It is difficult to summarize a complex sequence of events in a single post. There are many versions to a story. Each side has its own interpretation. The views below are expressed in my individual capacity. I have simplified the narrative in the interests of brevity.
The word "Sri Lanka" is derived from the Sanskrit "the resplendent isle". The country has an area of 25,000 square miles and a reported population of 19 million. The country has not had a complete census since 1981. In that census, the Sinhalese constituted 72.9% of the population, the indigenous "Sri Lankan Tamils" constituted 12.6%, the Muslims (a separate ethnic group that largely speaks Tamil) constituted 7.4%, while the "Indian Tamils" (who were the descendents of indentured labor who had immigrated in the 1800s) constituted 5.6%.
Sri Lanka obtained its independence in 1948 - six months after the British withdrew from India. Inspired by Jinnah, the indigenous "Sri Lankan Tamils" had demanded weighted representation in the legislature in the immediate prelude to independence. The ethnic polarization had begun. Sri Lanka proceeded to strip the "Indian Tamils" of their citizenship in 1949. The then Government of Don Stephen Senanayake was unabashedly pro-American.
Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike campaigned on a platform of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism in 1956. He won the elections and replaced English as the official language of the country with Sinhalese. Many "Sri Lankan Tamils" vociferously opposed the move and demanded parity of status between Sinhalese and Tamil. The parallels with East Pakistan in the 1950s were remarkable.
Assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959, Bandaranaike was eventually succeeded by his wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. In the Sino-Indian border dispute in 1962, she cautiously edged towards the Chinese position on the case. She managed to persuade India to take back half the island's "Indian Tamil" population. Lal Bahadur Shastri was only too keen to wean away Sri Lanka from the growing Chinese links in the aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian war.
1971 marked the Sinhalese youth insurrection driven by unemployment and landlessness. Mrs. Bandaranaike crushed the revolt and declared emergency. An estimated 20,000 Sinhalese youth had died. Pakistani ships and planes refueled in Colombo enroute to Dhaka in the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971. Sirimavo introduced affirmative action to encourage Sinhalese intake into the university system and Government jobs. This in turn precipitated the Tamil revolt.
Junius Richard Jayewardene won the elections in Sri Lanka in 1977. Indira Gandhi expressed concern at the pro-American tilt of Sri Lankan foreign policy in 1979. The United States had sought refueling facilities for its airforce and navy in Sri Lanka, had reportedly expressed interest in the strategic port of Trincomalee, and had requested to set up a Voice of America relay station to beam news to the Indian subcontinent. India viewed the VoA station as an intelligence gathering device. This alarmed Mrs. Gandhi all too aware of the rapprochement between the United States and China, the traditional close links between the United States and Pakistan, not to mention the coup in Bangladesh in 1975 that overthrew the pro-Indian Mujib-ur-Rahman.
The anti-Tamil pogroms in 1977, 1981 and 1983 had led to the death of many Tamils, arson attacks on Tamil businesses and the flight of Tamils from Sinhalese majority areas of the island. Tamil youth groups responded with bomb attacks, assassinations and murder of Sinhalese. Bank robberies financed Tamil militancy. Several traveled to Lebanon, Libya and Syria for training. Mrs. Gandhi saw this as an opportunity to out-flank the increasingly pro-American Jayewardene regime. She proceeded to support Tamil militancy to avoid the perceived encirclement of India by pro-American regimes. This had the added advantage of ensuring electoral support in Tamil Nadu that had been inflammed by events in Sri Lanka.
India armed, aided and abetted several Tamil groups in the early 1980s. The LTTE was the only group that chose to be independent of Indian influence. Its leadership had temporarily moved to India and had received some training. But it soon returned to the island unlike other militant groups.
Both the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers carried out mass murders of Tamil and Sinhalese villagers. There were acts of terrorism. Colombo gradually lost control of Jaffna. It turned to Israel for support which trained its military and adviced the arming of Muslim home guards to neutralize Tamil militancy in the island's east. The Muslim home guards attacked Tamil villages in the East and the LTTE responded with brutal murder of entire Muslim congregations at prayer. The situation had grown out of control.
Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated in 1984. Rajiv Gandhi attempted to enforce a negotiated settlement on the island. Jayewardene acquiesced by agreeing to a land mark constitutional amendment in 1987 that recognized Tamil as an official language on par with Sinhalese. He devolved power to Tamil majority areas through the establishment of provincial councils. India in return had to enforce the cease-fire. India proceeded to disarm Tamil militant groups. It succeeded in all instances except with regards to the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers took on India with ferocity.
India lacked a unified command and control structure in the island. The Indian military was caught between the politics of the Ministry of External Affairs, the state government of Tamil Nadu and India's Research and Analysis Wing. Wounded Tamil Tiger cadre were shipped to Tamil Nadu for medical treatment while simultaneously fighting India. The LTTE imported arms through Tamil Nadu to sustain its battle against Indian forces.
The presence of Indian troops in the island precipitated the second Sinhalese youth uprising between 1987 and 1989. The Australian Human Rights Commission had estimated that 60,000 Sinhalese youth died fighting the Jayewardene administration in protest at the perceived capitulation of the Government to India.
Jayewardene ended his two term limit in 1988. Premadasa succeeded him and promptly demanded the withdrawal of Indian forces. The LTTE entered into a strategic alliance with the Premadasa regime. Colombo and the Tamil Tigers declared a cease-fire. Colombo armed the Tigers to fight the IPKF. The LTTE imported weapons and ammunition through the port of Colombo.
Rajiv had lost the elections in 1989 and V.P. Singh agreed to the Premadasa demand to withdraw. The last Indian troops left the island in March, 1990. 1,000 Indian soldiers had died between 1987 and 1990 fighting the Tamil rebels in the island. The LTTE was to later boast that they had defeated the world's fourth most powerful military.
The LTTE resumed hostilities against Premadasa in June, 1990. The LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in the run-up to the 1991 Indian elections to forestall the return of the Indian military to the island. It assassinated Premadasa in 1993. This brought one chapter of the island's murky and bloodied politics to a close.
The LTTE and the Sri Lankan military continued to fight massive conventional battles in the late 1990s. 65,000 people are estimated to have died in the Tamil insurrection. The LTTE formed a naval wing, an incipient air wing, an illicit mercantile shipping wing and illicit real estate operations overseas to raise funds. India abandoned open intervention in the island's politics and opted for more subtle behind-the-scene maneuvers.
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