20 May, 2022


Understanding The Causes Of The Sinhala-Muslim Conflict In Sri Lanka

By Tilak Samaranayaka

Tilak Samaranayaka

There have been several articles in the print media and in a few internet sites expressing views about the on-going conflict between the Sinhalese Buddhist organizations and Muslims over a number of issues, including the issue of Halal certification of consumer products. Most views expressed on this issue were sympathetic towards Muslims and, importantly, a number of these articles were from Sinhala writers. Using Dammaphada, Buddhist principles, and the Buddhist way of life, they have emphasized the need for a tolerant approach to this issue. At the same time, some have strongly criticized Buddhist monks and Buddhist organizations such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) for carrying out protests against the growing influence of Muslims within the Sinhala community and its culture and religion. The BBS in particular is being accused of creating disharmony by promoting extreme views and hate campaigns against Muslims.

The articles that were very critical about the actions of the BBS attracted abusive and very derogatory comments from some readers, including those with Sinhala names. Most of these comments were in response to articles that appeared on some news sites that very heavily defended Muslims and their rights, while discrediting BBS and other Buddhist organizations for their role in the conflict. Among the Sinhala writers supporting Muslims on this issue, the focus is primarily on the need to follow a Buddhist way of life as described by Dhammapada and other writings on Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy.

The argument that we should follow Buddhist principles and live accordingly has no relevance when there are two sides to a problem. In fact, we are dealing with real people and real issues, and these issues involve two cultures, two religions, two languages, and two different life styles. Religion, cultural practices, and social values of Muslims are poles apart when compared with the Sinhalese.  It is an absurd assumption to accept that by living according to Buddhist principles, these problems can be automatically solved. It is very unfair to suggest that only the Sinhalese should sacrifice their rights and values and provide a solution to this problem. Since the Sinhalese are beginning to take action to protect their culture, religion, and fundamental rights, they are branded as ‘extremists’.

In any event, it may be possible to advocate a more tolerant approach acceptable to both sides. If we are to solve this issue amicably, we must all understand the root cause of the conflict, and then deal with them in a way that the solution will not adversely affect one party more than the other.  Since we have been informed in detail about the Muslims concerns, my objective is to highlight some of the long-standing issues and concerns of the Sinhala community so that it is possible to look at both sides of the problem more objectively.

Muslims live everywhere in the country. In some regions, there are more Muslims than the Sinhalese. They not only live with the Sinhalese, but also carry out most of their economic activities with the Sinhalese and supported by them. Furthermore, they practice their religion the way they want despite the inconvenience caused by their religious practices to others living in the area.  Evidence that the Sinhalese are a tolerant community is that they allow Muslims in their neighbourhoods, contribute to their economic base, and allow their religion to practice. This does not mean, however, that there is no limit to their tolerance. Can the Muslims be considered a tolerant community, if they are placed in the same context?

Muslims are a community living within a community. They never participate in any social or community activity. Their participation in any sport in the country is practically non-existent. There are no cultural or religious links between the Sinhalese and the Muslims.  Although Muslims live with the majority Sinhala population –practically everywhere in the country—most  Muslims cannot even speak the language of the majority in the country. It is even difficult to know how many are familiar with the national anthem of the country.

The growth and distribution of the population is one of the key issues that often come up when talking about Muslims. The belief that Muslims are reproducing much faster than that of the other communities is common among the Sinhalese. This is one of the key issues of this conflict.

According to the preliminary reports available from the 2011 Census of Population, Sri Lanka recorded a total population of 20.3 million in 2011. Out of this total, the Sinhalese accounted for 15.2 million, Sri Lankan Tamils 2.3 million, and Muslims 1.9 million. As a percentage, the three ethnic groups accounted for 74.9%, 10.8%, and 9.2% respectively.

The increase in population between 1981 and 2011 has been 7.1 million. Of this, the Sinhalese accounted for 4.3 million while Muslims accounted for 1.0 million. However, the difference in the average growth rates of the two groups clearly highlights one of the major causes for perceived threats by the Sinhalese from the expanding Muslim population. During the thirty-year period from 1981 to 2011, the average growth rate of the Sinhalese has been 0.94% compared with 1.8% growth rate of Muslims. Over the next 25 years, the Muslim population is likely to reach over 5 million, more than double the 2011 population, with the Sinhalese population increasing to about 19 million. With a projected total population of about 27 million by 2040, the share of the Muslim population will increase to over 18% while the share of the Sinhalese will decline to 70%.

The rapid increase in population in one community compared with other communities creates not only an imbalance in the composition of population, but also a significant misallocation of resources. To meet this future Muslim population growth, scarce resources will need to be allocated for food production, health services, housing, education, and various other social services. In addition, the increase in population will also need more land to build schools, to expand infrastructure facilities for trading and other activities, and to put up more mosques. The latter need arises because the increasing population and mosques always go together. In a country where scarcity of land is a critical issue, the demand for additional land that results from excessive growth of population among the Muslims will make the issue even more critical.

In absolute terms, a zero growth of population does not add to the existing population, but as the growth rate increases, the population will also increase by an increasing rate. This can be seen clearly from the difference in growth of population of the two communities.

Sri Lanka is one of the countries in the world with a relatively high population. Its current population density is 323 per square kilometre and, in terms of average population density, Sri Lanka ranks twenty-third position in descending order in the world, which consists of 192 countries. This means that only 22 countries in the world that have a population density greater than Sri Lanka.

The rapid increase in population also increases the base population as well as the female population in the child-bearing age group. All these factors will contribute to a further widening in the gap in the composition of Sinhala and Muslim population. This can be clearly seen from the sharp increase in the ratio of Muslims to Sinhalese over the years. In 1981, for example, there were 7.8 Muslims per 100 Sinhalese and, in 2011, this number has jumped to 12.3 per 100 Sinhalese. At the current growth rate, the number of Muslims per 100 Sinhalese is projected to double to 26.3 persons by 2040. It was during the 1981 and 2011 period that the population increase among Muslims became quite visible because of the sharp decline in population growth of the Sinhalese.

Another issue that comes up frequently from the Buddhists is the conversion of Sinhala Buddhists into Islam. The Census and Statistics data also give ample evidence to support this belief. In 2011, for example, there were 101,319 non-Muslims practicing Islam in the country. This number in 1981 was 65,755. Accordingly, another 35,000 non-Muslims have become followers of Islam since1981. This can only happen from conversion of non- Muslims into Islam, and it is quite possible that  almost the entire number of non-Muslim followers of Islam could be Sinhalese. This practice started with the first settlements of Muslims in the Eastern Province where there are still Muslims with traditional Sinhala names. Although so many Sinhalese have been converted into Islam, it is difficult to find the reverse with Muslims converting to Buddhism over the last three hundred years of Muslim settlements in Sri Lanka.

The Sinhalese are also living with two other communities in the country: Sri Lanka Tamils and Indian Tamils. Although an emerging conflict between the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils was evident since the 1950s, which later became a bloody conflict causing more than 70,000 deaths on both sides, its foundation was largely political. There is no animosity between an average Sinhalese and an average Tamil. The two communities share  long standing  social and cultural links, and have common cultural and social customs. The relationship between the Sinhalese and the Tamils soured during the 1983 July disturbance,  it is gradually improving since 2009.

Although an increase of 1.7 million has been recorded under Sri Lankan Tamils in the 2011 Census, it cannot be considered as a net gain because the coverage of the 1981 census was limited to few parts of the Northern Province due to the ethnic conflict that was emerging in the North at that time. Therefore, the 2011 census does not give a clear picture of the increase in the Sri Lankan Tamil population. It is, however, believed that the growth of population of the Sri Lankan Tamils is quite comparable with the Sinhalese. Although the size of the Indian Tamils was quite close to the size of the Muslim population in 1981, they added only 92,000 over the 30-year period compared with one million by the Muslims.

The ongoing conflicts throughout the world are either directly or indirectly related to Muslims whose ideologies are based on the rigid form of Islam. This is giving rise to ultra-national groups in some countries to strengthen their power base. In France for example, the last presidential election polled 20% to the Le Pen party, which campaigned on a platform against Muslim immigration. They are confident that within 10 years they will capture the power, which will allow the party to further their agenda of limiting immigration of Muslims into France.  The former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the first Western leader to enforce a ban on burqas and niqabas (face veils) in France, but this decision was never challenged by any organization as a human rights violation. If, on the other hand, a country like Sri Lanka introduces a similar rule, there will certainly be a lot of criticisms and protests from the local Muslim community, branding it as a human rights violation. In Netherlands too, there is growing resentment to Muslim immigration in that country.

The wearing of burqas and niqabas is not a universal practice among Muslims. Even in traditional Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, and Turkey, these practices are not compulsory and there are many women that wear normal dresses without burqas or niqabas. According to some Muslims, these are not the practices of Islam. Muslims must also understand the implications of these on themselves because wearing of these articles make them more conspicuous in a crowd, inviting undue attention from troublemakers.

The importance of religious tolerance in a country where there are followers of different religions is also an issue that needs serious consideration. Muslims appear to be pushing their boundaries beyond the limit and this may be because they expect other Muslim nations will influence the government of Sri Lanka for favourable outcome for the Muslims demands. Some are arguing that because Pakistan and some other Muslim countries supported the Sri Lankan government at the UNCHR resolution, these countries should advise the Sri Lankan government to ban Buddhists organizations that oppose certain Muslim practices.

It is a terrible mistake for another country to intervene in Sri Lanka’s domestic issues. Although there are many Muslim countries openly abuse some minorities, including Buddhists, the Sri Lankan government has not adopted the practice of intervention into the affairs of other countries. By considering their human rights records, it is difficult to find a single country that could take up this issue with the Sri Lankan government.

Every conflict is based on some issue and it is this issue, whether it is social, religious, personal, or communal, that eventually becomes the source of a particular conflict. A solution to any such conflict needs a correct understanding of the causes that lead  to the conflict, without thrashing one side of the conflict while sympathising with the other.  Unfortunately, almost 90% of the articles written by various writers on this subject are doing just that.

In this article, I have highlighted the main arguments of the other side of the conflict, and they are not based on extreme views, but on established facts. If this conflict is not changing its form and magnitude overtime, then it is possible to continue with the tolerant approach, as suggested by many writers on this issue, since it does not have any long-term implications. Unfortunately, it is a dynamic problem because it changes its composition, form and magnitude overtime with the changes of the factors that contribute to the conflict.

If both communities are determined to live together in harmony, it is important that Muslims also accommodate the values and the rights of the Sinhalese community. Ethnic conflicts often arise in countries when the boundaries that normally exist among different ethnic groups are pushed beyond the limit, and this is the key factor in the Sinhala-Muslim conflict in Sri Lanka as well. The Sinhalese feel that they have been pushed beyond the tolerant level by the activities of the Muslims. Unless the concerns of both parties are treated equally, with a view to finding a long-term solution, this conflict could be vastly different from its current form and dimension in a few years’ time.

 *Tilak Samaranayaka is an economist currently living in Australia

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Population: Census expert disputes anti-Muslim claim – The Island 19.03.2013
    I am sending you the article in the Island on the increase of population.
    The Island News is below
    Population: Census expert disputes anti-Muslim claim
    March 18, 2013, 10:29 pm
    by Dasun Edirisinghe
    A senior census and statistics official yesterday disputed a claim being propagated in the country that the Muslim population is likely exceed that of the majority community. The Sinhala population in the country is 74.9 per cent according to the Basic Population Information Report of the Census of Population and Housing 2011.
    Director, Population Census and Demography Division of the Department of Census and Statistics, Indu Bandara said that according to the 2011 census, the Muslim population was 9.2 per cent and the Sinhala population was 74.9 per cent. Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils were 11.2 and 4.2 per cent respectively.
    The census taken in 1981 showed that the Sinhalese accounted for 74 per cent of the population, Muslims 7 per cent, Sri Lankan Tamils 12.7 per cent and Indian Tamils 5.5 per cent.
    Answering a query, at a seminar held yesterday, at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute, Mrs. Bandara said that the Sinhala and Muslim populations had increased at the rate of 1.04 and 1.87 per cent respectively between 1981 and 2012, but it was not a threat to Sinhala people contrary to claims being made in some quarters to that effect.
    She said it was also false to state that the Muslim population was higher than the Sinhala population within the Colombo Municipal Council area.
    “There are divisional secretariats, Colombo, Timbirigasyaya I and Timbirigasyaya II, in the CMC area, but those reports were based only on the Colombo Divisional Secretary’s area,” Mrs. Bandara said.

    • 8

      Mrs. Bandara said that the Sinhala and Muslim populations had increased at the rate of 1.04 and 1.87 per cent respectively between 1981 and 2012, but it was not a threat to Sinhala people

      How can it be not be a threat to the Sinhalese when Muslims are doubling at twice the average? Especially given Sri Lanka’s high population density and relatively small land mass.

      Anyone can see the obvious result: the Muslims will become a majority. And then they will start demanding more rights, including political power.

      • 0


        “How can it be not be a threat to the Sinhalese when Muslims are doubling at twice the average?”

        Please refer to my comment above at

        Native Vedda – May 5, 2013
        3:26 pm

      • 6

        Census has told that it is not a threat. Muslims will never be a significant minority to reckon with. What is it that we are worried about. If there is a way out of this it is for the Sinhalese to increase the population which is not impossible. When there is a simple remedy why bother and talk at length. If every Sinhalese has one more child, I think the problem is solved. President can give an incentive to the Sinhalese. There is something called affirmative action if there is a perception of a serious threat to the Sinhala race. He gave an incentive to the forces, it will be good to find out the impact of that incentive.
        I wonder whether you have noticed that the Hindu population has drastically gone down.

      • 4

        Hey Lester its not the fault of the Muslims for your Singhala folks impotency & inability to produce children.

        • 8

          Only uneducated people with low IQ’s breed like rabbits.

          • 0

            YOU ARE “[Edited out]”.

          • 0

            Then you must have had a billion children

  • 2

    If this is the kind of thinkings and writings of Sri Lankans, may God save this country. We are a garbage lot who never have broader thinking, nor have learnt lessons from the past, are always carried away by false propogations, never able to understand the politicians’ games and hidden agendas & falling prey to their traps repeatedly. Wake up guys, shed your petty differences, think broadly, build up the nation and live your short life happily and usefully. Don’t be a goon sitting inside a room and waste time in writing garbages in the internet.

  • 2

    “If both communities are determined to live together in harmony, it is important that Muslims also accommodate the values and the rights of the Sinhalese community.”

    Are you mad? First of all not all Sinhalese people are Buddhist- ‘Sinhalese’ is race GENIUS, ‘Muslim’ is not- so if you are going to be a racist, at least be good at it.

    “If a Sinhala-Buddhist goes to Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or Malaysia and demands those governments issue licenses for specially cooked meat, he/she will be laughed at on the next plane back to BIA.”

    Again -GENIUS- a Sinhala Buddhist, and hey, I’m just guessing here – would probably not be a CITIZEN OF ANY OF THOSE COUNTRIES (save perhaps for Malaysia- but then WHY (!!) Sinhala man/woman have you turned your back on your Motherland? – were you SO TIRED of being discriminated against as the VAST MAJORITY of your own country?)

    Either way the Muslims who would prefer to eat Halal food are in face SRI LANKAN CITIZENS and have as much right to live in A COUNTRY THAT THEY SHARE WITH YOU any way they please- you would be laughed out of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and told to go home- HEADS UP GENIUS- the Sri Lankan Muslims ARE AT HOME.

    And speaking of Sinhala-Buddhist rights- The CONSITUTUION of Sri Lanka states:
    “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14”

    Buddhism and Buddhists are given the FOREMOST PLACE in our society-
    this means GENIUS, that the the values and the rights of the Sinhalese community (and by “Sinhalese’ you obviously mean Buddhist- thus conveniently discarding Sinhalese people of other religions) are put above everybody else.

    As a Sri Lankan citizen and a Muslim shouldn’t this tick me off? Does this not infringe on my human rights and my rights as a citizen? Muslims, Christians and Hindus’s have been nothing BUT accommodating about being Sri Lankan citizens in a country where the majority of the population is Buddhist-

    if your populations ‘projections’ ( i.e.: racist, fear-mongering extrapolations) do in fact turn out to come true, if your worst most fear inducing nightmares come to life, Buddhists will still make up 70 PER CENT OF THE COUNTRY-

    I mean seriously, SERIOUSLY, if you are still insecure about your numbers about the Sinhala-Buddhist place and value in our society-

    after all the wonderful Poya Days, Vesaks, Peraharas’s, Buddhist Temples, Buddhist Centers, (and maybe not so wonderful)BUDDHIST PRESIDENTS, after ALL of this, and despite a so-called ‘Muslim baby boom’, the FACT that you still make up WELL over half the population of an ENTIRE COUNTRY

    -if you are still insecure, then you will never be secure about anything- please take your facts and shove them.

  • 5

    Hi All

    Aren’t we all forgetting that we all are Sri Lankans before we tag our selves as Sinhala, Muslim, Hindu and Christians? I am always proud of my self to say I am a sri Lankan. Even though I am a Muslim, I never felt as a minority since recently. I went to a Buddhist school and most of my friends are Sinhalese. We are like a family. Its sad to see what’s happening to my country.

    I will not stand any one letting down my country or it’s peace. Let it be a Muslim or a Sinhalese. I am a Sri Lankan citizen and I have all the rights like the rest living in this country. We are a proud nation. So lets not destroy that with petty thoughts.

    It’s time we hold hands and build our country.


  • 4

    The plain truth……… Buddhist does not own Sri Lanka.

    If we go back to the history, it is very clear evidence that Sri Lanka was not a buddhist country at all. It was converted to a buddhist country by few extremist buddhist rulers. where did buddhism came… I guess it was adopted by Hinduism. So in this case even in India people were converted, not the origin. It was a co product…….

    Why it was very popular at that time because Gautham was against the caste system and for low caste people he was a hero. They start worshiping him as an gratitude. Even today we see people worshiping with flowers and try ….. not following his Dharma……….. Example, The cow was worship by the hindus and they drink and eat the cow dung. We still see the same in Buddhist beliefs….. Some Hindu scholars believes that buddhism is a copycat of Hinduism… thats why the buddhist and the Hindu both can’t get along with past present and future.

    What hindu and buddhist beliefs, is that the human orgin start because of the original sin ( Karma ). So your life circle will continue till you get in to Nirwana. Existence of God is nil, but none of the scripture says that there is no God. Gautham was very clever, because if someone ask to prove there is no God, he could not, neither he could not prove the existence of God, so he was silence…. so this is why people call Buddhism as an agnostic religion. Furthermore, at his time polytheism was very much prevail in the land. Cow,Elephant,Trees, Sun, Moon, Music and statues were very much popular among Idol Worshipers. Still you could see such example, Surya Mangalya, Poson Poya, Statues of Gautham, Cow and the elephant.

    What is the solution in buddhism for the sri lankan people or the buddhist people is nothing. The economy is collapse, according to one of the financial report we are debt for over Rs. 6,400 Billion. Majority of the people fight and been killed for a pride which was never been there in the first place. Look at the Sigiriya. What is their to learn. Strip half naked lady……. Take a look at Vijaya…. and his 700 crew. They were the worst people among India and the father kick out of the country, because he could not tolerate any more. After he came and married to Kuwani he been bless with two children. Then he kicked out kuwani and two children and he brought an indian quine and get married. One of his brother in law name was Anurada and the city of Anuradhapura and still stand as a evidence.

    So before throwing stone for the other culture, remember you are living in a very small glass house. As long as the fools are there, you can build up stories about your self. But people who know the truth, can laugh for life long.

    If buddhist can allow buddhist girl who studied in a buddhist school to represent and be half naked front of all so that she can bring miss world glory to Sri Lanka. What a pride………….what is the problem you have with the muslim girls covering their body.

    Stop dividing the unity among all and start respecting all religious belief. All what you wrote is based on your assumption. I wrote very little, and it is 100% truth.

    • 5

      Hello, if the Buddhist does not own are that Muslims who owns it. Muslims get down to this ungrateful behaviour as usual. You know that how much your are kind, you can not sleep with a mad dog. Islam is originally a peace breaking religion. Killing, fighting, terror and hatred are the mostly found words in their socalled holy book. Nobaody can expect justice from Muslims. Look at the world, everycountry is suffering from this Muslin menace. If you give food to a dog, it will not bite you. But never expect that quality from Muslims.

  • 2

    so there are problems of this nature as pointed out by the author.we can keep on elaborating and argue at length. so what is the solution? attack the muslims, burn their mosques, shops and properties and make them refugies; allow 50 odd muslim countries to issue statements and intervene on behalf of the muslims. use the same terrorist methods to solve the problem against which you fought for 3 decades and justify it by the arguments put forward by the author.
    i can remember this type of psudo arguments were put forward after 1983 riots.
    author, see what happened now in june 2014 at aluthgama and surroundings. do you say that you can justify the shameful attacks on innocent people for the reasons stated by you.

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