Ethnopolitics in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s very bloody civil war wound up around three years ago after decades of fighting. No peace accords. The central government flatly defeated the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after decades of fighting. But at an enormous cost. The LTTE had no compunction about using human shields and corralled many, many civilians into a narrow area as it made its last stand.

The government refused foreign requests for a ceasefire to limit civilian losses. And its unwillingness to contemplate one with the LTTE was not without reason. The LTTE had used every previous ceasefire to regroup and rearm and launch new bloody terrorist attacks. But many assess that the government used too much force and caused too many casualties in the final push toward victory.

Sri Lanka has a Sinhalese majority that comprises roughly three-quarters of the population–mostly Buddhist but also a significant Christian minority. The non-Sinhalese minority speaks primarily Tamil but is internally divided. Muslims identify as Muslims rather than as Tamils. Tamils are mainly Hindu but also have a Christian minority.

If that weren’t complex enough, distinctions exist between Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils The latter are the descendants of tea plantation laborers and most greatly concentrated in the center of the island while the former are found in highest number in the Northern and Eastern Province. Sri Lankan Tamils speak a different dialect of Tamil from their co-ethnics in Tamil Nadu, India.

The Sri Lankan flag symbolizes the divisions as much of the unity of the nation. The Sinhalese lion and red dominate—the Sinhalese are the people of the lion’s blood–with an orange strip to represent the Tamils and a green one for the Muslims. Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese word and Tamils do not identify with it but instead see themselves as Tamils.

The Ethnic Nationalist Spiral

The nationalist spiral began after independence from Britain as Sri Lanka’s two main Sinhalese parties–the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and United National Party (UNP) competed to satisfy the Sinhalese Buddhist electorate. If one was in power, the other decried any moves to come to a settlement with the Tamils.

Ethnic outbidding reached a new level when one party came to office on a Sinhala-only policy–making Sinhalese the sole official language. Beyond forcing Tamils to take crucial school exams in Sinhalese, the government further decided to norm exams on an ethnic basis, a decision defended on the grounds that Tamils had unduly benefitted from preferences in schools and government hiring under the British.

Linguistic tensions also existed among Sinhalese as those without access to English-language education resented the benefits that accrued to those that did, so the Sinhala-only policy had a class element as well. The school one attends and exam results continue to play a crucial role in shaping one’s future–beyond that in the U.S.

These changes did not fully satisfy young Sinhalese nationalists. The government put down two rebellions by the People’s Liberation Front (JVP)–a leftist, Sinhalese nationalist party. The rebellions may have failed but many young Sinhalese died in the process not to mention did the economy no good. The underlying causes only stimulated further movement to appease Sinhalese nationalism by the UNP and SLFP.

Naturally, the Sinhala-only policy caused great resentment among Tamils who demanded a variety of concessions. While some wanted the unification of Northern and Eastern Provinces into a single unit with a high degree of autonomy, others sought the independence of both as the new country of Tamil Eelam.

The LTTE arose to support independence with horrific results for Sri Lanka. The LTTE “pioneered” terrorism, inventing the suicide bomb. Over the years, the LTTE was responsible for many bloody terrorist acts, including the bombing of the Temple of the Tooth–the most sacred Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka–and setting off many simultaneous explosions in Colombo.

Many of these acts were done in complete expectation of strong reprisals against Tamils and designed to build support for the LTTE in this bloody manner. The police did nothing to stop anti-Tamil pogroms in Colombo that caused many Tamils to flee to the North, though many also remain in Colombo.

The LTTE was as ruthless toward Tamil moderates as the Sinhalese. I spoke at a think tank named for a Tamil foreign minister who fearlessly spoke out against terrorism, saying that if condemning it made him a traitor then he was happy to call himself that, and was murdered by a Tamil sniper. Many moderate Tamil leaders in the North suffered similar fates, and the Tamil population obeyed the LTTE commands to strike or give money as much out of fear as support.

This post has already gone on too long. Next time: whither Sri Lanka?

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David Lublin

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