The History of Tamil/Sinhalese Conflict

Leena Palamkunnel, English 365, Northwestern University

A long-standing rivalry between Tamil and Sinhalese inhabitants of Sri Lanka has ensured an extremely volatile relationship between the two groups. The combination of religious and ethnic differences continues to create violent conflicts between the parties although they have shared Sri Lanka for innumerable centuries.

The Tamil minority originated from India, immigrating to Sri Lanka between the 3rd century B.C. and the 13th century A.D. Making up a small portion of the population, Tamils constitute almost the entire Hindu population of the land. In the 5th century B.C., Indo-Aryan emigration from India created the Sinhalese population in Sri Lanka. It still holds the majority today and thus, much political power. The greater part of the Sinhalese populace considers itself to be Buddhist. Religious tension intensifies the struggle for supremacy between Tamils and Sinhalese.

Prior to colonial occupation, Tamils controlled the northern part of Ceylon (renamed Sri Lanka in 1972), while the Sinhalese ruled the southern regions of the land. In 1505, the Portuguese took control of the country and began its history as a colonial settlement. Throughout its relationship with the west, Sri Lanka has been dominated by world powers that have their prevented self-rule. Finally, in 1948 Sri Lanka gained independence and thus, sovereignty over its lands. Prior to this momentous occasion, Tamil and Sinhalese forces combined to fight for their common freedom. However, this alliance did not last long.

The Sinhalese have retained power throughout most of Sri Lanka's history because of its size compared to the Tamil population, the second largest group in the country. With unquestioned economic and political power, the Sinhalese inhabitants face the anger and bitterness of the minority Tamils, who must struggle to have their voice heard. Conflict between the Tamil and Sinhalese rose to a new degree in 1956 as Solomon Bandaranaike was instated as Prime Minster and declared Sinhala the official language of what was then Ceylon. The Tamil minority was outraged by this act and opposition to the Sinhalese dominated government grew as the state backed Buddhism on an official level. Bandaranaike was later assassinated and proceeded by his wife who became Prime Minister in 1960. In 1983 civil unrest could no longer be contained and the country broke out into civil war.

Works Cited

"Sri Lanka." November 10, 2003.

Related Materials

"SRI LANKA: Hindus versus Buddhists." November 10, 2003.

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Last Modified: 1 December 2003