I. COMMUNAL VIOLENCE
Most observers have placed the start of the civil war in Sri Lanka as the summer of 1983, after a Sinhalese pogrom against the Tamil population occurred, mostly in the Colombo region. To some degree the anti-Tamil riots were seen as a response to the deaths of thirteen Sinhalese soldiers killed by LTTE ambush. The LTTE did exist prior to this event, having formed by at least 1976 under the leadership of Velupillai Prabhakaran (Ridenour, 2009). But the organization gained innumerable recruits as a consequence of the 1983 rioting, which destroyed hundreds of Tamil homes and businesses (ICG, 2010, p.29). Although estimates vary, the number of Tamils killed may have been as high as 4,000. Although there were periods of relative peace or low-level fighting between the government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the LTTE, the civil war did not conclude until May, 2009, twenty-six years later.
My argument offered as an explanation for the origins of the civil war in Sri Lanka is based on the expressed desire of a minority population to preserve their culture and distinctiveness as a people, in the face of efforts by the state to establish conditions degrading or suppressing that distinctiveness. Why a specific population retains this desire has been put in the following terms.
The people who inhabit a certain territory form a political community. Through custom and practice as well as by explicit political decision they create laws, establish individual or collective property rights, engage in public works, [and] shape the physical appearance of the territory. [...] All of these activities give them an attachment to the land that cannot be matched by any rival claimants. This in turn justifies their claim to exercise continuing political authority over that territory (emphasis in original) (Miller, 1998, p.68).
It is only through gaining political authority, i.e., achieving self-government, which has often been labeled "self-determination," that the minority population has some assurance their nation will endure. Although it is an oversimplification, the initiation of a settler program inserted into the territory contested by the state and the minority population, could be seen as just cause for the commencement of an insurgency; that is, to negate an effort by the state to extinguish prior minority claims to the contested territory, and thus "suppress" the minority culture. The underlying theoretical question is whether self-determination can be separated from territory. In was the inability of the Tamil and Sinhalese peoples to resolve that question that brought about the civil war. One means by which the state can attempt to accomplish this suppression is through the establishment of a "settler" program through which members of the majority population (nationally) are inserted into the territory claimed by the minority population as their "homeland."
Although national governments have sometimes claimed the motivation for a settler program was to promote the economic development of a particular region, the authenticity of such claims is often contested by some portion of the region's population. Insurgent groups have challenged the legitimacy of such programs on the grounds that the non-minority population settlers are generally granted "entitlements" to land not offered to minority population members, as was clearly the case in Sri Lanka (ICG, 2008b, p.4; Tigno, 2006, p.28). Even more fundamentally, however, is the challenge made to settler programs based on the unwillingness of the insurgents to recognize the right of the national government to institute a development program in the contested region of the state at all (Oberst, 1996, p.33-35).
Violence by Tamil insurgents was targeted explicitly toward Sinhalese settlers residing in a proclaimed Tamil homeland at least as early as the mid-1980s (Pfaffenberger, 1987, p.159). From the insurgent point of view such a campaign is meant to end or even reverse the settler program, thus strengthening the ratio of minority versus (national) majority population in the "homeland" region, turning the ratio more in the former's favor.
In 1985, during the peace conference in Thimpu, the United Tamil groups made it one of their four points to be acknowledged that because they were a nation of their own they had an exclusive right to their homeland in the North and East, where none but they should be entitled to settle. No new Sinhalese settlers should be allowed to cultivate the traditional Tamil areas, although those who were already there could remain. The militant groups underlined this demand with violent and bloody attacks on Sinhalese settlers in the Northeast who dared to defy their order to stay out (Hellman-Rajanayagam, 1990, p.80) (emphasis added).
The belief was that a turn in population ratio in favor of a minority population would buttress the insurgent argument for self-determination, due to the resulting increased homogeneity of the homeland resident population.
The following comment has been made regarding the movement of Sinhalese settlers into the Northeast part of the country:
When inter-ethnic violence increased in the 1980s, these settlement schemes became a theatre of inter-ethnic contestation and violence and became interwoven with military and political strategies of the major conflict parties. After the military contestation between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE aggravated, some segments in the Sinhalese regime and the military used new 'strategic' settlement schemes to weaken the basis of Tamil claims to a Northeast homeland. LTTE attacks on Sinhalese settlers and army retaliation against Tamil villagers were common practice during these early periods of heightened confrontation (Korf and Funfgeld, 2006).
Demography in the Northeast
The land colonization policy of successive Sri Lankan governments has caused much resentment. It has been Sinhalese policy to establish 'colonies' of Sinhalese settlers (mostly farmers) in the Eastern province especially, an area traditionally viewed by Tamil nationalists as "theirs" (Lewer and William, 2002, p.3).
The Eastern province of Sri Lanka constitutes a part of what is called the "Dry Zone", an area requiring extensive irrigation systems in order for agriculture to flourish. At independence the Sinhalese presence in the Dry Zone and in the Eastern province was quite small relative to the rest of the country, although there is belief among some Sinhalese that in past generations there was a much greater presence (Moore, 1985, p.45).
Sinhalese political leaders have invoked this belief and utilized it as a basis (in part) for the settler program of the post-independence period. "The colonization of the Dry Zone by landless peasant cultivators from the Wet Zone remained one of the highest policy priorities for all governments until 1970" (Peebles, 1990, p.37). LTTE apprehension regarding an alleged Sri Lankan government (GoSL) plan to "Sinhalese" the Eastern province has been persistent, and may have some justification.
Located at the intersection of the eastern and northern provinces, Tricomalee district has been the site of deliberate attempts by Sinhalese nationalists, with support from the government, to break the contiguity of a Tamil-speaking north east by settling additional Sinhalese. Due in large part to irrigation settlements, the ethnic balance shifted considerably over the last century, with Sinhalese increasing from 4 per cent of the population in 1911 to a high of 33 per cent in 1981 and to their current figure of roughly 24 per cent, (ICG, 2008b, p.23).
National governments have seized upon settler programs as a means of maintaining the territorial integrity of the state by choosing to define the state as a "nation-state", utilizing the original definition of the latter, as a political entity enclosing a territory wherein resides a relatively homogenous (whether based on religious, ethnic, linguistic, or other grounds) population (Kelman, 1997, p.334). In most modern states of course, this condition is decidedly not the case, with most states anything but homogenous. By maintaining fidelity to this ideal, a national government can then go further and say that the nation-state's territory must be defended by seeing to it that the territory encompassed by the state's defined boundaries is populated, or re-populated, as it were, with members of the national majority population.
In Sri Lanka, the LTTE made it clear that Sinhalese enclaves in the Eastern province would not be made welcome. It is not clear how much, if any, of a Sinhalese presence would have been allowed in the LTTE proposed Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) that was discussed in the 2004/2005 negotiations between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government (GoSL, 2005). Ultimately the GoSL determined there would be no recognition of an ISGA, ended the ceasefire and negotiations, and sought a military solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka.
This step was taken despite the urging of mediators to continue negotiations. Articulating their "strong concerns"--Japan, the U.S., the EU and Norway, the peace process co-chairs--repeated their …