One of the most vicious wars now being fought is hardly noticed. For the last fifteen, the island of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon, just south of India), has been torn apart by a vicious civil war. The cause is ethnic rivalry. Hindu Tamils are a minority (18 percent of the 18 million people on the island) and were originally brought in by the British as agricultural workers. There were always some Tamils on Sri Lanka, for the majority Indian province of Tamil Nadu is just across the 29 kilometer wide straits. But the large number of agricultural workers settled in the north and along the coasts, where the plantations were. The Tamils formed all Tamil communities.
The majority of Tamils have long felt they were discriminated against by the majority Sri Lankans (who are Buddhist). Not surprisingly, the native Sri Lankans took a dim view of all these foreigners the British had imported. There were tensions. In 1972 that anger began to get organized when Velupillai Prabhakaran formed the Tamil New Tigers (TNT) movement. In 1976 the: TNT renamed itself the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This was more than a name change, for the TNT had become, as the LTTE, a very disciplined and fanatical organization.
Operations against government troops were few at first, but year by year the incidents increased. In 1983, the LTTE ambushed an army patrol in Jaffna (northern Sri Lanka), killing thirteen soldiers. This caused much anger among Sri Lankans, and the resulting violence killed 600 Tamils. This, in turn, drove more Tamils to support the LTTE. More importantly, public opinion in Tamil Nadu caused India to secretly begin arming and training Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu camps. Indian politicians could not ignore the popular anger at Sri Lankan "oppression of Tamils." LTTE leaders moved to Tamil Nadu as well and were allowed to operate freely. This included recruiting local Tamils for into the movement. The LTTE sought to terrorize the Sri Lankan population, and their leaders, into giving the Tamils the northern portion of Sri Lanka as their own country. In 1985, this terror campaign resulted in one incident where 146 Sri Lankans were shot dead at a Buddhist holy place. This just infuriated the Sri Lankans more, but the Indian support, LTTE fanaticism and a small (9,000 troops at the start of the violence) Sri Lankan army, led to Tamils taking control of the Jaffna peninsula in the northern tip of Sri Lanka. In 1987, the LTTE begins a bombing campaign in Sri Lankan cities. Some bombs kill more than a hundred civilians at a time. By now, even the Indians are appalled at the fanaticism of the LTTE and, in the Summer of 1987, agreed to cooperate to support an agreement the Sri Lankans and LTTE could live with. This was to be policed by Indian troops in Sri Lanka. However, by October, the LTTE has rejected the agreement and gone back to war. By early 1990, India withdrew its troops from Sri Lanka. The LTTE now controlled much of the northern third of Sri Lanka. There are on and off talks with the Sri Lankan government over some peaceful settlement of the dispute, but the hard liners in the LTTE always managed to keep the fighting going. In the early 1990s, LTTE suicide bombers begin assassinating Indian and Sri Lankan politicians. This included a former prime minister of India (Rajiv Gandhi) and a serving president of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans decide to get really serious. Having build up their armed forces, in 1995 they began the first of their major offensives against the LTTE strongholds in the Jaffna peninsula (whose population was now entirely Tamil.) The LTTE responded with more terror bombings in the Sri Lankan capital. By now the Sri Lankan armed forces was over 100,000 troops, with new gunboats and warplanes in service. There were only about 10,000 LTTE fighters, but they were well trained, armed, led and fanatic, willing to use suicidal attacks when all else failed. In the late 1990s, there were many battles were the government lost over a thousand dead and wounded. At the end of 1999, the Sri Lankan troops and
LTTE fighters are still killing each other in large numbers.
While there are many moderate Tamils in Sri Lanka, willing to work out a deal, their leaders have also been assassinated by LTTE suicide bombers. As long as the LTTE maintains its fanatic devotion to separatism, the only solution is for the Sri Lankan government to fight until the LTTE is wiped out. This is obviously a costly and bloody solution. Many Sri Lankans are now willing to give the Tamils part of their island instead, and this solution will have to be decided by the Sri Lankan voters, which in turn creates the risk of a civil war among the non-Tamil Sri Lankans.