Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in recent months as the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) attempts to capture areas of northern Sri Lanka held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group that has fought for 30 years for self-determination for the Tamil people.
Kilinochchi, a town in northern Sri Lanka that was the administrative centre for all LTTE-controlled territory, is being subjected to aerial and ground artillery bombardment, and most of its population has been evacuated to LTTE-controlled rural areas.
United Nations agencies and international aid organisations withdrew from the town in September, despite attempts by the local people to block their departure. Their presence had been seen as providing some deterrent to massive bombardment or other atrocities by the SLA, which has been slowly advancing towards the town.
The displaced people lack sufficient food, medical supplies and other necessities. Aid organisations attempting to bring supplies into LTTE-controlled areas are often blocked by the SLA.
For example, three trucks loaded with medical supplies were held up for several weeks during October. Two were eventually allowed to proceed on October 27, but the third, with a cargo of oxygen cylinders needed by Kilinochchi hospital was, not allowed through.
The roots of the conflict lie in a long history of state oppression of the Tamils, which eventually led some Tamil youth to take up arms against the government.
When the British granted formal independence to Sri Lanka in 1948, they handed over power to politicians drawn mainly from the upper classes of the majority Sinhala ethnic group. These politicians used racism as a tool to divide the working class.
They also used it as a weapon in their struggles with each other: different Sinhalese politicians would compete to show that they were the strongest defenders of the Sinhalese people. This resulted in the adoption of racist policies and the stirring up of antagonism against the Tamil minority.
Sinhalese was declared the sole official language of Sri Lanka, a move which made speakers of the Tamil language second-class citizens. Knowledge of Sinhalese was made a prerequisite for employment in the public service, thereby excluding most Tamils from government jobs.
Discrimination against Tamils was also applied in education.
For many years Tamils opposed such discrimination by peaceful means, including demonstrations, sit-ins and participation in elections.
But peaceful protests were met by violent repression, carried out by the police and army as well as racist Sinhalese mobs.
There was a series of pogroms against Tamils, culminating in the murder of an estimated 3000 people in the government-instigated riots of July 1983.
The growing repression led to the growth of Tamil nationalist sentiment. In 1977, the Tamil United Liberation Front won 17 seats in the Sri Lankan parliament on a platform of self-determination for Tamils.
The repression of peaceful protest led many Tamil youth to turn to violent methods. The LTTE was formed in 1972 and carried out its first major armed action in 1978.
After the 1983 pogrom, the LTTE gained increased support from the Tamil community and dramatically stepped up its war against the SLA.
The government forces were unable to defeat the LTTE, despite brutal repression including numerous massacres of Tamil civilians.
In 1987, India sent a "peace-keeping force" to Sri Lanka, with the ostensible aim of protecting the Tamils from SLA violence. However the Indian government did not want to see the creation of an independent Tamil state, and the Indian army soon began repressing the LTTE.
The Indian army withdrew in 1990, and war broke out again between the LTTE and the SLA.
In February 2002, a ceasefire agreement was signed between the LTTE and the United National Party government of Ranil Wickremesinghe. But once again the government not only failed to offer the Tamil people a just solution that could guarantee a lasting peace; it failed even to fully implement the provisions of the ceasefire agreement.
For example, those provisions requiring the SLA to disarm pro-government paramilitary groups. These groups continued to exist and carry out, in collusion with the SLA, acts of violence and intimidation against LTTE supporters.
The UNP government, which claimed to want peace but failed to deliver, was replaced in 2004 by a more openly chauvinist government, led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
Following the election of the SLFP, violence escalated into full-scale war. On January 2 this year, the government formally renounced the ceasefire agreement that by this stage only existed on paper.
LTTE-controlled areas have been subjected to aerial and artillery bombardment, as well as blockades preventing food supplies and other necessities from entering these areas.
There have been a series of massacres by the armed forces. For example, on June 17, 2006 in the fishing village of Pesalai, Sri Lankan Navy troops threw grenades into a church where Tamil refugees were sheltering.
On August 4 in the town of Muttur, 17 aid workers (most of them Tamils) employed by the French charity Action Contre le Faim (Action Against Hunger) were murdered in cold blood by the SLA.
On August 14 in Mullaitivu, an orphanage was bombed by the Sri Lankan air force, killing more than 50 children.
Repression against Tamils has intensified, not only in the traditional Tamil areas of the north and east, but also in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo.
Many Tamils have fled to Colombo, both to escape the fighting in the north and east and for economic reasons. But the renewed war has led to increased harassment of Tamils in Colombo.
Police have carried out sweeps through Colombo suburbs, questioning Tamils about their reasons for being in the capital. Military checkpoints have been established at key junctions throughout the city.
On June 7, 2007 500 Tamils were forcefully expelled from Colombo and sent to the north and east.
During 2007, the SLA carried out an offensive to capture the LTTE-controlled areas in the eastern part of the island of Sri Lanka, and claimed to have been completely successful.
During 2008, the SLA has been attempting to capture the LTTE-controlled areas in the north of the island, and to wipe out the LTTE altogether.
The SLA has made some progress in capturing territory in the north, but is meeting fierce resistance. In August alone, 155 SLA soldiers were killed and 983 wounded, according to figures given by Sri Lankan PM Ratnasiri Wickremanayake.
While forced to retreat in some areas, the LTTE has carried out attacks behind SLA lines. In the east, supposedly under firm government control, ambushes and attacks on SLA bases continue to occur.
On September 9, the LTTE carried out an attack on the SLA military headquarters for the Vanni district, killing 14 soldiers and causing severe damage. This attack prompted the UNP opposition to question the government's claims of progress in the war.
According to UNP parliamentarian Lakshman Seneviratne, "The Air Force base and the Police HQ of Vavuniya was attacked using heavy artillery. [The] Radar defence system is completely destroyed. This happened in an area that [the] government has always claimed has been liberated long ago, and cleared of any LTTE activity."
The LTTE has used light aircraft to carry out a series of bombing raids on government targets, including an air base and oil installations in Colombo, and a military base in the northern Jaffna peninsula.
On October 28, the Tamil Eelam Air Force attacked a military base in Mannar province in the north of the island, as well as a power station in Colombo in the south.
The United States and other imperialist powers have always supported the Sri Lankan state against the Tamil struggle.
They have supplied weapons and military training to the SLA. Israel has supplied Kfir jets to the Sri Lankan air force, which has used them to bomb towns such as Kilinochchi.
The US has long banned the LTTE as a "terrorist organisation", while ignoring the campaign of state terrorism carried out by the SLA, except for an occasional mild criticism of some human rights violations.
More recently, the European Union has also banned the LTTE.
But while essentially supporting the Sri Lankan government, the imperialist powers have at times tried to pressure it into granting some concessions to the Tamils, in the hope of winning them away from the LTTE.
Western governments sometimes criticise the Sri Lankan government for some of its human rights violations.
In December 2007, the US Senate imposed restrictions on the sale of military equipment to Sri Lanka, though equipment for the purpose of "maritime and air surveillance and communications" was excluded from the ban.
The recent partial restrictions on military supplies to Sri Lanka are an exception to the longstanding US policy of full support to the Sri Lankan government's war effort.
US officials have made their position very clear. In November 2006, US Under-Secretary of State Nicholas Burns said: "[W]e are not neutral ... We support the [Sri Lankan] government ... We believe the government has a right to try to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country."
Nevertheless, the Sri Lankan government has not relied solely on the US and its allies for support. It has bought weapons from a range of sources, including China, India, Pakistan, and Russia.
Ultimately, it is the government's denial of the right of Tamils to self-determination that remains the main obstacle to peace.
The SLA is an army of occupation in Tamil areas. Its removal from these areas is a precondition for peace.
Self-determination need not lead to total separation of predominantly Tamil areas from the Sri Lankan state. The LTTE has stated its willingness to consider a federal structure.
But the crucial point is that the unity of Sri Lanka must be voluntary. "Unity" can not be imposed by the SLA through violent repression of the Tamil people.
[A significantly longer version of this article can be found at Links.]