Briefing: Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger conflict

Questions and answers on the 26-year insurgency that appears to be over.

By , Asia editor

Sri Lanka reached a milestone this week in its 26-year war with the rebel Tamil Tigers: The group admitted defeat Sunday in its battle for a separate homeland for the island’s ethnic Tamil minority. The Army dealt the Tigers another potential blow Monday when it claimed to have killed their chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, among other leaders. (Click here to read why Prabhakaran’s death would be a major loss for the group.)

Here’s a primer on the South Asia conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people. Who are the Tamil Tigers? Why has the FBI labeled them “among the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world”? Is this the end of the Tamil resistance movement?

Why the fighting?

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Conflict between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese ethnic majority (74 percent of the population) and Tamil minority (18 percent) erupted in the 1970s. That’s when some Tamils – who had long decried discrimination by the Sinhalese dominating the country – began calling for a separate homeland and forming armed groups.

Who are the Tamil Tigers?

The Tamil Tigers – formally called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (“eelam” means homeland) – established itself as the most powerful separatist group. It claimed to represent all the island’s Tamils, though they have terrorized some of those same people and forcibly recruited some, including children.

As militants organizations go, the LTTE has distinguished itself in a number of ways:

They’re the first group to use suicide belts or deploy women as suicide bombers, according to the FBI.
They’re the only group to have assassinated two world leaders – a president of Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe Premadasa, in 1993, and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
They’re the only armed separatist group with all three military wings – air, land, and sea – although the air force consists of pretty rudimentary light aircraft.
Thirty-two countries have labeled the Tigers a terrorist organization.

Did the two sides ever try peace talks?

Tamil leader Prabhakaran brought the Tigers to the negotiating table in the mid-1990s and again in 2002 under a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire. But he was unwilling to settle for anything less than a homeland. Thousands of Tamils had died for the cause and “their deaths cannot be in vain,” he told an Indian reporter. There was plenty of ill feeling on the government’s side, too, though experts say the 2002 ceasefire had the support of many political elites. Subsequent peace talks failed to elicit an agreement on power sharing, though, and all-out fighting resumed in 2006.

Western countries that had listed the LTTE as terrorists saw the group as a spoiler. “The international community felt badly done by the Tigers after putting a lot of effort and money into the peace process,” says Alan Keenan, senior analyst in Colombo for the International Crisis Group.

One of Prabharakan’s senior lieutenants defected in 2004 in what he says was frustration over his leader's intransigence. Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, who commanded LTTE combatants in the east, says he gave up on the struggle when Prabhakaran told his negotiators to reject an offer of federalism. “I told him, ‘This is a good time to stop this. A federal situation is a very powerful solution,’ ” says Mr. Muralitharan, who is now a government minister in Colombo.

Where will the Tamil independence movement go from here?

Moderate Tamils might seek autonomy through elections. The Tamil diaspora may put funds behind a new armed resistance movement. Already Tamils in Britain, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere have shown their support by staging protests – thousands turned out in London and hundreds in Washington Monday. Some of the Tamil Tigers may have escaped and could reorganize under new leadership and carry on the fight, although on a much smaller scale.

In any event, it’s widely agreed that the conflict can only end with a political deal for the ethnic Tamils, given the deep divisions between the two sides.

Another pressing concern is the rising humanitarian crisis: Some 8,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting since late January, according to estimates from the United Nations and health officials. Some 265,000 have fled the war zone in recent months, according to the UN refugee agency. (See the Monitor’s report about the camps where they’ve taken refugee here.) The international community has accused both the Army and the rebels of killing civilians, especially in the final weeks of battle. On Monday the European Union called for an independent investigation into alleged war crimes on both sides.

Correspondent Simon Montlake contributed reporting.

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