Sri Lanka: Civil War

Civil War

Repression of the Tamil language fueled demands by the Tamil minority for an independent state. Election of a new UNP government under J. R. Jayawardene in 1977 and the implementation of economic reforms geared toward growth did little to restrain an upsurge of terrorist violence or of bloody anti-Tamil riots (1977, 1981, 1983). In the 1980s the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam initiated a full-scale guerrilla war against the army in the north and east; at the same time, radical Sinhalese students assassinated government officials whom they believed were too soft on the Tamils, and in 1987–89 the JVP launched a new insurrection that was brutally suppressed. In response to a request from Jayawardene's government, India sent (1987) 42,000 troops to NE Sri Lanka. The Indian troops fought an inconclusive war with the Tigers and were asked to withdraw by Jayawardene's successor, Ramasinghe Premadasa, who was elected in 1988.

The Indian troops withdrew in late 1989, and fighting resumed in 1990. In 1993, Premadasa was assassinated in a suicide bombing; he was succeeded as president by prime minister and UNP leader Dingiri Banda Wijetunga. A year later, the opposition SLFP–led People's Alliance (PA) came to power, and Chandrika Kumaratunga, the daughter of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became prime minister and then president. Her government negotiated a cease-fire with the Tamil Tigers, but it collapsed after three months as violence resumed. In late 1995 the government, in a large-scale offensive, captured the Tamil stronghold of Jaffna; heavy casualties were reported there, while terrorist bombs caused civilian deaths in Colombo. The war continued throughout the 1990s, as government troops attacked rebel bases and terrorists carried out political assassinations (including those of several moderate Tamil politicians) and suicide bombings. By end of the century, more than 60,000 people had been killed in the ethnic conflict.

President Kumaratunga was injured when a suicide bomber detonated explosives at an election rally in Dec., 1999; a few days later, she narrowly won reelection. Subsequent attempts by Kumaratunga to negotiate a new constitution that would grant Tamils some autonomy proved unsuccessful, and fighting continued. In Oct., 2000, the PA remained the largest grouping after parliamentary elections, but it was six seats shy of an absolute majority, leading it form a coalition with a Muslim party. When that party withdrew, Kumaratunga suspended parliament (July–Sept., 2001) until she could form a coalition with the JVP, which had become a nationalist leftist party after 1989. Defections by members of the PA, however, ultimately forced her to dissolve parliament and call for new elections in December.

Following an opposition victory at the polls, the UNP's Ranil Wickremesinghe became prime minister, creating a politically divided government. He pledged to work with the president, and agreed to a truce and mediated negotiations with the Tamil guerrillas. The truce led to a formal cease-fire, brokered by Norway and signed in Feb., 2002, and off-and-on peace talks began the following September.

In Nov., 2003, the president suspended parliament and assumed control of the defense, interior, and information ministries, accusing the prime minister of yielding too much to the Tamil rebels in negotiations. She also briefly declared a state of emergency. The power struggle created a constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka, and paralyzed the government and its inconclusive negotiations with Tamil forces.

The crisis continued into 2004, and in January Kumaratunga claimed she was entitled to an additional year in office because of a secret swearing-in ceremony a year after she was elected to her second term. (Sri Lanka's supreme court ruled against her claim to an additional year in 2005.) The following month the president called early elections, which were held in April. Her United People's Freedom Alliance coalition (UPFA, the successor of the PA) won a plurality of the parliamentary seats, and she appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa prime minister.

Meanwhile, a split developed in the Tamil guerrillas in Mar., 2004, when the smaller eastern force broke away, but the following month the main northern force reasserted control in the east. The rebels accused the government of supporting the renegade faction and refused to restart the peace talks. Sri Lanka's coastal areas, especially in the south and east, were devastated by the Dec., 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami that was caused by an earthquake off NW Sumatra. More than 34,000 people died, and more than 800,000 displaced. Only Sumatra itself suffered greater loss of life.

An agreement between the government and the rebels to share the distribution of disaster aid seriously weakened the governing coalition when the JVP quit the government in protest. The JVP challenged the agreement in court, and although it was upheld in principle, the court's objection to aspects of it led to suspension (July, 2005) of its implementation. At the same time, there escalating Tamil attacks, and in August the foreign minister was assassinated. The government invoked emergency rule, and subsequently called for a renegotiation of the cease-fire agreement with the Tamil rebels to establish stronger sanctions for cease-fire violations.

In the 2005 presidential election, Prime Minister Rajapaksa formed an alliance with the JVP and Buddhist nationalists and came out strongly against autonomy for the Tamils, while his main opponent, the UNP's Wickremesinghe, was supported by Muslim and Tamil parties. Rajapaksa narrowly won the presidency, aided in part by violence and intimidation by the Tamil Tigers that kept Tamil voters from the polls in the north and east. Rajapaksa named as prime minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, a Sinhalese nationalist who had served in the post during 2000–2001.

By the end of 2005 the cease-fire with the Tamils appeared more breached than honored. A new round of Norwegian-sponsored peace talks began in Feb., 2006, but even their continuation was subject to difficult negotiations. In April the breaches of the cease-fire escalated sharply, and the Tamil Tigers withdrew from the talks. By the fall the country had returned to civil war in all but name, but attempts to restart negotiations continued. By the end of 2006 the rebels had declared the truce defunct, and the government had readopted antiterror measures that it had abandoned in 2002.

Fighting in E Sri Lanka that began in July, 2006, led to a government offensive that was initially focused on the east; it continued into subsequent years and steadily succeeded in reclaiming territory from the rebels, who had controlled some 5,800 sq mi (15,000 sq km) in 2006. In Jan., 2008, the government officially ended the truce with the rebels, and in heavy fighting during 2008, the government made significant further advances into rebel territory. By Jan., 2009, Sri Lankan forces had reopened a land route to Jaffna, which had been closed since 2000.

The military continued to have successes in subsequent weeks, confining the Tamil rebels to a relatively small coastal strip, but as many as 330,000 civilians were also trapped in the area. Many civilians fled the fighting in Apr., 2009, when a breach in the Tamil defenses allowed them to escape. By late May the Tamil Tigers had been destroyed as an military force, Prabhakaran had been killed, and the government had ended rebel control of Sri Lankan territory. Since the 1980s more than 70,000 people had died as a result of the conflict; according to government figures, some 22,000 rebels and 6,200 government troops died in the last 34 months of fighting. It is unclear how many civilians died in the last weeks of the fighting when the rebels were using them as human shields. Government forces were accused of killing Tamils indiscriminately during its offensive in 2009, and some estimates place civilian deaths as high as 40,000 during 2008–9.

In Sept., 2009, some 265,000 Tamil refugees remained confined to government camps, leading to criticism from the United Nations and international human rights groups; the government said that 70% would be resettled by November and all of them by the end of Jan., 2010. By December, some 130,000 remained in the camps, with at least 11,000 of those suspected of being former Tamil Tigers. Roughly two years later, all but about 1,000 suspected former Tamil Tigers had been released.

Seeking to benefit from his government's victory over the rebels, Rajapaksa called a presidential election two years early, and subsequently defeated (Jan., 2010) Sarath Fonseka, the general who had led Sri Lanka's forces but who had a falling out with the president. The campaign was marred by violence, mainly against the opposition, and by one-sided coverage by the government-controlled media, and the results were challenged by the opposition. Fonseka subsequently was arrested (February) by the military, accused of participating in politics while in uniform and other charges, and convicted later in the year after two trials. His trial by courts martial was questioned by legal experts, who said he should be tried in a civilian court, and his lawyer accused the army of assembling a group of prejudiced judges. (The convictions were reversed by Rajapaksa's successor.)

The events during the election, the arrest of Fonseka, and harassment of journalists and the opposition led the opposition and others to accuse the government of antidemocratic tendencies. Also in Feb., 2010, the president dissolved parliament; elections in April resulted in a landslide victory for the president's coalition against a divided opposition. Rajapaksa subsequently named D. M. Jayaratne as prime minister, and in September secured amendments to the constitution that abolished presidential term limits and increased presidential powers. Record monsoon rains in Jan., 2011, led to severe flooding in parts of the country; some 300,000 people were forced from their homes. In Sept., 2011, the emergency rule in effect since 2005 was ended, but at the same time new antiterrorism regulations were adopted that preserved some of the government's emergency powers. In the years after the Tamil Tigers were crushed the government undertook significant development in Tamil areas, but the continuing presence of the army there and human-rights violations by security forces undermined the reintegration of former rebel-held areas into Sri Lankan society.

In late 2012, the government impeached and removed (2013) the chief justice; though appointed by Rajapaksa, she had ruled against a government move to transfer control of the economic development budget from the provinces to the central government. The impeachment (declared illegal under Rajapaksa's successor) was seen as a further consolidation of power in Rajapaksa and his family, which controlled the defense and economic development ministries as well as the parliamentary speakership. In late 2014, Rajapaksa called an early presidential election for Jan., 2015. Maithripala Sirisena, a former health minister under Rajapaksa, defected from the SLFP and UPFA to run as the opposition unity candidate, and the president lost the support of a number of other prominent government supporters.

Rajapaksa, who had been expected to win handily, was defeated by Sirisena, who denounced the concentration of power in the Rajapaksa family hands and promised to reverse constitutional changes made under Rajapaksa and to reduce the powers of the presidency. Sirisena named the UNP's Wickremesinghe as prime minister of a minority government. In Apr., 2015, Sirisena, who had succeeded Rajapaksa as leader of the SLFP, secured passage of some reductions in the president's powers, though the changes were not as significant as he had wanted; presidential term limits were restored.

In June, 2015, the president dissolved the parliament and called for new elections in August in an effort to win support for his reforms. The UNP won a plurality in the elections, in which Rajapaksa sought to secure the prime ministership; Wickremesinghe subsequently remained prime minister, and the SLFP agreed to work with the UNP. In Oct., 2018, however, Sirisena dismissed the prime minister and replaced him with Rajapaksa, then suspended parliament, provoking a crisis as Wickremesinghe rejected his dismissal. Sirisena ordered parliament dissolved and elections be held, but the supreme court suspended his decree and later ruled it unconstitutional. Rajapaksa failed to win the confidence of parliament, and Wickremesinghe was affirmed in December as prime minister; Rajapaksa and many parliamentary members belonging to the SLFP joined the Sri Lanka People's Front (SLPP). In Apr., 2019, deadly bombings of churches and hotels by Islamist militants linked to the Islamic State killed more than 250 people on Easter, increasing religious tensions in the country; the security forces, which were overseen by the president, failed to act on reliable warnings before the attacks. The attacks hurt the tourist industry significantly.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defense minister and the brother of the former president who was the candidate of the Sri Lanka People's Freedom Alliance (which included the SLPP and SLFP), was elected president in Nov., 2019; Sirisena did not run. Subsequently, Wickremesinghe resigned as prime minister, and the new president appointed his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister. In Mar., 2020, parliament was dissolved and new elections were slated for April but later postponed twice, ultimately to August, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the elections, Mahinda Rajapaksa led the SLPP to a landslide victory, and the legislature subsequently restored many presidential powers that had been trimmed in 2015.

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