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Seven years since the conclusion of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, there is an opportunity to build bridges between divided communities. In this context, education is key to meaningful reconciliation.

Education is a tool that can create religious and ethnic tolerance, and build inter-faith co-existence. The role of education systems in constructing counter narratives to tackle radicalisation and extremism is well documented. This article examines Sri Lanka’s history curriculum in light of global lessons on the role of education in either fostering or undermining co-existence. It argues that Sri Lanka’s history curriculum needs serious revisiting, as it perpetuates the ‘othering’ of minority communities.

In June 2016, the Global Education First Initiative (GEFI) convened a debate on the ‘Prevention of Violent Extremism through Education’ at the UN in New York. At the event, Anusheh Bakht, a GEFI Youth Advocate, observed that school curricula were often used as political tools to ‘perpetuate a certain belief system to guide thinking’.

Germany provides a good example of the impact mass education can have on behaviour and attitudes of future generations. In 1933, fascist Germany overhauled its education system, in order to create a new generation of committed Nazis. Adolf Hitler understood that moulding the youth was central to his goal of creating a Thousand Year Reich. Accordingly, history lessons recalled glorious wars of conquest in the 1800s, and propagated the ‘stab in the back’ myth to account for Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Biology lessons preached the superiority of the Aryan race; and ranked Jews as sub-humans (‘untermenschen’). Before long, the Nazis re-categorised Jews as ‘lebensunwertes’ or ‘unworthy of life’. Such selective accounts of human worth, history, and knowledge were reprehensible, as they actively encouraged prejudice. Furthermore, when sanctioned and organised through the state’s education apparatus, such narratives became deeply entrenched in the fabric of society. Historians such as Ian Kershaw argue that such indoctrination of the youth muted opposition to the increasing marginalisation of German Jews in the 1930s.

In Sri Lanka, notwithstanding the linguistic and religious segregation of numerous schools, the content of textbooks and syllabi is concerning. According to Sasanka Perera, the legend of battles between ancient kingdoms documented in the Mahāvamsa promotes Sinhalese-Tamil antagonism, and suggests ‘a long and bloody tradition’ between the two races.[1] Thus the reproduction of this version of the past in the Sinhala Grade 6 history syllabus is highly problematic. It claims that the Sinhalese King Dutugemunu defeated the Tamil, ‘foreign’ ruler Elara in a war to protect Buddhism, to ‘reunite the country’ and ‘liberate the country from foreign rule’ (see Figure 1).[2] By contrast, the Tamil Grade 6 history syllabus cites Elara as a leader that ruled ‘with justice’ (see Figure 2).[3]

How do the Sinhala and Tamil, Ministry of Education-sanctioned, textbooks carry such opposing interpretations of history? Moreover, historians continue to debate the motives behind Dutugemenu’s war. According to R.A.L.H Gunawardana, Dutugemunu’s campaign against Elara was not a ‘Sinhala-Tamil confrontation’ but one of many battles ‘against several independent principalities’.[4] What then, is the correct version public schools should teach?


Figure 1


Figure 2

The Mahāvamsa chapter[5] that documents Dutugemunu’s campaign also describes the remorse Dutugemunu experienced. Buddhist monks consoled him[6] when Dutugemunu confessed to the slaughter of millions during his campaign for Anuradhapura, saying: ‘only one and a half human beings have been slain here by thee… Unbelievers and men of evil life were the rest, not more to be esteemed than beasts’.[7] It is shocking that so many lives can be compressed into merely one and a half persons; the rest dismissed as no worthier than ‘beasts’. Should we use the Mahāvamsa – which dehumanises minorities – as a source for the history we teach our children?

R.A.L.H. Gunawardana emphasises the ‘role the study of the “remote past” has played in shaping mass consciousness, and thereby in the moulding of the present’.[8] Historical narratives are integral to many Sri Lankan identities and the understanding of their positions in society. Moreover, such interpretations of history are often used to support incorrect political claims and justify injudicious political decisions.

We must be wary of the tendency for narratives taught as part of school curricula to eventually become accepted as historical fact.[9] This further entrenches distorted interpretations of Sri Lanka’s past, and hardens interracial mistrust. Therefore, in the current context, if reconciliation is ever to be meaningful, should we not start with schools and curricula, and prevent the propagation of a history that is designed to mislead and divide?


Shamara Wettimuny has an MSc and BSc in International Relations and History from the London School of Economics. She currently works at Verité Research, a Colombo-based think tank. The views expressed in this article are her own.

[1] Perera, Sasanka, The Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: A Historical and Socio-political Outline (2001) at 14.

[2]National Institute of Education, Sri Lanka accessible at

[3]National Institute of Education, Sri Lanka accessible at

[4]Gunawardana, R.A.L.H., ‘The People of the Lion: The Sinhala Identity and

Ideology in History and Historiography’ [1979] 5(1) & (2), The Sri Lanka

Journal of the Humanities 1-36, at 15.

[5]Mahāvamsa, 25:67-70.

[6]Mahāvamsa, 25:104.

[7]Mahāvamsa, 25: 109-112.

[8]Gunawardana, R.A.L.H., at 36.

[9]Gunatilleke, Gehan, Confronting the Complexity of Loss: Perspectives on Truth, Memory and Justice in Sri Lanka (Law & Society Trust: 2015), at 10.

  • Real_Peace

    Excellent Topic for discussion and coming to a win-win agreement!
    Thank you Groundviews/Wettimuni for this.

    Q: in the para below, it shows the difference in Sinhala & Tamil textbooks.
    For the Tamil part “Elara as a leader that ruled ‘with justice’” doesn’t it STILL say in Tamil to the effect that Dutugemunu did this to “reunite the country’”?? 🙂

    It claims that the Sinhalese King Dutugemunu defeated the Tamil, ‘foreign’ ruler Elara in a war to protect Buddhism, to ‘reunite the country’ and ‘liberate the country from foreign rule’ (see Figure 1).[2] By contrast, the Tamil Grade 6 history syllabus cites Elara as a leader that ruled ‘with justice’ (see Figure 2).[3]

  • Real_Peace

    Question: how much did the burning of the Jaffna Library in 1981 play part in this topic?

    The Danger in Distorted Education: Sri Lanka’s History Curriculum

    • Suresh

      I must congratulate you on focussing on the festering sore that has ruined this country especially since Independence!
      You are spot-on! The History books have been deliberately falsified by interested parties to promulgate the myth of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy. Its so unfortunate that this has happened.
      I propose that at least now the Education Dept appoints a committee of historians from all communities, and agree on one version of our TRUE History – or as close as we can get to it.
      We need to start reconcilliation in schools. Its pointless preaching reconcilliation to adults who have been brain-washed to believe in the superiority of one race and religion – exactly the opposite of what the Buddha preached!
      There’s enough well-documented research out there to dispute what’s said in our so-called History books!
      Kids in International Schools are privileged that they study in English. Some “local” schools now allow kids from any race to study in English.
      If we segregate kids based on race and religion at such a young age, what hope does this country have of re-uniting its people.
      Thanks once again for bringing up a topic many people choose to ignore!

  • Upali Wickramasinghe

    In the first instance, when I was at School ie in the ’50, at Ananda, we were taught that Elara was a just king. The distortion of the war was presented as at today.

    I do not believe in the the fight between Elara and Gemunu. Elara was 75years old to Gemunu’s 25 years.Going by all that is written about this fight, I believe that the Buddhist priests – just like any priest anywhere- set up Gemunu.. Gemunu killed Elara either by throttling him or stabbing him. This upset the people of Anuradhapura who declared war against the Ruhunupura.The ruhunupura eventually won the war and according to what is said by the Buddhist priests, they were responsible for building the Ruhunupura army, canvassing as far as at the distant Amparai.- This may be the basis for their claim that they were the “Gods” that saved the “Jathiya”.

    There are obvious lies in the Mahawanse story, which even educated Buddhist had accepted in toto.

    Take the story of molten lava being poured an Kantaka.This could never have happened.To melt ore one had to heat the ore to a very high temperature, to over 1500 deg centigrade.That ore could not have been heated on the Palisade, the palisade would have collapsed.It could have been heated on the ground and lifted to the palisade, but what was the means used to lift it.Any means available would have got burnt the moment it was lifted from the fire place.Finally the technology to pour small quantities of molten lava is not there even today. The moment the melt hit the atmospheric temperature it will solidify.

    • Upali Wickramasinghe

      I also suspect that the Ruwan weliseya was a pennace of his sin over killing Elara.Remember how inquired whether he had committed a serious crime – killing millions of people- and the priests told him that only one human being was killed and the others were animals.

  • nelun

    Thank you for bringing this up. The local syllabus History books from grade 6-9 have been very Badly done..I totaly agree with the writer..Authorities pls do hv a look at all the government printed history books upto grade 11 and ensure qualified people do get involved at the ministry of education .over 50 names are given of those responsible in writting and presenting these book from 2011 onwards..but wonder how so many can male such a mess of things ..?Such a sad situation..

  • puniselva

    ”Sri Lanka needs A UNESCO supervised revision of school text books by a panel of internationally renowned Sri Lankan scholars so as to minimize prejudice against communities and ‘build the defences of peace in the minds of men’.”
    – The Lalith Weeratunga Presentation, Dayan Jayatilleka, 28 January 2014,

  • puniselva

    This reminds me of what the President told the visiting IFRC Chief:
    ”It is people in the North and East who suffered most due to the protracted conflict and reconciliation should originate from the people in the South. It is those people who have to cultivate reconciliation to live peacefully with the victims of the war. It is the mindset of the people that requires to be transformed to acquire reconciliation and healing the wounds inflicted by the conflict.” – Reconciliation must come from the people and not through foreign inducement – President, 3 March 2016,

  • Anpu

    The Chief Minister of the Tamil-majority Northern Province, C.V.Wigneswaran, has complained to the European Union (EU) human rights inspection team that the Sri Lankan army is running hundreds of schools in his province when it has no right to do so under the 13th amendment of the constitution. According to the Tamil daily Thinakkural Wigneswaran complained that in Vavuniya, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts, the army’s Civil Defense Unit is running 344 primary schools, employing 689 Tamil women as teachers at good salaries, when as per the constitution, school education is a devolved subject and schools in the province are to be run by the provincial ministry of education.

    The number of teachers in the army-run primary schools is the same as the number of teachers working in the provincial council-run primary schools, the Chief Minister pointed out in his interaction with the EU headed by Jean Lambert MEP last Saturday. He also said that in the schools run by the army, teachers are made to wear a uniform which has raised concerns among the people as to whether they are being recruited to the army.

    • puniselva

      Furthermore when they travel on the road, people will know that they are working at the Army-run schools.

  • Real_Peace

    Thank you, Puniselva, for the valuable links.

    Documenting Truth is important bec even Wikipedia articles have been vandalized to ‘erase Truth’. I learned this thru a Tweet a friend shared with me.

    Maybe you can help fix it? 🙂

    • puniselva

      Pl use the links(which are in the public domain) yourself – I’m sorry I’m occupied otherwise.

      • puniselva

        Pl tell Real_Peace that I wish to get in touch with him or her and pass my email address. Thanks.

      • Real_Peace

        Puniselva, no problem.

        I’m sure someone will step up. Thanks.

  • Real_Peace

    Question for any readers:

    How about the books in libraries outside Sri Lanka? Apparently there are few books that present the Facts in a balanced way? Any suggestions?

    Here are fewI found to be helpful, through, Groundviews and other sources