Tamil Separatist Violence Erupts in Sri Lanka Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Following years of political and ethnic animosity between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, large-scale armed conflict began when Tamil separatists ambushed Sri Lankan military forces, leading to a bloody response against Tamils and triggering a lengthy civil war.

Summary of Event

Relations between the two main ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, strained since colonial times, continued in similar fashion after the country’s independence in 1948 and gradually evolved into a full-blown civil war in 1983. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, those in the Sinhalese majority utilized a demographic advantage to promote their own political goals and to form a stronger grip on the country’s vital institutions. They promoted the Sinhala language as the official language of Sri Lanka, centralized the government, and reorganized the education system by establishing a quota system that drastically reduced the opportunity for higher education among those in the Tamil minority. Tamils Sri Lankan Civil War (beg. 1983) Civil wars;Sri Lanka Sri Lanka;civil war [kw]Tamil Separatist Violence Erupts in Sri Lanka (July 23, 1983) [kw]Separatist Violence Erupts in Sri Lanka, Tamil (July 23, 1983) [kw]Violence Erupts in Sri Lanka, Tamil Separatist (July 23, 1983) [kw]Sri Lanka, Tamil Separatist Violence Erupts in (July 23, 1983) Racial and ethnic conflict;Sri Lanka Tamils Sri Lankan Civil War (beg. 1983) Civil wars;Sri Lanka Sri Lanka;civil war [g]South Asia;July 23, 1983: Tamil Separatist Violence Erupts in Sri Lanka[05200] [g]Sri Lanka;July 23, 1983: Tamil Separatist Violence Erupts in Sri Lanka[05200] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 23, 1983: Tamil Separatist Violence Erupts in Sri Lanka[05200] [c]Independence movements;July 23, 1983: Tamil Separatist Violence Erupts in Sri Lanka[05200] Jayawardene, Junius Richard Rao, P. V. Narasimha

Tamils identified these actions as attempts to relegate them to the status of second-class citizens, without the ability to prosper and preserve their ethnic identity. They saw the Indian independence movement, which helped liberate Sri Lanka, as an Indo-Aryan-based Hindu movement that did not address the Dravidian-based Tamil cause. This difference of opinion was one of the main causes of the entire Tamil nationalism movement. After undertaking an unsuccessful political course of action, some of Sri Lanka’s Tamils, inspired by the actions of similar independence movements elsewhere, decided to switch to military tactics to promote Tamil cultural and political independence. Tamil-supportive Indian political parties, in particular Dravidar Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK, or the Dravidian Progressive Front), played a significant role in the process of mobilizing Sri Lankan Tamils behind the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The support of such groups was an essential factor in LTTE’s growth.

The incident that triggered events that would lead to large-scale civil war occurred in 1981, when Sinhalese burned the library in the main Tamil city, Jaffna, considered one of the primary emblems of Tamil cultural identity in Sri Lanka. Tamil organizations, primarily the LTTE, began retaliating by attacking government institutions and the military. The country rapidly erupted into open civil war after Tamils killed thirteen Sri Lankan soldiers in July, 1983. This attack was not the first exchange of fire between the two ethnic groups, but it represented the largest single loss of life among the military forces up to that time and proved to be the turning point in terms of future polarization of the Sri Lankan nation.

In order to acquire the funds needed for their cause, Tamil groups relied, among other sources, on bank robberies and other activities that fueled unrest and prompted the arrival of additional Sri Lankan troops. At that time, the military was almost exclusively composed of Sinhalese. On July 23, 1983, the group of soldiers assigned to the Tamil-populated area in Jaffna came under attack, leaving thirteen dead, an officer and twelve soldiers. Soon after the bodies of the fallen soldiers were retrieved and flown to Colombo for burial, rioting began. In a period of four days, July 24-28, Sinhalese mobs attacked people they suspected of being Tamils, murdered many, and destroyed their property. On July 24, news agencies reported that organized Sinhalese groups were rioting and targeting Tamils in Colombo, and some commercial property that Tamils owned and managed was deliberately set on fire. Riots soon spread throughout the country, except in predominantly Tamil areas in the northeast. Many sought refuge by leaving Colombo and traveling to less violent areas, which led to significant internal displacement.

Although the government imposed a curfew in an official attempt to prevent further rioting, Tamils accused the Sinhalese leadership of not doing enough to prevent murders and blamed some ministers of creating genocidal conditions. Mobs ravaging Colombo searched for victims while carrying voter lists that identified Tamils and their places of residence. Political prisoners lost their lives when they were attacked in prison. At the same time, military forces stationed in Jaffna opened fire on Tamil civilians, killing scores, as they retaliated for the lost soldiers.

Sri Lankan government officials announced that some foreign powers were to blame in escalating the conflict and simultaneously banned three parties on the left of the political spectrum and arrested some of their leaders, thus indicating the Soviet Union’s involvement in fueling the ethnic conflict for its Sri Lankan protégés’ political gain. President Junius Richard Jayawardene claimed that by reacting properly, he managed to prevent the possibility of dictatorship arising from chaos on the streets. He cited unusually well-organized rioters as an example of an orchestrated plan to replace the current government by creating unbearable conditions and blaming the country’s leadership for killings. Later reports, however, noted that the government’s initial inability to prevent riots was actually deliberate, as the government wanted to use the riots as an excuse to suppress political opponents.

By the time attacks against Tamils ceased on July 28, hundreds were dead, according to international sources; Tamils themselves claimed that up to several thousand victims had fallen as the result of Sinhalese terror. At the same time India’s foreign minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao, arrived in Sri Lanka to investigate the atrocities, security forces stabilized the situation on the streets. Rao was dispatched by India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, Gandhi, Indira who had come under pressure to intervene in the conflict and protect Tamils. In an attempt to discourage further conflicts, President Jayawardene and India’s envoy signed an agreement in November, 1983, that reorganized existing conditions and expanded the autonomy of Sri Lankan regions, thus protecting the rights of minority groups living in the countryside. This action, however, like many others that followed, did little to prevent further atrocities.


The events of July, 1983, were a turning point in the recent history of Sri Lanka. Prior to what became known as Black July, Black July armed conflicts had been sporadic, and both ethnic groups had relied mainly on political solutions in attempting to address their differences. Moderate factions on both sides held significant influence and kept hard-liners under relative control. Until Black July, the Tamil militants’ role was marginal, but scores of volunteers soon filled their ranks. After 1983, heavy fighting recurred on a periodic basis into the early years of the twenty-first century. Racial and ethnic conflict;Sri Lanka

Moreover, the escalation of conflict in Sri Lanka led to the involvement of other countries, India in particular. In order to prevent eventual destabilization of southern India, specifically in the Tamil-dominated state of Tamil Nadu (formerly Madras), India’s leaders had to juggle difficult interior and foreign policy. This proved to be a rather difficult task when in 1991 former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi Gandhi, Rajiv was assassinated by Tamil nationalists who were dissatisfied with his policy in regard to the Tamil cause. Such killings and other methods, such as suicide bombings, led to Tamils’ being labeled as terrorists in international circles. In 1987, India transformed from bystander into active participant in the civil war when it sent peacekeeping troops to Sri Lanka and found itself drawn into the conflict with Tamil militants. Racial and ethnic conflict;Sri Lanka Tamils Sri Lankan Civil War (beg. 1983) Civil wars;Sri Lanka Sri Lanka;civil war

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ghosh, Partha S. Ethnicity Versus Nationalism: The Devolution Discourse in Sri Lanka. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2003. Discusses the devolution of Sri Lankan political structure over the last fifty years of the twentieth century. Delineates the geopolitical trends since 1995 and presents readers with some plausible outcomes of Tamil nationhood.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hellmann-Rajanayagam, Dagmar. “The Tamil Militants: Before and After.” Pacific Affairs 61 (1988): 603-619. Presents a detailed account of key events leading to the war and India’s controversial involvement that later led to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991. Documents the interaction of Tamil political parties in Tamil Nadu and LTTE, enabling a broader understanding of the Sri Lankan Civil War of the 1980’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rotberg, Robert I., ed. Creating Peace in Sri Lanka: Civil War and Reconciliation. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1999. Collection of essays by both Sri Lankan and Western scholars and diplomats examines the future of peace in Sri Lanka. Two essays authored by Tamils draw readers into fervent discussions, especially concerning the concept of Tamil homeland and territoriality issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stokke, Kristian, and Anne Kirsti Ryntveit. “The Struggle for Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka.” Growth and Change 31 (Spring, 2000): 285-304. Uses a geographic basis to interpret the ethnic cleavages in Sri Lanka and provides an interpretation of some cultural factors that devolved the political fabric of the nation. Examines the character of “Tamilness” in respect to regional variations and the respective regional perceptions of nationalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, A. Jeyaratnam. S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947-1977: A Political Biography. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994. Informative work on the founding father of the Tamil nationalist movement in Sri Lanka documents the political foundations of Tamil nationalism. Covers Chelvanayakam’s formative years as the leader of the Federal Party to his death, with concurrent focus on the developments in Sri Lankan-Tamil politics.

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Categories: History