Beyond Violence 

Sri Lanka

get involved forum email petition donate

Soon after Sri Lanka's independence, Sinhalese nationalists were voted into power by the country’s Sinhalese majority. Discriminating laws establishing the dominance of Buddhism and the Sinhalese language were put in place quickly, outraging minorities. A large number of militant groups emerged as a reaction, the strongest of which was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), emerging from the Tamil population as Sri Lanka’s largest minority. Terror campaigns launched from both the government and LTTE soon resulted in countless bloodbaths costing the lives of thousands of unarmed civilians. This most violent episode of the conflict ended in 2009 with a military defeat of the LTTE, with civilians again bearing the brunt of horrific human rights abuses from both sides. Today, the conflict is still unresolved, Sri Lanka’s minorities are still suppressed through legislation and state repression, while Sri Lanka is internationally often falsely regarded as “post-conflict” context.

Sri Lanka

► Overview

Since Sri Lanka’s independence more than 60 years ago, tensions between the different ethnic and religious groups have fuelled a conflict centred around issues of self-determination and identity. The groups’ diving lines run in such a way that Sinhalese Buddhists are the overwhelming majority (around 74%) while Tamil Hindus (around 18%) and Muslims (around 6%) represent comparably small minorities.

Among the Sinhalese, nationalists and high ranking members of the Buddhist clergy felt increasingly threatened by these minorities since the country’s independence and soon turned to a course of establishing their ethnic and religious dominance at the cost of marginalising the other groups.

Frustration among these marginalised groups led to the formation of militant groups, in particular in Tamil areas, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) emerging as dominant one through fierce violent clashes, demanding a separate Tamil state. Within months, the Sinhalese government and the LTTE launched horrific terror campaigns, killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands.

The involvement of India and its peacekeeping force only offered a short glimpse of hope soon resulting in clashes between the forces and the LTTE. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the country witnessed several failed negotiation attempts, ruined by further violence. A peace agreement which was finally reached in 2002 broke down soon after due to spoilers from within both factions, demonstrating the internal power clashes on each side.

Even the country’s suffering through the 2004 Tsunami which heavily affected everybody in Sri Lanka was not enough to bring both parties to an agreement and resulted in quarrels over aid money, while the worsened economic situation intensified grievances and tensions.

The circle of attacks and retaliations, of suicide bombings and pogroms increased further in the period after the Tsunami. Most of the victims of such clashes and human rights abuses were, and still are, civilians. At the height of the governments’ military offensive aimed at annihilating the LTTE, hundreds of thousands of civilians were caught in the line of fire, forced by the LTTE to stay and were shot on the spot if this was not obeyed. Simultaneously civilians were shelled by the government forces which often lacked to make distinctions between armed and unarmed people.

After the government’s success of killing virtually every member of the LTTE, the conflict is still unresolved, internal displacement is upheld by the government in many areas, human rights abuses are not sufficiently addressed, and widespread violence before the 2010 elections illustrates Sri Lanka’s fragile situation.

► Key issues

Key issue: Land and self-determination

In the LTTE’s “proposal for an Interim Self-Governing Authority, the group explicitly refused the dominance of any religion, emphasizing that “no religion should be given a foremost place in the North East”. This position is rooted in the Tamil perception of the country’s north east as a historic Tamil homeland (or Tamil Eelam – as found in the name of the LTTE).

The Buddhist and Sinhalese nationalist positions are exactly opposed to this argument. The Buddhist argument is that Sri Lanka needs to be a pure Buddhist country since Buddha himself gave the people of Sri Lanka this mission, while Sinhalese nationalists focus on creating a unified Sinhalese nation. Therefore, any claim for more autonomy or a Tamil homeland represents a direct threat to these groups.
Главная проблема: страна и самоопределение

► Key actors

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)

It is important to clarify that LTTE and the Tamil minority are not the same. Throughout the conflict, the LTTE (and the government alike) showed clearly, their cause was deemed more important than civilians’ lives - even those of their own ethnic group they were claiming to fight for.

Apart from these human rights violations, the fact that probably shows best the divide between LTTE and ordinary Tamils is that the former did not naturally emerge as the dominant group representing the interests of the marginalised Tamils. Instead they went through a process best described as “survival of the fittest” - a bloody struggle between rivalling Tamil groups from which the LTTE emerged as winner in the late 1980s. Furthermore, LTTE recruitment practises frequently involved force, even against women and children, and moderate Tamil political parties aiming to get Tamil voices heard in Colombo were attacked.

This is not to say that there was no support for the LTTE from Tamil civilians. In fact, with increasing marginalisation of Sri Lanka’s minorities after the country’s independence, a process of Tamil radicalisation slowly unfolded, until a 1983 LTTE ambush left various soldiers dead, followed by mass rallies of Sinhala nationalists killing over 1.000 Tamils. As a result, LTTE membership numbers increased drastically and a large number of Tamils decided to flee the country, thereby creating a Diasporas, which subsequently provided the LTTE with funds and support.


Often the Sri Lankan government is displayed and understood as unitary actor with a Sinhalese/Buddhist ideology and the fixed aim of its own group’s dominance. Yet, as we will see this image is by no means complete and does not reflect the conflict reality. Instead coalition governments and changing majorities are the norm.

Despite the usual practise of regarding LTTE and government as the main conflict actors, I argue that the influence of Buddhist clergy and Sinhalese nationalists on the government is so extraordinarily strong that this latter group must be regarded as severely restraining governmental policies towards more nationalism and less compromise.

Buddhist clergy and Sinhalese nationalists

Buddhist clergy and Sinhalese nationalists largely dominate the country’s political arena, having asserted their dominance and successfully pushed for a hard line against any attempts of minorities to achieve more autonomy

This is illustrated by the fact that when president Kumaratunga suggested Tamil-friendly constitutional changes, offering the Buddhist clergy a package deal that would have ensured their powerful status, the clergy’s refused.

Both nationalists and clergy strongly oppose(d) any concessions or even negotiations with the LTTE and tried to impose this viewpoint on the government, stating that “the peace process would undermine Sri Lanka’s status as an exclusive state-protected and –promoted Buddhist state”.

► Violence

From 1983, where an LTTE attack killed 13 government soldiers, until 2009 when government troops annihilated the LTTE, a vicious circle of violence and revenge with more violence kept Sri Lanka in a nearly uninterrupted state of war and horrific human rights abuses. The LTTE used guerrilla tactics like bombings and suicide bombings, the government built its strategy on brutal counter-insurgency operations, while pogroms and violent raids in areas where the other group was in the minority were carried out by Tamils and Sinhalese alike.

The cruelty of these methods was increased further by the fact that the majority of people killed and injured were civilians. This disregard for human lives and unwillingness to make a distinction between armed fighters and unarmed people resulted in countless horrible scenes during the 2006-2009 government offensive and the LTTE’s last stand. The military, sweeping through all areas where LTTE fighters were suspected, forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, rounding them up refugee camps in declared no-fighting zones. Despite their promises, these zones were targeted later on with heavy artillery, even repeatedly shelling provisional hospitals. At the same time, the LTTE forced civilians at gunpoint to stay in areas where they were confronting the government, killing many who decided to disobey. To date, the investigations on the gross human rights abuses committed by both government and LTTE have not been sufficiently investigated and tens of thousands remain displaced due to the government refusing to let people return home.

The government’s military victory did, however, not solve the conflict at hand by any means. If anything the tensions between the country’s minorities and its majority has been increased further. The suppression of these minorities continues and results in regular outbursts of violence as witnessed in the widespread 2010 pre-election violence.

► Prospects for non-violent peace transformation

With the LTTE gone there are still many groups on both sides of the conflict advocating for the use of violence and repression, arguing based on extreme positions. These groups spoil any attempts to constructively move the country’s society towards reconciliation and a political solution. However, there are a number of moderate groups on both sides who recognise that negotiations and political organisation can be the way forward.
At the same time, a significant number of local non-governmental organisations and other groups with Sinhalese, Tamil, and other backgrounds are engaging in peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts. Specific public national and international support for these groups’ nonviolent efforts could be a way forward. In terms of mobilising international support for such a constructive and nonviolent approach, the large Tamil Diaspora could potentially play a key role.

► Further reading