Despite enjoying a relatively peaceful transition from British rule to independence in 1948, Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history is one that has been marred by bitter social divides and repeated cycles of mass violence.
The most notable conflict has been that between the ethnic minority Tamil community and the majority Sinhalese community, a conflict which has produced almost three decades of civil war and a lengthy catalogue of grave human rights violations. While the origins of the conflict are complex, the antagonism between these two communities has its roots in the years that followed independence, as the Sri Lankan government set about a series of discriminatory reforms designed to advance the interests of the majority community.
After the failure of various peaceful campaigns for power-sharing, and following a series of brutal anti-Tamil pogroms prompted by growing Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, the 1970s saw the emergence of a number of militant Tamil separatists groups. By the mid-1980s, the most dominant among these was the LTTE (‘Tamil Tigers’), who waged a full-scale insurgency against Sri Lankan government forces with the aim of establishing an independent Tamil state (‘Tamil Eelam’) in Sri Lanka’s north and east.
Having successfully captured significant amounts of territory in the decades that followed, and having established a de facto state across large parts of the island, by 2002 the LTTE had entered into a fragile peace agreement with the government. This broke down completely in 2006 following the election of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, prompting a steady escalation of violence and efforts by the government to re-capture rebel held territory by force.
By early 2008, the government had signalled its firm intention to defeat the LTTE by military means. In September, the government expelled all aid agencies and foreign journalists from northern Sri Lanka, clearing the way for a full-scale assault on the LTTE’s last remaining strongholds and setting the stage for a “war without witness.” In January 2009, as the territory under the LTTE’s control shrank, the government began to unilaterally declare a series of so-called ‘No Fire Zones’ (NFZs) within which Tamil civilians were encouraged to gather. These zones were then repeatedly shelled by government forces, with sites targeted including hospitals, food distribution centres, and UN facilities.
Despite calls for a truce by the UN, various world leaders, and the LTTE, the army finished its brutal onslaught and declared victory on 19 May 2009, having killed the LTTE’s senior leadership. Hundreds of civilians, including many children, are believed to have been forcibly disappeared in the final few days of the war alone. In the months and years that followed, many of those who survived the war would go on to endure serious human rights abuses, including widespread torture and sexual violence, in the prison-like conditions of the government’s “humanitarian camps.”
The UN has credibly estimated that as many as 40,000-70,000 civilians were killed during the final stages of the war, mostly due to government shelling. Some civil society groups suggest the total could be much higher. A major UN investigation published in September 2015 (the ‘OISL report’) found extensive evidence of atrocities by both sides of the conflict; atrocities which investigators said could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, if established in a court of law.
What is clear is that both parties showed appalling disregard for the lives of those trapped between them in the final stages of the war. In addition to indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the NFZs, allegations of mass disappearances, extra-judicial killings, and systematic torture and sexual violence by government forces are yet to be addressed. Meanwhile, there is yet to be a full accounting for the LTTE’s crimes, which include the alleged use of forcible conscription (often involving child soldiers), the use of civilians as ‘human shields’, and extra-judicial killings.
Members of the international community also bear a responsibility for what happened in Sri Lanka in 2009. World leaders – many of whom in 2009 were enthusiastic champions of the global “war on terror” – fell shamefully short when it came to condemning the human rights consequences of the government’s counter-insurgency strategy, and putting stop to the carnage. An internal report from the UN Secretary-General’s office laid bare the many ways in which the UN failed appallingly in its task of protecting civilian lives.
For more information about the final stages of the war, we strongly recommend watching Channel 4’s ground-breaking documentary ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’. You can watch the trailer below:
Further resources, including key UN reports, are available in the Reports section of our website.