War Termination in Sri Lanka

By Harris, Albert Wesley | Studies in Sociology of Science, September 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

War Termination in Sri Lanka


Harris, Albert Wesley, Studies in Sociology of Science


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. …

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