ASIA/SRI LANKA - The roots of the ethnic conflict which has shed the country’s blood and strangled the economy

Saturday, 10 July 2004

Colombo (Fides Service) -Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) since 1984 has lived an inter-ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority (about 74% of the population) and the Tamil majority of Indian origin (about 13%). Another 7% of the population is Muslim and the rest are Dutch and Veddah descendants of the first peoples who lived on the Island in 300 BC.

The civil war
The roots of the civil war go back to the history of the Island: for centuries Indians and Sinhalese fight for what, according to Marco Polo is the “world’s most beautiful island” since colonial times when Portugal made it a strategic spice trading centre (1505). Then it was the turn of the Dutch followed by the British who took Ceylon in 1815. It was under British rule that masses of Tamils seasonal workers began to come to Sri Lanka from southern India (Tamil Nadu), to work in the Island’s tea and coffee plantations.
The British crown established that the Tamils should settle in the north and east where they became a strong minority preferred by the colonial power, ever more wary of the Sinhalese with whom India had often fought in the past.
When Ceylon became independent in1948, the contradictions and bottled up feelings of hatred were ready to explode: the government led by Solomon Bandaranaike inaugurated a nationalist policy and in 1956 Sinhalese became the official language and Buddhism was made the state religion. At the first signs of openness towards the Tamil minority Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959 and his wife Srimavo, who took his place becoming the world’s first woman prime minister, carried on the same policies as he husband.

First clandestine groups in 1970s
Ethnic tension exploded in the 1970s. In 1972 the government changed the Island’s name to Sri Lanka and promoted a series of rigidly nationalist laws which made the Tamils feel excluded. The first clandestine groups began to appear (New Tamil Tigers for the liberation of the homeland Eelam in Tamil). In 1976 Vellupilai Prabahkaran became the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam LTTE and the Tamils make their voice heard also in the political field. In 1977 Tamil separatist party wins all the seats in the mainly Tamil northern peninsula area of Jaffna.

Ethnic cleansing in 1980s
In the 1980s conflict turns into war: the government of Colombo inflicts harsh repression which has all the marks of ethnic cleansing: 65,000 Tamils leave the Island finding safety mainly in India, while conflict increases with the Muslim minority which suffers the exodus of 100,000 people.

Strategy of suicide bombing
Tamil separatists become more violent: fierce guerrilla warfare prevents government from controlling north eastern area of the Island; numerous attacks, including suicide attacks sow panic in the capital Colombo.

Mediation of India and assassination of Gandhi
After the creation of some Tamil controlled areas, India enters the scene, strongly contrasted by both parties, deploying a peacekeeping force which stays until 1990. This was the reason for the assassination of India’s premier Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 by a Tamil suicide bomber.

1990s and the cease fire
In the 1990s while the conflict is ever more radical, a path to peace is sought also thanks to international intervention by Great Britain and the United States. In 2000 Norway offers to mediate between Tamil and Sinhalese and in 2002 it obtains the historic cease fire which is still in force.
In the meantime the war struck the country’s economy already in contraction in 2001, strangling the major resource of tourism. The civil war in Sri Lanka has caused the death of at least 65,000 people and made at least one million homeless.
(PA) (Agenzia Fides 10/7/2004 lines 55 words 546)