The civil war had its roots in colonial times, during which the British were seen by the Sinhalese majority as favoring the Tamil minority. When British colonial rule ended in 1948, the Sinhalese majority disenfranchised Tamil plantation workers, made Sinhala the country’s official language and made Buddhism the country’s primary religion (the majority of Sinhalese are Buddhist; the majority of Tamils are Hindu).
It was in this context that, in 1976, a man named Velupillai Prabhakaran formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, dedicated to the fight for Tamil independence. In 1983, the LTTE ambushed an army convoy. Thirteen soldiers were killed. Riots in response left as many as 3,000 Tamils dead. This pogrom, known as Black July, marked the beginning of large-scale violence in Sri Lanka.
India deployed a peacekeeping mission to Sri Lanka in 1987, but it left three years later. In 1991, one Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, who was India’s prime minister when New Delhi sent the peacekeeping force (the LTTE unexpectedly apologized in 2006). In 1993, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated; no group asserted responsibility, but all eyes turned toward the LTTE. The United States put the group on its terror list in 1997. That did not stop the LTTE: In 2001, it carried out an attack on the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, ruining half the national airline and part of the military’s aircraft.
For two years after the war ended, the government denied that any civilians were killed, but it finally admitted in 2011 that some had been killed. In announcing the end of the war, the government claimed that its conflict had been with the Tamil Tigers, not the Tamil people. But the United Nations estimated that as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians may have died in the last few months of the war. Sri Lanka’s current president, Maithripala Sirisena, is resisting pressure from the United Nations to investigate war crimes.
There were incidents during the war that centered on religion. For example, in 1987, the LTTE carried out the Aranthalawa massacre, killing 33 Buddhist monks. But the civil war was largely about nationalism. Though one group was mostly Hindu and the other mostly Buddhist, there were Christians in both groups, and some Tamil Tigers were Catholic.
When declaring the war over, then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa said, “We must find a homegrown solution to this conflict. That solution should be acceptable to all the communities. We have to find a solution based on the philosophy of Buddhism.”
The decade that followed has been largely peaceful — few have been killed in any terrorism-related attacks in Sri Lanka. However, Buddhist nationalism has become its own form of violence, albeit far less deadly than civil war. A Buddhist mob attacked a mosque in 2013, injuring 12; Christian services have occasionally been disrupted by Buddhist monks.
Sunday’s attacks targeting Christians appeared to be yet another turn toward more religion-based violence. No group immediately claimed credit, but supporters of the Islamic State were quick to celebrate the explosions, portraying them as revenge for attacks on Muslims and mosques.