Sri Lanka conflict
At A Glance
More than 70,000 people were killed in a quarter century of conflict between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for a separate homeland.
- Hundreds of thousands uprooted
- Thousands of child soldiers
- At least 1 million mines laid
The military declared victory over the rebels in May 2009, putting the entire island nation under government control for the first time since 1983.
Asia's longest modern war had its roots in ethnic tension between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the mainly Hindu Tamil minority who accuse the government of discrimination.
The fighting pitted government troops against Tamil Tiger rebels demanding an independent state in the north and east of the island.
Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans were displaced across the island due to the war. Some were uprooted again during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Landmines and explosive debris left large areas uninhabitable. The fighting also laid waste to agricultural land, contributing to child malnutrition. The use of child soldiers, some as young as nine, by both sides in the conflict added to the tragedy.
A ceasefire was agreed in 2002 and the rebels dropped their demand for an independent state, settling for regional autonomy. But violence surged at the end of 2005 and the Tigers reverted to their original demand for all-out independence.
The rebels ran an area the size of 15,000 sq km in the country's north and east as a separate state, until the military recaptured it in a massive offensive.
Tens of thousands of civilians were trapped between troops and rebels in the final war zone in the northeast of the island.
Those that survived were moved to closed government-run camps at the end of the war. More than 220,000 were still displaced in May 2011.
Tens of thousands were killed in a quarter century of bloodshed between Sri Lankan security forces and Tamil rebels fighting for a separate homeland.
The military declared victory over the rebels in May 2009, ending Asia's longest war of modern times and bringing the island nation under government control for the first time since 1983.
At least 70,000 were killed and more than one million uprooted during the civil war, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).
The violence had its roots in ethnic divisions between the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the mainly Hindu Tamil minority, who say they have suffered decades of discrimination at the hands of the politically and economically dominant Sinhalese. Tamils comprise 18 percent of the population and Sinhalese three-quarters. There is also a small Muslim minority.
The growth of Sinhalese nationalism in the decades after Sri Lanka's independence from Britain in 1948 alienated many Tamils, eventually spurring calls for a separate homeland or "Eelam" in the north and east of the country. The biggest of the rebel groups to emerge was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), founded in 1976.
War broke out in 1983 when the Tigers ambushed and killed an army patrol, sparking anti-Tamil riots. Hundreds of Tamils were killed and tens of thousands forced to flee their homes.
The conflict saw massacres, abductions and torture by both sides and thousands of child soldiers were recruited by the rebels. About 1 million landmines were planted by the Tigers and the army.
India tried to intervene but ended up regretting it. In 1987 the Sri Lankan and Indian governments signed a pact giving limited autonomy to Tamil majority areas in the north and east. India sent peacekeepers to guarantee the agreement and disarm the rebels.
But widespread opposition to their presence and fighting with the Tigers led India to pull out, the last troops leaving in 1990. A year later, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a suspected Tamil Tiger woman suicide bomber.
The rebels were also blamed for the assassination of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. Peace talks opened in 1994 after President Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power, but collapsed shortly afterwards.
The late 1990s were marked by aerial bombings, suicide bombings, the killing of both Sinhala and Tamil civilians, attacks on economic targets and face-to-face battles between government and rebel forces. Tamil bombers targeted Sri Lanka's financial institutions, its holiest Buddhist site, the international airport and politicians. Kumaratunga narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in 1999, losing an eye.
Throughout the war the Tigers were lead by Vellupillai Prabhakaran, who was famous for ordering his fighters to take cyanide if they were caught. The Tigers ran a de-facto state in 15,000 sq km in the north and east of the country, operating from a self-declared capital, Kilinochchi, in the northern Wanni or Vanni region. They had a quasi-government, their own flag, police, banks, courts and defence units including a naval wing, the Sea Tigers, as well as a rudimentary air force. The Air Tigers surprised the world with their first bombing raid in March 2007. Security experts believe the Tigers may have been the only insurgent group to operate its own air force.
Prabhakaran is thought to have been killed by Sri Lankan troops in the final days of the fighting.
Troops seize tiger territory
The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and the election of a new Sri Lankan prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, provided the impetus for peace talks. The Tigers were keen to shed the "terrorist" label given to them by members of the international community.
A ceasefire was agreed in 2002 and the rebels dropped their demand for an independent state, settling for regional autonomy. But they withdrew from Norwegian-brokered peace talks a year later, saying not enough was being done to improve conditions for Tamils.
The island started sliding back into civil war at the end of 2005. The Tigers' strongholds began to fall in 2007 when government troops captured the east of the country. The government formally scrapped the truce in January 2008, accusing the rebels of using it to re-arm. Fighting escalated that year, with the government capturing swathes of Tiger territory in the north before seizing Kilinochchi in early 2009.
By February, troops had cornered the Tigers in a small patch of land in the northeast, along with a large number of civilians.
Many civilians escaped before the end of the war and were housed in government-run camps, but many remained trapped.
A U.N.-appointed panel said it had found "credible evidence" that war crimes had been committed by both sides.
The panel's March 2011 report said tens of thousands of civilians were killed between January and May 2009, and most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling.
The government has consistently denied allegations that it targeted civilians, and it refused to let the panel into Sri Lanka as it prepared its report.
The U.N. panel also accused the Tigers of forcing trapped civilians to fight, using them as human shields and shooting people who tried to escape - allegations they denied.
Attempts to turn the 2002 truce into a more permanent peace were stymied by internal divisions on both sides. After the ceasefire Kumaratunga fell out with her government over the peace process. Meanwhile, an eastern Tiger commander known as Colonel Karuna Amman split from the rebel movement in 2004 and took his fighters to the government side, establishing his own group, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP).
Tensions rose after Mahinda Rajapaksa won presidential elections in late 2005 and promised to take a hard line with the Tigers.
The rebels pulled out of peace talks indefinitely the following April, and in July 2006 the military began advancing on rebel-held territory in the east. International monitors blamed both sides for a series of gross violations of the truce as fighting intensified.
In August 2006, 17 local staff of aid group Action Contre La Faim were massacred. Sri Lankan rights activists blamed local security forces for the execution-style killings and accused the government of an outright cover-up. The government denied this.
The situation deteriorated in 2006 when Nadarajah Raviraj, a prominent member of parliament from the rebel-endorsed Tamil National Alliance, was shot dead in Colombo.
The Tigers subsequently renewed their demands for all-out independence as opposed to the separate Tamil homeland they had previously campaigned for. The government responded by reimposing the Prevention of Terrorism Act, giving police and security forces wider powers of arrest.
Fighting became focused in the north in 2007 after troops drove the Tigers from their bastions in the east. Many analysts say TMVP's Karuna is one of the chief reasons for the military's success in the east, with his fighters helping the army seize rebel-held territory.
Karuna, who was one of Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran's closest deputies for two decades, is now a minister in Rajapaksa's government. Rights groups want to see him stand trial for alleged war crimes stemming from his years as a Tiger commander.
Uprooted by war
Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans were uprooted in the first two decades of conflict and another 200,000 fled to southern India. At the height of the fighting for Jaffna in 1995, just 400 of the original population of 140,000 remained in the city.
By late 2003 many internally displaced people (IDPs) had returned to their battered towns and villages. However, in December 2004 the tsunami uprooted hundreds of thousands more Sri Lankans, compounding the crisis.
A deal proposed by then President Kumaratunga to share $3 billion of international tsunami aid ended up in limbo after the supreme court ruled it unconstitutional. The Tigers accused the government of deliberately neglecting Tamils who they said made up two-thirds of those affected by the tsunami.
The escalating war hamstrung post-tsunami rebuilding in the east and halted it in parts of the north, where materials such as cement and steel rods dried up because of a government ban. Thousands of families ended up living in temporary shelters made from corrugated metal sheeting with palm roofs. The fighting forced many aid agencies to shelve or abandon tsunami projects in rebel-held areas.
The civil war also laid to waste large tracts of agricultural land, which made malnutrition a problem.
Most of those who fled the war zone during the final months of fighting in 2009 were crammed into overcrowded camps in the town of Vavuniya, to the southwest of the war zone.
The displaced were not allowed to leave the camps. The government said this was a temporary measure to allow it to weed out Tiger infiltrators.
More than 220,000 people were still displaced in May 2011, the majority living with host families and 30,000 living in camps according to IDMC.
The Tamil Tigers relied heavily on child soldiers during the war, using some as young as nine. The United Nations children's agency (UNICEF) says Karuna's faction and the government also used child soldiers.
Human Rights Watch says the Tigers used children as fighters, spies and even suicide bombers. Around a third of underage recruits in 2006 were girls, according to UNICEF.
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers says the Tigers are known to have recruited well over 6,000 children between January 2002 and September 2007.
Rights groups also accused Karuna's fighters of abducting many children to boost their strength after they split from the Tamil Tigers in 2004.
Children were recruited at temple festivals, at school and on the way to school. Some were abducted but others signed up themselves, sometimes to escape poverty.
Sri Lanka made recruitment of under-18s an offence in early 2006.
After a quarter century of conflict, landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) pose a serious impediment to resettling families and rebuilding their shattered villages.
Thousands of people have been killed or injured by the mines which are planted on jungle tracks and around plantations, wells, highways and villages in the north and east.
Government officials estimate both sides laid 1.5 million mines between them. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) puts the figure at 1 million. Only a fraction have been cleared.
Some mines are homemade devices fashioned by the Tigers, but most are commercially purchased mines made in Pakistan, China or Italy.
The Tigers were blamed for claymore mine attacks on troops since late 2005, but denied responsibility. Claymores are blocks of plastic explosive which send ball bearings and shrapnel flying out when set off. Another type of device is the bounding fragmentation mine, which springs out of the ground when stepped on before exploding mid-air.
After the tsunami, some land previously classified as low priority for demining, especially on the northern Jaffna peninsula, was reclassified as high priority because of the urgent need to rehouse survivors.
Sri Lanka has not joined the international Mine Ban Treaty.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has a Sri Lanka portal which is a good source of maps. U.N. website Reliefweb also has useful maps.
For details of people uprooted by the conflict and tsunami see the website of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. This has stats and reports on displacement past and present as well as its effects on health and education.
The UNHCR Sri Lanka page has facts and figures about the refugee situation.
Amnesty International's Sri Lanka page has reports and statements on human rights abuses. ;
In 2006, Human Rights Watch accused Sri Lankan security forces of helping Karuna's breakaway faction to abduct boys and young men to fight. Karuna is a former Tamil Tiger commander turned member of parliament. Click here for HRW's report.
For information about child soldiers, see the U.N. office for Children and Armed Conflict and the Coalition to Stop the use of Child Soldiers.
For background on landmine use visit the website of the Landmine Monitor which produces a detailed report every year.
The website for the Government of Sri Lanka has general news and links to ministries.
For the Tamil perspective have a look at the following:
- EelamWeb - a Tamil Tiger website with information on their history and operations, in English and Tamil
- TamilNet - a Tamil news service providing comprehensive coverage of Tamil issues
- Eelam Nation - a news and information service on Tamil affairs and the struggle for an independent homeland
1948 - Independence from Britain
1956 - Sinhala Act makes Sinhala the sole official language, restricting employment opportunities for Tamils
1976 - Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) founded
1983 - Riots and clashes between Sinhalese and Tamils leave thousands of Tamils dead and several hundred thousand as refugees. Large number of government forces deployed in the north and east
1985 - Talks to find a political solution to the conflict fail and conflict intensifies
Jul - India and Sri Lanka sign accord creating regional councils to give Tamils in the northeast limited autonomy. Indian troops arrive to enforce the pact which is endorsed by Tamil rebel groups
Oct - LTTE reneges on the accord and begins three years of battles that kill more than 1,000 Indian troops
Dec - Ranasinghe Premadasa is elected president after promising to send Indian troops home and begin talks with LTTE
Jun - Talks fail as LTTE overruns police stations in east
May - Suspected female Tiger suicide bomber kills Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi
May - Premadasa killed by suicide bomber
Jan - Government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and rebels agree to stop fighting and talk
Apr - Truce ends when rebels blow up two navy vessels
Jan - Tiger suicide bombers blow up central bank building. More than 100 killed and about 1,400 hurt
Oct - U.S. declares LTTE a terrorist group. LTTE bombs World Trade Centre in Colombo, killing 15
Jan - Sri Lanka outlaws the LTTE after suicide attack on country's holiest Buddhist shrine, the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy
Dec - Kumaratunga survives LTTE suicide bomb attack, loses one eye, spurring a sympathy vote analysts say helped her win re-election
May - Norway's special envoy for peace, Erik Solheim, begins talks with Sri Lankan leaders
Attack on the international airport in Colombo destroys civilian and military aircraft
Feb - Government and LTTE sign Norwegian-brokered ceasefire, laying groundwork for direct peace talks
Dec - Tigers give up demand for a separate state and agree to work with government towards devolution of power
Apr - Tigers pull out after six rounds of talks, saying not enough being done to rebuild war-hit Tamil areas
Dec - Indian Ocean tsunami kills at least 35,000 people in Sri Lanka, affecting both Tamil and Sinhalese areas
Aug - Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar assassinated by suspected rebel snipers
Nov - Former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa elected president after Tigers boycott polls
Dec - Mine attacks by suspected Tigers kill 39 soldiers
Jan - Violence escalates in the north and east, raising fears of a return to civil war
Feb - Tigers and government agree to respect 2002 ceasefire
Apr - Major upsurge in violence. Government launches air strikes against Tamil targets after suicide bomber injures army chief and kills nine civilians in Colombo
May - Tigers attack a naval convoy - the worst military confrontation since the truce
Jun - Rebels demand withdrawal of peace monitors from EU countries after they list Tamil Tigers as terrorists. Mine attack on a bus kills more than 60 civilians
Jul - Army advances on rebel territory for the first time since ceasefire. Rebels say war is back on
Aug - Seventeen aid workers massacred in the east. Suspected Tiger suicide bomber attacks a Pakistan High Commission convoy in Colombo
Oct - Suicide bombing on a convoy kills 100 sailors and civilians. Planned peace talks in Geneva come unstuck over rebel demand
that the government reopen a highway that crosses through rebel territory to the army-held Jaffna peninsula. Heavy fighting resumes
Nov 10 - Prominent MP from rebel-endorsed Tamil National Alliance shot dead in Colombo. Fighting escalates as rebels accuse army of entering no-mans land in Batticaloa district with tanks and armoured vehicles. Military denies this. Tigers declare they see no other option than to fight for full independence
Dec - President's brother Gothabaya Rajapaksa, who is also defence secretary, narrowly escapes suicide bombing in Colombo
Government reimposes Prevention of Terrorism Act, aimed at cracking down on the Tigers
Jan - Military captures strategic Tiger-held eastern town of Vakarai. UNHCR estimates 213,000 people displaced since April 2006
Mar - Tiger light aircraft bombs air force base next to Colombo international airport, the first such air strike by the rebels
Jul - Government declares it has driven rebels from their last jungle stronghold in east
Oct - Tiger suicide fighters mount major ground assault on north-central airbase
Nov - Tamil Tiger political wing leader S.P Thamilselvan killed in air force bombing. Ex rebel Karuna Amman detained in Britain
Jan - Government declares truce dead
Opposition parliamentarian T. Maheshweran shot dead in Colombo, Nation Building Minister D.M. Dassanayake killed by roadside bomb blamed on Tigers
Jul - Karuna returns to Sri Lanka after serving jail sentence in Britain for passport fraud
Oct - Karuna sworn in as member of parliament
Nov - Military seizes west
Jan - Military captures Tigers' de facto capital Kilinochchi in the north
Apr - Military says it has confined the rebels to a zone in the northeast measuring 17 sq km. Sri Lanka gives rebels 24 hours to surrender as civilians flee battle zone
May 14 - U.S. President Barack Obama urges both sides to avert a humanitarian crisis. U.N. Security Council voices grave concern over civilian deaths. War zone now measures 2.5 sq km
May 18 - Sri Lanka declares victory. State TV says Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran killed by special forces troops while trying to escape
Nov - Government says 100,000 people have been released from government-run displacement camps
Jan - Rajapaksa wins presidential election
Apr - Rajapaksa's ruling coalition wins parliamentary elections
Sep - Parliament amends constitution to allow Rajapaksa to seek unlimited number of terms
Apr - U.N.-appointed panel says it has "credible evidence" that both the government and Tiger rebels committed war crimes
Jul - Government lifts a ban on foreigners travelling to former war zones in the north