Pitched battles between the army and insurgents, suicide bombings, mobs targeting members of a minority group, the security forces allegedly executing civilians—all this is also happening in Sri Lanka, not just in Iraq. And, sadly, this isn’t the first time that this picturesque South Asian island nation of 20 million inhabitants has had to go through these ordeals.
The past few weeks have witnessed a dramatic escalation of violence after a comparative lull over the past few years. April saw 200 people killed in conflict. The government and the rebel Tamil Tigers engaged in skirmishes after the Tigers sent someone to assassinate Sri Lanka’s army chief last month. (The Tigers officially deny any responsibility for the suicide bomber, who killed 10 people but failed to get her target.) International ceasefire monitors are looking into allegations that the Sri Lankan army summarily executed 13 Tamils. Meanwhile, in the port city of Trincomalee, members of the Sinhalese majority group targeted Tamils after a bomb blast. The security forces were either unwilling or unable to help, reprising on a small scale the anti-Tamil pogroms of decades past that scarred the country and led to a civil war that has killed an estimated 64,000 people.
Sri Lankan leaders practiced from the onset of independence the most cynical brand of politics, consistently favoring the Sinhalese majority at the expense of the Tamil minority. The master at this was Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandarnaike, who set about implementing a policy of linguistic, religious, and economic discrimination against the Tamils. The Tamils, led by S. J. V. Chelvanayakam (also known as the Trousered Gandhi) used a variety of Gandhian tactics to attempt to pressure successive governments to end this discrimination and to implement a genuinely decentralized federal set up in the country. A number of administrations signed accords with Chelvanayakam to reform Sri Lanka’s political system, alas, only to later renege on them. As for Bandarnaike, he realized the folly of his ways, but too late. A hard-line Buddhist monk assassinated him when he tried to effect rapprochement with the Tamils. (A horrible aspect of the war in Sri Lanka has been the astonishingly belligerent attitude of much of the country’s Buddhist clergy, who have often goaded the government to “safeguard” Buddhism against the mostly Hindu Tamils.)
The situation deteriorated rapidly from the 1970s, as the Tamils grew increasingly militant and secessionist. The Tamil Tigers were formed during this time by Velupillai Prabhakaran, and soon established a fearsome reputation. In fact, they have perfected the art of suicide bombings (successfully killing a Sri Lankan president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, in 1993), and Al Qaeda is said to have studied their methods. The Tigers fought the Sri Lankan army to a standstill and gained control of the Tamil-majority northern and eastern portion of the country.
An interesting sidelight of the conflict has been India’s role. Amazingly, India initially armed and trained the Tamil Tigers due in part to an odd display of ethnic solidarity, since Tamils are a major group in southern India, and due in part to India’s pique at an increasingly independent Sri Lankan foreign policy. The signing of an India-Sri Lanka accord in 1987 led to Indian troops battling their own creation, the Tigers, only to pull out after three years and 1,500 casualties. In a final coda of revenge, a Tiger suicide bomber in 1991 blew up ex-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who as head of state had initiated the volte-face vis-à-vis the Tamil Tigers. Chastened by its bitter experience, the Indian government’s profile has been low since then.
The U.S. role has been peripheral. The Tamil Tigers are on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, and the United States has enjoyed good relations with the Sri Lankan government (one of the reasons for India’s ire in the 1980s). Washington has provided some military training and aid to Sri Lanka, downplaying in the process human rights abuses by Sri Lankan security forces. Unlike the Europeans—particularly the Norwegians—the United States has not seen it fit to play an active part in the peace process.
The September 11 attacks put tremendous international pressure on the Tigers to mend their ways, especially after the Canadian and British governments cracked down on their sources of funding among the diaspora in those countries. As a result, the Tigers signed a cease-fire with the government in February 2002. The tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in December 2004—causing tens of thousands of deaths—initially raised hopes of a permanent peace. But after a short spell of the government and the Tigers making conciliatory noises, things deteriorated again over the next year and a half, bringing us to the current sorry state.
The situation is now at a deadlock. The Tamil Tigers will never accept anything short of a sovereign Tamil nation under their control. The Sri Lankan government has been willing to grant substantial autonomy at most (although the new president, Mahinda Rajapakse, doesn’t even seem to be willing to go that far). There doesn’t seem to be much common ground. Short of a dramatic change in stance on the part of either or both sides—and international pressure to bring this about—prospects seem bleak for Sri Lanka, with the resumption of a full-scale civil war very much a possibility. This is made even more tragic by the fact that Sri Lanka is the one nation in South Asia with impressive socioeconomic achievements due to extensive social spending by successive administrations.
The Sri Lankan government should be ruing all the missed opportunities for peace decades ago when its predecessors reneged on their agreements with the Trousered Gandhi.