Divisive Identities in Post-Colonial Sri Lanka

The officials at the UNDP have a stellar sense of irony for rating Sri Lanka at 0.77 on the Human Development Index, ranking it 76th in the world (2018). Don’t get me wrong, if one travels to Sri Lanka, they’d come across beautiful vistas, beaches, Asian elephants and welcoming people. It is a fine specimen of Edward Said’s Orientalism: exotic, isolated, raw and rich (1985). But behind it all is a 26 year long civil war towards which the red soil now shows a collective amnesia. After the war, the UN found both parties – the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Dismissing the allegations, the government of Rajapaksha Mahinda chose to continue the same divisive practices that lead them to genocide. This stance was only bolstered by UN Secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon’s refusal to refer the case to the ICJ in the Hague. The “resettled” Tamil population are consumed by a debilitating fear of another genocide in their homeland. An entire generation of displaced and disenfranchised Sri Lankan Tamils have grown up witnessing the violence perpetuated with impunity; a recipe for further endless violence and animosity (Bajoria, 2009).

In order to prevent another genocide, we need literature analyzing the institutional and historical roots of the ethnic tensions. To that end, this paper makes a strong case for colonial practices as being the primary antagonistic force that created and entrenched the divisive identities among the inhabitants of the island. Further, western imports such as the nation state, representative democracies and the idea of sovereignty played a huge role in perpetuating these divisive identities post-independence. By ascertaining the role of colonialism in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, this paper emphasizes the need to decolonize the region and builds a case for further research exploring non-western solutions to the ethnic divide.

            Sri Lanka has two main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. According to the Culavamsa Buddhist chronical, Tamil was introduced into the island by the conquering force of Indian prince Kalinga Magha, partly a descendent of the Chola Dynasty. He came to be known as Magha the Tyrant for his aggressive conquest of Sri Lanka through which he set up the Jaffna Kingdom. His conquest crippled native Sinhalese power and drove them into the southern and western reaches of the country. This telling of history would later be used to fuel animosity between the two groups. However, the Sinhalese themselves weren’t native to the island and can trace their history back to the mainland, India. The Buddhist chronical Mahavamsa accords that Prince Vijaya, the deviant son of Sinhababu was exiled from the Indian subcontinent. He and his followers are said to have killed and displaced the native Yakshas (Yakkhas) and set up a community called the Sinhalese (Sinha meaning ‘lion’ in the native tongue). The Sinhalese run government would eventually come to be at odds with the (then revolutionary) group called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Homeland). However, these two ethnic groups have not always been at odds.

For several centuries, the Tamils and Sinhalese coexisted relatively peacefully on the island. Despite the occasional wars, they weren’t ethnically motivated and certainly were not state sponsored, i.e. carried out by the monarchs against their own people. So, the question arises of how these two groups grew to hate each other so much. The answer lies in understanding how the largely dormant identities of Sinhalese and Tamils were turned into the fundamental fault line in the island’s community. Nira Wikramasinghe says, “Much debate on how to resolve the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is dominated by a faulty epistemology that assumes that each group has some kind of culture and that the boundaries between these groups and the contours of their cultures – namely the Sinhalese and the Tamils—are specifiable and easy to depict” (2006). Through this he implies that identities are not discovered but created, and there is substantial evidence to support that this was a Colonial endeavor.

The British colonial administration used two techniques to create an adversarial relationship between these two identities (Soherwordi, 2010). The first was through the use of a census. They did this to understand the demography of the colonies in order to make administration more efficient and also to inform their policy of divide and rule. The prevailing identifiers that the people of the island used were based on the region an individual hailed from. The census gave visibility to this new identity based on language, ethnicity, caste and religion. However, a concerted effort was necessary to turn this new dormant identity into the primary identifier. The second technique used by the British, gave valence to these new identities by pitting them against each other. Identities are born out of common needs/demands. The creation of these common demands was facilitated by the preferential politics of the British Raj. Wickramasinghe postulates that “People saw potential entitlements under colonial rule in identifying themselves as one ethnicity or another” (2006). The British gave positions of power preferentially to the Tamils, so that the Sinhalese voiced their grievances to the Tamils instead of the British. This shifted the people’s hatred from the British administration to the Tamil officials, whose constructed privilege precluded them from adopting into the common demands of the Sinhalese even if they could relate to them. The Tamils too eventually embraced their new identity because of the privilege it gave them. This cleverly orchestrated power play entrenched the divide. Catholic missionaries were built mostly in the northern and eastern regions of the country which were largely Tamil occupied. Therefore, more Tamils ended up learning English. This made them better prepared to reach positions of power within the administration (Obrian, 2012) The discrimination imposed by the British based on previously arbitrary identities of language and ethnicity gave credibility to these new identities which would slowly cannibalize the non-antagonistic identities held earlier. However, this does not fully explain why these identities thrived even after British Raj ended during independence.

This is because Sri Lankan independence is an oxymoron. ‘Sri Lanka’ as an entity did not and could not exist without the British. Before the colonizers came, the island was ruled by five different monarchs. The idea of a nation-state and its perceived sovereignty were both imposed onto the islanders during their independence. By now, the elites had been westernized and they too mistakenly equated freedom to a unified nation-state, especially one governed through democracy. Working inside this western framework proved to be a costly mistake and made the ethnic conflict inevitable. The following section will look at how the idea of nationhood and its sovereignty led to the numerical majority counterintuitively fearing the minority. This is further supported by an analysis of how the system of representative democracy manifested this fear into state sponsored violence against the minority.

Nation states founded upon ideas of sovereignty create an environment conducive to the perpetuation of divisive identities.  This is because nationhood is often based on an idea of ethnic purity or homogeneity (Appadurai, 2007). So, minorities or “special interests” are seen as external intrusions into the autonomy of the state, thus threatening its sovereignty. This creates an “anxiety of incompleteness” about a nation’s sovereignty, which can turn the majority identity predatory or intolerant of the minority. Appadurai gives specific historical conditions under which this idea of incomplete purity propels violence against the minority (2007). The first is the conduct of regular censuses. This western practice was also adopted by the new Sri Lankan government – labeling the minority and bringing them into the spotlight. The second antagonizing force was globalization; just like minorities, globalization is both needed and unwelcome, and poses a threat to the nation’s control over its internal polity. Globalization being a faceless entity cannot be the subject of violence, minorities however, can be. They represent the intrusion of the global into the local. These two elements, along with the presence of an ethnically based party system and a successful campaign of fear directed at the majority, precipitate violence. They mobilize the anxiety of incompleteness in the majority turning their identity predatory. In this way, the numerical majority comes to fear the minority. Some democracies have tried to safeguard against these factors by coopting secularism. However, these covenants often do not translate into laws as the majority does not let go of its privileges just for the sake of ideology, as is the case in Sri Lanka.

Secularism and sovereignty are constantly at war, it produces a situation where secularism requires tolerance of the minority within national borders and national sovereignty requires the eradication or expulsion of the minority. The main factor in the Sri Lankan Case that tipped the scales towards the eradication of the Tamil minority was that Sri Lanka adopted a system of representative democracy. Representative democracies are supposed to act as a check against majority domination. However, it had the opposite effect in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese leadership used it to their advantage, and the Tamil leadership failed in stopping them (Vaithianathan, 1991). Post-independence, G.G. Ponnambalam, a prominent Tamil representative proposed a 50-50 split in the electorate where the Sinhalese (who constituted 70% of the population) would hold 50% of the seats and the rest would be distributed among the minorities. However, this did not come to fruition and instead a system of proportional representation was adopted. Although the Sinhalese still did not have a two-thirds majority needed to pass constitutional changes, proportional representation made it harder for the minorities to oppose the Sinhalese in the parliament. One of the first laws passed by the administration disenfranchised Indian Tamils living in Sri Lanka. These were indentured laborers from India, mostly Tamils, brought by the British colonizers to work on the highly profitable tea, rubber and coffee plantations. The loss of the Indian Tamils’ right to vote gave the Sinhalese a two-thirds majority. They could now unilaterally pass laws. All that mattered after this was the Sinhalese vote and so the political leadership did not need to keep their promises to Tamil leadership in order to come to power (Obrian, 2012).

The Sinhalese leadership became increasingly radical in order to compete with each other for the Sinhalese vote (DeVotte, 2006). The Sinhala Only Act was passed in 1956 after Bandaranaike (leader of a major Sinhalese Party) won landslide elections by promising just that. Sinhalese replaced English as the official language but no recognition was given to Tamil. This was a policy of positive discrimination that reversed the direction of inequality in favor of the Sinhalese. Tamil employment in the formal sector would plummet over the next two decades. This political domination also allowed the Sinhalese leadership to colonize the Northern and Western regions of the country where Tamils held a majority. They resettled Sinhalese into these regions in order to decrease the Tamil voting strength in these electorates and also to delegitimize their claim to a traditional Tamil homeland. There was a deep resentment building up among the Tamils, with both the Sinhalese and Tamil leadership (Obrian, 2012). In the mid-1950s, the Tamil controlled Federal Party made demands for a federal structure, linguistic parity, the end to Sinhalese colonization, and the re-enfranchisement of the Tamil Indians. The first attempt at compromise failed with Bandaranaike tearing up a copy of the pact in front of cheering Buddhist monks. The second time a compromise was reached, Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. The ethno-centric nature of Sri Lanka’s representative democracy provided only one direction for the future of the nation-state: violent secession. Political compromise was decidedly off the table. By this point, the Sri Lankan case satisfied all four necessary conditions for the ethnic tensions turning violent-secessionist: an ethnic based party system, migration into the potential secessionist region, opportunity limited by discrimination, and violence directed at a minority (Horowitz). On the face of it, representative democracies sound like a great idea to help voice all points of view in a polity. However, coupled with the previous factors that created a fear and hatred of the minority, it was a recipe for disaster in the Sri Lankan case.  

One could argue that this was not a failure of representative democracy as an institution, but rather a result of improper implementation. Representative democracy was simply not a good fit for the Sri Lankan case, and since everyone was working within the framework of freedom handed down from the British, no one bothered to think about what freedom meant to them outside these terms. There was a general disregard for the heritage of island’s people, what had worked for them in the past before the British came, and how the cultural landscape had been changed through a century of colonial rule. This ahistoricism resulted in the adoption of representative democracy based on a ‘one size fits all’ approach. In concert with the colonial creation of ethnically based identities, this perpetuated the ethnic tensions post-independence. The failure of the system of representative democracy led the Tamil minority to lose faith in diplomatic solutions and become violent-secessionist. And the unattainable dream of a sovereign nation-state created tensions that led the majority run government towards genocide. This analysis of institutional and historical roots of the ethnic conflict emphasizes the urgent need to decolonize political thought in the region. Searching for solutions within the western frame of thinking is a lost cause as that disregard for local context and history is clearly what caused the problem in the first place. However, the alternative – to think of non-western solutions – is problematic for a few reasons.

First, there is a lack of research and information about what is non-western and how it can be applied in local contexts. Just like there are prominent classical thinkers like Hobbes and Machiavelli in the west, the non-west has its own, like Sun Tzu, Kautilya and Confucius (Acharya and Buzan, 2007). However, since a lot of the research that exists has been done through a western lens, the point of the exercise is lost. For instance, suzerainty is considered to be a non-western conception emerged out of Imperial China. It is defined in the oxford dictionary as ‘a position of control by a sovereign or state over another state that is internally autonomous’. One only needs to look at the history of Imperial China to understand why this definition is west centric. In early Imperial China, the king never felt the need to define exactly the extent of his rule or authority. The ideology was that he was the rightful ruler of the entire realm of men. There were several polities who largely took care of their own functioning while swearing allegiance to the emperor. Imperial China had no conception of sovereignty (Yang, 2017) and thus did not face the same extent of imagined threat that a lot of today’s sovereign states face today. This shows why research looking at non-western history through a western lens is a trap that needs to be avoided. 

However, despite the comprehensive arguments found in this paper, it is easy to problematize all that is western. Amartya Sen cautions against ‘praising an imagined insularity’ (of the non-western). ‘Given the cultural and intellectual interconnections in world history’, he writes, ‘the question of what is ‘‘Western’’ and what is not would be hard to decide’ (2007). Decolonising thought should not mean easternisation, it should be about being more cognizant of history and context without dismissing the positive attributes of western ways of thinking simply because they are western. This radicalisation of the decolonisation effort is the second problem that could hinder progress.

Lastly, the current international order is western to its core. Even in its name, the UN accepts nation states as the fundamental and only way of being. Decolonising the international order to make it open to non-western ways of thinking will be even harder especially considering the west’s domination of decision making within the order. However, this would help in implementing an alternative to, or fixing representative democracy in Sri Lanka. An external force could counteract the inertia of the internal politics in Sri Lanka. The majority will not give up their privilege until they are shown that the benefits outweigh the loss. One way to decolonise international order could be to view sovereignty as a spectrum (with different kinds and varying levels) instead of a binary so that there isn’t an obsession with categorizing polities as either sovereign or not. There was a significant stretch of time in the 26-year-long conflict where the LTTE was running a private government in the parts of the island it controlled, providing many essential services such as medical care. It also had its own TV networks, international business investments and garnered huge support in the diaspora (Bajoria, 2009). What is problematic is that all parties involved (the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE, and the international community) saw the problem and solution only in terms of the distribution of sovereignty. It is worth questioning if solutions were foregone because of this binary nature of sovereignty, that the international order holds so sacred.

The anti-muslim riots in 2018 make clear the risk of reoccurrence of an ethnically charged civil war in the island. The Black July anti-tamil pogrom was inflicted as a response to the terrorist attack that killed thirteen Sinhalese soldiers (Obrian, 2012). Now, all the evidence points towards an escalation of the situation into a reoccurrence of this cyclical violence with Muslims in the country. ISIS, the radical Islamic terrorist group, has also made its presence known in the country through a series of bomb blasts. As long as the island’s people and its government remains entrenched in the colonial ideas of divisive ethnic identities, the system of representative democracy will encourage the use of fearmongering over the minorities in order to secure the majority votes. Therefore, despite all the hurdles that stand in the way of decolonising thought, it is an idea whose time has come. By analyzing the institutional and historical roots of the ethnic tensions, this paper provides a rationale for operating outside the western framework for anyone attempting to find solutions to the ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka.


Acharya, A., and B. Buzan. “Why Is There No Non-Western International Relations Theory? An Introduction.” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, vol. 7, no. 3, 2007, pp. 287–312., doi:10.1093/irap/lcm012.

Appadurai, Arjun. Fear of Small Numbers: an Essay on the Geography of Anger. Duke Univ. Press, 2007.

Bajoria, Jayshree. “The Sri Lankan Conflict.” Council on Foreign Relations, 18 May 2009, www.cfr.org/backgrounder/sri-lankan-conflict.

DeVotta, Neil. “Ethnolinguistic Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka.” Politics of Conflict and Peace in Sri Lanka, Edited by Sahadevan P, 2006, pp. 30–69., doi:10.7551/mitpress/2988.003.0007.

Horowitz, Donald L. “Ethnic Groups in Conflict.” University of California Press, 1985.

Obrian, Declan. “Sri Lanka, Ethnic Conflict, and the Rise of a Violent Secessionist Movement.” E-IR, 28 Nov. 2012, www.e-ir.info/2012/11/28/sri-lanka-ethnic-conflict-and-the-rise-of-a-violent-secessionist-movement/.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Peregrine, 1985.

Soherwordi, Syed Hussain Shaheed. “Construction of Tamil and Sinhalese Identities in Contemporary Sri Lanka.” Pakistan Horizon, vol. 63, no. 3, 2010, pp. 29–49. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24711006.

UN DP. “Human Development Indices and Indicators: 2018 Statistical Update.” Http://Hdr.undp.org, 2018, hdr.undp.org/sites/all/themes/hdr_theme/country-notes/LKA.pdf.

Vaithianathan, Navaratnam. The Fall and Rise of Tamil Nation. Kaanthalakam, 1991.

Wickramasinghe, Nira. “SRI LANKA’S CONFLICT: CULTURE AND LINEAGES OF THE PAST.” Journal of International Affairs, vol. 60, no. 1, 2006, pp. 107–124. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24358015.

Yang, Yonghong. Sovereignty in Chinas Perspective. PL Academic Research, 2017.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *