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Sri Lanka’s national anthem presents a vision of the country as a motherland to many, life giving and filled with nature’s abundance and beauty, a place of truth seeking and wisdom. It celebrates all enfolding love overcoming ill will, hatred and strife and moving forward to fullest freedom. In the 75 years since independence to what extent have these ideals been put into practice? How well have safety, dignity and rights for all been upheld and the environment, on which humans and other species rely, been protected?

A chequered inheritance in 1948

A variety of influences had shaped what was officially known as Ceylon in the run up to formal independence in February 1948. Some people and groups sought to unite Sri Lankans of different ethnic groups and faiths to build a country free of British rule based on democratic principles and that addressed the hardships of the poor and disadvantaged, not just focusing on the ambitions and concerns of a section of the ruling or upper middle class.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they included pro-independence activists such as Ponnambalam Arunachalam and Charles Edgar Corea. There was also an active trade union movement that organised strikes based on principles of solidarity while seeking better pay and conditions. Although local influence on policy was limited, some colonial administrators were more enlightened than others and public services developed, partly to serve economic purposes, but also sometimes improving wellbeing for ordinary people.

However among the people of the island there were differences in political views, values and outlook. Sometimes traditional and Western based forms of authoritarianism and inequality reinforced one another, although across the world there were also movements for change. Many of those with power and privilege had no great wish to share these with their neighbours and tended to side with the authorities, even if these acted in an oppressive manner. There were major divisions, including on class and caste, ranging from mild snobbery to brutal violence. Although education for girls and women’s emancipation was not held back as much as in some countries, sex discrimination was rife.

Most people, especially among the Sinhalese, identified as Buddhist with Hinduism as the next most common religion, especially widespread among Tamils. There were also sizeable Muslim and Christian minorities. While the teachings of the Buddha emphasised compassion to all living beings, seeking wisdom and the folly of grasping at wealth and power, and other faiths too included teachings which could bolster justice and human rights for all, there were also more damaging versions of these. Over the years, those tensions within faith communities would affect the country, as some ambitious politicians and privilege seeking religious leaders joined hands while others resisted what they saw as the corruption of their beliefs to try to justify cruelty.

Estate Tamils, largely the children, grandchildren or greatgrandchildren of migrants brought from India to work on plantations, were a particularly disadvantaged minority, overwhelmingly working class, often wretchedly poor and ruthlessly exploited. However some became part of the labour movement in pre-independence Ceylon. They contributed much to the economy and, as most were very clearly settled on the island, frequently from birth, they should have been entitled to citizenship in the same way as everyone else. But certain Sinhalese members of the ruling elite pushed for them to be disenfranchised if they could not produce paperwork to prove that their fathers were born in Sri Lanka. This was impossible for most even if they and their parents had never known any other home, since issuing birth certificates had not been regularised until around the end of the nineteenth century. While some Tamil leaders and “progressive” politicians resisted this strongly others, to their shame, failed to do so and measures pushed through which entrenched cruel injustice, rendering individuals and families liable to be dumped in a country they had never even visited or easy targets for exploitation if they stayed.

A mixed scorecard

According to the constitution, in the mid twentieth century, recently independent Ceylon was a modern democracy and, for a long time, elections were by and large free and fair with power repeatedly switching between the then conservative United National Party and Sri Lanka Freedom Party. The state signed up to Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which covers a range of aspects of life including the social and economic as well as the political and cultural.

There was also an active left and some socially liberal centrists. A welfare state brought genuine benefits, especially to poorer Sri Lankans, but also more generally to society. Universal free healthcare, with expansion of services into underserved rural areas, free education up to university level, some measure of social security, including food subsidies, and other programmes had a major impact on public health and wellbeing and reduction of levels of harsh poverty. Life expectancy would rise to be well above the global average. There were still disparities; for instance education for poorer people in the countryside was very variable in quality, getting to hospitals not always easy, while the lot of estate Tamils was still largely wretched with damaging effects on their health and opportunities. Yet these were important, along with some government policies which sought to assist small farmers, for instance.

Yet Sinhalese nationalism had to some extent replaced a dream of a pluralist Lanka; the targeting of minorities was proving to be a useful ploy for winning votes amid competition for resources and opportunities in an ex-colony in a still very unequal world. As the UNP and SLFP vied with one another on harsh policies towards estate Tamils, this would set in motion a train of events that would be disastrous to people from numerous communities.

English has been the dominant language under British rule. Some well-educated middle and upper class people spoke and wrote this fluently and members of the Burgher minority had this (or Portuguese) as their first language but most of the population was at a disadvantage. The expectation was that Sinhala and Tamil would become official languages with provision made for English speakers too. In fact, an education system could have been developed which encouraged most of the country’s children to be bi- or trilingual and celebrated diverse cultures. But in 1956, the SLFP government chose a different tack.

An Official Language Act (widely known as the Sinhala Only Act) made Sinhala the sole official language, to the outrage and dismay of many, not only the Tamils and Tamil speaking Muslims who would be left at a grave disadvantage. It would be many years before this was rectified. Colvin de Silva, an MP from the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, had warned in Parliament, “Do you want two languages and one nation, or one language two nations? Parity, Mr. Speaker, we believe is the road to the freedom of our nation and the unity of its components. Otherwise two torn little bleeding states may arise of one little state” (although later, sadly, left parties too would also be sucked into ethnic nationalism). Yet the prime minister of the time, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, pressed ahead.

When Tamils, including MPs, peacefully protested on Galle Face Green, they were brutally assaulted by thugs backed by politicians while the police stood by. There were other communal attacks elsewhere in the country, where people died. Worse was to come in 1958, as anti-Tamil riots broke out, again with the connivance of the authorities, although eventually the Governor General stepped in. By then a sizeable number of Tamils had been displaced, injured, murdered or fled the country.

In 1959, Bandaranaike himself fell victim to the forces of lawless extremism that he had helped to unleash when a Buddhist monk assassinated him for not going even further.

The years to come brought twists and turns, including a general strike, attempted coup and changes in which party ruled. In Jaffna, protests over denial of temple entry to those most oppressed on grounds of caste were met with brutal violence by fellow Tamils defending their privileged status.

At the same time, minorities had been seriously alienated and questioning grew among Tamils whether they had a future in a united Sri Lanka where they might live in safety and dignity without discrimination or danger of large scale violence. Some thinkers still pushed for a peaceful and democratic solution within a united Sri Lanka, perhaps with less centralised power and greater regional autonomy, which might also have benefited Sinhalese people in more neglected regions. Yet others saw this as hopelessly idealistic.

Events had demonstrated that the most basic human rights such as the right to life and freedom from cruel and degrading treatment could be violated at whim as well as democratic principles such as separation of powers, which meant that policing and criminal justice should be impartial. And discontent among young Sinhalese from peasant or working class families about lack of opportunities had not been totally headed off.


In 1971, an armed uprising by the mainly youthful Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which combined radical rhetoric with Sinhalese nationalism, failed. The response of the United Front government of the time, which brought together the SLFP and left parties, overrode human rights principles including allowing torture.

Meanwhile in the north, Tamil nationalism was flourishing, with even mainstream politicians indulging in the rhetoric of “traitors” against those with whom they disagreed. A small militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which again used leftist language while being authoritarian and far from embodying universal solidarity, had begun to recruit mainly young followers willing to use violence. In 1975, it murdered the elected Mayor of Jaffna (not for the last time), in this instance Alfred Duraiappah), after a campaign of vilification in which established politicians had joined.

In a new constitution in 1972, in which the country was officially renamed Sri Lanka, Buddhism was given the foremost place and it became a duty of the state to protect and foster this while allowing freedom of religion and belief to others. In practice this meant that certain monks were offered undue power and status, which was at odds with the ideals of detachment, divisions deepened and non-Buddhists were given the impression that they were second class citizens even if they had citizenship.

Across the country, from the wealthy elite to the wider population, a culture of respect for human rights and democracy had largely unravelled. Some were uneasy about this but too intimidated or afraid of losing social standing to speak out although others openly upheld these principles, even if this was becoming increasingly risky.

When the UNP won a general election, some minorities hoped this would bring about an improvement but such hopes would be brutally dashed. Across the globe, neoliberal policies were coming to the fore, backed by politicians such as Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US, and freedom for humans often took second place to a drive for free trade. Cuts to food subsidies and other economic reforms hit living standards for many while external debt grew. Tourism flourished, of legitimate and more dubious kinds, including child sexual exploitation but many people led financially precarious lives. Repressive measures and scapegoating would play a part in keeping dissent in check.

Executive presidency was introduced giving huge powers to a single person. The president claimed the power to ban organisations which, in his opinion, advocated violence or were concerned in unlawful activity while in 1979 a draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act was brought in that allowed people to be held on the flimsiest grounds for long periods of time. Large numbers of young Tamils were detained and mistreated which in practice led to a growth in terrorism as bitterness, fear and anger against the police and security forces grew, further fuelled by their sometimes lethal attacks on defenceless civilians who made for easier targets than the armed militants.

In schools in the South, Sinhalese children were subjected to crudely racialist propaganda. The burning down of Jaffna library in 1981, filled with priceless manuscripts, helped to reinforce the notion that the state saw the North and East not as areas full of Sri Lankans deserving care and respect but rather as occupied territories to be subdued.

Elsewhere in the country, thugs from the UNP’s “union” were put on the government payroll and sent out to attack students, strikers and anyone else who did not fall into line. A blatantly rigged presidential election returned J.R. Jayewardene to power. Judges were threatened. A referendum, again surrounded by rampant illegality, supposedly found that Sri Lankans did not want a general election in 1983. Instead Tamils were targeted in a wave of horrific violence and ethnic cleansing, supposedly a spontaneous reaction to an LTTE attack on an army patrol but obviously well organised and with police standing by. In addition a number of Tamil prisoners were murdered in a high security prison.

When the president finally spoke, he made clear his lack of sympathy with the survivors, many of whom had been left homeless, bereaved and traumatised. According to him, the mobs were a “mass movement by the generality of the Sinhalese people” and it was time “to accede to the clamour and national respect of the Sinhalese people.” The JVP was by then pursuing its goals through peaceful ends but he put a stop to that, banning it and two other parties for the violence by his supporters. He also banned attempts by parliamentarians to make the case for a separate state. This choked off avenues for democratic dissent and the armed Tamil nationalist movement grew dramatically.

The country spiralled into violence and civilians often found themselves being threatened or attacked from different quarters. State forces committed atrocities in the East and North while the LTTE launched terrorist attacks against Sinhalese civilians and battled fellow Tamil nationalist fighters as its leaders sought to impose its leadership’s absolute rule over Tamils. Alliances were formed and broken, as justice, mercy and human rights principles were largely abandoned, ordinary people including soldiers caught up in activities they might later regret or seek to forget.

The official Sri Lankan armed forces and paramilitary fighters cut their own swathe of terror across minority areas. Then, when a JVP rebellion again broke out among disaffected young Sinhalese from 1987 to 89, turned their violence against members of their own ethnic community. In some areas, older boys and young men were disappeared in large numbers based on the principle that at least some of those wiped out would be from the JVP. This is turn carried out assassinations, as did the LTTE.

Back and forth

In 1994, amidst mass action to ensure a return to a broadly free and fair general election, democracy was at least in part restored. The new president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, made efforts to shift the narrative towards one of inclusivity and attempted to resolve the civil war, although ultimately failed.

The events of the early 2000s, especially after the Rajapaksa brothers took the helm, are still fresh in many people’s memories and widely reported with extensive evidence of multiple human rights violations, although some people bravely resisted and elements of a welfare state remained. In 2009, there were protests when journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, who had been highly critical of the regime’s abuses of power, was assassinated and, in a powerful posthumous editorial, denounced attempts to counter terror with terror, urging instead a solution in which Tamils were not expected “to live eternally as second-class citizens.”

But later that year the war was won by the government after both sides committed grave violations of the most fundamental rights and the laws governing war, leaving possibly 40,000 or more civilians dead in the final stages. Many more were left displaced and the North and East left largely militarised. The conflict had left a legacy of great suffering made worse by the unwillingness of the authorities to acknowledge this or even ensure that the basic needs of those who had lost homes, livelihoods or loved ones were met.

In the following years, as calls for accountability and restoration of rights for all were met with anger or ignored, leaders continued to stoke ethnic nationalism and religious supremacism, although increasingly targeting Muslims. For a while, a cross party alliance made efforts towards restoring democratic rights, though economic and social rights were no great priority for them. On some aspects of equality, there were advances, due largely to the efforts of communities and campaigners although certain inequalities (such as the position of Muslim women under family law) proved hard to overcome. Disabled people were still often excluded and victimisation of LGBT+ people continued although the government indicated a commitment to move forward on this.

When the Rajapaksas returned to power, overall the situation took a turn for the worse, most immediately for ethnic and religious minorities, trade unionists and dissidents. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s refusal to have the national anthem sung in Tamil as well as Sinhala at the 72nd independence day celebration was symbolic of a reluctance to accept that Tamils, and maybe other minorities, had a full and equal place in a united Sri Lanka. The cruelties and insecurity to which so many Sri Lankans were unnecessarily subjected reflected a view of whose country this really was. Thankfully that stark exclusion has at least ended, yet many across the island do not experience anything resembling equality and security.

In the turbulent past year, the 75th of independent Sri Lanka, grave misjudgements and authoritarian arrogance (on top of underlying weaknesses) led to an unprecedented economic crisis. The most basic economic rights were infringed, as ordinary people were left struggling to feed their families and, for many, soaring costs are still taking a terrible toll.

While mass action led to his downfall and departure, human rights overall are still in a grave condition. However the closely interconnected nature of different types of rights for different sections of the population has perhaps become apparent to many in Sri Lanka and beyond, in ways that were not so clear before. When some groups are not truly free, freedom for all is in peril. There is a risk though that this awareness will fade and the tug of narrow nationalisms or other forms of authoritarianism become stronger.

Looking back and forward

It can be hard for Sri Lankans to confront aspects of the past perhaps because these evoke too much distress, guilt, shame or despair or, for some of those who are more prosperous and secure, certain experiences are difficult to imagine. Meanwhile the ideals set out in the national anthem seem far removed from the situation facing all too many.

Yet if willing to face up to what has gone wrong, it may also be easier to build on what is positive including the numerous acts of compassion, solidarity and unselfish courage in even the bleakest situations. These can serve as a foundation to make Sri Lanka a place where diverse people feel at home and in harmony with one another and other living beings where rights are respected and which contributes to a more peaceful, joyful world.