The Casualties of Sri Lanka’s Intensifying War

Forgotten are the dreams and hopes that Sri Lanka’s civil war could be resolved—nurtured in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami when, for a short few weeks, goodwill and solidarity took center stage.

Since the country drifted back to large-scale violence in 2006, close to 5,800 people—soldiers, Tamil Tiger rebels, and civilians—are estimated to have died. (See Table) That’s 11 times as many people as were killed during 2002-2005, when a ceasefire agreement halted full-fledged warfare (though not assassinations and other sporadic violence). On paper, the ceasefire still exists; on the ground, it no longer restrains either the government or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Year

Deaths

2000

3,791

2001

1,822

2002

15

2003

59

2004

109

2005

330

2006

4,126

2007*

1,658

Data for 2000 are from March to December.

Data for 2007 are up to the end of June.

“No one talks peace while waging war better than Sri Lanka’s government and Tamil rebels,” opined The Economist in late 2006. Its editorials do not mince words in concluding that war suits the leaders of both sides. LTTE head Villupilai Prabhakaran, “autocratic to this fingertips,” is incapable of sharing power. And President Mahinda Rajapakse has put relatives at the helm of government ministries so that “together, the brothers Rajapakse control over 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s budget,” including surging military spending.

For Sri Lanka, a country of about 20 million inhabitants, the conflict and the tsunami have brought massive suffering. (See Chart) From 1983 to 2001, the civil war killed at least 60,000, with another 20,000 missing. Huge numbers of people were driven from their homes. Even though more than 400,000 refugees and internally-displaced persons (IDPs) returned home after the ceasefire, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a roughly equal number are still hoping to come back. But the resumption of conflict again displaced some 300,000 people.

In a new report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) laments that “the resumption of war between the … government and the … LTTE has been accompanied by widespread human rights abuses by both sides.” This includes repression of Tamil dissent, forced recruitment, and provocative attacks by the LTTE, and extra-judicial killings and abductions by the government.

GraphThe political climate for independent journalists, political opponents, and many NGOs has become decidedly chilly in a growing trend toward authoritarianism. Since December 2005, 11 media workers have been killed, but nobody has been apprehended. A fact-finding mission of the International Federation of Journalists concluded that a worsening climate of violence and censorship has made Sri Lanka, especially the northern Jaffna peninsula, one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Ten of the murders occurred in government-controlled areas. But the LTTE has also threatened and intimidated journalists. The government is working furiously to depict the renewed conflict as nothing more than defensive action against terrorists, rejecting calls for international human rights monitors to be deployed in the country.

ICG notes that a tradition of harsh reprisals against those with political grievances has predisposed the government to regard brutal counterinsurgency as the solution to the country’s problems. Two Sinhalese uprisings in the south—one in 1971 that led to an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 deaths, and another in 1987-1990 during which as many as 40,000 people may have been killed—set the tone for the current impunity.

One of the few hopeful elements of the current situation is that Sri Lanka’s Muslims, comprising about 8 percent of the country’s population, have not picked up arms, even though they have had plenty of reasons for doing so. Muslims have been caught in the middle, suffering ethnic cleansing at the hands of the LTTE, but had no meaningful representation during the 2002 ceasefire negotiations. A May 2007 ICG report notes that Muslims—one third of the community lives in the northeastern conflict areas—are again being oppressed by the LTTE and its split-off, the Karuna faction. To the credit of Muslim political leaders (who themselves are divided), they remain committed to political as opposed to violent action. But the ICG warns that “there is no guarantee that this commitment to non-violence will continue.”