Ethnic violence and antagonism are deeply rooted in Sri Lanka!

Gandhi’s attempt in Direct Military Intervention Against Sri Lanka 

(February 7, 2017, Boston — Hong Kong SAR, Sri Lanka Guardian) “Ethnic violence and antagonism are deeply rooted in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese and Tamils each think of themselves as a minority community”, a declassified CIA paper in which the department has attempted to understand the causes of the ethnically-based violence, noted.

“The Sinhalese, who constitute 74 percent of the population, view themselves as guardians of a unique language and culture and   as constantly under threat of submersion by the massive Indian presence on the subcontinent. They see Sri Lankan Tamils, who comprise 18 percent of the population, as fifth columnists for the 41 million Tamils in India only 30 kilometers across the Palk Strait,” the paper added.

According to the paper, “The Sinhala-speaking people of Sri Lanka have in­habited the island for more than 2,500 years and are an offshoot of the Indo-Aryan cultures that settled north India. Nearly constant war with the Tamil kingdoms of southern India, dynastic squabbling, recurrent drought, and European expansion forced the traditional culture from the coastal region to the mountainous region centered on Kandy and its environs.

Meanwhile, Ceylon Tamils, the paper noted, migrated to Sri Lanka in several waves during the last 1,000 years and are concentrated largely in the north and northeast parts of the island. They are important in mercantile and financial activities throughout the country and form a large proportion of the country’s professional classes. 


Sri Lanka: The Challenge of Communal Violence

President Jayewardene’s failure to deal with the demands of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority- 18 percent of the population- has brought the Tamils to the brink of open insurrection. In our judgment, Jayewardene, through his political maneuvering since his election in 1977, has contributed to the deterioration of communal relations by:

  • Failing to share political power with minority groups and reneging on other campaign promises made to the Tamil community.
  • Publicly announcing his commitment to his Sinhalese Buddhist constituency at the height of last summer’s communal riots.
  • Implementing punitive antiterrorism measures and failing to discipline security forces responsible for violence against Tamil civilians.

These actions have played into the hands of Tamil extremists. They have reduced the influence of Tamil moderates and  have converted  what  had been a demand for limited autonomy into an  insurgency  calling  for complete  separation  from  the  Sinhalese majority.

Most Tamils are aware that an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka is economically and politically untenable. Tamil demands probably would be satisfied by a federal structure that would guarantee Tamils control over security and economic development where they comprise the majority of the population.

Relations between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamils are complicated by the role of India. New Delhi probably will seek to exhaust its political options before intervening militarily in Sri Lanka because of concern about both Sinhalese retaliation against Tamils and its own international image. Prime Minister Gandhi, however, has made clear to Jayewardene her willingness to act forcefully if the situation in Sri Lanka deteriorates much further. We believe the Indian military over the last several month has improved its ability to mount operations against Sri Lanka. Moreover, New Delhi continues to provide support to Sri Lankan Tamil insurgents based in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Indian military intervention probably would be aimed at reducing anti­Tamil violence and forcing Colombo to accept a political settlement to the Sinhalese-Tamil problem. We believe it highly unlikely that New Delhi would seek long-term military involvement in Sri Lanka.

President Jayewardene remains immensely popular with Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority and probably would be returned to office in a popular election. Moreover, the political opposition is in disarray. In the event of the President’s death during the remaining four years of his term, his party can turn to several energetic and attractive young cabinet ministers who have the experience and caste background needed to win a national election, although they cannot expect to obtain the popular support that has been given Jayewardene. None of Jayewardene’s probable successors would be likely to offer major concessions to the Tamils for fear of losing Sinhalese support.

Jayewardene will attempt to portray a series of high-level exchanges and programs with the United States as indications of US support for his policies. His state visit to Washington in June will be the highlight of these exchanges.

Colombo’s failure to resolve the country’s communal problems makes US relations with all the countries of the region more difficult. New Delhi is sensitive to any potential involvement by the United States in the affairs of the region and will watch closely for the outcome of Jayewardene’s trip to Washington. Although the assertion has been officially denied several times, Prime Minister Gandhi apparently continues to believe the United States is seeking to gain port facilities at Trincomalee for the US Navy.

The ethnic violence between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority that raged throughout Sri Lanka last summer reopened old communal wounds and revealed new tension that threatens the stability of President Jayewardene’s government. Jayewardene has made only halfhearted efforts to achieve communal reconciliation and increasingly has shown himself ready to take repressive measures against the Tamils. The increased violence has damaged relations between India and Sri Lanka and threatens to harm US interests in the region. 

The Cultural Setting

Ethnic violence and antagonism are deeply rooted in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese and Tamils each think of themselves as a minority community, according to scholarly accounts.

The Sinhalese, who constitute 74 percent of the population, view themselves as guardians of a unique language and culture and    as constantly under threat of submersion by the massive Indian presence on the subcontinent. They see Sri Lankan Tamils, who comprise 18 percent of the population, as fifth columnists for the 41 million Tamils in India only 30 kilometers across the Palk Strait.

Sri Lankan Tamils, who note that their community has lived on the island for more than a millennium, are proud of the evolution of their culture and language. Although conscious of the Tamil community in south India, they view Sri Lanka as their traditional homeland.

The Sinhalese

The Sinhala-speaking people of Sri Lanka have in­habited the island for more than 2,500 years and are an offshoot of the Indo-Aryan cultures that settled north India. Nearly constant war with the Tamil kingdoms of southern India, dynastic squabbling, recurrent drought, and European expansion forced the traditional culture from the coastal region to the mountainous region centered on Kandy and its environs.

Ceylon Tamils

Ceylon Tamils migrated to Sri Lanka in several waves during the last 1,000 years and are concentrated largely in the north and northeast parts of the island. They are important in mercantile and financial activities throughout the country and form a large proportion of the country’s professional classes.

Buddhism and Buddhist Institutions in Sri Lanka

Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka from India in the third century BC and through the patronage of ruling dynasties rapidly became the dominant religion of the country. The Theravada School became the established religion of the court by the medieval period. Theravada Buddhism also is practiced in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and parts of Vietnam. Religious missions and visits over the centuries have fostered warm relations among these countries              

Under colonial rule the country’s Buddhist institutions came under increasing attack. By the end of the 19th century the British had nearly destroyed the traditional social structure that maintained the clergy. Schools, lands, and other sources of revenue passed into the hands of the Colonial Office.

Buddhism began to reestablish itself in the country in the first decades of this century. Various nationalist groups renounced the trappings of colonialism and began to foster a resurgence of traditional Sinhalese culture, including support to the Buddhist clergy and the social institutions of the religion.

With independence in 1948, Buddhism started to reassert its influence as the reservoir of Sinhalese language and custom. The number of monks in the country grew rapidly, the traditional system of monk­ teachers in the schools reappeared, and monks began to enter new fields such as politics, medicine, and government service. Monks began to be seen as nationalist leaders and to gain fame for their impassioned public sermons calling for the establishment of Sinhala as the national language. The apex of Buddhist monk involvement in national politics occurred in 1959 when, at the height of the “Sinhala Only” movement, a radical monk assassinated Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike.     

In Sri Lanka today Buddhism plays a profound role in shaping the social and political thinking of the Sinhalese. The resurgence of the religion in the last few decades coupled with the political utility of identifying the Sinhalese people, the Sinhala language, and the Sinhalese homeland as a rallying point are powerful factors increasing the polarization of the Tamil and Sinhalese communities

The Tamils’ group identity is maintained through use of Tamil as their mother tongue and by observing certain distinctive features of caste and custom.

Scholars note that Ceylon Tamils, aware that they share their language and customs with the much larger Tamil community of south India and with the substantial Tamil communities of Africa and South­ East Asia, lack the sense of isolation and insularity exhibited by the Sinhalese.  Ceylon Tamils are more than 90 percent Hindu.

Indian Tamils

The “Indian Tamils” form a distinct segment of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population. Most are descendants of the agricultural laborers from south India recruited during British rule to work on tea plantations in the central highlands.  Isolated physically from the rest of the country’s Tamils, they are generally members of low Hindu castes and do not identify with Ceylon Tamils. Indian Tamils are represented in the government by the head of their trade union. They have not been actively involved in the country’s communal conflicts.

Roots of Communal Violence

When the British turned the country over to an elected government composed of Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim representatives in 1948, the overriding concern of all ethnic communities was to achieve a unified and independent nation. The coalition that formed the first government agreed to postpone until after independence nagging question concerning relations between the communal groups.

Following independence, political constituencies formed increasingly along ethnic lines. A party’s electoral success grew in proportion to its ability to appeal to particular ethnic or religious groups. Each succeeding election campaign was marked by progressively more strident stands on communal issues and more frequent outbreaks of communal violence.

By the general election of 1956–only eight years after independence-Sinhalese-dominated parties had gained control of the government and driven the small Tamil parties out of the mainstream of political life. Sporadic efforts to find political formulas to reduce communal tensions have been largely unsuccessful, in our view, because of mutual suspicions and continuing appeals by most politicians to ethnic antagonisms to build electoral support.


The increasing rigidity of communal politics and the continuing failure of the central government to respond to communal demands, in our view, have fostered the growth of radicalism, terrorism, and violence. Disaffected Tamil youths formed terrorist “Tiger” organizations in the mid-1970s, which have been responsible for bombings, robberies, and political assassinations. Faced with the threat of personal violence as well as their constituents’ longstanding distrust of the Sinhalese, many Tamil politicians have been compelled to take an increasingly hard line in communal negotiations.  On the Sinhalese side, youths, often encouraged by chauvinistic politicians, have formed secret gangs to terrorize local Tamils and organize communal riots.

The two communities have remained at loggerheads over intertwined issues of federalism and access to the benefits of modernization. The Tamils, according to Embassy and scholarly reports, have become convinced that they should have both an autonomous homeland with control over security forces and access to more economic development projects. The Sinha­ lese, in contrast, will allow no division of their island homeland and do not want to cede control over national development projects.

The ethnic animosity between the two groups burst to the surface in July 1983, when the worst communal riots in Sri Lanka’s history left more than 400 Tamils dead and thousands homeless. Gangs of Sinhalese, sometimes assisted by Army troops and policemen, attacked Tamils, their homes, and their businesses.

Many local observers believe that government officials, perhaps including some cabinet ministers, aided and encouraged the rampage.

The riots badly damaged the ability of President Jayewardene to mediate ethnic demands. Jayewardene had attracted a large number of Tamil voters in the election in 1977 with promises to create a system of regional development and administrative councils in Tamil areas-a promise that was never fulfilled. Faced with the evidence of the depth of Sinhalese communal feelings during the riots, the President, in our view, chose to save his own political position. He did little during the first days of violence. Moreover, according to press accounts, Jayewardene’s initial speech after the riots referred only to the needs of the “Sinhalese people”-he failed to mention the suffering of the Tamil victims.

Following the riots, the President appeared to align himself even more closely with the Sinhalese. According to press and Embassy reports, Jayewardene pushed through Parliament constitutional changes outlawing any political party calling for partition of the country, in effect disenfranchising the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which represents the moderate Tamil view. The President and his closest advisers in early August allowed Sinhalese chauvinist groups to begin moving landless Sinhalese farmers into the choice lands of the Mahaweli Irrigation Project, an area traditionally claimed by Tamil peasants. Following an outcry by Tamil leaders, Jayewardene declared the land would again become state property, but new apportionment schemes clearly will give much of the land to the Sinhalese.

The President’s convening of an all-parties conference in December 1983 was an obvious response to demands from New Delhi and elsewhere that efforts be made at communal reconciliation. The TULF was excluded, however, and the effort has been plagued by walkouts and boycotts staged by representatives of both the Tamil and Sinhalese communities. The conference has held intermittent meetings for more than five months, but, in our view, it has served primarily as a sounding board for venting ethnic grievances

Jayewardene has carefully avoided identifying himself or his party with any of the recommendations proposed at the conference. He has effectively put distance between himself and any discussion hinting at the creation of a regional or federal administrative system for Tamil majority areas. According to US Embassy reporting, both Jayewardene’s United National Party (UNP) and the major Sinhalese opposition party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of ex-Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, fear getting too far ahead of their conservative Sinhalese Buddhist constituencies. The SLFP walked out of the talks in an apparent effort to portray itself as the staunchest defender of the traditional Buddhist electorate. Leaders of the three major Buddhist lay organizations walked out a week later.

The failure of the conference was followed by a resurgence in communal violence during the spring of 1984. Since February, Tamil Tiger attacks have increased against isolated military outposts

In the first insurgent action against foreigners in Sri Lanka, an American couple connected with a US  AID project in Jaffna was kidnaped for five days in May before being released unharmed. Their abduc­ tors identified themselves as members of the People’s Liberation Army, the militant Marxist-Leninist fac­ tion of the most radical insurgent group. According to the group’s spokesman in Madras, the kidnaping was an attempt to focus international attention on the plight of the “oppressed Tamil people of Sri Lanka” and to highlight their claim that US intelligence forces were assisting Jayewardene in repressing Tam­ils.

We believe current Tamil sentiment is that Jayewar­ dene has made no serious effort to meet moderate Tamil demands for limited economic and political autonomy for Tamil majority areas, equal use of Tamil and Sinhala languages in national affairs, or guarantees of equality of communal groups in govern­ mental hiring and education. Recent US travelers to Tamil areas found wide support for the Tigers and no optimism about a political settlement.


We believe the frustrations of the last year have convinced even moderate Tamils they must press for a separate homeland with the hope of achieving  at  least a federal relationship with Colombo. According to Embassy reports,  the ferocity  of last summer’s  riots and the continuing intransigence of Sinhalese representatives at the bargaining table have pushed  the Tamils into a political corner. At the very least, we assess that most Tamils believe they must  have control of the security forces in Tamil majority areas and management of national development programs that affect  Tamils.



The India Factor

Prime Minister Gandhi, in our view, believes ethnic violence in Sri Lanka can have serious repercussions for India as well as her own political future. Colom­bo’s handling of last summer’s violence has heightened Indian concern about Sri Lanka’s commitment to protect its Tamil minority. We believe New Delhi seeks stability in Sri Lanka and at the same time is under pressure from the Tamils in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu to protect Sri Lankan Tamils.

Although Prime Minister Gandhi has used her good offices to bring together representatives of the Tamil separatists and the central government ……………….. New Delhi is also granting sanctuary to Sri Lankan Tamil insurgents in Tamil Nadu and has permitted the creation of numerous training camps near New Delhi, Madras, and elsewhere in the country

We believe New Delhi’s support for Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatists probably is an effort to control a movement it cannot eradicate. Gandhi cannot move against Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu without risking the loss of Indian Tamil votes in this election year. Moreover, New Delhi sees its involvement with Tamil insurgents as an important adjunct to India’s

The specter of a trained force of Tamil insurgents in Tamil Nadu responsive to New Delhi, however, complicates Jayewardene’s efforts to maintain a dialogue between the two communities.  In our judgment, Tamil separatists believe New Delhi backs their efforts and are likely to raise the level of violence to   bring about a Sinhalese backlash.

…………….. their leaders believe a repetition of last summer’s violence would  draw  India  into the struggle  and  secure partition of the  country.

Gandhi wants to forestall intervention in Sri Lanka by the superpowers. Indian officials reacted with dismay last summer after hearing of Sri Lanka’s thinly veiled pleas for security help from several countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Within days of the outbreak of violence, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister had asked for US support for the Jayewardene government, including weapons, training in anti-guerrilla techniques, and a show of force by the US Navy. Each of these suggestions was rejected by Washington, and Jayewardene subsequently denied ever having made them. 

The Possibility of Indian Intervention

New Delhi is preparing for the possibility of direct military intervention. In the aftermath of the ethnic violence in Sri Lanka last summer, India’s Defense Council, chaired by Prime Minister Gandhi, considered various military options for dealing with another serious outbreak of rioting on the island.

We judge that Gandhi considers any one of the following possible scenarios as serious enough to justify increased Indian diplomatic pressure on Co­lombo and, if unsuccessful, direct military intervention:

  • Large numbers of Tamil refugees leaving Sri Lanka for sanctuary in Tamil Nadu,  thereby  destabilizing the state and  straining  relations  between  Madras and  New Delhi.
  • Large-scale internal disorders that would  threaten to attract foreign intervention from within or out­ side South  Asia.
  • Human rights abuses by the government that would increase pressure from Indian Tamils on New  Delhi.
  • Increasingly large numbers of Sri Lankan Tamils receiving foreign terrorist support (PLO, Libya) and then transiting  or  basing  in south India.
  • Any sign that Sri Lankan Tamil separatism would trigger a  resurgence  of separatism  in Tamil Nadu.

The Indian Navy, in our view, can launch a small amphibious assault force against Sri Lanka on short notice. We estimate that the Navy’s six modern Soviet landing ships and four Indian-produced utility landing craft can move, in a single lift, one fully equipped infantry battalion and some supporting armor.

Sri Lanka’s 25,000-man military (active duty and reserve personnel combined), in our view, could offer only token resistance to an amphibious invasion by India. They are primarily an internal security force, understaffed and ill equipped. The Army has few armored personnel carriers; the Navy has only small patrol craft; the  Air  Force has  no combat   aircraft.


In our opinion, the likelihood of a peaceful resolution  of the tensions that divide Sri Lankan society  is   rapidly diminishing. Younger and more militant communal leaders of both communities, raised in a post­ colonial atmosphere emphasizing ethnic differences, are less ready to compromise and more prone to violence. We believe Jayewardene’s June visit to the United States will most likely trigger a new round of Tamil insurgent activity and Sinhalese retaliation and again raise the possibility of Indian intervention.

Jayewardene, faced with the intransigence of his Sinhalese constituency, will make no real concessions. The government may offer a new form of district development councils to give the appearance of conciliation, but we believe the Tamil politicians will not accept any proposal that does not include substantial local autonomy, including control of police and security forces in predominantly Tamil areas.

We see no evidence that Jayewardene’s rule is threat­ened or that any of his potential successors have actively challenged  his authority  as a  result of last summer’s disturbances. Although several members of the President’s United National Party have been building political constituencies, in our view none has the wide range of caste and community support that Jayewardene can still call upon. Moreover, none of the President’s potential successors is likely to risk loss of Sinhalese support by advocating a change in communal policy sufficient to satisfy even moderate Tamils.


We believe that India will seek to exhaust political options before taking military action. Prime Minister Gandhi has not yet raised the issue of human rights for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority in the meetings of the Nonaligned Movement or the United Nations, nor has New Delhi responded to the demands by the govern­ment of Tamil Nadu to mount an investigation into Sri Lanka’s communal affairs.  We judge that Gandhi is aware that military intervention might provoke widespread attacks by Sinhalese against Tamils be­fore Indian forces could consolidate control. An Indian military move also would blemish New Delhi’s credentials in the Nonaligned Movement and damage relations with Pakistan, which would see the intervention as yet another example of India’s determination to exercise hegemony in the region.

Implications for the United States

Jayewardene has been trying to embroil the United States in Sri Lanka’s affairs.  During last summer’s riots Colombo requested US security assistance including weapons, small river craft, and advisers. (Some of these weapons would have been useful beyond immediate internal security needs.) According to the US Embassy, the initial request has been followed by several suggestions from Jayewardene that a friendship treaty would be to the advantage of both countries Jayewardene also is attempting to portray a series of high-level visits and programs as support for his government.  Jayewardene will make a state visit to the United States in June. He also has welcomed the US Peace Corps back to the country and supported an increase in Voice of America activities on the   island.

Increased identification with Jayewardene at  this time could damage US prestige in the region and in parts of the Third World. It could be perceived by other small ethnic groups as acceptance by the United States of the use of repression against minorities.

Moreover, elements of the highly politicized Tamil minority in Sri Lanka might even turn to the Soviet Union for support. The terrorists who abducted two American citizens in Jaffna in May 1984 invoked  leftist rhetoric in their public statements. Finally, Tamil-speaking minorities are politically active in several countries-Singapore, Canada,  Malaysia,  and the United States-and might  attempt  to  bring  political pressure to bear  against  the United States as well  as Sri  Lanka  in  international forums.

Ironically, both the Tamil and Sinhalese communities seek to control the harbor at Trincomalee because they believe that the port will provide a bargaining chip in dealing with the United States. Despite repeated denials by prominent US officials, both the Tamil and Sinhala press have frequently reported that the United States wants to use Trincomalee  as a  naval station.

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