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History of the Conflict

At independence, Sri Lanka was a functioning democracy with universal suffrage. However, colonial practices providing preferential treatment to the Tamil minority in education and other areas were resented by the Sinhalese majority, and post-independence governments developed increasingly restrictive and discriminatory laws with regard to Tamils, pushing some to define themselves ethnically and increasingly stridently, eventually leading to a call for an independent Tamil homeland. In particular, Tamil access to higher education was progressively restricted, and debates over textbooks intensified controversies over language. Thus in 1977 the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) called for a separate eelam or homeland for Tamils.[1] In the same year, J.R. Jayewardene came into power, promising a Buddhist revival with little concern for the status of the Tamil minority.[2] Meanwhile, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - formed in 1972 as the student wing of the TULF - grew in strength, eventually breaking off from the TULF. Following anti-Tamil riots in 1977, the LTTE escalated military activity, and, in 1978, the LTTE was officially banned and centralization of power increased with a new constitution enshrining an executive presidency.[3] This was followed by the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1979 and emergency regulations and a constitutional amendment in 1983 which further limited freedom of speech and rights of those under arrest.[4]

These actions set the stage for the anti-Tamil riots in Colombo in 1983. The immediate cause of the riots was ostensibly the killing of thirteen Sinhalese soldiers by the LTTE near Jaffna in July 1983. The bodies were brought to the capital by fellow soldiers, sparking violence against Tamils by both local civilians and the soldiers themselves. The result was widespread and systematic destruction of Tamil-owned homes, businesses, and factories. Accurate estimates of fatalities are difficult to obtain: the government ultimately offered reparations to 937 persons, whereas others place the number at 2,000 to 3,000.[5] At least 80,000 to 100,000 Tamils were displaced to refugee camps in the Colombo area alone; other estimates place the number of Tamils made homeless at 150,000.[6] At the same time there was a rise in Sinhalese extremist Janatha Vikmuthi Peramuna (JVP)-perpetrated violence in the south, as the group accused the government of being India’s pawn and failing to deal firmly enough with Tamils.[7] Not only did the military and police fail to restrain the riots; in some cases they actively encouraged them. Civilians and members of the military also rioted in the east, near Trin- comalee Harbor. On 25 and 27 July, some fifty-three Tamil ‘terrorists’ were killed in a Colombo jail, presumably with at least the collusion of their jailers.[8] Following the riots, the LTTE’s military activities, and the conflict, escalated.

The conflict’s intensity varied over the decades, with a reduction in violence following a ceasefire and the creation of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission in 2002. However, peace negotiations failed, and fighting escalated in 2006, with the ceasefire ending formally and the mission closing in 2008; the conflict escalated and ended with military victory by the state in 2009.

  • [1] Sumantra Bose, States, Nations, Sovereignty (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1994),pp. 46, 68-72;Bruce Matthews, ‘Devolution of Power in Sri Lanka,’ The Round Table,No. 330 (1994), p. 223.
  • [2] Steven Kemper, ‘J.R. Jayewardene, Righteousness, and Realpolitik,’ in JonathanSpencer, ed., Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict (London: Routledge, 1990),pp. 191, 200-201.
  • [3] Bose, States, Nations, Sovereignty, pp. 74, 94.
  • [4] Prevention of Terrorism Act, Gazette (1979), No. 48, and Prevention of Terrorism,Amendment to the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Gazette (19 March 1982), pt. 2,supp. Bose, States, Nations, Sovereignty, pp. 74, 79;S.J. Tambiah, in Sri Lanka: EthnicFratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1991), pp. 42-45, argues that the Act has progressively generated the very militancyand separatist sentiments it was meant to repress.
  • [5] See Sarath Kumara, ‘Sri Lankan President Offers Empty Apology for 1983 Pogrom,’World Socialist Web Site (6 August 2004), at Accessed 13 June 2013.
  • [6] Bose, States, Nations, Sovereignty, p. 73;S.J. Tambiah, Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide andthe Dismantling of Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 15,22;S.J. Tambiah, Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflict and Collective Violencein South Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), [pp. 94-100;Robert A.Denemark, “Democracy and the World System: The Political Economy of Sri Lanka’sVicious Electoral Cycle,” in Chronis Polychroniou, ed., Perspectives and Issues inInternational Political Economy (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1992), p. 206]; MarshallR. Singer, ‘Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict: Have Bombs Shattered Hopes for Peace?’ AsianSurvey, Vol. 36, No. 11 (1996), p. 1149.
  • [7] Austin, Democracy and Violence in India and Sri Lanka (London: Chatham House,1995), p. 74.
  • [8] Tambiah, Sri Lanka, pp. 16-26.
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