VII. The Contemporary Period, 1945–2000 > F. South and Southeast Asia, 1945–2000 > 1. South Asia, 1945–2000 > f. Sri Lanka (Ceylon)
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
f. Sri Lanka (Ceylon)
After gaining independence from Great Britain in 1948, Sri Lanka experienced escalating ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority. The antagonism dated to the struggle to choose a national language. Two propositions were considered: “Sinhala only” or “parity of status for Sinhala and Tamil.” As the majority language (nearly 70 percent of Sri Lankans speak Sinhala), Sinhala could also be used to stand in for a range of related identities that emphasize the uniqueness of Sinhalese Buddhist culture—particularly to differentiate it from Tamil Hindu culture with its uncomfortably close connections to South India, which loomed large above the island.  1
Language thus became interpreted as a test of national loyalty. Nevertheless, Tamils rejected the victory of the “Sinhala only” proposition in the general election of 1956; they feared that that policy would place them in a disadvantageous position with respect to employment and higher education. Although the extent of protections for the use of Tamil has varied from 1956 to the present, the contentiousness of the debate has only escalated.  2
By 1975, the language question had evolved to include the complex issue of national and territorial rights; a powerful Tamil secessionist movement had emerged. Both sides in the developing civil war have grown increasingly intransigent, and the conflict has drawn in Sri Lanka's large neighbor to the north (it is likely that Rajiv Gandhi's assassination ( (See 1991, May 21)) was directly connected to this conflict).  3
1946, May 15
Ceylon was granted a new constitution, which gave it almost complete self-government in domestic affairs.  4
1947, Sept. 26
The first cabinet under the new constitution took office, with Stephen Senanayaki as prime minister. The new Parliament opened on Nov. 24. A series of agreements with the U.K. (Nov. 11) further reduced British influence in Ceylon.  5
1948, Feb. 4
CEYLON BECAME A SELF-GOVERNING DOMINION in the British Commonwealth, the first non-European colony to achieve this status.  6
1950, Nov. 7
Ceylon was the second to sign an agreement with the U.S., providing assistance under the Point Four Program.  7
1952, May 24
Despite vigorous Marxist efforts to win control, the Conservative government won a majority in parliamentary elections.  8
1956, April 12
After the neutralist People's United Front was victorious in parliamentary elections, Sirimavo Bandaranaike was appointed to head a leftist coalition cabinet made up of Democratic Socialists. Trotsky-Marxists, and orthodox Buddhists.  9
June 15
Parliament approved the Sinhalese Language Bill to make Sinhalese the sole official language of Ceylon, despite rioting by the Tamil-speaking minority. The Senate, on July 6, approved the language bill. Language became the basis of nationalism; Sinhala nationalism became equated with Sri Lankan nationalism, which Tamils rejected.  10
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.