Sri Lanka’s ethnic identities

When dealing with longstanding grievances between ethnic communities locked in war, it can be difficult to disentangle a historical understanding of issues of identity and polarization.  There is always the easy temptation to create the “eternal battle” between rival identities that always fought.

I don’t have the knowledge of Sri Lankan politics or history to deeply evaluate the following, but the Peace and Conflict Timeline (PACT) website offers an interesting perspective (that might be offensive to all sides).  PACT is a project of The Centre for Poverty Analysis, which seeks to promote “a better understanding of poverty related issues in Sri Lanka.”

In a recent interview, a representative of the PACT team argued that the very community identities that characterize modern Sri Lanka gained their strength as a result of the colonial experience:

…the social historical evidence, in my opinion at least, is that at the beginning of the 19th century, we didn’t have in Sri Lanka the kind of communities that today we call Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. There were certainly differences and diversity in the polities such as it was, but the evidence says that compartmentalised communities, that had clearly defined and putatively watertight boundaries, that conceptualised themselves, internally, as imagined equalities, didn’t exist at all.

Put more simply:

I think what you had were overlapping population groups, with strong a sense of internal hierarchies that may well have not been able to answer clearly the question, are you Sinhala, are you Tamil, are you Muslim.

They may have taken on different kinds of identities, possibly in relation to what constituted faith at the time, but not religion in the European sense, but also based very much on locality and region; kin, and hierarchy.

So a person in answer to the question, “who are you?” may well have said “I am from the conglomeration of seven villages in this particular district and this particular sub-district,” or “the leader of kin group is x”, which is not an answer that would be couched in the kinds of ethnic terms that we see today.

PACT argues that the strong, well-defined identities of modern Sri Lanka may have been given a lift by colonial rule:

There are several aspects of colonial rule that you have to understand in relation to the construction of what we see today as ethnic communities.

One important one is the colonial project in representation, in what was called ‘native’ representation, in the various kinds of administrative and legislative councils that were created after the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms in demarcating representation according to community. So there were Sinhala members, Tamil members, and by the end of the 19th century, an argument about a Moor representation.

And then, as new ethnic identities are deepened and redefined over two centuries, they also re-imagine their past history:

While it’s very clear that Sri Lankans didn’t think of their history as an interconnected record that went back to a distant past in a linear timeline that stretches back 2,500 years, at the beginning of the 19th century, there is this idea that Sri Lanka does have such a history, and that it is the history of Tamil invasion and conquest and Sinhala defensiveness, and occasional reconquest, until a great decline sets in, and modern identities, very different from the ones I described earlier, are superimposed on this divisive history.

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