The Political Crisis in Sri Lanka

Rohini Hensman

May 26, 2022

Let me start with a childhood memory. My father was Tamil, my mother was Burgher—that’s what they call people with European ancestry in Sri Lanka—and we were living in a predominantly Sinhalese neighborhood just outside Colombo. One day in May 1958 our Sinhalese neighbor Menike, who was like a member of our family, came over in great distress, insisting that we leave our home at once and go somewhere safe because a bloodthirsty mob was heading our way. At around the same time, my mother’s former student Yasmine, who had become a family friend, also Sinhalese, came over in a car, offering to shelter us at her parents’ place. My mother had been for a walk, so my parents knew that Tamils were being attacked, but at that point, they refused to leave. They packed off my brother and me and our Tamil grandmother in a taxi with another Sinhalese neighbor to stay with our Burgher grandmother and started making Molotov cocktails to defend themselves and their home. By this time, Menike was frantic and threatened to commit suicide unless they left. They finally agreed, and yet another Sinhalese neighbor drove them in his car to Yasmine’s parents’ place.

Thirty years later, when I was doing research on Sri Lankan refugees and internally displaced people, I came across numerous similar stories in which Tamils had been saved by Sinhalese friends, neighbors, colleagues, or even total strangers. To me these stories encapsulate the divided soul of Sri Lanka: hatred and violence on one side, love and compassion on the other; racism on one side, anti-racism on the other; brutal authoritarianism on one side, a stubborn pursuit of democracy and human rights on the other.

The divisions were already present at independence in 1948, when J.R. Jayawardene, leader of the United National Party (UNP), and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who later became leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), agreed on one thing: depriving around a million Tamils of more recent Indian origin, most of whom were plantation workers in the central Hill Country, of their franchise and citizenship. The exercise was carried out in a patently discriminatory manner by demanding that these poverty-stricken and super-exploited workers provide such documentary proof of Sri Lankan ancestry as the vast majority of Sinhalese citizens would have been unable to provide. During the parliamentary debates on these bills, the left parties—the larger Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party or LSSP and the smaller Communist Party of Ceylon (now the Communist Party of Sri Lanka or CPSL)—argued vehemently against them, denouncing them as racist, anti-democratic, and an attack on workers’ rights. The strength of the left and the labor movement in this early period can be gauged from the success of the hartal, or nationwide general strike, that they launched in 1953, when the UNP government tried to abolish the highly subsidized rice ration on the advice of the World Bank.

In 1956, Bandaranaike and his SLFP came to power on the promise of making Sinhala the sole official language. The Official Language or Sinhala Only Act, as it came to be called, discriminated against Tamil-speaking people in government employment, and peaceful protests were launched against it. On this occasion too, the main left parties opposed the bill, although a breakaway section of the LSSP supported it. In 1957, responding to the protests, Bandaranaike signed the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact, recognizing Tamil as the language of a national minor­ity and of administration in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. But a year later, in response to a militant agitation by right-wing Buddhist monks, he renounced the pact, leading to a campaign by Tamils in Jaffna blacking out the Sinhala letter sri, which had been substituted for English letters in vehicle numbers. This was what sparked off the 1958 anti-Tamil riots in Colombo and elsewhere. As the violence threatened to rage out of control, Bandaranaike handed over authority to the governor-general, who declared an Emergency and clamped down on the mobs. Angry with Bandaranaike for not going far enough, an extreme right-wing Buddhist monk organization, the Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna, assassinated him in 1959. His widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became leader of the SLFP, which was elected to power in 1960. In 1964 she negotiated an agreement with Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to deport over half a million Tamil plantation workers to India.

In 1964, the LSSP and CP entered into an alliance with the SLFP, and in 1968 formed a United Front with it which came to power in 1970. I feel this was an unmitigated disaster. The left disintegrated as principled members of the parties broke away and then split again, and the LSSP was expelled from the Fourth International. There were no major anti-Tamil pogroms under Mrs Bandaranaike, but discrimination continued. In 1970 the United Front government introduced a university-entrance system that discriminated against Tamils, creating a group of frustrated and embittered Tamil youths. Paradoxically, in 1971 there was an anti-government uprising led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or JVP, which combined Sinhala nationalism with an authoritarian brand of socialism and drew its membership and support precisely from those sections of the population who should have benefited from Sinhala Only. The uprising was crushed with at least five thousand people killed. The depth of their dissatisfaction should have alerted the government to the fact that anti-Tamil discrimination was not solving the problems of unemployment and poverty among the Sinhalese, but the anti-Tamil policies continued. In the name of nationalizing the plantations, plantation land was distributed to Sinhalese government supporters under the Land Reform Laws of 1972 and 1975. Tamil plantation workers and their families were assaulted and driven out, th