Tamil Rebellion in Sri Lanka 1983-1999

[ 1983 - 1999 ]

Political unrest, however, escalated in the 1980s as groups representing the Tamil minority moved toward organized insurgency. Tamil bases were built up in jungle areas of the northern and eastern parts of the island and increasingly in the southern districts of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where Tamil groups received official and unofficial support. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was the strongest of these, but there were other competing groups, which were sometimes hostile to each other.

The Sri Lankan government responded to the unrest by deploying forces to the north and the east, but the eruption of insurgency inflamed communal passions, and in July 1983 extensive organized anti-Tamil riots took place in Colombo and elsewhere. Sinhalese mobs systematically attacked Tamils and destroyed Tamil property, and the riots created movement of refugees within the island and from Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu.

The Jayawardene government, facing a simultaneous resurgence of Sinhalese militancy of the JVP, became receptive to initiatives by the Indian government. After prolonged negotiations, an accord was signed between India and Sri Lanka on July 29, 1987, that offered the Tamils an autonomous integrated northeast province within a united Sri Lanka and provided for the introduction of an Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) to enforce the terms. The Sri Lankan government, the LTTE, and the IPKF, however, disagreed over the implementation of the accord, and thus the LTTE resumed its offensive, this time against the IPKF, which was trying to disarm it.

In January 1989 Jayawardene retired and was succeeded by Premadasa, who had defeated Bandaranaike in the December 1988 elections. Premadasa negotiated a withdrawal of the IPKF, which was completed in March 1990, and the battle against Tamil insurgency was taken up by the Sri Lankan army. On May 1, 1993, Premadasa was assassinated by a suicide bomber, alleged by the security forces to be linked to the LTTE. The premier, Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, was appointed acting president.


Since the early 1970s, ethnic conflict has pitted Sri Lanka's Tamil minority against the Sinhalese majority over issues of power sharing and local autonomy. The main combatants are the Sri Lankan army and the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Indian involvement, encouraged by pro-Tamil sentiments in its state of Tamil Nadu, which is close to Sri Lanka, and the Indian government's covert aid to and training of Tamil militants between 1977 and 1987, drew India into the conflict. The Indo-Sri Lankan Accord, signed on July 29, 1987, committed New Delhi to deploying a peacekeeping force on the island, making the Indian government the principal guarantor of a solution to the ethnic violence that had heightened dramatically since 1983. Nearly 60,000 Indian troops drawn from two divisions (one from the Central Command and the other from the Southern Command) were in Sri Lanka as the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) between 1987 and 1990.

Originally sent to Sri Lanka as a neutral body with a mission to ensure compliance with the accord, the IPKF increasingly became a partisan force fighting against Tamils. The popularity of Indian forces, which was never high, decreased still further amidst charges of rape and murder of civilians. Despite the considerable experience that Indian troops had gained in fighting insurgencies in India's northeast, the IPKF was at a marked disadvantage in Sri Lanka. In fighting Naga and Mizo guerrillas in northeast India, the army had fought on home ground, and the central government could couple the army's efforts with direct political negotiations. In Sri Lanka, the Indian forces did not possess an adequate local intelligence network. Despite the growth of the IPKF to 70,000 strong, the predominantly urban context of northern Sri Lanka imposed constraints on the use of force. It also is widely believed that Sri Lankan forces offered only grudging cooperation. Given the inability of the IPKF to prevent either Sinhalese or Tamil extremist actions, it steadily lost the support of both sides in the conflict.

As the Sri Lankan presidential elections approached in December 1988, both the contending parties, the ruling United National Party led by then Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, and the three-party United Front led by former Prime Minister Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike, expressed their reservations about the 1987 accord. Premadasa was elected, and after he was inaugurated, he declared an end to the five-and-a-half-year state of emergency and asked India to withdraw the IPKF. In July 1989, the IPKF started a phased withdrawal of its remaining 45,000 troops, a process that took until March 1990 to complete.

During the three-year involvement, some 1,500 Indian troops were killed and more than 4,500 were wounded during this operation. Another casualty resulting from the Sri Lanka mission was the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a Tamil militant in 1991. As a participant in what began as a peacekeeping mission, the Indian armed forces learned some valuable lessons. These included the realization that better coordination is needed between military and political decision makers for such missions. One of the commanders of the IPKF also noted that training, equipment, and command and control needed improvement.

In 1995, at the request of the Sri Lankan government, Indian naval ships and air force surveillance aircraft established a quarantine zone around the LTTE stronghold in the Jaffna area. The supply of military matériel by Indian sympathizers to the Tamil insurgents in Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu, just thirty-five kilometers across the Palk Strait, was an ongoing problem that continued to keep India involved in the conflict.


Political and economic conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities was a problem of growing urgency in the years following independence. In the face of an expanding Sinhalese ethnic nationalism, Tamil groups initially expressed their grievances through legally constituted political channels, participating in parliamentary debate through the Tamil Congress and the Federal Party. In the early 1970s however, a number of events worked to create a new sense of alienation, especially among Tamil youths, and a new desire to seek redress through extralegal means. In 1970 the Ministry of Education introduced quotas for university admission that effectively reduced the number of places available for Tamil students. As a result, a contingent of young, educated Tamils was cut off from the traditional path to advancement and set loose on an economy illprepared to accommodate them.

Tamil interests received another blow in 1971 when the Constituent Assembly met to draft a new constitution. Federal Party delegates to the assembly proposed that the new republic be designed along federal lines to insure a large degree of autonomy for Tamil areas. In addition, the Tamils hoped to remove the special status that had been granted to the Sinhala language and Buddhism. The Constituent Assembly not only rejected both of these proposals, but even denied the minimal protection to minorities that had been guaranteed under the Soulbury Constitution of 1946. The Tamil delegates responded by walking out of the assembly.

The neglect of Tamil interests in the Constituent Assembly and the enactment of the new constitution in 1972 marked a turning point in Tamil political participation. The older generation of Tamil leaders had been discredited: their activity in the political process had accomplished little, and the Marxist JVP insurrection of 1971 had set a new model for political activism. Two new groups emerged as an expression of the growing alienation and frustration in the Tamil community. The first, the Tamil United Front, was a coalition of Tamil interest groups and legal parties united by an urgent call for Tamil autonomy. The group espoused nonviolent means to achieve its goals--demonstrations, strikes, and roadblocks--and yet it offered tacit support to other, more confrontational tactics. The second of the new groups, the Tamil New Tigers (TNT), abandoned the political process altogether and geared itself for violence. The TNT was founded in 1972 by Velupillai Prabhakaran, an eighteen-year-old school dropout who was the son of a minor government official. Both the name and the emblem of the new group included the tiger, the traditional symbol of the ancient Tamil kingdoms and one that clearly opposed the lion symbol of Sinhalese nationalism. Despite this obvious ethnic affiliation, the TNT publicly espoused a Marxist ideology and claimed to represent the oppressed of all ethnic groups.

In July 1975, the TNT gained wide public attention with the assassination of the Tamil mayor of Jaffna, who had ordered the police to open fire on a Tamil rights demonstration outside city hall. Except for this act of violence, the activities of the TNT in this period are largely undocumented, and little evidence exists of widespread public support for its violent methods. Moreover, the prospects for a political solution had improved by 1976; the general elections scheduled for 1977 offered hope that the fiercely pro-Sinhalese Bandaranaike government could be ousted and replaced by the more moderate United National Party. At the local level, the Tamil United Liberation Front, a political party, spawned by the Tamil United Front, launched a major campaign for a separate state in Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern provinces.

The victory of the United National Party and the emergence of the Tamil United Liberation Front as the leader of the parliamentary opposition seemed to give substance to those political hopes. With the enactment of a new constitution, however, it became clear that no major party could turn its back on Sinhalese nationalism. In the Constitution of 1978, as in the previous one, Sinhala remained the sole official language, Buddhism retained "the foremost place" under law, and federal autonomy was denied the Tamil areas. The political disillusionment that emerged in the early 1970s increased after the 1977 elections and gained added impetus after the anti-Tamil riots of 1981 and 1983. A progressive radicalization of the Tamil population led to a growth in the size and level of activity of militant groups, and the insurgency emerged as a growing threat to the power of the government...

After the assassination of Jaffna's mayor in 1975, the militant groups accelerated their campaign of violence and destabilization. Their early targets included policemen, soldiers, and a number of Tamil politicians who were seen as collaborators with the Sinhalese-dominated government. The attacks were sporadic, relying largely on hit-and-run tactics.

In July 1983, the LTTE ambushed a military convoy in Northern Province, killing thirteen soldiers. The attack sparked off a conflagration of communal violence in which approximately 350 Tamils were killed and as many as 100,000 were forced to flee their homes. Indiscriminate violence by Sinhalese mobs and members of the security forces led to insecurity and alienation among the Tamil population, and support for the insurgency grew dramatically. The year 1984 was marked by a substantial increase in terrorist attacks, and the militants turned increasingly against civilian targets. Major incidents included an armed attack against civilians in the ancient Sinhalese city of Anuradhapura (May 1985--146 dead); the detonation of a bomb aboard an Air Lanka jet at the Bandaranaike International Airport (May 1986--20 dead); and a massive explosion at the Pettah bus station in Colombo during rush hour (April 1987--110 dead).

As the Tamil movement grew and obtained more weapons, it changed tactics. A full-fledged insurgency that could confront the armed forces replaced the isolated terrorist incidents that had characterized the early period. By early 1986, the LTTE had won virtual control of the Jaffna Peninsula, confining the army to military bases and taking over the day-to-day administration of the city of Jaffna. In January 1987, the Tigers attempted to formalize their authority over the peninsula by establishing an "Eelam Secretariat." LTTE leaders claimed that this was intended simply to consolidate functions that the insurgents were already performing, i.e., collecting taxes and operating basic public services. Nonetheless, the government interpreted this move as a unilateral declaration of independence and thus a challenge to governmental authority.

In response, the government launched a major offensive against Jaffna in May and June 1987. The security forces succeeded in destroying major insurgent bases and regaining control of most of the peninsula, but at the cost of growing political pressure from India. Reports of army brutality and high civilian casualties among the Tamil population made the offensive increasingly unacceptable to the Indian government, which had its own substantial Tamil minority to worry about. In early June, Indian Air Force planes invaded Sri Lankan airspace to drop relief supplies into embattled Tamil areas, sending a message to the Sri Lankan government that the offensive would not be allowed to continue. Within a week, the Sri Lankan government announced the successful completion of its campaign.

On July 29, 1987, President Jayewardene signed an accord with India designed to bring an end to the more than ten years of violence between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil minority. The accord provided for the disarming of militant groups under the supervision of the Indian Peacekeeping Force and the granting of limited autonomy to the primarily Tamil regions in Northern and Eastern provinces. The terms of the accord provoked immediate criticism from a number of directions. For Sinhalese nationalists, including several high-level officials in Jayewardene's government, the agreement was a threat to the unitary nature of Sri Lanka, virtually sanctioning a separate Tamil nation within the island. Tamil militants questioned the basic validity of the accord; although prime participants in the conflict, they had not been included in the negotiations leading to the accord, and their later accession had been secured under extreme pressure from the Indian government. For the wider community of Tamils and Sinhalese, the presence of Indian troops, even in a peacekeeping role, represented an unacceptable compromise of sovereignty.

These criticisms became increasingly acute when, in October 1987, the Tamil militants and the Indian-Sri Lankan forces accused each other of violating the accord, and the fighting resumed. Indian forces were expanded from an initial 3,000 troops to more than 70,000, and the Indian Peacekeeping Force launched a major assault that succeeded in taking Jaffna in late October. Most of the insurgents managed to escape and, according to press reports, regrouped in Mannar in Northern Province and in Batticaloa and other areas of Eastern Province. Weakened and cut off from their original bases and sources of supply, the Tigers were no longer able to conduct positional warfare against the security forces, but they claimed that they would continue their struggle through terrorist attacks.

The intervention of Indian forces in the north allowed the Sri Lankan Army to concentrate on another crisis that was developing in the south; Sinhalese nationalist opposition to the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord had turned violent, breaking out in strikes and street demonstrations. In the midst of this disorder, an old Sinhalese extremist organization was gaining in support and threatened to launch its second bid for power.

<table class='table table-bordered col-lg-12 col-md-12 col-sm-12 col-xs-12 margin20 row-30' border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="100%" style="font-family: 'Times New Roman'; background-color: rgb(255, 255, 255);"><tbody><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">State</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Entry</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Exit</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Combat Forces</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Population</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Losses</font></td></tr><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Sinhalese</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1983</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1987</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">37600</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">14400000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">3000</font></td></tr><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Tamils</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1983</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1987</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">10000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1800000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">2000</font></td></tr></tbody></table>

Total Casualties 5000 Killed and Wounded
Casualties Killed 5000 / Wounded
Military Casualties Killed 5000 /Wounded
Civilian Casualties Killed / Wounded
Belligerents Initiation Date Termination Date
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and Sri Lanka 1983 1987 View
Weapon Name Weapon Class Weapon Class Type
Tank Type 63 Vehicle Armoured Fighting Vehicle
T-72 Vehicle Armoured Fighting Vehicle
Alvis Saracen Vehicle Infantry Combat Vehicle
Ordnance QF 25-pounder Vehicle Towed Artillery
Type 60 122 mm Field Gun Vehicle Towed Artillery
RM-70 multiple rocket launcher Vehicle Self-Propelled artillery
Uzi submachine gun Manportable Machine Guns
Type 81 assault rifle Manportable Rifles
Ultimax 100 Manportable Machine Guns
Type 69 RPG Manportable Rocket Launcher