Recent history of violence in Sri Lanka
There is a long history of tension in Sri Lanka between
the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community (74%) living mainly in the South,
West and Centre of the island, and the Hindu Tamils in the North and East.
round of the chronic ethnic conflict began in 1983.
The Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of July 1987 was intended as a
step towards the establishment of provincial Tamil autonomy in the North and
It provided for the presence of an Indian Peace Keeping
Force (IPKF). It failed to restore peace because the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam (LTTE/Tamil Tigers) quickly repudiated it. But a North-East
Provincial Council was set up following elections in November 1988. The LTTE
boycotted the elections and control of the Council was won by the pro-Indian
Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). However events have
ensured that the Council has never had any effective power.
Hoping to recover public sympathy, on 1 June 1989
President Premadasa publicly demanded the removal of the IPKF. Following
acrimonious negotiations with India an agreement was signed in Colombo in
September and IPKF withdrawal was completed by March 1990.
From shortly after
their arrival in July 1987 until their final departure in March 1990, the
IPKF were repeatedly accused of human rights violations including
extra-judicial killings. Indian Ministers gave assurances in the Indian
Parliament that all allegations of misconduct were investigated, and action
taken against anybody found guilty.
As the IPKF withdrew, the LTTE moved in. The Tigers
quickly crushed the Indian sponsored groups known as the Tamil National Army
(TNA). Large numbers of TNA members were killed by the LTTE. Other prominent
rivals and critics of the LTTE were also assassinated, including the
leadership of the EPRLF.
Meanwhile in the South and centre of the island, the JVP
(Sinhalese People's Liberation Front) successfully exploited discontent
among the majority Sinhalese at the continuing presence of the IPKF. From
late 1988 the JVP mounted an increasing campaign of terror and intimidation.
Premadasa tried to lure the JVP back into orthodox political activity, or
failing that to secure all-party-backing for the fight against them, by
convening an All-Party Conference. The political initiative failed, but he
was more successful on the internal security front.
In the second half of 1989 a brutal but effective
counter-terrorist campaign was orchestrated by the then Deputy Defence
Minister (Ranjan Wijeratne) involving indiscriminate reprisals by security
forces and the hired gunmen of UNP politicians. The killing of its political
and military leaders (Rohana Wijeweera and Upatissa Gamanayake) in November
and December 1989 dealt the JVP a very serious blow: its power and influence
was much eroded and it is no longer an active threat. But the human rights
price of this achievement was appalling. Many thousands of people are
believed to have been killed. Since the defeat of the JVP there have been
fewer reports of abuses in the Centre and South, but excesses by the
security forces have not been eliminated. Some human rights activists have
been killed; others have disappeared.
As events in the South and Centre were brought under
control there was a short-lived period of relative peace before the
situation in the North and East deteriorated sharply. On 11 June 1990 the
LTTE abandoned 13 months of negotiations with the Government and resorted
again to violence.
They claimed their breaking point was insufficient progress towards
fresh elections for a new North-East Provincial Council and no sign of the
repeal of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution (which requires MPs to
swear allegiance to the unitary nature of the state of Sri Lanka). President
Premadasa appears to have believed that he could avert a full-scale
confrontation for a while, which led to a situation in which the LTTE was
attacking police stations across the North and East while the Army was held
back. Several hundred policemen were captured and subsequently killed.
Finally convinced that the LTTE meant war, Premadasa committed the Army in
LTTE control has not been challenged seriously by
Government forces in the Tamil heartlands of the North, particularly the
Jaffna area. In the East, Government control is limited largely to the towns
of Batticaloa and Trincomalee. Between April and June this year the Sri
Lankan army launched a major offensive in Mannar and Vavuniya districts in
the North West, which was generally thought to be aimed at improving the
Government's position in advance of talks. The Government claimed to have
taken significant territory previously held by the LTTE and killed a large
number of LTTE personnel.
On 10 July the LTTE launched a major attack on the Sri
Lankan army's base at Elephant Pass, which controls the main land access
routes between the Jaffna Peninsula and the rest of Sri Lanka. Army
reinforcements were called in, and fierce fighting continued until 3 August
when the Army broke the siege and relieved the base. The military and
political significance of the battle at Elephant Pass has yet to become
fully apparent. The LTTE's failure to overrun the base, and their reportedly
very high casualties in the attempt, will no doubt damage their standing and
morale and encourage the Government. But the cost to the Government of
holding on to the base will be high, and the Army is unlikely to be able to
extend its control significantly over the surrounding area.
Meanwhile, particularly in the East, killings of innocent
people by both the Government and terrorists have been continuing. The LTTE
have launched many attacks on Sinhalese and Muslim villages. Apparently in
reprisal for a landmine attack which killed three soldiers, the Army
massacred up to 160 Tamil villagers in Kokkadicholai, near Batticaloa in
Eastern Sri Lanka, on 13 June. The Government responded to this incident by
immediately expressing regret, setting up an inquiry, suspending the officer
responsible and offering compensation to surviving victims. The inquiry has
yet to report. This is the first time that the government has taken
significant action in response to evidence of excesses by the security
On 2 March the Deputy Minister for Defence, Ranjan
Wijeratne, died in a bomb blast which killed up to 30 others and left 70
injured. The attack has been attributed to the LTTE. Since last June
Wijeratne had been closely supervising the Government's military offensive
against the LTTE. But his death appears to have had little impact on the
Government's policies. The LTTE have also been blamed by the Indian
Government for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi on 21 May.
On 21 June a bomb exploded at the Joint Operations Command
of the Ministry of Defence in Colombo. The Sri Lankan Government estimated
20 dead and 50 injured including military personnel and civilian passers by.
The LTTE is again being held responsible. The Government claims to have
found the leader of the gang responsible, who committed suicide before he
could be arrested.
Although it is widely recognised that neither the
Government nor the LTTE can defeat the other militarily, few steps yet
appear to have been taken to reopen serious negotiations. The Government has
recently softened its preconditions for talks, by dropping an insistence
that the LTTE disarms before discussions begin, and that the LTTE military
leader, Prabhakaran, attends in person from the start. But another
condition, that non-LTTE Tamil groups participate, is still unacceptable to
the LTTE, who appear to be insisting on recognition that they are the sole
representatives of the Tamil people, and that an independent State of Eelam
should be the end product of negotiations.
In autumn 1990 the Australian Government offered to
promote possible Commonwealth mediation between the LTTE and the Government.
We have also said that we would be willing to help mediate, or encourage
others to do so, if this is what the parties want. Neither offer has yet
been taken up.
British and International Response
Having supported the Government's efforts to negotiate a
settlement we made clear our dismay at the LTTE's actions and condemned
their decision to start fighting again. However, we were much concerned by
reports of indiscriminate bombing of the Jaffna peninsula by the Sri Lankan
Air Force (which has since stopped), and by the evidence emerging of human
rights violations by members of the security forces against the Tamil
community (particularly in the East). There has been considerable public and
Parliamentary interest in human rights abuses in all parts of Sri Lanka. Our
High Commissioner in Colombo frequently raised our concerns with President
Premadasa, and Mr Lennox-Boyd, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Foreign
and Commonwealth Affairs, has discussed them with the Sri Lankan High
Commissioner in London.
Western governments have frequently criticised the Sri
Lankan Government's human rights record. The Sri Lankan Government was
jolted by criticism, particularly by major donors, at the 46th Session of
the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) in February/March 1990. Sri Lanka
feared the possibility of a resolution against it, and tried to defuse the
situation by inviting the UNCHR's Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary
Disappearances to visit. A visit is now expected in September 1991.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has had a
delegation at work in Sri Lanka since October 1989 at the Government's
invitation, investigating disappearances, visiting detainees and organising
relief supplies to people affected by the violence in the North and East. We
are urging the Sri Lankan authorities to take all necessary steps to ensure
the welfare and wellbeing of the people displaced as a result of the war,
and to give assistance to the international agencies and NGOs which are
working for their relief.
Joint EC action has taken a number of forms. Sri Lanka was
referred to in a joint statement by the 12 in the February 1990 meeting of
the UNCHR. In a demarche in October 1990 EC Heads of Mission in Colombo
urged the Sri Lankan Government to observe its international obligations in
the field of human rights and stressed that future aid from EC member states
would depend, among other factors, on the Government's performance on human
The same point was made by nearly all delegations from
donor countries, including Britain, at the
Sri Lanka Aid
Consortium Meeting in Paris on 25 October. We announced then that a
pledge of � 3 million British balance of payments aid would be reviewed,
taking account of human rights as well as other factors. At the 47th Session
of the UNCHR in February 1991 we joined our EC Partners in expressing
concern about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.
Partly in response to this lobbying, the Sri Lankan
Government appointed a special task force in November 1990 to investigate
human rights violations, and a Commission of Enquiry in January 1991 to
examine disappearances. We saw the creation of these bodies as steps in the
right direction and encouraged the Sri Lankan Government to do all that it
could to allow them to work effectively. However, little progress has in
fact been made. In July 1991 we decided to withdraw the conditional offer of
� 3 million aid on the grounds that Sri Lanka's human rights performance had
not improved significantly.
Expulsion of British High Commissioner
The Sri Lankan Government declared our High Commissioner
in Colombo, Mr David Gladstone, persona non grata on 27 May on the grounds
that he interfered in local elections on 11 May. The Prime Minister wrote to
President Premadasa on 11 June making clear that we did not consider these
grounds to be valid. It appears that the real motive for Sri Lanka's action
was to try and stifle British and other Western criticism of Sri Lanka's
human rights record. In response we have decided that we will not make any
major new aid commitments until we have a new High Commissioner in post,
when we will review proposals in the light of the human rights situation at
the time. We are also adopting a more restrictive policy on the export of
lethal military equipment to Sri Lanka and have suspended goodwill and high
level visits. We aim to appoint a successor to Mr Gladstone as soon as
possible, to ensure that our views continue to be represented effectively in
The fighting has led to the creation of large numbers of
refugees. Some estimates claim 900,000 have had to leave their homes.
The Sri Lankan Government estimate there are some 210,000 Tamil refugees now
in southern India. Since autumn 1990 the UNCHR has been running
open relief centres in Mannar District (in north-west Sri Lanka) with the
full consent of the Sri Lankan Government. The largest centre, at Madhu, was
established in September. It covers approximately one square mile and at
present provides sanctuary to over 30,000 refugees. The camps have proved
very successful, reducing the flow of Sri Lankan refugees to India and other
countries, and helping to ensure that those displaced will return rapidly to
their homes as soon as "the costs of UNCHR and other relief organisations
work in Sri Lanka in 1990/91 financial year. So far this year we have
offered a further � 500,000 in support of the UNCHR effort.