Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict

Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict

Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict

Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict


In the past decade, Sri Lanka has been engulfed by political tragedy as successive governments have failed to settle the grievances of the Tamil minority in a way acceptable to the majority Sinhala population. The new Premadasa presidency faces huge economic and political problems with large sections of the island under the control of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) and militant separatist Tamil groups operating in the north and south.
This book is not a conventional political history of Sri Lanka. Instead, it attempts to shed fresh light on the historical roots of the ethnic crisis and uses a combination of historical and anthropologial evidence to challenge the widely-held belief that the conflict in Sri Lanka is simply the continuation of centuries of animosity between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The authors show how modern ethnic identities have been made and re-made since the colonial period with the war between Tamils and the Sinhala-dominant government accompanied by rhetorical wars over archeological sites and place-name etymologies, and the political use of the national past. The book is also one of the first attempts to focus on local perceptions of the crisis and draws on a broad range of sources, from village fieldwork to newspaper controversies. Its interest extends beyond contemporary politics to history, anthropology and development studies.


When my son first started school, he told me one day that his friends always called him ‘Hitler’. For the children ‘Hitler’ was the funny German bogeyman from the movies, a good nickname to call someone from Germany, with few of the sinister associations a middle-aged German or Briton might connect with it. For children in Britain one of the darkest periods of German history has passed into the realm of mythology and child’s play. It is no longer associated with real Germans, except for the bogeyman figure of Hitler, and it does not stir up national or other passions. Whether it is to be welcomed that the Fascist period has passed into myth so fast is debatable, and it goes without saying that for Germans the problem looks quite different. But what is important here is that facts of history can pass into myth, thereby softening and modifying their impact and removing them from everyday reality: they become literally child’s play. But the same does not happen everywhere.

Sinhala Lions and Tamil Tigers are by no means just children’s bogeymen; they are perceived as real, dangerous and deserving to be destroyed. These stereotypes are much older than the Third Reich or even the caricature of the Hun. They were dormant for centuries when the Sinhala or Tamil enemy was just a figure of myth with no great significance for everyday life. But the figure has come alive, and we have to ask, how, why and when?

Early reports

From what we can gauge from the writings of early Europeans in Sri Lanka, there lived in the north and east of the island people who spoke Tamil, called themselves Tamils, and were so called because the strangers recognized the similarity to the Tamil people of south India. They were ruled by independent or semi-independent kings who had a traditional rivalry with rulers in other parts of the island and who commonly spoke another language, Sinhala, though the use of both . . .

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