Seven decades have passed since the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ broke free from the bondage of colonial rule. For a country that was subject to one of the longest periods of foreign occupation from 1505 to 1948, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) had a remarkably smooth transition to the Parliamentary system of democratic governance. In contrast to many other colonies both in the region and beyond, there was no violent struggle for independence nor was the transfer of power marred by racial or religious turbulence.

Ceylon had in fact been regarded as a ‘model colony’ by the imperial rulers and went on to become a ‘model dominion’ on February 04, 1948. With impressive economic and social indicators, Sri Lanka at the time of independence was a rising star to be emulated by other states undergoing decolonisation. But the 70 years that have lapsed post-independence are littered with many instances of great shame and squandered opportunities; the pearl now more aptly characterised as a teardrop.

After independence, Sri Lanka did not become development conscious. Economic progress was overtaken by other divisive factors. The post-Independence trajectory saw ethno-nationalism rear its ugly head, culminating in a protracted, brutal civil war with devastating consequences, the scars of which appear to be set to haunt the country in the years to come. These critical seventy years have seen a disgraceful number of ethno-religious upheavals that have tarnished our image worldwide.

This is a country where divisive ethno-religious considerations predominate at leadership levels, even after 70 years of self-rule. This is a country where the ethnic majority feels insecure partly due to the over-play by foreign powers on essentially internal domestic issues. And this is a country where the ethnic minorities feel equally insecure, resulting in their continuing to think from minority perspectives.  

The challenge of building a united country in which all ethnic and religious communities feel a true sense of belonging, equality and fair-play remains a daunting one. Yet it is one that does not even appear to be a priority at this juncture with the political elite preoccupied with their personal struggles to retain power. Their unmitigated pursuit of self-interest has been the bane of this country.

A Downward Descent

The road to degeneration was paved by opportunistic political leaders in independent Ceylon through the implementation of policies that accentuated ethnic tensions. Politicians resorted to ethnic-outbidding as a strategy to capture power but at great cost to the country and her future generations. In reality, the power transfer in 1948 did not resolve the underlying issues that divided the people.

Multi-ethnic Sri Lanka needed a structural framework that fostered consensus and co-existence; and the Soulbury Constitution even with Section 29 (2) which guaranteed equivalent rights to all communities, could not act as a bulwark against majoritarian politics. As a result, the language, education and employment policies implemented in independent Ceylon to improve the standing of the majority community, directly resulted in anti-minority practices.

It is pertinent to note that even in the ‘model colony’, there were two rebellions against British rule after the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom, the first in 1818 and the second in 1848, both of which were violently suppressed. In 1915, there were ethno-religious riots which were again quelled intolerably by the British. In the following years, the Ceylon National Congress was formed bringing together Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim leaders under one umbrella in a bid to push for reforms collectively.

But even this soon gave way to ethnic rivalries and complexes. After independence, sections of the Sinhala community began to stridently assert the need to revive their culture, language and religion, under subjugation for nearly four and a half centuries. Similar was the plight of most of the other communities. The rising nationalistic fervour failed to group together the other victims of foreign exploitation who continued to remain victimised.

The first targets of Sinhala ethno-nationalism were the poor, illiterate upcountry Tamils. In 1949/50, the government passed legislation denying citizenship to the Tamils of recent Indian origin and disenfranchising them, effectively reducing Tamil voting power. This signalled the first shift away from pluralism to communalism. The upcountry Tamil population comprised 11.73% in 1946 but dropped to 4.12% in 2011, primarily due to repatriation to India during the 1960s. They remain a subset of the country’s population unique for its income disparity and lagging far behind all other communities on all developmental indices.

In 1956, tensions soared after Sinhala was made the sole official language as a result of which the non-Sinhala speaking communities suffered immensely. Communal riots soon followed the same year. The worst pogrom took place in 1983 when hundreds of Tamils lost their lives and properties leading to a large exodus mainly to Western countries. The failure of Gandhian style agitation by Tamil leaders and the growing sense of marginalisation led to the formation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the mid-1970s, signifying the shift from non-violence to violence in the articulation of Tamil demands.

The LTTE became one of the most ruthless insurgent outfits the world has ever seen. The Sinhalese and Muslims bore the brunt of their terrorist violence, as well as the Tamils. Their long list of terrorist acts include the Sri Maha Bodhi, Anuradhapura massacre in 1985, and the Sri Dalada Maligawa, Kandy bomb attack in 1998 just a few days prior to the 50th anniversary of independence. The Muslims too paid a heavy price for refusing to support the LTTE, including the 1990 ethnic cleansing of from the North Muslims and several massacres of Muslim civilians.

Quo Vadis, Mother Lanka?

From as early as 1958 when the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact was abandoned due to pressure from Sinhala nationalists, Sri Lanka has seen several unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a political settlement. Sri Lanka is Asia’s oldest democracy having enjoyed universal adult suffrage since 1931, 20 years ahead of its adoption in India and just two years after its introduction in Britain. Perhaps Sri Lanka’s greatest achievement since independence has been the ability to keep democracy alive, despite major threats to democratic practices over the decades.

The military defeat of the LTTE in 2009 by the Sri Lankan military presented a golden opportunity to put the country back on the right track, but that window was fast shut and the doors of despotism and nepotism opened wide. Post-war in 2009, Sri Lanka experienced a particularly acute erosion of democracy and communal violence directed at the Muslim and Christian communities. The minority communities together with a significant chunk of the majority community in early 2015 showed their anger at the direction in which the country was headed. Sri Lankans voted decisively to oust a corrupt, tyrannical regime and mandated a ‘rainbow coalition’ that promised to work together on a common agenda to salvage the country from ruination.

The national government had promised to restore fuller democracy, establish the rule of law, eliminate corruption and ensure security to religious minorities. As the country marks its seventh decade of independence, those pledges remain far from fulfilled. Today, foreign debt stands at Rs. 9.3 trillion and the plague of religious violence remains a matter of concern. Moreover, there is a lack of consistency in state policy and the government is unable to speak in a unified voice.

As Sri Lankans head to the polling stations for local government elections a few days after the official celebrations, they are starved for choice. Endorse a fractured, ineffective coalition government that can’t seem to get its acts together or cast a vote of confidence on a regime that was dethroned in 2015? We shall soon know but will we learn any lessons?

At 70, Sri Lanka needs to move from confrontational politics to compromised nation-building. There is really no choice here. Retrospectively, it is clear that confrontational and sectarian politicking has crippled our development. The inability of our leaders to rise above petty political ambitions and sectarian divisions to smash the myths and to work towards establishing a united Sri Lanka will engender another backward march. They need to overcome these challenges and not allow anything to overshadow their commitment to the nation-building agenda which they had already committed themselves to. So much remains to be achieved. We have miles to go before we sleep!

Editor’s Note: This piece was submitted as part of an ongoing series marking 70 years of Independence. To view more content, click here