On 20 May 2009, the Sri Lankan Government declared an end to more than two decades of armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been seeking a separate homeland, or ‘Eelam’, for Tamils in the north and east of the country.
Landmines were used to varying degrees by both sides at different stages of the conflict and continue to present an obstacle to the safe return of displaced families. Mines also block access to paddy fields, fishing jetties, grazing land and community infrastructure in villages throughout the North.
Most mines are of the anti-personnel type, sometimes laid in dense, patterned mine belts, but there is also widespread nuisance mine-laying in residential areas, a common tactic of the LTTE. In addition, unexploded and abandoned ordnance presents a threat across the North.
The phases of mine laying in Sri Lanka have followed the course of the war. In Jaffna, most of the minefields were well-structured belts; laid by government forces in the 1990s during successive advances across the peninsula to defend ground recaptured from the LTTE. In the face of this advance, the LTTE generally laid ‘nuisance minefields’, where the mines were laid at random, often around houses, and scattered over wide areas. Jaffna is a densely populated area and mine laying has affected both residential and agricultural areas.
During this same period extensive minefields were also laid by forces garrisoning ‘Elephant Pass’, the strategically important access-way linking the mainland and Kilinochchi District to the Jaffna Peninsula. Permanent Forward Defence Lines (FDLs) were later established by both sides in the lead up to the 2002 cease-fire agreement, and further fortified thereafter. The northern FDL stretches - in depth - across the neck of Jaffna isthmus. Meanwhile on the southern FDL, extensive mine-panels run the breadth of the island - from the Mannar ‘rice-bowl’, across Vavuniya, and on to the coast of Mullaitivu.
In January 2008, the government formally withdrew from the 2002 cease fire agreement and in the subsequent fighting the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) broke through the southern FDL and advanced rapidly across former LTTE-held territory. In 2008 the LTTE laid extensive minefields in an attempt to slow the SLA advance, particularly around their de-facto capital, Kilinochchi. As the pace of the conflict intensified, so the population displacement increased, and the LTTE retreated east to the coast, where the war finally ended in May 2009.
The number of mine casualties from 1985 - 2008 is reportedly around 1,500. The annual casualty rate rose in 2010 as the number of returnees increased significantly. The records suggest that people are most at risk when planting crops or when harvesting. Other high risk activities include collection of scrap metal and firewood, and whilst foraging, fishing or hunting.
Sri Lanka has not acceded to the Mine Ban Treaty.