Conflict and Community in Sri Lanka: William Clarance Explores the Origins and Complexities of the Sri Lankan Civil War

By Clarance, William | History Today, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Conflict and Community in Sri Lanka: William Clarance Explores the Origins and Complexities of the Sri Lankan Civil War


Clarance, William, History Today


THE SINHALESE-TAMIL controversy over who arrived first in Sri Lanka and so has the better claim to be its `founding race' has done much to contribute to the bitterness of intercommunal tensions which, in July 1983, erupted into the present civil war in the north-east of the island between the Sinhalese-dominated forces of the central government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The Sinhalese claim derives largely from the Mahavamsa--the most important of their early chronicles--which recounts the island's history from the time of the North Indian colonisation in the fifth century BC, particularly as regards Vijaya, an Indo-Aryan prince, who together with 700 followers landed on the western coast of Sri Lanka to the north of present day Colombo. Traditionally, he was the founder of the Sinhalese race to whom Buddha entrusted the protection of his religion. But prehistorical archaeology has established that the island had been settled long before the North Indian migration, doubts have been expressed as to whether Vijaya was in fact a historical person, and the proximity of the northern Lankan coasts to South India makes it likely that the Dravidian forebears of the present-day Sri Lankan Tamils also arrived at a very early date.

Recently, it has been argued that this dispute is in fact a `non-issue', largely on the basis that neither the classics of Tamil literature of two millennia, nor their folk tradition reflect a fundamental hostility between the two communities and that there was an almost uninterrupted friendly co-existence between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations over the centuries. This leads to the conclusion that the traditional hostility between the two races which was reflected in the Mahavamsa--particularly in the story of how Elara, the Tamil king of Anuradhapura, was slain by the Sinhalese Dutugemunu in a duel in which each was mounted on an elephant--was a political construct which was kept alive and used from time to time by the Sinhalese leadership for political purposes. Moreover, it is pointed out that the numerous wars throughout the millennia in which the rulers were respectively Sinhalese and Tamil were more often the product of local dynastic rivalry than of ethnic animosity. And in the British colonial period of the early twentieth century, the significant social and political divisions related to caste and class rather than the largely ethnically based issues of language and religion. This was still a time of relative harmony when the communities considered that they were both `founding races' and the Western educated elite was united in pressing the colonial administration to introduce an elective element into the legislature.

Thus, when an `educated Ceylonese' constituency was established in 1911, the seat was won by a Tamil, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, against his principal (Sinhalese) opponent who suffered from caste rivalry within his own community. Nonetheless, there were already signs of communal tension and this first timid move towards elected representative politics was soon to disrupt much of the traditional harmony. By 1926, the Governor Sir Hugh Clifford was reporting to the Colonial Office in London that the differences between the Sinhalese and the Tamils were accentuating with the latter suspecting the former of plans to dominate the political situation by their weight of numbers, while the Sinhalese resented the Tamils' reluctance to accept their position as a minority in a Ceylonese nation.

When in the following year the Donoughmore Commission was appointed to review the constitution, its most pressing problem was how to reduce such intercommunal dissension and distrust over constitutional and particularly electoral development. On communal representation, the Tamil leadership was divided, with the idealistically all-island nationalist Jaffna Youth Congress strongly opposed to it and in favour of universal suffrage, while some of the old guard Tamil nationalists took the opposite position. …

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