By: Dhivyan Karunakaran – College Chapter Relations Coordinator (Mid-Atlantic)
On May 18, 2009, Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war ended with a bloodbath in a village called Mullivaikkal in the northern part of the island. During the final few months of the war alone, tens of thousands of Tamil civilians, who are mostly Hindu, were massacred by the Sri Lankan military, which is dominated by the island’s Sinhala-Buddhist majority. As a 10-year-old Hindu American of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage living in Maryland, I spent my weekends in May 2009 in front of the White House desperately demanding international intervention to stop the mass killings of Tamils in northern Sri Lanka. At each protest, I carried a placard I made that said, “President Obama, help suffering Tamil children!” The catastrophic humanitarian crisis in northern Sri Lanka received almost no attention from the American media. A couple days after the war ended on May 18, 2009, I finally saw a couple national evening news broadcasts briefly reporting that a civil war in Sri Lanka had come to an end with a government victory. However, they only showed videos of men dancing on the streets of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, lighting firecrackers, and proudly waving Sri Lankan flags. There was no mention of the massive loss of life that was taking place in northern Sri Lanka, almost as if those lives didn’t really matter. Watching those men celebrating as their fellow citizens were being slaughtered was heartbreaking and painful.
For some background, the two largest ethnic groups in Sri Lanka are the Sinhalese, who form about 74% of Sri Lanka’s population, and the Sri Lankan Tamils (also known as Eelam Tamils), who form about 11% of the island’s population. Other ethnic groups on the island include Sri Lankan Muslims/Moors and Indian Tamils whose ancestors came from South India during British rule. The Sinhalese speak Sinhala, and the other three ethnic groups speak Tamil. In regards to religion, about 93% of the Sinhalese are Buddhists, and about 80% of Sri Lankan Tamils are Hindus. The remaining Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils practice Christainity. Tamils have traditionally inhabited the northern and eastern parts of the island. The Sinhalese have been the dominant ethnic group in the rest of the island.
In 1948, Sri Lanka gained independence from Great Britain. Since the British gave the Sinhalese control of the government in a unitary state structure, successive Sri Lankan governments governed in ways that elevated the Sinhala-Buddhist identity and treated Tamils as second-class citizens. For instance, the Sri Lankan government made Sinhala the sole official language of the country, incited anti-Tamil pogroms, significantly restricted Tamils’ enrollment in universities, and gave Buddhism “the foremost place” in Sri Lanka’s constitution. Tamils attempted to peacefully resist these aggressions through political negotiations and nonviolent protests, but these efforts largely failed and were often brutally suppressed.
In 1981, the Sri Lankan police and government-sponsored paramilitaries burned down the Jaffna Public Library in northern Sri Lanka, which was one of the largest libraries in Asia at the time and the pre-eminent repository of written Tamil culture in Sri Lanka. The entrance of the library had a Saraswati murti which welcomed visitors seeking knowledge, and the library contained many Hindu texts including miniature editions of the Ramayana and various palm-leaf manuscripts. The burning of the Jaffna Public Library is one of the most notable examples of biblioclasm in recent human history, and many Tamils view it as an act of cultural genocide. Although the Jaffna Public Library has since been rebuilt, the treasures of the original library are lost forever.
Escalating marginalization of the Tamil people culminated in the deadly Black July anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983. In cities across the island, government-sponsored mobs burned thousands of homes and businesses owned by Tamils. The mobs carried voter registration lists which helped them identify Tamil-owned buildings. Between July 24 and July 30 of 1983, an estimated 3,000 Tamil civilians were killed. Many members of my own family, including my father, fled their homes which were burned. My grandfather was brutally assaulted by police officers who were supporting the rioters. The International Commission of Jurists described the pogrom as “a genocide” in a report published in December 1983. To this day, not a single person has been held accountable for the horrors that took place in Black July.
In response to the increasingly oppressive and violent nature of the Sri Lankan state, Tamils formed several militant groups with the goal of forming a separate country called Tamil Eelam in the northern and eastern parts of the island. This, along with the burning of the Jaffna Public Library and Black July, led to the beginning of Sri Lanka’s civil war between the Sri Lankan military and Tamil militant groups in 1983. Over time, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) emerged as the strongest and most ruthless militant group. During the civil war, which was mostly fought in the north and east, between 800,000 and 1 million Tamils fled Sri Lanka and sought refuge in countries such as Canada, the UK, and India.
One aspect of the Sri Lankan Civil War that is often overlooked is attacks on Hindu temples by the Sri Lankan military. The Sri Lankan government’s own Department of Hindu and Cultural Affairs estimates that 1,479 Hindu temples were destroyed in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka between 1983 and 1990 alone. A few notable attacks on Hindu temples by the Sri Lankan military include the burning of the Selva Channithy Murugan Temple chariot in 1986, the repeated aerial bombardments of the Naguleswaram Temple in 1990, and the vandalism of the Thiruketheeswaram Temple in 1990. The Naguleswaram Temple and Thiruketheeswaram Temple are considered to be two of the Pancha Ishwarams, or five abodes of Lord Shiva, which have ancient significance dating back to the Ramayana.
In September 2008, the Sri Lankan government began to prepare for a major offensive that would militarily crush the LTTE. During that month, the Sri Lankan government ordered journalists and international humanitarian organizations, such as the UN, to leave the war zone in northern Sri Lanka. The purpose of this was clear: to make sure there were no independent witnesses to what was about to happen. From January 2009 through May 2009, which were by far the most deadly months of the war, the Sri Lankan government declared “no-fire zones” where hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians gathered to avoid fighting between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE. After concentrating Tamil civilians in these tight strips of land, the Sri Lankan military systematically and repeatedly shelled these safety zones. Additionally, even though the International Committee of the Red Cross provided coordinates of hospitals to the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to ensure they would not be targeted, the Sri Lankan military used these coordinates to systematically and repeatedly destroy the hospitals in the war zone by means of aerial bombardment. The Sri Lankan government even restricted humanitarian aid, such as food and medicine, to Tamil civilians. Furthermore, the Sri Lankan armed forces stand accused of rampant sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, and torture during these months. By May 18, 2009, the LTTE had been militarily defeated and eventually ceased to exist. Tens of thousands of Tamils who surrendered to the government, some affiliated with the LTTE and some not, were loaded in Sri Lankan government vehicles and taken away. Their whereabouts remain unknown today. According to the UN, Sri Lanka has the world’s second highest number of enforced disappearances.
The number of Tamil civilians who died during the final months of the civil war is often disputed, mainly because independent witnesses were not allowed in the war zone and the whereabouts of the disappeared civilians remain unknown. A UN report in 2011 initially estimated that 40,000 Tamil civilians died during the months of January to May 2009, but an internal UN report in 2012 revised that estimate to at least 70,000 civilians. Population data from the World Bank indicates that over 100,000 Tamils remain unaccounted for from the final months of the war. The UN and international human rights organizations have accused the Sri Lankan government of committing grave war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final months of the war. Benjamin Dix, a former UN staffer in northern Sri Lanka during the war said, “it is very fair to say that the (Sri Lankan) Army committed genocide” against the Tamil people.
On the other hand, the LTTE was notorious for its frequent use of suicide bombers which often targeted civilians and its forced recruitment of child soldiers. During the final months of the war, the LTTE held over 300,000 Tamil civilians hostage and shot several civilians who attempted to flee LTTE-controlled areas. The LTTE was responsible for numerous war crimes which have been internationally recognized, and the LTTE contributed to the carnage that unfolded in northern Sri Lanka in 2009. However, it should be noted that the vast majority of deaths in the final months of the war were caused by the Sri Lankan military. Moreover, unlike militant groups, governments have a fundamental responsibility to protect all their civilians regardless of their ethnicity or religion. In 2009, the Sri Lankan government not only failed to protect Tamil civilians but deliberately murdered tens of thousands of them.
Each year on May 18, which is known as Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day, Tamils in Sri Lanka and around the world remember those who were killed or disappeared in 2009. Although Mullivaikkal is the name of the village where the war ended, today the term ‘Mullivaikkal’ refers to all the mass atrocities that were perpetrated against the Tamil people at the end of the war. In Sri Lanka, efforts to mourn the Mullivaikkal massacre are often suppressed by the Sri Lankan state, which has increasingly militarized the northern part of the island since the end of the armed conflict. Last year, for example, a Mullivaikkal memorial monument at the University of Jaffna was bulldozed in compliance with orders from the government.
Even though the civil war ended in 2009, Tamils in Sri Lanka continue to face persecution today. Sinhala-Buddhist extremists, often in direct collaboration with the Sri Lankan military and police, have been demolishing several Hindu temples in predominantly Hindu areas and replacing them with Buddhist temples. For example, as recently as three weeks ago, a Buddhist monk, alongside police officers, blocked Tamil Hindu worshippers from visiting the Rajavanthan Hindu shrine in Trincomalee in eastern Sri Lanka. Three years ago, the Rajavanthan shrine and Maanikka Pillayar Temple at this site were destroyed. Efforts like this, referred to as Sinhalization or Buddhisization, are aimed at transforming the character of these areas from being Tamil-Hindu to Sinhala-Buddhist.
Since the end of the civil war in 2009, Tamils in Sri Lanka and the diaspora have demanded accountability and justice for mass atrocities perpetrated during the final months of the war. Since 2017, Tamil families of the disappeared have been protesting daily, demanding answers about the whereabouts of their loved ones who went missing in 2009. These protests, which have been largely women-led, demand an international investigation into the mass atrocities perpetrated against the Tamil people since domestic judicial mechanisms have repeatedly failed to deliver justice for Tamils in Sri Lanka. The families of the disappeared live in constant agony not knowing the whereabouts of their family members. They need answers. An international inquiry into the Mullivaikkal massacre would look into alleged violations of international law committed by Sri Lankan political leaders, Sri Lankan military leaders, and the LTTE. Holding individuals accountable for their crimes is crucial in order to prevent these atrocities from occurring again.
Additionally, Tamils in Sri Lanka continue to demand a long-term political solution that recognizes the Tamils’ right to self-determination. This does not necessarily entail a separate country for Tamils. Before and after the civil war, the political demands of Tamils in Sri Lanka have largely been based on the principle of federalism, where power is shared between the national government and provincial governments. This would be similar to the political structure of the United States, Canada, and India. A federal political solution would politically empower Tamils within a united Sri Lanka.
This year, Sri Lanka plunged into its worst economic crisis since the country gained independence from the British. People all over the island are suffering from soaring prices and shortages of food, fuel, and medicine. There are several factors behind the crisis, but many relate to the Sri Lankan government’s extremely negligent management of its economy. Massive protests across Sri Lanka have demanded that Sri Lanka’s current president and recently resigned prime minister be held accountable for the current crisis. It is worth noting that both of these men are also war criminals who are partially responsible for orchestrating the genocide in Mullivaikkal. The dire economic crisis has resulted in an unprecedented political reckoning among Sri Lankans, particularly the Sinhalese youth, as they question their leaders in ways they never have before. In the protests, there has even been some acknowledgement of past wrongdoings committed against the Tamils and other marginalized groups. Whether this is a temporary display of solidarity or a moment that will lead to long-lasting change for Tamils in Sri Lanka is yet to be seen.
If you would like to learn more about the Mullivaikkal massacre, please consider watching the documentary No Fire Zone, which was nominated for an International Emmy Award in 2014. Viewer discretion is advised, as the documentary contains deeply distressing videos and images.