Analyzing the Sri Lankan Civil War through the theoretical lens of Horizontal Conflict

Violent conflicts arising out of ethnic differences do not always escalate to a civil war. There are various examples of countries with multi-faceted ethnicities that exist peacefully. However, there remains the possibility of escalation of the dispute between competing groups with contradictory aspirations.

“Statistical evidence states that conflicts in multi-ethnic nations are detrimental and the basis for war, underdevelopment, and poverty. Many studies have shown that countries challenged with civil wars do not have a suitable market that hampers the economy and human resource development. It also portrays that these countries suffer from political violence, health-related concerns, education attainment, injustice in human rights, and others. Such factors leave the countries underdeveloped and in dire need of significant policy initiatives and necessary actions” (Stewart, 2000).

These violent conflicts arising out of ethnic differences do not always escalate to a civil war. There are various examples of countries with multi-faceted ethnicities that exist peacefully. However, there remains the possibility of escalation of the dispute between competing groups with contradictory aspirations. This possibility of disagreement is explained through the theoretical lens of Horizontal Inequality.

‘Horizontal inequality’ as a theory is defined as tension between ethnically and culturally different groups from one another. This tension further persists beyond the realms of culture and includes disparity in the fields of economy and politics. Hence, abhorrence between the groups leads to violent struggles with each other (Stewart, 2009). As stated before, horizontal inequalities emerge due to the expected identity shared between the groups that lead to violent mobilization. These horizontal inequalities have various elements such as:

Economic dimension: Here, the disparities are present regarding ownership of financial assets such as land, income, job opportunities, and other monetary resources.

Social dimension: These disparities exist regarding access to public and private services under education, shelter, healthcare facilities, universal insurance, social security benefits, and others.

Political dimension: Here, active political participation is hindered by unequal power dynamics between the conflicting groups concerned.

Cultural dimension: Include lack of recognition of a group’s cultural aspects such as the language they speak, the traditions they follow, and the customary practices they adhere to.

There are various instances of horizontal inequalities and conflicts that have occurred subsequently. The displacement issue of Rohingya refugees is one of the current concerns that formerly resided in Myanmar is one such example. It displays the vulnerability of these stateless individuals barred from exercising their rights in any shape or form. Another such instance includes the civil war in Rwanda between the Hutus and Tutsis as the conflicting groups. During the 100 days Rwandan Genocide in 1994, more than 1 million lives were lost, with countless casualties (UNOV, UNODC Director-General, & Waly, 2020).

In India, the crimes committed and the violence that erupted between the Hindus and the Muslims during the 1947 India-Pakistan Partition and 2002 Gujarat riots are also examples of horizontal inequality.


For further analysis, this paper has taken Sri Lanka’s example to discuss horizontal inequalities further. Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon, is an island nation situated in South Asia. The conflicting groups here include the majority population called the Sinhalese and the minority population of Tamils. The origin of this conflict can be found since the British colonial era. The Tamils in Sri Lanka were highly favoured in terms of socio-economic prosperities. Although smaller, the Tamil population managed to take possession of advancements in various fields, especially education and job opportunities, whereas the Sinhalese population maintained its distance from the British. However, as the country gained independence, significant decisions taken by the leaders in the successive governments worsened the situation for the Tamils as steps were taken to correct the horizontal inequalities faced by the Sinhalese (Stewart, 2005).

One such decision includes the ‘Sinhala Only Act’ passed in 1956 that marginalized the Tamil community in various spheres. Another change that promoted the majoritarian and unitarian rule of the Sinhalese was adopting the new constitution in 1972 that favoured Buddhism as the primary religion to be practised in the country (Ganguly, 2018).

Due to such horizontal inequalities in economy, politics, and society, mobilization of the minority Tamil groups took place. As a result, a moderate political party called the Tamil United Liberation Front was created. However, Velupillai Prabhakaran, a Sri-Lankan Tamil, started a more rebellious and agitational group called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 1976, whose aim was to form a separate state for Tamils and was ready to instigate an armed struggle to accomplish it (Ganguly, 2018).

Later on, many anti-Tamil riots and resultant events around the country further deteriorated the situation as a civil war erupted in Sri Lanka from 1983 onwards. This Sri Lankan civil war is divided into four phases. The intervention by India in 1987 ended the first phase. The second phase (1990-1995) was concluded with the failure of peace negotiations and talks between the LTTE and the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga of that period. The third phase continued till 2006 with another downfall of the cease-fire agreement. The final stage ended with the defeat of LTTE in 2009 by the Sri Lankan military forces (Ganguly, 2018).

This Sri Lankan example illustrates the political exclusion, unequal distribution of economic attainments, social segregation, and its impact on the resulting civil war for the past, present, and future generations of Sri Lanka. The policies implemented to address horizontal inequalities after the independence were too extreme, which led to the creation of platforms for the further struggle between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. This set of decisions only replaced one type of inequality with another. The policies to uplift the Sinhalese population can be stated under a direct approach to managing horizontal disparities. This natural method affects the aimed group by implementing reservations in employment, education, or other benefits. However, this method is considered hazardous as it leaves no space for different identities to prosper and further deteriorate the inequalities.

There is also an indirect approach with schemes to decrease group disparities through the government’s devolution of power, taxation, and regional upliftment actions. The final approach to address the issue of horizontal inequalities is known as the ‘integrationist’ method, where the policies are structured to reduce the group disparities through “encouragement of the citizens’ national identity, and promotion of shared activities across the conflicting groups” (Stewart, Brown and Langer 2008).


Ganguly, S. (2018). Ending the Sri Lankan Civil War. Daedalus, 147(1), 78–89.

Stewart F. (2005). Horizontal Inequalities: A Neglected Dimension of Development. In: Wider Perspectives on Global Development. Studies in Development Economics and Policy.

Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Stewart, F. (2000). Crisis Prevention: Tackling Horizontal Inequalities. Oxford Development Studies, 28(3), 245–262.

Stewart, F. (2009). Horizontal inequalities as a cause of conflict. Bradford Development Lecture. Published.

Stewart, F. (2015, October 26). Horizontal inequalities. GSDRC.

Stewart, F., G. K. Brown and A. Langer. (2008). Policies Towards Horizontal Inequalities. In F. Stewart (ed.) Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict:

Understanding Group Violence in Multi-ethnic Societies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

UNOV, UNODC Director-General, & Waly, G. (2020, April 7). Commemoration of International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda – Message of the UNOV/ UNODC Director-General/ Executive Director. United Nations: Office on Drugs and Crime.

Moumita Barman is currently pursuing her Master's degree from TISS, Hyderabad in the field of Public Policy and Governance. Her research interests lie in Gender, Social Conflict, Caste in India, and Education.

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