By the time Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war ended in 2009, it had already claimed 100,000 people. Although colonial legacy, as often in such cases, was a favored villain of the conflict, the causes of the conflict between the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamils were more immediate. In the early 1970s, gradual disenfranchising of minority Tamils began with passing of two laws — the first which limited Tamil enrollment in universities, and the second which declared that Buddhism had ‘foremost place’ in Sri Lanka. As Tamil opposition grew, de facto segregation of two ethnic groups inside the civil service, police and army only intensified.
In 1976, the guerrilla group now known as Tamil Tigers was formed under Vellupillai Prabhakaran, and began its bloody campaign for a Tamil homeland in northern and eastern parts, that claimed 60% of the island’s coastline, and its only major port, the famed Trincomalee. For the next three decades, a spectacularly bloody civil war was fought on land, in water, in air (Tamils even had an air force) and with proxy armies, although the successive Sri Lankan governments dismissed the Tigers as a terrorist group. But what a formidable force it was. Supported by its shady business dealings, and remittances from large Tamil diaspora, the Tigers pioneered the use of suicide vests and claimed, among its countless victims, a Sri Lankan President and an Indian Prime Minister.
The government behaved hardly better. Scorched-earth tactics, and indiscriminate killings of combatants and non-combatants alike were practically achieved through ignoring international concerns and shutting off news media. Even by these brutal standards, the fury it unleashed during the last days of the civil war was staggering; it was effective, and managed to corner Prabhakaran’s movement to a single beach in the northeast of the country by the early 2009.
Under intense international pressure, the military declared a “no-fire zone” — a de facto safe zone for Tamil refuges between the government and the rebel lines — although The Times reported that it continued shelling inside the zone up to the very end of the conflict. The Times also claimed that over 20,000 civilians were killed in the final stages of the civil war, mainly as a result of government shelling, three times the official figure. While no independent observers had access to the remote war zone, The Times took the above photo of the no-fire zone while travelling with the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, who commented that it was “the most appalling sight” he had seen in his career.
But the UN already knew what was happening there; publicly, it blamed both sides, but its records — obtained from local contracts –showed that the majority of deaths were caused by the government which attacked hospitals, schools and the beach full of refuges. Sri Lanka, one of Asia’s oldest democracies, has refused to allow any independent investigation into the conflict, rejected an damning UN report two days ago, and began cracking down on internal opposition. Sri Lanka is unlikely to be referred to the International Criminal Court because of its powerful allies such as China, but its victory over the Tamils will be go down into the annals of history as a tainted triumph.
(Full Times Article is reproduced here at a Tamil website, with photos. For gorier details, see Al Jazeera’s coverage below.)