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Sri Lanka - People

The people of Sri Lanka are divided into ethnic groups whose conflicts have dominated public life since the nineteenth century. The two main characteristics that mark a person's ethnic heritage are language and religion, which intersect to create four major ethnic groups -- the Sinhalese, the Tamils, the Moors, and the Burghers.

The Sinhalese are the overwhelming majority of residents within Sri Lanka, but they feel intimidated by the large Tamil population in nearby India; the combined Tamil populations of India and Sri Lanka outnumber the Sinhalese at least four to one. The recent memories of Tamil prominence in colonial and postcolonial administration, combined with a modern renaissance in Tamil consciousness in south India, are constant reminders of the potential power of the Tamil community. The Sinhalese feel quite isolated as the only group in the world speaking their language and professing their variant of Theravada Buddhism.

The Tamils, on the other hand, are a minority within Sri Lanka. They cannot be sure of Indian support, and they experience increasing restrictions on social mobility as the Sinhalese majority increases its hold on the government. Anti-Tamil riots and military actions in the 1980s alienated a large sector of the Tamil community.

In the middle are the Muslims, who speak Tamil but whose religious and cultural systems are alien to both other ethnic groups. Muslim leaders increasingly seek to safeguard the cultural heritage of their own community by adopting a public stance of ethnic confrontation.

Ethnic divisions are not based on race or physical appearance; some Sri Lankans claim to determine the ethnicity of a person by his facial characteristics or color, but in reality such premises are not provable. There is nothing in the languages or religious systems in Sri Lanka that officially promotes the social segregation of their adherents, but historical circumstances have favored one or more of the groups at different times, leading to hostility and competition for political and economic power.

Ethnic segregation is reinforced by fears that ethnic majorities will try to dominate positions of influence and repress the religious, linguistic, or cultural systems of minorities. In many cases, the different ethnic communities live in separate villages or sections of villages, and in towns or cities they inhabit different neighborhoods. The fact that primary education is in either Tamil or Sinhala effectively segregates the children of the different communities at an early age. Business establishments run by, or catering to a specific ethnic group, tend to broadcast their ethnicity by signs either in Sinhala or Tamil, each of which possesses its own distinctive script. Sports teams tend to include members of only one community, while Buddhist and Hindu religious services are automatically limited to one ethnic group.

Relatively few persons are fluent in both Tamil and Sinhala, and accents betray which native community a person belongs to very quickly. Countering the intense pressures favoring segregation, however, are official government policies that treat all citizens equally and numerous personal networks within neighborhoods and among individuals that link members of different ethnic groups and foster friendships.

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) is an island in the Indian Ocean about 28 kilometers (18 mi.) off the southeastern coast of India with a population of about 21 million. Density is highest in the southwest where Colombo, the country's main port and industrial center, is located. The net population growth rate is about 1%. Sri Lanka is ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse.

During the early nineteenth century, the population of Sri Lanka was small and concentrated in the southwestern part of the island and in the Jaffna Peninsula in the north. The first official census, conducted by the British in 1871, recorded a total population of 2.8 million. Between then and the 1980s, the population increased sixfold. The total population, according to the census for 1891, ws 3,008,000. This comprised Singhalese, 2,041,000; Tamils, 724,000; Moormen, 197,000; other native races, 13,000; Burghers, 21,000; Europeans, 5000. In 2002 ethnic groups were: Sinhalese (74%), Tamils (18%), Muslims (7%), others (1%). Its population at the end of 1903 was estimated at 3,576,990, about twothirds being Sinhalese and nearly one-quarter Tamils. The Moormen, Eurasians, and Malays make up the bulk of the remainder. There was a European population, of about 8,000 in all, living in the chief towns and scattered over the plantations.

Sinhalese make up 74% of the population and are concentrated in the densely populated southwest. Sri Lankan Tamils, citizens whose South Indian ancestors have lived on the island for centuries, total about 12%, live throughout the country, and predominate in the Northern Province.

Indian Tamils, a distinct ethnic group, represent about 5% of the population. The British brought them to Sri Lanka in the 19th century as tea and rubber plantation workers, and they remain concentrated in the "tea country" of south-central Sri Lanka. In accordance with a 1964 agreement with India, Sri Lanka granted citizenship to 230,000 "stateless" Indian Tamils in 1988. Under the pact, India granted citizenship to the remainder, some 200,000 of whom now live in India. Another 75,000 Indian Tamils, who themselves or whose parents once applied for Indian citizenship, chose to remain in Sri Lanka and have since been granted Sri Lankan citizenship.

Other minorities include Muslims (both Moors and Malays), at about 7% of the population; Burghers, who are descendants of European colonists, principally from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom (U.K.); and aboriginal Veddahs.

The Veddah are the last descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Sri Lanka, predating the arrival of the Sinhalese. They have long been viewed in the popular imagination as a link to the original hunting-and-gathering societies that gradually disappeared as the Sinhalese spread over the island. In the 1980s, Veddah lived in the eastern highlands, where some had been relocated as a result of the Mahaweli Garga Program. They have not preserved their own language, and they resemble their poorer Sinhalese neighbors, living in small rural settlements. The Veddah have become more of a caste than a separate ethnic group, and they are generally accepted as equal in rank to the dominant Goyigama caste of the Sinhalese.

Most Sinhalese are Buddhist; most Tamils are Hindu. The majority of Sri Lanka's Muslims practice Sunni Islam. Sizable minorities of both Sinhalese and Tamils are Christians, most of whom are Roman Catholic. The 1978 constitution -- while assuring freedom of religion -- granted primacy to Buddhism.

Sinhala, an Indo-European language, is the native tongue of the Sinhalese. Tamils and most Muslims speak Tamil, part of the South Indian Dravidian linguistic group. Use of English has declined since independence, but it continues to be spoken by many in the middle and upper middle classes, particularly in Colombo. The government is seeking to reverse the decline in the use of English, mainly for economic but also for political reasons. Both Sinhala and Tamil are official languages.

Historical divisions continue to have an impact on Sri Lankan society and politics. From independence, the Tamil minority has been uneasy with the country's unitary form of government and apprehensive that the Sinhalese majority would abuse Tamil rights. Those fears were reinforced when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike triumphed in the 1956 elections after appealing to Sinhalese nationalism. His declaration that Sinhala was the country's official language--an act felt by Tamils to be a denigration of their own tongue--was the first in a series of steps over the following decades that appeared discriminatory to Tamils. Tamils also protested government educational policies and agriculture programs that encouraged Sinhalese farmers from the south to move to newly irrigated lands in the east. The decades following 1956 saw intermittent outbreaks of communal violence and growing radicalization among Tamil groups.

Madam Bandaranaike's protectionist agricultural policies primarily benefited the rural south and helped foster the romantic cultural myth of the simple Ruhunu farmer as typifying the values and ideals of the Sri Lankan nation. By the mid-1970s Tamil politicians were moving from support for federalism to a demand for a separate Tamil state -- "Tamil Eelam" -- in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, areas of traditional Tamil settlement. In the 1977 elections, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) won all the seats in Tamil areas on a platform of separatism. Other groups--particularly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers)--sought an independent state by force.

The conflict entered a new phase in September 2008 when government forces initiated an offensive on LTTE, resulting in significant losses of LTTE territory. The government continued to capture territory in northern Sri Lanka through May 2009, when fighting became confined to a small area of land near Mullaitivu, where thousands of civilians were forcibly held by the LTTE in a government-designated no fire zone. On May 19, the government declared victory over the LTTE as they reported the capture of remaining Tiger-held territory and the death of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The end of the military conflict resulted in nearly 300,000 internally displaced persons and allegations of potential violations of international humanitarian law and other harms committed by both sides in the final stages of the conflict. IDPs were initially detained at camps, primarily in Vavuniya area, but IDPs have been permitted freedom of movement since December 2009. Most IDPs have since returned to their home districts, staying primarily with host families. But many have not been resettled in their homes, due to the lingering presence of land mines and government-enforced high-security zones. To date, international non-governmental organizations, working in coordination with the Government of Sri Lanka and the United Nations, have removed a reported 1.1 million land mines. The humanitarian effort continued to progress -- as of May 2010 it was estimated that 68,000 IDPs remained within the camps.

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Page last modified: 05-05-2012 19:19:17 ZULU