Discontent and Confrontational Violence in Sri Lanka, 1948-2009

Gerald Peiris, being Chapter 7 from his book Political Conflict in South Asia (2013, University of Peradeniya)  — a chapter based on his previous writings  [1]

 The survival of the principle of representative government based upon universal adult franchise since its introduction to the constitution more than eighty years ago while ‘Ceylon’ was still a colony of the British Empire is a feature often accorded prominence in scholarly discourses on the political history of Sri Lanka. Over the first three decades after independence (1948) the regularity of peaceful transfers of power from one regime to another, based upon the will of the people as expressed at national elections, was also widely acclaimed as a feature that made Sri Lanka unique among the emergent nation-states of the post-colonial era. The radiance of that achievement has, of course, dimmed considerably in the more recent past, due mainly to the violation of democratic norms in affairs of governance, and the intense rivalry that features the sub-national disputes which often find expression in confrontational violence.

1958-riots-22  Scenes in Colombo from 1958 riots after OEG led crackdown1958-getty

7.1. Ethnic Diversities and Political Conflict

(a) Religion and Inter-Group Relations

With 70% of the total of inhabitants of the country being adherents of Buddhism the religious composition of Sri Lanka’s population is somewhat less asymmetrical than in the other countries of South Asia.  Moreover, the proportion of the population (Table 7.1) accounted for by each of the main religious minorities – Hindus, Muslims and Christians – is also larger than the religious minority proportions elsewhere in the region. The political importance of this is enhanced by two other factors. One is the relatively more conspicuous spatial polarisation of some of the religious minorities in Sri Lanka, where, in relation to the country’s size, there are fairly large areas inhabited almost exclusively by one or another minority group.  The other is the absence of a marked diversity in socio-economic status between the different religious groups. Income and consumption measures employed in the assessment of living standards (available for the country as a whole only up to the mid-1980s on account of the political turbulences of the more recent past) suggest, in fact, that the related averages place the Buddhist majority at a level lower than that of the Christians and more or less at par with the Hindus and the Muslims.

The constitution of Sri Lanka, while guaranteeing freedom for all religions, provides a ‘special status’ to Buddhism. Throughout the recent past there have been ministerial portfolios in government specially assigned to the affairs of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and, of late, Christianity. Buddhism, however, receives a higher level of state patronage than other religions. In various forms of government sponsored ceremonies, it is usual to ensure the representation of all religions, but with pride of place accorded to Buddhism. It is also not uncommon for a political leader to participate in rituals of religions of which he/she is not an adherent, invariably with a display of piety.

Table 7.1. Population of Sri Lanka,

Classified by Religion

% of total population
1953 1963 1971 1981 2012





















1     15.6










NOTE… On account of the turbulent conditions that prevailed in the ‘north-east’ of Sri Lanka from the mid-1980s to 2009, there has been no census enumeration covering the entire country since 1981 until that of 2011-12.

From a historical perspective the association of Thēravāda Buddhism[2] with the ‘Sri Lankan identity’ is comparable to that of the Hindu-India association (see Chapter 3). Indeed, despite the controversial nature of issues concerning national identity that has prevailed in the context of the LTTE insurrection, there has never been a serious refutation of the view that Buddhism has provided the more distinctive elements of the country’s cultural heritage. Moreover, although the so-called “ethnic conflict” of Sri Lanka has often been seen as an exemplification of disharmony between the Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus, these two groups have had, throughout history, even during the recently concluded ‘Eelam Wars’, close links at the plane of popular religion in the form of similarities in beliefs and value paradigms, complementary interactions in religious ritual, common deities and shared places of worship.


Fig-7-1 Map of Provinces



Fig. 7.2- Map= Distribution of Main Ethnic Groups in Admin-Districts 1981

fig-7-3Fig. 7.3 Diagram illustrating Overlaps of Linguistic & Religious Differentiation

It is also of salience to note that Lankan politicians at the highest levels of government accord high priority to ecclesiastical endorsement from all faiths, in their various appeals to the nation, especially those that pertain to ethnic relations. Apart from being a gesture towards promoting ethnic harmony, this could be understood as an acknowledgement of the influence which the clergy of all faiths is deemed to wield on lay society. And, as a feature of popular politics, I venture to suggest that it is observable far less frequently elsewhere in South Asia, even in areas of mixed ethnicity.

(b) Linguistic Diversity and Political Conflict: In Sri Lanka, sub-national identities based on language have a distinctive feature of crucial relevance to an understanding of the divisive impact of the plurality of language – namely, the close demographic correspondence between language and religion (Text Box). While about 93% of the Sinhalese (those for whom Sinhala is mother tongue) are Buddhists, an estimated 96% of those for whom Thamil is the mother tongue (or first language) are either Hindu or Muslim. In this context, the Sinhalese-Tamil socio-cultural divide gets blurred only by a Christian overlap which consists of small fragments drawn from each of these linguistic groups. English is the second language of only a largely urbanised, and partially Christianised, thin upper stratum of society – probably less than 7% of the population – which extends across this divide. Until the recent past, Sinhala-Thamil bilingualism was virtually non-existent in the upper and middle levels of society, and prevailed only among a minority consisting mainly of Muslims and Tamils living in the predominantly Sinhalese areas of the country, and among a scatter of urban workers. Moreover, Sinhala and Thamil belong to different families of languages – Indo-Aryan and Dravidian – and are not mutually intelligible. The implication of all these is that, until the very recent past, there has hardly been any direct communication between the Sinhalese and the Tamils except that of the elites of the two communities who possess the required proficiency in English. There is, however, evidence of a trend of increase during the past three decades among the Tamils of all social strata living in the Greater Colombo area in their proficiency to communicate in Sinhala.

Language and religion as ingredients of group identity in Sri Lanka date back into the distant past. In the modern period of the country’s history their political importance was vastly enhanced by the introduction of universal adult franchise in elections to the legislature seventeen years before the country gained independence. The enfranchisement of the entire adult population at a time when an ideologically based political party system offering the electorate different options of socio-economic policy was yet to be developed, had the impact of bringing into the forefront of the country’s politics the conflicting interests and aspirations of the different religio-linguistic groups. In such a context, many among those aspiring to positions of political leadership had to appeal to primordial loyalties of language, religion and caste, and to espouse causes of related sectarian interest. Though the semblance of a modern party system did eventually develop, by independence, the labels of language, religion and caste had become almost as important as those of parties in the electoral politics of Sri Lanka.

The issue of using Sinhala and Thamil (swabhāsha – literally, “own language” –  a term in the country’s political lexicon) as official languages had been raised by Sri Lankan representatives in the Legislative Council (of British Ceylon) as far back as the mid-1920s.  In the 1930s, this ‘Swabhāsha campaign’ became somewhat more concerted, with the Sinhalese literati (rather than their counterparts in the Tamil community) constituting its vanguard. Though the Tamil leadership of that time emphatically opposed the demand for replacing English with Sinhala only, by independence, there was general acceptance of the idea that English must give way to swabhāsha in government transactions, both as a gesture of national self-assertion, as well as for the pragmatic consideration that no more than 3% of the population had proficiency in English. These considerations had, in fact, loomed large in a process of converting the medium of educational instruction to swabhāsha (the choice of Sinhala or Thamil depending on child’s mother-tongue) which was already under way at the primary level of the school curriculum at the time Sri Lanka gained independence.

In the aftermath of independence there was a marked intensification of the demand for making Sinhala the national language of the country. Its main impulses were derived from the desire on the part of those proficient in only Sinhala (the large majority of the population) to wrest control over the country’s affairs from the numerically minute English-educated elite which, as seen by the Sinhalese, included a disproportionately large representation of Christians and/or Tamils. The priority it received as a political issue, however, was due largely to the competition between the two main Sinhalese-dominated political parties – United National Party and Sri Lanka Freedom Party – for support from the Sinhalese segment of the electorate, each attempting to outdo the other in its posture as defender of Sinhalese-Buddhist interests. A mirror image of this was reflected in the electoral politics of the Tamil community. The demand for Thamil to be accorded the same status as Sinhala in official use, and opposition to Sinhala as the sole ‘national language’ became the principal propaganda themes of the two main Tamil political parties – Illankai Thamil Arasu Kachchi (‘Federal Party’) and the Ceylon Tamil Congress.

The actual implementation of a national language policy in Sri Lanka commenced soon after the parliamentary elections of 1956 at which a coalition of parties that had pledged to make Sinhala the sole official language of the country was returned to power with a massive majority.  Within a few months of the new government taking office, legislation – Official Language Act of 1956 – was passed by parliament providing for the staggered replacement of English with Sinhala over a transitional five-year period.  In sponsoring this legislation, Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike evidently expected to work out adjustments and compromises to make his language policy more palatable to the Tamils (de Silva, 1993:287). However, Tamil resistance to the ‘Sinhala Only’ legislation became so intense, and the campaign in support of that legislation by certain Sinhalese groups so fiercely hostile towards such opposition, as to cause several waves of riots, mainly in areas of mixed ethnicity. The most pronounced feature of the riots was the loss of life and property suffered by Tamils in the hands of rampaging Sinhalese mobs.  In 1958 the government, in an attempt to appease the Tamils, enacted further legislation –Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act – which provided for the use (or the continued use) of Tamil in almost all spheres of government activity including education and examinations for entry into state sector employment. This measure, however, did not have the effect of diffusing tensions over the official language issue mainly for the reason that there was hardly any progress in the years that followed on the implementation of the ‘special provisions’ envisaged by this Act. What further intensified the language grievance of the Tamils was that the constitutional reforms of 1972 consolidated the subordinate status of Thamil in its use as an official language of Sri Lanka.

The alleged downgrading of Thamil in affairs of government has remained one of the main grievances of the Tamils of Sri Lanka and has also continued to be referred to as hard evidence of minority discrimination in the country. In an objective assessment of the gravity of this grievance, however, it is necessary to take into account the following facts which tend to be overlooked in discussions of the ‘language dispute’ as a facet of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict:

  • There has never been a difference in the status of Sinhala and Thamil as media of education at all levels; and, at school-level, all children exercise their right to be educated in their mother-tongue.
  • In government administration, communications between the bureaucracy and a citizen are required to be conducted in the language preferred by the latter (though the non-availability of the required competence curtails the actual practice of this requirement in areas where the population is almost exclusively Sinhalese or Tamil).
  • Parliamentary affairs are conducted in Sinhala, Thamil and English. The institutions of the judiciary, except those at the higher levels (where transactions are in English), use Sinhala and Thamil.
  • The adjustments of language policy incorporated into the new constitution promulgated in 1978, have also contributed towards the elimination of some of the genuine minority grievances regarding the status of Thamil in the predominantly Sinhalese areas of the country.

On the realities concerning the use of language in government transactions, de Silva has observed (1993:292): “… Sri Lanka has remained very much a bilingual state (or a trilingual one if English is added, as it must be, to Sinhala and Thamil) and a multi-cultural country as it was before the ‘Sinhala Only’ agitation began”.

There is yet another language-based dimension which, though ignored in most writings on Sri Lanka, is far more significant to an understanding of political conflict than the SinhalaThamil dispute referred to above. This is rooted in the pre-eminent position that has continued to be accorded to English in ‘elite’ transactions, at times, even in contravention of statutory provisions pertaining to “official languages”. English continues to serve as the medium of instruction in higher education in almost all fields other than the arts and the humanities. Many students – Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim – especially those from the lower income strata, whose medium of instruction throughout school career has compulsorily been swabhāsha, if they gain admission to the universities to pursue courses of study such as Medicine or Engineering, often find themselves severely disadvantaged in comparison to those from more affluent homes. A command of English is sine qua non for entry into the higher levels of employment in the larger firms, not only those of the rapidly expanding private sector but also the prestigious institutions of the state sector. In short, the heights that could be reached through the upward social mobility supposedly facilitated by higher education depend critically on one’s ability to communicate in English. Despite these realities, the possibility of acquiring the required level of competence in English through the educational opportunities provided by the government is virtually non-existent, especially to the large majority of the country’s youth whose parents are poor and know no English. This ‘trans-ethnic’ discrimination ranks prominently among the factors that contribute to the alienation of large segments of the youth in all ethnic groups. As made evident later in this volume, the “frustration aggression” generated by this linguistic discrimination creates fertile conditions for propagating insurrectionary violence among the youth.

(c) Caste Diversities and Politics: The recognition of certain differences between the caste system of Sri Lanka and that of Hindu India is important to this study. The first of these is the absence in Sri Lanka of an equivalent to the Indian Brahminic elite either in its priestly-scholarly functions or in terms of wealth and social privilege in traditional society. The second is that the large majority of Sinhalese and Tamils belong to their respective upper castes, with the largest among them ‒ nominally the ‘farmer’ caste (Govigama among the Sinhalese, and Vellāla among the Tamils) ‒ constituting 60% or more of the total population of each of the two communities.  Thirdly, at least from about the early decades of the twentieth century, several Sinhalese castes, despite conventionally accepted variations among them in social status along with the Vellāla Tamils, the Muslims and the Burghers have been fairly well represented in the political, professional and mercantile elite of the country, even during times of major political upheaval. Fourthly, one could also attach some significance to the fact that in Sri Lanka, especially among the Sinhalese, caste practices such as endogamy and commensality, and the concepts of ritual purity and untouchability, are far less pronounced than in Hindu India.

In pre-modern times it appears that social strata equivalent to the ‘aristocracy’ and the ‘landed gentry’ consisted almost entirely of those from Govigama and Vellāla castes.[3]  The development of capitalist enterprise and other economic transformations of the British regime enabled the emergence of entrepreneurial groups in these and certain other Sinhalese castes like Karāwa, Durāwa and Salāgama, making the Sinhalese segment of the indigenous economic elite a medley of several castes. Yet, since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1931, in electoral politics, the Govigama and Vellāla leadership at the highest levels (except when confronted by those from other castes with extraordinary wealth or overriding personal charisma) have had the edge over those from other castes probably on account of the greater numerical strength of their castes. The significance of this, however, has been declining in the past few decades, especially in the more urbanised areas of the country. What could be considered a curious anomaly, if not an anachronism, which is not without relevance to contemporary politics is the persistence of a “caste factor” in the sectarian differences within the Buddhist Sangha.

That caste is an important factor in political mobilisation in Sri Lanka is implicit in the foregoing observations on caste elites. In the selection of party candidates at elections, for example, caste composition of the constituency is invariably a consideration of decisive importance. Again, though at present, a caste group voting en bloc for a given person or party is probably the exception rather than the rule, there are known strongholds of a given party in one or another of caste agglomerations. Moreover, groups providing leadership to insurrectionary politics – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) among the Tamils, and the People’s Liberation Front (‘JVP’) among the Sinhalese – are believed to have attracted a disproportionately large involvement of youth from certain underprivileged caste groups of the respective communities. In spite of the persistence of these features, however, the long-term trend in Sri Lanka has been towards declining importance of caste-related problems and issues in the country’s affairs of governance.

7.2. ‘Associational’ Groupings in Political Conflict:

Of the many associational identities found in Sri Lanka at all levels of society only a few could be considered important from the viewpoint of political conflict of the type on which this study is focused. Two such political groups – the JVP and the LTTE – are central to our concerns. Since their objectives and operational modalities are dealt with in detail later in this chapter, the present part of our discussion is confined to the question of why they acquired enormous importance in contemporary politics of the country. A few observations on certain other associational groupings with similar political commitments are presented here mainly in order to situate the insurrectionary impulses of the JVP and the LTTE in the wider milieu of radical politics in Sri Lanka.

(a) ‘Left’ Parties in Mainstream Politics:  The formal origin of ‘associational’ politics based upon Marxist ideology in Sri Lanka could be traced back to the formation of the Lanka Sama Samāja Party – LSSP (Sama Samāja was the Sinhala equivalent of ‘socialist’ then in vogue) in 1934. At the vanguard of the LSSP during its early stages were educated young men (some with post-graduate degrees from Britain and the United States) of proclaimed commitment to revolutionary Marxism. In the Donoughmore period (1931 to 1947) a few of them gained entry into the state legislature, invariably as representatives of rural electorates. Yet, the political clout they had was mainly among the organised working-class of Colombo which was (and has continued to remain) multi-ethnic in its composition.

****As witnessed elsewhere in South Asia, in Sri Lanka too, the ‘Left Movement’, from its very early stages, had a propensity to splinter on the basis of disputes among its leaders in respect of ideology, political strategy and personal style. For example, rivalry persisted almost throughout between the Trotskyite LSSP and the Communist Party (CP) – the latter formed in 1943 by the Stalinists expelled from the original LSSP.  In 1950 yet another breakaway group from the LSSP (a breakaway impelled by the return of the ‘Bolshevik Leninist Party’ into the LSSP fold) formed a new party named the VLSSP (‘V’ denoting viplavakāri or ‘revolutionary’), led by the founder of the LSSP in 1935. The VLSSP, at various times in the 1950s and the ‘60s, entered into electoral alliances with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), or the other Left parties or the United National Party (UNP). Again, in 1964, the CP bifurcated into pro-Moscow and pro-China factions. The LSSP and the CP (Moscow) joined the SLFP in a ‘United Front’ at the parliamentary elections of 1970. This prompted certain second-rung leaders of the LSSP who were opposed to the union to form themselves into an NLSSP (‘N’ denoting nava /new). The ‘United Front’ won the elections of 1970, but was routed at the next elections conducted seven years later. The latter was a debacle for the ‘Left Parties’ whose uneasy alliance with the SLFP had, in fact, ended prior to that poll. Within a few years the charismatic Marxist pioneers who had abandoned their dream of a social revolution died; and popular support for the ‘Old Left’ has eroded since then to such an extent that the survival of its remnant leadership in the political limelight has come to depend almost entirely on their electoral alliances with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

chelva-and-co-1958 Chelvanayakam leads Federal Party satyagraha at Galle Face Green in protest againt Sinhala Only campaign


1958-riots Tamils assaulted & disparaged by bystanders on Galle Road, Colombo, 1958
The Left leadership has consisted mainly of persons from the English-educated urban middle-class, and from all ethnic groups. Most of them also had no strong religious affiliation. The Sinhalese among them were from several castes. The electoral support which the ‘Old Left’ had in its post-independence heyday was almost entirely confined to the more urbanised lowlands of the southwest. Even within that area its appeal was due largely to the personal charisma of its leaders and to their veteran status in trade-union politics. The doctrinal commitment of its leaders to the “class struggle” prompted most of them to eschew communal politics, and thus, to attract a scatter of support from a wide spectrum of ethnic, religious and caste groups. That the ‘Old Left’ contributed significantly to the survival of at least traces of humanitarian social concern in the political affairs of Sri Lanka is widely acknowledged.As witnessed elsewhere in South Asia, in Sri Lanka too, the ‘Left Movement’, from its very early stages, had a propensity to splinter on the basis of disputes among its leaders in respect of ideology, political strategy and personal style. For example, rivalry persisted almost throughout between the Trotskyite LSSP and the Communist Party (CP) – the latter formed in 1943 by the Stalinists expelled from the original LSSP.  In 1950 yet another breakaway group from the LSSP (a breakaway impelled by the return of the ‘Bolshevik Leninist Party’ into the LSSP fold) formed a new party named the VLSSP (‘V’ denoting viplavakāri or ‘revolutionary’), led by the founder of the LSSP in 1935. The VLSSP, at various times in the 1950s and the ‘60s, entered into electoral alliances with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), or the other Left parties or the United National Party (UNP). Again, in 1964, the CP bifurcated into pro-Moscow and pro-China factions. The LSSP and the CP (Moscow) joined the SLFP in a ‘United Front’ at the parliamentary elections of 1970. This prompted certain second-rung leaders of the LSSP who were opposed to the union to form themselves into an NLSSP (‘N’ denoting nava /new). The ‘United Front’ won the elections of 1970, but was routed at the next elections conducted seven years later. The latter was a debacle for the ‘Left Parties’ whose uneasy alliance with the SLFP had, in fact, ended prior to that poll. Within a few years the charismatic Marxist pioneers who had abandoned their dream of a social revolution died; and popular support for the ‘Old Left’ has eroded since then to such an extent that the survival of its remnant leadership in the political limelight has come to depend almost entirely on their electoral alliances with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

With the passage of time the vacuum of radical politics in rural Sri Lanka began to be filled by a new generation of leaders – drawn from the peasantry, fluent only in Sinhala or Thamil, and professing a fiery brand of Marxism – who became far more effective than those of the ‘Old Left’ in political mobilisation among the educated rural youth. It was this segment of the population that came to provide, from about the late 1960s, the breeding ground for militant forms of extra-parliamentary politics typified, in the predominantly Sinhalese areas by the JVP, and in the Tamil areas, by the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) along with a few other insurgent groups.

(b) ‘Associations’ of Tamil Militants: A portrayal of the specific circumstances that induced large numbers of Sri Lankan Tamil youth to be drawn into groups that espouse militant forms of protest and insurrectionary politics should encompass:

  • the long drawn out estrangement of relations between the Sinhalese majority and the Sri Lankan Tamils which, since the mid-1950s, was punctuated with outbursts of violence;
  • the mob attacks on Tamils living in the Sinhalese-majority areas of the country in July 1983 (‘genocide’, ‘holocaust’, ‘pogrom’ are terms often used in hyperbolic references to this disaster), so barbaric and so destructive in impact, that it marked the onset of a new phase in the history of Sri Lanka’s ethnic relations;
  • the alienation of Tamil youthfrom the country’s political and economic mainstreams which resulted from real or imagined discrimination and oppression by the Sinhalese-dominated government of the country;
  • the losses, indignities and hardships the Tamils suffered during spells of civilian mob violence in areas of mixed ethnicity, and in the hands of the predominantly Sinhalese police and the armed forces in the course of security operations in the Tamil-majority areas;
  • the disruptive effects of prolonged political turmoil on the regional economy (agriculture, fisheries, trade, services in transport, communication and electricity supply) resulting, in turn, in intensifying unemploymentand impoverishment; and

(f)   the constant inculcation through political propaganda of attitudes of enmity towards other ethnic groups.

The earliest appearance of militant groups in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka could be placed in 1969 when a loose association of persons (some of whom were engaged in contraband trade and other forms of illegal activity) named the ‘Tamil Liberation Organisation’ (TLO) was formed in the township of Velvettiturai which had considerable notoriety as a centre for smuggling.  Certain key leaders of terrorist groups that mushroomed in the Jaffna peninsula in later times interacted sporadically with the TLO. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE/’Tigers’) and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) were probably the earliest among these groups that took concrete shape.  Leaders of many of the later groups are known to have had links with either the LTTE or the TELO of the 1970s.

The leadership of the LTTE at its inception in the early 1970s consisted of several persons among whom Nadaraja Thangavelu, Selvaraja Yogachandram, Sathasivan Krishnakumar, Sri Sabaratnam, Uma Maheswaran and Velupillai Prabhakaran appear to have been the most prominent. They were all of lower-middle-class stock. Most of them are considered to have belonged to the subordinate orders of the traditional social hierarchy – the Karaiyar caste; and, some among them, in their gangland activities, had acquired a reputation for courage and commitment to the cause of liberating the Tamils.  By the end of the decade, either as a result of defections or due to death and injury at confrontations with the security forces, Prabhakaran, whose image had meanwhile been vastly enhanced by acts brigandage, had become the undisputed leader of the LTTE.

In the early 1980s, the ‘Tigers’ and most of the other Tamil militant outfits received covert assistance from India in the form of material, money and training. Substantial external support was also received by them from the expanding communities of expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils, and through profits generated by their own fund-raising activities outside the country.

It was in the late 1980s that the ‘Tigers’ began to surpass the other Tamil militants of the northern and eastern provinces in overall strength. This was, initially, an unintended consequence of India’s mediation in Sri Lanka’s conflict in the form of the induction of a ‘Peace-Keeping Force’ (IPKF) following the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987.  During the IPKF sojourn in Sri Lanka, while the LTTE remained defiant of the Indian efforts to disarm the militants, the others readily succumbed and, in fact, collaborated in the Indian offensives against the recalcitrant LTTE. Thus, both in the latter stages of the IPKF presence in Sri Lanka as well as in the aftermath of its withdrawal in early 1990, the Tigers, in turn, launched fierce attacks on its rival militant groups, killed most of their activists, and became the only Tamil group in the country capable of posing a serious challenge to the security forces of the government of Sri Lanka.

Several other factors contributed to the rise of the LTTE as a terrorist outfit.  The most basic among these was its success in mobilising large numbers of disgruntled Tamil youth (rapidly swelling in numbers in the wake of economic disruptions caused by the secessionist insurrection), and its organisational capacity to command absolute obedience from those so mobilised.  The ferocity with which the ‘Tiger’ leadership dealt with renegades, its rivals, or any other force that stood in its way, in total disregard of human emotion or ethical norms was another factor that contributed to its meteoric rise. Thus, despite the LTTE retreat in December 1995 from its principal power base in Jaffna peninsula to the adjacent forest-clad area to the south (the Vanni) in the face of a massive military campaign launched by the government, its general trend of the 1990s was one of spectacular advances in military strength and capacity for terrorism.

According to Western and Indian intelligence analysts, the LTTE had, by the late 1990s, become a trail-blazer among the terrorist groups of the world for some of its techniques of attack, especially the employment of ‘suicide bombers’ against civilian targets. Having decimated almost all other Tamil militant groups in Sri Lanka, claiming to its credit the assassinations of a host of Sinhalese and Tamil political leaders in Sri Lanka and a former prime minister of India, and having committed many acts of destruction of life and property of almost unprecedented magnitude, by the turn of the new millennium, it was being ranked among the most feared terrorist groups in the world. While its military operations, attacks on civilian targets, assassinations, publicity, propaganda, and various forms of subversion have been sustained throughout with proceeds from a massive and highly ramified matrix of commercial operations, such operations, in turn, derived strength, cohesion and, in the perceptions of the sympathisers of its cause, legitimacy, from its ‘liberation’ campaign.[4]

7.3. ‘Revolutionary’ Insurrections

There are similarities between the Sri Lankan Tamils and the other ethnic groups of the country, including the Sinhalese, in respect of their responses and reactions to the aggravating problems that have been associated with slow economic growth – high rates of unemployment, persistence of low incomes, and, especially since the late 1970s, the non-fulfilment of material aspirations often elevated to unrealistic heights by an ethos of consumerism.[5] In the formal economy, political instability rooted in economic causes found expression in trade union unrest in which participation, at least during the first two decades after independence, tended to cut across ethnic differentiations. More generally, among educated youth of the lower income strata, radical political ideology and the advocacy of militant action to secure political objectives found considerable resonance, providing impetus to the formation of small Neo-Marxist and/or Neo-Nationalist clandestine groups that searched for ways and means of challenging the existing social order.

By the late 1960s, a breakaway group from the Beijing-Wing of the Communist Party (which the media identified as a ‘clique’ inspired by the Cuban revolutionary, and called it the Ché Guevara kalliya) was making considerable headway among the rural Sinhalese youth, preparing in earnest for a “revolutionary uprising”. The Janathā Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), as it came to be formally named, according to Rohana Wijeweera, its leader at that time, was based on “indigenised Marxist-Leninist ideology”. As shown later in this chapter, similar developments were taking place at this time among the Tamil youth in the north.

Over a spell that lasted no more than three months in 1971, and in the late 1980s, for approximately three years that extended briefly over the turn of the decade, many parts of Sri Lanka were enmeshed in insurrections led by the JVP. Both periods of insurrection were featured by widespread violence and terror.  The principal ingredients of the JVP strategy of revolt were virulent propaganda against the existing political order, incitement to violence, assassination, plunder and robbery along with various other forms of sabotage and mass intimidation intended to have the effect of destabilising civil society. The suppression of the insurrections entailed the promulgation of “emergency regulations” and took the form of operations both open and clandestine undertaken by pro-government forces including the police and the military, often with scant regard for legal and moral norms. These operations also involved, among other things, incarceration, torture and summary execution of several thousands of persons evidently on the grounds of suspected participation in insurrectionary activities.

(a) JVP Insurgency of 1971[6]   The idea of building up a political movement intended to appeal mainly to the economically deprived and politically alienated segments of the Sinhalese population began to be converted by Wijeweera and his followers into a programme of action in 1967 which involved, inter alia, the organized “political education” of prospective recruits drawn mainly from the peasantry. At about the same time Wijeweera began to build up an arsenal, and towards that end, collect funds to purchase and/or manufacture arms and other accoutrements deemed necessary to its efforts. Fund-raising took a variety of forms. Member contributions of savings through personal sacrifice and thrift, and collection of donations from outside were encouraged. Theft, plunder and extortion were also among the acceptable means for accumulating money and arms. There were, in addition, some unsuccessful attempts at obtaining financial and material assistance from outside the country.

The name ‘JVP’, according to Alles (1990:30), came into use in the period leading up to the parliamentary elections of 1970.  By this time its leaders had sufficient confidence to appear in the open, and the strength to conduct well attended political rallies, make statements to the national press, and even interact with the leaders of the ‘United Left Front’ (a coalition of left and left-of-centre parties) to which they had decided to lend qualified support at the forthcoming elections.

In the immediate aftermath of the parliamentary elections of 1970 (on the results of which the United Left Front assumed office) the JVP enjoyed a brief spell during which it was able to increase the tempo of its efforts and to redirect its campaign of agitation against the ruling political parties on the grounds that the government was hesitant to implement its elections pledge of bringing about a “socialist transformation of society”, and remained, like earlier regimes did, subservient to imperialist and bourgeois interests.

The electoral alliance between the JVP and the United Left Front was, of course, intrinsically fragile for the reason that, if the JVP were to succeed in its efforts to emerge as a major political force in the country, it had to draw from the very same segments of the electorate that constituted the support base of the ruling parties. Moreover, the JVP campaign of the post-elections period was featured not only by continuing accumulation of support through aggressive anti-government propaganda but also by more open defiance of state authority, and greater recourse to violence and crime in its quest for money and arms. This, in turn, evoked retaliatory action by the government which took the form of greater vigilance against subversion and more concerted security operations by the armed forces.  Raids on JVP hideouts (leading to the discovery of caches of arms), and large-scale arrests (often followed by the customary third-degree treatment) of JVP activists became increasingly frequent.  All indications at this stage were that the JVP was in fact preparing itself for an armed uprising.  On 16 March 1971 the government arrested Wijeweera and detained him at the high security prison in Jaffna. It declared a “State of Emergency” thus giving extraordinary powers to the armed forces to pre-empt an impending “JVP plot” to capture state power. About three weeks later, while Wijeweera was still in prison, the JVP launched its insurrection.

The JVP offensive was based on a simple plan.  Its first stage was designed to entail swift and simultaneous attacks, mainly with improvised weaponry, on the relatively less well manned police stations located in those parts of the country in which the JVP leaders believed that its fighting cadres had sufficient strength, having isolated the targets with road blocks and destroyed their power supplies and telephone lines.  These attacks, along with concurrent raids on a few military outposts, were expected to yield a large haul of firearms and ammunition and, more generally, lead to a collapse of government control over extensive rural areas of the country.  The attacks on police and military strongholds located in the city of Colombo and the abduction of several key political leaders, conceived as part and parcel of the initial offensive, were probably intended to serve as diversions, given the fact that no more than a few hundred ill-equipped cadres were mobilised for these daunting tasks. The rapid consolidation of the hold over rural areas was expected to facilitate the second stage of the offensive in which the re-grouped JVP fighting machine, now with increased fire power, would capture the towns and the city. Success in the first stage, it must have been hoped, would also result in the crossover of at least a sizeable proportion of the rank and file of the police and the army (rooted as they also were in the less affluent segments of society), and, of course, a massive wave of popular support on the crest of which the JVP leadership would ride to the apex of state power.

The failure of this plan has frequently been attributed to a misunderstanding of a signal from the JVP high command on the timing of the initial offensive, which is said to have resulted in a premature attack on one rural police station, enabling the other stations all over the country to be on alert when the co-ordinated offensive really began. But even in the absence of such a mishap it seems unlikely that the plan could have achieved sustainable success for the reason that the entire confrontation was a pathetic mismatch of forces. For instance, the weapon most frequently used by the insurgents was the home-made hand grenade – effective range even when it ignites as intended, usually less than five meters. The attack on the Colombo International airport was to have been accomplished by incapacitating the air force personnel with a herbal laxative. The capture of the Karainagar naval base (on the northern coast of the island), “entrusted to ten comrades armed with knives” depended crucially on the sedative effects of the sleeping tablets introduced into the water tank the previous night. The rescue of Wijeweera from the high-security prison at Jaffna was to have been carried out by a busload of undergraduates dispatched from Colombo.  Needless to say, these attempts failed.  But looking back on the heroic thinking behind the plans, one could indeed wonder whether the planners expected that those defending these targets (their own people, in a sense) would not fight back and kill. That the JVP cadres did attack 92 police stations causing extensive damage to 57, and the police themselves withdrew from another 43 stations in anticipation of such attacks, that 63 police and service personnel died in combat, and that routine civil administration was dislodged from many rural areas, do not detract from the fact that the JVP had neither the strength of arms nor the organisational capacity to hold on to its initial gains, leave alone expand its offensive to the principal strongholds of government power. The futility of its overall effort as seen in the light of related details unravelled in the aftermath of the insurrection lends some credence to Wijeweera’s later claim that the decision to launch the offensive on the night of 5 April 1971 was, in fact, a defensive move made in the face of impending annihilation.

On 6 April 1971 the government proscribed the JVP, banned the publication of eleven JVP aligned periodicals, imposed a strict censorship on the press, and initiated its military counter-offensive. Several thousands of young men and women uninvolved in combat but suspected of JVP associations were rounded-up, sporadically tortured, and killed or kept imprisoned.  In the venues of armed conflict the fighting cadres were captured and/or killed, typically in sledgehammer operations. By the end of the month only a few small pockets of resistance remained to be cleared later in almost leisurely fashion. A careful re-examination of the available estimates of the JVP death toll makes it likely that about 4,000-5,000 perished in the confrontations and the mopping up operations. (The officially reported estimate was 1,200; those in the parliamentary opposition blamed the government for killing about 5,000 to 10,000; Fred Halliday placed the number killed at 12,000; Wijeweera announced from prison in 1972 that 15,000 revolutionaries were liquidated; René Dumont guessed that the death toll could have been as high as 50,000.)[7]

In response to a qualified amnesty offered by the government four weeks after the outbreak of the insurrection, about 5,600 (5,544 men and 56 women) voluntarily surrendered. Yet another 4,492 (4,332 men and 160 women) were arrested.  These along with the JVP combatants captured in battle were estimated to total up to about 18,000.

Following the suppression of the insurrection, and after the initial panic and outrage had been diluted with other emotions such as guilt at the overkill reaction and sympathy for those in agony, the authorities of government began to focus on the practical question of ‘what next?’  Of immediate concern was the future of many thousands now in custody. In this context, there was, first, the likelihood that some among them were innocent of the violation of any law.  Secondly, there was the almost total lack of evidence admissible in the courts of law against many who are likely to have committed crimes. Thirdly, and more generally, there was the fact that those in custody were, almost without exception, ‘political prisoners’ rather than ‘criminals’ in the conventional sense.

From a political viewpoint, and to the parties in the ruling coalition, there were other dilemmas. The large majority of those in custody were young, semi-educated and poor. Almost all of them were Sinhalese Buddhists. There was, moreover, some ideological overlap between certain parliamentarians of the parties in office (two of whom were actually accused of participation in the insurrection) and the JVP. The Marxist parties in the government, at least in theory, had never really discarded the option of armed revolt as a means of capturing state power. That the image of the ‘young rebel’ had always been idealised in popular literature and the performing arts, and that there were the barely concealed undercurrents of sympathy for the JVP cause in liberal-intellectual circles, also had some political salience.  In working out the strategies for handling the aftermath of the insurrection, all these emotional, legal and political considerations had to be weighed against the fact that those responsible for the insurrection had to be condemned and punished

The judicial inquiries conducted on the insurrection culminated in the conviction and punishment of the key suspects.  Wijeweera was sentenced to life imprisonment, four others to 20-year terms, and most of the others to terms ranging from 1 to 12 years. At the conclusion of all inquiries relating to the insurrection conducted over a period of about five years, 393 suspects had received various terms of imprisonment and 2,492 had been released on suspended sentences (Alles, 1990).  By the end of 1975 the number in custody had declined to 295 (Samaranayake, 1983:199) – on the face of it, a remarkable achievement.

There were, however, certain complexities that had not been given due regard.  For a considerable time after the suppression of the insurrection, those in custody had to live under appalling conditions.  The improvements brought about by their subsequent transfer to “Rehabilitation Camps” were by no means uniform, the living conditions in certain camps being worse than in regular prisons. “Rehabilitation” itself merely meant indefinite internment without charges and trail. On the basis of impressions one could speculate that what appears to have mattered in the long run even more than these hardships was the widespread sense of resentment that continued to prevail undiminished among the majority of detainees. Many of them carried indelible scars of the brutality and humiliation which they had suffered. When eventually released from custody, they invariably encountered prospects gloomier than ever before – an economic recession with open unemployment exceeding the 20% mark – with the added burden of a “subversive” past.  Ironically enough, among many of them, there was also a sense of pride. This was often evident in their magnified recollections of the horrors they had experienced and the courage they had displayed. To generalise further, the rehabilitation process had the effect of further alienation. What, in fact, it failed to generate was the expected repentance and gratitude for being forgiven.

Soon after the parliamentary elections of July 1977 the new government released all those who were serving prison sentences in connection with the insurrection of 1971, ostensibly to facilitate their return to democratic politics.  This was a carefully calculated move (and not a euphoric gesture which it appeared to be at that time), taken in the light of several interrelated considerations. The JVP, while not being capable of posing a serious challenge to the party in office in electoral politics, the likely persistence of its hostility towards the former government was expected to have the effect of further weakening of the opposition.

Seven years of imprisonment had not diminished Wijeweera’s political ambitions.  In spite of the fact that almost all his key associates were dead or had left the movement, Wijeweera would have seen new prospects in the changed political situation of the country. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) along with its erstwhile Marxist partners had been ignominiously defeated at the polls of 1977. The socio-economic conditions which periodically generate anti-establishment tides were also likely to persist. There was, in addition, the increasing polarisation of the electorate on ethnic lines, and an upsurge of ethno-nationalism in the country, from which there could be no net gains for either the ruling United National Party (UNP) or the SLFP. There were many JVP activists of 1971 vintage who readily returned to the fold.  Fresh talent could also be found from among those politically orphaned by the electoral defeat of the SLFP or victimised by the new regime.  And then, there was the steady trickle of rebels from the reservoir of disgruntled youth in rural and semi-urban areas.

Initially, these sources did not add up to impressive numbers.  But they were adequate for a fair show of confrontational strength at, say, university student elections, commemoration of martyrs or May Day processions. Yet, with a ruling party which was not averse to using its massive parliamentary strength for reinforcing its hold over the electorate, and with the upsurge of the economy having a perceptible impact on unemployment (officially estimated rate of which declined from about 24% in 1976 to 12% in 1982), the JVP, also constrained as it was by the meagre financial resources at its disposal, could not make significant advances in electoral politics. Accordingly what Wijeweera concentrated his efforts at this stage was on was the accumulation of committed support and intense anti-government propaganda.

From the viewpoint of the government the problem posed by the resurrected JVP was that the propaganda and the defiance at the level of institutions such as the universities were becoming much more than mere irritation. The JVP campaigns were becoming increasingly aggressive, bordering at times on personal abuse and incitement to violence. Moreover, there were clear indications that it was also making headway among the younger segments of the electorate.

The outbreak of communal violence in July 1983 had obvious links with the scenario outlined above. The criminal elements that led the mob attacks on Tamils living in the predominantly Sinhalese areas of the country did have a measure of support, if not some guidance, from those representing many shades of the Sinhalese political spectrum, including those in the ranks of government.  It is also likely that, despite the ambivalence of the JVP on the ethnic conflict, some of its cadres did participate in the violence – in particular, looting to enrich the party coffers.  It is even more probable that the JVP saw the conflagration, unerringly as it proved to be, as a means of disrupting the advances achieved through the economic policies of the government. Yet there was no hard evidence to substantiate the government’s claim that the JVP and two other political groups of the extreme Left were responsible for the riots. Nor was there a convincing argument to justify the government’s decision to proscribe the JVP.

The communal violence of July 1983 represented a turning point of macro-economic trends.  Though the economy dipped briefly but remained buoyant over the next few months (due mainly to a short-lived boom in the tea market), it soon began to falter in the face of continuing political unrest.  The lowered growth rate resulted in increasing unemployment, a trend towards which the retrenchment of workers from the massive infrastructure projects undertaken by the government and completed in the mid-1980s also contributed. In addition, the sharp escalation of violence by Tamil militant groups in the form of both successfully conducted guerrilla operations against the armed forces in the North as well as acts of terrorism targeted on the civilian population in Colombo, pushed the economy further into recession. Under these conditions, the JVP, driven underground after its proscription, gained rapidly in numerical support and armed strength.

(b) JVP Insurgency of 1986-89: From the time of proscription of the JVP its leaders remained in hiding.  Wijeweera himself had to move from one hideout to another located away from the areas in which the JVP activities were under intense scrutiny by the security forces.  This meant that political ‘education’ which had been an integral part of the JVP recruitment process was not conducted now as systematically as in earlier times.  The emphasis, instead, was on the accumulation of weaponry and training in the use of firearms, towards which its cadres contributed with increasing recourse to violence and crime. Initially, there were the raids and robberies carried out at ‘civilian’ sources of money and arms.  After a time (from about April 1987) larger military arsenals began to be targeted. This accent on enhancement of armed strength facilitated an increased inflow of criminals into the movement for whom its militant politics would have served as a cover for crime. Concurrently, the clandestine existence into which the leaders of the JVP had been driven also appears to have resulted in a diffusion of decision-making powers.

The main writings on the insurrection of the late 1980s (Alles, 1990; Gunaratna, 1990; Chandraprema, 1991) have placed the onset of the second JVP insurrection in the riots that accompanied the signing of the ‘Accord’ between President Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on 29 July 1987 and the subsequent induction of the ‘Indian Peace-Keeping Force’ to the northern and eastern parts of the country. The justification of this disputable dating is the outburst of anti-government and anti-Indian sentiments among the Sinhalese which accompanied these events, and the fact that from this point of time the principal theme of JVP propaganda was the alleged “betrayal of the motherland” which the occupation of a part of the country by an alien army represented.  The JVP along with the SLFP and certain other groups that claimed to represent Sinhalese interests declared that the signing of the accord was an act of treason.  The posters and handbills attributed to the JVP advocated “death to the traitors.”  Ostensibly, from this stage onwards, it was primarily to carry out this righteous task (and thus “save the motherland”) that the JVP and the forces aligned to it engaged in their campaign of violence and terror.

body-burn-www-mtholyoke-edu Arbitrary Military Executions (?) –Pic from www.mtholyoke.edu

A retrospective examination of the events of this period suggests that from July 1987 until mid-1989 there was a relentless escalation of the insurrectionary offensive in many parts of the country where the Sinhalese constitute the majority. This offensive was conducted from several strongholds of the insurgents, and assumed many forms. Whether it was masterminded from a single centre remains unclear, although most of the major acts of violence and the general incitement to violence appear to have been directed by an organisation referred to as the Deshaprēmi Janathā Vyāpāraya (DJV – People’s Patriotic Movement), identified as the ‘military wing’ of the JVP.  Public statements and orders of the DJV were issued under the name of “Keerthi Wijebahu” (styled on the  eleventh century Sinhalese monarch who evicted the Colas from Sri Lanka and re-unified the country) – widely believed to have been the nom de guerre adopted by Saman Piyasiri Fernando, one of the most daring and ruthless among the JVP leaders.

Among the many forms which the offensive took, propaganda through posters and pamphlets was the most ubiquitous. The disruption of state sector activities such as those in education, health care, public transport, and electricity supply, was another important facet of the offensive. The universities (most of which had already been converted to JVP strongholds) were frequently used not only to conduct campaigns of anti-establishment agitation but also as sanctuaries from which other militant activities such as mobilisation of school children in protest demonstrations, issue of threats to political enemies, and manufacture of explosive devices were organised, with a measure of immunity from law enforcement.

Perhaps the most potent weapon of economic disruption employed in the insurrection was the bandh (for which the term used was the Sinhala equivalent of ‘curfew’). From about mid-1988 the insurgents began to impose with increasing frequency and at short notice 24-hour bandhs that entailed the banning of all outdoor activities, backed by a death threat to its violators.  The curfew order was not merely a prohibition of formal sector economic activities such as those in trade, commerce, industry and the services.  In impact, it was those employed in the informal sector whose subsistence was dependent upon daily earnings – invariably the poorest in society – that suffered the greatest hardships.

The more violent manifestations of the offensive took the form of destruction of life and property. The victims of these acts included political leaders and activists who were believed to be opposed to the insurrection, administrative officers of the state, those employed in the police force, suspected informants, violators of orders issued by the insurgents, and others almost randomly identified as recipients of favours from the government. Additionally, there were many instances of intended victims being forced to perform acts of penance in public in order to save their lives. This type of offensive also included several bomb attacks on political rallies and a partially successful attempt to assassinate the leaders of the ruling party at a government parliamentary group meeting.

Finally there were the raids on military bases, bank robberies, and the hijacking of vehicles, aimed at strengthening the armed offensive, demoralising the security forces, and humiliating the government.  From July 1987 to the end of 1989, 16 army camps, police stations and other installations of the armed forces were reported to have been attacked. Some such attacks achieved considerable success, yielding large hauls of arms and ammunition. The details relating to some of these attacks began to generate doubt not only about the capacity of the security forces to face the onslaught, but also on whether they were genuinely motivated to do so.

The vigilance which the government maintained over the JVP after its proscription in July 1983 was perfunctory, and appears to have taken the form of sporadic information gathering on clandestine politics in a few areas of the country. This process soon began to include the arrest and interrogation of those suspected of engaging in subversive activities (with the usual methods employed by the police), and, on occasions, their incarceration without trial.  In 1985 there were a few police raids on JVP hideouts, and several incidents of excessive police violence in the course of anti-subversive operations. Detailed information on the trends of this period could be interpreted in one of two ways.

The events of the 1986-89 time-span seem to substantiate this latter interpretation rather than the former to the extent that such events do not represent a steady move-and-countermove escalation of retaliatory confrontation between the government and the insurgents. What one could observe instead in the reactions and responses of the government at least up to the early months of 1989 is a wavering process guided by possibilities and imperatives as perceived in the short-run.

Following the announcement in June 1988 of a presidential election scheduled for December, the government became acutely conscious of the possibility of an alliance been forged between the parties of the opposition and the JVP. The expected SLFP-JVP link, however, failed to materialise. When Ranasinghe Premadasa assumed office as President in January 1989, Sri Lanka, as Jayatilleka (1995:1) has so lucidly explained, “…faced all three major categories of threats that any state could face: a threat to national independence and sovereignty; a threat to its territorial integrity; and a threat to the state apparatus and to state power itself.”  The accent of Premadasa’s initial approach to this third threat was essentially one of reconciliation. In order to match his verbal appeals to the insurgents with deeds, the new president lifted the “emergency regulations” that had been in force since July 1983, and released about 1,500 political prisoners from custody (Chandraprema, 1991:259).  This was accompanied by a perceptible curtailment of the intensity of anti-JVP operations, especially those undertaken by vigilante squads.

By mid-1989 it began to appear that neither the initial conciliatory gestures towards the JVP nor the subsequent enhancement of attempts by the government to bring the insurrection under control through repressive measures were able to produce the desired results. There was, in addition, an impression that the security forces were wayward in their response to the JVP threat, and lacked motivation to extend their efforts beyond the task of protecting themselves.  More significantly, unlike at any stage in the past, there was the distinct possibility of an eviction of state power from large areas of the country.  It was against this background that at the end of July 1989 the JVP issued what amounted to an ultimatum to the security forces to make a choice between joining the ranks of the insurrection or facing annihilation in the not too distant future.

The ultimatum, as the main writings on the insurrection referred to earlier have shown with hindsight, was an unwarranted gamble by the leaders of the JVP, and soon proved to be a fatal blunder, especially because it was accompanied by some massacres of those linked to the army and the police.  The resulting outrage produced, in turn, a backlash of unprecedented fury by the security forces, which engaged, officially, in massive cordon-and-search operations and mass arrests, and on occasions, collaborated unofficially in innumerable abductions and extra-judicial killings. The government offensive soon made exponential headway. Information obtained through torture of the captured JVP leaders brought about an avalanche of information used for further capture and liquidation. Wijeweera, taken into custody from his hideout on 12 November, was killed that same night. Gamanayake, JVP’s second in command, was dispatched a day later.  By the end of January 1990, almost all leaders of the insurrection had been hunted down. Of those who are known to have remained in the leadership ranks of the JVP since 1971 and through the events of the late 1980s, only one person was alive by May 1990.

The cost?  Only a few aspects could be quantified even on the basis of guess-work. Chandraprema (1991:312) has estimated that the total death-toll of the second insurrection was about 40,000.  According to his reckoning, the anti-JVP operations up to July 1989 would have resulted in “nothing more than eight thousand killings”(and) “…at least 15,000 people lost their lives” in the intensified counter-offensive of the last few months of that year.  The JVP meanwhile had “…finished off about 17,000 people.”  This latter figure exceeds the officially reported aggregate by about 4,250. The fate of the many suspected insurgents rounded-up and herded into prison camps remained unknown.  Probably the large majority among them were eventually released. A few were formally charged for various crimes including murder.

According to unpublished estimates by the Sri Lanka police, from the beginning of 1986 up to the end of 1989, the JVP had killed 6,376 persons, including over 1,700 activists of the ruling party, 480 administrative officers of the government, 339 police officers and 198 persons in the armed services (Hansard, 12 January 1990: 520).[8] The government counter-offensive began to have a perceptible impact only by about mid-1989. From then on, the offensive against the JVP made exponential headway. By the end of January 1990, almost all leaders of the insurrection and several thousands of their followers had been hunted down. According to the more reliable analyses of the insurrection of the late 1980s, the JVP death-toll was about 15,000. Coinciding as it did with a critical phase in the escalation of the ethnic conflict it had a disastrous impact on the economy of the country.

Since the re-entry of the JVP into mainstream politics in the early 1990s, it has made impressive advances.  Yet, in the more recent past the JVP has had several setbacks the most enervating of which being the widening of factional cleavages within its leadership resulting in the formation of breakaway groups. The popular appeal of its increasingly wayward leadership has also been diminishing. Meanwhile, more generally, the massive upsurge of popularity of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the leader of the SLFP, consequent upon his battlefield victory over the LTTE in May 2009, brought about an eclipse of all opposition parties from which they are yet to re-emerge. In these circumstances the JVP has had to confine itself largely to a strategy of attrition, employing whatever support it has among the youth for purposes of disruption probably in the hope that its cumulative effect would facilitate the rejuvenation of the party.

7.4. Estrangement of Ethnic Relations

Mutual interactions between the main ethnic groups of Sri Lanka date far back into history and have been featured by both violent confrontation as well as peaceful coexistence. Pre-modern historiographic traditions, preserved as they have been in Buddhist monasteries, have tended to highlight the distinctiveness of the Sinhalese-Buddhist elements of the country’s past, to associate Tamil cultural elements and Tamil involvements in the political affairs of Sri Lanka as part and parcel of South Indian intrusion and conquest. There could hardly be any doubt about the closeness of the connections that existed between the Dravidian kingdoms and empires of South India and the rulers of Sri Lanka, and about the fact that South India has throughout had a profound impact upon Sinhalese culture. It is also necessary to stress that, in a recorded history spanning well over 2,000 years, any synoptic generalisation on past interactions between the main ethnic groups of the country would be far too simplistic to be meaningful to attempts at understanding the nature of their present relations.

In areas of mixed ethnicity in Sri Lanka – Greater Colombo, some of the larger provincial towns, tea plantation areas of the Central Highlands, and the coastal lowlands of the east and the northwest – peaceful coexistence between the different ethnic groups in their social interactions could be considered the norm.  There have, of course, always been the subterranean rivalries and conflicts of interests such as those between land-owners and tenants or supporters of rival political parties which (as in the prime tea country of the highlands, or in certain localities of the eastern lowlands that correspond to ethnic differences) occasionally inflame the surface with mob violence. However, as observed in several in-depth studies of ethnically mixed communities, such as those of the slum-dwellers in Colombo, there have also been spells of intense political turmoil during which affinities and/or animosities associated with ‘class’ transcend those of ethnicity. (Silva & Athukorala, 1991: 124-125; Arachchige-Don, 1996: 125)[9]

The reference to a ‘norm’ of peaceful inter-ethnic relations should not be construed as implying that there has been no ethnic disharmony in the country. Indeed, the distinct long-term trend from the time Sri Lanka became a sovereign nation-state in the late 1940s has been one of increasing rivalry and estrangement of relations between the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils at the plane of national politics. Up to about the early 1980s, clashes between the Sinhalese and the Tamils (listed below in summary form) took place mainly in areas of mixed ethnicity, the usual pattern in such clashes being attacks by mobs belonging to the majority community in a given setting on those of the minority community.

(a) From October 1955 to June 1956 there were several confrontations between the opposing camps of the language dispute – those who demanded that Sinhala be made the sole official language of Sri Lanka, and those who demanded ‘parity of status’ for Sinhala and Thamil in the affairs of government. These took place mainly in Colombo.  The ‘parity of status’ camp consisted of the Tamil parties and the main Marxist parties (made up largely of the Sinhalese).

(b) In 1956 a wave of communal violence engulfed the newly opened-up settlements in the Gal Oya valley and adjacent areas of the Eastern Province. These were featured by Sinhalese and Tamil mob attacks on unarmed people of the opposing ethnic group. It took about 10 days for the situation to be brought under control.[10]

(c) In 1957 there was a series of protests in Jaffna peninsula, Trincomalee and Batticaloa by Tamils mainly against impending ‘official language’ legislation. In the early months of the year these took the form of the so-called “anti-Sri” campaign (i.e. protests in the north against the introduction of the Sinhala letter ‘Sri’ to the number-plates of motor vehicles).  There was a retaliatory response to this in the Sinhalese areas that took the form of obliterating Thamil versions on public name-boards. In the latter part of the year, Tamil protests were directed at the abrogation of the ‘Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact’ (an agreement between the Prime Minister and the leader of the Federal Party). These protests occasionally took violent forms, and also involved harsh police attacks on the protestors.

(d) In April 1958 there was a major wave of communal violence (homicide, arson, assault including rape, looting, etc.) in many parts of the country, It lasted for about 10 days. The overwhelming majority among the victims were Tamils. According to Tarzie Vittachi’s fascinating study of this episode (1958), its total death toll (including the rioters killed by the army) was about 150.

(e) A Satyagraha (peaceful protest) campaign of January 1961 was organised by the Federal Party in the Northern and Eastern provinces. This was suppressed through an army operation which caused humiliation and injury to the protestors – some among them, parliamentarians and others from the upper echelons of the Tamil community.

(f)  A campaign of protest was launched in January 1966 by several Sinhalese groups against the ‘Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act’ – legislation designed to increase the scope of the use of Tamil in government transactions. Police operation against this campaign involved the shooting and killing of a person which, in turn, evoked more rioting that caused damage to property.

(g)  From July 1972 to the end of 1973 many acts of violence (seen at that time as “isolated incidents”) were reported from the Jaffna peninsula. These included bomb-explosions at several public places and residences of political leaders; raids and bank robberies; and acts of sabotage at government institutions. The resulting arrests increased the levels of violence and the intensity of protests against the law enforcement authorities.  Most of these protests were spearheaded by a newly formed organisation called the ‘Tamil Youth League’.

(h) From about March 1974 the type of violence referred to above gradually escalated. Most of the attacks were directed at police personnel and police stations. Many police officers were gunned down. Among the political leaders killed by unidentified gangs during this period was the Mayor of Jaffna who had been elected to the post as a representative of the ruling party. There were, in addition, several bank robberies and raids of government trading establishments.

(i)  In 1977, a month after the parliamentary elections of July that year there was a brief wave of anti-Tamils violence in the Sinhalese-majority areas. It has been alleged that much of this violence was instigated by the parties defeated at the polls. The government did succeed in re-establishing law and order within a few days. Some retaliatory violence directed at the Sinhalese was also reported. This was inconsequential compared to the damage suffered by the Tamils.

(j)  By the early 1980s several organised groups, with their identity known to the law-enforcement authorities, had taken control over acts of terrorism and sabotage in Jaffna peninsula. The parliament had already passed legislation (in May 1978) to proscribe the known insurgent groups. Confrontations between the insurgents and the police/army increased in both frequency and ferocity.  Several Tamil civilians with known associations with the ruling party were gunned down. The violence perpetrated by the insurgents and the retaliatory acts of the security forces reached fever-pitch on the eve of elections to the newly instituted District Development Councils. (These were aimed at decentralisation of administrative authority). Some of the violence in Jaffna peninsula resonated in the Sinhalese areas of the country where, in response to the killing of those engaged in law enforcement in Jaffna (mostly Sinhalese), there were two waves of mob attacks on Tamil civilians, one in 1980 and the other in 1981.  The victims included ‘Indian Tamils’.

Under detailed scrutiny it is possible to identify in the long-term trend of deteriorating Sinhalese-Tamil relations three phases, each with distinctive confrontational characteristics. The first began in mid-1955 when the “official language dispute” emerged at the forefront of issues (see Item C of the list presented above). As mentioned earlier in this Chapter, the Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956 which provided for Sinhala being made the sole language of government in Sri Lanka caused bitter resentment among the Tamils. Despite subsequent modifications of this policy, Tamils have continued to perceive the higher status accorded to Sinhala as one of the main exemplifications of Sinhalese ‘majoritarian’ dominance of the Sri Lankan state. Eruptions of ethnic violence directly associated with the language dispute receded to the background by the early 1960s.

After a period of quiescence, conditions in the country drifted towards the second phase of ethnicity-based confrontation in the 1970s. This was featured by more vehement extra-parliamentary agitation by the leaders of the Sri Lankan Tamils for a greater share of political power, articulating a variety of real and perceived political and economic grievances. For example, the representatives of the main Tamil parties in parliament boycotted the process of constitution-making in 1971-72 as a gesture of their opposition to the concept of a unitary state of Sri Lanka. The dispute over a new system of selecting students for admission to the universities introduced in 1971 caused intense resentment in this community. The highly politicised procedures of job recruitment in state sector institutions (‘job-fixing’ by politicians holding the reins of office) was further cause for embitterment of the Tamils. The “peaceful” demonstrations of protest they staged in Jaffna at this time were featured by considerable violence. Their political rhetoric became increasingly vituperative and acrimonious. The government, in turn, with its massive majority in parliament, remained rigid in its stance on many controversial issues, seemingly unmindful of the deepening crisis in the north. Law enforcement became increasingly harsh.  It was under these conditions that there was a distinct escalation of Tamil militancy, and the inception of a formally declared separatist challenge to the integrity of the Sri Lankan state. In the country at large, political tensions generated by the turbulences in the Tamil areas of the north culminated in 1977 in a wave of anti-Tamil riots. Occurring as it did in the aftermath of the spectacular victory of the United National Party at the parliamentary elections of 1977 it appeared as if the riots had the sanction of the newly elected leaders of the country.

By the early 1980s, in the context of rapid economic advances under the new policy dispensation of ‘liberalisation’, there were faint indications of easing ethnic tensions. Over a brief spell, the prevailing economic buoyancy gave the government the self-confidence to enter into political negotiations with the Tamils, ignoring extreme ethno-nationalist viewpoints of the Sinhalese. This generated some optimism regarding the prospects of working out a constitutional arrangement that would satisfy the Tamil political demands.[11] The economic upsurge, however, was short lived, and the political hopes proved to be illusory.  Throughout these years, in Jaffna peninsula, there were persistent turbulences. These were perceived by the government as a “law and order problem”. The failure to contain the problem, however, resulted in the civilian administration losing grip in the face of massive sathyagraha (peaceful protest) campaigns, intensifying guerrilla attacks on government institutions and the security forces, and harsh retaliatory action by the security forces.

17-vp__five_at_camp-ponnamma_2 Pirapaharan & Tiger commanders at Sirimalai Camp in North India, 1984 — Pic from Rohan Gunaratna book

3-tiger_cadre_in_guns_cover Tiger recruits –– Pic by Dominic Sansoni in Gunaratne book cover21-black-tigers-marching Black Tigers marching at Kilinochchi – Pic from http://www.Puthunam

 7.5. Eelam Wars

The deepening crisis referred to above formed the backdrop to the onset of the third phase of the ‘Ethnic Conflict’ of Sri Lanka which was featured by several groups of Tamil militants undertaking the task of ‘liberating’ the Tamils from Sinhalese oppression by establishing ‘Eelam’ – an independent Tamil nation-state extending over the northern and eastern parts of the island – through armed insurrection. The ‘Eelam’ demand had been placed in a formal political plane in 1976 by the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF – a coalition of political parties representing the Sri Lankan Tamils).

It was triggered off by the anti-Tamil riot of July 1983 (referred to earlier) which caused extensive damage to life and property, and a massive displacement of the Sri Lankan Tamil population in the Sinhalese-majority areas – one which included an outflow of refugees from the country. It disrupted economic activity and brought the ‘liberalisation boom’ to an abrupt halt. It tarnished the image of Sri Lanka abroad, generated a global tide of sympathy towards the Tamils, and attracted international concern towards Tamil grievances. It paved the way for a direct intervention of India (untrammelled by pressures from the ‘west’) in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, culminating in the introduction in 1987 of a massive Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) into the northern and eastern parts of the country. It also represented a major turning point in the history of Tamil politics in Sri Lanka, with the militant groups and their strategy of armed confrontation and terrorism gaining ascendancy over the older Tamil political parties and their proclaimed commitments to peaceful agitation and protest. The militants became a power in their own right, abandoning their earlier role as the “boys” of the Tamil leadership in the political mainstreams (more or less in the same way it happened in Punjab and Assam). This phase of the secessionist insurrection has often been referred to as ‘Eelam War I’.

India’s role as mediator during the early stages of confrontation between the Sri Lanka government and the Tamil militants culminated in the signing of the so-called ‘Indo-Lanka Accord’ (a.k.a. ‘Rajiv-JR Pact’) on 29 July 1987 by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India and President J R Jayewardene of Sri Lanka.  The accord involved, inter alia, a pledge by the Colombo government to confine its armed forces operating in the ‘north-east’ to their barracks, and to implement constitutional reforms for the devolution of political power within the framework of the existing provinces (with the ‘north-east’ constituting a single provincial unit over an initial period of one year at the end of which the continuance of the two provinces as a single unit would be decided through a referendum); and a commitment on the part of Delhi to ensure the cessation of hostilities by Tamil militants. It was in pursuance of this latter objective that the IPKF was introduced into Sri Lanka in the immediate aftermath of signing of the accord entrusted the task of disarming the militants.

The IPKF, despite its massive size, failed to achieve this objective. Its two-year sojourn in Sri Lanka had, however, two unanticipated effects. First, the large-scale Indian military presence in Sri Lanka generated resentment among the Sinhalese mainly because the ‘accord’ itself had all the elements of enforcement of India’s will on Sri Lanka (or, even worse, servility of Colombo to Delhi). This added a ‘nationalist’ dimension to the on-going anti-government insurrection being led at that time by the JVP in the Sinhalese-majority areas of the country.  Secondly, it had the effect of enabling the LTTE – which stood alone among the Tamil militants in defiance of the Indian “disarming” efforts – to forge ahead of the other separatist groups (some of them through large-scale massacres) and, over time, establish its hegemony over the Eelam campaign.

 The outbreak of the so-called ‘Eelam War II’ took place closely on the heels of the withdrawal of the IPKF from Sri Lanka (29 July 1989 to 24 March 1990). Soon thereafter, President Ranasinghe Premadasa (Jayewardene’s successor), brought about a ceasefire and a spell of negotiation between his government and the LTTE. These ‘peace-talks’ collapsed in July 1990 with the ‘Tigers’ launching a series of stunning attacks on the government security forces, one of which involved the execution of some 600 policemen whom it had rounded up overnight as prisoners in parts of the Eastern Province.  ‘Eelam War II’ lasted over the next four years with neither side making significant headway. The ‘Tiger’ strategy at this stage entailed, among other things, an attempt at “ethnic cleansing” of the area which it claimed as the ‘Traditional Tamil Homeland’ by evicting the Sinhalese and Muslim inhabitants of the area, at times, with recourse to large-scale massacre.  It was also during this phase that the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi (former Prime Minister of India) and Premadasa (President of Sri Lanka). The Rajiv assassination brought about a sharp reduction of sympathy and support which the LTTE had in India.

This phase of the ‘Eelam Wars’ ended when Chandrika Kumaratunga became Sri Lanka’s fourth executive president, having been elected to that post in November 1994.  Peace talks were initiated in August that year, soon after the party led by her – the ‘People’s Alliance’ (PA) – won the parliamentary polls.  These negotiations and the accompanying ceasefire lasted over about 100 days, and ended abruptly on 19 April 1995, marking the commencement of yet another phase of military confrontation. About six months after the collapse of this peace effort the government launched a military campaign which, in December that year, culminated in the eviction of the LTTE from the Jaffna peninsula.

What followed over the next seven years – Eelam War III – was, arguably, the most destructive phase of the secessionist conflict. It was featured by: (a) high-intensity military confrontations with both security forces of the government as well as the LTTE using fairly sophisticated weaponry including surface-to-air missiles, truck-mounted multiple-rocket launchers, and other types of long-range artillery; (b) several large-scale offensives launched by the government forces, some of which incurred heavy death tolls on both sides; (c) LTTE attacks on army encampments and naval bases; and (d) extensive damage and destruction by the LTTE through several attacks on civilian institutions and installations outside the ‘north-east’ such as the main omnibus station of Colombo during the evening rush-hour, headquarters of the Central Bank, the petroleum refinery, the Colombo international airport, and the ‘Temple of the Tooth-Relic’ in Kandy (one of the most venerated Buddhist shrines).  This phase was brought to an end with the declaration by the government in December 2001 of a ceasefire in response to a month’s moratorium on hostilities announced by the LTTE.

This ceasefire was a product of the United National Front (UNF) victory at the parliamentary elections conducted in early December. The widespread support which the UNF had mobilised at the polls from the ethnic minorities of the country – Tamils and Muslims – was one of the main ingredients of its electoral success. This, in turn, was at least partly the outcome of the UNF pledge to pursue a negotiated peace settlement with the Tigers based upon an offer of partial autonomy to the Northern and Eastern provinces and thus make a major concession to the secessionist agitation.

A formal agreement – ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ (MOU) ‒ between the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and the LTTE, entered into on 22 February 2002, was intended to formalise the suspension of hostilities, and to pave the way for a direct dialogue between the government and the LTTE towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The negotiations envisaged by the MOU took place between mid-September 2002 and mid-March 2003 taking the form of 6 relatively brief sessions of deliberation between representatives of the two signatories, with ‘facilitation’ being provided by the government of Norway.[12]

The ‘ceasefire’ turned out to be a sham. It marked, not a genuine cessation of hostilities, but only a fairly sharp dip in the intensity of terrorist violence over a brief spell. Thus, the guarded optimism that prevailed at the end of the first year of the ceasefire had given way to a gloomy despair by mid-2003, with no progress whatever being made towards a lasting peace.

To gain an understanding of what the ‘ceasefire’ genuinely meant to the LTTE it is necessary, first, to look back into its ‘Eelam’ efforts of the preceding years. From military perspectives – both open confrontations as well as guerrilla warfare – the period after the eviction of the ‘Tigers’ from Jaffna peninsula in December 1995 by the armed forces of the government was, curiously enough, its high-noon. It was at this time that the LTTE succeeded in thwarting almost all major military campaigns launched by the Sri Lanka Army – ‘Operation Edibala’ (February 1997), ‘Operation Jayasikuru’ (May 1997-December 1998), ‘Operation Rivi Bala’ (December 1998), ‘Operation Rana Gosa’ (1999) and the first six offensives under ‘Operation Kinihira’ (1998-2000) – inflicting enormous losses, destroying many small encampments and outposts, and capturing the major army bases of the north at Mullaitivu (July 1996) and Elephant Pass (April 2000). The acquisition of a consignment of surface-to-air missiles and using the missiles to shoot down several fighter jets and cargo planes of the Sri Lanka air force, streamlining its international network of arms procurement and obtaining several shiploads of weaponry (some, even from licit sources from as far away as Ukraine and North Korea), and expanding its fleet of naval vessels, were among the other major military achievements of the ‘Tigers’ at this time. In addition, there were the sledge-hammer strikes on civilian targets such as the Central Bank (January 1996), the ‘Temple of the Tooth’ (January 1998), two mammoth election rallies (December 1999), the country’s only petroleum refinery (June 2000), and the Colombo International Airport (July 2001), alongside a spate of assassinations and four bomb attacks on rush-hour traffic in Greater Colombo, all of which took excruciatingly heavy tolls of life.

From the viewpoint of a continuing struggle for the creation of a new sovereign nation-state, however, the foregoing “achievements” had several negative features among which the excessively heavy manpower loss among the LTTE cadres was more important than any other at least from short-term perspectives.  The military confrontations referred to above resulted in a decline in the number of Tiger warriors from an estimated 15,000 in 1997 to 7,000 by early 2001 – a reduction in excess of fifty per cent. (The concurrent manpower losses of the security forces, though slightly larger in absolute numbers, were proportionately much smaller.) One of the consequences of this was the LTTE resorting to conscription of children, a practice abhorred by the civilised world. Another was the increasing dependence of the LTTE leadership on Tamil settlements in coastal areas of the Eastern Province for fresh recruitment of cadres.

Equally prominent on the debit side of the Tiger ledger was the fact that the pre-ceasefire battlefield victories, though impressive as guerrilla strikes, had not resulted in significant territorial gains except in a small area north of the township of Kilinochchi and the strategic ‘gateway’ of Elephant Pass. In the densely populated western segment of Jaffna peninsula, the heartland of the ‘Tamil Homeland’, despite the do-and-die attempts of the year 2000, there were no tangible gains. Indeed, through the operations ‘Agni Kheela’ and ‘Kinihira VII’ (both conducted at the end of 2000) the Sri Lanka army regained some of the territory lost to the LTTE in earlier confrontations in localities adjacent to the Palaly airbase and along the southern corridor of access to Jaffna.

Thirdly, and more significantly in the long term than all else, the LTTE failed to instigate the expected “southern civilian backlash” – retaliatory mob violence by the Sinhalese. What more could a terrorist outfit do to provoke the majority community into frenzied violence than to murder in cold blood hundreds of ordinary men, women and children; attempt the assassination of its most charismatic political leader of that time and maim her in the attempt; and destroy their most sacred religious site? The retaliation hoped for did not materialise. There was no re-enactment of ‘Black July’ (of 1983). On the other hand, ironically, this was the time when many thousands of Tamils fled Prabhakaran’s inferno in the north to find relative safety and scope for peaceful coexistence among the Sinhalese in Colombo and its suburbs.  As I have shown elsewhere (Peiris, 2006: 345-46), between 1981 and 2001, despite the massive displacement of Tamils from Greater Colombo during the communal violence of July 1983 and the steady exodus of an estimated 300,000 Tamils from Sri Lanka throughout the 1980s and the ‘90s, the Tamil population in Colombo District increased by 82,385, representing a surge of its ratio of the district total from 11.2% to 12.2%.

The ceasefire in its early stages enabled the LTTE to modify its strategies and thus make far more tangible advances towards ‘Eelam’ than during their military successes of earlier times. There was, over several years after the commencement of the ceasefire, no need to launch costly military offensives and defensive operations involving thousands of its cadres. It was now possible for the Tiger leadership to focus on recruitment and training, replenishment of the arsenal, infiltration of its armed cadres into government-controlled areas (as was done in the island of Kayts and Trincomalee town in the immediate aftermath of the ceasefire), and to shift discreetly into a war of attrition in the form of relatively low-key random attacks on encampments and patrols, stage-managing, where possible, “people’s uprisings against the Sinhalese army of occupation” of the Tamil homeland.  More generally, the ceasefire provided scope for tightening its grip over the ‘north-east’ – to command obedience from government employees serving in the area, to commandeer state sector resources, to establish a parallel system of law courts and police stations, to convert clandestine extortion to unconcealed ‘taxation’, to liquidate suspected fifth-columnists and collaborators with the enemy, to ravage the Muslims of the Eastern Province into submission, and, above all, to gradually install a network of military bases and encampments in localities of strategic importance from the viewpoint of a future military takeover of the entire ‘north-east’.

This was why S P Thamilchelvam, the Head of the LTTE Political Wing, was able to reject with disdain the proposals offered by the government in June 2003 on a ‘Provisional Administrative Structure’ for the north-east. The proposals constituted a clear indication of Colombo’s willingness to place under LTTE control almost all internal powers and functions of government except maintenance of law and order – an offer so generous that it was described by the British journalist Paul Harris as the “greatest give-away in history” in the face of terrorism (for which crime Harris was promptly deported from Sri Lanka at the insistence of the LTTE leadership!). Responding to the proposals, Thamilchelvam was reported to have asked the Norwegian mediators: “Why do we need these so-called concessions when we already have military parity with the Colombo government and a system of civil administration including courts of law and a police force of our own in the Northern and Eastern Provinces?”

The contents of the ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ (MOU) which formalised the ‘ceasefire’, and subsequent negotiations,  left hardly any room to doubt that the segment of the Sri Lanka government led by Prime Minister Wickremasinghe had indicated its willingness to curtail its constitutional rights without any corresponding concessions of the part of the LTTE except an undertaking to refrain from violence (which, of course, the LTTE did not fulfil even during the immediate aftermath of the signing of the MOU). Implicitly, the Wickremasinghe coterie had accepted the legitimacy of the demands and grievances being adumbrated by the LTTE leadership, especially those pertaining to the claims of an exclusive Tamil Homeland corresponding to the Northern and Eastern provinces, of rights of self-determination of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, and of the recognition of the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil segment of the country’s population. Thereafter, in the dialogue leading to the formal negotiations that began in mid-September 2002, the Wickremasinghe-led segment of the government had also conceded the LTTE demand that the impending ‘peace talks’ should be bi-lateral with no separate representation at the negotiating table for any other Sri Lankan group including the Muslims. By avoiding any dispute on these claims, Wickremasinghe and his followers appear to have believed that through a process of compromise with the LTTE on the specificities relating to its claims, it would be possible to achieve peace, reap the benefits of the ‘peace dividend’ of an abundance of foreign aid and investment, and live happily ever after.

In order to make their vision operational, those at the vanguard of the government’s peace efforts persuaded themselves that the Tigers, if enticed with offers of ‘self-determination’ within the existing state-structure of Sri Lanka, could be made to eschew violence, abandon their pursuit of Eelam, and, eventually, enter the mainstreams of democratic governance. In being so hallucinated, they preferred to ignore past experiences of negotiating with the LTTE, the persistence of the LTTE with acts of belligerence, the legitimacy of the demands and aspirations of the other communities including that of the majority community and the Tamil groups not aligned with the ‘Tigers’, and the endangerment of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity which an autonomous ‘north-east’ placed under Tiger hegemony could entail. There is hardly any room to doubt that the stance of the government of Sri Lanka throughout this time was guided largely by career ambitions of the prime minister and his close circle of collaborators in the so-called ‘peace effort’. Wickremasinghe’s grandiose vision was that, if the conflict with the LTTE could be brought to an end through any concession that falls short of immediate dismemberment of the nation-state of Sri Lanka, the consequent avalanche of aid and investment will bring about a massive upsurge of economic growth which, in turn, will eliminate poverty and the other basic causes of political unrest in the country including those that have found exemplification in the secessionist insurrection.

The logic of this mindset entailed, among other things, placing priority on what Wickremasinghe and his men referred to as “confidence-building” which, when converted to specific action, meant their indulgence in both self-delusion as well as deceiving the Sri Lankan people. Their approach entailed, on the one hand, the endorsement (or the pretence at acceptance) of the assertion that the LTTE campaign of secessionism with all its attendant brutality and mayhem represents a legitimate response to the denial of rights, discrimination, oppression and impoverishment of the Sri Lankan Tamils by the Sinhalese-dominated governments of the country; and, on the other, acquiescence in the face of the convoluted charges of ‘racism’, ‘fanaticism’, ‘genocide’, ‘deceit’ etc. levelled by Tiger spokesmen at the Sinhalese-Buddhist segment of the Sri Lankan population. The government’s response of silence to these condemnations was, of course, the best backing it could have given to the conversion of the ‘peace talks’ to a global campaign of anti-Sri Lankan and pro-Eelam propaganda by the LTTE.

The electoral defeat suffered by the Wickremasinghe-led United National Front (UNF) at the parliamentary elections of April 2004 and the transfer of all executive power to a cabinet of ministers consisting of persons drawn from the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) – a coalition of parties led by President Kumaratunga ‒ did not have a significant short-term impact upon the peace efforts. This was very largely the consequence of Kumaratunga’s approach to the search for peace being, in almost all respects, identical to that pursued by the defeated Prime Minister Wickremasinghe. This was due mainly to the priority she placed on prolonging her stay at the apex of political power in Sri Lanka, and her conviction that her desire to remain in power could be realised only through the establishment during the brief period left of her presidential tenure of a ‘Government of National Reconciliation’ consisting of her own party (UPFA), Wickremasinghe’s UNF and, hopefully, the Tamil political parties in mainstream politics. If such a political arrangement becomes a reality, and if the LTTE could somehow be appeased through concessions, it would be possible, she believed, to steer through parliament the constitutional changes that would enable her to remain in power and also gain an abundance of support from the international community.

President Kumaratunga’s efforts failed, and, at the presidential election conducted at the end of her term of office in mid-November 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa of the UPFA recorded a narrow victory over Ranil Wickremasinghe. It was at this presidential poll that the ‘Tiger’ leader Prabhakaran made the fatal blunder of ordering a boycott of the election in the ‘north-east’, thus helping Rajapaksa whose presidential bid was dependent largely on the support of the Sinhalese-Buddhist segment of the electorate, to edge out his rival.

Prabhakaran’s move was impelled by a belief that, if Rajapaksa becomes the president of Sri Lanka, given the nature of his support base and his electoral appeal, he would pursue a hawkish policy in respect of the ethnic conflict which would, in turn, attract international sympathy and support to the Eelam campaign. Although the new President did abandon the earlier policy of ‘appeasement at any cost’ which both Kumaratunga as well as Wickremasinghe had pursued, he displayed neither overt belligerence nor naive capitulation in the face of the Tiger menace. Following an initial spell of sustained peace efforts, it was through a gradual and almost imperceptible escalation of the government’s military efforts that he sought to respond to the terrorist threat. In this, it was the LTTE itself that ensured success for the new President’s strategy.

Much of what the Government of Norway did as ‘facilitator’ of the peace negotiations appears to have been guided by the axiom that, in order to achieve a peaceful resolution of the conflict, the two negotiating parties must have parity of status ‒ not merely in the formalities at the negotiating table, but militarily and in diplomatic relations. This, of course, meant that Norway soon became an invaluable ally of the LTTE. Erik Solheim, Norway’s ‘special envoy to Sri Lanka’, befriended Anton Balasingham, the leader of the LTTE negotiation team with such extraordinary intensity that a Norwegian group critical of Oslo’s interventions in Sri Lanka publicly accused Solheim of accepting a large bribe from the LTTE. The Government of Norway collaborated with the Wickremasinghe administration in procedural manoeuvres to supply the Vanni headquarters hi-tech communication equipment and various other commodities that could be used for military purposes. It also provided lavish assistance for several tours of LTTE leaders in European countries where there are large communities of Tamil migrants, being fully aware of the fact that such travel opportunities were being used for fund-raising. When ‘Colonel Karuna’ (alias Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) defected from the Tiger ranks in March 2004, it was Oslo that first conveyed to the world that the defection was an internal squabble in the LTTE high-command in which no outsider should interfere, and when that stance became ludicrous, ostracised Karuna, ensured through diplomatic manoeuvres that Colombo and Delhi do not take sides in the LTTE dispute, and stood loyally by the stunned Tiger leadership as its friend-in-need. Perhaps more important than all else was the fact that Norway remained throughout the most effective defender of the LTTE in the ‘international community’, justifying the ferocity of the Vanni leadership in its efforts to regain control of the east and, more generally, the Tiger atrocities of this time.

The LTTE leadership, despite the weakening of its grip on the eastern lowlands that resulted from the calamitous breakaway of the Karuna group in March 2004, persisted with unswerving commitment to its goal of establishing a sovereign Tamil nation-state encompassing the entire ‘northeast’ of Sri Lanka.  As in earlier times, its efforts were directed mainly at enhancement of military strength, expanding the territory under its control in the Northern and Eastern provinces and eliminating its rivals in that part of the country, mobilising international support for its cause, and destabilising the government of Sri Lanka through carefully regulated intimidation and terror. That instigating a Sinhalese backlash of violence against the Tamils living outside the northeast ‒ a re-enactment of 1983 ‒ also remained a prime objective was underscored by the assassination of Sri Lanka’s charismatic Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, a provocative outrage committed in final days of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s presidential tenure.

The intensifying LTTE violence, however, could not be ignored indefinitely. From the commencement of Rajapaksa’s presidency up to the bomb attack on the Army Commander (approximately 150 days), 150 armed services personnel (in addition to about 150 civilians) had been killed by the Tigers. The animosity between the LTTE and the security forces had reached such fever pitch, and the nationalists’ pressure for some retaliation had become so intense that the president was compelled to initiate a series of air strikes on identified LTTE bases.

The tempo of violence was increased further with a spate of attacks on military and civilian targets in all parts of the country. This was a prelude to the initiation by the Tiger leadership of the expected military showdown in the eastern lowlands on 20 July 2006. It took the form of a ‘riparian’ confrontation – the closure of the head-works of the Mavil Aru irrigation channel system (south of Trincomalee). The government retaliated in earnest. Thereafter, following a series of bloody battles that lasted up to mid-2007 in the course of which the LTTE incurred heavy losses, it was finally evicted from the entire Eastern Province.

In May 2008 the government of Sri Lanka launched a multi-pronged military offensive against the LTTE involving 5 to 7 divisions of its army, supported by the navy (which virtually sealed off the maritime contact of the LTTE with external sources of support) and the air force (which bombarded identified Tiger bases and encampments in the Vanni interior). Its progress over the months that followed appeared excruciatingly slow, especially when examined against the backdrop of the fact that resources of at least five to seven divisions, backed by aerial and naval support, were being pitted against a Tiger army – probably no more than 10,000 in numerical strength – progressively handicapped by depleting manpower and arms. The slow progress, it should be acknowledged was due mainly to the presence of a large number of Tamil non-combatants entrapped in the areas under Tiger control who were being used as a protective shield by the retreating LTTE. From the viewpoint of the government minimising civilian deaths in the venues of confrontation was necessitated both by the obvious humanitarian consideration as well as the fact that causing civilian casualties entailed the risk of external intervention in the conflict.

Toppigala 171b-troops in action

Faced with the relentless progress of Sri Lanka’s security forces, the slender hope of sustaining the secessionist campaign and of saving the remnants of the Tiger domain had by early 2009 come to depend almost entirely on a rescue bid from outside the country. However, neither the Tiger leader’s appeal to the international community for ‘humanitarian’ intervention nor his attempt to mobilise support among pro-LTTE groups in Tamil Nadu for fraternal intervention did bring him respite of solace. It is quite conceivable that, had the military operations of the government caused losses of civilian lives that could warrant a genuine charge of genocide, the rescue hoped for would have materialised.

That, with the military offensive gathering momentum, increasing numbers of Tamil residents of these areas risked their lives to flee and seek protection from the security forces of the government bears testimony to the effectiveness of the cautious approach adopted by the army. By early April 2009, the remnants of the  LTTE were confined to a sandy coastal strip of no more than about 4 square kilometres, surrounded in its entirely by the Sri Lanka army. Later in the month, the government forces succeeded in breaching the periphery of this LTTE stronghold and facilitating the escape of the entrapped civilians to the safety of the government-controlled areas. Soon thereafter, the shrinking Tiger bastion became the venue of the Armageddon of the Eelam Wars at which the entire LTTE leadership perished. The government offensive ended on 18 May 2009.

It does seem in retrospect that the government could claim credit for both the priority accorded in the military operations to the protection of the Tamil civilians being held in hostage by the Tigers as well as the rescue and relief provided to an estimated 300,000 of such civilians at the end of the war and thereafter.

The role performed by the Government of Norway as facilitator of Sri Lanka’s ‘peace effort’ was only the tip of the iceberg of foreign involvement in the country’s conflict. After the commencement of the ceasefire of December 2001, Norway had, in general, the backing of most western countries in the specific courses of action it pursued, although its attempts to promote the interests of the LTTE outside Sri Lanka had only qualified success, especially at forums such as the EU parliament.

Genuine humanitarian concern was possibly one of the influences that shaped the policy stances of the ‘west’ vis-a-vis the Eelam War. However, that concern, over the final phase of the war in particular, was strongly influenced by inappropriate and unrealistic human rights paradigms, on the one hand, and pro-secessionist disinformation on alleged violation of human rights in Sri Lanka, on the other. Moreover, certain types of ‘western’ intervention witnessed in the aftermath of the Eelam Wars convey the impression that what is being pursued is not the promotion of democratic governance and not the prevention of discrimination and oppression in Sri Lanka, but the perpetual enslavement of the nation.

In the aftermath of the war there has, indeed, been a highly effective campaign  led by the Tamil diaspora (with those belonging to the LTTE front organisations  in the developed countries constituting its vanguard) against Sri Lanka, based mainly on the charge of ‘war crimes’ alleged to have been committed in the course of the final Vanni offensive. With the vast resources channelled by the LTTE earlier to its war effort, now available for propaganda and subversion of Sri Lanka’s interests at an international plane, the leaders of the campaign have been able to muster the support of international ‘human rights’ organisations and certain powerful media firms, and influence decision-making in relation to Sri Lanka at the level of governments and the United Nations. In this respect it is possible to discern similarities between the ongoing Tamil diaspora ‘backlash’ and that of the Sikh diaspora in the aftermath of the Khalistan insurrection.

***   ***

Peiris, Gerald H.

1999 “Poverty, Development and Inter-Group Conflict in South Asia,” Proceedings of the World Conference on The Global Development Network, Bonn, Germany.

2006 Sri Lanka. Challenges of the New Millennium, Kandy, Kandy Books.

2009 Twilight of the Tigers: Peace Efforts and Power struggles in Sri Lanka, New Delhi, OUP.



[1]. This chapter is based largely on my own writings, especially, Peiris, 1999, 2006 and 2009.

[2].   Theravada refers to the orthodox school of Buddhism that has its literary traditions in the Pali language. It is the main form of Buddhism prevalent in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. A popular belief among Sri Lankan Buddhists is that Theravada adheres closely to the original teachings of the Buddha and that their country has been the citadel of Buddhism in its pristine form.  This belief is often regarded by scholars as an ingredient of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism.

[3]. This assertion is not accepted without dispute in relation to the Tamils of Jaffna whose elite could have included those having hereditary links with higher caste groups of South India.

[4].  A detailed analysis of these ‘external impulses’ of the LTTE revolt is furnished in Peiris (2002).

[5]. A detailed probe into this dimension of political conflict in Sri Lanka has been attempted in Chapter 11.

[6].  Major research writings on this insurgency include: Blackton, 1971; Crump, 1971; Deutscher, 1971; Halliday, 1971; Phadnis, 1971; Arasaratnam, 1972; Gough & Sharma, 1972; Warnapala. 1972; Kearney, 1973; Obeyesekere, 1974; Fernando, 1976; Samaranayake, 1983; Alles, 1990; Gunaratne, 1990;  and Peiris, 1999.

[7]. These estimates are based on information from various sources (see, foot-note 7) including contemporary press reports.

[8]. Hansard (Record of proceedings of the Sri Lanka parliament), document tabled by the Minister of Defence.

[9]. Cited in Peiris, 1996: 373-374, where the phenomenon of peaceful coexistence in multi-ethnic settings has been discussed in greater detail.

[10]. A detailed eye-witness account of this riot was presented by S J Tambiah, (Harvard University anthropologist of international repute) who, as an Assistant Lecturer of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, was conducting field investigations in the Gal-Oya valley, to Sir Ivor Jennings, the Vice-Chancellor of the university at that time. A copy of this valuable report was found by me some years ago among the discarded records of the university. This account has been reproduced in Tambiah, 1996: 87-94

[11]. The establishment of District Development Councils in 1981 was seen as a concrete step in the direction of ethnic reconciliation. It was based upon the recommendation of a Presidential Commission of which two of the most articulate members were experts in aspects of constitution-making. They were both Sri Lankan Tamils having close personal links with the political leadership of the community.

[12] The most prominent feature of the general background of this peace effort was the global tide of revulsion against terrorism in the aftermath of the ‘9-11’ calamity. To the international activities of the LTTE it meant an induced spell of hibernation. There was, in addition, a hardening of the Indian government’s stance towards the Tigers. This, it appears, reflected the impact of several factors ‒ notably, the realisation of the potential threat posed by Tamil secessionism in Sri Lanka to the integrity of India, the persistence of the wayward strands of Tamil nationalism in South India as represented by, say, the MDMK of Tamil Nadu and its leader V Gopalasami (alias ‘Vaiko’), and the re-emergence of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination as a live issue in electoral politics.



Filed under accountability, american imperialism, British colonialism, caste issues, communal relations, devolution, governance, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, JVP, landscape wondrous, Left politics, legal issues, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, Muslims in Lanka, nationalism, politIcal discourse, population, power politics, prabhakaran, Presidential elections, Rajapaksa regime, security, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, vengeance, war reportage, welfare & philanthophy, working class conditions, world events & processes

6 responses to “Discontent and Confrontational Violence in Sri Lanka, 1948-2009

  1. Eddie Wijesuriya

    Never a dull moment.

    On Thu, Sep 22, 2016 at 12:06 PM, Thuppahi’s Blog wrote:

    > thuppahi posted: “Gerald Peiris, being Chapter 7 from his book Political > Conflict in South Asia (2013, University of Peradeniya) — a chapter based > on his previous writings [1] The survival of the principle of > representative government based upon universal adult fran” >

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