June 26, 2009
One of the most significant but least-heralded international events last month was the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, which had lasted for nearly three decades. The uprising began in 1983 after Tamil demands for greater autonomy were rejected, and over 70,000 people were killed in the ensuing war. During the middle of May, the Sri Lankan army routed the remnants of the ethnic rebel army known as the "Tamil Tigers," and killed their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. The circumstances of his death remain in question, however; see BBC. In the last weeks of the conflict, many civilians were killed by artillery shells fired by the Sri Lankan army. The victors showed no mercy to the survivors, opting instead for total annihilation. It may ensure peace in the short term, but will probably make any attempt at reconciliation with the Tamil minority more difficult in the long term. There will no doubt be investigations of the Sri Lankan final offensive by human rights organizations, and any negative findings would undermine the credibility of the government in Colombo. So, even though this was a decisive defeat from a military standpoint, there remains a possibility that exile leaders may regroup and begin preparations for a new resistance movement in the years to come.
The Tamils are concentrated in the northeastern part of Sri Lanka, and until a few months ago had a stronghold and functioning government are kin to the Dravidian ethnic group that populates the southeastern part of India. They claim to have an ancient history residing on the island, but the native Sinhalese claim that the Tamils are relatively recent immigrants; see the historical article by Prof. S. Ranwella. When the British colony of Ceylon (as it was known until 1972) became independent in 1948, the Tamils were deprived of citizenship rights because they had enjoyed special privileges under British rule and were considered subversive, and likely to help India take over the island nation.
The fears of the Sinhalese seemed to be borne out in 1987, when India sent troops to try to end the civil war in Sri Lanka. Largely because of mutual mistrust, however, the intervention backfired badly, and the Indian forces were soon withdrawn. The Tamil Tigers were saved from imminent defeat, and used the respite to regroup and rebuild, which resulted in an escalation of the violence and death. See FPRI.org.
A large majority of Tamils are Hindus, though some are Muslims, whereas the Sinhalese majority of Sri Lankans are predominantly Buddhists. Ironically, the Buddhist faith had largely disappeared from the rest of India by the year 1200, even though Buddha Gotama himself lived in what is today northern India, in the 6th Century B.C. Hindu religious nationalism has become inflamed in recent years by Muslim extremists, such as the notorious terrorist attack on Mumbai (Bombay) last November. In other words, there are a wide variety of geopolitical, cultural, and ethnic factors which made national unity and peace in Sri Lanka very difficult.