Thursday, July 18, 2019

Modernity's curse: Excavating the historical roots of the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka.

Photo by Daniel Bago
Since independence from the British in 1948 the majority Tamil population of Sri Lanka formerly known as Ceylon has been facing systemic political and economic discrimination by the majority Sinhalese government. These systematic discriminations over the years propelled the formation of many Tamil militant groups. The most famous of which were the Tamil Tigers. Many questions arise from these distinctive acts of oppression and racism. The first and most obvious being, what was the reason for Sinhalese oppression of the Tamils? In this blog post, the answers to that question are traced back to the implementation of modernity during British colonial rule.

Prior to the colonial rule of the British, Ceylon was colonised by the Portuguese and the Dutch.  During British colonial rule, the island was inhabited by the majority Sinhalese, the minority Tamils and other groups such as the Moors and the Burghers. The British took complete control of the island in 1833. In order to ease the administration of the island, the British government sent the Colebrook-Cameron Commission to identify the changes that need to be made. One of the major recommendations of the Commission was the establishment of an Executive and Legislative Council, stripping the governor of Ceylon of his autocratic power. The Executive Council was appointed by the governor but the Legislative Council was to have 6 members; 3 Europeans and 3 locals. The 3 locals were identified by their ethnicity, one Sinhalese, one Tamil and one Burger. This 'communal representation' was the first key moment when ethnicity was politicized.

Since representation of the locals was organised along racial lines, political alliances were not based on political beliefs but race. The Sinhalese eventually felt that since they were the majority in the island, they should be provided with a larger number of seats. For the Tamils however, this equal representation was beneficial to them due to their minority status. This essentially led to the rising of hostilities in between both factions in the political and social spheres. During this time, the Tamils were also more receptive to the English language and therefore were provided with jobs by the British in administrative positions. The Sinhalese, however, mostly rejected the learning of English and were very much opposed to the British rule in Ceylon. On the contrary, the Tamils were favoured by the British due to their general lack of opposition towards the British. This further heightened the tensions between the Tamils and Sinhalese.

In 1927, realising the rising tensions between both ethnicities, the British sent the Donoughmore Commission to implement more reforms on the island. The Donoughmore Constitution, another form of political modernity, enabled Ceylon to be the first British colony that had general elections with universal suffrage. The implementation of the constitution abolished communal representation. Consequently, the Sinhalese would definitely be the majority and the minorities would be underrepresented amidst the already existing tensions. This was met with severe opposition by the Tamils who rallied for the return of communal representation. The Soulbury Constitution attempted to address these issues once more in 1947, but instead implemented a hybrid Westminster style Parliament which further undermined the Tamils.

The implementation of modern institutions by the British clearly had severe consequences for Ceylon after independence in 1948. The Sinhalese, having been denied job opportunities during colonial rule, denied citizenship to Indian Tamils in 1948, made Sinhala the official language of the state in 1956 and reinstated Buddhism as the official religion of the state in 1972. Having dealt with severe discrimination, the Tamils formed militant groups. The Tamil Tigers, the most notorious of all, were involved in the brutal Sri Lankan Civil War, which lasted for 26 years with over 70,000 casualties. If ethnicity had not been politicized and universal suffrage not implemented under colonial rule, perhaps 70,000 lives could have been saved.

Mukunthen Muthuramalingam

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