Sri Lanka Elects: The Role of Ethnic and Religious Tensions

Briefing Note

Sri Lanka Elects: The Role of Ethnic and Religious Tensions

14 Aug 2015

Sri Lanka's parliamentary elections are on 17 August 2015. The country's legacy of ethnic and religious conflict will influence voters' actions. Religion & Geopolitics discusses previous attempts to build peace.

Sri Lanka is approaching a second set of elections this year. The first, in January 2015, resulted in the surprise unseating of incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa by his former ally Maithripala Sirisena. Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Freedom Party is contesting parliamentary elections on 17 August hoping to return him to power as prime minister. To better understand the dynamics of these elections, it is necessary to look at Sri Lanka's vibrant ethnic and religious diversity, and the conflicts and tensions that have arisen from it.

Religion was an important part of the civil war between 1983 and 2009. This was not strictly a religious conflict, but the close link between religion and ethnicity (the Hindu Tamil versus Buddhist Sinhalese) made religious targets, including temples and shrines, appealing. The conflict then became more complicated as Muslim and Christian communities, which make up approximately 18 per cent of the population, split 9 per cent each, were caught up in the violence.

The first signs of unrest came in 1948, following Ceylon's independence from the United Kingdom. The newly formed government was led by the Sinhalese dominated United National Party (UNP) led by Don Stephen Senanayke, under whom the Indian Tamil plantation workers felt disenfranchised and many of them were denied the rights of citizenship

In 1956 Solomon Bandarnaike came to power on a wave of Sinhalese nationalism with his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The SLFP made Sinhala, rather than ethnic-neutral English, the national language by way of the Sinhala Only Act, and promoted policies that further disenfranchised the Tamil minority, including increased restrictions on Tamil access to citizenship.

The religious demographics are also important when looking at the history behind the role of religion in the Sri Lankan conflict. Estimates generally state that Sinhalese Buddhists make up approximately 74 per cent of the national population. The Tamil minority is divided ethnically between Tamils of Sri Lankan descent (4 to 12 per cent) and Tamils of Indian decent, who were brought from the mainland to work on plantations during British rule.

Religion was an important part of the civil war between 1983 and 2009.

The promotion of Sinhalese identity—religion, culture, and language— was seen as a driving force for Tamil grievances, and the nationalist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which formed in 1976, responded with terrorist attacks and launched an insurgency. The government also adopted a new constitution in 1972, which gave priority to Buddhism (without making it an official state religion), and gave constitutional protection to Sinhala as the official language. Buddhism was introduced as the country's official religion in 1972. 

The civil war ended on 19 May 2009 when the Tamil Tiger rebels conceded defeat. This followed the breakdown of a ceasefire in 2008 and the crackdown between 2007 and 2008 of international financial and arms smuggling networks to the Tamil Tigers, increasingly isolating them in their northern strongholds until the military was finally able to capture Kilinochchi, which the Tamils had claimed as their capital.

Following the end of the war, Rajapaksa announced a ' Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission' that investigated the breakdown of the ceasefire in 2008. The Commission, which has been heavily criticised by international human rights organisations like Crisis Group and Amnesty International for a lack of independence and a narrow mandate, claimed that there were minimal civilian casualties caused by the military while Tamil rebels had little concern for civilian life.

Civil War Atrocities and Working Toward Peace

The 26-year civil war is estimated to have killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people, out of a population of nearly 21 million. Both the Tamil Tigers and the military are accused of war crimes, though the publication of a UN report on the subject has been delayed.

There have been periodic efforts to calm nationalist and religious tensions.

The government was accused of committing war crimes in its campaign against the LTTE, which has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union. Accusations have centred on the Sri Lankan military's deliberate shelling of civilians in which 40,000 people are believed to have died, according to the UN. The Tamil Tigers were also accused of war crimes, including the use of child soldiers, employing human shields, and the widespread use of suicide bombers.

Former president Rajapaksa and current president Sirisena have been accused of refusing to cooperate with the international inquiries into the conflict. Under both administrations however, there have been periodic efforts to calm nationalist and religious tensions and build peace.

Following the attacks by Buddhist nationalists on Muslims in Aluthgama and Beruwala, towns in southeastern Sri Lanka in 2014, President Rajapaksa committed to conducting an impartial enquiry into the attacks which saw four people killed, 80 injured, and over 10,000 displaced. Rajapaksa also pledged to help the affected communities by rebuilding homes and businesses. The former president blamed external agitators for the escalation of violence toward Muslims in the country. He said outsiders looked to create instability and derail the peace and reconciliation efforts that had been made in Sri Lanka.

In a 2014 speech released after holding talks Muslim leaders and parliamentarians, Rajapaksa called on all communities in Sri Lanka to "work toward building friendship and co-existence among communities," and that law enforcement officials should commit to rooting out racial and religious hatred, and instead help foster an "culture that respects and tolerates each other's views."

The world will once again watch the outcome of this election with interest, and the country will wait to see how the results will impact on their day to day lives, particularly through government action on reconciliation and religious freedom in their communities.


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