The fate of Sri Lanka's Tamils after the Tigers
The LTTE rebels may be gone, but what about their fight for a homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority?
Who are the Tamils?Skip to next paragraph
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The Tamils are a minority with deep roots in the north of the island nation of Sri Lanka and kinship ties to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which lies across a narrow sea channel. A separate group of Tamils arrived later from India as laborers during British rule and are known as Indian Tamils. Together they make up around 18 percent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people, with the Sinhalese majority making up 74 percent. Largely Hindu, the Tamils live mostly in the north and east, the area claimed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), though large numbers live in Colombo, the capital. Since the 1980s, Tamil emigration has created an influential diaspora in Britain, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere that exceeds 800,000 people.
What do they want?
After Sri Lanka's independence in 1948, Tamil elites excelled in English-language education and government service. Sinhalese felt excluded, and their political leaders sought to redress the balance, only to sow the seeds of civil war. The 1956 "Sinhala Only" law that promoted the majority tongue was a turning point. Ethnic relations soured, and Tamils began agitating for a federal state. By the 1970s, this demand had shifted to calls for a separate homeland and armed groups emerged in Jaffna.
Tamil intellectuals say the dream of an independent state is still strong, but decades of war and upheaval have soured many ordinary Tamils on the idea. A properly managed devolution of power and a retreat by Sinhalese extremists, who insist that Sri Lanka should be a Sinhalese Buddhist island, would probably tamp down the homeland cause.
Both communities urgently need to build bridges, says Kumar Nadesan, managing director of Express Newspapers, publisher of Sri Lanka's oldest Tamil-language newspaper. "The polarization is not just on one side. It's both sides," he says.
What role did the Tigers play?
The Tamil Tigers, as the LTTE is known, was one of several armed Tamil groups set up in the 1970s. In 1983, militants ambushed a military convoy in Jaffna and killed 13 soldiers. Sinhalese in Colombo responded with a massive anti-Tamil pogrom that killed thousands and drove many more to flee in terror. Tamil militants recruited angry youths seeking vengeance and began fighting the military, with covert funding and training from India.
The LTTE emerged as the most ruthless and effective organization, led by Vullupillai Prabhakaran, who insisted on strict discipline and trained a suicide cadre. After repelling Indian peacekeepers deployed in 1987-90, the LTTE eliminated its rivals and declared itself to be the sole voice of Tamil nationalism.