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The Rise and Fall of LTTE in Sri Lanka

Ethnic conflict between Sinhalese and LTTE in Sri Lanka crippled the nation for over five decades. It had resulted from long-drawn appeasement policies and manipulations by the political parties, all through Sri Lankan political history.

Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian sub-continent, constitutes 74 per cent of Sinhalese Buddhists, Tamil (Hindus) comprised 18 per cent, and Tamil (Muslims) constitute 7 per cent of the population.[1]

Soon after Sri Lanka’s independence, the Sinhalese leaders began to appease the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. Over the years, the Tamil population resented the majority domination, ultimately culminating in The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1976.

LTTE had waged a violent campaign against the Sinhala majority. In the process, LTTE suppressed its population by virtually establishing itself as a Tamil state. It was the “longest active secessionist movement” until its defeat in 2009.[2]

In this article, I would like to address the political character of the Sri Lankan state that had enabled the crisis to unfold and highlight the structural and temporal factors. I will further discuss the political transformation of the conflict over a specific period until its controversial end in May 2009.

Colonialism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka

The conflict began to take its violent shape after the 1983 pogrom. However, the structural roots of the conflict could be seen in the communal policies of British rule in Sri Lanka. The British Colonial policy of “Divide and Rule”, devised to govern the ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, provides us with evidence for the genesis of the ethnic conflict.

The systematic “Us v/s Them”, as documented in the Donoughmore and Soulbury Commissions in the form of “communal representation”, enabled the ethnic groups to seek and dominate national politics. As Shafi and Rashid note,

The British Governor had nominated members to the legislature based on ethnicity (Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burger).[3]

With Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, there was a clear sign of disarray within both the Tamilian and Sinhala leadership. Colonialization and British policies remain important factors in the ethnic conflict of Sri Lanka.[4]

Identity Creation of Sinhala 

The assertion of Sinhala identity remained an important political goal for the Sri Lankan state. As a result, the identity creation of Sinhala began with palingenesis, the process of recreation of the past, using elements of the “origin” mythology.

Shafi and Rashid write: “Sinhala, it was claimed, were decanted from Aryan migrants from Bengal in the fifth century BC; the arrival of their leader, Prince Vijaya, in Sri Lanka coincided with the death of the Buddha.”[5] As an ideological response, Tamils began asserting their pure Dravidian race, whose ancestors were of the Harappan civilizations of India and that they were the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka.

Sinhalese Only Bill of 1956

In the 1950s, Sinhalese politicians began attracting the masses by promoting to build of a Buddhist-Sinhalese state of Sri Lanka. The increased electoral politics based on ethnicity and language took its final form in the “Sinhalese Only Bill” (Official Language Act, No. 33 of 1956).

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, leader of SLFP, used “indigenous nationalism” to win the 1956 general elections, with the promise of making “Sinhalese language the official language of Sri Lanka” and “assertion of Buddhism in the region.”[6]

Sinhala only act
Fast unto Death by Prof. F. R. Jayasuriya in 1956 forced the Bandaranaike government to implement Sinhala as the only state language, excluding the Tamil language of masses in the country’s north and east provinces. | Photo: Wikimedia

This act is an important structural factor in shaping the political character of the Sri Lankan state. It also gave rise to ethnic clashes between the Sinhalese and Tamils in 1958, 1977, and 1981.[7]

Some of the temporal factors that could be enlisted in the assertion of the state’s political character include the creation of Tamil Tigers, the Pogrom of 1983, and State-sponsored settlements in Tamil areas.

Birth and the Rise of LTTE

The Tamil minority feared the loss of access to education and employment as a consequence of communal policies in admissions in favour of Sinhalese students—the resentment among the Tamil youth accumulated in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE).

In the early 1980s, LTTE carried out a series of bank robberies, assassinated several police officers, and bombed attacks in the Sinhalese-dominated south.[8]

LTTE leaders at Sirumalai camp
LTTE leaders at Sirumalai camp, Tamil Nadu, India in 1984 while they are being trained by RAW 

The “1983 Pogrom against the Tamil civilians” in Colombo could be another temporal factor for the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. In July 1983, the LTTE attack killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers in Jaffna, leading to a severe counter by armed forces on Tamil civilians. [9]

Many scholars have noted the “1983 riots” as the turning point in Sri Lankan ethnic violence.[10] Four days after the violence broke out, President Jayewardene said:

I think there was a big anti-Tamil feeling among the forces. They also felt that shooting the Sinhalese, who were rioting, would have been anti-Sinhalese, and, in some places, we saw them encouraging [rioters].[11]

Since the beginning of the civil war in 1983, the LTTE has been at the forefront of the theatre of guerrilla warfare and the struggle for territorial control.

Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and LTTE

Another pertinent temporal factor was, as Thangarajah has labelled, “frontiersmen”: politically motivated Sinhalese farmers settled in the Tamil region under new irrigation schemes and received weapons to fight Tamil militancy.[12]

The state-sponsored settlement schemes allowed for large-scale irrigation for Sinhalese farmers to Tamil-inhabited areas of the East.

Tamil Tiger women at war
LTTE women’s wing marching in a parade. | Photo: WIKIMEDIA

At this juncture, I will address how the conflict unfolded until its end in May 2009. As early as 1983, India had made serious efforts at containing the crisis and negotiating with both Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Government.

The outcome was the India-Sri Lanka Accord signed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Jayewardene in July 1987.

Conclusion: LTTE and Sri Lanka

Accordingly, Tamil guerrilla would lay down their arms, and Indian Peace-Keeping forces were to moderate in Tamil regions. In return, Tamils would be given a degree of autonomy.[13] However, the Tamil Tigers did not accept it, and there was increased violence between the two parties.

In 2002, the Norwegian-led-peace process was an unsuccessful ceasefire, as LTTE did not accept the terms of the agreement. The final collapse of LTTE, which kept the war for over 25 years, came in 2009.

The Sri Lankan forces launched an offensive in East Sri Lanka, often massacring civilians, raping and violently killing thousands, and ending the civil war in May 2009.

Post Script: This article was written as a part of my coursework for the Master’s in Political Science at the University of Delhi.

Photo Credit:  Sri Lanka Ethnic Divisions Illustration by Greg Groesch/ The Washington Times


[1] “Population Pyramids of the World from 1950 to 2100,”, accessed March 16, 2020,

[2] “THE ETHNIC CONFLICT IN SRI LANKA: A HISTORICAL AND …,” accessed March 15, 2020,

[3] Shafi, A.T.M. Abdullahel and Harun-Or-Rashid, “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: A Critical Analysis”, International Journal of Research in Humanities, Arts, and Literature 1, no. 3 (2013): 17-34

[4] “The Evolution of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka,” accessed March 16, 2020,

[5] Shafi and Rashid, “Ethnic Conflict”, 22

[6] Perera, Jayantha, “Political Development and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka,” OUP Academic (Oxford University Press, January 1, 1992),

[7] Shafi and Rashid, “Ethnic Conflict”, 28

[8] Perera, “Political Development”, 138

[9] Benedikt Korf, “Functions of Violence Revisited: Greed, Pride and Grievance in Sri Lanka’s Civil War – Benedikt Korf, 2006,” SAGE Journals, accessed March 16, 2020,

[10] PERUMAL, C. A., and R. THANDAVAN. “ETHNIC VIOLENCE IN SRILANKA: CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES.” The Indian Journal of Political Science 50, no. 1 (1989): 1-17. Accessed March 16, 2020.

[11] Perera, “Political Development”, 142

[12] Thangarajah, Y. “Ethnicisation of the devolution debate and the militarization of civil society in northeastern Sri Lanka,” in Mayer, M., Rajasingam Senanayake, D. and Thangarajah, Y. ed. (2003), Building local capacities for peace: rethinking conflict and development in Sri Lanka, Macmillan Publishers, 15-36.

[13] Perumal and Thandavan, “Ethnic Violence,” 1-17. Refer also to Neil DeVotta, “South Asia Faces the Future: Illiberalism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka,” Journal of Democracy (Johns Hopkins University Press, January 1, 2002),

Cover Photo: Iouri Goussev, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

15 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of LTTE in Sri Lanka”

  1. Sundaram Venkateshwaran

    Good work in running through the general history of the Sri Lankan civil war. While you crafted the causes for the rise of LTTE pretty well, the fall of LTTE has not been dealt with similar care.
    “As an ideological response, Tamils began asserting their pure Dravidian race, whose ancestors were of Harappan civilizations of India and that they were the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka.” Is there a citation/source for this? I am not sure if there was migration during the time of Harappans. Although Tamils have the habit of retracting their history, a Tamil myself, never heard of drawing references from Harappan civilization. And drawing references from Harappa in West India need not necessarily mean much to be in Sri Lanka. I would love to hear on this from you.
    And I would like to point out two minor mistakes (typos probably), it is SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) not SLPF, and in the same para last line, “in 1958, 77 and 81” would fit better than “between 1958, 77 and 81”.

    1. The citation is: Shafi, A.T.M. Abdullahel and Harun-Or-Rashid, “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: A Critical Analysis”, International Journal of Research in Humanities, Arts, and Literature 1, no. 3 (2013): 17-34

      And thank you for pointing out the error in the abbreviation of the party. I will make that change.

  2. I’m not telling that war crimes did not happen. what i;m telling is that civilians won’t massacred. war crimes include broad range than killing civilians. for example if surrendered enemies were being killed if then it also a war crime. and there are evidences (like Isaipriya) that SL army did it. But however they did not civilian intentionally as you have written (and world is still believing).

  3. I would like to quote the observations by Paranagama commission report on the Darusman report. it’s a commission established by the president Mahinda Rajapasha in 15 August 2013, former Judge Maxwell P. Paranagama (Chairman), Mrs. Mano Ramanathan and Mrs. Suranjana Vidyaratne as members. Commission says about itself as follows:

    The Paranagama Commission has held public hearings in the North and East of Sri Lanka and has heard evidence in relation to approximately 2700 complaints relating to what will hereinafter be referred to as its First Mandate. The scope of the Commission’s mandate was expanded by Gazette notification on 15 July 2014 to address the facts and circumstances surrounding civilian loss of life and the question of the responsibility of any individual, group or institution for violations of international law during the conflict that ended in May 2009. Report of the commission was released in 2015 August.

    Here’s the paranagama commission’s observation of the Darusman report’s claim of 40 000 civilian deaths.

    The UN Country Team figure of 7,721 civilian deaths (up until 13 May 2009) is mentioned in the Darusman Report but then disputed without any explanation as to how it comes to be that over 30,000 people could thereafter have been killed within five days, if the figure of 40,000 is ever to be correct and accurate. The Darusman Report provides no concrete evidence to support its considerable leap from the UN Country Team’s figure of less than 10,000. This Commission takes the view that in light of what preceded and what followed this totally unsubstantiated estimate of the number of civilians killed, unsourced guess work has solidified into the factual acceptance of a myth. The mischief of this particular allegation of 40,000 civilian deaths becomes clear when there are other sources which give a lower estimate, but not all of the various competing accounts are mentioned in the Darusman Report. It is evident that the Darusman Panel consulted a variety of sources, but the evidence from these sources is not made available in the Report. In particular, the statements and other evidence (for example documents and videos, if any were produced by witnesses) of those who were interviewed and consulted were not submitted with the Report. Indeed, witness statements – assuming there were any – are not even quoted anonymously, contrary to the common practice in other authoritative reports of alleged international crimes committed in conflicts. In relation to the first No-Fire Zone (‘NFZ’), paragraphs 80-89 of the Report allege that the Government unlawfully shelled civilians. However, not a single source for this accusation is identified, except a footnote referring to a Government denial of the shelling. It appears that UN staff were present but there is no evidence provided from these persons whose need for absolute anonymity would be hard to justify if relied upon.

    The Commission rejects the Darusman Report’s finding that ‘a number of credible sources’ have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. None of these sources are named and this figure is at substantial variance with other estimates of casualty numbers…. (then gives the some of above estimations which I provided earlier)

    This Commission is satisfied that such is the spread of figures given for the loss of civilian life during the final phase of the conflict that crude calculations and guesswork in assigning civilian deaths to the SLA should not take the place of meticulous research. The Commission agrees with the independent Military Expert who asserts that the figure of 40,000 civilians killed is extremely difficult to sustain on the available evidence.

    1. It is interesting to refer to both of these conflicting commission reports. However, even the estimates of the UN commission reports have been substantially rejected by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch etc. They estimate higher civilian casualties. But, the issue with commission findings is the reliability. Had Indira Gandhi set up a Justice Shah commission time investigate the rule under Emergency, no one would ever take Shah Commission seriously. It is precisely that. I do not contest the figures provided by both of these commissions. But, I wouldn’t take them as a given. And that I would be sceptical about it. Having said that, I believe an independent investigation without the governmental investigation is essential as a part of post-war consensus and rebuilding of Sri Lankan society.

  4. You Write:
    “The Sri Lankan forces launched an offensive in East Sri Lanka, often massacring civilians, raping and violently killing in thousands, ended the civil war in May 2009.”

    You have not provide any reference for such a huge accusation. This undernines the credibility of your writing. But if you tell this to Tamil civilian or Even to a Former LTTE member he will inform you that they never saw such a massacre on civilians and rapes. But a rescue mission of Tamil civilians who were trapped in the grip of LTTE. I know world won’t believe, despite how many times Sri Lankans say what happened in their country. But please see following links, if you want evidence.


    1. I believe that the UN report on the 2009 crisis should give validity to my claims. There are multiple documentaries that portray human rights violation of Sinhalese soldiers at the end of the civil-war in Sri Lanka. I am a by-stander. I observe things as they seem to me. And my individual bias doesn’t really adds to it. Whereas, in your case, it does. You are trying to prove a point. Had you watched documentaries on the final days of civilwar, you would clearly/readily agree with my statement as a fact.

      Watch Channel 4’s documentary – Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields

      Authenticity of video was later approved by UN:

      Also read UN Human Rights Report on Sri Lankan War of 2009.

        1. Yesss, right. Citations are necessary. I should have done that. But, if I were to write an essay on World War-II, would you ask me to cite, had I written, “Hitler killed millions of Jews”. It is precisely that. Citing more than necessary also makes the work unreadable. Even as I say this, I still agree than I should have made an earnest attempt to cite it.

          1. Hitler did not hide what he did. so Hitlers crimes is a known fact. But Sri Lanka’s is still a debate. no one know what really happens in SL. it’s something needed to be investigated. until then no one tells war crimes of SL is a fact just like with Nazi Regime. However I want to know your opinion on former LTTE members who is saying that SL army treated them well ( If Sri lankan army killed civilians why former LTTE members grieve like this when retiring a SL Army Colonel ?(

            1. It is interesting! Thank you. I am not an expert on Sri Lanka. But, I have my own strong arguments, as I posed in the article, about rise of LTTE and its downfall with special emphasis on the political character of the state. The questions we are discussing it out of the scope of my investigation. But, it is interesting to confront these questions. Thank you for engaging!

what do you think of the above post?