The following post is from a thesis, “Search For a New Model,” written by Rev. Paul “Chip” Jahn in the late 1990′s. Over the next few days, we’ll post some excerpts that give insights into his thoughts and experiences as he began his mission of Just Peacemaking in Sri Lanka. Here Chip offers some background into the situation he faced.
The Country and the Conflict
Sri Lanka is a tear shaped island separated from the southeast tip of India by about twenty miles of the Gulf of Marmar. It has a population of about 17.5 million, 74% of whom are Sinhalese (primarily Buddhist) and speak Sinhalese. seventeen per cent are Tamil (primarily Hindu) and speak Tamil, while 7% are Tamil speaking Muslim. Only about 5% of both Tamil and Sinhalese are Christians. English is widely spoken as a second language and the literacy rate is around 90%.
Until shortly after World War II the island was a part of the British Empire. Political and ethnic conflict has been almost a constant part of Sri Lanka life since independence in 1948. The parliamentary government hasn’t been able to guarantee fundamental minority human rights. Sinhalese political parties have often stirred up ethnic bigotries and religious chauvinism to gain political advantage. The Sri Lankan Government has a history of meeting even peaceful demonstrations of political dissension with the most brutal police measures. In the early 1980′s young militant Tamils formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Fanatically devoted to their cause and their leader, Vilupillai Prabhakaran, their trademark is a cyanide capsule worn around their necks. Tamil Tigers vow they will commit suicide before they will allow themselves to be taken prisoner, and hundreds have. By the mid-1980′s they had fought the Sri Lankan Army to a stand still, controlling most of the Northern Province.
The Tamils complain that the Sinhalese majority uses its parliamentary advantage to keep Tamils second class citizens. The most contentious issues are the use of Sinhalese as the official national language, lower university entry test scores for Sinhalese students, and systematic Sinhalese colonization of traditional Tamil territories by the government. But in the twelve years this war has raged, there has grown up a culture of the gun. This is the most tenacious obstacle to peace. In the first part of this decade, the International Red Cross (IRC) estimated that there were 1,500,000 people displaced by this war.
The war has destroyed the economies of the Northern and Eastern Provinces where most of the fighting has gone on. In the early 1980′s Sri Lanka had an army of 16,000 and a defense budget of $30,000,000 (2.5% of government spending). By 1991 it had an army of 70,000 and a defense budget of $308 million (12% of spending). The Sri Lankan government has imposed an economic blockade on the Northern Province since renewal of hostilities in 1990. There were 43 items banned in the North in 1993. The list included items such as: batteries, surgical instruments, medicine and bandages, modern electrical equipment, gasoline and diesel fuel, road maps, shoes, printing equipment, printing paper, school books, candles, cement, spare parts for motor vehicles and tires, aluminum, soap, umbrellas and matches. Industry and commerce in the North have ground to a halt. The few motor vehicles that are still operating in the Northern Province run on a mixture of kerosene and vegetable oil, the only fuel available and that at greatly inflated prices.
Tamils had received support from India in the early 1980′s; but in 1987 Rajiv Gandhi offered India’s help in mediating a peace between the Sri Lankan Government and a range of Tamil insurgence groups. He sent the 70,000 Indian Peace Keeping Force to the Tamil areas to insure a cease-fire. India also presented the warring parties with a peace accord. Whereas the government and the other Tamil militant groups signed it, the Tigers never did, though at first they agreed to abide by it.
As this was going on in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the Sri Lankan Government was free to move against the JVP. The Janntha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) were maoist Sinhalese militants that had grown increasingly violent. The internal security forces went after the militants with a terrible, often indiscriminate violence, that many felt reached beyond the threat of the JVP into the ranks of legitimate political opposition.
In the fall of 1987 a series of provocations led to the Indian Peace Keeping Force going on a full scale military offensive against the Tigers in the Northern Province. Before it was over the Indian Army had lost over 1000 troops and any good will it might have had with Sri Lankan Tamils. A frustrated India withdrew its “Peace Keeping Force” in 1990.
The LTTE entered into negotiations with President Premadasa’s government in April of 1989; but broke them off in June of 1990, renewing hostilities. After the war with the Indian Peace Keeping Force any support the Tigers got from India comes clandestinely from antigovernment sources.
Political assassination is an oft used weapon in the Tigers arsenal. Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a LTTE suicide bomber, while he was campaigning in 1991. Sri Lanka’s President Premadasa was killed in a similar manner on May 1, 1993. There is a long list of other political notables whose murders are credited to the Tigers.
Over and over again, it is the civilians that suffer in this protracted conflicted. The LTTE forced all the Moslems to leave Jaffna in 1991, saying it was for their own safety. Both the government and the Tigers have used ethnic cleansing, intentionally targeting civilians, even wiping out whole villages. Other times the civilian population just couldn’t get out of the way in time. The government has often shelled and bombed concentrations of civilians. The Tigers, on the other hand, have placed their instillations close to hospitals, churches or markets. The International Red Cross estimates that 90% of the casualties in this brutal war are unarmed civilians. Amnesty International reports that thousands of civilians have been killed in Tamil areas. Summary executions by death squads have been used by both sides against suspected enemies.
President Premadasa called together a Parliamentary Select Committee to find a political solution to the conflict. It was made up of all the major parties in the parliament, including Tamil parties. Critics of the Parliamentary Select Committee say it is no more than window dressing for the sake of the international donor community. Until just recently, the Tigers have always said that they would settle for nothing less than Tamil Eelam, a Tamil homeland consisting of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The LTTE readily admit that they are not a political party but an independence movement. They have no political equivalent to, say the Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.
- Rev. Paul “Chip” Jahn