WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

 

SRI LANKA - POST COLONIAL HISTORY

INDEPENDENCE

The British negotiated the island's dominion status with the leader of the State Council, D.S. Senanayake, during World War II. Senanayake was also minister of agriculture and vice chairman of the Board of Ministers. The negotiations ended with the Ceylon Independence Act of 1947, which formalized the transfer of power. Senanayake was the founder and leader of the United National Party (UNP), a partnership of many disparate groups formed during the Donoughmore period, including the Ceylon National Congress, the Sinhala Maha Sabha, and the Muslim League. The UNP easily won the 1947 elections, challenged only by a collection of small, primarily leftist parties. On February 4, 1948, when the new constitution went into effect (making Sri Lanka a dominion), the UNP embarked on a ten-year period of rule.

Divisions in the Body Politic

The prospects for an economically robust, fully participatory, and manageable democracy looked good during the first years of independence. In contrast to India, which had gained independence a year earlier, there was no massive violence and little social unrest. In Sri Lanka there was also a good measure of governmental continuity. Still, important unresolved ethnic problems soon had to be addressed. The most immediate of these problems was the "Indian question," which concerned the political status of Tamil immigrants who worked on the highland tea plantations. The Soulbury Commission had left this sensitive question to be resolved by the incoming government.

After independence, debate about the status of the Indian Tamils continued. But three pieces of legislation--the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948; the Indian and Pakistani Residents Act No. 3 of 1948, and the Ceylon Parliamentary Elections Amendment Act No. 48 of 1949--all but disenfranchised this minority group. The Ceylon Indian Congress vigorously but unsuccessfully opposed the legislation. The acrimonious debate over the laws of 1948 and 1949 revealed serious fissures in the body politic. There was a cleavage along ethnic lines between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, and also a widening rift between Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils.

In 1949 a faction of the Ceylon Tamil Congress (the major Tamil party in Sri Lanka at the time) broke away to form the (Tamil) Federal Party under the leadership of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. The creation of the Federal Party was a momentous postindependence development because it set the agenda for Tamil exclusivity in Sri Lankan politics. Soon after its founding, the Federal Party replaced the more conciliatory Tamil Congress as the major party among Sri Lankan Tamils and advocated an aggressive stance vis--vis the Sinhalese.

United National Party "Majority" Rule, 1948-56

The largest political party in independent Sri Lanka, the United National Party (UNP), emerged as an umbrella party from the colonial era. It was similar in some respects to the Indian National Congress. Like its Indian counterpart, the UNP represented a union of a number of groups espousing different personalities and ideologies. Known later as the "uncle-nephew party" because of the kinship ties among the party's top leadership, the UNP served as the standard-bearer of conservative forces. In late 1947, when the party won the country's first general election, the UNP attempted to establish an anticommunist, intercommunal parliamentary form of government. Prominent nationalists, such as D.S. Senanayake and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (the country's first and fourth prime ministers, respectively), led the UNP. The party's internal differences gradually worsened, however. The first and most serious break came in July 1951, when Bandaranaike's left-of-center bloc seceded to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the first major non-Marxist political movement to oppose the UNP.

Despite the benevolent guidance of Senanayake, the UNP could not defuse the nascent dissension between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Some of Senanayake's policies, particularly his awarding of land grants to Sinhalese settlers for the resettlement of the northern dry zone, precipitated renewed competition between the two ethnic groups.

When Senanayake died in a horseback-riding accident in March 1952, not only the UNP, but also the entire nation suffered from the loss of the only man who could pose as a credible symbol for the country's unity. In the election that was held immediately after Senanayake's death, the UNP, led by his son Dudley, and the SLFP, led by Bandaranaike, vied for Sinhalese votes, while the Tamil Congress and Federal Party competed for the Tamil vote. The UNP won the election, and the SLFP emerged as major opposition party. The SLFP managed to win only nine out of forty-eight seats in Parliament. The Tamil Congress, having supported the UNP, lost much of its following to the Federal Party, which continued to advocate an autonomous homeland within a Sri Lankan federation. Ethnic tensions, although mounting, remained manageable.

After D. S. Senanayake's death, the nation's economic problems became apparent. The terms of world trade were turning against Sri Lanka. The population was growing faster than production in most sectors. A World Bank (see Glossary) study completed in 1952 noted that social and welfare services were consuming 35 percent of the budget. The report recommended that the government rice subsidy--which accounted for the major portion of the expenditure--be reduced. Prime Minister Senanayake followed the advice, but the move proved to be his political undoing. A massive, sometimes violent civil disobedience movement was launched to protest the reduction of the rice subsidy and provoked the resignation of Senanayake. In October 1953, his cousin, Sir John Kotelawala, became prime minister and remained in office until the UNP defeat in the 1956 election.

The UNP government under Kotelawala disagreed with India's interpretation of political solidarity in the developing world. This divergence became painfully clear to India at the Colombo Conference of 1954 and the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955. Kotelawala's strident condemnation of communism, as well as the more fashionable condemnation of Western imperialism, especially irritated India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Kotelawala was also anxious to have Ceylon join the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), but he encountered strong domestic opposition to the plan. The Soviet Union was especially sensitive to what it considered the government's pro-Western attitude and repeatedly vetoed Sri Lanka's application to join the United Nations (UN). Sri Lanka was finally admitted in 1955 as part of an East-West agreement.

The UNP continued a defense agreement with the British that spared Sri Lanka the cost of maintaining a large military establishment. National defense consumed less than 4 percent of the government budget in the postindependence years, and hence the military was not in a position to interfere with politics.

Emergence of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party

Following its defeat in 1952, the SLFP marshaled its forces in preparation for the next national election. The 1956 election was destined to become a turning point in the modern history of Sri Lanka and is seen by many observers as a social revolution resulting in the eclipse of the Westernized elite. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike campaigned as the "defender of a besieged Sinhalese culture" and demanded radical changes in the system. Bandaranaike came from a family of Westernized Sinhalese and was educated at Oxford, but early in his political career, he rejected many of the Western elements of his background and embraced the Buddhist faith and adopted native garb (regarded at the time as an affectation among members of his class). Bandaranaike brought to the election a deep knowledge of the passions that communal politics could provoke. His Sinhala Maha Sabha, founded in 1937 as a movement within the Ceylon National Congress, was the only wing of the congress at that time that sought to infuse a Sinhala consciousness into Sri Lankan nationalism. The Sinhala Maha Sabha formed the backbone of Bandaranaike's SLFP and helped spread his 1956 election warning that Buddhism was in danger. Accusations of a "conspiracy" between the UNP and the Roman Catholic Church helped raise emotions feverishly. As one commentator put it, "Bandaranaike built up a popular following based on the Sinhalese dislike of Christian influence, essentially stoking the fires of communal and religious bigotry."

Bandaranaike and his supporters used the UNP's pro-Western stance as a potent propaganda weapon against the party. He claimed that the independence granted in 1948 was "fake" and that real independence could only be attained by severing all links with the Commonwealth of Nations. In economic matters, Bandaranaike planned to nationalize plantations, banks, and insurance companies. He advocated the control over trade and industry vested in Sinhalese hands. With such a radical platform, Bandaranaike managed to unite many disparate groups into his People's United Front (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna--MEP), a political coalition under the leadership of his SLFP formed to defeat the UNP. In addition, he was able to forge a no-contest pact with two Marxist parties, the LSSP and the CPSL.

The central and most explosive issue of the 1956 election was a linguistic one. After independence, it was commonly accepted that Sinhala and Tamil would replace English as the language of administration, but Bandaranaike announced that only Sinhala would be given official status if his coalition won the election. Bandaranaike introduced a dangerous emotionalism into the election with his "Sinhala only" platform, which labeled both Tamil and English as cultural imports.

The 2,500th anniversary of the death of the Buddha (which also marked the legendary landing of Vijaya and his followers on the island) coincided with the 1956 election, electrifying the political atmosphere. The UNP was susceptible to the emotional power of these issues. In what was later seen as a shameless last-minute reversal, the party also espoused the "Sinhala only" program. This political about-face came too late to help the UNP, for the party lost the election, winning only eight seats in parliament. The People's United Front won the majority share of fifty-one seats.

Tamil Politics

Some political commentators hold that it was in the wake of the 1956 elections that two completely separate and basically hostile political systems emerged in Sri Lanka: one for the Sinhalese and another for the Tamils. The trend toward Tamil exclusivity, however, despite periods of accommodation with Sinhalese political parties, had begun developing before independence. The first political organization to be formed specifically to protect the welfare of an ethnic minority was the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), which G.G. Ponnambalam founded in 1944. The Tamil Congress attempted to secure adequate constitutional safeguards before the country attained its independence. These attempts reflected Tamil anxieties that British domination would simply give way to domination by the Sinhalese majority.

After independence, a dissident Tamil group in the ACTC emerged under the leadership of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. The new group disagreed with Ponnambalam's policy of collaboration with the intercommunal, but Sinhalese-dominated, UNP. In 1949 the dissidents broke away from the ACTC and formed the rival Federal Party, which proposed establishing an autonomous Tamil linguistic state within a federal union of Sri Lanka. The Federal Party regarded this alternative as the only practical way to preserve Tamil identity.

In 1956 the Federal Party emerged as the dominant Tamil political group as a result of its convincing victory over the conservative Tamil Congress. The Federal Party had a distinct advantage because the Tamil Congress had suffered considerably from the stigma of its association with the UNP (which had abandoned its policy of making both Sinhala and Tamil national languages in an attempt to obtain the support of the numerically greater Sinhalese vote).

The Federal Party continued to consolidate its strength and became an important player in national politics. In 1965 the party became a component of the UNP-led coalition government by committing its bloc of parliamentary seats to the UNP, which at that time needed the Federal Party's support to form a stable parliamentary majority. In 1968 however, the Federal Party withdrew from the UNP government because its leaders were convinced that the party could no longer derive any tangible benefits from further association with the UNP. In 1970 the Federal Party campaigned independently, unlike the Tamil Congress, whose leaders called on the Tamils to join a united front with the Sinhalese.

Sri Lanka Freedom Party Rule, 1956-65

Legislation and Communal Agitation

Some of the first actions taken by the new SLFP government reflected a disturbing insensitivity to minority concerns. Shortly after its victory, the new government presented parliament with the Official Language Act, which declared Sinhala the one official language. The act was passed and immediately caused a reaction among Tamils, who perceived their language, culture, and economic position to be under attack.

The passage of the Official Language Act precipitated a current of antagonism between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. The Sri Lankan Tamils, represented by the Federal Party, launched a satyagraha (nonviolent protest) that resulted in a pact between S.V.R.D. Bandaranaike and S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. The agreement provided a wide measure of Tamil autonomy in Northern and Eastern provinces. It also provided for the use of the Tamil language in administrative matters. The BandaranaikeChelvanayakam Pact also promised that "early consideration" would be extended to Indian "plantation" Tamils on the question of Sri Lankan citizenship. But the pact was not carried out because of a peaceful protest by Buddhist clergy, who, with support from the UNP, denounced the pact as a "betrayal of Sinhalese-Buddhist people."

In May 1958, a rumor that a Tamil had killed a Sinhalese sparked off nationwide communal riots. Hundreds of people, mostly Tamils, died. This disturbance was the first major episode of communal violence on the island since independence. The riots left a deep psychological scar between the two major ethnic groups. The government declared a state of emergency and forcibly relocated more than 25,000 Tamil refugees from Sinhalese areas to Tamil areas in the north.

Populist Economic Policies

The Bandaranaike government actively expanded the public sector and broadened domestic welfare programs, including pension plans, medical care, nutrition programs, and food and fuel subsidies. This social agenda threatened to drain the nation's treasury. Other popular but economically unfeasible schemes promoted by the Bandaranaike government included restrictions on foreign investment, the nationalization of critical industries, and land reform measures that nationalized plantations and redistributed land to peasants.

When a Buddhist extremist assassinated Bandaranaike in September 1959, the nation faced a period of grave instability. The institution of parliamentary multiparty politics proved strong enough to endure, however, and orderly, constitutional actions resolved the leadership succession. The office of prime minister passed to the minister of education, Wijeyananda Dahanayake, who pledged to carry on the socialist policies of his predecessor. But policy differences and personality clashes within the ruling circle forced the new leader to dissolve Parliament in December 1959. The short-lived Dahanayake government, unable to hold Bandaranaike's coalition government together, was defeated by the UNP in the March 1960 general elections. The UNP won 33 percent of the seats in the lower house, giving the party a plurality but not a majority.

United National Party Interlude

The new prime minister, Dudley Senanayake, honored his election pledge to avoid compromise with the leftist parties and formed an all-UNP government with support from minor right-of- center parties. His overall parliamentary majority, however, was below the minimum seats required to defeat an opposition motion of no-confidence in the UNP cabinet. Less than a month after its formation, the UNP government fell. A new election was scheduled for July 1960.

Return of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party

The UNP fell because it lacked the support of any other major party in Parliament. The leftists tried to bring it down, and the Tamils withheld their support because the UNP had earlier hedged on the issue of the use of the Tamil language. Most important, the UNP had earned the reputation among Sinhalese voters of being a party inimical to Sinhalese nationalism.

Meanwhile the SLFP had grown stronger because of its unwavering support for making Sinhala the only official language. The SLFP found in the former prime minister's widow, Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias (S.R.D.) Bandaranaike, a candidate who was more capable of arousing Sinhalese emotions than Dahanayake had been in the March elections.

In the July 1960 general election, Bandaranaike was profiled as a woman who had nobly agreed to carry on the mandate of her assassinated husband. She received the support of many of the same small parties on the right and left that had temporarily joined together to form the People's United Front coalition (which had brought her husband victory in 1956). She won the election with an absolute majority in Parliament and became Sri Lanka's seventh, and the world's first woman, prime minister. The new government was in many ways the torchbearer for the ideas of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, but under his widow's direction, the SLFP carried out these ideas with such zeal and force that SinhaleseTamil relations sharply deteriorated. One of Sirimavo Bandaranaike's first official actions was to enforce the policy of Sinhala as the only officially recognized language of government. Her aggressive enforcement of this policy sparked immediate Tamil resistance, which resulted in civil disobedience in restive Northern and Eastern provinces. Bandaranaike reacted by declaring a state of emergency and curtailing Tamil political activity.

Bandaranaike also antagonized other significant minority groups, particularly the Christians. In response to a recommendation by an unofficial Buddhist commission, her government took over the management of state-assisted denominational schools. The move deprived many Christian missionary schools of support. Roman Catholic activists spearheaded demonstrations, which forced the government to reconsider some of its measures. Still, relations between the prime minister and the Christian denominations remained unstable.

Bandaranaike moved vigorously early in her administration to nationalize significant sectors of the economy, targeting industries that were under foreign control. The 1961 creation of the State Petroleum Corporation adversely affected the major petroleum companies--Shell, Esso, and Caltex. The new corporation was guaranteed 25 percent of the country's total petroleum business. Under Bandaranaike's instruction, state corporations began to import oil from new sources, effectively altering for the first time the pattern of trade that had been followed since British rule. Sri Lanka signed oil import agreements with the Soviet Union, Romania, Egypt, and other countries not traditionally involved in Sri Lankan trade. The government also put important sectors of the local economy, particularly the insurance industry, under state control. Most alarming to Bandaranaike's conservative opponents, however, were her repeated unsuccessful attempts to nationalize the largest newspaper syndicate and establish a press council to monitor the news media.

In foreign relations, Bandaranaike was faithful to her late husband's policy of "dynamic neutralism," which aimed to steer a nonaligned diplomatic stance between the superpowers. Sri Lanka exercised its new foreign policy in 1962 by organizing a conference of neutralist nations to mediate an end to the SinoIndian border war of 1962. Although the conference failed to end the war, it highlighted Sri Lanka's new role as a peacebroker and enhanced its international status.

The UNP opposition was apprehensive of Bandaranaike's leftward drift and was especially concerned about the SLFP alliance with the Trotskyite LSSP in 1964. The UNP approached the March 1965 election as a senior partner in a broad front of "democratic forces" dedicated to fight the "totalitarianism of the left." It enjoyed significant support from the Federal Party (representing Sri Lankan Tamils) and the Ceylon Workers' Congress (representing Indian Tamils).

The United National Party Regains Power, 1965-70

The UNP "national government" emerged victorious in the March 1965 elections, capturing more than 39 percent of parliamentary seats, compared to SLFP's 30.2 percent. One of the first actions of the new government, led by Senanayake, was to declare that the nation's economy was virtually bankrupt. Senanayake also announced his intention to improve relations with the United States. (In 1963 the United States had suspended aid to Sri Lanka because of Bandaranaike's nationalization of foreign oil concerns.)

The government tried to develop a mixed economy with an emphasis on the private sector. Between 1965 and 1970, private sector investment was double that of the public sector, thereby reversing the trend set in the previous administration. Despite the UNP's emphasis on the private sector, the economy generally failed to show a major improvement. This failure was partly caused by a nearly 50 percent increase in the cost of rice imports after a worldwide shortage in 1965 and a concurrent steep decline in the price of Sri Lanka's export commodities. In 1966 the UNP government was forced to declare a state of emergency to ward off food riots. Senanayake reduced the subsidized weekly rice ration by half. The reduction remained in effect throughout the remainder of the "national government" period and contributed greatly to UNP's defeat in the 1970 general elections.

The UNP paid more attention to Buddhist sensitivities than it had in the past, and in an effort to widen the party's popularity, it replaced the Christian sabbath with the Buddhist poya full-moon holiday. This action satisfied Buddhist activists but alienated the small but powerful Roman Catholic lobby. The UNP also tried to earn favor with the Tamils by enacting the Tamil Regulations in 1966, which were designed to make Tamil a language officially "parallel" to Sinhala in Tamilspeaking regions. Sinhalese activists immediately expressed hostility toward the Tamil Regulations. Civil violence ensued, and the government was forced to proclaim a state of emergency that lasted for most of the year.

United Front Rule and Emerging Violence, 1970-77

In order to prepare for the 1970 general election, Sirimavo Bandaranaike formed a coalition in 1968 with the LSSP and CPSL to oppose the UNP. The new three-party United Front (Samagi Peramuna) announced that it would work toward a "people's government" under the leadership of Bandaranaike and that it would follow a so-called Common Programme, which promised radical structural changes, including land reform, increased rice subsidies, and nationalization of local and foreign banks.

The United Front resurrected communal emotionalism as a timely and potent campaign weapon. It attacked the UNP for its alliance with the two main Tamil political groups, the Federal Party and the Ceylon Workers' Congress. At the same time, the United Front also announced that it would adopt a new constitution to make Sri Lanka a republic and that it would restore "Buddhism to its rightful place." The United Front won 118 of the 135 seats it contested, with the SLFP, the biggestsingle party, winning 90 seats, the LSSP 19, seats and the CPSL 6 seats. The UNP won a meager seventeen seats.

The United Front government moved quickly to implement key features of its Common Programme. The philosophy of the coalition government was seen most transparently from its foreign and economic policies. The United Front issued declarations that it followed a nonaligned path; opposed imperialism, colonialism, and racism; and supported national liberation movements. The government quickly extended diplomatic relations to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (then North Vietnam), the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam. It also pledged to suspend recognition of Israel. In economic matters, the United Front vowed to put private enterprise in a subsidiary role.

Prime Minister Bandaranaike tolerated the radical left at first and then lost control of it. Sensing mounting unrest, the government declared a state of emergency in March 1971. In April, the People's Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna--JVP), a Maoist and primarily rural Sinhalese youth movement claiming a membership of more than 10,000, began a "blitzkrieg" operation to take over the government "within 24 hours." The JVP followed a program--known as the Five Lectures--that included an agenda to deal with "Indian expansionism," the island's unstable economic situation, and the inability of the traditionalist leftist leadership to assert power or attract widespread support (an allusion to the LSSP and the CPSL). The JVP threatened to take power by extraparliamentary means. Fierce fighting erupted in the north-central, south-central, and southern rural districts of the island, causing an official estimate of 1,200 dead. Unofficial tallies of the number of dead were much higher. The JVP came perilously close to overthrowing the government but the military finally suppressed the movement and imprisoned JVP's top leadership and about 16,000 suspected insurgents.

In May 1972, the United Front followed through on its 1970 campaign promise to promulgate a new constitution to make Sri Lanka a republic. Under the new constitution, the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government were vested in the National State Assembly. Many important and vocal sectors of society opposed this concentration of power. The 1972 constitution disturbed the UNP, which feared an authoritarian government might emerge because of the new document. The UNP was especially alarmed that a Trotskyite, Dr. Colvin de Silva (Bandaranaike's minister of constitutional affairs), had drafted the constitution.

The distinct lack of protection for the rights of minorities in the new constitution dismayed many sectors of the population. The Tamils were especially disturbed because the 1972 constitution contained no elements of federalism. Instead, a newly conferred status for Buddhism replaced the provisions for minorities provided by Article 29 in the 1948 constitution. The constitution also sanctioned measures that discriminated against Tamil youth in university admissions. Tamil youth were particularly irked by the "standardization" policy that Bandaranaike's government introduced in 1973. The policy made university admissions criteria lower for Sinhalese than for Tamils. The Tamil community--the Federal Party, the Tamil Congress, and other Tamil organizations--reacted collectively against the new atmosphere the new constitution produced, and in May 1972, they founded the Tamil United Front (which became the Tamil United Liberation Front--TULF--in 1976).

By the mid-1970s, the antagonism between the right and left was destroying the United Front coalition. The growing political influence of the right wing led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike's son, Anura, precipitated the expulsion of the LSSP from the United Front in September 1975. The withdrawal of the CPSL in 1977 further weakened the coalition.

The United National Party Returns to Power

After Dudley Senanayake died in 1973, a struggle for the leadership of the UNP ensued between his nephew, Rukman Senanayake, and Junius Richard (J.R.) Jayewardene, a more distant relative. Jayewardene had been involved in politics for years, having been elected to the State Council, the parliament's colonial predecessor, as early as 1943. A leader of the UNP since independence, Jayewardene had deferred to the Senanayake family. But in 1970, when the UNP suffered a resounding defeat to the United Front, Jayewardene became more assertive. His party manifesto--The UNP in Opposition, 1970--contended that the majority of Sri Lankans perceived the party as the party of the "haves, the affluent, and the employers." He also contended that the people had come to perceive the SLFP as the party of the "have nots, the needy, and the unemployed." Jayewardene moved forcefully to refurbish UNP's image and announced that the party would inaugurate an era of a just and righteous (dharmishta) society. After becoming president of the party, Jayewardene began to restructure the UNP and make the party more attractive, especially to young people. By the time of the general election of 1977, Jayewardene had developed an extensive grass roots party organization.

Election of 1977 and More Violence

After molding the UNP around his personality and having successfully built up the party's infrastructure, Jayewardene easily became prime minister. The UNP won an unprecedented landslide victory in the 1977 elections, winning 140 of 168 seats. The SLFP was reduced to eight seats. The Sri Lankan Tamils, however, gave little support to Jayewardene or any other non-Tamil politician. The Sri Lankan Tamils entered the parliamentary election fray under the banner of TULF, which had elevated its earlier demand for regional self-rule to a demand for an independent state, or Eelam (see Glossary). TULF became the largest opposition party in Parliament and captured all fourteen seats in the heavily Tamil Northern Province and four east coast seats. TULF won in every constituency with a Tamil majority on the island, except one. In Jaffna District, TULF candidates won all eleven seats, although forty-seven other candidates contested the seats. TULF originally included the largest Indian (plantation) Tamil political organization, the Ceylon Workers' Congress, but after the 1977 election, the leader of the Ceylon Workers' Congress accepted a cabinet post in the UNP government. The Sri Lankan Tamil demand for Tamil Eelam had never been of central concern to the Indian Tamils, who lived mostly outside the territory being claimed for the Tamil state.

The opportunities for peace that the 1977 UNP electoral victory provided were soon lost. Just before the 1977 elections, Chelvanayakam, the charismatic leader of TULF, died, leaving the party without strong leadership. A Tamil separatist underground (which had split into six or more rival and sometimes violently hostile groups that were divided by ideology, caste, and personal antagonisms) was filling the vacuum left by the weakened TULF and was gaining the allegiance of an increasing number of disenchanted Tamil youths. These groups were known collectively as the Tamil Tigers. The strongest of these separatists were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), founded in 1972 by Velupillai Prabhakaran. The LTTE was responsible for some of the earliest and most gruesome acts of Tamil terrorism (see the Tamil Insurgency , ch. 5). The LTTE first gained notoriety by its 1975 assassination of the mayor of Jaffna, a supporter of the SLFP. During the 1977 elections, many Tamil youths began to engage in extraparliamentary and sometimes violent measures in their bid for a mandate for a separate state. These measures precipitated a Sinhalese backlash. An apparently false rumor that Sinhalese policemen had died at the hands of Tamil terrorists, combined with other rumors of alleged anti-Sinhalese statements made by Tamil politicians, sparked brutal communal rioting that engulfed the island within two weeks of the new government's inauguration. The rioting marked the first major outbreak of communal violence in the nineteen years since the riots of 1958. Casualties were many, especially among Tamils, both the Sri Lankan Tamils of Jaffna and the Indian Tamil plantation workers. The Tamil Refugee Rehabilitation Organization estimated the death toll at 300.

Constitution of 1978

After coming to power, Jayewardene directed the rewriting of the constitution. The document that was produced, the new Constitution of 1978, drastically altered the nature of governance in Sri Lanka. It replaced the previous Westminsterstyle , parliamentary government with a new presidential system modeled after France, with a powerful chief executive. The president was to be elected by direct suffrage for a six-year term and was empowered to appoint, with parliamentary approval, the prime minister and to preside over cabinet meetings. Jayewardene became the first president under the new Constitution and assumed direct control of the government machinery and party.

The new regime ushered in an era that did not auger well for the SLFP. Jayewardene's UNP government accused former prime minister Bandaranaike of abusing her power while in office from 1970 to 1977. In October 1980, Bandaranaike's privilege to engage in politics was removed for a period of seven years, and the SLFP was forced to seek a new leader. After a long and divisive battle, the party chose her son, Anura. Anura Bandaranaike was soon thrust into the role of the keeper of his father's legacy, but he inherited a political party torn apart by factionalism and reduced to a minimal role in the Parliament.

The 1978 Constitution included substantial concessions to Tamil sensitivities. Although TULF did not participate in framing the Constitution, it continued to sit in Parliament in the hope of negotiating a settlement to the Tamil problem. TULF also agreed to Jayewardene's proposal of an all-party conference to resolve the island's ethnic problems. Jayewardene's UNP offered other concessions in a bid to secure peace. Sinhala remained the official language and the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka, but Tamil was given a new "national language" status. Tamil was to be used in a number of administrative and educational circumstances. Jayewardene also eliminated a major Tamil grievance by abrogating the "standardization" policy of the United Front government, which had made university admission criteria for Tamils more difficult. In addition, he offered many top-level positions, including that of minister of justice, to Tamil civil servants.

While TULF, in conjunction with the UNP, pressed for the allparty conference, the Tamil Tigers escalated their terrorist attacks, which provoked Sinhalese backlash against Tamils and generally precluded any successful accommodation. In reaction to the assassination of a Jaffna police inspector, the Jayewardene government declared an emergency and dispatched troops, who were given an unrealistic six months to eradicate the terrorist threat.

The government passed the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act in 1979. The act was enacted as a temporary measure, but it later became permanent legislation. The International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, and other human rights organizations condemned the act as being incompatible with democratic traditions. Despite the act, the number of terrorist acts increased. Guerrillas began to hit targets of high symbolic value such as post offices and police outposts, provoking government counterattacks. As an increasing number of civilians were caught in the fighting, Tamil support widened for the "boys," as the guerrillas began to be called. Other large, well-armed groups began to compete with LTTE. The better-known included the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam, Tamil Eelam Liberation Army, and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization. Each of these groups had forces measured in the hundreds if not thousands. The government claimed that many of the terrorists were operating from training camps in India's Tamil Nadu State. The Indian government repeatedly denied this claim. With the level of violence mounting, the possibility of negotiation became increasingly distant.

The Riots of 1981

In June 1981, local elections were held in the north to elect members of the newly established district development councils. TULF had decided to participate and work in the councils. In doing so, TULF continued to work toward autonomy for the Tamil areas. Extremists within the separatist movement, however, adamantly opposed working within the existing political framework. They viewed participation in the elections as compromising the objective of a separate state. Shortly before the elections, the leading candidate of the UNP was assassinated as he left a political rally. The sporadic communal violence that persisted over the following three months foreshadowed the devastating communal riots of 1983. When elections were held a few days later, concomitant charges of voting irregularities and mishandling of ballots created the nation's first election scandal since the introduction of universal suffrage fifty years earlier.

Presidential Election of 1982

TULF decided to boycott the 1982 presidential elections, partly in reaction to the harsh Prevention of Terrorism Act and partly in response to pressures exerted by Tamil extremists. Only 46 percent of the voters in Jaffna District turned out. In Sinhalese districts, 85 percent of voters turned out. Increasing violence by Tamil youths in the north and east of the island accompanied the call for a Tamil Eelam. The rising level of violence in 1983 led the government to pass a sixth amendment to the Constitution, which specifically banned talk of separatism. All sixteen TULF members of parliament were expelled for refusing to recite a loyalty oath, thus removing a critical channel for mediation.

The Riots of July 1983

In July 1983, the most savage communal riots in Sri Lanka's history erupted. Conservative government estimates put the death toll at 400-- mostly Tamils. At least 150,000 Tamil fled the island. The riots began in retaliation for an ambush of an army patrol in the north that left thirteen Sinhalese soldiers dead. The army was reputed to have killed sixty Tamil civilians in Jaffna, but most of the violence occurred in Colombo, where Sinhalese mobs looked for Tamil shops to destroy. More than any previous ethnic riot on the island, the 1983 riots were marked by their highly organized mob violence. Sinhalese rioters in Colombo used voter lists containing home addresses to make precise attacks on the Tamil community. From Colombo, the anti-Tamil violence fanned out to the entire island. The psychological effects of this violence on Sri Lanka's complex and divided society were still being assessed in the late 1980s. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the communal rioting, a selfevident truth was that the island's history, and the complexity of its society, had a portentous message for the present: Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans were fated by history and geography to coexist in close proximity. This coexistence could be discordant or amicable, and examples of both could be drawn from Sri Lanka's history. It was a message, however, whose meaning was forgotten as the ethnic communities were drawn increasingly into a vortex of rancor and violence that made the restoration of harmony a persistently elusive goal for the Sri Lankan government.  

Informative general histories of Sri Lanka include K.M. de Silva's A History of Sri Lanka, E.F.C. Ludowyk's A Short History of Ceylon, Zeylanicus's Ceylon, S. Arasaratnam's Ceylon, and Chandra Richard de Silva's Sri Lanka: A History. Source books on medieval history are Wilhelm Geiger's translations of the Pali chronicles, the Mahavamsa and Culavamsa, and the comprehensive The Early History of Ceylon by G.C. Mendis. Highly informative for the study of modern political events and ethnic disturbances are S.J. Tambiah's Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide, and the Dismantling of Democracy, A. Jeyaratnam Wilson's Politics in Sri Lanka, and Government and Politics in South Asia by Craig Baxter, Yogendra K. Malik, Charles  H. Kennedy, and Robert C. Oberst.

@ the Library of Congress


WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka