In the late 1700s and early 1800s the British took
the island of Sri Lanka in fear of the
French taking the island, due to Napoleon's conquest over the
Netherlands. From this point until 1815 the British attempted to take
the island from the local people, only succeeding after they took Kandy. The British
used the island to grown rubber, tea, and coffee as a small number of British land
owners controlled this industry and used Tamil immigrants (from India)
to work the fields, giving the island a larger Tamil minority.
Throughout the 1800s and 1900s the relations between the Sinhalese and
British improved, most notably among the Sinhalese's upper class. Despite
this, there was a growing demand for independence among the people, leading to elected
bodies on the island and eventually a proposed constitution in 1944. However at
the time Britain was at war with Japan in World War II and
Sri Lanka was a strong military base for the United Kingdom. The war though, was
fought by many locals so it also created a stronger push for independence, just
as Britain needed the island more than it had in the past.
Sri Lanka finally gained their independence in 1948. However
the new government essentially excluded the Tamils from the vote as the Sinhalese
were a minority in most tea, coffee, and rubber growing regions. This led to a strong
backlash by the Tamils, but politics continued on this path and in 1956 Sinhala
was the only legally recognized official language. This led to a growing Tamil insurgency
as well as growing communist movements fighting for the rights of the poor, which
included the Tamil people. One of these communist groups finally rose up in 1971
when they revolted, but were overtaken by the government.
In 1979 and into the 1980s the government made numerous changes, including giving
the Tamils more rights, but not to the extent they demanded. This led to the rise
of the Tamil Tigers, a group that sought greater rights and even independence from
Sri Lanka and the ethnic Sinhalese. This led to numerous
backlashes, but little government interference as the violence was primarily contained
to the people fighting the people and many consider the events a civil war.
To make matter worst, many of the imprisoned communist movement leaders from 1971
were released from prison in the late 1980s and many ran for office (without success)
or got involved in the violence. At this time they became a Sinhalese nationalist
group that also excluded the Tamils, leading to both this movement as well as Tamil
These violence movements continued until 2009 when the government declared that
they had defeated the Tamil Tigers, many of whom had retreated to the region of
Tamil Nadu in mainland India. This has substantially subdued violence, however the
Tamils still have lesser rights and arguments continue between the groups.