The Residue of Internal Conflict and Colonialism on Sri Lanka

July 30, 2013
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The country I chose to research for my geography paper was Sri Lanka, primarily because my family has strong ethnic connections to the country. My parents were born and raised in Sri Lanka, and later immigrated to Canada as refugees due to ethnic tensions escalating in the nation. They were survivors of the infamous 1983 riots, which sparked the mass migration a large number of the Sri Lankan Tamil population (Korf 287).


A “once described paradise by European settlers” Sri Lanka is an island located off the southern coast of India (Norton 179). Like many countries it has a “long history of colonization, by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, having achieved independence in 1948” (Norton 190). Supportive of the dependency theory discussed in the fifth chapter of Human Geography, former colonies are dependent on developed countries. They achieve third world status and are less developed due to the historically extensive exploitation of their resources by colonial powers; Sri Lanka has experienced hindered growth due to this reason (Norton 188).

As a nation that had already been debilitated by colonialism, Sri Lanka experienced further hindrance in development in recent years due to both anthropocentric and natural disasters. This paper discusses the twenty-six year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which came to a bloody end four years ago in 2009. The civil war is a crucial component of Sri Lanka’s history and its impact trickled into every aspect of the nation’s identity in terms of political framework, cultural identity, social interactions, international relationships and the economy. The conflict had significantly devastated the country and its people by economic measures, increasing social tensions and environmental destruction (Grobar and Gnanaselvam 395).
Suggestions will be featured in the paper, regarding how Sri Lanka can combat the drawbacks it has recently experienced.
The Aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War
Background to the Internal Conflict

Sri Lanka’s population is comprised primarily of two ethnic groups: the
Singhalese majority representing 74% and Tamil minority representing 12 % of the population. Tensions between these two groups date back as far as 150 B.C.E, due to cultural differences (Grobar and Gnanaselvam 395). The Singhalese population practices Buddhism, which is a universalizing faith (seeking converts) while the Tamil population is mainly Hindu (an ethnic religion that does not seek converts) (Norton 238-240). In addition to practicing different faiths, the two populations speak different languages further deepening the division between both ethnic groups. In 1972 the government consolidated its power to the Singhalese majority, thus expressing and acting upon the interests of the dominant group. Consequently Tamils demanded to form a separate state in the Northern and Eastern provinces, fearing that their culture would be lost unless their values were embedded in state policies. Seeking Tamil independence triggered the formation of violent separatist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The group periodically clashed with the Sri Lankan government, gaining power in the Northern province. However the conquest for a separate State of Eelam came to an abrupt end in 2009; with a vast majority of the LTTE wiped out by the Sri Lankan military and their international allies. (Grobar and Gnanaselvam 395). Despite the despise of the LTTE, the scars of the civil war remain and continue to act as a barrier to the growth of Sri Lanka.
Economic Drawbacks of Civil War

The internal conflict in Sri Lanka is responsible for several of the economic drawbacks the country endured and currently faces. The government obtained extra funds by significantly decreasing investments allocated for economic services as well as “borrowing from domestic sources, abroad or central” (Grobar and Gnanaselvam 399). Also as a result of low domestic savings, Sri Lanka became increasingly dependent on income generated from export markets, foreign savings and investment (Grobar and Gnanaselvam 401). Loss of cultivable land contributed to the deceleration of economic growth and the country’s inability for subsistence. Supportive of the “idea of entitlements,” remaining cultivable land is used to grow export crops such as tea leaves at the expense of local production; making Sri Lanka vulnerable to global market changes (Norton 196). Bomb attacks on physical infrastructure in the capital/economic hearth Colombo projected an image of instability among foreign investors (Arunatilake, Jayasuriya and Kelegama 1494). Sri Lanka’s tourism industry experienced a massive decline due to the poor public image it has generated for being a country damaged by ethnic disputes. In 2006, it was reported that resorts were only functioning at 20% capacity. Additionally, buffer zones have been established 100 meters within the coast, a huge blow to businesses aspiring to rebuild damaged structures (Norton 179).
The Tamil Diaspora & Cultural Loss

The prolonged period of violence deeply impacted the social life of Sri Lankan citizens, and built animosity between the different ethnic groups present. Large Tamil populations were relocated from their homes as internally displaced persons, and were forced to flee the country as asylum seekers in foreign countries. An estimate of 700000 people Tamils reported immigrated abroad, which is roughly one third of the Tamil population prior to the civil war, this mass migration is referred to as the Tamil Diaspora (Korf 287). As seen in Figure 2 a large number of once Tamil inhabited landscape was destroyed as an outcome of the civil war, which additionally endangers the survival of the minority’s culture (“Hindu temple of ritual significance destroyed in Trincomalee” 2009). “Tamils that have fled war-torn areas and seek residence in Colombo are forced to re-negotiate their Tamilness to avoid being picked on by security forces (Korf 287). Having to conceal one’s ethnic background or assimilate to the dominant group is a sign of the endangerment of culture (Norton 275). The immigration of a majority of skilled Tamil workers impacted the economy as well; leaving behind laborers in the agricultural industry (Arunatilake, Jayasuriya and Kelegama 1484). Internally displaced Tamils were not allowed to return back to their homes, and had their property claimed illegally by the Singhalese under the protection of the armed forces/police. Notably in the town of Trincomalee, Tamil fishermen and farmers were prohibited from entering fishing grounds, but were open for use by the Singhalese (Korf 285). A significant loss of human life with conservative estimates of casualties ranging between 750,000 to 100,000 were provided by the government; since media censorship has been issued those statistics are not considered valid (Arunatilake, Jayasuriya and Kelegama 1487). The internal conflict in Sri Lanka is not just interwoven in the nation’s history but its impact is deeply embedded in the day to day life of its citizens.
Brutish Policies in the Name of State Security

The poor population of both Singhalese and Tamil heritage suffered greatly in the duration of the civil war and in its four-year aftermath. A consequence of the war was the alteration of state policies allowing unlimited military power/authority to ensure the maintenance of state security. In order to control the local population both the military and police developed a series of checkpoints in areas once under the LTTE’s domain. These policies allow for “round-ups, checks and raid at anytime instilling uncertainty upon the life of the Tamil population.” (Korf 285). Sri Lanka’s harsh security policies have earned stern criticism from organizations like Amnesty International. Claims of arbitrary arrests, unjust detainments, abductions, torture and executions in the custody of security forces have continued to swarm around the Sri Lankan government. The enforced media censorship has also sparked suspicions of malpractice by the government (“Annual Report” 2012). Although there has been a cease of violence in Sri Lanka since 2009, the country has yet to achieve a sense of nationhood and mutual respect between ethnic groups.


As a nation Sri Lanka is incredibly vulnerable to both natural and human made disasters. An obvious example would be the Indian earthquake and Tsunami that took place in 2004, demonstrating the fragility of the nation. The Indian Ocean lacked a Tsunami warning system that was in place in the Pacific Ocean, and the Sri Lankan public health system was not prepared for a natural disaster of the tsunami’s magnitude (Yamada 38).
The tsunami was responsible for 38,195 casualties and the displacement of 834,000 people on the island (Lee 1410). Although it was not the root cause, the tsunami further aggravated pre-existing problems regarding infrastructure, political and social grounds. It should be noted that during this time period the civil war in Sri Lanka was still on going. The LTTE had political control of the North and East thus post-tsunami relief was their responsibility (Yamada et al. 39). Sri Lanka heavily relied on foreign aid to support post-tsunami relief, which suggests its dependency on developed countries. The Central Bank of Sri Lanka received more than 1 billion dollars in aid within two months of the tsunami (Yamada et al. 45). The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami acted as an additional obstructing factor in the progress of Sri Lanka’s growth as a developing nation (Lee 1410). Sri Lanka was particularly sensitive to the severe aftermath of the tsunami given the characteristics it possesses as a less developed country i.e. its “fragile cultural, political and economic conditions making its people vulnerable to environmental extremes” (Norton 200). Without assistance from wealthier foreign countries and non-government organizations, Sri Lanka would be in complete turmoil post-tsunami (Yamada et al 45).
Sri Lanka’s economy (particularly it’s primary industries) strongly reflects its dependency on global markets. Given that the nation’s development occurred during a stressful environment it could not compete with the economic achievements of its South Asian counterparts. Malaysia and South Korea shared a similar starting GDP as Sri Lanka, but the former catapulted into economic success due to a politically stable environment allowing for financial growth (Kelegama 18). Protectionism (the creation of policies to protect workers with in a nation by regulating foreign trade) by developed countries is credited for the thriving success of Sri Lanka’s garment industry. Also many policies were placed to encourage “export-led industrialization and attract foreign investment” (Kelegama 54). As a result of such policies Sri Lanka is becoming increasingly dependent on unstable international income. 90% of the country’s export earning are generated through the sales of plantation exports such as tea, coconut and rubber in exchange for the purchase of food imports (Herring 325).

The affairs of Sri Lanka have always been that of international concern due to the number of Sri Lankans that reside in foreign countries. In the final years of the Sri Lankan civil war a number of Diaspora Tamils publicly voiced criticism towards the government’s lack of civilian protection (Korf 287). Thus, cultural ties exist between Sri Lanka and the larger global society through the dispersal of its people abroad. The battle between the LTTE and Sri Lankan government also generated strong military ties/alliances with superpowers India and China. China not only provided funding for defeating the LTTE in 2009 but has also vowed to invest 760 million dollars for Sri Lankan infrastructure development in November 2012 (“Sri Lanka-China strengthens military ties” 2012). Sri Lanka has burned bridges with other developed countries on the grounds of suspected human rights violations such as the US and Canada. Stephen Harper announced his decision to boycott a heads of government summit in Sri Lanka in 2013, because the country had failed to improve its human rights records. The United States decided to stiffen military support on the same grounds (“World Report 2012: Sri Lanka” 2012). What can be deduced from the preceding research is that Sri Lanka is a nation reliant on the protection provided by foreign countries in a military and monetary perspective.


It can be concluded Sri Lanka is a nation that has continuously been debilitated and set back due to a series of events (predominantly man made). Being under the domination of differing European groups surely hindered its growth, but colonial exploitation is a characteristic shared by a large number of countries. The latter have been able to thrive economically despite the historical set back i.e. India. Needless to say, there are other factors that prevented Sri Lanka from achieving such success. Dependence on other countries, unjust state policies and mismanagement by the government are the root causes of the problems Sri Lanka experienced/continues to face.

The hostility between the two ethnic groups in Sri Lanka is still a threat despite the termination of the civil war. “Tamils claim to be victims of unjust, education and colonization policies” (Korf 285). The latter was the grounds by which the LTTE first started their rebellion against the Sri Lankan government, to achieve equality by governing their own state. The Sri Lankan government could ease the cultural tension in the country by providing minority groups with validation of their culture in state policies such as making Tamil an official language or removing culturally prejudiced policies. If implemented, the minority group wouldn’t feel their culture was endangered thus would not seek separation from the state. In addition the government should take initiatives to preserve the Tamil culture and prevent its distinction, with the restoration of destroyed cultural landscapes inhabited by the minority group. Instead of seeking “state homogeneity” encouraging acculturation by the Sri Lankan government would encourage mutual respect without certain ethnic groups feeling pressured to assimilate (Korf 295). Some argue that the cultural resentment between the Tamils and Singhalese is irreversible and cannot be eradicated simply with the adjustment of policies, but a shift in cultural attitude is required. On the contrary I believe that tensions between the two groups are not completely ethnically motivated but are supplemented by poverty. Benedikt Korf makes a valid point in the article Who is the rogue? Discourse, power and spatial politics in post-war Sri Lanka:

Corruption, nepotism and clientele networks have mainly benefited the English speaking elite in Colombo and a small rural elite of local politicians and their clients. These clientele structures reproduce poverty in the south and have created grievances among the rural Singhalese youth, who cannot fulfill their economic aspirations (Korf 285).

This excerpt identifies that the Sri Lankan infrastructure caters to the elite, neglecting a majority of the population regardless of cultural background. As highlighted in the seventh chapter of Human Geography, it is known that economic problems are the breeding grounds for blaming certain ethnic groups and triggering social conflict. When individuals feel they cannot achieve their goals and are deduced to live in poverty, they lash out in extremist measures (Norton 273). Thus, assessing the government’s actions towards improving economic conditions in poor rural areas would be beneficial to alleviating social conflict/tensions.

One of the concerns of regional geography addressed in the second chapter of Human Geography was that “regions reflect characteristics of the occupying society and consequently impact that society” (Norton 38). As previously noted, the presence of state security is prominent in the northern regions of Sri Lanka, which were previously under the LTTE control. The physical presence of the military has become permanent feature in the landscape and instills a fear in citizens who live under the notion that although the war has halted, their fear has not. From a human geographic perspective, the removal of intimidating state security in the public eye would help in the restoration of a more peaceful attitude for Sri Lankan citizens.

As for solving Sri Lanka’s foreign dependency problem, it is largely in the hands of the allocation of government investment. Sri Lanka has had 50% of its rice imported from foreign countries although it has a suitable environment to grow staple crops domestically. Instead farmers are growing export crops (Herring 325). It would be wise if the government focused on developing Sri Lanka’s infrastructure so that it can generate a stable income domestically, as opposed to relying on global markets that are susceptible to change. Shifting economic focus from globally to domestically generated income reduce its vulnerability and dependency on international countries.

Works Cited

"Annual Report 2012 The state of the world's human rights." Amnesty International. Amnesty International, 2012. Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. <>.

Arunatilake, Nisha, Sisira Jayasuriya, and Saman Kelega. "The Economic Cost of the War in Sri Lanka." World Development 29.9 (2001): 1483-500. Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. < >.

Grobar, Lisa M., and Shiranthi Gnanaselvam. "Economic Development and Cultural Change." 41.2 (1993): 395-405. Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. < >.

Herring, Ronald J. "Economic Liberalisation Policies in Sri Lanka: International Pressures, Constraints and Supports." Economic and Political Weekly 21 Feb. 1987: 325. Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. Google Scholar. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. <>.

Image of Murukan desecrated. 2009. TamilNet. Web. 3 Mar. 2013. <>.

Kelegama, Saman. Development Under Stress: Sri Lankan E economy in Transition. Colombo: SAGE Publications Pvt. Ltd, 2007. 18-54. Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. Google Scholar. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.

Kondrashov, Sergey. Distribution of Languages and Religious groups of Sri Lanka 1981. 1981 Census of Population and Housing, Colombo. Web. 22 Feb. 2013. <>.

Korf, Benedikt. "Who is the rogue? Discourse, power and spatial politics in post-war Sri Lanka." Political Geography 25.3 (2005): 279-97. The Hekman Library. Web. 21 Feb. 2013. <>.

Lee, A.C.K. "Local perspectives on humanitarian aid in Sri Lanka after the tsunami." Public Health 122.12 (2008): 1410-17. Web. 21 Feb. 2013. <>.

Norton, William. Human Geography. 7th ed. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.

"Sri Lanka-China strengthens military ties." The Official Government News Portal of Sri Lanka. Department of Government Information, 12 Nov. 2012. Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. <>.

"World Report 2012: Sri Lanka." Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 2012. Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. <>.

Uyangoda, Jayadeva. "Ethnic conflict, ethnic imagination and democratic alternatives for Sri Lanka." Futures Beyond Nationalism 37.9 (2005): 959-88. ScienceDirect. Web. 22 Feb. 2013. <>.

Yamada, Seiji, Ravindu P. Gunatilake, Timur M. Roytman, Sarath Gunatilake, and Thusara Fernando. "The Sri Lanka Tsunami Experience." Disaster Management & Response 4.2 (2006): 38-48. Web. 21 Feb. 2013. <>.

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