Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2967

The History of Sri Lanka

Reviewed by Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz of Temple University, Philadelphia

Sri Lanka (known Ceylon till 1972) has a long and rich history. The island, however, gained global attention in recent years, particularly for its deadly ethnic civil war and the tsunami that swept the shores of Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004 killing over 30,000 people. These and other developments require impartial academic inquiry, and Peebles’ research on the key events and activities of Sri Lanka daring from the early human settlements and socio-political activities of 28,000 B.C.E to the present is therefore timely and informative. Therefore, it is a prudent academic exercise and the appropriate time for someone, like Patrick Peebles to conduct a study from dated from till early 2006.

Peebles mainly focuses on how the key political decisions and choices made by the political actors affect the polity and relations between different ethnic groups. In the early chapters of the book, Peebles explains the complex relationships which existed between the Southern kingdoms and the Northern kingdom dominated by the Sinhalese and the Tamils, respectively, in the pre-colonial history.

Peebles then goes on to evaluate the processes and events which led to the demise of different indigenous political systems in the North and South of the island, and developments in the Western colonial society, particularly the British handlings of ethnic identities of the local people. Some assumed that the presence of the Western colonial system could ease ethnic tensions. However, colonial Sri Lanka proved otherwise, particularly during the British administration (1798-1948). As Peebles noted, some key British policies exacerbated ethnic tensions “emphasizing differences between ethnic groups,” and disproportionately allocating resources and opportunities to a certain ethnic group (p.67).

Peebles’ observations on post-independence Sri Lanka occupy the chapters from 8-13. They are more appealing and help readers understand how modernization efforts led by the Sinhala political class rather than narrowing ethnic disharmony generated ethnic tensions and distrust. Modernization can breed progress. However, when political leaders abuse the system or manipulate ethnic differences, modernization would likely produce blood rather than bread. Postcolonial Sri Lanka proves this scenario, and Peebles confirms such understanding.

In 1956, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) systematically mobilized a much more homogeneous Sinhala bloc than the liberal leaning United National Party (UNP) had ever focused on and favored the Sinhala Only as the official language with a reasonable use of Tamil (p. 105). The Sinhalese, particularly urban entrepreneurs, the rural petty-bourgeoisie, school teachers, village physicians, notaries, and village monks supported Bandaranayke. They felt that the minority Tamil community had taken an unfair share of power during the British Colonial administration by profiting from the opportunities for an English education which was available to them. Ironically, the leaders of the ethnic Moors (Muslims), whose members were the mostly Tamil-speakers, enthusiastically supported the Sinhala-Only official language policy. In 1956, the UNP adopted the Sinhala-Only policy and voted with the government (p.105). As far as the minority Tamils were concerned, Sinhalanization of the island eroded their trust in the impartial delivery of Sinhalese controlled state and its institutions.
(start from here)

Peebles eloquently examines how the post-1956 political, economic and social developments, particularly after 1970, shaped the island years to come. The agendas of the Sinhala political class such as 1972 constitution, which included articles entrenching foremost place and state patronage for Buddhism and re-affirmed the pre-eminence of the Sinhalese language in all aspects of public life, and anti-Tamil education policies, had radically affected Sri Lanka polity. Also, such measures discouraged the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led by S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, which believed that the Tamils could win justice and peace without jeopardizing the unity of Sri Lanka. Sadly, Peebles notes that Sinhalese political establishment swindled the Tamil democratic voices. Thus, it encouraged some Tamils to adopt violence to seek a separate state (p.115). Also, it pressured some Tamil politicians to openly support the Tamil extremists and their programs (p. 127). On May 5, 1976 Vellupillai Prabakaran formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Sri Lanka’s economy is struggling to survive. Foreign investors share deep concerns over the chaos and instability. They expect warring parties freeze the differences and seek political solutions. However, efforts to seek political solutions, particularly since 1995, subjected to the attacks by the Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalists (p.171). As Pebbles correctly observes, devolution and power-sharing could strengthen Sri Lanka’s democracy, war-ridden economy, and ethnic harmony, in other words, they can aid Sri Lanka to realize its long beautiful dream- Singapore of South Asia.

Peebles, as an expert of modern history of Sri Lanka, offers thoughtful and impartial investigation into the key events of history and their implications. This book is a must read, therefore, I strongly recommend the book to students, academics, and for general reading to understand the island of Sri Lanka.

(The History of Sri Lanka by Patrick Peebles, Westport, Connecticut.: Greenwood Press, 2004. 216pp.)

- Asian Tribune -

Share this