Ethno-Political Conflict in Sri Lanka
Imtiyaz, A. R. M., Stavis, Ben, Journal of Third World Studies
"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] 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 ethno-political 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) 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 …
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Publication information: Article title: Ethno-Political Conflict in Sri Lanka. Contributors: Imtiyaz, A. R. M. - Author, Stavis, Ben - Author. Journal title: Journal of Third World Studies. Volume: 25. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2008. Page number: 135+. © Association of Third World Studies, Inc. Fall 2008. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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