BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: World: South Asia
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Tuesday, 16 May, 2000, 13:11 GMT 14:11 UK
Sri Lanka: The ethnic divide

History and religion have helped to widen the divide
Sri Lanka is a diverse nation.

Sinhalese make up 74% of the population and are concentrated in the more densely populated southwest.

Tamils of Sri Lankan origin form around 12% of the population and live in the north and the east.

Indian Tamils, a distinct ethnic group, represent 6% of the population and were brought in the 19th century by the British to work in the plantations. They tend to live in south-central Sri Lanka.

Other minorities include Veddas, Muslims (both Moors and Malays), and Burghers who are descendants of European colonial settlers.

Most of the Sinhalese community are Buddhist, most Tamils are Hindu. Most of the Muslims practice Sunni Islam.

Sri Lanka claims the world's second oldest continuous written history - but history and religious mythology have played a key role in the development of communal animosity.

In particular, there is controversy over whether Tamils or Sinhalese were first on the island.

In the early 16th century, the first Portuguese traders began to arrive. The Dutch supplanted the Portuguese, who were then in turn supplanted by the British, although Dutch influence remains in some areas, including the law.

Britain took full control of the island in 1815 and established a plantation economy.

In 1931, the British granted Ceylon self-rule and a universal franchise. On 4 February 1948 Ceylon became independent.

Tamil grievances

The British colonial policy of divide and rule sowed the seeds of renewed tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities after independence.

Tamils, although well-educated, were given a disproportionate number of top jobs in the civil service by the British. Once the Sinhalese majority held sway, its politicians sought to redress the balance with populist but discriminatory policies against Tamils.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike's SLFP fanned Sinhalese nationalism
Sirimavo Bandaranaike's SLFP fanned Sinhalese nationalism
In 1956, the victory of SWRD Bandaranaike on a platform of Sinhalese nationalism led to him declaring Sinhala to be the country's official language among other anti-Tamil measures. Communal tension and violence increased from 1956 onwards as Tamils became increasingly frustrated.

By the mid-70s, Tamils were calling for a separate state in the north and east of the country. In the 1977 elections, the separatist Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) won all the seats in Tamil areas, while groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began to use violence for the same ends.

In 1983, the country erupted into full scale communal violence after 13 soldiers were killed by Tamils.

Hundreds of Tamils were killed in Colombo and 100,000 fled to south India. Members of the TULF were thrown out of parliament and the security forces moved into the north and east of the country to try to drive out militant groups.

As the situation deteriorated, with human rights violations on both sides, President Jayawardene sought to involve India through an agreement with its Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

Premadasa called for the withdrawal of Indian troops
President Premadasa called for the withdrawal of Indian troops
India has a population of around 55 million Tamils, mainly in the state of Tamil Nadu and some Sri Lankans felt that the LTTE was gaining considerable support from them.

Negotiations began in 1985 and the Sri Lankan government made a number of concessions to the Tamils with some devolution of power and official status for the Tamil language.

In 1987 the Sri Lankan government went on a major military offensive in the north of the island but India raised objections to the methods used and warned that it would intervene on humanitarian grounds if it thought the Tamils were being starved out.

Relations between the two countries deteriorated rapidly as Indian planes dropped supplies into Jaffna.

Indian peacekeeping force

In July 1987, India and Sri Lanka signed an accord, which the LTTE at first went along with, to try to settle the problem through devolution and greater autonomy for the Tamils while an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) would disarm the rebels.

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991
Concessions of autonomy to the Tamils led to a backlash among the Sinhalese population, especially around proposals to merge the northern and eastern parts of the island into a Tamil-dominated province.

Sinhalese nationalism began to grow and was fanned by Sirimavo Bandaranaike's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). It found violent expression in the JVP, who fought against the accord with India, undermining the government's position. The JVP assassinated a number of political figures and tried to intimidate voters during the 1988 election.

In 1989, peace talks resumed between the LTTE and President Premadasa which led to Mr Premadasa calling for the withdrawal of Indian troops. India withdrew its forces from Sri Lanka in May 1990.

On May 21, 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in India during an election campaign trip. The Tigers were held responsible for the killing.

Attempts have continued intermittently for the last few years to try to resolve the conflict but all have proved unsuccessful.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console

Key stories:


Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more South Asia stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more South Asia stories