Civil War: Sri Lanka (1972-Present)

Shale Horowitz & Buddhika Jayamaha. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


Since the early 1970s, and more intensely since 1983, Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-dominated government has been locked in a secessionist conflict with elements of its Tamil minority. Although a military and political stalemate has supported a cease-fire since February 2002, a return to all-out war seems more likely than an agreement on a lasting peace. The war originated as Sri Lankan government policies and anti-Tamil riots cumulatively undermined the security of the Tamil population. In turn, the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict generated intra-Tamil and intra-Sinhalese conflicts. Both have produced far more death and suffering than the supposedly central interethnic conflict. Chances for an early end to the war were dashed by the rise of the radical and ferocious Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—in which India’s intervention was crucial. The Sinhalese-Tamil conflict is unlikely to end without the decline or reform of the LTTE, which maintains a stranglehold on the Tamil population of the contested regions. After reviewing background information on Sri Lanka, this article summarizes the history of the conflict. It then analyzes the sources of the conflict, the strategies and tactics employed by the two sides, and the barriers to resolving the conflict.

Country Background

The teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka lies 20-40 miles off the southern tip of India, across the Palk Strait. Its maximum north-south height is about 270 miles, and its maximum east-west width is about 170 miles. Much of the island—including much of the northern and eastern conflict zone—is thickly forested.

In 2003, the population was 19.3 million, up from 15.8 million in 1985. There are four major ethnic groups: The Sinhalese make up 74 percent of the population; the Sri Lankan Tamils, 12.6 percent; the Indian Tamils, 5.6 percent; and the Sri Lankan Muslims, 7.1 percent. (These proportions are from the last complete census, taken in 1981. They are not estimated to have changed much, although emigration may have produced some decline in the Sri Lankan Tamil share.) The Sinhalese and Tamils are most strongly distinguished by language and religion, but also by political history and culture. Sinhalese speak their own language (Sinhala), and are overwhelmingly Buddhist. The Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils and most Muslims are native Tamil speakers. The Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils are also overwhelmingly Hindu. On the basis of religion, the Muslims identify themselves as a distinct ethnic group (Kearney 1985, 899; Senaratne 1997, 21-24). In this chapter, Sri Lankan Tamils are referred to simply as Tamils, and Sri Lankan Muslims as Muslims, unless otherwise noted.

At the time of the 1981 census, prewar ethnic settlement patterns had changed little. Sri Lankan Tamils were and are concentrated in the north and to a lesser extent the east. Over half the Sri Lankan Tamils are in the north, and the majority of these are in Jaffna district. The Indian Tamils are concentrated in the central highland districts and in the Sri Lankan Tamil-dominated northern districts. The Muslim population was concentrated in four heavily Sri Lankan Tamil districts—the east coast districts of Amparai (Muslim plurality), Batticaloa, and Trincomalee, and northern Mannar district (Kearney 1985, 899-902). Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu, and Vavuniya districts together constitute the Northern Province, and Amparai, Batticaloa, and Trincomalee districts the Eastern Province. In the 1981 census, the Northern Province was 91.7 percent Tamil (including a small proportion of Indian Tamils), 3.2 percent Sinhalese, and 5.0 percent Muslim, and the Eastern Province was 42.4 percent Tamil (including a small proportion of Indian Tamils), 25.1 percent Sinhalese, and 32.5 percent Muslim. The war produced waves of Tamil, Sinhalese, and Muslim refugee flows into and out of the north and east, along with a separation of ethnic groups in the war-torn north and east. Initially, Tamils fled riots and pogroms in the Sinhalese-dominated south, going to the north or abroad. Later, the LTTE sought to cement control by driving Sinhalese and Muslims from the north and parts of the east; at the same time, many Tamils fled back south, abroad, or to displaced persons camps to escape the fighting and the brutal wartime regimes of the government forces and the LTTE.

Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has had functioning democratic institutions. Political violence has been common since the late 1970s and early 1980s, particularly around election times. Since 1979, legal rights have been formally restricted under various emergency security laws. Informally, the major combatants have violated rights on a huge scale.

In 2003, Sri Lankan per capita income, measured in terms of purchasing power, was about $3,000 (2003 dollars)—a level similar to that in China. From 1977, Sri Lanka opened up its economy, generating annual GDP growth of around 5 percent. Manufacturing and especially services have grown significantly, although 35 percent of the workforce remains employed in agriculture (Asian Development Bank 2005).

Conflict Background

Beginning in the tenth century, and particularly in the thirteenth century, Tamils from southern India invaded Sri Lanka and settled along the northern and eastern coasts. The Sinhalese population was driven back to the central highlands and the southern and western coasts, although significant Sinhalese communities remained in parts of the east. In the early sixteenth century, when Europeans began penetrating the region, there were a number of Tamil and Sinhalese kingdoms—Tamil in the north and east, and Sinhalese elsewhere. The Muslim population is descended from Arab, Indian Muslim, and Malay traders that settled on the island.

Under British rule (1815-1948), the country was increasingly run by English-speaking, largely Christianized, and culturally Anglicized local elites—later disparaged as “black Englishmen.” They were mostly Sinhalese but also included many Tamils and other minorities. Sinhalese national identity is intertwined with Buddhism, which, having been largely expelled from its Indian birthplace, was viewed as having found a saving refuge in Sri Lanka. British rule was thus associated with threats to the two primary markers of Sinhalese ethnicity—the Sinhala language and Buddhism. Both because the British viewed Tamils as more politically reliable, and because Tamils tended to be better educated and more entrepreneurial, Tamils became disproportionately represented in the colonial administration, the professions, and commerce. The British also brought in Indian Tamils to work tea and rubber plantations in the hitherto Sinhalese-dominated central highlands. After independence in 1948, the Sinhalese sought to reassert their majority status, and the Sri Lankan Tamils sought to defend their positions, status, and identity. Although the Sri Lankan Tamils feared a tyranny of the Sinhalese majority, the Sinhalese feared domination by a combination of the local Tamils and the giant Tamil community of South India.

The first postindependence government was formed by the United National Party (UNP), the party of the Anglicized elite. The UNP was non-sectarian and secular in principle and technocratic in orientation. Nevertheless, its Citizenship Act of 1948 disenfranchised the Indian Tamils of the central highlands on the basis that they were Indians rather than natives. (In 1964, by agreement with India, about half of the “stateless” Indian Tamils were given citizenship. Still more became citizens in 1984. The process of granting citizenship to all resident Indian Tamils was completed in 2003.) This was resented by the Tamils of the north and east. Tamils also felt threatened by government irrigation programs to resettle poor peasants— overwhelmingly Sinhalese—in less densely populated north-central and eastern regions.

The year 1956 was Buddhism’s 2,500-year anniversary. There was a great outpouring of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, and elections were won by a Sinhalese nationalist splinter of the UNP, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP). The 1956 Language Act, in addition to making Sinhala the official language, required government employees to show Sinhala competence within three years. A nonviolent protest by Tamil legislators was attacked by a Sinhalese mob, leading to a week of interethnic rioting. In the following years, Sinhalese language proficiency requirements largely purged the civil service of Tamils. The 1956 elections also showed that the autonomy-oriented Federal Party had become the strongest Tamil party. The Federal Party’s demands for regional self-rule did not clearly reject separatism; and from the mid-1950s, it claimed not only the Tamil-dominated Northern Province but also the ethnically heterogeneous Eastern Province as integral parts of the Tamils’ traditional homelands. This combination of vagueness and far-reaching goals provoked both Tamils and Sinhalese.

In 1957, SLFP leader S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Federal Party leader S. Chelvanayakam tentatively agreed to allow limited regional autonomy and official use of the Tamil language in the north and east and to address Tamil grievances on the land settlement and citizenship issues. But the agreement broke down amid dueling protests over the language issue. This triggered another round of rioting, in which hundreds died—mostly Tamils. (Following the riots, a bill was passed authorizing the use of Tamil as an official language in the north and east. The necessary implementing legislation, though, was only passed in 1966.) Soon after, Bandaranaike was assassinated for insufficient loyalty to the Sinhalese nationalist cause and was succeeded as SLFP leader by his wife, S.R.D. Bandaranaike. In response to the 1961 Tamil nonviolent campaign for language rights in state employment, state services, and education, the government banned the Federal Party and arrested its leaders. In 1968, SLFP-led opposition prevented creation of district councils, which had been agreed upon by the UNP and Tamil political leaders (De Silva 1981, 1986; Kearney 1967).

Influenced by international ideological trends as well as local frustrations, the 1970s saw a pronounced radicalization among both Sinhalese and Tamils. After the 1970 election, in April-June 1971, the radical Marxist-Sinhalese nationalist National Liberation Front (JVP) mounted an unsuccessful armed uprising. Thousands of police, troops, and rebels were involved in fighting across the Sinhalese parts of the country. The new 1972 constitution changed the country’s name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, retained Sinhalese as the official language, and recognized Buddhism as the majority religion. Mass protests by Tamils led to clashes and arrests of demonstrators. Throughout the 1970s, S.R.D. Bandaranaike’s government nationalized many key industries and gave preference to Sinhalese in hiring. Starting in 1970, affirmative action policies in university admissions disproportionately reduced access for Tamils. This measure radicalized many younger Tamils.

In 1972, the first armed Tamil groups emerged—the Tamil New Tigers (renamed the LTTE in 1976) and what later became the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO). Also in 1972, the Federal Party and other parties and organizations formed the Tamil United Front, which increasingly advanced independence as a goal. In 1976, renamed the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), its Vaddukodai Resolution demanded an independent Tamil state of Eelam and appeared to endorse the use of violence. The TULF didn’t see that it was writing its own epitaph. The Tigers’ most sensational early attack— a sign of things to come—was the 1975 murder of Jaffna Mayor A. Durraiapah, a prominent Tamil supporter of the SLFP (McGowan 1992, 149-77; O’Ballance 1989, 2-14; Senaratne 1997, 24-28, 56-61, 76).

In the 1977 elections, the UNP won a huge victory, while the TULF swept the Tamil-majority districts on an independence platform. UNP leader J. R. Jayawardene became prime minister and later president. Postelection violence between UNP and SLFP supporters spiraled into anti-Tamil riots across the island. Around 100 Tamils were killed. Jayawardene began to reverse the statist economic policies of previous SLFP governments and reached out to the West for assistance. Jayawardene also promised better treatment of Tamils. The new 1978 constitution provided for the use of the Tamil language in government services, but the atmosphere did not improve.

The deepening political disputes and anti-Tamil riots raised hackles in India. In India’s Tamil Nadu province, political parties, civil society organizations, and notables helped to set up Sri Lankan Tamil militant bases. The Indian government, fearing secessionist tendencies among India’s own Tamils and unhappy with Jayawardene’s Western-oriented diplomacy, allowed the process to go forward. Tamil armed groups, like many other revolutionary groups of the time, also received training in Soviet-backed, Palestinian-run camps in Lebanon. Tamil attacks intensified from April 1978, when the LTTE killed four policemen in Jaffna. In September, the LTTE blew up a civilian airliner near Colombo. Continued attacks on police led the government to declare a state of emergency in Jaffna. As government forces heavy-handedly rooted about, the armed Tamil groups melted away. Many fled across the Palk Strait to India.

Tamil attacks again intensified from 1981, now focusing more on intimidating moderate Tamils. By this time, there were five significant Tamil armed groups or paramilitaries. Along with the LTTE and TELO, there were also the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). In 1980, District Development Councils had been created to devolve power from the central government. In the run-up to the 1981 council elections, Tamil paramilitary attacks on police and moderate Tamils triggered rioting in Jaffna by police and UNP supporters. Anti-Tamil riots again broke out but this time were stopped quickly by the government (Kearney 1985 ; O’Ballance 1989, 14-20; Senaratne 1997, 61-67; Singer 1996, 1147-49).

In 1982, the UNP government substituted a largely rigged referendum on retaining the 1977 parliament for the regular parliamentary elections—although its victory in the 1982 presidential election indicated that it probably would have retained a reduced majority. This disenfranchised younger voters, further radicalizing many of them. In July 1983, thirteen Sinhalese soldiers were killed in an LTTE ambush in Jaffna. The next day, soldiers retaliated by killing about fifty Tamil civilians in Jaffna. Anti-Tamil rioting then broke out in Colombo, apparently instigated to a large extent by UNP trade union operatives, and then spread out of control throughout the city and elsewhere on the island. For days, the Sri Lankan government and armed forces did not act forcefully to stop the rioting. Hundreds of Tamils died; thousands were wounded; more than 100,000 sought refuge in India; and tens of thousands migrated to the West. The massive violence of 1983 drove large numbers of moderate Tamils into the extremist camp. Soon afterward, the government banned the Marxist-nationalist JVP party, and TULF representatives in parliament were expelled for refusing to take a newly required oath of allegiance to a unified Sri Lanka.

The Indian government, worried about public opinion in Tamil Nadu, began to arm and train the Tamil paramilitaries. Hitherto small, clandestine safe havens and networks of support in Tamil Nadu were now developed on a much larger scale. The riots yielded a mass of new recruits for the Tamil paramilitaries, who were now funneled through the more sophisticated training routines being imparted by Indian intelligence. The estimated number of trained Tamil fighters rose from about 200 before the riots to about 5,000 a year later. The highly skilled expatriate Tamil communities in the West soon developed into formidable nodes of political organization, fund-raising, and even arms and drug smuggling (Gunaratna 1993 ; Senaratne 1997, 33-50, 67-72).

From 1983, larger and more frequent attacks by the LTTE and other Tamil paramilitaries were followed by more intense government counterinsurgency campaigns. In this brutal fighting, both Sinhalese and Tamil civilians were targeted and killed in larger numbers. Tamil moderates were more than ever before driven into the hands of the LTTE and lesser militant organizations. Indian intelligence continued to provide Tamil paramilitaries with bases, training, and arms. Tamil fighters, weapons, and supplies were then ferried across the Palk Strait. Also under Indian pressure, inconclusive negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil paramilitaries were held in 1984 and 1985. The government rejected Tamil demands for an autonomous region including the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

In the heavily Tamil northern districts, government forces were increasingly confined to their bases. Jaffna and other northern towns fell under Tamil paramilitary control. In these areas, the paramilitaries controlled distinct territories from which they sought to extract resources and manpower. Public intimidation and frequently executions enforced social order, political discipline, and fiscal compliance. In the more ethnically divided eastern districts, Tamil forces had more limited sway in heavily Tamil areas and conducted guerrilla attacks from jungle bases.

While staging attacks against the Sri Lankan security forces and Sinhalese civilians and “disciplining” Tamil politicians and civilians, the armed Tamil groups simultaneously competed with each other to become the “sole legitimate representative” of the Tamil people—to use the 1970s euphemism for one-party dictatorship. The LTTE was most aggressive and successful. Soon after the 1983 riots, the LTTE was at work killing leaders of newly formed Tamil militant groups and forcibly absorbing their cadres. In 1986, the LTTE launched assaults on TELO and then on the EPRLF. Fighting between Tamil militant groups produced casualties comparable to those occurring in the fighting with government security forces—not to mention the much larger numbers of Tamil civilians killed in day-to-day “disciplining” efforts. (Through 1997, the LTTE alone is estimated to have killed about 1,500 members and supporters of other Tamil militant groups, whereas about 2,500 Tamils were killed fighting with government security forces. Another 40,000 or 50,000 Tamils died violently during this period. It is unknown how many of these were actual or alleged criminals killed by Tamil militants and how many were political killings of various stripes (Senaratne 1997, 75, 85).) By 1987, the LTTE was clearly the dominant militant group. Regionally, the LTTE controlled the northern Tamil heartlands, particularly the Jaffna peninsula, while the other armed groups were stronger in the east. This corresponded to intra-Tamil regional differences, with the Tamils of the homogeneous north more supportive of secession at all costs, and the Tamils of the ethnically divided east more open to some kind of federal compromise. None of the armed Tamil groups had much success in forcibly integrating either the Indian Tamils of the central highlands or the Muslims of the eastern provinces into the secessionist enterprise (Senaratne 1997, 73-87).

In April 1987, the LTTE killed more than 200 Sinhalese civilians in two bloody attacks. The next month, the Sri Lankan government—which had built up a larger military since the early 1980s—launched an all-out conventional offensive to regain lost territory. Under the threat of Indian military intervention, the Sri Lankan government was forced to end the offensive and accept a settlement dictated by the Indian government of Rajiv Gandhi—the Indo-Lankan Accord of July 29, 1987. This combined a cease-fire with a federal solution enforced by a 3,000-strong Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF). Sri Lankan security forces withdrew to their bases. The Tamil paramilitaries were to turn over their weapons to the IPKF, which occupied the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The Northern and Eastern Provinces were to be merged, with a later referendum in the Eastern Province to determine whether the merger would be permanent. Provincial Councils were to be created to allow a high degree of provincial autonomy, above all in the newly created, Tamil-dominated Northeast Province. In addition to policing this agreement, India undertook to respect the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and to prevent the Tamil paramilitaries from using Indian territory. With the exception of the LTTE, the Tamil paramilitary groups accepted the agreement and cooperated with the IPKF. The LTTE was forced to accept only because the Indian government, for a time, held LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran under house arrest. The LTTE then made only a token show of turning over its weapons to the Indians (Senaratne 1997, 88-91).

As a deceptive calm descended on the north and east, the rest of Sri Lanka exploded. Mainstream Sinhalese opinion was shocked and outraged at India’s forced intervention. Antigovernment demonstrations convulsed the cities. The Marxist-nationalist JVP, functioning underground since 1983, saw an opportunity to take power on the surge of aggrieved Sinhalese nationalism. Instead of attacking the police and armed forces as in 1971, the JVP tried to paralyze the civil administration and the economy by attacking UNP leaders, government personnel, and the country’s transportation, communication, and utilities infrastructure, and by intimidating the civilian population into supporting strikes in key economic sectors. When the UNP sought to relegitimize itself by holding presidential and parliamentary elections in 1988-1989, the JVP attacked the opposition parties and intimidated voters. The JVP’s all-out assault was reciprocated by government security forces, armed UNP elements, and later armed groups from opposition political parties. Civilians were caught in a storm of violence, much of its indiscriminate, which subsided only with the killing or capture of most of the JVP leadership at the end of 1989. Between 40,000 and 60,000 Sinhalese were killed during the JVP insurrection of 1987-1989 (Senaratne 1997, 103-44). This figure is roughly comparable to the total number of casualties in intra-Tamil conflicts. By comparison, the number of casualties directly due to Sinhalese-Tamil fighting is much smaller.

In the north and east, tensions between the LTTE and IPKF were immediately evident. LTTE supporters inflamed relations with the IPKF, and the Indians armed other Tamil paramilitaries as a counterweight to the LTTE. By October 1987, a new round of LTTE attacks on Sinhalese civilians in the north and east forced the IPKF into the Sri Lankan government’s counterinsurgency role. The IPKF had to use heavy weapons to secure Jaffna. Under the burden of policing the entire north and east, the Indian troop contingent ballooned to around 100,000. The LTTE was driven into the jungles and, in the Jaffna region, the villages and safehouses, but maintained guerrilla operations and imposed a heavy toll on the IPKF.

Other Tamil armed groups—the ENDLF, the EPRLF, and TELO—assumed the leadership of the newly consolidated Northeast Province. They were armed, trained, and pressed into policing and counterinsurgency roles alongside the IPKF. Yet two important factors prevented these groups from gaining enough legitimacy to marginalize the LTTE. First, the IPKF and its allied Tamil paramilitaries, like the Sri Lankan armed forces before them, alienated much of the Tamil populace with heavy-handed methods and poor discipline. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the LTTE frequently designed its operations to elicit maximum collateral damage to Tamil civilian life and property. Second, the ENDLF, the EPRLF, and TELO were widely perceived as corrupt instruments of Indian policy and hence as unreliable representatives of Sri Lankan Tamil interests.

The LTTE’s final trump card was the JVP rebellion, which was a far greater threat to the Sri Lankan government. After elections were held in 1988-1989, the main grievance sustaining Sinhalese support for the JVP was the humiliating and apparently ineffective IPKF presence. In April 1989, the Sri Lankan government’s appeal for negotiations was rejected by the JVP and accepted by the LTTE. The LTTE duly agreed to a cease-fire and negotiations, giving Sri Lankan President Premadasa an excuse to demand the withdrawal of the IPKF. In March 1990, the IPKF withdrew, having suffered more than 1,000 killed and 3,000 wounded. The LTTE immediately decimated the IPKF’s armed Tamil proxies, in the process capturing the weapons stores left by the IPKF. In short, the LTTE emerged from the Indian intervention as a battle-tested, well-supplied organization, lacking any serious Tamil political rivals (IISS 1990, 176-78; Senaratne 1997, 92-101).

After finishing these intra-Tamil mopping-up operations, the LTTE dropped the pretense of negotiations and relaunched the war against the Sri Lankan government. After intense fighting, the Sri Lankan army was able to regain control over the east and much of the north, but the LTTE controlled the Jaffna peninsula. There, a sophisticated LTTE administration developed, enforcing order through a rudimentary police, judicial, penal, and tax system. The LTTE also maintained a significant but less hegemonic presence in the east, where it faced a more difficult environment—large Sinhalese and Muslim populations, a more effective Sri Lankan government and armed forces presence, and residual Tamil paramilitary rivals. From 1990-1994, heavy but indecisive fighting between government forces and the LTTE continued. Many Tamil civilians were killed, which helped to maintain local Tamil support for the LTTE. Meanwhile, the LTTE maintained a barrage of assassinations and terror attacks on Sinhalese civilians. LTTE suicide attacks killed President Premadasa in May 1993 and UNP presidential candidate G. Dissanayake in October 1994, along with dozens of other notables and bystanders.

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, daughter of S.W.R.D. and S.R.D. Bandaranaike, was elected president in 1994. Seeking a political solution, she offered greater devolution of power. Kumaratunga agreed to lift the blockade of the LTTE-controlled north amid a cease-fire and negotiations with the LTTE. She struggled to develop a plan to devolve power and then to push it through the parliament. At the same time, she built up the army’s capabilities while trying to improve discipline. The LTTE, after initially declaring that it might accept a “substantive alternative” to independence, showed little interest in an autonomy deal. After using the brief lull to increase its strength and try to extract unilateral military concessions from the government, the LTTE returned to war in April 1995, with the sinking of two Sri Lankan naval vessels.

The Sri Lankan armed forces went on the offensive, taking control of the main contested cities of the north and east, including Jaffna. Rather than risk its strength in a frontal battle with government forces, the LTTE withdrew to the jungles to prosecute a low-intensity war. The LTTE was able to shoot down a number of military transports, sink a number of navy ships, and strike the oil storage facility at Colombo’s airport. In January 1996, a little over a month after Jaffna fell to government forces, the LTTE exploded a huge bomb outside the central bank building in Colombo, killing close to 100 people and injuring more than 1,000. Similar attacks followed, including a truck-bomb attack on Sri Lanka’s most sacred Buddhist temple, in Kandy. In January 1998, government-sponsored elections sought to return local government to Tamils. The LTTE responded by assassinating the newly-elected TULF mayor, S. Yogeswaran, along with other Tamil municipal officials. In December 1999, in an LTTE attack on a campaign rally that killed twenty-six, President Kumaratunga herself lost an eye (Economist, October 22, 1994, 41; Economist, February 7, 1998, 41; IISS 1996, 207-208).

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan army had become overextended. By 1998, the LTTE was able to fight the Sri Lankan army to a standstill in large-unit engagements. In 1999-2000, the LTTE retook much of the Jaffna peninsula, although not Jaffna city. A military stalemate ensued. The LTTE continued its bloody campaign of suicide assassinations, killing both Sinhalese and moderate Tamil politicians. President Kumaratunga sought to press ahead with her autonomy plan, in which extensive powers would be devolved to the provinces. The Northern and Eastern Provinces would be consolidated pending a later referendum in the ethnically heterogeneous Eastern Province. Parliamentary resistance led to political stalemate. The LTTE conditioned negotiations on a withdrawal of government forces. In July 2001, thirteen LTTE fighters struck the country’s main airport, destroying eight military planes and about half the jets of the national civilian air carrier, Air Lanka.

With President Kumaratunga now turning against concessions to the LTTE, the December 2001 parliamentary elections were won by the opposition UNP. In February 2002, Norwegian-brokered talks were opened amid a cease-fire and an end to the economic blockade of LTTE-held regions. The new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was willing to give the LTTE a dominant political role in a regional autonomy compromise that would preserve Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity. The LTTE agreed in principle to accept some kind of devolution of power to an interim administration in the north and east but refused to rule out independence.

The cease-fire left the LTTE as the de facto government in the areas it controlled, including most of the Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts in the North. The LTTE didn’t agree to disarm but only to stop smuggling in additional military supplies to its forces. The Sri Lankan government agreed to disarm non-LTTE paramilitaries that it had hitherto supported while allowing LTTE political cadres to function openly in areas of the north and east controlled by the Sri Lankan armed forces. Both parties are obligated to cease all violations of civil liberties, including forced conscription, extortion, intimidation, and other “control” measures routinely used by the LTTE. From May 2002, both Wickremesinghe and Kumaratunga explicitly refused to allow a de facto LTTE-run state to be created as long as core issues of Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity and the powers, structure, and governance practices of autonomous provincial institutions remained unsettled.

Nevertheless, the LTTE has taken advantage of the agreement precisely to consolidate its exclusive control over a de facto statelet. The LTTE continued to assassinate its political enemies, both Tamil and non-Tamil, while the Sri Lankan state withdrew its support from anti-LTTE Tamil groups. During the cease-fire, LTTE troop and supporter strength has risen rapidly—largely through forcible induction of teenagers. Peace and the end of the blockade also increased tax revenues in LTTE-controlled regions, compensating for eroding foreign revenue sources. In April 2003, following two clashes at sea that showed the LTTE resupplying its forces in contravention of the cease-fire agreement, the LTTE withdrew from talks with the Sri Lankan government—although it did not return to war. (As of June 2005, the Nordic-run Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission [SLMM] reported 3,006 LTTE violations of the agreement, as against 132 by the Sri Lankan government. The LTTE violations also have been much more severe, reflecting a policy of violently subjugating the civilian population of the north and east. Last, the SLMM numbers are significant underestimates, leaving out incidents that are unverified—including almost all of the many assassinations and killings carried out by the LTTE.)

The LTTE’s immediate pretext for suspending talks was the government’s refusal to withdraw the army from positions that guaranteed continued control of Jaffna city. In October 2003, however, it became clear that negotiations broke down over the powers and governance of the projected autonomous Northeast Province. As a condition for resuming peace talks, the LTTE demanded that an Interim Self-Governing Authority be created in the north and east prior to final status talks. This would give the LTTE control over local security forces and external finance and trade and thus over a functionally independent state administration. On the other hand, the Sri Lankan government is willing to offer substantial self-government but wants transparent, democratic governance that doesn’t threaten its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In November 2003, President Kumaratunga declared a state of emergency and suspended the UNP-controlled parliament, arguing that Wick-remesinghe’s cease-fire concessions were allowing the LTTE to set up a de facto state. Fresh parliamentary elections in April 2004 were narrowly won by Kumarantanga’s SFLP-JVP alliance, which is far more skeptical that a negotiated settlement with the LTTE can lead to anything but the break-up of Sri Lanka. Through some combination of genuine support and crushing intimidation, the LTTE-backed Tamil National Alliance (TNA)—a coalition of Tamil parties that agreed to recognize the LTTE’s vanguard role in representing the Tamils—swept most of the seats in heavily Tamil districts of the north and east. This departs from the LTTE’s traditional strategy of violently opposing Tamil participation in elections. At the same time, the LTTE struggled to crush a rebellion by its eastern command, led by Colonel Karuna. The tsunami of December 26, 2004, took more than 30,000 lives in Sri Lanka and devastated large parts of the east coast. In 2006, more frequent and intense LTTE attacks and Sri Lankan army responses appeared to shatter the fragile peace efforts (Economist, November 8, 2003, 41, March 27, 2004, 43, February 26, 2005, 40; Ganguly 2004 ; IISS 2003, 279-84; SIPRI 2004, 107-108).

To summarize, the war started as a secessionist conflict, with elements of the Sri Lankan Tamil population taking up arms in pursuit of an independent state in the north and east. The war is commonly viewed as starting with the intensified Tamil paramilitary activity that followed the anti-Tamil riots of July 1983. However, armed, active Tamil paramilitaries began forming on a small scale from 1972. The scale and intensity of fighting grew gradually through the mid- to late 1970s and early 1980s before intensifying qualitatively from 1983. The most significant international intervention was that of India, initially in allowing Tamil armed groups to set up safe havens in cooperation with Tamil Nadu authorities in the late 1970s, then in actively arming and training the Tamil groups from the early 1980s, and finally in the abortive effort to use the IPKF to impose an autonomy settlement in 1987-1990. The modern Sinhalese-Tamil conflict echoes, in both popular and elite historical memories, the precolonial centuries of rivalry between the Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms.

The Insurgents

Beginning in the early 1970s, a number of Tamil paramilitary organizations initiated an armed struggle against the Sri Lankan state. Over time, the LTTE took an exclusive, dominating position. By the early 1980s, the LTTE had emerged as the most formidable Tamil paramilitary group. By the time Indian forces were forcibly introduced in 1987, the LTTE had become the dominant paramilitary group. In 1987-1990, Indian efforts to enforce a compromise settlement, by building up more moderate and dependent Tamil militant organizations, were defeated by the LTTE; and after the IPKF withdrew in 1990, the LTTE virtually exterminated its Tamil rivals, becoming the only significant military force engaged in armed struggle against the Sri Lankan state. The LTTE has always carried on a dual struggle, fighting rival Tamil moderates and extremists as well as the Sri Lankan state. Its struggle against rival Tamils has been highly successful. This effort continues just as much to deny the Tamils an alternative representative as to deny the Sri Lankan government an alternative negotiating partner.

In the early and mid-1970s, the Sri Lankan military was small and poorly armed. This made it possible for the Tigers and other nascent Tamil paramilitaries to rely on local stocks of guns and ammunition and on supplies taken from Sri Lankan security forces. Beginning in the late 1970s, funds and arms were procured in India’s Tamil Nadu province and smuggled across the Palk Strait. From 1983, Indian intelligence agencies provided extensive funding, training, and weapons supplies to Tamil militant organizations, including the LTTE.

In the early 1980s, the LTTE and other Tamil paramilitaries sought to diversify their sources of external support. They reinforced local ties in Tamil Nadu separate from those controlled by the Indian state. They developed fund-raising networks among the well-off Tamil communities of Western Europe, North America, and Australia. They also became involved in the drug trade. All of these sources, particularly the Tamil communities of the West, have proven more reliable than the Indian state. Thus, from the early 1980s, Tamil paramilitaries had access to heavier and more sophisticated weaponry as well as better communications equipment and supplies. This includes the famous cyanide capsules, which LTTE fighters carry with them in case they are captured and subject to interrogation.

Sources: CIA 2005 ; IISS 1985-1990; SIPRI 2004, 107; UNHCR 2004.
War: Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other Tamil paramilitaries vs. government
Dates: Starting on small scale in 1972, intensifying from July 1983; ongoing, but at much reduced level since February 2002 cease-fire; intensifying again in 2006
Casualties: Approximately 120,000, including 50,000 killed in intra-Sinhalese violence and tens of thousands more in intra-Tamil violence
Regime type prior to war: Democracy
Regime type during war: Democracy
Regime type after war: War ongoing; still democracy
GDP per capita year war began: US $305 in 1982 (1982 dollars)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $347 in 1987 (1982 dollars)
Insurgents: LTTE; before 1990, other Tamil paramilitaries
Issue: Ethnic conflict over creation of independent Tamil state in Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka
Rebel funding: Rebels aided by Indian government and Tamil communities in India and the West, in varying degrees over time; also self-financed through drug smuggling, kidnapping, and extortion rackets.
Role of geography: Rebels hid in jungles.
Role of resources: None
Immediate outcome: Escalating internal ethnic conflict
Outcome after 5 years: Indian intervention, which intensified rather than ended conflict
Role of UN: None
Role of regional organization: None
Refugees: As of 2003, 386,000 internally displaced, 122,000 refugees
Prospects for peace: Unfavorable without more effective military and political actions against LTTE, or LTTE leadership change
Table 1: Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-Tamil Ethnic Conflict

From the mid-1990s and again after September 11, 2001, the Sri Lankan government has had some success in getting the United States and other governments to crack down on the Tamil diaspora fund-raising infrastructure. These efforts have been helped by the LTTE’s growing reputation for ideological extremism, operational ferocity, and terrorism. Even for Tamils in Sri Lanka and abroad, the LTTE’s negative characteristics have increasingly overshadowed those of the Sri Lankan state. However, the LTTE continues to wipe out, marginalize, or absorb alternative Tamil political leaders and organizations. As long as Prabhakaran remains in control, it is also difficult to imagine Tamil political alternatives emerging from within the LTTE.

The LTTE has always used low-intensity warfare: guerrilla attacks on police and military units; political assassinations of Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim leaders; extortion and intimidation of Tamil “host” populations; terror attacks on Sinhalese and Muslim populations; and ethnic cleansing of Sinhalese and Muslim populations in the north and east. Since the mid-1980s, it has acquired the capability to mount conventional operations using large units, heavier weapons, and sophisticated tactics. Since the departure of the IPKF, its capabilities have increased, its conventional operations have become more daring and successful, its ethnic cleansing efforts have become systematic, and its low-intensity attacks have become deadlier and more sensational.

The jungles of the north and east have provided good cover for guerrilla activity. This has been especially important during periods when the LTTE has been driven from Jaffna and other Tamil cities and towns, first by the IPKF and, from 1995, by the Sri Lankan military. During these periods, the LTTE preserved its organization and cadres against a superior enemy while sustaining guerrilla and terror operations. Later, the LTTE used jungle terrain to advantage in conventional operations. In 1999-2000, the LTTE was able to cut off and overrun an overextended enemy. This allowed the LTTE to retake much of the Jaffna peninsula.

Signature LTTE low-intensity tactics include suicide assassinations of major political leaders (e.g., Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sri Lankan President Premadasa, and also the attempted assassination of President Kumaratunga); large-scale terrorist attacks (e.g., the April 1987 attacks in Colombo and Trincomalee, which killed more than 200, and the January 1996 bombing of the central bank, which killed 100 and wounded more than 1,000); and destructive attacks on high-value infrastructure and military targets (e.g., oil storage and refining facilities, military and civilian jets, military and civilian ships). The LTTE has been adept at using huge homemade land mines to destroy passing military and civilian vehicles. (The LTTE absorbed these and other methods—both directly and by example—from Palestinian terrorist groups and Hezbollah. Over time, its skill in their use has become second to none.)

The LTTE also has well-known organizational and strategic habits. Although its ferocity is legendary, it is reputed to be honest rather than corrupt. This has made the LTTE more acceptable to the Tamil population, even though the LTTE has violently suppressed all political alternatives. The LTTE has basically enserfed the Tamil population in the areas it controls, mostly in the north. It uses a combination of indoctrination and force to extract manpower and resources while exterminating any political or military rivals. Where its control is contested by the Sri Lankan armed forces and by Sinhalese and Muslim communities—as in most of the east— it does its best to impose a similar control in Tamil-populated areas and to expand those areas by terrorizing and “cleansing” Sinhalese and Muslims.

In its struggle against the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE has always been willing to agree to cease-fires and, where possible, has used them to obtain substantive concessions. Yet it has never renounced the objective of independence in all of the Northern and Eastern Provinces and has always backed out of previous agreements when the balance of power shifted in its favor. There is little reason to believe that the present cease-fire will hold once the LTTE feels it can achieve more by returning to open warfare (Singer 1996, 1149-50).

The tactics of the Sri Lankan state and armed forces have often played into the hands of the LTTE. During the prewar and early wartime periods, and above all in 1983, the Sri Lankan government, police, and military did not act decisively to protect Tamil civilians during riots. In some important cases, paramilitary, police, and military forces actually fomented and participated in riots. Police and military forces often responded to guerrilla attacks by targeting Tamil bystanders. Organized counterinsurgency and conventional offensives have often caused significant unnecessary civilian casualties. The extent of the “dirty war” against Tamils can also be gauged from what Sri Lankan security forces were willing to do to their fellow Sinhalese during the second JVP insurrection. Only from the mid-1980s did increased resources and training begin to build up more capable and disciplined armed forces. Improved conventional performance is evident from the mid-1990s, although the LTTE was able to regain the conventional initiative as recently as 1999-2000. Given that Sri Lanka is an island, and that India withdrew support from 1987, it is remarkable that the LTTE has been able to maintain the financial and logistical base necessary to sustain its extensive and sophisticated capabilities.

Causes of the War

The potential for Sinhalese-Tamil conflict was rooted in ethnic differences and settlement patterns, along with collective aspirations, grievances, and inequalities deriving from the precolonial and colonial periods. The ethnic division is defined by religious and linguistic differences. The division is historically associated with different precolonial political and sociocultural histories, including centuries of elite-level conflict and rivalry. The colonial period, particularly the late period of British rule, can be said to have “modernized” the ethnic division, that is, to have increased social integration and interdependence to the point where the ethnic division became more strongly felt at the mass level. Eventually, waning colonialism added democracy and ethnic politics to the intensified interdependence and more strongly felt inequality. Political tensions—between Sinhalese asserting their majority status and Tamils defending their minority rights—were inevitable. Settlement patterns gave the ethnic division a territorial dimension. With Tamils an overwhelming majority on the Jaffna peninsula and in some other regions of the north and east, Tamil pursuit of minority rights had the potential to seek territorial self-determination, as opposed to integration on the basis of equality. The centuries-long history of separate Tamil kingdoms in the north and east provided obvious precedents.

As shown by the long period of peace following independence, large-scale violent conflict was far from a foregone conclusion. Two factors are primarily responsible for igniting the war. First, the intrusive, sometimes aggressive policies and weak capacities of the Sri Lankan state were responsible for a cumulative assault on the economic and physical security of the Tamils. At least from 1956, and arguably as early as 1948, the Sinhalese electorate and leadership, in an effort to assert majority rights and to rectify ethnic inequalities, imposed significant economic and status losses on the Tamil minority. Tamils did not see any clear, enforceable limits to this slow-motion marginalization process. Tamil civilian leaders abetted the trend by insisting on far-reaching autonomy goals and territorial claims. Most importantly, the Sinhalese-dominated police and security forces were undisciplined, and the Sinhalese political leadership often lacked the will to stop anti-Tamil riots. In some cases, most importantly in 1983, government elements were complicit in starting the riots.

Second, the Indian intervention turned what might have been a smaller, shorter bout of ethnic violence into a more intense, interminable conflict. In the late 1970s, Indian governments allowed Tamil Nadu to be turned into a safe haven for political organization, fund-raising, training, and arms smuggling—with the active involvement of the Tamil Nadu authorities. Then, from 1983, Indian intelligence directly trained and supplied the Tamil paramilitaries. This process transformed small, poorly armed and trained bands into large, sophisticated paramilitary organizations. During this formative period of relative military vulnerability, Indian safe haven put the “vital organs” of the Tamil paramilitaries beyond the reach of the Sri Lankan security forces. The India-based infrastructure made it possible to capitalize on the effects of the 1983 riots, raising the insurgency to qualitatively new levels of intensity.

The Indian intervention is related to the broader issue of the expected balance of power. Suppose both sides perceive that one side has clear military superiority. Then, responsible leaderships should find it easier to make a deal that recognizes the prerogatives of the strong and the residual rights of the weak, while avoiding the potentially high costs of violent conflict. (This argument holds only when both sides possess leaderships that are accountable to their constituents or at least concerned with their well-being. Thus, a leadership concerned primarily with its own power and seeing competitive or diversionary gain in conflict, or one whose ideological extremism makes it unconcerned with the costs of achieving its goals, may calculate that an adverse balance of power is not a sufficient reason to avoid war. At least until the late 1970s, it can be argued that both the Sinhalese and the Tamil leaderships were concerned with minimizing the costs imposed on their respective ethnic constituencies.) On the other hand, if the balance of power is less clear, it will be easier for both sides to perceive a significant probability of military victory and a low probability of catastrophic defeat, and hence more difficult for both sides to make significant compromises. This should increase the probability of war. In retrospect, a high level of uncertainty seems to have existed prior to the 1987 introduction of the IPKF. Sinhalese formed the overwhelming majority, but Tamils counted on receiving aid from India or at least from the 50 million Tamils of South India. Each side could thus perceive that it had a good chance of insisting on its “minimum” conditions at a time when giving in to the other side seemed to promise unacceptable losses of rights and security. If the leaderships then in control could have seen into the far more catastrophic future, it seems likely that they would have chosen to avoid war by compromising on the outstanding political and economic issues. Indeed, the autonomy arrangements, which Sri Lankan governments have sought to implement unilaterally since the 1990s, roughly coincide with what mainstream Tamil parties demanded through the 1960s.

To summarize, ethnic division and settlement patterns and related expectations and grievances created the potential for territorially based ethnic conflict. This potential was ignited by the reckless policies and weak capacities of Sinhalese-dominated governments. Sinhalese recklessness and Tamil resistance were stimulated by an unclear balance of power. Last, a limited conflict was transformed into a full-blown war when India provided passive safe haven and then active support to the nascent Tamil insurgency.


The onset of war does not explain why war persists for a long time. It is very unusual for wars to last as long as the one in Sri Lanka. Typically, wars end either when one side wins a clear victory or when the war is fought to a clear stalemate. At such points, both sides tend to decide that they do not stand to gain by continuing the war. This leads to a formal or informal peace, which reflects the power balance revealed by the war and the associated changes in conditions. What has made Sri Lanka different? The short answer is the LTTE. The LTTE has dominated the Sri Lankan Tamils since the IPKF’s withdrawal in 1990. Due to some combination of thirst for exclusive power and ideological extremism, the LTTE under Prabhakaran seems willing and able to continue the war indefinitely. These preferences and capacities, when put into the context of Sri Lanka’s ethnic settlement patterns, make it virtually impossible for any Sri Lankan government to make concessions that might satisfy the LTTE.

From its beginnings, the LTTE has fought a two-front war, fighting the Sri Lankan government while trying to monopolize the Tamil political space. Since the withdrawal of the IPKF in 1990, the LTTE has succeeded in crushing or intimidating both moderate and extremist Tamil rivals. Without moderate and robust Tamil political alternatives, there can be no peace without the LTTE’s agreement. At the same time, the LTTE’s organizational and military capabilities—including the crucial international fund-raising and procurement that the Sri Lankan state has been unable to disrupt—have made it possible to sustain the war through thick and thin. The LTTE military strategy and tactics are as follows. When the enemy seems to be gaining a conventional military advantage or seems willing to make valuable concessions—as with the Sri Lankan state and the IPKF from 1989 to 1990 and the Sri Lankan state from 1994 to 1995 and since 2001—the LTTE agrees to cease-fires and negotiations. During these lulls, the LTTE rearms and resupplies, continues its war against Tamil rivals, refuses to drop its core independence goals, and demands unilateral concessions from the Sri Lankan government. Then, when the balance of power appears to have moved sufficiently in its favor, the LTTE restarts the war, as in 1990 and 1995. The LTTE has thus been willing to continue the war indefinitely, despite both horrific costs for the Tamil population and credible and attractive compromise options. This shows that its leadership is possessed by some combination of ideological extremism and personal power seeking.

In retrospect, what role was played by India’s intervention? From the late 1970s, Tamil Nadu and Indian governments provided safe havens. From the early 1980s, India provided significant aid to Tamil paramilitaries. As the Sri Lankan government in turn sought military aid from the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Pakistan, and China, Indian support for the Tamil paramilitaries increased. Initial Indian strategy was driven by internal politics in Tamil Nadu and then also by the center’s hostility to any foreign involvement in the region. From the early 1980s, India pressured the Sri Lankan government to negotiate a federal solution. At the same time, India built up Tamil paramilitaries to maintain pressure on the Sri Lankan government, while seeking control over the paramilitaries. The April 1987 LTTE attacks intensified the war, leading to direct intervention. As part of the 1987 Indo-Lankan Accords, Indian forces were sent to Sri Lanka to enforce the autonomy agreement. There, until the withdrawal of Indian forces in 1990, they continued to support Tamil paramilitary rivals of the LTTE. However, Indian forces were not even able to defeat the LTTE directly, much less through the feebler efforts of their Tamil proxies. Overall, India’s involvement solidified the domination of the very radicals that India sought to marginalize. This perpetuated the conflict and made it more likely that it would lead to an independent Tamil state—the outcome that Indian strategists most fear. It is hard to think of a more vivid example of how the principal-agent problem, combined with myopia and miscalculation, can produce self-defeating outcomes.

Why didn’t the LTTE more quickly restart the war after 2001, given that there seemed little chance for a negotiated peace? The LTTE perceived the local and especially the international environments as threatening. Since the mid-1990s, Sri Lankan governments have made greater efforts to cultivate moderate Tamil political alternatives and to implement local and provincial autonomy. Particularly since 9/11, greater international efforts have been made to cut off LTTE financing and procurement. International assistance also promises to improve the capabilities of the Sri Lankan military. Under these conditions, the LTTE leadership appeared to have calculated that it was wiser to freeze the conflict with the Sri Lankan state, while focusing its energies on denying internal political alternatives to the Sri Lankan Tamils and reducing its dependence on more vulnerable elements of its international support network. This explains the LTTE’s unprecedented effort to corral rather than destroy the Tamil political parties—unified in the Tamil National Alliance—in recent elections. It adapted the LTTE to the more controlled contours of the cease-fire-era battlefield, where rhetoric and institutional position can more usefully supplement guns as mechanisms of intra-Tamil control. Such efforts helped to relieve pressure and regain legitimacy on the international diplomatic front. As of late 2006, however, renewed LTTE attacks have been reigniting full-scale war.

Why haven’t successive Sri Lankan governments been willing to go beyond various autonomy formulas to grant independence? Fundamentally, all sovereign states are loathe to cede territory. In Sri Lanka’s case, there are important reinforcing factors. First, the LTTE and other Tamil political organizations have demanded the Eastern as well as the Northern Province, even though Sri Lankan Tamils have not constituted a clear majority of the Eastern Province’s population in recent times. Given that the Muslim population of the Eastern Province (32.5 percent in 1981; probably about the same currently) fears for its future under Tamil rule, it supports continued affiliation with the Sri Lankan state. If the Sinhalese (25.1 percent in 1981; probably about the same currently) and Muslims are taken together, then a majority or at least a large minority opposes secession of the Eastern Province. More detail is helpful here. The Tamil population is concentrated in the central Batticaloa district of the Eastern Province. Muslims and Sinhalese together constitute large majorities in Trincomalee district to the north and Amparai district to the south. Government-sponsored irrigation projects significantly increased the Sinhalese share of the Eastern Province’s population since independence (Manogaran 1987). However, this does not establish a presumptive Tamil historical claim to the entire province. The Tamil presence in the region is more recent than that of the Sinhalese and has been limited to the coastal areas near Batticaloa and Trincomalee. Second, the Muslims of the coastal areas have in recent times always been comparable in numbers to the Tamils. Last, the Sinhalese have always retained a presence in the interior and in some coastal areas of the East. It is not clear that irrigation-driven settlement of lightly populated interior regions, in which the country’s dominant ethnic group has traditionally resided and is proportionately represented, constitutes a seizure of land that is inherently Tamil (De Silva 1995, 75-95). Thus, Sri Lankan governments have always insisted on an Eastern Province referendum, to determine whether the Eastern Province will remain joined to the Northern, or will function as a distinct administrative entity.

Second, Sinhalese elites and masses do not trust that Sri Lankan Tamils will be content even with the entire north and east. They fear that, once a Tamil state is consolidated in the North and East, pressure will shift to the Indian Tamil-populated central highlands, and that such aspirations will sooner or later receive support from the Tamils of South India. Third, the Indian state doesn’t support an independent Tamil state. Such a state will tend to create secessionist pressure in the Tamil-populated regions of South India. Without support from the regional hegemon, India, no Tamil state is likely to develop—at least not unless the Sri Lankan armed forces are utterly defeated. Finally, there is the nature of the LTTE itself. Rather than compromise its power and goals, the LTTE has been willing to plunge the Sri Lankan Tamils into an endless nightmare, which over time has far exceeded the violence, discrimination, and hardships of the pre-1983 period. The LTTE has implacably murdered those—among Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, and its own cadres—that appear to stand in its way. How can such an organization be trusted to follow through on any compromise commitments, or even to rest content with a state encompassing both the Northern and Eastern Provinces?

Two incidents are particularly telling. Prabhakaran chose to fight the IPKF, and later, after the IPKF had withdrawn, assassinated Rajiv Gandhi. Fighting the IPKF meant giving up the most credible possible autonomy compromise to fight an enemy much more formidable than the Sri Lankan military. Later, the killing of the iconic Indian leader could easily have provoked another war with the regional hegemon—which from 1987 to 1990 came closer to wiping out the LTTE than the Sri Lankan state ever did. Nevertheless, Prabhakaran calculated that the policies were acceptable means of protecting his power and maximalist independence goals.

These considerations explain the recent stalemate: The Sri Lankan state is determined to go ahead with autonomy with or without the LTTE; the LTTE, at least until international conditions became less threatening, stalled on the Sinhalese-Tamil front and focused on the intra-Tamil front. What will happen in the future? Basically, there are three scenarios. The status quo might persist more or less indefinitely, with the LTTE calculating that a quasi-state in the areas it controls is preferable to a return to all-out war. Second, the LTTE may have calculated that power has shifted sufficiently to reward a return to war. Last, a moderate Tamil alternative might arise, either from outside or inside the LTTE, and this may promise a more successful movement toward autonomy. However, as long as Prabhakaran leads the LTTE, the last option is extremely unlikely to develop or to last. If such a compromise option appears to be developing, Prabhakaran can be expected to relaunch the war against the Sri Lankan state and the Sinhalese, in order to remarginalize Tamil moderates and provide cover for intra-Tamil extermination efforts. In 2006, Prabhakaran seems to have abandoned the façade of deadlocked negotiations and returned to war.


Relatively clear policy recommendations follow for the Sri Lankan state and the regional and international great powers. An autonomy solution must be implemented, along with efforts to develop and protect moderate Tamil alternatives to the LTTE. At the same time, international controls to limit LTTE access to funding and supplies, along with continued improvement of the Sri Lankan armed forces’ discipline and fighting capacity, are most likely to deter the LTTE. The emergence of Tamil political alternatives along with a credible autonomy option will force the LTTE to choose between peace and political normalization or a return to more intense war against both the Sinhalese state and Tamil rivals. Judging by its previous behavior, the LTTE will almost certainly choose war. Even then, the ground will have been prepared to fight the LTTE under more advantageous conditions, that is, with both a more efficient Sri Lankan military and serious Tamil political alternatives. It is in this context that leadership change, which is likely only with the death of Prabhakaran, becomes most important. True, this alone will not end the war. On the other hand, it seems just as clear that even a stronger Sri Lankan military and legitimate Tamil political alternatives will not make an autonomy solution stick as long as Prabhakaran controls the LTTE. Once all or part of the LTTE is controlled by leaders willing to compromise for the sake of those it supposedly represents, there will be an internal Tamil mechanism to enforce a compromise settlement (Ganguly 2004, 915-16; IISS 2003, 280-84).

Given the underlying ethnic cleavage and settlement patterns, the war seems likely to end in one of two ways. One is an LTTE military victory, delivering a Tamil state in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The other is an autonomy settlement, depending on the Sri Lankan state’s enduring military superiority combined with moderating “regime change” among the Tamils—either moderating leadership change within the LTTE, or the rise of effective moderate Tamil challengers to the LTTE. To support an autonomy settlement, the Sinhalese parties will also have to maintain greater political consensus, and the state better administrative and security capacities, than in the past. The Tamils need leaders who care more about the costs of war and less about personal power and ideological glory. And the Sinhalese-dominated state needs to be powerful enough to impose high costs in a continued war for independence while offering a palatable and credible autonomy alternative.