Jaffna, the capital of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province and once the bastion of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), is once again experiencing unrest.
Violent clashes broke out on November 27, Martyrs’ Day for Tamil, between students of Jaffna University and Sri Lankan security forces. Each year Tamils use Martyrs’ Day to honor friends and family members who were killed in the Sri Lanka Civil War (1983-2009).
The civil war pitted the Tamil militant group, the LTTE (often called the Tamil Tigers), against the Sri Lankan government forces. The conflict was essentially an ethno-political struggle that had its roots in the early years of Sri Lanka’s independence when Sinhalese leaders effectively transformed the country into a Sinhala-Buddhist state through a series of laws such as the controversial Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956, which made Sinhala the official language. The excluded Tamil population protested and demanded a government based on federalism where the Tamils in the east and north of the country would enjoy greater autonomy. When these calls went unheeded for decades, some Tamils formed the Tamil Tigers and began taking up arms against the government in 1983.
The 26-year civil war that ensued, which ended with the LTTE’s military defeat in 2009, would come to claim the lives of between 80,000 and 100,000 people, according to the UN. Some non-governmental organizations like the International Crisis Group say the number of deaths was actually much higher.
Since the LTTE’s defeat, Tamils have observed Martyrs’ Day by quietly “lighting lamps inside their homes.” This year, however, “some Jaffna University students decided to perform the rituals on campus,” E Saravanapavan, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Member of Parliament (MP) representing Jaffna district told The Diplomat in a phone interview. According to Saravanapavan, this prompted Sri Lankan security forces to forcibly enter the student’s dormitories to prevent them from lighting lamps for Martyrs’ Day.
Tensions have always run high in Jaffna peninsula on Martyrs’ Day. Security forces are put on heightened alert in anticipation of a LTTE attack. These forces equate citizens observing Martyrs’ Day as them showing solidarity with the LTTE militant group. For Tamils, however, it is “a day of mourning, not just for dead LTTE combatants but also for the thousands of civilians, including their kin, who were killed in the war,” Saravanapavan says.
With Tamils determined to properly mourn their dead, and security forces equally determined to stamp out any show of support for the LTTE, it is nearly inevitable that Martyrs’ Day will be marked with some degree of confrontation and tension. What made this year’s Martyrs’ Day more complicated was that it coincided with Karthigai Theepam, a festival when Hindus decorate their homes with lamps.