The Demographics of Sri Lanka, South Asia’s Lebanon

So far on this blog, I have focused on the effect of partitions on Punjab, Bengal, and Kashmir. In this post, I’m going to look at a deeply divided country that was never partitioned. Sri Lanka, unlike Punjab and Bengal, is divided along a number of fault-lines. In the cases of Punjab and Bengal, religion was the only factor. In Sri Lanka, religion, ethnicity, and language each play a role in creating the fractured demographic picture of the island. In fact, I can’t think of another society in which all three of these variables are in play. Even famously diverse Lebanon, which I jokingly referenced in the title of this post, is only divided by religion. Using data from the 2012 Census, I will analyze all three of Sri Lanka’s fault-lines in this post, especially in the context of the Sri Lankan Civil War, which ran from 1983 to 2009. Below are maps of Sri Lanka by ethnicity, language, and religion.

Sri Lanka Ethnic map Sri Lanka Language Sri Lanka Religion

Broadly, these three maps are similar, but, as is often the case, the devil is in the details. Note, for example, how the Hindus on the religious map are divided in two on the ethnic map. The Tamil-speakers belong to three different ethnic groups. Sinhala-speakers are mostly Buddhist, but look closer to see the Christian minority on the east coast that emerges on the religion map. I will go into these characteristics of Sri Lanka’s demographics, and more, in the next section of the post. If you aren’t interested in the nitty-gritty details of Sri Lankan religious, linguistic, and ethnic groups, or you already know the basics, feel free to skip this part, and go straight to my analysis of how these demographic factors played a role in shaping  the Sri Lankan Civil War.

A Detailed Look At Sri Lanka’s Demographics

I. Religion

I’ll start with the least relevant, but in some ways most interesting, factor– religion. As of the 2012 Census, Sri Lanka was 70.2% Buddhist, 12.6% Hindu, 9.7% Muslim, and 7.5% Christian. The Buddhist community in Sri Lanka is one of the oldest in the world, going back more than 2,000 years. Sri Lanka’s Buddhists belong to the Therevada branch of the religion, which is the dominant sect in Southeast Asia. Hinduism on the island goes back approximately as far as Buddhism if not further. Sunni Islam was spread to Sri Lanka in the 8th century by Arab merchants, some of whom settled there and married indigenous women. I suspect that there was also a fair amount of conversion, although the Muslims of Sri Lanka maintain the narrative of their Arab origins. Interestingly, even though it has a fairly large Muslim population, Sri Lanka was one of the few parts of South Asia never to fall under Muslim rule. The most recent religious community to emerge was the Christian one. The Portuguese first landed in Sri Lanka in 1505, and ruled much of the island until the Dutch expelled them in 1658. In that time, much of the west coast was converted to Christianity. As a result, the overwhelming majority of Sri Lanka’s Christians are Roman Catholics. There is a small Protestant minority of a few hundred thousand people converted by the Dutch, who stayed until 1796, and the British, who stayed until 1948. Below is the religious map of Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka Religion

The religious minorities are concentrated in the north of the country and the east and west coasts. There is also a Hindu area in the center of the island, which I will discuss in more detail when I get to the ethnic map. The Sri Lankan Civil War was not fought on religious lines, although the Tamils are predominantly Hindu and the Sinhalese are predominately Buddhist. Ethnicity was the main driving force. A few characteristics are worth noting. One is the two clusters of Christians. The first cluster is in the north just to the southwest of the main Hindu zone. The second is farther south about midway down the west coast. The other feature I will return to is how interspersed the Hindus and Muslims on the east coast are.

II. Language

The second map depicts the two major languages of the island. I couldn’t find language statistics, but it is well known which ethnic groups speak Sinhala (the Sinhalese) and which speak Tamil (all the others). There is undoubtedly quite a lot of bilingualism, but the goal was to approximate where each language is the “mother tongue.” About 74% of Sri Lanka speaks Sinhala, an Indo-European language most closely related to Marathi and Divehi (spoken in the nearby Maldives). The remaining 26% speaks Tamil, a Dravidian language most closely related to Malayalam and Kannada. It is worth pointing out that the Tamil-speaking population of Sri Lanka makes up only about 10% of the total world-wide Tamil-speaking population. Over 60 million Tamils live in India, mostly in the state of Tamil Nadu, across the Palk Strait from Sri Lanka. The Sinhala-speakers live almost exclusively on Sri Lanka. Below is the language map for Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka Language

When we look at language, all of the complexity of the religious map dissolves and a more binary picture emerges. The religious map shows a diverse and messy island. The language map reveals a country starkly divided by language. The Buddhists and the Christian belt just north of Colombo merge into the orange Sinhala-speaking majority. The Christian pocket in the north, all of the Hindu areas, and the Muslims unify into a solidly Tamil-speaking north, east coast, and center. Looking at this map, it is easier to understand why Sri Lanka spent a quarter of a century locked in a bitter civil war. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that much of the tension on the island originated in a 1956 bill making Sinhala the national language. Interestingly though, the Sri Lankan Civil War, which in some ways originated in the dispute over language, was not fought along linguistic lines.

III. Ethnicity

In fact, ethnicity, not religion or language, was the main driver of the war. The Sinhalese make up 74.9% of the population. They correlate exactly with the Sinhala-speaking parts of the map above. They are mostly Buddhist, but there is a significant Christian minority. The Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka about two thousand years ago, probably from the Bengal area. The Sri Lankan Tamils are the second largest ethnic group, at 11.2%. The Sri Lankan Tamils are mostly Hindu, but again have a Christian minority. The Sri Lankan Tamils were the ethnic group that largely fueled the Civil War, and the rebel groups, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers, drew their members from the Sri Lankan Tamil population.  The ancestors of the Sri Lankan Tamils may have arrived at roughly the same time as the Sinhalese, although some argue that they came much later, in the 12th century. It is clear though that whether or not there was permanent Tamil settlement on the island, Sri Lanka’s ties to the Tamil homeland in South India go back millennia.

You may have noticed that the Sri Lankan Tamils only make up around half of the Tamil-speaking population in Sri Lanka. That is because there are two other Tamil-speaking ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, both of which have been subjected to ethnic cleansing campaigns to strengthen the position of one side or the other in the Sri Lankan Civil War and the years leading up to it. The Muslims in Sri Lanka, who as I mentioned above have a different origins myth than the Sri Lankan Tamils, see themselves as a separate ethnic group, despite being Tamil-speaking and genetically identical to the other Sri Lankan populations. They are called the Moors, because the Portuguese arrived on the island shortly after the defeat of the Arab Moors of southern Spain and Portugal and named them after the only Muslims they knew. The Moors make up about 9.2% of the population, and are one of the few examples of a true ethno-religious group– an ethnic group solely defined by its members’ religious affiliation. Unlike the Tamil-speaking Christians and Hindus of the north, the Moors did not support the demand for a separate state (to be called Tamil Eelam), perhaps because of their separate ethnic identity. As a result, they were branded a fifth column and expelled from northern Sri Lanka. The Tamils later apologized, and some of the Moors have returned, although tens of thousands remain internally displaced.

The much-persecuted Indian Tamils make up the final major ethnic group in Sri Lanka. They are descendents of Tamils from India who were brought to the island as laborers by the British in the 1800s. In 1931, they made up 15.4% of Sri Lanka’s population; today they are 4.2%. The Sinhalese-dominated government, starting immediately after independence in 1948, and accelerating in the 1960s and 70s, tried to send as many Indian Tamils as possible back to India. They were stripped of citizenship and forced to return to India. Since most Indian Tamil families had been in Sri Lanka for over a century at that point, they were “returning” to a country they had never seen, and had no desire to live in. This was a transparent attempt by the Sri Lankan government to reduce the Tamil presence on the island. Eventually, the Indian Tamils who had survived the depopulation campaigns of the 60s and 70s were granted Sri Lankan citizenship, as a reward for their loyalty to the government in the Civil War. Still, the Indian Tamils who were expelled have not been able to return. Assuming that Indian Tamil growth rates were similar to those of the Sri Lankan Tamils, this means that the Sinhalese were able to remove about 2 million Tamils from the island, radically altering the demographic balance.

Below is the ethnic map of the island:

Sri Lanka Ethnic map

A few notable features are the physical separation of the Sri Lankan Tamils from the Indian Tamils. The Indian Tamils are in the center of the island mainly because the hilly interior is where most of the plantations that produce Sri Lanka’s famous tea are located. The Indian Tamils’s ethnic distribution also gives a hint as to why the Sinhalese were so eager to remove the Indian Tamils. If two-thirds of the Indian Tamils hadn’t been deported, much of Sri Lanka’s interior would have been blue on the map above, giving a potential Tamil Eelam more depth. A Tamil state consisting of the north plus the narrow Sri Lankan Tamil strip of land on the east coast would be difficult to defend militarily (as the LTTE eventually discovered). The Sinhalese leadership may have feared that a Tamil-dominated interior would set up a partition in which the Tamils got a large chunk of central and eastern Sri Lanka. Of course, the Indian Tamils remained loyal, making the ethnic cleansing of central Sri Lanka pointless as well as immoral.

Ethnicity, The Tamil Tigers, And Sri Lanka’s Civil War

The question of why the Tamils failed to get a state when so many other minorities, such as India’s Muslims, the Jews of Mandatory Palestine, and the Christians of Timor, succeeded is worth discussing. The basic answer is that the Sinhalese had overwhelming military superiority and a willingness to brutally suppress the Tamils, and no outside power countered that by taking up the Tamil cause. Especially once India disengaged from Sri Lanka following former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by an LTTE suicide bomber in 1991, it was only a matter of time before the Sinhalese would use their  military advantage to snuff out the rebellion, which they did in 2009. India could have been Tamil Eelam’s outside backer, much as the British backed the aspirations of Indian Muslims and Jews in Mandatory Palestine.

Instead the LTTE handled India about as badly as possible. India covertly funded them throughout the 80s, and intervened militarily in 1987 to prevent an imminent Sinhalese victory. India was able to force the government in Colombo to agree to a series of humiliating concessions, which gave the north defacto independence, and set off bloody protests against the government in the Sinhalese parts of the island. Every Tamil group agreed to lay down their arms except the LTTE. This was in many ways the turning point for Tamil Eelam, because the frustrated Indian forces on the island tried to defeat the LTTE militarily to preserve what had been shaping up as a smashing victory for India. The Indian “peacekeeping” force became mired in a war with their former clients, and withdrew from the island in 1990. When the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister who had ordered the intervention in Sri Lanka, in 1991, India washed its hands of the whole business, and essentially turned a blind eye to the vicious Sinhalese assault on the north which eventually ended the Civil War.

The LTTE also threw away an incredible opportunity when the Sinhalese government decided to support them against the Indian forces as a way to get the Indians off the island. The government agreed to a ceasefire with the LTTE in 1989. The LTTE waited until about three months after the Indians left before it broke the ceasefire in spectacular fashion, executing hundreds of policemen who had surrendered to it. The LTTE proceeded to expel 70,000 Muslims from the north of the island. In 1993, the an LTTE suicide bomber assassinated Sri Lanka’s President. A pro-peace party was elected in the south in 1994, leading to a ceasefire in January 1995. This ceasefire lasted four months, before the LTTE bombed two Sri Lankan naval vessels.  The LTTE’s actions in the late 1980s and early 1990s were breathtakingly self-destructive. They isolated themselves from what had been a sympathetic India, which was the only country with the ability and interest to make Tamil Eelam a reality, and which had essentially created an independent Tamil state in 1987. They then wasted several opportunities to make a deal with the weak and exhausted Sinhalese, prolonging the conflict and giving the Sri Lankan government and military time to regroup.

While the military decisions by the Tamil leadership were nothing short of moronic, their failure to form a broad tent of Tamil-speakers was perhaps more decisive in their failure to achieve a state. They were unable to reach the Indian Tamils of central Sri Lanka, depriving the rebels of a population situated deep within Sri Lanka that could have put pressure on the Sinhalese population, something the LTTE consistently failed to do. Similarly, the Moors never supported the LTTE, even though it was essentially secular, not Hindu. The effect of this can be seen on the east coast of the ethnic map. The Moors and Sri Lankan Tamils are interspersed all along the east coast preventing a unified Tamil zone there. If the Tamil leadership had succeeded in uniting the Tamil-speakers (and remember the conflict started in part because of the language problem), it could have commanded the support of 26% of the population instead of 12%. Even then, the exact lines of a partition are difficult to map out, because of the distribution of the Tamil-speaking population. A partition would certainly have cause massive population exchanges.  Consider this though. Sinhalese-speakers are divided by religion, Tamil-speakers by religion and ethnicity. Every ethnic group except the Moors are divided by religion. The Christians and Hindus are both split between two ethnic groups. Perhaps Sri Lanka is too fractured for a successful revolt to break out. Paradoxically, it may be Sri Lanka’s divisions that keep it united.

Sri Lanka Ethnic map Sri Lanka Language Sri Lanka Religion