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Sri Lanka Update



Update 2017 -- a few years after I wrote this, the war was over. The Sri Lankan army marched the Tamil tigers into the sea and killed them all, men, woman and children.  From that day on, nothing more was heard about anything. 


After three years of a cease-fire characterized by only “light” terrorism; After a Tsunami that lowered informal but fixed barriers that separated people; after a generation that for 22 years has known only hostility, Sri Lanka faces war, again.  
With the August 12 assassination of the Sri Lanka foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgar, Prime Minister Chandrika Kumaratunga declared and indefinite state of emergency and many believe this is the start of a new round of violence. 
Both sides blame the other for the killing, and so it goes. 
Some of the factors in this conflict stem from ethnic and religious differences, but many of the problems stem from the perversion of nationalism, the after effects of colonialism, and the political bent of personalities that have driven the movements in the last 40 years, which has included foreign intervention and support.
Sri Lanka has two major population groups with both ethnic and religious identifications. The Sinhala represent the largest group with over 70% of the population and define themselves as Aryans, and believe that they were the first real settlers, coming from the Bengal region of India and dominating most of the island from the 5th century on.
The Tamil claim to be of Dravidian origin, mostly darker in skin and from the southern area of India originally. Tamils include a large proportion—about a third—of imported workers from Southern India that the colonial powers brought in after the 15th century to work. The Tamils identify as Hindu.
For most of Sri Lanka’s history it was ruled as a loose confederation. The Sinhalese Kingdom dominated in the south, while the Northern area ruled itself as a semi-autonomous part of the Kingdom, known as the Kandiyan Kingdom.
In 1504 the Portuguese arrived as a colonial power, followed by the Dutch in 1658. Both of these powers ruled Sri Lanka as two administrative units—as did the British when they arrived to rule in 1796. Not until 1833 did the North and South get combined into one nation, and that was for the convenience of the ruling Brits. 
Many historians conclude that the problems facing Sri Lanka today come directly from the years of colonialism.
 K.N.O Sharmadasa, in his article about Buddhist resurgence and Christian privilege, notes that the rise of the Buddhists activist groups, the Bhikkhus, that began shortly before independence in 1948, was a backlash against the Christian missionaries and their perceived favoritism towards the Northern Tamils in terms of education and assistance. It was from these Bhikkhus that came the most divisive call to arms—The adoption of Sinhalese as the national, and only, language.
Kumari Jayawardhana, in his summary of the Ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, notes that under the British the Tamils really did get all the good, influential jobs. Under the British more than 75% of the schools were opened in the North, and that by the 1930’s, over 80% of the jobs in government were being done by ethnic Tamils.
Jayawardhana’s conclusion is that this lead to a strong Sinhalese nationalism that was directed at both the West, for their colonialism, and the Christians, for their support of the minority Tamils shortly before independence, resulting in a over reaction by the Sinhalese that is the root of today’s problems.
In 1935 the Sinhalese Buddhists formed the Samasamaja political party, the S.W.R.D., whose fundamental goal was to replace English with Sinhalese as official language of Sri Lanka. Since the Tamils benefited the most from the use of English in the courts and government, they felt it was a direct attack on them, a way of discounting their membership in society.
The British set up a plan for democracy after granting independence in 1948. Since everyone had the vote, the outcome was preordained—the Sinhalese won with a huge majority and then began the “tyranny of the majority” on the minority Tamils.
One of the first acts of the independent government was to pass an act disenfranchising a large group of the Tamils who had been brought over by the British in the last two centuries—thereby making them stateless and serving as a sort of ethnic cleansing by decree.
All this got formalized in 1964 when an agreement was signed with India providing for the reparation of almost a million stateless Tamils back to a home they had never been to before.
It was as if that small minority in the U.S. government after the Civil War had actually gotten their way and sent all the freed slaves back to Africa.
In the first ten years after independence the Tamils participation in government dropped, employment in public service dropped, and the drive to eliminate “colonial” English was well underway—to the detriment of the Tamils. 
In 1955, Sinhalese was made the official language of Sri Lanka and ethnic violence broke out, primarily against the Tamils, leave over 400 dead by the end of 1956. 
By 1970, when a new, even more nationalistic Sinhalese government took power, not a single Tamil was involved in government at the cabinet level, and less than 10% of any public service jobs were held by Tamils, leading to the consolidation of Tamil groups into one—The Tamil United Liberation Front, with its goal of self-rule for the North of Sri Lanka. 
In 1972 the Tamil Tigers were formed, as an extremist wing of the TUF, and Vellupilli Prabhakaren its charismatic leader—a leader who remains in charge to this day.
The Tigers began a low level terrorist campaign in the early 70’s that the majority government responded to by a major offensive to take back rebel territories in the North. Thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire as massive anti-Tamils riots broke out throughout the South leading to wide spread destruction and displacement of Tamils to the North and Sinhalese to the South. Over 2,000 Tamils were killed in a pogrom that including the killing of dozens of political prisoners in a maximum-security prison—by criminals released by guards to do just that. 
Over 80,000 Tamils left their homes in the south, some fleeing to India, some to the north. The ethnic cleansing that started in the fifties accelerated, the racial and religious lines became firmer.  
After 1983, the Tamils became more aggressive with their violence. They became known in the west for both the size of their bombs, but also the use of suicide bombers. First used in 1987, according to Robert Pape in his book about suicide terrorists, they have carried out 76 attacks involving 143 people since then, killing over 900 people, including two world leaders, Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, and the President of Sri Lanka in 1993. 
The Tamils Tigers have a very structured organization. Run by Prabhakaren since its founding, all Tigers are required to carry a vial of cyanide in a small glass vial they carry around their neck—when captured they are supposed to kill themselves.  
Their bombings are spectacular, even their first one, a truck bomb driven into a military barracks, ala Lebanon, killed over 70 soldiers. 
A suicide bomber killed Gandhi in 1991, in response to Indian peacekeeping animosity from 1987, when they sent 70,000 troops to Sri Lanka, mostly to contain the Tamils. That conflict ended in a war of attrition that the Indians soon tired of, leaving a iron wall of destruction around the North of Sri Lanka and an almost trench like fixed lines of occupation by each side.  
So, no love lost between the two sides, but still, the pictures of the smiling girl, leaning forward to lay a wreath on the man, strapped with an explosive belt that snaked up her back, bending and exploding is both stunning and unbearable to look at the same time. 
According to Pape, Tamils who explode themselves are highly supported in the North of Sri Lanka. Once a year, July 5th, a day known as Heroes day is celebrated for the bombers. Monuments of the individuals are placed in public places, surrounded by gardens and ponds, all indications of broad public support for this kind of terrorism 
The Tigers, and Prabhakaren, state that their goal is an independent state in the North and that they see it as a “100 year war,” according to Philip Gourevitch, in a recent New Yorker article.  
Prabhakaren compares it to the battles that Israel and Eritrea had in getting their freedom-- it’s just a matter of wearing the opponent down, and that terrorism is just a weapon that they can use against a stronger enemy, saying, “Because, as a revolutionary organization, we have limited resources.” 
Secession is a relatively new concept in Sri Lanka, and the Tamil’s strongly feel that it’s the only answer to the majority government’s discriminatory policies since independence in 1948, and to the communal violence that has been directed against them. Attempts by the more moderate on both sides have lead to frequent cease fires, and limited negotiations, mostly around trying to form a type of federal state that give regional autonomy to the Tamils in the north.  
Few are publicly optimistic, but the talking continues.
           
           
            




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