2009 has seen a series of offensive actions by the Sri Lankan government against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group dedicated to establishing the independent Tamil state in northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka. The conflict is part of an ongoing 25-year civil war resulting from ethnic conflict between the island’s Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority.
The LTTE is a highly controversial organization, with sympathizers identifying it as a liberation movement, and others classifying it as a terrorist group.
In early January the Sri Lankan army captured the city of Kilinochchi, the stronghold of LTTE power for the last decade. It was announced that with this defeat, it was unlikely that the LTTE could continue resistance efforts much longer. The LTTE has sustained additional losses since, and the government is optimistic about the end of the war.
The remaining forces of the LTTE have been surrounded in small isolated zones, where a Amnesty International estimates that over 300,000 civilians, primarily Tamils, are also trapped. The LTTE refuses to let the civilians escape for fear that without them as deterrents, government forces will act ruthlessly against their forces. The situation has attracted a great deal of international news expressing concern for human rights abuses by both parties, and allegations that the government actions against the LTTE amount to genocide.
Senior Ruvini Jayasinghe, whose family is part of the Sinhalese majority, said, “There is not a genocide going on. People should not feel sorry for the LTTE. They are a terrorist group, they are not freedom fighters.” She explained her perception of current events within the context of an ongoing war, where both sides have a degree of culpability for the violence they have enacted throughout the years.
A Knox student from a Sri Lankan Tamil family who wished to remain anonymous offered her perspective on the LTTE, saying, “People usually focus on the Tamil Tigers and their ‘terrorism’ instead of what has been done to many Tamil citizens.” She said that the LTTE has followed principles in attempt to, “One, recognize Tamils as a nation, two, recognize the concept of a Tamil homeland and three, recognize the right to self-determination of the Tamils.” She said, “The LTTE wants the Tamils to have justice and to be treated as equals in every respect and for this do be done by them having a separate sovereign country.”
The origins of the conflict stem from the times of British colonialism, the student explained. The struggle began “with the independence of Sri Lanka in 1948 when the British handed the island to the majority nation, the Sinhalese. Before the British came, Ceylon [Sri Lanka] had three sovereign kingdoms. But when Sri Lanka was colonized they were combined … Since the independence the Sinhalese have dominated politics and the economy. They have discriminated against the Tamils and committed human rights violations against them.”
Although the roots of the conflict were created by ethnic tensions, Jayasinghe said, “It has grown into something different … There is nothing to do with ethnic conflict anymore.” From her perspective, the current struggle is more related to power and access to resources. She mentioned oil reserves and the involvement of countries such as Norway in the brokering of the 2001 ceasefire, saying there is “Definitely foreign interest” involved.
Both students’ lives have been significantly impacted by the war.
Jayasinghe, whose family lives in Colombo, the capital, spoke about the impact the conflict had upon her life. She said, “Growing up there, when I went to school, we had bomb drills,” and she explained that bombs were not infrequent. She said people have accepted the realities of life in a state of constant struggle, “Really it’s not normal, it shouldn’t be normal at all, and it’s just how it is.”
Jayasinghe spoke of the last time she was at home, during December 2007. She said there were checkpoints in place every few meters with ID searches, performed indiscriminately, in place to ensure security. She also said that despite these measures, her parents did not want her to leave the house to go anywhere aside from her grandmother’s.
“My mother’s house was burned down and she and her parents had to flee Colombo and lived in a church for awhile,” said the anonymous student. “That type of thing happened to Tamils in Sri Lanka all the time but it’s not well known. People usually focus on the Tamil Tigers and their ‘terrorism’ instead of what has been done to many Tamil citizens.
When I visited Sri Lanka, when I was 16, I was told to not speak a word of Tamil because it was dangerous.”
She continued, “A third of the Tamil population has had to flee the island, including my family, and another third has been displaced from their homes, often many times.”
The anonymous student finished, “The LTTE wants the Tamils to have justice and to be treated as equals in every respect and for this do be done [through] having a separate sovereign country. Personally I feel the use of violence in any situation other than self-defense is wrong and I do not support the Tigers because of this. But I do support their message and the feelings of the majority of Tamil people. There [have] been numerous human rights [violation] allegations and now finally the international arena is beginning to notice. I hope that peace will soon come to Sri Lanka but if these human rights violations are not addressed, even without the LTTE there will never be peace as the Tamils … [continue] to be abused.”
The conflict began in July 1983, and has claimed over 70,000 lives. The evolution of the struggle has passed through many phases, with numerous ceasefires. When asked whether Jayasinghe thought the end of the LTTE would mean peace for Sri Lanka, she said, “I don’t know what will happen, no one knows.”