Sri Lankan Civil War between the Tamil Tigers — the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — and the Sri Lankan government between 1983 and 2009 is divided into four "Eelam Wars", the phases of the armed conflict: Eelam War I, between 1983 and 1987; 2) Eelam War II, between 1990 and 1995; 3) Eelam War III, between 1995 and 2002; and 4) Eelam War IV, between 2006 and 2009. [Source: Wikipedia]

Civil war and terrorism transformed Sri Lanka from an island paradise into a battleground. A bloody civil that has accomplished little other than killing lots of people, ruined the country's economy and scared away tourists who once flocked to island's beaches and archeological sights. Sri Lanka was once a model of Third World civic development. It a high rate of literacy, democratic institutions were strong and the economy seemed on the verge of taking off like other Asian nations such as Korea but the war brought all that to an end.

The area that the Tamil Tigers declared as Tamil Eelam covered a third of Sri Lanka. The tiger's chief political officer Sivagnanam Karikalan told National Geographic, "We have entered into this war to achieve a separate state. Nothing much will happen through negotiations with the Sri Lankan government."

The Sri Lankan government did not wanted to keep Sri Lanka together, not give in to Tamil Tiger demands and not appear weak and manipulated by Tamil Tiger terrorism. The Tamils dominated the Jaffna peninsula but the areas along the east coast that the Tigers wanted to be included in Tamil Eelam also contained large numbers of Sinhalese and Muslims.

Many Sinhalese worried that the Tamils in Sri Lanka would ally themselves with the 50 million Tamils in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. A Sri Lankan naval office told National Geographic, "There is a strong chauvinist Buddhist feeling that they should not give in, or the Tamils will conquer them. The Sinhalese are scared that Tamil Eelam will be the whole country and that they will end up on the southern shore waiting for a appeasing ship to pick them up."

Fighting in the Sri Lankan Civil War

Most of the fighting between the Tamil Tigers and government security forces during the Sri Lankan Civil War took place in Tamil-dominated areas in the north, with much of it occurring on the Jaffna peninsula in far northern Sri Lanka and along Route A-9, the so called highway of death, which runs north and south on the northen part of the island. The south was largely insulated from the war with the exception of the occasional terrorist attacks.

There were clashes at sea between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan navy. The Tamil Tigers brought many of their weapons in by sea and moved fighters to and from the main part of island and the Jaffna peninsula via the sea. The Sri Lankan navy tried to stop them and frequent battles were often the result.

The fighting also involved disappearances and fighting between rival mobs and paramilitary groups with connections not only to the Sinhalese and Tamils but also the Muslims, who periodically fought with the Tamils. In the areas where there was fighting, curfew were in effect and few people moved around at night.

The Tamil Tigers have suffered very high causality figures. By one count in early 2000s, they had lost more than 17,600 fighters and followers — almost twice the number of their active fighters at that time.

There were periodic cease fires. The Tigers viewed the cease fires as chance to regroup and arm. Most of media reports on the war were based on government reports. Foreign journalists were not allowed into the war zones to corroborate the reports. For many it was a forgotten war. Many people died but it was largely out of the attention of the international media.

Casualties, Violence and Refugees of the Sri Lankan Civil War

About 65,000 people died and 1.2 million people were made homeless by the conflict involving the Tamil Tigers between 1983 and 2009. Some put the death toll at 100,000. Of these, about 60,000 people have died as a consequence of the war, more than half of them civilians, and the remainder have died at the hands of death squads, criminal groups that have taken advantage of the lawlessness and various political and religious groups that have fought among themselves and with the government.

About one million people on both sides were displaced by the conflict. Many took up temporary residences afraid to return to their homes. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, about 228, 000 refugees fled from Sri Lanka to India. Most fled the violence associated with the civil war. An entire Tamil village was housed in warehouse in Batticaloa after their houses were burned and friends were killed in raid

According to the Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity: “In the course of twenty years of open ethnic hostilities in Sri Lanka official statistics indicate that some sixty thousand individuals have lost their lives on both sides of the Sinhala/Tamil ethnic divide. Many of the deaths have been among Sri Lanka military and among combatants in various Tamil guerrilla groups, but especially the commanding Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Civilian populations and particularly Tamil Hindus (but also Tamil Christians and Muslims sometimes as a result of LTTE attacks) have suffered the greatest number of casualties and despair resulting from social, economic, and territorial dislocation and from the deprivations and rigors of confinement and restriction imposed by the ebb and flow of combat. [Source: Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, 2005]

Victims of Sri Lankan conflict often died terrible deaths. "Shootings or knifings are the exception," wrote John F. Burns of the New York Times. "Often the victims are pushed into burning cars, hacked to death with machetes, or tortured to death over hours or days. Often, their children die with them."

"People are violent most because of poverty," a former Marxist insurgent told National Geographic. "That's why young people get involved in these groups. They see no future, have no hope. Look at us four educated men, no jobs.” Before the civil war, violence in Sri Lanka was ameliorated to some degree by the tolerant nature of Buddhism and Hinduism. "Buddhism and Hinduism preach peace and harmony, but as a practical mater they have failed," a University of Colombo sociology professor told Burns. "The old social order has been destroyed, and it is going to be extremely difficulty to recreate it."

Commenting on the country's recent history of violence one physician stunned guests into silence at a dinner party when he said, "if you ask me what this country needs is a crash program in mental health." One man told National Geographic, "It is the European influence. For 300 years there was no problem. Before the Portuguese came, this was a peaceful country. We are peaceful people.”

Comparison of those Killed:

Sri Lanka War (1983-2009): Friendly Force Personnel: 29 percent; Enemy Force Personnel: 37 percent; Civilians: 34 percent.
Iraq War (2004-09): Friendly Force Personnel: 29 percent; Enemy Force Personnel: 22 percent; Civilians: 61 percent.
Afghanistan War (2001-14): Friendly Force Personnel: 29 percent; Enemy Force Personnel: 46 percent; Civilians: 25 percent. [Source: Peter Layton, The Diplomat, April 09, 2015]

Sri Lankan Government Forces and Desertion

The number of government troops doubled to 75,000 between the early 1980s to the early 1990s. As time went on they were better trained and better armed. But they lacked the conviction and passion of the Tamil Tigers and the fierce fighting in Jaffna took it toll. "When we fight, they run," one Tiger fighter told National Geographic. "Mentally the are not very strong."

As of 2000, an estimated 30,000 Sri Lankan soldiers had deserted the army. So many government forces deserted during the fighting that the government had to extend a general amnesty several times to get enough soldiers to fill the ranks. The army granted amnesty to deserters seven times between 1990 and 2000. In one campaign 5,000 deserters responded to the amnesty offer. Afterwards the government launched a massive campaign to arrest those who didn't respond. Many of the deserters deserted with their weapons. Some reportedly worked in political goon squads. Some were implicated in kidnapping and robberies of foreign tourists.

To undermine Tamil support of the Tigers, the military made a concerted effort to become nice guys and clean up their human rights act. Rapes, torture and disappearances were out and troop discipline and compassion towards civilians is in. "Our object is to win over the people," one general said "and if we are not careful we will lose that support...Human rights is good for business."

The Nixon administration, fearing the domino effect and a Vietnam in South Asia, supplied arms and military equipment to the Sri Lankan government in the 1960s and 70s. This helped the government ruthlessly put down the rebellion and round up is leaders in the 1970s. When the leaders were released from prison in the 1980s they fomented another rebellion

Impact of Decades of Civil War

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Sri Lanka has paid a huge price, in economic loss, social and political strain, destroyed infrastructure and human lives, for its long civil war. Almost everyone in this nation of 20 million has been touched. But it's the rice- and coconut-growing areas such as Kuliyapitiya district with its 150,000 population that have paid the highest toll. The government's all-volunteer army has found fertile ground for recruiting in rural areas where job prospects are limited and the army offers adventure, a uniform and a decent paycheck of about $200 a month. "Join the winning side," says a nationwide radio advertisement. Chandana Bulathsinhala, an aide to the local opposition lawmaker, estimates that 99 percent of the recruits sign up for economic reasons, with many schoolchildren now wanting to be soldiers rather than doctors or lawyers.” [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2009]

Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: “Over the decades, there were periodic ceasefires and peace negotiations, but the two sides could never agree to durable terms. Both relied on the ongoing fight for political leverage. Sinhalese politicians needed the nationalist vote, and Prabhakaran, who was primarily a battlefield strategist, seemed incapable of political compromise. [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011]

“The social and economic effects of the war were huge. Tourism dwindled, depriving the country of a crucial source of revenue. The expenditures for the military diverted money from social-welfare projects and energized leftist activism among Sinhalese nationalists. The government allowed Indian peacekeeping troops into northern Sri Lanka in 1987, which further inflamed the nationalists and helped set off a Sinhalese-on-Sinhalese civil war that cost an estimated fifty thousand lives. In the war with the Tigers, at least a hundred thousand people were killed; perhaps half of them were Tamil civilians, and roughly a quarter were members of Sri Lanka’s armed forces. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils were displaced from their homes, and a million more fled abroad.

“The Tigers killed one Sri Lankan President by suicide bomb, in 1993, and came close to killing two more; they also assassinated scores of government ministers, parliamentarians, military officers, and other officials. In 1991, in the world’s first female suicide bombing, a Black Tiger named Dhanu set off explosives concealed under her clothing as she knelt at the feet of Rajiv Gandhi, the former Indian Prime Minister, during a public ceremony, blowing him and fourteen other people to bits.

“The closest the Tigers came to ruling a Tamil homeland was in the period that followed the peace accord of February, 2002. During that time, the Tamil lands of the north and east were united, and the Tigers’ political administration began to function as a virtual state, with its own army, navy, border guards, and customs officials. (Bizarrely, everything from the supply of electricity to health and education services continued to be funded and run by the Sri Lankan government.) Acting as conflict negotiators, Norwegian diplomats paid calls on Tiger officials and carried messages to their government counterparts in Colombo.”

Timeline of the Sri Lankan Civil War with the Tamil Tigers

In April 1971 the government violently clamped down on an insurrection led by the pro-Tamil People's Liberation Front. As many as 15,000 people may have been killed. Some of the victims were forced to dig their own graves and then were lined in front of them and shot. Others were hung by their feet and tortured in front of crowds of people to set an example. Afterwards a state of emergency was declared in Tamil areas. Government forces sent to enforce it were regarded as undisciplined and corrupt. The Tamils resented their presence.

In July 1977 — Black July — Sinhalese mobs looted Tamil shops and homes and threw firebombs. More than a hundred people were killed. After this there were frequent clashes between Tamil “boys” and government security forces as well as series of tit-for-that reprisal killings. Often innocent civilians were the victims.

In June 1981, Sinhalese police raided the Jaffna Public Library, one of the great repositories of Tamil culture, and set it on fire. Among the 97,000 volumes of material that were destroyed were rare of manuscripts written on palm leaves and stored in sandalwood boxes, miniature versions of the Ramayana and extinct Tamil-language newspapers. The attack was reportedly taken with the tacit support of cabinet ministers in Jaffna and was viewed as one episode in a cycle of revenge to retaliate for the killing of two police officers. It provoked widespread anger among Tamils and was a pivotal event.

1983 to 1987 - Eelam War I

In July 1983, a Tamil Tiger attack in north killed 13 soldiers, triggering anti-Tamil riots in Colombo. Hundreds of Tamils were killed in Colombo and tens of thousands fled to south India. Members of the TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front, the main Tamil political party) were thrown out of parliament and the security forces moved into the north and east of the country to try to drive out militant groups. This marked the start of what Tigers call “First Eelam War.” [Source: BBC, 16 May, 2000]

May 1985, armed attack against civilians in the ancient Sinhalese city of Anuradhapura, 146 dead.

May 1986, detonation of a bomb aboard an Air Lanka jet at the Bandaranaike International Airport, 20 dead.

April, 1987, massive explosion at the Pettah bus station in Colombo during rush hour, 110 dead.

May 1987, the Sri Lankan military went on a major offensive in the north of the island and pushed the Tamil Tigers back in Jaffna.

On July 29, 1987, President Jayewardene signed an accord with India designed to bring an end to the violence between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers.

In May 1991 - a suspected Tiger suicide bomber kills former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in southern India. Two years later, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa assassinated in separate suicide attack. LTTE blamed in both.

1990 to 1995 - Eelam War II

1995 to 2002 - Eelam War III

1995 - President Chandrika Kumaratunga agrees to truce with rebels. “Eelam War 3” begins when rebels sink naval craft. Tigers lose Jaffna to government forces.

1995-2001 - War rages across north and east. Suicide attack on central bank in Colombo kills around 100. Kumaratunga wounded in another attack.

2002 - Landmark ceasefire signed after Norwegian mediation.

2003 - Tigers pull out of peace talks, ceasefire holds.

2004-2005 - Tamil Tiger eastern commander Colonel Karuna Amman breaks away from LTTE and takes 6,000 fighters with him Suspected Tiger assassin kills foreign minister. Anti-Tiger hard-liner Mahinda Rajapaksa wins presidency.

2006 and 2009 - Eelam War IV

2006 - Fighting flares in April-July, raising fears of start of “Eelam War 4.” New talks fail in Geneva in October.

2007 - Government captures Tiger’s eastern strongholds.

2008 - Government annuls ceasefire in early January and launches massive offensive.

January 2, 2009 - Troops seize Tiger’s de facto capital, Kilinochchi.

13 April 2009 –15 April 2009 - Final Battle of the Sri Lankan Civil War Puthukkudiyirippu, Mullaitivu District

May 16 - Military takes control of entire coastline for first time since war began. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, speaking during meeting of developing nations in Jordan, says the LTTE has been defeated militarily, even as heavy fighting rages.

May 18 - Military declares entire island under government control after troops defeat remaining Tiger resistance. Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran killed by special forces troops while trying to escape war zone in ambulance, state TV says. Other top-ranked Tigers also killed in final fight.

Eelam War I

After the 1981 attack on the Jaffna Library, many Tamils came to the conclusion that only the militant Tamil youth gangs could protect them. Hostilities escalated to the most savage communal riots in Sri Lanka's history in July 1983, when the Tamil separatists ambushed a Sri Lankan patrol, killing 13 soldiers in the Jaffna area. Government-supported Sinhalese gangs went on a rampage for three days, looting, burning and attacking Tamils throughout the country. At least 400 people were killed, most of them Tamils, including 53 Tamils held at Welikade Prison outside Colombo that were attacked by a mob. Some estimate 3,000 people were killed.

In the early stages of the Tamil revolt in the 1980s there were a number of different Tamil groups involved in fighting. By 1986 the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) emerged as the strongest one.

By 1984 the violence Tamil uprising had all but driven Sinhalese security forces out of the Tamil north and eats. In May 1985, more than 150 people (mostly Sinhalese) were gunned down by terrorists in what became known as the Anuradhapura massacre. By of 1985 fighting was not only occurring on a regular basis in the north it was also spreading down the east coast, where th Tamil Tigers attacked Sinhalese and Muslim village, leading to reprisals against Tamil citizens.

Eelam War I: July 1983 – July 1987 (Battle Date Location Deaths Result)
Kokkilai Offensive: February 1985 SLA (Sri Lankan Army) camp, Kokkilai, Mullaitivu District 4-100 16 dead, LTTE (Tamil Tiger) victory
Vadamarachchi Operation (a.k.a. Operation Liberation): May 1987 - June 1987 Vadamarachchi, Jaffna District 689, 631 dead, Partial SLA victory,
Operation Poomalai: June 1987, Jaffna, Jaffna District, Indian intervention
Cease Fire: July 1987 - October 1987 [Source: Wikipedia]

Major LTTE Incidents in the 1980s

After the assassination of Jaffna's mayor in 1975, the militant groups accelerated their campaign of violence and destabilization. Their early targets included policemen, soldiers, and a number of Tamil politicians who were seen as collaborators with the Sinhalese-dominated government. The attacks were sporadic, relying largely on hit-and-run tactics. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In July 1983, the LTTE ambushed a military convoy in Northern Province, killing thirteen soldiers. The attack sparked off a conflagration of communal violence in which approximately 350 Tamils were killed and as many as 100,000 were forced to flee their homes. Indiscriminate violence by Sinhalese mobs and members of the security forces led to insecurity and alienation among the Tamil population, and support for the insurgency grew dramatically. The year 1984 was marked by a substantial increase in terrorist attacks, and the militants turned increasingly against civilian targets. Major incidents included an armed attack against civilians in the ancient Sinhalese city of Anuradhapura (May 1985 — 146 dead); the detonation of a bomb aboard an Air Lanka jet at the Bandaranaike International Airport (May 1986 — 20 dead); and a massive explosion at the Pettah bus station in Colombo during rush hour (April 1987 — 110 dead).*

As the Tamil movement grew and obtained more weapons, it changed tactics. A full-fledged insurgency that could confront the armed forces replaced the isolated terrorist incidents that had characterized the early period. By early 1986, the LTTE had won virtual control of the Jaffna Peninsula, confining the army to military bases and taking over the day-to-day administration of the city of Jaffna. In January 1987, the Tigers attempted to formalize their authority over the peninsula by establishing an "Eelam Secretariat." LTTE leaders claimed that this was intended simply to consolidate functions that the insurgents were already performing, i.e., collecting taxes and operating basic public services. Nonetheless, the government interpreted this move as a unilateral declaration of independence and thus a challenge to governmental authority.*

Major Attacks in the 1980s (Attack: Date, Location, Death toll) listed based on the number killed :
Anuradhapura massacre: May 1985 in Anuradhapura, Anuradhapura District, killing 146

Habarana bus massacre: April 1987 in Habarana, Anuradhapura District, killing 127

Central Bus Station Bombing: April 1987 in Pettah, Colombo, Colombo District, killing 113

Kent and Dollar Farm massacres: November 1984 in Mullaitivu District, killing 62
Aranthalawa Massacre: July 1987 in Aranthalawa, Ampara District, killing 35
Air Lanka Flight 512: May 1986 at Bandaranaike International Airport, Gampaha District, killing 21
Kokilai massacre: December 1984 in Kokilai, Mullaitivu District, killing 11 [Source: Wikipedia]

Jaffna Offensive in May and June 1987

In May 1987 the Sri Lankan military went on a major offensive in the north of the island and pushed the Tamil Tigers back in Jaffna. But India raised objections to the methods used and warned that it would intervene on humanitarian grounds if it thought the Tamils were being starved out. Relations between the India and Sri Lanka deteriorated rapidly after Indian planes dropped supplies into Jaffna. There were some worries that India might intervene on the side of the Tigers. This lead to a peace agreement involving India, See Below.

During the offensive against Jaffna in May and June 1987, Sri Lankan government security forces succeeded in destroying major insurgent bases and regaining control of most of the peninsula, but at the cost of growing political pressure from India. Reports of army brutality and high civilian casualties among the Tamil population made the offensive increasingly unacceptable to the Indian government, which had its own substantial Tamil minority to worry about. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In early June, Indian Air Force planes invaded Sri Lankan airspace to drop relief supplies into embattled Tamil areas, sending a message to the Sri Lankan government that the offensive would not be allowed to continue. Within a week, the Sri Lankan government announced the successful completion of its campaign.*

Peace Accord in 1987

On July 29, Sri Lanka President Jayewardene signed a peace accord with India, with India representing the interests of the Tamils. The LTTE at first went along with the deal which tried to settle the Tamil problem through devolution and greater autonomy for the Tamils while an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) would disarm the rebels. The accord provided for the disarming of militant groups under the supervision of the IPKF and the granting of limited autonomy to the primarily Tamil regions in Northern and Eastern provinces.

The terms of the accord provoked immediate criticism from a number of directions. Concessions of autonomy to the Tamils led to a backlash among the Sinhalese population, especially around proposals to merge the northern and eastern parts of the island into a Tamil-dominated province. For Sinhalese nationalists, including several high-level officials in Jayewardene's government, the agreement was a threat to the unitary nature of Sri Lanka, virtually sanctioning a separate Tamil nation within the island.

Tamil militants questioned the basic validity of the accord; although prime participants in the conflict, they had not been included in the negotiations leading to the accord, and their later accession had been secured under extreme pressure from the Indian government. For the wider community of Tamils and Sinhalese, the presence of Indian troops, even in a peacekeeping role, represented an unacceptable compromise of sovereignty. Optimism over the accord soon turned to disappointment when the LTTE refused to turn in its weapons and hostilities flared up again, this time between the LTTE and the Indian Peacekeeping Force. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Indian Intervention

In 1987, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sent troops to disarm the Tigers under an agreement with the Sri Lankan government. The Sri Lankan government had asked India to provide soldiers to help enforce a cease-fire. Some 60,000 Indian peacekeeping forces were sent to the Tamil provinces. At its peak there 80,000 Indian troops in Sri Lanka.

The deal called for the Sri Lankan forces to return to their barracks; for the Indians to disarm the Tigers; and for the establishment of provincial government that would ultimately be granted a fair amount of autonomy to rule the northen and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. Nothing went according to plan.

According to the Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments: “India played a controversial role in the civil war by giving military and medical aid to Tamil rebels in the city of Jaffna. It parachuted tons of food into areas that were under siege by government forces. Some observers say the intervention was aimed at appeasing India’s large Tamil population, which supported the independence movement in Sri Lanka. In 1987 Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene (1906–1996) met with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (1944–1991) to negotiate a peace treaty. Among other minor concessions, the Sri Lankan government agreed to merge the northern and eastern provinces; to give additional governmental powers to the provinces; and to make Tamil an official language of the region. [Source: Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments, Thomson Gale, 2008]

Many Sinhalese began to worry the move might lead to an Indian invasion of Sri Lanka. A violent campaign was launched by the JVP, which had adopted a right-wing, Sinhala-chauvinist stance in addition to its Marxist and Maoist positions, The Tamils in northern Sri Lanka resented the presence of the Indian security forces almost as much as the Sri Lankan government forces. I

The Tigers, who were once based and trained in India, felt betrayed. The Indian peacekeepers did have success weakening the Tamil Tigers. Ultimately it was the Sinhalese government that pressured the Indians to leave. The Tigers were happy to see them go. Indian troops withdrew in March, 1990. More than 1,200 of them were killed during their 32 month presence. Rajiv Gandhi was blown to bits by a Tiger suicide bomber in 1991.

Fighting After 1987 Peace Accord

Criticisms of the peace accord became increasingly acute when, in October 1987, the Tamil militants and the Indian-Sri Lankan forces accused each other of violating the accord, and the fighting resumed. Indian forces were expanded from an initial 3,000 troops to more than 70,000, and the Indian Peacekeeping Force launched a major assault that succeeded in taking Jaffna in late October. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

By October 1987, approximately 20,000 Indian troops were engaged in pitched battles with between 2,000 and 3,000 LTTE guerrillas. The fighting represented a major loss of face for New Delhi. India had promised Sri Lanka that the Tigers would be completely disarmed, but it was apparent that the militants had surrendered only a fraction of their arsenal in August. In the face of mounting Indian military and Tamil civilian casualties, pessimists on the subcontinent speculated whether the accord signalled the beginning of India's "Vietnam" or "Afghanistan." In Colombo, SLFP leader Anura Bandaranaike declared that "the Indian Army is like the Trojan Horse. We accepted them and expected them to bring peace, and they then started watching as our people were butchered.... They have come here to stay. They won't take the President's orders." *

Indian intervention in the Sri Lankan Civil War: October 1987 - March 1990
Operation Pawan: 25 October 1987 Jaffna, Jaffna District, 214 dead, IPKF (India Peacekeeping Force) victory
Operation Trishul: April 1988 Northern Province
Operation Viraat: April 1988 Northern Province, IPKF victory
Operation Checkmate June 1988 Vadamarachi, Northern Province, IPKF victory
Jaffna University Helidrop, October 1988 Jaffna, Jaffna District, LTTE victory [Source: Wikipedia]

Most of the insurgents managed to escape and, according to press reports, regrouped in Mannar in Northern Province and in Batticaloa and other areas of Eastern Province. Weakened and cut off from their original bases and sources of supply, the Tigers were no longer able to conduct positional warfare against the security forces, but they claimed that they would continue their struggle through terrorist attacks. *

The intervention of Indian forces in the north allowed the Sri Lankan Army to concentrate on another crisis that was developing in the south; Sinhalese nationalist opposition to the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord had turned violent, breaking out in strikes and street demonstrations. In the midst of this disorder, an old Sinhalese extremist organization was gaining in support and threatened to launch its second bid for power.*

Jayewardene, who survived a grenade attack in the Parliament building on August 18, 1987, was faced with the daunting task of obtaining the legislature's approval of the radical political changes outlined in the July 29 accord. Provincial autonomy was embodied in the Thirteenth Amendment to the 1978 Constitution, which the Supreme Court, in a five to four ruling, declared would not need to be submitted to a popular referendum if minor changes were made. Against the background of the JVP-instigated terrorist attacks in Sinhalese-majority areas and assassination threats against members of Parliament who approved the amendment, it was passed by 136 to 11, or substantially more than the required two- thirds majority. Few observers believed, however, that the establishment of new provincial political institutions would bring lasting peace to this strife-torn country.*

Terror Campaigns and Disappearances in the late 1980s

The late 1980s was a period characterized more by terror than conventional fighting. Between 1987 and 1990 an estimated 20,000 people disappeared. Many of these were Marxists in the south not necessarily Tamils. Meanwhile, three years of fighting between the India peacekeepers and the Tamil Tigers kills 1,000 Indian soldiers.

The Tamil insurgency involved a changing number of heavily armed terrorist groups that carried out attacks on military and civilian targets throughout the island and, for most of 1986, actually controlled the Jaffna Peninsula. A second source of instability came from leftist nationalist Sinhalese groups opposed to Tamil autonomy. The chief among these, the JVP, launched a short-lived insurrection in 1971 that came close to toppling the government of Sirimavo R. D. Bandaranaike. After a period of open participation in the political system, the JVP resumed its violent antigovernment activities in the 1980s, and expanded its following considerably at the time of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of July 1987. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The government also faced a growing problem of civil violence that seriously threatened the democratic process. This unrest stemmed not only from the continuing ethnic conflict but also from a general economic malaise that increasingly prevented young men from playing productive roles in society. The problem of a restless, unemployed youth, although separate from the ethnic difficulties, was instrumental in providing a fertile recruiting ground for extremists in search of a following. *

In May 1991 - a suspected Tiger suicide bomber kills former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in southern India. Two years later, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa assassinated in separate suicide attack. LTTE blamed in both.

Eelam War II

After the India peace deal fell through and the India peacekeepers left in 1990, the second phase of the war with the Tamil Tigers began. Known as the Eelam War II, the early stages of this phase was characterized by anti-Tamil riots in Sinhalese areas and Tamil Tigers attacks against Sinhalese villages in Tamil-dominated areas.

The Sinhalese were not the only targets of Tamil Tiger aggression. In 1990, the Tamil Tigers massacred 125 Muslims during evening prayers at two mosques in the Batticaloa district of northen Sri Lanka. Afterwards the Tigers told Muslims they had 24 hours to vacate the Jaffna peninsula. Muslims took the threats seriously. Tens of thousands fled and were forced to move into refugee camps. As the fighting wore on the Tamil Tigers lost many of the adult male soldiers and began turning more and more to women and children fighters.

Eelam War II: June 1990 – January 1995 (Battle Date Location Deaths Result)
Battle of Kokavil June – July 1990, SLA (Sri Lankan Army) camp, Kokavil, Kilinochchi District 69 dead LTTE (Tamil Tiger) victory
Operation Sea Breeze, SLA victory
Operation Thrividha Balaya, SLA victory
Operation Balavegaya (a.k.a. Operation Power Force) July - August 1991, Jaffna, Jaffna District 202-400, 573-1,000+ dead, SLA victory
Operation Sathbala, SLA victory
Operation Balavegaya II, SLA victory
Welioya 2, 330 dead, SLA victory
Battle of Elephant Pass (1st) July – August 1991 SLA camp, Elephant Pass, Kilinochchi District 202-400 573-1,000 dead, SLA victory
Battle of Pooneryn November 1993, Pooneryn (Poonakari), Kilinochchi District 441, 469 dead, Both SLA and LTTE claimed the victory
Cease Fire January – April 1995, [Source: Wikipedia]

Fighting Around Jaffna

In 1990, after the Indian peacekeepers withdrew, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) took control of the northern city of Jaffna. This marked the beginning of the “Second Eelam War”. The Tamil Tigers held Jaffna from 1990 to 1995. They established their headquarters there and created their own mini-state, with its own banks, schools, hospitals, police and civil service.

Much of the fighting during the Second Eelam War took place around Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s second largest city and a major port. It is has traditionally been regarded as the cultural capital of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. It is also where the Tamil resistance against the Sri Lankan government was nurtured and first took hold.

The Tamil Tigers fled Jaffna until 1995 after the government forces retook it after an aggressive offensive. After thatTamil Tigers launched a major offensive themselves. They came close to recapturing Jaffna and inflicted great casualties on government forces but ultimately feel short in their goal of recapturing Jaffna.

The A-9 highway was the main land access to the Jaffna peninsula. It was closed to civilian traffic after the Tamil Tigers captured Jaffna in 1990 but after government forces retook Jaffna in 1995, the Tigers continued to control the Elephant Pass causeway — which provided access to Jaffna, and the A-9 highway. For a period of 12 years — from 1990 to 2002 — government troops and civilians had to travel by sea and air to get to Jaffna.

Jaffna Embargo

Between 1987 and 1994, the 700,000 mostly Tamil residents of the Jaffna peninsula were sealed off from the rest of the world by military and economic embargoes. The residents of the city were forced to live without telephones and electricity and essential goods such as gasoline, batteries. medical supplies and cement, which were all banned by the embargo. The embargo was easy to enforce because Jaffna is connected to the rest of Sri Lanka by only a thin strip of land.

Jaffna residents suffered from malnutrition, Outbreaks of polio and malaria infected over 40,000 people. There was only one surgeon and one psychiatrist for the entire 1,000-square-mile peninsula. Some 55,000 displaced families occupied 200 refugee camps on the peninsula. "Building in Jaffna seems to have stopped,"wrote John Ward Anderson in the Washington Post, "except for the construction of elaborate memorials dedicated to the estimated 6,200 Tamil Tiger fighters who have died in battle.”

At the height of the embargo in 1992, gasoline cost as much as $220 a gallon, prices for food were generally twice as high as in Colombo. People adapted to the embargo by relying more on bicycles and modifying vehicles to run a mixture of kerosene and vegetable oil. Finally in 1994, Sri Lanka President Kumatangunga ordered the lifting of the ban on items to Jaffna such as kerosene, candles, motor oil, radios and spare parts, generators, water pumps and tires and a wide range of foods and medical supplies.

Peace Talks in 1995

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was elected president in 1994 on promises to end human rights abuses and negotiate a peace settlement with the Tigers. Kumaratunga said that the Tamils had "legitimate grievances." But talks with them went nowhere. In March 1995, Kumaratunga unveiled a plan in which Sri Lanka would be divided into several regions in which the Tamils would be granted virtual autonomy in the north. Kumaratunga had offered to let the regions have power over taxation and education and even create their own police forces. To sweeten the deal Kumaratunga promised $800 million in economic aid to the war-ravaged north.

Tamils were generally receptive to the plan but the Tigers rejected it on the grounds that the government was just using the proposal as a ploy to divide the Tamils and Tigers even though the plan promised to give the Tigers most of the demands that they had been fighting for. Peace efforts ended in 1995 when a 100-day cease-fire ended with a Tamil Tigers attack on the Sri Lankan Navy that sank two government ships while peace talks were going on. She then unleashed her “war for peace” offensive.

Eelam War III

In 1995, President Chandrika Kumaratunga agreed to truce with the LTTE. “Eelam War 3” began when rebels sank naval craft and the Sri Lankan army launched a major offensive on Jaffna. Between 1995 and 2001, war raged across north and east. Suicide attack on central bank in Colombo killed around 100. Kumaratunga was wounded in another attack.

The 14-month cease-fire that was in place in 1994 and 1995 was prompted in part by Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1994, when more than 100,000 Tamils from northern Sri Lanka asked for permission to travel south to see the pope. Tensions eased. in Sri Lanka and brought back a degree of normalcy to areas of the country disrupted by war. Just when the tourist were beginning to return in pre-civil war numbers and an air of serenity had returned to Sri Lanka a huge bomb exploded in Colombo.

As was true with other cease-fire in the past, the Tigers viewed the 1994-95 cease-fire merely as chance to regroup and arm. In a survey before the cease-fire was broken, only 16 percent of the Sri Lankans questioned said they wanted war. After the cease-fire was broken 67 percent said they favored a military solution to the conflict over a political one.

In the beginning of 1995, the Tigers scored some key victories against the Sri Lankan government forces. In March, they sunk several navy vessels in a daring suicide commando raid. In April, two Sri Lankan cargo planes were brought done by Tiger missiles. Ninety soldiers were killed. Later, in the biggest one day battle of the war, the Tigers overran a key government garrison on Mandaitivum making off with weapons and leaving 165 people dead.

Eelam War III: April 1995 - December 2001 (Battle Date Location Deaths Result)
Operation Riviresa (Sun Rays) /Battle of Jaffna October – December 1995, Jaffna, Jaffna District 500, 2,000 dead, Sri Lankan Army (SLA) victory
Battle of Mullaitivu (1st) (a.k.a. Operation Unceasing Waves) July 1996 Mullaitivu, Mullaitivu District 1,242, 332 dead, Tamil Tiger (LTTE) victory
Operation Sath Jaya July – October 1996 Elephant Pass and Kilinochchi 500, 121 dead, SLA victory
Vavunathivu Offensive March 1997 SLA camp, Vavunathivu, Batticaloa District 75, 103 dead, LTTE victory
Operation Jayasikurui May 1997 - 1999, Sri Lanka 1,350 3,614 dead, SLA victory
Thandikulam–Omanthai offensive, June 1997 Thandikulam and Omanthai, Vavuniya District 700, 165 dead, LTTE victory
Battle of Kilinochchi (1st) (a.k.a. Operation Unceasing Waves II) September 1998, Kilinochchi, Kilinochchi District 443, 520 dead, LTTE victory
Operation Rana Gosa March 1999, Northern Province, Sri Lanka, SLA victory
Oddusuddan Offensive October – November 1999 Oddusuddan, Mullaitivu District 800 dead, LTTE victory
Battle for the A-9 highway March – April 2000, A-9 Highway, Kilinochchi District 203 317, 50 dead, LTTE victory Battle of Elephant Pass (2nd) (a.k.a. Operation Unceasing Waves III) April 2000, SLA camp, Elephant Pass, Kilinochchi District 204, 150 dead, LTTE victory
Bandaranaike Airport attack m July 2001 Bandaranaike International Airport, Katunayake, Gampaha District 7, 14 dead, Successful LTTE raid
Cease Fire December 2001 - July 2006
Battle of Point Pedro 12 May 2006 Bay of Bengal near Point Pedro, Jaffna District 17 54 SLN victory [Source: Wikipedia]

Government Jaffna Offensive

A major battle took place Jaffna in 1995. In October, 1995, 25,000 Sri Lankan soldiers launched a major offensive to drive the Tigers from their stronghold there. Before the battle, Kumaratunga had sought advise from military people in the United States and Europe and ordered the government to purchase $500 million in new weapons, a large sum for such a small country.

During the Jaffna offensivem the Tamil Tigers abandoned their usual guerilla tactics and fought the government forces in a conventional battle. They were overrun and lost an estimated 1,000 fighters. There were reports of 154 Tamils that disappeared.

After a draining 50-day campaign Jaffna fell in December, 1995. Sri Lankan soldiers approached the city carefully to avoid mines and booby traps that the Tigers had set before they left. In 1996, Sri Lankan government forces retook Jaffna. An insurgent army of around 10,000 fighters retreated to the jungles of northern Sri Lanka.

The majority of Jaffna's residents fled. An estimated 250,000 Tamils fled Jaffna. Many ended up in refugee camps across Jaffna lagoon on the northern mainland. By 1997 about half of them had returned. In 1997 the population of Jaffna was back up to 465,000 from 738,000 (1981 census).

Fighting After the Jaffna Offensive

The Tigers retaliated after the Jaffna Offensive by attacking five Sinhalese villages and killing more than 120 innocent people, including children hacked to death with machetes. In July, 1996, around 4,000 Tigers attacked the Mullaittivu army camp on the east coast in one of the biggest battles of the war. More than 700 Tigers and 1,200 government soldiers died. After that the government retaliated. Some 350 to 500 Jaffna Tamils disappeared.

The Tigers were now holed up in the Vanni jungle in northern Sri Lanka, cut off from new recruits but continuing the fight. The Sri Lankan army lobbed mortar rounds into the jungle. Using tactics similar to those used by the Viet Cong against American forces, the Tigers emerged at night from their hideouts and made hit and run strikes at government positions. As of November, 1997, 2500 people had died in the Vanni battle with no end in sight.

Fighting in the Late 1990s

The Tamil Tigers led a major offensive in 1997 to expel government forces from the north. The 1997-98 Tiger offensive ultimately failed

At the same time the government launched a major offensive in May 1997 to recapture the 76 kilometer (46 miles) stretch of the highway in an effort to reestablish road link to Jaffna. The Tamil Tigers put up stiff resistance. The government called off the offensive. In the battle for the highway over 3,500 soldiers were killed and three times that number were wounded.The Tamil Tigers captured Kilinonchchi, where they later set up an administrative center.

In November 1999, the Tamil Tigers launched a massive counter-offensive. There was heavy fighting around bases near the Elephant Pass causeway, the main link between the Jaffna Peninsula and the main island of Sri Lanka. Government forces sustained heavy losses and 10 of their camps along the A-9 fell to Tigers in five days,

Fighting in the Early 2000s

In April and May, 2000, the Tiger led a major offensive to recapture Jaffna. They drove the government back, captured bridges, key towns, a major military base and got within a kilometer or so of Jaffna, where 40,000 government soldiers were stationed. Civilians abandoned their homes and sought shelter in temples, mosques and churches, and makeshift relief camps. There were shortages of food and clean drinking water,

The Tigers were pushed back by the Sri Lankan government army with the help of air attacks by MiG-27 jets, Kfir jets and multiple rocket launchers purchased from Israel, the Czech Republic, Pakistan and the former Soviet republics. The Tigers were ultimately forced back to their jungle retreat.

There was especially heavy fighting in Chavakchcheri, a port east of Jaffna. The government held it and then suddenly abandoned it. Civilians had to run for their lives and didn’t have any time to gather their belongings After the Tigers entered the city, government forces began shelling the city. The Tigers retreated but not before sewing the area with mines. The town was left a ruin.

Several thousand died in the fighting. According to some sources, the Tigers were ultimately unsuccessful because their soldiers were too young and inexperienced. At the same time, the Tiger also attacked the eastern city of Batticaloa and showed they could strike anywhere at will. They set off bombs and fired mortars at two military bases. As of December 2000, the Tigers still controlled the strategic Navatkuli bridge, only two miles from Jaffna. In 2001 there was still heavy fighting in the Jaffna area as government forces tried to oust the last bastion of Tamil Tiger fighters there.

Battle of Elephant Pass No. 2

At the Second Battle of Elephant Pass — also known as Operation Unceasing Waves II — in April 2000, the Tamil Tigers attacked a Sri Lankan Army camp at Elephant Pass, Kilinochchi District , resulting in dead and an LTTE victory

V.S.Sambandan wrote: “What was considered the most fortified military camp in the island the government troops virtually gave away even as an impending siege loomed large on the complex. "It is a repeat of the Vanni," a top Army officer told Frontline, indicating that the Army had pulled out of the northern garrison as it did in the face of a series of LTTE advances in the Vanni last year. [Source: V.S.Sambandan, Frontline, 2000]

On April 22, the Tigers moved into the twin complexes of Iyakachchi and Elephant Pass, pounding the government positions even as the government troops made a "tactical withdrawal" for "readjusting their defence lines". Unfortunately for the Sri Lankan de fence apparatus, it could well turn out to be a "readjustment" which changes the military balance very significantly in favour of the LTTE. Retaking Elephant Pass, heavily fortified and with concrete bunkers capable of withstanding bombing, is going to b e a difficult task for the security forces. The sprawling complex was a key bulwark for government troops in countering the military aggression of the LTTE. Terrestrial incursions into the peninsula from the mainland were consistently thwarted by the ove rwhelming presence of two top divisions of the Sri Lankan Army in the Iyakachchi-Elephant Pass sector.

As it happened, the LTTE made the EPS takeover simple and straight. Rather than flush out the camp by employing its earlier tactics of deploying suicide-cadres on the camp boundaries, followed by an intense attack, the Tigers got EPS without even getting close to its boundaries. For the Army made a pull-out to "save its troops for a later attack."

The Mullaitivu model of overrunning an Army camp has clearly become passe. Indicating both a change in tactics and, at a larger level, a change in the very nature of the armed conflict, the Tigers lay siege on military positions north of the EPS. Supply lines were cut off and a slow choking of the base was in prospect when the northern road link from Iyakachchi to government-held Jaffna was cut away. An alternative supply route was opened, but military sources said that could at best be temporary.

In terms of the nature of the warfare, the situation has changed significantly since the early 1990s with the weapons that lead to a stand-off turning to be crucial. Once an army position came within the LTTE's artillery range, the situation turned probl ematic. As the security forces exceed the rebels in sheer numbers, the losses are also significantly higher on the government side for every successful strike by the Tigers.

A stunned Sri Lankan defence establishment maintained a deafening silence on the Elephant Pass debacle on April 22. A day later, the silence was shattered by a communique from the Defence Ministry which said "heavy fighting was on" in the sector and that the troops had "readjusted defence lines north of Elephant Pass" and "vacated" the southern sector. Not much reading between the lines was required - Elephant Pass had moved into LTTE control.

The Tigers proclaimed their victory as one "facilitating the LTTE to gain its strategic goal of liberating Jaffna." In a statement released through their international headquarters in London on April 22, the rebels said: "The LTTE's Special Forces and commando units stormed into the Yakachchi (sic) military base in early hours of the morning in a multi-pronged assault and overran the well-fortified camp after several hours of intense fighting. The LTTE commandos, who penetrated central base, destroyed s everal artillery pieces, tanks, armoured vehicles and ammunition dumps. Overwhelmed by the fury of the Tiger assault, the Sri Lankan troops who desperately held the base without supplies and reinforcements for the last two days fled in total confusion."

Airport Attack in 2001

In July 2001, the Tamil Tigers staged an audacious attack on Sri Lanka’s main international airport and an adjacent military base. Twenty-one people were killed in the six hour battle, all of them Sri Lankan military personnel or Tamil Tiger fighters. The attack occurred on the 18th anniversary of the anti-Tamil riots in 1983 that gave birth to Tamil Tiger conflict.

Twelve military and commercial aircraft were destroyed, including one Mig-27, two Israeli -made Kfir bombers, two helicopters, an Airbus A340 and an Airbus A330. Three other Airbuses were damaged. A third of Sri Lankan Airline’s fleet was destroyed or damaged, costing the airline $350 million.

The attack was an embarrassment for the Sri Lankan government. How was it that one of the most carefully guarded facilities in Sri Lanka was so easily penetrated and attacked?. Why weren’t measures taken to protect the commercial airport which was attacked two hours after the military airport? The airport is Sri Lanka’s only air link to the outside world and is normally guarded with multiple roadblocks and heavy security. The government responded by bombing Tamil Tiger bases in northern Sri Lanka.

Afterwards the United States and Britain strongly advised travelers not to visit Sri Lanka. The tourism industry was hit hard (99.9 percent of foreign tourists arrived by air). The economy went into tail spin. The result of the attack helped push the government to negotiate with the Tamil Tigers.

Fighting During the Airport Attack in 2001

The attack began at a military base adjacent to the airport (several military craft were damaged and destroyed there) and then spread to the international airport. The Tamil Tigers were dressed in military fatigues and armed with mortars, rocket propelled grenades, guns, rifles, and shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons. Some had explosives strapped to their body. They arrived in the area on a 26-seat bus and enjoyed a picnic in a park , just outside he airport before beginning the attack. They sabotaged the power supply to the airports before entering the airport area by cutting a whole in a barbed wire fence.

Passengers and airport employees scrambled for cover, with some making their escape by crawling on the road out of the airport. Gunfire ripped through the terminal, where soldiers fought gun battles with the fighters. One suicide bomber blew himself up in the baggage claim area. A mortar shell hit a transit lounge. Suitcases and clothing were scattered all over the tarmac.

By the time the fighters had penetrated the terminal all the passengers had been evacuated. Fourteen guerillas who participated in the attack were killed, including three who blew themselves up. Seven soldiers were killed. Twelve soldiers, a Russian flight engineer for Sri Lankan Airlines and a Sri Lankan journalist were wounded. Anti-terrorist commandos were finally able to regain control of the area.

Foreigner Caught in the Crossfire During the Airport Attack in 2001

No foreigners or tourists were hurt. Flights obviously were canceled and people on their way to the airport were turned back at road blocks. The attack began at 3:30am so few people were at the airport. But some foreigners were there. One Australian businessman told AP, “There were people running everywhere and ducking for cover under counters.” A Dutch tourist said, “I’ve never been so scared in my life.” A businessman from the Maldives told the New York Times, “The bullets came very near us. We feared they would come up and hit us.”

A British woman who was returning home from her honeymoon told the Independent, “It was difficult to take in what was happening. One minute we were getting ready to board a flight home. the next we had tracer bullets and mortars coming at us. At one point we were pinned down in a ditch for one and half hours with bullets whizzing over our heads. One mortar explosion came within 100 yards of us. Quite simply, we were convinced we were going to die.”

Many of the foreigners complained that the local staff had run off before them, leaving them at loss on what to do. They had no idea where to go or what to do. One passengers who was in the transit lounge and saw the plane she arrived on from the Maldives blown up said, “”There was no one to help us, no announcements, no staff leading the way. They abandoned us.”

Resignation to the War

By the early 2000s, many Sri Lankans had resigned themselves to the fighting. One man in Colombo told the Washington Post” "It really does not mean much to me. All Sri Lankans want the fighting to end, but my sons are not in the army, my business is not being hurt and family never goes to the embattled district anyway."

Government teachers gave tests to children in rebel-controlled areas so they didn't fall behind. Buses traveled routes that days before were the site of bloody battles. Tourist resorts near rebel bases stayed open even though no one went there. And postal workers delivered tax notices to people in the rebel-controlled areas.

One passengers on bus that traveled through an area where 60 Tigers had reportedly been killed the week before told the Washington Post, "I had not heard about it but I would have come anyway. What choice do we have? We have to get where we are going. We have to live." According to a World Bank report, the conflict has caused "long-term social and psychological wounds to the society as a whole."

As of the late 1990s the conflict was eating up 27 percent of Sri Lanka's government expenditures and costing Sri Lanka $77.5 million a day. The treasury was empty; foreign aid had dried up and military spending — with 40,000 troops stationed in Jaffna in the Tamil north — was so high the national dept was deemed unsustainable. The economy shrunk in 2001. The defense budget had reached $1 billion a year. So much money was spent on the war effort that there was little money left over for other things such as infrastructure projects.

As of the mid 2000s, hardly any buildings remained in one piece on the 22-mile road between Elephant Pass and Jaffna. Many were knee-high mounds of rubble. In some building there were blood stained walls from where people were executed.

Paradise Lost

According to Time magazine: From paradise-under-the-palms to one of the world's hellholes — what went wrong? The story of Sri Lanka's first 50 years is complex and depressing in a unique way. The electoral democracy that Britain bequeathed 50 years ago with such exotic pomp remains intact. But it has done little good. Sri Lanka is, in fact, an example of how democracy — so often described as a panacea for poor, struggling countries — can tear a country apart if politicians do the wrong thing, like fanning ethnic animosities. [Source: Time, February 9, 1998]

“Fifty years on, Sri Lanka is poor, discouraged and makes just about any other country on the globe appear peaceful. A 14-year civil war in the island's north continues to rage. In the late 1980s, the government itself slaughtered tens of thousands of people in the country's south. The President's verdict on the 50th anniversary: "The nation needs to rebuild itself on a new footing as a national entity with a separate identity — what is commonly labeled the nation-building process. I think Sri Lanka has failed in that." Per capita income, at about $700, is among the lowest in the world, the President points out. "We have failed in that too."

“From paradise-under-the-palms to one of the world's hellholes — what went wrong? The story of Sri Lanka's first 50 years is complex and depressing in a unique way. The electoral democracy that Britain bequeathed 50 years ago with such exotic pomp remains intact. But it has done little good. Sri Lanka is, in fact, an example of how democracy — so often described as a panacea for poor, struggling countries — can tear a country apart if politicians do the wrong thing, like fanning ethnic animosities. In Sri Lanka's case, five decades of dutiful elections have had some unpleasant results.

“An estimated 90,000 people have died in the twin conflicts in the north and south. The country's once-promising financial district is deserted except for rifle-toting soldiers, mangy dogs and persistent pimps. Outside the capital, people live in villages where fear comes with nightfall, and not only in the war-torn north. "Once we lock our door at night," says Soma Jayawardene, a south coast resident who was widowed in the chaos of the late 1980s, "we don't open it for anyone." The 50th anniversary celebrations have been hurriedly relocated to Colombo from Kandy, the old capital, after a terrorist bomb killed 14 civilians, nearly destroying Sri Lanka's holiest Buddhist shrine. It took a few decades, but paradise was lost in Sri Lanka. A half century after independence, no one knows if any semblance can ever be restored.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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