Huffpost WorldPost
Bennett Ramberg, Ph.D. Headshot

Sri Lanka's Civil War Legacy One Year Later

Posted: Updated:

Civil wars are particularly nasty affairs pitting neighbor again neighbor. Let bygones be bygones would certainly be a better approach. But when ethnic groups, like a a badly matched couple, can't get along, when anger mounts, when violence erupts, divorce is the better course. Whatever the outcome, the results can linger in the fabric of the disputants for decades, but civil war adds a particularly detrimental legacy.

The thousands of civilians reportedly killed in the final months of the Sri Lanka civil war that ended one year ago this month marks the last sad chapter in this thirty year bitter conflict. The carnage naturally raises questions about whether the Tamils and Sinhalese could have resolved their differences peacefully. Given the originating deep seeded religious and cultural divide fed by government and popular discrimination and violence directed against the Tamil minority, it is difficult to see how the parties could have avoided coming to serious blows entirely. However, in the early brewing years, the adversaries did have one proposed option that promised to dramatically reduce the risk, namely partition. The failure to take advantage of the Tamil initiative opened the door for the mayhem that followed. And today, even with the war's end, the absence of partition may yet be the cause of renewed conflict in the future. Other countries involved in civil war would do well to learn from Sri Lanka's evident mistake.

The former British colony of Ceylon attained independence in 1948 with a fractured integration of the dominant Sinhalese and nearly twenty percent minority Tamil community. The Sinhalese believed they could only improve their welfare at the expense of the Tamils. Discriminatory linguistic, government hiring and population resettlement followed. Baiting politicians seeking political gain added to the ferment spawning communal fighting in the 1950s that tracked its way to the present. The 1970s constitution enshrining the position of Sinhala as the language of administration, placing Buddhism in the "foremost place" among religions which the state would "protect and foster" while rejecting any federalism increased communal tensions. The additional denial of merit access of Tamils to universities, the banning of imported Tamil literature from India's kindred community and police assaults directed at Tamils sparked a new Tamil political party, the United Liberal Front, to call for nationhood in the north and eastern regions of the country where Tamils concentrated.

The party's inability to deliver compounded by the government's repeated failure to respond to Tamil grievances and police sponsored pogroms spawned increased Tamil militancy and the beginnings of armed insurrection in 1978 with the most aggressive competing Tamil group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, led by its cultish and rapacious leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, holding sway. During the decades of civil war that followed, some 80,000 Sri Lankans would die. The conflict's longevity reflected the inability of either party to achieve knock out blow - or frame a bargain that would leave both sides better off - leaving both communities willing to absorb the pain of fighting to the end.

Under the circumstances there was little the international community could achieve. India, an early provider of material assistance to Tamil guerrillas, in the 1980s donned the role of peacekeeper intervening with some 50,000 troops with the endorsement of the Sri Lankan government. With little peace to keep, New Delhi's forces suffered some 1100 dead while inflicting some 5000 fatalities on the Sri Lankan population prompting both Tamils and Sinhalese to demand departure. Others, notably Norway, attempted mediation, but ultimately failed as the adversaries would not give up the gun. In time the Tamil tactic of repeated suicide bombing - some 170 incidents including the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi - brought the international opprobrium which 9/11's global response against terrorism accelerated. Increased American and Indian support of the Sri Lankan military followed along with international restraints on arms smuggling and other assistance provided by the Tamil diaspora.

This laid the groundwork for government forces to effectively enlarge, train, mass and undertake the 2009 military onslaught that brought the Tamil Tiger's down. The Sri Lankan military's crushing victory follows in the footsteps of other civil wars where force - in some cases with outside assistance - overwhelmed stalemate, mediation and compromise. Examples include Biafra, Bangladesh, Chechnya, Rwanda and Kosovo. Indeed, scholarly studies show that from 1945 to 2004, 77% of all civil wars ended in decisive victories. More often than not, forced resolution survived more durably than negotiated settlements.

But the human costs cannot be dismissed easily as combatants fight to the end. In recent history, the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Serbia-Montenegro demonstrated an effective alternative path when populations cannot live together. Had Tamils and Sinhalese followed these examples, building on the Tamil proposal advanced decades earlier, thousands would be alive today. Regions of the world characterized by deep civil ethnic and/or religious strife where partition makes sense - Indian Kashmir, Iraqi Kurdistan, Israel/Palestine, the Philippines' Moros inhabited south, and Sudan/South Sudan - take notice.