Eight Questions That Explain Sri Lankas Civil War

By the editors

1. What was Sri Lanka’s war?

The Sri Lankan Civil War was fought from July 1983 to May 2009, between the country’s military and mainly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (there were numerous other armed groups fighting for both sides), which fought to create an independent Tamil state called Tamil Eelam in the North and the East of the island.

2. Did civilians die in the war? If so, how many?

Yes they did. Between December 2008 and May 2009, an estimated 40,000 died. This is starkly different from what the LTTE’s rump and some parts of the Tamil diaspora says (which is 300,000), and again massively different from what the government’s version is (less than 5,000).

3. Did the LTTE kill civilians? Did the Sri Lankan forces kill civilians?

Yes both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan forces did. Through massacres of entire villages and suicide bombings across the capital, the LTTE killed civilians. Then during the last phases, they used civilians as human shields, and they also shot whoever tried to escape their grip. The Sri Lankan army shot at the LTTE during the final phases of the war, knowing very well that they LTTE were using civilians as human shields. The Air Force carpet bombed areas without the proper intelligence to support their plans, and the army knowingly shelled hospitals and other humanitarian structures where they assumed LTTE were hiding – again without the proper intelligence.

4. Who is responsible?

Both the LTTE’s top leadership (the now-dead Velupillai Prabhakaran) and the Government’s top leadership (incluing, inter alia, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, former Army Commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka, Ministry to the Secretary of Defence Col. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa).

5. But was is genocide?

No. Whilst those who were killed during the final phases of the war were almost exclusively Tamil, it was not an attempt at genocide (which has a strict definition: the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group).

6. Is there a need for a war crimes probe?

Yes, for two reasons. First, those who are responsible for the deaths of civilians should be brought to justice, because they went ahead knowing very well that non-combatants were being killed. Second, and the more important one, is that many men, women and children in the North have people termed “missing”. The “missing” are either those who have been abducted by government or para-military groups, or those who were killed during the war who are now buried in mass graves in some areas in the North. If you’ve lost someone, a grave – a place to mourn that loss – is a necessity. That’s how you heal wounds, not by ignoring and lying about it.

7. Will there be a war crimes probe?

Unlikely, but possible. Sri Lanka is backed by China due to strategic interests, and China has a veto at the Security Council. Plus if a war crimes tribunal is to be set up five years after, that would be unprecedentedly “swift,” because international justice works really slowly. Plus, it’s quite expensive.

8. What’s the role that the United States is playing?

The US has tabled a resolution at the Human Rights Council, calling for the Office of the High Commissioner to investigate alleged violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka.

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