Ethnic clashes in Sri Lanka and how to overcome them?
Posted on March 26th, 2018

Dr Sudath Gunasekara, Retired Permanent Secretary. (SLAS)


In this article I propose to present an overall view point on the above subject. The nature and evolution of ethnicity and nation  in Sri Lanka, the origin, history and the nature of the present day ethnic clashes in Sri Lanka, their root causes and the way out for a permanent solution, to make this country a peaceful, prosperous and a strong nation in the modern world.

Part 1 


This part will serve as a brief introduction to the subject I propose to discuss in the following pages.  I have identified 12 main    causative factors as responsible for this unfortunate situation. Part 11 will briefly touch on each of these 12 factors and in Part 111 I propose to make my recommendations to overcome this unfortunate situation and to make this country a peaceful, prosperous and a strong nation free from ethnic clashes in the modern world.

An overall glimpse of the accurate historical background of the evolution of this Island nation and the Sinhale Kingdom is considered a necessary prerequisite to put the ethnic problem in this country in its real perspective.

A land of one ethnic group and one nation

There are two distinct versions of the evolution of the history of nationhood in this country namely the Vijayan version and the Hela version. According to the Vijayan version, as expounded by Mahanama Thera, the author of Mahavamsa, the history of the Sinhala Nation begins in 543 BC with the arrival of a north Indian Aryan Prince called Vijaya who married a local Yaksha tribe Princess Kuvanna, with whose assistance he vanquished the natives and established the Sinhala nation. As he is supposed to have killed his Lion father (Sinhaya Lalanaya kala nisa) the nation he found was called Sinhala. His mythical father also was known as Sinhabahu, probably a man with the might and strong arms of a lion.

The Hela School of thought, on the other hand maintains that this country was originally inhabited by four tribes namely, Yaksha, Raksha, Deva and Naga and the land was called Heladiva (the Island of Hela people descending from the sun God). The four tribes were named as Sivhela, the four tribes of the Island of Siv Hela, which later became Sinhala.  These four tribes had a common national and cultural tradition and history. They were a community of people of common decent, history and language forming a State or inhabiting common territory. As such they were an ethnic group as well as a nation of four tribes with a common history.

The author of Mahavamsa has called this country Lanka, probably going by the name given to it by the Indian Purana, Mahabharata and Ramayanaya written long before the compilation of Mahawansa.  According to the Hela version this country was known as Seehale long before Vijaya arrived and the people of this land were known as Sinhala long before the advent of Vijaya who landed in 543. In this backdrop Vijaya could be rightly called the first historical Indian invader after Rama who is supposed to have invaded the Island to rescue Seeta during the time of Ravana. Rama never settled down here where as Vijaya permanently settled down on this soil and founded anew Kingdom. After 116 years of the advent of Vjijaya, Pandukahhaya of the Yaksha tribe who ascended the throne in 437 BC after ten years restored the Sivehela tradition absorbing the people who came with Vijaya and consolidated the sovereignty of the Sivhela nation.  Even the Mahavamsa confirm this episode as follows.

Satavassabhisitto so- Gama siima nivesayi

Lankadeepamhi               sakale-Lankindo-Pandukhabhayo

(Ten years after ascending the throne King Pandukabhaya, the ruler of Lanka, established the village boundaries          all                over       the         Island    of            Lanka)

Ever since, this country had only one ethnic group called Sinhala and one nation called Sinhala. Thereafter there had been successive South Indian invasion starting in the in the 2nd century BC with Sena Guttika and Elara and the last one in the 12th century by Kalingha Magha

All these invasions were short lived and they were defeated by the naïve Sinhala Kings and the status quo was restored again and again. But with the Magha invasion the glorious Rajarata Sinhala Buddhist civilization was shifted to the South West leaving the entire Rajarata and Ruhunurata lowlands to be invaded by the jungle tide. With the collapse of the Polonnaruwa, the Capital of the Kingdom got shifted first to Yapahuwa and thereafter to Kurunegala Dambadeniya, Gampola, Kotte and finallysttled down in  Senkadagalapura nuwara in 1492 and remained there until 1815. During this long period, although there were few sporadic Tamil settlements along the Northern and Eastern coastal belts the whole country remained as one country and one nation under one King, the King of the Sinhale. All the inhabitants were ruled by one King and two or three sub kingdoms together were called the Sinhale Kingdom.

Thus prior to the advent of Portuguese in 1505 and even up to 1815 this country was one country called Sinhale or Lanka although from 1505 to 1815 the major parts of the narrow coastal belts were successively under the three colonial powers. It was only in 1815 the whole Island was ceded by Convention to the British. The country that was ceded in 1815 to British was SInhale, meaning the land of the Sinhala people which the British called Ceylon (see the Kandyan Convention of March 2 1815). And the nation of this country continued to be the Sinhala Nation.

That was the irrefutable historical fact, from the inception of recorded history, beginning in 543, with the legendary arrival of Vijaya, or even before, going up to 12,000 BC, as the latest archaeological evidence have proved. (See Raj Somadeva).


The country that was handed over to the British in 1815 was Sinhale and that was never restored

The territory thus ceded to British in 1815 included the whole of the Island of Ceylon with all its territorial waters including the Maldive Islands. This Convention was signed by Brown Wrigg on behalf of the King of England and 10 Adikaram and Dissavas, attended by Mohottalas, Korales and Headmen on behalf of the inhabitants of Sinhale in the presence of the people of Sinhale. The fact that there is no reference to any Tamil Chief or man representing a Tamil province in that assembly clearly proves that the whole country was under the Sinhalese at that time as well. The convention further says all claims and title of the Malabar race (Tamils) to the dominion of the Kandyan Provinces (the Sinhale Kingdom) are abolished and extinguished”   What more proof is needed to prove that Tamils thereafter did not have any claim to any part of the country. Furthermore it was this very Sinhale that was returned to the people in 1948, although the recipient leaders of the so-called Independence on behalf of the nation failed even to restore the original name of the country, Sinhale that was handed over to British in 1815.

History of ethnic clashes in Sri Lanka

The 1915 Sinhala Muslim Strife was the first recorded ethnic clash in this country. There were hardly any records of such inter-ethnic clashes before, although there were a sizable number of both Tamils and Muslims living among the Sinhalese. This was partly because neither the Tamils nor the Muslims tried to emerge as separate nations or ethnic communities till then. Also all citizens then were subjected to one law and all communities stood up as one nation. Up to 1815 it was the Sinhala law and from 1815 to 1948 it was the English law that governed everyone. There were no separate Tamil and Muslim laws as at present. The whole problem began to emerge after Independence. As I see it we did not have a clear and visionary perception of political independence, the type of the independent and sovereign State, a Sri Lankan nation or a political, economic social and cultural plan as to how a vibrant, strong and united nation should be built after gaining Independence. In other word we did not have a blue print of our future plans as a new nation like what countries like India had. It appears that our leaders were complacent with a simply replacing the white men with a set of brown men only with the same English system of Government. This I see as a major lacuna in the pre independent politics of Sri Lanka.

The word Muslim like Buddhist or Hindu is the term used to describe the adherents of Islam. They are not considered as a nation anywhere in the world other than in Sri Lanka. As such Muslims are called a nation only in this country. The 1915 Sinhala Muslim clash was actually a creation of the then British Government partly due to a misunderstanding by the British that it was a riot against the Empire. It was therefore brutally suppressed by the British colonial authorities. The major riot started in the city of Kandy in the night of 28 May 1915 near the Castle Street Mosque between the Indian Moors and the Sinhala Buddhist when the Indian Moors (Muslims) protested against a Buddhist procession passing the Mosque site and spread to neighbouring villages on 30 May and thereafter to all the Provinces. The rulers thought that the riots were pre-planned and seditious; some believed that there was a German link and the riots were the start of an uprising against British rule. Martial law was declared on June 2, 1915, and hundreds of Sinhalese peasants were shot down throughout the country. Even persons who couldn’t answer a challenge due to language differences of the Europeans and Punjabis soldiers were shot. In the villages who slept in the verandahs were also shot on the account that martial law dictated that all sleep indoors. Almost all Sinhala leaders like F R Senanayake, D.S. Senanayake D B Jayatilaka, were arrested on charges of treason.  There is no record of any Muslim leader being arrested. This incident recorded the highest number of Sinhalese killed and the most extensive damage caused to their properties after the 1848 massacres, beside its barbaric brutality on the native Sinhalese by the British. It is to be noted that the 1915 riots were started both at Gampola and Kandy by the Indian Moors.

There were no ethnic clashes thereafter until clashes between Sinhalese and Tamils surfaced again after Independence, mainly due to a wave of communal politics deployed by the Tamil politicians like Chelvanayagam. Trifle issues such as parity for Tamil language, anti-Sinhala riots by Tamils in the North connected with the famous tar smearing campaign on Sri number plates on vehicles and thereafter more serious issues like claiming Federal status for the North and East and thereafter separatism, self- determination and finally EELAM after 1980 that ended up in 2009 with the defeat of LTTE and killing its leader Prabhjakaran by the Armed Forces after 30 long years of destruction and brutal murder by the LTTE, although the EELAM dream is still simmering underground by communal politicians.

Ethnic clashes and conflicts between the Sinhalese and Muslims however have been less frequent until the SLMC was formed at a meeting held at Kattankudy in 1981 By Ashraff who has gone down in history as man who started extremist Muslim ethno-religious activities in this country. He was followed by people like Hakeem. Rishard Badurdeen, Asad Sali and many others. Ever since they have been carrying out a subversive program mostly underground, centered in the Friday gatherings at their mosques under the pretext of praying whereas they were secretly planning their political, economic, social, and demographic and land grabbing expansion strategies. Meanwhile they started an aggressive political agenda demanding separate laws and courts, rights pertaining to marriage, customs, habits and values,  food,  marriage rights, separate administrative regions, special quotas of representation. Mosque began to mushroom all over the country even for five families while they carried out a programme of vandalizing ancient Buddhist sites in the east in areas like Digamadulla and  Mullative. Buldzing the Digamadulla Dagaba site was a classic case. At the same time they began a progamme of claiming ancient Buddhist site s like Kuragala  as ancient Muslim sites.  Over and above all these they started an aggressive radicalization programme where they wanted to dress separately, eat separately, pray separately to look as if they live in Arabia with full Arabian life style completely forgetting the are only a set of immigrants minority came here for trade and commerce living in someone else’s country belonging to a Sinhala majority country whose country it had been for the past 2600 years, as a result of this invasion soddenly we saw women clad in black covering the full body in berka with only eyes visible parading the streets of towns like day ghosts disturbing the whole Sri Lanka social landscape. Meanwhile the Muslim with petrodollars coming from the Arab world they invaded the economy in unprecedented scale, whole sale retail trade including imports and exports, purchasing in bulk, with monopoly in spice trade, Banking, public service increasing population, land grab specially in towns and roadsides, purchase of property with exorbitant prices and meanwhile demanding separate Provinces

Actually during pre-colonial days the Arab Muslims/Moors who comprised the majority Muslim in Sri have shown signs of integration with the Sinhalese even by their males taking the ge names of the Sinhalese. But since Independence following the footsteps of the communal Tamils they also emerged as a communal extremist group. With people like Ashroff, Hakeem and Badurdeen and Asad Sali the situation has aggravated of late. As such ethnic agitations leading to communal strife and disaster like in Aluthgama and now in Teldeniya have become black marks in our society. They have also become an incurable cancer and they seriously affect the development and progress of this nation. Today among many other social problems this has emerged as a major issue in the body politics in this country. It has assumed the role of a dead weight round the neck that has almost grounded the forward march of the nation. As such, the crying need, to find a permanent solution to this national disaster. But it appears that the authorities have no permanent solution to this social canker.

None of the political parties or a single Party leader has a clear cut plan to overcome this situation. The Tamil and Muslim Politicians hanging on to extremes, agitate for privileges not even the Sinhalese the majority have. They want separate laws, Separate courts, separate schools, like Muslim School and Madrasas, separate territories, separate language and religious rights, separate dresses and even separate food. It appears that all these minorities have completely forgotten that this is the land of the Sinhalese who sill constitute 75% of the total population, and they are only minorities living in someone else’s historical homeland. They should not try to behave and act like the majority and they also should also not try to deprive the majority of their birth rights. In short they should begin to behave just like minorities like the minorities do in any other country.  It is this fast emerging communal religious identity and aspirations on the part of the Tamils and Muslims which has paused a serious threat to the native Sinhalese and their culture that appears to pause a major threat that has led to tensions.

All the Sinhala leaders of the National Political Parties on the other hand compete to satisfy the un-satisfiable demands of the minorities to gain power and remain in power without considering the national interest at all without trying to understand the root cause and attempting to treat them. The major political parties like the SLFP, UNP and JVP think they can solve this problem only by giving all what the minorities ask.  In fact there is a terrific completion among these parties to yield to the demands of the minorities. This has now come to stay as the main reason as to why we can’t have a stable Government that could take the country forward to the expected goals of political stability, and economic and social prosperity.

As such the ethnic problem in this country is much more complicated than many of us think.  It needs a deep and objective study by a Committee of patriotic scholars who knows the true history of this country and above all who love this country. But care should be taken not to include any politicians in this Committee as people have ceased to have any faith in them going by their appalling records in the post Independent period. They need to find out the deeply entrenched causes which are responsible for this situation and make recommendation without compromising the facts and substance of the history of this Island nation. Elimination of the root cause or the causes and their removal is the only way to overcome this national disaster as arguably if the causes are removed then the effect will never arise thereafter. Approach adopted to arrest the present strife by this government is not different from what the colonial Government did in 1915.

The way how the Government is trying to solve the current Sinhala Muslim problem is a good example of its usual groping in the dark. Unfortunately the way the Government adopted to crush the present clashes is not different from the methods resorted to by the Colonial Government in 1915. The only difference in the 1915 was that it was a foreign government and colonial British who cracked down on Sinhalese whereas today the same thing was done by the very Government elected by the people of the country. In 1915 British killed Sinhalese suspecting them to be rebels rising against the British Empire. Today their own Government put in power by them crush their own people calling it an anti-government riot against the Yahapalanaya regime. But in both incidents those who were punished and victimized by arresting and beating and remanding were the native Sinhalese who rose against injustice caused both by Muslims and the State. In sum both in 1915 and 2018 it is the native Sinhalese who were subjected to brutal suppression. This shows even 70 years after independence we still don’t have a Government of our own. It still acts like a proxy of the British colonial empire and their allies. All our politicians at least by now should begin to think and act like the representatives of the people of this country.

Causative factors of ethnic clashes.    

I see 12 main deeply entrenched causative factors responsible for this unfortunate situation.

They are

1 The sad legacies of colonial policies of 443 years of divide and rule, particularly those left behind by the British, still active on this soil and Colonial tools of governance like a) the Parliament. b) Political Parties c) legal systems, d) Administrative machinery and E) Interference by them, individually and jointly in the internal matters of this country

2 Absence of visionary and patriotic Statesmen of stature, character and love for the country who are deeply committed to nation building and who have a deep understanding of the Islands history, statecraft, laws and customs and traditions, culture, ethos and values and who put the country and the people before self and who can take the country forward with the modern world without compromising the spirit and substance of endogenity and who will never betray the country neither for personal gain nor for fear of even losing one’s own life

(3 Absence of strong national leaders, patriotic national political and civil movements and institutions who/that can stand above politicians and exert control over their actions that goes against national interest

4 Absence of a strong Constitution including a National Code of non-negotiable National policies on matters like the State, form of Government, the national and Official  language of the State, place of Buddhism, the Law of the country, rights and duties of each individual and each community by the country, protection of the environment

5 Non-participation of educated, astute and charismatic men of character well versed in the country’s history etc as given in 2 above.

6 Presence of foreign funded NGOO manned by their subversive agents with their own agendas seriously inimical to national interest freely operating without any government control

7 Absence of a pragmatic and consistent Foreign policy committed to the best interest of the country and lack of an apolitical machinery of efficient professional Foreign Service of the highest level that could stand in par with any International Foreign Service and could muster the optimum support to the country in all fields such as political, economic, strategic and cultural.

8 Unnecessary interference in the internal matters of this country by the so-called International Community and their agencies acting with bias based on self- interest at the instigation of Tamil voters living in their countries( who call themselves Tamil Diaspora) and above all the Indian interfere with our local affairs in everything and the failure on the part of the Government of this country to stand against this type of uncalled for interferences and bullying by every Dick, Tom and Harry as a strong Government.

( In case of India from regime change, training LTTE terrorists and providing them with all logistics to fight against the Government of this country, military involvements, building ports, roads and house building to providing Ambulances to hospitals and even laundering hospital linen, entertaining and encouraging Tamils in this country to work against domestic policy and instigating even for separation in pursuance of its own interest and encouraging Tamilnadu politicians to meddle with Sri Lankan matters when more than 60 % of her people don’t have even lavatory facilities. All these things are done with the ulterior motive of destabilizing this country to protect and enhance herown interest, strategic, geopolitical, economic and social.

9 Reluctance, refusal and failure on the part of Tamil and Muslim communities (especially their politicians) to comprehend the ground realities of the Sri Lankan society and their pursuing a conflicting course of action, having over- estimated their strength without realizing that ultimately they will be the main losers.

10 The self- seeking Tamil and Muslim communal politicians who don’t see beyond their nose tips and doing everything only for their communities completely forgetting that they are also  responsible citizens of Sri Lanka and not citizens of either India or the Arab World and that they cannot behave like Indians or Arabs any longer if they want to earn their living here and live here, not realizing that they have to fall in line with the Sinhala majority, whose Traditional Homeland  this is, if they ever dream to enjoy the unique benefits of this blessed country, as its citizens or otherwise they have to make up their minds to go back to their own native countries from where they have come.

11Prevailing political instability and anarchy in the country that has caused lethargy and ineffectiveness of the whole government machinery and inefficiency and inability of the present Government to govern and the lack of a comprehensive National State policy on any subject that comes within the purview of Governance.

12 Never ending Inter-party political rivalry and competition between the two main national Political Parties the SLFP and UNP and the absence of a third alternative that can win over the people to form a Government, with a difference

(to be continued with Part 11)

2 Responses to “Ethnic clashes in Sri Lanka and how to overcome them?”

  1. Christie Says:

    “Even persons who couldn’t answer a challenge due to language differences of the Europeans and Punjabis soldiers were shot”.


    Pamnjabi soldiers are not British.

    They are Indian Sepoys; Indian Colonial Parasites.

    That is what we have to understand.

    The so called British Empire is in fact a British-Indian Empire.

    British are gone after the WWII.

    Indian Empire runs our country with the help of the Indian Parasites.

  2. SA Kumar Says:

    Ethnic clashes in Sri Lanka and how to overcome them?- Simply implement law & order of the Mother Lanka.

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