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GIST OF RAJYA SABHA TV (RSTV) : Tamils of Sri Lanka

Published: 17th Feb, 2020


  • India has once again expressed hope that the new government in Sri Lanka, led by the Rajapaksa brothers, will realise the aspirations of the Tamil community in the island nation.
  • The issue figured prominently during talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa, during the latter's five-day state visit to India.
  • Following his interaction with the Lankan Prime Minister on the long-pending Tamil issue, Prime Minister Modi said he was confident that the Sri Lankan government will realise expectations of equality, justice, peace and respect of the Tamil people within a united Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan Conflict

  • The conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has lasted nearly three decades and is one of the longest-running civil wars in Asia.
  • More commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, the LTTE wants an independent state for the island’s Tamil minority.
  • The European Union and Canada have joined the United States, India, and Australia in labeling the LTTE a terrorist organization, which has made it more difficult for the group to get financing from abroad.
  • Sri Lanka has been mired in ethnic conflict since the country, formerly known as Ceylon, became independent from British rule in 1948.
  • A 2001 government census says Sri Lanka’s main ethnic populations are the Sinhalese (82 percent), Tamil (9.4 percent), and Sri Lanka Moor (7.9 percent).
  • In the years following independence, the Sinhalese, who resented British favoritism toward Tamils during the colonial period, disenfranchised Tamil migrant plantation workers from India and made Sinhala the official language.
  • In 1972, the Sinhalese changed the country’s name from Ceylon and made Buddhism the nation’s primary religion.
  • As ethnic tension grew, in 1976, the LTTE was formed under the leadership of Velupillai Prabhakaran, and it began to campaign for a Tamil homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, where most of the island’s Tamils reside.

Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord

  • The Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord was an accord signed in Colombo on 29 July 1987, between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene.
  • The accord was expected to resolve the Sri Lankan Civil War by enabling the thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka and the Provincial Councils Act of 1987.
  • Under the terms of the agreement, Colombo agreed to devolution of power to the provinces, the Sri Lankan troops were to be withdrawn to their barracks in the north and the Tamil rebels were to surrender their arms.
  • Importantly however, the Tamil groups, notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) (which at the time was one of the strongest Tamil forces), had not been made party to the talks and initially agreed to surrender their arms to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) only reluctantly.
  • Within a few months however, this flared into an active confrontation.
  • The LTTE declared their intent to continue the armed struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam and refused to disarm.
  • The IPKF found itself engaged in a bloody police action against the LTTE.
  • Further complicating the return to peace was a burgeoning Sinhalese insurgency in the south.

Peace accord

  • Among the salient points of the agreement, the Sri Lankan Government made a number of concessions to Tamil demands, which included Colombo devolution of power to the provinces, merger (subject to later referendum) of the northern and eastern provinces, and official status for the Tamil language.
  • More immediately, Operation Liberation — the successful, ongoing anti-insurgent operation by Sri Lankan forces in the Northern peninsula — was ended.
  • Sri Lankan troops were to withdraw to their barracks in the north, the Tamil rebels were to disarm.
  • India agreed to end support for the Tamil separatist movement and recognise the unity of Sri Lanka.
  • The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord also underlined the commitment of Indian military assistance on which the IPKF came to be inducted into Sri Lanka.
  • In 1990, India withdrew the last of its forces from Sri Lanka, and fighting between the LTTE and the government resumed.
  • In January 1995, the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE agreed to a ceasefire as a preliminary step in a government-initiated plan for peace negotiations.
  • After 3 months, however, the LTTE unilaterally resumed hostilities.
  • The government of Sri Lanka then adopted a policy of military engagement with the Tigers, with government forces liberating Jaffna from LTTE control by mid-1996 and moving against LTTE positions in the northern part of the country called the Vanni.
  • An LTTE counteroffensive, begun in October 1999, reversed most government gains; and by May 2000, threatened government forces in Jaffna. Heavy fighting continued into 2001.

India’s Role in the Conflict

  • During the 1970s, India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) helped to train and arm the LTTE, but after the group’s terrorist activities grew in the 1980s--including its alliances with separatist groups in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu--RAW withdrew this support.
  • In 1987, India made a pact with the Sri Lankan government to send peacekeeping troops to the island.
  • The Indian forces were unable to end the conflict and instead began fighting with the LTTE.
  • India was forced to withdraw by Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1990. Rajiv Gandhi, prime minister of India at the time of the peacekeeping force deployment, was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber in 1991.
  • Premadasa met a similar fate in 1993.
  • India has been wary of getting involved in Sri Lanka since then, but trade between the two countries has been on the rise.
  • Bilateral trade increased from $658 million in 2000 to $ 3.2 billion in 2008, and India remains one of the country’s leading foreign investors.
  • Sri Lanka is also in talks to form a partnership with India’s National Stock Exchange, which may include offering India a stake in Sri Lanka’s bourse.
  • The Asian Development Bank in 2008 said the rise in violence had not yet had an impact on growth, which has been driven by strong domestic demand and a robust private sector.

The Future of the Conflict

  • By early 2009, many experts said the LTTE’s conventional military capabilities had been largely crushed.
  • It is "effectively finished except as a guerilla outfit.
  • However, he cautions the outfit could carry on a guerilla war for years, depending on the survival of its leader, Prabhakaran.
  • Unlike the 1990s, when the government’s claims that it had defeated the rebel force were quickly proved wrong, the army, a much stronger and less corrupt force, has managed to deal a hard blow to the Tigers.
  • Moreover, LTTE has run out of money because of the successful blocking of payments from the Tamil diaspora.
  • But the larger problem of integrating the island’s minority Tamil population will remain even if the LTTE is defeated.
  • It is essential that the government moves to give "a fair deal to the Tamils and integrate them more effectively in the fabric of the nation.
  • Much of the country’s politics in the last three decades has revolved around the LTTE, with successive governments attempting to wipe out or negotiate with the Tigers.
  • The dream of an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka resonates powerfully across the Tamil diaspora and will certainly live on even after the defeat of the LTTE as a conventional military force unless the government works toward a more lasting solution.
  • "The deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians-while their family members watch from afar-are a recipe for another, possibly more explosive, generation of terrorism."

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