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The Sri Lankan Civil War: Background information when reading Island of a Thousand Mirrors

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Island of a Thousand Mirrors

by Nayomi Munaweera

Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera X
Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2014, 224 pages
    Jan 2016, 256 pages


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The Sri Lankan Civil War

This article relates to Island of a Thousand Mirrors

Print Review

Adam's bridgeThe country of Sri Lanka covers an area of just over 25,000 square miles. Located off the southern tip of India, the island has been called "the pearl of the Indian Ocean" due to to its shape, location, and natural beauty. Separated from India by about 18 miles at its closest point it is believed that there was a land bridge between it and the mainland up until the 15th century. Today, the chain of limestone shoals, known as Rama's bridge or Adam's bridge can clearly be seen from the air. Full of lush green landscape, tropical forests, waterfalls, and beaches, it is no wonder that, according to Islamic folklore, Sri Lanka was offered as a refuge for Adam and Eve after they were expelled from the Garden of Eden.

There had been tension between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority before Sri Lanka became an independent country in 1948, but it escalated afterwards, when competition for work and money became stiff and the Sinhalese, after years of feeling suppressed by British rule, and resentful of the many hundreds of thousands of Tamil workers that the British brought into the country from the mainland to work on the coffee, tea and rubber estates, wanted to reassert their culture, language and customs. Anti-Tamil legislation was passed over the next 35 years, including the Sinhala Only Official Languages Act, economic conditions worsened, and class divides widened, all of which resulted in riots and rebellions from both the Tamil and Sinhalese populations.

Jaffna Library burned downThe "official" Sri Lankan civil war lasted from July 1983 through May 2009. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (also known as the Tamil Tigers), an independent militant organization, wanted to create an independent state in the northeast of the island and waged an on-again-off-again rebellion against the government for over 26 years.

During that time, it is estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 people were killed. Most of the fighting took place in the north, where most of the Tamil minority reside, but at times fighting spread through the rest of the country, with devastating results, such as suicide bombings in the capital, Colombo. In 1987, an Indian peacekeeping force was brought in to negotiate a ceasefire with little effect; later, in 2002, another ceasefire was tentatively agreed upon but it took another seven years for the war to officially end.

Displaced civiliansToday, the country has a population of about 12 million made up of about 75% Sinhalese, 11% Sri Lankan Tamils, 4% Indian Tamils (mostly brought over by the British during the 19th century) and 9% Moors (descended from Arab traders). In July, 2014, the United Nations began an investigation into possible human rights violations in Sri Lanka, including war crimes that were committed by both the Sinhalese and Tamils during the civil war. Torture, camp internments and people simply "disappearing" are among the violations being examined. The Sri Lankan government will not cooperate with the UN, stating that it can handle an investigation of its own, but the UN is moving forward regardless.

Adams Bridge aerial, courtesy of Planemad
Jaffna Library in Jaffna Sri Lanka. It was torched in a riot during the civil war in 1981. Courtesy of Obi2canibe
Civiiians being displaced in 2009, courtesy of trokilinochchi

Filed under People, Eras & Events

This "beyond the book article" relates to Island of a Thousand Mirrors. It originally ran in September 2014 and has been updated for the January 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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