Sri Lanka: Conflict Profile

Sri Lanka has been ravaged by a long running and bloody civil war, due to ethnic tensions between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Hindu Tamil minority. The conflict cost the lives of an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 citizens and hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced. Although the war ended in May 2009, ethnic division remain entrenched and human rights abuses are widespread.

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 arises 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.

Conflict History

Female Tamil Tiger fights on parade in Killinochchi, Sri Lanka

Photo credit: Foto_di_Signorina

The civil war broke out in July 1983. Conflict in the North and East was mainly between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Violence was also fuelled by insurrections carried out by the Janathā Vimukthi Peramuṇa (JVP), a Marxist and Sinhalese nationalist political party.

After the outbreak of war numerous attempts at peace negotiations and ceasefires were interspersed with further conflict outbreaks. The situation was worsened by the 2004 tsunami, which killed tens of thousands of people.

In 2008 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. He was then freed in 2012, after two and a half years in jail.

It is clear that the country is still far from creating a stable peace. At the end of 2012, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, there were still approximately 370,000 internally displaced people in Sri Lanka.

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. 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.

Civilians displaced by the conflict in Sri Lanka. Photo credit: trokilinochchi. Uploaded under a Creative Commons License.

Civilians displaced by the conflict in Sri Lanka. Photo credit: trokilinochchi. Uploaded under a Creative Commons License.

Ongoing repression and human rights abuses

Navi Pillay, UN Commissioner for Human Rights, in 2009 accused both sides of war crimes. In 2013, after a week-long visit, Pillay sharply criticised the government for its human rights record and said that Sri Lanka was “showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction”. There is little indication that the government has any plans to deal with these criticisms and president Rajapaksa has rejected all the allegations.

The absence of media freedom raises further concerns. Attacks on journalists and human rights activists are common, but no-one has been prosecuted for any of these attacks. Amnesty International has repeatedly accused Sri Lanka of intensifying crackdown on dissent and expressed concern for the persecution of human rights activists. The organisation has also urged the Commonwealth not to hold its 2013 summit there.

Last updated: October 2013