|SRI LANKA > THE PEOPLE|
Ethnic, religious, and linguistic distinctions in Sri Lanka are essentially the same. Three ethnic groups—Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim—make up more than 99 percent of the country's population, with the Sinhalese alone accounting for nearly three-fourths of the people. The Tamil segment comprises two groups—Sri Lankan Tamils (long-settled descendants from southeastern India) and Indian Tamils (recent immigrants from southeastern India, most of whom were migrant workers brought to Sri Lanka under British rule). Slightly more than one-eighth of the total population belongs to the former group. Muslims, who trace their origin back to Arab traders of the 8th century, account for about 7.5 percent of the population. Burghers (a community of mixed European descent), Parsis (immigrants from western India), and Veddas (regarded as the aboriginal inhabitants of the country) total less than 1 percent of the population.
The Sinhalese constitute the majority in the southern, western, central, and
north-central parts of the country. In the rural areas of the Wet Zone lowlands,
they account for more than 95 percent of the population. The foremost
concentration of the Sri Lankan Tamils lies in the Jaffna Peninsula and in the
adjacent districts of the northern lowlands. Smaller agglomerations of this
group are also found along the eastern littoral where their settlements are
juxtaposed with those of the Muslims. The main Muslim concentrations occur in
the eastern lowlands. In other areas, such as Colombo, Kandy, Puttalam, and
Gampaha, Muslims form a small but important segment of the urban and suburban
population. The Indian Tamils, the vast majority of whom are plantation workers,
live in large numbers in the higher areas of the Central Highlands.
Among the principal ethnic groups, language and religion determine identity. While the mother tongue of the Sinhalese is Sinhala—an Indo-Aryan language—the Tamils speak the Dravidian language of Tamil. Again, while more than 90 percent of the Sinhalese are Buddhists, both Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils are overwhelmingly Hindu. The Muslims—adherents of Islam—usually speak Tamil. Christianity draws its followers (about 7 percent of the population) from among the Sinhalese, Tamil, and Burgher communities.
Sri Lanka's ethnic relations are characterized by periodic disharmony. Since
independence, estranged relations between the Sinhalese and the Tamils have
continued in the political arena. Intensifying grievances of the latter group
against the Sinhalese-dominated governments culminated in the late 1970s in a
demand by the Tamil United Liberation Front, the main political party of that
community, for an independent Tamil state comprising the northern and eastern
provinces. This demand grew increasingly militant and eventually evolved into a
separatist war featured by acts of terrorism. The violence to which the Tamils
living in Sinhalese-majority areas were subjected in 1983 contributed to this
escalation of the conflict. The secessionist demand itself has met with
opposition from the other ethnic groups.
At independence Sri Lanka had a population of about 6.5 million, which by the early 1990s had increased to more than 17 million. The rate of population growth averaged about 2.6 percent annually up to the early 1970s and declined to about 1.7 percent over the next two decades. In Sri Lanka the movement of people from rural areas to urban areas has remained a slow process. The pronounced trend has been that of migration into the Dry Zone interior, which has doubled its share of the country's population since independence.