On Tuesday 19 May 2009, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse gave the news that the country has waited twenty-six long years to hear: the long running civil war with the Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE) was over. The end came, not through negotiations, but by victory for the Sri Lankan military. Even Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the LTTE’s chief of international relations, admitted ‘This battle has reached its bitter end.’ Despite some ‘never-say-die’ rhetoric from some quarters, it appears that Asia’s longest running insurgency has come to a close. This should be good news for everyone. Sri Lanka deserves peace!
But the end of war has come at a terrible price. Over 70,000 people have been killed and 265,000 displaced since 1983. The final assault saw so many casualties that some in Europe are talking about ‘war crimes’ investigation.
What was the fighting about? After independence in 1948, the rise of Sinhala nationalism caused the alienation of certain minorities, including the Tamils. The most hard-line of Tamil nationalist group was the LTTE, which wanted nothing less than an independent homeland in the north and east of the island, called ‘Eelam.’
While there was tension during the 1970s, the war started in earnest in 1983 when the LTTE ambushed an army patrol, with 13 soldiers massacred. The Sinhalese backlash resulted in massive anti-Tamil riots and the deaths of 2,000 Tamils. 10,000s fled their homes.
Throughout the rest of the 1980s and 1990s, the widespread violence continued, including disappearances and massacres on both sides. A cease-fire negotiated by Norway in February 2002 resulted in peace negotiations. Talks faltered, violence flared up again in 2006. The next year the Sri Lankan government regained the Eastern Province. By January 2008, the Sri Lankan government formally withdrew from the cease fire and the final assault began.
Tiger Power: One reason the war lasted so long was due to the amazing strength of the LTTE. Led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE became a disciplined, focused, and formidable fighting force. According to the highly-respected Courcy Intelligence Review (CIR) of August 2006:
Put simply, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are the world’s best terrorists. This is true of the group’s organization, its ability to project force, the sophistication of its propaganda, its record fighting conventional forces, its range of military hardware, its success in assassinating political opponents, and, most significantly, its innovation.
The LTTE had accomplishments that other militant/terrorist groups could only dream of. Just two years before the end of the war, they controlled one third of the country, with their own army, navy, and embryonic air force. In addition, the LTTE ran a de facto autonomous Tamil state in the north and east, complete with border control, civil service, courts, customs, police force, tax system, and law school.
It was the LTTE who pioneered modern suicide bombing, with deadly attacks on famous figures like former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. They have been able to close down the Colombo International Airport and also had success against conventional military forces. The LTTE caused the withdrawal of Indian peace keeping forces in the early 1990s and they overran the highly armed Sri Lankan army base of 17,000 at Elephant Pass in 2000.
This successful LTTE resistance also bode ill for the larger world. The LTTE had an ‘inspirational’ effect on other terrorist groups, where they shared methodologies or even gun-running. They inspired other militants to adopt suicide bombing but also to develop social and relief networks, which makes their violent side look less noxious. If the war continued, so would LTTE ‘innovation’ and these could be shared with other insurgents. The CIR predicted: ‘…a defeat for the LTTE would slow the evolution of terrorism worldwide, a fact that many have been slow to recognize.’
Prabhakaran was known for his single-minded focus. The word ‘compromise’ was not in his vocabulary. He would fight to the death for an independent, recognized Eelam. Loyalty to the cause was to be absolute and discipline maintained at all costs. His ruthlessness was legendary. An unmarried LTTE couple who got pregnant was summarily executed. The same happened to rival Tamil leaders and groups. Prabhakaran’s first target was the mayor of the northern city of Jaffna, whom he assassinated in 1975 when he was only 21 years old.
He was considered a master strategist. With success, however, there came the excesses and miscalculations: the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi caused him to lose support by the large Tamil community in India. His uncompromising stance during the negotiations showed the government that it could not make peace with him. He caused the Tamils to boycott the 2005 election, which resulted in the election of Rajapakse, who chose to go for military victory instead of political compromise.
History in Miniature: Sri Lanka has a long and proud history. The Sinhalese people, allegedly from Northern Indian, settled in what is now known as Sri Lanka in the 6th Century B.C. Buddhism, the main religion of the country, arrived around the 3rd Century B.C. Two great civilizations emerged afterwards. The first was based at Anuradhapura (200 BC to 1000 AD) and the second at Polonnaruwa (AD 1100-1200). Around the 14th Century the Tamil population was settled in the north of the country by rulers from South India.
As the ‘pearl of the Indian Ocean’ and the near neighbor of regional power India, in proximity to vital shipping lanes, Sri Lanka inevitably attracted the attention of the major empires. The ‘heart of the pearl’ was the city on Trincomalee on the east coast, with an outstanding natural port. The Portuguese came in the 16th Century but were replaced in the 17th Century by the Dutch (their descendants are called ‘burghers’). The British, who coveted India, had their eyes on Sri Lanka as well, which was known by the name ‘Ceylon’. They gained control in 1796, declared it a crown colony in 1802, and then united the country in 1815. Ceylon gained its independence from Britain as a parliamentary democracy on 4 February 1948 and changed its name to ‘Sri Lanka’ in 1972.
In addition to the horrific civil war, Sri Lanka suffered another blow on Boxing Day 2004. A powerful tsunami off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, caused the death of 250,000, including 30,000 from Sri Lanka, all within a matter of hours. Another 440,000 people were displaced, 6,000 missing, and 1.5 billion dollars of damage. Reconstruction continues to this day.
Sri Lanka has 21 million people, of which 74% are Sinhalese, 7% are Muslims, and Tamils 7%. Buddhism is the main religion of the country with 69% of the population belonging to it. Hindus claim 7% and Muslims 7.5% of all Sri Lankans. In the midst of this ethnic cocktail, the Christian church stands at 6%. Despite persecution from without and sectarianism within, the church in Sri Lanka is here to stay—and growing.
In times gone by, Sri Lanka’s strategic value was found in Trincomalee. Today, its strategic significance has been transferred to its people. Gracious, hospitable, and armed with ‘the world’s best smiles.’ Sri Lankans are making their mark in their homeland and in the thriving Sri Lankan diaspora, with over 700,000 serving in the Middle East alone. The UK, Canada (Toronto), and Australia, also have strong Sri Lankan communities. They are also very well connected.
Despite the civil war, corruption, the tsunami, and religious tension, there is an unmistakable joy found in Sri Lankan believers that defies logic; it simply comes from the grace of God. They are more hungry for the things of God than in the comfortable western world and exceedingly grateful for the preaching of the Word.
Hope for the future? In his victory address to Parliament, President Rajapakse spoke partly in Tamil and promised a power-sharing deal with the Tamils. This is good. Statesmanship of the highest order will be required to help integrate Tamils into the greater Sri Lankan polity while addressing their legitimate grievances.
More than that, the Christian minority in Sri Lanka can play an invaluable role. Many are educated and influential, with extensive connections overseas. It is not uncommon to see Sinhala and Tamils worshipping the Lord side-by-side. Some even inter-marry. There are challenges: sporadic persecution from some Buddhist groups as well as sectarian divisions within; western Christian ‘fads’ are proving a temptation even to village churches.
America’s experience of re-uniting the country after the horrendous Civil War of 1861-1865 was a long, hard road. But it does not have to be that way for Sri Lanka. With the end of the civil war, local and expatriate Sri Lankans, as well as the greater world, have an opportunity to show the power of forgiveness and reconciliation through the gospel. For pointers on these priceless assets, look at the New Testament ‘postcard’ epistle called Philemon, where enemy becomes friend and brother. When this comes to Sri Lanka and the world, then we really will have ‘peace that lasts!’