Honeycombed with Societal and Political Fissures: Sri Lanka Now & Ever Before

Michael Roberts, reiterating the original draft sent to a few on 10 June 2020

Recent forum discussions on the topic of “Reconciliation” and correspondence with concerned friends have prompted me to essay an analysis of Sri Lanka’s societal problems over the last 150 years. This is a tendentious quest.

This Map showing districts served by Regional Malaria Officers happens to suit the metaphor “Riddled” and/or “Honeycombed” in my title

  1. There are too many layers of government in Sri Lanka today: viz the Central govt, the Provincial and the District …. overseeing the grāmasevaka units …. with every level burdened with an overstaffed bureaucracy.
  2. The provincial boundaries carved out by the British in the 19th century were skewed and arbitrary in some [not all] places; so a radical re-working is called for [but any reform will invariably face resistance from vested interests].
  3. The Anagarika Dharmapala ideological perspective where the concept “Ceylonese” [i.e. “Sri Lankan”] is regarded as equivalent to “Sinhalese” prevails in a considerable number of Sinhala minds.[i] This belief is deadly and a threat to co-existence, amity and reconciliation. Reforming such Sinhala people is very-very-very-very difficult.
  4. In the history of human settlement and the evolution of “civilizations” inclusive of agricultural societies (as distinct from herding or tribal), those who settled and farmed a locality had rights to that locality…. be it “gama” or whatever.[ii] That is, in Sinhala terms, if Bandara’s family asweddumized the land “Niyamapalāta” … then they could command power within that space. Thus, the principle of “FIRSTNESS” is central. For Sri Lanka writ large, this means that the Sinhalese have this principle in their favour [supported for centuries by demographic clout as well] because they established the Anuradhapura civilisation from the 3rd century BC (displacing and overwhelming any Sangam settlements and any nomadic aboriginal peoples that pre-existed in the north). Insofar as today’s Sinhala people can legitimately claim lineal ‘descent’ from the Anuradhapura and Magama settlements of centuries BC, and support this historical claim with numerical weight, they have the rights of firstness available today for such peoples as the Latvians Lithuanians, Estonians, Finns, Poles, Russians(?), etc. In this assertion Firstness” demands a measure of primacy. The problem is ‘How much.’ To neglect this claim is as naïve as dangerous. But recognizing and giving weightage to this principle means some modification of the principle of “equal rights” and thus raises the issue” …….. what degree of modification. 
  5. The geo-political waters sustaining the field of political debate has been muddied by the concept of “traditional homelands” presented initially by the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi [aka the Federal Party] at Maradana on 18th December 1949.[iii] Apart from claiming that they spoke for the Muslims as well, the ITAK asserted rights to both the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Ever since then this concept of “traditional homelands” has been the historical ground on which devolution to both the Northern and Eastern Provinces have been asserted. No attention has been devoted to the arbitrary manner in which the Eastern Province was demarcated by the British in the 19th century and the demographic distribution within that elongated province in 1921 (as one spot check) which witnessed roughly 80-85 % of the people residing in the coastal belt comprising, say 15% of the land area,; while the larger strip running north south was mostly peopled by elephants and wild animals and scattered purana Sinhala or Vädda villages.[iv] The documentary basis for this position has been set out by Gerald Peiris in several publications from the 1980s, but this work is studiously ignored by SL Tamil spokespersons.[v] To this day in 2020 the Tamil political goal of devolution to the north and east is founded on this concept of “traditional homelands” – a concept that posits, or imputes, continuous Tamil settlements in the eastern districts from way back in the Anuradhapura period. The blatant dishonesty of so many Tamil spokespersons and “scholars” on this issue has been quite disgusting.[vi] 
  6. The widespread ‘play’ and force of vengeance in interpersonal relations within all layers of society and amidst all ethnic groups that has been documented by scholars such as Obeyesekere and Kapferer,[vii] as well as incidental ethnographic tales,[viii] means that our society is riddled with animosity and rivalry [at the same time that the expressions of sorrow and the practices of generosity are also widespread]. Vengeance is founded on a combination of suspicion and animosity. When these forces jell into a wider foundation of group loyalty (whether caste group or ethnic group or political party or splinter-from-a-party), the explosive societal outcomes can be devastating as we know from so many instances of localised ethnic confrontation in the recent past as well as the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1958, 1977 and 1983.
  7. The Muslims are now a substantial body people dispersed in many parts of the island with some considerable concentrations in some localities in the Eastern Province, in the Puttalam area and in such pockets as Beruwela, Akurana and Weligama. Their culturally rooted emphasis on the seclusion of their womenfolk tends to sustain some measure of distancing between them and non-Muslim neighbours (however amiable the everyday interactions). It is within this background that the political strands of Wahhabi (Salafi) thinking began insinuating themselves among some elements of the island Muslims (beginning, it seems, even in the 1980s).[ix] Wahhabism is an international current and will not disappear. Its infusion into the ideological currents within Sri Lanka has also been facilitated by (a) the considerable inflow of Saudi monies and grants to Sri Lankan arenas and (b) the many local Muslims who find work in the Middle East.
  8. Sri Lanka, moreover, is burdened with a complicated legal system set up by the British, but also informed by local elements inclusive of joint ownership and resulting partition cases. Obeyesekere’s Land Tenure in Village Ceylon points up the manner in which the law is deployed as means of muscling in on land and my studies of elite formation indicated that middle class personnel, among them proctors and lawyers, built up their assets through the legal process. The interminable postponement of hearings and a process whereby some cases remain contested for 15-25 years are a common story. Who benefits? Answer: every which proctor and lawyer. Since every second MP is a lawyer, this horrendous state-of-affairs will never be subject to reform.
  9. Focusing here on the Sinhala language, the terminology used in official documents academic articles, as well as street talk, to translate the related English concepts of “nation,” nationality,” “ethnic group” and “race” are not standardized. A survey I conducted with scholars and friends revealed considerable variety and confusion.[x] This variation and confusion must surely impact on political discourse and the search for via media in ethnic relations. It may also sustain Argument A above: viz., the equation of “Sri Lankan” with “Sinhalese”.

J1. Colombo is central to the Sri Lankan polity and economy. It has been a hegemonic centre since the 1880s – as manifest in its service as the dominant hub of the road/rail network, the in-migrant flows from the provinces, the concentration of leading businesses and focus of decision-making.[xi] Any political scheme that does not recognize Colombo’s hegemonic role will be imbalanced.

J2. Since a significant number of SL Tamils have lived in Colombo for generations and since SL Tamils have constituted a high proportion of the city population for over 100 years and since many male professionals are products of Royal College, the SL Tamils of Colombo are a major force in the island in their own right. This political clout must be recognized and given due weight in the political system (instead of nestling hidden and powerful as it has happened for the last 70 years).

K = A radical re-ordering of the polity is called for – a re-constitution tailored towards the appeasement of both embittered Tamils and less-bitter Tamils.

K1 = Tamil representatives from the north, the east and Colombo must be provided with statutorily demarcated places in any Cabinet ….

K2 = all District Councils must be abolished within a RE-VAMPED SCHEME which recognises Centre, Province and Grama Niladari units of government …. while

K3 = some limited reductions of the powers of the Provincial Councils should be instituted after debate.

K4 = the provincial boundaries should be radically modified on the advice of a Committee of Peradeniya dons made up of Drs Madduma Bandara, Gerald Peiris, Tudor Silva and Kalana Senaratne assessing the following tentative suggestions and working up their own scheme of a more slim-line governmental structure.

  • The Jaffna Peninsula and its isles as one Province;
  • Mullaitivu-Kilinochchi as another;
  • Mannar-Vavuniya as another;
  • Puttalum & Kurunegala as one;
  • Vavuniya as a separate province ….. and so too Anuradhapura, Polonnuruwa Trincomalee and Batticaloa
  • …with Kalmunai hived off as another and…
  • The boundaries of Monaragala recast so that one segment is attached to Amparai Province; and another to the new “Walawe Province” [see below]
  • and the rest makes up a more compact Monaragala Province;
  • Nuwara Eliya, Uva and Kandy Districts to each be separate Provinces;
  • Colombo Metropolis and Gampaha to be a Province;
  • Kegalle and the wet zone part of Ratnapura to be reconstituted as “Sabaragamuva Province”
  • The drier eastern parts of present Ratnapura to be amalgamated with segments of Monaragala to make up a new “Walawe Province”
  • Hambantota, Matara, Galle and Kalutara to each become a Province.

So, in summary, this radical suggestion proposes a revamped geo-political order with 21 Provinces in which the present District Councils are abolished with several becoming Provinces; while a greater number of Provinces are set up; and, concurrently and as vitally, the SL Tamils and the Plantation Tamils are guaranteed roles in any Cabinet as a statutory right.


Cook, David 2006 Understanding Jihad, University of California Press.

Bruce Kapferer 1982 A Celebration of Demons

Bruce Kapferer 1989 Legends of People, Myths of State ……………………………………………………….. also see https://thuppahis.com/2018/02/19/legends-of-people-myths-of-state/

Gananath Obeyesekere 1967 Land Tenure in Village Ceylon

Gananath Obeyesekere 1975 “Sorcery and Premeditated Murder: The Canalization of Aggression,” Ethnology, XIV:1, 1-23 ………………………………………………………….. reprinted now at https://thuppahis.com/2020/06/04/gananath-obeyesekeres-1975-article-on-murder-by-sorcery/

Gerald Peiris

1985 “An Appraisal of the Concept of a Traditional Tamil Homeland in Sri Lanka,” paper presented at an international conference on ‘Economic Dimensions of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka’, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, August 1985 ….. published in Ethnic Studies Report, IX (1): 1991: 13-39.

2016 Sri Lanka: Land Policy for Sustained Development – to strengthen the Struggle for Survival, Visidunu Prakashakayo, Colombo, 250p. Chapter 12

Michael Roberts

1978    “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation”, Modern Asian Studies, 12:353-76.

1982 Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karava Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931, Cambridge University Press, 382 pages.

2005 Firstness, History, Place & Legitimate Claim to Place-as-Homeland in Comparative Focus, Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 44 pages, ISBN: 955-580-099-5

2005 Narrating Tamil Nationalism: Subjectivities & Issues, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 52 pp, with 30 Plates of striking pictures. ISBN 955-1266-03-X

2019 “Slippages: Where ‘Muslim’ is An Ethnic Label as well as a Religious Typification,”  3 May 2018, https://thuppahis.com/2019/05/03/slippages-where-muslim-is-an-ethnic-label-as-well-as-a-religious-typific Sarvodaya.ation/

2020 “Besetting Problems in the ‘Battle for Harmony’ in Sri Lanka,” 10 Jue 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/06/11/besetting-problems-in-the-battle-for-harmony-in-sri-lanka/#more-43152

Michael Roberts. Percy Colin-Thome & Ismeth Raheem 1989 People Inbetween, Colombo, Sarvodaya.

Yalman, Nur  2017 “Wahhabi Ideology is the Root of Islamic Extremism,” 8 October 2017, https://thuppahis.com/2017/10/08/wahhabi-ideology-is-the-root-of-islamic-extremism/


[i] In an article entitled “Address to Ceylonese Youth” around 1922 (check) Dharmapala’s text slipped into references to “Sinhalese youth” in ways which indicated a concealed equation. His vociferous writings and speeches confirm that he housed a deep antipathy to both the British colonials and certain migrant peoples in the island. It was partly my reading of this powerful current in Sinhala thinking that led me towards a pessimistic assessment of the SL political scenario while at the South Asian Institute in Heidelberg in 1976 (see eventual article: Roberts,  “Barriers to Accommodation,” 1978)

[ii] See Roberts, Firstness, History, Place & Legitimate Claim to Place-as-Homeland in Comparative Focus, 2005.

[iii] The whole text (gained via the enterprise of Ananda Chittambalam) is reproduced at the end of Roberts, Tamil Person and State Pictorial, Colombo, 2014, pp. 273-92.

[iv] Before venturing into assertions on thi topic, every scholar and every journalist must read the relevant sections of Sir Henry Ward’s description of his travels in the eastern arena in the late 1850s  …repeat 1850s [descriptions found in his Volume of Minutes and Speeches  which are in the Leslie De Saram Collection (cupboard) at University of Peradeniya.

[v] See Peiris 1985 and 2016. The 1985 article was presented by KM de Silva and ICES in a booklet entitled Traditional Homelands.

[vi] Among the research work that undermine this set of claims is the London University dissertation produced by the Tamil historian K, Indrapala in the 1960s. Alas, Indrapala turned full circle after he migrated to Sydney in the 1980s and – late in the day in the 1900s – asserted that he had thrown his copy of the dissertation away. He joined one Tamil protagonist in Sydney (Gunasingham) in his assertions of early and continuous Tamil settlements in the north. No explanation has been provided re the irrelevance of his thesis data.

The lengths to which few Tamils will go in this arena is indicated by the fact that the copy of Indrapala’s thesis at SOAS Library is missing (oral information provided by a Tamil gentleman: viz. Nathan Sivasambu). However, there is a copy at London University which is now available from https://ethos.bl.uk (the e-theses online service run by the British Library)…. info thanks to Lucy McCann of the Bodleian Library. As it happens, I have handwritten note-transcripts of relevant segments.

[vii]  See Obeyesekere 1975 …. reproduced also in Thuppahi in 2020; and Kapferer 1983 and 1989.

[viii] Note this example: A PERADENIYA undergrad from the late 1950s has sent me this EMAIL: ….”one of the reputed scholars in Buddhist philosophy attempted through hooniam to bump off another equally reputed scholar in his field, but failed because whatever “magic potion” he buried in the latter’s doorstep was discovered, and was “diffused” by a kattadiya…… This happened in our campus during the time we were there as students or shortly thereafter.”

[ix] This is the inference I have drawn from Ameer Ali’s writings but is subject to verification from him and other authorities.  Central to the inflow of these currents, it seems, was the emergence of the SL Muslim Congress under the late MHM Ashraff from 1981. Ashraff was from the Eastern Province. One can reasonably speculate that competition with the Tamil militant movements and the LTTE, and the searing thread of killing violence in the eastern regions, promoted Muslim extremism and the attractions of Wahhabi thinking.

[x] This survey has never been written up. My notes and tables are in my study in Adelaide and thus are not accessible at the moment.

[xi] The impact of this process during British rule is illustrated in the arguments found in chapter 7 within People Inbetween (1989) – most tellingly in the map on page 325 depicting migration to Colombo by 1971 in graph-flow form by my geographer pals Kusuma Gunawardena and Percy Silva.


Filed under accountability, ancient civilisations, British colonialism, centre-periphery relations, chauvinism, communal relations, discrimination, economic processes, Eelam, electoral structures, ethnicity, governance, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, Islamic fundamentalism, land policies, landscape wondrous, language policies, legal issues, life stories, modernity & modernization, Muslims in Lanka, nationalism, politIcal discourse, power politics, reconciliation, riots and pogroms, Royal College, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, TNA, transport and communications, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, vengeance, world events & processes

4 responses to “Honeycombed with Societal and Political Fissures: Sri Lanka Now & Ever Before

  1. Pingback: Challenging Michael Roberts … with Straight Left and Right Hook | Thuppahi's Blog

  2. Pingback: Reading Roberts on Sri Lanka’s Socio-Political Ailments: A Letter to Roberts | Thuppahi's Blog

  3. Chandra Wickramasinghe


  4. AN EMAIL NOTE From RANJAN ABAYASEKARA in Whyalla, June 15 June 2020: “You point out sad realities of an Island that thinks itself a ‘paradise’ – yet many of all ethnicities endeavour to leave it …. See Words below extracted from https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/road-to-dictatorship-paved-with-three-triumphs/ = ……………………
    “Though liberals and pluralists bleat the merits of racial and religious equality, they inhabit not Lanka but cloud cuckoo land. In truth the consciousness of the majority in this land is a Sinhala-Buddhist ethos. The deep inscrutable emotional wellspring of this nation’s psyche is that it is the land of the Lion-people and the Dagoba-worshiper. Whether you think this good or bad, right or mistaken is worthy of discourse, but that it is so cannot be disputed. As one R.R. Wasala ecstatically proclaims “the dominant Sinhala Buddhist civilizational foundation of this island nation” will persist….”

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