Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lanka Ethnic Conflict: Past And Future

By Imtiyaz Razak 

Dr. Imtiyaz Razak

On May 17, 2009 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the major Tamil resistance movement, admitted defeat in the war that was waged without any witnesses, but with the all blessings from the major global powers. The LTTE, which was the by product of the Sri Lanka’s Sinhala centric policies for political outbidding vowed to silence guns against the Sinhala-Buddhist state. On May 18, Sri Lanka security forces announced that the LTTE Chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed by Sri Lanka’s military in a firefight that signaled the effective end to one of Asia’s longest-running military conflicts. The war was waged with the promise of offering solutions to the Tamil national question, and thus there was and is a strong perception in the south of the country that Sri Lanka would embrace peace because the LTTE has been militarily defeated. This short article attempts to discuss some issues surrounding the symbols and also focus on how ethnic symbols are powerful and why they often become barriers to win peace when they are being politicised for war (by political forces).

Analytical Notes

Sri Lanka, which has been practicing democracy since 1931 (well before independence), now ranks as one of the poorest states in Asia and was notorious for the Tamil Tigers who were claimed to be a revolutionary product of the country’s seven decades old democracy. In other words, the competent political outbidding of Sinhala politicians on Sinhala-Buddhist emotions and symbols against the minorities, particularly the Tamils eventually produced a state-seeking violent Tamil resistance movement, which erased the country’s stunningly beautiful global image as a tropical paradise and made the country one of the most dangerous places on Earth to live in.

Democracy is a beautiful political way for political representation.  Such system in deeply divided societies can trigger dissonance and instability if politicians embrace irrationalised-emotional cards such as ethno-nationalism to win a political position. On the other hand, these symbols have a profound influence on the masses, who take political and religious sayings literally, particularly among economically and socially disadvantaged groups. Hence, when politicians employ symbols and myths, it is often with underlying political agendas, which serve to enable them to cling on to power without addressing other pressing socio-economic questions.

To induce people to make choices, political actors make use of existing or primordial identities of targeted groups such as language, mother-land, religion, ethnic values, national flag and food. The identity of the groups always matters and is sensitive because it shapes their decisions and existence. Thus, it is likely that groups would respond positively to the needs of political actors when the latter sympathetically plays politics on the formers’ identity. Moreover, these symbols often work well in non-peace situations. In other words, symbols generally speaking often work well among the not well-off sections of masses or in any tensed conditions such war against ethnic enemies.

These symbols, on the other hand, would induce the people to make choices and support hostility or war against the others who do not share their symbols or way of life. This is the bottom line of symbolic politics theory. The essence of this argument, people respond to the most emotionally driven appeals. Therefore, theoretically, we can define symbolic politics as a sort of political game by political elites and politicians on arousing emotions to win and hold a political power rather than educate the masses in a logical way to address the issues.

Symbols in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s Sinhala political establishment used Sinhala symbols in both war and peace with the LTTE. They were used and are being used to consolidate power of the Sinhala political class and to alienate the non-Sinhalese. In fact, the politicization of ethnic differences began in the 1950s.  Successive Sinhalese political parties formulated policies such as Sinhala Language Only in 1956.  This made Sinhala the only official language in the state and sharply discriminated against the Tamil speaking population.  Then an educational standardisation policy in 1972 allowed Sinhalese students to enter Science and Medical schools with lower scores than the Tamil students.  The Constitution of 1972 conferred special status to Buddhism both in the state and for the public.

Besides, peace packages of the successive Sinhala ruling class did not provide either genuine political autonomy, in clear political science language power-sharing democracy nor did they have the political guts or need to seek a solution beyond the current unitary state structure, which is one of the major symbols of the Sinhala nation. The regime, led by Mahinda Rajapaksa that came to power in 2005 by employing Sinhala symbols such as war against the LTTE and anti-peace slogans, successfully defeated the LTTE in May 2009 with the anti-Tamil statehood campaign and with the support of the global political, economic and military aid.

The global actors (like certain sections of Tamil moderates who directly or indirectly supported the war) assumed that the regime would deliver peace. But it is a plain fact that the regime in Colombo is not interested in building peace, and in fact, it is difficult for the regime to commence genuine peace when the Sinhala political elites had used the symbols in its war against the Tamils. The political elite may think it can retract its symbolic promises once in power. However, a recent study on Sri Lanka’s political outbidding strategies points that, when they have employed religion and/or ethnicity to maximize their votes or consolidate power, politicians find it next to impossible to backtrack on their divisive promises. And the same problem befalls their successors.

War is a powerful political game. It is a rational choice, because politicians/leaders plan well and take careful measures to implement it. Wars also need solid propaganda and marketing. Wars generally fail to win support if there is a lack of good propaganda and marketing. War becomes a part of symbolic politics when masses without any critical thinking respond to politicians’ call. Actually, war makes harder to negotiate peace, because symbols were being used for war against the others, and thus it would not provide any easy political space for politicians to use the same symbols to build peace.  Also, victims would not easily veil the ugly memories coming out of war. This is the result of politicisation of symbols.

In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala symbols (such as language, flag, and territory) were being politicised both for politics and war. Hence, politicians would find difficulties to fight the same symbols and to give justice to the ethnic others, particularly the Tamils after the war.  This explains the difficulties pertaining to winning peace under the Rajapaksa regime.

Evidence does not suggest that the Rajapaksa regime has the political will, or for that matter maturity to challenge symbols and to broker peace with the ethnic Tamil nation and minorities.  In actual fact, peace is a more serious business than war, and when divided and conflict-ridden societies represented by power-hunger elites who resort to symbols to cling to power, peace would face severe challenges. The fact is that ethnic reconciliation is a serious political exercise, and given Sri Lanka’s current political climate and inability to seek a political solution beyond the unitary state structure any hope for true reconciliation and evocative democratic practices will effectively wane.

One of the major challenges for ethnic reconciliation directly links with the war crime accusations targeted at the Sinhalese dominated security forces. The way the war had been fought by the Sinhala political and military establishment to defeat the LTTE triggered global concerns. The war won without witnesses and the Tamil deaths, including children, constituted some acts that can be safely cited to make a case for ethnic genocidal war against the Tamil nation.

It is also true, according to the existing reports on the  Sri Lanka war, the LTTE and its leaders committed some forms of horrible war crimes. Evidences suggest that during the last stage of the war the LTTE played a role as child catchers to fight the Sri Lanka forces. Moreover, there was a strong support among the Tamil diaspora for the LTTE. The Tamil diaspora did morally and financially supported the LTTE’s activities, including war. Actually, there was an opportunity for the Tamil diaspora to apply pressure on the LTTE to seek exit strategy to save innocent trapped Tamils, but influential  sections of Tamil diasporas did not show any serious interests in pushing the LTTE for negotiable end. It seems these elements within Tamil diaspora thought that the LTTE anyway would win war or the global actors apply pressure on Colombo which would lead to (1) save the top LTTE leadership and (2) win comprehensive political solution to the conflict.  This political miscalculations and naïve expectations from the Tamil diaspora, without seriously analyzing the global conditions, contributed to the lose of so many Tamil lives.

But evidences suggest that Sri Lanka security forces knowingly killed the Tamils in the war zone and the security forces got the order from the top (political and military hierarchy) to kill everyone, including Tamil civilians. Moreover, according to the International Crisis Group investigation, many thousands of Tamil people may have been killed in the so-called “No-Fire Zone” due to government fire “than previously estimated and targeted hospitals and humanitarian operations as part of their final onslaught on the rebel Tamil Tigers.”

The findings are very serious, and thus there must be global efforts to push for an impartial international investigation on this grave human slaughter allegedly committed by the security forces of Sri Lanka. On the other hand, State killing and war fades the prospect of ethnic reconciliation and peace between the Tamil-Sinhala nations, because they reveal the State’s nature and its desire to uphold Sinhala symbols and identity. Sri Lanka would not experience any serious ethnic reconciliation as long as (1) there are allegations of war crimes against the Tamil nation and (2) Sinhala elites constantly pursue hostile symbols for electoral and  war purposes.


As I often argue, the future for the island of Sri Lanka, however, offers three stark alternatives; (1) kill all remaining Tamils (another form of all out war against the Tamil nation) (2) power-sharing package and (3) partition.  As Chaim Kaufmann pointed out, “war itself destroys the possibilities for ethnic cooperation.” Hence, the first choice would not help ease the situation for better.  The second alternative is to find a solution that provides guarantees for security, stability and ethnic peace, which can be materialized in ethnically divided societies through restructuring the State system with power sharing (consociational democracy).  There should be a political appetite among masses for broader peace agendas. Importantly, there need to be a political regime to pursue peace. Propaganda and marketing not only need to launch war, but also to seek peace. Actually, more aggressive form of propaganda and marketing is needed to seek peace in society where symbols are sold to pursue war.

In fact, the military defeat of the LTTE provided opportunities to commence serious discussions on power-sharing with the Tamil nationalists. In actual fact, irrevocable power-sharing could strengthen Sri Lanka’s democracy, its war-ridden economy, and bring about religious and ethnic harmony.  But many Tamils both at home and abroad (Tamil Diaspora) are convinced that Sinhala political establishment would not offer any meaningful power-sharing democracy or federal system. The behavior of successive Sri Lankan Sinhala rulers correctly proves the Tamil conviction.

If there is resistance to offer power sharing, the third option is partition.  As I discussed in my research on ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, “partition experiences of Pakistan from India, Eritrea from Ethiopia, Bangladesh from West Pakistan, and Greeks from Turks on Cyprus all show that partition can be helpful, even if it is less than completely successful in terminating violence.” Moreover, the experiences of Kosovo and the South Sudan further validate the case for partition when ethnic nations refuse to live together.

It is not clear to what extent the developments of the past can help resolve the basic issue at stake: whether, federalism – as repeatedly asked for by the Tamil nationalists, Sinhala political elites will not go beyond the failed 13th Amendment. Then again, one would have to be a considerable optimist to believe that the global pressure will compel Sinhala ruling hard-line elites to change direction toward the Tamil question.

 (Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz’ research and teaching are mainly focused on ethnic politics. He has published widely in peer-reviewed international journals. He currently teaches at the Asian Studies/Department of Political Science, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA.

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