A Critical Assessment of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and its Aftermath
Ethnic conflict between Sinhalese and LTTE in Sri Lanka had crippled the nation for over five decades. It had been the result of long-drawn appeasement policies and manipulations by the political parties, all through the Sri Lankan political history. Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian sub-continent, constitutes of 74 per cent of Sinhalese Buddhists, Tamil (Hindus) comprised of 18 per cent, and Tamil (Muslims) constitute 7 per cent of the population.
Soon after Sri Lanka’s independence, the Sinhalese leaders began to appease the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. Over the years, the Tamil population resented the majority domination, ultimately culminated in the form of The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1976. LTTE had waged a violent campaign against the Sinhala majority. In the process, LTTE suppressed its own population by virtually establishing itself as a Tamil state. It was the “longest active secessionist movement” until its defeat in 2009.
In this article, I would like to address the political character of the Sri Lankan state that had enabled the crisis to unfold, and also highlight the structural and temporal factors. I will, further, discuss the political transformation of the conflict over a specific time-period until its controversial end in the May of 2009.
Colonialism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka
The conflict began to take its violent shape in the aftermath of 1983 pogrom. However, the structural roots of the conflict could be seen in the communal policies of the British rule in Sri Lanka. The British Colonial policy of “Divide and Rule”,devised to govern the ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, provide us with evidence for the genesis of the ethnic conflict.
The systematic “Us v/s Them”as documented in the Donoughmore and Soulbury Commissions in the form of “communal representation” enabled the ethnic groups to seek for and dominate the national politics. As Shafi and Rashid note,
The British Governor had nominated members to the legislature based on ethnicity (Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burger).
With Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, there was a clear sign of disarray within both the Tamilian and Sinhala leadership. Colonialization and British policies remain an important factor in the ethnic conflict of Sri Lanka.
Identity Creation of Sinhala
The assertion of Sinhala identity remained an important political goal for the Sri Lankan state. As a result, the identity creation of Sinhala began with palingenesis, the process of recreation of the past, using elements of the “origin” mythology.
Shafi and Rashid write: “Sinhala, it was claimed, were decanted from Aryan migrants from Bengal in the fifth century BC; the arrival of their leader, Prince Vijaya, in Sri Lanka coincided with the death of the Buddha.” As an ideological response, Tamils began asserting their pure Dravidian race, whose ancestors were of Harappan civilizations of India and that they were the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka.
Sinhalese Only Bill of 1956
In the 1950s, Sinhalese politicians began attracting the masses by promoting to build a Buddhist-Sinhalese state of Sri Lanka. The increased electoral politics based on ethnicity and language took its final form in the “Sinhalese Only Bill” (Official Language Act, No. 33 of 1956).
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, leader of SLFP, used the “indigenous nationalism” to win the 1956 general elections, with the promise of making “Sinhalese language the official language of Sri Lanka” and “assertion of Buddhism in the region.” This act is an important structural factor in shaping the political character of the Sri Lankan state. It also gave rise to ethnic clashes between the Sinhalese and Tamils in 1958, 1977, and 1981.
Some of the temporal factors that could be enlisted in the assertion of the political character of the state include the creation of Tamil Tigers, the Pogrom of 1983, and State-sponsored settlements in Tamil areas.
Birth of LTTE
The Tamil minority feared the loss of access to education and employment as a consequence of communal policies in admissions in favour of Sinhalese students. The resentment within the Tamil youth was accumulated in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). In the early 1980s, LTTE carried out a series of bank robberies, assassinated several police officers, and bomb attacks in Sinhalese-dominated south.
The “1983 Pogrom against the Tamil civilians” in Colombo could be another temporal factor for the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. In July 1983, the LTTE attack had killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers in Jaffna, leading to a severe counter by armed forces on Tamil civilians. 
Many scholars have noted the “1983 riots” as the turning point in the Sri Lankan ethnic violence. Four days after the violence broke out, President Jayewardene said:
I think there was a big anti-Tamil feeling among the forces. They also felt that shooting the Sinhalese, who were rioting, would have been anti-Sinhalese, and actually, in some places, we saw them encouraging [rioters].
Since the beginning of the civil war in 1983, the LTTE was at the forefront of the theatre of guerrilla warfare and the struggle for territorial control.
Another pertinent temporal factor was, as Thangarajah has labelled, “frontiersmen”: politically motivated Sinhalese farmers settled in the Tamil region under new irrigation schemes and received weapons to fight Tamil militancy. The state-sponsored settlement schemes allowed for large-scale irrigation that allowed for Sinhalese farmers to Tamil-inhabited areas of the East.
At this juncture, I will address how the conflict unfolded until its end in May 2009. As early as 1983, India had made serious efforts at containing the crisis and negotiating with both Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Government. The outcome was the India-Sri Lanka Accord signed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Jayewardene in July 1987.
Accordingly, Tamil guerrilla would lay down their arms, Indian Peace-Keeping forces were to moderate in Tamil regions. In return, Tamils would be given a degree of autonomy. However, it was not accepted by the Tamil Tigers and there was increased violence between the two parties.
In 2002, the Norwegian-led-peace process was an unsuccessful ceasefire, as LTTE did not accept the terms of the agreement. The final collapse of LTTE, which kept the war for over 25 years, came in 2009. The Sri Lankan forces launched an offensive in East Sri Lanka, often massacring civilians, raping and violently killing in thousands, ended the civil war in May 2009.
Post Script: This article was written as a part of my course-work for Masters in Political Science at the University of Delhi.
Photo Credit: Sri Lanka Ethnic Divisions Illustration by Greg Groesch/ The Washington Times
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 Thangarajah, Y. “Ethnicisation of the devolution debate and the militarization of civil society in northeastern Sri Lanka,” in Mayer, M., Rajasingam Senanayake, D. and Thangarajah, Y. ed. (2003), Building local capacities for peace: rethinking conflict and development in Sri Lanka, Macmillan Publishers, 15-36.
 Perumal and Thandavan, “Ethnic Violence,” 1-17. Refer also to Neil DeVotta, “South Asia Faces the Future: Illiberalism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka,” Journal of Democracy (Johns Hopkins University Press, January 1, 2002), https://muse.jhu.edu/article/17174/pdf)