Constitutional Reform, Development, Economy, Foreign Relations, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War


[Editors note: This article complements The Rajapakse Regime and the Fourth Estate, also by the same author.]

This is a disjointed exercise that does not claim comprehensiveness. That is impossible in a short essay, the more so because I write without ethnographic exposure to the experiential subjectivities of either the Tamil people in Sri Lanka or the poor people from every community struggling with the cost of living.

Terrible Record

In a recent essay I have briefly annotated the government’s failure to prevent a series of killings and intimidations directed against media personnel and the widespread belief that elements in its sprawling establishment had a hand in many of these acts of injustice.[i]

In step with this record the Rajapakse Regime has consolidated the long tradition of overcentralised decision-making and authoritarianism at the top that has been a feature of Sri Lanka’s so-called democratic institutions for many decades.[ii] It is not surprising, therefore, that little or nothing has been done to initiate a genuine devolution of power in ways that would give the Tamil and Muslim peoples a goodly glass of political hope. All they have received so far is sweet words.

The All Parties Representative Committee has not secured any forward movement and the Leftist Ministers Tissa Vitharana and Dew Gunasekera seem to be holding on to barren sinecures. A great deal has been written on this line of failure in Groundviews, Transcurrents and in the local press, say, by Tisaranee Gunasekara and Shanie; so no further elaborations are required.

More recently, the International Crisis Group has set out some reasonable suggestions for administrative and constitutional reform that could go a long way towards improving the political climate in Sri Lanka. Take two of their pragmatic suggestions by way of example:

“develop with a sense of urgency a program of “language rights for all”, featuring: i) expanded incentives and training opportunities for government servants to learn Tamil and full provision wherever needed of Tamil translators, government signs, and forms in Tamil; ii)  expanded and improved instruction in Tamil for Sinhala-speaking students and in Sinhala for Tamil-speaking students …”[iii]

The ICG!!! That name may well be a red-rag to a bull. But that is precisely why I have chosen such a non-tactical path: to underline the obduracy and myopia in some government circles.

When Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power in 1994-94, partly on the back of a peace platform, she promised to restore “dignity” to the Tamil Sri Lankans. Her intent was genuine, but her administrative bungling, her choice of aides and the contingencies of politics truly scuppered that intent.

Many politically conscious Tamils in Sri Lanka today have doubts about the Rajapakse Regime’s depth of intent in this sphere. Infrastructural gifts to the Tamil regions will not suffice. Without reaching out to Tamil hearts through meaningful acts of devolution the Rajapakses who won the war will lose the peace.

But let us not forget that triumph, namely, winning the war, and the contrast with the bumbling efforts of the governments during Eelam Wars II and III. This demands a step back in time.

2002-08: From Shaky Peace to Victory at War

Standing in 2002 I was among those who supported the peace efforts and the search for a modus vivendi that would arrest the cycle of war. This was informed by my belief that the government simply lacked the capacity to defeat the LTTE – a conviction that was not unjustified in terms of past history. The Achilles heel in this stance lay within the incisive point raised by Dayan Jayatilleka: how can one have any federal state or any consociation of nationalities when the territory hosts two armies and two navies? In brief, the situation spelt the likelihood of a return to war at any moment.

Besides, during my brief visit to LTTE territory in November 2004 I discovered quite definitively that the LTTE was set on returning to war, a step that was delayed by the losses they suffered during the tsunami in late December, but one which they eventually made. We also know now that Pirapaharan reacted in rage when the Oslo Agreement was signed; and that Anton Balasingham, Thamil Chelvam and Karuna were in his bad books thereafter. Indeed, Baalsingham was sidelined, but that shift was carefully covered up by tales about his illness. Apart from the revelations provided by George Master, I recently gained further confirmation of this facet of history from a young Tamil of pro-Tiger disposition in Melbourne who possessed incredible information about the LTTE’s inner workings.

Helping the hawkish Rajapakse coalition to come to power was one aspect of the LTTE’s strategy of adhering to its dogmatic pursuit of Eelam by war and by diplomacy founded upon victory and/or stalemate secured by war. The ideology of the LTTE hardcore, including Pottu Amman and Castro, was quite set in its ways.

What they did not bargain for was the capacity of the Rajapakse brothers, with Gothabaya to the fore, in coordinating military activity across the branches of armed action and in expanding the resources needed for war on a phenomenal scale.[iv] Nor did they know that a few of the top brass in the army, including General Sarath Fonseka, had built up the skills and endurance of the infantry regiments during the period of peace.[v]

These skills materially assisted the new strategies of warfare and new tactics engineered by Sarath Fonseka with the help of such thinkers as Brigadier Prasanna Silva and a whole battery of junior officers. Tammita-Delgoda’s essays on the subject of the infantry role in the final battles should be compulsory reading for those who push pens without any inkling about the character of the Eelam War IV.[vi] For those of us familiar with the hierarchical nature of Sri Lankan society, the decentralised decision-making and action-taking methods established by Fonseka are as incredible as revolutionary.

Such an emphasis does not displace the importance of a critical factor in securing the total defeat of the LTTE: namely, the superiority in numbers and machinery available to the Sri Lankan armed forces, not least the availability of satellite technology and numerous UAVs that improved the precision of artillery fire and aerial bombing. In overview, the victory in 2008-09 may not quite match that of the Viet Minh in 1954 or the Viet Cong in the 1970s, but it is not far short of these moments in modern military history when framed against the organisational and fighting capacities of the LTTE.

That triumph brought much kudos to the Rajapakse Regime in the eyes of many Sri Lankans. The week after the final battle may have seen a display of triumphalism in the streets of Sri Lanka that latter-day puritans have viewed with sanctimonious distaste;[vii] but these expressions were no more than the displays that bubbled over when VE Day was announced at the end of WWII or when the Free French under De Gaulle marched into Paris.[viii] My own reading while in Sri Lanka in May 2009 was that the overwhelming sentiment among Sri Lankans of all classes was one of relief. Nor were the joyous expressions purely Sinhalese. Rumour held that the Muslims of Kathankdudy expressed their delight in unrestrained fashion.

Adroit Foreign Policy

Central to the success in Eelam War IV was the Rajapakse Regime’s ability to sustain an enormous increase in its military stock through arrangements with Pakistan, China and India in particular. In countering the sustained campaign in Western capitals to undermine its war efforts in early 2009 the government drew on the mutuality of interest it possessed with big powers Russia and China in providing no oxygen to separatist forces within their respective territories.

The government also cultivated the friendship of Middle Eastern countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Iran. Indeed, Iran has been a major player in the Sri Lankan arena for some time through substantial investments in such projects as the US$450 million Uma Oya hydroelectric project and the US$750 million upgrade of Sri Lanka’s only oil refinery at Sapugaskanda.[ix]

China’s capital investments in Sri Lanka have been even greater, even monumental. Such major infrastructural projects as the Hambantota Port Development Project (US$ 1 billion), Norochcholai Coal Power Plant Project (US$ 85.5 million) and the Colombo-Katunayake Expressway (US$248.2 million) are being funded by China. Thus, China’s aid to Sri Lanka grew five-fold between 2006 and 2008, “replacing Japan as Sri Lanka’s largest donor.”[x] The depth of friendship was underlined by the fact that between them the two Rajapakse brothers made eight visits to China in recent years.

China’s stake in developing Hambantota port is clearly part of a grand design serving its interests in maintaining its arterial highway for essential supplies of oil and other goods. India has expressed concern about this process. But one does not need to be taken in by the one-eyed fear-mongering peddled by some Indian dilettantes such as Brahma Chellaney.[xi] Nor should we pay much attention to Robert Kaplan’s one-sided opinion that “the biggest takeaway fact about the Sri Lankan war that’s over now is that the Chinese won” – a claim supported by a colour-drawing of Hambantota port in its modernised scale.[xii]

India too has substantial investments in Sri Lanka and had a strategic interest in preventing a separatist state in Sri Lanka. Be that as it may, the Sri Lankan government’s success in straddling the tight rope between Indian and China in recent times was no mean diplomatic achievement.

Hambantota as Growth Pole

Hambantota District in the extreme south eastern corner of the island is from where the Rajapakse clan hail. The creation of a modern artificial harbour is not the only major project they have sponsored within this area. A new airport estimated to cost US$210 million has just been inaugurated.[xiii]

There is also to be a new cricket stadium. Sri Lanka already has a few too many cricket stadiums, nine  now with that in Hambantota; but cricket is at the centre of sporting patriotism in the island because it is a new ‘religion’ and the only game in which our sportsmen can match the international best. Such a venue will undoubtedly boost the game in this neglected outback area and discover new Jayasuriyas over the long run.[xiv]

What we see then is a multi-stranded endeavour by the Rajapakses to develop their own patch of territory. In doing so they are also catering to the Ruhuna sentiments within Sinhalese imagination.[xv] The venerable Pali and Sinhala texts say that it was this area in which the Sinhala hero-figure, Dutugämunu, was nurtured prior to military campaigns that evicted Tamil invaders and unified the island under one umbrella in the second century BCE. Mahinda Rajapakse is cast as a new Dutugämunu by his followers and the money invested within his home-ground may well be regarded as legitimate attention to hearth and kin.

Sceptics may cavil at the motives inspiring this regional focus. Such queries about their motivations notwithstanding, the Rajapakses have accidentally pressed forward with a master-stroke that will be of immense benefit to Sri Lanka. For over 100 years since 1850, and especially since Colombo port was developed as a modern harbour by the 1880s, Sri Lanka has been weighed down by the metropolitan hegemony of Colombo and its environs. Since that moment, the metropolis functioned as the island’s principal ideological manufactory, its modular display of symbolic life-styles and a magnet that has induced internal migration from outlying arenas to its hub of opportunities.[xvi] Ruhuna-folk and Tamils from the Jaffna Peninsula have been important elements in this process of internal ‘colonisation’.

The Vaddukoddai Resolution of Eelam in 1976 and the war that followed challenged this spatial hegemony. The comprehensive defeat of the LTTE in 2009 threatens to restore the imbalance. But in my view, the programmes centred upon Hambantota District will even the keel somewhat. That is to say, the Hambantota locality will soon develop a capacity to function as a growth pole and a counterpoint to Colombo’s dominance. This probability will be of immense benefit to Sri Lanka’s political economy.

A Third Growth Pole

Sri Lanka’s rulers in the immediate future should not stop there. Indeed, from this moment on they should proceed to develop the North-East as a third growth pole, with the axis constituted by Point Pedro-Trincomalee-Jaffna town as the central trunk and Kankesanturai, Palaly and Velvittatturai as adjunct limbs.

Point Pedro?  This port was important in the coastal trade in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It housed a shipbuilding centre in the mid-twentieth century. Together with VVT it provided the Tiger personnel, mostly Karaiayar, whose maritime capacities gave the LTTE an edge over the other Tamil fighting groups. It is time for Sri Lankans to restore Point Pedro’s potential as part of a north-eastern axial growth centre. The Rajapakse Regime has made an excellent start in this direction by lining up one Indian and one Chinese company in US$ 430 million deal to reconstruct the Northern railway line from Omanthai to Kankesanthurai next week.[xvii] Here, then, is another balancing act that carefully nurtures both regional giants, a measure that will also be of great benefit to the northern Tamils. However, that alone is not adequate: such a focus must be expanded in the same manner as the drive to build up the south-eastern corner of the island.

Modernisation through Infrastrutural Development

In extending my plaudits to those governmental projects directed to infrastructural development, clearly, my position is functionalist and economistic. The yardstick is that of political economy with a spatial emphasis.

This stance is conditioned by my study of modern Sri Lankan history. The transformation of Sri Lanka was made possible by the roads and railways built by the British. They carried out these changes in their own interest. It facilitated the appropriation of surplus from the island towards the mother-country and its imperial projects. It also deepened the implantation of a proletarian class.

But the process also enabled the growth of an indigenous bourgeoisie and its adjunct stratum of “middle classes.” That is, social mobility was fostered. So, too, was the health of the general population improved considerably; while the near-eradication of malaria from the 1940s consolidated these improvements.

This mode of evaluation can be highlighted by focusing on the subject of rural electrification. As an urban lad I never had to face up to the problems of studying by oil lamp or living in semi-darkness. A glimpse of Chinese peasant life through a recent French-Canadian documentary on the Yangtze did provide me with a dim understanding of the difficulties faced by rural folk in backward areas. Placed thus in context, the Rajapakse Regime’s major improvements in the island’s power supplies must be regarded as a boon, albeit one that will favour entrepreneurs and politicians more than they do the ordinary man.

This programme, in turn, dovetails with the rapid improvements in the island’s road network begun in the previous dispensation and now taken into higher gears by the Rajapakses. The fly-overs at Nugegoda and Dehiwala junctions are but one sign of the extraordinary improvements in the roads in most parts of the island which I experienced in April-May and which several friends have also commented upon.

All such projects in China, India, Sri Lanka and much of Asia, of course, are lubricated by “commissions” and involve the “perquisites of office.” Where there is some sort of democratic process, they interlace with patronage networks that can deliver votes. So, there is self-advantage for governing elites in pressing forward with modernisation. Both wallet and vote-bank bulge. Such outcomes have one plus attached to them: the projects do not remain on paper, but are implemented. There are fringe benefits for the users of electricity and travellers on road and rail; and perhaps even a reduction of consumer prices.

A Major Caution

All this modernisation is well and good. But such “goodies’ will not win Tamil hearts and minds. There is a deep sense of embitterment throbbing within the hearts of many Tamils, including those who have been hostile to the LTTE. Infrastructure does little to change such profound sentiments. Without meaningful acts of devolution that restore their dignity and sense of full citizenship, their Sri Lankan-ness will not be regenerated. In such an event, the Rajapakses who won the war will undermine the potential benefits.

Early in 2009 Rohan Gunaratna pressed the same message:

“The Government must make Tamils feel that they have the same rights and privileges of Sinhalese and the Muslims. The Government must commence a process of reconciliation with those Tamils and offer an amnesty and reintegrate LTTE surrendees. Similarly Government must develop the North and the East and build a super-highway between Jaffna and Colombo. …In this conflict Muslims have suffered as much as Sinhalese and Tamils. However, if we are to remain a united Sri Lanka we must identify ourselves as Sri Lankans. We must think and act as Sri Lankans. To forge such an identity, there must be a visionary leadership.”[xviii]

His refrain is not markedly different from that of the International Crisis Group. The Rajapakse Regime will do well to imbibe these thoughts and implement programmes in these fields in the same energetic manner that has been displayed on the infrastructural front.

[i] “The Rajapakse Regime and the Fourth Estate,” in press.

[ii] See four chapters on “The Asokan Persona,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994 and “Some Pillars for Lanka’s Future,” Frontline, 6-19 June 2009, vol.26/12.

[iii] ICG, “Sri Lanka: Sinhala Nationalism and the Elusive Southern Consensus,” 7 Nov. 2009,

[iv] Rohan Gunaratna in Asian Tribune, 18 April 2009.

[v] Tammita-Delgoda, “Sri Lanka. The Last Phase in Eelam War IV,” Manekshaw Paper No. 13, 2009, New Delhi, Centre for Land Warfare Studies.

[vi] Tammita-Delgoda ibid [also serialised in the Sunday Island, for four weeks prior to 6 Sept 2009].

[vii] Suwendrini Perera, ?? in The Age, 12 Nov. 2009

[viii] Knowledge derived from my assiduous reading of past London Illustrated News in the library of St. Aloysius College, Galle, when I was schoolboy 1948 onwards.

[ix] Sergei de Silva-Ranasinghe, “Sri Lanka – The New Great Game,” Island, 1 Oct. 2009.

[x] De Silva-Ranasinghe Ibid.

[xi] Chellaney, “China fuels Sri Lanka’s War,”

[xii] Michael Totten, “A Conversation with Robert D. Kaplan,” archives/2009/07/a-conversation.php.

[xiii] W. Liyanarachchi, “Southern Airport Project gets off the Ground,” Daily News, 26 Nov. 2009. Michael Hardy’s critical review of the project is bedevilled by internal contradictions (“Hambantota Airport fuelled by Politics,” Sunday Leader, 29 Nov. 2009).

[xiv] Already the left-handed paceman Suranga Lakmal, who now plays for the Tamil Union, has broken into the top 40 pool of players. He is the first youngster from this district to come into prominence.

[xv] Note C. A. Chandraprema, Ruhuna: A Study of the History, Society and Ideology of Southern Sri Lanka, Colombo, Bharat Publishers, 1989.

[xvi] Roberts, “The Two Faces of the Port City:  Colombo in Modern Times,” in Frank Broeze (ed.), Brides of the Ocean:  Port Cities of Asia, 1500 to Modern Times, Sydney, Allen and Unwin. 1989, pp. 173-87.

[xvii] Irangika Range, “Northern Railway Line Reconstruction expedited,” Island, 26 Nov. 2009.

[xviii] Interview with Manjula Fernando, “LTTE loses both Skill and Will,” Daily News, 22 March 2009. Also see M. Roberts, “The Needs of the Hour,” in, 1 April 2009 and R. Gunaratna, “Ending the Sri Lankan Conflict,”  Sections/ frmNewsDetailView.aspx?ARTID=45444.

  • dayan jayatilleka

    While I vastly prefer David Blacker’s (regrettably sporadic) commentaries on the war to those of Tammita-Delgoda, not least from the point of view of sheer knowledgeability of global military history and tactics, I find myself in agreement with Mike Roberts and think that he has, in recent months, provided the best progressive (or liberal realist) scholarly perspective on Sri Lankan affairs.

  • niranjan

    Michael Roberts,

    Thank You for the interesting article. I agree with you about the development that is taking place in Hambantota and elsewhere in the island. It is a good thing. But I cannot see the North developing in the same way as the South. The biggest obstalce to Northern development is Southern racism. Some people in the South including certain Colombo elites that I have spoken to are of the opinion that Tamil people are not a part of Sri Lanka and that they belong in India. Now with an attitude like that how on earth can the North be developed. I think the next Sri Lankan Government(whoever wins the Presidential and Parliamentary election) needs to address Sinhala racism urgently now that the LTTE is no more. All communities and language groups(this includes those who use English as their first language) must be made to feel that this country belongs to all of them. The majority community including teachers(both at school and university) has a big part to play in this. The notion that Sri Lanka belongs to the “Sinhalese only” is a fallacy. This notion still exists(at state level and in sections of the public) and is a barrier to ethnic reconcilation.

  • SomewhatDisgusted

    Dear Niranjan,

    “ll communities and language groups(this includes those who use English as their first language) must be made to feel that this country belongs to all of them.”

    I agree completely but please keep in mind that the racism displayed by some Sinhalese is similar to the racism displayed by some Tamils in claiming exclusive Tamil homelands etc. as evidenced by the tremendous death and destruction that its pursuit entailed. The point is not for your observation to degenerate into an exercise in apportioning blame but to note that at the moment, we have two groups of people who are actively undermining our efforts to form a plural society. Both of these types of mentalities must be defeated if we are to ever succeed as they create a mutually reinforcing cycle of insanity.

  • jayathilaka

    it is a grat plight that even after three insurrections in 1971 ,1989 in south and and a long dragged war for about 30 years from 1972-2008.the leaders in sri lanka has not taken seriously the situation .in stead they are repeating the same mistake .instead of addressing the burning issues of the people they are trying to capitaze on war victories to win their narrow political gains.The need of the hour is to focuss on restoring democracy,supplying the basic needs for the IDPs and to find solutions to current issuessuch as umempoyment ,housing etc,etc in north and south but unfortunately things are not happening in that direction.but vise-versa.people never asked for a prsidential election ahead of two years but politicians have forced an unprecidented election on people.leaving aside all the other important issues.

  • SomewhatDisgusted

    Dear Michael,

    Thank your for this interesting article. You and Dayan J. are the two main analysts I enjoy reading on GV, not merely because of authority, but mainly because your observations are grounded in a thorough understanding of the realities in Sri Lanka and you present a pragmatic way forward. I hope you write more often.

    You observations on the 3 necessary growth poles and MR’s pursuit of at least two of them is an interesting one (Perhaps the “uthuru wasanthaya” program can be seen as a pursuit of the third also?). MR’s attitude is in stark contrast to that of Ranil W., who consistently seems to confuse the growth and development of Colombo as being equivalent to the overall development of the country. I do not see how this lop-sided development model, beneficial to a small elite segment of the populace, is a pragmatic way forward. Must the rest of the population tighten their belts and wait in perpetuity with their mouths agape for the benefits of the trickle effect to kick in? Is it not easily observable, with merely a passing glance at the state of development in the rest of the country, that the trickle effect in question does not seem to kick in anywhere other than in Colombo?

    This is what I see as MR’s chief strength, despite his multitude of weaknesses in other aspects.

  • niranjan


    I think the Sinhalese as the majority community in this country should be tolerant of minorities. The majority community must show the way simply because they are the majority. If the majority community is tolerant the minorities will also follow suit. Minorities include Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Sinhalese christians, English speaking Sinhalese etc. I am a Sinhalese, but it is disgusting when people say “the Tamils should go back to India” and that is where they belong.
    Sadly there is no pluralism in Sri Lanka. There never was and I do not expect it to happen anytime soon. Perhaps never. The very word “plural” seem to have negative connotations in this society.

  • niranjan


    The “lunatic fringe” has been in power for the past few years. When I was employed in the Foreign Ministry during the UNF Governments ceasefire period my boss used to tell me that the “lunatic fringe” was getting active. In 2005 they rode to power on the back of the SLFP. As long as the “lunatic fringe” is active in politics there is no hope for ethnic reconciliation.

  • Off the Cuff

    Dear Niranjan,

    Your posts of December 18, 2009 @ 10:22 am and December 18, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    I have not posted on this thread up to now so What are you talking about?

    Please as a courtesy use the correct thread and mention which post of mine you are referring to.

    Since there are two Niranjans writing on GV it would help immensely if you Identify yourself accurately in the future

    Thank You

    Off the Cuff

  • In Your Face


    “The majority community must show the way simply because they are the majority. If the majority community is tolerant the minorities will also follow suit.”

    We are not children. Please don’t patronize us Tamils in this manner. The Sinhalese (or any other group for that matter) does not need to set the moral standard for us.

    I am not a Sinhalese, but I damn well see a great deal of pluralism in Sri-Lanka. Man, what the heck’s gotten into you? Not only do you stereotype all Sinhala Buddhists, but then you go ahead and stereotype ALL Tamils. There are many Tamils like me who love Sri-Lanka. Get it straight!

  • Off the Cuff

    Dear Michael Roberts,

    Yours is one of the best Analysis that I have had the fortune to read on GV. Thank you very mutch.

    This is not to distract from excellent analysis that Dr Dayan J has written here. Talking of Dr. J His speeches at the UN Human Rights Commission stand a mile above the Europeans. Thank you Dayan for your forthright comments there.

    Micheal you have correctly identified that Multi Pole development is a quick way forward into wealth distribution throughout Sri Lanka. Japan adopted it some time back successfully, when they shifted the capital in order to catalyze development in different areas.

    I noticed the following Quote from Rohan Gunaratne reproduced by Micheal
    “The Government must make Tamils feel that they have the same rights and privileges of Sinhalese and the Muslims.”

    How come that the 7% Muslims who form a Minority feel that they have equal rights with the Sinhalese but the Tamils do not?

    Did the Tamils themselves have anything to do with it?
    Were their behavior as the Colonial Ruler’s “Police” towards the majority Sinhalese have anything to do with this ?
    Why do they feel alienated when the Muslims are not?

  • Michael Roberts

    TO ALL
    Your comments are appreciated –not so much for the compliments, but because of (a) the interplay between each other; and (b) the spirit of constructive engagement animating your reactions; and (c) the realisation that my principal weight is on what is best for the people of the country in the immediate future as well as long-run –rather than, say, espousing a political position that one is committed to in ways that play to those in the same gallery.
    They also do NOT betray sort of the nit-picking criticism attempted by BELLE in the previous essay on the Rajapakse regime: criticisms that display a simple-minded schoolmistress view of history that rejects cautious vocabulary that underlines the interpretative and inferential dimension of our trade, that is, of the social sciences in general.

  • Michael Roberts


    I could not agree with you more re the problem posed by Sinhala chauvinism. In fact I have made “THE SINHALA MIND-SET” my opening pitch in the new website: This essay only tackled one facet of the situation because I wished to highlight that facet without clouding the reading with too much.
    I also suggest that you look at the three pamphlets which are part of my contribution to the Marga Monograph Series on A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation, which appeared between 2001-03 and are available for next to nothing in Colombo. The point is that, among several issues, these explore the historical legends and the power thye exercise on Sinhalese thinking.
    I will soon post three summaries of these articles in THUPPAHI. you may alos like to look at the relevant essays in the more recent anthology, Confrontations (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa, 2009).

  • Michael Roberts

    Your comment on “southern racism” gains in weight from the fact that you speak as Sinhalese and that you reveal the prejudices of people you have interacted with. As against that I recently had an email from a person whose opinion I value which said:
    “The mindset of the average citizen in Colombo, suburbs or in villages is not chauvinist. Not racial. More national. I have travelled around in the non LTTE areas, and also as a doctor get to discretely question patients on their hopes and aspirations. Nothing anti Tamil. A lot of them, Sinhalese and Muslim were anti LTTE.”

    SO, I am pointing to a different reading based on personal experiences. Thus, I am raising the perennial, knotty issue of the methodology and basis for generalisation. The ISSUE IS: how deep and how widespread is Sinhala chauviism

    The rhetoric and forces that brought the Rajapakses to power in 2005 would seem to weigh in favour of your conclusion. Motifs from the 1956 era were powerful ingredients in their propaganda. And who can neglect the Dutugemunu imagery on display in recent times?. The problem lies in the fact that voting patterns are directed by a multitude of factors and isolating one factor is problematic.

    It would seem that our electoral processes actually deepen chauvinism because they encourage populism. In other words we have a Catch 22 situation: our species of democracy encourages extremism. As Professor Arasaratnam noted long ago (1960s?) the two poles feed off each other.

    Finally, I note that “In Your Face” is on the spot in questioning your emphasis on the absence of “pluralism” in Lanka. Just take in some of the key festivals at Munneswaram or Kataragama; look at the composition of the cricket teams over the last ten years; think of the Christian congregations in Colombo, Kandy … … Thus, some facets of intermixing and cross-fertilisation are firmly in place while our society also promotes Sinhala Tamil and Muslim extremisms. A paradox of our times?

  • Michael Roberts


    As my last remark in “Niranjan 2” indicates, I agree with your point that it took two to tango. Arasaratnam put it pithily [I think this was either in his article in the book edited by Philip mason in 1967 viz india and Ceylon Unity in Diversity or in that edited by me Collective Identities by Marga 1979].

    Less is known about Tamil extremism because little research had been done in this field for the 1940s to 1970s. But note the the firebrand rhetoric of V. Navaratnam in the 1960s and the federal Party offshoot known as Pulip Padai (Army of Tigers) in the early 1960s. One of those involved in the latter was the clerk Rajaratnam who had some ideological influence on young Prabhakaran and whose daughter was DHANU.

    That said, the main responsibility for the widening of the chasm should be cast on the majority community and its leaders with due recognition of the structural factors that also assisted this process.

    PS: re my para 2, I would welcome additional snippets of information

  • wijayapala


    When I was employed in the Foreign Ministry during the UNF Governments ceasefire period my boss used to tell me that the “lunatic fringe” was getting active. In 2005 they rode to power on the back of the SLFP.

    Your boss needs to learn a little more. The “lunatic fringe” (I presume you’re referring to the JVP and JHU) increased its popularity in Sri Lanka after the electorate perceived that both the UNP and SLFP (under Chandrika) were selling the country to the LTTE.

    With the LTTE gone, the appeal of the Sinhala “lunatic fringe” will disappear. Just watch the results of next year’s parliamentary election.

  • Heshan

    Michael Roberts:

    What do you think of the failure of the majority community (Sinhalese) to even consider the possibility of federalism as a plausible solution to the Tamil issue? We can scrutinize history all day long, however, at the end of the day, a solution must still be found. Of course, if a particular solution is not even being considered, then we may presume it will never be found… but the reasons for such an omission may well shed light on more sinister aspects of the State and its objectives.

  • Heshan

    Michael Roberts:

    “Less is known about Tamil extremism because little research had been done in this field for the 1940s to 1970s.”

    That is because Tamil extremism was all rhetoric and did not blossom into violence until the 1980’s. Whereas, the Sinhala-Buddhists were rioting against the Muslims as early as 1915. As Niranjan has correctly pointed out here, the basic problems lies with the South. It is they who are opposed to power-sharing with the minorities in even the slightest form. The tragic saga of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike is a case in point. This man was not a racist initially. There was a time when he gave a speech in Jaffna detailing the positive aspects of federalism (circa 1920’s). However, to have any lasting appeal to the largely impoverished Southern masses, it was necessary for him to convert to Buddhism, and openly vouch for racist legislation, such as the Sinhala-Only Act of 1956. Yet, being an intellectual, he continued to negotiate with the minorities (e.g. Banda-Chelva Pact). However, such negotiation was looked unfavorably by the extremists in the South. No less than a Buddhist MONK chose to assassinate SWRD at point blank range. Since that time, the monks have risen in stature… they have the ability to influence any piece of political legislation put on the table. They have their own political party and sit in the Parliament. Together with the JVP, which opposes any Western economic model, they ensure that the bulwark of the Sinhala-Buddhist theocracy remains intact. There is a nice line in the Sri Lankan Constitution of 1972 that sums it up: ” The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place…it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism.” By the way, Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalism began well before Independence; it was given a tremendous boost by the “Buddhist Revival.” Its founder, Anagarika Dharmapala, was a self-confessed Aryan supremacist who also believed that Sinhalese are “sons of the soil,” and Tamils/Burghers/Muslims are all but foreign invaders.

  • wijayapala

    There was a time when he gave a speech in Jaffna detailing the positive aspects of federalism (circa 1920’s).

    You forgot to mention that nobody in Jaffna in those years supported federalism.

  • Heshan

    There was no need for federalism at that time.

    “Tamils had no qualms with the 1947-1948 Soulbury Constitution because of Section 29. It confirmed the earlier undertaking given by the first Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake that all citizens will have equal rights and no one will be victimized because of his/her ethnic or religious background. Section 29(1) stated: ‘Subject to the provisions of this Order, Parliament shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good governance of the Island’. Subsections (2), and (3) of Section 29 contained the following inhibiting provisons:

    29(2): No such law shall – (a) prohibit or restrict the free exercise of any religions; or (b) make persons of any community or religion liable to disabilities or restrictions to which persons of other communities or religions are not made liable; or (c) confer on persons of any community or religion any privilege or advantage which is not conferred on persons of other communities or religions; or (d) alter the constitution of any religious body except with the consent of the governing authority of that body.

    29(3): Any law made in contravention of subsection (2) of this section, shall to the extent of such contravention, be void.

    Before the adoption of Sinhala as the sole official language of the bilingual nation, the schools in Jaffna on their own initiative mobilised the services of Buddhist priests to teach the Sinhala language to Tamil students. They abandoned this arrangement soon after the Sinhala only Act was enacted in 1956. Ethnic Tamils as others in democratic multi-ethnic societies wanted to hold on to their ethnic identity while embracing the collective Ceylonese identity. Tamil nationalism was then not a threat to unity and peace. Attachment to one’s ethnic or religious group does not mean disloyalty to the country of residence. It is not the Tamil people who sowed the seeds of separation. This is not an opinion but the whole truth.”

  • Michael Roberts


    You are not telling me anything that I do not know. Please read my articles in Collective Identities edited by me (Marga 1979) and EXPLORING CONFRONTATION (Reading, Harwood 1994).

    The fundamental difference in analytical perspective is that you treat “rhetoric” as unimportant. a totally materialist perspective. In my view it is the stirrers behind any set of “riots’ or a pogrom that are as critical as the assailants. See my analysis of the 1915 pogrom in Exploring Confrontation –now reprinted in CONFRONTATIONS (Colombo, Yapa, 2009)

    SO we need to know more details about the RHETORIC of the Tamil leaders in the 1930s to 1960s. And on the subject of the POWER OF LANGUAGE, look at WHY TUPPAHI in As a footnote let me stress that if some Tamils try to utilise my material on Sinhla prejudices to damn the Sinhalese, my conjecture –repeat conjecture – is that the same caste prejudices against mixture were even stronger among Tamils in the 19th and 20ht centuries and that the Burghers and Kaberi in Lanka were also looked donwn upon by Tamils [obviously not by all] because of their racial mixture

    PS, minor issue: While Buddhist monks were a in the vanguard of the forces that scuttled the B-C Pact the assassination was due to the machinations of Buddharakhitha whose financial schemes were being blocked by Banda.

  • Heshan

    Michael Roberts:

    Rhetoric cannot be the reason why no political solution to the Tamil issue has been found in 60 years. It is clearly an institutional failure. The various institutions, be they civil or administrative, have evolved very little since the British left. In fact, many of them have actually experienced a state of digression. This is particularly exemplified by the involvement of the Sangha and nationalist political parties (JHU/JVP etc.) in the formulation of legislative policy. Whereas in the West such “fringe” parties are not considered part of mainstream politics, that is hardly the case in SL. The situation is so bad in SL that whichever party hopes to come to power must form an uneasy “coalition” with such extremist elements. Thus, the Mahinda Rajapakse administration could not have seized the reigns without the tacit support of the JVP (equivalent to the BNP or Ku Klux Klan). Is it any wonder then that the same ruling party does not push for legislation that might sufficiently address minority concerns? Such attempts would impinge upon the secret agreements made during election time. Furthermore, extremist parties are not prone to change their agenda… they would ensure a majority consensus for such legislation would never see the light of day. As simplistic as this analysis seems, it is the crux of the problem at hand. There is very little that can be termed “progressive” or “liberal” in the Sri Lankan political scene, be it a lack of checks-and-balances in the Constitution, or mainstream political parties that do not subscribe to a nationalist agenda. In the words of Mahinda Rajapakse, the “home-grown” solution is the preferred choice.

  • wijayapala

    There was no need for federalism at that time.

    So in other words, you actually have no evidence that SWRD Bandaranaike was not a racist (or was pro-Tamil) in the 1920s.

  • Heshan


    I never claimed he was a racist in the 1920’s. The ethnic issue as we know it did not exist in the 1920’s (save perhaps for the venom of Dharmapala and the occasional riot, e.g. 1915). Anyway, the following remarks are worth reading:

    “The seed of Federalism was planted in the North and East as far back as 1926.

    None other than the Oxford-educated SWRD Bandaranaike was once invited by the Tamil Youth Congress to address them.

    The subject he chose on that occasion was, “Federalism as the only solution to the political problems”. This was, in fact, his response to the British Government when it handed its reins over to the Sri Lankan politicians with these words: “Divide and Rule”.

    One reason for the Tamils not opting for “Federalism” at that time was because the Colombo based elite made up of educated policy makers and other large number of Tamils enjoying prestigious professions like Government jobs and other commerce in the Sinhala areas, perceived the community being “all island” rather than regional!

    Furthermore, for these people Federalism meant a break with the rest of the country: for it implied the Tamil businessmen, the doctors, lawyers, politicians and government employees to cut themselves off from their comfortable places and positions.

    And so, the idea of power sharing at the centre through holding portfolios seemed more lucrative than sharing power at the periphery through “Federalism”.

    And what is more the Tamil elite also had the opportunity of sending their own kith and kin to prestigious Colleges and Convents at the centre-a stepping stone for their children’s higher education abroad.

    But whereas the other lower classes which constituted the 70% of the Tamil population at the periphery were saddled with other inhuman realities such as caste system, dowry system etc, which prevented equal opportunities in education and social uplifting until one morning they woke up to hear the alarm bell, “Sinhala in 24 hours”.

    One will readily understand the astuteness of SWRD for he knew that the only way out to help to unify the country was to free himself from the UNP fetters to find his own party to steer his way through to become the Prime Minister.”

  • wijayapala

    Dear Heshan,

    Thank you for the cut-and-paste.

    The ethnic issue as we know it did not exist in the 1920’s.

    If the ethnic issue did not exist in the 1920s, then why did you bring up what SWRD said in that decade???

    SWRD brought up federalism to get more support from the up-country Kandyans, who back then had delusions about being superior and separate from everyone else. The issue was resolved after everyone ignored the Kandyans and their demand for federalism fizzled out.

    One could argue that the best solution to address the Tamil separatists’ demands would be to ignore them, instead of getting emotional and overreacting with violence. How do you feel about that?

  • Heshan


    Now, you call the Kandyans delusional. I call them rational. They recognized that there are three fundamentally distinct regions in the country, and that governing each particular region in accordance with the customs unique to that region would avoid a lot of future conflict. The only model that would fit such criteria is federalism. Secondly, it is incorrect to say that SWRD mentioned federalism simply to get support from the Kandyans – the Kandyans were also supporting the demand of the Tamils to get federalism, for over 2 decades.

    Ignoring the Tamil demands was not an option. Tamils were bound to lose many of the gains they had made during the colonial administration, once the Sinhalese came to power in ’48. The goal should have been to ease this process of adjusting to a lower status. Instead, the colonization, language acts, riots, standardization, etc. was a sign that the majority was ready to flaunt their superiority. It is the same situation we are facing today.

  • Veedhur

    ” I find myself in agreement with Mike Roberts and think that he has, in recent months, provided the best progressive (or liberal realist) scholarly perspective on Sri Lankan affairs” says Dayan J.

    Having read some of Michael’s articles recently, like the one justifying internment of tamils – I beg to differ.

  • niranjan

    In your face,

    I am not trying to “patronise the Tamils” in any way as you claim nor am I trying to set moral standards.
    However, the point I am trying to make is that the Sinhala community as the majority community has a responsibility to see that the minorities are looked after. I believe that in the past the minorities got a bad deal. In no way am I trying to put the minorities down or sound patronising by saying so. The south has to get its act together. This also applies to the North now that the war is over.

  • niranjan

    Michael Roberts,

    Thank You for your replies to some of the comments I had made. I shall get hold of the Marga series that you have refered to when I have the time.

    Recently a Colombo lady(of foreign origin but who has lived in this country for a very long time) and is known to me said ” the Tamils should go and live in India because that is where they belong.”
    Where would you place that type of comment? Why is it that people say such things when the need is for reconciliation and unity?

    I am a Sinhalese christian but this type of comment is unacceptable. If you ask me it smacks of racism.
    I have lived in the UK in the past and I can tell you that such racial remarks will not be easily tolerated over there.

  • niranjan

    Michael Roberts,

    “The mindset of the average citizen in Colombo, suburbs or in villages is not chauvinist.
    If the above is the case where would you place the “Colombo lady(of foreign origin but who has lived in this country for a very long time) and is known to me who said ” the Tamils should go and live in India because that is where they belong.”

  • niranjan

    Michael Roberts,

    Why is it that our people fall for propaganda? Are they not intelligent enough to see the lies in propaganda? What is the difference between an Australian voter and a Sri Lankan voter where propaganda is concerned ?

    Quite by chance I caught this thread again!! if you live in Australia and frequent the Dilmah site as wells end e your email to Sanjana at this groundviews site and he will pass it on. You have raised a clutch of difficult questions to which facile answers are difficult. May have a shot at some when I can; but am hurried now.