If I were going to sum up the roots of the current conflict in ridiculously brief words, skimming over all kinds of complexities, it'd go something like this. PLEASE NOTE that I am not a historian, or an expert in any of this. My understanding comes from the bits I've managed to retain from one course I took almost ten years ago. I would welcome correction on any of the following from those with a better understanding of Sri Lanka's history:
- Around 5th century B.C., Sinhalese came to Sri Lanka and wiped out
the native Balangoda tribespeople -- they were quickly gone as a people
- Around 2nd century B.C., Tamils came to Sri Lanka
NOTE: Neither group is indigenous to country, although most Sinhalese today are generally not aware of this history, and persistent mythology paints Sinhalese as the natives and Tamils as the invaders. In truth, both groups invaded Sri Lanka more than 2000 years ago.
- Relatively peaceful multiethnic society for several hundred years
- Various individuals battled for control; briefly, Dutthagamani
ruled entire island as Sinhalese Buddhist king -- again, mythology
today tends to refer to him as defender of the faith, etc., ignoring
the fact that he also conquered a lot of Sinhalese folks in the
process of consolidating power
- Due primarily to influence from South India, shifted to a more ethnically
pluralistic society, but still relatively peaceful
- Eventually, colonizers came: Dutch, Portuguese, British
- Dutch did a lot of intermarrying with natives (and not bothering to
marry) -- Burgher group emerged out of that (Ondaatje is Burgher),
wealthy elite, very mixed ethnic heritage
- Portuguese gave job incentives to those who converted to
Catholicism -- my great-great-grandfather was one of those, seeking a
better life for his children, in particular, education in the
excellent Portuguese schools. Many Tamils converted.
- Under British rule., Tamils became a strongly favored group
(perhaps because they had worked with them in India? not sure),
taking most of the government jobs. They were already more educated
on average than the Sinhalese. (Discounting for the moment the Hill
Country Tamils brought in from India to work the tea plantations -- a
totally different, severely disenfranchised group of laborers). A
large proportion of Jaffna Tamils went to college and even medical
school (including my own father).
- With Independence in 1948, a strongly pro-Sinhalese party came into
power. Among other things, they enacted a Sinhalese-only Act to make
Sinhalese the official language, which of course immediately erected
barriers to career advancement among Tamils. They also put in
dramatic quotas for coveted university spots, making it much harder
for Tamils to get in. This was an understandable attempt to address
decades if not centuries if inequality and discrimination against the
Sinhalese people under the colonizers. But the unfortunate
consequence was that it immediately created an underclass of angry
young Tamil men, who saw their futures being stripped away from them.
These young men (boys, really), became ripe picking for Tamil
political resistance groups -- both peaceful and violent.