Sri Lankan civil war

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The US has imposed travel sanctions on Sri Lankan chief of army staff, Lt Gen Shavendra Silva, over war crimes committed at final stages of country’s civil war in 2009, when up to 70,000 Tamil civilians were killed during the period.

This is the first significant international penalty to be imposed on a Sri Lankan official over war crimes perpetrated during the civil war with Tamil Tiger militants which lasted for over 26 years, coming to a halt in 2009. It has been estimated by the United Nations that up to 40,000 Tamil civilians were either killed or died in those final stages of the war, including the several extrajudicial killings. The Sri Lankan government has denied these aforementioned accusations.

The travel ban on army chief, Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, who is also the acting Chief of Defence Staff, was announced by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last Friday. The statement asserted that the ban was a response to “credible information received relating to Silva’s involvement in gross violations of human rights, including the extrajudicial killings during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s Civil War in 2009.”  His immediate family members have also been banned by the US.        

Background: The Sri Lankan civil war

Ceylon became an independent nation in 1948. The Sinhalese majority, occupying 82% of the population, straightaway began passing laws which would discriminate against the Tamils, particularly who were brought to the island by the British. Sinhalese was declared as the official language, pushing Tamils out of the civil service. The Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 conclusively barred Indian Tamils from having citizenship, making some 700,000 people stateless. This was not rectified until 2003, and the developments fueled the bloody rioting that broke out repeatedly in the following years.

After decades of boiling tension, the civil war broke out as a low-level insurgency in July 1983. Ethnic riots erupted in Colombo and other cities. Tamil Tiger rebels [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)] massacred 13 army soldiers, prompting violence against Tamil civilians by their Sinhalese neighbors across the country. The Tamil Tigers proclaimed the “First Eelam War” (1983-87) with the motive of forming a separate Tamil state in northern Sri Lanka called Eelam. Much of the fighting was directed initially at other Tamil factions; the Tigers slaughtered their opponents and integrated the separatist movement by 1986.

On May 16, 2009, after almost three decades of bloodshed, the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the Tamil Tigers. The next day, an official Tiger website announced that “This battle has reached its bitter end.”

Impact of this war on India

When the war broke out, then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, offered to mediate a settlement. However, her motivations were not trusted by the Sri Lankan government. India was accused of supporting the civil war. Relations between the two nations deteriorated, as Sri Lankan coast guards seized Indian fishing boats in order to search for weapons.

In 1987, Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, sent peacekeepers after deciding to intervene in the Civil War. India was bothered about separatism in its own Tamil region, Tamil Nadu, as well as a potential surge of refugees from Sri Lanka. The mission was to disarm militants on both sides, and prepare them for peace talks.

The peacekeeping force of 100,000 troops failed to quell the conflict and allegedly began fighting with the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers, refusing to disarm, sent female bombers and child soldiers to attack the Indians. In May 1990, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa asked India to recall its peacekeepers – 1,200 Indian soldiers had lost their lives battling the insurgents. The very next year, a female Tamil suicide bomber named Thenmozhi Rajaratnam assassinated Rajiv Gandhi at an election rally. Sri Lankan President Premadasa also died in a similar attack in May 1993.

India-Sri Lanka relations

Political relations between India and Sri Lanka have been marked by high-level exchanges of visits at regular intervals by leaders of both nations.

In February 2015, Sri Lanka’s newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena made his first official visit to India, and return visit to Colombo in March 2015 was made by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He became the first Indian prime minister to make a stand-alone visit to Sri Lanka in 28 years. In June 2019, another visit was made by Modi in his second term.

Sri Lanka is a member of regional groupings like BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and SAARC in which India is vested with a leading role. Recently, India invited leaders of BIMSTEC member countries to attend the function of swearing-in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his council of ministers. This is in conformation with the government’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.

Although, Sri Lanka has long been in India’s geopolitical orbit, its relationship with China has been reinforced in recent years. Former President Rajapakse took Sri Lanka closer to China and sidelining Indian concerns including over the rehabilitation of Tamils who were displaced by the civil war.

Significance of this development (US travel sanction)

The United States, being a consistent violator of human rights, has no intention to protect the human rights in Sri Lanka. The ban is threat made towards Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya Rajapakse which asserts that Washington will use the war crimes committed during the civil war to force Colombo to pledge its support to US for the war preparations against China.

Last July, Washington escalated its demands on Colombo for the renewal of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which was first signed in 1995. The proposed SOFA will provide free access to US military forces throughout Sri Lanka and its use as a US base in case a war breaks out against China. Washington has also expressed its concerns over delays in signing the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) deal. The project was approved last October by the previous Sri Lankan government. Last week the White House prompted the Rajapakse government to express its intention to proceed with the MCC project and the $US480 million allotted by the US. The Sri Lankan government has not yet refused to comply, but has appointed a committee to “review the program.”


In recent years, China has provided billions of dollars of loans to Sri Lanka for new infrastructure projects, which would hinder India’s strategic depth in Indian Ocean Region. Sri Lanka had also handed over the strategic port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease, which would play a key role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In view of its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is of interest to both Washington and Beijing as they seek to elevate their presence in the Indian Ocean. The ban could be seen as Washington’s latest attempt to strong-arm Sri Lanka into renegotiating the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), first signed in mid-1995, when Beijing was not on the scene.

The Sri Lankan Government is caught between the mounting hysteria about the SOFA and the war crime allegations that have been ruining its reputation. After the attempt by the US to use the war crime allegations as leverage against the country, the Lankan government is finding it hard to convince his detractors. However, given Colombo’s significance in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, the United States and China is unlikely to give up.

Author: Manu Mariyan Abraham from Karnataka State Law University.

Editor: Ismat Hena from Faculty of Law, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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