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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka

View Group Chronology

Sri Lanka Facts
Area:    65,610 sq. km.
Capital:    Columbo
Total Population:    1,136,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Political violence by some elements of the Sri Lankan Tamil population is highly likely to continue in the near future. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers), the dominant Tamil organization in Sri Lanka, has resumed its protracted insurgency against the central government following the collapse of a fragile ceasefire in 2005. In 2006, the conflict intensified to become a civil war. Many other risk factors exist for future violence, including heavy repression of both violent and civilian Tamils, Tamil conflict with multiple other ethnic groups, and severe factional violence among Tamils. The likelihood of continued violence is further increased by the territorial concentration of the Tamils, the group's history of lost autonomy and its long and active separatist movement. Through a network of Tamil diaspora groups, the LTTE continues to obtain the material and military resources necessary to prolong the conflict. Therefore, the prospects for peace in the near future between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government are dim. The effectiveness, in terms of instilling peace in the region, of the government's recent success in recapturing LTTE territory remains unclear as the organization operates behind a network of transnational support.


Analytic Summary

The Sri Lankan Tamils, who make up approximately 12 percent of the country's population, are a majority in the country's north and comprise a significant portion of the multi-ethnic eastern region (GROUPCON = 2). There has been little group migration across regions but there have been substantial influxes of Sinhalese into the group's traditional regions of residence

The Sri Lankan Tamils are culturally, linguistically, and religiously related to the country's Indian Tamils who reside in the central hill regions. However, the two are considered as distinct groups and they have separately pursued their goals (as the MAR project lists the Indian Tamils as a separate group, they will not be discussed in this entry).

There are a number of differences between the Sri Lankan Tamils and the majority Sinhalese community. The Tamils speak a common language (Tamil) while the language of the dominant community is Sinhala (LANG = 2). The Sinhalese are mainly Buddhists while the Tamils are Hindus (BELIEF = 2). Tamils also practice different customs, particularly in marriage, as compared to the Sinhalese (CUSTOM = 1), but the two groups are not physically distinguishable (RACE = 0).

Along with the Sinhalese, the Sri Lankan Tamils are considered to be the original inhabitants of the island state. The Tamil Kingdom of Jaffna was autonomous until its annexation by the Portuguese in 1619 (AUTLOST = 1). Contact between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities was limited until the imposition of British rule in 1796. Under British rule, the Tamils were disproportionately represented in the bureaucracy. Sri Lanka, which was formerly known as Ceylon, received its independence in 1948.

Beginning in the 1950s, Sinhalese-dominated governments implemented public policies that institutionalized the majority community's dominance. Sinhala was declared to be the country's sole official language; Buddhism was favored as the state religion, and the unitary nature of the state ensured Sinhalese political domination. Major Sinhalese-Tamil riots in 1956, 1981 and 1983 further heightened Tamil insecurities and led to the formation of militant Tamil groups.

In an effort to protect their culture and to ensure equal rights, the Tamils began to press for autonomy and independence. Political parties, such as the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) utilized conventional means including participating in coalition governments. Militant Tamils sought the creation of an independent Tamil state, referred to as Eelam, which would comprise the north and east of the country. The main rebel Tamil group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), formed in 1976 as an armed separatist group and has been active through the present (SEPX = 3).

Throughout the 1980s, various Tamil rebel groups, led by the LTTE, engaged in attacks against the Colombo government and its security apparatus. Unable to quell the rebellion, the government turned to its neighbor, India, for assistance. The ethnic kin of the Sri Lankan Tamils dominate India's southern Tamil Nadu state (GC10 =2; GC11 =2), and the Tamils in India have actively supported their brethren (KINPOLSUP06 = 1). Further, the Indian government was reportedly providing arms, training and sanctuary to the Sri Lankan Tamil rebels. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi viewed the situation as an opportunity to establish India as a regional hegemon and to control any potential ethnic tension in Tamil Nadu. Negotiations between the two countries led to the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka accord. Around 50,000 Indian peacekeepers (IPKF) were deployed in Tamil areas in Sri Lanka to help ensure peace. In return, the Sri Lankan government agreed to devolve power to the north and east through the creation of autonomous provincial councils.

The accord was rejected by the LTTE, who violently resisted the IPKF. Three years later the peacekeeping force withdrew after large battlefield losses and limited gains in their efforts to quell the Tamil Tigers. The IPKF operations and restrictions on LTTE activity in India were the main motives behind the Tiger's assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991.

From 1995 to 2000, Sri Lankan President Kumaratunga adopted a two-pronged approach to the insurgency: massive counterinsurgency campaigns and the unveiling of a proposal to devolve significant powers to local councils in the north and east. Between 2001 and 2003, significant steps were taken towards a settlement. At the end of 2001, the LTTE declared a month-long ceasefire, a move that was reciprocated by the Sri Lankan government. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe formally invited Norway to continue its efforts for talks between the government and the LTTE. India welcomed this move.

Effective 23 February 2002, a permanent ceasefire was signed between the government and the rebels, paving the way for direct talks. The government also eased the long-standing economic embargo upon rebel-held areas, thereby conceding a major demand of the LTTE. While violations of the ceasefire continued amid reports that the LTTE was procuring weapons and recruiting soldiers, the peace talks were considered hopeful.

In late 2002, LTTE dropped its long-standing demand for a separate state and declared that the group was ready to enter mainstream politics. In December 2003, the LTTE presented a set of proposals outlining its visions of an autonomous, but not separate, north and eastern region in Sri Lanka. Prospects for peace received a serious setback, however, as tensions between Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Kumaratunga escalated. The latter accused the Prime Minister of making too many concessions to the LTTE and alleged that the Norwegian mediators were partial to the militants. In late 2005, following low level violence by the LTTE in 2004, the ceasefire collapsed and the conflict erupted again with a series of LTTE attacks against Sri Lankan security forces. By 2006, the conflict escalated to become a civil war, with land and sea battles and frequent bombings in the north and east of the country (REB06 = 7).

Further complicating the situation has been an intense factional conflict between the LTTE and Karuna, a former commander who broke away from the group in 2004. Armed clashes between the Karuna faction, which is based in eastern Sri Lanka, and the LTTE continued in 2006 (INTRACON06 = 1).

The protracted insurgency has produced serious demographic stresses in Tamil areas in the country's north and east regions, despite significant international aid from the Canadian government and humanitarian assistance from various NGOs (STASU06 = 1; NSASUP06 = 1). These stresses include declining caloric intakes, deteriorating public health conditions, environmental decline, internal displacement (DISPLACE06 = 2), and migration abroad (EMIG06 = 1). Tamils face significant repression from Sri Lankan security forces, including severe restrictions on movement and the killing of civilians. (REPGENCIV06 = 5). Tamil civilians and political leaders are also frequently targeted by the LTTE, which engages in forcible recruitment of child soldiers and widespread killing of moderate Tamils. The LTTE regularly assassinates members of rival political parties, particularly the Eeelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP). The LTTE has recently faced a setback as the government declared in January 2009 that it had captured the last Sri Lankan stronghold. Furthermore, the LTTE's longtime leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed in May 2009.

Another thorny issue is the status of Muslims, who have traditionally resided in the eastern part of the country. Many of them have been displaced as a result of the insurgency. The LTTE targeted and killed Muslims from 2004-2006 (INTERCON06 = 1).

Most moderate Tamil groups are seeking widespread autonomy for the north and east, while the LTTE continues to seek independence (POLGR06 = 4). While Tamil grievances arise from historical antagonism with the Sinhalese majority as well as heavy economic and political discrimination through exclusionary and repressive policies (POLDIS06 = 4; ECDIS06 = 4). Tamils are also concerned about obtaining equal civil rights and increasing economic opportunity (ECGR06 = 2). The protection of the group's cultural and religious rights, including the use of Tamil in official dealings, is an important issue for the vast majority (CULGR06 = 1).

The Tamils are represented by conventional political parties, but the LTTE has been the dominant force (GOJPA06 = 4). The largest Tamil group in Sri Lanka's parliament, the Tamil National Alliance coalition, is backed by the LTTE (LEGISREP06 = 1). The LTTE's main political rival, the EPDP, has joined forces with the government and its leader holds a cabinet post (EXECREP06 = 1). The LTTE calls itself the sole representative of the Tamil people, and the group is extremely averse to sharing power. The LTTE receives political, material and military support from a global network of Tamil diaspora groups, most notably those based in Canada (KINSUP06 = 1). It is unclear what the recent military setback of the LTTE and the death of Prahakaran will mean for the future status of the LTTE and for the Tamils in general.



BBC News. 11/20/2008. "Sri Lankan army 'takes rebel area'.", accessed 1/27/2009.

BBC News. 1/25/2009. "Last Tamil Tiger bastion 'taken'.", accessed 1/27/2009.

Center for Strategic and International Studies. Various reports.

Hellmann-Rajanayagam, Dagmar. 1990. "The Politics of the Tamil Past." In Jonathan Spencer, ed. Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict. Routledge.

Human Rights Watch. Various reports, 2001-2003.

Lexis-Nexis. Various news reports. 2001-06.

Oberst, Robert C. 1987. "Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka." The State of American Federalism.

Peebles, Patrick. 1990. "Colonization and Ethnic Conflict in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka." The Journal of Asian Studies.

Ross, Russell R. and Andrea Matles Savada 1988. Sri Lanka: A Country Study. Library of Congress.

U.S. Department of State. 5/2008. "Background Note: Sri Lanka."

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Sri Lanka. 2001-2006.

Wilson, A. Jeyaratnam. 2000. Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism. UBC Press: Vancouver.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006