Sources of ethnic conflict

Ethnic conflicts can be managed, mitigated or controlled if the context and causes are understood

Conflicts on account of ethnicity have been a recurring phenomenon for the last couple of centuries. More importantly, they have become more pronounced with the passage of time.

In present times, when inter-state conflicts and wars have become almost non-existent, civil wars mainly caused by ethnic rivalries and animosities, have become a focus of renewed attention. In Pakistan, too, ethnic conflicts have been significant. One such conflict led to the dismemberment of the country in 1971.

Conflict describes a situation in which two or more actors pursue divergent objectives. It may not necessarily be violent. The employment of tension, dispute, or unease is more common in a non-violent context.

A violent internal conflict is generally called a civil war or armed conflict if casualties and destruction are substantial. The conflict has a certain duration, protagonists are organised and militant means are used to achieve political goals.

Ethnic conflict is a form of conflict in which the goals of at least one party are defined in ethno-linguistic terms, and the conflict, its causes, and potential remedies are perceived along ethnic lines. The conflict is usually not about ethnic differences themselves but over political, economic, social, cultural or territorial matters.

The causes of ethnic conflicts could be categorised as underlying and proximate causes. Underlying causes include structural factors, political factors, economic and social factors, and cultural and perceptual factors. Proximate causes embrace four levels of conflict triggers: internal, mass-level factors (bad domestic problems); external, mass-level factors (bad neighbourhoods); external, elite-level factors (bad neighbors); and internal, elite-level factors (bad leaders). Both underlying and proximate causes have to be present for an ethnic conflict to evolve.

Conflicts explained in ethno-linguistic terms have been a key feature since the dawn of the modern nation-state system. Pakistan’s history is also witness to several ethnic conflicts and the country is still facing important ethnic conflicts particularly in the province of Balochistan, which is greatly affecting the overall development of the country and its people.

Around the world approximately 80 percent of nation-states are multiethnic, meaning that no ethnic group dominates their society. Ethnic conflict has been one the world’s most common source of warfare, insecurity and loss of life. The database of an international group Minorities at Risk, shows that 121 ethnic conflicts occurred between 1945 and 2003. Noticeably, some 40 percent of conflicts started after 1990. Since 1955, ethnic conflicts have killed between 13 million and 20 million civilians in addition to 14 million internationally recognised refugees and about 17 million internally displaced people.

Ethno-linguistic groups and movements have a range of goals largely political in orientation. The common objectives include self-governance, autonomy, better access to resources and power, respect for the group’s identity and culture. Ethnic conflict arises if two or several ethnic groups compete.

Ethno-linguistic groups and movements have a range of goals largely political in orientation. The common objectives include self-governance, autonomy, better access to resources and power, respect for the group’s identity and culture. Ethnic conflict arises if two or several ethnic groups compete for the same goals—power, access to resources, or territory. The conflict in Balochistan is typical.

Armed ethnic conflicts involving violence are caused mainly by social and political systems that lead to inequality and grievances and do not offer forums for the peaceful expression of differences. Identity is the underlying cause of many conflicts.

If the political goal of ethnic mobilisation is self-determination, the movement is called nationalism. The use of term nationalism in Pakistan for ethnic parties by other groups or the parties themselves has had large-scale negative repercussions. Most of the traditional ethnic parties in Pakistan may have joined the political mainstream but they still espouse self-determination, a euphemism for separation. Most of ethnic parties’ leaders admit this in private and at times publicly.

Disputes involving ethnicity emerge in times of sweeping political, economic, and social change(s). Grievances and polarising leadership lead to mobilisation, ranging from political action to violent acts, such as terrorism, armed uprisings, and guerrilla and civil wars. Contemporary Pakistan is perhaps going through the same stage.

States having territorially concentrated ethnic groups located near a border or with ethnic kin in an adjacent state. These groups show high levels of organisation and increased group cohesion and are able to use shared homelands as a territorial base for their political struggle. Ethnic conflict in Balochistan and the KPK in the past are cases in point.

Ethnic conflict is particularly likely in states in which ethnic groups are inadequately represented in the government and the political and judicial systems. Liberal democracies that focus on the ideals of pluralism, individualism, inclusion, political debate and near-consensus among all participants are less likely to experience rebellion or uprisings.

Exclusionary national ideologies are also an important cause of ethnic conflict. Nationalism and, increasingly, citizenship based on ethnic distinctions are especially dangerous because these tend to flourish in situations of political uncertainty and economic collapse.

Other forms of exclusionary national ideologies include religious fundamentalism and supremacist, fascist expressions. MQM-London is an example of the latter. Competition over limited natural resources is one of the major factors leading to ethnic conflict.

The conflict in former East Pakistan and today in Balochistan have primarily been due to these factors. Within the context of proximate causes refugees or fighters from neighbouring countries, who cross the border often bring violence and turmoil with them. Descent of millions of Afghan refugees on Pakistan and subsequent the evolution of the ‘culture of violence’ in Pakistan is a case in point.

Ethnic conflicts can be managed, mitigated or controlled if the context and causes are understood. If they remain unmanaged, they pose an existential threat to the survival of states.


The writer is a researcher and security and governance expert. He can be reached at [email protected]

Sources of ethnic conflict