At Long Last: Finally Peace for Sri Lanka?

By Ferris, Elizabeth | Journal of International Peace Operations, July/August 2009 | Go to article overview

At Long Last: Finally Peace for Sri Lanka?


Ferris, Elizabeth, Journal of International Peace Operations


It Has Taken a Quarter-Century, But Finally the LTTE Appears Vanquished and the War Over

ON 16 May 2009, the Sn Lankan government announced that it had overrun the last insurgent stronghold and that 26 years of civil conflict had finally come to an end. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had been vanquished, its leader had been killed and the military insurgency was finished. Many danced in the streets of Colombo and a stream of messages from world leaders congratulated the government on its successful victory over terrorism.

But the humanitarian emergency continues. The underlying causes of the Tamils' demands - whether for autonomy or simply greater respect for their human rights - have yet to be addressed. The government has come under strong criticism for the way it handled its final assault on the Tigers and the high civilian casualties which occurred. In sum, it is still too early to tell whether the end of the war will usher in a new era of peace and stability or whether it represents just another pause in a conflict that has gone on for too long.

Moreover, the last six months of the war also bring into stark relief the challenges facing the humanitarian community in its work in places far from the small island nation of Sri Lanka. In fact, Sri Lanka's experiences these past few months could be a textbook on the breadth of the challenges facing the humanitarian community. Landmines, child soldiers, the militarization of aid, lack of access and insecurity for humanitarian workers unfortunately, Sri Lanka has had it all.

Since 1983, Sri Lanka has been embroiled in a violent civil war, rooted in historical differences between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the primarily Hindu Tamil minority. The Tamils, who make up some 20 percent of the population and are concentrated in the north and eastern parts of the country, have long argued for more equitable treatment. Building on growing demands for more autonomy, insurgent Tamil groups emerged in the 1970s. Over time, the Tigers, as the LTTE was known, emerged as the most militant and most effective of these liberation groups. The LTTE adopted guerrilla and terrorist tactics against the Sinhala-dominated government and other targets, and has the dubious claim to fame of being the first group to use suicide bombers. Supported by a large diaspora, the Tigers carried out violent attacks on government officials which in turn led to repeated army offensives. The LTTE's tactics led to its being banned as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, India, Australia and many other countries . And following the terroris t attacks of September 11, 2001, the Sri Lankan government has largely portrayed its fight against the LTTE as part of the Global War on Terror.

In the years since 1983, the conflict has killed some 80,000-100,000 people, led tens of thousands of Tamils to seek refuge in neighboring India and displaced hundreds of thousands of people within the country. Various international efforts to support a negotiated end to the conflict, including the deployment of the Indian Army as a peacekeeping force from 1987 to 1990, were unsuccessful. In 2002, a ceasefire agreement was signed with international mediation but it fell apart and the conflict resumed again in late 2005. This time the government insisted that it would not be deterred from pursuing a military victory. Beginning in 2006, a series of military offensives against the LTTE led to the insurgents being driven out of the entire eastern part of the country. A year later, the government offensive shifted to the north and over the course of two years, the LTTE was confined to an eversmaller area of territory. By early 2009, the LTTE had fallen back to a small area in a part of northeastern Sri Lanka known as the Vanni, where it made its last stand.

For a few months, the humanitarian world's attention focused on a bit of territory within the Vanni where some 200,000 civilians were trapped between an increasingly desperate LTTE and government forces determined not to allow this opportunity to pass. …

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