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Tamils are a minority ethnic group in Sri Lanka, and Tamil is also a language. Tamils are made up of two groups, ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’, who are descended from Tamil-speaking groups who migrated from south India starting as long ago as the fifth century Before Common Era (BCE), and ‘Up Country’ or ‘Indian Tamils’ descendants of labourers brought to the island by the British to work on tea plantations.

Sri Lanka’s last census in 2012 estimated that Sri Lankan Tamils made up 11.2% of the population, and Indian Tamils 4.2%.

The 2012 Sri Lankan census estimated  that 70.2% of Sri Lankas are Buddhist, 12.6% Hindu, 9.7 % Muslim, and 7.4 % Christian. Most of the majority Sinhalese ethnic group are Buddhist. Tamils are mainly Hindu with a significant Christian minority. According to a 2022 US State Department report, “Muslims are legally recognized as a separate ethnoreligious group, rather than as Tamil or Sinhalese”.

Sinhalese and Tamil are the official languages of Sri Lanka (with English designated as a ‘link language’ in the constitution). In the 2012 census, 28.5% of the population responded they spoke Tamil, and 87% Sinhala (respondents could chose multiple options). According to a 2020 US State Department report, most Muslims in Sri Lanka are Tamil-speaking.

Civil war

In 2009, Sri Lanka’s civil war came to an end after more than two decades of conflict, with the decisive military defeat of the Tamil Tigers (also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE) by Sri Lanka’s armed forces.

The Tamil Tigers were an armed separatist group fighting for an independent homeland for Tamils in North-eastern Sri Lanka, where most of the Tamil population live. They were proscribed as a terrorist group by the UK Government in 2001.

Sri Lanka’s relationship with the rest of the world has been strongly shaped since then by allegations that the army committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final phase of the civil war. A UN Panel of Experts reported in April 2011 that there were “credible allegations” of those crimes by both government and Tamil Tiger forces.

The Sri Lankan Government in power in the final phase of the war denied many of the accusations of crimes made against the military and civilian Government at the time, and argued Tamil forces had used civilians as “human shields”.

Reconciliation after the Civil War

In February 2020 the Sri Lankan government, then led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, withdrew its support for a UN-led reconciliation process, which had committed the Sri Lankan government to investigate and prosecute war-related crimes as part of a package of wide-ranging legal reforms and transitional justice measures.

Ranil Wickremesinghe took over as permanently President in July 2022 after Rajapaksa fled the country following mass protests against his government. In May 2023, the new government announced that it was establishing a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, that would take “Tak[e] into account the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa”.

The Commission is set to comprise of 21 members that will “represent the pluralistic nature of Sri Lanka, including gender”.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticised the plans in a joint letter, writing they had “grave reservations” about the Commission that “echo many of those already raised by victims of conflict-related abuses and their families”. The letter states further that:

The latest initiative risks repeating the mistakes of the past, exposing victims to renewed security threats and re-traumatization without any realistic chance of a different outcome. There have not been any genuine confidence-building measures, or steps to ensure a safe and conducive environment for such a commission to function effectively. There has been no meaningful consultation, including with affected communities.

A 2023 analysis by the International Crisis Group echoes these concerns, arguing that the Commission “in present circumstances, would have little to no chance of success”.

In October 2023, in an interview with German broadcaster DW, President Wickremesinghe defended plans for the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, saying discussions were ongoing and more details would be available soon:

At the moment discussions are on with the parties plus the government, and we are talking with the western governments […] and the Truth and Reconciliation Bill will come to Parliament before the end of the year.

A report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, published in September 2023 for the 54th UN Human Rights Council, criticised the Sri Lankan government’s reconciliation plans and called for “deeper institutional reforms and tangible progress on accountability, reconciliation and human rights”.

Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Himalee Arunatilaka, delivered a statement in response to the report in which she said her government rejected the report and “its conclusions and recommendations”. She stated further that: “Sri Lanka remains firmly committed to pursuing tangible progress on human rights through our domestic institutions”. The statement added that “The proposed truth-seeking mechanism has been identified as a meaningful way to secure the peace achieved after three decades of brutal conflict. Consultations are ongoing with stakeholders including the civil society on the proposed mechanism”.

Human Rights

Sri Lanka is one of the UK’s 32 ‘human rights priority countries’ as identified by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). The FCDO’s annual human rights and democracy report published in July 2023, looking back at 2022, highlights the treatment of Tamils and minority religious groups in Sri Lanka as a human rights concern:

Minority communities faced continued marginalisation by state authorities. State-supported land appropriation, so called ‘land grabs’, sparked concerns over their impact on demographics in the north and east and their impact on the freedom of belief of non-Buddhist denominations.

Security forces continued to disrupt Tamil commemorative events for victims of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict, and arbitrarily accused Tamils of links to terrorist organisations. Activists and families of the disappeared in the north-east faced surveillance, harassment and intimidation by security forces. President Wickremesinghe committed to pursue a political solution with Tamil parties in December. Eight proscribed Tamil Diaspora organisations were also delisted, although some Muslim welfare organisations and individuals, including poet, Ahnaf Jazeem remained listed.

Amnesty International in its 2023 assessment of human rights in Sri Lanka, states that despite amendments to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), “Muslim and Tamil minorities remained disproportionately affected by the use of the PTA”.

The US State Department’s report on human rights in Sri Lanka published in 2023, and looking at the events of 2022, describes how Tamil’s in the country report systemic discrimination:

Both local and Indian-origin Tamils maintained that they suffered long-standing, systematic discrimination in university education, government employment, housing, health services, language laws, and procedures for naturalization of noncitizens. Throughout the country, but especially in the north and east, Tamils reported security forces regularly monitored and harassed members of their community, especially activists, journalists, and NGO staff and former or suspected former LTTE [Tamil Tigers] members.

The report also describes how the military monitors Tamil journalists, requesting “copies of photographs, lists of attendees at events, and names of sources for articles”, and also that they “refrain from reporting on sensitive events, such as Tamil war commemorations or land occupation protests, as well as on posting anything related to former LTTE leaders”, stating that they “feared repercussions if they did not cooperate”.

In addition, the US State Department report details the ongoing legacy of the Civil War, and how it caused “widespread, prolonged displacement, including forced displacement by the government and the LTTE, particularly of Tamil and Muslim civilians”. And while internally displaced people have full freedom of movement, the report states significant barriers remain to them returning to their homes, including:

land mines; restrictions designating their home areas as part of HSZs [high security zones]; lack of economic opportunities; inability to access basic public services, including acquiring documents verifying land ownership; lack of government resolution of competing land ownership claims; and other war-related reasons.

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