Coming to terms with our common history – III
Posted on March 25th, 2015

By Rohana R. Wasala

(This is the concluding part of the article)

It is known that although it has been traditionally described as the country of the Sinhalese (Sinhale/Si:hala/Ceylao/ Ceylan/Ceylon, etc), in its long recorded history of more than two thousand three hundred years it has been ruled as a single entity only on a few occasions after the very beginning such as under kings Dutu Gemunu (161-137 BCE), Vijayabahu I (1055-1110 CE), Parakrabahu I (1153-1186 CE) and Nissanka Malla (1187-1196 CE), and Parakrabahu VI of Kotte (1411-1466 CE), and also under the British after 1815. By the time of the advent of Europeans at the beginning of the 16th century, the country had been totally disintegrated. However, until the cession of the Kingdom of Sinhale to the British in the form of the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815, the Sinhalese kingdom, wherever it was located, remained the principal centre of sovereignty over the whole island (at least in theory if not in practice). The state religion of the Sinhalese kingdom being Buddhism, a tradition evolved in which the possession of the Tooth Relic was considered a prerequisite for a person to establish their claim on the throne. At an early stage of the 1818 Kandyan revolt the Tooth Relic was removed by some bhikkhus to a secret location away from the Dalada Maligawa which was then in the hands of the British, the new rulers. The recovery of the sacred object by the British was regarded by Kandyans of all classes, according to Robert Brownrigg the governor as a sign of the destiny of the British people to rule the Kandyans” (K.M. de Silva, pp.305-6). The retrieval of the Tooth relic was considered infinitely more significant than even the capture of Keppetipola and Madugalle, the rebel leaders.

Magha (1214-1235) invaded Sri Lanka about twenty years after Nissanka Malla’s death.

Before the mantle of Kingdom of Sinhale subsequently fell on it, the Kandyan kingdom was one of the two peripheral centres of royal power that emerged following the break up and chaos caused in the principal Sinhalese kingdom at Polonnaruwa by the unprecedented destruction brought about by Magha of Kalinga’s invasion which is traditionally regarded as the climacteric in the deracination of Sri Lanka’s hydraulic civilization” (de Siva, p.109).

The other kingdom on the periphery was the Jaffna kindom in the north. After the invader Magha was expelled from Polonnaruwa, he moved to the northern region and helped found a Tamil kingdom there with the help of the Kerala and Tamil mercenaries in the 13th century. Historians agree that there isn’t enough evidence to establish the claim that there were permanent Tamil settlements in northern Sri Lanka before the 10th century. The Jaffna kingdom flourished in the early part of the 14th century, remained independent till it was conquered by the principal Sinhalese kingdom under Parakramabahu VI of Kotte, who installed his adopted son Sapumal Kumaraya as the king of Jaffna. But ten years or so after Parakramabahu’s death, Jaffna regained its independence, and retained it until it lost it again, this time for good, in 1620 when it was conquered by the Portuguese. The Kandyan kingdom had a much longer duration and a very distinguished history in the 17th century and after (de Silva, pp. 117, 127).

The British brought the country under one rule in 1815. Imperial rule privileged some people over others. Although at the beginning, those who started clamouring for freedom from foreign rule did not think in terms of race distinctions, soon these assumed importance. In a powerless situation, it was easy to make a show of unity. Under the British, membership of an elite class close to the rulers guaranteed privilege, and even power to a certain extent. Foreign occupation played havoc with the traditional social, political, and economic structures based on caste and the rajakariya system of land tenure, which became obsolescent with the introduction of cash crops. Opportunity to participate in businesses and professions meant access to riches and favours. It so happened that the minorities stood to gain more than the majority in the special circumstances that emerged. The rulers saw to it that English education gave the minorities an edge over the majority in government employment and business. They wanted to ensure that the privileges that they (at least the elite of those communities) were enjoying remained intact when laws were introduced to gradually return the burden of government to the natives. Mr G.G. Ponnambalam, the then leader of the Tamil Congress, appeared before the Soulbury Commission which had been appointed in the 1940’s by the British government to go into the question of granting independence to Sri Lanka, to demand parity of representation in a future parliament between the Sinhalese majority and all the minorities as a bloc. Not surprisingly, the commissioners pooh-poohed the idea. It was the same Ponnambalam who initiated the ‘Mahavansa bashing’. It is also well known that the passage of the free education bill was blocked for years  in the State Council due to resistance from representatives of the privileged class. The Sinhalese majority have always been victims rather than perpetrators of racism.

No one is so stupid as to suggest that for tackling present day problems we need to go back to pre-independence times or further back to the time before the Magha invasion. Now it is time that we, heirs to a common history, all got together and developed this country which is our common home. The people already live in harmony. Reconciliation is yet to take place among the politicians; they can come together if they love their people. Since 1948, especially since 1956, we have made progress amidst difficulties overcoming roadblocks mounted by a handful of reactionaries  who hark back to the privileges their class had enjoyed under the foreign yoke at the expense of the common people. Of course, the ordinary masses cannot be said to have emerged from hell to a paradise. But now they are free to decide their own future, though this freedom is being temporarily tampered with by anti-national elements.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), a Founding Father of America, the principal author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, and the third president of the USA wrote that  in his newly independent country school education should be chiefly historical. He held that people are the real guardians of their own freedom. According to him, by appraising them of the past, history will enable them to judge of the future, and also help them to learn from the experiences of other times and other nations; history will qualify students of history as judges of the actions and designs of persons.

There are problems, some of them of our own making, but we have the freedom to think out solutions as a nation. There is corruption, crime, and all other imaginable ills that can afflict a society. It is easy to criticise these, but it’s not so easy to find remedies. Politicians are adept at the business of criticism only when they are in the opposition. They, in fact, capitalise on these problems to get elected to power, and when in power they don’t mind being criticised for the same failings. This may be an unavoidable concomitant of power politics. But I think, a single party or a coalition of parties, or a single individual, however talented or committed, cannot put things right unless assisted by those who are waiting to criticise them. Whatever party comes to power, these problems will continue so long as politicians refuse to cooperate with one another in solving them jointly in the pure national interest.

Certain progressive reforms introduced in independent Sri Lanka were of no use to certain earlier privileged sections. They migrated to rich countries in search of greener pastures. Their places were taken by the less privileged who were left behind. Brain drain happens even now, perhaps on a higher scale than before. It’s a problem too for a developing country. What it means is that poor countries train workers for rich countries, very often free of charge. But we can’t blame it on the reforms that really benefited the country.

About the foreign nations’ attitude to our country, the governments do what they think is best for the country in terms of their policies. Now, we have to deal with many countries in the world, because Sri Lanka is a sovereign nation interacting with other sovereign nations in the world. But a few of these have a special claim on our attention or let’s say our cooperation on the basis of neighbourliness, history, trade, politics, etc.  Among the critical powers we are required to deal with, let’s take just three: the US, India, and China. We must please all three. However much we may wish to keep them equally happy, we cannot humanly do so, because they are at logger heads among themselves in view of  their own divergent national interests. Naturally, the country is being called upon to perform an impossible task in this context. The leaders are obliged to act in the best interest of our own country while managing to accommodate the concerns of those countries, using a bit of manipulation and brinkmanship. Sri Lankans criticise the West. I think that’s alright. Of course, those Western powers that unfairly try to interfere in our internal affairs will try to take their revenge, though we mean little to them. We too have what is called a sense of national dignity ( in spite of the indignities that ignorant politicians inflict on us for gaining narrow ends).

I believe that we Sri Lankans can think. Possessing a history and celebrating it is not atavistic regression. Historians are specialists who have historical information and who can analyse it critically. American educator and literary critic E.D. Hirsch Jr. (b. 1928) writes: There is a great deal of evidence, indeed a consensus in cognitive psychology, that people who are able to think independently about unfamiliar problems and who are broad-gauged problem-solvers, critical thinkers, and lifelong learners are, without exception, well-informed people”.  He also writes: The distance between one historical period and another is a very small step in comparison to the huge metaphysical gap we must leap to understand the perspective of another person in any time or place.”


Not everything is right at the present time. There are many problems to be solved. But most of our leaders mean well, though there are some who should think better than they do at present and act in a manner we can approve of. We want all our politicians to put the national interest above mere politics and individual self interest. Most important, more young people of both sexes must be inducted into politics. The media savvy young voters must make better and more informed choices in the future. The new young politicians should be capable of thinking in a way that will eventually lead to a country where ethnicity, religion, language, culture and all other things that could divide us if mishandled become the shining facets of a polyhedral diamond of a peaceful nation. (Concluded)


One Response to “Coming to terms with our common history – III”

  1. Nimal Says:

    I don’t agree with some points in this article. It’s not stupid to go before the pre independence time of the colonial types.Prior to the colonial times we never had the privileges of schools,hopitals,court houses,katcheries,roads and the Kandy perahara for the humble people. Our tyrannical kings never did that for the people but for themselves. Now we have gone a full circle to the dark ages where the leaders and their close bunch matters and people too are humbled and corrupted since the independence to accept the substandard lives we lived prior to 1815.
    Accountability and good governance and even tolerance is concept that is now practised in the western democracies Strangely it’s these ex colonials who are our guardians of our human rights that is usually violated by the third world leaders where law of the jungle is constantly practised. Very reason why people wants to escape to West but our leaders knows that but couldn’t care less but shamelessly join this exodus with a loot robbed from the poor countries they are suppose to serve. I see a few near my house having the last laugh, hope not for long.The West who send their children to Africa to save innocent mankind from famine and ebola will realize the causes and turn on the culprits that have taken shelter in their county. Even my business is under scrutiny and I am nothing to worry as I have earned honestly therefore I don’t have to worry..

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