Sri Lanka, history

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This article covers the history of Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon before 1972). For current conditions see Sri Lanka.

Colonizers and settlers

The Anuradhapura Kingdom

The Polonnaruva Kingdom

Fragmentation 1250 to 1600

Starting about 1250-1300 Sinhalese civilization declined. Beginning in the 11th century invasions from southern India became more frequent. The powerful Chola dynasty in India annexed the island in 993 and ruled it as part of its empire until 1070. Even after the restoration of Sinhalese political power, invasions continued and drained the resources of the state. Southern Indian invaders settled in Ceylon and married into Sinhalese royalty. They formed powerful factions in the court and eventually seized control of the throne. Sinhalese claimants to the throne and their followers drifted away from the capital southward and southwestward, where they set up rival centers of political power, eventually at Kandy in the remote center of the island. In the north a Tamil kingdom was established in the 14th century by a dynasty that came from southern India; its capital was Jaffna.

Political instability caused the decline of the agrarian system of the north central plains. The state was too weak to maintain the elaborate irrigation works, which breached and silted up. Repeated damage to the works during the frequent wars was never fully repaired. The plains were thus deprived of water, and as productivity declined, the population migrated toward the rain-fed areas of the south and southwest. Within two centuries, the once fertile fields of the north were overgrown with jungle; disease spread in the swamps of stagnant water.

The Sinhalese population shifted to the monsoon-washed land of the south and southwest and the central highlands. Because the climate and topography were different from those of the north central plains, other cultivation techniques were adopted. Rice cultivation continued to be important but was not as productive as before, and other food crops had to supplement rice. Most farming was at a subsistence level, with little exported. Trade, which was a royal monopoly and an important source of revenue, was carried on in spices (especially cinnamon, pepper, and cardamom); it was managed by Arabs who dealt directly with royal officials.

The relative weakness of the state and the poverty of the people caused a decline in cultural achievements. Kings were unable to endow religious institutions as bountifully as before. Although Buddhism continued to be the popular religion, the religious building of this period was not as elaborate as before. Buddhist worship became considerably influenced by Hinduism, and at the same time the Sinhalese language and literature were influenced by Tamil. In addition, Hinduism was firmly established in the north and east of the island, where immigrants from India had settled. Hindu temples were constructed, and Brahmin priests were brought from southern India to conduct rituals.

Portuguese rule, 1600-58

The Portuguese arrived in Colombo in 1505 and were impressed with the commercial and strategic value of Ceylon. They entered into treaty relations with the Sinhalese king in Kotte in 1518. Political disintegration of the Kotte kingdom and internecine wars enabled the Portuguese to expand their political power along the west coast. Through their superior naval and military techniques, they annexed the kingdom in 1597, leaving the kingdom of Kandy, based in the central highlands, as the only independent seat of Sinhalese power. The Portuguese tried in the early 1600s to seize Kandy; they failed because of the strategic location of the kingdom and the sturdy Kandyan defense. In 1619 the Tamil kingdom of Jaffna was annexed by the Portuguese. Thus, except for the central highland and parts of the eastern coast, Portugal had established its dominion over the entire island.

The Portuguese ruled their territory in Ceylon through a captain-general, who was subordinate to the viceroy at Goa. The basic administrative structure of the Sinhalese kingdom was maintained, with Portuguese officials being appointed to the highest offices. Subordinate offices were given to Sinhalese and Tamils loyal to the Portuguese. The Sinhalese system of service tenure in land was retained and was used to secure revenue. The caste system was maintained, and obligatory services of various castes were demanded by the state. The trade in cinnamon and elephants was made a state monopoly, and the Portuguese participated in the valuable trade in pepper and areca nuts.

Under the Portuguese there was intense Catholic missionary activity. Franciscan, Jesuit, Dominican, and Augustinian orders established missions in the island. The Portuguese administration gave considerable financial support to these missions, and parcels of land, often from the properties of Buddhist and Hindu temples, were granted for their maintenance. Members of the Sinhalese landed aristocracy embraced Christianity and took Portuguese names at baptism, and many coastal communities in the west and north underwent mass conversion. Catholic churches and schools sprang up, and the upper classes gained proficiency in Portuguese.

Dutch rule

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) dominated parts of Ceylon and South India in the 17th and 18th centuries. Rajasingha II, King of Kandy, brought the company into Ceylon in 1638 to gain military help against the Portuguese in exchange for the cinnamon monopoly. The VOC administered the devastated lowlands in the king's name. It prevented his interference by keeping the various Asian populations satisfied through tax breaks, tolerance of their religions and customs, and economic development of the land. From 1638 to 1658, in a series of naval and military engagements, the Dutch, with the assistance of the Kandyans, conquered all the territories held by the Portuguese. However, the Dutch and the Kandyans soon began to dispute over their claims to the conquered territory, and the Dutch proceeded to establish their sovereignty over the coastal lands. The Kandyan kingdom was thus largely confined to the remote central highlands.

The Dutch sought to apply a closed sea policy and trade monopoly in Ceylon and southern India. Characteristically this policy succeeded where the areas were small, local political power was weak, and little indigenous sea power existed. Dutch economic interests focused mainly on monopoly of the trade of Ceylon cinnamon and Malabar pepper and arecanuts. The rigidity of trade regulation suffered in the face of local loopholes, a pass system for coastal trading, and widespread smuggling. By the start of the 1700s French, English, and indigenous trade challenged Dutch policy, and trade restraints largely disappeared. In general Dutch trade benefited only modestly from these policies.

Dutch system of government

The Dutch ruled Ceylon through a governor and a council resident in Colombo. The administration was subordinate to a governor general and council at Batavia on Java, which was the headquarters of the Dutch empire in Asia. A commander each in Jaffna and Galle administered the north and south, respectively, under the supervision of the governor. Dutch officials were appointed to the highest territorial offices, but subordinate offices were held by Sinhalese and Tamils who were loyal to the Dutch. The Dutch, like the Portuguese, retained the obligatory land and service tenure. The obligations of particular castes were used by the Dutch to obtain labor for the state to procure the goods and services required for trade. The Dutch held a trading monopoly in a number of articles and tried to channel the entire trade of Ceylon through ports they controlled. This policy interfered with the traditional Indo-Ceylon trade, which dwindled, causing shortages in the island. The Dutch developed some commercial agriculture by introducing such new crops as coffee and by encouraging the cultivation on plantations of others like pepper, cinnamon, and cardamom.

The Dutch established a well-organized judicial system, with three main courts of justice sitting in Colombo, Jaffna, and Galle. A rural court, Land Raad, heard civil cases from the villages. Roman-Dutch law was introduced and Tamil law was codified for use in the courts of the north.

Political and economic power shifted toward the southwestern lowlands. The Dutch used land to buttress their political power. They substituted Protestantism for Catholicism as the religion of privilege but were not as successful with religion as the Portuguese had been. The Dutch wanted to increase agricultural production but they were confronted with a labor shortage, and they created an exploitive rather than a productive agricultural system. They imported slaves from southern India to work the plantations. A major problem of the Dutch administration was that it failed to transmit Dutch culture to the island.

Religious tolerance

Protestantism was introduced by the Dutch, and many of the Catholic churches established by the Portuguese were turned over to the Protestants. These churches provided elementary education in Sinhalese and Tamil. By 1800 there were 350,000 nominal Christians in Ceylon, but many were professing Buddhists as well. The VOC maintained the position of the Protestant Reformed church within the Dutch community, but also ensured that the church did not interfere in politics or cause unrest among the believers of other religions. The VOC adopted a tolerant attitude toward all but Catholics, and when zealous pastors took actions deemed offensive to Hindus or Buddhists these were disowned by Company administrators. Their tolerance is an indication of how few Dutch, at home or overseas, were staunch Calvinists in this period.[1]

British rule after 1802

The British East India Company seized control of maritime Ceylon in 1796, during the wars of the French Revolution. Company officials administered the island from Madras, mistreated the Ceylonese, and disregarded the traditional forms of organization. In the face of popular revolt the British government in 1802 removed the Company and made Ceylon a crown colony. In 1815 the British took advantage of elite opposition to Sri Vikrama Rajasinha. the tyrannical king of Kandy, to overthrow its king and absorb the kingdom, which had existed since 1474. For the first time the entire island came under the control of a Western power.

The British established a communications network linking the whole island and to gradually introduce a unitary system of administration. They abolished service tenure, outlawed all monopolies, and removed all restrictions on the movement of goods and people, thus introducing a favorable climate for British investment. Land was liberally transferred to entrepreneurs and commercial agricultural ventures that developed from the 1830's. The central highlands were found suitable for commercial crops, and coffee and later tea and rubber plantations were established there. Because the Sinhalese were not inclined to work for wages on the plantations, Tamil labor was brought in from southern India.

Society: Plantation and peasant, 1800-1930


The policy of the Sinhalese rulers of the interior was to exclude strangers from the hill country. Prior to the British occupation of the Kandyan territory in 1815, the only means of access from one district to another was by footpaths through the forests . The Portuguese did not attempt to open up the country below the hills, and the Dutch confined themselves to the improvement of the inland water-communications. The British government saw from the first the necessity of making roads into the interior for military purposes, and, more recently, for developing the resources of the country . The credit of opening up the country is due mainly to the governor, Sir Edward Barnes, by whose direction the great military road from Colombo to Kandy was made. Gradually all the military stations were connected by broad tracks, which by degrees were bridged and converted into good carriage roads . The governors Sir Henry Ward and Sir Hercules Robinson recognized the importance of giving the coffee planters every assistance in opening up the country, and the result of their policy is that the whole of the hill country is now intersected by a vast number of splendid roads, made at a cost of upwards of £2000 per mile.

In 1848 an ordinance was passed to levy from every adult male in the colony (except Buddhist priests and British soldiers) six days' labour on the roads, or an equivalent in money. The labour and money obtained by this measure have enabled the local authorities to connect the government highways by minor roads, which bring every village of importance into communication with the principal towns. There was a brief rebellion in Kandya against the British ordinance, patterned on the ancient Sinhalese king's service rajakariya.

After repeated vain attempts by successive governors. to connect Colombo with the interior by railways, Sir Charles MacCarthy successfully began a railway of 75 miles in length from Colombo to Kandy. The railway mileage reached 563 miles in 1908. The towns of Kandy, Matale, Gampola, Nawalapitiya, Hatton and Haputale (and practically Nuwara Eliya) in the hills, are thus connected by rail, and in the low country the towns of Kurunegaia, Galle, Matara, and Kalutara.

Most of the debt on the railways (all government lines) is paid off, and the traffic receipts now make up nearly one-third of the general revenue of the government. An Indo-Ceylon railway to connect the Indian and Ceylon systems has been the subject of separate reports and estimates by engineers serving the Ceylon and Indian governments, who have pronounced the work across the coral reef between Manaar and Rameswaram quite feasible. Such a line promised to serve strategic as well as commercial purposes, and to make Colombo more than ever the port for southern India, but it was never built.

The headquarters of the mail steamers are at Colombo, where the colonial government have constructed a magnificent breakwater, and under-taken other harbour works which have greatly augmented both the external trade and the coasting trade of the island.[2]


Under British rule extensive plantations were developed and the island became a large-scale producer of tea, rubber, and coconut products. By the end of the 19th century tea and rubber had become the island's principal exports, and coconut and copra were also important. The plantation industry triggered economic development in subsidiary industries, transportation, banking, and port facilities. Agricultural production, based on the rice culture of small peasants in village communities, changed more and more to export crops and products like cinnamon, coconut, and tobacco. In 1824 the governor introduced coffee cultivation on the West Indian plan, and by 1841 the Ceylon output had become considerable, and grew steadily until 1877 when 272,000 acres were under coffee cultivation, the total export amounting to 103,000,000 lb. Then owing to disease came a crisis, and a rapid decline, and by 1900 only a few thousand acres were left. Responding to the failure of the coffee crops planters began extensively to grow the tea plant. By 1882 over 20,000 acres had been planted with tea, but the export that year was under 700,000 lb. In 1897, 350,000 acres were planted, and the export was 116,000,000 lb. By 1900, the total area cultivated with tea was over 390,000 acres, while the estimate of shipments was put at 146,000,000 lb annually. Nearly every plantation has its factory, with the machinery necessary to prepare the leaf as brought in from the bushes until it becomes the tea of commerce, The total amount of capital now invested in the tea industry in Ceylon cannot be less than ₤10,000,000 . The tea-planting industry more than anything else has raised Ceylon from the depressed state to which it fell in 1882.[3]

The history of Ceylon in the 19th and 20th centuries was marked by the expansion --followed by depression --of a plantation economy whose investors included not only British colonists but also the Ceylonese bourgeoisie and a certain number of small rural entrepreneurs. The introduction of plantations transformed the rural environment. A new agricultural regime emerged, with sharp effects on the peasant milieu, and the social relations it established between Sinhalese farmers, Tamil coolies, and British planters. The worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s finally upset the system.


During the British Raj over half a million laborers from South India migrated to Ceylon. From the 1820s through the 1880s these Tamils worked as seasonal harvesters on the coffee plantations. After 1880 tea was subsequently introduced which required year-round tending and could absorb family labor. The Indian plantation workers lived in isolated villages on hilltops, spoke a different language (Tamil), and practiced Hinduism, a religion different from that of the native Sinhalese.


Muslims settled in Sri Lanka as traders suffered discrimination during the periods of Portuguese and Dutch control. The British arrived in Colombo in 1796 to assist the Kandyan king in removing the Dutch. They used Muslims as interpreters and trade experts. The British protected Muslims' religious freedom, abolished their forced labor, allowed them to own property, and in 1889 allowed Muslims representation on the Legislative Council. In the first half of the 20th century, Sri Lankan Muslims were split between Arabs and Malays, with both groups pressuring for, but being denied, separate Legislative Council representation.[4]

Traditional Muslim education in Ceylon was of two types: 1) Qur'an schools mainly teaching the Qur'an, some arithmetic, and Tamil in Arabic script, and 2) training in crafts, carried out on a family basis. The commercialization of agriculture and growth of the infrastructure of a plantation economy broke up the "kasbah-mentality" (closed-group existence in the interior area) among the Ceylonese Muslims. They moved into towns and began to join government schools (English and vernacular). The increasing use of English at different levels of administration accelerated the process. Relatively few Muslims participated until 1880.[5]


Rogers (2004) examines the history of caste in colonial Sri Lanka, especially from the time the British took over Dutch-held Ceylon in 1796 and the Buddhist Kandyan kingdom on the island in 1815. The British continued Dutch policy in appointing headmen and requiring compulsory labor, both determined by occupational caste. The British, after initially trying to work through traditional institutions and practices, ended up introducing a set of administrative reforms in 1832 and 1833 that were to have a profound effect on Ceylonese society. The Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms pushed the government to abolish compulsory labor in 1832 so as to create a free labor market that would foster capitalism. The government thus chose to ignore caste in its administration and repealed caste-defined policies. Unlike India, which was based on landholding, Ceylon's revenues were based on trade, making it easier to avoid caste issues. Rather than emphasize religion and caste as the principal social markers, as was the practice in India, British officials in Sri Lanka emphasized race and nation in their efforts at social differentiation. Ceylon's large Buddhist population also was not bound to caste as Hindus were. Still, caste governed social life, especially in gaining seats on the Legislative Council, upward mobility, and education.[6]

Modernization, Religion and nationalism, 1860-1929

Government-supported education in Ceylon began in 1832 and by 1900, 25% of school-age children were in school. In the early 20th century, the colonial government began to expand educational opportunities and by the time Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, over half of the school-age population was in school. Near universal status was achieved by the 1960s. This achievement has been due to the realization of the importance of education on the part of parents who see it as the means for improving socioeconomic standing.[7]

Indigenization of Colombo

Perera (2002) considers the indigenization of Colombo and the transformation of the city from an exclusive domain of British colonial power to a milieu that supported Ceylonese social and cultural practices. The city went from British to Ceylonese between the 1860s and the 1880s. Perera approaches indigenization from a reverse Orientalist perspective that focuses on the landscape produced by the emergence of national elite, the revival of Buddhism, and processes of naturalization and migration. Indigenization was integral to colonialism, which simultaneously instigated the Westernization of subjects and the indigenization of social and spatial structures. The resulting multilayered landscape, negotiated between imposing colonial structures and Ceylonese cultural practices, was characterized by irony, mimicry, ambivalence, liminality, and hybridity.[8]

Intellectual modernity

The communications and information explosion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, occasioned by technological developments, growing literacy, and a print culture, gave educated and Westernized colonial subjects access to a wider and more diverse range of ideas and practices, anticipating what has become known as globalization. Evidence from nationalist literati in colonial Sri Lanka demonstrates that the dialogue was no longer simply between colonizer and colonized: the colonized from various parts of the Indian Ocean came into contact with one another, largely because of the growing role played by a bilingual intelligentsia. In the case of Sri Lanka, Buddhism played an important role, in that the Buddhist revival (hitherto interpreted largely in terms of the rise of nationalism) encouraged colonial subjects to pursue contacts with their coreligionists around the Indian Ocean.[9]

Mahapandit Rahula Sankrityayana was a scholar, linguist, philosopher, and novelist. Born in 1893 he left home at age 14 and wandered through Central Asia, India, Tibet, and China. In his maturity, he embraced the Buddhist faith while in Ceylon and later joined Gandhi's Satyagraha movement. In the 1920s his horizons widened as he traveled extensively in Europe and East Asia. In 1939 he joined the Communist Party as a proponent of social reform. Rahula's writings varied widely, including philosophy, popular biography, fiction, and travel books in numerous languages, and attained considerable imaginative depth.[10]

Buddhist revival

Gokhale (1999) examines two leaders of the 20th-century revival of Buddhism in India and Sri Lanka: Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1892-1956) and Anagarika Dhammapala (1864-1933). Ambedkar, formally educated in the United States, used Buddhism to inspire faith to challenge the Hindu hierarchical caste system.[11]

Dhammapala's movement in Sri Lanka, which strengthened Sinhalese cultural identity for many, combined traditional and modern aspects of Buddhism. Many efforts to understand the relationship between Buddhism and Sinhalese nationalism have looked to Dharmapala, whose writings were collected in 1965 into a set entitled Return to Righteousness. Explanations for Buddhist revivalism and its relationship to nationalism in the late 19th century as personified by Dharmapala have employed what has been labeled the Protestant Buddhist thesis, which argues that ideologies of nationalism and scholarship on Buddhism imported from Protestant Europe forced a transformation of Buddhism to bring it in line with nationalist aspirations. While partly accepting this theory, close scrutiny of Dharmapala's diaries indicates that Buddhist asceticism was a more powerful force than has hitherto been noted, and that Dharmapala was not simply reinterpreting Buddhism in light of nationalist ideologies and agendas.[12]

Muslim society

Muslim girls in Sri Lanka were traditionally taught in the kuttabs (verandah schools) attached to mosques. These primary schools did not develop higher levels of education until the mid-18th century. Since the Portuguese, Dutch, and British brought missionary schools that stressed Christianity, Muslim women did not attend them and thus lagged behind in education. In 1891 the first modern schools were established for Muslim girls. Between 1931 and 1947 the minister of education wanted Muslim girls to receive the same education as Tamil and Sinhalese girls and pushed to include Islam and Arabic in secondary schools. By the 1960's, Muslim girls received a Western-style education, and into the 1980's Arabic colleges were established for women where degrees at the level of master of theology were offered.[13]

Political changees; the Donoughmore Constitution

The Colebrooke Commission of 1833 initiated many far-reaching reforms in Ceylon. Most important was the establishment of a legislative council and an executive council. The spread of English education soon brought into existence a group of Ceylonese who took advantage of the opportunities in bureaucracy and the professions created by administrative and economic expansion. The English-educated Ceylonese began to organize themselves into an increasingly influential pressure group. They were nominated to the legislative council and to local bodies to share in the process of government. Election of members to the legislative council, on a restricted franchise, was introduced in 1920, and in 1924 representative government was introduced with a majority of elected members in the legislature. In 1931 universal adult suffrage and partial self-government were introduced by the Donoughmore Constitution. Executive control over a wide area of internal matters was granted to an elected board of ministers, leaving the governor in overall charge and three British officials with special responsibility over finance, law, and the civil service.

There was wide cooperation between nationalist leaders and the colonial government at all stages of constitutional change, and thus there was no great movement for independence. A Ceylon National Congress had been formed in 1919 by an elite of Sinhalese and Tamil professionals, but it disintegrated within a few years because of dissension between the two ethnic groups.

Transfer of power: 1931-47

In contrast to India (which resisted participation in the Second World War), the Ceylonese ministers gave the British full support during the war. Ceylon became a major British naval base, and was the site of the farthest expansion west of the Japanese navy in early 1942. The colonial government looked with favour on progress toward full self-government, demanded by Ceylonese political leaders, at the end of the war. The Labour government in Britain favoured speedy independence. In 1945 a constitutional commission recommended a constitution granting full internal self-government, with power over defense and external affairs reserved to the imperial government. In 1947 these remaining restrictions were removed, and by the Ceylon Independence Act of 1947 Ceylon became an independent dominion and a member of the Commonwealth on Feb. 4, 1948

Great Depression

The Great Depression had disastrous effects in Sri Lanka on many different levels. Indian migrant laborers were sent home as agricultural prices plunged. Land was abandoned, allowing the Anopheles mosquito to spread; the result was the 1934-35 malaria epidemic that claimed over 100,000 lives. Crime, especially theft and burglary, increased rapidly. Peasants sold their land to Chettiar moneylenders. The whole fabric of rural life began to come apart. After 1940, however, the war brought recovery and eventually relative prosperity to rural Ceylon.

Immigration issue

After independence, Sri Lanka absorbed only a tiny fraction of the Tamils as citizens and the Indian government refused to give them Indian citizenship. By 1964 there were over a million "stateless" persons of Indian origin in Sri Lanka. Prolonged negotiations between Prime Ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri and Mrs. Bandaranaike concluded a treaty by which Sri Lanka agreed to grant citizenship to 300,000 Tamils along with their natural increase and India promised to repatriate 535,000 "stateless" Tamils over a period of 15 years. The implementation of this agreement progressed smoothly, and in 1971 the two countries agreed to evenly divide the remaining 150,000 persons of Indian origin.

Between the adoption of the new constitution of 1931 and full independence in 1948, Indian immigrants were viewed with increasing hostility by the Sinhalese political leadership. In the 1930s, as a result of the serious unemployment caused by the Great Depression and the growing influence of Sinhala nationalism, anti-Indian feeling prevailed among the masses of Ceylon. A. E. Goonesinha and other politicians exploited the nationalistic feelings of the people. Malayalis, who had migrated to Colombo and other cities from Kerala, were the main target of the agitations. Many Malayalis were employed as daily paid laborers in government and quasi-government institutions, commercial firms, and factories. They also worked as domestic servants, peons, garden coolies, and shopkeepers. The Malayalis were valued as efficient and obedient by their employers, but were criticized by chauvinistic politicians for ousting Ceylonese laborers by undercutting their wages. As ethnic tension grew, their shops were threatened and boycotted; Malayalis were insulted in public and occasionally even assaulted. Under these circumstances, the Ceylonese government adopted several policies of Ceylonization. The dismissal and repatriation of immigrant daily paid laborers in government employment in 1939 was one of the consequences of the anti-Malayali agitations. Sinhalese feared that if the Indians were given unrestricted political rights they would then swamp the Sinhalese in certain areas of the country, especially the plantation region of the central highlands. They were excluded from the land reforms that gave peasants lands. The British never found a satisfactory solution to the problem, and as soon as independence was gained in 1948 many Indians were disenfranchised by the Sinhalese-dominated government and left effectively stateless. By 1964 there were over a million of these stateless people in Sri Lanka. Prolonged negotiations between Prime Ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri of India and Mrs. Bandaranaike concluded a treaty by which Sri Lanka agreed to grant citizenship to 300,000 along with their natural increase and India promised to repatriate 535,000 over a period of 15 years. The implementation of this agreement progressed smoothly, and in 1971 the two countries agreed to evenly divide the remaining 150,000 persons of Indian origin.[14]

After independence: the dominance of the UNP, 1947-56

The constitution of independent Ceylon was modeled on that of Britain. The nominal Head of State was a governor general, but executive authority was exercised by a prime minister and cabinet, both responsible to a bicameral legislature. The first prime minister was Don Stephen Senanayake, who successfully brought together leaders of various communities and interests to form the United National Party (UNP). Its general ideology was liberal, secular, and individualist, favoring progress through private enterprise. When Senanayake died in 1952 he was succeeded by his son Dudley Senanayake, who resigned two years later and was replaced by his cousin, Sir John Kotelawela. Political and economic power was in the hands of a small elite of English-educated mercantile entrepreneurs and landowners. Political opposition was provided by two Marxist parties, the Communist Party, which was aligned with Moscow and the Lanka Sama Samaja (LSSP), founded in 1935, which was controlled by Trotskyists. In 1940, the Trotskyists expelled the Stalinists from the Party on the issue of adherence to the Comintern. During World War II, the British interred the leaders of the LSSP. After the war, the Trotskyists became the main parliamentary opposition. In 1971, student leftists alienated by this cooperation attempted an unsuccessful revolt.[15]

The first socialist trade union movement in Ceylon began during the First World War and the first Marxist was elected to Parliament in 1931. By the time of independence in 1948 the British had set the foundations for a welfare state in the establishment of public schools, free medical services, and a state-subsidized basic food plan. Although philosophical traces of Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Kim Il-sung, and Guevara openly competed for ideological leadership in Ceylon, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and his widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, dominated the spirit of democratic socialism in Ceylon. The constitution of 1972 promised the full establishment of socialist democracy. There was, however, no physical elimination of the upper classes and the leaders of those classes continued to dominate the socialist movement itself.[16]

Ethnic nationalism 1956-80

In 1951 Solomon Bandaranaike formed a new party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). It was strongly nationalist, demanding restoration of traditional culture and the eradication of Western influence. It swept the 1956 elections; Bandaranaike headed a coalition government, called the People's United Front (MEP), comprising the SLFP and a section of the LSSP.

Bandaranaike's MEP government pushed through far-reaching laws to promote its nationalist and socialist agenda. Sinhala replaced English as the sole official language. The military alliance with Britain was ended; British naval and air bases were closed, and Ceylon assumed a neutral and nonaligned position in international affairs. The MEP government strongly supported Buddhist and Sinhalese cultural renaissance through financial aid through the ministry of cultural affairs. Some sectors of the economy, such as bus transport and the port of Colombo, were nationalized, and attempts were made to bring about land reform by purchasing and divding large plantations.


Resistance to the MEP's program was vocal. Imposing Sinhala as the only official language provoked Tamil opposition, and the Tamils, led by the Federal Party, began a struggle to secure official recognition of their language. The struggle inflamed communal dissension and resulted in widespread riots in 1958 and after. In addition, there was labour union unrest and conflicts erupted among the Buddhist factions. Escalating the political unrest and social tension, the charismatic Bandaranaike was assassinated by an extremist Buddhist priest in September 1959. After months of political jockeying and confusion, the SLFP, reorganized under Bandaranaike's widow, was returned to power. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike became prime minister.

Second SLFP government

The second SLFP government continued its agenda to transform Ceylon. To meet the demands of the Buddhists, all denominational schools, a majority of which were Christian, were nationalized. The use of Sinhalese as the only language allowed in administration and courts of law was speedily implemented. Insurance and the petroleum industries were nationalized. In 1964, to strengthen her dwindling support, Bandaranaike formed a coalition with the LSSP and the Communist Party. The government's program became even more socialistic.

The coalition government alienated the SLFP's right wing, which defected to the opposition, forcing a general election in May 1965. The UNP won a decisive victory, and Dudley Senanayake became prime minister. His conservative government sought to expand the economy by encouraging private enterprise and eliminating restrictions on imports. Special attention was paid to productivity in agriculture, with self-sufficiency in food as the ultimate goal. For the first time since 1956 Tamils were brought into the government, and their language was given some official recognition. Communal tension eased and some economic growth was achieved.

The SLFP, the Trotskyites and the Communists formed a United Left Front (ULF) in order to defeat Senanayake's pro-western government. They attacked the government's conciliatory policy toward the Tamils in order to rekindle Sinhalese communalism and attacked the granting of concessions to domestic and foreign capitalist interests. In the elections of May 1970 the ULF gained a massive majority in parliament, with 115 of the 151 seats, although it received less than 49% of the vote. Mrs. Bandaranaike again became prime minister.

Claiming a mandate for radical change, the ULF government greatly expanded state control of trade and industry. But its attempts to create a socialist state were stymied by a severe economic crisis caused by balance of payments deficits, rising foreign debts, and the need to maintain an expensive social welfare and food subsidy program, and high unemployment

Student rebellion 1971

A rebellion broke out among far-left Maoist students in March-April 1971 and the government declared a state of emergency, suspending many civil liberties. Some 20,000 young Sinhalese, often called Che Guevarists, grouped in the Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna (JVP), attempted an urban guerrilla insurrection throughout the island. The uprising received little popular support. The Maoist-inspired rebels got no support from China. The rebels had hoped to have a thoroughgoing land reform to expel all Indians and to end imperialist economic dependency such as the alleged tutelage of the World Bank. Aggressive military action and promises of widespread amnesty to the rebels combined with the assistance of the outside powers quashed the insurrection; the government received military aid, especially aircraft, from both Britain and the Soviet Union. The ensuing repression cost thousands of rebel lives; the state of emergency was maintained in effect until 1977.[17]

After the 1971 uprising was defeated, the government moved further left, initiating radical land reforms in 1972 that limited holdings to 50 acres, and nationalizing foreign-owned tea plantations in 1975. The new constitution, adopted on May 22, 1972, made Ceylon the Republic of Sri Lanka (Lanka is the Sanskrit name of Ceylon), with Bandaranaike as prime minister. The press was muzzled, with a government-selected council empowered in 1973 to fine or jail journalists and publishers for disobeying government press guidelines. Public assemblies by the opposition United National Party (UNP) were outlawed, and the government closed the independent Davasa newspaper group. Meanwhile, the governing United Front held a series of mammoth public rallies in an effort to bolster public confidence in government economic policies; the escalating costs of food (especially rice) imports led to severe shortages as the rice ration was reduced.

The ULF soon began to rip apart. In 1975 the LSSP demanded control of the nationalized tea plantations; the larger SLFP wanted them and expelled the LSSP from the government. In 1976 the Communists withdrew from the coalition and aligned with the LSSP, forcing a general election in 1977. The backdrop was economic crisis and massive strikes. The railway workers' strike spread to many sectors of the civil service, shutting down most economic activity in the country. The government responded with its emergency powers and ordered all public employees to return to work under threat of heavy penalties for disobeying. It banned public meetings were banned in Colombo, and imposed tight censorship on the press. Nevertheless the July 1977 elections wiped out the left in parliament.[18]

The 1977 elections resulted in an overwhelming victory for the UNP under Junius R. Jayewardene, with 139 seats out of 168. The UNP, traditionally identified as the conservative party of big business and landowning interests, has been converted by Jayewardene to a program of democratic socialism. In October 1977 the constitution was amended to make the president a powerful executive Head of State, and in February 1978 prime minister Jayewardene, leader of the UNP, assumed the new office for a six-year term. On Sept. 7, 1978, a new constitution was adopted, incorporating the 1977 amendment and renaming the country the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. While Sinhala, the language of the majority, remained the official language under the new constitution, Tamil was granted the status of a national language.

The UNP government moved quickly to stimulate the stagnating economy by means of a sharp devaluation of the national currency, elimination of many economic restrictions, large foreign loans, and big increases in public spending for development projects. Helped by high tea prices in 1977 and 1978, Sri Lanka entered a period of rapid economic growth and falling unemployment--accompanied, however, by increased social inequalities and inflation. In 1982 president Jayewardene was reelected to a second six-year term with 53% of the vote; a popular referendum extended the term of the 1977 parliament until 1989.

Civil war, 1983-present

Severe riots broke out in August 1977 between majority and Tamils (who constituted about 20% of the population). The minorities bore the brunt of the violence, and after about two weeks of anti-Tamil arson, looting, and killing, the toll was 105 dead, 3,000 in jail, 125,000 homeless, and damage to property in the millions of rupees. Again in August 1983 a devastating explosion of communal violence saw Sinhalese mobs kill more than 300 Tamils, force more than 100,000 to become refugees, and destroy many Tamil-owned stores and factories.

Tamil Tigers

After 1983 the Tamil areas of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, especially the Jaffna Peninsula, were torn by violent attacks from Tamil terrorists and by violent repression from the army and police forces. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) took up arms to fight for an independent homeland in the north and northeast parts of Sri Lanka in 1983, tens of thousands of people were killed, wounded, or driven from their homes.

India's intervention

Because the Tamil guerrillas operated from bases and supply centers in the Tamil states of southern India, the Indian government became drawn into the conflict. In July 1987, the governments of India and Sri Lanka worked out a political settlement. Sri Lankan troops were withdrawn from Jaffna to be replaced by an Indian peacekeeping force. Sri Lanka's Northern and Eastern provinces were to be merged to form a Tamil autonomous region, but after a year the Eastern province, where neither Sinhalese nor Tamils are a majority of the population, would vote by referendum on whether to remain in the new autonomous region. Sinhalese communalists, including not only the JVP and SLFP but also a sizable fraction of the UNP itself, vehemently opposed the agreement as a surrender of Sri Lanka's sovereignty and an abandonment of its unity and territorial integrity.

PD Image
LTTE strongholds

The Indian intervention failed to bring peace, since the largest Tamil terrorist group, the LTTE, continued to fight the Indians in the north while the JVP began its own terrorist campaign against Sinhalese moderates and government officials in the south. Despite massive disruption by the JVP, presidential elections were held on Dec. 19, 1988. The winner, by a narrow margin, was Ranasinghe Premadasa of the UNP. Indian troops were withdrawn by 1991, but the civil war continued unabated, even after the Indian government banned LTTE activities in India. In Aug. 1991, the opposition parties tried to impeach Premadasa for corruption and "abuses of power." The dissident UNP faction led by former interior minister Lalith Athulathmudali supported the impeachment motion and was accordingly expelled from the UNP. It formed its own Democratic United National Front party (DUNF), which attracted much support over the next year.

In April 1993, while campaigning for DUNF candidates in local elections, Athulathmudali was assassinated. The government accused the LTTE, which disclaimed responsibility, while the opposition blamed the UNP. The following week Premadasa himself was assassinated. The government again blamed the LTTE, which again denied the charge. In May 1993 parliament unanimously elected Vice-President Dingiri Banda Wijetonga to fill out the remainder (until December 1994) of Premadasa's term. In November 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga, candidate of the leftist People's Alliance, was elected president. She appointed her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, prime minister.

Tamil politics

Tamil nationalism grew out of a parliamentary system that was corrupted by majority opportunism and crass populism. Sinhala and Tamil elites competed increasingly with each other for power and resources. Even intra-Sinhala party conflicts resulted in the scapegoating of Tamils. In the 1950s the Federal Party, led by elite Vellala Tamils, advocated federalism as a solution to meet Tamil needs. By the 1970s a number of Tamil parties had emerged and united behind the idea of a separate Tamil state. In the wake of anti-Tamil riots, rural, non-Vellala Tamil paramilitaries grew in the 1970's and seized control of the Tamil separatist nationalist struggle. Eventually the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) gained supremacy among paramilitaries and in the 1980s and 1990s refused to work toward a negotiated settlement.[19]

Religious dimension

The LTTE's successes as a liberation movement have been built on organizational skills and techno-military prowess. However they also mobilize both the Hindu majority and a significant Christian minority within the Sri Lankan Tamil population via modalities that are deeply rooted in the lifestyles and religious practices of Tamils in India and Sri Lanka. Roberts (2005) argues that to grasp these capacities, a reading of the history of Tamil civilization "writ large" as well as the anthropological literature on religious cross-fertilization in Sri Lanka is essential. Propitiatory rituals in Tamil culture inform the LTTE's burial of the dead and the building up of a sacred topography centered on their fallen (the mavirar). Just as heroic humans were deified in southern India's past, regenerative divine power is conceivably invested in today's Tiger mavirar. These facets of Tamil Tiger practice suggest that "enchantment" can nestle amid secularized rationality in the structures of a modern political movement.[20]

Muslim role

Sri Lankan Muslim ethnic identity has emerged out of the ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils. The highly urbanized Muslims of the southwest are engaged in trade and commerce, whereas Muslims in the northeast are more rural and involved in agricultural production. The southwest Muslim middle class strengthened its religious identity when the government sought resources from Middle Eastern countries to deal with the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict. At the same time the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (SLMC) was formed in the northeast to cope with the security and self-defense needs there. The southwest Muslims' support of the SLMC disappeared when the SLMC supported revolution. Southwest Muslims shifted their support to Muslim moderates in the Sri Lankan Freedom Party, while others have rejoined the United National Party.[21]


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