Sri Lanka 1983–2009


LTTE leaders at Sirumalai camp, Tamil Nadu, India in 1984 while they are being trained by RAW (from L to R, weapon carrying is included within brackets) – Lingam; Prabhakaran’s bodyguard (Hungarian AK), Batticaloa commander Aruna (Beretta Model 38 SMG), LTTE founder-leader Prabhakaran (pistol), Trincomalee commander Pulendran (AK-47), Mannar commander Victor (M203) and Chief of Intelligence Pottu Amman (M 16).


The intensity of conflict during the 1983–2009 period was intermittent due to var- ious ceasefires, peace processes and lulls in fighting, and the national economy and institutions of the state remained functional throughout the period. Nevertheless, the civil war had a great – in fact, a defining – social, material and human impact upon Sri Lanka during the conflict. The evolution of the conflict, as indicated above, sug- gests a multifaceted process: escalating political tension, inter-communal polarization and perceptions of conflict, an absence of institutional mechanisms to resolve crisis, and an unwillingness of political elites to stand down from intransigent positions that were incompatible with the interests of political opponents. From this, there was a political mobilization and a radicalization of ethno-political interest groups, and a failure of political processes which led to the transformation of interest groups into military forces.

Although this process unfolded over some years, the reciprocal violence and assas- sinations of the early 1980s are generally regarded as the triggering events through which war started. In the early stages, especially in 1983, the violence was generally regarded as ‘communal violence’; hundreds of Tamil civilians were killed in Colombo in response to a fatal Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attack against government soldiers in the north. However, the retribution was apparently undertaken by the security forces as well as civilian gangs. Once the civil war settled into a more conventional pattern, the conflict was characterized by the LTTE insurgency against government forces and asymmetrical tactics. However, deliberate attacks by both sides against civilians remained a key characteristic of the war and levels of atrocities were significant by any standards. Targeting of suspected Tamil militants by the armed forces and their proxy agents allegedly resulted in the deaths of many Tamil civilians, who were either suspected of being LTTE combatants or were simply the victims of collective reprisals or military operations that did not or could not draw a distinction between combatants and civilians. Countless deliberate civilian deaths also resulted from LTTE operations against Sinhalese and Muslim communities in the areas they controlled or during incursions and expeditions into government-held territory. This resulted in large forced human displacement within the country, further geographically polariz- ing the island along ‘ethnic’ grounds, and also overseas. Finally, combatant deaths were the consequence of direct military confrontations between the LTTE and gov- ernment forces. Ultimately, the final clash between LTTE and government forces in 2009 resulted in serious human rights abuses, perpetrated by both sides, against civilians and combatants.

A number of patterns and junctures characterized the civil war. The armed conflict was partly about securing and holding territory. LTTE control of the areas it con- sidered the Tamil heartland bolstered its political claims and facilitated de facto autonomy, as a step towards secession and a means of facilitating the support of inhabitants. Sri Lankan government control of disputed territory demonstrated national territorial integrity. The violence of the armed conflict took a number of forms, divided by three major failed peace processes and ceasefires, and four ‘Eelam Wars’, culminating in the final battles of the civil war in April and May 2009. There were direct confrontations between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces, generally involving attempts to take or defend territory or towns, gain access through politically or strategically important territorial routes, assaults against military installa- tions, and ambushes; these involved fairly short military engagements and combat fatalities in the hundreds. There were also many smaller skirmishes as a part of the long low-intensity conflict between the LTTE and government forces, which was a reflection of the LTTE’s inferior military position. The asymmetric nature of the conflict was reflected in another characteristic of the civil war: the guerrilla tactics of the LTTE, and the widespread use of suicide operations. There was also a high number of atrocities against civilians, which served a number of purposes. The LTTE massacred civilians as a part of the campaign to control territory, enforce communal compliance and heighten polarization, force ‘enemy’ communities out of strategically important areas, and to resist the government settlement policy. For example, in October 1995, the LTTE allegedly massacred 120 Sinhalese civilians in villages in the east of the country – a region claimed by the LTTE – with the apparent objective of pushing Sinhalese people out of the area. 36 The Palliyagodella massacre involved the LTTE reportedly killing over 100 civilians in a Muslim village that had aligned with the government in an attempt to try to end the punitive taxation imposed by the LTTE.

Countless other massacres occurred in rural areas and villages, especially in disputed or mixed areas and where Sinhalese or Muslim minorities were in areas claimed or con- trolled by the LTTE. The evidence suggests that these massacres violated all norms of armed conflict and that they were horrendously brutal. The LTTE bombing of the Central Bank in Colombo in 1996, killing approximately 100 people, and the attack at the international airport in 2001, also demonstrated the impact of ‘terrorism’ in an asymmetric conflict. The Sri Lankan armed forces, including security forces and militias, are also accused of widespread deadly violence against (mainly Tamil) civi- lians, as a form retribution, to deny support to the LTTE, and to force communities to migrate for strategic purposes. The question of which side is most culpable, however, is highly controversial. For much of the conflict most opinion, backed up by the reports of reputable non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the United Nations human rights organs, would suggest that the LTTE employed the strategy of atrocities more widely. This was, as a tactic, a reflection of their material inadequacy and defensive posture in terms of controlling territory and communities. However, in the closing period of the civil war, the government is accused of widespread human rights abuses in its determination finally to destroy the LTTE challenge.

The armed conflict was punctuated by a number of ceasefires. These were facili- tated by foreign intervention or pressure, such as the intervention of India in the late 1980s and the involvement of the international community under the leadership of Norway in 2002, and also by the occasional exhaustion and stalemate on the part of both sides. They were also a reflection of changes at the elite level. In terms of political leadership the LTTE was mainly static throughout its history until it suffered a sig- nificant split in 2004, and its objectives did not radically transform; at various times, either independence was the demand, or some level of regional autonomy. The government position, however, reflected changes in government in Colombo between more moderate, compromising governments (such as the United National Front under Ranil Wickramasinghe, which came to power in late 2001 and even- tually came closest to achieving a negotiated settlement) and hard-line nationalists (such as Mahinda Rajapaksa who came to power in 2005 and eventually pushed for the annihilation of the LTTE).

Most scholarship has portrayed the conflict as fundamentally ‘national’ in nature; a quintessential ‘civil war’ defined within territorial boundaries and with national pro- tagonists, and by objectives related to the integrity of the state. The conflict was of interest to regional powers but it was not regarded by India or Pakistan as being of critical importance to their regional security predicament, although India clearly had an interest in the nature and outcome of the conflict given the close relationship between the people of the southern states of India and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Moreover, Pakistan became a significant contributor to Sri Lankan government forces. India’s involvement as a ‘peacekeeper’ was a result of its sense of regional leadership, but also because it feared instability – even separatist uprising – amongst its own Tamils if the conflict continued. India began by assisting the Tamil insurgents and provided humanitarian aid, before entering as a ‘peacekeeping’ force in the late 1980s, which saw them directly confronting the LTTE which had resisted disarmament under an accord. It is often believed that India sought to keep the separatist movements divided in order to facilitate some form of control over them. The LTTE was suspi- cious of India’s motives (a Tamil rebel assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi in 1991), and India and the LTTE became more distant in the 1990s.

There was not a major Cold War dimension to the conflict that would draw in the involvement of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. However, a number of global dynamics were relevant to this conflict. Most importantly, inflows of resources were very significant for the mobilization and equipping of insurgent recruits, and the Tamil diaspora have been identified as fundamentally important to this. Indeed, some scholars have identified this civil war as an example of when a conflict is defined by the importance of diaspora networks. Large communities of Tamil migrants and refugees, particularly in the UK, Canada and United States, generated significant funds that were transferred back to the country in support of LTTE operations. These remittances came from donations from Tamil communities and businesses which were often highly politicized, but also from those who donated funds because of the perceived persecution of Tamil brethren in the homeland. The hawala financial transfer channels allowed the remittances to circumvent formal state interception. Significant funds also seem to have been donated by people not directly related to Sri Lanka but motivated by apparent human rights violations committed against Tamil communities.

The political efforts of Tamil representatives overseas were very important to gaining support and resources for the struggle. The uprising itself had some roots in the overseas Tamil community; the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students, for example, was active in the UK in the 1970s, and the intellectual father of the separatist Tamil movement, Anton Balasingham, was permanently exiled in London, from where he exerted significant influence. This was demonstrated by the impact of the decision of a number of key countries including the United States, Canada, Australia and the countries of the European Union, to proscribe the LTTE as a terrorist organization in the years following the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001. This severely restricted the resources and international support available to the LTTE and is generally regarded as a key factor behind their eventual defeat in 2009.

The social structure and economy of the conflict were reflected in different ways. At the elite level the conflict appeared to be an ethno-nationalist conflict between incompatible political aims. Clearly the state was resisting the attempts of an insur- gency to gain territorial separation. A significant amount of the national economy was directed into this military objective. Direct financial aggrandisement does not appear to be a primary motivating factor, compared to those civil wars where exploitation of extractive industries appeared to be a key factor in the onset and nature of the conflict. However, a social structure can be perceived in the Sri Lankan civil war. The post-colonial country involved the consolidation of a patrimonial state which facilitated the distribution of resources and favours amongst certain groups. In part, the Tamil uprising was a response to their exclusion from political and eco- nomic opportunities and rights, and the state campaign of coercion reflected a commitment to secure the status and privileges of the ruling elites.

In this way, the political elite in Colombo found a livelihood in the conflict itself, for it consolidated their position and generated resources as a result of the ethno- nationalist political machine that was galvanized by the heightened security threat. In a phenomenon experienced in many cases around the world, the sectarian political elite were bolstered by the emergency, and thus they had an interest in the heigh- tened sense of public threat. This may be more obviously the case with Sinhala nationalists in Colombo rather than the Tamil insurgent leadership, which appeared to be less directly motivated by short-term financial gain (and indeed, there is evidence of sacrifice). Nevertheless, the inflow of overseas aid was a source of revenue and con- flict for both sides. The different claims regarding these resources – the LTTE wanted the aid to be transferred directly to areas under its control, and the government wanted all aid to be transferred through national agencies – suggests that the aid was a political weapon and that political elites wished to apply an overhead. At the local level the taxation extracted from villagers and businesses by LTTE commanders was a major feature of the conflict and possibly a source of personal aggrandizement as well as a source of funds for operational purposes. These taxes formed a complex system that covered road use and the transportation of goods in areas under LTTE control. The LTTE also ran the Bank of Tamileelam, which was an effort to promote a separate economy in the north as a part of a broader attempt to build parallel de facto institutions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.