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July 28, 2021

Politics of Ethnicity: Sri Lankan Case Study




By Iqra Mumtaz


Aristotle, the Greek philosopher called man a “social animal” by nature. Human survival has been a key characteristic and this depended on man’s ability to become part of social groups. In old times, physical survival of these collective bodies depended on the in-group cohesion. From here the concept of us versus them, was sprouted. These distinctions have always tempted people to divide themselves into diverse groups. Humans consider themselves as part of a certain group on the basis of clan, family, ethnicity, race, religion and so forth. They recognize themselves as an in-group identity, to which generally positive characteristics are attached. For an in-group identity there must be the “other” group that is perceived as the out-group. This otherness has always been considered a threat which ultimately in many cases leads to hostilities and differences between the two groups.

Conflicts are inevitable and can occur in different dimensions and in distinct dynamics. They can be ethnic and political in nature and together it gives rise to ethnopolitical conflict, which is fought between different factions. It is an intergroup conflict that disturbs communication and distorts perceptions between the groups. They foreground ethnic and religious differences which as a result alter the perceptions of the other side. (Souleimanov 2013).


Formerly known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.

The ethnically diverse country constitutes 75 percent Buddhist Sinhalese and Tamils who are chiefly Hindus form 15.4 per cent, of which 11.2 per cent are Sri Lankan Tamils and 4.2 per cent are Indian Tamils. (Div-05 2016) The Indian Tamils were brought as laborers to Sri Lanka by the British.

Ethnic differences between the two dominant ethnic groups, Sinhala and Tamils, coupled with rising nationalism generated the ethnopolitical conflict. The discriminatory rule of the British before independence and the culturally biased policies of the Sinhala government after freedom from the colonial rulers are considered the leading causes of the conflict. The politicization of ethnicity by Sri Lankan government resulted in the birth of LTTE.

In 1948, Sri Lanka gained independence from the British. Sri Lankan people, before and after independence have been a victim of ethnopolitics. However, the ethnic politics became clearly manifested in 19th and early 20th centuries.

The colonial phase of Sri Lankan history largely shaped the conflict. The British rule from 1815 to 1948 created borders which formed divisions between ethnic groups and also set the stage for the conflict.

The British colonizers favored the minorities. The divide and rule strategy aggravated the differences between Tamils and Sinhalese. The minority under colonials in Ceylon were Tamils. The minority, after all, was more trustworthy to become an ally. This also led to Tamils enjoying more necessities than Sinhalese who were in the majority. For example, a larger number of Christian missionaries in the north meant Tamils having more access to English education. This resulted in Tamils accessing more positions in civil services and having a greater economic influence. (“Sri Lanka, Ethnic Conflict, and the Rise of a Violent Secessionist Movement” 2013). This marked the initiation of socio-economic and political divide between Sinhalese and Tamils.

The tables turned when the island nation got independence from British rule. Tamils found themselves in a precarious position because the majority group sought to receive political and economic power. When Sri Lanka got independence in 1948, the Tamils now feared for the protection of their political, economic and cultural rights under the rule of now the major ethnicity of Sri Lanka.

The major Sinhalese dominated political parties, relied on ethnic emotions to win Sinhalese support and exploited public opinion in 1950s. Different policies emerged in the next five decades which are regarded as a step towards ethnicization of politics. The first of these was the 1956 Official Language Act (of Sinhala-only language). The main source of this Act is considered the growing resentment from Sinhalese population for Tamil language being a national language. The impact of this was that it created greater job opportunities for Sinhala speakers and limited them for non- Sinhala speakers. Though education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels was provided in person’s vernacular, but with time in public service, Sinhalese became the lingua Franca (“Sinhala Only Bill | 1956, Sri Lanka,” n.d.). However, linguistic nationalism is one of many other driving factors for Tamil demand of separate homeland.

After independence, issue of land ownership and access to it also was a consistent source of ethnopolitics. Certain ethnic groups in Sri Lanka are distributed in certain geographical areas. Tamils were majorly settled in dry zone areas of Northern and Eastern provinces. Colonization and resettlement of these areas was another problem faced by Tamils. (Perer 2001)

Sinhalese and Tamil leadership at this time played a crucial role. The reason for Tamil distrust in Sri Lanka political system finds bases in Tamil elites trusting the Sinhalese government and Sinhalese breaking it, time and time again. Before the emergence of separatist movements, Tamils made several attempts to work through with the government. All these attempts went in vain when fake promises made by the government were completely ignored in the end. The Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam Pact that was abandoned at the end provoked more tensions between both two ethnic communities. In the same time period, Tamil Language Special Provisions Act, inspired by Sinhala Only Bill and Senanayake- Chelvanayaka Pact were signed and abandoned because of pressure from certain Sinhalese. The inability to make concessions and keep promises had become an engrained norm of Sri Lankan government. From this point onwards, demands for a separate homeland in northern Sri Lanka-Tamil Eelam were made.

Tamils also used non-violent means to achieve their political goals. Two major Satyagraha campaigns were adopted by Tamils. Both the instances of Satyagraha were response to the Sinhala Only Act in 1956 and 1961 respectively. (“Sri Lanka, Ethnic Conflict, and the Rise of a Violent Secessionist Movement” 2013).

In Sri Lanka, the politicization of ethnic tensions further exacerbated the situation. As stated above that the conflict had historical roots but fuel was added by the politicians. They provided the spark that ignited violence in the country. The politicians took help of raw violence and votes.

The above argument suggests and helps understand the emergence of Liberation of Tamil Tigers and other insurgent groups and movements. LTTE also state that “they are the product of the Sinhala violence and chauvinism”, or as Neil de Votta says the birth of the separatist movement is “Sinhala-inspired.” (Abdul Razak 2007). To please the Sinhalese voters, the political parties created an environment of distrust between Sinhalese and Tamils. Communal riots resulted in Tamil killings, beatings and many were maimed and forced out of their homes.

The ethnocratic government and its ethnocentric politics lead to intense nationalism among Tamils. The unattended grievances by the Sri Lankan government drove the Tamils towards retaliation in the form of a violent rebel. LTTE was formed in 1976 as ethnic tensions rose in Tamil majority regions. The Tamil militants started the insurgency with low intensity to maintain control in the Tamil dominated areas. They declared the first Eelam war as a result of these violent riots. Initially, LTTE had the support of legitimate Tamil political representatives but Liberation Tigers with time became a violent entity and started to fight other Tamil factions. They massacred their opponents and came in power over the other separatist movements by 1986. They became the “sole representative of the Tamils.”(TamilNet 2005)

The Sri Lankan civil war is divided into 4 phases named as Eelam wars. Each phase was bloodier than the previous one. Tactics used by Tigers with time became more lethal. The insurgent group targeted many high-profile personalities. The war officially started as a low-level insurgency in 1983 as a result of ethnic riots.

LTTE soon was labelled as the terrorist group after the use of terror tactics including suicide bombs. (“The Sri Lankan Civil War and Its History, Revisited in 2020” 2020).

The rebel group was responsible for assassination of premiers

On May 2009, the Sri Lanka army announced victory after killing the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. This marked the end of the civil war. (thoughtcodotcom 2009)

Ethnicity and politics when merged create tensions, violence and chaos.

The political development in Sri Lanka and ethnic strife proved that violence was the consequence of politicization of ethnic differences. The LTTE firmly believed that employed violence was validated because government had reacted violently to Tamil demands. The Sri Lankan government, on the other hand, justified its violence against Tamils and LTTE for safeguarding the territorial integrity of the Sri Lankan island.

Ethno-political conflicts require resolutions that guarantee stability, ethnic peace and security. In ethnically divided societies power sharing and partition is a highly practical and achievable solution for security of ethnic groups. Other than partition, depending upon the conflict, ethnic peace needs to be sustained.

This article has been adapted from its original source


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