After gaining independence from Great Britain in 1948, Sri Lanka experienced
escalating ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil
minority. The antagonism dated to the struggle to choose a national
language. Two propositions were considered: “Sinhala only”
or “parity of status for Sinhala and Tamil.” As the majority
language (nearly 70 percent of Sri Lankans speak Sinhala), Sinhala could
also be used to stand in for a range of related identities that emphasize
the uniqueness of Sinhalese Buddhist culture particularly to differentiate
it from Tamil Hindu culture with its uncomfortably close connections
to South India, which loomed large above the island.
Tamils rejected the victory of the “Sinhala
only” proposition in the general election of 1956; they feared
that that policy would place them in a disadvantageous position with
respect to employment and higher education. Although the extent of protections
for the use of Tamil has varied from 1956 to the present, the contentiousness
of the debate has only escalated.
By 1975, the language question had evolved to
include the complex issue of national and territorial rights; a powerful
Tamil secessionist movement had emerged. Both sides in the developing
civil war have grown increasingly intransigent, and the conflict has
drawn in Sri Lanka's large neighbor to the north (it is likely that
Rajiv Gandhi's assassination [[>] was directly connected to this
1956, April 12 > June 15
Parliament approved the Sinhalese Language Bill
to make Sinhalese the sole official language of Ceylon, despite rioting
by the Tamil-speaking minority. The Senate, on July 6, approved the
language bill. Language became the basis of nationalism; Sinhala nationalism
became equated with Sri Lankan nationalism, which Tamils rejected.
Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka. The United Front
government introduced a new republican constitution, advancing Sinhalese-Buddhist
interests and downgrading minority rights. Protections of the use of
Tamil guaranteed under the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act,
approved in 1966, were undermined. Departing from its policy of religious
neutrality, the state became more closely identified with Buddhism.
The upper house of the legislature (Senate), which previously had acted
as a deterrent to hasty legislation, was abolished.
Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike negotiated an amicable
settlement regarding the status of Indians in Sri Lanka. Nearly half
a million Indians eventually were integrated into the Sri Lankan polity
as citizens, conferring on them a political legitimacy that, as an ethnic
group, they had not enjoyed on the island since 1948.
University admission policies were changed to
reduce the “overrepresentation” of Tamils in higher education,
an act that radicalized Tamil youth.
Tamils, frustrated by reduced access to employment
and higher education, formed a youth movement named Liberation Tigers
of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to carry out an armed struggle that would establish
a separate Tamil state in the island's northern and eastern provinces.
Tamils organized the Tamil United Liberation
Front (TULF). In the Vadukkodai resolution, they proposed to wage a
1977, Feb > July
Mrs. Bandaranaike and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party
(SLFP) were defeated in elections by the United National Party (UNP),
led by J. R. Jayawardene. When Tamil Appapillai Amirthalingam became
leader of the opposition, ethnic and language rights became the basis
of opposition to the government.
1978, Feb. 4 > Sept
A new constitution offered minorities a more
secure position; it rejected many of the authoritarian features of the
constitution of 1972 and emphasized individual rights and the rights
of minorities. Article 19 declared that Sinhala and Tamil were to be
the national languages of Sri Lanka (with Sinhala remaining the sole
official language). Tamils benefited by the removal of distinctions
between citizens by descent and citizens by registration, and by extension
of civil rights to stateless persons. S. Thondaman, leader of the Ceylon
Worker's Congress (CWC), the main political party cum trade union of
the Indian plantation workers, entered the cabinet. These changes brought
the Indian Tamils within Sri Lanka's “political nation”
for the first time since the 1930s.
1980, Oct. 16
Despite attempts to accommodate minorities, the
Jayawardene government faced increasing ethnic conflict between the
Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. Tamil separatists (including
a number of guerrilla groups) continued to operate in the north and
Violence organized by “terrorist”
groups marred local elections in the Jaffna peninsula. The army clashed
with Tamil Tigers, leading to an anti-Tamil pogrom in Colombo.
1983 > May-July
Pressure from India on behalf of the Tamils.
Indira Gandhi's government attempted to mediate between the Sri Lankan
government and Tamil groups.
1983 > July
Worst eruption of anti-Tamil violence since 1958.
The most severely affected was the city of Colombo and its suburbs.
In an unprecedented breakdown in law enforcement, the government took
nearly a week to reestablish control.
A political settlement was attempted while the
insurgent struggle continued in the north and the east.
Autonomy for the Tamil north was promised by
Siege of Tamils in Jaffna by the Sri Lankan army.
India intervened, responding to Tamil protests concerning the number
of Tamil casualties.
1987 > July 29
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India and Pres.
J. R. Jayawardene of Sri Lanka sign a peace agreement recognizing the
Tamil language as a national official language along with Sinhala.
1987 > Oct. 7
The government introduced bills to recognize
Tamil along with Sinhala as an official language, with English designated
as a “link language,” and to provide for provincial councils,
thus giving constitutional recognition to a devolution of power to the
1987 > Nov. 12
The presence of an Indian peacekeeping force
led to political changes in Tamilnad (India) as well as in Sri Lanka.
The Tamilnad government retreated from support of terrorist groups and
encouraged the peace accord. Although extremist Tamils felt betrayed,
more moderate Tamils expressed satisfaction with the accord, since it
guaranteed devolution of power to the northern and eastern provincial
units. Many Sinhalese expressed dissatisfaction, feeling that too much
power and land had been granted to Tamils. Thus the conflict still remained
1994, Oct. 15
The Sri Lankan government released 13 rebel prisoners
and started peace talks with Tamil rebel groups.
1995, Jan. 8
A truce went into effect in Sri Lanka between
government and rebel groups.
1996, Jan. 31
Rebels bombed Colombo, the capital, killing dozens.
2000, Aug. 8
Pres. Kumaratunga tried to pass a new constitution
in hopes of ending the ongoing civil war by giving more autonomy to
the minority Hindu Tamils. She postponed the referendum when it became
apparent that the constitution would not receive the necessary two-thirds
2000, Aug. 8 > Oct. 10
In parliamentary elections the People's Alliance
Party, backed by President Kumaratunga, was returned to power. However,
the coalition did not secure the majority needed for passage of her
Tamil autonomy plan.