At least 60,000 people have been killed since minority Tamils took up arms in 1972, about 24 years after the Indian Ocean island won independence from Britain.
The British, the last in a long line of imperialists, dominated the island for 133 years with a policy of "divide and rule" among the majority Sinhalese and ethnic Tamils.
Moves by the Sinhalese to retake key state jobs that had been controlled by the better-educated Tamils brought communal tensions into the open.
But folk stories have long been told of ancient wars between Tamil and Sinhala kings.
Many believe the state policy of adopting Sinhalese as the official national language while, at the same time, dropping both English and Tamil as a turning point in the chequered history of the island.
"The conflict possibly started in 1956 when we adopted the Sinhala-only policy," said retired airforce chief Harry Gunatillake.
"From there onwards, we have gone down hill.
In 1972 a disgruntled Tamil school dropout, Velupillai Pra