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Religious intolerance

Conflicts in Sri Lanka, Mainly
Among Religious Groups.

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Sri Lanka, formally called the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is an island state located close to and south of India. Before independence in 1948, it was called Ceylon. It is a multi-faith state. The 2011 census showed that the country composed of about 70% Theravada Buddhists, 10% Muslims, 13% Hindus, 7% Christians (mostly Roman Catholics). Hindus speaking the Tamil language form the majority in the northern and part of the eastern coast of the island -- shown in red below.

Religions of Sri Lanka
Christian in yellow
Areas with no majority religion are shown as white. They are mostly on the coast.

Tamil-speaking Hindus agitated for greater autonomy. In 1973, they asked for an independent state in their area, to be called Eelam. The name is the same as the ancient Tamil name for the Island.

The request for an independent state was denied by the ruling majority Singhalese community -- who are mostly Buddhist.

In response, a Hindu fighting group, the LIberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (a.k.a. LTTE and Tamil Tigers) was organized. A vicious civil war broke out. Conflict escalated in 1983 and resulted in the tragic deaths of 65,000 people over the next 19 years. 1 One innovation introduced by the Tamil Tigers was the suicide vest, later used with such success as a terrorist weapon during unrelated attacks in the Middle East.

In an act of ethnic cleansing during 1990, the Tamil Tigers expelled many tens of thousands of Muslims from the northern province in order to work towards a mono-ethnic Tamil state there. Their property was confiscated and their mosques destroyed. 5

The Tamil Tigers and the Singhalese agreed to three truces, but the former violated the terms of each one and returned to a condition of civil war. A successful unilateral cease fire was declared by the rebel force in late 2001 and a fourth truce was signed by both sides in 2002-FEB. Norway brokered negotiations between the two sides.

The truce was a relatively peaceful one, except for some tense stand offs. However, on 2003-MAR-11, a Sri Lankan navy gunboat attacked a Tamil Tiger merchant ship which they believed was carrying "warlike material." The ship was sunk with the probable loss of all lives. Although the vessel sank in what is generally recognized as international waters, Sri Lanka regards its territorial waters to extend for 200 miles off of its coast.

A rebel LTTE leader, SP Thamilselvan, wrote:

"Eleven of our cadres, including the shipís captain, were killed when the vessel caught fire and sank after being attacked by the Sri Lanka navy. The incident occurred in international waters beyond the jurisdiction of the Sri Lanka navy... We wish to emphasize that this grave incident will have far-reaching implications for the peace process." 2

A tsunami in late 2004 caused massive coastal devastation, particularly in the Tamil areas of the island. The hopes that the disaster might inspire both sides to cooperate were dashed when both sides argued over the distribution of international aid. There were allegations by UNICEF that the Tamil Tigers were recruiting soldiers from among the children orphaned by the tsunami.

A major push by the Sri Lankan Army ended hostilities in 2009-MAY after "... almost the entire civil and military leadership of the LTTE were killed. Tens of thousands of LTTE cadres surrendered to government troops." 3 There were rumors of atrocities.

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2018-JUL: New violence in Sri Lanka:

Kandy is a city in central Sri Lanka, one of the largest in the country. Located on a plateau and surrounded by mountains, it is a major tourist destination with a lake, waterfalls, many temples, museums, palaces, and other religious sites to visit. Violence began there, early in the week of JUL-22 both in Kandy and surrounding urban areas. The government quickly ordered a state of emergency in the city. They shut down some social media web sites for three days, saying that they had been used to spread false rumors that triggered mob attacks. In spite of the curfew, the state of emergency, and the widespread presence of security forces, Buddhist mobs swept through Muslim neighborhoods destroying stores and restaurants.

According to Gulf News:

  • The triggering event was the killing of a Singhalese truck driver by four Muslim youths.

  • "In the years since the war ended in 2009, a religious divide has grown, with the rise of hard-line Buddhist groups that stoke anger against minority Muslims."

However, there are hopeful signs in the reactions of people in the area:

  • Arshad Booso, a young Muslim from the nearby costal town of Wattala, said:

    "I would have thought that after going through a war lasting over 25 years, people would have learned their lesson by now. Not a single religion practiced in Sri Lanka promotes violence. Not Islam and definitely not Buddhism either. Sri Lankans need to know that they will not get anywhere with all this racial division and corrupt leaders."

  • Lisanthi Jayawardana, whose location was not stated, said:

    "We have too many roots instilled in different ethnicities, backgrounds and religions, to allow another 'war' to happen. A small group of power hungry people should not and will not be allowed to stop all the love, friendships and understanding we built up through all these years. This situation will be controlled, because people are much smarter than they were 30 to 40 years back. We have learned our lesson. We know what to avoid and when to fight for our rights."

  • Ryan Cornelio from Colombo, the coastal capital of Sri Lanka, said:

    "The recent situation in Sri Lanka is limited to a small part of the country, and is unlike what international media are making it to be. While this incident is unfortunate, the security forces have done a great job in ensuring the safety of people, limiting rum ours, and ensuring calm in the rest of the country. As an expatriate living here, Iíve always felt safe. The people here are peace-loving and tourist friendly." 6

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  1. Amy Zalman, "Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam),, at:
  2. "Tamil Tiger ship sunk in gun battle," The Scotsman, 2003-MAR-11, at:
  3. "Tamil Eelam," Wikipedia, as on 2011-SEP-27, at:
  4. Image is by Obi2canibe and is in the public domain (CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0). See:
  5. "Sri Lankan Moors," Wikipedia, as on 2018-JUL-09, at:
  6. "What exactly is going on in Sri Lanka?," Gulf News, 2018-JUL-27, at:

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Site navigation: Home page > Religious intolerance & conflict > here

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Copyrighted © 2003 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-MAR-11
Latest update: 2018-JUL-27
Portions written by B.A. Robinson

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