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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

What does the future hold for Sri Lanka?

Éric Meyer

Texte intégral

1May 2005

2Sri Lanka’s (former Ceylon) political system, society and economy were thoroughly shaken up by more than a quarter of a century-old conflict (1983-2009) between the Sinhalese majority government (75% of the population) and the Tamil separatist guerrilla led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The latter controlled vast territories between 1990 and 2007 in the north and east of the island, and had built a force capable of inflicting heavy losses on the Colombo army, having lost most of its territories and military potential since 2008, and finding itself driven to defeat on a cramped coastal strip where it was retaining about fifty thousand civilians at the end of April 2009 to use them as a human shield. After suspending hostilities for two days on the occasion of Sinhalese and Tamil New Year (14th April), fights resumed and the Sri Lankan army made their way towards the sea, triggering a mass migration of civilians, which as of 29th April, continued under disastrous sanitary conditions.

The sick man of South Asia

3LTTE’s predicted defeat does not, however, settle the serious problems gathered over the years, making Sri Lanka the sick man of South-Asia. The chronic unrest of the “ultra-nationalist” Sinhalese groups adds to the separatist claim of the Tamils of the north and east of the island (about 18% of the population), which is orchestrated by two organisations: the Marxist-run Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (the People’s Liberation Front), but now highly xenophobic, responsible for two revolutionary waves severely repressed by the ruling party in 1971 and in 1987 until to 1989; and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (the National Heritage Party), inspired by the fundamentalist Buddhist monks.

4Moreover, the years of war, rebellion and repression that killed about a hundred thousand people, have left behind permanent scars, broken-up families, a culture of violence and impunity. They have struck almost irremediable blows to a democracy and a welfare state, which were considered models until the 1970s. The tsunami in December 2004 worsened the situation. Finally the economy of the country, liberalised, from the early 1980s, based on the “dragons” of eastern Asia model, was not able to take full advantage of the spate of growth, unlike that of its neighbours, and finds itself today crippled as much by war as the world crisis.

5In this context, the victories of the governmental army could change the situation for the time being, by justifying the government’s strategy, and by reducing the cost of the up-keep of order. However, they run two major risks:

  • that of losing sight of the crying need for giving a political answer to the minorities’claim, either in a federal form, or by power-sharing at the centre;
  • that of giving a dominant role in the state (like in Pakistan), to the army, composed of 200,000 men and difficult to demobilise.

6The numerous violations against human rights that particularly affect journalists, since the beginning of 2009, in addition to the police torture that has become part of everyday life and unbridled activities of mafia-like armies stemming from militant groups united by the government or not, illustrate the many signs of the critical state of the Sri Lankan democracy. In a context of intense polarisation, the actors of the conflict, both Tamils and Sinhalese, develop ultranationalist speeches that spurn the historical truth, in the country itself and in the diaspora. What motivates the LTTE leaders is the individual sacrifice for the collective cause, represented by the founder of the movement, Prabhakaran. They have made a perfect heroine out of the kamikaze woman, following the Indian tradition of Sati, the widow who sacrifices herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. Similarly, the Tigers’ last patch of land is likely to be sacrified in a mass suicide like the Jauhar of the Indian Rajputs. How has it come to this, as Ceylon was reputed for its gentle pleasures of life that travel agents still sell to blind tourists?

At the root of violence

7This complex conflict thrived on linguistic and religious groups, which strongly defended their identity at the end of the 19th century, but which reached its full extent only in the middle of the 20th century. Until the end of the British colonial period (1796-1948), the two main linguistic communities, the Sinhalese and native speakers of the Tamil, who represented respectively 75% and 25% of the population, had coexisted peacefully. After smoothly claiming independence, a Sinhalese identity movement had developed, which considered that the majority of the population had been a victim of the preference shown to Tamils during foreign domination. From 1956, Sinhalese took the place of English as the only official language. Besides Theravada Buddhism, the main religion among the Sinhalese, enjoyed an increasingly official recognition. The Sinhalese-Buddhist identity asserted itself to the detriment of the Tamil minorities, among whom included Shivaite Hindus (about 15%), Christians, especially Catholics (3%), and Sunni Muslims (7%).

8The Tamils originating from the region of Jaffna, at the far north of the island developed entrepreneurial activities. This minority, prematurely provided with a formal education in English, found jobs in the colonial administration and migrated to Malaysia and Singapore at the end of the 19th century. The Tamils had suffered much from the change in the official language. On the other hand, the Tamil Muslims, many of them businessmen, were not met with the same fate and did not participate in any protest movement. As for the Tamils, who had settled down as coolies in the tea plantations in the centre of the island since the 19th century, they were denied citizenship for a long time, but did not have the means to go on a strike. Only the Jaffna Tamils expressed feelings of discrimination though which they considered themselves victims, and thus demanded an autonomy status and then independence in the north and east provinces called “Tamil Eelam”.

9In the 1970s, the movement, which expressed itself peacefully through the voice of the Tamil deputies without producing any results, was taken over by militant organisations founded by young people to whom university education had been refused due to the quota system. Those who could, left for English-speaking countries, while those who did not have the means turned to clandestine operations and formed about ten groups. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) became the strongest, and killed or took over their competitors. In 1983, after a separatist attack on the army, a violent uprising took place in Colombo against the Tamils. This violence perpetrated by those close to the government gave rise to a wave of mass emigration towards the north of the country, or the West where immigrants obtained a political refugee status. The Sri Lankan Tamils obtained international visibility at this point. The emigrants were to become the most ardent supporters of the Tamil separatism, by virtue of a “remote nationalism” phenomenon.

10From 1987, India, which secretly supported the militant organisations, intervened and asked the Sri Lankan government to grant a particular status to the north and east provinces that had a Tamil majority. The separatists, however, turned their weapons against India, accusing India of playing into Sinhalese hands for having accepted the principle of territorial integrity of the country. The Indians withdrew, leaving the country free for the Tigers, who took control of the north and the east of the island from 1994 to 1995, while the Colombo government, battling against the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna, took part in a merciless crackdown. The Tigers showed their strength, but alienated India’s support by assassinating Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, who was behind the Indian intervention, and then the Sinhalese President Premadasa in 1993.

11After this period of terror, an attempt to negociate between the new President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, and the heads of Jaffna was aborted. The government opted for a military solution. In 1995, the army was sent to take back Jaffna and clear the A7 route that linked the city with the centre of the island. Having maintained control of this route, the Tigers retreated and made their way to the market town of Kilinochchi, their “capital”. Roughly 200,000 people left Jaffna to follow the LTTE, by fair means or foul. Tens of thousands of young people were enrolled and parents had to give up at least one of their children for the cause. Between Kilinochchi and the port of Mullaittivu, the Tigers built a strong military base equipped with modern telecommunications facilities and a fleet of fast patrol boats and even runways, where commercial planes equipped with bombs took off. They financed their military efforts by collecting large sums of money from the diaspora, whose number increased with those who fled in the face of conflict, and by setting up the trafficking of arms internationally with the help of a convoy of underworld cargos criss-crossing the Indian Ocean. The Tigers increased the number of suicide bombers in the south; the President narrowly missed the attack in 1999 and Colombo airport was targeted in 2001, which led to the decline of an economy that depended on tourism.

12After 2001, however, the international community watched over the financial channels of suspected terrorist organisations. The Tigers, buckling under pressure, called a truce in the beginning of 2002, following negotiations under the protection of Norway. The political negotiations that had to be part of the truce did not make headway, as the government made highly implausible proposals and the Tigers refused all international supervision. The balance of power was readjusted in 2004 after the defection of the LTTE leader, Karuna, in the east of the island. The tsunami then struck the zones controlled by the Tigers and destroyed a part of their military infrastructures. Humanitarian aid that reached the victims became an issue, as the government and Tigers were vying with each other to control it. The conflict resumed at the initiative of the LTTE following the assassination of the Minister of Foreign Affairs who was of Tamil origin. The new President, Rajapakse, having narrowly won the elections in 2005 against the former Prime Minister and initiator of the truce, owes his win to the Tigers who asked its supporter to abstain from voting, could count on Karuna whose troops became part of the main army. The Sri Lankan navy managed to sink the LTTE merchant fleet in international waters and withstood attacks by the fast enemy patrol boats. The governmental troops took back control of the coasts and the A9 route at the end of 2008, as the Tigers left their “capital”, Kilinochchi. They had lost their fortified positions between January and March 2009 and were besieged along the northeast coast by civilians who had followed them, with no other hope of escaping the hoop net than to appeal to an international humanitarian intervention that the image of LTTE as terrorist organisation was implausible, despite the mobilisation of the Tamil Diaspora in the West.

13The future of Sri Lanka depends on the capacity of its leaders to show generosity in victory and accept the emergence of a new leadership for the Tamil community, and on the capacity of the Tamil diaspora to recognise the mistakes that it has made by giving an unconditional support to the Tigers.

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