Background on Sri Lanka – Archived

History of Sri Lanka 


Before the War

Sri Lanka is an island historically inhabited by Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims, and other communities, with the Tamil nation concentrated in the North-East. The majority of Sinhalese are Buddhist, while Tamils are largely Hindu, with significant Christian populations. The Muslim minority generally speaks Tamil. Following independence from the British in 1948, the Sinhalese majority engaged in state-building that enshrined Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy in state institutions. Although Tamils campaigned for political rights and equality, their democratic efforts were rebuffed by leaders beholden to their Sinhala nationalist electorate – a population which carried out anti-Tamil pogroms every time Tamil political demands gathered momentum.


Consecutive Sinhalese leaders also passed laws designed to disenfranchise and oppress Tamils. A notable instance was the ‘Sinhala Only Act’ of 1956 which removed Tamil and English from official, government and public status, forcing thousands of Tamils out of the public sector, and imposing Sinhala in the education and administration in Tamil-speaking regions. A new constitution in 1972 renamed the country from “Ceylon” to “Sri Lanka” and codified the supremacy of Buddhism in the state. 

1975 – 1983: War Breaks Out

Frustrated with failed efforts to secure their rights, Tamil resistance movements became more radical. However, their efforts to organize were met with violent state crackdowns. In 1975, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was formed, vowing to create an independent Tamil state. In 1977, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which had adopted a resolution calling for the creation of an independent Tamil state the previous year, won the majority of seats in Tamil areas in the parliamentary elections, stating this confirmed the popularly and democratically-backed case for an independent Tamil Eelam. The election results sparked a renewed crackdown from the state and anti-Tamil pogroms. Advocating for a separate state, or activities that could be interpreted as harming the unity of Sri Lanka were outlawed, in effect making Tamil political representation illegal overnight. In 1981, the Jaffna library, a significant repository of Tamil culture and history, was attacked by Sinhala mobs who destroyed tens of thousands of ancient, irreplaceable Tamil manuscripts. Importantly, state security forces looked on and choose not to intervene. This was considered by many as an act of cultural genocide. In 1983, state-sponsored Sinhala mobs armed with electoral lists identifying Tamil households massacred thousands of 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.

1983 – 2008: Early Years

Sri Lankan military, security and paramilitary forces, including Sinhala “homeguards”, committed hundreds of massacres of Tamil civilians throughout the armed conflict, both while the war raged on and while both parties were observing various ceasefire agreements. Muslim homeguards were also involved in attacks against Tamil civilians. As tensions increased, the LTTE 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. Meanwhile, the LTTE also decimated other Tamil groups, accusing them of collaborating with the Sri Lankan and/or Indian state. The LTTE enjoyed much support by the Tamil people and ran a de facto state with parallel state institutions in the areas under its control, including police forces and a judiciary. An internationally-supported ceasefire led to negotiations between the government and the LTTE in 2002, however low-level violence resumed soon after.

2008 – 2009: Final Years

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. In September 2008, the government ordered international organizations and aid agencies out of LTTE-controlled areas, to avoid international witnesses and scrutiny. The military then deliberately targeted Tamil civilians with aerial bombings and artillery shelling, massacring tens of thousands of Tamil civilians and completely destroying parts of the Tamil homeland. The Sri Lankan state’s targeting of designated civilian so-called “safe zones” was so systematic and thorough that Tamil doctors and medical staff on the ground decided to stop giving the coordinates of makeshift hospitals to the Red Cross, reasoning that these coordinates were being used as targets by the government. Tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone were unable to access food or medicine due to the government’s deliberate blockading of humanitarian aid to the area. The LTTE also stands accused of war crimes, including forced recruitment of underage fighters. 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 the most heinous atrocities and war crimes perpetrated in the 21st century. Tamils widely call the Sri Lankan government’s crimes against them to be genocide. 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.

Post – 2009: The Aftermath

A systematic campaign of sexual violence and summary executions was then 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 alive in army custody and then his dead body with bullet wounds in his head. It has been over nine years since the end of the war, and those surrendered remain disappeared without a trace. Despite promises made to the international community, the Sri Lankan government has made scant progress on providing families of the disappeared with answers or on its other commitments towards accountability. On the contrary — Sri Lankan leaders have repeatedly vowed to protect their armed forces from war crimes charges. The Sri Lankan government has also failed to scale-back the military occupation of the Tamil homeland. Tamils must 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, monopolizing 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 take 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.

People for Equality and Relief in Lanka

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