The island is composed predominantly of two ethnic communities: the Sinhalese, which are the majority, and the Tamils, who make up approximately 18% of the population. After centuries of colonial rule, political power was distributed to the Sinhalese majority upon independence. As a result of the ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural differences between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, Sinhalese politicians manipulated ethno-religious nationalism for political gain at the expense of the Tamil minority. Legislation was passed to privilege the Sinhalese in education and employment, declare Sinhalese the national language, and enshrine the Buddhist religion in governance. For two decades, Tamils organized peaceful demonstrations and protests calling for equality for all ethnic groups within Sri Lanka, inspired by the cause of Mahatma Gandhi. The government of Sri Lanka ignored the non-violent movement and often responded to it with violence . Successive governments failed to offer a lasting solution that would protect all citizens’ rights and allow Tamils to participate in social, economic and political spheres.
After decades of discriminatory policies and ethnic pogroms against the Tamils, civil war began in 1983 with state-sponsored attacks against Tamils across the island – now infamously known as Black July – in which over 3,000 Tamil civilians were killed. Tamil homes were bombed, businesses were looted and women were raped, tortured and killed. Confronting this systematic oppression, various Tamil groups resorted to armed struggle, eventually led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE based their struggle on the right to self-determination and sought a separate homeland for Tamils. Human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE were widespread throughout the decades of conflict. The Tamils reside primarily in the Northern and Eastern regions of the island, and this region was besieged by the government’s economic embargoes, heavy militarization, attacks against media, and extra-judicial killings of Tamil activists and members of parliament. The LTTE gained control over much of this territory throughout the 1990s and established a de facto state in the region, with a separate police force and separate judicial, education and healthcare systems.
In addition to the Sri Lankan government’s violent campaigns, the government systematically attempted to destroy the Tamil culture and identity. In 1981, theJaffna Public Library, a trove of Tamil heritage containing over 97,000 books and manuscripts, was burned to the ground by government-sponsored mobs.Hindu temples and Christian churches, most of which have Tamil congregations, have also been attacked. The Sri Lankan government has for decades deliberately and systematically been working to destroy Tamil life, identity, language and religion. In effect, the Sri Lankan government has been actively perpetrating a cultural genocide against the Tamil people.