Ethno-Political Conflict in Sri Lanka

By Imtiyaz, A. R. M.; Stavis, Ben | Journal of Third World Studies, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

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.

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