Colonialism behind Sri Lanka's Conflicts

Jay Moore research at
Fri May 12 09:57:13 MDT 2000

Political tensions are a legacy of British colonialism

By Charles A. Radin, Globe Staff, 5/12/2000
Boston Globe

 Sri Lanka, where at least 60,000 people, perhaps more than 100,000, have
been killed in fighting between Buddhist Sinhalese and largely Hindu Tamils
over the past 16 years, is a land of many surprises.

Its economic statistics place Sri Lanka among the poorer of Third World
countries, places where desperate poverty, malnutrition, and brief, unhappy
lives are common.

But, instead, Sri Lankans enjoy a quality of life that, by many important
measures, is on a par with far more developed nations.

Life expectancy, at 72.7 years, is greater than in South Korea. Literacy, at
a shade over 90 percent of the population, is higher than in Portugal.
Infant mortality, at 16 deaths per 1,000 live births, is less a problem than
in Ukraine.

The roots of the prolonged, vicious fighting, which involves urban
terrorism, political assassinations, and conventional warfare, are also

While Sinhalese from Sri Lanka and Tamils from the Indian mainland fought
their first wars over a millennium ago, and while the Sinhalese are
Buddhists and most Tamils are Hindu, their conflict is not primarily about
religion. Nor does it reflect historical relations, which, though sometimes
tense, have been mainly peaceful.

Rather, the passions now rending the West Virginia-sized island off the
southeast coast of India are a legacy of British colonialism.

''The British often selected an ethnic minority, schooled them, and trained
them for the civil service,'' said Laurence Simon, director of the Program
in Sustainable International Development at Brandeis University and a
specialist on Sri Lanka. ''Here, that was the Tamils, who came to occupy
many important positions.''

Sinhalese outnumbered Tamils about 4 to 1, and by the time Sri Lanka gained
independence from Britain in 1948, there was widespread resentment among
them toward the minority they felt were running the country. Over the next
decade, this developed into a powerful Sinhalese identity movement that
succeeded in replacing English with Sinhala as the official language. In
1972, the government replaced the country's English name, Ceylon, with Sri
Lanka, which is Sinhala.

The Tamils, who had had an independent kingdom in the north of the country
until the late 18th century, argued for creating a federation like
Switzerland, according to Jehan Raheem, a Sri Lankan native who long worked
for the United Nations Development Program as a specialist on the cultures
and politics of South Asia.

That proposal would have created Tamil-speaking states in the north and
east, while the remaining states of the federation would have spoken
Sinhala. But the Sinhalese political leadership rejected the proposal, and
tensions rose as the Tamils were pressured to comply with the Sinhalese-only
policy - a social dynamic like the French-English tensions in Quebec.

''Language is important, but is a metaphor for something much deeper,''
Simon said. ''There is something in the very old cultures that can drag them
back to ancient rivalries and hatreds.''

There has been a distinctive Tamil culture in Sri Lanka for 1,000 to 1,500
years, but it is strongly rooted to the state of Tamil Nadu in southern
India; it is a foreign import to Sinhalese, whose cultural identity and
traditions originated on Sri Lanka.

''There is not thoroughgoing prejudice,'' Simon said, ''but there is an ugly
chauvinism that surfaces from time to time.''

Ethnic anger and prejudice are not shared by most Sinhalese or Tamils. There
are peace parties and peace demonstrations. But assassinations of leaders
have become common, and it has become increasingly difficult to generate any
internal momentum for peace, observers say.

This story ran on page A02 of the Boston Globe on 5/12/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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