Winter 2018

Ending the Sri Lankan Civil War

Sumit Kumar Ganguly
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The Sri Lankan Civil War erupted in 1983 and dragged on until 2009. The origins of the conflict can be traced to Sri Lanka's colonial era and subsequent postcolonial policies that had significantly constrained the social and economic rights of the minority Tamil population. Convinced that political avenues for redressing extant grievances were unlikely to yield any meaningful results, a segment of the Tamil community turned to violence precipitating the civil war. A number of domestic, regional, and international efforts to bring about a peaceful solution to the conflict all proved to be futile. A military strategy, which involved extraordinary brutality on the part of the Sri Lankan armed forces, brought it to a close. However, few policy initiatives have been undertaken in its wake to address the underlying grievances of the Tamil citizenry that had contributed to the outbreak of the civil war in the first place.

SUMIT GANGULY, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2017, is Professor of Political Science and holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of The Oxford Short Introduction to Indian Foreign Policy (2015), Deadly Impasse: Indo-Pakistani Relations at the Dawn of a New Century (2016), and Ascending India and Its State Capacity (with William Thompson, 2017).

The Sri Lankan Civil War vividly demonstrates the potential brutality and tenuousness of efforts to end civil wars.1 In this case, war termination was the result of an outright military victory. But the conditions that made it possible to end the Sri Lankan Civil War may have been unique: a particular constellation of factors, at systemic, regional, and national levels, proved conducive for the pursuit of an unbridled military campaign that ended the war. At a systemic level, the major powers, including the United States and key European nations, had tired of the conflict. The two major regional powers, the People's Republic of China (PRC) and India, for differing reasons, chose to either support the Sri Lankan regime as it embarked on a massive military onslaught against the rebels or to remain aloof from the conflict. Domestically, the regime that had recently assumed power concluded that it had found an opportune moment to unleash the full might of its military against the insurgents. Consequently, it is unlikely that similar conditions will be present in other contexts.

In May 2009, after two and a half decades of sporadic violent conflict, the Sri Lankan Civil War, which arose from the animosity between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil populations, finally drew to a close. The end of this war was especially bloody, with charges of rampant human rights violations on the part of the two principal parties, the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the final military assault that lasted from January to early May 2009, some seven thousand ethnic Tamils were killed.2 But the total number killed in the civil war is a vigorously contested subject. The United Nations puts the death toll between eighty thousand and one hundred thousand. The Sri Lankan government, however, challenges those figures.3 Apart from the death toll, following the termination of hostilities, as many as three hundred thousand Tamils who had fled the war zone were interned in overcrowded camps.4

The origins of the Tamil-Sinhala conflict can be traced back to Sri Lanka's colonial history. During the period of British colonial rule, which extended from 1815 to 1948, the minority Tamil community seized various opportunities for economic advancement. To that end, significant numbers of the community had availed themselves of a colonial education, primarily because they had limited economic opportunities in the regions in which they were located. The dominant Sinhala community, with marked exceptions, however, had distanced themselves from the British. Not surprisingly, when independence came to Sri Lanka in 1948 (largely as a consequence of British colonial withdrawal from India in 1947), Tamils were disproportionately represented in public services, higher education, journalism, and the legal profession.5

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  • 1James D. Fearon, “Civil War & the Current International System,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017).
  • 2Matthew Weaver and Gethin Chamberlain, “Sri Lanka Declares End to the Tamil Tigers,” The Guardian, May 19, 2009.
  • 3See International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, “Crisis in Sri Lanka,”
  • 4Somini Sengupta, “War's End in Sri Lanka: Bloody Family Triumph,” The New York Times, May 19, 2009.
  • 5Stanley J. Tambiah, Sri LankaEthnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).