Japan’s bombing of Colombo on April 5, 1942 advanced the date of independence of Sri Lanka from British Colonial rule  – Time for a new narrative
Posted on April 4th, 2016

By Senaka Weeraratna

After the guns fell silent in 1848 with the crushing of the Matale rebellion (a battle for independence on the part of the patriotic people of the country) it took another ninety four years for guns to be fired in a planned effort to end British occupation of Sri Lanka. This time the trigger on the guns was pressed not by locals but by a foreign power – Japan.

Japan’s bombing of British occupied Colombo on April 05, 1942 is a landmark event in Sri Lanka’s long march for freedom since the entry of the Portuguese to this country in 1505. Within six years of this bombing raid Sri Lanka was granted independence.  Though portrayed in negative terms by colonial and pro – western writers new narratives are now emerging from independent Asian commentators who refuse to look at Japan’s entry to the war from the perspective of a colonial or surrogate mind set.

In fact, Sri Lanka like much of the rest of Asia owe a huge debt to Japan for advancing the dates of independence of Asian nations from western colonial rule.

The people of Sri Lanka were dragged into this war as well as the First World War by the occupying power without consultation or consent. The British Government merely informed the people that they were at war. Hundreds of local people died fighting as soldiers for causes that were foreign to their bones.

Nevertheless Sri Lanka has benefited immensely from the blood sacrifices of Japanese and fellow Asians though our leaders and mainstream media have yet to concede this fact in public. Public discussions in the mass media are tightly orchestrated and usually one sided. Today the excitement and diversity of views come from mainly the social media and not the print media which have hardly much to offer in terms of editorial content and leadership. De – colonization of the media would be in the best interests of every one rather than clinging on to and mindlessly pushing the western discourse  on Human Rights which is unconvincing to say the least and has lost its public appeal, given  the glaring hypocrisy and double standards of the leading proponents. 

It must be said categorically that the British Empire would have clung on to its colonial possessions in Asia for a much longer time, if Japan did not make aggressive war against the West in Asia with the support of the colonized people of Asia, and drive fear into the colonial west of the dangers of continuing with european colonial rule East of the Suez Canal. 

This was the only language that the imperial west understood and grudgingly respected. At the beginning of the Second World War in 1939 almost all of Asia and the whole of Africa were under the jack boot of western colonialism except for two countries, namely Japan and Thailand. 500 years of colonialism had de – formed and demoralized people all over the world. They were yearning for independence from foreign control and occupation.

When Jawaharlal Nehru was asked in the late 1930s, how long he thought it would take for India to gain its independence from British colonial rule he had expressed the hope that it might be achieved in the 1970s. That is long after the time of Gandhi, Nehru and other pioneering freedom fighters of India.

But independence came much before that time i.e. in the late 1940s a) India in 1947, and b) Burma and Ceylon in 1948.

What was the factor that triggered the hastening of independence for both South East Asia and South Asia?

The simple answer is Japan’s entry into the Second World War.

On December 7, 1941 Japan bombed Pearl Harbour triggering a chain of events that ended the dream of western colonial nations to occupy large parts of Asia for an indefinite period of time.  

Had Japan minded its own business the spin doctors of the West would have then given a self – serving interpretation to the ground situation, saying that people of Asia were grateful to the West for bringing notions of civilization to the East and therefore they were quite content to allow things to continue i.e. the West to rule, without a major challenge.

Japan had a clear cut war cry  ‘Asia for Asians’ and was the only country in the world that had openly said that ‘We will liberate Asia from Western colonial domination’ and fought unreservedly under that banner.

Awakened by the example set by Japan, the peoples of Asia then rose up and fought valiantly to achieve independence from the British, Dutch and French.

Japan’s decision to wage war to liberate Asia had a simple logic and rationale.

If it was correct and in order for Britain and France to declare war on Germany because of its attacks on Poland in Sept. 1939 which triggered the second world war, why would it be wrong if Japan were to declare war on western countries illegally occupying Asian countries? The goal is the same – to drive out the foreign invader from occupied territories.

Japan had another rationale – a more deep seated one. To prevent Western and Christian expansionism in Asia under the misguided belief of ‘Manifest Destiny’ which originally provided the ideological framework for the decimation of Red Indian races and forced occupation of their lands in North America.

Sri Lanka’s independence obtained without a people centred military struggle

Of all the significant countries in Asia perhaps the only country that did not have a liberation army or militant group to fight for the country’s independence was Sri Lanka. The last shot for independence was fired in Matale in 1848. Once the guns fell silent and effective resistance ended the subject people of the country had to wait for the creation of an appropriate external environment and entry of a foreign power to dislodge the pre –existing foreign occupier.

The external environment conducive to achievement of independence came in the form of the Second World War and the foreign power was Japan.

Japan struck the greatest decisive blow ever by any non – white country or non – white people to European power in Asia with the attack on Pearl Harbour.  In about 90 days beginning on 8 December 1941, Japan in a series of lightening strikes similar to Hitler’s Blitzkreig in France and the Low Countries of Europe i.e. Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg,  in May 1940, overran the possessions of Britain, the US and the Netherlands in east and south-east Asia, taking the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies, much of Siam and French Indochina, and Burma with bewildering swiftness to stand poised at the borders of India by early 1942.

Sinhale or Sinhaladipa (Island of Sinhala people) was the historical name prior to the entry of the Portuguese in 1505.

The Portuguese era ended in 1658 when the King of Kandy King Rajasinghe II successfully obtained the assistance of a foreign power i.e. Dutch, to expel the Portuguese. The Dutch ruled the coastal areas of Sri Lanka from 1658 to 1796 until they in turn were succeeded by another foreign power i.e. Britain, at the invitation of the King of Kandy.

Independence from foreign rule can never be won on a platter. There are enough examples from foreign countries to substantiate this point. In USA George Washington led an army of liberation to free the country from British Colonial rule. In Italy the anti – papal Garibaldi has a legendary status largely because of his involvement in wars of liberation on behalf of Italy.  Closer to home, India had a non – violent movement led by Gandhi and Nehru, and a national liberation movement i.e. Indian National Army, led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose which fought as an Ally of Japan in the Second World War.

Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam), Aung San (Burma), Sukarno (Indonesia) are revered figures in Asia for the heroic and courageous stand they took in leading insurgent movements against foreign occupation. There is no such comparable figure in Sri Lanka’s contemporary history. The closet figure to such legendary status is Anagarika Dharmapala, a global icon reputed largely for his worldwide Buddhist missionary work. He was the first Global Buddhist missionary in the world.

Sadly the people we project as national heroes are not comparable to the great leaders of Asia, for the simple reason that they (the former) happen to be people who also sought favours, titles, high level employment from the colonial Government. They always had one foot in both camps.  The extent of self – sacrifice for a larger national cause was conspicuous by its absence. The colonial administration never felt threatened by their campaigns.

Japan in the eyes of Asia at the beginning of the 20th century


Left to right 

Mahatma Gandhi and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose formed the INA—the Indian National Army. Bose fought in battle as a commander unlike the leaders of the Indian Congress e.g. Gandhi who campaigned against British colonial occupation using Ahimsa and Satyagraha, a non-violence philosophy.

Bose collaborated with both Germany and Japan and he arrived in Japan in May 1943.  In a public speech given in Japan he summed up the feeling of Asian people at that time.

He said, When I started going to elementary school, a country of Asian race fought against one of the world’s largest white empires, Russia. This Asian country defeated Russia completely. And this country was Japan. When this news reached all across India, a wave of excitement covered the entire land. At every corner of my country, people enthusiastically talked about the Battle of Port Arthur, the Battle of Mukden, and the thrilling story of the Battle of Tsushima.”

Adding further he said Indian children honestly adored Admiral Togo and General Nogi. Parents competed to buy the pictures of Admiral Togo and General Nogi in vain. Instead, they bought something Japanese from the market and ornamented their houses with Japanese things”

Bose emphatically said, Japan was the ‘Light of Hope’ for Asia.”

He further continued, This time, Japan declared war against Britain, long time enemy of India. Japan has given us the best opportunity to be independent. We realize its significance and thank Japan from the bottom of our hearts.  Once we miss this opportunity, we would not be able to have the same opportunity for another 100 years or more.”

In 1943, the Greater East Asia Conference was held from November 5 for 6 days in Tokyo. This was the first International Summit of colored races in the long history of human beings. As a matter of note the Bandung Conference held in Indonesia in 1955 under the watch of President Sukarno was the second such Conference.

Prime Minister Hideki Tojo of Japan met leaders from other Asian countries: Ahang Jinghui (Prime Minister of Manchuria), Wang Jingwei (Chairman of the Nanking Government), Jose P Laurel (President of Philippines), Ba Maw (Prime Minister of Burma), Prince Wan Waithayakon (Acting Prime Minister of Thailand) gathered together. Subhas Chandra Bose attended as a representative of India.

Unfortunately there was no representative from Sri Lanka to attend this first International Conference of Asians focused on winning freedom for subject peoples.

At the Conference, the Great East Asian Joint Declaration was adopted unanimously.

In a historical context, it is important to note that it was Japan that first proposed the abolition of racial discrimination at the Paris Conference held shortly after the end of WWI.

When a proposal for abolition of racial discrimination was tabled the then Prime Minister Hughes of Australia had left the conference room saying he would reject signature and return home.

Britain, America, Poland, Brazil and Rumania had opposed it.  However 11 countries, mostly minor, out of 16 countries attending voted for the Japanese proposal. Thus the proposal won a majority and was approved.

In Indonesia, colonial rule began when the Dutch occupied Indonesia in 1596.

Nearly 350 years of colonial rule by the Dutch ended in 1942 when the Japanese army advanced to Indonesia. The Dutch Army surrendered within 7 days. These outcomes had tremendous impact and enhanced the self – confidence and motivation of fellow Asians to fight for freedom from foreign domination.

Senaka Weeraratna


Participants of the Greater East Asia Conference (1943)

Left to right : Ba MawZhang JinghuiWang JingweiHideki Tōjō,

Wan WaithayakonJosé P. LaurelSubhas Chandra Bose.



1)    The Greater East Asian Conference which I remember


Watanabe Shoichi



2)    Henry Stokes Address

Japan was the Light of Hope in Asia”



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