The Weekend Leader - Why this kolaveri

Why this kolaveri: Brian Senewiratne traces the roots of Sinhalese racist mindset

Brian Senewiratne


Vol 3 | Issue 5

February 4th, the day Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) got so-called “Independence” from Britain in 1948, is a day for action, not regret or mourning.

British irresponsibility

Of all the irresponsible acts of the colonial British in Sri Lanka, by far the worst was leaving the country in the hands of the Sinhalese majority. The entire ethnic problem has stemmed from this.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is just a symptom of a deep-seated Sinhalese racism (Image Concept & Illustration: KravMaga Sreeram)

If Britain was the cause of the problem, then it has to be part of the solution. To support the blatantly anti-Tamil Sri Lankan government, is to compound the problem, not to resolve it.

It is absurd to claim that the British were unaware of the anti-Tamil stance of the Sinhalese ‘leaders’ such as D.S. Senanayake, leader of the United National Party (UNP), who took over from the British.

Senanayake’s anti-Tamil stance (and actions) was clearly evident. This included altering the demography of the Tamil East by relocating Sinhalese from the South to make places like Amparai, a Tamil area, into a Sinhalese area.

His blatantly racist stance against the Plantation Tamils of Indian origin was not even thinly disguised. This outrageous racism was based on the absurd claim that since some of them went back to India and came back, and some sent money to their families in India, they were not permanent residents of Sri Lanka.

As Chairman of the Land Commission, his Interim Report of 1927 defined a “Ceylonese’ so as to exclude the Indian (Plantation) Tamils. The report stated: “by Ceylonese we mean the Sinhalese, Ceylon Tamils, Burghers, Ceylon Moors, Ceylon Malays and Europeans domiciled in Ceylon.”

Based on this report, the 1935 Land Development Ordinance of D.S.Senanayake, as Minister of Agriculture and Lands (in British Ceylon), excluded Indian Tamils from the benefits of land alienation by the government.

As early as 1940, with Britain firmly in charge, Senanayake is on record as saying:

“It is unthinkable that we should give….full rights of citizenship to people who have not made Ceylon their permanent home. The vast majority of the Indians in Ceylon consider India to be their home, and Ceylon as their place of occupation……

They are here only to earn and to make money (sic) and take it away to India…..Unless we stem the tide of the growing domination of Indians in Ceylon in our economic and social life, our extinction as a Ceylonese nation is inevitable”

This is the blatant racist to whom Britain handed over the country (and the Plantation Tamils) on 4th February 1948.

I watched this comic-tragedy with disbelief, as the Rt.Hon.D.S.Senanayake, a school dropout, mounted the podium at the appointed ‘auspicious’ hour, in a pin-striped suit and tail coat, looking as British as they come, to receive the instruments of the transfer of power from the Duke of Gloucester, representing King George VI.

Although the capitalists, the ruling classes and elite celebrated with the visiting British royalty and the scions of nobility, I cannot remember the mute millions of ordinary Ceylonese getting too excited about it.

It was clear that the capitalist horse would be going in the same direction, only the rider had changed. The pin-striped suit and tail coat said it all.

With the view Senanayake held and expressed openly, small wonder that his first act as Prime Minister was to disenfranchise and decitizenise a million Plantation Tamils (who had been citizens since 1931).

This was done within a year of ‘Independence’ with a British Governor in charge of ‘Independent’ Ceylon!

The British Government is guilty of the gross betrayal of a million people who had toiled under dreadful conditions of freezing cold in the tea plantations (which I was to witness first hand from 1968-76), to produce the wealth for the British to rule the colony.

If Senanayake was bad news, the Bandaranaikes who followed were worse. S.W.R.D Bandaranaike from the other side of the Sinhalese political divide, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), embarked on a policy of discrimination against the ethnic Tamils. This was faithfully continued by his wife, Sirima, and daughter, Chandrika, all of whom were Heads of State.

Sirima Bandaranaike’s Prime Ministerial message to her people (meaning the Sinhalese) on Independence Day, 4th February 1965:

“We have removed the disabilities placed on the majority of our people by the foreign ruler. The language and the religion of the majority, which has been deliberately impeded and discouraged by the foreigner for his purposes, have been developed and their rightful place ensured. While respecting the rights of the minorities, the government, mindful of its obligations to the majority of the people has restored their lost rights.”

If the Bandaranaikes were bad news, the Rajapaksas who followed were worse, much worse. The Sinhalese leadership has been going from bad to worse at an alarming rate.

Sinhalese leaders have never been inspired by any desire to create a common nationalism out of ethno-religious diversity. They have peddled the Sinhala-Buddhist jingoism of blatant anti-Tamil propagandists such as Anagarika Dharmapala, based on an exaggerated vision of the Sinhalese past.

It is important to focus on this exaggeration and ethnic intolerance since this is what is happening today more so than ever.

Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) was a confused, quixotic Buddhist with a crusading missionary zeal. He even renamed himself for the purpose; just as S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike changed his western attire to an improvised local attire (the so-called Aryan-Sinhalese dress), and even his religion from Christianity to Buddhism, for a purpose – to get elected to power.

Originally known as Don David Hewawitarne (the son of Don Carolis - the furniture manufacturer), he took on the name “Anagarika” (in Pali ‘the homeless one’), “Dhamapala’ (guardian of the doctrine).

His propaganda was based on distortions, half-truths and blatant lies, peddled as historical evidence of the glories of the ancient Sinhalese.

Two examples will suffice. In order to idealise the past, Dharmapala wrote: “No nation in the world has a more brilliant history than ourselves……There exists no race on earth today that has had a more triumphant record of victory than the Sinhalese.”

In 1911, he proclaimed, “The Country of the Sinhalese should be governed by the Sinhalese.” In his view, the Tamils and others had no place in Sri Lanka.

Every Sinhalese leader has peddled this ethnic chauvinism with increasing virulence and violence, to get the electoral support of the Sinhalese majority (74% of the population).

The British were well aware that such a problem could arise. Indeed concerns about the plight of the minorities were raised, not once but twice, by those in the British Colonial Office, of all places, before Independence was given.

All that Britain (Lord Soulbury) did, was to insert just one ‘safe-guard’ clause, Section 29 (2) (b) and (c), that no law shall impose any disabilities, or confer any advantage, on members of any one community. There were no penalties or consequences if this was violated (which did happen, sooner than anticipated, in full view of the British Governor of ‘Independent’ Ceylon).

As I have said, within a year of Independence, legislation was passed (1948-49) to disenfranchise and decitizenise a million Plantation Tamils, a seventh of the total population of the country at the time.

With the stroke of a pen, they were made ‘non-people’, in one of the worst acts of political vandalism in the world. The Tamils lost 40% of their parliamentarians since those elected by the Plantation Tamils were thrown out of parliament. What did Britain do? Nothing. 

A poster designed by Tamils Cultural Centre in Chennai pleads India not to support Sri Lanka at the UNHRC

It is of interest that today, half a century later, some 300,000 Sri Lankan Tamils are effectively being made non-people, not by the British, but by the Rajapaksa regime.

In 1956, systematic discrimination against the ethnic Tamils started (and progressed).

The consequences of the British legacy drove some Tamils, 20 years after the British withdrawal, to petition the British monarch for redress. They went to London in 1968 with a petition signed by thousands of Tamils, setting out the plight in which British rule had left the Sri Lankan Tamils, and presented it to Queen Elizabeth, seeking her intervention as Queen of Sri Lanka (which she was at the time).

Expectedly, she did nothing. I am not sure what she said. It might have been: “We are not pleased!”

Lord Soulbury, after being given a reward-holiday as Governor General of ‘Independent’ Sri Lanka, in a spirit of repentance for the failure of the British, took the blame on himself and later admitted, “I now think it is a pity that the (Soulbury) Commission did not also recommend the entrenchment in the Constitution of guarantees of fundamental rights”.

He will be relieved to know that even if he had, it would have been tossed out, as his ‘safe-guard clause’ Section 29 of the Constitution.

It is not possible to graft Westminster-type democracy evolved over hundreds of years, on those who are more at home with autocracy and familial rule, and expect it to work.

As pogrom after pogrom against the Tamils continued, ending in the genocidal killing of the Tamils in the North and East in 2009, what did Britain do?

It supported the murderous Sri Lankan Government, even supplying the necessary weapons and expertise. The ‘expertise’ was to train the notorious Sri Lankan Police and Armed Forces to kill the Tamils, and torture them, more ‘efficiently’.

Now with the ‘slow extermination’ of the Tamils in the North and East, what is Britain (and the USA) doing? They are taking part in the rape of the Tamil areas and attempting to exclude China’s increasing foothold in Sri Lanka, so essential for the control of the economically crucial Indian Ocean.

The Mahavamsa

Another ‘contribution’ of the British was to propagate a disastrous document written by a blatantly anti-Tamil Buddhist monk, Mahanama.

It was an Englishman, George Turnour who in 1826 had a manuscript delivered to his office in the Sinhala South. This was The Mahavamsa, the ‘Great Chronicle’. He had it translated into English and widely distributed. Regarded as a major historical discovery, it is, in fact, ‘The textbook of Sinhala supremacy’.

It glorifies the Sinhalese as protectors of Buddhism and saviours of the nation, and derides the Tamils as invaders, vandals, marauders and heathens. To be fair to the author, it was written “for the serene joy of the pious’, not as a record of history.

It is this ‘Mahavamsa mind-set’ (the Dharmapala mould) of the Sinhalese that has prevented any form of justice for the Tamil people. Immeasurable damage has been done by this single document to ethnic relations in Sri Lanka.

Anagarika Dharmapala’s ethnic chauvinism of the 1900s,-“the Country of the Sinhalese should be governed by the Sinhalese” - was faithfully reproduced a century later.

The then Army Commander Sarath Fonseka in an interview to the National Post newspaper in Canada on 23 September 2008, said, “I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese. We being the majority, will neve give in. They (the minorities) can live in this country with us, but must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things.”

Fonseka does not need to give ‘permission’ for the Tamils to live in Sri Lanka. They are there because they were born there and have a right to be there. They do not need to pretend to be a minority, they are a minority.

What are the ‘undue things’ they demand? To have their basic human rights protected, not to be discriminated against, not to be raped, tortured, or ‘disappear’, and not to be non-people whose very survival is in doubt.

He was questioned about this when he decided to contest Mahinda Rajapaksa for the Presidency, and was appealing to the Tamil people in the North for their support. He said that he had been ‘misunderstood’. There was no misunderstanding. It was in plain English.

All of this is well-known. If it is not, a comprehensive Report has just been tabled in the Sri Lankan Parliament Situation Report: North and East on 21 October 2011, which sets out what the Rajapaksa junta is doing to the Tamils. (to be continued)

The concluding part of this article will be posted on 10 February 2012. (Read Part II here)

Dr. Brian Senewiratne (MBBS Hons (Lond) MD (Lond), FRCP (Lond), FRACP) is a Sinhalese doctor currently based in Australia

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