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  • Sri Lanka: Surviving Ethnic Strife
  • K.M. de Silva (bio)

When Sri Lanka—or Ceylon, as it was then called—gained its independence from Britain in 1947–48, it was hailed as the “model colony” that had negotiated a peaceful passage out of colonial rule in a region still suffering from the shock of the bloody partition of India and Pakistan and the civil war in Burma. Today, this 66,000-square-kilometer island just 40 miles off the southeastern tip of the Indian subcontinent is better known for the destructive effects of prolonged ethnic conflict, though it remains a functioning democracy and one of the few postcolonial states with an unbroken record of democratic rule.

The island has three distinct “ethnic” groups, the Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims, and adherents of three of the world’s other major religions besides Islam, namely Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. The Sinhalese, who make up almost three-quarters of the total population of about 18 million, are concentrated in the southern, western, and central parts of the island. Most Sinhalese are Buddhists; all told, these account for two-thirds of the total population. There are two distinct Tamil groups, the Sri Lanka Tamils (12 percent) and the Indian Tamils (5 percent). The latter are descended mainly from plantation workers whom the British brought to the island in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and who now live mostly in the central hills. About two-thirds of the Sri Lanka Tamils live in the drier northern and eastern parts of the island, with the rest residing in the predominantly Sinhalese-populated areas.

Despite being in the majority on the island itself, the Sinhalese are all too conscious of being a minority vis-à-vis the Tamils of southern [End Page 97] India and Sri Lanka taken together. The Indian state of Tamil Nadu, located across the Palk Strait from Sri Lanka, is an important center of Tamil separatist sentiment within India. Although Sri Lanka’s Muslims are mostly Tamil-speaking, they regard themselves as distinct by virtue of their religion. The division between the two groups is seen at its sharpest in the eastern part of the island, where more than 30 percent of the Muslims are concentrated.

The pattern of population distribution has had profound consequences. While the fate of parties at general elections is determined largely in the Sinhalese areas, the Tamils have contributed to their own discomfiture by adhering to regionally based ethnic parties since independence. The Muslims largely avoided this mistake, at least until the late 1980s.

While the virulence of ethnic conflict in recent years is of course an essential part of the story, Sri Lanka also provides a superb example of how democracy can survive under almost impossible conditions, including intervention by its giant neighbor to the north. 1 After covertly supporting Tamil separatists for a time, India in 1987 sent in the so-called Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to mediate the conflict. The IPKF remained in the north and east of the island for a little over two and a half years. 2 Its presence provoked a massive backlash of Sinhalese-nationalist sentiment and the second phase in the violent career of the ultraleftist People’s Liberation Front (JVP), whose combination of Marxism and Sinhalese nationalism and penchant for violence bring to mind Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and Peru’s Shining Path. 3 On the Tamil-separatist side were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), just as fanatically committed to a particular authoritarian agenda as the JVP and just as strongly nationalist. The Tamil Tigers’ compulsive resort to terror has earned them, too, a justifiable comparison to the Khmer Rouge.

Faced with these twin threats, the Sri Lankan government had no choice but to resist or succumb. Eventually, it defeated the JVP. The LTTE has presented a more difficult challenge. Kept at bay from the mid-1980s on, in late 1995 and early 1996 the LTTE saw its main stronghold at the island’s northern tip fall to the Sri Lankan army. But that is not and will not be the end of the story.

The loss of life in these conflicts has been extraordinarily high...

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pp. 97-111
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