The Tamil question in Sri Lanka

By Chris Slee

October 5, 2008 -- On January 2, 2008, the Sri Lankan government formally renounced the ceasefire agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which a previous government had signed in February 2002. But by the beginning of 2008 the ceasefire already existed only on paper. Violence, which had been escalating for several years, had by then reached the level of full-scale war.

The war has caused terrible suffering for civilians. Last year's fighting in the east of the island displaced hundreds of thousands of people, adding to those already displaced by previous fighting, and by the December 2004 tsunami. The recent offensive by the Sri Lankan army in the Vanni region of northern Sri Lanka has displaced nearly 200,000 more, according to the Australian Federation of Tamil Associations [1].

At the time of writing, Kilinochchi, a town in northern Sri Lanka which was the administrative centre for all LTTE-controlled territory, is being subjected to aerial and ground artillery bombardment, and its population has been evacuated to LTTE-controlled rural areas. United Nations agencies and international aid organisations have withdrawn from the town, despite attempts by the local people to block their departure (their presence had been seen as providing some deterrent to massive bombardment or other atrocities by the Sri Lankan army, which has been slowly advancing towards the town).

Origins of the conflict

The roots of the conflict lie in a long history of state oppression of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, which eventually led some Tamil youth to take up arms against the government.

When the British government granted formal independence to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) in 1948, it handed power to politicians drawn mainly from the upper classes of the majority Sinhala ethnic group. These politicians used racism as a tool to divide the working class. They also used it as a weapon in their struggles with each other: different Sinhalese politicians would compete to show that they were the strongest defenders of the Sinhalese people. This resulted in the adoption of racist policies and the stirring up of antagonism against the Tamil minority.

One of the newly independent state's first acts was to deprive Tamil plantation workers of citizenship rights. These workers were descended from people brought to Sri Lanka from India by the British in the nineteenth century to work on coffee and tea plantations. Despite the fact that their families had lived in Sri Lanka for several generations, a million people were denied Sri Lankan citizenship, being defined as "Indians".

The citizenship law did not directly affect the main group of Tamils, whose ancestors had lived in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka for thousands of years. But it was soon followed by new laws adversely affecting all Tamils. Sinhalese was declared the sole official language of Sri Lanka, a move which made speakers of the Tamil language second-class citizens. Knowledge of Sinhalese was made a prerequisite for employment in the public service, thereby excluding most Tamils from government jobs. Discrimination against Tamils was also applied in education.

For many years Tamils opposed these discriminatory laws by peaceful means, including demonstrations, sit-ins and participation in elections. But peaceful protests were met with violent repression, carried out by the police and army as well as racist Sinhalese mobs incited to violence by politicians and Buddhist monks. There was a series of pogroms against Tamils, culminating in the murder of an estimated 3000 people in the government-instigated riots of July 1983.

LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham argued that: "The anti-Tamil riots that periodically erupted in the island should not be viewed as spontaneous outbursts of inter-communal violence between the two communities. All major racial conflagrations that erupted violently against the Tamil people were inspired and masterminded by the Sinhala regimes as a part of a genocidal program. Violent anti-Tamil riots exploded on the island in 1956, 1958, 1961,1974, 1977,1979, 1981 and in July 1983. In these racial holocausts thousands of Tamils, including women and children, were massacred in the most gruesome manner, billions of rupees worth of Tamil property was destroyed and hundreds of thousands made refugees. The state's armed forces colluded with the Sinhalese hooligans and vandals in their violent rampage of arson, rape and mass murder." [2]

The growing repression led to the growth of Tamil nationalist sentiment. In 1977 the Tamil United Liberation Front won 17 seats in the Sri Lankan parliament on a platform of self-determination for Tamils.

LTTE forms

The repression of peaceful protest led many Tamil youth to turn to violent methods. The LTTE was formed in 1972 and carried out its first major armed action in 1978. After the 1983 pogrom, the LTTE gained increased support from the Tamil community and dramatically stepped up its war against the Sri Lankan army.

Government forces were unable to defeat the LTTE, despite brutal repression including numerous massacres of Tamil civilians. In 1987 India sent a "peacekeeping force" to Sri Lanka, with the ostensible aim of protecting the Tamils from the violence of the Sri Lankan army. However the Indian government did not want to see the creation of an independent Tamil state, and the Indian army soon began repressing the LTTE. The Indians tried to use some other Tamil armed groups as a counterweight to the LTTE, leading to conflict among the Tamil militants.

In 1988, Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected as president of Sri Lanka. He was no friend of Tamils, having been prime minister during the 1983 pogrom. Nevertheless, he opposed the continued presence of Indian troops, and started talks with the LTTE. He even secretly gave the LTTE some arms to fight the Indian troops. But he remained opposed to self-determination for the Tamils, and once the Indian army had withdrawn, fighting broke out once again between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE.

There have been a number of attempts to reach a peaceful settlement to the war.

Chandrika Kumaratunga was elected prime minister in 1994 after campaigning on a peace platform. However, Kumaratunga was never serious about peace, but merely wanted time to rebuild the Sri Lankan army for a new war. [3]

In February 2002 a ceasefire agreement was signed between the LTTE and the United National Party (UNP) government of Ranil Wickremesinghe. This was the longest-lasting attempt to bring peace. But once again the government not only failed to offer the Tamil people a just solution that could guarantee a lasting peace; it failed even to fully implement the provisions of the ceasefire agreement -- for example, those provisions requiring the Sri Lankan army to evacuate public buildings it had occcupied in Tamil areas, and to disarm pro-government paramilitary groups. These paramilitary groups continued to exist and to carry out, in collusion with the Sri Lankan army, acts of violence and intimidation against LTTE supporters.

The UNP government, which claimed to want peace but failed to deliver it, was replaced in 2004 by a more openly chauvinist government, a coalition of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SFLP) with the JVP (Peoples Liberation Front). Later the JVP left the ruling coalition, but an even more extreme Sinhalese chauvinist party, the Jatika Hela Urumaya, which is led by Buddhist monks, joined the government.

Following the election of the SLFP, violence escalated into full-scale war. LTTE-controlled areas have been subjected to aerial and artillery bombardment by the Sri Lankan armed forces, as well as blockades preventing food supplies and other necessities from entering these areas. Tamil civilians have been murdered by government troops and pro-government militias, and Tamil youth have been conscripted into these militias against their will.

There have been a series of massacres by the armed forces. For example, on June 17, 2006, in the fishing village of Pesalai, Sri Lankan navy troops threw grenades into a church where Tamil refugees were sheltering. [4] On August 4, in the town of Muttur, 17 aid workers (most of them Tamils) employed by the French charity Action Contre le Faim (Action Against Hunger) were murdered in cold blood by the army. [5] On August 14, in Mullaitivu, an orphanage was bombed by the Sri Lankan airforce, killing more than 50 children. [6]

Fifteen-thousand people fled from the town of Vaharai in eastern Sri Lanka following heavy shelling by the Sri Lankan army on January 18, 2007. According to the Tamilnet website, the shelling was intensified in the evening despite an urgent message sent to the International Committee of the Red Cross from Vaharai hospital authorities saying that the area around the hospital, where many displaced people had sought refuge, was under attack. [7]

In March 2007, Batticaloa district parliamantarian S. Jeyanandamoorthy claimed that 40,000 people had been displaced from the Paduvankarai area of eastern Sri Lanka in a period of 48 hours, due to heavy artillery and rocket fire from the Sri Lankan army. [8]

Repression against Tamils has intensified, not only in the traditional Tamil areas of the north and east, but also in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo. Many Tamils have fled to Colombo, both to escape the fighting in the north and east and for economic reasons. But the renewed war has led to increased harassment of Tamils in Colombo. Police have carried out sweeps through Colombo’s suburbs, questioning Tamils about their reasons for being in the capital. Military checkpoints have been established at key junctions throughout the city.

On June 7, 2007, 500 Tamils were forcefully expelled from lodges in Colombo, and sent on buses to the north and east. A further 300 were detained in a police station awaiting transport.

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Human rights and peace groups and Tamil and left parties held a demonstration to protest against the expulsions on June 8, 2007. The Supreme Court ordered a halt to the expulsions. Nevertheless, the expulsions provided yet another example of the government's racist attitude towards the Tamils.

Indian journalist Narayan Swamy commented that the expulsions carried out by the Sinhala-chauvinist state paradoxically prove the existence of, and the need for, a Tamil homeland: "For too long it has been claimed by Sri Lanka's ruling elite that there cannot be a concept of `Tamil homeland’ because more Tamils now live outside of the war zone that is the northeastern province, which was once overwhelmingly Tamil ... the Sri Lanka police's high-handed action seemed to prove that the `Tamil homeland’ does exist and it does constitute precisely that region the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) wants to secede.’’ [9]

The military situation

During 2007 the Sri Lankan army carried out an offensive to capture the LTTE-controlled areas in the eastern part of the island of Sri Lanka, and claimed to have been completely successful. During 2008, the army has been attempting to capture the LTTE-controlled areas in the north of the island, and to wipe out the LTTE altogether.

The Sri Lankan army has made some progress in capturing territory in the north, but is meeting fierce resistance. In the month of August 2008 alone, 155 Sri Lankan army soldiers were killed and 983 wounded [10]. While forced to retreat in some areas, the LTTE has carried out attacks behind Sri Lankan army lines. On September 9, the LTTE carried out an attack on the Sri Lankan army military headquarters for the Vanni district, killing 14 soldiers and causing severe damage [11]. In the east, supposedly under firm government control, ambushes and attacks on army bases continue to occur.

The LTTE has used light aircraft to carry out bombing raids on government targets, including an air base and oil installations in Colombo, and a military base in the northern Jaffna peninsula.

The government has claimed to be making rapid progress in capturing the north, and that it is close to complete victory over the LTTE. But after the LTTE attack on the Sri Lankan military's Vanni district headquarters in the town of Vavuniya, the UNP opposition has questioned the government’s claims of progress in the war. According to UNP parliamentarian Lakshman Seneviratne, "The Air Force base and the Police HQ of Vavuniya was attacked using heavy artillery. [The] Radar defence system is completely destroyed. This happened in an area that [the] government has always claimed has been liberated long ago, and cleared of any LTTE activity". [12]

Seneviratne also accused government ministers of embezzling large quantities of money intended for the military.

Role of imperialism

The United States and other imperialist powers have always supported the Sri Lankan state against the Tamil struggle. They have supplied weapons and military training to the Sri Lankan army. Israel has supplied Kfir jets to the Sri Lankan airforce, which has used them to bomb towns such as Kilinochchi. The United States has long banned the LTTE as a "terrorist organisation" (while ignoring the campaign of state terrorism carried out by the Sri Lankan armed forces, except for an occasional mild criticism of some human rights violations). More recently the European Union has also banned the LTTE.

The bias of the "international community" has also taken more subtle forms. An example is the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM), which was established to supervise the 2002 ceasefire. The SLMM, which was headed by a Norwegian general, failed to enforce certain key provisions of the ceasefire agreement -- for example, those requiring the Sri Lankan army to vacate public buildings it had occupied in Tamil areas and to disarm paramilitary groups allied to the army. The Norwegian mediators also did not take seriously the LTTE's call for refugees to be allowed to return to their homes in the large areas of land occupied by the Sri Lankan army (the so-called "high security zones").

But while essentially supporting the Sri Lankan government, the imperialist powers have at times tried to pressure it into granting some concessions to the Tamils, in the hope of winning them away from the LTTE. Western governments sometimes criticise the Sri Lankan government for some of its human rights violations.

In December 2007 the US Senate imposed restrictions on the sale of military equipment to Sri Lanka, though equipment for the purpose of "maritime and air surveillance and communications" was excluded from the ban. [13]

Such criticisms and pressure annoy the government and Sinhala chauvinists, who often claim that foreign powers are supporting the LTTE.

But this is nonsense. The recent partial restrictions on military supplies to Sri Lanka are an exception to the longstanding US policy of full support to the Sri Lankan government's war effort. As Gajan Raj says in the May 23, 2007, Tamil Guardian: "[T]he US failed to restrain the Sri Lankan state's belligerence and instead tolerated and encouraged it. Whilst making the odd statement that there was 'no military solution to conflict', the US provided increased military and financial assistance to the state even when Colombo was stepping up military violence in breach of the ceasefire agreement." [14]

US officials have made their position very clear. In November 2006, US under-secretary of state Nicholas Burns said: "[W]e are not neutral...We support the [Sri Lankan] government... We believe the government has a right to try to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country." [15]

Nevertheless, the Sri Lankan government has not relied solely on the US and its allies for support. It has bought weapons from a range of sources, including China, India, Pakistan and Russia. It sometimes seeks to win the sympathy of Third World people and governments by portraying itself as a victim of imperialist plots to "divide the country". Recently it has established economic links with Iran, and there have been claims of military links as well.

The government reacts with extreme hostility to even the slightest hint of criticism. When UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon expressed concern about the plight of Tamil refugees in the Vanni region, an official of Sri Lanka's so-called Human Rights Ministry claimed that there were "hardly any civilian casualties" and that Ban's remarks would benefit the LTTE. [16]

Failures of the left

The government's ability to wage war on the Tamils has been facilitated by the lack of a strong anti-war movement amongst the mainly Sinhalese population in the south of Sri Lanka. This in turn reflects the weakness and political inadequacy of the left in Sri Lanka.

During the 1950s the Sri Lankan left appeared fairly strong. Both the Communist Party and the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) had a number of members of parliament.

However these parties proved willing to sell out their principles in order to be able to join coalition governments with the bourgeois Sri Lanka Freedom Party. For example they dropped their insistence on equality for the Tamil language. Furthermore the left parties largely neglected the rural poor.

The shortcomings of the left parties contributed to the rise of the JVP in Sinhala areas and of the LTTE in Tamil areas.


The Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) was formed in the 1960s as a radical movement of Sinhalese rural youth. It led revolts against the government in 1971 and 1989 and was repressed by the Sri Lankan army with extreme brutality on both occasions.

Since then the JVP has been rebuilt and has had considerable success in parliamentary elections. Previously critical of the parliamentarist attitude of the old left parties, the JVP seems to have adapted to parliamentarism itself. In 2005 it reassured US officials that it had "renounced armed struggle". [17]

The JVP, while claiming to be Marxist, always had an element of Sinhalese chauvinism in its outlook. This has become more pronounced in recent years. While claiming to support equal rights for all ethnic groups, it denies the right of Tamils to self-determination and calls for war against the LTTE -- which in practice, given the racist character of the Sri Lankan army and the extent of popular support for the LTTE among Tamils, means war against the Tamil people.

 The JVP, disregarding the tens of thousands of its own members and supporters massacred by the Sri Lankan army in 1971 and 1989, now talks of the army as "our armed forces" [18]. In August 2006 Wimal Weerawansa, who was at that time the JVP's propaganda secretary, was invited to address Sri Lankan army troops, and advocated full-scale war against the LTTE. [19]

Recently the JVP has split. The majority, while remaining pro-war, has attempted to reverse its declining support among working people by once again campaigning for workers' economic demands, which had been abandoned in favour of a single-minded emphasis on support for the war effort. The minority, which broke away and adopted the name National Freedom Front, continues to say that winning the war against the LTTE is its only task. The NFF is very close to the Rajapakse government.

Strengths and limitations of the LTTE

The LTTE has fought courageously and persistently against the Sri Lankan and Indian armies in an effort to win self-determination for the Tamil people. It has also been willing to seek a peaceful solution when it appeared that the Sri Lankan government might be willing to agree.

The LTTE has strong support from the Tamils living in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka. This is indicated by election results (20 members of the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance were elected to Sri Lanka's parliament in 2004), and by the big attendance at LTTE-organised rallies held during the ceasefire (e.g. the series of large rallies for self-determination held throughout the north and east during 2005).

Yet the goal of self-determination has not yet been attained. This is not solely due to the military power of the Sri Lankan state and the backing it receives from the imperialist powers (important though that is). It is also due to the political limitations of the LTTE itself.

The LTTE has usually tended to see the struggle as a predominantly military one. This has led it to disregard certain essential political tasks, including the need to win support among the Sinhalese workers, peasants and students of southern Sri Lanka for the right of Tamils to self-determination, as well as the need to win the support of the Tamil-speaking Muslims of eastern Sri Lanka.

The US anti-war movement played a key role in forcing the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam. The absence of a mass anti-war movement in southern Sri Lanka is a key obstacle to the success of the Tamil self-determination struggle.

The LTTE has been willing to negotiate with Sinhalese political leaders whenever the latter has shown any signs of wanting to reach a peaceful solution. But the LTTE has not made a serious effort to get its message directly to the Sinhalese masses, by bypassing the politicians whose promises of peace have been deceptive.

The lack of a strong anti-war movement in southern Sri Lanka reflects the weakness and political limitations of the Sri Lankan left. But some actions by LTTE have also helped to alienate the Sinhalese masses.

The LTTE has sometimes responded to the atrocities of the Sri Lankan army by carrying out atrocities of its own, including massacres of Sinhalese civilians. The LTTE has at various times carried out bombing campaigns in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo and elsewhere in the south. These actions have alienated Sinhalese workers from the Tamil struggle. When the targets were military such attacks could be justified, but this has not always been the case.

Errors by the LTTE also helped alienate the Tamil-speaking Muslims of northern and eastern Sri Lanka from the Tamil struggle. The government's discrimination against the Tamil language should have provided a basis for a united struggle by all Tamil-speaking people, including Muslims, against this injustice, and for a united homeland for all Tamil-speaking people in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

Some Muslim youth joined the LTTE in its early years. But the government, with the aid of some Muslim politicians, was able to instigate clashes between Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims. This led the LTTE to become suspicious of Muslims, to such an extent that it expelled them en masse from the Jaffna region. While the LTTE has since made efforts to rebuild relations with the Muslims, suspicions have not been completely overcome.

The LTTE's militaristic way of thinking has also led to the repression of dissent among Tamils. I mentioned that during the period of Indian intervention the Indian government tried to make use of the rivalries amongst Tamil militant groups by building up other groups as a counter to the LTTE. The Tigers reacted ruthlessly by murdering hundreds of members of rival groups. The LTTE also killed some human rights activists who were documenting atrocities by all sides, including the LTTE.

Support Tamil self-determination

These faults of the LTTE should not, however, negate our support for the right of Tamils to self-determination, and in particular for the removal of the occupying Sri Lankan army from Tamil areas.

The cycle of violence was initiated by the Sri Lankan government, and the government's denial of the right of Tamils to self-determination remains the main obstacle to peace. The Sri Lankan army is an army of occupation in Tamil areas. Its removal from these areas is a precondition for peace.

Self-determination need not lead to total separation of predominantly Tamil areas from the Sri Lankan state. The LTTE has stated its willingness to consider a federal structure. But the crucial point is that the unity of Sri Lanka most be voluntary. "Unity" can not be imposed by the Sri Lankan army through violent repression of the Tamil people.

[Chris Slee is member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist organisation affiliated to the Socialist Alliance of Australia. He a long-time activist in solidarity with the Tamil people’s struggle.]


1. AFTA media release, 12 September 2008

2. Anton Balasingham, War and Peace: Armed Struggle and Peace Efforts of Liberation Tigers, Fairmax Publishing, Mitcham England 2004, p. 9

3. LTTE theoretician and negotiator Anton Balasingham documents this in chapter 4 of his book (see above), where he publishes the series of letters exchanged between Kumaratunga and LTTE leader Vellupillai Pirapaharan.

4.The Age [Melbourne], June 19, 2006.

5. [Tamilnet], August 8, 2006.

6. Tamilnet, August 14, 2006.

7. Tamilnet, January 19, 2007.

8. Tamilnet, March 9, 2007.

9. M.R.Narayan Swamy, "How to tell Tamils they don't belong in Sri Lanka",

10. Statement by Sri Lankan prime minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake (cited by Tamilnet, September 9, 2008).

11. Figure of 14 military personnel killed, 29 wounded, plus "several policemen" killed, given by UNP parliamentarian Lakshman Seneviratne (cited by Tamilnet, September 10, 2008).

12. Lakshman Seneviratne, see note 11 above

13. Tamilnet, January 3, 2008.

14. Gajan Raj, Tamil Guardian, May 23, 2007.

15. Nicholas Burns, cited by Gajan Raj, Tamil Guardian, May 23, 2007.

16. Tamilnet, September 11, 2008.

17. See the article "Thank You US" in the JVP magazine Red Power, March-April 2005.

18. As above.

19. Sunday Leader [Sri Lanka], August 20, 2006; see also Tamilnet, August 25, 2006.