Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Can the use of political violence ever be justified?

Essay, 2020

18 Pages, Grade: 80%



"Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime."1 Words written by Ernest Hemingway depicting the vile nature of war, while strengthening the narrative that war is groundless. Much like Hemingway, many others also share the same view on the atrocious aspects of war itself. Warfare has been witnessed in all parts of the world for centuries. Through the study of history, we are aware of the evolution of methods of warfare. International humanitarian law has helped guide nations to "legitimately" conduct acts of war against others. The toughest pill to swallow though, however obvious, is that one aspect of war will always be inevitable - the casualties. This consequently results in the majority view that war is good for nothing. Then the vital question that must be addressed is that if the effects of violence constitutes more harm than good, why is it an available option for nations to resort to? Furthermore, why does the law of war differ for state and non-state actors? In this essay I would like to examine the conditional nature of war within the international sphere by paying close attention to the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009) as an example to portray the disparities of armed conflict between state and non-state actors, and how the view of such acts are deemed differently through the use of the "Just War" theory.

To begin, we must understand the evolution of the art of war, so to speak. Although the conduct of war was essentially deemed illegal besides the prescribed exceptions governed by The Hague and Geneva Conventions, the enforceability was severely lacking. Additionally, the doctrine of "just war" enabled nations to adequately justify conducting war. Saint Augustine, the principal advocator of this theory set out the principles concerning the morality of going to war (jus ad bellum) and the moral conduct within the acts of war (jus in bello). The criteria never restrict nations to enter into armed conflicts but prescribes a set of conditions that need to be met in order to constitute legal warfare. The combination of lack of enforceability of war crimes and the scope of justification of warfare is what led to two horrifying World Wars, amongst other civil wars. Granted, events such as the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials set the precedent of what constitutes as war crimes and how individuals who were part of such acts were prosecuted. Several bilateral and multilateral treaties later, the general consensus of the international community was to maintain world peace. Since then it has been unusual to see the sovereign nations conduct war against one another. The international community began to pay more attention to methods of criminal prosecution as opposed to further examining the reasons why armed conflicts may arise. The "victors" of the major wars are mainly the West, who now condemn any further acts of armed conflicts. The criteria that would allow nations to opt for warfare has now become more stern, consequently leading to more severe consequences.

The fact that the narrative of war reflects its atrocious nature, the international community is usually of the opinion that any non-state actor that initiates warfare against its own nation is considered to be an enemy. The non-state organisation known as Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that resorted to political violence against the Sinhalese Sri Lankan government to fight against ethnic oppression is a clear example of such a statement. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, 32 countries have listed the LTTE as a terrorist organisation for their actions.2 The idea of this essay is to firstly highlight the inequalities that the minority ethnic group in Sri Lanka, the Tamils, were facing since independence. Secondly, venture into how armed conflict was the only viable option for the LTTE and how the “just war” theory could justify their actions. Moreover, I would like to argue that contesting warfare for purposes of regaining self-determination from oppressors is extremely tenuous. This applies mainly to developing nations that are more susceptible to ethnic oppression from a majoritarian view. This essay will end by discussing how inadequate and ineffective attention from the international community would dilute the urgency of diminishing ethnic oppression.

Historical Context:

Sri Lanka consists of two major ethnic groups, the majority being Sinhalese Buddhists and the minority being Tamil Hindus. The Sinhalese, making up 70-75% of the population, are mainly seen in the South and central regions of Sri Lanka. The Tamils on the other hand, are found mainly in the Northern and Eastern parts of the country. They make up roughly 15% of the entire population. Besides the obvious religious difference, another vital distinction is the language, which plays an enormous role in the shaping of a democratic and secular nation. Historically speaking, the North of Sri Lanka has been dominated by the initial Jaffna Kingdom, ruled by Tamils. Whereas the South was ruled by the Kandy Kingdom, being Sinhalese. It is key to acknowledge the fact that Sri Lanka has always consisted of the two major ethnicities and have coexisted prior to the European colonial rule. In order fully comprehend the origins of ethnic conflict between and Tamils and Sinhalese, a brief explanation of policies that were implemented during the British colonial times will be given.3

Much like every nation that the British colonised, there was an obvious presence of communal representation. Their goal was to secure stable policies that would essentially divide the major ethnicities. Different representative seats were given to Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims on legislative and executive councils of the British rule. An important element to highlight is that the Tamils were well represented in the civil service department during the colonial times, for both higher and lower posts. The Tamils have been highly educated since early 19th Century because several educational platforms were created by the Tamils in the Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka. Evidently, the educated Tamils surpassed and dominated the majority ethnicity during the British rule. Needless to say, the combination of creating an agenda that supports communalism and the fact that a minority ethnicity was being better represented struck a chord with the majority Sinhalese. By promoting communal representation, the ethnicities that were once able to coexist peacefully, were then under the impression that one ethnicity would cast the "other" as the enemy. Fast forward to the Sri Lankan independence in 1948 where a parliamentary democracy with a majoritarian rule was adopted.4 While this works quite seamlessly in Western countries, it does not have the same effect on Asian ones. The diversity of ethnicities and religions within an Asian country does not coincide with the principles of a majoritarian rule. Evidently, it brings in further distress and complications within a democratic society. The adoption of such a rule meant that the Sinhalese were now the better represented and the Tamils could never gain majority within this system. The first step for the Sinhala parties was to bridge the difference in education and jobs by implementing new policies favouring the Sinhalese.

The policies were such that Sinhalese were more now abler to receive better education and jobs than the Tamils.

The quickest way for the Sinhalese to gain this supremacy was by making Sinhala the only official language of Sri Lanka in 1956.5 This effectively forced Tamils who spoke English proficiently to resign their civil service jobs. Furthermore, another policy concerning college education was implemented in 1970s. The purpose of this was to restrict Tamils from being accepted into colleges because of the highly disproportionate ratio of Tamil students to Tamil population. This further maimed the minority and caused dissatisfaction amongst the Tamil community. During this time, Tamil parties were protesting these laws through the use of "Satyagraha" (peaceful means). Many of these attempts were unfortunately worthless, which is when confrontational politics began. It was in the 1970s where armed groups began to form, and in 1976 the infamous LTTE was created. This was not an abrupt call for action without prior peaceful methods of dismantling the discriminatory policies. The political dissent continued and what the Tamils ultimately wanted was autonomy for the Tamil dominated areas (North and East). The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) had first gained seats in the parliament in 1977 and until 1983, no constitutional changes had been made to protect the interests of the Tamils. Hence, LTTE being secessionists, wanted to secure an independent state for Sri Lankan Tamils and began to resort to political violence, as peaceful means of settlement failed them. The next portion of this essay will proceed to highlight key events of the war.

Events of Conflict:

A pivotal act that convinced the LTTE as well as the entire Tamil community of the utter lack of cultural and ethnic protection from the government was in 1983 when the Jaffna library was burned down by uniformed police and Sinhalese mobs.6 Evidence shows that this was one of the more violent examples of ethnic biblioclasm, further provoking the LTTE to garner more violent means to regain stature. Two years later, on the 23rd of July 1983, LTTE organised an ambush against the Sri Lankan army, killing 12 soldiers. Not a day after this attack, the so called “Black July” anti-Tamil pogrom and riots began in Colombo, which lasted for a week. Within this time, historians have estimated over 2,000 Tamils to have been murdered mainly by the Sinhalese mobs.7 Both of the acts of violence effectively acted as the commencement of the civil war. As stated previously, peaceful means adopted by the Tamil parties were insufficient in garnering equal treatment. This became more prominent when the Sinhalese dominated state began to strengthen its armed forces to retaliate against the LTTE as opposed to negotiate policies that would equitably support both the majority as well as minority ethnicities.

By having to continue enduring state-sponsored oppression and violence, the LTTE began to expand their group and facilitate further political violence. LTTE's agenda was initially to target Sinhalese government officials but post Black July, they also began to target Sinhalese civilians. A majority of the international community was of the impression that the LTTE were involved in senseless acts of terrorism, such as cases of arson, assassinations and suicide bombings. This essentially set the narrative that LTTE was unjustifiably and immorally conducting acts of political violence. This was also due to the 1984 massacres of Kent and Dollar Farm, which took place at night where hundreds of men, women and children were hacked to death by the LTTE. There are differing versions of whom the LTTE targeted during this massacre, whereby Sri Lankan government alleged that this was an attack purely directed at Sinhalese civilians, whereas other political parties attest that it was an ambush against Sinhalese ex-convicts and armed settlers.8 It has always been difficult to determine the true intent behind such vile acts.

Another major event that allowed the LTTE to gain more prominence and allowed it to be the only armed group to fight against the Sri Lankan government was the Anuradhapura massacre in 1985.9 This attack was LTTE's largest ambushes till date, opening fire within the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Buddhist shrine and killing over 140 Sinhalese civilians. A grotesque event that proved the lengths the LTTE and the Tamil community as a whole would go to in order to gain back their peace within their own homeland. However, the Sri Lankan government were alleged to have retaliated by conducting their own massacre against Tamil civilians in 1985 on the Kumudini boat.10 Eyewitnesses claimed that Sri Lankan navy personnel dressed out of uniform had asked 23 Tamil civilians to each pronounce their names, ages and addresses before they were hacked to death.11 1985 was also the year where the Thimpu Peace Talks commenced between the Sri Lankan government and the non-state militant groups. The Tamils essentially put forth four key demands to the Sri Lankan government. LTTE, especially, believed that only these four demands would begin to make significant changes for the solution of Tamil nationalism. The recognition of Tamils of Ceylon as a sovereign nation, recognition of homeland for the Tamils, recognition of the right to self-determination and finally, recognition of the right to citizenship and fundamental rights.12 After several years of direct discrimination and oppression, these demands did not seem to be unreasonable. However, the government rejected the first three demands as they “went against the sovereignty of the nation”.13 This lead to continued insurgency between the two belligerents.


1 Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (Charles Scribner's Sons 1940).

2 Jayshree Bajoria, 'The Sri Lankan Conflict' (Council on Foreign Relations, 2009) <> accessed 7 June 2020.

3 Jayshree Bajoria, 'The Sri Lankan Conflict' (Council on Foreign Relations, 2009) <> accessed 7 June 2020.

4 “Chapter 1 - The People, The State and Sovereignty”. The Official Website of the government of Sri Lanka. Retrieved on 8th June 2020.

5 Deidre McConnell, 'Background To Brutality' 2009 Red Pepper.

6 Rebecca Knuth, Destroying A Symbol: Checkered History of Sri Lanka's Jaffna Public Library (2006) <> accessed 9 June 2020.

7 Frances Harrison, 'Twenty Years On - Riots That Led To War' BBC News (2003) <> accessed 9 June 2020.

8 Human Rights Watch, 'Recurring Nightmare' (2008) <> accessed 9 June 2020.

9 Barry M Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin, Chronologies Of Modern Terrorism (Routledge 2015).

10 Ibid.

11 University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), 'When Will Justice Be Done?' (2008) <> accessed 9 June 2020.

12 Tamil Nation, The Thimpu Talks - The Thimpu Declaration.

13 BBC News, 'Timeline Of The Tamil Conflict' (2000) <> accessed 10 June 2020.

14 Jayshree Bajoria, 'The Sri Lankan Conflict' (Council on Foreign Relations, 2009) <> accessed 7 June 2020.

15 “Ministry of Defense, 'HUMANITARIAN OPERATION FACTUAL ANALYSIS' (2011) <> accessed 10 June 2020.

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Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Can the use of political violence ever be justified?
University of St. Gallen
Politics of Religion in South Asia
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ISBN (Book)
ethnic, conflict, lanka
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Mariam Shakil (Author), 2020, Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Can the use of political violence ever be justified?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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