Socio-economic inequality and ethno-political conflict: some observations from Sri Lanka
Contemporary South Asia
Inspired by the recent theoretical interest in the role of material factors in intrastate conflicts, this article examines socio-economic inequality between ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. Drawing on available empirical data, the article suggests that actual disparities in income, education and employment between Sinhalese and Northeastern Tamils were small compared with inequalities within each group, and that these inter-ethnic disparities were decreasing in the decades since independence.
... ndependence. However, although the two groups were relatively equal and becoming more equal, inter-ethnic rivalry over access to economic resources became instrumental in the intensification of ethno-political conflict in Sri Lanka. It is argued that real and relative welfare losses among Northeastern Tamils, the politicisation of key areas of disparity, and incendiary state policies served to transform relatively marginal inter-ethnic disparities into salient political issues. The article seeks to build on these observations to highlight the nexus between material grievances and ethno-political conflict, and suggests that formulating public policies that address real and perceived inequalities will remain important in resolving such conflict. The Tamils have dominated the commanding heights of everything good in Sri Lanka. 1 (Ronnie De Mel) Versions of this view, articulated in this instance by the then Sri Lankan Minister of Finance in the aftermath of the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983, are very familiar to observers of the country's politics, and feature heavily in analyses of ethnic relations in Sri Lanka. Popular belief in Sri Lanka holds that Tamils had been favoured by the British colonialists and were, on average, richer, better educated, more likely to be literate in English, and heavily over-represented in higher education and public sector employment. Resentment of this perceived Tamil advantage by the numerically larger and politically more powerful Sinhalese is often said to be at the heart of ethno-political conflict in Sri Lanka. The cycle of