Years and years of bloody civil war have left their traces on Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s modern history has been predominantly defined by its 26-year long and fierce civil war that came to an end in 2009. The brutal conflict had its roots in aspirations for a separate homeland for country’s ethnic Tamil minority following decades of simmering resentment against the majority Sinhala governments. Spearheaded by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam or LTTE, the protracted military campaign left up to 100,000 dead, displaced several hundreds of thousands, corroded the island nation’s economic growth and exacted a high environmental cost. Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour in the northwest and a dominant regional power, India inevitably became the third axis of the conflict with its large Tamil population in the southern state of Tamil Nadu passionately supporting their ethnic Lankan kin throughout the conflict.
The history of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war began with its independence from Britain in 1948. A multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, the island nation historically has been home to sizable Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Hindu populations. After taking reins of the country the Buddhist Sinhala majority, who had long resented British bias towards the Hindu Tamils during colonial times, began implementing policies viewed as highly discriminatory by the minorities. Most definitive of them was replacing English with Sinhala as the country’s official language while ignoring Tamil, spoken by nearly 30% of the population. The ensuing ethnic riots galvanized the movement for a new homeland for Tamils under the LTTE subsequently plunging the island nation into a civil war.
The long fierce fighting punctuated by spells of ceasefire brokered by Norway saw vicious suicide bombings; assassination of several high-ranking ministers and political figures in both Sri Lanka and India including former Indian Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi, and audacious guerilla attacks on key government installations including air force bases and country’s only international airport in commercial capital Colombo. Notorious for recruiting child soldiers and establishing their own laws and taxation system in controlled territories in Sri Lanka’s northeast, the LTTE was also known to be the only militant outfit in the world to have acquired its own navy and air force fleet including five small aircraft and two helicopters. The conflict became further internationalized after the LTTE was branded a terrorist organization and banned in over 30 countries. In 2009, clashes between Tamil Tigers and government troops reached a critical point. After months of fierce fighting, that left up to 40,000 civilians dead and over 250,000 displaced, the LTTE was defeated and its chief Velupillai Prabhakaran killed.
Why is it important?
The United Nations and other international humanitarian organizations remain concerned about the issues of rehabilitation, reconciliation and reintegration into the society of hundreds of thousands of civilians including Tamils who were severely affected by the physical and psychological effects of the brutal fighting. Human right groups like Amnesty International have accused both the Sri Lankan army and Tamil rebels of war crimes, gross human rights violation, abduction and forced conscription during the war. While the island nation has at least begun to recover economically from the destruction of war, serious reservations remain about the political and social reconciliation between its ethnic groups.