Brussels, novembre 2007
History of the conflict in Sri Lanka: an overview
A brief look at the 20 year history of civil war in Sri Lanka.
The problems linked to conflict and situations of violence in Sri Lanka have been fostered from both the impact of a 20-year civil war and the recent tsunami of 26th December 2004.
After two decades of civil war an overlay of military command structures that includes the Sri Lankan Army, police and civil defence forces supporting a centralised government and the militarised command structures of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) has left citizens with little voice in the peace process. This gives rise to concern because ultimately any successful peace process depends on its public support.
At times the relief and reconstruction aftermath of the Tsunami has also impacted negatively on the present sensitivities of the conflict affected communities where the Tsunami and the Conflict affected areas are overlaid. This could lead to a further deepening of the present ethnic, cultural and religious rifts.
The ceasefire was agreed in 2002, monitors from the SLMM were deployed and confidence was increased across the country, however in 2004 the violence in the east began to increase.
The effect on the communities in the East, in particular in the Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts, has been palpable. There is increased violence, fear, confusion about who is doing what and therefore a decrease in safety and confidence for civilians to participate in peace making related activities.
Since the last quarter of 2005 the political situation in Sri Lanka has drastically changed.
During the month of November a dramatic increase in violence in areas of the North and East followed a much-anticipated Presidential Election. There was a large boycott of the election in the Tamil areas, and intimidation and violence directed toward those who tried to vote. As a result, in many places in the North and East the turn out was very low or non-existent. In the other parts of the island the election proceeded with remarkably little violence; the election was claimed to have been one of the most peaceful presidential elections in Sri Lanka’s history. The elections were won by the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) running on the People’s Alliance (PA) ticket with a narrow margin.
Shortly after the elections there was a sharp increase in violence in the North and East. Direct attacks on army and navy personnel, including claymore mine attacks increased, as did assassinations, including the killing of politicians and prominent community leaders. There was communal violence and clashes in bordering villages, violence and fear on the university campuses, and the Jaffna University was shut down. Security-related measures and accusations of harassment, particularly of Tamil citizens, increased all over the country, including in Colombo. Additional army check points intensified the scrutiny of people passing through the check points and late night searches of houses with questioning or detention for hundreds of civilians, primarily Tamils.
Each of the five areas where NP works has experienced violence. A pivotal event took place in November 2005 when a Muslim politician was killed in Mutur. Within hours revenge killings of Tamil civilians took place including the mob killing of civilians in a passing trishaw. Soon tit-for-tat violence was occurring and civilians were trapped in ‘other’ communities. This was followed by displacement of hundreds of families that lived in the border or adjacent communities.
The Karuna group is the most organized and open paramilitary outside of the conflict between the GoSL and the LTTE. They are primarily active in the eastern districts of Batticaloa and Ampara. They allegedly carry out assassinations, military attacks on the LTTE, and acts of violence against civilians including extortion, kidnapping and forced child recruitment. They operate in government controlled areas and civilians fear to report harassment or violence to the police, as the Karuna group is widely believed in the east to be associated with the security forces.
The announcement at the end of January 2006 that both sides would meet in Geneva brought relief and hope. Although a ceasefire has been in effect since 2002, talks between the parties broke down nearly three years ago. The parties met on 25th February 2006 for two days and the talks were claimed to be a success, exceeding expectations of the Norwegian facilitators, and a second set of talks was scheduled for April 19-21 2006. This period saw a reduction in open violence between the parties, though some violent activities continued and assassinations still occurred in the volatile east. Cordon and search operations in residential areas also greatly dropped off.
Unfortunately, violence again rose near the end of March 2006. The April talks took place but ended without clear results, and an undeclared low-intensity conflict involving the three main armed actors—the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Karuna-group that split from the LTTE in March 2004, and the Sri Lankan army itself carried on, including a suicide bomb attack at the military headquarters in Colombo on 25th April allegedly carried out by the LTTE led to two days of air raids on Tamil Tiger positions by the Navy and Air Force in the Northeast. In early May another incident involving an attack on the navy by LTTE “Sea Tigers” led to another day of military action (shelling by the Navy on LTTE strongholds), and the so-far most serious incident in June was the attack by suspected LTTE forces on a passenger bus that killed more than 60 people, many of them children.
In June 2006 the Norwegian mediators tried to bring the government and LTTE together for talks about the ceasefire without success. In May 2006, the EU outlawed the LTTE as a terrorist organisation, and this has further complicated the mediation effort and led to the LTTE’s demand to exchange the Scandinavian personnel of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) with personnel from non-EU-States.
Apart from the confrontations described above, there has also been a rise in communal tensions between Tamils and Muslims in some regions. A cycle of revenge killings in Trincomalee targeted civilians and was participated in by civilians, of which the tragic and disturbing assassination of five Muslim civilians killed while praying in a Mosque in Ampara was a notable example.
The start of the Tamil and Sinhalese New Year in April 2007 was not promising. On the night of the April 28th 2007 when the entire population of Sri Lanka was glued to a television screen to watch the World Cup Cricket final between Sri Lanka and Australia, the LTTE launched an air attack on fuel stations including a storage of gasoline outside Colombo. It sent a shockwave through the city that is unprepared to face such attacks from the sky. The attack by two small aircrafts sent a warning message to leadership in Colombo, which has set its mind to defeat the LTTE militarily.
Already the people in the North and East are bearing the brunt of the war. Human Rights violations continue on a large scale. The media are also being threatened. The developments triggered the Pope to urge the President of Sri Lanka, who visited the Vatican, to respect human rights and restore the dialogue with the LTTE. Both the UK and the US are cutting aid to Sri Lanka due to the prevailing human rights situation. However, the parties of the conflict seem not to be influenced by these developments. In the North the LTTE is aggressively recruiting civilians including children while the GoSL stepped up bombings in the North. At the same time, it has indicated that it will hand over police powers to the military, possibly resulting in further violations of Human Rights.