An ethnic conflict can be described as a conflict that takes place between ethnic groups commonly as a result of ethnic nationalism (Hogg & Vaughan, 2005). Ethnic conflicts are prevalent in about 47 countries around the world and more often they result into genocide and crimes against humanity. Factors that lead to ethnic conflicts are usually analyzed ad debated by sociologists and political scientists.
Ethnic conflicts are usually discussed under three schools of thought: primordialist, instrumentalist, and constructivist (Hogg & Vaughan, 2005). This paper seeks to identify the factors that cause and sustain the conflict between the Sri Lankan Tamil people and the Sinhalese people.
The paper will offer a brief description of the similarities and differences of the two ethnic groups, their social perceptions and cognition, conformity. The effects of the conflict and the social perceptions that need to be addressed will also be discussed.
The conflict between the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamil people
The Sinhalese are a majority ethnic group, native to the island of Sri Lanka where they constitute more than 70% of the population (Jayanntha, 2006). The Sinhalese people identify themselves based on their language, historical heritage ad religion (Karthigesu, 2007).
Majority of the Sinhalese people are Buddhists and a smaller percentage are Christians, of which a bigger proportion are Catholics. The Sinhalese people are usually found in the South, central, north central and western parts of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese have a rich cultural heritage that dates back to ancient times.
The Sri Lankan Tamil people (Ceylon Tamils) are a group of people who are native to the island of Sri Lanka (Jayanntha, 2006). Several studies have shown that the Sri Lankan Tamils have inhabited the Island of Sri Lanka for a very long time probably since the 2nd century BCE (Karthigesu, 2007).
The Sri Lankan Tamils are predominantly in the Northern Province, are in significant numbers in the Easter province and are minority in all other parts of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Tamil people account for about an eighth of the total population of Sri Lanka.
Just like the Sinhalese, the Tamils have a rich different cultural history. The Sri Lankan Tamils are predominantly Hindu with a considerable Christian populace. Even though the Tamils are linguistically and culturally distinct from the Sinhalese, genetic studies show that they are closely related (Jayanntha, 2006, p. 55).
The conflict between the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils is mainly due to political differences. Before the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in the 16th century the island had three kingdoms which included the Kotte Kingdom in the South West ruled by Sinhala kings and the Tamil Kingdom located in the Northeast (Karthigesu, 2007).
All the three kingdoms were invaded and controlled by the successive Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialists. The conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese is often blamed on the amalgamation of the three Kingdoms by the British in the year 1833 (Karthigesu, 2007). The unification resulted into people migrating to areas that were native to other ethnic groups.
History indicates that the Tamils were more aggressive and therefore many of them prospered in academics and held positions in government under the British rule. The clamor for independence by the Sri Lankan people saw the different ethnic groups working together based on agreements. With freedom in sight, the Sinhalese awakened the idea of Buddhist nationalism that propagated hatred to other religious groups.
The Sinhalese and the Tamils were fighting a joint war against the British but suspicion grew among the Tamils resulting into Tamil nationalism in the 1920s (Karthigesu, 2007). There were recurrent allegations of betrayal by Sinhala leaders.
Sri Lanka gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948 and this marked the beginning of the strained relationship between the two ethnic groups as the Sinhalese majority government moved quickly to implement policies that were perceived to be discriminatory by the Sri Lankan Tamils.
It’s important to note that the Sri Lankan Tamils are achievement focused, hardworking group of people and as a result they enjoyed a privileged position under the British rule (Jayanntha, 2006). The conflict between the two is partly sustained by different perceptions between the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sinhalese.
Majority of the Sinhalese believe that the Tamils were given more privileges under the British colonialism and following independence it’s necessary that the balance shifts to the Sinhalese Majority. Indeed the Tamils had a high status in the Sri Lankan Society where they had a significant influence on the economy, bureaucracy and the education system (Jayanntha, 2006). This has however diminished with the rise of other communities.
The Sinhalese majority government that was formed after independence formulated policies that were perceived to be discriminatory to the Tamil people. The first acts of violence were catalyzed by the passage of bill that made Sinhala to be the only official language of Sri Lanka (Karthigesu, 2007). The Tamils have thus insisted on a devolved form of government so that they be I control of their northern territory.
This has led to heightened tensions with violence and civil war breaking out between the two communities. The “Tamils believe that they are a harassed minority group who are victims of frequent communal violence and calculated acts of discrimination through policies” (Karthigesu, 2007, p. 68). Since independence there have been repeated acts of violence from either side.
This has led to the death of more than 70,000 people with thousands being displaced of which the majority are Sri Lankan Tamils. Several attempts at peace and compromise have not been successful as instances of human rights abuses through armed insurgency continue to be witnessed.
Armed groups such as liberation groups such as the liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) have insisted o a separate state for Tamil people (Karthigesu, 2007).
The concept of conformity and how it relates to the Sinhalese- Tamil ethnic conflict
The concept of conformity can be described as the reflection of a behavior that individuals assume in response to a perceived group pressure (Hogg & Vaughan, 2005). Conformity often influences social norms and can result into positive or negative effects depending on the situation. Usually people conform into groups to attain a sense of security.
There have been several instances where this concept has been applied in the ongoing conflict between e Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sinhalese. Tamil youth groups have formed armed liberation groups such as the liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) to fight for the rights of their community.
The Sinhalese majority government has also enacted new policies and changed others that were perceived to be discriminatory to try and appease the Sri Lankan Tamils. For instance, a policy that was enacted in the 70s to ensure more Sinhalese went to Universities in comparison to other groups has since been changed.
Relationship between Social Cognition and Social perceptions and how they apply to the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamil ethnic groups
Social cognition can be described as the general process by which human beings make sense out of a social situation and begin to interpret them (Hogg & Vaughan, 2005). Social cognition is thus identified as an important mediating factor for a certain social behavior. On the other had social perception can be described as the as the specific reason by which an individual infers on order to behave in a certain way.
Social perceptions and cognition are crucial factors in the determination of how human beings will interpret a situation and respond to it. They play an important role in the construction of reality (Hogg & Vaughan, 2005). Perception is usually subjective in the sense that it’s affected by an individual’s previous experience, expectations and personality. Social perceptions and cognition play out in the Sri Lankan Conflict.
As described above the Sinhalese have often believed that the more hardworking and achievement focused Tamils were favored during the British rule and therefore following independence it’s necessary that the balance shifts to the Sinhalese Majority. The Tamils on the other hand believe that they are victims of communal violence due to their persistence and peaceful demand for their rights.
Conclusion and recommendations
This paper sought to identify the factors that cause and sustain the conflict between the Sri Lankan Tamil and the Sinhalese people. The paper has given a brief description of the similarities and differences of the two ethnic groups, their social perceptions, cognition and conformity.
It has been established that the Sri Lankan ethic conflict was born out of the decision by the government to deliberately discriminate the minority Tamils through unpopular policies. Tension and violence has persisted even after the policies were reversed and new ones formulated.
The conflict has been prolonged to the extent that nothing less than separation can be done to change the perceptions. Therefore as the parties try to resolve the situation and reach a compromise, separation should be considered as one of the solutions.
Hogg, M., & Vaughan, G. (2005). Social psychology. Harlow: Prentice Hall.
Jayanntha, D. (2006). Electoral Allegiance in Sri Lanka. London: Cambridge University Press.
Karthigesu, S. (2007). Sri Lankan Tamil Society and Politics. Canada: Ryerson University.