The Sri Lanka civil war formally broke out on 23 July 1983 when an armed insurgency was mounted against the government by the separatist militant organisation known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Their aim was to create an independent Tamil state called Tamil Eelam in the north and east of the country.

The roots of the conflict can be traced back to the invasion of the island by the Chola dynasty in the 10th century, when waves of Tamil immigrants from south India settled in the north and east, forcing the Sinhalese to the south of the island. Intermittent warfare ensued between the two races but escalated after the country gained independence from the British. The majority Sinhalese government introduced the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, effectively disenfranchising the country’s ethnic minorities, of which the Tamils were the largest.

This led to the formation of an ideology which looked back to the Chola empire and espoused the formation of a separate Tamil state, Tamil Eelam. A number of political organisations sprang up, leading to the founding of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and a resolution calling for the creation of a secular, socialist state based on the right of self-determination. The TULF, pressing for succession from Sri Lanka, quickly became the leading Tamil opposition party, with around one sixth of total electoral votes.

Ancient idealism, militant youth

Ethnic riots in 1977 led to a hardening of attitudes among the Tamils and drove many of their youth into militancy. The TULF started losing its grip over the militant groups when the LTTE ordered civilians to boycott local government elections and started a violent campaign against the state, targeting the police and moderate Tamil politicians who attempted dialogue with the government.

The violence escalated with a deadly ambush of an army patrol in which thirteen soldiers were killed. The killing of these Sinhalese soldiers led to a backlash in the south. Mobs of Sinhalese attacked and burnt Tamil businesses and homes, killing many innocent civilians. (Estimates varied widely, from 400 to 3,000.) Many Tamils fled the Sinhalese-majority areas and a wave of refugees headed to the north of Sri Lanka and into India. This is generally viewed as the start of the full-scale armed conflict between the Tamil militants and the government of Sri Lanka.

For the next 26 years, the civil war caused significant hardship for the Sri Lankan people and disruption to the country’s economy. An estimated 80,000–100,000 people were killed in the fighting. The civil war only came to an end with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009.