The island is composed of several ethnic communities, including the Sinhalese, Tamils, both Eelam Tamils and Tamils of Indian origin, and Tamil-speaking Muslims. After three centuries of colonial rule, Ceylon, as it was then known, was granted independence in 1948. The majority Sinhala Buddhist population gained power in the new parliamentary democracy.
In 1956, Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was elected. He saw himself as the “defender of Sinhalese culture” and as such passed legislation was 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 and for more self-governance in the traditional Tamil homeland of the island’s North-East. The Sri Lankan state often responded to the non-violent protests with violence . Successive governments since 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, war erupted 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 armed Tamil groups were widespread throughout the decades of conflict. The North-East 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, many of which have Tamil congregations, have also been attacked. The Sri Lankan state has for decades deliberately and systematically been working to destroy or forcibly assimilate the distinct identity of Tamil life, identity, language and religion.