In 1983 a Tamil organization known as the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) attacked a Sri Lankan army convoy, an act which would lead to decades of violent civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil people. This act was not entirely unprovoked. Historically, the Tamils have always been an oppressed minority living amongst a Sinhalese-Buddhist majority. After gaining its independence from Britain in 1948, Sri Lanka made Sinhalese its sole language, despite hardcore but peaceful campaigning on behalf of Tamil political leaders. However, the oppression of Tamils only mounted, and the increasingly violent pressure gave way to the 1983 attacks. Many older Sri Lankans refer to the 25-year civil war as the time of the “white vans”, when suspected LTTE members, journalists, and civilians alike were kidnapped in white vans (most likely on behalf of the Sri Lankan government) and never seen again. But since the end of the civil war in 2009, things have slowly started to improve for Tamils: despite a lack of accountability by the government, new leadership has fostered a relatively more open-minded, democratic mindset in many Sri Lankans. However, the recent election of former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president of Sri Lanka in November could signal the return of severe oppression for Tamils still living in the country.
One of the main issues that still exists for Tamils is that no one has been held accountable for the “silent genocide” raised against them during the war. Gotabaya is a large part of this problem. As Defense Secretary he was notorious for his vehement hatred towards the Tamil ethnic group. He is considered a war criminal by many due to his actions against Tamils, along with his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was president at the time. Gotabaya is known to have threatened journalists who opposed him, and is purportedly responsible for the murder of journalist Lasantha Wickramasinghe, a critic of Gotabaya’s military and ethical conduct during the war. In addition, the NGO Human Rights Watch reported that in 2008, as “rebels were preventing civilians from leaving the last tiny strip of land where they were fighting the government forces, the government forces repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled the area.” They also reported government forces firing randomly in a no-shell zone, where 50,000 civilian refugees sat in terror. In another article, the Human Rights Watch discussed the massacre of 16 Tamil volunteer aid workers in 2006 by Sri Lankan forces, and how the promises of change and accountability they made afterwards have since proved empty. Since the end of the war, the government has done little (a generous description) to fulfill those promises, and with the return of the Rajapaksa family into the Presidency, Sri Lankan Tamils fear the return of the “white vans” and all that they represent.