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III. Background

Sri Lanka is an island country southeast of India with a population of nearly 20 million.  Seventy-four percent of the population is Sinhalese, 18 percent are Tamil, and 7 percent are Muslim. The Sinhalese population is Buddhist and lives primarily in the south and west of the island.  Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, live predominantly in the country’s North and East.  

Between 1983 and 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were engaged in a brutal civil war, during which both sides committed numerous human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law.  The LTTE, led by Vellupillai Prabhakaran, fought for a separate state, “Tamil Eelam,” for the Tamil minority in the country’s North and East.  Until the cease-fire in February 2002, the conflict claimed over 60,000 lives. An attempt at a negotiated settlement in 1995 collapsed when the LTTE unilaterally withdrew from the talks and resumed hostilities. 

In December 2001, the LTTE and the government announced a cease-fire.  In February 2002, under the aegis of a Norwegian government facilitation team, a cease-fire agreement was signed by both parties.  The provisions of the cease-fire agreement most pertinent to the issue of child soldiers state that:

  • both parties are to refrain from hostile acts against the civilian population, including torture, intimidation, abduction, extortion, and harassment;
  • all unarmed LTTE members are permitted freedom of movement into areas under government control, including for political work;
  • a Norwegian led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) is to monitor compliance with the cease-fire agreement by both sides. 

The government and the LTTE held six rounds of peace negotiations mediated by the Norwegian facilitation team.  In April 2003 the LTTE pulled out of the negotiations and they have yet to resume.  The LTTE said it will only agree to new talks if the government accepts in principle its proposal, announced in October 2003, for an interim authority, referred to as the “Interim Self-Governing Authority” (ISGA).  The ISGA would extend to all eight districts in the North and East and essentially give full control of these areas to the LTTE.  Despite the failure to resume talks, there has been no resumption of hostilities.

The cease-fire agreement has been effective in ending armed conflict between LTTE forces and the government.  It has not deterred killings and other serious rights violations from being committed in the North and East, especially by the LTTE against members of non-LTTE Tamil political parties, including former militant groups who gave up their weapons under the terms of the cease-fire agreement.  Since the cease-fire, more than one hundred political killings have been attributed to the LTTE.  The LTTE considers itself to be the sole voice of the Sri Lankan Tamils, a position rejected by other Tamil parties.  Members of these Tamil parties live in fear of being gunned down by LTTE cadres who have unprecedented access to government controlled areas. 

Meanwhile, long-suppressed rifts within the LTTE began to surface.  In March 2004, the eastern commander of the LTTE, V. Muralitharan, popularly known as Col. Karuna, broke away from the LTTE.  He denounced Prabhakaran and the northern (or Vanni) dominated LTTE leadership, stating that the LTTE discriminated against the eastern Tamils and sacrificed the interests of the East in favor of the North. 

The defection of Karuna was a serious blow to the LTTE, which has always kept extremely tight control over its commanders.  In April, shortly after national parliamentary elections, the Vanni LTTE attacked the approximately 6,000 soldiers under Col. Karuna deployed in the East.  The fighting was fierce but short; combat deaths suggested that many child combatants were involved.  Sensing defeat, Karuna disbanded his forces and went into hiding.  Among those disbanded from his forces were thousands of children who had either “volunteered” to join the LTTE or who had been forcibly recruited.  The release of all these eastern cadres, including many children, resulted in massive and unique protection needs that caught local and international agencies unprepared.   

In mid-2004 there was a new surge in political killings of Tamils, not just in the North and East, but also in the capital Colombo. Many of the attacks have been directed at politicians and journalists deemed to be opponents of the LTTE.  Some of these killings are attributed to both sides in the continuing struggle in the East between the Vanni LTTE and persons believed associated with the Karuna faction.  Human rights workers who criticize the LTTE are increasingly at risk.

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