Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home  >  Tamil Eelam Struggle for FreedomInternational Frame & the Struggle for Tamil Eelam > United Kingdom An Analysis of the Sri Lanka Situation attributed to British sources - August 1991

united kingdom
& the Struggle for Tamil Eelam

An Analysis of the Sri Lanka Situation
attributed to British sources - August 1991

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. The latest 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 East.

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 mid-June.

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 forces.

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 rights.

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 Colombo.


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.



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