Sri Lanka: Conflict Profile
The Roots of the Conflict
Tensions in Sri Lanka first boiled over into a civil war in 1983, but the roots of the conflict extend far further than that. The conflict takes its roots from the tensions between the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the mainly Hindu Tamil minority, who now make up 82 per cent and 9 per cent of the country’s population respectively. Prior to the conflict these statistics were 74 per cent and 18 per cent, indicating the huge numbers of Tamils who have fled the country.
Prior to independence in 1948, the Sinhalese felt discriminated against by their British rulers, leading to the development of Sinhalese political nationalism. With independence and the establishment of a first-past-the-post electoral system, much of the power was placed in the hands of Sinhalese governments. These governments brought in legislation leading to the increasing marginalisation of the Tamil minority, including the 1956 Official Language Act. This led to increasingly strained relations between the two groups and numerous violent riots.
This increasing violence led to the eventual outbreak of war in July 1983. Conflict in the North and East was mainly between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); however the violence in Sri Lanka has also been fuelled by insurrections carried out by the Sinhalese Peoples Liberation Front (JVP). The situation has also been worsened by the 2003 Tsunami which affected all of the communities in Sri Lanka. After the outbreak of war numerous attempts at peace negotiations and ceasefires were interspersed with further conflict outbreaks. After the failure of the most recent peace talks President Rajapaksa began a military offensive aimed at achieving complete victory over the LTTE. Victory was declared in May 2009 after the last of the LTTE controlled areas were captured, but numerous questions remain over the country’s prospects for peace.
Prospects for Peace
The presidential elections were held in January 2010. President Rajapaksa was re-elected with 57 per cent of the vote, but has faced allegations of intimidation and misuse of state resources. His main rival, General Foneska gained 40 per cent of the votes and was quickly arrested after the election.
It is clear that the country is still far from creating a stable peace. The issues at the root of the LTTE insurgency have not been addressed – in fact the brutal nature of the final days of the war may have exacerbated them. It is estimated that the war has killed approximately 80,000 people and displaced around 1 million civilians. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates there are approximately 370,000 internally displaced people in Sri Lanka. Navi Pillay, UN Commissioner for Human Rights in 2009 has accused both sides of war crimes and there is little indication that the government has any plans to deal with these allegations. In addition to the allegations against President Rajapaksa, there are allegations of government corruption, and the absence of media freedom raises further concerns.
Furthermore, despite considerably calm and fair parliamentary elections in April 2010 – with the expected ruling coalition’s landslide – the end of the year witnessed rising tensions and the newly elected Sri Lankan Parliament approving a constitutional change, allowing President Rajapaksa to seek an unlimited number of terms.
In February 2011, thousands of protesters, marking the one-year anniversary of the detention of the opposition leader in the aftermath of the 2010 elections, powerfully illustrated the fragility of Sri Lankas’s post-war society.Civilians displaced by the conflict in Sri Lanka. Photo credit: trokilinochchi. Uploaded under a Creative Commons License.
Last updated: February 2011