Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to set foot in Sri Lanka and participate in an Environmental Impact Assessment Training program. I did not only gain invaluable insights in the duration of the two – week course but also significantly learned a lot on what the country had to endure as a result of the civil war. Owing to the brief experience I had, I and Khurram Kazi, attempted to understand even better the case of Sri Lanka as a partial requirement in the School for International Training (SIT) Certificate Course in Inclusive Security. 

2014 meeting with a community in Sampur where a proposed coal - fired power plant will be built.

2014 meeting with a community in Sampur where a proposed coal – fired power plant will be built.

Sri Lanka’s Demography and Religion

Sri Lanka is composed of several major ethnic groups with respective religions. According to the (official) 2001 provisional data from the Department of Census and Statistics, Sri Lanka’s major ethnicity are as follows: Sinhalese (73.8%); Sri Lankan Moors (7.2%); Indian Tami (4.6%); Sri Lankan Tamil (3.9%) and others with 0.5%. While Buddhism is the predominant religion in the country (69.1%), it also has a significant population of Muslim (7.6%), Hindu (7.1%) and Christian (6.2%).

The Sinhalese is the largest ethnic group in the country. Sinhalese is distinguished primarily by language, Sinhala. Sinhala is a member of the Indo – European linguistic group that includes Hindi as well as other north Indian tongues.[1] Accordingly, it is likely that groups from North India introduced an early form of Sinhala when they migrated to the island of then Ceylon around 500 B.C. Along side with this migration; they have brought agricultural economy that has remained dominant until the 20th century.

In addition, the Sinhalese have also absorbed a caste system from Southern India. The Buddhist religion reinforces the identity of the Sinhalese as an ethnic community. There is also further distinction amongst the Sinhalese – the Kandyan and the low country Sinhalese. For the Kandyan, the English education was perceived to be less respected and the Buddhist education continue to be a critical element in the preservation of the Sinhalese culture. While on the other hand, the low country Sinhalese, have accordingly been under colonial rule that allowed certain caste to move up in the social hierarchy.[2]

Similar with the Sinhalese, the Tamils are also distinctively characterized by their Tamil native tongue. It is considered to be one of the Dravidian languages that can be found exclusively in India. Migration from southern India to Sri Lanka contributed in creating Tamil – speaking immigrants that were treated as foreign ethnic community. For the Tamils, they have a sense of “cultural homeland” with Southern India. Sri Lankan Tamils are also considered to be the native minority whereas the Indian Tamils are immigrants who came under the British colony.[3]

Lastly, the Muslims are also a minority in the country practicing their religion, Islam. Sri Lankan Moors trace their ancestry with the Arab traders and have adopted Tamil as their native tongue. They are live in coastal trading and agricultural communities. The Indian Moors on the other hand are Muslim immigrants while the Malays trace their roots in Southeast Asia.

Roots of the Conflict

Prior to Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948 from British rule, Sinhalese have felt a sense of discrimination. This developed to a sense of nationalism amongst the Sinhalese population. Upon acquiring freedom, power is then concentrated to the Sinhalese. This however led to the marginalization and political disenfranchisement of the Tamil minority. One of the critical turning point and structural marginalization of the Tamil minority was the passage of the 1956 Official Language Act/ Sinhala – Only Act. The law presupposes that Sinhala shall be the official language in Sri Lanka. This has led to serious ramifications for educational and economic opportunities for the minority. In the 1983 first civil war, the conflict came as a result of the increasing tensions between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority (82%) and the Hindu Tamil minority (9%). It is also noteworthy to point out that before the civil war erupted, statistics have shown that the “divide” is 74% and 18% respectively, indicating that a significant number of Tamils who have fled the country.[1]

Tamil protest

                        Tamil protest

Civil War: Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)

The Tamil Tigers were formed in 1975 with a massive support from India. Their primary objective is to secede from Sri Lanka and create a Tamil State. On 29 July 1987, India then brokered a peace deal between Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers. India had sent its peacekeeping forces to the country. However a violent attack happened when the LTTE butchered Indian soldiers, which then resulted to a complete withdrawal of the peacekeeping forces on 24 March 1990. The sense of distrust and animosity continued to intensify when the Tamil Tigers assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The LTTE, which is listed by the United States as a terrorist group, is unique on its own considering its structure and operations. This is considered to be as a preparation to its transition once LTTE have gained independence. The LTTE has its own political and military controlled by the Central Governing Committee (CGM) headed by Vellupiali Prabhakaran. The political component of the group is tasked to oversee the civil administration of its territory in the North and Eastern regions of Sri Lanka. This involves police force, law courts, administrative officers, planning and reconstruction including maintaining its radio broadcasting stations. While the military has its own enlisted ranks, non – commissioned and commissioned officers. At its peak, LTTE is said to have over 10,000 armed combatants. Women suicide bombers carried out the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

LTTE has investments in stocks and money markets and real estates. Media news outlets like Aljazeera have reported that the Tamil Tigers engage in smuggling of drugs, arms, gold and has also been indicted for human trafficking to parts of Europe. The other illegal activities that they are also involved with are robbery, extortion as well as international arms sale. Quite significantly, the group is also largely financed by the huge Tamil diaspora in India, Norway and other parts of Europe.

Peace Process

There have bee several attempts to peace negotiations in Sri Lanka. These include the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayagam Pact (1957) 3 – fold agenda: 1) Devolution of state power through regional councils; 2) recognition of Tamil as a national minority language; and 3) Slowing down Sinhalese resettlement in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Unfortunately this has Resulted to a Sinhalese nationalist backlash and mob attacks on Tamils. A second attempt was done and was coined as Senanayake – Chelvanayagam Pact (1965). One of its key agreements is to implement a Tamil Language (Special Provisions) regulation and establishment of district councils. However, most provisions in the pact were not implemented. The failure of the implementation contributed in the hardening of the Tamil position on the ethnic issue. The Vaddukoddai Resolution (1975) articulated the demand for a separate Tamil Eelam, based on the inalienable right of self – determination for the Tamils.

Critique on the Peace Process

  • Involvement of the international community e.g. 2003 Washington donors’ forum.
  • Lack of transparency and inclusive representation of other affected parties into the process e.g. Muslims, non – LTTE Tamils, other Sinhalese parties.
    • There was no interest in broadening the scope of parties. LTTE’s refusal to negotiate not unless it was accepted as the sole voice of the Tamil people also exacerbated the problem.
  • Deadlock in achieving substantive issues
    • Focus on autonomy (disregard of 600,00 Sri Lankan Tamils who do not live in the North and East regions of Sri Lanka)
    • Language rights
    • Reforming Sri Lanka’s security forces
  • LTTE took all ceasefires as an opportunity to rest and regroup for another offensive.

Cessation of Hostilities

Violent conflict ended with the death of LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran on May 18, 2009. It was a not a political settlement, rather a military defeat of LTTE that ended the violent conflict. The approach of the Sri Lankan government was of managing conflict, rather than resolving or transforming conflict. Use of brute forces was employed, where over 70,000 civilians are believed to be killed in the last week of war. Still many of the aggreived civilian families are awaiting justice. After the violence ended, there was no transitional justice process for healing, closure and reconcilation.

[1] 2001, Sri Lanka Census of Population and Housing

[1] US Library of Congress.

[2] Ibid.,

[3] Ibid.,