(Tamil) Tigers and the Lion: The Evolution of Sri Lanka's Civil War

By Oberst, Robert C. | Harvard International Review, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

(Tamil) Tigers and the Lion: The Evolution of Sri Lanka's Civil War


Oberst, Robert C., Harvard International Review


ON DECEMBER 5, 1995, Sri Lankan government troops raised the golden lion flag of Sri Lanka over Jaffna city. It was a triumphant return to the city they had abandoned in defeat over five years earlier. Waves of celebration spread across southern Sri Lanka. The capture of Jaffna, the heart of Sri Lankan Tamil culture and society, gave the victorious government forces and their supporters their most important victory in the 13-year-old civil war. Although the victory dealt a serious blow to the Tamil guerrilla group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), it did not defeat the Tigers nor diminish their desire to establish their own independent state of Eelam. The guerrilla army retreated and reestablished its defense lines in the eastern part of the Jaffna peninsula and Vanni jungles to the south. The celebration parties were premature; the fall of Jaffna only marked a new phase in a conflict which has evolved and changed over the nearly 25 years since the predecessor of the LTTE was formed by an 18-year-old youth, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, in 1972. The government has changed since the start of the conflict, and the rebel leaders have grown from young militants into middle-aged men, but the most important government victory in the war merely changed the structure of the debate in the conflict between the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka and the majority-Sinhalese government.

The Onset of the War

Though open warfare in Sri Lanka first erupted in 1983, the roots of the conflict can be traced to the early 1970s, with the first Tamil guerrilla attacks against the government. In the early 1970s Tamil resistance to the Sri Lankan government emerged from the youth wing of the dominant Tamil political party, the Federal Party, which later in that decade evolved into the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). The Federal Party was led by an older generation of Tamils who supported cooperation with the Sinhalese-dominated government of Sri Lanka. They were mostly members of the highest Hindu caste, and were as conversant in English as they were in Tamil. With less than 13 percent of the population, the Tamils could not realistically expect to dominate Sri Lankan electoral politics. Thus, the Federal Party leadership had chosen to try to work within coalitions with the two majority Sinhalese parties.

At the same time, Sri Lanka had been undergoing a great deal of social stress. A population boom in the 1950s had led to a sharp increase in the population of teenagers by the early 1970s, but most of these youths were unable to find jobs in spite of their strong secondary school education. As a result, an angry and dissatisfied cadre of youths developed and began to demand more from their political leaders. Tamil youths turned their attention to the problems their ethnic community faced as a minority in a Sinhalese-dominated government. Eventually, these youths became the core of the Tiger movement, rallying around one young leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, who would become the leader of the LTTE.

From the time Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) won its independence from the British in 1948, the Tamils had demanded a fairer system of representation in Sri Lanka. The country had inherited a majoritarian system from the British in which the Sinhalese were able to enact any legislation they wished because they comprised well over half the population (72.2 percent). Most ethnically divided societies have resorted to some form of anti-majoritarian procedures to ensure better representation. Anti-majoritarian elements, such as federalism or bicameral legislatures, require that overwhelming majorities be present before important legislation can be enacted.

Without anti-majoritarian safeguards, the Sri Lankan government had taken a number of actions which benefited only the majority community. Most significant of these was the Sinhala-Only policy in 1956 which required the government to operate only in the Sinhalese language. …

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