How Ethnic Conflict Caused Sri Lanka and Tamil Separatism
Sri Lanka is an island in South Asia with numerous clusters of isolated ethnic communities that despite living in close proximity are clearly differentiated by language, religion and unique history. The political and religious ethnic division between the majority of the Sinhalese community and the minority Tamil community can be traced back to many years before and after independence. Tensions and conflict between these two communities have been fueling over the years with the minority Tamil separatist movement seeking to form a separate and independent state for themselves on the island.
This paper explores How Ethnic Conflict Caused Sri Lanka and Tamil Separatism i.e the role played by ethnic conflict in the separatism that exists between Sri Lanka and Tamil on the island nation. Besides, it also discusses how the ethnic conflict developed, since it started in the 1950s. The paper will also outline the causes, consequences and paint a picture of the current state.
Sri Lanka has been a floor of ethnic conflicts since its early years of gaining independence from the British. The conflict has over the years developed gradually into a full-fledged civil war that has resulted into the displacement of populations, deaths, destruction and loss of property and the rise of the Tamil separatist movement. Some of the causes of the conflict started way back even before the country gained independence. Religious differences between the Sinhalese and the Tamil communities are considered to be the major cause of the conflict. In fact, this began quite a while ago. The majority Sinhalese predominantly professes Buddhism faith while the minority Tamil consists of Hindus; however, they also comprise a small population of Christians.
Owing to this difference in religion, the Sinhalese have often looked down upon the Tamil. The majority Sinhalese have made several attempts towards establishing the Sinhala Buddhist identity, while also legitimizing their control over the political system of Sri Lanka through various elements drawn from the Buddhist doctrine. The Sinhalese believed that they were only able to survive if their religion of Buddhism did, and this could only be achieved through their control over the whole of Sri Lanka. Based on the consciousness of the Sinhala Buddhist identity, the majority failed in recognizing that Sri Lanka was a society with several ethnic communities and religions. That was the reason why they ignored the collective rights of other minority ethnic groups like the Tamil.
Before the nation got independence, the Sinhalese believed that their oppressors; the British favored the Tamil community. According to them, that is the reason why Tamils held professional positions within the society in Sri Lanka. The Tamils on the other hand believed that the system of the government formed during the struggle for independence was discriminatory and only favored the Sinhalese that accounted for most of the legislators in parliament. This made them come to the assumption that they would continuously be subjected to suffering from the prejudice of the Sinhalese, considering that they were a minority.
The fears of the Tamil community were confirmed after the prominence of the Sinhala began to grow and expand to various parts of Sri Lanka. During the time of initiating political reforms, the country did not put constitutional safeguards to protect the rights of the minority groups. This was clearly portrayed in 1936 when the Board of Ministers in Sri Lanka was entirely made up of people from the Sinhalese community (Wilson 69). With regards to this, ethnic based organizations begun to form with the aim of advancing their own interest.
After the country gained full independence in 1948, the elite mainly of Sinhalese origin began the advocacy for the integration of Buddhist ideals and doctrines that were against the interests of the minority groups, and other upper class people who spoke English (Allen 170). Things began taking a different turn in 1949 when plantation workers mainly drawn from the Indian Tamil ethnic group were disenfranchised with many of them even denied the citizenship of Sri Lanka.
In 1956 when Sinhalese radical Solomon Bandaranaike took power, Sinhala was elevated to be the country’s official national language. This was considered as a measure of enhancing the consciousness of the Sinhala-Buddhist. In a short while, more than 100 Tamils were killed during a standoff that resulted from attempted protests by Tamil parliamentarians against discriminatory laws. This protest which took place in 1958 led to the loss of lives of more than 200 people and displaced thousands of the Tamil origin.
In the 1970s, tensions continued to intensify and especially in 1972 when Buddhism was declared as the primary religion in Sri Lanka. This further antagonized the Tamils and through their party; Tamil Federation Party, the politicians of Tamil descent continued the push for a federal system of government that could be able to advance the interests of minority ethnic groups. The party also wanted equal status of the Tamil language with that of the Sinhalese, and also put an end to state colonization of the areas occupied by Tamils.
Besides, the party also advocated for the issuance of citizenship to Hills Tamils among several other equal opportunities. However, the party was unable to continue functioning as a fighting platform and this resulted into the formation of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1976. The main goal of this new party was to create a separate nation for the Tamils on the island. However, the experiences continued to get worse despite the overwhelming votes received by the TUFL legislators to parliament.
Another anti-Tamil violence erupted killing several Tamils. The Tamils felt disgruntled and discredited their leaders. Several of them joined the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that was founded in 1976 to help in pushing their agenda. The LTTE assumed the form of a military unit, with most of its activities based in the northern part of Sri Lanka that was mostly occupied by the Tamil community.
In 1883, the ethnic rivalry reached an advanced stage and the LTTE ambushed and killed 13 government soldiers mainly from the Sinhalese ethnic group. This led to another anti-Tamil protest that resulted into the killing of many Tamils, and officially marking the beginning of civil war between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE forces in the northern part of the country. As the war ravaged on between 1983 and 1985, India was dragged into intensive diplomatic activities aimed at ending the war. However, India was believed to be conducting secret training sessions for the Tamil guerilla fighters within its borders with the aim of helping them gain proper military power.
In 1985, peace talks to end the war failed to bear fruit, intensifying the conflict even further. In fact, the war took another turn when the LTTE forces killed an estimated 250 civilians of Sinhalese origin in cold blood. This again agitated India to make an attempt towards ending the civil war through the signing of the Indo-Sri Lankan Peace Accord in July 1987 (Trivedi 285). The accord authorized the establishment of new councils for the Tamils in the northern and eastern parts of the island. Besides, it also allowed the deployment of Indian forces in the country to help in the disarmament of the LTTE forces.
Despite the move by the LTTE to accept the accord under pressure from India, they did not remain committed to it for long. After they broke away, a violent confrontation erupted again between the LTTE forces and the Indian peacekeeping forces. In 1989, the Sri Lankan president and LTTE began a peace process in order to convince the Indian troops to leave the country. However, this also failed to bear fruit and fell apart in June 1990. The Indian troops began leaving the country that same year and in 1991, their leader Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Southern India. This was followed by another assassination of the Sri Lankan President Premadasa in 1993.
The civil war got even more intensified between 1995 and 2001 when the LTTE launched numerous violent attacks on government forces in the northern and eastern parts of the country. As if that was not enough, the LTTE also sank the country’s naval craft, bombed the holiest Buddhist site in the country and also injured the president in a bomb attack. The LTTE unleashed another shocker in 2001 when they attacked the Sri Lankan international airport destroying many civilian and military aircrafts (Eager 137).
In 2002, Norway brokered a cease-fire agreement that led to relative peace prevalent in the country between 2002 and 2005. LTTE dropped its push for a separate state after the government lifted the ban on it (Barakat 140). However, the violence started again in 2006 when the LTTE forces began attacks on the country’s military establishments. This resulted into the military launching attacks on the LTTE targets that significantly reduced the rebels’ military strength.
The LTTE’s military might was also reduced by the terrorist attack of 9/11 in the US, because it was listed among the most dangerous terrorist outfits. This led to reduced funding for the rebel group that mainly came from concerned Tamils in the West. Besides, their supply of weapons also went down significantly. Based on these factors, the separatist LTTE group was defeated. The war between the Tamils outfit; LTTE and Sinhalese army is among some of the longest and fierce ethnic conflicts that dragged on for almost four decades.
In conclusion, it is clearly indicated that the Sri Lankan and Tamil separatism resulted from ethnic conflict between the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic groups. This war had both political and religious backgrounds, and intensified by the increasing consciousness of the Sinhala-Buddhist identity that was imposed over the minority ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. There is no certainty over the future of this ethnic rivalry because the Tamils in the Diaspora still hold on strongly to their dream of an independent Tamil state despite the defeat of the LTTE. It should be noted that since the end of the violence, the two ethnic communities involved in the conflict have not been able to integrate with one another.
Allen, Douglas. Religion and Political Conflict in South Asia: India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Print.
Barakat, Sultan. After the Conflict: Reconstructions and Redevelopment in the Aftermath of War. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005. Print.
Eager, Paige W. From Freedom Fighters to Terrorists: Women and Political Violence. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2008. Print.
Trivedi, Ramesh. India’s Relations with Her Neighbours. Delhi: Isha Books, 2008. Print.
Wilson, A J. Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London: Hurst , 2000. Print.