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Sri Lanka’s 25-year ethnic conflict has again escalated, ending a six-year ceasefire between the ethnic Tamils, who generally reside in the north and are less than 20% of the population, and the government-controlling Sinhalese.
Since their formation in 1972, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the main rebel group, have been fighting the government in an attempt to establish an independent Tamil nation in the north. An estimated 70,000 have been killed since the group began directly attacking the army in 1983.
Increases in suicide attacks and bombings within government-controlled territory have led the Sri Lankan army to back out of the ceasefire pact, which the government claims the rebel group was using as an opportunity to rearm.
Within just a few days, there were two bus bombings and a bombing at the main railway station in Colombo, the nation’s capital; at least 43 were killed. The Tamil Tigers have not claimed responsibility for any of the near-daily attacks.
Sporadic fighting had begun in the north and east two years before the truce was officially dissolved.
Army General Sarath Fonseka increased early 2008 estimates of the Tamil Tigers’ numbers from 3,000 to 5,000 men. However, he is confident that Tamil forces can be eradicated before the end of this year.
The government has reported 1,088 rebels killed since 2008 began, with only 48 government soldiers being killed during the same time. Reuters reported that 40 rebels and six soldiers were killed on Saturday, and 35 rebels and one soldier on Sunday.
Death estimates for skirmishes are difficult to tally, as both sides tend to exaggerate the number of enemies they have killed, while playing down the number of their own casualties. Also, journalists are not allowed to enter most battle zones to independently verify casualty reports.
The Sri Lankan government has shown a new resolve to squelch the Tamil Tigers, pouring more money into equipment for its army and navy. Funds have also increased for training the military to counter the Tigers’ guerrilla warfare tactics. Rebel arms shipments by sea have been mostly cut off, and the government has been aided by intelligence from the European Union and United States, both of which have designated the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization.
The rebel group seems to be showing signs of slowing down. The group is reportedly recruiting both very young and middle-aged men to fight. The group’s leaders are in their 40s and 50s.
Nonetheless, the renewed strife is beginning to affect the nation’s economy. Inflation is currently at 20%, and some outside nations have issued travel advisories for Sri Lanka. Tourist arrivals fell 11.7% in 2007.
In the past, the Tamil Tigers have bounced back from apparent defeat and have shown skill in dragging out conflict over long periods, which would make this current war effort increasingly costly and unpopular. If the government is forced to reduce military funding, it may allow the Tigers time to regroup.
Despite the government’s confidence that rebels will be defeated within the year, other nations and peace-promoting groups have stated there is no military solution to the civil unrest and that peace will result only when a compromise is reached.
“Winning or losing is not a matter of body count,” retired Major-General Dipankar Banerjee, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, told Reuters. “There is no end to this conflict in the short-term. This will go on for quite some time. Neither side is winning.”
He added, “Until the government changes its mind...gives up the strategy of winning peace through war, as long as the war option remains, it will be pursued until such time that casualties are such that you give up the war option. As of now, there is no chance of either side giving way.”