New efforts to resolve Sri Lankan conflict
Ethnicity, inequality, and the legacy of a colonial past are the main causes of the bitter and long-running conflict between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority on the island of Sri Lanka. A final resolution of this will not be easy, but now, the introduction of Norwegian diplomats to try to broker a deal has at least offered some hope of an end to the conflict.
The Sinhalese make up 74% of the Sri Lankan population and are concentrated in the more densely populated southwest. Ceylon Tamils, whose South Indian ancestors have lived on the island for centuries, form around 12% of the population and live in the north and the east. Tamils brought in as labourers from India by the British make up a further 6% of the population. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have fought a war against the Sinhalese majority for an independent homeland. Sri Lanka's government is dominated by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, who oppose any attempt to divide the island or give the Tamil areas greater autonomy.
This month, in a fresh initiative Norwegian government officials have travelled to Sri Lanka in a bid to open negotiations between the government and the rebel army. Norway, which played an essential role in brokering a deal between Palestine and Israel, sent its Deputy Foreign Minister, Raymond Johansen, to hold talks with Sri Lanka's opposition leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. The first meetings took place on Monday 22 May against the background of a military offensive launched by the Sinhalese government against the Tamil rebels in the northern Jaffna Peninsula, an area mainly controlled by the 7,000-strong guerrilla organisation and where the rebels have been making spectacular gains in recent months.
The Sri Lankan government says the Tamils are not interested in a peaceful resolution to the conflict. LTTE distrust, however, stems from many years of broken promises.
From the Tamil point of view, British colonisation created the roots of the conflict.
Britain imposed a common administrative system on the island in 1833, choosing to ignore the existence of three different kingdoms. This forced union was the cause of the first confrontations between the two ethnic groups.
Later, Britain's tried and trusted colonial policy of divide and rule sowed the seeds of renewed tensions as the British administration offered the Tamil minority the best positions in the civil service.
Ceylon gained independence on February 1948. Sinhalese politicians sought to redress the balance with populist but discriminatory policies against Tamils. In the same year, the Parliament, dominated by the majority Sinhalese, enacted the Citizenship Act. Under this new legislation, those Tamils brought from India during British administration to work in the tea and rubber plantations lost their citizenship rights, including the right to vote.
In 1956, SWRD Bandaranaike, an extreme Sinhalese nationalist and prime minister of the country, declared Sinhala as the only official language. To calm resulting tensions in the Tamil areas, different agreements were signed between the Sinhalese government and the Federal Party, which represented at the time the self-determination aspirations of the Tamil population. These documents included government recognition of the Tamils' different culture and traditions and allowed for some degree of autonomy. None of these principles were respected.
In May 1972, a new constitution was adopted. The Tamils felt it curtailed their rights as a people even more. By the mid 1970s, Tamils were calling for a separate state in the north and east of the country.
In elections in July 1977, the separatist Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) won all 18 seats in Tamil areas on a mandate for the creation of an independent socialist state. Meanwhile, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began a military campaign against the government. An estimated 60,000 people have since been killed.
Currently, 3,000 Sri Lankan troops are trapped in the northern city of Jaffna, surrounded by Tamil Tiger troops. It is this strength of the Tamils that has led Sri Lankan president Chandrika Kumaratunga to initiate negotiations with the Tamils, although at the same time she has called on India for military help. Sri Lankan officials have also contacted Pakistan, India's enemy, and Israel, seeking military assistance.