Regionalism has commonly been expected to dissolve as a consequence of the administrative regional penetration of the centralized modern state and the homogenizing forces associated with modernization. This mode of reasoning has reappeared recently among authors who see globalization as a universal force that will eradicate regional economic inequalities, local identities and regional political mobilization. Contrary to these expectations, regional autonomy movements continue to play a central political role within many states. Consequently, it remains an important analytical challenge to understand the construction and politicization of regional interests.

Against this background, the article presents a critical interpretation and contextual analysis of Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka. It is argued that studies of nationalist movements should seek inspiration in the contemporary dialog between three main perspectives on social movements (theories of new social movements, resource mobilization theories, and theories of collective identity) and a corresponding three-dimensional understanding of place (location, locale, and sense of place). The paper shows how nationalist mobilization cannot be reduced to essentialist notions of primordial nations, territorial nation-states, or internal colonialism, but instead should be understood as the outcome of cultural and political practices by a multitude of actors, operating in time- and place-specific contexts.