D.B.S. Jeyarai examines the phases of a bestial war fought under the banners of beasts, and concludes that it will have to run its fearful and self-destructive course.
Mythological history traces Sinhalese origins to Prince Vijaya who in turn is believed to have had a leonine ancestor. Sinhaya is the Sinhala word for “lion” and the Sinhalese themselves are called “People of the Lion” or the “Lion Race”. The Sri Lankan national flag bears a sword-bearing lion, which is a replica of the one used by Kandy, the last Sinhalese kingdom to fall to the British colonialists. Attempts after Independence to adopt a non-racial flag instead of the one with Sinhalese lion was rejected but with a minor compromise—two ribbons were added to denote the country’s Tamil and Muslim ethnicities. When Tamil nationalism reached warring proportions it had an appropriate counter symbol—the roaring tiger, which was used by the most martial Tamil dynasty in India, the Cholas. Today, the Sri Lankan army has regiments called Sinha, or lion, and its adversary, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), popularly known as Tamil Tigers, have leopards, panthers and cheetahs in their ranks.
The savage conflict in Sri Lanka has now become one of the longest-running armed combats in South Asia. The fighting that began in the early 1970s as a low-level insurgency waged by a handful of Tamil militants against the might of the Sinhalese-dominated state, has escalated over the years into a full-fledged fratricidal war between the Sinhalese majority (74 percent) and Tamil minority (18 percent) of this island nation.
In terms of proportion in the scales of death, destruction, displacement and despair, this has been one of the most intensely brutal conflicts of the century worldwide. But despite the enormous human suffering, the war in Sri Lanka grinds inexorably on, largely ignored by the international media, and with no settlement in sight.
“War is nothing but the continuation of politics by other means,” wrote Clausewitz in his book on military theory. This seems more true in the case of the fighting in Sri Lanka, rooted as it is in complex reasons and factors of Sri Lanka’s political history.
Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial history is full of instances where Tamil kings of the Chera, Chola and Pandyan dynasties of South India conquered Sinhalese kingdoms. In many instances, Tamil kings also acted as kingmakers and Sinhalese rulers legitimised themselves by acquiring mahesis, or royal queens, from the South Indian aristocracy. Sinhalese kings sometimes also employed Tamil mercenary armies and captains, who in turn enjoyed influential positions at the court.
Through much of this historical period, power struggles between the powerful and those trying to achieve power could have been of little importance to ordinary people, although their existential plight could only have been worsened by these conflicts. Sri Lankan historians have yet to present a subaltern perspective to the past. The focus has been on the phases of intermittent conflict and virtually ignores the periods of tranquility and amity. Thus we have a Sri Lankan history that is projected as Sinhalese history alone—a chronicle of a beleaguered people struggling to survive as an entity in the face of overwhelming odds.
This history is emphasised as a glorious past where the assertion of independence against alien hegemony is portrayed heroically. An illustrative example is that of the story of Duto Gemunu, the Sinhalese prince whose dethroning of the “just and prosperous” reign of the Tamil king Ellalan in Anuradhapura is accepted as the high water mark of Sinhalese history. In a well-known anecdote, Gemunu’s mother Vihara Maha Devi asks the child Gemunu why he curled his legs instead of stretching them freely while lying on the bed, to which the son replies, “How can I do that when the sea is constricting us on one side and the Tamils on the other?”
The prevalent atavistic paranoia got further complicated with the advent of colonialism. The first colonial power, Portugal, arrived in 1505. At that time, there were at least three kingdoms on the island, one of which was in the Tamil north and which had evolved as a separate entity a few centuries earlier, encompassing what is now the Jaffna district and the upper portions of Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts in the present-day Northern Province. This Shaivite kingdom’s flag was that of the crouched bull, or Nandi, the vehicle of Lord Shiva.
After the Portuguese conquered Jaffna in 1619 and executed its king, they administered much of Jaffna separately as the Jaffna commandery. The Dutch, who took over in 1658, continued the practice. Finally, in 1796, came the British, who, in 1815, defeated the last remaining kingdom in the island, the Sinhalese kingdom of Kandy and brought the island under a single unified administration in 1832. Colombo became the administrative, political and economic capital of the country.
In the run-up to independence, Sri Lanka, then still Ceylon, did not experience a mass struggle for freedom as in India. Sinhalese political leaders preferred a cooperative path through staggered constitutional reforms. The little militancy there was, came from the Jaffna Youth Congress with its slogan of Poorana Swaraj (Complete Self-Rule). This group launched several agitations, including a boycott of elections, demonstrations to protest the visit of the Prince of Wales, and the hoisting of the Nandi flag in place of the Union Jack. But the Tamils never demanded partition.
When Britain granted it full independence on 4 February 1948, Ceylon was a unitary state. But a truly national identity had not been forged. What followed thereafter was another, ana a very tragic, example of post-colonial conflict among ethnicities compelled to coexist within boundaries of a modern nation state demarcated by their erstwhile rulers.
British rule was characterised by its familiar stratagem of divide and rule, separating politically what they united administratively. The principle of communal represenfetion was introduced, a practice that aroused ethnic consciousness and prevented the evolution of an overarching national identity. There were other reasons too that drove the wedge deeper between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities.
Mission schools proliferated in the arid Jaffna peninsula and provided Tamils with better educational facilities. This helped the Tamils, aided perhaps by deliberate colonial policy, to dominate the professions and administrative services. Tamil entrepreneurs also began setting up commercial ventures in all parts of the island. All this led to increased Sinhalese rancour against Tamils.
There was also the matter of the increase in Tamil presence on the island with the import of Tamil labour from South India to work the tea and rubber plantations established by the British. (One of the first acts of independent Ceylon was to deprive the “plantation Tamils of their citizenship and franchise rights. Two pacts signed with India in 1964 and 1974 ensured the repatriation of nearly a million back to India. Today the Tamils of Indian origin constitute about six percent of the population, and together with the indigenous Sri Lankan Tamils, make a combined Tamil strength of 18 percent.)
The decades preceding Independence saw the first visible signs of ethnic discontent. There were politicians who took advantage of the majority Sinhalese resentment over the perceived dominance of the Tamils in the educational, professional, administrative and commercial spheres. The Sinhalese were stronger only in political terms due to their numerical superiority
During the post-independence years, the empowered Sinhalese polity sought to remedy the situation by using its political clout. Tamils were rendered officially illiterate by the adoption of Sinhala as the sole official language of administration through the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act of 1956. From the late 1950s through the mid-1970s, most trading and manufacturing establishments were nationalised and converted into semi-government institutions. The British system of recruitment through open, competitive examinations was scrapped in the 1960s and instead, jobs were made available through political patronage. All these measures tended to reduce the dominance enjoyed by the Tamils in employment and commerce. The anti-Tamil card had become a political ace.
Further, the demographic patterns in Tamil areas were systematically altered by settling Sinhalese through state aided irrigation schemes. This practice, begun in the early fifties, continues still. Communal violence was unleashed on several occasion against unarmed Tamils by Sinhalese mobs, which at various times, was abetted unofficially by sections of the government. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and set Tamil youths onto the separatist path was the introduction in 1970 of a ‘standardisation’ scheme for higher education, whereby Tamil students were required to gain more marks than their Sinhalese counterparts for university admissions
Bookworms to bombers
The Tamil road to secession has gone through different phases of attitudinal change. A people whose self-perception in the early part of the 20th century was that of being one of two equal nationalities on the island began to think later in terms of being the principal minority. After clamouring for balanced representation for the minorities vis-a-vis the Sinhalese majority in pre-independence times, the Tamils tried to accommodate themselves to new realities by adopting a policy of ‘responsive cooperation’ immediately after freedom and participated in government. But as a ‘majoritarian democracy’ continued to exercise state power in a manner that was clearly detrimental to Tamil interests, hopes of unity faded.
The Tamils who thought in terms of being an island-wide majority now thought of themselves as belonging to only the Tamil dominated Northern and Tamil-majority Eastern Provinces. The harsh reality of Tamils from the South compelled to seek refuge in these provinces after being threatened by physical violence further reinforced notions of their being a territorial minority. Thus began demands for a federal unit comprising the Tamil areas, which was rejected outright by the Sinhalese hierarchy. Finally, the Tamils demanded secession in the form of a socialist, sovereign, secular state of Tamil Eelam (Eelam was the ancient Tamil name for the island), comprising the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
The idea of separation gained further impetus after the 1977 parliamentary elections. Leading moderate Tamil parties had come together in 1976 under the umbrella Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and asked the Tamils to vote for it in the parliamentary elections and sanction a mandate for Tamil Eelam. tulf garnered 81 percent of the Tamil and 57 percent of the total votes cast in the North and the East, winning 18 out of 19 Tamil majority seats. This result conferred upon the Tamil Eelam demand a public endorsement of sorts. Even while this was happening, however, the Tamil youth had already wrested the initiative to achieve a Tamil state—through armed struggle.
The militant views of the young Tamils were in marked contrast to the earlier moderate Tamil political leadership who were prepared for compromise. For instance, they for merly had been ready to accept limited devolution through district or regional councils instead of the full federalism which was their original demand. Their political strategy had been similar to that of the Indian National Congress’ agitation/negotiation during the Indian freedom struggle. The Tamil leaders led civil disobedience campaigns while engaging in talks with Colombo governments. It was the failure of this Gandhian approach that led to the more extreme demand of secession.
Until the emergence of armed Tamil youths, it had been the Tamils who had been at the receiving end of violence, at the hands of Sinhalese mobs, the armed forces or both. There had been two types of political violence perpetuated against Tamils. The first was Sinhalese mob violence against unarmed ordinary Tamils living in areas of mixed ethnic composition. These were more like limited pogroms than spontaneous riots. The second was the deployment of the ‘Sinhalese’ armed forces and police in Tamil-speaking areas to suppress political protests.
Having been for decades at the receiving end of state-sponsored violence a deep sense of resentmerft and frustration had been instilled in the Tamil collective consciousness. It was felt that the community was being treated in this way because of its passive resistance. Thus, when armed struggle was taken up, there was a sense of redeemed self-respect and pride, and the young militants were called “our podial (boys)”.
Few had expected Tamil youths, stereotyped till then as “bookworms” interested only in pursuing higher education, to launch an armed insurrection, let alone sustain it. The earliest acts of violence were not systematically organised and more in the nature of reflex reactions to perceived injustices of the Sri Lankan state. Much of it hinged around the promulgation of the new constitution of 1972, which enshrined the supremacy of Sinhala and Buddhism.
The war that began in 1972 with a loose coalition of Tamil youth groups indulging in sporadic violence has now evolved into a full-scale conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the state security forces.
According to an estimate by Asiaweek magazine, Sri Lanka currently has the 34th largest army in the world, with a strength of 122,000. (The rate of desertion is high 24,000 at one point.) This figure does not include the 17,000 navy and 15,000 air force personnel. In addition, there is a special task force of police commandos numbering around 10,000, which is separate from the regular police force of 50,000. There is an auxiliary civilian force, the Home Guards, deployed in Sinhalese and Muslim villages bordering Tamil areas, who total more than 15,000. There are also about 3000 Tamil para-military forces supporting the armed forces. These were once members of organisations fighting for Tamil separation but are now mortal enemies of the LTTE and on the side of. the government.
Together, the array of forces facing the ltTe number around 200,000. The numerical strength of the LTTE is at best a tenth of that. A 1995 estimate put it at 23,000. Current figures are not available, but given the high rate of casualties as well as dwindling recruitment a rough assessment would be 12,000-14,000 cadres. Of these, about 4000-5000 would be women.
The LTTE is organised on the lines of a conventional army. The ground forces include infantry divisions, brigades and battalions, although the numerical strength of the various units is less than generally found in a regular army, which is also the case with the Sri Lankan army. There is also an artillery brigade, and an armoured corps is being raised both of which mainly use weapons and vehicles captured from government forces.
The LTTE is perhaps the only guerrilla force in the world to possess a naval arm—the “Sea Tigers”, whose arsenal consists of a wide range of marine craft, including captured, purchased and self-assembled vessels. The LTTE also has a fleet of merchant ships under front companies which generally carry out legitimate international trade, but at times are used for arms and ammunition procurement. The Sea Tigers also has a “frogman” unit for undersea operational attacks.
In recent times there have also been reports of the LTTE having set up an air wing with at least two helicopters and two light aircraft, although these have not been used so far. The LTTE also has an anti-aircraft unit equipped with anti-aircraft guns as well as the deadlier surface-to-air missiles.
Then there are the two formidable units of the LTTE: the Leopards and the Panthers. The Leopards are the LTTE version of a rapid deployment commando unit, while the Panthers, or Black Tigers, are emotionally schooled and physically trained for suicide attack operations. The LTTE has developed kamikaze-type attacks to a very high degree of sophistication and calls its cadres embarking on suicide attack missions uyiraayutham, or “live weapon”. The Leopard and Panther units operate both on land and sea, and membership consists of both sexes.
Embodying the LTTE cadres’ resolve to sacrifice their lives for their cause is the potassium cyanide capsule they wear around their necks, ltte fighters are expected to use it if and when captured. An ltte commander once said: “We are the cyanide capsule guerrillas. No force on earth can defeat us when we have these.”
For their part, Sri Lankan armed forces are also well equipped and adequately armed. Neither the former United National Party nor the present People’s Alliance governments has hesitated to spare expenses and support on the military. Defence allocations, now amounting to nearly a quarter of the total national budget, have progressively increased over the years, and an impressive state-of-the-art arsenal, complete with armoured vehicles, ships, gunboats, bombers, helicopters, etc, have been put together over the years.
The overwhelmingly Sinhalese army is motivated by its dedication to preserve the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Initially, there was much criticism of the government forces for their callous disregard for Tamil civilian lives and brutal reprisals. In recent times, however, the better-trained and -equipped army has acquired a much more positive image. Despite the high desertion rate and dwindling recruitment, the soldiers continue to display a high degree of morale and commitment in the field.
The LTTE’s breaking-off of peace talks and resuming the current phase of the conflict, along with the terror tactics employed by them, has also helped the army take the moral high ground. There is an increasing feeling among soldiers that they are waging a just war. Equally encouraging for the military has been the fact that India has distanced itself from the Tamil cause and Western sympathies are clearly on the side of Colombo. (There is still a lot of sympathy for the overall Tamil plight, but international opinion remains hostile to the LTTE).
The terrain of the North-East does not have the mountains and dense forests traditionally associated with classical guerrilla warfare, but the bush country of the North-East continues to be used successfully as a cover by the Tamil rebels. However, it is not only as a guerilla outfit that the ltte operates. Like the Greek chimera that has a head of a lion, body of a goat and tail of a serpent, the ltte possesses three combat characteristics. It is simultaneously a conventional army or militia, a guerrilla force, and a terrorist movement.
The LTTE fights like a conventional army when it holds and defends, or tries to capture territory. Adopting positional warfare is an attribute that makes it akin to an army or at least a militia. The Tigers are like a guerrilla force when they take on or ambush an army or police patrol. But when the LTTE explodes a powerful bomb resulting in loss of civilian life, or when it attempts to terrorise through civilian massacres or assassinations, it becomes classified as a terrorist outfit (and not only because the US designated the ltte a “terrorist organisation” in 1997).
The ongoing war has not been one of a continuous unchanging conflict. It has gone through five distinct phases:
Pre-1983 preliminary conflict
1983-1987 Elam War I
1987-1990 Indo-Elam war
1990-1995 Elam War II
1995-present Elam War III
Pre-1983 phase: The beginnings of Tamil militancy was in the semi-urban Jaffna peninsula. This was initially of the urban guerrilla hit-and-run kind. The ltte originated in this period as one of the many groups in operation. Beginning as the Tamil New Tigers, it restructured itself as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 1976. The organisation then split into three factions in 1980: one became the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE); another disintegrated over the years; and the third continues to nourish under the present chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran.
The militancy among the Tamils in this period met with a carrot-and-stick response from the state. Limited devolution in the form of district development councils were set up but were never allowed to function effectively. A draconian piece of legislation known as the Prevention of Terrorism Act was introduced and massive repression unleashed. A state of emergency was declared in Jaffna and army rule imposed. The military was given orders to “wipe out terrorism in all its forms” by the then president J.R. Jayawardene. Human rights violations were rampant. In 1981, the Jaffna Public Library was burnt down by the police, an act that enraged Tamil sentiments. Then, on 23 July 1983, an ltte ambush that killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers near Jaffna University triggered off a nationwide carnage against unarmed Tamil civilians.
1983 to 1987: The 1983 anti-Tamil violence was a watershed in the history of the war. The embryonic armed Tamil militancy moved to a more advanced stage. Seething with anger, and hurt by the July events, now the overwhelming Tamil mood was for a separate state to be attained through armed struggle. Thousands of young men and women started flocking to the mushrooming militant movements (at one point there were 34 of them). The response of the state was again predictable. After passing a constitutional amendment outlawing separatism, the government of the day started beefing up its armed forces and geared to crush Tamil dissent militarily.
By then, India had entered the scene, having gained a locus standi to get involved because of the influx of more than 230,000 Tamil refugees into its southern state of Tamil Nadu. When the Jayawardene government declined any direct talks with moderate Tamil leaders, India offered its ‘good offices’. The chief consequence of India’s new policy was the financing, arming and training of Tamil militant groups on Indian soil. Various organisations were allowed to open propaganda offices in Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu. Delhi had its own agenda in promoting the Tamil cause, but it cannot be denied that there was genuine widespread concern and sympathy among the 55 million Tamils of India for the plight of their ethnic brethren in Sri Lanka.
Militarily, this period saw almost all guerrilla attacks on the army resulting in retaliatory attacks on Tamil civilians. The BBC described the war at that time as a “series of massacres”. However, by mid-1985, the various Tamil groups had succeeded in confining the army within its camps, and the peninsula assumed a semi-liberated nature. Then began a fratricidal power struggle between the Tamil groups, out of which Prabhakaran’s LTTE emerged the lone star.
At the same time, the army’s conduct of the war changed drastically. Gunboats began shelling coastal areas, and long-range artillery began firing into civilian areas. Aerial attacks and bombardments became common. In May 1987, in a bid to wrest back territorial control of Jaffna, the armed forces launched Operation Liberation in Vadamarachchi, the northern sector of the Jaffna peninsula.
The ltte withdrew from the area and it was clear that it was going to lose control of Jaffna. Just then, the India factor loomed large. India sent a silent warning by way of airdropping food parcels over Jaffna on 4 June, after which the Sri Lankan forces stopped their advance.
Rapid political manoeuvres by President J.R. Jayawardene led to the signing of an accord with the late Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. No Tamil organisation was a signatory to the pact, but India guaranteed its implementation on behalf of the Tamils. All attempts to get Prabhakaran into supporting the pact before signing failed. Rajiv Gandhi was later to describe the accord as a “marriage without the consent of the bride”. The end of fighting marked the end of Eelam War I.
1987 to 1990: The accord and its aftermath saw the Sri Lankan forces ceasing operations, and the Indian army stationed in the North-East as the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF). Amnesty was granted to all Tamil guerrillas. A staggered surrender of arms was set in motion. The pact promised official language status to Tamil and devolution of power to Provincial Councils. The Northern and Eastern provinces were recognised as areas of “historic habitation” by the Tamils. The North and East were merged into a single province under one chief minister, subject to the provision that the merger had to be ratified subsequently in a referendum in the Eastern Province. An interim administrative council with a majority of ltte nominees was appointed for the transition period.
The Indian-brokered pace was shortlived. Its end came with the arrest of 12 ltte members, including some senior leaders, at sea by the Sri Lankan navy. When, in a clear violation of the accord, the government prepared to take them to Colombo for questioning, the 12 took cyanide and died. The fragile ceasefire broke, and a vengeful LTTE went on a killing spree. In the end, referee India got into the ring, and in a remarkable change of roles, India started fighting the LTTE.
A major five-pronged thrust was made into Jaffna city in the face of stiff resistance from the ltte. A large number of Tamil civilians were killed through accident and/or design by the Indian forces. The LTTE later withdrew from the peninsula and established jungle bases in Wanni in the Northern mainland. In Jaffna, India propped up a puppet administration for the North-East through a fraudulent election.
Meanwhile, after a 12-year tenure, President Jayawardene retired and was succeeded by known Indophobe, Ranasinghe Premadasa. And, most unbelievable, Premadasa and the LTTE began talks. A ceasefire was signed obliging India to end direct operations against the ltte. Premadasa also called for the withdrawal of the Indian army which New Delhi had to acquiesce to. A phased departure was announced by Rajiv Gandhi just before the 1989 Indian parliamentary elections. But, at the same time, Indian espionage agencies instigated the North-Eastern provincial administration into setting up a civilian volunteer force to double up as the Tamil National Army (TNA). It was aimed at creating a conflict situation so that the IPKF could stay on, but with clandestine support from the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE virtually annihilated the TNA.
With the coming to power of the VP Singh government in Delhi after the 1989 elections, the phased withdrawal of the IPKF was expedited. The Indo-Eelam or ipkf-ltte war was over. The India-installed North-East chief minister, Annamalai Varadharajaperumal, fled the country after unilaterally declaring Tamil Eelam. It was a foolish and empty gesture and only served as a pretext for Premadasa to dissolve the Council. The LTTE re-entered the North and East and began re-asserting its dominance over the Tamil areas.
1990 to 1995: Within three months of the last Indian soldier leaving the island, war broke out again, sparked off by a Sinhalese police assault on a Muslim tailor stitching uni forms for the LTTE in the eastern town of Batticaloa. Sri Lankan forces now concentrated on establishing control over the Eastern Province. The UNP governments strategy of con trolling the East had a political objective. It wanted to undermine the demand of a North East merger in either a separate state of Eelam or a merged provincial council.
A bitter consequence of this move was the growth of Tamil-Muslim tensions aided and abetted by interested third parties, most significantly the Sinhalese state. The early weeks of the conflict saw Muslim home guards and Sinhalese soldiers engaging in massacres of Tamil civilians suspected of being pro-LTTE The LTTE responded through horrible revenge massacres of Muslim civilians and the expul sion of about 50,000 Muslim civilians from the LTTE-controlled North.
In terms of military control, the eastern sector consisted of three zones. The first was the littoral area which was totally cleared of the LTTE. The second was the immediate hinterland where the army dominated by day and the Tigers moved about only on nocturnal excursions. The third was the remote forest hinterland. Here, the LTTE was strong, and though it could not take on the army directly, neither could the armed forces establish a permanent presence
It was different in the North, where the LTTE ruled the roost. The greater part of the peninsula and the northern mainland, with the exception of offshore islands, remained in LTTE hands despite several attempts by the army to dislodge them. The LTTE set up a parallel civil administration within its territory. Structures such as a police force, law courts, postal services, banks, administrative offices, etc, were established. Even a television broadcasting station was set up. Sweeping changes were made in the educational system. The LTTE was also able to develop its military machine to a very great extent during this period. It was also during this time that the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in Tamil Nadu (1991) and Premadasa in Colombo (in 1993).
Chandrika Kumaratunga, campaigning on a platform of peace, emerged triumphant in the November 1994 presidential elections. Earlier in August, her Peoples Alliance had also won the parliamentary elections. On 8 January 1995, Kumaratunga and Prabhakaran entered into a cessation-of-hostilities agreement. Thus ended the Eelam War II phase.
1995 to date: The brief respite from fighting lasted only a hundred days. During negotiations, the LTTE wanted day-to-day problems to be resolved before fundamental political problems were addressed. It had four demands. Two of those relating to the lifting of the economic embargo and the ban on fishing were accepted. Two others, of a military nature, including the demand for the removal of a camp and authority for eastern province cadres to carry arms in public, were not immediately accepted. Colombo requested some time to consider the demands. The LTTE lost patience. A fax was sent at 9:30 pm on 18 April 1995 stating that it was revoking the ceasefire. (See pages 30-32.) Three hours later, Tamil Tigers attacked Trincomalee harbour and destroyed two ships. This was the beginning of Eelam War III, so far the most brutal phase of the conflict
After some initial setbacks, the government got its act together. In opposition to its previous strategy of concentrating on the East, Colombo decided to capture and consolidate the North. An elaborate operation codenamed “Riviresa” (Sunray) was conducted from 1 October 1995 to 27 May 1996, in three stages. After resisting fiercely during the first phase, the LTTE began withdrawing from the peninsula in what turned out to be a replay of its encounter with the IPKF. Colombo’s writ began to run in Jaffna, in its control after nearly a decade.
The ltte withdrew into the Wanni after trying to engineer an exodus of the people from their homes. The idea apparently was to create a ‘floating state’. The move was only partially successful. Hundreds of thousands of people defied the ltte and refused to vacate the peninsula. Others who left began trickling back.
The government subsequently launched another operation, Jaya Sikuru (Certain Victory), in the Wanni region. The avowed purpose was to establish a land route to Jaffna and curb ltte activity. This time, the Tigers offered fierce resistance in the form of a counter-offensive named “Do or Die”. Jaya Sikuru, which began in May 1997, was suspended at the end of 1998. During all this time, the army had not been able to go beyond Mankulam. Only 44 km of the 76 to the target destination had been covered, and the armed forces incurred tremendous losses. The inability to achieve its publicised goal was demoralising. The only compensation was that the operation’s partial success helped to sever territorial contiguity between the North and East, thereby preventing a permanent merger of both provinces. On the other hand, the LTTE has gained the upper hand in the East because of the vacuum caused by re-deployment of security personnel to the northern front.
The LTTE does not have territorial control over the Jaffna peninsula now, but its cadres have started infiltrating the area again. Their agenda seems to be that of conducting a low key campaign that would prevent normalcy. In recent times it has been systematically killing elected officials of local government bodies.
The long war, spanning close to three decades, has resulted in over 60,000 lives being lost so far, with more than half of them civilians. Some 55,000 have been maimed, 750,000 Tamils have fled the country, and nearly a million Lankans are internally displaced.
A tragic feature about this war has been its brutality and callous disregard for humane concerns. International monitoring agencies have observed the conspicuous absence of prisoner-taking by both sides, and of civilians being used as human shields. Another aspect has been the use of landmines, which has resulted in the major portion of casualties. Civilians, 40 percent of them children, continue to be landmine victims in the ‘cleared areas’, but Sri Lanka has so far refused to sign the landmine ban treaty.
Although the war is supposedly waged on behalf of the people, neither the LTTE nor the Colombo government has ever given them much importance. Provoking attacks on civilians through agent provocateur tactics has been part of the LTTE game plan. The armed forces, meanwhile, are yet to display genuine concern for the Tamil civilian. Indiscriminate aerial bombing and artillery shelling take great tolls. There are the mass arrests, the detentions without trial, torture and ‘disappearances’. There is also the deliberate deprivation of food and medicine to civilians living in LTTE-controlled areas, where malnutrition and disease are rampant.
Both sides have the capacity to prolong the conflict indefinitely, but complete victory by neither side is possible. A negotiated peace would be very desirable, but sadly there isn’t any effective push, either nationally or internationally, for peace. Without such initiatives, this bestial war fought under the banners of beasts will continue to run its fearful and self destructive course.
Countdown to conflict: 1931-1972
1931-47: Ceylon’s independence constitution considered under British auspices. Tamil leaders demand disproportionate parliamentary quotas and are accused of communalisism.
1947: The constitution for an independent Ceylon maintains the unitary state established under colonialism. No minority quotas
1948: Ceylon granted independence. State power transferred to the elected United National Party. The Ceylon Citizenship Act denies citizenship to around one million Up-country Tamils [“plantation Tamils”].
1949: Tamil politicians, including S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, form Federal Party (FP) to demand Tamil self-determination within the Ceylonese state.
1951: Led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is formed and aligns itself with Sinhala-educated rural elites.
1952-53: Debate on official language policy takes political centre-stage. SLFP pledges to establish as sole national language of the state.
1956: SLFP-led alliance wins elections. The Official Language Act makes Sinhala sole medium of state affairs. Communal violence kills 150 people, mostly Tamils. FP launches non-violent civil resistance.
1957: Bandarnaike signs pact with Chelvanayakam pledging to devolve state power through regional councils, to recognise Tamil as a national minority language and to slow Sinhalese resettlement in the north and east. Anti-pact protest march to Sinhala Buddhist stronghold of Kandy spurs mob attacks on Tamils throughout southern provinces.
1958: As communal violence intensifies, government abrogates the ‘Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact’ but passes the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, which allows the use of Tamil in education, public service entrance exams and administration in north and eastern provinces.
1960: Bandaranaike assassinated by Buddhist monk. His widow Srimavo leads SLFP into general elections. For electoral backing from FP, SLFP agrees to revive the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact, but reneges after winning outright majority
1965: UNP back in power after general election under Dudley Senanayake. Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact signed to get support of FP in ‘national government’. Agreement to implement Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, establish district councils and give preference to Tamil speakers and landless persons in North and East resettlement.
1968: Due to opposition pressure, District Councils Bill emanating from Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact abandoned, and 1966 Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Regulation is not implemented.
1969: Federal Party quits government.
1970-73: Small groups of militant Tamil youths launch unsuccessful assassination attempts agains government representatives in Jaffna peninsula.
1970: SLFP-led alliance wins general election landslide. Srimavo Bandaranaike returns as prime minister, establishing a Constituent Assembly to frame new, republican constitution. Tamil Students League (TSL) formed to protest government plans to introduce communal quotas for higher education.
1971: Educational ‘standardisation’ leads to higher university entrance requirements for Tamil speakers. Many Tamil students instantly radicalised. Most Tamil members withdraw from Constituent Assembly after parity status for Sinhala and Tamil languages rejected.
1972: New constitution adopted and Republic of Sri Lanka born. New provisions whereby state will ‘protect and foster’ the Buddhist religion, giving it ‘the foremost’ place in the life of the nation. Sinhala also affirmed as the single official language of courts and state administration. FP and other groups representing Sri Lankan and Up-country Tamils come together to form Tamil United Front (TUF).