Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon until 1972, is an island in south Asia that was ceded to the British 1796. With a name that means "great and beautiful island," Sri Lanka has a lot to offer in terms of industry and tourism. Nevertheless, the young country has seen a great deal of domestic conflict. The backstory to Sri Lanka's civil war dates back to its independence from Britain in 1948.
Civil War in Brief
As with many civil wars, Sri Lanka's began with internal conflict between different people groups in the country, primarily between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil. Once independent from Britain, the Sinhalese reacted to Britain's favoritism of the Tamil. As tensions between the two groups continued to grow, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was created in 1976 to further the cause of the Tamil, leading to intermittent but brutal and violent outbreaks. Numbers of casualties have not been substantiated and are widely disputed, but conservative estimates say about 40,000 have died.
The causes of the civil conflict are complicated and long-standing. For many Sri Lankans, a general air of conflict has been perpetuated in textbooks, based on accounts by Sinhalese Buddhist monks that depicted historical regional wars as race wars to protect the Sinhalese and the Buddhist religion. A nationalist sentiment in rural Sinhalese continued this notion of eternal conflict, especially as their aspirations did not immediately come to fruition upon independence in 1948. This same year saw the disenfranchisement of a million Indian Tamils by the Ceylon Citizenship Act. Furthermore, the introduction of the Sinhalese-Only Bill in 1956 sought to marginalize the Tamil language and ushered the conflict between the two groups to center stage.
Causes and Conflict in Education
Education has been a high cultural value for the Tamil historically, leading to a disproportionate number of Tamils represented in certain professions when compared to their population. By placing language-based quotas on university entrance exams for several years in the 1970s, Tamil-speaking students were required to earn significantly higher scores on entrance exams compared to Sinhalese students. The trickle-down effects of these policies led to an ethnically segregated educational system, which further increased tensions between the two groups.
While violent conflict was uncommon between the Sinhalese and Tamil for several decades following independence, ethnic riots occurred in 1958 and 1977. The conflict became more militarized in 1980s, when 13 soldiers will killed by the LTTE following the 1981 burning of the Jaffna library by Sinahalese police officers. Fighting would increase amidst failed peace talks, occasional ceasefires and natural disasters.
As of 2009, the Sri Lankan government claims that the rebels have been defeated and that it's regained control of the country. The Sri Lankan government has focused on post-conflict reconstruction, financed largely by China. According to the CIA World Factbook, 95 percent of civilians displaced toward the end of the fighting have been resettled, and many of the captured LTTE combatants have been released. Nevertheless, difficulty remains in holding accountable those guilty of human rights violations, and much progress remains to be made on politically complicated issues between the two groups.
- CIA World Factbook: Sri Lanka
- New York Times: Sri Lanka Ends 26 Years of Civil War
- The Council on Foreign Relations: Sri Lankan Conflict
- Department of Census and Statistics -- Sri Lanka: Census of Population and Housing 2001
- The Economist: Sri Lanka -- Bringing up the Bodies
- World Bank: The Root Causes of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka
- BBC: Sri Lanka Profile -- Timeline
- Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images