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The media have been replete with the pronouncements that the president of Sri Lanka was going to resolve the ethnic issue by taking some rapid action measures. However, scepticism was inevitable when the proposals were shorn of their rhetoric. Firstly, the current president has wielded political power for 40 years. He appeared to have periodically attempted to work toward reconciliation but the outcome of all those attempts has been nothing but a big nought. Secondly, there is strong opposition from a large number of politicians in the parliament who, in the people’s view, have become discredited. Thirdly, and most importantly, reconciliation and prosperity cannot be accomplished without the structural changes the country needs, both economic and political.

The challenge

Introducing a system of decentralisation of power, accountability to the people and the rule of law, and recognising the pluralist nature of the society with social justice as its bedrock will require a new political culture and politicians.

It would need the abolition of the unaccountable powers inherent in the executive presidential system, and restoration of balance of power between the legislature, executive and judiciary. An impossible task if the current rulers continue to cling to power as such a change would open their corruption, wastage and incompetence to public scrutiny and censure.

True reconciliation in a plural society can only come from a broad coalition of progressive forces within the parliament and civil society including Tamils, Muslims and others. The blatant failure of the major political parties has enabled a resurgent civic society to demand a fresh look at the institutional structures of power and economy. It is within this framework a genuine independence underpinned by socio-economic justice can emerge.

Tamils and reconciliation

Seventy five years ago, the country was granted independence. The new rulers were not interested in reconciling the ethnic and religious diversity to foster a united Sri Lanka; rather they safeguarded their class privileges and interests by fragmenting the society. Their first act was to hastily pass The Citizenship Act of 1948, which disenfranchised the vast majority of plantation Tamils. This was adopted to suppress the growing influence of progressive currents within the labour force in the plantations. Their labour had been the fount of the wealth that flowed from the plantation sector, in particular, tea. In his report to the Human Rights Council in 2022, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery noted that the Malaiyaha Tamilians, who were brought from India to work in the plantation sector 200 years ago, continue to face multiple forms of discrimination based on their origin.

The government of D.S. Senanayake then embarked on vast colonisation schemes, such as the mammoth Gal Oya Multi-Purpose Scheme, launched a year later in 1949. As Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe’s study of the scheme said, Gal Oya was more symbolism than reality. Millions of rupees were spent relocating thousands of peasants to the arid zone. Some estimates put the cost of relocating and helping people to be around Rs.3,000 per person. They were then left to fend for themselves. Many of the Sinhalese settlers attempted against the odds to overcome the harsh climate and lack of expertise and capital while eking out a marginal existence. Their presence on lands that were seen as the ancestral territory of Tamils and Muslims exacerbated tensions, which the politicians have exploited since then.

In 1956 the Senanayake clan was replaced by the Bandaranaike clan. The communal rhetoric became more strident and ominous but the economic parameters remained the same. The country remained on the margins of the world economy. The small industrial base remained stagnant and the country relied on its agricultural sector for its vital export earnings. But these were in long term decline while the price of vital imports continued to rise. The Bandaranaike clan cynically took the easy way out by finding scapegoats for the unemployment crisis – Tamils. As Pieter Keuneman of the Communist Party of Ceylon presciently pointed during the debate on the Official Language Bill in 1956, “Suppose you kick out 17,000 Tamils employed by the government at the present. Suppose you tell them ‘Pack up your bags and go back to Jaffna.’ Suppose the Minister of Labour says, ‘Give me 17,000 Sinhalese boys to take their place,’ and he puts them in those vacant jobs. After that what is he going to do? How do you solve the problem after that?” [1]

A limited negotiated settlement was made via the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact but was torn up by the prime minister, who surrendered to the extremist chauvinist forces in his party. A riot ensued in which hundreds of Tamils lost their lives and thousands were forced to relocate. In 1958, the prime minister was assassinated by ultra nationalists. According to investigations the reason for the murder was Bandaranaike’s refusal to satisfy Mapitigama Buddharakkitha Thera’s business demands to secure a lucrative shipping contract to import rice for a company he had co-founded with one of his associates. Buddharakkitha supported Bandaranaike with funds and influence during the 1956 election. Bandaranaike also denied a lucrative sugar manufacturing licence to Buddharakkitha and his associates.

Also, the Sinhala chauvinists were not satisfied with Bandaranaike’s compromising attitude towards Tamils. The extremist nationalist genie he helped release was now difficult to contain. The anti-Tamil rioters were not brought to book. Peaceful protests by Tamils and their representatives in the Federal Party were suppressed violently using armed forces and thugs.

In 1965 a UNP government was elected. The Dudley-Chelvanayagam pact was signed and was destroyed by the opposition, which now included members of the parties that had opposed the Sinhala Only Bill. In 1970, the United Front government was elected to power. Within months the government was faced with an insurrection by the alienated Sinhala youth. The cause for the insurrection in April 1971 was economic. Unemployment continued to rise in 1971; out of a labour force of 4.4 million, 585,000 were officially unemployed, a more realistic figure was closer to 700,000. Out of the 585,000 who were officially unemployed, 460,000 were in the rural areas and 250,000 were aged between 19 and 24.

The unemployed were educated young Sinhala men and women who were meant to be the beneficiaries of the Official Languages Bill. But how could they be when the country was not creating the economic opportunities that would foster their employment? Good money was being squandered on wasteful economic policies like the ruinous land colonisation schemes while the country’s industrial base remained weak. The plantation economy, although expanding, was declining in terms of productivity and revenue. And to all this one must add corruption, inefficiency and government waste.

Instead of attempting to create an economy where there are opportunities for all regardless of their language and ethnicity, the government opted for the status quo – borrowing money and increasing the country’s indebtedness. The country’s debt rose from Rs. 95 million in 1957 to Rs 349 million in 1966, and to Rs. 744 million in 1969. To allay concerns and distract attention from governmental corruption and incompetence, a new Republican Constitution was created in 1972.

This constitution erased the previous constitution’s separation of religion and state and confirmed the supremacy of the majority community. A standardisation scheme was created which weighted university entrance figures in favour of the majority community, although the public service and most professions now had a majority of Sinhalese in their ranks. The Tamil population in the south was made to diminish, a fact reflected in the employment statistics. In addition, approximately one per cent of high school graduates went to university; the other 99 per cent missed out, regardless of their ethnicity. This inequity persists.

In 1977, under the leadership of J.R. Jayawardene, the UNP gained government with a thumping majority. There was more rioting against Tamils, with thousands killed and many more forced to vacate their homes in the south. The economy turned out to be one in which a few became extremely wealthy. The rest gradually lost their welfare net and rationing was abolished. The constitution was changed again in 1978, leaving Sinhalese Buddhist hegemony intact and an executive presidency established. Laws that were traditionally the preserve of parliament were now created by the president. The independence of the judiciary and the bureaucracy were drastically curtailed. The checks and balances of a functioning democracy were gradually eroded.

In 1981 the organised trade union movement was destroyed. Later on, a watered down version of devolution was put forward but even that was anathema to some of the more influential Sinhalese and was left in abeyance.

In 1983 the hubris was in full display. There was credible evidence that the ruling UNP (in which the current president was a minister) and many of its cadres were involved in the Black July riots that was indeed a pogrom. Three thousand Tamils lost their lives, tens of thousands of houses and business were looted and burnt and many of the women were raped. This led to thousands of Tamil youth embracing the men with guns – the LTTE and other armed groups – to fight for a separate state for their civil and political rights and made thousands more flee the country. The result was not hard to predict.

A full scale civil war erupted, which lasted for over 25 years, finally ending in 2009 in a total victory for the Sinhala forces under the government of the Rajapaksa clan. Credible allegations have been made of war crimes committed by all parties to the war. The government resorted to the old tricks: first deny, then create a partisan panel to investigate the allegations (they have had many such panels), ignore the findings and ultimately blame the other side. Almost 14 years have passed, and tens of thousands are yet to find out the fate of their relatives, a majority of whom are believed to have been subjected to extrajudicial executions.

Life for Tamils post war

In Tamil dominated areas, 50 to 80 thousand troops are stationed – one soldier for every 15 civilians. If one adds 15,000 police, we have one of the most militarised zones in the world. The security forces have occupied prime land belonging to the Tamil population where they have built resorts, golf courses and have become market gardeners. These are lucrative businesses in areas where for decades there has been very little spent by successive governments on economic development. The security forces are Sinhalese, mostly young men who do not speak Tamil and occupy Tamil ancestral land. This is a drain on the public purse and a cause of great resentment.

Many of the temples and lands are arbitrarily occupied by Sinhala Buddhist colonisers who are now building Buddhist temples and shrines. It is not unusual to hear Buddhist chants blaring from loudspeakers in the evenings in a town like Batticaloa, where the vast majority of the populace speak Tamil and are of the Hindu, Christian or Muslim faith. The message is clear.

This has been compounded by the ubiquitous white van abduction of Tamil men who might have had a tenuous or no connection with the LTTE (also happening currently to the protestors in the South). They have been spirited to secret locations, tortured and in many cases released only after a bribe was negotiated, which their families could ill afford. Many of these torturers also have a lucrative sideline in smuggling people out of the country.

A large number of households now have the widows as the main breadwinner and there have been persistent and credible reports of sexual harassment and rape.

All this is having a devastating effect in the community. Professor Daya Somasundaram, a noted psychiatrist, has compiled an extensive report on the effect that war, discrimination and occupation has had on the Tamil population: suicide rates, family breakdown and rebellion by angry young men are on the increase.[2]

Adding to this is the economic disaster. Even before the pandemic the employment opportunities were few, and now there are shortages of food, medicines, and cooking gas. If nothing is done to alleviate the plight of the Tamil population and bring about genuine reconciliation, a future conflict is inevitable.

The Muslims and reconciliation

A barometer of the health and maturity of a country is how the core governmental institutions respond to crises. Here too they have failed abysmally.

In April 2019, a concerted terrorist attack on three churches during Easter Sunday mass as well as three luxury hotels was followed by explosions in the precincts of Colombo. The death toll stood at 258 including 46 foreigners, with around 500 more injured. Afterwards orchestrated mobs systematically attacked Muslim businesses, homes and mosques. In many instances the security forces arrived too late or were absent and were either ineffectual or just remained as onlookers.

A heightened insecurity situation appears to have been created so that the majoritarian fears could be inflamed so as to make them vote against the then existing regime. This created a situation where the state could further repress and erode fundamental rights of those who did not agree with their politics of corruption and wastage. The intelligence services apparently knew of the impending bombing beforehand, and could have intervened but they did not. They have not been brought to book; instead some others have been made the scapegoats for these terrible events.

The following month, then President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned Venerable Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, leader of the group that masterminded previous countless brutal attacks on Muslims and their businesses, homes and mosques. Pressure was exertedon the elected Muslim politicians and provincial governors to resign or be censured on the spurious allegation of having terrorist links. All nine Muslim ministers had to resign en masse to avoid further anti-Muslim violence.

Anti-Muslim rhetorical bile was spread like wildfire with willing accomplices not only among politicians but also among some in the senior public servants. This racial vitriol has also leeched into the ranks of the security forces. A typical example was where a Deputy Inspector General, without a proper investigation and a shred of evidence, claimed that Doctor Mohammed Shafi had crushed the fallopian tubes of 4,000 women, making them infertile.

These incidents showed a lack of political will and institutional checks and balances to protect the non-majoritarian communities from the hatred of some sectors of the majority community. The inaction or reluctance of the police to act against those of the majority community who are found to be engaged in rioting, is in stark contrast with the alacrity in their acting on any complaint made by Buddhist monks regardless of the veracity of the allegation or its triviality. A typical example was the arrest of the novelist Shakthika Sathkumara. The charge was inciting religious hatred and violating international human rights law.

These incidents and the aftermath of the terrorist bombing illustrates the ineffectiveness of the security, political and judicial apparatus that had been in existence in the so-called independent Sri Lanka, particularly when it came to protecting people from the non majoritarian communities. With the landslide victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the 2019 Presidential elections, all the norms of the rule of law were brushed aside and more and more unaccountable presidential powers were acquired via amendments to the constitution. And the majority sadly bought that message.

Instead of the promised boom and regeneration, the economy collapsed. Many Sri Lankans no longer buy this contemptible message of hate. Let us hope this understanding prevails with the majority of the population no longer responding to the dog whistle of communal and religious hatred.


The main political parties and the three families that have run the country since independence have been guilty of manifest failure. They are responsible for the economic insecurity, corruption, wastage and mismanagement that increasingly prevailed in “independent” Sri Lanka. To cover up their failures and mismanagement they have successfully used the lack of transparency and accountability, brutal suppressive laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act and scapegoated minorities. The current economic crisis has exposed this situation clearly.

Those brave protestors have shown that the time is ripe for people of good will – civil society actors, voluntary organisations, broadminded political parties, loose ad-hoc formations and progressive elements within parliament – to use the 75th anniversary of independence to provide a democratic framework, institutions of integrity and a functioning economy where all citizens regardless of their ethnicity and religious affiliation can create a new political discourse.

It is also an opportune time for taking constructive actions to eliminate all forms of discrimination faced by many communities in Sri Lanka so that they can enjoy their full potential as human beings of equal status in a pluralist Lanka.

[1] Keuneman, Pieter (1987). Selected Speeches and Articles (1947 – 1987). People’s Publishing House, p. 106.

[2] Information Report: Sri Lanka, Second edition 2018. In particular pp. 37-49.