Ethnic Strife and Conflict in Eelam, Sri Lanka

Term Paper, 2011

15 Pages, Grade: 82%


In 2009, news had massively reported the humanitarian crisis and civil war in Sri Lanka.The media representedthe Sri Lankan ethnic strife between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority ethnic conflict as a kind of cultural and social genocide of the Tamil people. Understanding the roots of ethnic strife in Sri Lanka can be useful in assessing the impact of administrative, political and institutional frameworks within which newly developing countries such as India and Pakistan’s development towards democracy. The Sri Lankan conflict is particularly significant in that it lays different factors accounting for the failure of democratic negotiations in resolving the ethnic conflict, and presents potentially interesting investigation lines for future research studies in the field of ethnic conflicts.

The tear-dropped like country of Sri Lanka is home of different ethnic groups, cultures and traditions in South Asia. Yet for three decades, Sri Lanka has suffered under a brutal civil war between the Sinhalese majority living in the south of the island and the Tamil minorities which are concentrated in the northeast of the island.In this essay, I argue that the origins of the three-decades long ethnic conflict in Sri Lankan lie not only in its British colonial administrative and political heritage, but also in contemporary legislative policies and government laws, which have aggravated tensions between the Sinhala and Tamil communities. In order to understand the origins of the Sri Lankan ethnic strife, the following paragraphs will provide a concise overview of the factors of colonial political and administrative legacy, and impact of contemporary government law policies in land settlement, distribution, and language, education and employment and some external social factors that also precipitated the conflict. I will also introduce some theories that will help explain the Sri Lankan conflict. Finally, I will introduce and analyze some potential alternative solutions, which have been proposed by Stanley Tambiah, and Kingsley De Silva, in theresolution of future ethnic conflicts in South Asia.

First, the post-colonial political and administrative legacy of the British has played an important role in explaining the patterns of dissent and violence in Sri Lanka. In fact, conflicts responses and reactions to the colonial administration have shaped ethnic groups in internal groups (De Silva). Ethnic groups sought to fight historical grievances, whereas others sought to maintain the hardly-won and granted privileges from the erosion of new post-colonial policies (De Silva, 1994, p.262).The dominant colonial model was based on the principle of “rule by divide”, and therefore categorized Ceylon—today Sri Lanka—into four major races: the Sinhala, composing 66% of the population, the Sri Lanka Tamils, who form 13% of the population, Muslims and Indian Tamils who respectively compose 6% and 13% of the Ceylonese population (Denham 1912) (Rogers, Spencer and Uyangoda, 1998, p.771). The Sinhala formed a majority in all but two provinces, the Northern Province and the Eastern Province. The Sri Lanka Tamils were the majority in these two provinces, and they also had a substantial presence in Colombo. In fact, some Sinhalese attribute a significant part of their problems with the Tamils to the perception that the Tamil minority community had been unduly privileged and favoured by the British raj—till independence in 1948—as regards education and government positions in reward for their loyalty (Clarence, 2007, p.31).

The British had favoured the Tamil ethnic group over the Sinhalese, and created an atmosphere of deep anti-Tamil ethnic resentment and discrimination. For instance, Devontta (2003) argues that the British thought that they could constitute to have a hold on Ceylon by vesting an amenable group with power: Tamils became the overrepresented minority within the colonial government, and their success was primarily facilitated by the British discriminatory policies towards the Sinhalese Buddhists (p.36). Rogers, Spencer and Uyangoda (1998) point out that Sri Lanka Tamils from the Jaffna peninsula held a highly disproportionate number of professional and civil service positions, partially because of their education received from excellent English-language schools established. The Sinhala-Tamil ethnic divide and discrimination was further sharpened when the British reversed their discriminatory patterns, and created a Sinhalese Raj and began to unfairly treat Tamils (Vanniasingham).

A Dominion Constitution conceived in secrecy between Sennayake and the British colonial office was imposed on the people of Ceylon, and has been at the origins of the sufferings of the Tamils and so much violence (Vanniasingham).In fact, the constitution explicitly refused to concede constitutional safeguards, checks and balances for the minorities, against domination in 1948.The Soulbury Constitution granted equality for all persons before the law, yet it was subject to restrictions “in the interest of national unity and integrity, national security, national economy, public safety and public order” (Bandarage, 2009, p.64). Although Article 29 offered some sort of protection to the minorities against discriminatory legislation; it was an entrenched clause for the benefits of the minorities (Vanniasingham). Yet, Article 29 can only be construed as a symbol, as a gesture to the minorities to signify that the ethnic majority, the Sinhalese, would not discriminate against the minorities, the Tamils especially (Vanniasingham, 1998, p.64). The insertion of such constitutional clause was to deliberately induce the minorities to join the Sinhalese ethnic majority in the same polity (Vanniasingham, 1998, p.64).But Article 29 in the Soulbury constitutionessentially denied the capacity to enact laws and policies that are discriminatory, and disempowered the Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka by reducing their legislative capacities. The ethnic imbalance in representation, patronage and power has been used aggressively at the detriment of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka (Manogaran & Pfaffenberger).

Manogaran and Pfaffenberger (1994) mention that the Tamil Federal Party, which claimed to defend Tamil interests, strove to control the erosion of Tamil constitutional prospects for equality and representation, and made efforts in realizing a relatively decentralized power infrastructure (p.212). The Tamil Federal Party (FP) was founded under the leadership of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam and proposed a federal union of two Tamil-speaking provinces (Clarance). The Tamil Congress also fought the general elections of 1947 on the slogan of responsive cooperation, meaning that the Tamils would cooperate responding to the behavior and attitude of the Sinhalese (Clarance, 2007, p.64).Nevertheless, facing non-cooperation and intolerance from the Sinhalese, the Tamil would choose to separate from the Sinhalese. The opportunity for non-cooperation and separation emerged when the Sinhala Only Act was enacted in 1956 and violence was let loose on the Tamils throughout the country (Vanniasingham 64). The Sinhala Only Act in 1956 challenged the ultra vires of Article 29 of the Constitution; there was a particular incident, in which Kodeeswaran, an employee under the Sinhala Government, was denied the increments of salary to which he was otherwise entitled, because of the enactment of the Sinhala Only Act, thus reflecting the deliberate discriminatory practice of the constitution that limited Tamils from defending their interests (Vanniasingham,1998, p.63). The Sinhala Only Act was enacted in 1956, and was initially but an ordinary piece of legislation which could be easily repelled by a majority in the Parliament (Vanniasingham).The British colonial legacy has thus been responsible not only for the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict, but also for the grave instability within the Sinhalese nation (Vanniasingham, 1998, p. 61). Had the British established a dominion, which could have been more balanced in terms of its ethnic representation, the ethnic conflict would have been more unlikely or had been a less intenseand damaging civil war (Vanniasingham, 1998, p.61).


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Ethnic Strife and Conflict in Eelam, Sri Lanka
McGill University
Political Change in South Asia
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ethnic, strife, conflict, eelam, lanka
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De Zhong Gao (Author), 2011, Ethnic Strife and Conflict in Eelam, Sri Lanka, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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