2 June, 2023


Memo One On Reconciliation

By Michael Roberts

Dr. Michael Roberts

It is a commonplace in reviews of the ethnic conflict at the popular level of web comment for the blame to be heaped on our politicians in the past, and particularly on SWRD Bandaranaike. This is over-simplistic. Such processes are complex and demand a multi-factorial analysis.

The focus on ideologues also neglects structural factors that contributed substantially to the deepening of pre-existing ethnic identities/loyalties in the post 1945 era [note 1945]. In applying British parliamentary traditions to the island the Soulbury Constitution installed a first-past-the-post electoral system. Though well-meant, this scheme was disastrous in the circumstances of the island’s demographic configuration. By “demographic configuration” I mean the distribution and proportion of the Tamil. Sinhalese (Sinhala) and Muslim Moor communities in space.

It took some time for the major political parties to figure out the implications of this peculiar distribution (“peculiar” in the sense that it is country specific and thus negating so-called comparisons with other countries). By the early 1960s, as such political scientists as Robert N. Kearney have shown,[1] a small percentage swing in the votes created a major swing in the number of MPS for the party with the most votes. This meant that that particular party or coalition) could dominate the parliament and the country without reference to the parties representing the Tamils. The 1970 election bringing Mrs Bandaranaike’s United Front coalition into power and its subsequent imposition of a Republican Constitution was the apotheosis of this configuration.

That was not all however. Ideological groundings aggravated the growing Sinhala-Tamil divide. The island’s peculiar history, the historical sensibilities nurtured by the vamsa chronicles and the consolidation of the latter in the positivist modes of thinking dominating the world since the expansion of Western power from the 18th century meant that many, many Sinhalese believed that the term “Ceylonese” was equivalent to the term “Sinhalese.”

This slippage, this swallowing of the whole by its major part, was (is) often unconscious, implicit, taken-for-granted. I perceived it residing in the Anagarika Dharmapala’s vigorous anti-colonial writings. Dharmapala, as we all know, was the patron saint of the political currents that drove the Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna and petit-bourgeois forces that drove the “Sinhala Only ideology” that pitchforked the MEP led by Bandaranaike to power in 1956.

I am, here, underlining the ideological underpinnings of the “1956 Revolution” (a capsule sketch popularized by Mervyn de Silva and others). That transformation has since been carried forward by such ideological forces as “Jātika Chintanaya” and “Mahinda Chinthanaya”. Such ideologues as Gunadasa Amarasekera, Nalin de Silva and Gomin Dayasiri[2] are bearers of these currents. But in the 2000s they were pushed into the sidelines by the populist confederation assembled by a segment of the SLFP under the banner “Mahinda Chinthanaya.”

To those driven by such modes of thinking

Ceylon = Sri Lanka = Sīhalē

Ceylonese = Sinhalese (Sīhala).

This modality of thinking, whereby the majoritarian part subsumes the whole by equation can be implicit and subterranean …… or, it can be explicit. In both forms it is deadly.

I pinpointed its deadly impact, together with the voting trends identified by Kearney et al, in an article drafted in Heidelberg in 1976 which appeared in 1978 entitled “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation.”[3] I stress here that the seeds of this analysis were laid at Peradeniya in the early 1970s in the course of my studies of nationalism and my work as Director-Dogsbody of the Ceylon studies seminar. One moment in this progression was the all-day conference on “the Sinhala-Tamil Problem” held in Colombo in early October 1973.

That discussion –on top of other events and currents — deepened my pessimism. My 1976/78 article forecast that Sri Lanka would head the way of Lebanon, Cyprus and Northern Ireland.

The ideological groundings of Sinhala supremacist and chauvinist thinking remain today – perhaps all the stronger and deeper because of (a) the defeat of the LTTE in 2009; (b) the persistent propaganda of the Tamil nationalist lobbies abroad, with many seams of fabrications mixed with fact; and (c) the pressures of a Western cabal posing as the “international community” and driven by a form of secular righteousness that is impervious to the double-standards imprinted on its masthead.[4]

So: how does one proceed to undermine the tendency of many Sinhalese to swallow the hole in the Sinhala part? To equate “Sri Lankans” with “Sīhalas”? I press several modalities as a programme that has to be pursued consistently over several generations …. Yes, over 20-40 years. There are no short-cuts.


Ia. Every single member of GSL Reconciliation Committees must sit quietly in a small film studio and absorb (i) a video replay of a Springbok rugger match at home against England (or whoever) and take in the panned pictures of the Saf players and the crowd singing the national anthem in three languages; (ii) likewise absorb a rugby international in New Zealand when the All Blacks sing their national anthem in Maori and English.

Ib. Train a professional choir (or several) to sing Namo Namo in both Sinhala and Tamil AND THEN have it widely available.

1c. Train all the principal Sri Lankan cricketers in any one year how to sing Namo Namo in both Sinhala and Tamil.

1d. Perhaps re-constitute Namo Namo in a shorter version with Namo Namo Sinhala and Tamil as alternate stanzas.

1e. Visit Premadasa Stadium before the start of the next ODI cricket match …. Expand your mind and think of the effect of a choir on big screen singing the anthem in both languages with our players on the field participating. Volaarey!! Cantaarey!!


IIa. Decree that all schools must begin to institute the singing of the national anthem in both languages – maybe the short-cut version in alternate stanzas, but perhaps even the longer way. This programme cannot be rushed and must be judiciously and slowly pressed.

IIb: Institute this practice selectively at ceremonial state events, including those of the armed services.

STEP III. I recall that sometime back – circa 2006/08 there was Rupavahini (?) programme called “One House” (not sure of name) with a moving lyric advocating communal harmony. Resurrect it. Drama, lyric, baila and street theatre must be deployed in encouraging cultural exchanges and cross-fertilization. Such personnel as Dharmasiri Bandaranaike must be made an integral part of the deliberations and planning work of the RCs.

STEP IV. Animation is another mode of re-schooling and re-orienting people towards ethnic tolerance, amity and cross-fertilization. When Kandyan dancing is seen as a threat by some educated Tamil extremists, we know then that cultural practices carry deep significances in heightened political contexts. Thus, re-working culture towards exchange and appreciation is one pathway towards reconciliation.

STEP V. All our citizens must be re-schooled over time. They must be taught to look at the world in a modified nomenclature that adopts and/or recognises hyphenated labels in either self-designation or in attribution. V1. I note that in some parts of the world hyphenated designations are in both popular use or official use – so that one has Italian Australians, Greek Australians, Tunisian French, German Swiss, Italian Swiss, Sri Lankan Australians, etc, etc. Gradually instilling hyphenation is one important process to initiate by … V2. Creating an official nomenclature for implementation in the census, in the NIC and in other official documents. Thus on the understanding and clear-note that the term “Sri” is a normal preface before “Lankan:” and can be dispensed with in the documents for convenience sake, I would insist on the following terminology


Sinhala Lankan

Tamil Lankan

Malaiyaha Lankan

Moor Lankan

Malay Lankan

Burgher Lankan

Colombo Chetty Lankan

Borah Lankan

Sindhi Lankan

Parsee Lankan

Vadda Lankan

Ahikuntaka Lankan

Mixed Lankan

V3. It should be permissible for those who reject sub-categories on principle to denote themselves as “Lankan’ and to refuse an ethnic label [an interesting outcome this]

V4. A vital innovation here is that those of mixed parentage can say “Mixed’ and reject the patrilineal bias in terminology. [In magnificent self-denial I have opted not to use the term “Thuppahi Lankan” for this category]

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY of my WRITINGS relevant to this project

“Stimulants and Ingredients in the Awakening of Latter-Day Nationalisms,” in Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, 1979, pp. 214-42.

“Problems of Collective Identity in a Multi-Ethnic Society: Sectional Nationalism vs Ceylonese Nationalism, 1900-1940,” in Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, 1979, pp. 337-60.

The 1956 Generations: After and Before, G.C. Mendis Memorial Lecture for 1981, Colombo, Evangel Press, 1981a

“Ethnicity in Riposte at a Cricket Match: The Past for the Present”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1985, 27: 401-429.

“Nationalism, the Past and the Present: the Case of Sri Lanka,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 1993a   16: 133-161.

“Beyond Anderson: Reconstructing and Deconstructing Sinhala Nationalist Discourse”, Modern Asian Studies, 1996a 30: 690-98. [reprinted in Confrontations, 2009].

“Teaching Lessons and Removing Evil: Strands of Moral Puritanism in Sinhala Nationalist Practice,” Felicitation Volume for Professor S. Arasaratnam, edited by Michael Pearson, as South Asia, sp.issue, Sept. 1996, pp. 205-20.

“Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism,” in G. Gunatilleke et al (eds.): A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation, Colombo: 2001 Marga Monograph Series, No 4.

“The burden of history: obstacles to power sharing in Sri Lanka”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, n. s., May 2001, 35: 65-96.

“Ethnicity after Edward Said: Post-Orientalist failures in comprehending the Kandyan period of

Lankan history,” Ethnic Studies Report 2001, 19: 69-98. [reprinted in Confrontations, 2009].

“Dakunen sädi kotiyo, uturen golu muhudai,” [The fierce/vile Tamils to the south, the turbulent/ unfathomable sea to the north] Pravāda 2001. 6: 17-18.

“Primordialist strands in contemporary Sinhala nationalism in Sri Lanka: urumaya as Ur,” Colombo:

Marga Monograph Series on A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation, Colombo: Marga Monograph Series, 2002 No 20.

“Saivite Symbolism, Sacrifice and Tamil Tiger Rites”, Social Analysis 2005 49: 67-93.

“Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite Of Commemoration,” Social  Analysis 2006 50: 73-102.

“The Tamil Movement for Eelam,” E-Bulletin of the International Sociological Association 2006 No. 4,

July 2006, pp. 12-24 [reprinted in Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, 2010, pp. 203-18].

“Understanding Zealotry and Questions for Post-Orientalism, I,” Lines May-August 2006, vol.5, 1 & 2, in http://www.lines-magazine.org.

“Tamil Tigers: Sacrificial Symbolism and ‘Dead Body Politics’,” Anthropology Today, June 2008, 24/3: 22-23.

“Some Pillars for Lanka’s Future,” Frontline, 24/12, 6-19 June, 2009, pp. 24-27.

“Intolerance: Hues and Issues,” Nethra Review, 11/2, December 2010, pp. 20-21.

“Mahinda Rajapaksa: Cakravarti Imagery and Populist Processes,” 28 January 2012, http:// thuppahi.wordpress.com/2012/01/28/mahinda-rajapaksa-cakravarti-imagery-and-populist-processes/, reprinted in Asanga Welikala (ed.) Republic at Forty,

“Ideological Cancers within the Sinhala Universe: Roadblocks in the Path of Reconciliation,” Groundviews, 10 May 2014, http://groundviews.org/2014/05/10/ideological-cancers-within-the-sinhala-universe-roadblocks-in-the-path-of-reconciliation/


[1] See Robert N. Kearney The politics of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Cornell University Press, 1973 and Communalism and Language in the Politics of Ceylon.: Duke University Press, 1967.

[2] As the son of NQ Dias the grey commander in chief of the Sinhalization policy within the administrative services under the Bandaranaikes in the 1950s and 1960s.

[3] Modern Asian Studies, 1978, vol. 12: 353-76. This reading t should be supplemented with a reading of “Ethnicity in Riposte at a Cricket Match,” 1985; “Pillars for the Future,” (2014) and the more recent articles identifying the short-sighted Sinhalaness of Mahinda Rajapaksa and company — namely, “Ideological Cancers within the Sinhala Universe,” (2014) and “Cakravarti Imagery and Populist Processes” (2012).

[4] See Roberts, Michael 2011a “People of Righteousness march on Sri Lanka,” The Island, 22 June 2011 and https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/06/27/people-of-righteousness-target-sri-lanka/ AND Roberts: HRW in Syria and Sri Lanka: Moral Fervour generating Political Blindness and Partisanship,” 3 January 2017, vhttps://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2017/01/03/hrw-in-syria-and-sri-lanka-moral-fervour-generating-political-blindness-and-partisanship/#more-23792

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Dr. Michael Roberts:

    Don’t you think the use of name of Only the anagariakka dharmapala is biased.

    How about Tibet – national Venerable S Mahinda who had said “Es gedi walata hena gahalada Sihalunne ?

    Why did not he remind others ?

  • 2

    ” (b) the persistent propaganda of the Tamil nationalist lobbies abroad, with many seams of fabrications mixed with fact; and (c) the pressures of a Western cabal posing as the “international community” and driven by a form of secular righteousness that is impervious to the double-standards imprinted on its masthead.”

    The Tamil diaspora are people who did belong and who want to belong to this country. But unfortunately they were driven away from their motherland by Sinhala mobs led by political leaders and Buddhist Monks. Their exodus started after 1958,1977 and 1983 massacres perpetrated by the majority community.They were deprived of their jobs by “Sinhala Only” and their education ruined by “Standardization”.If they cannot speak for the Tamils who can? Do you think the subjugated local Tamils can talk about their rights in their own country?

  • 3

    Hi Dr.Roberts
    So the International community is cabal incapable of figuring out the problems in Srilanka? The Tamils abroad who are fighting for their brothers are fabricating the facts about the problem? So, are we to believe the “facts” given by your government and its cronies.

    You think singing a national anthem in two languages will solve the deep seated ethnic problem? Beating up Muslims and Tamils is sponsored by government leaders. The masses impassively watch it and behave like herds of sheep. Srilanka has no future unless a secular leader like Lee Kwan Yu appears someday.

  • 3

    The naiveté of this proposal is unbelievable!

  • 1

    There was a time indeed when the Sinhala and Tamil leaders in Colombo payed lip service to win the vote and spoke their ethnic tongue only to those who did not know the queens English . ..and then there were the marginalized majority struggling to fit in ,, adapt and survive .The English speaking professionals refused to speak in the language of the client who paid the lawyers fee or the Patient who came to the OPD nay even those who came to the Kachcheri to get work done for that was the conditioned mind of the time ..They the lowly of any ethnic group suffered silently .Today the few with money from their overseas family members are solving the problem of being fringe dwellers by sending their kids to learn English for de facto it is a way of impressing the man behind the desk looking at your CV… so all these solutions of singing together or making kids dress in costumes seem irrelevant to many .Some lament that the majority mob is out there protesting and that is a Sri Lanka and its eternal problem of racial tension . but in a population of 24 Million the 10,000 nor the 500,00o at a political meeting do not voice the the aspirations needs and attitudes of the people specially at grass root level who depend on each other for living .A kovil exist near a church or a temple but it does not worry the House wife walking to the pola . .I am trying to picture the portrayal of India as a rich country because 12% are the mega rich or marginally rich which amount to 20 million in a country of 1.34 Billion and the slums that exist near the mega cities and think which is India ? …So solving social problems with thinking of the country as having human problem without imposing new ideas at the moment might bring in the unity we desire .The problems of the fringe dwellers displaced due to relocation to make room for the investors is an uniting factor and these people all lived in close proximity to each other now have to get use to high rise living . The problems of the rural farmer who has to contend with the new attitudes of new industrial zones and 5 star hotels that disturb not only their way of life but also poach their limited resources .may be lure their youth from the traditional farming to the new projects .Welfare needs are the same for all ethnic groups and have to be handled with certain sensitiveness and care and not as charities of he mega rich ..Make people think its their right to expect a redress .I remember Peter Kueneman the erstwhile Poilitician who was so popular with all ethnic groups for he thought out of the box there were no natives in his mind no them and me though he belong to a minority ethnic group but he was the sahodaraya that could extend his hand and listen ..We need people of that caliber walking the streets and looking into our shacks for empathy and care .

  • 0

    Hi Ramesh, so good to hear the diverse opinions. Don’t be harsh on Good Dr. Roberts. As far as I know he does not claim it is his government. But he does claim as much as you do that Sri Lanka (or Lanka, or what ever it is) his country too. I’m in the same boat. ‘The Tamils abroad who are fighting for their brothers’ is an interesting prase. I was in the thinking besides Indian politicians the was waged mainly by the Tamil brothers who lived in Sri Lanka, with the help of the multi millions provided by the diaspora.
    As long as Tamil population (most of them live outside North and East, with other communities in peace) do not recognise that the majority of the population have concerns about their security and rights, I wouldn’t believe they can live in harmony. Dr. Roberts’ arguments are a precursor to that recognition, I believe. Certainly there will be lot more to do. I think most effective second sep would be economic properity, so that people would be employed, satisfatorily. This would lead to betterment of basic needs and wants.
    If diaspora sing the song of separate state, rest of the country would reject that as a threat to their existance, with past experience. This is a time we do need to tread carefully until dust is settled and confidence and undestanding is created.

  • 2

    I agree with Dr. Roberts

    Consider the currently used brand-name ‘Sri Lankan Muslims’.

    If this this brand-name is interpreted to mean ‘He is a Sri Lankan AND he is a Muslim’, then there would be no perceptual issue, since the term ‘Sri Lankan Muslim’ would imply that the individual is perceived with the same intensity to be both a Sri Lankan and a Muslim.

    If however, this brand-name is interpreted to mean : He is a Sri Lankan BUT he is a Muslim, it would then imply that the term ‘Sri Lankan’ is being discounted and the term ‘Muslim’ is being emphasized in the minds of such individuals. This would explain as to why some members of the Majority Community harbor a degree of doubt regarding the patriotism of SL Muslims. People whose mental framework causes them to perceive ‘Sri Lankan Muslims’ in such a manner will always have doubts as to the ‘Sri Lankan – ness’ of the local Muslims.

    The members of the Muslim Community should be urged to identify themselves and to refer to themselves as Muslim Sri Lankans in lieu of their current label, Sri Lankan Muslims, in all their future vocal and written communications.
    In terms of ethnic groups, the change would be to Moor Sri Lankans and Malay Sri Lankans.
    In fact, we should also urge corresponding changes to the labels applied to other religious and ethnic groups in the Island.
    Buddhist Sri Lankans, Hindu Sri Lankans, Catholic Sri Lankans & Christian Sri Lankans
    Sinhalese Sri Lankans, Tamil Sri Lankans & Burgher Sri Lankans

    The new nomenclature will compel people to focus on what they have in common – their Sri Lankan (National) identity.
    The existing nomenclature compels people to focus on what differentiates them – their ethnic / religious (Global) identity.

  • 0

    “yes….20 to 40yrs” is too long and impractical.
    Why not follow the example on similar lines set by the present, elected President of the Philipinnes for drug smugglers; get rid of all who promote sectarian divide without exception. The method of “execution” could be decided by a plebiscite.

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