On May 19, 2009, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president of Sri Lanka, declared that his country’s decades long civil war was over. Although the fighting had stopped, the suffering still continues.
Sri Lanka’s troubles have their root in centuries past. The country has a mixture of ethnic groups. The majority are Sinhalese, who are Buddhist, while the Hindu Tamils form an important minority. There is controversy as to which group arrived on the island from mainland India first, but it is clear that by the 14th century the Sinhalese were a majority on the island but the Tamils in the north were part of a kingdom ruled on the mainland. The attempts of this Tamil kingdom to increase their territorial influence brought the first hostilities. Not long afterwards the Portuguese arrived, beginning centuries of imperial rule, with the Dutch and British following the Portuguese. The British, as was their practice across the empire, favored the Tamils and gave them certain privileges in exchange for help in subduing the rest of the populations. This policy naturally increased resentment between the two peoples.
After Sri Lanka achieved independence in 1948, the Sinhalese asserted their dominance and took over the government. The Tamils claimed that they were denied a voice in government and society and that their economic and social interests were ignored. The government instituted policies that gave preference to Sinhalese. This was pitched as necessary to help the Sinhalese poor catch up, but it increased Tamil frustrations.
Fighting began in 1983. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam formed as a political and military organization that fought to establish an independent Tamil state. The forces of the state labeled them as terrorists, insurrectionists, and separatists. Both sides used brutal tactics, sometimes even against the people they claimed to represent. A cease-fire was declared in 2002, but the military continued operations until the LTTE leader was killed and the organization was definitively crushed. The International Court of Justice has begun an investigation to see whether either side is guilty of war crimes.
Neither side benefited from the conflict. Tamils were subject to increasing persecution from the state, and were attacked by the LTTE if they were suspected of not supporting them. Hundreds of thousands fled the country, and more are still scraping by in refugee camps within Sri Lanka. They have yet to see any reduction in the institutional discrimination that caused the friction. The Sinhalese as a group may seem to have gotten off more lightly, but they suffered too. They died in terrorist attacks and lost sons in the fighting. More subtly, the political structure of Sri Lanka has been warped by the war. The president has gathered more personal power in the name of security and with the popularity gained from victory. He has begun to put pressure on the media and political opposition. Civil society has become less free too. The preferential treatment of Sinhalese has allowed a few corrupt elites to make out fabulously, but has left the majority still poor and performing below their potential. No one won this civil war.