Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

Assessment for Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 28 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Sri Lanka Facts
Area:    65,610 sq. km.
Capital:    Columbo
Total Population:    1,136,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Sri Lankan Tigers have three of the factors that increase the likelihood of rebellion in the future: the protracted nature of the insurgency; the group's territorial concentration and the Tamil's history of lost autonomy. Repression by the government has declined considerably in 2001-2003. Factors that could inhibit or limit future rebellion include efforts at negotiations and reforms, Sri Lanka's history of democratic rule and transnational support for a negotiated settlement. Between 2001 and 2003, concrete steps were taken by the government and the principal militant group, LTTE, towards a peaceful settlement. Current instability within the Sri Lankan government has resulted in a stalling of talks between the two sides. At the same time, the ceasefire has continued to hold, notwithstanding some violations. This is a hopeful sign that there is a commitment to the peace process, not least because of war weariness among the people of Sri Lanka. It remains to be seen if steps are taken to address Tamil grievances and rebuild the shattered economy of the northern and eastern parts of the country.

Analytic Summary

The Sri Lankan Tamils are a majority in the country's north and comprise a significant portion of the multiethnic east region. There has been little group migration across regions but there have been substantial influxes of Sinhalese into the group's traditional regions of residence.

The Sri Lankan Tamils are culturally, linguistically, and religiously related to the country's Indian Tamils who reside in the central hill regions. However, the two are considered as distinct groups and they have separately pursued their goals (as the MAR project lists the Indian Tamils as a separate group, they will not be discussed in this entry).

There are a number of differences between the Sri Lankan Tamils and the majority Sinhalese community. The Tamils speak a common language (Tamil) while the language of the dominant community is Sinhala. The Sinhalese are mainly Buddhists while the Tamils, who are physically distinguishable, are Hindus (CULDIFXX03 = 4).

Along with the Sinhalese, the Sri Lankan Tamils are considered to be the original inhabitants of the island state. Contact between the two communities was limited until the imposition of British rule. During colonial rule, the Tamils were disproportionately represented in the bureaucracy. Sri Lanka, which was formerly known as Ceylon, received its independence in 1948.

Beginning in the 1950s, Sinhalese-dominated governments implemented public policies that would institutionalize the majority community's dominance. Sinhala was declared to be the country's sole official language; Buddhism was favored as the state religion; and the unitary nature of the state ensured Sinhalese political domination. Major Sinhalese-Tamil riots in 1956, 1981, and 1983 further heightened Tamil insecurities.

In an effort to protect their culture and to ensure equal rights, the Tamils began to press for autonomy. Political parties, such as the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) utilized conventional means including participating in coalition governments. Militant Tamils sought the creation of an independent Tamil state, referred to as Eelam, which would comprise the north and east of the country.

Throughout the 1980s, various Tamil rebel groups engaged in attacks against the Colombo government and its security apparatus. Unable to quell the rebellion, the government turned to its neighbor, India, for assistance. The ethnic kin of the Sri Lankan Tamils dominate India's southern Tamil Nadu state, and the Tamils in India have actively supported their brethren. Further, the Indian government was reportedly providing arms, training, and sanctuary to the Sri Lankan Tamil rebels. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi viewed the situation as an opportunity to establish India as a regional hegemon and to control any potential ethnic tension in Tamil Nadu. Negotiations between the two countries led to the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka accord. Around 50,000 Indian peacekeepers (IPKF) were deployed in Tamil areas in Sri Lanka to help ensure peace. In return, the Sri Lankan government agreed to devolve power to the north and east through the creation of autonomous provincial councils.

The accord was rejected by the main Tamil rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE violently resisted the IPKF, and three years later the peacekeeping force withdrew after large battlefield losses and limited gains in their efforts to quell the Tamil Tigers. The IPKF operations and restrictions on LTTE activity in India were the main motives behind the Tiger's assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991.

From 1995 to 2000, President Kumaratunga adopted a two-pronged approach to the insurgency: massive counterinsurgency campaigns and the unveiling of a proposal to devolve significant powers to local councils in the north and east. Between 2001 and 2003, significant steps were taken towards a settlement. At the end of 2001, the LTTE declared a month-long ceasefire, a move that was reciprocated by the Sri Lankan government. The Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe formally invited Norway to continue its efforts for talks between the government and the LTTE. India welcomed this move.

Effective 23 February 2002, a permanent ceasefire was signed between the government and the rebels, paving the way for direct talks. The government also eased the long-standing economic embargo upon rebel-held areas, thereby conceding a major demand of the LTTE. While violations of the ceasefire continued amid reports that the LTTE was procuring weapons and recruiting soldiers, the peace talks held out a great deal of hope.

In late 2002, LTTE dropped its long-standing demand for a separate state and declared that the group was ready to enter mainstream politics. In December 2003, LTTE presented a set of proposals outlining its visions of an autonomous, but not separate, north and eastern region in Sri Lanka. Prospects for peace received a serious setback, however, as tensions between Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Kumaratunga escalated. The latter accused the Prime Minister of making too many concessions to the LTTE and alleged that the Norwegian mediators were partial to the militants. Norway withdrew from the peace process and talks have been put on hold until the internal dispute in the government is resolved.

The protracted insurgency has produced significant demographic stresses in Tamil areas in the country's north and east regions. These include declining caloric intakes, deteriorating public health conditions, environmental decline, and migration abroad. While the lifting of the embargo has helped improve conditions in the northeast, much remains to be done to rebuild the area (ECDIS01-03 = 4). Significant amounts of international aid have been promised, but most of it is contingent upon a sustainable peace plan. The Tamils remain underrepresented in the political arena due to historical restrictions (POLDIS01-03 = 4).

Most group members, including the LTTE, are seeking widespread autonomy for the north and the east. The Tamils are also concerned about obtaining equal civil rights and greater economic opportunities. The protection of the group's cultural and religious rights, including the use of Tamil in official dealings, is an important issue for the vast majority.

The Tamils are primarily represented by conventional political parties but the powerful militant organization, the LTTE, is the dominant force. There are significant differences between the LTTE and other Tamil groups, some of which have since joined forces with the government. Violent clashes between these groups and assassinations were reported yearly. The LTTE is known to engage in intimidatory tactics against its rivals and its commitment to sharing power with other groups remains suspect. Another thorny issue is the status of Muslims, who have traditionally resided in the eastern part of the country. Many of them have been displaced as a result of the insurgency and they are a marginalized force in Sri Lankan politics and society.


The Europa Yearbook, Far East and Australasia 1994.

Far Eastern Economic Review, 1994.

Keerawalla, Gamini & R. Samarajiva, "Sri Lanka in 1993," in Asian Survey, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, February 1994.

Minorities at Risk, Phase I, overview compiled by Monty G. Marshall, 07/89.

Lexis-Nexis Library Information, news reports, 2001-03.

Minorities at Risk, Phase II.

Center for Strategic and International Studies, various reports,

Human Rights Watch, various reports, 2001-2003,

British Broadcasting Corporation, news reports,

Search Refworld