The Divergence of Civil War Outcomes in Nepal and Sri Lanka

History Sep 02, 2019

By Brandon Heiblum
Published 2018-12-11

Sri Lanka Armed Forces


Since World War II, intra-state war has eclipsed inter-state war as the leading source of armed conflict. More than seventy civil wars since 1945 have taken the lives of over twenty million people and displaced an additional sixty-seven million, often permanently damaging economic infrastructure, social capital, and political stability. While each civil war has a unique set of causational factors and distinct actors, individually, their study can prove illuminating in a wide range of contexts. Two of these wars, in Sri Lanka from 1983-2009 and in Nepal from 1996-2006, are particularly interesting as countries which, despite sharing many characteristics from region to population to relative size, experienced a dramatic deviation in civil war outcome. This paper will focus on these two noteworthy cases and comprehensively explore the reasons why their outcomes diverged so dramatically.

In Sri Lanka, the civil war ended only after an aggressive military campaign that saw the insurrectionary forces annihilated with no regard for reconciliation. In contrast, Nepal peacefully negotiated an end to their civil war via social and political compromise. This divergence in outcomes can be largely explained by the distinct nature of insurgent grievances, a deviation in rebel and regime strategies, and the unique character of foreign and domestic intervention. This paper will offer brief historical background on both countries as well as a recounting of their civil wars, followed by an in-depth analysis of each of the three aforementioned factors.

Historical Background

Sri Lanka

A heavily desired possession for an eagerly expanding Europe, Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) was first colonized by the Portuguese, followed by a brief stint of Dutch control before finally resting in British hands unabated from 1815 until independence. The British colonial rule of Ceylon was characterized by economic exploitation and a concerted primordial effort to manipulate and instrumentalize ethnicity as a tool for organization and control.  Whereas the diversity of language, religion, and ethnicity had been inconsequential in pre-colonial society, with European subjugation came the emergence of a cleavage between the Tamil and Singhalese population that would later trigger a catastrophic civil war.

Despite the clear demographic majority (73.95%) enjoyed by the mostly Buddhist Singhalese population the British placed the minority (12.71%) Hindu, Christian and Muslim Tamil ethnic group in power administratively. This left the majority resentful. Following independence, however, power finally rested with the Singhalese, who after years of oppression turned their furor to the Tamils who had previously enjoyed disproportionate power.

Amid their newfound maltreatment, more revolutionary members of the Tamil community began to envision an independent Tamil state along the Northern and Eastern coasts of the Sri Lankan island. Formed in 1979, the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) quickly became a vast sophisticated network comprised of  military, political, and international wings. In July of 1983, the LTTE’s inaugural attack was directed at a military patrol, killing 13 and marking the beginning of a protracted civil war that took 65,000 lives and displaced more than 1 in every 18 Sri Lankans. The conflict finally concluded in 2009 after the Sri Lankan government’s aggressive security campaign effectively decimated the LTTE. This unmitigated victory allowed the majority Singhalese population in power to effectively avoid the reconciliation, appeasement, and compromise that often results from a less one-sided outcome.


Geographically heterogenous and economically underdeveloped, Nepal is ethnically and religiously diverse but has historically enjoyed high levels of harmony and low levels of violence. For centuries, Nepal’s royal family unilaterally controlled the government as absolute monarchs, but in 1990 widespread pro-democracy demonstrations and a nationwide collective protest movement led King Birenda to limit his totalitarian power in favor of a (semi-democratic) constitutional monarchy.

In 1995, the recently formed Communist Party of Nepal (CPN-M) began preparations for a “People’s War,” aimed at dismantling the existing monarchy in its entirety and replacing it with a secular people’s democracy. On February 4th, 1996 the group submitted a 40-point list of demands broadly addressing a social, economic, and political agenda and warned that if rejected, the group would resort to violence. Their warning went unheeded and a week later the CPN-M attacked a police post in the Rolpa district of Western Nepal, beginning a ten-year civil war that claimed the lives of an estimated 16,500 people.

While the first few years of the conflict saw a comparatively passive governmental response, the situation changed after the paradigm-shifting 2001 Royal Massacre, in which Crown Prince Dipendra inexplicably murdered his father, King Birendra, and most members of his immediate family before killing himself. King Gyanendra, who succeeded to the throne and was keen on absolute power, took a more bellicose approach to the Maoist insurgency. What followed was a five-year period of broken ceasefires, civilian casualties, and profuse war crimes committed by both sides. In 2005, King Gyanendra dissolved the constituent assembly and seized complete autocratic power for himself. This authoritarian move received instant backlash from the international community, civilian masses, and domestic political parties, forcing the King to restore power to the parliament. The following year, a Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) ended the conflict, abolished the monarchy, and paved the way for the rebels to enter the political mainstream, an outcome patently different from that of Sri Lanka.


The Nature of Grievances

Sri Lanka

From independence in 1948 onward, the Tamils were the unfortunate victims of substantial civic, cultural, and economic oppression. The Ceylon Citizenship Act of the same year barred over a million Tamils from citizenship, rendering them stateless. In parliament, the Singhalese Population was overrepresented, leaving the Tamils were underrepresented. Another symbol of state-sanctioned repression was the Official Language Act of 1956, which made the Sinhala language the only official language of the country, marginalizing native Tamil speakers. Economic discrimination included inequity in public employment, where between 1972 and 1980, of the 45,131 state-sector jobs created the Tamils received only 966. Between 1977 and 1984, Tamils were able to secure only 0.7% of the 140,000 jobs created. In the realm of education policy, Tamil students were required to score higher than Singhalese students to gain admission to university. For example, admission to Peradeniya University for Tamil students required 250 marks, while the Sinhalese students were expected to obtain only 227 marks. Culturally, the largely Hindu group faced significant persecution, and pogroms in 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983 saw government officials and civilian mobs vandalize places of Hindu worship often converting them into Buddhist shrines. These violent mobs went unprosecuted, and their victims went without justice.

It is unsurprising then that a Tamil nationalist group was able to secure a niche, finding success in attracting fundamentalist support from an aggrieved minority ethnic group disenfranchised by the state and marginalized by society. Given the intensity of their oppression and the futility of nonviolent resistance, it is again unsurprising that such a group would eventually resort to violence. The severity of the Singhalese campaign to marginalize the Tamils reflects the degree to which the colonial era created formative ethnic cleavages. That it was an ethnic conflict instilled in each side a distinct zeal that is unparalleled by conflicts regarding regime-type and economic situation. This disincentivized compromise and made peace more difficult to achieve, thus requiring unilateral military victory.


Nepal’s crisis was of a different nature. According to political scientist Kishor Sharma, the conflict “is not caused by ethnic and or religious tension as the rebellion group includes people from all ethnic and religious backgrounds.”  Furthermore, while democratization is a major rebel demand making the crisis overtly political, the conflict is not solely political as war broke out despite improvements in rights and civil liberties. Leading researchers therefore consider the conflict to be economically driven, bolstered by underdevelopment, inequality, and poverty.

Even though 87% of the Nepali population are rural subsistence farmers, the bulk of economic development in the decades preceding conflict were focused on urban industry. In 1956, Nepal embraced a policy of Import Substitution Industrialization that favored factories while neglecting agriculture. Foreign Direct Investments were almost uniformly focused on urban development, as was a plurality of government infrastructure spending.  This led to a massive migration from the rural countryside to urban centers, which furthered decimated the rural communities that were left behind and was particularly disadvantageous for the nations’ youth.

The effect of this asymmetric development was a dramatic difference between the average per capita income of urban households ($285.27) and rural households ($125.20) by 1996: a 127% disparity. This disparity can be better illustrated by the rate of poverty among rural households (44%) as compared to their urban counterparts (20%). This grave imbalance opened a cleavage filled by the CMN-M, and the degree of poverty and inequality caused by imbalanced development instilled in the fighting force a sense of desperation and indignation. The political and economic nature of the grievances fueling the Nepalese civil war, however, lent themselves to concrete solutions, namely the removal of the monarchy and a shift away from asymmetrical economic development.

Rebel and Regime Strategies

Sri Lanka

The Tamil Tigers quickly received global attention for their innovative use of terrorism in combat and are credited with bringing suicide bombing to the mainstream of asymmetric warfare via their invention of the suicide vest. Another prominent feature of the Tigers was the implementation of all-female cadres that saw women in both leadership and combat roles. The Tigers were comfortable engaging in more radical actions such as the 2001 attack on Colombo's Bandaranaike International Airport, which was both a political and financial blow to the state, “reducing the country's commercial fleet by half, driving up exporters' insurance premiums and damaging tourism,” according to Human Rights Watch.

The Sri Lankan government responded aggressively to the onset of insurgency, and the campaign waged by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces became increasingly vicious. Small guerilla units were dropped behind LTTE controlled lines, the regime’s air force conducted an unrelenting bombing campaign, multiple fronts were opened as a means of spreading the enemy thin, prominent Tigers were assassinated, and communities accused of aiding the rebels were indiscriminately shelled. According to an incriminating report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the military used “excessive force, torture, arbitrary arrests and abductions, sexual violence, failing to respect due process.”

It is impossible to tell whether the uniquely violent nature of the Sri Lankan Civil War is the fault of a rebel group with little regard for consequences of their attacks or a responding government that overstepped legal and moral boundaries. Ultimately, the hyperviolent actions of both sides cyclically perpetuated a conflict that saw various opportunities at peace lost to broken promises, bad-faith negotiations, and institutional distrust. The participants’ strategies and tactics, rather than hasten the end of the conflict, were undoubtedly a factor indelaying a lasting peace settlement.

Tamil Tigers


Initially, the Nepali government responded to the insurgency as criminal activity, mobilizing only local police forces, whose tactics drew immediate ire from human rights groups. One such example is that of "Operation Romeo," a police campaign which led to the arrest and torture of many combatants and non-combatants.  Not until 2001, five years following the conflict’s outbreak, was a state of emergency declared, designating the Maoist rebels a terrorist organization and commissioning the Royal Nepal Army (RNA). This delayed reaction offered legitimacy to the CPN-M, allowing them to enjoy significant insulation. Once the RNA was activated, their methods were particularly harsh, alienating civilians and domestic political parties.

A major hallmark of the CPN-M was their organizational prowess, having created a dual government, with secondary people’s councils, courts, tax collection and an education department. The main source of CPN-M funding were bank robberies, voluntary donation, and the extortion of rich businessmen, tactics which local populations generally supported. Such organized civil structure and an aversion to civilian suffering normalized the group in the eyes of the people and created a framework for negotiation that later had the effect of facilitating compromise.

International and Domestic Actors

Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan Civil War saw heavy foreign involvement. Indian intervention played a complicated role in the conflict, first supporting the sieged Tamil rebels, then deploying the ostensibly neutral Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), before finally supporting the anti-insurgent government campaign. This inconsistency can be traced to the simultaneous Indian desire to help the Tamils while also maintaining influence over the government of Sri Lanka at a time when the Chinese were making a deliberate effort to increase their own influence by supporting the army. The U.S quickly declared the LTTE a terrorist organization, followed by the EU, starving the group of cash considering their finances were largely funneled through foreign banks.

Domestically, the LTTE, as an ethnic organization of Tamils, alienated non-Tamils first in principle, and then in practice, as their brutal methods killed swathes of innocent victims. As the conflict raged on, even local Tamil support for the Tigers dwindled as the population grew tired of violence and devastation. The lack of international support and eventually funding hampered the LTTE’s ability to operate as a legitimate governing force, and the fatigue associated with violence led to a dwindling in non-combatant Tamil support for the rebel group. This allowed for the Sri Lankan government to confidently pursue victory undeterred. It should be noted, however, that the aggressiveness of this subsequent campaign received international condemnation from foreign governments, human rights groups, and the United Nations, but only at its tail-end.


The United States became involved in the Nepali conflict following the 9/11 attacks, branding the Maoist insurgency as part of larger war on terror, but withdrew support after King Gyanendra’s 2005 totalitarian shift. China notably opted out of participation, claiming that their focus was on policing neighboring Tibet. India, which had originally supported the Nepal government, withdrew their support following a 2004 federal election dominated by leftist parties sympathetic to the Maoist cause. This initial foreign supportive intervention followed by its ensuing abandonment served two purposes; first to reinforce the Maoist case against the ruling elites as counterrevolutionary and beholden to foreign interests, and second to starve the Nepali government of the limited outside support they originally depended on.

Unlike the Tamil Tigers, the CPN-M was multi-coalitional, and amid authoritarian monarchic action, drew support from large segments of the non-combatant domestic population. While this support was mostly unofficial, an interesting development took place on November 22, 2005 when the CPN-M and seven major political parties (amounting to 90% of the dissolved parliament) reached a consensus to end the political crisis. This consensus, deemed the Seven Party Alliance (SPA), called for sweeping democratic reforms, an end to monarchy, and a new constitution; it received immense support from the masses, who demonstrated with a three-day nationwide general strike and major protests. This gave the appearance of a unified opposition and made it increasingly difficult for the government to wage war without domestic allies. As a result, negotiation soon emerged as the only reasonable method for ameliorating the crisis.


The particular nature of both civil wars determined the route in which they took. Sri Lanka’s ethnocentric conflict aroused more internal passions, making the violence seemingly more personal. In Nepal, while still visceral, the economic and political origins of the conflict were more abstract and less fundamental to the identity of the insurgents. This led the former country to abandon any hope of compromise in a manner not shared by the latter.  Participant methodology is another factor that inherently altered outcome. The Tamil Tigers engulfed Sri Lanka in a mass terror campaign and indiscriminately killed civilians followed by a government response characterized by similarly indiscriminate violence, further entrenching the conflict. The Communist Party of Nepal, however, focused their furor on military targets and established a productive layer of dual bureaucratic governance, while the government weakened its own legitimacy by acting inhumanely and undemocratically. This disparity led the first case down a path of unending warfare where in the second case it legitimized the opposition and starved the government of support. These factors can largely explain the dramatic divergence of outcomes in both countries’ civil wars.


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