The Divergence of Civil War Outcomes in Nepal and Sri Lanka

Brandon Heiblum
14 min readJun 25, 2020


Rural Nepal


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 a countries’ 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 in that they are both 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 compromise. This divergence in outcomes can be largely explained by the distinct nature of insurgent grievances, a deviation in participant methodology, and the behavior of involved domestic and international actors. 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 highly desired destination 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 by 1815. 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 was previously 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 majority in population enjoyed by the mostly Buddhist Singhalese population (73.95%), the British placed the minority Hindu, Christian, and Muslim Tamil ethnic group (12.71%) 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) quickly became a vast sophisticated network comprised of a military, political, and international wing. 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 assymetric outcome.


Geographically heterogeneous 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 Birendra 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 weak governmental response, the situation changed after the 2001 Royal Massacre, in which Crown Prince Dipendra brutally murdered his father, King Birendra, and most members of his immediate family during a state dinner 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’s.

The Nature of Grievances

Tamil Tigers Prepare to Surrender

Sri Lanka

From independence in 1948 onward, the Tamils were manifestly oppressed. 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, and the Tamils were underrepresented. Another major example 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. One area of stark economic discrimination was 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 universities. 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 would be able to secure a niche, finding success in attracting fundamentalist support from an aggrieved 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 mission — a passion — that is unparalleled by conflicts regarding regime-type and economic situation. This made peace incredibly difficult to achieve, thus requiring unilateral military victory.


Nepal’s crisis is 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 primarily 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 was focused on urban industry. In 1956, Nepal embraced a policy of Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) that favored factories while neglecting agriculture. Foreign Direct Investments (FDI’s) 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 distorted 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.

Participant Methodology

Sri Lankan Military

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 combat. 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, “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 air force conducted an indefatigable 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 consequence or a responding government that overstepped 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. What is clear, however, is that the tactics, methods, and strategies employed by both participating sides undoubtedly factored into the prevention of a lasting peaceful settlement.


Initially, the Nepali government responded to the insurgency as criminal activity, mobilizing only local police forces, who acted inhumanely. One such example is that of “Operation Romeo,” a police campaign that 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 group 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 process, 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, 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 negotiation.

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 supposedly 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 any 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 locals 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.


Nepali Maoists at a rally

The United States became involved in the Nepali conflict following the 9/11 attacks, branding the Maoist insurgency as part of a 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 second to starve the Nepali government of the albeit 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 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, called 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, much unlike the case in Sri Lanka, making it increasingly difficult for the government to wage war without domestic allies and causing negotiation to emerge as the only reasonable amelioration for the crisis.


The nature of both civil wars is a factor of great influence over 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 were more abstract. 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 Liberation Tigers engulfed Sri Lanka in a mass terror campaign and indiscriminately killed civilians followed by a government with similar indiscriminate violence. The Communist Party of Nepal, however, focused their furor on military targets and established a productive layer of dual bureaucratic governance, while the government acted 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. The third factor helpful in illustrating outcome divergence is the behavior of noncombatants both domestically and abroad. Sri Lanka was empowered by the international community in their war on terror, and internally, a population tired after years of incessant fighting lent support to the government in their campaign. Nepal, on the hand, found itself without vast international support and its political establishment eventually sided against the political leadership. This gave Sri Lanka a blank check to eliminate the opposition but forced Nepal to prioritize a swift end to the conflict. These factors can largely explain the dramatic divergence of outcomes in both countries’ civil wars.

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