Ilankai Tamil Sangam

28th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

History Behind the Present Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka

by Dr. Easwaran

To Summarise, I wish to highlight these two points. (1) The unification of the country in 1833 by the British. (2) The belief by the Sinhala people that this land was given to them by Lord Buddha himself and he wanted them to preserve it as a Sinhala Buddhist country.

If one has to resolve this crisis, there is a need to reverse these two concepts. But How?

An Open Letter to the International Community and the Tamil Diaspora.

It is a Herculean task to illustrate the full history of this conflict; however I wish to present two of the most salient facts for the understanding by the Western Society and for those of us who are not very sure of Ceylon's history.

1.) The Sri Lankan state and the majority of its Sinhala people have created an illusion. To some extent, they have made the International Community believe that this present war was created by a “group of Tamil Youths- a bunch of terrorists, there are no Tamil grievances as such.”  The Sri Lankan state since 9/11 2001 has jumped onto the bandwagon of the “War on terrorism” to cover up its misdeeds and to get sympathy from the western nations. They have also set in motion false propaganda machinery to work from its Foreign Ministry and its Embassies around the world. The Tamil Diaspora has to work against all these odds to speak the truth that is behind this conflict.

Let us start by looking briefly at the history of this Island -Ceylon.

Flag of Kingdom of Udarata (Kandy)1469 - 1815

One should know that, prior to the arrival of the Portuguese Traders in 1505, there were Three Kingdoms in this Island.  The Kotte kingdom in the southwest was mainly ruled by the Sinhala kings. By 1547 the Portuguese took control of this kingdom. The Tamil kingdom occupied the northeast area of the Island with its capital in Jaffna. It also had its chieftains in Vanni.  The upcountry kingdom had its capital in Kandy and was called the Kandyan kingdom; it had been ruled by the Sinhala kings and also by South Indian Tamil chieftains (1739-1815). The western territory (Mannar) of the Tamil Kingdom was captured by the Portuguese in 1619. There have been several uprising by the Jaffna Tamils who resisted the capture of the Jaffna kingdom until 1621. Prior to 1621, for nearly 200 years or so, the Jaffna kingdom had remained the single most powerful kingdom in Ceylon. The Dutch invaded and ousted the Portuguese in 1658.  The British invaded in 1796.

The first British secretary Col.Hugh Cleghorn in his minutes (1799) wrote that “this island is inhabited by two very different nations from a very ancient period has divided the Island between them. They differ entirely in their religions, language and manners.”The British also had a protracted struggle to capture the Kandyan kingdom. They fought a war from1803 to 1815. The Vanni chieftain was also brought under British control in 1815. Tax was collected separately from all these old kingdoms till 1833. The plantation Tamils were brought in from south India when the Kandyans refused to work on the coffee plantations for the British in the 1840’s.

 The root cause of this ethnic problem in modern political history begins with the unification of the Three Kingdoms by British in 1833:-

The unification of all three kingdoms of the island was carried out by 1833. This unification was then carried out by the Captain Colebrook & Cameron Commission. The commission was asked to look into administrative reforms to implement the social, economic and political policies of the British Empire. Island of Ceylon was accepted, after unification, as a British colony in 1833. This unification broke the traditional local conventions. Since they were the colonial masters, the British were able to over-rule all local traditions and conventions. This is how the unitary state emerged in Ceylon after 1833 with newly drawn up territorial boundaries by the British colonial masters. All successive governements of Sri Lanka have claimed this as their own sovereignty and territorial boundaries. The Sinhalese are adamant that the Tamils have no claim even on their ancestral lands as their homeland.

2.) The Second point that to be taken into account about this conflict is –

The emergence of nationalism in India and the agitation to get independence from the British grew into a big force. This slowly infiltrated and kindled the passion for freedom of Ceylon. Sinhala Buddhist nationalism was aroused by Anakarika Dharmapala (1869 to 1923), with hatred against Christianity and the Mahavamsa chronicle of the 6th Century AD.

The Tamils failed to arouse Tamil nationalism to the same extent as the Sinhalese, even though Sir Ponnamplam Arunachalam lit the flame for the Tamil nationalism in the 1920’s due to the betrayal of the Sinhala leaders. Both communities was trying to build a unified or a joint “Ceylonese nationalism” to fight the British like the Indians. However, the recurrent betrayal by Sinhala leaders, from then to date, made Tamil nationalism materialize fully by 1972 in the form of the TULF. Tamils belonging to various political parties united under one banner to fight the injustice which they met for three decades. The Tamil people’s peaceful agitation to win their rights failed during these three decades.

The Tamils had to face recurrent periodic violence as a backlash for their peaceful agitation inside and outside the parliament by the Sri Lankan state and its armed hoodlums. This evoked the passion of Tamil nationalism in the youths. The Vaddukoddai Convention in 1976 for Eelam was the catalyst for the present Tamil nationalism. The Tamil youths organized themselves into various armed liberation groups. Out of them, only the LTTE won the favour of the Tamil community for its truthfulness in their actions and being there for the community as saviours.

 The Sinhala nationalism in 1915 led to the riots between them and the Muslim community. Then Tamil leader Sir P. Ramanathan had to travel to the UK to plead for the release of Sinhala politicians from prisons.

Between 1918 and 1920, a rift started to show between the elite Tamil politicians and the Sinhala politicians. The Ceylon National Congress started to split as the Sinhalese began to show unwillingness to support the pledges given in 1918, promising to reserve the western province seat for the Tamils in the state council. Sinhalese leaders broke their first pledge in 1921. (Hindu organ editorial 1921). The Tamil Mahajana sabhai was formed by Sir P Arunasalam for the protection of the political, social and economic welfare of the Tamils.

The Tamil community since the 1920’s has failed to understand the cunning schemes that have been mapped out by the Sinhala elite politicians. Then Tamil elite politicians also failed to heed the warnings given by Sir Ponnambalm Arunachalam.  Most educated and wealthy Tamils in Colombo in the Pre- & post- independence era were either short-sighted or blind to the events that were to follow. Their only interest was in their own status and position in Colombo and that their children’s living standards would not fall. Many attained higher positions in government and the private sector through their meritorious achievements. They also helped their own community to gain places to work in these sectors. The Colonial rulers knew that the Tamil Community was an Industrious Race. This has been one of the main reasons for the Tamils from India and Ceylon to be spread around the globe. Throughout history one can find that we Tamils have also been blamed for this present crisis.

History has shown “It is blatantly obvious that the pledges and assurances once given by the Sinhalese leaders were now nothing but an illusion.”

The Donoughmore Commission in the 1930’s prepared the constitution for the Legislative Councils which functioned until 1947. This constitution created further dissension between the two communities on the issue of representation and sharing of power in the Legislative Council.

 The Soulbury Commission in 1946 which prepared the constitution for majority rule (a copy of the British parliament) rejected the Minority suggestions that were placed before it. The Tamils agitated for 50% of the seats in parliament to be reserved for the minority groups as a whole, so as to have equal say after independence.

Clause 29A in this Constitution was the only safeguard given for the minorities against the tyranny of the majority. Independence was handed over to the majority community in 1948. Tamils unwillingly went along to share the Independence from the British.

The Sinhala “mindset,” which was based on their nationalism, was bent on creating a “Sinhala Buddhist” state. Their first agenda was to change the eastern province's demography. This started soon after Independence, as the idea had been already mapped out by D.S Senanyake, the first Prime Minister.

 After the 1958 communal violence,, the author of the constitution, Lord Soulbury regretted that he had failed to give sufficient safeguards to the minorities in Ceylon as he did for the Malaysians and Nigerians in their constitutions.

The present British High Commissioner for Sri Lanka, Mr. Dominic John Chilcott, in July 2006 gave an interview to the media; I quote

“Britain considered the Soulbury Constitution as having the necessary arrangements to provide safeguards for minorities. Britain thought that the rights of the Tamils in particular would be safeguarded by these arrangements. However history has proved otherwise that these safeguards were inadequate and not robust enough. I regret that Britain’s policies have to such an extent been the cause for the problems.”


One of the essential ingredients that must be kept in mind to understand the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict is that, since the 1950’s, Sinhala politicians have resorted to ethnic outbidding as a means to attain power and, in doing so, systematically marginalized the Tamils. The institutional decay which was produced by the dialectic between majority rule and ethnic outbidding, was what led to Tamil mobilization and an ethnic conflict that has killed nearly 70,000 people over the past twenty years says- (Neil Devotta of Hartwick College, USA in 2005).

Western Governments so far have made Grave Misjudgments  on the Tamil issue, by their Misinterpretations based on Misinformations that were supplied by the Sri Lankan Government.

To Summarise, I wish to highlight these two points. (1) The unification of the country in 1833 by the British. (2) The belief by the Sinhala people that this land was given to them by Lord Buddha himself and he wanted them to preserve it as a Sinhala Buddhist country.

If one has to resolve this crisis, there is a need to reverse these two concepts. But How?

In concluding - We the Tamil Diaspora feel that Britain has a moral obligation to take a proactive part to resolve this crisis, as it is their legacy that has caused this misery for the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

To the International Community, we hope you understand the “Mindset” of the Sinhala Politicians; this would be a difficult task and a challenge for you to change their perception on this concept. Therefore, it is also unlikely for the Tamils to continue with any fruitless talks after talks. The Sri Lankan government will not deliver any final solution to ease the Tamils' lost rights or their grievances.  I repeat, as long as this “intransigent concept” is held by the Sri Lankan Majority Community; it will not permit any of the Tamils Aspirations or Grievances to be fulfilled or resolved.

Therefore, it is time for the international community to recognize the de-facto Tamil Eelam government. UN Secretary General, Sir, slease help to arrange for a referendum as held, as was done for East Timor and Montenegro, to recognize “Tamil Eelam.” We Tamils also request the new UN Secretary-General to take necessary steps through your good office to prevent further bloodshed and loss of lives in Sri Lanka.

Thank you,


Printer-friendly version