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ICE Case Studies
Number 123, January 2004

Ethnic Conflict and the Impact on the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka

Ryan Walkiewicz
Kurt Brockman

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information


1. Abstract

Since independence from British rule, the island of Sri Lanka has been experiencing an ethnic conflict that has slowly developed into a full-scale civil war. The policies of the majority Sinhalese government have caused some of the Sri Lanka Tamils to feel that they are being persecuted. The cry for a separate state emerged from the Tamils, an idea the government would not consider. Radical terrorist groups on both sides have caused much loss of life, while the Sri Lanka military was used against the Tamil rebels. This study will look into one policy of the Sinhalese government that called for the re-distribution of Sinhala people into the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka. That area is considered by both groups to be a part of their natural homeland. This action was both the result of the ethnic tensions between the two groups and another source for furthering the tensions. The large population growth in the Dry Zone has caused damage to the forests and land.

2. Description

Background on Early Stages of Ethnic Conflict

Sri Lanka has experienced decades of war due to the ongoing ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Sri Lanka Tamils. It is important to understand the role of religion in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese are predominantly Buddhist and this plays an extremely important role in their culture. Throughout the years of British rule many Sinhalese viewed Christianity and Westernism with disdain. The Tamils are predominantly Hindu with a minority Christian group. There are also small populations of Moors and Malays who are Muslim. The majority group comprises about 74 per cent of the population while the Sri Lanka Tamils make up roughly 12.6 per cent of the population. The two groups are physically indistinguishable yet trace their ancestry to two different origins. The Sinhalese believe they are of Aryan descent and were the first inhabitants of the area. The Sri Lanka Tamils trace their ancestry to Dravidian roots and claim ancient rights to portions of the island. Part of the current ethnic problems can be traced to the British colonial rule. There are conflicting reports as to whether there has been longstanding ethnic conflict between the two groups or whether it is relatively recent. The Sinhalese saw the British as favoring the Tamils by setting up education centers in predominantly Tamil areas and thus the Tamils eventually taking a large number of professional positions within the society. Another issue was the system of government that was created during the independence movement, which would never allow the minority Tamils a major influence in Parliament. They would always be a minority group and thus at risk to suffer from prejudice. (1)

The Tamil minority had been reportedly assured by the Sinhala leadership that it would not be discriminated against with regard to representation and legislation. (2) Immediately after gaining independence, the Sinhalese nationalism began to grow.

While there has always been an ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, the current situation can be traced back to the issue of language. Because of British education, many Tamils knew English, which was necessary for many high-status jobs. While only making up a slim portion of the population as a whole, the Tamils held around 31 percent of the positions in universities and held a higher percentage in professional fields like medical and engineering. (3) Many Sinhalese resented the fact that the Tamils enjoyed disproportionate educational and employment advantages because of their proficiency in the English language. After independence, the government adopted a policy of denying Tamils admission into high and professional education. The Tamils percentage in the government services also began to decline. It was in these early years that the language question became the dominant political issue in the country. Many Sinhalese believed that the adoption of “Sinhala only” as the official language would bring about a revival of the Buddhist language and their culture.

In the elections of 1956 the Sinhalese party advocating “Sinhala only” won an absolute majority. The Tamil minority was in no position to influence any aspect of the new Parliament. The new ruling coalition introduced the Official Language Bill, which made Sinhala the sole official language. While the Bill was being debated in the Parliament, ethnic violence erupted in Colombo and Eastern Sri Lanka. Both the Tamil Congress and the left members of Parliament opposed the Bill, but their view was not taken into account. “The majority Sinhala members of Parliament did not realize that they were laying a strong foundation for a racial, ethnic, and religious divide between the two major communities in the country”. (4)

The language issue and discriminatory practices by the Sinhalese majority continued to be critical issues to the minority Tamils. While there was some ethnic violence in these early years of independence, these disputes primarily remained political and the ethnic animosity remained as cynical rhetoric. (5) This started to change as the government’s economic plan began to fail in the 1960s. The nation went bankrupt, and, by the end of the decade, fully 25 percent of the population, Sinhalese and Tamil, was unemployed. (6) The unemployed were mostly the younger generation. “For this desperate mass of disappointed youth, the violent metaphors and racist rhetoric that passed for the ordinary give-and-take of parliamentary debate among established politicians now became a literal call to arms. (7)

In 1971, the violence began. Many young Sinhalese blamed the country's problems on the influence of Westernization. These militants believed in the Jatika Chintanaya, the “National Ethos” or “Racial Ideology” advocated by the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front). (8) The JVP set out to destroy all traces of Non-Sinhalese culture on the island.

Around the same time, Tamil politics gave rise to its own racist terrorists. (9) Extremist factions sprang from the youth movements of all the established Tamil separatist parties, notably that of the Tamil United Front. The results of infighting amongst the group led to splinter groups such as the notorious Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which gained assistance from the government of India’s Tamil Nadu state.

It has been shown how the early decisions of the government, made after independence, led to the creation of groups dedicated to violence. The extremist Tamil groups began a series of terrorist attacks against all of those who did not support the creation of an independent Tamil state. The Sri Lankan government controlled by the Sinhalese majority responded by inflicting horrible atrocities upon the Tamils, whether or not they were even involved in the terrorism. The situation has progressively worsened and there is no end in sight for a successful solution to the problem. A timeline of current events is included to provide a synopsis of the conflict.

Ethnic Conflict in Relation to the Dry Zone

Within this context of ethnic conflict, the government introduced a policy of population re-distribution that further intensified situations. The policy was the re-distribution of Sinhalese populations into the area known as the Dry Zone. This region is considered by the Tamils to be part of their homeland, and is included by the separatist Tamil movements in the areas that must be independent. The Sinhalese also feel that they have a claim to the land. “The issue has intensified conflict because the colonization of the Dry Zone evokes not only the Sinhalese ethnic myths that idealize the prosperity and simple piety of the ancient Sinhalese but also the ones that exaggerate the hostility of the Tamils, who they believed threatened the very existence of Buddhism and eventually drove the Sinhalese from the Dry Zone”. (10)

The colonization of the Dry Zone by landless peasant cultivators from the Wet Zone was one of the highest policy priorities for the government. The policy called for the mass irrigation of the are, including one plan to irrigate 360,000 hectares over a thirty-year period. These projects came at a high cost and were severely criticized by the World Bank for low return on investment. This intrusion was highly contested by the Tamil politicians as intervening in their “traditional homeland”. To them these policies came at an enormous cost and only benefited the Sinhalese people who moved into the area. Many of the newly populated settlements discriminated against the Tamils. (11)

What was the result of these colonization policies? Patrick Peebles in his article “Colonization and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka” explains the population impact upon various districts in the Dry Zone. The district of Tamankaduwa experienced a dramatic increase in population due to colonization. In 1946 the district had a population of 20,900; by 1981 the district had a population of 263,000. More than 70 percent of the inhabitants are new settlers or their descendents. “The non-Sinhalese population of Tamankaduwa increased from 9,200 in 1946 to 23,700 in 1981, roughly equivalent to the rate of natural increase for the island as a whole, suggesting that the settlers, whether colonists, squatters, or the descendants of either, were entirely Sinhalese. In 1946, 56 percent of the population was Sinhalese, 15 percent Sri Lanka Tamil, 23 percent Moor, and 7 percent other. According to the 1981 census, 91 percent was Sinhalese”. (12) This sort of dramatic increase occurred all over the Dry Zone. The change in the population cannot in any way be confused with natural growth. “From 1946 to 1959 Sinhalese had increased from 19 percent to 54 percent. In 1976 they constituted 83 percent of the population. Since independence the Dry Zone has been transformed from a plural society to a homogenous Sinhalese Buddhist one.” (13) The important aspect of this data is the association with the ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and Sri Lanka Tamils. It was the beliefs of both sides that led to the region becoming highly contested.

Timeline of Recent Events Concerning the Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka

This timeline is from CNN and serves to give information regarding the current state of affairs in Sri Lanka. The previous information relates to the beginning of the conflict and now the continuation of events can be seen.

November 9, 1994: The People's Alliance (PA), headed by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), wins the general election. Its leader, Kumaratunga, is elected president later in the year.

April 19, 1995: The Tigers shatter ceasefire by resuming a vicious bombing campaign after peace talks with the government collapse. But the government retaliates, driving the LTTE out of Jaffna in the most bitter battle seen in the conflict.

December 20, 1999: President Kumaratunga is wounded in a failed bomb-assassination attempt during an election rally. She is later re-elected as president.

July 2, 2001: In a strongly worded statement, the Sri Lankan government says the only way to end the country's long running Tamil insurgency is full-scale war.

December 25, 2001: A ceasefire in the civil war is declared.

February 22, 2002: The government and Tamil Tiger rebels sign an open-ended cease-fire accord.

May 21, 2002: Face-to-face talks are held between government officials and Tamil Tiger rebels for the first time in seven years.

December 6, 2002: The Tamil Tigers formally commit themselves to autonomy in a federal system in an undivided Sri Lanka, while the government says it is willing to concede "a substantial measure of autonomy to the Tamils."

January 4, 2003: Days before a fourth round of talks, the Tamil rebels harden their position against calls to disarm in exchange for allowing refugees to return to army-controlled areas.

May 30, 2003: For the second time in a month, Tamil Tigers reject government proposals to restart stalled peace talks, this time on the grounds the plan was not suited to carrying out humanitarian work in Tamil areas.

August 26, 2003: Government announces $180 million infrastucture improvement package designed to boost the rural economy and based on reduced spending on the country's security forces -- one of the first signs of a so-called "peace dividend".

November 4, 2003: Kumaratunga sacks defense, interior and media ministers. The president also suspends parliament and seizes control of state-run media -- all while the prime minister is abroad. A political crisis ensues.

November 10, 2003: After a meeting between Wickremsinghe and his cabinet, the government announces that peace talks with the rebels have been postponed until the political power struggle is resolved.

These descriptions show the level of violence and racial hatred that has been occurring for decades in Sri Lanka.

3. Duration

a. 1948
b. Present

1948 was the date of Sri Lankan independence and was chosen as the starting point for this study because it started the period of the Sinhalese majority’s control of the government. It was at this point that the ethnic problems could come to light in the form of policy and military action.

4. Location

Southeast Asia
Sri Lanka

5. Actors

Directly Involved: Sinhalese; Sri Lanka Tamil
Indirectly Involved: India

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem

It has already been shown how the ethnic conflict has created large population growth in the previously untouched area of the Dry Zone. This large increase in population has had severe effects upon the environment. The rural population of Sri Lanka previously sustained itself on what the forest could provide. Slash and burn techniques were not uncommon when the forest was vast. Due to population growth and amount of available forestland, slash and burn techniques steadily declined in favor of permanent cultivation by private owners.

The primary environmental problem in this case study is the threat of deforestation caused by agriculture, resettlements, and small-scale logging. Encroachment into the region’s protected areas is also a threat that warrants attention. The type of habitat in which this is occurring is the Sri Lanka Dry Zone dry evergreen forest. The Sinhalese are using the area to re-distribute its people from other regions. Both the Sinhalese and Tamil see the area as being within their ancient homeland boundaries. This population redistribution is both the result and cause of ethnic conflict. The large masses of people who have moved into the Dry Zone because of the government’s policy have dramatically increased the population of the area. This population boom has caused many severe negative impacts to the environment.

The government of Sri Lanka has often instituted large irrigation plans such as the “Mahaweli Ganga” project to bring farming into the Dry Zone. The Mahaweli irrigation project planned to irrigate 593,000 hectares. The dry zone scrub forest has adapted over the years to the dry conditions. The forests are being cleared to help increase rice production. The government wants to grow rice in the Dry Zone to decrease unemployment in the densely populated wet zone. (13)

Since 1961 irrigation has enabled a much greater proportion of land in the dry zone to be cultivated and in 1978 it was estimated that nearly one-third of the country's dry-zone area was under permanent cultivation. As a result, the proportion of forestland declined and was estimated at just fewer than 40 percent in 1987. This is the direct result of population re-distribution. The irrigation is needed to sustain to large, new populations that have moved into the Dry Zone districts at the expense of the forest.

7. Type of Habitat

a. Dry

A large portion of the east, southeast, and northern parts of the country comprise the Dry Zone. The Dry Zone receives around 120 to 190 cm of rain annually. This rainfall occurs predominantly from October to January. During the rest of the year there is very little precipitation.

The natural vegetation of the dry zone is adapted to the annual change from flood to drought. The typical ground cover is scrub forest, with tough bushes and cactuses found in the driest areas. Plants grow very fast from November to February when rainfall is heavy, but stop growing during the hot season from March to August. Various adaptations to the dry conditions have developed. “To conserve water, trees have thick bark; most have tiny leaves, and some drop their leaves during this season. Also, the topmost branches of the tallest trees often interlace, forming a canopy against the hot sun and a barrier to the dry wind”. (14) When water is absent, the plains of the dry zone are dominated by browns and grays. When water becomes available, either during the wet season or through proximity to rivers and lakes, the vegetation explodes into shades of green with a wide variety of beautiful flowers. “Varieties of flowering acacias are well adapted to the arid conditions and flourish on the Jaffna Peninsula”. (15) Among the trees of the dry-land forests are some valuable species, such as satinwood, ebony, ironwood, and mahogany. (16)

8. Act and Harm Sites

Site of Act Site of Harm Example
Sri Lanka Dry Zone Gov’t policy of population re-distribution

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict

This case occurs within the state of Sri Lanka during a period of civil war.

10. Level of Conflict

Intrastate [High]

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)

Since 1983, the civil war between the national army and the LTTE has claimed approximately 40,000-70,000 lives. This number can only be regarded as a guesstimate because of the unwillingness of the Sri Lankan government to allow journalists into the area and the difficulty in estimating the impact upon the civilian population.

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics

b. Indirect

The environment has been affected by the ethnic conflict via the population re-distribution policies of the government in the Dry Zone.

13. Level of Strategic Interest

d. Regional

14. Outcome of Dispute

c. Stalemate

The Civil War continues with no peaceful solution in sight.

V. Related Information and sources

15. Related Cases

Civil War in the Sudan: Resources or Religion?

16. Relevant Literature and Websites

J. Websostby. “Introduction to World Forestry”. UK: Blackwell. 1991

T. Gupta. “Studies on Social Forestry in India”. PAPA Publication. 1990.

T. Hewage. “National Forest Policy for Sustained Development”. Economic Review. 01 November, 1996.

O.N. Mehrotra. “Ethnic Strife in Sri Lanka”. Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. Jan. 1998, p1522

Robert Craig Johnson. “Tigers and Lions in Paradise: The Enduring Agony of the Sri Lankan Civil War”. Chandelle. November/December 1998

Patrick Peebles. “Colonization and Ethnic Conflict in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka”. The Journal of Asian Studies. February 1990, p32

Piero Scaruffi. “Wars and Casualties in the 20th Century”.

Sri Lanka: Ethnic Conflict and Civil War.


(1) O.N. Mehrotra. “Ethnic Strife in Sri Lanka”. Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. Jan. 1998, p1522

(2) Robert Craig Johnson. “Tigers and Lions in Paradise: The Enduring Agony of the Sri Lankan Civil War”. Chandelle. November/December 1998

(3) O.N. Mehrotra. “Ethnic Strife in Sri Lanka”. Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. Jan. 1998, p1522

(4) Ibid. 1522

(5) Robert Craig Johnson. “Tigers and Lions in Paradise: The Enduring Agony of the Sri Lankan Civil War”. Chandelle. November/December 1998

(6) Ibid.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Patrick Peebles. “Colonization and Ethnic Conflict in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka”. The Journal of Asian Studies. February 1990, p32

(11) Ibid. 38

(12) Ibid.. 40

(13) T. Gupta. “Studies on Social Forestry in India”. PAPA Publication. 1990.

(14) J. Websostby. “Introduction to World Forestry”. UK: Blackwell. 1991

(15) Ibid.

(16) Ibid.