I just posted this to…

I just posted this to SASIALIT, where a discussion has been ongoing about Sri Lanka and the political situation there, which is currently, oh, disastrous is a good word for it. People were asking about where the conflict came from, especially given how Sri Lanka was once a model of a third-world nation, with a higher literacy rate, and lower infant mortality rate, than the U.S. Thought it might interest some of you:


If I were going to sum up the roots of the current conflict in ridiculously brief words, skimming over all kinds of complexities, it'd go something like this. PLEASE NOTE that I am not a historian, or an expert in any of this. My understanding comes from the bits I've managed to retain from one course I took almost ten years ago. I would welcome correction on any of the following from those with a better understanding of Sri Lanka's history:

  • Around 5th century B.C., Sinhalese came to Sri Lanka and wiped out the native Balangoda tribespeople -- they were quickly gone as a people

  • Around 2nd century B.C., Tamils came to Sri Lanka

    NOTE: Neither group is indigenous to country, although most Sinhalese today are generally not aware of this history, and persistent mythology paints Sinhalese as the natives and Tamils as the invaders. In truth, both groups invaded Sri Lanka more than 2000 years ago.

  • Relatively peaceful multiethnic society for several hundred years

  • Various individuals battled for control; briefly, Dutthagamani ruled entire island as Sinhalese Buddhist king -- again, mythology today tends to refer to him as defender of the faith, etc., ignoring the fact that he also conquered a lot of Sinhalese folks in the process of consolidating power

  • Due primarily to influence from South India, shifted to a more ethnically pluralistic society, but still relatively peaceful

  • Eventually, colonizers came: Dutch, Portuguese, British

  • Dutch did a lot of intermarrying with natives (and not bothering to marry) -- Burgher group emerged out of that (Ondaatje is Burgher), wealthy elite, very mixed ethnic heritage

  • Portuguese gave job incentives to those who converted to Catholicism -- my great-great-grandfather was one of those, seeking a better life for his children, in particular, education in the excellent Portuguese schools. Many Tamils converted.

  • Under British rule., Tamils became a strongly favored group (perhaps because they had worked with them in India? not sure), taking most of the government jobs. They were already more educated on average than the Sinhalese. (Discounting for the moment the Hill Country Tamils brought in from India to work the tea plantations -- a totally different, severely disenfranchised group of laborers). A large proportion of Jaffna Tamils went to college and even medical school (including my own father).

  • With Independence in 1948, a strongly pro-Sinhalese party came into power. Among other things, they enacted a Sinhalese-only Act to make Sinhalese the official language, which of course immediately erected barriers to career advancement among Tamils. They also put in dramatic quotas for coveted university spots, making it much harder for Tamils to get in. This was an understandable attempt to address decades if not centuries if inequality and discrimination against the Sinhalese people under the colonizers. But the unfortunate consequence was that it immediately created an underclass of angry young Tamil men, who saw their futures being stripped away from them. These young men (boys, really), became ripe picking for Tamil political resistance groups -- both peaceful and violent.

The actual start of the fighting probably needs to be its own separate post, and I still have most of thirty exams to grade this morning before class. (Interestingly, for my colonialism/post-colonialism class, hah!). So must go for now. But I hope this helps lay out some of the history for those asking.

4 thoughts on “I just posted this to…”

  1. To add to some of your points.

    Vijaya was Aryan from Northern India. They landed on the north-western coast and set up camp there. It is unlikely that they moved into the central area and took on the balangoda people. however, it is possible that the balangoda people were killed/assimilated into the culture as the culture spread.

    It is extremely likely that vijaya was preceded by Dravidian fishermen from southern india. the distance is only 20-something miles in shallow (under 30ft) water)

    duttagamini (translation: Gamini the Evil) was the first to unify the country under one rule. His final fight was against Elara, a tamil king. this is still portrayed in many “sinhalese” schools as a fight between a sinhalese who wanted to save the country from a tamil.

    Interesting to note that BOTH sides had people from all races. One of Gamini’s generals (one of the “10 great giants”) was called “Velusumana” a good tamil name.

    the britishers had long taken tamils as their civil servant class. in india, in sri lanka, and many tamils were taken from both india and sri lanka to create a civil servant class in malaysia, creating a large tamil population there and in singapore.

    they had a tendency to take minorities. they took the tutsis as the civil servant class in a primarily hutu country, and we all know how that ended.

    the sinhala-only law was a campaign promise of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, husband of Sirima B (first female elected head of state) and Chandrika B (previous president).. it was passed in 1956 as a way to get votes.

    like many politicians.

    the problems are much deeper than all that. but the basis for it is racialism, extremism and partisanism created by both sides.

  2. Suchetha, can I post your informative comment to the SASIALIT discussion? I’ll credit you, of course.

    And just to confirm, you’re Sinhalese, yes?

  3. can you post it: yes.

    cam i sinhalese? i prefer to say i am sri lankan, but for some people this matters. so yes.

    there is a new generation of people who prefer to identify themselves as sri lankan.

    of course i have been told recently that i am not sri lankan as well

    merciful eris! what AM I?

  4. “although most Sinhalese today are generally not aware of this history, and persistent mythology paints Sinhalese as the natives and Tamils as the invaders.”

    perhaps others have a different experience, but i disagree with this—i think most sinhalese realize they aren’t the “natives” and that tribal groups existed and were oppressed by aryan invaders, including the people who later became known as sinhalese. but i do think most ppl realize this, b/c many take “pride” in that sinhala is derived from sanskrit.

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