5 March, 2024


A Reflection: 75 Years Of Independence Lacked By The People Of Sri Lanka

By Lionel Bopage

The Challenge

Dr. Lionel Bopage

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’[1]. 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 reality 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 that has become discredited. Lastly, and most importantly, reconciliation cannot be separated from the structural changes the country needs, both economic and political. Introducing a system of decentralisation of power, accountability, transparency and the rule of law, while 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 crowd continues to cling to power, as such a change would open their corruption, wastage and incompetence to public exposure and censure. 

True reconciliation within a plural society can only come from a broad coalition of progressive forces within parliament and civil society, including Tamils, Muslims and others who are at the receiving end. 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 the economy. It is within this framework a genuine independence from which true reconciliation and socio-economic justice can emerge.

This paper will look at the treatment of Tamils and Muslims in post-independence Sri Lanka in relation to reconciliation.

Tamils and Reconciliation

75 years ago, the country was granted independence. The new rulers were not interested in reconciling the diversity to form a united Lanka, rather in safeguarding their class privileges and interests by fragmenting 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 was the fount of the wealth that flowed from the plantation sector, in particular tea. 

To briefly expose the servile conditions under which the Malaiyaha workers continue to survive in the “Independent” Sri Lanka, I would cite from the report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. The Rapporteur‘s report to the Human Rights Council in 2022 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. It is high time to address their basic human rights denied to them during several generations  in terms of human dignity and dearth of opportunities for upward social mobility.

The government of DS Senanayake then embarked on vast colonisation schemes, like the mammoth Gal–Oya Multi-Purpose Scheme, launched a year later, in 1949. AS Dr SA Wickramasinghe study of the scheme remarked, 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 a 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 politicians have exploited since then. 

The Senanayake clan was replaced by the Bandaranaike clan in 1956. 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, whilst the price of vital imports continued, like the population, to rise. The Bandaranaike clan cynically took the easy way out by finding convenient scapegoats for the unemployment crisis – Tamils.

As Pieter Keuneman 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?[2] 

A limited negotiated settlement was made via the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam (B-C) 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. The Prime Minister was assassinated by ultra-nationalists mainly due to two factors. According to investigations the reason for the murder was Bandaranaike’s refusal to satisfy Mapitigama Buddharakkitha’s business demands.

Buddharakkitha supported Bandaranaike with funds and influence during the 1956 election. Following the election, Buddharakkitha approached Bandaranaike to secure a lucrative shipping contract to import rice for a company he had co-founded with one of his associates. On the advice of Ministers Philip Gunawardena and RG Senanayake, Bandaranaike gave the contract to the government owned Ceylon Shipping Corporation. In a similar vein, 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.

A UNP government was elected in 1965. The Dudley-Chelvanayakam (D-C) pact was signed and was destroyed by the opposition, which now included members of the parties that had opposed the Sinhala Only Bill. The United Front government was elected to power in 1970. Within months the government was faced with an insurrection by  alienated Sinhala youth. The cause for the insurrection 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 being closer to 700,000. Out of the 585,000 who were unemployed, 460,000 were in the rural areas and 250,000 were aged between 19 and 24. Only 167,000 of these had received a secondary education, or went on to receive a tertiary education. 

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, though expanding, was declining in terms of productivity and revenue. And to all this we must add corruption, inefficiency and government waste. 

Instead of attempting to create an economy where there were opportunities for all, regardless of 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 then to Rs 744 million in 1969. To allay concerns and to distract attention from governmental corruption and incompetence, a new 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, even though the public service and most professions now had a majority of Sinhalese in their ranks. The south was denuded of Tamils, a fact reflected in the employment statistics. In addition, approximately 1 per cent of high school graduates went to university; the other 99 per cent missed out, regardless of their ethnicity. This inequity persists. 

The UNP gained government in 1977 with a thumping majority. There was more rioting against Tamils, with thousands being killed and many more forced to vacate their homes. The economy became one in which a few became extremely wealthy. The rest gradually lost their welfare net, rationing was abolished. The constitution was changed again, leaving Sinhalese Buddhist hegemony intact. 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.

The 1978 constitution established the executive Presidency. Laws which 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 1983 this 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 – really a pogrom. 3,000 Tamils lost their lives; tens of thousands of houses and business were looted and burnt; many of the women were raped. It forced around 200,000 into the embrace of the men with the guns – the LTTE. The result was not hard to predict.

A full-scale civil war erupted which lasted for more than 25 years. Finally, the war ended in a total victory of the Sinhala forces in 2009 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 their old tricks: deny, then create a partisan panel to investigate the allegations (they have had many such panels), ignore the findings and blame the other side. Tens of thousands are yet to find out where their relatives fell and the circumstances of their death.

Meanwhile indebtedness continued to balloon, with no thought given to how the debt would be repaid. New exports were trumpeted, but tourism, remittances from abroad and tea were still a mainstay. The country continued to import all its necessities, including vital foodstuffs like rice. Any crisis was met with more borrowings and a demand for even more authoritarian powers. The economy was perilously susceptible to the vagaries of the world market[3].

Life for Tamils post-war

In Tamil dominated areas, meanwhile, 50 to 80 thousand troops are stationed – one soldier to 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 belong 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 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 in a town like Batticaloa, in which the vast majority of the population mother tongue is Tamil and are of the Hindu, Christian or Muslim faith to hear  Buddhist chants in the evening, blaring from loudspeakers – the message is clear. 

This has been compounded by the ubiquitous white van abduction of Tamil men who might have a tenuous or no connection with the LTTE (also happening currently to the protestors in the South). Given the duration and intensity of the war, many people caught in the areas occupied by any party to the war were in no position to oppose. They have been spirited to secret locations, tortured and in many cases released only after a bribe was negotiated, money 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. 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[4].

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[5]. 

If nothing is done to alleviate the plight of the Tamil population and bring about genuine reconciliation, instead of independence, 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 such a crisis. They have failed abysmally. 

A concerted terrorist attack during Easter Sunday mass in April 2019 in three churches and in 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 or ineffectual or were just 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 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 apparently knew of the bombing beforehand and could have intervened but did not. They have not been brought to book, instead scapegoats had to be found.  

Soon, the then President Siresena pardoned Venerable Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, leader of the group that masterminded countless callous and brutal attacks on Muslims and their businesses, homes and mosques[6]. Pressure was exerted for the elected Muslim politicians and governors to resign or be censured, on the spurious allegation of having terrorist links. All 9 Muslim ministers had to resign, en masse to avoid further anti-Muslim violence[7].

Anti-Muslim rhetorical bile was spread like wildfire with willing accomplices not only amongst 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 nary a shred of evidence, claimed that Doctor Shafi Sihabdeen ‘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, which the crisis had brought starkly to the fore. 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 regardless of the veracity of the allegation or its triviality made by Buddhist monks. A typical example was the arrest of the novelist Shakthika Sathkumara. The charge was inciting religious hatred and violating international human rights law.

The above 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 these were brushed aside, while demanding more and more unaccountable presidential powers via amendments to the constitution. The majority sadly bought that message. 

Instead of boom and regeneration, the economy collapsed. Many Sri Lankans no longer appear to buy this 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 lack of transparency and accountability and brutal suppressive laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act and scapegoated minorities. The current economic crisis has exposed this situation.

Those brave protestors have shown the time is ripe for people of good will – civil society actors, organisations, 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 ethnicity and religious affiliation, can create a new political discourse.

As Sri Lanka marks its 75th anniversary of independence, it would be an ideal time to demonstrate the commitment and dedication of the people of Sri Lanka to taking measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination faced by many communities in Sri Lanka, so that they can enjoy full potential as human beings of equal status in a pluralist Sri Lanka.

[1] ‘Ranil’s Moves to Resolve Ethnic Issues in Rapid-Action Measures’ in Thuppahi’s blog, January 4, 2023. Retrieved at: https://thuppahis.com/2023/01/04/ranils-moves-to-resolve-ethnic-issues-in-rapid-action- measures/.

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

[3] Cooke, Michael (2011). The Lionel Bopage Story. Agahas Publishers.

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

[5] Ellis–Petersen, Hannah (2022): ‘We want justice, not fuel: Sri Lanka’s Tamils on north-south divide.’ Retrieved at: ‘https://www.tamilguardian.com › content › we-want-justice-not-fuel-Sri Lanka’s- Tamils-on- north- south- divide

[6] ‘Sri Lanka’s hard-line Buddhist monk walks out of jail after pardon.’ Reuters 24 May 2019. Retrieved: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-sri-lanka-monk-pardon/sri-lankas-hardline-buddhist-monk

[7] Mass resignations of nine government ministers and Muslim politics undercurrents. Daily Mirror 8 June, 2019. http://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Mass-Resignation–of-Nine-Govt- Ministers-and-Muslim-Politics-Undercurrents/172-168926

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Latest comments

  • 14

    An excellent account of the stark realities that formed the basis of the events outlined in the article. This is one of the most accurate and raw depictions that need to be considered by all readers and hopefully translated to Tamil and Sinhala for a far wider audience. I do hope CT will take that initiative. BTW, one glaring flaw in terminology was to refer to Gnanasara as “Venerable”. He most certainly is not so, and deserve our utmost contempt.

    • 6

      Fully agree with LP. There is no person like Lionel,”tell it like it is” ( facts/truth).
      Lionel, thank you so much. It’s extremely rare to see a honest writer of your caliber anymore. You will always be remembered. (people like you give me hope)

  • 0

    This HISTORY has been written, re-rewritten, and spoken in various narratives and the time has come to work out a practical SOLUTION rather than a continuation of making accusations at every Dick/Tom and Harry for the neglect, overlook (intentionally or otherwise) of the problem.

    Now the present President “VOWS” to solve this problem by implementing the “13th A” – (plus or minus). It is another “Political Trick” because “13 A” is definitely not a “Paneacia” to solve the conflict.

    What we need is a “CHANGE” of perceptions and attitudes of all the people of the country. In that, we essentially need a “New Constitution” that spells out the fulfillment of the people’s aspirations for an equitable life pattern (economic, social, political) of life that encompasses their “RIGHTS” as human beings as ONE whole UNIT. But at the same time granting an HONORABLE recognition for their DIVERSITY of their age-old customs, religious beliefs, community ties, etc.

    The environment for this CHANGE is in the offing. The “POLITICAL CULTURE” is sure to be changed. The “ECONOMIC” conditions have changed. What is needed is ONE more step and that is a PEOPLES PARTICIPATION for establishing a STABLE Government with a dedicated TEAM to “RE-BUILD” the country.

  • 2

    Thanks, Drs Lionel & Pethiyagoda for your writing. The change needed is in the government. For that, change is needed by the masses – citizens. I am a born and bred communist opponent. But I must mention that recently JVP has taken some initiative to educate the masses. In the December 2014 election, I wrote here that the JVP had to abandon the election and educate the masses. It is not about socialism, but at that time JVP had the cleanest hands in politics and materials to talk with ground level people. I do not see much change in that, now either. But that subject cannot be left with one political institution at this late & precarious time. People are hungry, while a soul below dogs released photos of his pet wearing 900 Sovereign Gold. Oh God, not justice, but some grace has to exist in that Island, at least. What a brutal, senseless action that is! The Evil President had saved that man from murder cases. Peoples’, especially in the North, the governmental administration is in the hands of paramilitary thugs, not even with the Rapist Army. Two extremist Circus Clowns, Jevan and Anuratha, are appointed as governors of North and East, under the satirical 13A. An immediate, educated people guided peaceful youth revolution is urgently needed for the country. Not the IMF loan, nor even the election.

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