ETHNO-POLITICAL CONFLICT IN SRI LANKA
Ethno-Political Conflict in Sri Lanka
A.R.M. Imtiyaz1 and Ben Stavis2
[The article has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Third World
Studies (JTWS), issue of fall 2008.]
Key Words: democracy, violence, ethnic outbidding, and consociational solutions.
Address all correspondence to Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz, Department of Political Science
Gladfelter Hall, Room No 414 ,Temple University, 1115 West Berks St. Philadelphia
PA 19122-6089,USA.Email address: email@example.com
1 Visiting scholar, Department of Political Science, Temple University, USA.
2 Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science, Temple University, USA.
Abstract: This study examines ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. The major thesis is that
politicization of ethnic distinctions by major political parties has fuelled an ethnic
violence and conflict in Sri Lanka. The study employs an interactive approach to
understand violence of both parties. Each party’s violence against the other increases the
sense of distrust between them. Political elites then use ethnic emotions in their quest for
power, reinforcing ethnic tensions. This paper also discusses some fundamental
historical factors that play a role in understanding Sri Lanka’s ethnic violence. It finally
suggests solutions to the protracted ethno-political conflict -- partition or power-sharing.
“Why?” That was the key question shared by many Western observers when they
were astonished by the wave of Tamil Tiger suicide bombing in the 1980’s and 1990’s
that ripped through Sri Lanka, a state of approximately 20 million people that previously
considered a model of democracy in Asia. Why have young Tamils, a minority group
comprising roughly 18 percent of Sri Lankans in a majority Sinhala society, lost trust in
the state and its institutions? What has made young Tamils, both men and women,
willingly turn themselves into suicide bombers? A simple answer blames the ethnic
conflict or civil war which has killed over 70,000 people, mostly minority Tamils,
displaced hundreds of thousands more internally, and forced nearly a million Tamils to
flee the country.
As Ted Robert Gurr has observed, there is no comprehensive and widely accepted
theory of the causes and consequences of ethno-political conflict.1 Instead, there are
many factors that can lead to tensions between groups of people. This paper will first
review many of these factors, and then focus on how the politicization of ethnic tensions
has triggered violence and tragedy in Sri Lanka.
The primordialist approach offers one simple yet powerful explanation about ethnopolitical
conflict. For primordialists, ethnic identity is inborn and therefore immutable,2
as both culturally acquired aspects (language, culture, and religion) and genetically
determined characteristics (pigmentation and physiognomy) in shaping ethnic identity.3
Primordialism’s socio-biological strand claims that ethnicity, tied to kinship, promotes a
convergence of interests between individuals and their kin group’s collective goals.
Consequently, even racism and ethnocentrism can be viewed as extreme forms of
nepotistic behavior driven by feelings of propinquity and consanguinity. Primordialists
thus note nationalism as a natural phenomenon.
In contrast, the constructivist theory views ethnic identities as a product of
human actions and choices, arguing that they are constructed and transmitted, not
genetically inherited, from the past.4 Max Weber was one theorist who stressed the social
origin of ethnic identity. Weber viewed each ethnic group as a “human group” whose
belief in a common ancestry (whether or not based in genetic reality) leads to the
formation of a community,5 concluding that ethnic identity is not primarily a genetic
phenomenon, but rather a result of circumstances and political environment.6
Constructivists believe that nationalism is an eighteenth-century European
phenomenon and an ideological creation. Various constructivists have suggested that the
desire to build armies and improve military capabilities, the failure of industrialization to
create a homogeneous cultural structure and market, and the development of a
standardized communication systems all made it possible to imagine and invent
communities. 7 The imagined, arrogated and ascribed national character facilitating the
nation-building process consequently promoted nationalism in Europe.
While nationalism led to stronger, more integrated states in Europe, the process
involved multiple wars over several generations as well as forced displacement and
several genocides of millions of people. Will the construction of nationalism in today’s
developing nations inevitably lead to the same tragic fate? Is Sri Lanka’s violence a
reflection of European history and a harbinger of the future for the third world?
Other scholars emphasize the pre-colonial roots of the ethno-political conflict in
Sri Lanka, Formerly known as Ceylon. Tamil and Sinhalese kingdoms existed long
before the Portuguese captured the island in 1505, and the Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms
fought to extend their boundaries in ancient Sri Lanka.8 The present stage of the conflict
thus echoes an historic pattern. Conflicts between the Mende and Temne in Sierra Leone
similarly predated colonialism. The Maronities and Druze in what is now Lebanon
fought long before the arrival of the Ottomans, and the Acholi and Langi clashed
intermittently in pre-colonial Uganda.9 The old hostilities still play significant roles in
influencing the current stage of these ethno-political conflicts, thus hindering the process
of nation building.
The Colonial History theorists contend that the contemporary pattern of ethnic
relations in Sri Lanka have been largely shaped by its colonial history. The colonial
process created borders, which included or divided ethnic groups and defined the
demographic mixture of the colonies that eventually became countries. Colonialism’s
divide-and-rule policies, census taking, and promotion of ethnic identities all enhanced
(and sometimes even created) cultural and ethnic distinctions in colonial societies,
although these processes by themselves can hardly account for the nationalistic conflict
unleashed in the post-colonial areas.10
Problems arose when colonial rulers favored and allied with a particular group,
often a minority, to help in colonial administration. A minority, after all, could be more
trusted to ally with an outside power. The minority might preferentially receive
education and then share in political and economic power. When independence came,
such a group found itself in a precarious position, as the majority group sought to gain
political and economic power. When the majority groups seize power from the former
administrators and marginalize the minority group politically and economically, then the
minority might either struggle for power or for secession.11
This perspective helps to explain Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. Since independence,
the majority Sinhalese confronted minorities, particularly the Tamils, who had previously
occupied administrative positions during the British rule of the country. Sinhalese
politicians in the postcolonial period exploited imbalance and relied on ethnic emotions
to win Sinhalese political support to capture and hold political power.12 S.W.R.D.
Bandaranaike laid the first foundation for such an ethnicization of politics by introducing
the Sinhala-Only language policy in the 1950’s. Repeatedly over the next four decades,
Sinhala politicians employed the same ethnic tricks to capture a large share of the
Sinhalese votes. Sinhalese politicization of ethnic emotions in the Southern parties of Sri
Lanka brought parallel processes in which Tamil moderate nationalists effectively
utilized Tamil ethnic solidarity to win the elections. The ethnicization of the Sinhala
polity subsequently produced Tamil militants, notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam (LTTE), a secessionist Tamil guerrilla movement. The LTTE became dominant
after 1975 by killing opponents, including some moderate Tamil leaders who believe in
the principle of non-violence. De Votta recognizes that the ethnicization of Sri Lanka’s
political system by the Sinhalese leaders eventually radicalized the Tamils and produced
the LTTE.13 In fact, such Tamil radicalization gained greater support among the Tamil
polity after the Sinhalese leaders refused political compromise with the Tamil leaders.
Within his research on ethnic conflict, Professor De Silva, a noted Sinhala historian,
thoroughly examines the process whereby Tamil radicalization occurred on the island of
The modernization theory maintains that when colonies became independent
countries, modern values would spread and indigenous inhabitants would be less
influenced by traditional ethnic or religious loyalties. In this theory, greater political and
economic interaction among people, coupled with widespread education and mass
communication networks, would breakdown parochial identities of ethnic and religious
groups and replace them with loyalty to larger communities such as Nigeria, Indonesia,
or emerging pan-African or a future Asian Community.
However, political developments of the 1980’s and 1990’s in both the postcolonial
and the Western worlds have clashed with this prediction. In Sri Lanka, ethnic
loyalty was strengthened, not weakened, by nation building efforts and the modernization
of society. As Ted Robert Gurr pointed out, ethnic leadership provided strong networks
that form the basis for political mobilization.15 Rising competition among Sri Lankans to
dominate economic and political resources, particularly between the Tamils and the
Sinhalese, essentially diminished the chance for a common national identity to develop,
especially as Sinhalese leaders established laws that grossly favored the majority
Sinhalese. Prominent Sri Lankan scholars such as such as K. N. O. Dharmadasa, Kumari
Jayawardena, Jayadeva Uyangoda, and Ananda Wickeremeratne, explore how
modernization processes led by the Sinhalese leaders effectively marginalized the Tamil
minority.16 These authors argue that intensification of social mobilization in Sri Lanka
generated ethnic conflict. Their works on Sri Lanka ethnic conflict and modernity support
the prediction of Karl. W. Deutsch who believed that social mobilization could generate
ethnic conflict between different groups that compete for limited economic and political
More recent scholars have elaborated on this theme. John R. Bowen notes that
people began to see themselves as members of vast ethnic groups, only during the
modern period of colonization and state-building.18 Rogers Brubaker also suggestes that
conflict between different ethnic groups arises because of the increase in competition for
the domination of the modern politics.19 The expanded role and power of the state
intensifies elite competition and contributes to conflict between ethnic groups.
POLITICIZATION OF ETHNIC TENSIONS
Given the numerous cleavages and tensions in post-colonial societies, the factor
that influences whether and how communal violence breaks out is the way that the
political system deals with the tensions. Do political leaders aggravate the tensions until
they explode in violence? Do they recruit people to instigate acts of violence and then
condone and protect them? Or do they seek non-violent resolution of problems and
ensure that proponents and initiators of violence are punished?
In many cases, elite political leaders believe they can win support and strengthen
their positions by mobilizing along ethnic cleavages. They anticipate that appeals to
ethnicity are particularly effective in expanding their power. Leaders sometimes
encourage followers to use crude violence – pogroms or ethnic cleansing, or exploit
ethnic tensions in electoral politics. Outbidding opponents along ethnic lines is one of
the strategies to win votes in (fragmented) societies that hold elections. This process
frequently results in a polarization of the political system into ethnic divisions and a
possible breakdown into violence. Marginalized minorities may suffer, emigrate, or fight
back with the weapons of the weak – terrorism and/or guerrilla activities. Elites
manipulate ethnic identities in their quest for power,20 and these processes can either
deliberately or unexpectedly trigger ethnic conflict.21 This paper will emphasize the
manner in which elite political strategies have politicized ethnic relations and aggravated
tensions, leading to serious violence in Sri Lanka.
Historical processes often give rise to tensions and conflicts between difficult
ethnic groups, but politicians provide the sparks that ignite the violence. They often do so
deliberately, because they believe they can strengthen their personal political positions.
They work with two tools, raw violence and votes. These dynamics are clear from a
review of Sri Lanka’s ethnic violence.
The politicization of ethnic differences began in the 1950s. Successive Sinhalese
political parties formulated policies such as the Sinhala Only Language Act in 1956,
which made Sinhala the only official language in state and public affairs and sharply
discriminated against Tamil speakers. Then an educational standardization policy in
1972 allowed Sinhalese students to enter Science and Medicine schools with lower scores
than the Tamil students. The Constitution of 1972 conferred a special status on Buddhism
in both the state and public sectors. The reason for all of these policies was, in Downs’s
language, “to win elections.”22 In Sri Lanka, of course, this meant to satisfy the
Sinhalese voters. This naturally created an environment of distrust between the Sinhalese
and Tamils,23 while eroding Tamil faith in the democracy of Sri Lanka.24 Violence
accompanied these culturally biased policies. Scholarly works on the Sri Lanka ethnic
conflict suggest that communal riots in 1958, 1961, 1974, 1977 and 1983 in which
Tamils were killed, maimed, robbed and rendered homeless were carefully designed by
the Sinhala elites.25 This persistent pattern of violence set the stage for violent Tamil
retaliation and efforts to secede.
The incident in 1983, known as Black July, is particularly well documented.
Approximately two thousand Tamils were killed in July/August 1983 by Sinhalese mobs
in an attempt to begin genocide (or at least ethnic cleansing) of the Tamils. Human Right
Watch documented the cruelty of the 1983 “state sponsored” Sinhalese riots. “Many
neighborhoods were destroyed and nearly 100,000 Tamils in Colombo were displaced.
Evidence suggested government collusion in the riots.”26 Further, an eye witness who
rescued a Tamil employee of the state media company-Lake House described the cruelty
of the day:
Well organized gangs that had the blessings of powerful Government politicians
mainly from the city of Colombo began their orgy of murder, looting and arson
in broad daylight while the Police and the Armed Forces appeared to be
helpless. I remember taking a vehicle out of Lake House to Wattala, with my
colleagues also taking a Tamil accountant at Lake House, Mr. Edward, who also
lived in Wattala. Five colleagues and the driver were all Sinhalese and we kept
Mr. Edward between us in the middle of the vehicle and at each 100 meters or
so gangs armed with clubs, swords and knives stopped each vehicle and
inspected them to see whether any passenger or driver was a Tamil. Smoke
filled the streets of Colombo and while we were leaving Lake House a
flourishing textile shop, Sarathas was being looted while the armed forces and
police were turning a blind eye to the crime.
With respect to the state’s role behind the violence, the witness reported:
…most notable matter that was observed was that the gangs carried official
Householders Lists and stopped their vehicles in front of the homes or offices of
the Tamil people. If the UNP Government of J. R. Jayewardene had not
provided them with those official documents, how could the gangs have had
access to them? It meant two things. The Government deliberately delayed the
burial of the corpses of the soldiers on July 24 to plan an attack on the Tamil
people in Colombo and the suburbs to provide their own goons with documents
to make sure that only Tamils were attacked. Any other political party or group
could not have managed both these things without State power.27
Neither the Sinhala ruling elite nor state institutions openly condemned or took
any meaningful immediate measures to prevent the violence against the Tamil civilians
from spreading to the other parts of the island from Colombo.28 Instead J.R. Jayewardene,
then President of Sri Lanka, referred to the mobs as a "mass movement by the generality
of the Sinhalese people” and praised the mobs as heroes of the Sinhalese people.29
Jayewardene’s complicity was reflected in the interview he gave to Ian Ward, a British
journalist, prior to the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983:
I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna (Tamil) people now. Now we
cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us. The more
you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… really,
if I starve the Tamils, Sinhala people will be happy...30
The Sinhalese atrocities against the Tamils continued unabated even
after the notorious ethnic violence in 1983. According to Human Rights Watch, after
1983, tens of thousands of people ended their life in prison cell.31 Several studies accuse
Sinhala politicians of institutionalized anti-Tamil violence and atrocities.32 S.J. Tambiah
reported that the Sinhalese ruling elites hired some Sinhalese to butcher the Tamils.33
The evidence suggests that the Sinhalese who were hired by local Sinhala politicians to
kill the Tamils are deprived and they did it for some economic benefits.34
It is evident that the violence and ethnocentric policies of the Sinhala ruling elites
contributed to the growth of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka. Tamil moderate parties,
such as the Federal Party (FP) led by skillful politicians such as S.J.V. Selvanayakam,
articulated frustration among common Tamil people into a ‘defensive nationalism’ with
peaceful protests. However, Sinhalese collective, competitive chauvinism responded
violently to the Tamil moderates. A former Premier of Sri Lanka noted during his visit to
the United States, that “the Tamils tried peaceful protests which soon degenerated into
violence. With the underlying grievances being unattended the stage was set for terrorists
groups to emerge.”35 This background helps us to understand the birth of violent Tamil
movements, particularly the LTTE, toward the end of the 1970s.
The LTTE eventually resorted to violence to secure a separate state, called Eelam.
The LTTE claim that they are a product of the Sinhala violence and chauvinism, and hold
the belief that Tamils will not win any justice from the Sinhala polity.36 Many ordinary
Tamils began to share similar sentiments after they became targets of Sri Lanka police
and military retaliation against the LTTE’s attacks on the state and its institutions.37 The
state justified violence against the Tamils in the name of protecting territorial integrity of
the island. Yet, the violent actions of Sri Lanka forces against the Tamils further
radicalized the average Tamils, thus providing a fertile opportunity for the ethnic Tamil
recruitment to fight against the state. Therefore, the Tamil separatist movement is, in Neil
de Votta’s words, “Sinhalese-inspired.”38 The systematic growth of the LTTE shows that
when a particular community feels is being continuously terrorized by the dominant
ethnic/religious or political group, many will join a politico-military movement to resist
the oppression and violence of the persecutors.39
Politicization of the ethnic distinctions increased when the LTTE indiscriminately
used violence against Sinhalese villagers and bombed Buddhist shrines. These tactics
have been used particularly since 1985. Although the LTTE did not target ordinary
Sinhalese before 1977, as the ethnic conflict escalated, there were several incidents in the
late 1980’s involving Sinhalese civilians. In 1985, for example, a major attack was
launched in Anuradhapura, in which many Sinhalese civilians were killed.40 The
increased intensity of the government-LTTE war since 1995 has resulted in more
bombings in the south and renewed anxieties among southern Sinhalese. On January 25,
1998, these anxieties were intensified when an LTTE suicide bomber targeted the sacred
Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa) in Kandy, causing considerable damage to the
building, killing at least 13 people and injuring 20 more. Sinhalese were appalled by this
desecration. Further, the LTTE also violently expelled thousands of Northern Muslims,
and were responsible for the massacre of over 300 Muslims. More than 120 died in one
ghastly incident at prayer time inside the Katankudy mosque in Batticaloa district in
1991.41 The LTTE considers it, as Bruce Matthews explains, “mutual terrorism.”42
The LTTE violence against the Sinhalese gave justifications for the ruling and
opposition Sinhalese politicians to continue perpetrating state military actions against the
Tamils. In April 1995, soon after the collapse of the peace talks between the LTTE and
the state, the Sri Lanka security forces launched a huge military campaign in the North.
Such state military attacks, which include air force bombing, are on going.43
At the same time, the Tamils condemned the state military actions and backed the
LTTE resistance to state violence. In Prof. K. Sivathamby words,
In the name of fighting the LTTE, nearly every Tamil home and village in the
northeast was bombed and shelled, and civilians massacred by the security forces
indiscriminately. The number of refugees and displaced increased by the
thousands. The war was becoming a combat between two armies involved in
positional warfare and the people were out of it. The Tamil people of Batticaloa,
Trincomalee, Mannar, the Wanni and Jaffna had to therefore seek the assistance
of the LTTE to safeguard life and limb from the excesses of the armed forces.
Under these circumstances, the LTTE developed its own system of administration
to look after the needs of the Tamil civilian population of the northeast.44
However, on the political front, the Sinhalese elites fundamentally exploited the
Sinhalese sufferings at the hands of the LTTE to politicize the ethnic identities by
appealing to the Sinhalese emotions. The LTTE’s brutality enabled the southern Sinhala
politicians to construct fears about Tamil domination and aggression, which were the
central elements in the historical teachings of the mythical 5th century Mahavamsa.45
Also, the LTTE violence largely created an atmosphere of Sinhala hostility toward the
Norwegian facilitated peace talks, and strengthened the grip of the Sinhala nationalist
parties such as the SLFP, Jathike Hele Urumaya (JHU), and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna
(JVP). The JVP has exercised increasing influence among the Southern Sinhalese,
particularly, the economically disadvantaged segments of the population.
Political movements generally manipulate ethnic or religious emotions to gain the
sympathies of the masses. Such movements can likely generate reasonable amount of
sympathy among ordinary people when they appeal to emotional symbols such as blood,
flag, national anthem, history of group, or myth of motherland and fatherland. The rise of
the JVP in democratic politics can be understood within this framework. The JVP
retaliated with two failed rebellions against the Sri Lanka state in 1971 and 1987-89,
throughout which an estimated 50,000 people were killed. When it tried to transform
itself into a political party, it found difficulty in winning the Sinhalese votes. The UNP
and SLFP were already in fierce competition to win Sinhalese support. However, the
JVP thoughtfully decided to take advantage of Sinhalese fears in order to outbid the UNP
and SLFP, which are, according to the Tamil nationalists, fundamentally pro-Sinhalese
but still slightly favor political moderation. When the JVP employed the famous anti-
Tamil/federal policies, which have roots in former premier S.W.R.D. Bandaranayke’s
Sinhala-Only rhetoric in 1956, it was surprisingly successful, winning 10 parliamentary
seats in the 2000 elections, 16 seats in 2001, and 38 in the last general elections held in
2004.46 The key factor is that the parliamentary seats won by the JVP all represent the
deep Southern and urban West, where poor Sinhalese are largely concentrated.
Further, as part of its regular strategy to outbid its opponents on anti-Tamil or
anti-LTTE programs, the JVP systematically politicized the ethnic emotions. It opposed
the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA), which was signed in February 200247 and halted more
than two decades of ethnic civil war. The JVP also opposed the Post Tsunami Operation
Management (P-TOMS), commonly known as Joint Mechanism (JM), signed in June
2005, in which the LTTE acted as a chief partner to distribute international aid equally to
the North East.48 Both agreements were signed by the Sri Lankan government of the time,
however, the JVP demanded that the government make both the CFA and P-TOMS null
and void, because it believed that the democratically elected government should not
engage in any political dealings with the “terrorists” who targeted the lives of ordinary
Sinhalese as well as members of the Sinhalese-dominated security forces.49 On July 15,
2005, the Supreme Court invalidated the government-signed P-TOMS pact with the
LTTE. 50 The LTTE, co-author of the aid pact, voiced frustration over the ruling of the
Supreme Court and said the ruling was “neither surprising nor is this the first time the Sri
Lankan courts have denied justice to Tamils.”51
The JVP also opposes the Norwegian-brokered peace process, aimed at building a
power-sharing democracy based on a federal formula.52 It believes that Norwegian
mediation compromises the island’s unitary structure, a kind of political symbol of the
Sinhalese. Many Sinhalese, as Mahavamsa advocates, believe that the entire island is the
sacred home of the Sinhalese and Buddhism.53 Thus, the Sinhalese believe that powersharing
with the Tamils beyond the unitary formula, in other words, under the federal
structure, as nothing less than the thin end of the wedge of a separatist state. To
consolidate its position among the Sinhalese, the JVP, prior to the local council elections
on March 30, 2006, reaffirmed its anti-Norway position, and it categorically stated that
“if Norway is not sacked immediately from the peace process, we will amass more than
two hundred thousand people in a protest demonstration in front of the Norwegian
Embassy."54 The basic premise here is that the JVP took advantage of the LTTE’s
violence against the Sinhalese. Using this approach, it made rapid gains in the Sri Lanka
parliament and became the third most powerful political force in Sri Lanka.
The political development in southern Sri Lanka proves that in a democratic
society, when a group claiming to represent the marginalized violently targets the masses
of the dominant polity, it is highly likely that ethnic politicians of the dominant polity
will exploit such violence to politicize the system with ethnic emotions. This therefore
marginalizes the moderate politicians who seek a compromise to end the violent
disputes.55 The election campaigns in Sri Lanka since 1987 support this theory56and the
November 2005 presidential elections followed by the Supreme Court ruling on P-TOMS
is a case in point.
2005 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS AND RADICALIZATION OF
Sri Lanka held its fifth Presidential elections on November 17, 2005. The United
People Freedom Alliance (UPFA) nominated Mahinda Rajapakshe commonly considered
a Sinhala nationalist, as a Presidential candidate, while the UNP picked liberal-leaning
Ranil Wickramasinghe. Rajapakshe emotionalized his campaign with his anti-Tamil and
anti-devolution campaign and portrayed himself as a hero of the Sinhalese:57 He extolled
Sinhalese history, promised to abrogate Tsunami pact with the LTTE, and to radically
amend the Norwegian sponsored no-war treaty of 2002. He blamed Western countries,
particularly Norway, for his country’s current peace crisis, waved lion flags, and kissed
babies and school students.58 Most importantly, Premier Rajapakse sealed an electoral
deal with the JVP59 and JHU, the parties that opposed political relationship with the
LTTE. On the other hand, Wickramasinghe promised an honorable political solution
based on a federal political formula in accordance with the Oslo communiqués of 2002,60
a political document brokered by Norway.
The parties representing the minorities opposed Rajapakse’s political position and
his affiliations with the Sinhala extremists.61 As a result, they (except the TNA) endorsed
the UNP candidate. The LTTE and the TNA boycotted the elections. They maintained
that “the experience the Tamils have had over five decades, has taught them neither to
trust the leading Sinhala political parties nor to have faith in their leadership.”62
The elections provided a slight victory to Premier Mahinda Rajapakshe. He
secured a little over 50% of the popular vote against the main opposition rival Ranil
Wickramasinghe, who gained 48.43% of the votes.63 The vote statistics evidenced the fact
that Rajapakse secured most votes of the majority Sinhalese who predominantly live in
Southern, Western and Northwestern provinces, while Wickramasinghe won most votes
by the minorities who concentrate in the North East, Central and part of the Western
provinces of Sri Lanka.
Soon after the elections, Rajapakshe took early steps to politicize the state
institutions; he appointed Ratnasiri Wickramanayke as Premier of the island.
Wickramanayake is well known for his pro-war and Sinhala nationalistic stand. He also
appointed H.M.B.G. Kotakadeniya, the high ranking officer of the Sinhala nationalist
JHU, as a Defense Ministry's public safety adviser. In addition, he filled the state media
institutions with anti-peace journalists. Politicization of the state institution by the
Sinhalese leaders further encouraged the Tamil ethnic leaders to adhere strictly to Tamil
nationalist ideologies. Also, such politicization in the south popularizes the violent
ideologies embraced by the LTTE among fellow Tamils, as Tamils increasingly lose trust
in the Sinhala polity.
In electoral politics, parties need to compete for the votes.64 When a particular
party in ethnically divided societies attempts to politicize ethnic identities for electoral
gains, it is likely that other parties will follow a similar strategy to win votes. As a result,
the political leaders of the minorities/weaker sections may adopt similar electoral
strategies, which may lead to an increase in violence among the people, particularly the
marginalized. This explains some key reasons for the rise of Sinhala extremism and
Tamil violence in Sri Lanka, particularly during election time.
Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife highlights the violence that can result from the
politicization of ethnic differences, particularly when one party systematically reacts to
another’s violence through retaliation. The LTTE believe that Tamil youths are
compelled to employ violence because the successive Sri Lanka governments since
independence have reacted violently to the demands of Tamil moderate parties, and even
terrorized the community with genocide.65 Equally, the Sri Lanka government,
controlled by the majority Sinhalese, justifies its violence against the Tamils and the
LTTE as a means of safeguarding territorial integrity of the Sinhalese-dominated Island.
The net result is the polarization of Sri Lankan society, with Sinhalese deeply distrustful
of Tamils and vice versa.
CONCLUSION: SEPERATION OR CONSOCIATION
Ethnicity exists, and there are numerous reasons why historical processes and
modernization can increase tensions between groups. It is all too easy (and tragic) for
political elites to politicize ethnic identities in a way that converts tension into violence.
This study argues that the conflict in Sri Lanka is a result of the politicization of ethnic
differences by the Sinhala elites in their quest for power. Tamils eventually feel so
powerless that they resort to a campaign of violence coupled with suicide bombing,
resulting in the deaths of thousands.
The future offers three alternatives. One possibility is that sporadic ethnic war
will snowball into pogroms, ethnic cleansing, emigration, and genocide. Violence leads
to retaliation and counter-retaliation, as society rides a downward spiral of destruction.
As Chaim Kaufmann points out, “war itself destroys the possibilities for ethnic
cooperation.”66 The second alternative is to seek a solution that provides guarantees for
security, stability and ethnic peace, which can materialize in ethnically divided societies
through restructuring the state system with power sharing (consociational democracy).
Such a peaceful resolution can not be won by force.
Conflict resolution literature highly recommends power-sharing as a feasible
solution to guarantee the security and stability of ethnic groups. Arend Lijphart’s powersharing
package could help to assure security and stability of the ethnic Tamils and the
redistribution of power away from the Sinhala elite’s political agenda. His model of
consociational democracy consists of two major elements: power sharing and group
autonomy. Consociational democracy, according to Lijphart, “denotes the participation of
representatives of all significant communal groups in political decision making,
especially at the executive level; group autonomy means that these groups have authority
to run their own internal affairs…”67
Lijphart’s recommendations in one way or another have been demanded by the
moderate Tamil political leaders since independence. The Sinhalese ruling elites offered
political concessions (including the tsunami Pact in June 2005) to discourage the Tamil
resistance. Unfortunately, all the consociation arrangements since independence have
succumbed to violent opposition from the Sinhalese voters, motivated by the nationalists’
outbidding tactics and extremist Sinhala-Buddhist monks.68 Thus, many Tamils are
completely convinced that Sinhala political elites would not offer any meaningful powersharing
democracy or federal system. Therefore, the Tamils want the world to recognize
their quest for ethnic separation.69 In November 2006, the LTTE leader Velupillai
Prabhakaran warned that the Sinhala nation “has left the Tamils with only one option,
political independence and statehood for the people of Tamil Eelam.”70
If there is a resistance to power sharing, the third option is partition. The demand
for separation becomes strong when a power-sharing arrangement is not possible. Some
fear that partition will further strengthen the ethnic hostilities between two nations, but
even if it provokes a period of violence, it would offer the separated ethnic groups muchneeded
stability and security in the future. In other words, partition can reduce the ethnic
fear and offers social and political security, as well as stability, to the different ethnic
groups. The separation of Pakistan from India, Eritrea from Ethiopia, Bangladesh from
West Pakistan, and Greeks from Turks on Cyprus all demonstrate that partition can be
helpful, even if it is not completely successful in terminating violence. The world
recognizes that if the people of one nation do not want to co-habit in the same polity, then
partition should not be automatically neglected as a solution. This might be one way to
manage the Tamils’ demands for political space since 1977.
Sri Lanka desperately needs ethnic peace because there has already been too
much blood shedding. The road is still wide open for a political solution: either
separation or consociation. Both options would be preferable to continued violence.
Given the history of not reaching a peaceful solution, perhaps assistance from the
international community chiefly led by the United Nations is needed in order to find a
1 Ted Robert Gurr and Harff Barbara, Ethnic Conflict in World Politics (Oxford: Westview Press, 1994),
2 Ray Taras and Rajat Ganguly, Understanding Ethnic Conflict: The International Dimension (New York:
Priscilla McGeehon, 2002), p. 4.
3 Clifford Geertz, “The Integrative Revolution: Primordial Sentiments and Civil Politics in the New States,”
in Old Societies and New States: the Quest for Modernity in Asia and Africa, ed. Clifford Geertz (New
York: Free Press, 1963), pp. 107-113.
4 Ray Taras and Rajat Ganguly, Op. Cit, p. 5.
5 John Stone, “Race, Ethnicity, and Weberian Legacy,” American Behavioral Scientists, Vol. 38, No 3
(January 1995): pp. 391-407.
7 Barry R Posen, “Nationalism, the Mass Army, and Military Powers,” International Security, Vol. 18, No.
2 (Fall 1993), pp. 80-124.
8 S. Arasaratnam, Ceylon (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964), p. 10.
9 Nelson M. Kasfir, “Cultural Sub-Nationalism in Uganda,” in the Politics of Cultural Sub-Nationalism in
Africa, ed. Victor A. Olorunsola (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1972), p. 10.
10 Anthony D Smith, “Towards a Theory of Ethnic Separatism,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 2, No 1
(January 1979): pp. 21-37.
11 Melson Robert and Howard Wolpe, “Modernization and the Politics of Communalism: A Theoretical
Perspective,” American Political Science Review, Vol 64, No 4 (1970):pp. 1112-30.
12 Jayantha Perera, “Political Development and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka,” Journal of Refugee Studies,
Vol 5, No 2 (1992): pp. 136-148.
13 Neil De Votta, Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), p.15.
14 See, K.M.De. Silva, Reaping the Whirlwind: Ethnic Conflict, Ethnic Politics in Sri Lanka (New Delhi:
Penguin Books, 1998).
15 Ted Robert Gurr, Minorities at Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitical Conflicts (Washington, DC.:
United States Institute of Peace Press, 1993), p. 90.
16 For details accounts of the history and the origin of the conflict, see K.N.O. Dharmadasa, Language,
religion, and ethnic assertiveness: the growth of Sinhalese nationalism in Sri Lanka (Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press, 1992); Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and nationalism in the Third World
(London : Zed, 1986); Kumari Jayawardena and Jayadeva Uyangoda “Special issue on the national
question in Sri Lanka,” South Asia Bulletin, No. 6, (1986): pp. 1-47; D.H. Rajanayagam, “Tamil “Tigers”
in Northern Sri Lanka: Origins, Factions and Programmes,” International Asian Forum, Vol. 7. No 1 and 2
(1986): 63-85; and Ananda Wickeremeratne, Buddhism and Ethnicity in Sri Lanka: A Historical Analysis
(Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 1995).
17 See Karl A Deutsch, Nationalism and Social Communication (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1953).
18 John R Bowen, “The Myth of Global Ethnic Conflict,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 7, No 4 (October
1996): pp. 3-14.
19 See Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the national Question in the New Europe
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Brubaker categorically states that nationalism should be
interpreted as an outcome of social and political ideology, and not a pre-ideological matter.
20 See Paul R. Brass, Ethnicity and Nationalism: Theory and Comparison (Newbury Park, CA: Sage
Publications, 1985); and Nelson M. Kasfir, “Explaining Ethnic Political Participation,” World Politics, Vol.
31, No 3 (1979): pp. 365-88.
21 See Paul R. Brass, Language, Religion and Politics in North India (New York: Cambridge University
22Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy Economic Theory of Democracy (New York:
Harper, 1957), p. 28.
23 K.N.O Dharmadasa, Op. Cit, pp.20-45.
24 Telephone Interviews from some Tamil undergraduate students of Eastern University, Sri Lanka. These
students think that the state institutions such as Sri Lanka constitution discriminated them in favor of the
Sinhalese. Interviews were held on November 23, 2004.
25 S.J. Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka (Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1992); A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, The Break-up of Sri Lanka: The Sinhalese-
Tamil Conflict (London: Hurst, 1988); Jagath P. Senaratne, Political Violence in Sri Lanka, 1977-1990:
Riots Insurrections, Counter Insurgencies, Foreign Intervention, (Amsterdam: VU University, 1997); A.
Jeyaratnam Wilson, Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism : Its Origins and Development in the Nineteenth and
Twentieth Centuries (Vancouver : UBC Press, 2000); and V. Kanapathipillai, “July 1983: The Survivor’s
Experience” in Mirrors of violence: communities, riots and survivors in South Asia, ed. V. Das (Delhi:
Oxford University Press, 1990), pp, 321-44.
26 Jo Becker, 2006. “Funding the “Final War” LTTE Intimidation and Extortion in the Tamil Diaspora,”
Human Rights Watch, Vol 18, No 1 (March 2006): p. 6, http://hrw.org/reports/2006/ltte0306/
27 Anti Tamil pogrom of ‘83, http://genocide.org.uk/genocide/?page_id=46.
28 Bruce Matthews, “Radical Conflict and the Rationalization of Violence in Sri Lanka,” Pacific Affairs,
Vol. 59. No 1 (Spring 1986): 28-44.
29 The July 1983 Violence Against Tamils, http://www.uthr.org/BP/volume1/Chapter4.htm.
30 Daily Telegraph, London, 11 July 1983.
31Jo Becker, Human Rights Watch, Op. Cit, p. 7.
32 S.J. Tambiah, Op. Cit., Michael Roberts, Op. Cit.
33 S.J. Tambiah, Ibid.
34 An interview with three Sinhalese who declined to disclose their name. They acknowledged their role in
violence against the Tamils in Colombo on July 24, 1983. According to them, they were asked by the local
Sinhala politician who offered some bottles of local alcohol and 500/=SLR each to loot and burn the Tamils
shops as much as they can with others, who were on the same mission on the same day. An interview was
held on July 25, 2004
35 Our Approach for a Better Tomorrow Free from Terrorism, http://
www.dailynews.lk/2002/07/25/fea0I.html,Daily News, July 25, 2002.
36 Liberation Tigers and Tamils Eelam Freedom Struggle, book publication no. 4, 1983, pp. 16-35.
37 Phone and email Interviews with some final year undergraduate Jaffna and Eastern University students in
Sri Lanka. August 15-27, 2005.
38 Neil De Votta, Op.Cit.
39 Ted Robert Gurr and Harff Barbara, Op. Cit.
40 Elizabeth Nissan and R.L Stirrat, “The generation of communal identities,” in Sri Lanka: History and the
roots of Conflict, ed. Jonathan Spencer (London: Routledge, 1990), P.38.
41 The political leaders representing the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka traditionally enjoyed good relations
with the Sinhalese political leaders, and they oppose the Tamil violence struggle against the state. Some
Tamil nationalists say such a Muslim stand irritated the LTTE, and thus it led to the Tamil violence against
the North East Muslims of the island. For detail discussion about the formation of the Sri Lanka Muslim
elite see, Qadir Ismail, “ Unmooring Identity: The Antinomies of Elite Muslim Self-Representation in
Modern Sri Lanka,” in Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka, ed.
Pradeep Jeganathan and Qadir Ismail (Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 1995), pp, 55-105.
42 Bruce Matthews, Op. Cit.
43 Sri Lankan military says air force bombed Tamil Tiger weapons stockpile, http://www.theacademic.org.
Accessed on December 20, 2006.
44 Karthigesu Sivathamby, Geneva Talks-Talking to the Tigers: How the State Presents It and The other
Side of the Picture, http://www.theacademic.org/feature/142647717079195/index.shtml.
45 Mahavamsa says that the Sinhalese are the preservers of Buddhism and maintains that the Tamil rulers
who ruled the Northern Sri Lanka as invaders and thus, their sole aims were to subjugate the Sinhalese and
the island of Sri Lanka, http://lakdiva.org/mahavamsa/chap025.html.
46 Department of Elections, Sri Lanka, http://www.slelections.gov.lk/general/2004_results/general.html.
47 Sri Lanka's Court of Appeal fixed March 6, 2007 for the inquiry into the petitions by the JVP and JHU to
declare that the Ceasefire Agreement, signed on 22 February 2002, is null and void on the basis that it
contravened the constitution of the country.
48. JM taken to courts, http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2005/06/050627_jvp_courts.shtml.
50. Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court Blocks P-TOMS deal, http://www. dailymirror.lk/2005/07/16/front/2.asp.
51.LTTE scoffs at the P-TOMS dram in South, http://www.dailymirror.lk/2005/07/18/front/05.asp.
52.No!' for federalism - JVP
53 Interview with five Sinhalese undergraduates from the Ruhunu University, Matara, Sri Lanka. January
54. Expel Norway, demands JVP, http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=17607.
55. Interview with Dr. Nihal Abeysinghe, retired senior academia from the Department of Religion,
Keleniya University, Sri Lanka. An interview was held on November 17, 2004.
56. Laksiri Jayasuriya, The Changing Face of Electoral Politics in Sri Lanka: 1994-2004 (Singapore: Marshall
Cavendish International, 2005).
57. Prime Minister launches his Presidential manifesto,
58. Mahinda Rajapakse: A man of the masses, http://www.mahindarajapaksa.com.
59. JVP- PM policy agreement,
60. SLFP: No support from Tamil parties,
61. Frontline, Vol. 22, No.22, October.22-Nov.04, 2005.
62. LTTE-TNA conference concludes: Tamil people have no interest in SL Presidential elections,
63. Presidential Election 2005 - Final Result, http://www.srilankanelections.com/finalResult.htm. Vote
statistics also suggested that Mr. Wickramasinghe could have won the elections had there was no LTTE
imposed boycott, which had deprived the voting rights of thousands of North East Tamils.
64. Larry Diamond and Leonardo Morlino, “The Quality of democracy: An over view,” Journal of
Democracy, Vol. 15, No 1 (October 2004): p.24.
65. Liberation Tigers and Tamils Eelam Freedom Struggle, Op. Cit.
66.Chaim Kaufmann, “Possible and Impossible Solutions to ethnic Civil wars” in Nationalism and Ethnic
Conflict, ed. Michael E. Brown, Cote R. Owen, Jr and others (Cambridge: MIT Press. 1997), p. 266.
67. Arend Lijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), p. 1.
68. Tessa J Bartholomeusz and C.R.De Silva. Op. Cit. pp. 1-27.
69. Tens of Thousands attend Tamil resurgence event in Killinochchi,
70. LTTE peace secretariat,