8 August, 2022


Is Sri Lanka At The Cusp Of A Second Ethnic Conflict?

By Sharmil Ghouse –

Sharmil Ghouse

Root causes and what can be done to change trajectory

The on-going sectarian violence is a result of frustrations that have been building over time boiling over. A few trigger points were required to bring the economically disenfranchised youth onto the roads. The extremely unfortunate death of a Sinhala youth, the Wandha Pethi saga and the recent election result which has been interpreted as a sign for the extremist Buddhists to take back control have all contributed to the tipping point. The rural Sinhalese youth are frustrated because they have very minimal economic opportunities. And they have been continually let down by successive corrupt and incompetent governments. The highly coordinated and organised way the riots are taking place suggests that these misguided youths are being strategically exploited by segments such as the BBS and the Mahason Balakaya to further their own divisive and bigoted goals.

For some time now, extremists on the Sinhala side have exploited social media to portray Sri Lankan Muslims as a conniving and deceitful group whose main aim is to turn Sri Lanka into an Arabesque state. What has compounded matters is the relatively recent transformation of Muslim attire across the group in general. From a Muslim perspective this transformation, where large swathes of Women are seeing donning a hijab or a niqab and Men sporting a long beard are viewed as a renaissance in faith and an upliftment in levels of spirituality towards their creator. In a liberal and progressive world such signs of outwardly devotion should be admired as a pursuit of religious liberty.

However, the dichotomy of Sri Lanka is such that there is a highly disproportionate number of people across all societal levels who take significant offense to this outwardly display of religious piety. Some see it as a regressive, impractical and non-contemporaneous mode of attire. The danger is when such views are extended to fuel racist and bigoted views which then turn militant where the economically disenfranchised youths take to violence. Therefore, Sri Lankan Muslims should be more cognisant of the social context and the potential pitfalls even though their intentions are purely religious in nature and with no ulterior motives.

Racism, prejudice and intolerance are certainly not unique social dimensions to Sri Lanka. However, what stands out is the sheer proportion of people with racists views who are likely to take to physical violence. Just look at the comments on the numerous Facebook threads and WhatsApp chat groups that call for violent action against Muslims. Most of the perpetrators are likely to be keyboard warriors, however, the profanities and language used provides a glimpse into their thinking and mindsets. The takeaway here is that Sri Lanka is a very polarised society with a very disproportionate number of racists who are willing to take to violence and where the fundamentals have not changed since ’83.

So how should we change these entrenched racist tendencies? This article proposes three solutions. The first solution is to eliminate the economic disenfranchisement by creating decent employment opportunities. It is a shame that successive Sri Lankan governments have been unable to create jobs in manufacturing at a scale comparable to the likes of Vietnam, Thailand or even Malaysia over the past three decades. Sri Lanka has also not been successful at creating the service oriented industries such as business process outsourcing at a level comparable to that of the Philippines. Without economic growth there will always be a frustrated undercurrent that will have a higher propensity to take to violence. And without transforming the education system it will be difficult to create the relevant skills that are necessary for manufacturing and service based industries.

The second solution is to create an environment and culture that values entrepreneurship. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the typical local University graduate would prefer the comfort and the benefits associated with a government job. Government jobs are not necessarily market driven, are highly inefficient and are typically packed with cronies affiliated with local or provincial governments. Instead school curricula must inculcate ideas of entrepreneurship that promotes the starting-up of businesses and risk taking. Sri Lankans in general are natural improvisers and therefore a business-centric education early on in life will foster a sense of self sufficient students who will not grow up to expect handouts. The imminent trends with the internet of things, artificial intelligence and the gig economy are convenient pathways for future generations of Sri Lankans to leapfrog the current infrastructure limitations.

The third and most important aspect to addressing the intrinsic racism and prejudices is to educate kids from a very young age to appreciate diversity, to respect religions and different thoughts and opinions and to indoctrinate ways to live in harmony. Here, Singapore is an immaculate example of the interventionist approach that has succeeded in creating a cohesive and diverse community in stark contrast to the Singapore that suffered considerable racial riots in the 60’s. All Singapore students from Primary 1 undertake the Character and Citizenship Education module that proactively aims to eliminate racial biases.

The first recommendation to drive macroeconomic growth will require competent and incorruptible governance. That is wishful thinking based on recent history. However, incorporating the second two recommendations into the schooling system is not something difficult to do. Implementing these simple steps will set the platform for a unified Sri Lanka to focus on economic development rather than to implode due to cultural and religious differences.

The recent riots are potentially a prelude of what is to come if we don’t change approach and is a result of the deep social divide that is a result of economically dissatisfied youth who expend their pent-up frustrations on a very visible Muslim community who have been negatively portrayed in social media circles.

The short-term solution is dependent on the vast majority of peace-loving and tolerant Sinhalese community taking a proactive approach to protect Muslims and their interests. This can be done by showing their solidarity with the Muslim community and by working hand-in-hand with the Temples, Police and the Armed Forces to clamp down when rioting occurs.

The Muslim community also needs to contextualise their resurgence in faith by calibrating their outwardly appearance to minimise negative sentiment especially across the sensitive masses. This writer continues to believe that Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese Buddhist country and with tolerance, understanding and respect all communities could live in harmony.

All Sri Lankan communities should work together to depoliticise the mechanisms at play where the primary objective is to spread discord to drive political advantages. The government should also work with the social media organisations to clamp down on the nefarious and racist social media campaigns whose primary objective is to exploit the current social divides.

I sincerely request all communities to stayaway from emotive, divisive rhetoric and actions of violence. Let’s work together to prevent the recurrence of a July ‘83 and the ensuing sectarian conflict that set back the country many years of progress!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 1

    Singapore is a recently made city state. they can not go along ethnic lines. Sri lanka is a Sinhala buddhist country that Tamils to destroy Sinhala Muslims votes Arabic, Islam, Hala, shariya, and Islamic marraige laws, full body covering cloths, salughtering Cattle and every animal available. Srilana books should have Sinhala Buddhist culture and not Alis and hindians and christians etc., I am sinhala but I don’t know sinhale history or kings. It is Tamils who taught that there is Mahavamsa. I heard JEsuits in Sri lanka singing Jaya Mangala Gatha and they want to destroy buddhism from within.

    • 4

      Jim jim

      Can you please hand over this terror ”gehni” to Police head quarters who was with you having kasippu so that went on attacking muslim’s house and looted to make pockets full…. see your budda gehni thugs poto.


    • 2

      You are not Sinhalese. You are here to do troll work, setting one Sri Lankan against the other. Whoever you are, shame on you and your evil anti Sri Lankan agenda.

  • 4

    This is a well written article Sharmil, kudos to you I believe you are a Muslim. A very diverse Muslim for that matter. I am a Sinhalese Buddhist who served in the military forces and migrated to Australia with my family after serving my country for 12 years. Looking at the societies here I can see even with 100% politically correct views forced upon people by law within these westernized societies there is a severe rejection towards the fully covered attire as you say. The general public’s view is, if you want to wear these and practice your religious this way why don’t you go back to some place where you can do all these things. You enjoy your freedom here on one hand and taking advantage of our generosity in a wrong way. I know these things as I work and talk with locals every day. What Sri Lanka’s minorities should realize is compared to these countries Sri Lanka was never an ethnically divided country and should not be in the future as well. As you said they should appreciate the fact that Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country with other religion’s have their place in the society as well. We should think as Sri Lankans first and according to your religious or ethnic lines second

    • 4

      What a load of gobbledegook. To begin with Sri Lanka came into being as a sovereign state only after independence from the invading British, prior to it this island of ours was composed of various kingdoms Tamils and Sinhalese alike. I had to make this point because the Sinhalese extremists always had the ‘majority’ mindset but did not bring it to the fore until after independence, as they were aware that it would not only torpedo or delay independence but would also result in territorial bifurcation as happened in India. Having obtained independence, Sinhalese politicians were outdoing each other at every election to appease these extremists by introducing the Sinhala only language act, Sinhalese colonisation in the eastern province, introducing constitution after constitution, turning a blind eye to ethnic riots against Tamils, ensuring that the armed forces were mono ethnic in character etc and further the cause of these extremists. It is such ethnically divisive political programmes that had brought tensions amongst communities and the thirty year old war that ended in 2009 was the direct consequence of it. There have been ethnic riots against the Tamils in post independent Sri Lanka, of which one can easily lose count. So to claim that Sri Lanka was never an ethnically divisive country is utterly untrue. Having said that, I like many others and your self included, would like to see this land of ours at permanent peace, and to achieve that noble aim we should openly admit that there are ‘serious issues or impediments’ that need to be addressed head on, without burying it under the carpet or wishing it to go away..

  • 5

    How about you talking about the systematic taking over by the cunning Muslims? You can bring about many phony arguments my friend…we are rising not because of stupid politicians playing games but the danger the country is in plain sight.. The marakkala wants to turn this country in to another Indonesia or Malaysia. Just speak the truth not bullshit..

    • 3

      Clearly an islamaphobe, showing hatred for Muslims, by ugly language, most probably easily brainwashed, and ignorant. Parents have not done a good job in the bringing up part.

  • 8

    Goodness me, I read this enlightened and insightful commentary by Mr Ghouse this morning and have re-read it. If our World Leaders took on and implemented some of his ideas and understanding, not only Sri Lanka but the world would be a better place. Education, understanding and listening to one another are the key. Wise parenting and good teaching will set our politicians the best of examples. Lead on Mr Ghost!

  • 4

    The first two points are plausible and achievable within a short circumscribed timeframe. However, the third point is rather cumbersome and futile. I say this because, the majority Sinhala community is chronically and hopelessly insecure to the core. Such feeling is not confined to the not-learned but also endemic within the learned fraternity of the Sinhala society. So, with this in mind, only option available is for the minorities to accept the superordination of the Sinhala Buddhists as enshrined in the constitution! This is the reality whether one likes it or not.

  • 4

    A well written article, with very good suggestions. I am also of the opinion, that unity, harmony, and tolerance, must be part of the education curriculum in all schools, from the inception. The minority in the country, are tired of being treated like transgressors, that they should adhere to the demands of Sinhalese extremists, and be grateful they are allowed to be here. One wonders where the minority is suppose to go.
    Perhaps that badly needed education at elementary level, would change that mind set, and there might be more hope for the next generation. Everyone knows this is a Buddhist nation, and these Sinhala mobs should realize that no minority group can ever take it over. There are busloads of extremist Sinhala mobs always waiting in the wings, for any small incident, to start their attacking, destroying, looting, burning, and will kill innocent people without hesitation. Whether it is road rage gone wrong, or a ball of flour, as we have seen these past few days, these mobs will take their frustrations, hate, and anger, totally against their own religion, and terrorize the minority without hesitation. Like the author, I fear a build up to ethnic conflict, or maybe another Myanmar. We already have a bunch of racist, saffron robed goons, leading the mobs, and poisoning minds with lies, and false claims of Muslims taking over.

  • 3


    I think your characterization of Sri Lanka as a Buddhist Sinhala nation itself rejects the equality principle. You cannot justify all the problems associated with the root cause of unemployment of Sinhalese youth in the rural areas. Unemployment of youth is not restricted to Sinhalese but also to the youths of Tamils of Srilankan and Indian origin,& Muslims. If you consider the indian origin tamils in this country they are the worst in terms of employment, income, housing, and other social indicators. You can simply say you can solve employment problem by taking this or that. What is the fundamental barrier to development of this country? Why couldn’t our political institutions could not develop this nation? Why couldn’t you take actions against corrupted or those who commit crimes? Why the law & order fail? Why the justice system fail. I am sure if you are a well educated rational human being you know the answer. But your background is the barrier to think beyond your fixed believes of Srilanka. The recent violence against Muslims are well planned by highly powerful personal not by ordinary unemployed youth. They may be used for this but the root is go to the top.

  • 3

    Sharmil Ghouse ~ “Is Sri Lanka At The Cusp Of A Second Ethnic Conflict?”
    No Shamil no no no.
    We have a war directed with military prowess. One ethnic group has been subdued. Time for the second. Coral the lot and then?
    Will we ever learn that the era of oppression is a goner?
    Shamil attributes our impasse to ~ “………….The rural Sinhalese youth are frustrated because they have very minimal economic opportunities…………”.
    In 1956 when “Sinhala Only” was enacted, a land of milk and honey was promised. Did it eventuate?
    Did the ‘standardisation’ of university entry help the rural youth?
    Did the 1972 constitution giving Buddhism the foremost place make any difference?
    We had the tradition rich and now we have nouveau riche – the latter feeding off the spoils of war.
    Shamil: The ethnic conflict is a smokescreen behind which are business interests.
    You must look a little beyond the horizon.
    The ‘Wanda Pethi’ is a canard yet none of our leaders have the courage to say so.
    You point out “……….extremists on the Sinhala side have exploited social media to portray Sri Lankan Muslims as a conniving and deceitful group whose main aim is to turn Sri Lanka into an Arabesque state…………”.
    In 1956 it was made out that the Tamils were conniving with impending Indian invasion!
    The recent SLPP success at the LG election was due to the use of the language/religion-divide.

  • 2

    The full abaya and veil is not Islam, it is plain Wahhabi/Salafism. Even Iran, being the theocratic madhouse that it is does not require the full veil, because they are Shia Muslims.
    Muslims aren’t a problem, Wahabbis and their sick ideology is. Everyone other than them is Kaffir, and you know what Allah orders these ‘righteous’ Muslims to do in response yes?

  • 1

    Education is the solution to all three “problems” identified above. The education systemin Sri Lanka has deteriated to the point where it is nearly worthless. The Government provided schools and teachers are not educating the students. Most atteand “tuition” classes to learn the material that should be taught in schools. Many school teachers treat the school as a source of students for tuition classes (which pays better than the schools). There is no incentive to teach at school. Children get left behind. The cycle continues.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.