About Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, a small island nation off the coast of India, has been plagued by ethnic conflict since independence from Great Britain in 1948. The conflict ended brutally in May 2009, with a bloodbath on the beach and the killing of up to 40,000 Tamil civilians, due to the Sri Lankan government’s ruthless military campaign in Tamil areas. There has not been a single investigation or prosecution for these killings.
After decades of discriminatory policies and ethnic pogroms against the Tamils, civil war began in 1983 with state-sponsored attacks against Tamils across the island – now infamously known as Black July – in which over 3,000 Tamil civilians were killed. Tamil homes were bombed, businesses were looted and women were raped, tortured and killed. Confronting this systematic oppression, various Tamil groups resorted to armed struggle, eventually led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE based their struggle on the right to self-determination and sought a separate homeland for Tamils. Human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE were widespread throughout the decades of conflict. The Tamils reside primarily in the Northern and Eastern regions of the island, and this region was besieged by the government’s economic embargoes, heavy militarization, attacks against media, and extra-judicial killings of Tamil activists and members of parliament. The LTTE gained control over much of this territory throughout the 1990s and established a de facto state in the region, with a separate police force and separate judicial, education and healthcare systems.
In addition to the Sri Lankan government’s violent campaigns, the government systematically attempted to destroy the Tamil culture and identity. In 1981, the Jaffna Public Library, a trove of Tamil heritage containing over 97,000 books and manuscripts, was burned to the ground by government-sponsored mobs. Hindu temples and Christian churches, most of which have Tamil congregations, have also been attacked. The Sri Lankan government has for decades deliberately and systematically been working to destroy Tamil life, identity, language and religion. In effect, the Sri Lankan government has been actively perpetrating a cultural genocide against the Tamil people.
In 2004, an Indian Ocean tsunami spread throughout South and Southeast Asia, leaving 40,000 dead in Sri Lanka. The World Bank estimated that 60 percent of the devastation caused by the tsunami in Sri Lanka affected the Northern and Eastern regions. Since much of these areas were under the control of the LTTE, a joint aid mechanism was established between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government to enable international aid to reach the affected population. However, this mechanism was declared unconstitutional by the government and many Tamil tsunami refugees never received assistance. At this stage, between 70,000 and 80,000 civilians had been killed due to the conflict.
On January 2, 2008, the government of Sri Lanka formally withdrew from the ceasefire, causing the nation to plunge into conflict. Aerial bombardments and shelling attacks by the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE's actions caused a massive displacement of about 300,000 civilians and a bloodbath of civilian deaths. In September 2008 the Sri Lankan government ordered all non-governmental organizations to leave the LTTE-controlled territory. Local Tamils desperately pleaded with the United Nations and NGOs not to abandon them during their greatest hour of need, but they withdrew.
From January to May 2009 the government of Sri Lanka continued to advance into LTTE-held territory, alleging the operation was a “humanitarian mission” to save civilians and defeat the LTTE. The government ordered Tamils into increasingly-small “No Fire Zones”, and deliberately bombed these regions and intentionally shelled hospitals. Civilians were executed and women were raped and assaulted, according to civilian and Sri Lankan military witnesses. Witnesses also say that mass graves were created to hide evidence of the Sri Lankan government’s crimes.
The active conflict came to an end when the Sri Lankan government militarily defeated the LTTE on May 19, 2009. Following the end of the conflict, 300,000 internally displaced people were held in highly militarized internment camps where abuses such as rape, disappearances and physical violence was rampant.
The UN Panel determined that Sri Lanka’s domestic commission, the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission does not satisfactorily provide accountability for crimes committed by Sri Lanka’s security forces. Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group, and Amnesty International have criticized the LLRC for attempting to whitewash Sri Lanka’s crimes against Tamils and have called for an international investigation into war crimes.
To learn more about Sri Lanka's history, watch PEARL's video: Island of Tears
UK Channel 4 has released Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, a 50-minute documentary that includes video footage, photographs and witness testimony about war crimes in Sri Lanka.