n the back of rising concerns over the nation’s security following a 2019 terrorist attack that left 259 dead, former defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was named Sri Lanka’s new president in a landslide election last November. With the wounds of a nearly three decade long civil war still fresh, the Sinhalese majority hoped his hardline governance would stamp out the sparks of new conflict. But for the Tamil—the island’s second largest ethnic group—Rajapaska’s election has made for an inferno.
The war between Sri Lanka’s government and The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which spanned nearly three decades and claimed the lives of over 100,000 people, remains the most defining period of the nation’s modern history since its independence in 1948. The LTTE were infamous for pioneering the widespread use of suicide bombing in warfare, a tactic they used to assassinate a number of political targets (including an Indian Prime Minister) and commit indiscriminate acts of terror across the island. Despite this, their promise of a new nation for the Tamil, who have been historically marginalized by the Sinhalese, granted the Tigers a substantial amount of support that left them in control of the island’s northern and eastern portions for decades.
This support, however, was nowhere near unanimous. The Tigers spent their formative years eliminating other Tamil organizations and political parties by force–even engaging in open warfare with other militant groups who espoused nearly identical ideologies–and therefore cemented themselves as the sole institutional voice for the oppressed in Sri Lanka. But this strategy was not limited to combatants. Tamil families were forced to contribute at least one person to the LTTE per household, and teenagers often found themselves in the insurgency’s ranks; in the later periods of the war, the average LTTE recruit was only 17 years old. Civilians within areas controlled by the Tigers were banned from leaving and coerced into dangerous manual labor on the front lines of the conflict. Over time, the Tigers grew to become just as much of a terror to their own people as the government they fought against.
By 2006, the organization was labeled as a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union, and India, among others. Their network of support and funding from the thousands of Tamils abroad began to close, and a number of nations actively assisted Sri Lanka in their mission to defeat the Tigers. But as the world condemned the LTTE for their acts of terrorism, government forces burned a path of retribution through the nation with little repercussion.
In late 2008, UN observers stationed in Sri Lanka were informed that their safety could no longer be guaranteed by the government; this message, however, was a complete façade. Rajapaksa was on the verge of initiating what would be the war’s final campaign, and his plan to make the victory decisive wouldn’t be well received by the international community—something that became clear after the fall of the Tiger’s capitol left hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians displaced. The government quickly established no-fire areas under the pretense of protecting non-participants from the campaign’s chaos. What followed was a large-scale artillery attack that massacred thousands of Tamils who had been effectively herded into kill zones. The government targeted the dozens of temporary hospitals that rose to help the wounded, murdering those who they had already denied access to humanitarian supplies. As the army advanced, Sri Lankan soldiers documented the horrors they committed, capturing videos of themselves raping and executing innocent Tamils. The UN estimates that up to 40,000 civilians fell victim to the bloody crusade that Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself spearheaded.
The new president has made it clear that his only plan for addressing these crimes is to hope that everyone can, quite simply, get over it. Emphasizing that he is representing all of Sri Lanka and not just those who voted for him, Rajapaksa has accused those who mourn the dead of reigniting sectarian divisions; meanwhile, his administration has made further attempts to marginalize the Tamil. In the nation’s first Independence Day celebration since his ascension to office, Rajapaksa overturned the practice of having the national anthem sung in Tamil in addition to its traditional rendition in Sinhala, claiming that he does not want to emphasize Sri Lanka’s ethnic differences. Moments like these exhibit that the cleavages between the Sinhalese and the Tamil run too deep for the LTTE’s defeat to fix.
The roots of the conflict can be traced to the colonial legacy left by Sri Lanka’s nearly century-and-a-half long occupation at the hands of the British. The natives had been harassed by European powers since the beginning of the 16th century, when the Portuguese (and later the Dutch) carved out coastal footholds and levied extreme taxes across the island. The English would invade in the early 19th century, stripping away any remaining autonomy.
The Tamil often found themselves better positioned within the colonial hierarchy thanks to their early adoption of English, leading the Sinhalese to enact reforms granting themselves more power as soon as the nation’s independence granted them an electoral majority. A 1956 law that changed the nation’s official language from English to Sinhala effectively eliminated the ability of any minority group to participate in the nation’s civil service. Despite making up 23% of the nation’s population, the Tamil would be made to face major hurdles just to receive political representation. Over the next three decades, a number of pogroms—some even sponsored by the state—killed thousands of Tamils and burned their cultural monuments. Faced by the prospect of genocide, the Tigers formed in the hopes of carving out an independent state for the persecuted minority by any means necessary. The LTTE would initiate their guerilla campaign with a surprise attack on a unit of the Sri Lankan Army responsible for the murder of Tamil schoolgirls. What followed is known today as Black July—the moment that the hostilities between the Sinhalese and the Tamil became permanently irreconcilable. Mobs seething with anger poured into the streets to hunt the Tamil as the military watched. It seemed as if there were but two choices: flee the nation before you became a target or support the Tigers in their bloody crusade for independence. And so, the war began.
Trapped between two extremes, the war was a difficult time for the Tamil. But their suffering would not come to an end when the peace treaty was signed.
Early in the conflict, Sri Lanka’s Parliament passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a measure that sought to combat insurgent movements such as the LTTE by allowing security forces to arrest any individual without a warrant and keep them in detention for up to 18 months before they were required to be presented to the court pre-trial. The PTA was initially intended as a temporary safeguard against revolutionary activity, and a number of the emergency powers it codified have been dismantled; despite this, the law remains a solemn reality for hundreds of activists who have been detained for years without formal charges since the end of the war.
Balenderan Jayakumari had three sons. Two were killed in the civil war, and the other was forcibly conscripted into the LTTE at the age of 15. Jayakumari was told her son had surrendered with LTTE forces, but that he was not being held by the government and his whereabouts were unknown. Despite this, she would later spot her son—alive, but held in indefinite detention—in a government report on the rehabilitation of former insurgents. She would spend the next five years at protests across the nation begging for the release of her son and the thousands of other missing people. In 2014, however, Jayakumari and her daughter were detained under the PTA after being part of a legion of grieving mothers that begged British PM David Cameron for justice during his visit to the nation. She was released a year later during a visit by Indian PM Modi, but found herself yet again imprisoned only months later under suspicion of stealing two mine detectors, a crime for which the police refused to provide case materials; Jayakumari and her lawyers were not even informed if she was a suspect or merely a witness, and while she was later released on bail, the charges have not yet been dropped.
It is unfortunately almost certain that Jayakumari’s son is one of the thousands of innocent Tamils who Rajapaksa only recently admitted fell victim to the Sri Lankan Army after a decade of silence. Following the statement, the president announced legislation granting immunity to the military forces responsible for the mass executions that took place.
Jayakumari’s story is only one of thousands that have become ever too common since 2009. The extreme methods through which the government eliminated the LTTE only served to ensure that the conflict’s final chapter would not yet be written, and their suppression of activist voices has exacerbated popular discontent and international attention. The nation is once again finding itself in a precarious position. Since the war’s end, dozens of former Tigers have been arrested throughout Southeast Asia for planning new attacks, and youth groups in the nation who feel excluded by the political process have been suspected of attempting to revive the organization. As recently as October of 2019, two politicians and five other individuals—all of whom were former tigers—were charged in Malaysia for attempting to build support for a resurgence. So often are these cases that the nation labeled the LTTE as a terrorist organization in 2014, five years after their supposed destruction.
Military bases and checkpoints still litter the island’s Tamil-heavy regions in the North, leaving a distinct impression that the scars of the war have only just begun to heal. Protests involving hundreds of people—usually women like Jayakumari—holding pictures of their missing loved ones are nearly constant. Many of these activists have abandoned popular messaging apps like WhatsApp, electing to use encrypted services out of fear that the new regime will revive the surveillance network utilized by Rajapaksa during the war. Many journalists have entirely deleted their social media, and some have even fled the nation, contributing to the ever-growing Tamil diaspora. In 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who served as president while Gotabaya oversaw the military, was narrowly defeated while seeking a third term. The older of the two siblings made it clear during his administration that no deal would be made granting Tamils greater political representation or autonomy, and his departure raised hope among the Tamil that an era of integration and reparation was near. But Mahinda was appointed as the nation’s Prime Minister last October, dashing those dreams.
Before Mahinda’s defeat in 2015, his regime was dangerously close to facing intense international sanctions for refusing to cooperate with international investigators. But bodies like the United Nations let off the pressure after the election, hoping that his more moderate replacement would heal the scars of battle. With his power restored, he’s already back to old tricks, announcing on February 20th that Sri Lanka was withdrawing from a 2015 resolution that asked it to provide reparations for Tamil victims and investigate war crimes from both sides of the conflict.
It is still early in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term, and he has not yet taken any major actions against the Tamil. Regardless, the Tamil who have yet to flee the nation have every right to be concerned. It is clear that no justice will come from this new administration, which urges them to forget their greatest trauma and move on without closure for those who were lost. Stripped of allies and left with their greatest enemy sitting at the nation’s helm, it is possible that the Tigers will roar again. But nobody wants another war–especially not the Tamil, who constantly engage in peaceful protest and have formed dozens of political parties calling for fair rule and equal representation. This fervent political activism can be traced to a growing sense of frustration towards the relatively moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a political coalition formed by the remnants of Tamil groups destroyed by the LTTE. While the TNA have seen significant electoral victories, they have come under criticism for cooperating with the government; a number of veteran members even forged a new alliance between three divergent Tamil parties in February, citing the TNA’s refusal to fight the government in referring to Sri Lanka a Sinhala Buddhist country as their reasoning for the split.
As hopeless as things may seem, the Tamil may have one last ace in the hole: India. Rajapaksa’s decision to release activists before meeting with Modi–who has encouraged Sri Lanka to make better progress towards reconciliation–seems to hint that the brothers are careful not to upset the regional power, which acts as a home for more Tamils than any other nation on Earth. Many of them are Sri Lankan refugees who maintain deep connections to their former homes. With the two nations forming closer ties to counter China’s growing influence, Sri Lanka’s continued oppression of the mostly Hindu Tamils may become a liability to Modi’s popular brand of Hindu nationalism. For justice to be realized, India must spearhead a new wave of international pressure on Sri Lanka. The two nations have close economic connections, with Sri Lanka consistently depending upon the regional power for aid. A renewed UN investigation negotiated through India would serve the interests of both nations and force Sri Lanka’s hand into finally addressing its longstanding issues.
The Tigers stained the nation with a legacy of bloodshed, but it is important to remember that the Tamil people cannot be held responsible for them. After decades of oppression, they were desperate for something–anything–to bring an end to their suffering. The LTTE didn’t give them a choice, and their terrorism ensured that anti-Tamil sentiment would only become further entrenched in the nation’s politics. No matter the outcome of future negotiations, the Tamil people deserve the opportunity to stop living in fear. And unless something changes soon, the Rajapaksas have made it clear that they have no interest in providing it.