Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Regional Security

The violent ethnic conflict that has ravaged Sri Lanka for a decade resulted in an agreement between the governments of Sri Lanka and India – the `Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement – to establish peace and normalcy in Sri Lanka’ (signed on 29 July 1987) and the Provincial Councils Act (providing for regional autonomy) passed in parliament in November 1987. What has begun as an essentially domestic problem, arising from a minority ethnic group’s attempts to overcome acts of discrimination and oppression, acquired over time a regional and an international dimension; it had ultimately to be resolved by the intervention of a regional power with the support of all the major world powers, but with opposition from both Sinhala and Tamil militants in Sri Lanka.

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The Sinhalese-Only Language Policy: Linguistic Root of the Conflict

 

First book printed in the Sinhala Language in 1640. Photo: Sinhalaheritage.org

The root of terrorism in Sri Lanka can be traced back to the linguistic policy made by the government in power.

Tamil Tiger’s tension against the Sinhalese ruling party was originated from “the 1956 Official Language Act”, in which the Prime Minister S.W.B.D. Bandaranayake of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) made Sinhala the only official language while Tamil as the national minority language. This law mandated Sinhala as the sole official language of Sri Lanka. This is the language of Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese community and is spoken by over 70% of Sri Lanka’s population. This was intended to act both as a statement of independence from Britain and as a clear sign of superiority of the Sinhalese over the Tamil. Consequently, this act forced large numbers of Tamil who worked in the civil service, and who could not meet this language requirement, to resign. Affirmative action in favor of Sinhalese was also instituted at the same time. Many Tamil interpreted this deliberate marginalization as proof that they deserved a separate nation-state for themselves.

In an interview with the BBC, he expressed his justification that “because 70% of the people of Ceylon (former name of Sri Lanka) are Sinhalese”.

To the Tamils, the language policy has been derailed from what the country’s first Prime Minister promised that “our essential task is to create a nation, and that our people speak not only one language, but two or perhaps three”. As their religion Hinduism and native language Tamil set them apart from the majority Sinhalese, strong feelings of oppression and restricted employment opportunities led to ethnic riots among English-speaking Tamils, which sought to create an independent Tamil state named “Eelam” in the North-eastern part of the country, including Jaffna, Trincomalee and Mullativu.

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The historical roots of Sri Lanka’s civil war

In recent weeks the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has inflicted a series of heavy military defeats on the Sri Lankan army in the north of the island. Fierce fighting has been underway on the outskirts of the LTTE’s main strategic objective, Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s second largest city. An estimated 35,000-40,000 government forces, having lost several key bases, remain trapped, with no land route out. Lacking morale and equipment, the army is on the brink of a military disaster.

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