The Sri Lankan Civil War: Ethnic Conflicts

Civil wars, often related to ethnic conflicts, have become increasingly common in recent years. They impose enormous and long-lasting human, social and economic costs, and have repercussions well beyond the immediate theater of combat. The aggravation of ethnic frictions to the point of armed conflict can doom many multiethnic societies to periods of prolonged economic, political and social crises, and set back economic progress for decades. The eruption or continuation of these conflicts is obviously a product of a multitude of factors, and each conflict has its own unique roots.

Nevertheless, economic factors, including major policy changes, do have the potential to contribute to a sharpening of ethnic tensions, particularly if they lead to changes in distribution of social wealth and opportunities. The potential costs of social instability that may follow policy changes must be explicitly taken into account when assessing the net benefits of policy changes. Estimating the full costs of such conflicts is a very difficult task, if not impossible, task.

The human and social costs of death, disability, dispossession and psychological trauma associated with violence and terror are not really quantifiable.

The Sri Lankan Civil war was an ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils in the country. Since the beginning of the war in July 23rd 1983, the separatist militant group which represents the Tamil minority in the country, the LTTE fought against the government of Sri Lanka to form an independent land for the minority in the northern and eastern parts of the country.

There are four phases of the war, identified as – Eelam War I (1983-1988), Eelam War II (1990- 1994), Eelam War III (1995-2002) and Eelam War IV (2006-2009) (Jayakody, 2017). During the war, despite the existence of the cease fire agreement, both parties exchanged heavy attacks especially in form of air raids. Most of the raids were targeted at military bases of both parties and economic spots. At the same time many people from the highest rank to the innocent civilians sacrificed their lives for this brutal war. So as mentioned above, even the Sri Lankan civil wars’ impacts are not limited only in the economical aspect. It adversely affected to the day to day life of civilians, to natural environment and to natural resources in the country. So the ultimate impact of the war is discouraging the development of our nation for several decades.

The Sri Lankan history has experience enough evidences to prove the war is affected by all the social conservatives. Assassinations of government ministers like Lalith Athulathmudali, Lakshman Kadirgamar and military officers and other people like Lieutenant General Denzil Kobbekaduwa General officer commanding, Northern area Sri Lankan Army, Rear Admiral Mohan Jayamaha former commander, Northern Naval area, Sri Lanka Navy, Colonel Tuan Nizam Muthaliff, former commanding officer, 1st battalion, Military Intelligence crops, Sri Lanka Army, Kithalagama Sri Seelankara thero, chief thero of the Dimbulagala Raja Maha Viharaya, Rajani Thiranagama, University lecturer, Tamil human right activist and feminist, Relangi Selvarajah, Tamil broadcaster and actress, Sarojani Yogeswaram, former mayor of Jaffna vividly realize that the targets of terrorists are merely not one group. They badly eradicated their threats. On the other hand the attack to central Bank in 1996, Kabithigollewa massacre and Palliyagodella massacre shows how innocent people became their targets. So the lives of the innocent people were contracted due to these incidents and finally it reduced the development of the country.

The declaration of Sinhalese as the official language by the government in the 1960s led to ethnic tensions and conflicts between Tamils and Sinhalese as Tamils believed they had been discriminated by the government as well as by the Sinhalese majority. Tensions between Tamils and the government intensified in the late 1970s with the formation of several armed militant groups within the Tamil community. This led to a brutal civil war which earned the title of “Asia’s longest war” in later years. By the 1990s, the group, LTTE, founded in 1976, became the only group directly fighting with the Sri Lankan government as it was able to suppress other armed militant Tamil groups. At the highest point of their power, it possessed a well-developed militia and was able to control over 75% of the land in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of the country. The LTTE was able to build its own police, army, navy forces as well as an air force with a few light aircraft. More importantly, it had a well trained suicide carder which was responsible for conducting several assassinations. The suicide attacks and powerful bombs targeted many public places and strategic economic as well as security hubs in other parts of the country, mainly in the capital, Colombo. Apart from this ethnic war, the country experienced two youth uprisings in 1971 and 1987-1989 launched by Sinhalese youth in the southern part of the country against the government which created many disruptions to the community. Because of the war, Sri Lanka’s military spending as a percentage of GDP, increased from 1.6 percent in 1983 to 3.5 in 2008. It reached its peak at 5.9 percent of GDP in 1995, over 20 percent of total government spending. Before 1983, arm imports were not a regular practice of the Sri Lankan government.

However, from 1984 arms were imported annually in the year 2000, the government’s import bill for arms was around $US 274 million (constant 1990), the highest reported spending on weapons during the war period. Spending on military activities in Sri Lanka is greater than that of many countries in the South Asian region (such as India, Bangladesh and Nepal). Similarly the number of defense personnel increased by close to tenfold from 22,000 in 1989 to 213,000 in 2008. It is estimated that the accumulated loss from 1983 to 1996 to be equivalent to over 160 percent of the GDP in 1996 using a constant interest rate of 5 percent (Ganegodage,2013). The direct costs include reduction in nonmilitary expenditure and damage to infrastructure while the major portions of indirect costs consist of income loss from foregone investment, reduced tourism and loss of human capital through death and injury, displacement of people and output forgone in the war zone. The war significantly reduced the investment flow into the country and therefore concluded that the war could have long run implications for the country’s economy.

It can be argued that although the country can develop their economy with time under a proper political guidance, the psychological trauma caused by it is difficult to heal. The ethnic war in Sri Lanka has brought psychosocial problems for individuals and families. In addition, it has had a devastating effect on Sri Lankan society. It has caused regression of all development, destroying social capital, structures and institutions. It has also resulted in changes, for the worse, of fundamental social processes like socialization, social norms and social networks.

Children are the future of the country. One of the long lasting and as yet not properly understood consequences of the violence in the north-east has been the impact on children. Epidemiological surveys of the general population in war-affected areas of Sri Lanka show widespread traumatisation for the general population the consequent psychosocial problems. Due to close and strong bonds and cohesiveness in nuclear and extended families in the Tamil culture, the families tend to respond to external threat or trauma as a unit. During times of traumatic experiences, the family will come together to face the threat and provide mutual support and protection. In time, the family will act to define and interpret the traumatic event, give it structure and assign a common meaning, as well as evolve strategies to cope with the stress. The civil war, however, resulted in occurrences such as displacement, separation, migration, death, detention and ‘disappearance’ of family members. As a result, the traditional extended and nuclear family systems have been weakened or shattered. The cohesiveness has become less. The absence of members of the family due to death, ‘disappearance’, injury or displacement will create infallible gaps in the functioning of the family unit. Uncertainty or grief about the missing member will add to the burden of the remaining family members. Traumatization of one family member can adversely affect other members, particularly the children. Their emotional response to the prevailed condition included extreme sadness, fear, anger and irritable behavior, and lack of hope, particularly in older and adolescent children. In addition, an increase in physical symptoms related to stress has also been reported along with fear and difficulty in dealing with routing matters, withdrawal from routine activities at home and school as well as from other reasons, and withdrawal into conflict related fantasies.

Under those conditions, the LTTE actively recruited children as young as 10 years into their Baby Brigade. It is quite common to encounter children less than 15 years, trained in the use of firearms that are also use in combat situations and for sentry duty. The other problem is that the war has disrupted the education of the children, which is another reason why they were attracted to the glitter of weapons. The LTTE send their military representatives to school to recruit children. On the other hand children in the age group of 16 and under, know nothing other than war and constant conflict unlike their elders who could refer back to a period of peace and relative stability and security. So under those situations children in war affected areas lost their chances to have education. At the same time children in other areas also became the indirect victims of war. Many students and educated young people died due to bomb attacks. At the same time brain draining was a major problem in Sri Lanka during that time as many educated people migrated to foreign countries because of fear. These reasons were directly affected to the development of Sri Lanka.

Women in Sri Lanka from approximately 57% of a total estimated population of 21 millions. So women in Sri Lanka play a major role in the aspect of development. Another clear segment of the population on ethnic violence has impacted seriously are women. Sexual attacks on women have been a common military strategy throughout history (Dissanayake 2004). In the initial periods of the militarization of the inter-ethnic conflict, women were victimized when their husbands or other males, were abducted or killed by the security forces. They became widows or bereaved women. They also fallen victim to rape, and the worst period of rape was under the occupation of the Indian Peace Keeping Force, particularly between the months of November and December 1987 when the refugees were trickling back from their camps to the homes they had left behind in the midst of war. Comparatively the number of kidnapping of women, sexual harassment and rapes attributed to Tamil militant groups are minimal even though such cases also exist as indicated by a number of unpublished personal testimonies recorded by some researchers and human rights activists. (Dissanayake,2004). In conservative Tamil society, with privileged notions of chastity, virginity before marriage and restrictive notions of purity, women are placed in an extremely difficult position when many of these notions would be violated in a situation of rape. The fact that rape was not a result of their own activities plays no part in the popular perception of the rape victim, and the social seclusion of such victims. In fact they were victimized by more than one aggressor. That is firstly by the rapist, and then by their own society. So in one hand they become victims in their own society and the separation of those women from society adversely affect to the development of Sri Lanka.

Youth is the most important source to the development of a country. The futility of war can be clearly identified through the doomed lives of young people. Due to the civil war thousands of people died and many other people become disabled from both side. At the same time uncountable numbers of people become missed during the action. Those were the best human resources for the development of our country. At the same time many LTTE soldiers were rehabilitated by the Sri Lankan government and now they are efficiently contribute to the development of the country. The programmes like “Abhimansala” which focuses on the rehabilitation of the disabled Army personnel in multiple spheres namely physical, mental, social and spiritual development also one of the best ways of encouraging soldiers in a respectful way.

Sri Lanka, the so-called ‘Paradise on earth’ has a dark side too. The 20 year old conflict between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam has left more than 65,000 dead. About 800,000 people were displaced and many of them were disabled. While all Sri Lankans have suffered from the consequences of the conflict, the North – East and the adjacent areas have born the brunt of fighting. Therefore, permanent peace has to be brought about, in order to change this situation in the North and East. For that, the government should play a major role on behalf of the governed. It means that a very suitable and a very reasonable political solution must be found to resolve this ethnic conflict. Since 1987, there have been several attempts to have a constitutional accommodation by successive Sri Lankan Governments and the advocates of Tamils nationalism. Although the cease-fire agreement was signed by the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE in 2002, the peace talks collapsed in April and by the end of that year the government and rebels had contradictory views over key political issues. On the other hand, after signing the cease-fire agreement in February 2002, bringing a measure of normalcy to the country, the vast majority of the affected people still suffer from the lack of basic infrastructure facilities and social services. Therefore, to come back to normal life, social services must be restored, destroyed infrastructure facilities must be rebuilt and access to job opportunities must be made available. In this situation, all Sri Lankan political parties and all community groups should give their wholehearted support to bring about an everlasting peace and to work together for a prosperous and harmonious future for Sri Lanka.

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