Civil War

Historical Context

A crossroads of trade routes and a treasury of natural resources, Sri Lanka has long been a hub of human activity. From the first millennium BCE, intermarriage between the island’s earlier inhabitants and Indian settlers produced a new ethnic and cultural mixture, added to by Arab, Chinese and Malay traders and settlers, and more recently Europeans (Vijayalakshmi, 2005). Along with power struggles, invasions from South India and dynastic successions, the third century BCE featured the introduction of Buddhism and the adoption of both an Indo-Aryan language, Sinhala, only used in Sri Lanka, and a Dravidian language Tamil, shared with South India (Meyer, 2006).

In the early 16th century, Portugal occupied and partially colonized the West coast and Jaffna in the North. The Dutch later replaced the Portuguese, ruling the coastal regions of the West, North and East. British forces defeated the Dutch in 1796, marking the beginning of their occupation. In 1815, British forces conquered the central highlands to form one country, Ceylon, administered as a crown colony. An independent state was declared in 1948, one year after Indian independence.

During the 133 years of British rule, Ceylon underwent enormous social, cultural and political changes, leading to representative government in the early 20th century. It was virtually a self-governing state within the British Empire from 1931, when adult universal enfranchisement was introduced for elections of the State Council, which had jurisdiction over internal matters, including health care and education. Under British influence, the use of English, a British-based educational system and Western-style consumer practices became widespread. Also, individuals had come to indentify themselves, not according to a caste system as was done in India, but according to religion and ‘race’ (Ludowyk, 1962; Meyer, 2006).


Soon after independence, language—and to a lesser extent, religion—became major foci for argument and later controversy leading to conflict. The adoption of Sinhala as the official language in 1956 ended a two-language formula accepted earlier, leading to protest from Tamil-speaking people and the rise of a Tamil national movement. Two contradictory processes were evident from the 1950s – ‘ethnicity blindness at the level of the state, paralleled by the politicisation of ethnicity in the national imagination’. It was only in 1987, after Indian intervention in the civil war (see below), that it was officially accepted that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual plural society where there has to be power-sharing between its different communities (Wickramasinghe, 2006, p. 189-90).

Four religious traditions, namely Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, are active in Sri Lanka. There are two main languages, Sinhala and Tamil, although many people also speak English. Today, it is generally agreed that there are three main ethnic groups in Sri Lanka: Sinhalese and Tamils share many cultural practices and beliefs, but have a different main language (Gunaratne, 2002); and Muslims (adherents of Islam) are mainly Tamil speaking, but identify as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Moor’ and not as Tamil. Buddhists are mainly Sinhala speaking and Hindus generally speak Tamil. Christians may fall into either of the main ethnic group, thus identifying as either Sinhalese or Tamil. There are also small numbers of other ethnic groups, such as Dutch and Portuguese Burghers, descendents of Europeans (Colin-Thome and Ragel, 2005); Parsis, followers of the Zoroastrian religion (Peiris, 2005); and Veddas, descendents of tribal people (Obeyesekere, 2002).

Social disruption and civil war

Since the early 1970s, Sri Lanka has been torn by political violence. In December 2004, the country was affected by a disaster of enormous proportions, namely a tsunami. In the early 1970s, an uprising in the South led to several thousand deaths and many disappearances. Civil unrest in the (Northern) Jaffna peninsula in the late 1970s led to open conflict between the government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and militant Tamil groups, which erupted into full scale civil war in 1983. The war set the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), led by Prabharakan, against GOSL, in open battles as well as through terrorist attacks, often by suicide bombers. LTTE conscripted children into their forces and developed sophisticated methods of training and equipping suicide bombers, mostly drawn from among young women. In the late 1980s, soon after intervention in the north by Indian troops (see below), further civil conflict in the South resulted in hundreds of deaths and disappearances. The civil war based on LTTE demanding a separate (ethnic) Tamil state lasted until May 2009. It led to a separation of ethnic groups with Tamil people migrating to the North and Sinhalese to the South. Over 70,000 Muslim people, expelled by LTTE from the North in 1990, still live as refugees in the North-West.

Attempts at peaceful resolution*

Several attempts at peaceful resolution have taken place during the 25 years of civil war, involving both main Sri Lankan political parties, The United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The first peace talks were held in Bhutan in July 1985 and the second, with active intervention of India, resulted in the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord when LTTE agreed to surrender their weapons to an Indian Peace Keeping Force deployed in the North and East. This sparked protests in the South and battles between LTTE and the Indian army. The Indian army withdrew in 1990 after over 1500 Indian troops had been killed by LTTE. Talks between GOSL and LTTE in Colombo in 1990 were abandoned after LTTE attacks on government troops. Talks in October 1994-5 also ended after LTTE attacked the Sri Lankan navy in Trincomalee. Norway brokered a cease fire agreement (CFA) between GOSL and LTTE and peace talks were held in Thailand and Japan until in April 2003 when LTTE decided to suspend its participation. Further talks were held in Geneva in February and April 2006, but a meeting scheduled to be held in Oslo was abandoned when LTTE claimed that GOSL delegation was under-represented.
* Abridged from Sunday Times (2009).

End of war**

Limited hostilities resumed in late 2005 in spite of CFA and conflict escalated until GOSL launched a major offensive against LTTE in July 2006, driving the latter out of the entire Eastern Province. In 2007, GOSL shifted its offensive against LTTE to the Northern Province and announced its formal withdrawal from CFA on 2 January 2008. In 2008, GOSL forces destroyed several large arms-smuggling ships and western countries, such as USA, Canada and UK, which had earlier declared LTTE to be a terrorist organisation, began restricting LTTE in raising funds in their countries. From mid-2008, GOSL forces began to take control of areas previously held by LTTE for over 17 years; the LTTE de-facto ‘capital’ (Kilinochchi) was captured in January 2009 and by early April LTTE militants were confined to an area of about 10 square kilometers on the north-east coast. In retreating, LTTE persuaded or forced most of the civilians living in LTTE controlled areas to move with the militants, so that the militants and civilians were mixed up together in this small enclave. GOSL alleged that LTTE were holding civilians as ‘human shields’ and LTTE alleged that GOSL were shelling civilians. Once GOSL forces breached defences set up by LTTE around the enclave, about 270, 000 civilians fled to government controlled areas to be housed in welfare camps. Rejecting calls from Western powers for a cease-fire and failure by LTTE militants to heed calls to surrender, GOSL forces gradually broke into the enclave enabling civilians to move away from the fighting. LTTE finally admitted defeat on 17 May 2009. Nearly all the main leaders of LTTE, including Prabhakaran, were killed in the last few days of the civil war.

The war has left about 300,000 recently displaced Tamil people housed in welfare camps in the Vavuniya district in the Northern Province. Also about 70,000 Muslim people originally from the North still live as refugees in the Puttalam district in the north-west of the island. There is very limited access to the welfare camps in Vavuniya for security reasons; the army is carrying out checks to detain suspected LTTE militants pending decisions on instituting legal charges against them or their rehabilitation – especially applicable in the case of children forcibly conscripted by LTTE. Also GOSL authorities may aim to detect LTTE agents in other parts of the country before relaxing security. Once security allows, the government has expressed its intention to tackle rehabilitation and re-settlement of displaced people, to develop the North and East (where resettlement and development has already begun), and to achieve reconciliation together with political changes that recognize the multi-ethnic, plural nature of Sri Lankan society. Clearly during the next few years, Sri Lanka will need all the help that is possible from international agencies and governments.
** Abridged from newspaper reports.


Colin-Thome, P. and Ragel, F. R. (2005) ‘The Portuguese and The Dutch Burghers, an overview’, in E. Vijayalakshmi (ed.) Cultural Minorities of Sri Lanka Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies pp. 14-47.

Ludowyke, E. F. C. (1962) The Story of Ceylon, London: Faber and Faber.

Meyer, E. (2006) Sri Lanka Biography of an Island, translated from the French by Kristie Segond-Baldwin, revised edition, Dehiwala (Sri Lanka): Viator Publications.

Obeyesekere, G. (2005) ‘’Where Have All the Väddas Gone? Buddhism and Aboriginality in Sri Lanka’, in N. Silva (ed.) The Hybrid Island. Cultural crossings and invention of identity in Sri Lanka, London: Zed Books, pp. 1-19.

Peiris, R. (2005) ‘The Parsis’, in E. Vijayalakshmi (ed.) Cultural Minorities of Sri Lanka Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies pp. 62-79.

Sunday Times (2009) Sunday Times on line news 24 May 2009. Available: Accessed 29 May 2009.

Vijayalakshmi, E. (ed.) Cultural Minorities of Sri Lanka, Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies.

Wickramasinghe, N. (2006) Sri Lanka in the Modern Age. A History of Contested Identities (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Vijitha Yapa).

Williams, H. (1952) Ceylon: Pearl of the East, London: Robert Hale, cited by Jones, 2004.

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