The first part of this series addressed the origins of Buddhist revivalism and its impact on developing a strong Sinhala Buddhist identity during the colonial period. While the concept was not adopted broadly, it remained an influential philosophy among some religious and political classes. With the arrival of independence, Buddhist revivalism was re-invigorated and reinvented to chart the future of post-Colonial Ceylon (Sri Lanka from 1972). It played an important role in pushing Sinhalese culture and religion to the forefront of the island’s national identity and sought to right the wrongs of over four-hundred years of colonial rule. However, It also contributed to the deterioration of ethnic relations between Sinhalese and Tamils, culminating in a decades long civil war.
State building in a post-Colonial World
There was no lack of conflict in the new born states of the post-colonial era. As European powers pulled out of much of Asia and Africa, a plethora of states were born. Ravaged by centuries of colonial extraction, these states clearly lacked the political maturity that their former rulers had developed through centuries of practice with the Westphalia nation-state model.
Probably the most important goals for indigenous political elites at this time, were national integration and state-building. The national government had to extend its authority throughout the newly formed boundaries of the state. This was troublesome because many of these states were unified or shaped geographically through colonialism; in some cases, groups locked within a single state had little prior interaction with some of their new compatriots.
This highlighted the importance of nation building and the creation of a common national identity to which the people would feel a sense of belonging. There were various building blocks (existing social structures) that helped form these new national identities like religious affiliations, linguistic ties, tribal groupings and premodern identities. However, many of these states had diverse communities, which meant certain groups were often excluded and marginalized through the adoption of a specific identity.
According to some, ethno-nationalist violence was inherent and inevitable in the presence of diversity. However, while diversity could aid the probability of violence, ethnic conflict requires competing interests (political or economic) that lead to the creation of a zero sum power game. When the groups’ survival is at stake, differences are magnified and paves the way for absolutism and extreme violence. The greater the perception of threat, not only to the community but also to identity, violent conflict becomes inevitable.
Ethnic Politics and the Re-emergence of Ideology
Despite the savage nature of ethnic conflict, the inherent reasons are complex and often operate at various levels. The roots of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict are multilayered, based on interaction between pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial influences.
As discussed earlier, there were economic and social disparities created between the two major ethnicities during the British period. However, ethnic violence between Sinhalese and Tamils were relegated to ancient clashes told in the epics of Sri Lankan history. In fact, violence to contest colonial rule itself was rare. Still a template was laid under the new principles of Buddhist revivalism that called on the use of violence to defend and destroy forms of foreign influence and corruption. This was earlier illustrated in violent riots against Muslims, immigrant workers and local Christian groups by Sinhalese crowds (supported by clergy) during British rule.
However, since obtaining its independence in 1948, this serene island nation had all the makings of a successful British experiment in state craft. This was further buoyed by Ceylon’s stable institutions and highly educated political elite who did not have to contend with the stress of governing a large group of diverse people flung across swathes of land (like their neighbours in India). In the early 1950s, much of the public servants were still of Tamil descent, mostly due to their initial embrace of the English language and opportunities for education during colonialism. However, some viewed this as just another painful reminder of the island’s past. Some elites were convinced that without a complete transformation, true independence would not be realized. The Sinhala people and culture had to erase the corrupt ways forced on them through centuries of European rule and re-stamp their seal of authority on the island’s identity.
The Sinhala Buddhist banner was taken up by the Sri Lankan Freedom Party under the helm of Oxford educated Solomon Bandaranaike. Bandaranaike’s party promised to give the Sinhala culture, language and religion, their rightful place in Ceylonese society. In 1956 Bandaranaike was swept into power and introduced the “Sinhala Only” Act. Apart from making the Sinhalese the only official language in Ceylon, the policy also paved the way for various quotas to restructure civil services, education and other institutions. At first, there was strong opposition by Tamil politicians that lead Bandaranaike to consider compromises. However, a louder cry from the religious right threatened the Prime Minister’s base of support and he quickly fell in line. Furthermore, peaceful protests against the act by Tamil politicians were met with violence led by Sinhala mobs with the support and approval of some political and religious leaders. The act was passed but the country would never be the same again.
The Dominos Fall
The violence in Colombo sparked off riots across the island, the most significant being the Gal Oya riots, where a Sinhalese mob killed over a hundred Tamils, whilst burning and looting their possessions. The government was forced to deploy the armed forces to control the pogrom. The level of violence was indicative of a dehumanizing factor at work amongst the Sinhala extremists. Buddhist Revivalism had introduced a new form of righteous violence, one that was necessary for the protection of all that was pure and good. The Sinhala people had to re-discover their glory days as an advance pre-modern civilization and destroy both the invasive and corrupt forces at work; with the British gone the focus was shifting towards the Tamils.
With Tamil population marginalized in areas of education and employment, there was a growing sense that they were becoming second class citizens in Ceylon. Also, the government even operated a number of settlement schemes to boost the Sinhalese population in areas where they were traditionally minorities. In 1972, the country’s name Ceylon was dropped by the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike in favour of Sri Lanka. The name change itself was further confirmation of the island’s Sinhala identity. After decades of struggling for Tamil rights, many Tamil politicians/elites began to consider cessation as the only option; to create a Tamil state called Eelam.
It was during this time that some young Tamils became disgruntled with the lack of political progress and the violent responses to peaceful protests (the adoption of Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha). These frustration led some to organize small groups and take up arms to achieve their goals. They had differing ideologies and were primarily made-up by young, educated Jaffna Tamils. A group led by Velupillai Prabhakaran took up the idea of Eelam and made it their own, forever relegating the concept as terrorist vision to most Sinhalese. It drew parallels with the ancient Chola invasions written in Sinhala history, a resemblance that was further aided by India’s support of the insurgents. While a majority in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese were a regional minority, dwarfed by the millions of Tamils who lived across the Palk Strait in Southern India. Therefore, many saw the Tamil insurgency as the frontline of a larger invasion.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, Sri Lankan security forces engaged in numerous skirmishes with various Tamil groups. It was a tit-for-tat affair and neither side respected the rules of engagement. Furthermore, Sinhalese mobs and vigilantes also responded to Tamil attacks and whole villages of civilians were massacred on either side. The government’s response was particularly hardened by another calamitous development in 1971 when a Marxist insurrection rose up in central and southern Sri Lanka. Despite being poorly armed, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was able to seize large towns and cities that forced the government to bring in the army. Shaken by this rebellion, succeeding Sri Lankan governments took on an aggressive stance to stamp out groups contesting their monopoly on violence. While the JVP uprising was crushed through overwhelming force, its impact on Tamil insurgents was quite different, creating a cycle of violence that was escalated by both parties.
While tensions were building, a major symbolic event reiterated the linguistic roots of Sri Lanka’s conflict. During a frequent state imposed curfew in Jaffna (the symbolic capital of the indigenous Tamil people) at the end of May, 1981, an organized mob set alight the Jaffna Library. It housed hundreds and thousands of text, many of them irreplaceable pieces of Tamil literature, and was one of the largest libraries in Asia at the time. It was a symbolic act of terror that was blamed on the Sinhalese government, one that further widened the gap between the two communities. Still, it was not the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Many of the Tamil groups that rose up in the 70s were whittled down by government action and infighting. During that time, Prabhakaran’s Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) became one of the major insurgent groups, eliminating or absorbing their Tamil rivals. They, like many other groups, were also receiving political support, funds and training from Indira Gandhi’s government in India (especially from the province of Tamil Nadu).
In July of 1983, the LTTE carried out their first major attack, killing 13 Sri Lankan soldiers. Sri Lanka’s President J. R. Jayawardene went against his deputy’s advice and decided to bring the bodies to Colombo (although most of them were not from the city) and conducted a state-like funeral. Emotions were high during the event and a major riot broke out. Parts of Colombo were engulfed in flames as Sinhalese mobs set ablaze shops and property belonging to Tamils. Police and security forces did not intervene and many joined the pogroms. Some officials and politicians even assisted in hunting down Tamil residents and businesses, directing rioters with the help of registration lists (It is relatively easy to distinguish between Sinhala and Tamil names). Organized mobs visited hospitals and even went house to house looking for Tamils. There were accounts of execution by necklacing, where tires are placed around the victim and lit on fire.
The events of July 23, 1983 were so horrific that the day is remembered in Sri Lanka as “Kalu Juli” or Black July. Hundreds of Tamils were killed and thousands left homeless, without shelter and belongings. It led to a new wave of Tamil migrations from Sri Lanka to various parts of Europe, North America and Australia. The day also marked the beginning of the Sri Lankan civil war, one that would consume over 80,000 lives in the succeeding three decades.
The Sri Lankan government under President Mahinda Rajapakse finally prevailed over the LTTE in 2009, eradicating much of the groups leadership and operations capability. However, while winning the war was celebrated with much pomp and fanfare, winning the peace remains an elusive prospect. The bitter fruit was plucked and thrown aside but the roots of enmity remain intact.
Thank you for reading this Special Report on Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict, we hope you found it insightful and informative. If you would like to read more on the issue, here are some Recommended Readings.