Sri Lanka's Artificial Ethnic Conflict

The extent to which ethnicity is the cause or the driving force of ethnic conflicts is debatable while the concept of ethnicity itself, is a contested one. Regarding the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict, even though it was officially over on the 17th of May, 2009, it remains a good example to examine the role of ethnicity in such conflicts.

Historical Background

Even though different ethnic groups could be traced in Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial era, there were not any significant disputes between them. In Sri Lanka, there are three main ethnic groups: the Buddhist Sinhalese majority, the linguistic/religious Minority of Tamils – which consists of the Ceylon Tamils and the Indian Tamils, and finally, the Muslim group of Tamil speakers. However, the long-lasting Sri Lankan conflict was mainly between the ethnic groups of the Sinhalese and the Sri Lanka Tamils. 1

Although a minority, the Tamils lived a long period of autonomy under the Portuguese and Dutch colonisation eras until 1815 until the British (who took over in 1796) put the whole island under common administrative rule. This affected the relations between the ethnic groups. The Tamils took advantage of the situation managed to dominate the civil and business services, thus creating feelings of insecurity in the Sinhalese regarding their ethnic identity.2

After Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948 its first elections, the Sinhalese majority became the predominant political power in parliament and enforced a series of discriminatory policies, with the ‘Sinhala Only Act’ of 1956 being, probably, the most important one.3 The emergence of the Tamil nationalist movement was the result of the strong reaction to these inequalities.

In the 80s – after which militia Tamil movements had already been created, the conflict transformed into violent clashes between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers, after the Sinhalese government used force to deal with peaceful Tamil protesters. After a series of unsuccessful negotiations, escalations and a lot of victims, the war ended with the government taking over the entire area that was previously controlled by the Tamil Tigers, thus leading them to admit defeat.

Ethnicity and Conflict

There was not a pre-colonial past of hatreds between the two ethnic groups but a rather significant number of commonalities. It was the later impact of European colonisation, and everything that comes with it, that defined the centrality and intensity of the ethnic identities.

During the time the British colonisers were favouring the Tamils, the Sinhalese had ‘developed a “reverse psychology” of superiority’ which reinforced their feelings of ethnic otherness.4 Furthermore, the German theories of the time (19th century) inspired some Sinhalese elites and led them to perceive themselves as “Aryan” whilst the Tamils strengthened their feelings of ethnic supremacy based on their Dravidian descent.5 Also, the Sinhalese political and religious elites used, in a distorted way, the Sinhalese Buddhist texts to create myths and constructed identities based on distorted historical, religious and cultural evidence; adding a false perspective of ancient hatreds or disputes between the Tamils and the Sinhalese.6

In addition, the Sinhalese tried to equalise their colonisation of the Dry Zone (Sri Lankan area) with Sinhalese-Buddhist ‘nation-building’.7 This intensified the conflict not only because it vivified the mythical ethnic past of the Sinhalese, but also because it demonised the Tamils based on the perception that they threatened the existence of both Buddhism and Sinhalese in the Dry Zone; as well, it was an attempt to change the Tamil demographics and exploit the agricultural areas.

Material Factors

The establishment of the Sinhalese language as the official language of the country in 1956 was not only related to the revival of the Singhalese’s ancient glory, but also with more political reasons like the monopoly of controlling the state’s administrative machine. Similar extensions affected Sinhalese education policies.

The over-representation of Tamils led the post independence Sinhalese governments to implement policies that weakened the Tamil elements in education and other sectors, therefore intensifying Tamil insecurities. Furthermore, university and school admissions policies, as well as teachers’ training and textbooks were ethnically based.8

From the elites’ perspective, ethnic conflict could maintain the homogeneity among ethnic groups and thereby give more power to the ethnic leaders or elites. Also, ethnicity could be used to trigger the Diaspora’s interest and feelings in order to financially support its own and give elites money to exploit. In terms of the Sri Lankan conflict, the failed, post-independence, democratic process, gave rise to discriminatory policies and the use of violence while conflict itself was partly result of the disputes between the elites of both sides over privileged positions in the government and society.9

Conclusions

We can see how different factors reinforced the role of ethnic identity, leading to ethno-nationalistic feelings, therefore increasing the ethnic segregation between the groups. The colonial factor enforced the ethnic divisions and the ethnic divisions reflected political, economic and territorial benefits. During this clash over material benefits, the ethnic identities were intentionally and consequently intensified, thereby creating identity differences. In conclusion, even though ethnicity was not the root cause of the conflict, it came to be the most prominent characteristic of it, and the main reason for the conflict’s prolongation at least at societal level, since elites mostly look at things in more material and cost-benefit terms.


  1. Peebles, P. (1990), “Colonisation and Ethnic Conflict in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka”, The Journal of Asian Studies Volume 49, No.1, pp.30.  

  2. Carment, D. (winter, 2007), “Exploiting Ethnicity: Political Elites and Domestic Conflict”, Harvard International Review Volume 28, No.4, pp.64  

  3. Ali, Y. (26 Jun. 2006), “Sri Lanka?s recent history of ethnic conflict originates from its colonial legacy” at http://www.hweb.org.uk/content/view/27/4/.  

  4. Carment, pp.64.  

  5. Peebles, pp.31.  

  6. Ibid, pp.32.  

  7. Perera, S. (2003), “Root causes of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka”, Report on Sri Lanka, World Bank, Appendix I, reproduced in Tamil Guardian, 20/02/2008 at http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=1609.  

  8. DeVotta N., (2009), “The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Lost Quest for Separatism in Sri Lanka”, Asian Survey Volume 49, No. 6, Ethnic Sub-nationalist Movements in Contemporary South-Asia, pp.1026.  

  9. Carment, pp.63-65.  

Posted on May 22, 2011

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