Tamil Eelam is the name referring to the territory of Sri Lanka that the Tamil sovereignty movement regards as the national land of the Tamil people. The name literally means “Tamil Sri Lanka”, taking an ancient Tamil name (Eelam) to refer to the whole island (the present Tamil name for it is Ilankai).
The borders of Tamil Eelam referred to in the general information above correspond to those that the Tamil national movement devised in the 1980s and which, even today, continue to propose numerous Tamil organizations in the diaspora. Even so, main Tamil party in Sri Lanka Tamil National Alliance (TNA) often refers only to Northern and Eastern provinces as being Tamil, leaving aside the Puttalam district.
Political-military organization Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched a war of independence against the Sri Lankan army in 1983 and came to control large swathes of Tamil Eelam land over the next two decades, establishing a de facto independent quasi-state there. The Tamil Tigers were defeated by the Sri Lankan army in a final offensive in 2009, which caused the displacement of 300,000 Tamils.
In 1987, in an attempt to stop the war between the Sri Lankan army and the Tigers, the Sri Lankan Parliament passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which transferred a number of legislative and executive powers to the provinces. In 1988 the north and east of Sri Lanka formed the North-Eastern Province. In 1990 Sri Lanka’s President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, suspended autonomy after the province’s Chief Minister Annamalai Varadarajaperumal issued a unilateral declaration of independence. In 2007 the province was divided into two (Northern Province and Eastern Province). The Eastern Province regained autonomy in 2008, and the Northern Province in 2013.
Since the end of the war, the Tamil political movement has tried to achieve an agreement for an extended autonomy, or a federal agreement, for the two provinces within the Sri Lankan framework, to no success.
The main language in Tamil Eelam is Tamil, a Dravidian language which is also spoken in the neighbouring Indian state of Tamil Nadu, as well as in Singapore and other countries by the Tamil diaspora. The number of Tamil speakers worldwide is estimated at 75 million, of which 5.5 million live in Sri Lanka; of these, the majority in Tamil Eelam.
According to the 2012 census, 98% of Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil population speaks Tamil, as do 98% of Moors and 38% of Burghers.
Tamil is the official language of Sri Lanka, along with Sinhalese, which is spoken by 33% of Tamils.
Burghers had traditionally spoken Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole, or Indo-Portuguese, which is on the verge of extinction.
Tamil Eelam is a nationally diverse country. According to the 2012 population census, Tamils make up 39.8% of the population in the Eastern province, while Sri Lankan Moors comprise 36.7% of the population. Sinhala make up 23.1% of the population. The Northern province is much more homogeneous, with Tamils at 93.9% and Moors and Sinhalese at 3.1 percent each. A small minority of Burghers (a people formed by the intermingling of Europeans and local islanders) can be found in both provinces.
In the Puttalam district, claimed by some as a part of Tamil Eelam, Tamils only make up 6.3% of the population.
Most Tamils are of Hindu faith, albeit a Christian Tamil minority also exists. The Sinhala are mostly Buddhists, while Sri Lankan Moors adhere to the Sunni Muslim faith. Burghers belong to several Christian denominations.
Politics and government
Most of Sri Lanka’s Tamil territory is included within the Northern Province (capital Jaffna) and the Eastern Province (capital Trincomalee).
The provinces of Sri Lanka have legislative and executive powers in certain areas of education, agriculture, health, housing, municipal government, transport, local services, markets and fairs, social services, health, and rural development. Although they are listed in the Constitution as provincial powers, policing and land management have never been transferred to them.
The executive branch of the provinces consists of the Governor and the Board of Ministers, while the Provincial Council forms the legislative branch.
(Last updated November 2020.)