“Blasting is the history of our country,” said one Sri Lankan respondent. While this statement rings true of the past three decades of civil war between the majority (mainly Buddhist) Sinhalese population and the minority (mainly Hindu) Tamils, Sri Lanka has a rich and diverse history far beyond the violent conflict of recent years. For millennia, the small island has been a crossroads for travelers—first the Indian migrants who settled it and later the Portuguese, Dutch, and British who colonized it.
After independence from Britain in 1948, Sinhalese nationalist leaders quickly sought to re-establish the dominance of Sinhalese culture in the new state. Anti-Tamil legislation was enacted, partly in response to perceived British favoritism of Tamil workers on tea plantations. This included disenfranchising close to a million Indian Tamil migrant workers, making Sinhala the official language, and making Buddhism the national religion. In 1976, after nearly three decades of Tamil repression and exclusion, the revolutionary Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) formed, calling for a Tamil homeland in the north and east of the country, where most Tamils lived.
Over the next three decades, the Tigers fought the Sinhalese-dominated government in three wars. While most of the fighting occurred in the northern part of the country, the Tigers also conducted devastating bombings in the capital, Colombo, and assassinated politicians, including President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. Six years later, President Chandrika Bandaranaike was wounded in a bomb attack.
Between 1976 and 2008, 70,000 people were killed. The war culminated with a final devastating loss of life. In September 2008, under the leadership of former President Mahinda Rajapaka, the Sri Lankan army herded up to 400,000 Tamil civilians into a “no-fire zone”. For four-and-a-half months, the Sri Lankan military bombed the trapped civilians. The Tigers used civilians as human shields and are accused of shooting those who tried to escape. The Sri Lankan government, however, was responsible for the vast majority of deaths. While the estimates differ dramatically depending upon the source, between 10,000 and 70,000 people are reported to have died in the final days of the war.
In 2009, the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers, thus ending the war. The following year, the Sri Lankan government conducted a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the period of conflict between 2002 and 2009. Organizations such as Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group, however, have questioned the government’s ability to objectively investigate its own actions during the war. The United Nations has also investigated the final months of conflict, as has UK-based Channel 4 News, resulting in two searing and graphic documentaries illustrating the brutal violence that ended the war. Today, this beautiful country of over twenty million people is rebuilding its infrastructure and economy, including a thriving tourism industry. Yet the fragility of the end of conflict can be summed up in the words of another Sri Lankan respondent:
Q: Has the peace process been fair to every group?
A; There should be permanent peace before answering this.