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Last Updated: 01/27/2012
We All Look Alike, But We Are Not the Same: The Root Cause of the Conflict in Sri Lanka
Aingkaran Kugathasan

UPeace Asia Leaders Fellow Aingkaran analyzes the conflict in Sri Lanka within the framework of the relationship between political power and modern ethnic identities.

Sri Lanka is home to a plurality of people: Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Malays and Burghers[1]. However, successive governments have failed to recognize this cultural and ethnic heterogeneity in their nation-building and development policies. In practice and in Constitutional Law, they have favored the majority community while denying equality to the other communities, which resulted in the ethnic conflict. The civil war is an outcome of how modern ethnic identities have been made and re-made since the colonial period[2], particularly regarding the political struggle between minority Tamils and the Sinhala-dominant government, accompanied by rhetorical wars over archeological sites and place name etymologies, as well as the political use of the nation’s past[3]. This article analyzes the conflict in Sri Lanka within the framework of the relationship between political power and modern ethnic identities.

Bearing in mind the fact that discrimination is the context of the civil war in Sri Lanka, it is appropriate to discuss the contextual factors that have triggered the conflict in order to illustrate how these factors operate in conflict situations. This piece discusses geography, history, ethnicity and media as they emerged within the conflict. The combination of these contextual factors has increased the complexity of the conflict in Sri Lanka.

In 1815, control of the Island was taken by the British. Since then, the main dispute between the elite Sinhalese and Tamils was over the question of representation and not over the structure of the government[4]. However, the tension among these two communities (Sinhalese and Tamils) cropped up when a Tamil was appointed representative of the Sinhalese as well as the Tamils in the National Legislative Council. Later, a proposal for 50-50 representation in the parliament (50% for the Sinhalese, 50% for all other ethnic groups, including Tamils) was rejected by the Commission headed by the British, which resulted in polarizing the Sinhalese and Tamils[5]. The legislation passed by the government after independence denied the rights of minorities and made Sri Lanka a majoritarian state, which left no representation of minorities in the government[6]. Language discriminations through the Sinhala Only Act, the implementation of a policy of standardization and state-sponsored colonization (which will be discussed further under “geography”) were the other two factors fueling inter-communal violence.

Geography played a prominent role in the Sri Lankan civil war. Sinhalese live in the central, western and southern parts of Sri Lanka, and Tamils reside in the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka[7]. The implementation of the “state-sponsored colonization schemes” in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka, considered to be the traditional homeland of Tamil nationalists, was intended to change the demographic balance in the region in favor of the majority Sinhalese to secure more seats in the parliament. The implementation of the policy of standardization by the government was intended to rectify disparities created in the existing university enrollment scheme, reflecting the legacy of educational policy under British colonial rule, by which a large proportion of students enrolled in universities were English-speaking Tamils, particularly in professional courses such as medicine and engineering. Although under British rule English was the state language, the majority of the Sri Lankan populace, especially the Sinhalese community, lived outside urban areas and did not belong to the elite society, so they did not enjoy the benefit of being taught in English. Meanwhile, the Tamils residing in the northern and eastern regions had access to English-medium education through missionary schools. The sole purpose of the “standardization” was to cut down the numbers of enrolment of Tamil students. And they succeeded in this “standardization”, as there was a great fall in the quantity of the student population. The government of Sri Lanka has been using the geographical distribution of ethnic groups to restrict the Tamil community from accessing basic needs. For more than two decades, the northern region of Sri Lanka, where the Tamils reside, was completely isolated from the rest of the Island.

Ethnicity is the core and most important reason for the conflict in Sri Lanka. The majority Sinhalese community was scared of losing the battle on their own ground in the cold war against the minority Tamil community, which was intellectually challenging. The Sinhalese majority community could not digest the emergence of the Tamil community. Thus, it used the “numbers” to suppress the minority Tamil community so that Sri Lanka would remain a Sinhala-only State. Though the Tamil community, along with the other minority communities tried to coexist with the Sinhalese majority, the extremists wanted to have control over the minority communities. As a result, successive legislation was passed by the Sinhalese government imposing several discriminatory measures on the minority communities.

At the beginning of the dispute between the majority and the minority, there was no media except the state-run media. The government had the control over the media, and it used the media for its propaganda against the Tamil community and the proposals they made. As a minority community lacking power, the Tamil community was unable to convey its message or the proposals it created to the Sinhalese community residing in the southern region and the other coastal areas.

The seven elements of conflict prescribed in the C.R.SIPABIO model are the main tool to understand a conflict and take necessary steps to resolve it. The root cause of the conflict in Sri Lanka is discrimination. The minority community members believe that there is a threat to their needs, interests and concerns, such as equality, promotion and protection of human rights, as well as the guaranteed identity as a different community that has its own history and uniqueness recognized by the government administrated by the majority community. The perception of the threat has led both communities into a civil war, which has claimed many lives.

The attitude(s) / feeling(s) of parties is/are based on the concept of acceptance as a community. Sinhalese people believe that Sri Lanka belongs to them, and that they are the people who are supposed to rule the country, while the minority community thinks that they are being suppressed by the majority and that their rights are being violated by the mechanisms headed by the majority community[8]. Besides, they are afraid of losing their identity as an ethnicity given that forced colonization is being carried out by the government.

These attitudes and feelings on both sides make the parties involved in the conflict behave according to their perceptions of the conflict[9]. If we have a closer look at this concept, it will be easier to understand the behavior of both parties intended to ensure their own existence. A simple conversation with individuals from both communities would give a clear picture of their behavior towards the other community. A dominance behavior over the other community is often noticeable in the Sinhalese community, while defensive behavior is more noticeable in the Tamil community.

It is very obvious that some immediate measurements and/or interventions need to be carried out to address the root cause of the prevailing situation in Sri Lanka. However, unfortunately, the government and the other influential entities are reluctant to make the move to resolve the problem and bring sustainable peace in Sri Lanka.

Analyzing the conflict at the relationship level, which carries the three manifest dynamics of power, bond and pattern[10], in the Sri Lankan context, the power between the conflicting parties has never been equal. One community (the Tamil community) has been suppressed by the governments, which have been headed by the Sinhalese. The imbalance of power between the parties has made the minorities vulnerable while also leading to discrimination. And this power imbalance has been derived from contextual factors such as history and ethnicity.

The “bond” between these two ethnic groups plays a crucial role in this conflict. The cultural relationship between these two parties makes this conflict more complex and significant. The “coexistence” between these two communities within the same territorial limits has imposed several direct and indirect linkages between them. Thus, it is not possible to focus on one particular community and leave the other one behind. It is of utmost importance to consider this fact in the peace-building process.

Patterns of behavior between these two parties are completely against one another, as one party suppresses the other party using the constitutional power vested in it. The Sinhalese majority tends to show the behavioral pattern of being dominant, while the Tamil minority has the tendency of fighting back to be equal. The institution of armed conflict was a perfect example to explain this. The failure of the political initiatives carried out by the Tamil community to raise its voice against discrimination resulted in armed conflict.

It is vitally important to do conflict analysis and conflict mapping in order to address the root cause of that particular conflict[11]. The purpose of the study is to understand the background and the context of the conflict in Sri Lanka using the C. R. SIPABIO model.

[1] UN Commission on Human Rights “Discrimination of Tamils in Sri Lanka” (2000) in

[2] Spencer J. A nation living in different places: Notes on the impossible work of purification in post-colonial Sri Lanka (2003)

[3] Spencer J, Sri Lankan history and roots of conflict. P.23.

[4] Follow up to armed struggle in Origins of the Sri Lankan Civil War, in

[5] Soulbury Constitution of Sri Lanka

[6] Rupesinghe K, Linguistic discrimination against Tamils (2006) in

[7] Zweir L, Sri Lanka: War-torn Island (World of conflicts) (2007)

[8] Amr Abdalla, et al, Say peace: Conflict Training manual for Muslim communities, (2002)

[9] Zweir L, Sri Lanka: War-torn Island (World in Conflict) (2007)

[10] Amr Abdalla, et al, Say peace: Conflict training manual for Muslim communities, (2002)

[11] Deutsch M, Coleman P and Marcus E, The handbook of Conflict resolution: Theory and practice (2004)


Amr Abdalla, et al, Say peace: Conflict training manual for Muslim communities, (2002)

Deutsch M, Coleman P and Marcus E, The handbook of Conflict resolution: Theory and practice (2004)

Rupesinghe K, Linguistic discrimination against Tamils (2006) in

Soulbury Constitution of Sri Lanka

Spencer J. A nation living in different places: Notes on the impossible work of purification in post-colonial Sri Lanka (2003)

Spencer J, Sri Lankan history and roots of conflict. P.23.

UN Commission on Human Rights “Discrimination of Tamils in Sri Lanka” (2000) in

Zweir L, Sri Lanka: War-torn Island (World in Conflict) (2007)

Aingkaran Kugathasan is an Asia Leaders Fellow in the International Law and Human Rights Masters Programme at the University for Peace of Costa Rica.