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Wednesday, January 28, 1998 Published at 20:50 GMT


Sri Lanka: How ethnic tensions grew

The Tamil Tigers were declared illegal by the Sri Lankan government on January 26

Sri Lanka's ethnic groups

Sri Lanka is a diverse nation. Sinhalese make up 74% of the population and are concentrated in the more densely populated south-west. Ceylon Tamils, whose South Indian ancestors have lived on the island for centuries, form around 12% of the population and live in the north and the east.

Although Sinhalese are the clear majority, they are a majority with a minority complex, fearing the influence of the huge Tamil population across the Palk Straits in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The different groups tend to lead highly-segregated lives and live within their own communities, apart from in the capital, Colombo.

Indian Tamils, a distinct ethnic group, represent about 6% of the population. They were brought to India in the nineteenth century by the British, to work in the tea and rubber plantations. They tend to live in south-central Sri Lanka. The population of Indian Tamils has been declining as many are repatriated to India.

Other minorities include Veddas, Muslims (both Moors and Malays), and Burghers who are descendants of European colonial settlers.

Most of the Sinhalese community are Buddhist, most Tamils are Hindu. Most of the Muslims practice Sunni Islam.

Historical origins

Sri Lanka claims the world's second oldest continuous written history, a history which chronicles the hostility between the Sinhalese ('people of the lion'), who probably came to Sri Lanka from India around the 6th century BC and became Buddhists when the religion arrived around three hundred years later, and the Tamils who came from Southern India a few centuries later.

Chronicles and religious mythology have played a key role in developing communal identity and animosity on the multi-ethnic island. Tension began as far back as 237 BC but the stories of that period have been coloured by the religious nationalism and revivalism of the twentieth century. The Sinhalese see the unity of the island as intertwined with the Buddhist faith and oppose any attempt to divide it or give the Tamil areas greater autonomy.

In the early sixteenth century, the first Portuguese traders began to arrive and the Dutch supplanted the Portuguese, who were then in turn supplanted by the British, although Dutch influence remains in some areas, including the law. Britain took full control of the island in 1815 and established a plantation economy. In 1931, the British granted Ceylon self-rule and a universal franchise. On February 4, 1948 Ceylon became independent.

Tamil grievances

The British colonial policy of divide and rule sowed the seeds of renewed tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities after Independence. Tamils, although well-educated, were given a disproportionate number of top jobs in the civil service by the British. Once the Sinhalese majority held sway, its politicians sought to redress the balance with populist but discriminatory policies against Tamils.

In 1956, the victory of SWRD Bandaranaike on a platform of Sinhalese nationalism led to him declaring Sinhala to be the country's official language among other anti-Tamil measures. Communal tension and violence increased from 1956 onwards as Tamils became increasingly frustrated.

By the mid-70s, Tamils were calling for a separate state in the north and east of the country. In the 1977 elections, the separatist TULF won all the seats in Tamil areas, while groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began to use violence for the same ends.

In 1983, the country erupted into full scale communal violence after 13 soldiers were killed by Tamils. Hundreds of Tamils were killed in Colombo and 100,000 fled to south India. Members of the TULF were thrown out of parliament and the security forces moved into the north and east of the country to try to drive out militant groups.

As the situation deteriorated, with human rights violations on both sides, Prime Minister Jayawardene sought to involve India through an agreement with its Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. India has a population of around 55 million Tamils, mainly in the state of Tamil Nadu and some Sri Lankans felt that the LTTE was gaining considerable support from them. Negotiations began in 1985 and the Sri Lankan government made a number of concessions to the Tamils with some devolution of power and official status for the Tamil language.

In 1987 the Sri Lankan government went on a major military offensive in the north of the island but India raised objections to the methods used and warned that it would intervene on humanitarian grounds if it thought the Tamils were being starved out. Relations between the two countries deteriorated rapidly as Indian planes dropped supplies into Jaffna. In July 1987, India and Sri Lanka signed an accord, which the LTTE at first went along with, to try to settle the problem through devolution and greater autonomy for the Tamils while an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) would disarm the rebels.

Concessions of autonomy to the Tamils led to a backlash among the Sinhalese population, especially around proposals to merge the northern and eastern parts of the island into a Tamil-dominated province. Sinhalese nationalism began to grow and was fanned by Bandaranaike's SLFP. It found violent expression in the JVP, who fought against the accord with India, undermining the government's position. The JVP assassinated a number of political figures and tried to intimidate voters during the 1988 election.

Meanwhile, in the North, the accord was repudiated by the LTTE after the death of 15 of its fighters in custody. The Indians were then drawn into fighting with the Tamil Tigers with whom they were ill-equipped to deal.

In 1989, peace talks resumed between the LTTE and Premadasa which led to Premadasa calling for the withdrawal of Indian troops. India withdrew its forces from Sri Lanka in May 1990. On May 21, 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in India during an election campaign trip. The Tigers were held responsible for the killing.

Attempts have continued intermittently for the last few years to try to resolve the conflict but all have proved unsuccessful. In January 1995, the government and the Tigers agreed a truce, but this only lasted for a short period as the Tigers saw the proposals as inadequate and fighting resumed.

In October of that year, the government launched an all-out offensive against the Tamil Tigers, in which important territory was taken including, in April 1996, the Jaffna peninsula.

But the Tigers, who have considerable resources, show no signs of giving up and continue to attack military bases and use suicide bombers. In April 1997, then-British Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, was involved in trying to broker an agreement between the government and opposition parties to try to end the conflict. The rebels also assassinated two members of Sri Lanka's parliament in July 1997 in the eastern port of Trincomalee.

Overall, an estimated 50,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

Recent Events

On October 15 1997, Tamil Tiger guerrillas exploded a truck bomb and fought street battles with security forces in the heart of Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. 18 people were killed and 105 wounded. Officials said the attack was aimed at the new 39-storey World Trade Center (WTC) building which also houses the Colombo Stock Exchange, the Central Bank and several foreign companies. The attack represented a serious blow to the Sri Lankan economy which was just beginning to pick up and attract foreign investment.

The previous week, the U.S. State Department added the Tigers to its list of terrorist organisations, outlawing their activities and fund raising in the United States. The Tigers said the U.S. action would only escalate the war. The Sri Lankan government has been pursing a successful programme of trying to marginalise the Tigers internationally and emphasise their role as terrorists.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga condemned the attack and said it would not deter her from efforts to resolve the civil war. She has proposed constitutional changes that would give more autonomy to all of Sri Lanka's provinces, including those dominated by Tamils. But her offer falls short of the independence Tamil militants have called for.

Sinhalese extremists have also criticised the plan as giving away too much to the Tamils who have said that they will continue their fight for self-determination. Most of the fighting has come in a fierce offensive by the government to capture a strategic highway. The offensive began in May 1997 and is continuing to cause major casualties on both sides.

On January 26 this year, the Sri Lankan government declared the LTTE an outlawed organisation with immediate effect. The move came after the bombing of a 16th century Buddhist shrine regarded as one of the most sacred in the Buddhist world. The attack killed sixteen people. The banning of the group scuppers any chance of negotiating an end to the violence in the short-term.

The US banned the group in 1997, while India banned the LTTE after it was implicated in the 1991 assassination of Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. The move will cause some complications for Britain as the Tamil Tigers have a headquarters in London and use it to raise funds -- funds which its critics claim are used for terrorist attacks.

February 4 1998 saw Sri Lanka's 50th anniversary of Independence celebrations, with Britain's Prince Charles among the invited dignitaries.





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