Sri Lanka. History of the war

Most don’t know the history of Sri Lanka, and what led to the civil war which has raged for over twenty years. Western media generally focuses on what’s happening now, with little, if any, historical background.


Sri Lankan forces, shooting indiscriminately, stormed a church where hundreds of Tamils were taking shelter, and then opened fire in the surrounding village, killing five people and wounding dozens, witnesses said.

The government denied the accusation and blamed Tamil Tiger rebels, but numerous witnesses and an international aid worker said Sri Lankan forces were responsible for the deaths as the island nation appeared to stumble even closer toward all-out war.

The players

The government.

The insurgent Tamil Tigers (LTTE) have an estimated 8,000, well-trained and equipped soldiers. They are engaged in a nationalist war for independence, and are considered skilled and ruthless.

The Karuna Faction consists of a few hundred, however they are seasoned. Karuna was one of the top three Tiger generals until 2004 when he split with them. He’s Hindu and eastern, the Tiger leadership mostly Christian, northern, low caste (although it’s not about religion.)

The history

450 years of colonialization by Portugal, Holland, then England. The Sinhalese are in the majority, with Tamils a minority.

The Brits gave high caste Tamils important roles, knowing they wouldn’t revolt as things were made better for them. They were used as a foil against the majority Sinhalese. Divide and conquer was a favored tactic used by England in their colonies. They also created a Sinhalese merchant class in opposition to traditional Sinhalese leadership. More divide and conquer.

After independence in 1948, elite Tamils wanted to maintain their favored position, while the Sinhalese majority want in. Since Sinhalese had the majority vote, they ended up ruling. Sinhalese leadership then wanted to take the vote from estate Tamils (virtual slaves.) Elite Tamils agreed. It was a class thing. About 50% of estate Tamils, some who had been there for generations, were denied the right to vote. Many returned to India.

In ’56, the nationalist movement among Sinhalese forced the Sinhala language to be mandated as the only national language. Tamils began to be restricted in what they could do.

1960. Tamil leaderships call “satyagraha”, a non-violent protest. It lasted several months and was successful enough to trigger violent reaction from military. Many were shot. The protest was put down brutally.

Tamil militancy began. It faded out until ’72, when the Indo-Pakistan war and independence for Bangladesh inspired Tamils. Then came the first JVP armed rebellion in South. They were Marxist Buddhists, supported by deep South, educated but unemployed Sinhalese. It failed and the government executed thousands.

Tamil youth became inspired by rebellion. By ’76, there were several Tamil rebel groups, including the beginning of LTTE.

July 1983. The Black July riots. The Government killed an LTTE leader. The LTTE retaliated with a mine attack on an army patrol, killing several. The Sinhalese population of Columbo erupted, with mobs killing between 400-3,000 Tamils. The Government tolerated and may have encouraged this.

Many Tamils then decided they could no longer trust the government.

Most date 1983 as the beginning of the war.

1986, LTTE had out-maneuvered, absorbed, or eliminated most other Tamil militant groups.

1987, to appease India the government invited 200,000 troops from the India Peacekeeping Force, supposedly to protect Tamils and provide a buffer. LTTE attacked them. IPKF responded with atrocities. JVP launched a second rebellion. This one gets off the ground. For two years, there is a second cvil war in the south. Thousands were killed by both sides. (The JVP currently has renounced violence and is part of the ruling coalition. Without their support, the government would fall.)

The government arms private militias.

1989. JVP brutally put down. The government negotiates IPKF withdrawal. Rearms LTTE as hedge against India. Why is India interested? Several reasons, including, 1) There are many Tamils in south India who don’t want Tamils in Sri Lanka to become more oppressed. 2) India doesn’t want the LTTE to win as it could trigger more separatist movements in India. 3) India doesn’t want Sri Lanka overly successful and becoming economic competition. 4) India does not want a foreign power getting control of Trincomolee harbor in Sri Lanka, as it could then become a naval base, possibly threatening them.

1990. LTTE rules Jaffna. Order restored by the government by brute force in the south.

1990-2001. War rages, with few interruptions.

2002. Cease-fire.

2004. Karuna splits from Tigers. There are unconfirmed reports he might be backed by India. Reports that the government supports him are probably exaggerated although they clearly have a common interest.

Today. Cease fire no longer in effect.

  • Joe Hartley

    National liberation? Sounds more like ethnic cleansing to me. And here we are, the end results of Woodrow Wilson’s racist internationalist formulations that every “race” must have its own state….like the old nations of England, France, or Spain were even close to being ethnically homogeneous.

  • Bob

    Wrong planet, Joe. Woodrow had little to do with it.

  • Joe Hartley

    The “internationalism” that the US has been believing in for the past 75 years comes straight out of Wilsonianism. Any benefit of the doubt that Wilson ever caught should have been dissolved when Bush Jr. revealed the logical limits of Wilsonianism.

    Wrong planet? Read Margaret Churchill’s “Versailles 1919” and you’ll see the Sri Lankan question played time and time again on different stage but differing only in the details. (Sorry; nothing new under the sun.) The idea of ethnic nationalism is the most pernicious idea ever to come out of the 19th Century, and that’s saying a lot.

  • Bob

    When one of the groups is exploited, denied rights, then it becomes much more than ethnic, it inextricable becomes a class issue too.

  • Sue


    Mr. Morris sees this issue through the lens of class, and Mr. Hartley sees this issue through the lens of ethnic nationalisms/

    I would like to know more about Mr. Hartley’s viewpoint, beyond the conclusions presented here.

    If “ethnic nationalism” is the most pernicious idea ever to come out of the 19th century”, then what is its cure?

    What is its opposite? What is to be done?


  • Bob

    I guess my point is, if one sees ethnic nationalism as bad, then that seems to imply nationalist movements should never be supported.

  • Joe Hartley

    I don’t know that there is such a thing as a “cure” for ethnic nationalism. Successful nations eventually figure out how to deal with different ethnicities within their own borders. Different countries do it differently: Yemen did it differently from England, which did it differently from France and Spain. It’s been interesting to see Hungary and Romania, post-1989, deal with the issue of a couple of million ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania.

    The problem with giving every ethnic group their own area is that it’s contrary to the human experience. Cities and their surrounding areas are filled with large communities of people who aren’t native to their shores. Yesterday Catalonia adopted a new statute of automony pushed by the Zapatero government in Spain, and their are tens of thousands of Catalans in France and Argentina, not to mention tiny Angorra which has, like, 13,000. Wherever there’s trade, you’re going to have different ethnic groups together.

    Think about what ethnic separatism really means. We had a long history of it in the US, called “separate but equal.” Separate it was, but hardly equal.

    Despite not having a magic “cure” for the problem (which strikes me as an extremely American take on the human condition, namely that there must be a way of solving every problem), I do note that history has plenty of successes. Often messy, of course, but they manage to work themselves out. Even our English counsins eventually integrated the Norman French with the Anglo-Saxons. The point isn’t that there’s a “cure,” but that giving every ethnic group its own political state doesn’t solve the problems either, and is inherently racist. Surely we can start to transcend such primitive ideas?

  • Bob

    Nationalist movements are hardly ever just ethnic, there’s always class, religion, money, power, other alliances, and lots more involved too.

    So, I think it’s an overstatement to say such movements are only ethnic. Also, saying such movements are evidence that all ethnic groups want a homeland is a bit of a straw man.

  • Joe Hartley

    Well, let’s see: The majority Sinhalese are Buddhists and speak Sinhalese. The Tamils are Hindu and speak one of the Hindic languages, and the avowed goal of the LTTE is a separate “homeland” for Tamils. Maybe I’m missing something, but it sure sounds ethnic to me, and not a movement based on class or money! Unless the Tamils are proposing that they be given gated communities to keep ALL the riffraff out???

  • dhana

    Sorry I’m late for the conference, but if you come to colombo,
    I can let you all meet many tamils and muslims living and working
    side-by-side sinhalese people without any problems, reiterate
    In my little office floor, there are 2 tamil managers under whom
    many singhalese work. My company has a muslim director and tamil
    deputy directors working in harmony.

    So let us FIRST separate “TERRORISM” from “ETHINICITY and RELIGION”.

    Then your discussion will be more meaningful.

    All the best. Please go on.

  • DJ

    I’d like to respond to Joe’s question (June 20) about whether the issue in Sri Lanka is ethnicity or class. There are obvious ethnic overones, and because they are easy, this is what the media (and the politicians) pick up. However, there are underlying divisions that, though unseen by most outsiders, are really the driving force in this conflict. Consoder:

    The first act of discrimination in Sri Lanka was the disenfanchisement of the Estate Tamils (or Indian Tamils). This was supported not only by the Sinhalese, but by the (high caste) Tamil leadership as well. Within the Tamil community, caste is an important factor– and the LTTE leadership is almost entirely low caste. One of the driving forces that brought the LTTE into being, besides the ethnic discrimination by Sinhalese, was the caste discrimination within the Tamil community. The LTTE was thus formed from a “double minority” that was voiceless within the democratic structure of the country.

    On the Sinhalese side, most of the economic development has taken place in the Colombo area in the southwest of the country. The deep south, which was Sinhalese and poor, remains Sinhalese and largely poor today. The excellent education system developed by a series of socialist administrations created a pool of well-educated poor people for whom there were no jobs. In 1972, and again in 1987, the frustration of this lower class erupted into violence. The 1987 uprising lasted over two years, nearly paralyzed the country, and resulted in tens of thousands of Sinhalese killed. Much of the failure to make peace on the Sinhalese side results from the need to placate and redirect the anger of this Sinhalese lower class that has been left out of the increasing prosperity of the nation. The same (Sinhala extremist) JVP that was nearly exterminated in 1989 after they attempted to overthrow the government is now a partner in government.

    There is undoubtedly an ethnic element to the conflict. In August, when the foreign aid workers were killed, allegedly by the Sri Lankan military, what most reports skipped was the fact that all but one of those foreign workers were ethnic Tamils. But this ethnic element is the nationalist banner waved by people whose real concerns have little to do with ethnicity. The underlying causes of the conflict are related to economics, caste, and class.

  • siriwardena

    I think this war began because of the genocide of tamil civilians in south during black july.After the horrible genocide of tamils waves of tamil youths took up arms to form a tamil state.I am sure both sides have commited violent crimes.The solution for the ethnic problem will be to make Lanka federal.

  • Kathy S Atwood

    My interest in the war in Sri Lanka has to do with language. The Protugese left missions up North, which the British inherited and turned into schools. Obviously, since the British were running the schools, the opportunity for Tamils to learn English was greater than it was for the Singhalese. With English on their side, Tamils were able to better position themselves in terms of work as well as influence. I see the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 as the turning point of peace between the two groups. Soon the Tamils would slowly be released from positions of prestige and power because the lingua franca was Singhalese. Losing linguistic control – if one considers English as an international language and the language of commerce – rapidly moved the Tamils from a favorable and profitable position to one where they could not compete. English could not be used as a “link” language between the two factions (Singhalese and Tamils) because of the Sinhala Only Act. I believe the Sinhala Only Act was quickly softened to the use of Sinhala for government work, but the Tamils were allowed to use Tamil in their schools. This certainly didn’t solve any problems in terms of developing a relationship of cooperation between the two groups. It is my understanding that several generations went with no English training whatsoever. Today, the tide is turning and English is being reintroduced into the classrooms. English is critical, as mentioned above, for international commerce to take place. What is of interest to me is the relationships between the Sinhala Only Act and the war that rages today. Would there have been a war had the Tamils not so completely been disenfranchised? I don’t know about the introduction of English into the school system of the Singhalese (am very interested and if anyone can let me know, it would be appreciated). I do know, however, that Singhalese is truly a language onto itself with no likeness to Tamil and/or English. Singhalese is a language in isolation. The island of Sri Lanka is not a nation in isolation. It is definitely part of the international economy.

  • DJ

    Your linkage between Sinhala Only and the later conflict is right on target, though a few of the details are incorrect. Sinhala Only was targeted as much toward the English-speaking elite (of both ethnicities) as toward Tamils. Some have said that the resulting disenfrachisement of Tamils was even unintended. Yet surely the Sinhalese benefitted from the results, whether intentional or not.

    One can argue that the Tamils had been given an unfair advantage because of the British colonial policy of elevating the minorities and repressing the majority (throughout the empire, not only in Sri Lanka). Yet Sinhala Only did damage to Sri Lanka that will be nearly impossible to undo. Before the Act, Tamils and Sinhalese went to the same schools. Many formed inter-ethnic friendships that lasted lifetimes and transcended ethnic politics. By separating schools into language streams, Sinhala Only effectively terminated the relationship between the two ethnic groups.

    Sinhala Only was passed in 1956. The great Tamil satyagraha (nonviolent protest, which lasted for months) took place in 1960– and was put down brutally by Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government. From that point forward, war was all but inevitable, though Tamil militarism did not really begin until the mid-1970s.

    Incidently, Sinhala is closely related to Hindi, though its alphabet more closely resembles that of the south Indian Dravidian language, Malayalim.

  • DJ

    BTW, from Sinhala Only until recently, Sinhalese schools did not encourage English. Two generations now have failed to learn it– and I have been to many Sinhalese villages where not a single person could make themselves understood in any language other than Sinhalese.

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