Lions vs. Tigers

The precarious state of Sri Lanka

By Dave Kopel, Paul Gallant & Joanne D. Eisen

March 03, 2004, 9:18 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is technically in a state of civil war. It is just barely held together by a tenuous ceasefire that is splintering day by day, threatening to dash the hopes of a country that yearns for peace. Last month, President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved parliament and called for new elections to be held on April 2 — almost four years earlier than expected. Kumaratunga thereby sabotaged what had once been promising negotiations between the government of Sri Lanka (controlled by the island's majority Buddhist population) and the Tamil Tigers (a Hindu minority). A canny politician, Kumaratunga would not have taken such as bold step unless she expected to win. This is, apparently, a move toward intensifying the civil war.

Sri Lanka's constitution provides for both a prime minister and a president; when the two belong to philosophically opposed political parties, the condition is termed "cohabitation." It seems it was just cohabitation that halted the peace process that might have ended 20 years of civil war.  

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe and his party have been willing to make compromises in order to achieve a lasting peace. On the other hand, President Kumaratunga and her party, the People's Alliance, have resisted concessions to the Tamil Tiger insurgency. If the new elections give decisive power to Kumaratunga, the scene will be set for nullification of the 2002 ceasefire. Kumaratunga is officially committed to the original ceasefire, but her allies are now complaining that "the ceasefire with Tamil Tiger rebels threatens national security."

But that depends on who defines "security."

Located 22 miles off the southern tip of India, the island nation of Sri Lanka (population 19 million) is approximately the size of West Virginia. Its capital, Colombo, lies on the southwest coast. The nation was called Ceylon when it gained independence from Great Britain in 1948; the name was changed to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (which means "resplendent island") when it adopted a new constitution in 1972. It remains an independent member of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Ceylon became a British colony in 1796. But long before the British arrived, the country consisted of two separate cultures, each with its own language, religion, and customs. The majority is composed of Sinhalese, who live in the west, south, and center of the island. Their name means "of the lions," and they are primarily Buddhist.

Tamils (primarily Hindu) make up a smaller portion of the population, and have traditionally lived in the east and north. Many Tamils from India were relocated into Sinhalese areas by the British during the early 19th century, nearly doubling the number of Tamils on the island. They were employed as cheap laborers on the tea plantations. At the time of independence, there were about 4.6 million Sinhalese and 1.5 million Tamils.

When the British withdrew from Ceylon, they left democratic institutions and a British-style parliamentary form of government. What transpired soon afterward is a perfect example of how democracy does not always produce stability or equity.

Almost from the moment of independence, Sri Lanka's democratically elected government discriminated against the Tamil minority. For example, the Citizenship Act of 1948 disenfranchised the descendants of Indian Tamil laborers brought in by the British, people who had been living in Ceylon for more than a century. A million Tamils were given a choice: accept citizenship in a foreign country, India, or live as strangers in their own land. For decades afterward, these people lived in limbo.

Finally, in 2003 the Sri Lankan government relented, and allowed them to apply for citizenship.

The 1948 Citizenship Act increased Sinhalese control of government relative to the Tamils. In 1947, the Sinhalese controlled parliament by 67 percent; by 1952 they had 73 percent. The Sinhalese gains paved the way for additional discriminatory legislation against the Tamils.

Take, for example, the Official Language Act, which became law in 1956. Known as the Sinhala-only Act,
it mandated that "the Sinhala language shall be the one official language of Ceylon." The law was intended to remedy a "problem": Because Tamils were more proficient in English — the language of government, inherited from the colonial era — they were disproportionately employed in government service. The Sinhala-only Act gave the Sinhalese an advantage, for they could now conduct official business in their native language. Since the act also required that children be educated in their birth language, it caused a sharp decline in employment opportunities for Tamils in public service and further reduced their political power.

There was also the Offensive Weapons Act of 1966, which attempted to ensure that the passive, generally unarmed Tamil minority would so remain: "Any person who, except with lawful authority . . . possesses . . . any offensive weapon. . . shall be guilty of an offence. . . punishable with imprisonment . . . for a term not exceeding ten years, and also with a fine not exceeding ten thousand rupees, and may in addition be punished with whipping."

Educational opportunities for Tamils were profoundly diminished by discriminatory policies. Because a disproportionately high number of Tamil students attended institutions of higher learning, the merit system was replaced with preferential treatment for Sinhalese students. The result was a large pool of bright, young, unemployed Tamil high school graduates, shut out from opportunities for higher education and government employment.

Sri Lanka's 1972 constitution proclaimed Buddhism as the state religion, causing great concern to Hindu Tamils. In 1976, the Vaddukoddai Resolution was drafted by the Tamils in response. The resolution enumerated grievances against the Sinhalese, and declared independence for Tamil Eelam, the name for the traditional Tamil homeland within Sri Lanka.

The Sinhalese excuse for persecution of the Tamils was a paranoid fear of annihilation. During the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., the Sinhalese suffered severely from repeated invasions by South Indian Tamils. As an October 1981 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review noted: "Antipathy between Sinhalas and Tamils is rooted as much in history as in a peculiar schizophrenia afflicting both....Despite their clear majority, Sinhalas fear the large numbers of foreign Tamils who, including those in India's [state of] Tamil Nadu, are said to number around 50-60 million between Southeast Asia through Middle East to the Caribbean. On the other hand Ceylon Tamils, despite being only 11.2 percent of the population, consider themselves strong in terms of the global Tamil brotherhood."

Responding hysterically to massive but peaceful demonstrations by the Tamils — whose role model was Mohandas Gandhi — the government fomented violence against the Tamils. Some of the anti-Tamil riots had a level and intensity that appeared to the Tamils reminiscent of Kristalnacht. The Tamils were increasingly radicalized by the Sinhalese violence.

Civil war finally broke out in 1983, when race riots incited by the Sinhalese government killed many Tamil civilians. Ignoring the Offensive Weapons Act, and with the help of funding from Tamils abroad, Tamils began to arm themselves.

For a brief time, India was drawn into the conflict. Indian Tamils, separated from Sri Lanka only by the narrow Palk Strait, pressured their own government to intervene. But the Indian government recognized that if a million and a half Tamils in Sri Lanka could create their own nation, so could the 55 million Tamils in India. Thus, India did nothing to aid the political aspirations of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), nicknamed the "Tamil Tigers." In the summer of 1987, an Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) was sent into Sri Lanka to disarm the Tamil Tigers. The fierce resistance it encountered was wholly unexpected.

Beaten badly, in what the Pakistan Institute of Defence Studies called "India's Vietnam," India withdrew the last of its 50,000 troops from Sri Lanka in March 1990. India's superior forces could not prevail over small arms in the hands of a determined, beleaguered people, fighting for their ancestral lands.

In the early 1980s, the poorly trained and poorly armed Sri Lankan military numbered 12,000. A decade later, its ranks had swelled to five times that number, and the army enjoyed better training and better equipment. By May 2000, the Sri Lankan government was fielding more than 100,000 troops in an effort to subdue what had started as a civilian sit-in. And it was spending between $850 million and $1 billion a year to prosecute the war.

The LTTE, with financial help from Tamils overseas, evolved into a formidable force, staying "several technological steps ahead of the Sri Lankan military." The Tamil Tigers "had rocket-propelled grenade launchers and night-vision glasses." They "pioneered the battlefield use of off-the-shelf civilian technologies — for example, in learning how to accurately target projectiles with Global Positioning Satellite signals." Nevertheless, "the bulk of the Tigers' arsenal [was] made up of small arms."

By 2002, the Tamil Tigers had created a fighting force of 10,000 men who used terrorist tactics that included everything from suicide bombings to surface-to-air missiles.
Women and children participated in the fighting. In late 2002, the LTTE agreed to cease child recruitment.

Credible accusations of atrocities against the civilian population have been lodged by both sides. In January 1998, the LTTE attacked Sri Lanka's holiest Buddhist shrine, the Temple of the Tooth. 13 people were killed.

More typically, though, the Tamil Tigers have confined their attacks to military targets, infrastructure, and political figures, including President Kumaratunga. For example, using only small arms and explosives, the LTTE carried out a spectacular raid in July 2001 on a Sri Lankan military base just north of Colombo and on the nearby Bandaranaike Airport, Sri Lanka's only international airport. The raid cost the Sri Lankan government a billion dollars in damages, and destroyed eight military aircraft.

In Migrations and Cultures, Thomas Sowell wrote, "As the national army — overwhelmingly Sinhalese — was sent into the Tamil areas of the north to restore order, in practice it spread the disorder, engaging in indiscriminate killings of Tamil civilians in retaliation for Tamil guerilla ambushes or fatal land-mine explosions. When guerillas killed 13 soldiers in a 1983 ambush, for example, Sinhalese troops retaliated by pulling 20 Tamils off a bus and killing them. When Sinhalese troops suffered large casualties from land-mine explosions, they sometimes massacred whole Tamil settlements, or at least all the young males."

A 1999 U.N. study noted that "since 1980, 12,000 Sri Lankans have gone missing after being detained by security forces." According to the U.N., the number of disappearances in Sri Lanka was second only to those in Iraq. In 2000, two British MEPs accused the government of Sri Lanka of "not allowing essential supplies, including baby food and medicine, to be distributed in areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers."

After decades of war, the Tamil Tigers could not win. They could not hold all their territory, and their capital city of Jaffna was still controlled by the Sri Lankan army. Yet, at the same time, the Sinhalese had lost. They may have been in token control on the ground in Jaffna, but just barely, and the Tigers had shown that they could, with impunity, attack the national capital of Colombo. The drain on Sri Lanka's economy was unbearable, especially with the country facing bankruptcy, a military stalemate, and the desertion of up to 25 percent of Sri Lanka's armed forces.

Both sides were forced to the bargaining table. Everyone yielded. The Sri Lankan government made two major concessions: The terrorist ban on the LTTE was lifted, and the LTTE was not required to surrender its arms in order for the peace process to go forward. President Kumaratunga stated: "We were not asking for laying down of arms . . . or anything like that. We just said come for talks and we can see what we can agree to."

In turn, the Tamil Tigers dropped their demand for a separate nation, and indicated their willingness to accept a political solution involving autonomy within Sri Lanka.

However, the People's Alliance, the party of President Kumaratunga, has the constitutional power to scuttle the peace process, and has been attempting to do so. It reneged on the promise of Tamil autonomy, and demanded that the rebels disarm. Lakshman Kadirgamar, a senior PA figure, was emphatic: "Decommissioning must be taken up immediately . . . We will never accept a situation where a political solution is sought first and decommissioning later."

Politically, disarmament creates a Catch-22 for the LTTE. If the Tamil Tigers do not acquiesce, the global opinion elite, who want to disarm so-called "non-state actors" (such as freedom fighters), will blame the LTTE for the failure of the peace talks. The concept that only governments should have weapons will be reinforced. But by disarming, the Tamil Tigers would acknowledge their loss of sovereignty, and be forced to accept a peace deal dictated by a government that has never exhibited good will toward them. The Tamils could expect no help from overseas governments.

Regardless of the outcome of the peace process, the Sri Lankan government will never control the Tamils, because the Tamils' weapons have provided them de facto independence, what the Tamils call "internal self-determination." As the BBC observed, "In the areas they control the Tamil Tigers run a parallel government, with their own police and judiciary...the Tigers own police force can even be found implementing day to day issues such as speed restrictions on roads."

The Tamils are living their demands for "internal self-determination." Instead of waiting for a formal peace treaty, the Tamils have already begun rebuilding for the future — schools and hospitals, roads, water systems, and power grids. If the Tamils exercise restraint and keep their end of the original ceasefire bargain, they will cultivate favorable world opinion, despite having been formerly labeled "terrorists."

President Kumaratunga and her allies are furious over their loss of control of the Tamils, and may see a renewal of violence as their best option. If so, the world should condemn them as the real terrorists.

Dave Kopel is research director and Paul Gallant and Joanne D. Eisen are senior fellows at the Independence Institute.

Share this page:

Kopel RSS feed Click the icon to get RSS/XML updates of this website, and of Dave's articles.

Follow Dave on Twitter.

Kopel's Law & Liberty News. Twice-daily web newspaper collecting articles from Kopel and those whom he follows on Twitter.

Author page on Amazon.

Search Kopel website:

Make a donation to support Dave Kopel's work in defense of constitutional rights and public safety.
Donate Now!

Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action. Please send comments to Independence Institute, 727 East 16th Ave., Colorado 80203. Phone 303-279-6536. (email) webmngr @

Copyright © 2018