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What is the war in Sri Lanka about?


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Time magazine recently named musician M.I.A. to its annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people. You can find her in the artists/entertainers section between Rush Limbaugh and the inventors of Grand Theft Auto — the game, not the felony.

M.I.A.’s appearance in Time was surprising on many levels.

I mean, Time magazine still publishes? Who knew? (Note: The original joke was “Time magazine still publishes? I didn’t realize there were enough octogenarians around to keep it in business.” I removed that joke after I read it over the phone to my 38-year-old BFF, who reacted with a defensive, “Hey, I subscribe to Time!” Sorry. I was just kidding, honest.)

M.I.A.’s inclusion also surprised me because she hasn’t achieved Limbaugh-like, or even Grand Theft Automotive-levels of cultural ubiquity.

She’s a critics’ darling, which is a polite way of saying she doesn’t sell especially well. She’s probably more famous for singing at this year’s Grammy ceremony in a see-through outfit that showed off her 9-months-pregnant belly than she is for her music. I’m spending all this time talking about M.I.A. because at the Time magazine banquet celebrating the 100 most influential people, she says she cornered Oprah Winfrey and begged her to do a program about Sri Lanka.

Born in England to Sri Lankan parents, M.I.A. is hoping to use her growing fame to draw attention to Sri Lanka’s three-decade-long civil war.

I checked my DVR. Oprah recently did a show discussing what a healthy bowel movement looks like (apparently, S-shaped is ideal), but as of my deadline for this column, she has not done a show on Sri Lanka.
Since Oprah is ignoring M.I.A.’s request, I’ve decided to step in.

M.I.A., if you’re reading this, you should know people often call me the Oprah of foreign policy humor columnists. By “people” I mean me, and by “often” I mean the sentence prior to this one. I’m gonna write about Sri Lanka for you. If you like it, you can repay me by letting me work on your next album. My beats are phat.

Sri Lanka is an island off the southern coast of India. It’s a little smaller than Ireland and home to about 21 million people. It’s gorgeous, and, compared to its neighbors, prosperous.

Unfortunately, it is riven by an ethnic rivalry that has killed more than 70,000 islanders since 1983.

The conflict is between the majority Sinhalese (roughly 82 percent of the population) and the minority Tamils (about nine percent).

Sri Lanka’s struggle is, in part, a by-product of British colonialism. As they did in India, Palestine and Iraq, the Brits played rival ethnic groups off of one another. Divide-and-conquer  isn’t just a figure of speech. A policy of stirring-up inter-ethnic rivalry kept the colonies from uniting against the colonizer.

Because the Brits favored the minority Tamils for so long, there was a strong backlash against Tamils by the majority Sinhalese after independence in 1947.

By 1976, the ethnic rivalry spawned a Tamil separatist movement known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the Tamil Tigers.

The Tigers want to create an ethnic Tamil homeland on the north and east of the island. In 1983, the conflict became a full-blown civil war.
Since then, both sides have committed all manner of atrocities against civilians. The government has racked up countless demerits from human rights watchers, and Tamil Tigers have been correctly tagged as terrorists by several countries, including the U.S.

After years of peace talks and several sputtering cease fires, Sri Lanka’s government launched a huge military offensive against Tiger strongholds last year.

For whatever reason, the government finally found the magic formula to thump the Tigers. They’ve since pushed the remaining fighters into a small coastal strip.

Unfortunately, around 50,000 Tamil civilians are also in the same coastal strip. The government is lobbing artillery into the enclave, killing and wounding thousands. It’s a bloodbath.

Foreign governments, including the U.S., are supposedly urging Sri Lanka’s government to take care not to kill civilians, but the pleadings are half-hearted. World leaders are content to let civilians die if it means an end to the war.


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