Role of the srilanka freedom party (slfp) in the emergence of ethnic tensions and conflicts

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Given the numerous cleavages and tensions in post-colonial societies, the factor that influences whether and how communal violence breaks out is the way that the political system deals with the tensions. Do political leaders aggravate the tensions until they explode in violence? Do they recruit people to instigate acts of violence and then condone and protect them? Or do they seek non-violent resolution of problems and ensure that proponents and initiators of violence are punished?

In many cases, elite political leaders believe they can win support and strengthen their positions by mobilizing along ethnic cleavages. They anticipate that appeals to ethnicity are particularly effective in expanding their power. Leaders sometimes encourage followers to use crude violence - pogroms or ethnic cleansing, or exploit ethnic tensions in electoral politics. Outbidding opponents along ethnic lines is one of the strategies to win votes in fragmented societies that hold elections. This process frequently results in a polarization of the political system into ethnic divisions and a possible breakdown into violence. Marginalized minorities may suffer, emigrate, or fight back with the weapons of the weak - terrorism and/or guerrilla activities. Elites manipulate ethnic identities in their quest for power  and these processes can either deliberately or unexpectedly trigger violent ethnic conflict.

Historical processes often give rise to tensions and conflicts between different ethnic groups, but politicians provide the sparks that ignite the violence. They often do so deliberately, because they believe they can strengthen their personal political positions. They work with two tools, raw violence and votes. These dynamics are clear from a review of Sri Lanka's ethnic violence.

Ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka exist based on the desire of Singhalese to achieve supremacy and Tamils to get equality. Based on the need to achieve supremacy some of the former Sinhalese leaders have implemented policies that have been at times unfavourable to the ethnic harmony between the two major communities such as the Sinhala Only Language Act in 1956, which made Sinhala the only official language in state and public affairs and sharply discriminated against Tamil speakers. Then an educational standardization policy in relation to university admissions in 1972 allowed Sinhalese students to enter Science and Medicine faculties with lower scores than the Tamil students. The Constitution of 1972 conferred Buddhism as state religion. On the other hand, owing to the aspiration to achieve equality, Tamil political leaders once made a demand for a Parliament with an ethnic balance of 50:50, which is not reflecting the principles of democracy than to federalism.

Some other major political developments also could be considered as the causes that made ethnic tensions between Sinhalese and Tamils to grow over a period of time to increase the disharmony between two ethnic groups.  Without any genuine effort in sight to settle the grievances of Tamils, their political parties began to agitate for a separate Tamil state in mid 1970s as an ultimate solution to the problem, and pledge to achieve it through peaceful means.  The subsequent failure of the Tamil political parties to make any headway on this issue resulted in some of the youth in Jaffna taking up arms to pursue an armed struggle to establish “Tamil Eelam”. This armed struggle then developed in to a full scale violent campaign against the state, leading to the creation of a grave national problem to which the state is yet to find a proper solution. This campaign has dragged on for over two decades.  This grave national problem has slowed down Sri Lanka's political, social, and economic progress in an unprecedented scale.

The politicization of ethnic differences began even before the pre independent era. Successive Sinhalese political parties formulated policies such as the Sinhala Only Language Act in 1956, which made Sinhala the only official language in state and public affairs and sharply discriminated against Tamil speakers. Then an educational standardization policy in 1972 allowed Sinhalese students to enter Science and Medicine schools with lower scores than the Tamil students. The Constitution of 1972 conferred Buddhism as state religion. The reason for all of these policies was, in Downs's language, “to win elections.”In Sri Lanka, of course, this meant to satisfy the Sinhalese voters. This naturally created an environment of distrust between the Sinhalese and Tamils Violence accompanied these culturally biased policies. Scholarly works on the Sri Lanka ethnic conflict suggest that communal riots in 1958, 1961, 1974, 1977 and 1983 in which Tamils were killed, maimed, robbed and rendered homeless were carefully designed by the Sinhala elites.This persistent pattern of violence set the stage for violent Tamil retaliation and efforts to secede. This background helps us to understand the birth of violent Tamil movements, particularly the LTTE, toward the end of the 1970s.

The LTTE eventually resorted to violence to secure a separate state, called Eelam. The LTTE claim that they are a product of the anti- Tamil oppression by Sinhalese violence and chauvinism. They believed that Tamils will not get any justice from the Sinhala polity.Many ordinary Tamils began to share similar sentiments after they became targets of Sri Lanka police and military retaliation against the LTTE's attacks on the state and its institutions. The state justified violence against the Tamils in the name of protecting territorial integrity of the island. Yet, the violent actions of Sri Lanka forces against the Tamils further radicalized the average Tamils, thus providing a fertile opportunity for the ethnic Tamil recruitment to fight against the state. Therefore, the Tamil separatist movement is, in Neil de Vote's words, “Sinhalese-inspired.”The systematic growth of the LTTE shows that when a particular community feels is being continuously terrorized by the dominant ethnic/religious or political group; many will join a politico-military movement to resist the oppression and violence of the persecutors. This friction has resulted in the emergence of a deadly brand of terrorists in the name of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka freedom Party (SLFP) are the two major political parties that rule the country successively It is evident that the violence and ethnocentric policies and the practices of of the Sinhala ruling elites such as the UNP and the SLFP contributed to the growth of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka. Tamil moderate parties, such as the Federal Party (FP) led by skillful politicians such as S.J.V. Selvanayakam, articulated fears among common Tamil people into a ‘responsive nationalism' with peaceful protests. However, collective, competitive Sinhala chauvinism responded violently to the Tamil moderates. This research will study the role of Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in politicizing the ethnic relations and create tensions, leading to serious violent conflict in Sri Lanka during the period of 1948 to 1977.


Do the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) governments' policies and practices contributed to the growth of ethnic tensions, leading to serious violent conflict in Sri Lanka? Why SLFP governments had such policies and practices? What was the role of SLFP in finding solution to the ethnic conflict?


The primordialist approach offers one simple yet powerful explanation about ethno political conflict. For primordialists, ethnic identity is inborn and therefore immutable, as both culturally acquired aspects (language, culture, and religion) and genetically determined characteristics (pigmentation and physiognomy) in shaping ethnic identity. Primordialism's socio-biological strand claims that ethnicity, tied to kinship, promotes a convergence of interests between individuals and their kin group's collective goals. Consequently, even racism and ethnocentrism can be viewed as extreme forms of nepotistic behavior driven by feelings of propinquity and consanguinity. Primordialists thus note nationalism as a natural phenomenon.

In contrast, the constructivist theory views ethnic identities as a product of human actions and choices, arguing that they are constructed and transmitted, not genetically inherited, from the past.Max Weber was one theorist who stressed the social origin of ethnic identity. Weber viewed each ethnic group as a “human group” whose belief in a common ancestry (whether or not based in genetic reality) leads to the formation of a community,concluding that ethnic identity is not primarily a genetic phenomenon, but rather a result of circumstances and political environment.

Constructivists believe that nationalism is an eighteenth-century European phenomenon and an ideological creation. Various constructivists have suggested that the desire to build armies and improve military capabilities, the failure of industrialization to create a homogeneous cultural structure and market, and the development of standardized communication systems all made it possible to imagine and invent communities.The imagined, arrogated and ascribed national character facilitating the nation-building process consequently promoted nationalism in Europe.

While nationalism led to stronger, more integrated states in Europe, the process involved multiple wars over several generations as well as forced displacement and several genocides of millions of people. Will the construction of nationalism in today's developing nations inevitably lead to the same tragic fate? Is Sri Lanka's violence a reflection of European history and a harbinger of the future for the third world?

Other scholars emphasize the pre-colonial roots of the ethno-political conflict in Sri Lanka, Formerly known as Ceylon. Tamil and Sinhalese kingdoms existed long before the Portuguese captured the island in 1505, and the Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms fought to extend their boundaries in ancient Sri Lanka.The present stage of the conflict thus echoes an historic pattern. Conflicts between the Mende and Temne in Sierra Leone similarly predated colonialism. The Maronities and Druze in what is now Lebanon fought long before the arrival of the Ottomans, and the Acholi and Langi clashed intermittently in pre-colonial Uganda.The old hostilities still play significant roles in influencing the current stage of these ethno-political conflicts, thus hindering the process of nation building.

The Colonial History theorists contend that the contemporary pattern of ethnic relations in Sri Lanka have been largely shaped by its colonial history. The colonial process created borders, which included or divided ethnic groups and defined the demographic mixture of the colonies that eventually became countries. Colonialism's divide-and-rule policies, census taking, and promotion of ethnic identities all enhanced (and sometimes even created) cultural and ethnic distinctions in colonial societies, although these processes by themselves can hardly account for the nationalistic conflict unleashed in the post-colonial areas

Problems arose when colonial rulers favored and allied with a particular group, often a minority, to help in colonial administration. A minority, after all, could be more trusted to ally with an outside power. The minority might preferentially receive education and then share in political and economic power. When independence came, such a group found itself in a precarious position, as the majority group sought to gain political and economic power. When the majority groups seize power from the former administrators and marginalize the minority group politically and economically, then the minority might either struggle for power or for secession.

This perspective helps to explain Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict. Since independence, the majority Sinhalese confronted minorities, particularly the Tamils, who had previously occupied administrative positions during the British rule of the country. Sinhalese politicians in the postcolonial period exploited imbalance and relied on ethnic emotions to win Sinhalese political support to capture and hold political power.S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike laid the first foundation for such an ethnicization of politics by introducing the Sinhala-Only language policy in the 1950's. Repeatedly over the next four decades, Sinhala politicians employed the same ethnic tricks to capture a large share of the Sinhalese votes. Sinhalese politicization of ethnic emotions in the Southern parties of Sri Lanka brought parallel processes in which Tamil moderate nationalists effectively utilized Tamil ethnic solidarity to win the elections. The ethnicization of the Sinhala polity subsequently produced Tamil militants, notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a secessionist Tamil guerrilla movement. The LTTE became dominant after 1975 by killing opponents, including some moderate Tamil leaders who believe in the principle of non-violence. De Votta recognizes that the ethnicization of Sri Lanka's political system by the Sinhalese leaders eventually radicalized the Tamils and produced the LTTE.In fact, such Tamil radicalization gained greater support among the Tamil polity after the Sinhalese leaders refused political compromise with the Tamil leaders. Within his research on ethnic conflict, Professor De Silva, a noted Sinhala historian, thoroughly examines the process whereby Tamil radicalization occurred on the island of Sri Lanka.


The research will be carried out in order to achieve following objectives.

  1. To bring out Theoretical Framework to explain the inability of national parties in addressing the interest of diverse societies and the causes for such inability.
  2. To bring out approaches and attitudes of SLFP while ruling the country and also in opposition on Tamil issues and demands.
  3. To bring out policies and practices of SLFP till 1977 regarding the Tamil issues and demands and determine the causes for such policies and practices
  4. To bring out impacts of the policies and practices regarding Tamil question in ethnic relations.


The Sri Lankan ethnic conflict has generated a lot of scholarly interest among scholars worldwide mainly in the arena of conflict resolution. The relevant journal articles and monographs fall in to two main categories. The first category deals with the historic backdrop to the ethnic conflict and rise of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka. Therefore, there is an abundance of literature written on the topic for perusal of historic backdrop to the problem: Dealing with Diversity; Sri Lanken Discourses on Peace and Conflict edited by George Frerks and Bart Klem bundles contribution from the authors of all regions of Sri Lanka. The authors place the conflict against a different backdrop. Some are clearly political driven, others take more academic distance. Some go back to the Stone Age and put the conflict in historic perspective, others analyse contemporary politics and the humanitarian consequences of the war. The most notable article in this category was ‘Nineteenth Century Origins of Nationalism in Ceylon' by KM de Silva.In this Article the author concentrated on the origins of Sinhalese nationalism and discussed the various issues which stimulated the growth of Singhalese nationalism from the early phase of British rule.  Another important article is ‘The Reform and Nationalist Movements in the Early Twentieth Century' again by the Silva. This article too takes a similar approach but here the author focuses mainly on the first rift within the Ceylon National Congress. Apart from these, a few other articles paid more  specific attention  to Tamil nationalism: ‘Nationalism, Modernisation and Political Mobilisation in a Plurals Society' by R.N. Kearney; ‘Race, Religion, Language and cast in the Sub-nationalism of Sri Lanka' by AJ Wilson and ‘Nationalism in Sri Lanka and the Tamils' by S. Arasaratnam. Most of these articles, in one way or another, discuss Tamil nationalism and its beginnings, which their authors suggest - happened after the 1920s. Only Kearney and Arasaratnam go back a little further than the 1920s to investigate the past socio-cultural and political history of the Tamils to see whether there were any past influences which had provided fertile ground for the birth of Tamil Nationalism, but not in depth. The article,‘Race, Religion, Language and Cast in the Sub-nationalism of Sri Lanka' by Wilson, focuses exclusively on the growth of Tamil nationalism from the 1930s onwards. ‘Nationalism, Modernisation and Political Mobilisation in a Plurals Society' by R.N. Kearney is similar to Wilson's article, although Kearney argues that the emergence of Hindu cultural nationalism in India during the British colonial period was reason against British missionary activities, particularly against religious cohesion. Kearney also argues that the spilt of the Ceylon National congress in 1920s clearly revealed that Tamil leaders were against the colonial legislative and constitutional system. Arasaratnam's ‘Nationalism in Sri Lanka and the Tamils' follows  Kearney's approach. However, Arasaratnam's work only goes back to the latter part of the 19th century, arguing that the national consciences of Ceylonese was ,in a broad sense, similar to that of India during the British colonial period.  In addition, he also came to the conclusion that the early Tamil political parties were to no means instruments for successful mobilisation of the whole Tamil community but only organised pressure groups of the educated class. Arasaratnam has noted in another of his article ‘Tradition, Nationalism and Nation- building in South Asia'that the inevitable result of the emergence of the Singhalese nationalism was the alienation of the Tamls and their exclusion from this form of nationalism. Predictably Tamil nationalism grew in response to the strength of Sinhalese nationalism. This approach has enabled the search undertaken here for those raw materials and ingredients that give birth to Tamil nationalism.

In addition to the scholarly articles mentioned above, there are very valuable academic monographs which investigate and analyse historic backdrop to the ethnic conflict in some depth. These works focus on rise of ethnic tensions during the third decade of the twentieth century and the post colonial period. However, some of these works acknowledge that Tamil nationalism was conceived as early as the late nineteenth century. The break- up of Sri Lanka: The Singhala Tamil Conflict and SJV Chelvanayakam and The Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism 1947-1977, both by AJ Wilson, and another scholarly publication , Buddhism Betrayed by SJ Tambiah.  These monographs try to identify the early formative stages of ethnic tensions between Tamil and Singhalese. In the first of his book, Wilson gives comprehensive analysis of the conflict and confrontation which occurred as a result power-sharing on a communal basis. He investigate the post colonial period and the current political problem in a very detailed and clear manner and his second book provides a complete overview and a thorough investigation of the post colonial development of Tamils with special reference to the Tamil leader Chelvanayakem and his political career.Buddhism Betrayed bySJ Tambiah is some respects similar to the works of Wilson. Most of his discussion is based on twentieth century political events and focuses on Buddhist revivalism and Singhalese nationalism.

The second category deals with the theory and concept of origin and development of political parties and origin of the party system in Sri Lanka with special reference to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Political Parties and Political Development edited by Joseph La Palombara and Myron Weiner falls under the second catogory. In this comprehensive and systematic work the editors and authors have sought to raise new questions about the potential roles of parties and party system for initiating, managing and consolidating dynamic political change and development. This study is also unique in the series in the degree to which it seek to relate European and American experience with current development in the emerging areas of Asia and Africa. The monograph The Growth of a Party System in Ceylon by Calvin A. Woodward provides comprehensive understanding on the pattern of politics in Ceylon from the pre independence era up to the period of 1965. It also discussed about the formation of a party system in Ceylon their transformation from notable-determined structures to voter determined and socially responsive units. The article‘Elite Incorporation in Multi-Ethnic Societies' byKanchan Chandra proposed an institutionalize model, according to which success or failure in elite incorporation depends, not upon the social relations between ethnic categories, but upon the internal organizational structure of political parties with special reference to Indian political arena . The author argue, giving an equal probability of winning elections, political parties with competitive rules for intra-party advancement are likely to incorporate new elites successfully, while political parties with centralized rules are likely to fail. And competitive party organizations with even a low probability of winning elections are likely to be more able to incorporate new elites than centralized party organizations with a higher probability. The model builds upon Myron Weiner's classic 1967 study of the Indian Congress party, which was the first to identify the link between intra-party competition and elite incorporation. He developed the model by reexamining Weiner's and other studies in the light of new data from a study of the variation in the ability of the Congress Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party to incorporate Scheduled Caste elites across Indian states.

However, these scholarly works discussed above indicate a vacuum in the area covered by the current research. In the present study a comprehensive assessment criterion has been developed. This will not only bridge the gap but also either substantiate or refute the findings of earlier studies. Therefore, the present study is expected to be unique in this respect as well.  


  1. Politicization of ethnic tensions under the SLFP governments has contributed to emergence of ethnic disharmony between Singhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka during the period of 1948 to 1972.
  2. SLFP manipulate ethnic identities in their quest for power, and these processes can either deliberately or unexpectedly trigger ethnic conflict.
  3. Ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka exist based on the desire of both ethnic groups to achieve supremacy or equality.


Primary data will be collected through the intended survey to be carried out. For this purpose, interviews will be carried out with a selected number of active politicians, a cross section of members of the armed forces, general public as well as community leaders involved in both religious and welfare activities. Further, a questionnaire will be prepared and distributed among a sample of approximately hundred people within all the segments of the society mentioned above.

Secondary data will be collected through books, publications and internet. Special emphasis will be given to books and articles written on the ethnic conflict of Sri Lanka by eminent authors in order to refer to data collected already in relevant areas. Collected data will be presented in statistical manner as graphs, charts and tables etc in order to see whether the hypothesis is correct or wrong.


The research study will be organised under seven chapters, the first chapter being the Introduction. Introductory chapter will include an outline of the country's ethnic problem giving the historic perspective as well. Further, the theoretical framework, based on which the study will be conducted; the hypothesis of the research, limitations under which the research was carried out  as well as the methodology which will be adopted in conducting the research will be discussed in this chapter. Finally, the organisation of the chapters will also be explained.

Chapter two of the research reviews the previous literature related to the topic researched. A number of books which relate to the research topic, authored by eminent scholars will be reviewed with regard to the applicability of their contents towards the research. The role of the national parties in addressing the interest of diverse societies will be discussed in chapter three. The gradual emergence of the competitive party system in Sri Lanka and approaches and attitudes of the SLFP as the leading political party will be discussed thereafter.

The policies and practices of SLFP till 1977 will be analysed in detail on the backdrop of some of the major political milestones and the resultant implications in chapter five. Chapter six will discuss outcomes of the study and lead on to the last chapter concluding the research.