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The Story of Sri Lankan Tamils: A Walk Down the Tragic Memory Lane

Sri Lankan Tamils

This article is about the story of the people that my heart aches to think. It is about the war crimes against Tamils in Sri Lanka. I know I’m not a Sri Lankan, but I do think there are certain reasons why I have the right to talk about it. Firstly, I was barely a 9-year-old when the 26 year long Sri Lankan civil war ended with the declaration of the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan military defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on 18th May 2009. I saw my parents furious with rage, extremely worried about the unfolding events in Lanka. I did not understand back then; the city was filled with posters of a kid, unjustly killed by the Sri Lankan military on the last day of cross fire. The sight is still fresh and tragic, how thousands mourned for losing not just that kid, but thousands of Tamil lives lost in the war’s course. My parents did not let me sit along with them to watch graphic footage that played on news that came live from Sri Lanka, I knew something was bad. As I grew up, I slowly understood the true chronicle of the issue. How the Sri Lankan Civil War was long, brutal, and saw no mercy.

Secondly, the Sri Lankan Tamil community can be divided into native Tamil, and the Indian/upcountry Tamil, while the former and the latter comprise 11.14 and 4.12 percent of the total population, respectively. The dawn of Tamil Community in Sri Lanka was marked during the beginning of the 4th century A.D., that is approximately 1600 years ago. Between the 4th and 8th Century A.D. several South Indian kings ruled northern parts of Sri Lanka. The 9th Century saw the Chola empire rising in power as it ruled the shores of northern Lanka. During the 13th to 16th century, the Pandyan empire established and ruled the Jaffna kingdom. The descendants of these Tamil Kingdoms are the native Tamils. And the Indian Tamils are the progeny of the people who were sent as laborers from Tamil Nadu to work in the tea, coffee, and rubber plantations in the 19th and 20th Century. Some also naturally migrated from India, hoping for better chances of business. Hence the ancestry of the 100 million (approx) Tamils across the world is tied, thus creating a sense of oneness. 

The memories of war still haunt the island, as she witnessed wrongdoings in many aspects after independence from the British government in 1948. The incompatibilities between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil ethnic groups that slowly developed over the course of many decades reached its peak and led to prolonged tension and clashes between the two parties, which eventually grew into a fight for quenching the thirst of power and dignity. The two parties were naturally threatened by each other, thus the idea of Tamil Eelam, a separate independent state for Tamils, was born. Although, the two groups already did live in fairly distinct spheres of the island. The only group to solely prevail as the representative of the Tamils was Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (தமிழீழ விடுதலைப் புலிகள்) led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, a name that is familiar in Tamil households. The war officially began in July 1983, after the insurgency against the government roused anti-Tamil riots that left thousands dead and displaced out of homes. In the span of 26 years, the UN estimated 40,000 Tamil civilian deaths alone in the 5 months before the war’s end in 2009, and the total number of lives the war cost exceeds 100,000. 

In December 2001, a cease-fire agreement was declared to this long negotiated conflict that went on for over 2 decades, including the Indian intervention by the deployment of the Indian Army and Indian Peace Keeping Force. This held peace for a short while, but violence resumed again with LTTE suicide bombing in Colombo in 2004. The war escalated, the government announced withdrawal of the cease-fire agreement and went on an outright war against the LTTE, alleging violations of the agreement by the Tigers. The government militant force clearly outnumbered the LTTE forces, and they finally surrendered in May 2009, marking the war’s end. Leader Prabhakaran was killed, the LTTE was officially defeated by the Sri Lankan government, and the Sri Lankan Prime Minister who led the war during this time was Mahindra Rajapaksa.

The war period didn’t supposedly become a memory that people would want to remember. The horror lingers like a song lyric that you long forgot, but still struggling to forget the emotions it inflicted on you. It stings every time you think about it. When two parties begin an all-out battle against each other, the price of this fighting is usually paid in terms of innocent civilian lives. In the final weeks that saw the end of the civil war, more than 20,000 Tamil civilians were killed by the government shelling. The people were massacred in their shelters, which was insisted by the government authorities as a ‘no fire zone.’ The UN passed a resolution to investigate human rights violations and war crimes by the Sri Lankan government, which the government entirely refused to accept. But the official documents, aerial photographs, witness accounts and testimonies suggested otherwise. Wide spread shelling led to persecution of most of the population of Vanni (a northern province); the civilians were trapped and kept as hostages, heavy weapons were used on the safe zones. Hospitals, food distribution lines, red cross ships were shelled. Medical aid, food supplies, proper sanitation and care was cut from the civilians in the conflict zones. Thousands went missing, died anonymously, bodies never found, just gone. Tamil people taken for screening of weapons were simply executed, while women were robbed of their honor and raped. The camps were sites of interrogation and torture, people faced abuse physically and mentally. The Tigers, although not as much as the Sri Lankan government, did have their own share of disrupting the calm in the state. They used civilians as human shields, young boys were armed and forced to fight along, they didn’t stop suicide bombing even during the final stages. The government spared no mercy on the lives of innocents, and the Tigers kept on seeking revenge through violence, which ultimately led to their doom. Leader Prabhakaran was killed, and things got worse when it was followed by the killing of Balachandran Prabhakaran, his 12-year-old son. That kid took 5 bullets to his chest and died. In his speech in June 2010, President Rajapaksa declared that the Sri Lankan soldiers did not harm one civilian. He added, “our troops carried a gun in one hand and a copy of the human rights charter in the other.” To which the US State officials replied, “The US has strong, credible allegations of evidence of atrocities during the prosecution of the war against the Tamil Tigers.”

“There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.” 

-Sun Tzu, The Art of War (Chinese General and Strategist)

War can never be the true solution to any disputes. Justifying violence with reasons that are morally just can not be counted reasonable. Although it is said that killing enemy soldiers on a battlefiled following the war rules is not considered as murder, it involves killing people, which is a form of human rights violation. Violence is never the cure, it may superficially arrest the issues, but the problem will soon revert back more powerful than before. Blood will keep demanding blood endlessly, and the loss of life, property, energy and time is never worth it, it benefits nobody here.

I often think about how this comfortable life of mine is just a matter of the side I was born in. Had I been a Tamil across the great ocean, my story could have been altered, or maybe I wouldn’t even have made it till here to tell my story. The war stories will always echo in my heart as it continues to mourn for the innocent lives lost.

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