Posted on September 4th, 2017

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

 All colonial powers associated with Sri Lanka in the past are guilty of serious crimes of acute proportions. The British were the worst of them all. The British occupation of Sri Lanka was not only gravely crime-prone, but one of sheer treachery, exploitation and devastation of our country and people. It is a fact that all colonial powers acted on pure and absolute “self-interest”. British occupation of Sri Lanka was one of sheer exploitation and devastation. Whatever benefits that were derived by local inhabitants were merely incidental to their exploitation of the country’s natural and human resources in order to reap enormous benefits for the British government. The vast changes that they brought about in almost all areas of life in the country, led to the disruption of the long-held Sinhala Buddhist culture, social values and way of life of the island’s main stream community – the Sinhala Buddhists.

The primary motive of the British was the exploitation of the country’s natural and human resources to the fullest, in order to reap benefits for the British government. They installed a well-planned program of activities in Sri Lanka, for a continuous period of about 150 years, which led to the greatest damage to the country’s social cohesion, unity and dignity.

Outer-Oriented Economy

The economic independence of the country was destroyed by the British by converting the long-standing self-sufficient sustainable economy of our country to an outer-oriented, unstable commercial economy dependent on fluctuating external world markets. Sri Lanka’s economy was transformed to become a cheap source of agricultural raw material for industries in Britain. The economy became so badly outer-oriented, a greater part of essential food requirements of the large mass of our people had to be imported from other countries.

Environmental Degradation and Natural Disasters

Forested mountain slopes were cleared extensively, in a most ruthless manner to be converted to commercial crops, especially tea for export. This had a devastating impact on the natural resources base of the country leading to drastic changes in normal environmental processes resulting in excessive soil erosion, landslides, increased flooding alternating with severe drought conditions. These calamities mostly affected local inhabitants in rural areas, especially the indigenous Sinhala Buddhists.

Sharp Decline of Peasant Agriculture

Traditional agriculture declined rapidly with vast areas of former productive land either being abandoned owing to neglected irrigation facilities or being acquired by the British for development of export agriculture – coffee, tea and rubber in particular. Traditional agriculture was a way of life for the people. It had the influence of bringing about social cohesion, or a sense of togetherness among people. They worked jointly helping in each other in their farm activities. It provided them with sufficient leisure time to be engaged in other productive and creative pursuits including cultural and religious activities.

Import of South Indian Tamil Labourers

Under the infamous “Waste Lands Ordinance” plantations were established on lands expropriated from the rural Sinhala people, without compensation. Rural Sinhala people considered it below their dignity to work as virtual slaves for the British in the newly opened coffee and tea plantations. Because the dispossessed Sinhala people were unwilling to work on the plantations the British imported Tamil laborers from South India, who later became a new element in the demographic composition of the country.

Loss of Freedom and Privileges

As far as the ordinary people were concerned, the loss of freedom and privileges that they enjoyed under their kings and traditional leadership had a strong negative psychological impact on people. This situation did not permit the emergence of leaders from rural areas where the large mass of the dominant community lived. Besides, royal patronage was the strongest form of motivation and support for those involved in creative cultural pursuits in ancient times. These supports were no longer available to our people.

British Policy of ‘Divide and Rule’

To serve their narrow self-interests, the British practiced a “divide and rule” policy by setting one community against the other. Their ‘divide and rule’ policy of providing special privileges to Tamils and setting the Tamils against the Sinhala people was definitely the beginning of ethnic problems in Sri Lanka. It is a well-known fact that the British gave special privileges to the Tamil minority and those of the Christian faith. They were provided with better opportunities for education, employment and other government services. The Tamils and Christians soon became privileged communities. In terms of the density of schools per unit area, the Jaffna district had the highest density. In 1870 there were only two Buddhist schools left in the country – in Panadura and Dodanduwa, with an attendance of 246 children as against 805 Christian Schools with an attendance of 78,086 children.

As far as the Sinhala community is concerned, for generations in the past, their traditional places of learning were the Buddhist temples where Buddhist monks were teachers of both religious and secular subjects. These centers and Buddhist monks were not accorded the same privileges/support accorded to Christian missionary schools and teachers in urban areas.

Perhaps there was no other time in the long history of Sri Lanka that so much of blood was shed by the Sinhala people to free the country from British crime and oppression. Prior to the Kandyan Convention of 1815, thousands upon thousands of Sinhala people sacrificed their lives to free the country from colonial repression. More were killed by the British during the rebellion of 1818 and 1848. During the Kandyan rebellion of 1818, every man over 14 years was ordered by the British to be killed and some sixty thousand Sinhala people were massacred. Among the large number of local leaders annihilated by the British, the better known were Veera Keppetipola, Veera Puran Appu and Veera Gongalegoda Banda. This is the story of war crimes of the British in Sri Lanka, but similar or much worse war crimes have been committed by this monstrous nation globally – in Africa, South and North Americas and other Asian countries in the past.

Outer-Oriented Sub-Culture

Kolambe or the Colombo City assumed prominence as the commercial centre and also the center of learning and opportunities for better employment and better amenities for living. This created an outer-oriented, English-speaking urban sub-culture consisting mostly of Sinhala Christians, with attitudes and behavior patterns not too different to the British. They adopted a social value system that was alien to the large majority of our people. Some of our people went after their colonial masters, following their theistic religion and western cultural norms, in order to gain positions and material benefits. This again was an aspect of divide and rule policy of the British.

Most of the local, outer-oriented urban elite which included the so called Sri Lankan leaders, held to half-baked foreign values, superficialities and strange ways of living. They were barely conversant with the plight of the majority of people – the ordinary Sinhala people in particular. They were not representative of the large mass of people, but became the trusted servants of the British administration. Almost all of the qualified professionals belonged to or subscribed to this sub-culture. The British left no room for the leadership to emerge from the truly indigenous people.

The excessively poor living conditions of the large mass of Sinhala rural folk led to migration of youth to Colombo and other big towns. Some were subjected to the influence of the extremes forms of undesirable urban culture that was gaining ground in urban areas. Alcohol abuse, crime and underworld activities of later years, may be explained in terms of this urban migration.

Westernized Colombo Sub Culture

When the British left Sri Lanka in 1948, they made sure that power remained in the hands of the English educated and English speaking few, who were toeing their line. To make matters worse, power -political, administrative, and economic was inherited by those belonging to the westernized Colombo sub-culture dominated by Christians and Catholics. Most of the qualified professionals subscribed to this sub-culture.

It is most unfortunate that we did not have inner oriented, self-less leaders committed to work for the welfare of the common mass of the long downtrodden people.  We did not have leaders in the political arena who were true representatives of the national Sinhala Buddhist culture, who were able to feel the pulse and listen to the heart beat of ordinary people of the nation. The same may be said about the administrative bureaucracy that we had which was nothing but a legacy of the British colonial period.

With several centuries of oppression and undermining to the national culture, the British left behind a country, that was outer oriented economically, socially and culturally. Conditions were not favourable and opportunities were highly limited for the emergence of nationally minded local leaders and eminent professionals accomplished in various fields of human endeavor, especially on various elements of the national culture such as literature, music and performing arts, visual arts and crafts, providing inspiration for our people, especially the younger generation.

Sacrifices of the Sinhala Buddhist People

It is annoying to hear some people say that we did not shed blood to gain our freedom, unlike India. This is plain nonsense. Those who are better conversant with our nation’s colonial history know that much blood was shed for freedom. Prior to the Kandyan Convention of 1815, thousands upon thousands of Sinhala people sacrificed their lives to free the country from colonial repression. Thousands were killed during the 1818 and 1848 rebellions against British rule. During the 1818 rebellion every male over 14 years was ordered to be killed by the British, which resulted in the massacre of some sixty thousand Sinhala people. Veera Keppetipola, Veera Puran Appu and Veera Gongalegoda Banda were among the large number of patriotic local leaders who were annihilated by the ruthless British. How hypocritical of the British to talk today of ‘Human Rights’ violations in contemporary Sri Lanka.

“Independence” With Colonial Connections

On February 4th, 1948, we obtained the so-called Dominion Status with the Queen of England as the Head of State and with the British maintaining military bases in Katunayake and Trincomalee and aging Englishmen being appointed as our  Governor Generals.  At this independence”, the British left for us a highly dependent and outer oriented economy at the mercy of the British and the world market. It took about ten years for our government to take over the Military bases established by the British in our country.  It took twenty years for our government to take the initiative to free Sri Lanka completely from the colonial yoke, by making our country a Republic without any links with the British crown.


We need a movement for the revival of the nation’s Sinhala Buddhist culture, where the welfare of the ordinary citizens, particularly the marginalized Sinhala Buddhists, receive priority attention. It should be a movement to revive cultural nationalism with a sound leadership, to save the nation from disintegration, to halt the rapid erosion of social values, and to direct society towards cultural rejuvenation based on the traditional Buddhist value system which is characterized by non-violence, tolerance and peaceful co-habitation with all communities who have made Sri Lanka their home.

A patriotic government of the future, should establish a Commission of Inquiry into the human rights violations and economic devastation caused in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, during the British Rule. Based upon its findings the government should call upon the Government of the United Kingdom to pay suitable compensation for those atrocities committed by the British during their rule in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. Much publicity has to be given to the findings of such an inquiry supported by historical evidence available in many documents so as to expose the barbaric manner in which the Sri Lankans were dealt with by the British. In the alternative the Sri Lankan Government ought to call upon the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of the United Kingdom to initiate such an inquiry and display their genuineness on accountability in such matters”.

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane


  1. Christie Says:

    British were the absentee landlord while Ceylon was occupied by hard working Indians. (yo may refer to Modi’s talk at Norwood).

    There were no Indian established colonies in Ceylon before they came on the back of the British. Like the English we kicked out Indian invaders the same way the English did to the European invaders.

  2. Nimal Says:

    Be honest! British occupation was far more beneficial than the past Dravidian occupation.We are slowly coming back to that back era.People who lived through that era will agree with me.

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