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Tamilnation > Library > Eelam Section > From ethnic outbidding to ethnic conflict: the institutional bases for Sri Lanka's separatist war -  Neil Devotta


  • From ethnic outbidding to ethnic conflict:
    the institutional bases for Sri Lanka's separatist war 1

- Neil Devotta, Political Science Department, Hartwick College, Oneonta, NY 13820, USA - Courtesy:  Nations & Nationalism, Journal of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism  Vol. 11(1), 2005, 141-159, © ASEN

[See also - 1. Sinhala Buddhist Nationalist Ideology: Implications for Politics and Conflict Resolution in Sri Lanka - Neil Devotta, East West Centre, Washington Publication, 2007

2. Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka - Neil Devotta, Political Science Department, Hartwick College, Oneonta, NY 13820, USA ]

note by tamilnation.org - see also...

1. Neil Devotta - Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka (Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2004)

2. Sathasivam Krishnakumar,(Kittu)  Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, - Interview with Melbourne CR3 Radio, June 1991 - Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism has been institutionalised in Sri Lanka and today it has become more powerful than the politicians themselves. Indeed even if the Sinhala politicians seek to settle the conflict, Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism may try to prevent such a settlement. This is the political reality that those who are aware of the Sri Lankan situation are well aware of. This is the result of the grievous error committed by Sinhala politicians. In 1956 for the first time this 'communalism' was openly put forward for electoral gain. This Sinhala chauvinism which was nurtured by Sinhala politicians for their electoral advantage, has grown into a Frankenstein monster which now has the power to destroy and make politicians. This we understand very well..."

3. Professor Marshall Singer, at US Congress Committee on International Relations, November 14,1995  "...One of the essential elements that must be kept in mind in understanding the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict is that, since 1958 at least, every time Tamil politicians negotiated some sort of power-sharing deal with a Sinhalese government - regardless of which party was in power - the opposition Sinhalese party always claimed that the party in power had negotiated away too much. In almost every case - sometimes within days - the party in power backed down on the agreement..." and

4. Generally - Nadesan Satyendra A Record of Broken Pacts & Evasive Proposals

Abstract Introduction Conditions facilitating ethnic outbidding Competing theoretical approaches to explaining ethno-nationalism The institutionalist explanation The Sri Lankan case Linguistic nationalism and ethnic outbidding The Sinhala Only Act and its consequences Embedding outbidding Institutional decay and Tamil mobilisation Conclusion Notes


Beginning in the mid-1950s Sri Lanka's politicians from the majority Sinhalese community resorted to ethnic outbidding as a means to attain power and in doing so systematically marginalised the country's minority Tamils. This article consequently argues that institutional decay. which was produced by the dialectic between majority rule and ethnic outbidding, was what led to Tamil mobilisation and an ethnic conflict that has killed nearly 70.000 people over the past twenty years. It also analyses the influence informal societal pressures exerted on formal state institutions and how this contributed to institutional decay. Evaluating the relations that ensued between social organisations and the Sri Lankan state shows how institutions can prescribe actions and fashion motives even as it will make clear how the island's varied institutions generated a deadly political dynamic that eventually unleashed the ongoing civil war.


Beginning in the mid-1950s the majority Sinhalese community's politicians in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) embraced ethnic outbidding and in doing so laid the foundation for a gruesome civil war. This essay explains how 'institutional decay'.2 which was produced by the dialectic between majority rule and ethnic outbidding led the minority Tamils to mobilise politically and militarily and forge an ethnic conflict that has killed nearly 70.000 people over twenty years.

Racial or ethnic outbidding refers to the auction-like process wherein politicians create platforms and programmes to 'outbid' their opponents on the anti-minority stance adopted (Rabushka and Shepsle 1972; Horowitz 1985). Yet as Giovanni Sartori has observed, if `outbidding becomes the rule of the game', then `somebody is always prepared to offer more for less, and the bluff cannot be seen'. What thereafter ensues `is no longer a situation which allows the survival of a political system based on competitive principles. Beyond certain limits, the politics of over-promising and outbidding is the very negation of competitive politics' (1966: 158).

Outbidding stems from politicians' desire and determination to acquire and maintain power and may be practiced in varied contexts. Yet whenever it incorporates race or ethnicity it marginalises minority communities, exacerbates interracial or poly ethnic tensions, and undermines the state's ability to function dispassionately.

When a government in a poly ethnic state utterly disregards minorities' legitimate preferences and instead cavalierly institutes policies favouring a majority or other community- which is precisely what ethnic outbidding engenders, those marginalised lose confidence in the state's institutions. This could easily promote reactive nationalism among those disfavoured and create a milieu conducive to ethnic rivalry and conflict. As Jack Snyder has noted, ethnic nationalism is especially acute when extant `institutions are not fulfilling people's basic needs and when satisfactory alternative structures are not readily available- (1993: 12).

If the marginalised group is territorialised, and thereby has claims to a historical homeland, they could mobilise to seek a separate existence. This is indeed the setting for Sri Lanka's sad ethnic saga.

Sri Lanka is a polyethnic and multi-religious society. Its last all-island census conducted in 1981 placed the ethnic breakdown as follows: Sinhalese 74 per cent, Ceylon or Sri Lankan Tamils 12.7 per cent- Indian Tamils 7 per cent, Moors 7 per cent and others 0.6 per cent. The Sinhalese and Tamils had. in the main, coexisted amicably for over a millennium. including the period between 1505 and 1948 when the Portuguese- Dutch and British colonised the island. The country received universal franchise in 1931, though this heightened fears especially among the Tamils that the island's Sinhalese could use their superior numbers to disband the hitherto utilised communal representation system and dominate the political scene unfettered. Such fears led some Tamil elites to demand that the Sinhalese and minorities be provided equal representation, which led to a communal milieu especially during the 1930s and 1940s.

Some flimsy constitutional guarantees coupled with the commendable camaraderie enjoyed among Sinhalese and Tamil elites, however, enabled the groups to join forces and seek independence from the British in 1948. The extant interethnic elite confraternity notwithstanding, the population disparities, the lack of substantive minority guarantees and the first-past-the-post electoral system provided a political structure that made outbidding an enticing strategy, especially for those politicians relegated to the opposition. Thus ethnic outbidding was introduced into the political arena less than a decade after independence. The mechanism used to do so was the Sinhala language.3

Sinhalese and Tamils had grouped together to form a swabasha (self language) movement, which demanded that Sinhala and Tamil replace English as official languages.4 But with Sinhalese politicians controlling over eighty per cent of the parliamentary seats, many soon realised that there was nothing preventing Sinhalese elites from instituting Sinhala alone as the island's official language. This led the two main Sinhalese parties to outbid each other on who could provide the better deal for the Sinhalese community.

While it was linguistic nationalism that initially galvanised the outbidding process, the country's political parties have continued outbidding each other on various issues so that the practice is now embedded in the island's political culture (DeVotta 2003). Enforced over forty years, this outbidding phenomenon has severely undermined minority confidence in the country's institutions and is mainly responsible for Tamil extremists seeking a separate state.

The island's ferocious ethnic conflict notwithstanding, no substantive attempt has been made to explain the civil war from an institutionalist standpoint, and this is despite numerous political scientists emphasising that there exists a strong correlation between impartial institutions and polyethnic stability (Huntington 1968: Horowitz 1985; Snyder 2000). Otherwise noted, the more partial a polyethnic state's institutions are towards a particular community. the greater the chance for resentment among those disfavoured and, hence the more likely there is to be ethnic instability.

This essay thus uses an institutionalist analysis to argue that the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict is best explained by understanding the correlation between institutional decay and Tamil mobilisation. It also seeks to disabuse arguments that suggest that the island's discriminatory language policies are unrelated to the Tamil rebels' quest to form a separate state (Laitin 2000). Indeed, it was linguistic nationalism that was used as the mechanism to perpetrate institutional decay. Furthermore, the institutionalist explanation utilised evaluates the influence informal societal pressures exerted on formal state institutions and the negative implications this had for dispassionate governance. Finally. the essay reinforces how a political culture that eschews conciliation, accommodation and compromise (and instead tries to scapegoat its minorities through outbidding practices) can unleash adverse consequences.

Focusing on outbidding from an ethnic standpoint mandates that due attention be paid to politics and political elites, which most articles dealing with ethno nationalism usually tend not to do adequately.5 Given that this essay seeks to provide a causal explanation for Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict- it focuses on the island's ethnic politicking in the post-independence era. In doing so. it adopts a historical institutionalist perspective and comprises three main sections:

The first outlines the conditions promoting ethnic outbidding.

The second discusses the theoretical approaches that scholars generally resort to when explaining ethno-nationalism and argues that the institutionalist approach is generally more encompassing for this purpose. Here, given space constraints, I merely introduce the alternative approaches but elaborate on the institutionalist approach.

The third section details how and why outbidding was instituted in Sri Lanka, why this undermined Tamils' confidence in impartial institutional] sin. and the way such institutional decay eventually contributed toward ethnic conflict.

Conditions facilitating ethnic outbidding

Among the four most important conditions facilitating ethnic outbidding. the political structure is arguably the most important. for the subsequent three conditions - bad leaders, socio-economic grievances and territoriality - are influenced by what the political structure enables.

Thus, for example, a political structure that encouraged polyethnic coalitions would most likely elicit ethnic coexistence, while one that encouraged competition between ethnic parties would likely engender ethnic outbidding. This is because the former typically creates divisions that are ideological as opposed to being ethnic related. It is thus argued that interethnic groups should resort to vote-pooling (Horowitz 1991), since doing so usually encourages mutual dependence between polyethnic voters and politicians.

The obverse is to have one group solely create and institute the rules of the game and thereby entice 'communally based political entrepreneurs [to] seek to increase the salience of communal issues and then to outbid the ambiguous multiethnic coalition' (Rabushka and Shepsle 1972 83). What is even more dangerous is if the respective ethnic groups are represented by multiple parties so that the ensuing outbidding is both interethnic and intraethnic, for in such a scenario 'the centrifugal character of the competition may so increase the distance between the positions of the groups as to propel them toward violent outcomes, including secession' (Horowitz 1985: 358).

It is noted that 'bad leaders are the biggest problem' (Brown 1996: 575) encouraging ethnic conflict. and it is clear that political entrepreneurs determined to attain and maintain power often place their personal preferences above interethnic coexistence or the national interest and promote ethnic outbidding. Politicians typically do so by resorting to agitprop about the dangers and threats facing their ethnic group (Lake and Rothchild 1998: 20; Gagnon 1994-95), thereby transforming themselves into saviour figures dedicated to protecting the group and its socio-cultural and economic interests. Ethnic entrepreneurs thus play a significant role in justifying and perpetrating ethnic outbidding.

Territorial status also plays an important role in influencing ethnic outbidding. This is because a territorially concentrated group, as opposed to a territorially dispersed group. is typically endowed with conspicuous cultural markers, making it possible for the group to be more easily targeted for outbidding purposes. Indeed, religion, language, customs and culture associated with a particular territory make differentiating along ethnic lines easier. even as socio-economic conditions and prosperity levels are much more easily compared between territories.

Finally, grievances, real or imagined, also promote ethnic outbidding. Economic disparities between groups are especially easily manipulated by politicians seeking themes to campaign on. When their competitors decide to join such a bandwagon. ethnic outbidding is quickly introduced into the political arena. This essay makes clear how institutional decay in Sri Lanka was enabled by Sinhalese politicians who used linguistic nationalism as a mechanism to rectify extant economic disparities and how this led to Tamil mobilisation and civil war.

Competing theoretical approaches to explaining ethno-nationalism

Theories seeking to explain ethno-nationalism may be compartmentalised into four overarching categories as primordialist (both historical and biological), constructivist (sociological), instrumentalist (elite and rational choice) and institutionalist.

Primordialist theories argue that the phenotypic and genotypic markers people inherit determine their societal and historical positions in the world (Geertz 1963; Shils 1957). Primordialism's sociobiological strand goes so far as to argue that blood ties alone ensure individuals and their respective groups have common interests, so that even odious practices such as racism and nepotism can be sociobiologically explained (Van den Berghe 1978 and 1996). Such arguments, however. are thoroughly deterministic and primordialist explanations. and in general, fail to explain ethno-nationalism's protean nature.

Constructivist theories argue that nationalism is a modern phenomenon and that states' necessity to mobilise mass armies, the complex processes related to industrialisation and print capitalism and the subsequent capacity to imagine and invent communities are what enabled nationalism to flourish (Anderson 1991: Gellner 1983). While constructivist theories are more useful than primordialist theories to explain ethno-national movements and ethnic conflicts. it is amply clear that they mainly pertain to Western societies and thereby disregard many cultures' `nationalistic' tendencies in the pre-indus¬trial and colonial world (Smith 1986: Armstrong 1982).

Instrumentalist advocates, on the other hand. can be divided into two groups: those who are branded elite theorists, as they focus on how elite tactics. pacts and preferences influence policy (Brass 1991), and rational choice theorists (Banton 1994: Hechter 1986 and 1995).

Rational choice theorists hold that individual behaviour may be predicted whenever individual preferences are assumed to be known, are transitively ordered and are temporarily stable. Though designed to explain individual behaviour, some rational choice scholars argue that large numbers allow for aggregate outcomes to also be predicted. Critics argue that rational choice theories overgeneralise, simplify reality and thus disregard the maddening complexities associated with ethno-national struggles and other political phenomena (Green and Shapiro 1994: Walt 1999).

Elite theories are also criticised for being tautological, since when not carefully conceptualised these theories merely end up arguing that outcomes reflect elites' preferences. That noted, instrumentalist theories can be useful provided requisite attention is paid to historical context and their insights are situated within the structures facilitating opportunities and constraints.

The institutionalist explanation

I refer to institutions as the official establishments that coalesce to create 'the state' -- the legislature, bureaucracy, judicial system, public education system, and police and defence forces - as well as those private establishments gaining legitimacy from and or providing legitimacy to political elites representing the state.

Institutions provide the requisite networks for individuals to negotiate and interact with the state, demarcating parameters for strategic behaviour for between elites and masses, promoting convergent expectations between the state and polity (Powell and DiMaggio 1991), and generating predictability. Given that individuals and groups may seek to maximise accruable benefits. poyethnic societies especially need to design institutions that promote and provide impartial interactions.

Institutions encourage co-operation amidst uncertainty by legitimising rules of engagement and encouraging trust between strategic actors regarding standard operating procedures (March and Olsen 1989: 38; Hall 1986: 19). For 'institutions are not only "the rules of the game". They also affect what values are established in a society. that is, what we regard as justice, collective identity. belonging, trust, and solidarity' (Rothstein 1996: 138). Consequently, institutional decay will gradually set in when the state's rule-making -applying. -adjudicating and -enforcing institutions shower preferential treatment on a particular group while disregarding the legitimate grievances of other groups.

It ought to be noted that there are limits to what institutions can do, especially when demographics encourage politicians to disregard minority preferences. Politicians seek to be elected and re-elected and are easily tempted toward expediency. But such expedient politics undermine impartial interactions between institutions and all members of the polity and delegitimise their operations. This is because institutions, especially in a poly ethnic setting, operate with the most legitimacy only when all those in the polity, irrespective of their race and ethnicity, acknowledge that the rules governing institutions have been fashioned fairly.

On the other hand, whenever the state's most important institutions egregiously favour one particular group and concurrently enable the subjugation of other groups. they would signal that they are incapable or unwilling to deal dispassionately with all members of the state. The eventual institutional decay bound to follow would likely be countered by those being marginalised mobilising politically and militarily against the state.

It is natural to expect that the rules governing relations between state and polity would be designed to ensure that they benefit those who make the rules. That noted, polyethnic coexistence is unlikely to be achieved if those who make the rules egregiously discard minority aspirations, compromise and conciliation. Thus the biggest challenge facing those crafting rules and laws for a poly ethnic society is to ensure that their group's preferences are codified even while enabling minorities to have a stake in the system. If minorities believe that the rules of the game allow them to triumph some of the time then the rules crafted by even a majority community will be deemed to be fair. The more such feelings are embedded the greater the chance for polyethnic coexistence to be attained. Conversely, a system of rules designed to marginalise, subjugate and humiliate minorities could unleash reactive nationalism and undermine polyethnic coexistence.

Institutional scholars argue that institutions can significantly influence actors' strategies and their policy preferences (Steinmo 1989: Immergut 1992). and it is clear that Sri Lanka's institutions framed elites' preferences and influenced the policies they championed. Thus while Sri Lanka's elites operated instrumentally, there is no denying that their interactions with various groups as well as the opportunities and constraints the island's institutional structure facilitated influenced their decisions. The fact remains that despite being cognisant about the dangers of communalism and realising that ethnic outbidding could unleash intolerance and conflict, these elites cavalierly promoted rules, routines and conventions that created an ethnocracy over time. Their statements at campaign meetings and in the parliamentary record make clear that many suspected ethnic outbidding and the burgeoning ethnocracy could potentially dismember the island, though their proclivities for power at any cost merely egged them on to continue to manipulate ethnic differences and outbid each other.

This analysis does not mean to suggest that institutions determine behaviour. They do not. They instead provide the 'context for action' that helps us explain decision makers' tactics. preferences and strategies. It is thus important to recognise that while the institutional structure can discourage, constrain and influence, it does not determine specific political action. Politicians can always eliminate, reconfigure or create anew institutions that encourage, or even demand conciliation and compromise among rival ethnic groups. This then means `facing the same set of institutional hurdles, self-reflective actors can make creative decisions about how to proceed' (Immergut 1998: 26).

If courageous politicians can seek to change the institutional structure in order to generate positive and stable relations between state and polity, unprincipled politicians may prefer to operate within a sub-optimal and anti minority structure if that furthers their political careers.

Indeed, Sri Lanka represents a classic case of how ruling politicians, having manipulated the institutional setting to gain power, periodically sought to implement creative policies to thereafter promote ethnic harmony but were compelled to back off due to pressures exerted from institutions within and without the government, thereby also reinforcing arguments about how institutions can lack malleability once their policies become embedded.

Thus successive governments abrogated or failed to implement interethnic agreements that might have quelled the burgeoning ethnic animosity between the Sinhalese and Tamils. Understanding the respective actors' strategising mandates paying due attention to the context in which ethnic outbidding was perpetrated and perpetuated (Steinmo 1989: 502), which is what the following account tries to do.

The Sri Lankan case

As already indicated, the swabasha movement initially included both Sinhala and Tamil speakers who demanded that their vernacular languages replace English, which only about ten per cent of the population spoke fluently. When the call for linguistic parity was jettisoned partly because over seventy-five per cent of the population spoke Sinhala and the Sinhalese saw no reason to learn another vernacular language, and partly because they realised their superior numbers allowed them to dictate the outcome swabasha became synonymous with Sinhala only and led Sinhalese politicians to try and outbid their opponents on who could be the most pro-Sinhalese and anti-Tamil.

The British had marginalised the Buddhist religion, which most Sinhalese adhere to, and also showed a preference for hiring Tamils into the civil service. The alacrity with which young Tamils embraced the English language was a major reason for this British preference though the fact that this also enabled the British to effectively marginalise the majority community was considered a strategic bonus (Kearney 1967: Russell 1982). The upshot, however, was that the Tamils benefited disproportionately under British colonialism.

For example, in 1946, just two years prior to independence. Tamils comprised thirty-three per cent of the civil service and forty per cent of the judicial service (De Silva 1984: 1l6). They also accounted for thirty-one per cent of the students in the university system. Such disparities had to be rectified, and linguistic nationalism in the post-independence era became the symbolic mechanism by which to do so. The rhetoric utilised in the process partly indicates how ferocious ethnic outbidding was and the corrosive impact this had on society and its governing institutions.

Linguistic nationalism and ethnic outbidding

With language being connected to upward mobility in the most fundamental ways and with many Sinhalese holding that the English language had been utilised to suppress their socio-economic aspirations. the quest to make Sinhala the country's only official language soon gained momentum. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who was the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), realised that the language issue could be manipulated to defeat the governing United National Party (UNP), and he consequently embraced the Sinhala-only position during the 1956 general election (Manor 1989).

 Bandaranaike's SLFP, together with all other parties, had embraced linguistic parity during the 1952 election campaign. Bandaranaike himself had defended linguistic parity as early as 1944 by arguing that it `would be ungenerous on our part as Sinhalese not to give due recognition to the Tamil language'.6 But Bandaranaike did a political somersault and embraced fully a `Sinhala-only' stance for the 1956 general election. He thereafter went around claiming that the Sinhalese were engaged in a "life and death struggle"7 to preserve their language and that `parity to both Sinhalese and Tamil will only lead to the deterioration of Sinhalese which may disappear from Ceylon within 25 years'.8 Bandaranaike was strongly supported by the island's omnipresent and influential Buddhist clergy and Sinhalese nationalist organisations, almost all of whom only cared about Sinhalese Buddhists' socio-economic upward mobility.

Many among Bandaranaike's supporters had come to espouse the position that the minorities lived under the majority community's sufferance and that with independence the time had come for Sinhalese Buddhists to gain ascendance over all communities, especially the principal Tamil minority.

The clamour for Sinhala only now forced the ruling UNP to also alter its position. John Kotelawala, the party's leader and prime minister, had repeatedly proclaimed that he and the UNP would not budge from linguistic parity. For example, in June 1955 Kotelawala had stated that '1 can assure you - and I have said it not once but many times - that the UNP, of which I am the head, have accepted the principle that both Sinhalese and Tamil will be the languages of this country. We have said so, and we propose to put it into practice', 9 Kotelawala repeated this sentiment many times over the next few months. Yet having opted for Sinhala-only, the prime minister thereafter claimed, 'I want Sinhalese to be the official language of the country as long as the sun and moon shall last'."10 This belated switch hardly endeared the anglophile Kotelawala or pro-Western UNP to the electorate. Bandaranaike had campaigned on the slogan 'Sinhala only, and in twentv-four hours', and he and his party handily won the 1956 election. Two months after becoming prime minister, in June 1956, the Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956  making Sinhala the 'one official language of Ceylon' passed the House of Representatives.

The Sinhala Only Act and its consequences

When the Sinhala-Only Bill was introduced in parliament Tamils resorted to satyagraha (non violent protest) outside parliament and throughout the country. This in turn led to anti-Tamil riots that saw at least 150 Tamils killed (Vittachi 1958: 20). Tamils protested passionately against the Sinhala-Only Bill and the Subsequent Act, and many leading politicians from all ethnic backgrounds indicated that the Sinhala-Only Act was destined to lead to Tamil separatism unless the government introduced some form of linguistic parity. 11

The administrative changes required to implement the Act were not adopted overnight: they were instead authorised via gazette notifications over the next few years. But the emotive protests demanding a Sinhala-only policy, the Act's subsequent passage amidst severe rioting, and the positive and negative consequences envisioned by Sinhalese and Tamils, respectively, guaranteed that significant changes along ethno linguistic lines were in store and that these changes were bound to poison further relations between the ethnic groups.

At its most fundamental level the Sinhala-Only Act exemplified a radical change in policy implemented by the Sinhalese for the benefit of the Sinhalese. There is no disputing that the policy was dictated by using the majoritarian principle. But it is also indisputable that the Act's sponsors had cavalierly demanded that the majority's will be the will of all. Rules and laws rarely get enacted with complete consensus, and this is especially true for rules dealing with ethnic issues in a polyethnic society.

But if the rules governing the constitutional structure are seen as fair, then even those deploring the new rules and regulations are bound to support them with the hope that the offending legislation can be changed in the near future. The island's political structure, however, ensured that it would be impossible to change the Sinhala Only Act without support from the very Sinhalese lawmakers who had enacted it in the first place.

Some Sinhalese elites realised that a policy that explicitly recognised Tamil in some form was crucial for interethnic stability even as they campaigned supporting a future Sinhala-only policy. Indeed, the events that immediately followed the 1956 election indicated that Bandaranaike wanted to institute a `Sinhala-only' law and also accommodate Tamil. But opposition to even token accommodation by nationalists and extremists within the Buddhist clergy forced Bandaranaike to back off.

What is important to recognise here is that if rational logic justified ethnic outbidding between the country's major parties on the road to capturing power, it also justified accommodating the Tamils even as a 'Sinhala-only' policy was implemented. Having become prime minister, this is what Bandaranaike now preferred to see happen. But the very political structure that induced ethnic outbidding now exerted sufficient pressure on him and others so that they jettisoned their rational preferences for a more extremist stance in order to continue in power.

Embedding outbidding

With Sinhalese and Tamil political elites realising that the burgeoning extremism on both sides needed to be defanged, the prime minister and the Tamils' Federal Party (FP) leader, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, met in July 1957 and agreed to the so-called Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam (B-C) Pact. The Pact stipulated that the Tamil language would be used for all administrative purposes in the Northern and Eastern Provinces while Regional Councils would be created to deal with education, agriculture and colonisation. The Tamils thus agreed to drop their demand for linguistic parity and also call off the nonviolent protest campaign (Wilson 1994). Many Sinhalese, however, feared that compromising on the island's unitary status by instituting autonomy would become a first step toward dismemberment, and Sinhalese nationalists and extremist Buddhist monks immediately began blackguarding the prime minister and the Tamils.

The UNP now realised that it could score politically against the prime minister, and the party's leader, Dudley Senanayake, claimed that the B-C Pact would ensure the 'majority race is going to be reduced to a minority' whereby `Ceylon would in no time be a state of India'. He further thundered: 'I am prepared to sacrifice my life to prevent the implementation of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Agreement. which is a racial division of Ceylon under the guise of the Regional Council System and is an act of treachery on the part of the Prime Minister'. 12

In May 1944 future UNP prime minister and president J. R. Jayewardene had proposed a motion in the State Council to have Sinhala made the country's official language. though it was ultimately amended to include Tamil as well. Then Jayewardene had pleaded that `we want the Tamils ... to co-operate with us to make Sinhalese and Tamil the official languages in this country'. Indeed. just two days before the Sinhala-Only Act was debated in parliament. Jayawardene argued that `No Government should and could make Sinhalese the official language by trampling down the language rights of over a million of the permanent residents of the country. It cannot thrust to the wilderness the cherished languages of these people. The doors of the public services should not be closed to the thousands of youth who did not know Sinhalese for no fault of their own. Surely that was the way to sow the seeds of a civil war.' 13

Yet now Jayawardene organised a protest march from Colombo to Kandy against the B-C Pact. These ethnic entrepreneurs were well assisted by extremist Buddhist monks and Sinhalese jingoists who went on hunger strikes and resorted to rabid rhetoric to protest against the Pact.

The Sinhala-Only Act had influenced the Minister of Transport and Works to call for all vehicles to be issued number plates with the Sinhala letter 'Sri' marked on them. Tamils protested by tarring the Sinhala 'Sri' and substituting it with the Tamil letter 'Shri' in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Soon the Sinhalese retaliated by tarring all business and street signs in Tamil. When amidst this commotion a group of Buddhist monks congregated outside the prime minister's residence and demanded that he abrogate the B-C Pact, Bandaranaike complied supinely. Soon thereafter a train carrying Tamils to a FP convention was derailed and its Tamil passengers beaten. When anti Tamil race riots erupted again, between 300 and 400 Tamils were killed (Wriggins 1960: 268).

In September 1959 a disgruntled Buddhist monk assassinated Bandaranaike. The SLFP now recruited Bandaranaike's widow, Sirimavo to head the party, and she surprised everyone by embracing numerous anti-Tamil policies. Among the most controversial was the Language of the Courts Bill. which was designed to promote and expand the use of Sinhala in all courthouses, and the attempt to rigorously implement the `Sinhala-only' policy which officially took effect on 1 January 1961. This coupled with the government's well-calibrated policy to hire Sinhalese into the government service saw Tamil representation in certain government sectors drop drastically. For example, while thirty per cent of the Ceylon Administrative Service, fifty per cent of the clerical service, sixty per cent of engineers and doctors, forty per cent of the armed forces and forty per cent of the labour force were Tamil in 1956, those numbers had plummeted to five per cent, five per cent, ten per cent, one per cent and five per cent respectively by 1970 (Phadnis 1979: 348).

A second attempt at a flimsy devolutionary scheme was made possible when UNP and FP leaders agreed to the so-called Senanayake-Chelvanayakam (S-C) Pact of 1965 after the UNP returned to power. The SLFP, however, traduced the agreement by claiming that the UNP and FP had conspired to undo the 'Sinhala-only' policy and dismember the country. Besides the standard support from the Buddhist clergy and nationalist organisations, this time the Muslims and Marxists, who had hitherto advocated linguistic parity, also joined them. The collective pressure these parties mustered consequently forced the UNP to back away from the S-C Pact.

Institutional decay and Tamil mobilisation

As already noted. institutional decay in a polyethnic setting ensues when a state's rule-making, -enforcing, -applying and -adjudicating institutions are incapable of acting honourably, impartially and constitutionally. By the time the Sinhala-Only Act took effect in January 1961 it was amply clear that most Tamils had lost faith in the state's capacity to treat them dispassionately. The events that followed merely marginalised the Tamils further and radicalised the youth among them. For example, when the FP organised a satyagraha in February 1961 and thereby brought the general administration in the northeast to a standstill, the government initially dithered but eventually attacked the satyagrahis in brutal fashion.

The government also imposed emergency rule, detained the FP's leaders for over six months, and banned the party for a year. The emergency rule imposed on the northeast allowed the military to operate in a ham-fisted fashion and with impunity. The variegated harassment and procrustean tactics the military resorted to merely solidified this view. During subsequent years Tamils in the Northern Province were ordered about and searched in humiliating fashion, beaten, stoned by soldiers passing by in military vehicles. and women occasionally raped so that by the mid-1960s the army especially was seen as a Sinhalese occupation force bent on subjugating the Tamils.

Mrs Bandaranaike's second government (1970--77) also passed a new constitution in May 1972 that codified Sinhala as the country's only official language, guaranteed that Buddhism alone would receive the foremost place (thus demoting Hinduism. Islam and Christianity, which were practiced by approximately sixteen per cent, eight per cent and eight per cent of the population respectively), and declared that the regulations passed by a UNP government in January 1966 (amidst bilious anti-Tamil rhetoric) to implement the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act were 'subordinate legislation'.

A constitution represents a country's most important institution, and the fact that this one was put together without any input from the Tamils clearly indicated the disregard the government displayed towards them. This Bandaranaike government further ensured that scarce resources were made scarcer among the Tamil population, at times going so far as to shelve internationally sponsored development projects in Tamil areas. In the higher educational arena the government introduced standardisation and district quota schemes, including ethnic cut-off policies, that enabled under-qualified Sinhalese students to replace the hitherto over-represented Tamils.

This combined assault against Tamil aspirations had made Sri Lanka a veritable ethnocracy masquerading as a liberal democracy by the mid-1970s. It was thus hardly surprising that the Northern and Eastern Provinces were infested with disenchanted youth by the time Mrs Bandaranaike was defeated and J. R. Jayewardene became prime minister in July 1977.

In August 1978 Jayewardene utilised the nearly five-sixths parliamentary majority the UNP had obtained in the election and instituted a new constitution that made Tamil a national language. The constitution also incorporated a complex electoral system that was supposedly designed to increase Tamil influence in electoral politics, though the system mainly sought to ensure that Jayewardene could rule unfettered and the UNP remained the dominant party.

Most important, the constitution disregarded Tamil claims for autonomy. Indeed, Tamil politicians were not consulted when designing the constitution, and this despite thousands of Tamils having voted for Jayewardene and the UNP and it being clear that the rebellion in the northeast was getting out of hand.

In hindsight it is clear that J. R. Jayewardene crafted the constitution to satisfy his megalomaniacal ambitions. What bears emphasising from an ethnic standpoint is that while Jayewardene changed the institutional structure, he did so not to accommodate the Tamils, stem their incipient separatist movement or provide a freer and fairer system of governance; instead, he changed the political structure in order to arrogate unrestricted powers and decimate any opposition to his party's rule. This was clear by the way the UNP used its super-majority to introduce constitutional amendment after amendment to satisfy Jayewardene's every whim and fancy.

Having made himself executive president. Jayewardene, rather than accommodate the Tamils' legitimate grievances, sought to muzzle the burgeoning Tamil rebellion. Consequently, the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed in 1979, which allowed the security forces to arrest, imprison and leave without trial anyone they considered to be a threat to national security. As innocent and not-so-innocent Tamils were imprisoned, tortured and otherwise abused, they became further radicalised and contributed to the various rebel groups' numbers (Wilson 2000).

The country had experienced anti-Tamil riots in August 1977 and July-August 1981, but when Tamil rebels ambushed and killed thirteen soldiers in July 1983, the worst ever anti-Tamil violence ensued. Between 400 and 2.000 Tamils were killed and thousands of businesses and houses burned. As the Economist reported, `the majority Singalese observed that more than half of "their" new industries were Tamil owned -- and, cutting the nose to spite the face, burnt down the Tamil factories'. 14 The orgiastic violence Sinhalese hoodlums resorted to on this occasion targeted Tamil persons as well and was the most horrifying: `Cars were stopped and this time if Tamils were in the cars they were burned inside them, petrol was poured over people and they were set alight, people were also burned in their houses, and were hacked to death' (Hyndman 1988: 26). Government vehicles transported the rioters, and in some instances Buddhist monks and at least one cabinet minister led the mob. While the armed forces had worked to control and halt past riots, this time they watched passively or egged on the rioters.

 A stunned and pusillanimous Jayewardene did not impose a curfew or address the nation until three days after the riots. And when he did so he offered the hagridden Tamils not the slightest sympathy; instead his lachrymose comments seemed to justify the violence given the growing Tamil radicalism in the Northern Province. The 1983 riots thus saw every major institution in the country fail to live up to its obligations and responsibilities to protect its minority citizens; on the contrary, those institutions representing the state apparatus coalesced to attack Tamils.

Thousands of Tamils consequently fled the island and thereby formed the Tamil diaspora that would fund the burgeoning Tamil separatist movement, while thousands of others fled to the Northern Province and joined the rebels fighting for separatism. There were only a few dozen Tamil rebels demanding secession in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the vast majority of Tamils preferred to repose faith in moderate Tamil politicians seeking more autonomy for the northeast.

But the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots, which indisputably proved that not a single institution representing the Sri Lankan state was capable of treating the Tamils as equal citizens, saw the rebels' numbers grow by the thousands. It was the beginning of Sri Lanka's civil war. In the years that followed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), currently proscribed as a terrorist group in a number of countries, took up arms and engaged in one of the twentieth century's most gruesome separatist conflicts.


The Sri Lankan case makes clear that outbidding and ethnocentrism can become embedded and path dependent. Indeed, many Sinhalese benefited from the ethnocentric practices successive governments pursued and they now protest against any proposal that promotes devolution or dispassionate governance.

The fact, however, is that while these ethnocentric practices have benefited the majority community, they have led to an illiberal democracy and influenced the principal minority community to seek a separate state. The majoritarian principle does not justify minority domination, and liberal democracies are thus designed to eschew the tyranny of the majority. A proper majoritarian system, especially in polyethnic settings, thus seeks to encourage consensus politics as much as possible and thereby allay minority fears. This is why institutions are of paramount importance and also why an institutionalist approach is better suited to explain Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict.

This is also to say that while it was the language issue and its ethnocentric legislation that initially undermined minority confidence in the state's institutions, the Sinhala-Only Act's impact was not immediate. In fact, many had believed that the Sinhala-Only Act would revolutionalise their socio-economic status quickly and were disappointed when this was not to be. But this also meant that successive governments, in seeking to appease their Sinhalese constituents, pursued additional ethnocentric policies that further under-mined minority confidence in the state's institutions.

Consequently, each successive policy that was implemented to legitimise the Sinhala-Only Act merely re-emphasised Tamils' marginalisation and deepened the institutional decay facing their community. The Act may have ultimately uplifted the Sinhalese socio-economically, an outcome that was bound to take place in any case as facilities in Sinhalese educational institutions improved, but it also introduced ethnic outbidding, legitimated ethnocentrism and influenced a reactive Tamil nationalism that reached its logical conclusion seeking separatism.

From a theoretical standpoint, primordialism does provide some historical context for appreciating the Sinhalese -Tamil rivalry, but it lacks robustness when explaining the conflict itself. There are numerous myths of origins on both the Sinhalese and Tamil sides, and these accounts seek to craft an identity for each group vis-a-vis the other. That recognised, the fact remains that both groups coexisted more or less peacefully for over a millennium. Ancient ethnic hatreds and congenital identities stemming from phenotypic and genotypic characteristics thus fail to explain why violent ethnic relations ensued only since the mid-1950s.

The constructivist arguments are sounder, because there is ample evidence that colonialism and nationalism did emphasise and influence more competitive notions of ethnic identity. Yet, the constructivist project in Sri Lanka, especially among the Sinhalese, had been ongoing for some time and does not explain the post-1956 interethnic violence. Certainly modernisation and the competition for scarce resources influenced ethno-nationalism, and this would be part of the constructivist explanation. However- evaluating the competition for scarce resources without analysing the institutional structure provides for a limited account.

Likewise, rational choice accounts, while useful when describing elite machinations, fail to recognise the socio-cultural and historical influences motivating elites. Ethnic entrepreneurs, like all actors, seek to maximise their preferences; yet what often get overlooked are the suboptimal outcomes ethnic entrepreneurs manipulating ethno-national issues are responsible for. Indeed, there is no guarantee that elites and masses would react rationally when ethnic and nationality issues are involved, because people often react viscerally and capriciously at such times. Some may argue that doing so bolsters the primordialist approach. This is hardly the case because such acts represent discrete, as opposed to continuous, events and such discrete events cannot explain an outcome fashioned and influenced over nearly half a century.

Thus, some Sinhalese who worked for Tamil employers and were incensed by the Tamil rebels' anti-government activities in the late 1970s and early 1980s joined the rampaging herds and burned their workplaces during the 1983 ethnic riots. They may have, by doing so. displayed indisputably their love and passion for their nation and state- but their actions were hardly rational given that they eradicated their very livelihoods in the process. It was not uncommon to see some among these Sinhalese rue their actions once the economic consequences of the 1983 riots became evident, which indicates how the ethno-psychological attachment to their nation temporarily overrode and masked their long-term rational preferences.

It is likewise hard to see how the LTTE suicide cadre's actions could be credibly explained using a rational choice explanation. At least the Islamic fundamentalists who resort to suicide bombings believe their sacrifice would ensure heavenly rewards: LTTE cadres, on the other hand, merely blow themselves up on orders from their leadership. In fact, all evidence suggests that the LTTE's suicide bombers carry out their missions out of allegiance to their organisation and their fearsome leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran. as opposed to any appreciable cost-benefit calculations (Swamy 2003).

Consequently, a greater appreciation for the historical and social contexts may further the rational choice approach by helping to explain where actors' preferences come from, which is something rational choice scholarship is typically inept at explaining. Within this context. the institutionalist explanation provides a more encompassing explanation for Sri Lanka's civil war.

The LTTE has vowed to create a separate Tamil state but most believe the best solution to ending the civil war is a federal set-up that provides the Tamils in the northeast with widespread autonomy. Yet the vast majority of Sinhalese oppose federalism. They instead champion the extant unitary structure. The civil war notwithstanding, this situation has amply encouraged ethnic outbidding. Thus parties in power seek to promote dubious conflict resolution only to be checkmated by the respective opposition. which typically claims that the proposed solutions are bound to eventually dismember the island. This has especially been evident in the past decade as the Bandaranaikes' daughter, President Chandrika Kumaratunga. has tried to accommodate some Tamil demands when the coalition she leads has had a majority in parliament but then sings a different tune when her opponents control parliament.

Such unprincipled politics merely contributes to the political decay in the island and reiterates that a lasting peace is unlikely until Sri Lanka's leaders can craft the requisite institutions that would treat all citizens dispassionately.


1 This essay consists of a few excerpts from Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka (Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2004) which have been reproduced with the publisher's permission.

2 By 'institutional decay' decay' I refer to a situation where the individuals and institutions representing the state function in a corrupt. partial and violent manner whereby they jettison the norms, va lues and practices that ensure liberal democracy, operate with impunity, engender anomie and Undermine citizens' confidence in the state. In the Sri Lankan case institutional decay first impacted the Tamils. Over time, however, all citizens have had to deal with its pernicious effects (DeVotta 2003).

3 Many academics. politicians and journalists cavalierly alternate between 'Sinhalese' and Sinhala' when referring to the majority community's ethnicity and language, I specifically use Sinhalese and Sinhala to refer to the community's ethnicity and language, respectively

4 The swabasha movement was initially led by the English-speaking provincial elite. There were periodic demands even before independence for the vernacular languages to be recognised, but such demands reached a crescendo around the mid-1950.

5. Recent exceptions to this criticism would include Brown 1998: Gagnon 1994 95; Snyder and Ballentine 1996.

6 Ceylon. State Council. Debates 25 May 1944, pp. 810-11.

7 See Ceylon Daily News (Hereafter CDN). 'Press for a "Sinhalese Only'' Pronouncement SWRD'. 28 November 1955. p. 6.

8 CDN  'Sinhalese Fade-Out With Parity Predicted'. 4 January 1956. p.5

9 Ceylon, House Debates, Vol. 21. Col. 485.

10 CDN, 'Sinhalese Only.. if the UNP Gets 68 Seats or Less'. 15 March 1956, p. 5.

11 The Communist Party's Pieter Keuneman noted it best, when he claimed that while the Sinhala Only Act had already led to communal riots, 'Ten years from now it will be several times worse. This Bill is heading straight for the division of the country ... Every order and regulation under it will be a cause for further strife.' Quoted in House. Debates Vol. 24, col. 1711.

12 CDN. 'Pact a Racial Division of Ceylon, Says Dudley', 12 August 1957. p. 7.

13 CDN. 'J. R. Jayewardene On Sinhale [sic] Bill'. 4 June 1956, p. 5. (italics added).

14 Economist, 'Ergophobia', 13 August 1983, p.29


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