Ethnic conflict sri lanka


This article intends to the root causes of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, and methods that can be used to resolve it. For 40 years, in Sri Lanka, the ethnic conflict became an aggravating issue because of their diversity. It means Sri Lankan society has consisted of various kinds of cultures, religions,ethnicities, races, and languages. This article will deliberate the nature of the ethnic conflict and what we can do to prevent this type of conflict. Although in 2009, the civil war had finished by Sri Lankan Government, there is no efficient reconciliation process among the Sri Lankans. As a result of that situation, from time to time the ethnic conflicts have arisen. On the other hand, it became commodious destruction to the development process of Sri Lanka. Therefore, this study helps to conceive the gravity of this ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

Keywords: Ethnic conflict / Root causes / Resolving methods / Sri Lanka

1. Introduction

“Diversity is the one true thing we have in common. Celebrate it every day”

What language do you speak? What is your religion? What holidays do you celebrate? What is your racial identification? What is your ethnic identity? What is your culture? No matter what, today we are in a heterogeneous world. Therefore we must respect each other. As I mentioned earlier, diversity and multiculturalism is common thing and indeed it is true. Ethnic diversities help us recognize and respect ‘way of being that is not necessarily our own so that as we interact with others we can build bridges to trust, respect, and understanding across cultures.

Sociologist Dr. Caleb Rosado, Who specializes in diversity and multiculturalism described seven important actions related to diversity.

Recognition of abundant diversity of cultures

Respect for the differences

Acknowledging the validity of different cultural expressions and contribution

Valuing what other cultures offer

Encouraging people to strengthen themselves and others to achieve their maximum potential by being critical of their own biases, and

Celebrating rather than just tolerating the differences to bring about unity through diversity (

If we do not have the confidence to face this diverse world it will be the beginning of a conflict. Therefore, this document aims to present and deliberate outline the root causes of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and explain how to resolve it. For further study, this document concentrates on particularly ‘What is the meaning of ethnic conflict? Nature of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, Causes of ethnic conflict and resolving methods of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka’.

2. What is the meaning of ethnic conflict?

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We are not in a homogenous world, we are in a heterogeneous world. Therefore occurring conflicts are a very common part of human lives. In our society, in everyday life there is competition over different interests, norms and values, goals, identities that often seem incompatible, causing conflicts. Conflict is defined as a clash between individuals arising out of a difference in thought process, attitudes, understanding, interest, requirements, and even sometimes perceptions. ‘Michael Nicholson’ defines ‘conflict as an activity which takes place when individuals or groups wish to carry out mutually inconsistent acts concerning their wants, needs or obligations. Various kinds of conflict have occurred in the world. Among those conflicts, ‘Ethnic Conflict’ is one of the major types of conflict, because of that this type of conflict affects human thought, culture, and norms, and values.

Ethnic conflict, which is a form of conflict, and conflict is usually not about ethnic differences which belong to the political, economic, social, and cultural or territorial matters. The term ‘ethnic’ is derived from the Greek word ‘ethnos’ which describes a community of common descent. ‘Karl Cordell and Stefan Wolff’ who are authors of ethnic conflicts, defined ethnic conflict as such; “The term conflict describes a situation in which two or more actors pursue incompatibly, yet from their perspectives entirely just, goals. An ethnic conflict is one particular form of this; that in which the goals of at least one party are defined in ethnic terms, and the primary fault line of confrontation is one of the ethnic distinctions (Cordell, Karl, and Stefan Wolff, 2010).

Ethnic disputes are common in every multicultural society. Intergroup problems arise in periods of substantial political, economic and social change and lead to uncertainty, emerging opportunities for action, and particularistic interest. Thus within the ethnic conflict, there has an ethnic dimension. Ethnic conflict is one of the major threats to international peace and security. Not only the international platform but also it’s a threat to national-level peace and security.

An internal conflict is generally called a civil war or armed conflict when casualties and destruction are substantial, the conflict has a certain duration, the protagonists are organized, and military operations are used to achieve the political goal ( In the late 20th and 21st centuries, there are best-known examples of ethnic conflicts as follows.

‘Conflict in the Balkans, Rwanda, Iraq, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Darfur as well as in recent time, between Israel and Palestine has a conflict for the Gaza strip.

Ethnic conflict in Africa – Nigeria/ the Sudan/ Liberia (Americo and Liberians)/ Rwanda (Tutsi vs Hutus)’

Furthermore, ethnic conflicts are often accompanied by gross human rights violations such as genocide and crimes against humanity and by economic decline, state failure environmental problems, and refugee flows.

3. Types of Ethnic Conflict

There are two types of ethnic conflict. The first one is violent conflict and the second one is nonviolent conflict.

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Chart number 01- Source;

4. Nature of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan society has been recognized as a multicultural society. The majority are Sinhalese Buddhist and the minorities are Tamil Hindus, Islam, and Christianity. According to Sri Lanka‘s government census report in 2012, mentioned that religion vise population rates as follows.

1. Buddhism 70.2% 2. Hinduism 12.6% 3. Islam 9.7% 4. Christianity 7.4% 0.05% (

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Sinhalese Buddhists are mainly seen in the South and Central regions of Sri Lanka. On the other hand, Tamil is found mainly in the Northern and Eastern parts of the country. When examining the history of Sri Lanka the North part of Sri Lanka has been dominated by the initial Jaffna kingdom, ruled by Tamils. Whereas the south was ruled by the Kandy kingdom being Sinhalese. It is key to acknowledge the fact that Sri Lanka has always consisted of two major ethnicities and has coexisted before European colonial rule. Every nation of British colonized, there was a policy of communal representation. Their goal was to secure stable policies that would essentially divide the major ethnicities. They allocated executive committee seats based on the communal representation system. However according to the Donoughmore commission defined communal representation as “Cancer in the body politics” (Ranasinghe, RAW. 2014: 62).

Different representative seats were given to Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims on legislative and executive councils of British rule. An important element to highlight is that Tamil was well represented in the civil service department during the colonial period, for both lower and higher posts. The Tamil people have been highly educated since the early 19th century because several educational platforms were created by the Tamils in the Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka. By promoting communal representation, the ethnicities that were once able to coexist peacefully were then under the impression that one ethnicity would cast the ‘other’ as the enemy (

Moreover, the Eastern province is an ethically mixed area where Tamils, Muslims, and Sinhalese are found in sizeable numbers even though Tamils have a slightly higher statistical edge. Indian Tamils are concentrated in parts of the central, Uwa, and Sabaragamuwa provinces. Muslims have a significant concentration in the Eastern province but generally are scattered throughout the country. Christians maintain a significant presence in the coastal area.

Indeed, Sri Lanka has been recognized as based on a multi-cultural society­based country. Therefore in that sense occurring ethnic conflicts are a common part of the culture. According to the Sri Lankan phenomenon, there are mainly recognized root causes for ethnic conflict as follows.

1. Ethnic politics and the interpretation of the past 2. Language policy 3. Education policies 4. Land issues 5. Unemployment

5. Root causes of Sri Lankan Ethnic Conflict

The emergence of Ethnic conflict

To a certain extent, the emergence of ethnic politics can be understood in the context of colonialism in general and some colonial practices and policies in particular. Ethnic politics however was not manifest until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From the very beginning of a colonial rule, the British introduced an extremely divisive and parochial form of limited representation based on caste, ethnicity, and religion. This kind of communal ” representation in a systemic sense was retained until 1931. Nevertheless, as a tradition, this system has in many ways survived to date and is the precursor of the current ethnic conflict.

Sri Lanka has a clear tradition of ethnic and religious conflict in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century in times of socio-economic and political stress. In most instances, the violence was unleashed upon ethnic or religious minorities by members of the Sinhala majority.

The Kotahena riots in Colombo in 1883 were the culmination of Buddhist – Catholic distrust which had evolved. The riot itself occurred due to the violation of what was perceived by local Catholics as sacred space. A Buddhist procession winding its way past a Catholic church was the immediate cause for the violence of 1883.

The anti-Muslim violence of 1915 was the result of trade rivalries between Muslim and Sinhala traders, even though a specific incident of violating sacred space was once again the immediate cause that sparked off the island-wide violence.

These conflicts hardly were the result of long and well-established antagonisms. The antagonisms and violence against Malayalis in the 1920s and 1930s also have to be understood in the context of economic competition, particularly in a time of economic depression (Perera, Sasanka. February 2001).

Language policy

Generally, there were three aspects among the Sinhalese.

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I. Education and Employment II. Religion and National Culture III. Language (Wilson, A.J. 1974: 14).

After the independence, the English language was used as the official language. In that situation, lots of Tamils people could have to get access to private and public sector employment. Moreover, they could have to involve the administration positions also. Apart from that considerable mercantile interests were also controlled by non- Sinhalese groups. These fears and concerns were a basis for the politics of language that was to emerge.

“As early as 1944, politicians proposed resolutions in parliament to declare Sinhalese the official language, while other amendments proposed both Sinhala and Tamil as the official language. A 1944 resolution specified that Sinhalese and Tamils would become the language of instruction in schools, examination for public services, and legislative proceeding (

Meanwhile in 1956, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was elected prime minister with the main election p[romise of establishing Sinhalese as the official language of the country, replacing English. After winning the election by Bandartanaike’s party in 1956 the new government passed the Official Language Act of 1956 in June, making Sinhala the only official language. Communist party’s Pieter Keuneman remarked that,

“Ten years from now nit will be several times worse. This bill is heading straight for the division of the country … Every order and regulation under it will be a cause for further strife” (DeVotta, Neil. 2017)

Furthermore, Bandaranaike and Tamil federal party (FP) leader S.J.V. Chelvanayagakam negotiated the so-called Bandaranaike Chelvanayakam Pact (B-C Pact) in July 1957, through which the Tamils agreed to jettison the demand for linguistic parity in exchange for Tamil being recognized as a minority language and the government agreed to set up regional councils to deal with education, agriculture and Sinhalese colonization of Tamil areas in the northeast. another bout of anti-Tamil riots broke out in March and April 1958—after Tamils began protesting against state-owned buses using Sinhala lettering on number plates.

This UNP government under Dudley Senanayake (1965-70) did try to accommodate Tamils’ other language demands through the so-called Dudley Senanayake- Chelvanayakam Pact (or D-C Pact) of 1965, which would have recognized the Northern and Eastern Provinces as Tamilspeaking and given Tamils first preference when colonizing lands in the east. Throughout these years, Tamils protested and resorted to Satyagraha (passive resistance). They flew black flags when the Sinhala Only Act was passed and made stirring speeches in Parliament.

Language, to a great degree, defines culture. In a polyethnic setting, it also shapes socioeconomic opportunity. Consequently, making Sinhala the sole official language not only challenged Tamils’ right to celebrate and thrive within their culture, but it also stood to negatively affect their economic and social success, especially in education and employment. And this is precisely what ensued after Sirimavo Bandaranaike took over the SLFP in 1960. In going well beyond trying to fully implement the Sinhala-only policy (which took effect on 1 January 1961), the blatantly ethnocentric policies of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s two governments (1960-65 and 1970-77) further undermined pluralism and goaded Tamils towards separatist mobilization.

Under the 13th amendment to the constitution, Tamil has been declared an official language, but there is a vast gap between the Sinhala and Tamil languages.


[(1)] The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala. [(2) Tamil shall also be an official language. (3) English shall be the link language. (4) By for implementation of the provisions of this Chapter.]

Article 19; The National Languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil (The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, 2021: 10).


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