Ten Bullets to One, Twenty to Another

Thomas Meaney

  • Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World by Steven Kemper
    Chicago, 480 pp, £31.50, January 2015, ISBN 978 0 226 19907 8
  • Tamil: A Biography by David Shulman
    Harvard, 416 pp, £25.00, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 674 05992 4
  • The Seasons of Trouble: Life amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War by Rohini Mohan
    Verso, 368 pp, £16.99, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 78168 883 0

Independence was handed to Ceylon’s elite on a platter. ‘Think of Ceylon as a little bit of England,’ Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke, the first native governor-general, said. This was a point of pride. Don Stephen Senanayake, the country’s first prime minister, remarked: ‘There has been no rebellion in Ceylon, no non-cooperation movement and no fifth column. We were among the peoples who gave full collaboration while Britain was hard-pressed.’ After independence in 1948, Ceylon alone among the former colonies not only retained but promoted the monarchy: the Union Jack flew alongside the Ceylon flag; a new constitution was drafted by an LSE professor, Ivor Jennings; Colombo debutantes were presented at Buckingham Palace; and, thanks to some genealogical ingenuity, George VI was recognised as the latest monarch in the ancient line of Kandyan kings. While the rest of the empire in Asia smouldered – in India there was Partition, in Malaya the Emergency, in Burma the civil war – Ceylon became Whitehall’s model for the transfer of colonial power. ‘There was no fight for that freedom which involved a fight for principles, policies and programmes,’ Solomon Ridgeway Bandaranaike, the anti-colonial head of state who took power in 1956, said when he reviewed the transition a decade later. ‘It just came overnight. We just woke up one day and were told: “You are a dominion now.”’

Today, eight years after the Sinhala-Buddhist regime defeated a militarised Tamil rebel state, ending three decades of civil war, there’s no shortage of explanations of how Ceylon – rechristened the ‘Resplendent Lanka’ in 1972 – embarked on one of the bloodiest trajectories of any state in the 21st century. Sri Lanka has become a centre for the human rights industry. The offices of NGOs line the streets of Jaffna town. Professional gurus of peace and reconciliation have the resources to fund all manner of academic projects so long as they have the correct subject headings: ‘transitional justice’, ‘ethnic violence’, ‘even-handed peace-building’, ‘war crimes studies’. International agencies are determined to get the Sri Lankan government to punish those responsible for the war. Many Sri Lankans hoped that the official report of the United Nations Human Rights Council, released in September 2015, would fill in some of the gaps, but the findings only confirmed what everyone already knew: that mass atrocities were committed by both sides in the war, and that both sides had made strenuous efforts to cover them up.

Maithripala Sirisena, the current president, was the minister of health in the last government and won a surprise victory in the 2015 election against his former boss, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sirisena would probably have been reluctant to prosecute his former patrons, who still command allegiance from much of the military, had he not been assured that in return for steering Sri Lanka away from China and back towards the West he could count on the backing of international institutions. But Colombo was never fully under Beijing’s sway: the war against the Tigers was endorsed, and in part designed, by the United States Pacific Command, which publicly kept its distance from the counterinsurgency campaign. The principal architect of the war, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (Mahinda’s brother), is a US citizen and holds the distinction of being the first American since MacArthur to win a major war in Asia. His war of annihilation against the Tigers has been admired by military establishments in Nigeria, Myanmar, the Philippines and other states facing local insurgencies. The eradication of separatist movements has become acceptable policy in places where it was no longer thought practicable or advisable, thanks to Sri Lanka.

From the perspective of British imperial power, several things set Sri Lanka apart from most of the subcontinent. First, no part of the island had been under Muslim rule. In northern India and Malaya, deals had had to be struck with local princes and sultans, but in Ceylon the British, once they’d taken the island from the Dutch in the Napoleonic wars, found there was only one local lord left to deal with. King Vikrama Rajasinha believed he could hold the city of Kandy, which is situated in the jungle of the central highlands – his kingdom had withstood Europeans before. With Napoleon threatening Europe, Robert Brownrigg, the British governor at Colombo, was instructed not to drain the treasury with an unnecessary adventure. But he was ambitious for rank and title, and so found an excuse: King Vikrama, he claimed, had committed acts of barbarism against local traders. Brownrigg led a force made up of British, Javanese, Africans, Indians and Malays to take the city. Vikrama was already fending off a revolt of his own lords. The British entered the city unopposed.

The surrender of the Kingdom of Kandy in 1815 marked the end of indigenous rule on the island. This meant that in Ceylon the empire was never forced to parry with any strategy of indirect rule – in this respect the colony more resembled New Zealand than India. There was no longer a clearly defined local elite to be cultivated by the British, so one had to be created. In the 19th century, Western capital didn’t reach much further than the coasts, but the missionaries had got further, especially in the north, and nurtured an English-speaking Sinhala and Tamil class that could be groomed for the local administration (there were more Sinhalese in government office, but the proportion of Tamils was much higher than in the general population). A Burgher Christian class of mixed ancestry left behind by Portuguese and Dutch rule joined this newer English-speaking group to form a ruling class that identified more with the British Empire than with the Sinhalese majority.

Several of the major challenges faced by newly independent Ceylon were bequeathed by the colonial administration. First, there was the indeterminate status of the ‘Indian’ Tamils. These were labourers whom the British had brought over from Tamil Nadu in the 19th century to work the tea plantations in Ceylon’s central hill country. By independence they numbered more than a million and had been labelled a separate ethnic group in the 1911 colonial census. The ethnic categories of colonial rule – ‘Indian’ Tamils, indigenous Tamils, Sinhala (each additionally complicated by markers of caste) – were taken up by the new state. The problem was how to resolve the status of the ‘Indian’ Tamils, who naturally supported the left. In its first eight years of independence, the party of the Tamil-Sinhala elite – the United National Party – dominated parliament and kept leftist parties at bay. (The Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja Party was the main opposition, and the Bolshevik Samasamaja Party and the Ceylon Workers’ Party won a handful of seats.) In 1948, the UNP dealt a major blow to the left when parliament passed the Ceylon Citizen Act, which barred Indian Tamils from political representation. Instead, the votes of the Sinhalese who lived alongside them in the district of Kandy were assigned greater value. It’s common enough in liberal democracies for votes in one area to count more than votes in another, but not for the votes of one local group to be weighted so that they ‘virtually’ represent a larger group with diametrically opposed interests.

The Citizen Act was the first of several Sinhalese schemes for political exclusion. The next target was the country’s indigenous Tamils. The low proportion of Sinhalese in government office was another remnant of colonial rule, and was bound to be corrected by any political party canny enough to trade on the identitarian cause for seats in parliament. Anyone who could politicise the grievances of the Sinhalese majority effectively would be a force to reckon with. The leftist parties, whose membership cut across ethnic lines, hesitated to seek political gains in this way. Their first, fleeting success came with the general strike of 1953 – the Great Hartal – when a dramatic rise in rice prices caused by the Korean War momentarily turned the population against the government of Senanayake’s son, Dudley, who took refuge with his cabinet on a British battleship docked in Colombo harbour. But the LSSP and other Marxist parties failed to translate the general strike into political results; they were still too deferential to the parliamentary system. With British assistance Dudley regained control and declared martial law. The moment was lost.

The levers of ethnic nationalism were pulled three years later by Solomon Bandaranaike, a member of the burgher class who had broken away from the Nationalist Party and used his private fortune to found the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which made a bid to win the Sinhalese peasant vote by declaring Sinhala the national language. This was a dangerous game for a member of the elite to play. Promising a ‘deepening socialism’, Bandaranaike convinced the Trotskyite LSSP to join him in forming a government. ‘I have never found anything to excite the people in quite the way this language issue does,’ Bandaranaike told a reporter. But his attempt to build a Sinhalese political bloc wasn’t enough for some. Two years after gaining power, Bandaranaike was shot on his own verandah by a Buddhist monk. ‘A foolish man dressed in the robes of a bhikku fired some shots at me in my bungalow this morning,’ Bandaranaike told the nation in English from his deathbed. ‘I appeal to all concerned to show compassion to this man and not to try to wreak vengeance on him.’

Violent Buddhists: their existence still perplexes those who get their karma in the West, but they are nothing new. Buddhist ethics can be severe, but in a country where ‘Buddhist eggs’ – pre-cracked and murder-free – are available on the shelves of shops, there are ways of making most precepts more accommodating. In Sri Lanka in recent years, violence has been carried out by the Bodu Bala Sena, the Buddhist Power Army, an organisation that primarily targets the island’s Muslims. Support for this group is widespread in Sri Lanka, where political power and Buddhism have been closely linked since the Anuradhapura kings became followers of the Buddha in the third century BCE. The ancient chronicles of the Buddhist kingdoms are still familiar to ordinary Sri Lankans. Political Buddhism in its virulent contemporary form, however, was another product of the encounter with the British.


The British missionaries converted Ceylon’s inhabitants on a much larger scale than the Portuguese and Dutch had, imperilling the future of the Buddhist sangha and its near monopoly of religious education on the island. In the 19th century, the monks began to resist. Ironically, European scholars at the time were lending new credibility to Buddhism, raising it to the status of a world religion. Some orientalists went so far as to treat it as a source of ‘Aryan’ wisdom. The footsoldiers of orientalism were imperial civil servants who collected ancient Tibetan and Pali manuscripts and sent them to learned societies in Europe, whose publications and interpretations ignited curiosity about Buddhism in Europe and the United States, and changed the way it was seen by Buddhists themselves in the colonies.

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