Reflections on the Violent Buddhist Responses to Islam in Lanka and Burma

Stephen Labrooy

Ravi Velloor’s  article in THUPPAHI drew a private comment from Stephen Labrooy in Sri Lanka which is food for thought in itself, but carries particular value because it comes from Sri Lankan Burgher of some seniority[1] who has travelled abroad and presently serves as President of the Dutch Burgher Union. I have queries on several points and raised just two hurriedly (see below); but the “memorandum” has useful ethnographic information, while running several inter-related arguments. Hence its airing here.

ONE: INITIAL MEMO from Stephen Labrooy, 5 October 2017

Dear Michael, Many thanks for this. Drawing a parallel between the pogroms and oppressive measures against the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Rohingya in Myanmar, some have posed the question “is this the darker side of Buddhism?” For me, who has been a Buddhist by conviction since 1980, I am pained to hear such a comment. I would answer that by saying that it is not Buddhism that is to blame at all but the so-called followers of Buddhism who have sought to ignore and neglect the very core teachings of the Buddha: love and compassion to all beings.

The fundamental loving kindness meditation that Buddhists are taught (or supposedly taught) is to radiate love and loving kindness to all beings. It is by giving love and compassion to others that we in turn receive it. As the Buddha himself famously said “Hatred ceases not by hatred, but by love” – that is, only love can break the cycle of hatred or ill-will.

Both the Singhalese and Burmese Buddhists are irrationally fearful for the survival of Buddhism (which, in its purest form I personally regard as a highly cerebral and elegant religio-philosophy, and arguably a great gift to mankind in that it avails the individual to seek out and achieve his own salvation without any divine – or other – assistance.)

Why do they fear this? It is because they perceive that its very structure of tolerance love and compassion lend it vulnerable to any unbridled attacks on it: such as ISIS and Muslim extremism which seeks to completely destroy any other “way” but Islam. The history of the conflict in Sri Lanka has some similarities in that the entire British administration was run by Tamils, Burghers and Malays- all of whom are not Buddhist and were perceived as having hegemony over the Buddhist majority. The administration was largely the same for the first ten years of Independence- until 1956. So, they decided that as a first step, the removal of these people who were deemed to have no interest in the well-being of the Buddhist population, was essential. This was achieved by the simple expedient of making Sinhalese the only language of the country, instituting proficiency tests in Sinhala for the entire Government Service and augmenting this measure by making it compulsory for all education to be only in Sinhala. In this way, it was expected that only Sinhalese Buddhists would administer the country. What followed were the 1958 riots — a huge pogrom against the Tamils and a succession of smaller conflicts until the 1972 Standardisation of Education Act – a most discriminatory piece of legislation, that led to war, then another pogrom in 1983 followed by continuous war till 2009.

What the Buddhists of both countries have completely ignored is the fact (blind to it in fact) that Buddhism has survived 2600 years because of its very tolerance! Though its main principles and basis remain the same, it has adapted to wherever it has taken root. Unfortunately, what has happened in Burma is that over the last few years they have witnessed on their TV screens the horrible violence of Islamist extremism (and don’t forget the destruction of the Banyam statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban either). It is a profound tragedy that they have decided to “get their retaliation in first”.

Best, Stephen

TWO: Hurried Note from Michael Roberts, 5 October 2017

I consider the 1958 attacks to be a mini pogrom in contrast with 1983 … and I feel you have overstated the Burgher Tamil domination of the public services. .…. Yes, both held disproportionate shares because of A = British favour and B= standard practices of nepotism — that is the-multiplier effect of their nepotism.

A Tamil being assaulted & disparaged, 1958

THREE: Response from Stephen Labrooy, 5 October 2017

Actually, Michael more people died in 58 than in 83 — check it out. It does pain me that the pogrom of 58 has virtually been erased from the national memory. What prompted my father to declare emergency in Kurunegala in 58 when he was magistrate was the sickening sight of Tamil bodies piled up on both sides of the Dambulla Road when he drove to work from the magistrate’s bungalow-many of them the little children of 3-5 years old.  This was during the almost week-long delay of SWRD to declare an emergency. My father had tears of both sorrow and rage in his eyes when he recounted to me this to me. Frustrated by the Govts delay he went straight to all the legal enactments and found that he had the power to declare an emergency locally which is what he did. He also ordered the Police to open fire on the rampaging mobs in Kurunegala town. There was another magistrate in another town who did exactly the same thing so these abominable acts were not peculiar to Kurunegala. Read Emergency 58 by Tarzie Vittachi.

And I really have NOT overstated the domination of the public services by the Burghers and the Tamils (plus the Malays to some extent). In Tarzies book  he describes the emergency meeting of the top Police officers in the country. Out of 32 top brass at that meeting, 12 were Burghers! For a community that was no more than 1 percent of the population don’t you think this was a disproportionate number?

Remember that under the British the top Sinhalese didn’t want to be top civil servants as they had their estates etc to look after. And I actually don’t even think there was much of a “divide and rule “motive either. The Brits simply wanted people who would do the job competently and without favour or bribe taking.

And neither the Burghers or the Tamils in Govt service were “toadies” of the Brits either. KM De Silva recounts how Tamil civil servants baulked at certain policies and argued strenuously against them. Vesak Day is a holiday because Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan agitated with the Brits for it. So was the Temporal Lands Act which safeguarded the properties owned by the Buddhist temples.

The Burghers were no different in their independent thinking. They would argue the rights and wrongs of policies very strongly either Brits. Going back further in time, remember it was Charles Ambrose Lorenz, a Burgher, who led the walk-out from the Legislative Council by the unofficial members in the 1860s.[2]

Cheers, Stephen

FOUR: A REQUEST from Michael Roberts

I am pushed for time with other tasks so request assiduous readers to address the two issues arising and to deploy chapter and verse in providing

A …. Comparative statistics on the number of people killed during the 1958 violence and that in July 1983 (both mistakenly classified in administrative jargon as “riots”).

B … Statistics on the ethnic composition of the top and middle layers of the Ceylon Civil Service in the period 1931-1960.[3]

   ***   ****


ONE: Guided by KK de Silva I provide ethnic distribution figures in 1946  for the Higher Administrative Services” provided in SJ Tambiah’s 1955 article in the University of Ceylon Review: 69 Sinhalese, 31 Tamils and 16 Burghers. This is just one snapshot so clearly one needs a wider spread that covers the middle rung administrative services and the technical departments. From impressions and memory I would say that Burghers were prominent in certain departments such as Police and Customs; while Tamils stood out in the Railway department, PWD and Irrigation Departments. But such impressions must be subject to statistical studies.

TWO: KK de Silva has kindly referred to one of my own articles in Colombo Telegraph where I address the “1958 riots” and note that än accurate figure of the death toll is unlikely. CR de Silva has indicated that in 1958 “at least 471 died – the vast majority … Tamil” (1987: 244). Perhaps the most revealing fact is the image unearthed by Victor Ivan (Pic 04) which shows of ordinary citizens enthusiastically beating up a passing Tamil citizen along a major thoroughfare in Colombo. This was their Sinhala ‘nationalist’ administration of guti medicine upon a terrible other.” …. while the Wikipedia entry has this summary:  “The riots lasted from 22 May until 27 May 1958 although sporadic disturbances happened even after the declaration of emergency on 1 June 1958. The estimates of the murder range based on recovered body count from 300 to 1500. Although most of the victims were Tamils, some majority Sinhalese civilians and their property was also affected both by attacking Sinhalese mobs who attacked those Sinhalese who provided sanctuary to Tamils as well as in retaliatory attacks by Tamil mobs in Batticaloa and Jaffna. As the first full-scale race riot in the country in over forty years, the events of 1958 shattered the trust the communities had in one another and led to further polarisation.


[1] See Labrooy’s Labour of Love: Restoring a Dutch House in the Dutch Fort of Galle, 1 Middle Street,” 6 December 2012,

[2] For the role of Lorenz, Charles Ferdinands, John Prins, George and Frederick Nell and others in mounting the first political questioning of British rule in the pages of Young Ceylon in 1850-52, see Michael Roberts, Percy Colin-Thome & Ismeth Raheem, People Inbetween, Colombo, Sarvodaya, 1989; Henry Candidus, “A Desultory conversation between two young aristocratic Ceylonese,’ in Roberts, Sri Lanka. Collective Identities Revisited, Vol. II, Colombo, Marga Institute, 1998, pp. 1-28; and Michael Roberts, “People Inbetween: Ethnic and Class Prejudices in British Ceylon,” 3 August 2013, ………………………………………

[3] From recollection I note that SJ Tambiah addressed this issue circa 1955 in the University of Ceylon Review and his subsequent writings in the 1980s and 1990s together with the work of Cr de Silva, Vijaya samaraweera and KM de Silv will provide data on the administrative changes.

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