western powers to stop it fighting to its bitter end by fair means or by foul.”

Opinion & Analysis: Is the government nearing victory?

The Sri Lankan government insists that it is nearing complete military victory over the Tamil Tigers, but it is unclear what a conventional war victory will accomplish. The Economist cautions that, “Even if the Tigers are soon broken as a conventional fighting force, they might regroup in remote northern jungles to wage a protracted guerrilla war. This would mean a greater reliance on terrorism to ‘bomb themselves back onto the agenda.’”

The Island, a Sri Lankan newspaper, says that Prabhakaran is trapped and will not likely defeat the military in the north. “But, he may turn to soft targets elsewhere, even far away from the theatre of war,” writes the Island. “He knows how easily the military gets lulled into a false sense of complacency giving him an opportunity to strike back. That is why strings of successes that the military scores over the LTTE are always punctuated by humiliating disasters.”

Even if the Tamil Tigers are beaten, the conflict between the Tamil people and the Sinhalese majority remains. “The battle is not between the LTTE and the government,” said a Tamil journalist to ISN Security Watch. “It is between two communities. Unless you resolve the long-standing disputes between them, peace will remain elusive. Unless there is a process of devolution of powers to the Tamils and Tamils are given their rights in this country, the war will never be over.”

Historical Context: The Sinhalese–Tamil conflict

Sri Lanka is an island nation off the coast of India with two predominant ethnic groups. The Sinhalese, mainly Buddhists, make up 74 percent of the population and control the government. The mainly Hindu Tamils make up just 18 percent of the population, living primarily in the eastern and northern regions of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka was ruled by the British until it gained independence in 1948. After independence, the Sinhalese took control of the government and instituted policies that favored the Sinhalese people culturally and economically. Feeling that the government was discriminating against them, many Tamils took up violent resistance against the government during the 1970s.

In 1972, 18-year-old Tamil rebel Velupillai Prabhakaran founded the Tamil New Tigers, which became the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) four years later. During the 1980s, the “Tamil Tigers” would wipe out the more moderate Tamil organizations and become the leaders of the Tamil independence movement.

The Tamil Tigers launched their first major attack on Sri Lankan military forces in 1983, which led to riots against the Tamil people that killed 600. “From that moment onwards, it can be argued that the Sri Lankan conflict followed a pattern that in many ways is still repeated today,” writes the BBC. “Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and for parts of this decade, the country has witnessed a combination of Tamil Tiger suicide attacks on the one hand and repeated military skirmishes in the north and east on the other.”

Relief groups estimate that the 25-year war has cost more than 70,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands. For much of the war, there has been no end in sight, though there was a glimmer of hope in 2002. The two sides signed a formal cease-fire agreement, but both sides violated the truce almost immediately.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines