Conflict History

Head of State: President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), November 2005-

Prime Minister: D. M. Jayaratne (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), April 2010-

Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948 after almost 450 years of colonial rule by various western powers. Westminster-style parliamentary democracy implemented, with elections soon turning on ethnic issues. Nationalists from Sinhala majority (74% of population) passed laws discriminating against Tamils (18%) and Muslims (6%), including 1956 act making Sinhala official language and 1972 constitution giving Buddhism ‘foremost place’ in state. In early 1970s, young people turned to violence to express discontent at limited socio-economic opportunities, leading to failed 1971 uprising in south by Sinhala Nationalist/Marxist JVP (People’s Liberation Front), as well as formation of militant Tamil movements in north and east competing with established Tamil parties.

Tamil militants marginal until 1983 ambush killed thirteen soldiers in northern town of Jaffna, provoking Sinhala nationalists to unleash pogroms in Colombo and other Sinhala majority areas. Over 1,000 Tamils killed and tens of thousands fled homes; state failed to stop violence. Support for numerous Tamil militant groups flourished and hundred of thousands of Tamils emigrated in following few years, creating international support base for Tamil separatism that continues today. Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), fighting for separate Tamil state, emerged dominant by late 1980s after their violent elimination of Tamil rivals.  LTTE initiated guerrilla war and bombing campaign on central government targets and began to capture territory in north and east.  Government responded with killings and “disappearances” of Tamils.

In 1987, India signed agreement with the Sri Lankan government that dispatched peacekeeping force (IPKF) to north east and initiated constitutional amendments promising Tamil autonomy. IPKF soon became embroiled in war with LTTE. Anti-Indian nationalist sentiment in south fuelled fresh JVP uprising, met with brutal government repression. In 1990, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, hoping to pave the way for negotiated settlement, ordered IPKF to leave and opened negotiations with Tigers. LTTE soon broke from talks, captured additional territory and stepped up violence, including increased use of suicide bombs, used to murder Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 and Premadasa in May 1993.

Another peace effort followed 1994 parliamentary victory of People’s Alliance (led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party) and the SLFP’s Chandrika Kumaratunga’s election as President later that year, riding wave of support for a negotiated settlement. Diplomacy collapsed April 1995 when LTTE sank two navy gunboats, triggering government military campaign that retook Jaffna peninsula December 1995. LTTE began widespread bombing of military and civilian targets in Sinhalese areas. Despite attempt on Kumaratunga’s life December 1999, government submitted extensive constitutional plans for devolution of power to north and east; voted down in parliament in August 2000 with opposition from both the JVP and the United National Party (UNP). Violence escalated 2000-2001 with new territorial gains for LTTE in increasingly impoverished north east.

UNP won December 2001 parliamentary elections after campaigning on peace platform, President Kumaratunga forced into uneasy cohabitation with new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. New government negotiated ceasefire agreement February 2002 under Norwegian facilitation, temporarily easing tensions. In peace negotiations, LTTE and government agreed to explore a settlement based on extensive autonomy for north and east under a federal system. LTTE withdrew from negotiations April 2003 citing exclusion from meetings with international donors and lack of government cooperation. LTTE presented proposals for Interim Self-Government Authority in October 2003 as basis for new negotiations. Kumaratunga, largely excluded from peace process, acting on Sinhala anti-negotiation sentiment and anger at LTTE ceasefire violations, took over defense and other crucial ministries, effectively stalling peace process. President dissolved February 2004 and called fresh elections April 2004, which Kumaratunga’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party won in alliance with JVP. The search for a sustainable solution further complicated when the LTTE’s eastern military commander, ‘Col. Karuna’, split from the Tigers March 2004. Violent clashes between the two factions and Karuna’s growing collaboration with Sri Lankan military further undermined trust between government and LTTE and contributed to ceasefire’s eventual collapse.

Renewed hopes of cooperation following December 2004 tsunami proved short-lived as disputes arose over distribution of foreign aid. LTTE boycott of presidential election November 2005 helped secure victory of PM Mahinda Rajapaksa (SLFP) as part of Sinhala nationalist alliance with JVP and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). LTTE launched wave of attacks on police and army in north and east; government quietly began brutal counterinsurgency efforts, while Karuna faction, now renamed Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) continued guerrilla attacks on LTTE in east.  February 2006 talks in Geneva failed to salvage battered ceasefire. Government launched military offensive July 2006, capturing strategic towns of Sampur in September 2006 and Vakarai in January 2007. Fighting caused massive displacement and heavy casualties. LTTE renewed pre-ceasefire strategy of suicide bombings on southern civilian targets and stepped up forcible recruitment of children and adults. LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran declared ceasefire “defunct” 27 November 2006 and called for renewed “freedom struggle” for independent state. Conflict intensified through late 2006 and continued throughout 2007; both sides suffered heavy casualties. Fall of LTTE camps in Thoppigala 11 July 2007 gave Government forces’ control over whole of eastern province. Military activity then shifted north, as government opened fronts on four sides of LTTE controlled Wanni region.

Government formally withdrew from ceasefire with LTTE on 16 Jan 2008. Fighting intensified during first months of year, and conventional battles were accompanied by continuing rights abuses from both sides, including political assassinations, abductions, and targeted attacks on civilians. 20,000 to 30,000 killed between 2006 and early 2009, with government and particularly LTTE suffering heavy losses in battle and estimated 5,000 civilians killed in crossfire and targeted attacks. Eastern Provincial Council elections in May 2008 saw victory of government candidates in alliance with breakaway Tiger faction TMVP, amid widespread reports of violence, intimidation, ballot-stuffing and other serious irregularities. Current TMVP leader, S. Chandrakanthan, alias Pillayan, selected as Chief Minister, with government promises to devolve power and commence major development projects. To date, no significant practical authority granted to the eastern provincial council, despite constitutional provisions devolving many powers to provinces. After his release from British jail on immigration charges, Karuna returned to Sri Lanka and recommenced political work. Tensions between TMVP leaders Karuna and Pillayan intensified after Karuna joined parliament 7 October 2008; related clashes broke out between their factions in east, including killings and disappearances. Karuna appointed minister for national integration and reconciliation 9 March 2009 when he and many of his fighters officially joined the SLFP.

Following the 2 January 2009 capture of de facto LTTE capital of Killinochchi, government forces won back all but small amount of territory held by LTTE in the Mullaitivu District. First four months of 2009 saw more than 300,000 civilians trapped in areas of fighting, with limited access to food, water or medical assistance. The LTTE forcibly conscripted civilians and prevented others from fleeing LTTE-controlled areas by firing at them, killing many. Government repeatedly bombed and shelled densely populated areas, including its own unilaterally declared “no fire zone”. 13 March 2009 statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed grave concern over credible evidence of war crimes by both sides. UN and government leaders called on the LTTE to allow civilians freedom of movement and urged both sides to halt their fighting to allow access for additional humanitarian relief and humanitarian personnel. The Government rejected any pause in the fighting. UN Agencies estimated more than 7,500 civilians dead and over 15,000 wounded between mid-January and early May 2009, but the death toll remains disputed, with government rejecting early June media reports that as many as 20,000 civilians killed in final weeks of war.

The Government declared victory on 18 May 2009. A picture of the body of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran appeared in the press the next day, and the entire LTTE leadership seems certain to have been killed. There have been no attacks attributed to the LTTE since the government declared victory and no sign of any continued military capability in Sri Lanka.

With the military phase of Sri Lanka’s thirty-year civil war over, major challenges remain before a lasting peace can be found. The treatment of more than 280,000 civilians who escaped the fighting and were forced to remain in overcrowded government-run internment camps generated significant international concern and pressure on the government. Conditions in camps failed to meet international standards, with poor sanitation, insufficient water supplies and inadequate food and medical care. The displaced were denied the right to live with relatives or host families, and UN agencies and humanitarian organisations were denied full and unimpeded access to the camps and unable to deliver adequate supplies and services. By October 2009 fewer than 20,000 had been released from the camps. Responding to international pressure and growing domestic unease, the government sped up resettlement process in the final months of 2009, with nearly 150,000 released from the camps and allowed to return to their home districts by the end of the year.  By the end of 2010, UN figures indicated that all but 20,000 had left the camps, though an additional 70,000 were forced to stay with host families, unable to return to their own land.

Many of those who have returned home face extremely difficult conditions, with wide destruction of northern towns and villages during war, most houses damaged and/or looted, many areas not yet fully demined; opportunities to earn livelihood limited. Access to the newly resettled population by humanitarian and protection agencies remains restricted. After the end of the war, the military also detained an estimated 12,000 suspected of LTTE ties in extra-legal detention centres, where they have had no access to legal counsel or protection agencies; many families still uncertain of the whereabouts of their loved ones. Roughly half of these detainees now appear to have been released, but more than 5,000 still remain in arbitrary and unmonitored detention. With the pending closure of their offices in Jaffna and Vavuniya, the ICRC will lose all access to the north and east of the country, further restricting its ability to help families trace the thousands of people still missing from the war.

In November 2009, President Rajapaksa announced early presidential elections for 26 January 2010. Rajapaksa opposed by recently retired general Sarath Fonseka, Army commander for the final three years of war. Fonseka backed by an otherwise ideologically divided opposition coalition, including pro-market United National Party, Sinhala nationalist and leftist People’s Liberation Front, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the formerly pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance. Campaign period marked by bitter accusations of corruption and abuses of power by both Fonseka and Rajapaksa, along with widespread misuse of state resources and media coverage favouring the incumbent and physical intimidation of opposition supporters. At least four people killed and scores injured in pre-election violence. Rajapaksa re-elected on 26 January 2010 with 58% of vote and overwhelming support from Sinhala voters. International observers called the voting largely free and fair, but Fonseka, who won strong support in Tamil and Muslim districts, alleged widespread vote-rigging by the goverment and filed legal challenge to the results. Post-election fallout turbulent: Fonseka almost immediately arrested with the government accusing him of plotting a military coup; convicted in two procedurally-questionable courts martials, Fonseka has been stripped of his parliamentary seat and military rank and sentenced to 30 months’ hard labour on corruption charges. He still faces three trials on criminal charges.

Bolstered by strong showings in presidential and parliamentary elections, President Rajapaka moved to consolidate his hold on power. The 18th Amendment to the constitution, adopted on 8 September 2010, removes the two-term limit on holding the presidency, abolishes the constitutional council, and empowers the president to appoint directly members of the supreme court and putatively independent commissions on human rights, the police, and elections. With post-war Sri Lanka still governed under a state of emergency and serious human rights violations continuing, all ethnic communities in Sri Lanka are suffering from a crisis in the rule of law that undermines the chances of a just and sustainable peace.

The Sri Lankan government has done little so far to address the decades-old challenge of developing a set of political reforms able to address the grievances of Tamils and other minorities. A central test of the government’s commitment to finding a lasting and just peace will be its willingness to implement provisions in the existing constitution granting powers to provincial councils.  In a fair process of negotiation, the government may well have to go further and consider additional legal changes likely to be necessary to satisfy representatives of Tamils, Muslims and other minorities. To date, though, the Rajapaksa government has yet to initiate any political reforms or process of negotiation with Tamil and other minority leaders.

International calls for independent investigation into alleged human rights abuses and war crimes by both government and LTTE have continued, among others by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 5 June 2009. Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, in January 2010 repeated calls for “independent inquiry … into war crimes and other grave violations” committed in the final months of the war. October 2009 U.S. State Department report highlighted possible war crimes by both government and LTTE. Government has continued to object strenuously to any international investigation, choosing instead in June 2010 to appoint its own “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee” (LLRC) to investigate events during the final years of the civil war. The LLRC, however, fails to meet basic standards for truth commissions. Staffed by retired civil servants known for their public defense of government policies, constrained by a limited mandate that does not allow it to investigate war crimes, and without any provisions for the protection of witnesses, the commission is unlikely to contribute to either reconciliation or post-war accountability.

On 15 February 2010, European Council formally withdrew GSP+ trade concessions for Sri Lanka, citing government’s poor human rights record; the suspension took effect in August 2010.

Updated January 2011

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