Sri Lanka is an island historically inhabited by Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, with the Tamil nation being concentrated in the North and East. Following independence from the British Empire in 1948, the Sinhalese majority engaged in a project of state-building that enshrined Sinhala supremacy and Buddhist chauvinism. Although Tamils campaigned for political rights and autonomy, their democratic efforts were rebuffed by leaders beholden to their Sinhala nationalist electorate – a population which carried out anti-Tamil pogroms and riots at any turn where Tamil political demands gathered the slightest momentum.
As well as ignoring and dismantling Tamil campaigns for rights, consecutive Sinhalese leaders legislated for the disenfranchisement and oppression of Tamils. A notable instance was the ‘Sinhala Only Act’ of 1956 which wrote Tamil and English out of official, government and public status, pushing thousands of Tamils out of the public sector, and imposing Sinhala onto education and administration in Tamil-speaking regions. A new constitution in 1972 renamed the country to Sri Lanka and codified the supremacy of Buddhism in the state.
Frustration with failed efforts to secure their rights, Tamil resistance movements became more radical, although their efforts to organise were met with violent state crackdowns. In 1977, the TULF, which advocated for a separate Tamil state, won all seats in Tamils areas in the parliamentary elections, stating the popularly and democratically-backed case for Tamil Eelam. The election results sparked a renewed crackdown from the state and was also followed by anti-Tamil pogroms in the South.
In 1983, state-sponsored Sinhala mobs armed with electoral rolls massacred over 3000 Tamils living in Colombo and other parts of the South. This marked the beginning of the descent into all-out war between the Sri Lankan state and Tamil militant groups, mostly the LTTE.
Sri Lankan military, security and paramilitary forces, including Sinhala and Muslim “homeguards”, committed hundreds of massacres of Tamil civilians, throughout the armed conflict, both while the war raged on and while both parties were observing a ceasefire agreement. As tensions increased, the LTTE also killed Sinhala and Muslim civilians, particularly in the border regions. Violence between Tamils and Muslims escalated, culminating in the 1990 expulsion of Muslims from LTTE-controlled areas of the Northern Province.
Officially pulling out of the final ceasefire in 2008, the Sri Lankan government, backed by the international community, launched an all-out offensive against the LTTE. Following a campaign that saw the deliberate targeting and massacring of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians and the complete destruction of parts of the Tamil homeland, the Sri Lankan government declared victory on May 18th 2009.
With upwards of 70,000 civilians estimated to have been killed, the final government offensive saw some of those most heinous atrocities and war crimes perpetrated in the 21st century.
The Sri Lankan state’s targeting of designated civilian so-called safe zones was so systemic and thorough that Tamil doctors and medical staff on the ground decided to stop giving the coordinates of makeshift hospitals to the Red Cross. Tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the warzone were unable to access food or medicine due to the government’s deliberate blockading of humanitarian aid to the area.
A systematic campaign of sexual violations and summary executions was unleashed upon surrendered and captured LTTE fighters, with Sri Lankan soldiers filming trophy videos of their abuses. Photographs published after the war showed the LTTE leader’s 12-year-old son both alive in army custody and then his dead body with bullet wounds on his head.
The LTTE also stands accused of war crimes, including forced recruitment of underage fighters.
As civilians fled the war zone, the Sri Lankan Army demanded the surrender of any individual connected to the LTTE, including children who had been recruited or those involved in non-combat duties. With the promise that they would be registered and allowed to return, thousands of Tamil families surrendered their loved ones.
Over eight years after the end of the war and those surrendered remain disappeared without a trace. Their families, having exhausted all routes have been protesting on the roads of Tamil towns for over five months now.
Despite promises made to the international community, the Sri Lankan government has made no progress on providing these families for answers or on any other commitments towards accountability. Sri Lankan leaders have repeatedly vowed to protect their armed forces from war crimes charges.
Neither have any moves have been made to scale-back the military occupation of the Tamil homeland. Our most recent report found that in Mullaitivu district, the location of the final stages of the war, there is one soldier stationed for every two civilians. Tamils are forced to live beside and under the very forces that perpetrated horrific atrocities against their communities.
The military forces also have a hand in all aspects of civilian life, monopolising tourism, agriculture, fishing and small-time commerce in Tamil areas as well as intervening in Tamil preschools, schools and hospitals. Much of the military’s commercial activities takes place on the appropriated land of Tamil civilians, which along with the maintenance of vast ‘high security zones’, means that thousands of Tamils remain displaced from their homes and their livelihoods.
With no answers and no accountability for the atrocities of 2009 and the decades before, and no indication that their homeland will be demilitarized, peace remains a far-flung concept for Tamils in the North-East.