Images courtesy Multicultural Arts Victoria

My presentation will be an attempt to critically analyse my experience as a Franco-Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka and how I feel, as part of Sri Lanka’s Diaspora, that we can and should contribute to its ongoing reconciliation process. I’m no expert, and therefore would like you all to  allow me to use my own personal experience to draw out the problems that I have identified as causes of the conflict  and for the absence of an all-inclusive identity; a national identity as one may call it –  the “Sri Lankan  identity”.

When the war ended, I was in Colombo. I saw people dancing in joy and relief on the streets, media flashing the pictures of the LTTE leader’s slain body all over TV. As I watched all this happening around me, it became clear to me that this was only the end of the military combat and not the ethnic conflict which started it. Many had died in the name of what they perceived as a righteous cause – the fight against discrimination and marginalization – and many others in the name of patriotism, for their country against a separatist terrorist group. A long process was to begin, to pave the way for a “return to normalcy” for the combatants – both state and rebel, for civilians caught in the conflict zones and elsewhere in the country, and also not forgetting the millions who migrated to other countries.

I lived in Sri Lanka for 12 years. Four ethnic groups coexist or coexisted I might say, in Sri Lanka. And I am yet to see a fusion of these communities to form one over-arching identity.

The escape from a “no culture”

I was only 9 when I went to Sri Lanka in search for a “richer culture”. I was told that at that time, the influence of the Parisian banlieue culture, where we lived in and still live in, would not do for us. My parents anticipated the cultural differences that existed between the two countries. How were they going to deal with the fact that their kids would grow in a culture that was different to theirs?  And because of this difference they called it a “no culture”.  I am also now, very much aware that this pattern of thinking is not general in sociological terms. This pattern differs according to the social strata that one belongs to. So there was a social – “class” – impact on this decision. This is so you understand this experience in the light of my background, which of course will not be the same for everyone here.

Sri Lanka’s formal education provided barriers

My school career in Sri Lanka is definitely the most memorable period in my life. I went to different schools. Schools there were categorized on a quasi ethno-religious basis. Of course in the playground and outside class friendship and acquaintances went beyond these barriers. I first joined a girl’s only convent. I learned all my prayers and enjoyed singing hymns in Sinhala, Tamil and even Latin! I respected, venerated and even worshipped my teachers and elders. I felt well-disciplined.  I wore a uniform, that I had a hard time getting used to when it came to racing to be the first in the queue of the canteen to buy murukku during the most awaited “interval” time.

In class, I had the choice of studying in either Sinhala or Tamil: the two official languages recognized by the Constitution. English was the link language also recognized by the Constitution. But unfortunately, I could not benefit from this constitutionally recognized language. We also sang the national anthem in Sinhala every morning at school. And I always wondered how my friends who were in the Tamil Medium class sang it?

Now just watch a rugby match and you’ll hear National anthem of New Zealand, it is sung in Maori and English. And so is the national anthem of South Africa. Both these countries are multiethnic like Sri Lanka and have managed to allow every citizen, regardless of their ethnic origins, to feel “included” and not so “excluded” as one would feel singing “Sri Lanka matha”.

Differences are not inevitably divides

I also found out that I was a Burgher, because my class register said so. So were all my class mates categorized. Some were not even in my class because they had classes in Tamil.  The “Link Language” which supposed to act as a linking platform for all of us to communicate amidst two native languages, was only taught for 40 minutes every day. That was all. And mind you this is the “link language”.  Those who had the opportunity of speaking English at home had the added advantage of knowing more than what was taught in class –  clearly marginalizing those who didn’t speak it at home. Only a small number conversed fluently- creating some sort of elitist attitude towards those who didn’t.

I failed to understand

There are few things in this multicultural and multiethnic society of Sri Lanka that I ponder on.  Why is it that I couldn’t find a public school that taught in English, when English is the link language in a country that holds two national languages: Sinhala and Tamil?  Tamil was a second language to those who chose to study in Sinhala medium and vice versa. And when I was in Sri Lanka, I personally did not feel the need to learn Tamil, in a country that spoke Sinhala and English.

Among the language barrier that was created in some schools, was religion. A very shocking example is the “Prefect system” in some schools in Sri Lanka. In one of the schools that I attended, the title of “Head Prefect “was given only to an all-rounder who belonged to the school’s principal religion. This clearly made those of other religious conviction seem ‘less better’ than those who followed the principal religion in the school. But when did anyone’s religious convictions have anything to do with their academic strengths?

The Sri Lankan national flag always caught my attention for its multiplicity of colors and its striking boldness with the lion on it. When the lion’s bravery represents the Sri Lankan’s bravery, and when lion in Sinhala is “Sinhaya” you may easily find the connections Sinhalese make to the “lion” symbol. The minorities are represented in the other coloured stripes: orange and green. But some minorities are not. I studied it at school. I thought about it on my own. I could never fully identify myself in this flag; maybe because I was born in France or maybe because one of my parents is a ‘Burgher’ and I could not see the Burghers in the flag.

A way forward?

Now, when I look back at my instructive years in Sri Lanka, I know that I am who I am because I lived and grew up on that beautiful island and have no regrets, but at the same time, can’t help thinking how the education system in the country played a role in creating divisions among communities and making it a tormented island. It is only when I came back to France for my higher education that I realized that type of education system will never take us forward. Education had failed to create one national identity merging all four major communities on the island.

I do understand that to appease curiosity, we tend to identify ourselves to our communities. Saying you’re Sri Lankan is not enough; we all have to further identify ourselves to our ethnicity. But that does not mean that one is better than the other, stronger or weaker, darker or fairer, short or tall, and the list goes on.

Sri Lanka has just come out of a war that started more than 30 years ago and ended only in 2009. Since then, Sri Lanka has endeavored to move forward step by step, reconstructing and also trying to reconcile the wounds of the war.  Reconciliation is an important process in the conclusion of a war that was ignited by an ethnic conflict. Tensions between two communities the Sinhala and the Tamils, need to be solved and reconciled. The verb to reconcile in itself is very meaningful – to put back what was once one in being and is now separate. This also traces the many years of coexistence of all the four communities of the country- Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher – which were caught in the tensions. One may trace the causes of the tensions before attempting to reunite; look into the past before moving forward, to avoid repeating the mistakes made.

The question still remains: have I fully identified myself in all this? I have not. I’m still struggling to.


Celina Cramer participated at the French-Sri Lankan Diaspora Youth Workshop “Post-War Reconciliation Dialogue for a Sustainable Peace”, which took place in Paris, on October 27th, 2012. She intervened as a panelist on the theme “Individual and collective identity(ies): between search and struggle”.

The event was organized by What’s Next!, an independent forum comprising of post-graduates and young professionals of Sri Lankan origin residing in France. What’s Next! seeks to promote a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka through intellectual exchange and multicultural dialogue.

  • Dev

    We also sang the national anthem in Sinhala every morning at school. And I always wondered how my friends who were in the Tamil Medium class sang it?……….
    Well, nowadays, we are being forced to sing it in Sinhala too though then we sang it in Tamil but alas no more.

  • Sri

    Great essay, Celina. You have identified most of the ground-level factors that has kept this country going backwards for so long. From the beginning, this country has followed a progressively divisive agenda, rather than a rational attempt at Nation building, the results of which we see today.
    It is refreshing to know there are even a few of us still left who can think outside this ethno-religious mind-set that most people in Sri-Lanka seem to be trapped-in due to it’s education system.

  • Mala

    One of the biggest divisions in Sri Lanka was introduced with the commencement of schools on a religious basis. The Church in Sri Lanka – whether Catholic or Anglican – did a great disservice in propagating religious divisions during the colonial period through missionary schools. Now we have “Buddhist schools”, “Hindu schools” and “Muslim schools” as well, following in their footsteps. The same divisions were also introduced into the cemetery!

  • Kusuma Wattawa

    1.Our education dept produces contents in textbooks that is bent on dividing the people:

    2.Militarising and letting the military rule one part of the country and not holding elections in that part means reconciliation has not even begun for 42 months after the war was brutally brought to an end.

  • Leela

    Ah, you were born in France. You should have realized that Muslim children there are prohibited to cover their heads to school though covering heads is Muslim tradition and 10% of the population in France is Muslim.

    When you went back to France for your higher studies, have you noticed that many EU countries are emulating France and Britain in assimilating the immigrants into their culture. You should study how Norwegian authorities separate children from parents in to foster care forcefully on various pretexts again for assimilation. I suppose you do not see anything wrong with such acts for your culture is well fused with theirs.

    I need not tell you that Muslims school children in Sri Lanka not just have the right to cover their heads but everything above torso if they want. So, tell us, who practice freedom better? But you chose to pick even our good as wrongs.

    Now about the national anthem: Have you noticed that France’s national anthem is sung in French only? Of cause not, you may not have even noticed that it is not sung in your mother tong, English because you have this feeling of French are fair souls.

    But, no sooner you have landed in Sri Lanka you have learned that our national anthem is sung only in Sinhala and that is not fair. Not just that, you realized New Zealand plays fair for they sing their national anthem in both Maori and English. But you have conveniently forgotten injustices that ancestors of now fair invaders had done to wipe out Maoris in the past. You also found that South Africa is very fair as well.

    Is that the richer culture you came looking for at nine years of age? From what you have written, I doubt very much whether you know ‘culture’ that many tourists come here to admire.

    I feel pity you haven’t learned that in SA, they sing their national anthem only in five of the twelve official languages. You should ponder why they chose to discriminate seven languages. I am telling you that our immediate neighbor India has several hundred languages but just one official language, Hindi. English is the secondary official language for the posh. Yet the Indian national anthem is sung only in one language. I leave it for you to ponder why.

    Whatever your answer may be, do not compare Sri Lanka to those two countries that do not talk of their history but pre history. Those two countries have no commonality with us and is located far away from us. Malaysia is an ideal country in every angle if you wanted to compare with Sri Lanka.

    Do you think you can find a public school for you to be taught in English in India or France or Malaysia? If not, why expect it in Sri Lanka. We had to discard such British legacy a long time back to enable the neglected and the underprivileged sons of soil for over one hundred and fifty years to reach their due place.

    Is it an excuse to carp on Sri Lanka or were you really upset when you found that there is no stripe for the Burghers in our flag? Did it occur to you that no stripe or even some kind of sign for Maori in New Zealand flag? It is the British Blue Ensign. Perhaps you see it as right.

    • Gamarala


      Since you seem to be the quintessential “son of the soil” who has finalled reached your “due place” (your terms), what other special privileges do you expect on account of your exalted origin?

      • Leela

        If you are familiar with contemporary history of Sri Lanka, you should know who ‘sons of soil’ are, and ‘their due place’ from even the part of the sentence, “… the neglected and the underprivileged sons of soil for over one hundred and fifty years” that I wrote above. If you cannot, I am afraid I cannot help you for you have either a comprehension problem or an intellectual incapacity or both.

        • Burning_Issue

          First comprehend fully about the French law pertinent to religious symbols and schools before commenting here! Not only the head scarfs but also any forms of manifestation of religious symbols are not permitted; the objective of this to create an environment where no differences exist allowing all to integrate. It is important to point out that symbols include crosses too!

          One can debate the rights and wrongs about this law in terms of freedom of expression but cannot cherry pick to suit bigoted ideas!

          • Off the Cuff

            In that case the Sikhs would have to be forced to cut their Hair.

            Kesh – uncut hair
            Various reasons and symbolisms have been put forward for the Sikh practice of keeping hair uncut.Throughout history hair (kesh) has been regarded as a symbol both of holiness and strength. One’s hair is part of God’s creation. Keeping hair uncut indicates that one is willing to accept God’s gift as God intended it. Uncut hair symbolizes adoption of a simple life, and denial of pride in one’s appearance.
            Not cutting one’s hair is a symbol of one’s wish to move beyond concerns of the body and attain spiritual maturity.

            A Sikh should only bow his head to the Guru, and not to a barber.
            It is a highly visible symbol of membership of the group.
            It follows the appearance of Guru Gobind Singh, founder of the Khalsa.
            Sikh women are just as forbidden to cut any body hair or even trim their eyebrows, as Sikh men are forbidden to trim their beards.

        • Keynes!


          Are you inferring that the Muslims, Tamils and Burghers are not sons of the soil?

    • Look around first

      It is a pity that you have not noticed the big difference between other countries and your blessed Sri lanka!!!

      In other countries (except some countries which SL is trying to compete with as far as law and order is concerned) they take every ones life seriously, whether he is Muslim, Hindu or christian, whether he speaks Tamil, Sinhalese or Swahili!!!

      Every one has a right to live, unlike in Sri Lanka!! Every murder is investigated irrespective of whether he is French, English, Tamil or Sinhalese and the culprits punished!!!

      Here in our blessed land, there is different VALUES for life, depending on the victims language, religion, class, status in society etc.

      Our blessed island is full of skeletons strewn all over from the time “Kalu Sudhas” took the reigns!!!No one seems to be concerned about it!!!

      • Leela

        It seems your psyche is inbuilt with preconceived vision and ideas. So, In my opinion, no amount facts or logic like ‘why majority in Colombo are Tamils?’ and ‘why more Tamils chose to live among Sinhalas in the South than N and E put together?’ or clarifications like ‘Tamils have more rights in Sri Lanka than anywhere in the world’ would clear your muddled head.

      • dingiri

        One cannot compare the law and order situation in Sri Lanka today with that in the west. After 30 years of warfare the country is awash with weapons and people prepared to use them to resolve all manner of grievances. Life has become cheap just as it was in the west during the world wars and previously in their civil wars. The war has also ensured that hawks are in powever and the doves are “traitors” even.

        To compare France and Sri Lanka it is best to go to an era before the war was triggered in Sri Lanka. The trigger being the anti-Tamil riots of 1977 and 1983. Perhaps we should go to an era even before the events that triggered those riots i.e. the killings of the soldiers and the sessesionist demand for the Northern and Eastern province by the Tamils in 1977.

        Prior to exodus after July 1983 Tamils were an afluent and influential communitiy in Sri Lanka. They controled far more influence holding many of the highest possitions in the civil administration and even armed forces than what their numbers would have justified. Their language, although not given an equal mention to Sinhalese in the constitution held every priviledge due to a national language. Tamil parents could educate their Children exclusively in Tamil almost anywhere in the country. Most state schools had a Tamil language stream and in other parts of the country there were exclusive Tamil medium schools. They learned their lessons and were examined exclusively in Tamil without even having to learn Sinhala as a second language. All at public expense. Now compare that with the availability of Arabic as a medium of education in France.

        After sitting their exams in Tamil the students are/were admitted to Universities where Tamil students from Jaffna (making about 7% of the population) comprised 30% – 40% of the most favored and competitive subjects like Medicine and Engineering. Tamil students from less priviledged districts like Mannar, Kilinochi, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee and Batticaloa were admited with lower marks under an affirmative action scheme. Street signs, destination boards on public transport, Sign boards on govt. offices etc. were in all 3 languages, other documents and publications like passports, ID cards, Application forms for practically everything, the Hansard were printed in all 3 languages Sinhala, Tamil and English. The State Broadcasting Corporation had broadcasts in Sinhala Tamil and English. In fact it was difficult to find a single area where Sinhala was given preference to Tamil or English. To obtain a good job in the Private or public sector English was the criterion even though it is not even mentioned in the constitution. So please compare again with France.

        Members from Minorities were voted into parliament from predominantly Sinhala electorates such as M. H. Mohomed former cabinet minister for transport. Policemen never carried guns. The strength of the Army was just 11,000 men under arms. And the arms they carried were single shot .303 rifles from World War II. There was no necessasity for anything more destructive.

        There were also no Sinhala Nationalist parties like the JHU or NFP and they had no chance of being elected even if they were there. This is again is in contrast to France where an ultra right anti immigrant party very nearly won the national election.

        Of course things dont stay the same forever and nations adapt to challenges and situations and sometimes they are not ideal for citizens. The deterioration in the rule of law today has everything to do with the war. Hopefully with time and the absence of threats we can evolve back to becomming a civilised nation. A lot of this is in the hands of the Rajapakses and the Tamil and Sinhala nationalists here and abroad.

        • Burning_Issue

          “There were also no Sinhala Nationalist parties like the JHU or NFP and they had no chance of being elected even if they were there. This is again is in contrast to France where an ultra right anti immigrant party very nearly won the national election.”

          How do you explain the Sinhala Only Act? When the main stream parties such as SLFP and later UNP take up chauvinistic platforms, there is no need for JHU! Only when the main parties appeared concessional towards the Tamils, the Monks got elected and JHU gained prominence. Where do you categorise the MR regime? Isn’t it an ultra nationalist regime? Why do you think MR is not even considering any form of political solution for Tamil Question? If he were to offer something then you will see how prominent the likes of JHU will become!

          • dingiri

            I agree completely with you about the MR govt being Sinhala Nationalist or held to ransom by the Sinhala Nationalists. In fact I even believe that he is only pretending to be held to ransom by the Sinhala Nationalists. To me he appears to be more comfortable among Weerawansa and Gamanpila than among those to the left of his alliance like Tissa Vitharana, GLP and Vasu.

            I also agree about the 1956 Sinhala Only act as being apallingly insensitive to the sentiments of the Tamils. However what I want to ask you is in what way it affected the status of the Tamil language in its use and acceptance in the country. As I have shown it has and had equal status to Sinhala in Education, Govt Publications, Documents, Inforamation etc. The only place where Tamils found it had unequal to Tamil was on the license plates of vehicles where the solitary letter was a Sinhala letter and not Tamil or English. They chose to make this an issue and staged hartals and protests. The Sinhala hooligan mobs went further and went on the rampage killing and maiming. The spiral of events had begun.

            So the Sinhalese decided to award unequal rights to their language and religion. How about the gentle Tamils then? Did they not decide to award themselves a massively unequal land entitlement in the 1977 by attempting to help themselves to 4 times as much land per capita (than the Sinhalese) through the Vadukuddai resolution? How was that fair by the Sinhalese?

        • Velu Balendran

          When I was sent to Jaffna (all the way from Matara) to study in Tamil, just before the riots of 1958 (when the rest of my traumatised family joined me) there were no Tamil streams (definitely not at Rahula) in the Sinhala areas of the country as you suggest. Even in Colombo only specialist schools offered Tamil. The SL armed forces have always been essentially mono-ethnic, with the necessary adornment from time to time of a Tamil to a significant post, as a PR exercise to the world as happens even today in other areas of govt (but not in the forces), where they perform as puppets without power.

          What you are trying to whitewash here, yet again like many others, is the fact that a majority of the Sinhalese people (over 95% I suspect)agree with the continuing agenda of this govt to ethnically cleanse the country of Tamils. (If you are not aware of this agenda a good start is to go and ask the 90,000 war widows what happened to them).

          • dingiri

            “…When I was sent to Jaffna (all the way from Matara) to study in Tamil, just before the riots of 1958 (when the rest of my traumatised family joined me) there were no Tamil streams (definitely not at Rahula)”

            Rahula is a Buddhist missionary school so it may not have had a Tamil stream just as Hindu College Colombo does not have a Sinhala stream. But the fact is there are Tamil Vidyalayas all over the south and the Best schools in the country like Royal, St. Thomas’, Trinity, D. S. Senanayake all have Tamil streams. Now compare that with France.

            “Even in Colombo only specialist schools offered Tamil.”

            And those were the top schools like Royal, St Thomas’ Ladies, Bishops, DSS, There were also exclusive Tamil schools like Hindu College.

            “The SL armed forces have always been essentially mono-ethnic, with the necessary adornment from time to time of a Tamil to a significant post,”

            So the post Sinhala Only head of the Army Anton Muthukumaru, Head of Navy Adm. Kadirgamar, two recent Inspector Generals of Police were mere adornments? How about other senior Policemen like Deputy Inspector Generals, Many Brigadier level officers and even a war time second in command of the Navy Commodore Sinniah? Are they mere adornments? Or do they have to be card carrying LTTEers to be considered legit by the Tamils like former Attorney General Shiva Pasupathy and senior diplomat in the UK high commision Anton Balasingham who ended up as top ranking LTTEers? Of course, there must have been legitimate concerns about LTTE infiltration into the forces during the war. But inspite of that Tamils made it in and rose up through the officer ranks. The intelligence wing I hear is full of ex-LTTE men.

            “ a PR exercise to the world as happens even today in other areas of govt (but not in the forces), where they perform as puppets without power…”

            So senior most civil servants like Mrs. Bandaranaike’s secretary Arthur Ratnavale, JR’s Treasury Secretary Chandi Chanmugam, Premadasa’s secretary Paskaralingam were mere puppets and objects of an elaborate PR exercise? Still, are there parallels in France?

            “What you are trying to whitewash here, yet again like many others, is the fact that a majority of the Sinhalese people (over 95% I suspect)agree with the continuing agenda of this govt to ethnically cleanse the country of Tamils. (If you are not aware of this agenda a good start is to go and ask the 90,000 war widows what happened to them).”

            Who counted 90,000 war widows? The Eelamist PR strategy seems to be to progressively inflate the casualty figures in the hope that one day they will be granted Eelam through foreign intervention. The number keeps rising in geometric progression. But only they themselves believe their fabrications.

            Some people are contesting the ownership of certain lands where Army bases have been built. That is true. But no one is being driven away. I hear Jaffna and Batticaloa are thriving, bustling cities today undergoing a construction boom. Hardly the response of a community facing ethnic cleansing! Infact the Navy is apprehending people trying to flee and bringing them back home. So perhaps the opposite of ethnic cleansing is happening..?

        • Truth

          Do not start your argument at a period which is CONVENIENT to you!!
          You have conveniently forgotten that in 1956 elected MPS were attacked in front of the parliament to the amusement of the then Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranayake.

          There after the 1958 riots where, several un armed Tamils were attacked in their houses in colombo and other sinhalese areas, their belongs burnt, looted, killed. The same patterned continued periodically.

          Read “Emergency 1958” by Tarzie Vittachi.

          After 1958, Violence against Tamil civilians were a regular affair. Then came the bombing and shelling in Jaffna, and other Tamil areas.
          The government wanted to do all the atrocities away from the eyes of the world and Television. They effectively banned reporters from reporting. To escape bombing, and shelling and indiscriminate killing by the uniformed thugs, Tamils moved to Colombo, despite knowing that it is expensive to live there, but not because of loving to live with the Sinhalese. Some people left the miserable country to escape STATE TERROR!!!

          LTTE is the by product of state terrorism!!!
          Wanton killings, burning shcols, libraries, killing, torturing, raping, attacking Hindu temples, mosques, churches are the trade mark of SRi Lankan governments since independence.

          Sri Lanka had been violent most of the time since independence. Not only even Sinhalese youths were killed in droves and their bodies were floating down the rivers.

          It is a waste of my time to reply to all your ramblings. It is a shame to call Sri Lanka as a Democracy!!!

          You sound as if the Government was doing a big favour to educate the Tamils!! State has a duty to do this. If not, leave the Tamils alone and they will look after themselves and prosper on their own!!!That is what they have been asking for a long time!!!

          • Leela

            I agree that there were some attack in 56 and race riots in 58. But that wasn’t the first racial riot. First riot started in 1933 after GG Ponnambalam made a degrading speech on Sinhalas in Nawalapitiya.

            British Raj ruled and Wellahla Tamils held over 50% of government top jobs at the time. That was the time that Sinhalas in Colombo elected turbaned Tamil aristocratic Ramanathan as their representative and Jaffna youth council also wanted to progress within one Sri Lanka.

            Still, some Tamils had their plans divide Sri Lanka long before independence. DBS Jeyaraj wrote ‘a man named Visvalingam first mooted an Elom in 1920s to divide Lanka.’ After that racist remark in 1933, Ponnambalam cruised ahead to ask 50-50 seats for just 12% of Tamils. And that pushed Ramanathans out of the scene.

            Then Ponnambalam’s junior surpassed him with an improved separatist demand. He formed a new party devoted for Elom and named it Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) meaning party for separation. Tamils in general never turned back since, but progressed with the trousered Gandhi alias Chelva from satyagraha to Waddukkodai resolution.

            The last paragraph of the Waddukkodai resolution ‘moderate’ Tamil leaders passed at a Waddukkodai public rally at on 14th May 1976 says; “and this Convention calls upon the Tamil Nation in general and the Tamil youth in particular to come forward to throw themselves fully into the sacred fight for freedom and to flinch not till the goal of a sovereign state of TAMIL EELAM is reached.” This they have not retracted since.

            This then is how Eelam war started and end in brief.

  • RV

    There’s an interesting piece in the Colombo Telegraph from November that also discusses Sri Lankan identity from the perspective of an individual living as part of the Sri Lankan diaspora, worth a read.