Sri Lanka, Another Legacy Of British Colonialism

Lost amidst the international uproar over the Israeli invasion of Gaza have been the important developments in Sri Lanka this past week.  Please try to be as humane and respectful as possible, both to the truth and each other, in the comments if you're going to engage in a conversation on the substance of this. Thanks.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan forces overran another village Monday and moved closer to seizing a strategic base from the Tamil Tigers, but concerns are mounting for the hundreds of thousands of civilians living in the rebels' shrinking territory. The government has chased the rebels out of much of their de facto state in the north in recent months — taking their administrative capital of Kilinochchi last week — but the offensive is complicated by the presence of an estimated 300,000 civilians in rebel territory. The rebels now occupy a slice of jungle slightly larger than the city of Los Angeles. As civilians increasingly get in the way of the battle, it could become difficult for the government to fight on without causing an unacceptable loss of life, human rights activists and some Western diplomats said. The government says it has no intention of giving up its recent momentum but will do everything it can to avoid civilian casualties. "We are taking the utmost precautionary measures," said defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella. He declined to outline what those precautions where.

A partial reading list is below the fold if you're interested in more information. I'm not a Sri Lanka expert by any stretch, but I recommend the Wickramasinghe, the Edrisinha, and the Sumantra Bose for basics on Sri Lanka, and the Klieman, Blanton, and Pollis if you're interested in looking at other 'ancient' conflicts with very modern, very British roots.


  1. Sirimal Abeyratne, “Economic Roots of Political Conflict: The Case of Sri Lanka”, ASARC Working Papers, Australian National University, Australia South Asia Research Centre, 2002, available at http ://
  2. Ananda Abeysekara, Colors of the Robe: Religion, Identity, and Difference (University of South Carolina Press: Columbia 2002)
  3. Carl Armon and L. Philipson, eds., 1998, Demanding Sacrifice: War  and Negotiation in Sri Lanka.  London:  Conflict Resources.(Nissan, Edrisinha, Sathananthan) available at http ://
  4. Arjun Appudurai, “Number in the Colonial Imagination”, in Carol Breckenridge and Peter Van Der Veer, eds., Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament (University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia 1993)
  5. Pranab Bardhan, “Method in the Madness? A Political-Economy Analysis of the Ethnic Conflicts in Less-Developed Countries”, World Development, Vol 25:9, 1997, available at doi :10.1016/j.physletb.2003.10.071
  6. Robert Blanton, T. David Mason, and Brian Athow, “Colonial Style and Post-Colonial Conflict in Africa”, Journal of Peace Research, Vol.38,No.4.(Jul. 2001), available at http ://
  7. Sumantra Bose, States, Nations, Sovereignty: Sri Lanka, India, and the Tamil Eelam Movement (Sage: New Delhi, Thousand Oaks, London, 1994)
  8. Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, “Greed and Grievance in Civil War” (The World Bank:  Washington, DC 2001),  available at http ://
  9. Rohan Edrisinha, “Multinational Federalism and Minority Rights in Sri Lanka”, in Kymlicka, Will, and Baogang He, eds. Multiculturalism in Asia (OUP: Oxford 2005)
  10. Lionel Guruge, Sri Lanka's Ethnic Problems and Solutions, (Centre for Policy Alternatives, publishing information given); available at http ://
  11. Paul Isenman, “Basic Needs: The case of Sri Lanka”, World Development, Vol. 8:3 (March), available at http ://
  12. Aaron Klieman, “The Resolution of Conflicts through Territorial Partition: The Palestine Experience”, Comparative Studies in Society and History,Vol.22,No.2.(Apr.,1980),  available at http ://
  13. James Manor, ed., Sri Lanka in Change and Crisis (Croom Helm: London 1984)
  14. Adamantia Pollis, “Intergroup Conflict and British Colonial Policy: The Case of Cyprus” ComparativePolitics,Vol.5,No.4.(Jul.,1973),pp.575-599. Available at http ://
  15. Kumar Rupesinghe and Khawar Mumtaz, eds., Internal Conflicts in South Asia (International Peace Research Institute: Oslo 1996; SAGE Publications: London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi )
  16. David Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality (Princeton University Press: Princeton 1999)
  17. Dhanajayan Sriskandarajah, “Fuelling the Ire:  Inequality and Conflict in Late-Twentieth-Century Sri Lanka.”  (unpublished manuscript, Annual South Asian Studies Conference: Madison, WI 2002)
  18. R.L. Stirrat, “The Riots and the Roman Catholic Church in Historical Perspective”, in James Manor, ed., Sri Lanka in Change and Crisis (Croom Helm: London 1984)
  19. Stanley Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka (Chicago: Chicago 1992)
  20. Stanley Tambiah, Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy (I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd: London 1986)
  21. Cecile Van de Voorde, “Sri Lankan Terrorism: Assessing and Responding to the Threat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)”, Police Practice and Research, Vol. 6, No. 2, May 2005, available at http ://
  22. Nira Wickramasinghe, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities (Hurst and Company: London 2006)
  23. A. Jeyaratnam Wilson with a chapter by A.J.V. Chandrakanthan, Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and development in the 19th and 20th centuries (Hurst & Co: London 2000)
Lost amidst the international uproar over the Israeli invasion of Gaza have been the important developments in Sri Lanka this past week.

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This is relevant. Write a

This is relevant. Write a post about it. The Taliban have announced via radio that female education is forbidden in tourist area Swat Pakistan. They are destroying schools.

I\'m interested in this

I\'m interested in this discussion, and have some questions. Dr Anonymous, - (sorry, I find the academic language a bit difficult to understand, so let me rephrase), are you saying that you think that the root cause of the conflict was due to colonial practices, one of which was privileging certain ethnic groups over others in giving them disproportionate access to resources and opportunities? If so, how does one arrive at finding a root cause- or how does one determine \"rootness\"? I\'m genuinely interested. And secondly, what are the implications, especially policy implications, if one has identified the root cause as colonial?

Nayagan: I\'m interested to understand why you think JR\'s revisions are more important. I think I know the obvious ones, but would like to hear about it.

Why keep blaming the British

Why keep blaming the British or other Europeans?
India has been independent for 61 years and SriLanka a bit less.
Where do the British come in? Can't the wretched South Asians think for themeselves and develop their own institutions and policies?


"Wickramasinghe, Edrisinha"

Part of the caviar eating, anglicised elite in Colombo.


“Wickramasinghe, Edrisinha”

Part of the caviar eating, anglicised elite in Colombo.

Regardless of accuracy, your point being?

dr. if you're going to throw


if you're going to throw red meat on the barbie with that title, you should first know what you're talking about. There were more colonial masters of Sri Lanka than the British and thanks to their methodist schooling, provided with contempt and at cost, my grandmother became literate in English and gained enough skills to have a working life that has extended into her 90s. She was married at 14. As her eldest children were growing up, it was common for only men to answer the door when somebody knocked. Without the British, and their colonial attitudes, she would still be there..and so would I (and thus we find the limited utility of counterfactuals)

The point being, look up the Soulbury constitution, the subsequent revisions by Junius and please take care to be more specific when throwing aforementioned meats onto the grill.

that was a bit rough, so

that was a bit rough, so thanks for the list--but still, seek out primary sources...poco analysis doesn't tell you how many civilians died of malnutrition, claymores, gunfire and disease in the Wanni last week or how to make that information available.

It's difficult, from the

It's difficult, from the perspective of Tamil's in Sri Lanka (especially Jaffna Tamils), to condemn the British. I can't even imagine what Sri Lanka today would like like if not for their influence, not just in terms of the ethnic conflict, but institutions, place names, architecture...their rule led to a great deal of good and bad, it's muddled by the hundreds of years of rule by the dutch and portuguese that preceded it, the relations before that, blah blah blah...anyway, it's not all on england, much of the fault truly rests with us even

The point being, look up the

The point being, look up the Soulbury constitution, the subsequent revisions by Junius and please take care to be more specific when throwing aforementioned meats onto the grill.

I disagree. the discourse i'm speaking in is indocentric, namely because my admittedly limited academic training was indocentric, but the content and connections came from reading plausible secondary sources that covere a wide variety of possible causes for the conflict.

The Soulbury constitution established mass suffrage in a political economy that had been constructed on the basis of ethno-religious-linguistic communal elites competing for power and resources from the colonial state? I think it was that constituion that also established the first past-the-post system no? Those were both major contributing factors, according to secondary literature, in what resulted - I'm interested in looking at the roots of the conflict and placing them firmly iin the modern era, not whether some people or other people benefited from british rule - the argument is basically that it's the colonial political economy that's relevant in meaningful, not just anachronistically symbolic ways. The comparative evidence is the nail inthe coffin on that count for me.

and it should go without

and it should go without saying that when i'm focusing on the colonial period and the political practices that were in play then, that doesn't mean that nothing that happened aftewards is relevant or important, or that there is no contingency or agency in history. I'm just pointing to what I thihnk is the most immportant causal factor on the basis of the information in front of me. It's perfectly reasonable for a person with a different set of infnormation to come to a different conlusion, though the two different explanations I would guess would be complementary, not wholly at odds with one another. For exapmle, you can talk aboutu the construction of the communal groups as exist today vs. as they existed int he late ninetheenth century and focus on different parts of that period and comme to different conclusions aboutu what was responsible in 1900 vs. in 1948-1976, but ultimately, the explanations should roughly be differences of scope.

"root cause"? If you

"root cause"? If you identified it, which is pretty much impossible given that British colonial rule was not conducted in whites-only vacuum, it would be quite the coup.

you willfully acknowledge that all you have are secondary sources yet I could present you with a passel of the very same "plausible" kind you see here that would convincingly paint the Levant as never having been trod upon by Arab feet--this is not to say that colonialism is not a contributory factor but that you are eliding the most important details by ignoring the evolution and adaptation of the Soulbury constitution in Sri Lanka and Junius Jayawardene's introduction of the executive president.

as to why you're not interested in people helped/not helped by colonial institutions, i'll not speculate on your rationale but only say that in aggregate it is a soulless approach that privileges the perspective of the diaspora academic over that of those who are most intimately invested in Sri Lanka. Lasantha Wickremasingha, for all his grandstanding, came back to take the stick on behalf of those people whose perspectives are the most valuable.

Do you ever take the time to find individual sri-lankan blogs (and no, groundviews doesn't count, useful as it is) written by people with jobs and concerns outside of journalism?

In the long and short run, the greatest obstacle to a healthy lankan civil society is widespread and timely access to information about what is happening in their own backyard--not a cafe discussion of the roots of the predicament. it's frankly insulting to have to flog this horse over and over again for the benefit of people who should know better--live in the golden present and realize that Lankans must do the same in order to have the luxury of sitting down, in the future, for that very cafe discussion.

that's "wickrematunga"

that's "wickrematunga"

dr. thanks for taking the


thanks for taking the time to respond but I don't think you've quite 'grokked' what I'm saying.  If for some (undoubtedly magical) reason, the military conflict ground to a halt and diaspora lankans came back in droves to redevelop the north and east (no doubt reinforcing your dread 'neoliberal' bogeyman power structure) and all the indices that orthodox economists like to cite shot upwards, one would be a fool to assume that all was well (unless you fancy Modi-in-Trincomalee). 


The free flow of information is what enables stings, busts, investigative journalism and the extent to which people take advantage of the mobility they have and the regulatory structure they encounter in daily business.  If you don't think what i'm asserting here is accurate I'd encourage examination of countries where conspiracy theories run wild, where people act on these conspiracy theories and where they become 'common sense.' (Hint: one just gave the entire SL cricket team a send-off they'll never forget)

 You'll find, as most IR and political scientists have, that media freedom tracks pretty well with the stability and continuity of a free and open civil society.

"Stopping ethnic cleansing" is something you can only acheive when the patrons of chauvinists on both sides are continually confronted with evidence of the crimes of their chosen champions as well as the relatives and friends  of such chauvinists--it is impossible to stop when nobody knows for sure how many, how serious, where and when. 

Right now you can see this dynamic in action at the UN, where requested briefing sessions on Sri Lanka were postponed and then truncated to suit the government's military campaign schedule--which you would know only if you read Inner City Press and humored the one-SL-track mind of their chief correspondent, Matthew Lee.

Because of this information deficit, all sorts of human-rights outfits couldn't be bothered to wipe the Darfur cobwebs from their eyes and merely pay attention to what has become a crisis involving not just violent deaths but malnutrition on a large scale--just look at the dismissive attitude of another journalist at the UN, Mark Goldberg, who is clearly miffed by Lee's dogged coverage of this issue (which has run over three of his past episodes)

as for policy

as for policy recommendations, why don't you ask Lankans who blog  and still live there?



I think I understood what you

I think I understood what you were saying and I agree with it in theory that an effective media that holds governments and other political actors accountable for human rights violations, promoting communalism, etc., is important.  - I guess I'm asking how likely it is that this will actually happen in the near future rather than that saying it is not a good priority.   From my experience in the U.S., in India, and the UK, the media right now, to varying degrees, tends to reflect the structures of power that are in place.  For every Amy Goodman who have 1,000 Newsweek and Time and other types of journalists.

I agree with you, though that in terms of policy recommendations, there are people far more qualified than I am to suggest them - I was attempting to respond to the question that was posed to me rather than put myself forward as an expert on the issue.  I would welcome hearing and/or finding out about what grassroots perspectives focused on people and independent honest critics, rather than tired and discredited communal lenses, have to say.  They seem to get banned from the war zone, killed, or otherwise stifled right now.

In any case, thanks for the comments.

One minor thing: when I speak

One minor thing: when I speak of the British period or British political economy, I'm not arguing in nationals or nationalist race terms (Whites were responsible, Asians were not), but saying that the politics and economics of the late 19th and first half ot he 20th centuries are more relevant here as "deep causes" to the emergence of the civil war than what happened subsequently.  It is an argument, an assertion, not a fact - but one that I welcome feedback on.  But I am not making a standard nationalist argument which focuses entirely on race and/or British vs. "native" - as a Bengali from at least one comprador family, it would be beyond even my tolerable limits of hypocrisy for me to do that.

As for the major point I want to address in your comment: 

"Do you ever take the time to find individual sri-lankan blogs (and no, groundviews doesn't count, useful as it is) written by people with jobs and concerns outside of journalism?

In the long and short run, the greatest obstacle to a healthy lankan civil society is widespread and timely access to information about what is happening in their own backyard--not a cafe discussion of the roots of the predicament. it's frankly insulting to have to flog this horse over and over again for the benefit of people who should know better--live in the golden present and realize that Lankans must do the same in order to have the luxury of sitting down, in the future, for that very cafe discussion."


To be frank, I don't.  I am well educated for a non Sri Lankan lay person on some aspects of Sri Lankan history and political economy, but I can only write what I can write.  whether or not this is useful or is sympomatic of broader social problems (which it likely is and I tried to point to in highlighting the indocentrism of south asian studies both in who gets involved and what hte contents are), it is all I can, or rather, am inclined to do, given who I am.  there are plenty of other people, like kettikilli, who can comment far more effectively than me on this issue - and do.

As for your other point about horse flogging, I would raise the point simply that a) comparative work on ethnic conflicts coming from British coloinal regimes is not widespread - you don't see many articles comparing Ireland to Sri Lanka in the academic press, let alone the popular press; b) I'm not sure whether your prescription for a healthy sri lankan civil society is accurate, though it certainly sounds like that would be part of the solution; c) in order to discuss the present, it is sometimes useful to understand that the mutual fate of various kinds of people who are today called Tamils and Sinhalese or Buddhists or Sri Lankans or "members of the Colombo elite" as I think it was so delicately put above, are all profoundly shaped by the past - in any ethnic conflict in which a basic shared discourse becomes impossible (Palestine/Israel, Sri Lanka, Hindutva/nonHinduta), I think the most useful thing that I can do is to try to reemphasise a conversation based on a serious attempt to understand what happened.  Otherwise, the present can trap you in paralysis because you will have no way of differentiating between which discourse (GOSl, LTTE, other social forces, etc.) you would draw you basic and maybe even unstated assumptions on and what you would likely end up relying on excessively is your own social position and rather than your own analysis of what has happened regardless of who you are.

Hi aviaf, I'm sorry for the

Hi aviaf,

I'm sorry for the long delay in responding.  I have overstated my case I think, based on responses to what people said.  What my argument is is that the British colonial period profoundly shaped the certain racial/ethnic/religious categories, that Sri Lankans would be organised according to those categories, granted particular power to certain elites in those categories, etc.  And then further that the modes in which politics and economics would continue - majoritarian democracy in a mass suffrage situation in which 75% of the population or so was Sinhalese - was also a legacy of that period. 

In a sense, it is nothing more than providing details to the argument that the division line of independence is artificial - one would not probably not write about american ethnic violence while arbitrarily deciding that everything that happened pre-1948 is intrinsically different and adequately disconnected ffrom what happened post-1948.  It's also an argument that history matters significantly, that the causes of the conflict may have been overdetermined so that, unlike say Nehruvian Congress's way of addressing Tamil separatism, the Sri Lankan government had little flexibility to engage in that kind of peacemaking even if it were interesting in doing so.

But I should not have said root cause because it implies that there is only one - this is one of several extremely important factors and from my (semi-informed) vantage point, one of the most important ones to emphasise both analytically and (I would have said during hte military stalemate) for present day political purposes (i.e. it's best to breakdown the rigidity of the binary Tamil/Sinahlese that's been built and the escalation of rhetorical as well as physical violence).  Today, I think trying to stop ethnic cleansing is probably the first and only priority and peacebuilding is a part of that, but posts like mine seem less helpful.

Sorry I didn't answer your

Sorry I didn't answer your second question-

it's difficult to give specific policy recommendations on this because i haven't thought it through fully enough and its an argument for a change in approach:

however, i would suggest: a) discussions among those who have attempted peacebuilding in cyprus, sri lanka, northern ireland, and other places that have somewhat similar trajectories to see what tactics they have used, what is similar int he situations, what is different - e.g. would something like Seeds of Peace of Wahat as Salam work in Sri Lanka? b) the construction of an international mvoement to demand reparations from the british state  (this would have useful effects as well like drawing attention to how the problems began in their persent form, helping provide a place to channel anger/energy that would otherwise turn to depression, resignation, paralysis, violence, communalism, or blind rage; c) attention to present day factors that repeat some of the work that the British have done (e.g. Indian regional dominance or Americn imperialism) d) the construction of the seeds or the cultivation of the seeds of a humanistic ethnic in Sri Lanka and/or its diaspora.

those are guesses off the top of my head, so while criticism is welcome, grilling me on them probably would not be useful for anyone - but discussion is welcome :) I would also think that looking at the aspects of the political system that have gone wrong post independence - e.g. the way in which electoral power is accumulated and the implications of demographics on that, the practices of the state in terms of discrimination / land / language / etc., and other measures might be worthwhile, but I would be afraid that these topics would be so loaded that it would be impossible for sinhalese and tamils who are not fervent chauvinists to come togehter to talk about them and build an effective political force.  One of the points of the analysis that roots this conflict firmly in a pre-independence period is to point out exactly how structurally f"£ked people are - which might lead you away from strategies like these towards what most people i know do - which is just attempst at basic protection of human rights.  But if it is possible to create joint Tamil / Sinhalese spaces (taking for granted that these identities are both real and not real) that have dissension but move towards building common ground that could be useful. - but only if it's possible.  I don't know if it is - and the question of "rootedness" is  connected to that.

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