Lions, and Tigers, and… M.I.A.?

A quick-and-dirty rundown of what’s going on in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. Most of us probably didn’t even know there’s was something going on there. Thus the point of this article.

Have you ever been at home, sipping a hot cup of tea listening to M.I.A. in your favorite foreign-made sweater and wondered, “Hey, what is the deal with Sri Lanka?” Well fear not friends! I am here to enlighten.

“I mean I love Ceylon tea and Paper Planes, but what more do I need to know?” you may ask yourself. It is a strange and overwhelmingly complex topic of discussion, but some very intense situations have happened in Sri Lanka in the past month that could not only change the face of the country, but also change international foreign policy towards the island nation.

Now, as I said before, the situation in Sri Lanka is not simple, and the complexity is ever growing, so some background Q and A is in order.

Q: What are you talking about?!
A: The Sri Lankan Civil War.

Q: Oh no! What is going on over there?!
A: Well, seeing as how this is not the most popular topic at most Richmond watering holes, or US watering holes for that matter, the short “A” is as follows…

Sri Lanka has an incredibly long history dating back to the 5th Century BC (only about 5 years before the US, right?), involving colonization of Indo-Aryans, Dravidians, Portuguese, Dutch, and so on. But the main issue was initially brought about when the British (after conquering the Kingdom of Kandy in 1815) decided to colonize, bringing with them a large group of laborers from Tamil Nadu in South India to work on tea plantations. In 1833 the island was united under British rule, and this is where things start to get interesting. The Sinhala (an Indo-Aryan ethnic group originally from North India) majority, and the Tamil (Dravidian ethnic group from South India) minority coexisted rather peacefully under British rule, despite huge cultural differences, being that the Sinhala are predominantly Buddhist, while the Tamils are predominantly Hindu. After gaining independence in 1948, the Sinhala started a campaign of nationalism and disenfranchised Tamil plantation workers throughout the island, costing many of them their citizenship. Thus begins an ongoing rivalry between the Sinhala and Tamil communities that has led to what has now been deemed the Sri Lankan Civil War – a war that has claimed the lives of nearly 70,000 people (not to mention that both sides claim original ancestral settlement of the island, among a million other things, but again, it’s a short A to the Q).

“So what happened in the past month?” you might ask.

WELL, another thing that you should know about this whole mess quickly is that in 1976 a Tamil rebel group called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam formed in the northeast of the island with the idea of fighting to form a sovereign state called Tamil Eelam (Eelam was the ancient Tamil name for Sri Lanka) within the island, which would encompass the northern and eastern territories of Sri Lanka. Since this time there has been intense fighting with a brief ceasefire brought about by the Norwegian Government from 2002 until 2004. So, after years of fighting, suicide bombings, and displacement, the Sri Lankan army captured the de facto capital of the Tamil Tigers (Kilinochchi) several weeks ago and have moved into the Jaffna Peninsula, capturing the last main rebel stronghold, Mullaitivu, last week (wowzers!).

Your next question may read something like “Hey! What happens now?!” Well, my simple answer is “I don’t know!” This could mean quite a few things within the country. If the Sri Lankan military takes control of the remaining rebel-held territories, it may mean more Tamil displacement and more fighting, or it could mean more displacement with a lull in fighting. Are the Tamil Tigers done for, and what about the large Muslim population’s displacement? It is hard to say, but one thing that must be said is that the global view of Sri Lanka will change drastically as tensions rise – and though we don’t often hear about it on our side of the pond, it could have an effect on our daily lives as Americans as well. Just consider how often you drink tea or coffee, and how often you drive your car or ride you bike around town (Sri Lankan is one of the world’s leading producers of coffee, tea and rubber). Also, what will become of M.I.A.? She is of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage, and her father is Arul Pragasam, founder of the EROS (Eelam Revolutionary Orginisation of Students) and has been at the forefront of the fight for Tamil Independence in Sri Lanka (okay, that was more of a fun fact, but she has been banned from performing in certain venues around the world because of this).

While the situation is not likely to change our daily coffee and/or tea routines, or rubber usage (no more B-ballin’ on weekends?!) any time soon, it could be a possibility if the situation escalates again and could have an effect on exports internationally. Of course this is speculation, but in an increasingly global economy, it is always important to be mindful of what is going on outside of your own home and take a look at the endless cultural complexities throughout the world.

(Note: Since the time this article was written, fighting has broken out in several rebel-held areas, and attacks have been made by both the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers. Future action of the LTTE is still under question, but rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran has vowed that the Tigers will continue to fight for Tamil independence in Sri Lanka.)

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Taylor Burton

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