Contemporary Ethnic Cleansing - 9
Sri Lanka’s ethno-religious conflict
Voice Of Times
The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has many root causes and consequences that are closely interlinked. Sri Lanka has long been subject to extremist violence with a long history of ethno-religious tragedies. It is primarily within the context of ethnic politics that language and education policy can be located. In general, these themes can be broadly identified as: Ethnic politics and the interpretation of the past, Politics of language, Politics of education, and employment and land.
Sri Lankan society is an ethno-religious mosaic and within the ethnic groups, there are clear religious divisions as well. To a certain extent, ethnicity and religion also have a regional basis, which is a significant reason why the Tamil militancy has a strong geographical dimension, which extended to the demand of a separate independent state. Of the ethnic and religious groups, Tamil Hindus predominate in the Northern Province and maintain a significant presence in the Eastern Province.
The Eastern Province is an ethnically mixed area where Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese are found in sizeable numbers even though Tamils have a slightly higher statistical edge. Tamils are concentrated in parts of the Central, Uwa and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. Sinhalese Buddhists predominate in all parts of the country except the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Muslims have a significant concentration in the Eastern Province, but generally are scattered throughout the country.
Christians maintain a significant presence in the coastal areas as a result of over 500 years of constant European colonial presence. However, Christians are found in all parts of the country in small numbers. Malays are mostly concentrated in and around the city of Colombo and the Western Province.
By the time Sri Lanka achieved independence in 1948 from the UK, there were expectations that the country would become a model democracy. However, even before independence, there were clear indications of ethnic politics that were to emerge later. One million Indian Tamils were disenfranchised in 1948 under the Ceylon Citizenship Act. Of this, approximately 350,000 were repatriated to India under the Indo-Ceylon Agreement of 1964. Over the years, subsequent governments conferred citizenship rights to the rest.
In addition to the barriers imposed by the continued use of the English language as the official language after independence, the emerging nationalist forces perceived that Sri Lankan Tamils had access to a disproportionate share of power as a consequence of educational opportunities in the colonial period and were also disproportionately represented in the civil administration. Moreover, considerable mercantile interests were also controlled by non-Sinhalese groups. These fears and concerns were a basis for the politics of language that was to emerge.
Ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka were high prior to independence in 1948, and stoked by the 1956 election of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party under Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike. Bandaranaike proclaimed himself "defender of the besieged Sinhalese culture", and oversaw the introduction of the Sinhala Only Act. The act privileged the country's majority Sinhalese population and their religion of Buddhism over the minority Hindu and Muslim Tamils. The fallout from this legislation forced Bandaranaike to backtrack, but he was assassinated in 1959 by an extremist Buddhist monk for doing so.
Inter-ethnic tensions continued with outbursts of mob violence. In 1962, there was an attempted military coup, and in 1964, around 600,000, 3rd and 4th generation "Indian" Tamils were forcibly removed to India. In 1972, and again in 1987, the predominantly Sinhalese Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party (JVP) launched insurrections that were bloodily suppressed. Clashes between Sinhalese and Tamils in 1983 led to an attack on a Sri Lankan army convoy. This sparked the "Black July" Sinhalese rampage against ethnic Tamils, leaving at least 3,000 dead and marking the start of the Inter-ethnic Civil War.
The war was noted for its bitterness, with the Tamil Tigers using suicide bombing as a tactical weapon, as well as for targeted political assassinations. India intervened in the war in 1987. In retribution, a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
Sri Lanka's Muslims are predominantly ethnic Tamils and make up about 10% of the population. However, they also have long been subject to Sinhalese persecution, with anti-Muslim riots dating back at least as far as the early 20th century. As the Tamil Tiger war progressed, Sinhalese Buddhism became more radicalised. Some Sinhalese claimed that all of Sri Lanka should be exclusively Buddhist. With the Tamil Tigers defeated, Sri Lanka's non-Buddhist communities were again persecuted. This culminated in 2013 with a Buddhist attack on a mosque. Anti-Muslim riots in 2014 resulted in a ten day state of emergency. Last year, there were more anti-Muslim riots. Buddhist monks have also disrupted Christian church services.
The Sri Lankan government has blamed recent attacks on the National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ), a radical Islamist group known for vandalising Buddhist statues. These attacks are different from previous ethno-religious violence in Sri Lanka. Recent attacks recalled Sri Lanka's ethnic civil war, fought between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) and the Sri Lanka government from 1983 until 2009. In its final weeks, around 40,000 mostly Tamil civilians were killed, bringing the war's total toll to more than 100,000 from a population of around 20 million. The Tamil Tigers were completely destroyed in 2009.
Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism has been the driver of much of this conflict. The Sri Lankan government was slow to release details of those believed responsible, as it knows ethnic and religious tensions are easy to spark. Identification of responsibility could well provide fuel for another round of inter-ethnic bloodletting. If NTJ links are proven, or if the more radical elements of the Buddhist community are persuaded by wider speculation, it is likely Sri Lanka's Tamil Muslims will bear the brunt of their reprisals.
A significant proportion of Muslims, that includes Sri Lankan Moors, Malays and other smaller religious sects like Bhoras and Khojas, live in the north and east, particularly the latter, where they constitute about a third of the population. The remaining Muslim community is dispersed throughout the urban centres of Sri Lanka. Muslims are also divided between mainly agriculturists living in the east, and traders who are dispersed across the island. Muslims speak both Tamil and Sinhalese depending on the area they live in. It is in this manner that Sri Lanka's wheel of ethno-religious conflict turns.
Avik Gangopadhyay, an author, critic and columnist, writes from Kolkata, India