The Tamil people have a long and storied history in Sri Lanka.

The Tamil people have a long and storied history in Sri Lanka

The Tamil people have a long and storied history in Sri Lanka. Although not indigenous to the island, the Tamils have been arriving in successive waves of immigration and conquest since the closing centuries of the first millennium B.C .E. They maintain close cultural and familial connections with the Tamils of India, more than70 a million of whom live in the neighbouring Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil language is one of the two official languages of the island of Sri Lanka. From 1983 to 2009, Tamil secessionists fought an unsuccessful guerrilla war against the Sri Lankan government. During that war, Tamil militants, most prominently the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), resorted to terrorist tactics, including the assassination of elected officials in Sri Lanka and India. With the conclusion of the war, the Tamils, Sinhalese, and other ethnic groups of the island have the opportunity to set aside their differences and forge a new future for a unified, multiethnic state and civil society.GeographyAreaAn island in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern tip of India, Sri Lanka has an area of 65,610 sq km (25,588 sq mi).

The areas over which the LTTE had control at any point during the civil war made up roughly 20,533 sq km (8,008 sq mi), nearly one-third of Sri Lanka. Although Tamils were historically the majority in only a fraction of that territory, the LTTE ruthlessly pursued a course of ethnic cleansing in the territory under its control.1Geographic Division and Topographic FeaturesThe Hill Country of the Central Highlands is the most elevated and coolest region on the island. Tea cultivation is a major agricultural pursuit there, and many Tamils work as tea pickers in the region. Located in the south-central part of the country, it is characterized by mountain forests with rich biodiversity and sacred spaces.2Rising only slightly above sea level and replete with sparkling sand beaches, the island’s coastal regions are the centrepiece of the country’s tourist industry. Although the entire island has these coastal regions, those in the south and southwest of the island are the most developed.

1 Figures were extrapolated by using the statistics in the following work along with maps indicating lines of control during the war: B.H. Farmer, “Sri Lanka: Physical and Social Geography,” in the Far East and Australasia, 2003, 34th ed. (London: Europa Publications, 2002), 1346. 2 Royston Ellis, Sri Lanka(Chalfont St. Peter: Bradt Travel Guides, 2008), 139–140.6 | ©DLIFLC

The island’s plains are widespread, including the low country, the Jaffna Peninsula, and the Vanni. The low country makes up the bulk of Sri Lanka’s area and is climatically and geographically diverse. The Jaffna Peninsula is the northernmost region of the island. It is low-lying (below 300 m in elevation), flat, and watered primarily by underground aquifers. Most of the nation’s Tamil population live in this area of Sri Lanka.3, 4 By comparison, the Vanni makes up the mainland districts of the Northern Province. It is a densely forested region that is sparsely populated, mostly by Tamils. Historically, this area served as a buffer zone between the Tamil population of the north and the Sinhala and European colonials of the south.5ClimateThe Sri Lankan climate is tropical: hot and humid. The only exception is the Central Highlands, where the majority of the tea plantations are. In the low country and coastal areas, the mean annual temperature is about 27.5ºC (81.5ºF), compared to 18ºC (64.4ºF) in the hill country.

The average rainfall on the island is 186 cm (73 in).6 The southwest monsoons carry rain to the central, western, and southern regions from June to October, whereas the northeastern monsoons occur in the north and east from December to March. With its year-round comfortable temperatures, Sri Lanka attracts many tourists.7Much of the land occupied by the Tamils is in the country’s dry zone, which receives an annual rainfall of 175 cm (68 in). Though this represents ample rainfall, the region has no major river and has poor soil which makes tank-based irrigation difficult.83Encyclopædia Britannica Online, “Sri Lanka: People: Ethnic Composition,” 2011, Richard Green, ed.,

The Commonwealth Yearbook, 2004(London: The Stationery Office for the Commonwealth Secretariat, 2003), 303.5 Donald E. Smith, “Religion, Politics, and the Myth of Reconquest,” in Modern Sri Lanka: A Society in Transition, eds. Tissa Fernando et al. (Syracuse: Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, 1979), 83–100.6 Janaka Ratnasiri et al., “Vulnerability of Sri Lankan Tea Plantations to Climate Change,” in Climate Change and Vulnerability, eds. Neil Leary et al. (London: Earthscan, 2008), 351–353.7 Government of Sri Lanka, “Sri Lanka Facts,” 2009,

option=com_content&view=article&id=61&lang=en8 R. Sakthivadivel, Nihal Fernando, and Jeffrey D. Brewer, Rehabilitation for Small Tanks in the Cascades: A Methodology Based on Rapid Assessment (research report, Colombo: International Irrigation Management Institute, 1997), 3–4. 7 | ©DLIFLCBodies of WaterIndian OceanThe third-largest ocean in the world, the Indian Ocean has a history of strategic importance in geopolitics and trade. The Tamil people of Sri Lanka and India have long harnessed the bounty of the ocean for food and trade. Merchants from the Arabian Peninsula and beyond visited Sri Lanka in antiquity, following the regional trade routes that led to the island.9Bay of Bengal Bay of Bengal is a northeastern arm of the Indian Ocean along Sri Lanka’s eastern coast. Many of the island’s rivers flow into it. It ties Sri Lanka to its South Asian neighbours in India and Bangladesh.10Palk BayPalk Bay is bounded on the west by India and on the east by the coast of Sri Lanka, Mannar Island, Adam’s Bridge, and Pamban Island.

This bay and its northern entrance, Palk Strait, factored prominently in the naval battles of the country’s civil war; it was frequently used by the LTTE as a route for smuggling weapons and people to and from Sri Lanka.11Palk StraitThe Palk Strait forms the northern entrance to Palk Bay and lies between the north coast of Sri Lanka and the east coast of India. This body of water was of strategic importance to the LTTE terrorists who used it as a route to smuggle weapons and people to and from Sri Lanka.Gulf of Mannar. The Gulf of Mannar is a large shallow bay between the southeastern tip of India and the west coast of Sri Lanka. It is famous for its pearls and fisheries. The low coral islands spanning Sri Lanka and India, known as either Rama’s Bridge or Adam’s Bridge, are a distinguishing feature that separates the gulf from the Palk Strait.

Understanding Geographical Map Entries for Civil Services Examinations (New Delhi: Tata McGraw-Hill, 2009), II.G.10–II.G.11.13 | ©DLIFLCalthough they were less than 10% of the island’s population.39 Exacerbating the situation, the British imported Tamil labourers from India to work on British plantations, creating a new underprivileged class, known as Estate Tamils, that undermined the indigenous farmers of Sri Lanka.40Independence to Civil WarOn 4 February 1948, the United Kingdom granted Sri Lanka independence. As they had in India, the British colonialists left in their wake a situation primed for violence and upheaval.41Following independence, the United National Party government acted to withhold citizenship and suffrage from the Estate Tamils. Even though the leftist opposition and other Sinhala lawmakers were cautious of the measures, the Tamil Congress leadership was persuaded to support the legislation. The majority of Sinhalese and many Sri Lankan Tamils did not view the Indian Tamils as rightful citizens of an independent Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, they had sown the seeds of the calamity in a different manner, but the results were extraordinarily similar. 42, 43In 1956, Sri Lankans voted the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and their leftist allies to power. The new government passed numerous nationalist and socialist reforms that staunchly supported Sinhalese and Buddhist cultural dominance. Among the most controversial was the 1958 Official Language Act that made Sinhala the official language of the country.

The law sparked pervasive opposition in the Tamil community, which began a struggle to secure equal status for the Tamil language. At the same time, Tamil secessionist organizations emerged.44In 1972, the government ratified a new constitution changing the form of governance to a republic. But the Tamils complained that the change did little to address their concerns and worried that it elevated Buddhism to the status of the official state religion.45Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Tamil secessionist movements gathered steam, and chief among them was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In August 1983, amid an increase in communal violence, Sinhalese rioters killed a number of Tamils and destroyed Tamil properties in response to LTTE attacks. More than 100,000 Tamils fled as refugees to the 39 Neil DeVotta,

“From Ethnic Outbidding to Ethnic Conflict: The Institutional Bases for Sri Lanka’s Separatist War,” Nations and Nationalism 11, no. 1 (January 2005), 141–159.40 Erin K. Jenne, “Sri Lanka: A Fragmented State,” in State Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror, ed. Robert I. Rotberg (Cambridge, MA: World Peace Foundation, 2003), 225.41Gautam Ghosh, “Outsiders at Home? The South Asian Diaspora in South Asia,” in Everyday Life in South Asia, Diane P. Mines and Sarah Lamb (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 227.42 Valli Kanapathipillai, Citizenship and Statelessness in Sri Lanka: The Case of the Tamil Estate Workers (London: Anthem Press, 2009), 52.43 A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, Electoral Politics in an Emergent State: The Ceylon General Election of May 1970 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 8.44 Asoka Bandarage, The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka: Terrorism, Ethnicity, Political Economy (New York: Routledge, 2009), 50–52.45 A.M. Navaratna-Bandara, “Ethnic Relations and State Crafting in Post-Independence Sri Lanka,” in Sri Lanka:

Current Issues and Historical Background, ed.Walter Nubin (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2002), 66–67.

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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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