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 conflict).

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.

1972, May

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 separatist struggle.

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 east.


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 Jayawardene.


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 localities.

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 largely unresolved.

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 vote.

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.

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