We are often told that finding the root cause of a given problem will help us formulate a solution. Unfortunately, the world is a complex place with causal relationships difficult to establish. In most cases, there are a variety of factors working together to propel any given phenomenon and the likelihood of identifying, let alone understanding their interactions, is almost non-existent. This article does not claim to provide a complete picture of the root causes of Sri Lanka`s ethnic conflict, however, it is an attempt to explain some of the contributors to what became a bloody civil war that plagued the island for 25 years at the cost of thousands of its sons and daughters. This is a layered approach, first examining the psyche, the narrative of the people involved and then delving into the situations and their interpretations that created Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict.
Destined for Conflict?
Many are often drawn to simplistic explanations that often draw the warring sides as natural enemies; communities destined for war since the days of old. Such claims come up when discussing conflicts between the Arabs and Jews or Shiites and Sunnis. The same has been said about Sri Lanka`s ethnic conflict, that the Sinhalese and Tamil people have struggled for dominance since the ancient times, captured perfectly in the war between the Sinhala King Duttagamani and the Tamil King Elara. Furthermore, rulers in the Southern (Tamil speaking) Indian kingdoms often sought to invade Sri Lanka. These stories become part of a narrative that plays a major role in shaping the Sinhala identity and while the events in themselves are not proof of a natural enmity between the communities, their re-telling has given birth to a strong construct that makes sense of the present through the past.
There is often much debate on how much blame we should lay on colonialism when discussing the ills of third world nations; the answer is elusive. Each colonial power had their own form of rule, some changed throughout the years and others changed according to the colonized state and what resources or services it could offer. Furthermore, each state had its own unique make-up. Some had clear religious majorities while others had none. It was the same with ethnic and tribal demographics, where some states had few lines of ethnic/tribal division, while other communities has tens, even hundreds of different social groups.
Sri Lanka had a strong majority Sinhala Buddhist population when the Portuguese first arrived on the Island. Other groups included the indigenous Tamils of the North and East, as well as the Moors, Middle Eastern merchants who had settled on the Island’s coasts. As was the case in most colonial ventures, the European powers (in this case the Portuguese, Dutch and the English) often pitted their subjects against each other, drawing on ethnic/religious divisions to maintain control of their colonies. This policy of divide and conquer, ensured there would be no united threat against their rule as weaker groups benefitted under colonial rule.
These policies were maintained by favouring certain parties over others, giving them special status, access to better jobs and important positions in governance. Such policies continued throughout Sri Lanka’s four hundred years of colonial history. Under the British who came in 1802 and became the first power to capture the whole island, Sri Lanka was slowly transformed into a modern colonial state, a successful experiment in nation-building. However, the divisions persisted. More Sri Lankan Tamils had embraced the English language, many of them were also more eager to convert during the previous colonial eras. Tamils commanded many of the important public and civil positions, some estimates close to 70% of all such jobs despite making less than 20% of the Island’s population. This imbalanced became a major point of contention for the Sinhala politicians who rode to power on their ethnic and religious platform to right to wrongs of colonialism in 1956. However, this was not the result of a sudden urge but the residual effect of another by-product of European colonialism; Buddhist Revivalism.
Sinhala Buddhist Revivalism
Sinhala Buddhist Revivalism was a reaction to British colonialism, an anti-colonial movement that sought to empower the Sinhala Buddhists by giving them a sense of pride and dignity about their identity. During the British reign of Ceylon (former name), Anglican evangelism was mounting a challenge to the Island’s majority religion. The missionary challenge took on religious and ethnic dimensions of their own, declaring British and Christian ideas to being superior. While Buddhists were seemingly tolerant of these challenges for much of the 19th century, the later half saw a counter-offensive by the Buddhist clergy who setup a Society for the Propagation of Buddhism. The conflict took place mostly in public debate halls, which attracted hundreds and sometimes, thousands of Buddhists laymen. These debates and public perceptions of Buddhist victories helped prepare the ground for a new identity.
At the same time, a number of European observers, who were influenced by racial theories, started publishing works on the ethnic connections of the majority Sinhalese population to the Aryan race of Northern India and presumably Western Europe. These ideas slowly seeped into educated Sinhalese Buddhists and culminated in the teachings and literature of Anagarika Dharmapala. Known as the “homeless guardian of the Dharma,” Dharmapala was integral in the formation of the Sinhala Buddhist identity. He was influential not only in challenging Christianity and colonialism, but also in reinventing an identity of historical and cultural significance through his interpretations of mythological Sinhalese history.
Dharmapala used ancient Pali (North Indian language) texts such as the Mahavamsa, Culavamsa and Dipavamsa (Great, little and Island Chronicles) to claim that the Sinhalese-Buddhist were the “sons of the soil” and were bestowed with the sacred mission of defending Buddhism. Many of these ideas were communicated to large audiences through his own newspaper, “Sinhala Bauddhaya (Sinhala Buddhist).” It was not only an opportunity to educate and remind the masses of pre-colonial history, but also provided a tool of interpretation. Dharmapala blamed what he saw as the stagnation of the Sinhalese race on colonial rule, through alien religions, language and alcohol. Ideas of invaders, foreigners and aliens became a central theme and one that would manifest itself in Sinhalese opposition not only towards the Buddhist, but also towards local Christians, Muslims and Indian immigrant workers.
Dharmapala’s ideas had equated “race, religion, culture and language as unchanging components of the Sinhala nation.” While the colonial powers had damaged this once pure society, there was still hope in rebuilding their former glory. Still, these ideas did not gain much traction with the Sinhalese elites, not until they were adopted by politicians such as Solomon Bandaranaike, who came into power in 1956 on the promise of cementing the “Sinhala Buddhist” identity’s rightful place in Ceylonese politics. This was not unique to the Sri Lankan situation, with the end of colonialism, many independence movements sought to solidify a support base through religious or ethnic politics, forming religious or ethnic nationalism. While such movements strengthen and fortified rule for the majority, it often discriminated against those who didn’t belong to the nationalist identity.
While Dharmapala’s work lacked strong anti-Tamil slogans, he did cultivate connections between the Island’s ancient history and bring to the public memory the Chola invasions and the wars between Sinhalese and Tamil kings (most prominently that between Duttagamani and Elara). Some use this epic narrative is commonly used to explain the continuous struggle between the two communities. The tale also feeds on Sinhalese fears of being a ‘double minority.’
While the Sinhalese remain a clear majority in the island, they are regionally outnumbered by the large population of Tamils in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. After the commencement of the civil war in the mid-1980s, rebel groups such as the LTTE were obtained substantial support from the state and the Indian government. This has drawn historical parallels between the LTTE’s attempt to create an independent state with the 10th century Chola invasion to conquer Sri Lanka. There are also suggestions that the former-LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had mentioned of the Chola kings as his inspiration. Indian actions within Sri Lankan politics have always been viewed suspiciously, not helped by their support of Tamil rebel groups. Therefore, within many circles of Sri Lankan society, fears of Indian power and ambition often prove to be popular viewing glasses for the conflict as a whole.
However, the use of history to cast the present or the future has served other opinions as well. Supporters of Tamil separatism often remark that prior to British unification, Sri Lanka had only once been ruled by a single kingdom. During much of the island’s known history, there were two or three competing kingdoms that controlled various parts. Therefore, some claim that it is natural to claim that the island can not be governed fairly by one ruling party.
As the conflict intensified in the late 20th century, many religious groups supporting the war traced back their internal fears and concerns to these pre-modern events. To them the Tamil insurgents were the frontline of a greater Tamil invasion, claims that were seemingly supported by Indian government support. However, by fixating themselves on the consequences of Sri Lanka’s ethnic tensions, they ignored the causes and the roots of a problem closer to home.
Click Here to read Part II of this Series: Roots of Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict.