There has been a non-international armed conflict in Sri Lanka for more than 25 years. In May 2009, the government claimed final victory against the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers), a non-state armed group formed in 1977. They had been confined to a small coastal area in the north-east of the country, and their positions were reported to have been completely overrun. The President of Sri Lanka said the country had been "liberated" from the Tamil Tigers.
From around 1980, the LTTE began attacks on politicians, the police, and the army in the north. This brought a Sinhalese backlash in the south: in July 1983 there were riots against Tamils in Colombo and the south-west of the country, and Tamils fled to the north and Tamil Nadu in India. The army deployed in the north, the conflict escalated, and the Tamil Tigers gained effective control of Jaffna and the northern peninsula.
Most of the fighting took place in the north, but the conflict also penetrated the heart of Sri Lankan society with Tamil Tiger rebels carrying out devastating suicide bombings in Colombo in the 1990s. The violence killed more than 60,000 people, damaged the economy and harmed tourism in one of South Asia's most potentially prosperous societies.
A cease-fire and a political agreement reached between the government and rebels in late 2002 raised hopes for a lasting settlement, but Norwegian-brokered peace talks stalled and monitors reported open violations of the truce by the government and Tamil Tiger rebels. In 2006, the intensity of fighting and attacks by both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) increased dramatically, killing an estimated 3,200 people. Hope for a negotiated settlement to the conflict diminished, as the LTTE demanded that cease-fire observers from EU member states leave the country (after the EU banned the LTTE as a terrorist group), peace talks collapsed, and the leader of the LTTE called the peace process defunct.
Fighting continued in 2007, and in mid-January 2008 the cease-fire formally expired. The Sri Lankan Government dismissed an earlier call by Tamil Tiger rebels for both sides to observe the 2002 cease-fire. The rebels said they were "shocked and disappointed" that the Government was ending the cease-fire, but the Government accused the rebels of using the cease-fire as a cover to "unleash terror activities."
By 2009, the Sri Lankan army was closing in on remaining Tamil Tiger positions, confining them to an ever decreasing area in Mullaitivu district in north-eastern Sri Lanka. The government said the Tigers no longer controlled any area beyond this. Estimates of the number of civilians trapped in the area vary from 50,000 to 200,000. It was alleged that the Tamil Tigers were preventing civilians from leaving the conflict zone. The Tamil Tigers said the people were choosing to stay.
International Crisis Group, "Crisis in Sri Lanka", Updated 30 April 2009.
International Crisis Group, "Sri Lanka's Return to War: Limiting the Damage," February 2008.
BBC, "Q & A: The Sri Lanka conflict", May 2009.