Same, Same, but Different: The Roots of Sri Lankan Ethnic Tension

Sri Lanka, or previously Ceylon, is a small nation with a diverse amalgam of religions and languages. During the British colonial period, Western thought and religious ideology enhanced preexisting cultural distinctions. The aftermath of British colonialism laid the foundations of a thirty-year civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, each group vying for political influence. Either a fight for independence or act of terrorism depending on which side of the mountains you stand, the war fostered ethnic conflict and fervent nationalism.

The rift between the Tamils and the Sinhalese was initially aggravated by Britain’s notorious ‘divide and rule’ policy. In countering British missionary activity, but utilizing missionary education, the existing Tamil Hindu population regained a sense of cultural solidarity that had been lost during the British colonial period. Despite Sri Lanka’s history of ethnic separation, there was little strife in the early 1900s when Tamil Ponnambalam Arunachalam was elected to represent both the Tamils and Sinhalese in the national legislative council. However, the British governor, William Manning, actively propagated the concept of ‘communal representation,’ a policy that gave way to the Colombo Seat within the national legislative council. The opportunity to preside over the national capital swung temptingly between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, augmenting political tension. As a result, the Donoughmore Commission abolished communal representation, opting instead for universal franchise and placing political power in the laps of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.

During the colonial period, Christian missionaries established educational facilities along the Sri Lankan coast. The missionaries, however, were hesitant to place the Buddhists in control of their progressive Christian education and Tamil Jaffna was established as the center of Christian learning. After gaining independence, the Sri Lankan government increased designated spending on Sinhalese education and employment, while cutting funds within the Tamil community. This community-based divide immediately highlights an ethnic barrier that was just waiting to be exploited by discriminatory and budgeted social policies.

Sri Lankan Buddhist nationalism was born out of this post-colonial strengthening of ethnic identity. The pseudo-ideology utilized the following guiding principles of praise for the Sinhalese Buddhist culture: blame on the Christian British imperialists and fear that Sri Lanka would lose its Sinhalese Buddhist identity. These ideals laid the psychological foundation for Sri Lanka’s quest for independence and rehabilitation. The divisive nature of these values, however, exacerbated ethnic and religious gaps in a nation that to this day continues to follow an archaic social class system. In this atmosphere, a civil war that eventually caused dehumanization of the opposition was almost inevitable.

In 1949, D. S. Senanayake, Independence hero and Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister, passed legislation stripping British-instated Tamil plantation laborers of their properties. This left the Tamil population in the primarily Sinhalese Central Province stateless. Riding on a wave of Sinhalese Buddhist sentiment, Sri Lanka Freedom Party leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike promised to declare Sinhala as Sri Lanka’s official language within 24 hours if elected. The subsequent Sinhala Official Language Act of 1956 acted as the final straw in establishing that the Tamil population was not in league with the Sinhalese or powerful enough to attain significant political or cultural influence. The Language Act paved the way for several attempts to annihilate Tamil culture, exemplified in one of the most  brutal acts of ethnic biblioclasm in 20th century Asia – the 1981 burning of the Tamil Jaffna library.

The cultural divide between the Sinahalese and Tamil was amplified by the Sinhalese population’s inability to understand Tamil. Language is fundamental to empathy and identity, and this lack of mutual understanding led the Sinhalese to perceive the Tamils as alien. The disassociation that language barriers can create is evident in the Sinhalese word dhemalichcha – the name for a boisterous bird that chirps incessantly from rooftops – which literally means ‘small Tamil creature.’ When language is used as a bridge between seemingly separate identities, a sense of empathy can be developed that allows for a deep and meaningful approach to ethnic reconciliation. Britain’s hold over Sri Lanka can in fact be perceived to have suspended prevailing ethnic tensions with English as the common language amongst all Sri Lankans. To ascertain Sinhalese superiority, however, the language barrier was solidified as a mark of power, a language spoken by the chosen.

The fact that Sinhalese religion, language and culture is associated with superiority has dictated the nation’s attitude to ‘national unity.’ The recent approach employed by Buddhist groups unaffiliated with the government (the Bodu Bala Sena) can be viewed as an attempt to rid the nation of its minorities and pave the way for a homogenous group of people united by their similarities and unafraid of their differences – because they have none.  Modern Sinhalese nationalism has heightened in light of the West’s initial refusal to view the militaristic Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam group as terrorists. Similar to the growth and rise of China and India, ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka can be perceived as the price of developing nationalism through a non-evolutionary process obstructed by Western interference.

Despite the perpetually ringing bells of contemporary war crimes, Sinhalese nationalism, in an attempt to regain autonomy, is hailed as a counterforce to Western imperialism. Sovereignty has been used as an excuse for human rights violations, which nationalists justify in the name of economic and industrial development. Despite these issues, the Sinhalese majority praises their country’s supposed progress. Thanks to their efforts, the Sri Lankan nation is finally “at peace.” There is food on the table and roofs above heads. The war has ended.


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