What Are the Causes of Ethnic Conflict?

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The causes of ethnic conflict cannot be generalised to fit all incidents, as the conflicts in Sri
Lanka and Northern Ireland demonstrate. David Lake and Donald Rothchild’s argument that a group’s ‘collective fear of the future’ (41) is often the main cause of ethnic conflict remains the most successful framework through which to evaluate the conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Fear of disappearing as an ethnic group was the main catalyst for Tamil violence, in response to Sinhalese political acts designed to limit Tamil involvement in business, economics and higher education. Laws introduced to attack Tamil culture added to this fear, and a communal fear of ‘dying out’ thus became reason to fight for an independent nation. However, this was not the case in Northern Ireland: the conflict did not arise as a result of Protestants curbing cultural freedoms of Catholics, instead the issue of civil rights was more prominent. The existence of the Republic of Ireland assured Catholics in Northern Ireland that the Irish Catholic culture would not be lost, in contrast to the Tamil (and formerly Sinhalese) fear of cultural extinction. Instead, the conflict was a result of a prolonged period of Catholics suffering civil injustice and economic disadvantage. As Stefan Wolff argues, ethnic conflicts have both underlying and proximate causes, the former including ‘necessary conditions for the outbreak of inter-ethnic violence’ (68) whilst the latter are needed to act as a catalyst and bring conflict to a head. The ethnic conflicts in Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland had similar underlying causes brought about from structural, economic and social, and cultural and perceptual factors. Ethnic minorities in both cases suffered polit...

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