Politics and Society

Politics and Society

Like other nations in the South Asia region, Sri Lanka has a diverse population. Various communities profess four of the world's major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. The major ethnic groups include not only the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils, who compose 74 and 12.6 percent of the population, respectively, but also Indian Tamils (5.5 percent of the population) who view themselves as separate from the Sri Lankan Tamils, as well as "Moors" or Muslims (7.1 percent), "Burghers" and other people of mixed European and Sri Lankan descent (0.4 percent), Malays (0.4 percent), and tiny percentages of others including the aboriginal Veddahs, who are considered to be the island's original inhabitants.

The society also possesses a caste system similar to that of India's. Caste in Sri Lanka is politically important for two reasons. First, members of the national political elite tend to be members of the higher status castes. Since independence the overwhelming majority of the prime ministers and the one president have been members of the Sinhalese Goyigama (cultivator) caste. Also, voters tend to support people of their own caste, though caste identification rarely becomes a campaign issue because electoral districts tend to be homogeneous in terms of caste and the major parties generally put up candidates of that caste.

Among Sinhalese, there is also a historically significant distinction between people who live in the coastal and lowland areas and those who live in the mountainous central part of the island, the area that constituted the Kingdom of Kandy before its conquest by the British in the early nineteenth century. During the British colonial period and to a lesser extent in independent Sri Lanka, the two groups, which possess somewhat different cultures and ways of life, frequently perceived their interests to be divergent. During the 1920s, for example, the Kandyan National Assembly advocated a federal state in which the Kandyan community would be guaranteed regional autonomy.

Apart from religion, ethnicity, and caste, there are social differences that emerged as a result of British colonialism. Despite a history of popular support for Marxist parties, especially the Trotskyite Ceylon Equal Society Party (Lanka Sama Samaja Party--LSSP), economically based classes in the European sense are poorly developed in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, welldefined elite groups, including families with planter, merchant, and professional backgrounds, continued to be important in the late 1980s despite the redistributive policies of recent governments. Marks of their special status included not only wealth but education in the island's most prestigious schools or overseas, fluency in English, and a higher degree of Westernization than among other Sri Lankans. In a 1985 survey of government party parliamentarians since 1970, political scientist Robert Oberst discovered not only that there was a disproportionate number of graduates of a handful of elite schools among UNP and SLFP legislators, but also that elite secondary school graduates were more likely to assume ministerial posts and play a central role in the passage of bills than nonelite school graduates. Nonelite graduates tended to be backbenchers with limited influence.

In a society as diverse as Sri Lanka's, social divisions have had a direct and weighty impact on politics. In the late 1980s, the ethnically, linguistically, and religiously based antagonism of the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils overshadowed all other social divisions: the civil war that resulted, especially since mid-1983, seemed to bode a permanent division of the country. Yet in the routine operation of day-to-day politics, allegiances based on family, caste, or region also continued to be of major importance.

As in India, matters of religion, ethnicity, region, and language have become public rather than private issues. Persons have typically viewed personal advancement not only in terms of individual initiative but also in terms of the fortunes of their ethnic, caste, or religious community. In India, however, there are so many different groups, spread out over the country like a vast mosaic, that no single group has been strong enough to seriously destabilize the national-level political system. Dissident movements, such as the Sikh militants in the northwestern Indian state of Punjab have tended to be limited to a single region. India's ruling party, Congress (I), preserved national unity by forming electoral coalitions with disparate groups such as high-caste Hindus, Muslims, and untouchables and balancing them off against other groups loyal to opposition parties.

In Sri Lanka, however, both the nature of diversity and the attitude of the government have been different. Within the island's much smaller geographical area, politics have become polarized because the politically prominent groups are few in number and clearly defined in terms of language, custom, religion, and geographical region. Successive governments moreover, have never attempted to adopt an impartial role in relation to ethnic rivalries.

Concrete economic and social equity issues have played a major role in the ethnic antagonisms of Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils since independence. Ethnic rivalry, however, draws upon older and deeper roots. Each community views itself as possessing a unique and superior culture, based on religion, language, and race. The integrity of this culture is perceived to be threatened by the encroachments of the other group. Both Sinhalese and Tamils, occupying relatively well-defined geographical areas (the Sri Lankan Tamils in the Northern Province and parts of the Eastern Province, but with vulnerable enclaves in large cities; and the Sinhalese in the central and southern parts of the island), regard themselves as besieged minorities. The Sinhalese perceive themselves as the only group of "Aryans" and Buddhists in an overwhelmingly Dravidian and Hindu region (including the populous state of Tamil Nadu and other parts of southern India), while the Tamils see themselves as an endangered minority on the island itself. During the 1980s, this state of mutual paranoia, sharpened the ethnic boundaries of both groups and intensified economic and social conflicts.

The Sinhalese
Tamil Exclusivism


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