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History of Sri Lanka’s Civil War

October 16, 1997

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Sri Lanka’s modern civil war was born of an ancient conflict between two ethnic groups with their own distinct languages and cultures.

The majority Sinhalese _ who make up 76 percent of the population _ are mainly Buddhist, and are concentrated in the southern part of the Indian Ocean island nation.

Most Tamils are Hindu, and generally live in the country’s north and east. Many, though, have been drawn south to the capital, Colombo, in search of jobs and education.

The two groups have at times in their 1,000-year histories clashed over territory, but decades before independence in 1948, they united to oppose a common foe _ the British.

The two sides began drifting apart after the British left, in part because of rising nationalism among Sinhalese who believed their superior numbers gave them the right to rule. Ethnic clashes erupted in 1958, 1977 and 1983.

The 1983 riot was the bloodiest; human rights groups have said that more than 2,000 Tamils were killed by Sinhalese. The rioting was sparked during an ambush on 13 soldiers by a fledgling Tamil rebel group in northern Sri Lanka.

Many young people from the south fled to the north to join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which is seeking an ethnic homeland in the north and east.

Though not all Tamils embrace the Tigers’ extreme solution, many feel they are denied opportunity by the Sinhalese, who dominate the government and military, key areas for advancement in an economy just emerging from socialist-style policies.

Several Tamil political parties that advocate a peaceful answer to the ethnic question are represented in the nation’s parliament.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga campaigned on promises to end the devastating war, winning office three years ago. She has proposed giving more autonomy to all the nation’s regions, including one dominated by Tamils. But her ruling party faces strong opposition from both Sinhalese nationalists who say she is going too far and Tamils who want her to go further.

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