Tamil of Sri Lanka - Orientation

Identification. Linguistically and culturally related to the Tamiland Malayalam-speaking peoples of southern India, Sri Lankan Tamils have long resided in their traditional homelands (the northern and eastern cultural regions of Sri Lanka), and interacted with the neighboring Sinhalese. The products of their unique geographical and historical circumstances are a distinct culture and society. Predominantly Hindus, Sri Lankan Tamils call their traditional homelands Tamil Eelam, a term that originally meant "Tamil Sri Lanka" but has now become virtually synonymous with the Tamils' quest for a separate state in the predominantly Tamil-speaking Northeastern Province. Sri Lankan Tamils distinguish themselves from the so-called "Indian Tamils," who are Tamil-speaking descendants of south Indian Tamil laborers brought to Sri Lanka to work nineteenth-century British tea plantations, as well as from the indigenous, Tamil-speaking Muslim population of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan Moors, who dwell in the eastern coastal region and in the central highlands.

Location. Sri Lanka is located between 5°55′ and 9°51′ N and 79°41′ and 81°53′ E. Sri Lankan Tamils traditionally made their homes within the present Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, within the dry zone. The center of Sri Lankan Tamil population and culture is the densely populated Jaffna Peninsula of the extreme north; other Tamil Population concentrations are found on the island of Mannar and along the eastern coastal littoral, stretching from north of Trincomalee to Batticaloa. In recent times, many Sri Lankan Tamils have migrated to the North Central Province and to Colombo; almost half the Sri Lankan Tamil population dwells outside the group's traditional homelands. Significant overseas communities of Sri Lankan Tamils in London, Australia, and Malaysia maintain close ties with families back home; foreign remittances are a significant element in the Sri Lankan Tamil economy.

Demography. In 1989 the population of Sri Lanka was estimated at 17,541,000, with an average population density of 252 persons per square kilometer and a growth rate of 1.8 percent per year. Sri Lankan Tamils constitute approximately 11 percent of the island's population. Many—perhaps as much as 60 percent of the population—are refugees from nearly a decade of fighting.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Tamil spoken by Sri Lankan Tamils is a distinct regional dialect of mainland Tamil, but the two are mutually intelligible; Sri Lankan Tamils consider their dialect to be purer than that of the mainland. They fear that their language's survival is threatened by a Sri Lankan government that, in 1956, made Sinhala the sole official Language of government affairs and, in 1973, elevated Sinhala to the status of the national language. Although subsequent measures were taken to allow for the legitimate administrative and educational use of Tamil within the predominantly Tamil areas and Tamil was also made a national language by the 1978 constitution, Tamils nevertheless believe that Tamil Speakers are subject to rampant discrimination and cannot effectively participate in Sri Lanka's national affairs.

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