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Generational Dynamics Web Log for 12-May-06
Sri Lanka appears close to war

Web Log - May, 2006

Sri Lanka appears close to war

A naval attack by Tamil Tiger rebels and government retaliation by air may spiral into full-scale war.

Ethnic map of Sri Lanka, around 1975.
Ethnic map of Sri Lanka, around 1975.

They're both ancient races: The Sinhalese came to the island of Ceylon from northern India around 500 BC, and adopted the Buddhist religion around 300 BC, developing a great civilization. They speak the language Sinhala, and today they're about 70% of the population of Sri Lanka (the modern name for Ceylon).

The other is the Tamils, who occupied the southern tip of India as early as 1000 BC, in what is now the Indian province of Tamil Nadu. They adopted the Hindu religion, and came to Ceylon in the 7th century AD. In the 14th century, they seized power in northern Ceylon and established a Tamil kingdom. They speak the Tamil language, and today they're about 10% of the population of Sri Lanka. (Muslims and Christians comprise the remainder of the population.)

Indian subcontinent, with the island of Sri Lanka off the southern tip of India.
Indian subcontinent, with the island of Sri Lanka off the southern tip of India.

World War II was a generational crisis war for Ceylon, as it was for the entire Indian subcontinent. Ceylon became an independent state after World War II, and ethnic tension between the Sinhalese and Tamils began almost immediately. The split became very sharp after 1972, when Ceylon changed its name to Sri Lanka and Buddhism was given primary place as country's religion.

In 1976, a separatist rebel group was formed, demanding a separate Tamil state. The group called itself the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and were called the "Tamil Tigers" for short.

A non-crisis civil war between the Tamil rebels and Sri Lankan army began in 1983, and continued until 2002, when a peace treaty sponsored by Norway was signed by the warring parties.

The world breathed a sigh of relief and assumed that Sri Lanka was on the road to permanent peace, after 20 years of war. As usual, the "world" had no idea what was going on.

The 2002 peace treaty was the last gasp of the Sri Lanka's "generational unraveling" period, the time when both Sri Lanka and the rebels were led by people who had grown up during the last crisis war (WW II). These leaders could see that a new genocidal war was on the horizon, and they wanted to prevent it by signing a peace treaty. Signing this peace treaty can only be described as a desperate act, a desperate attempt to prevent massive bloodshed.

They played nicey-nice for a while. The Tamil Tigers dropped their demand for a separate state, the Government lifted its ban on the Tamil Tigers, and both sides exchanged prisoners of war in 2003. It was sweet.

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The peace treaty began running into serious trouble in 2004, when a splinter group broke off from the Tamil Tigers. The splinter group was headed by "Colonel Karuna" (Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan), a Tamil hero of the last war. Suddenly there was violence within the Tamil community itself, and there's plenty of reason to believe that this Colonel Karuna was supported and encouraged by the Sri Lankan government, as a way of bringing the Tamils under control.

So the peace treaty was running into trouble anyway, when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck in December, 2004, killing 30,000 people, and destroying coastal communities. This was viewed as an opportunity for all sides to play nice again, as the government and the Tamils had to cooperate and share the aid that was pouring in.

Although low-level violence increased again in 2005, the peace treaty appeared to be mostly holding -- until last month. In April, a series of suicide bombings killed dozens of people. The bombings were blamed on the Tamil Tigers.

The death knell of the peace process may have occurred on Thursday. Tamil Tiger rebels used suicide boats to sink two navy gunboats in separate incidents on Thursday and were firing at a ferry transporting some 700 troops. The military retaliated by calling in jets to bomb suspected Tamil Tiger positions, while the navy also engaged coastal bases of the Tigers elsewhere.

So the government may have supported Colonel Karuna's intra-Tamil rebellion against the Tamil Tigers, as a way of controlling the Tamils, but now it's becoming increasingly clear that the Tamil fighting is going to spread to more warfare against the Sri Lankan government.

News stories that talk about the possibility of war almost always do so by talking about a "resumption" of the previous war. But that's not what will happen. The last war occurred during a generational unraveling period, and was not particularly genocidal. But now a new generation is in place, a generation of young people ready and willing to go to war. The next war will be a generational crisis war, much more violent than the 20-year non-crisis civil war.

From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, this is a typical situation. Sri Lanka has entered a "generational crisis" period, as the island's leaders are dominated by people born after the last crisis war, and have no fear of a new genocidal war. It's possible that the current situation will settle down after a few days, but if so it will be only temporary. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, there will be a full-scale genocidal war between the government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Conflict risk level for next 6-12 months as of: 9-Feb-2006
W. Europe 1 Arab Israeli 3
Russia Caucasus 2 Kashmir 2
China 2 North Korea 2
Financial 3 Bird flu 3
Key: 1=green 1=Low risk 2=yellow 2=Med 3=red 3=High 4=black 4=Active

I haven't included the Sri Lanka situation on my conflict risk graphic because I'm assuming that a genocidal Sri Lankan civil war will not automatically trigger a world war, the way a Chinese civil war would, for example. Nonetheless, a full-scale war in Sri Lanka could spread to India, especially with Maoist rebels bringing chaos to Nepal, on the other side of India. If that happens, then it may still be Sri Lanka that triggers the "clash of civilizations" world war which Generational Dynamics predicts will be coming in the near future. (12-May-06) Permanent Link
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