The Democratization Process in Ceylon, 1832-1948

Michael Roberts: “The Democratization Process in Sri Lanka,”  being the text of an Illustrated Lecture on Video presented to The May 18 Memorial Foundation in Korea in early September 2020 …. as part of a series encompassing several countries — organised by Professor Inrae You. The Lecture was, as I understood it, for highschool students.

The democratisation process began in the period of British rule in the 20th century. It would however be unwise to start with the early 20th century. One should look at the prehistory of the island of Ceylon before that. Ceylon, Ceilão, Sihalē had forms of autocratic kingship well before the European colonial powers came to Asia and set up their colonies.

Rajasinghe II of Sihale ruling from Mahanuvara and receiving homage (dakuma) from the Dutch

As you know, there are many pre-colonial forms of governments; there are some areas of the world where they are just tribal peoples; but other regions have had reasonably well-developed states and ruling classes with considerable intellectual capacity.

Sri Lanka or Sihalē as it was known way back, was fortunate in being able to develop a civilisation from about the second century BC. These people were under a king and under the autocratic rule of kings. They developed irrigation technology in the northern plains and east and south-eastern plains of Sri Lanka from the second century BC and this civilisation, the Sinhalese civilisation, (also known as Sinhale and various such names) lasted till the 12-13th century.

For reasons that are not entirely clear and but including, perhaps, salination — salt development — in the reservoirs and because of political decline, the Sinhala people moved to the south-west and central areas of Sri Lanka from the 13th century onwards and the irrigation civilization declined. These peoples, other than the aboriginal peoples left in some of the remnant jungles, were under autocratic rule, with power emanating from the top and flowing downward. There was a class order organized by caste, so it was a layered society, but with a king at the apex.

Now, that was the situation when the Portuguese arrived in the early 16th century. That was the situation in the South-West, while in the North, there was a subkingdom or kingdom ruled by Tamil kings or sub-kings. In the East too, there were Tamils, but they were considered to be part of the Sinhala kingdom of ‘Sitawaka’ and subsequently part of the Sinhala kingdom of Kandy. In fact, the Tamil chieftains of the eastern coast paid homage to the king of Kandy in the 16th and 17th century.

However, these kings were now faced with a threat coming from the Portuguese and the Dutch and they lost some territories on the coast to the Portuguese and then to the Dutch. But they fought. There were battles between the ‘Sitawaka’ kingdom and the Portuguese, then subsequently between the Kandyan peoples under their king and the Portuguese. And then the Dutch came in the mid 17th century and displaced the Portuguese. They too had battles initially with the king of Kandy; but soon worked out a via media and ruled the coast in the south-west and the east over roughly 150 years. But while ruling the coast, the Dutch were quite happy to pay homage to the king of Kandy and sent embassies to Kandy and spoke of themselves as “His Majesty’s vassals in Colombo.”

Hulfts’ embassy enroute to Kandy in

So, what you see in the 17th and 18th centuries are forms of autocratic rule, where the king was His Majesty. There was His Majesty and there was bowing and scraping and obeisance, where people accepted his power and greatness……………… and in a sense holiness.

This is seen in some of the pictures and drawings that are presented those days and [was quite marked] when the Dutch ambassador knelt before the king. So, you had forms of super-ordination and subordination. Sometimes the subordination was quite abject and servile.

So, what did this mean? This meant that power flowed from the top down and people at the bottom expected decisions from above, and sometimes from the Majesty above, not from anybody else. Alongside this system of super-ordination and subordination, you also had considerable influence, informal influence, wielded by the Buddhist monks of the major monasteries, the Malwatte chapter and the Asgiriya chapter, centred now, in the 18th century, in Kandy.

And here too, who is the overarching, shall I say, pontifical authority? None other than the Buddha represented by his statues. So, if you go into temples or if you look at temple processions, if you look at the temple paintings, if you look at the temple statuary and sculptures, what do you get? People within the umbrella and power of the Buddha and the dhamma, ………. so that you have a concept known as ‘Pirivarāgena’ and that is seen also in processions, where people are following the leader and expecting benefits from the leader and decisions to come from top to bottom. But the point here is that the people below are not taking decisions. They expect direction from above.

Now this feudal order – or. if you want to call it, pre-colonial, pre-capitalist medieval order of power and authority that existed from way back but was now having an 18th century form — had to face the intervention of the British, who because of European conflicts, came and sought to get hold of the Dutch colonies in Asia. They displaced the Dutch in 1795-96 in the low country and then attempted to conquer Kandy. They failed in 1803, but in 1815 used internal troubles within the kingdom of Kandy to conquer Kandy, using military power, assisted by the naval power, which was able to send troops from the east as well as from the south and the west and they conquered Kandy in 1815, got hold of the king and deported him.

So, they were now ruling Kandy, but immediately in 1817-1818 faced a rebellion which they put down very fiercely with lots of…well massacres and killings and a scorched earth policy. So, the rebellion failed and the British consolidated their rule. Thus, from 1815-18, Ceylon was under British rule.

Aahh Britain!

 Lt. Gen. Robert-Brownrigg Governor-of-Ceylon 1812-20

Consider Britain in the  early 19th century: it was benefiting from the industrial revolution, the development of railways, better technology, (inclusive of telecommunications & the telegraph) better armaments and better military capacity, but also in an island like Ceylon, benefiting from British naval power and their ability to move troops from anywhere to any part of the island.

The Anicut at Ella

So, from 1815-18, you witness a form of autocratic colonial rule, where the head of state was a governor. This governor also had all the trappings of imperial power and so decisions flowed from top to bottom. This power was now, as I said, supported or strengthened and consolidated by the ability to build roads and railways. A process began of connecting the highland terrain, the mountainous terrain of Sri Lanka to the capital and to the Ports through road building, through bridge building. Therefore, part of Britain’s industrial capacity was the ability to build bridges and not depend on ferries. So, eventually, a railway and road network was built, specially to the centre of the island, because the British sought to develop a process of capital accumulation. Through companies, through individuals and in Sri Lanka this initially meant the expansion of coffee cultivation.

Main road & rail network by 1946

Later coffee was replaced by tea and also supplemented by rubber. From quite earlier on, from the 1840s, coconut plantations were also developed. So, you got capitalism through the development of coconut plantations and coffee plantations as well as some cinnamon and citronella and other plantations in the low country. That then was the set-up…………… processes that the people of Sri Lanka were subject to and from which some of them benefitted because it was not purely a British enterprise. They British rulers needed ancillary services which were provided by the local people.

Now what were these ancillary services? They needed middle level administrators. For this purpose, they started education in English [and] they made English the language of administration. So you had then from within the different local peoples, you had the emergence of a middle class; lower middle class and upper middle class. Educated people or wealthier people who were benefitting, gaining benefits from British rule, but under an autocratic dispensation.

And how did the middle class emerge? Partly through education and the school system which the British developed specially in the towns and in certain areas. Among those whom they deployed in these services were the Burghers who were mixed blood descendants. Some of them were Dutch descendants and some of them Portuguese descendants who were living in the coastal areas. [These personnel] picked up the new language of English and began to work under the British. The Tamils in the North also benefitted from missionary schools that had been set up from very early on and developed a lower middle class, and a middle class who were working for the British, not only in the North since many of them came to the South and came to Colombo.

So, there is then a certain movement of the population and the development of a middle class cum capitalist class, some of them with educational skills, but some of them becoming wealthy through trade, through manufacture, manufacture like furniture for instance was something that the Sri Lankans were doing. Coffee was transported in barrels. Those who made barrels became wealthy. Some enterprising Sri Lankans, many of them from the Karava, Salagama and Durava castes, became very very wealthy. Also some of them became Christians.

And so they were able to develop plantations and use their wealth to consolidate their position. This process occurred in the 19th century…….. it was a form of modernisation involving capitalism, involving new administrative systems. Many Sri Lankans — or “Ceylonese as I would call them — benefitted from this process and participated in the process.

Governor Gordon during a durbar

However, it was still top-down. There was a governor ruling. However, this governor decided, well the British decided, that they needed advice. They set up a small Legislative Council of officials, but with three nominated locals, well-to-do people, educated locals were also nominated. This was just an advisory council. But here is a beginning of, well I suppose, delegation of authority, a beginning of colonial peoples gaining some influence through the Legislative Council and not only the legislative council. In four towns, namely Kandy, Colombo, Galle and Jaffna, they set up municipal councils later on. So, here too then they had locals entering the municipal council and gaining experience in debate, in presenting arguments, in learning, well, how to politely question and challenge those above them. So that was taking place.

At the same time, there was the questions arising from a system of colonial dominance that was girded and threaded by racism. The British most of them anyway were racist. They believed that the whites were superior. Some, I mean I have seen diaries written by British women, who looked down on the natives, and didn’t like colour. There was a racial prejudice against dark skin, against blacks. They looked down on the local brown and dark-skinned people: you could see it in their faces and you could see it in their expressions. When you face that sort of domination, some people anyway, develop a sense of resistance. They did not like it, so there was the reaction against white racism coming from Ceylonese, Sri Lankans.

That was one aspect, but even more important, apart from racism and white prejudice you had Christian missionary prejudices. The evangelical zealots of that era thought, you know, ‘Ho Buddhism, Hinduism, all this, they are worshiping idols.’ They looked down on these religions. They talked of ‘Idolatry’ and they denounced it, attacked it. So, you had, then, the drive to make, ah yes to rescue, these idiot idol worshippers and make them into Christians. Whether it was American Protestants or Catholics or Methodists or Anglicans, it didn’t matter. There was this missionary endeavour to convert people. Now that generated strong resistance from educated Tamil Hindu spokesmen like Arumugam Navalar and from educated Sinhala Buddhist priests and some Sinhala educated literati. So, you had challenges …………………..these people began to challenge the white superior missionaries.

This began in Jaffna from the 1840s. It also began in that same period in the south west of the island but specially in the 1860s and 70s when there was a famous debate in 1873 in Panadura where a Sinhalese Christian priest took on, and was challenged, a number of Buddhist monks led by Mohottiwatte Gunananda thera and so then you [witness] a battle for religious minds between the so called superior Christian forces and the colonised dominated Sinhala Buddhist forces in the population.

A painting depicting the Panadura vaadaya with Mohottivatte thera prominent

This process developed further in the late 19th century, continued resistance and that resistance moved on and was taken up by the lay Sinhalese spokespersons, usually males writing novels, developing Sinhala newspapers and challenging the British and challenging the Christians, challenging and resisting Westernisation. They began to emphasise local practices in how to dress. So, this was a political challenge taking place through cultural modalities, through a focus on cultural traits, from the late 19th century on into the 20th century.

One branch of this cultural resistance was the temperance movement. Because some Buddhists said, alcohol has been introduced by the British and this drunkenness is a feature of British society, specially at the upper levels of society. They began to criticise the Westernised practices of some Ceylonese as well as the British. So, what you get, well I suppose you can present it as Sinhalese nationalism or as Ceylonese nationalism, challenging some of the practices and lifestyles of the ruling classes including some Sri Lankan Westernised ruling classes, who had adopted a Westernised lifestyle.

So: that was going on from the late 19th century and flowing on into the 20th century and continued and in fact linked up eventually with what’s called the 1956 revolution under the Bandaranaikes and the SLFP. But that’s one broad strand of political resistance, one broad strand of democratization — with its own problems [insofar as the processes generated other problems].

That strand is still there, but at the same time, especially among the English educated Ceylonese whether Tamil, Sinhalese, Burgher, Malay, Muslim, there were some who began to, because of their education, because they looked at European history, to be influenced by the intellectual currents of Europe.

What were the intellectual currents? Notions of Parliamentary democracy — what’s called liberalism or liberal democracy, they are similar terms — and also ideas of nationalism associated with various authors like Herder, Rousseau and others, the ideas that went into the French revolution, the ideas that led to parliamentary reforms in Britain. Don’t forget women could not vote there in Britain till the 20th century so even the extension of voting tights in Britain [and Europe] took some time. It was what only in 1832-1867 in UK that the franchise was extended.

Colombo Municipal Council c. 1907 … and members of the Orient Club in the 1890s including James Peiris, FR Senanayake, Frederick Dornhost, HJC Pereira, EJ Samerawickame….

So, there were parliamentary reforms in the ruling country and the Sri Lankans of the early 20th century learnt about this. They picked up on these processes …the political thinking of Europe was adopted by some Sri Lankan intellectuals and they began to challenge the British in European coinage. They began to challenge the British in European language in terms of representation, democracy, suffrage, all that. This was mostly in the early 20th century, though there are some strands which can be traced further back. For example, around 1906, Ceylon Social Reform Society was set up with Ananda Coomaraswamy fairly active in it and they began asking for certain changes and improvements. There was also the Ceylon National Association which was a political association asking for more representation. That was in the first decade of the 20th century. And then in 1917, a small group in Colombo, a small group of educated Ceylonese set up the Ceylon Reform League and the President was Ponnambalam Arunachalam from Jaffna, but living in Colombo, that reform league became the Ceylon National Congress in 1919 and from 1919 to 1940s, and actually up to 1951, the Ceylon National Congress was one of the leading drivers, associations, asking for greater representation, for greater power to be handed over to the local Ceylonese.

So, they were the leaders of the nationalist struggle, but asking for liberal reforms. In 1919/1920 the British tried to accommodate them by giving them something, by expanding the Legislative Council. That change proved unworkable and then the British government in its wisdom in late 1927 decided to send the Donoughmore Commission out to Sri Lanka, to kind of re-work the political order in Sri Lanka. Now this British government was a Labour Party government. So you had changes in Britain, where there is a Labour Party, [constituting] a more liberal regime in Britain with Sidney Web and others having influence. They sent a commission headed by Lord Donoughmore but having in Sir Drummond Shiels and Francis Butler, as two of the three commissioners, people of, shall I say, reformist, progressive attitudes.

So, the Donoughmore Commission came in 1927-1928 and they, believe it or not, suggested that there should be a new state council system, where, shall we say, there were three key posts held by British officials, but seven were to be Sri Lankan. So, it was, in a sense, a system where there was a 7/10ths independence roughly but with a governor still on top. But not only 7/10 independence: more radically, the Donoughmore Commission recommended  near universal suffrage: they wanted people, men over 21 to get the vote and women over 31. The Legislative Council then said well you might as well give the vote to all men and women over 21.

The Board of Ministersin the second State Council 1936

So: that was going on from the late 19th century and flowed on into the 20th century and continued and in fact linked up eventually with what’s called the 1956 revolution under the Bandaranaikes and the SLFP. But that’s one broad strand of political resistance, one broad strand of democratization — with its own problems [insofar as the processes generated other problems].

That strand is still there but at the same time, especially among the English educated Ceylonese whether Tamil, Sinhalese, Burgher, Malay, Muslim, there were some who began to, because of their education, because they looked at European history, to be influenced by the intellectual currents of Europe.

What were the intellectual currents? Notions of Parliamentary democracy — what’s called liberalism or liberal democracy, they are similar terms — and also ideas of nationalism associated with various authors like Herder, Rousseau and others, the ideas that went into the French revolution, the ideas that led to parliamentary reforms in Britain. Don’t forget women could not vote there in Britain till the 20th century so even the extension of voting tights in Britain [and Europe] took some time. It was what only in1832-1867 in UK that the franchise was extended.

So, there were Parliamentary reforms in the ruling country and the Sri Lankans of the early 20th century learnt about this. They picked up on these processes …the political thinking of Europe was adopted by some Sri Lankan intellectuals and they began to challenge the British in European coinage. They began to challenge the British in European language in terms of representation, democracy, suffrage, all that. This was mostly in the early 20th century, though there are some strands which can be traced further back. For example, around 1906, Ceylon Social Reform Society was set up with Ananda Coomaraswamy fairly active in it and they began asking for certain changes and improvements. There was also the Ceylon National Association which was a political association asking for more representation. That was in the first decade of the 20th century. And then in 1917, a small group in Colombo, a small group of educated Ceylonese set up the Ceylon Reform League and the President was Ponnambalam Arunachalam from Jaffna, but living in Colombo, that reform league became the Ceylon National Congress in 1919 and from 1919 to 1940s, and actually up to 1951, the Ceylon National Congress was one of the leading drivers, associations, asking for greater representation, for greater power to be handed over to the local Ceylonese.

So, they were the leaders of the nationalist struggle, but asking for liberal reforms. In 1919/1920 the British tried to accommodate them by giving them something, by expanding the Legislative Council. That change proved unworkable and then the British government in its wisdom in late 1927 decided to send the Donoughmore Commission out to Sri Lanka, to kind of re-work the political order in Sri Lanka. Now this British government was a Labour Party government. So you had changes in Britain, where there is a Labour Party, [constituting] a more liberal regime in Britain with Sidney Web and others having influence. They sent a commission headed by Lord Donoughmore but having in Sir Drummond Shiels and Francis Butler, as two of the three commissioners, people of, shall I say, reformist, progressive attitudes.

So, the Donoughmore Commission came in 1927-1928 and they, believe it or not, suggested that there should be a new state council system, where, shall we say, there were three key posts held by British officials, but seven were to be Sri Lankan. So, it was, in a sense, a system where there was a 7/10ths independence roughly but with a governor still on top. But not only 7/10 independence, more radically, the Donoughmore Commission recommended  near universal suffrage: they wanted people, men over 21 to get the vote and women over 31. The Legislative Council said well you might as well give the vote to all men and women over 21.

So what happened: in 1931, Ceylon got 7/10 independence with universal suffrage. It was a very radical move and it was an important step in the progress towards decolonisation, the progress of democratisation because here is the vote, universal suffrage.

On this change in 1931 there are some unstudied areas. It is my speculation that these radical suggestions, O.K, coming from a progressive element in the British political dispensation of that time, it is my speculation that because Sri Lanka was an island and because of British naval power they were able to experiment and give a lot to Sri Lanka …………………. because if they [the British] wanted, they could take it back. You mustn’t forget [the dominance of British naval power in the Indian Ocean that existed till 1941 when the Japanese gave them a bit of a shock. So, this naval power was a background factor which we have to take into account.

Whatever it is, the Donoughmore reforms set up a State Council, which created a Board of Ministers, consisting of three British officials in key positions, governor up there, but seven ministers to be Sri Lankan. They set it up in 1931. So, this was a considerable handing over of power, more power than the Indian National Congress and the Indians had at that time, [though in 1935, India also got a substantial dose of power and authority]. But Sri Lankans got there before.

I think they got it because of the liberal and progressive thinking of the  Donoughmore Commission and the government that was there in Britain, but also because of the British naval capacities. Be that as it may, this changed the system of British rule.

While the Ceylon National Congress continued, and while they continued to agitate and while they were soon joined and even outflanked by leftist elements namely both the Communist Party  and the Trotskyist parties who came up in the 1930s and you had a dual challenge now to the British, ……………………………….. well a threefold challenge. The third force were the Tamils who also wanted independence but had concerns – they were worried about the Sinhalese majority. But the Tamils themselves were divided.

But then there were the mainstream conservative Sri Lankans who dominated the State Council and then there were the Leftist forces, who were more radical, more demanding, more virulent and more anti-Western, well also very capable guys: just look at the capacities of Philip Gunawardena, Colvin R.de Silva, N.M. Perera, etc. They were there in the 1930s beginning to challenge the British.

The LSSP leaders with Bracegirdle in 1937 — a challenge to the British plantation order

And the State Council was really, in a sense the chief engine because they had considerable authority, they were able to dispense welfare and resources. So, the Ceylon National Congress was kind of side-lined. It was there [and continued to voice demands], but it was basically side-lined. It was the Board of Ministers that was calling the shots. At this point, in fact the pressures from the  Board of Ministers and the Sri Lankan demands reached such a level that in 1938, the Governor of his time, Sir Andrew Caldecott, a very capable man, decided that this won’t do and he gave in to some demands and proposed changes that gave Sri Lanka even more power than before. These are the Caldecott Reform Proposals of 1938, a much-neglected arena, neglected because nothing happened. Why did nothing happen? ….. because this was in 1938/39 and the Second World War broke out in 1939.

Sir Andrew Caldecott

So, the Second World War actually slowed down whatever progress was feasible under the Caldecott suggestions. The world situation moved beyond that.

But what did the Second World War also do for Sri Lanka? It made Sri Lanka more important. Because, India, there was the Japanese threat in Burma and Thailand and there was a threat to India that way. But the Japanese threat was mainly in the Pacific and in the South China Bay and then Singapore fell in 1941 when the Japanese conquered Malaysia and Singapore.

So Ceylon became very, very important in the British and Western war effort, and the bases, specially the naval bases Trincomalee and Colombo and the airfields in Katunayake, Koggala and Trincomalee became very important and Ceylon then was also where Lord Mountbatten was in overall charge of British war strategy in Asia. He set up [military] headquarters at Peradeniya in Ceylon ….

a Blenheim taking off from Colombo racecourse airfield Britiah naval might

But what did the British government do for the political system [of the island]: they sent Admiral Geoffrey Layton to be the chief alongside the Governor, so the Governor became kind of side-lined with Layton seated [metaphorically] next to him. It was Layton who called the shots during the war years. In this situation, well the Trotskyists and others were actually put into jail.

During the war years 1939-45 the Ceylon National Congress was trying, …. it was still making demands. But this [political association] was, in reality, a sideshow. Who was important within the Ceylonese ruling class? It was the new President of the Board of Ministers, one D.S. Senanayake, a very astute politician. A landowner, yes, a capitalist, but a very astute politician. He was important but not only him, so was Oliver Goonetilleke, later knighted and known widely as “OEG.” OEG was made Civil Defence Commissioner and deputy to Layton. So, here’s an Admiral in charge of the war effort. Under him is O. E. Goonetilleke, but OEG is buddy buddies with D.S. Senanayake and their offices are next to each other.

So, after this, from about 1940-41, the leading challenge, the manoeuvring, the political shaping of the Sri Lankan movement to independence was led by D.S Senanayake and O.E Goonetilleke working in tandem, but with advisory people.

 Ivor Jennings

And who was advising O.E Goonetilleke and D.S? None other than Ivor Jennings. Because Ivor Jennings the head of the University College and a university chancellor, was also Deputy Civil Defence Commissioner working under OEG. So, this team of OEG, D.S Senanayake and Ivor Jennings were the ones who schemed and planned the way for Sri Lanka to get independence in the years 1941 to 1948.

It was a slow progress. By 1945, the war was over: Japan had surrendered. The Board of Ministers and D.S. immediately put up certain demands from Britain asking for a commission, asking for independence and they went to Britain to argue this and what did Britain tell D.S. Senanayake? We can’t sort this out just yet. India is a major problem. We have to sort that out first. Then we will deal with you.

So, in a way, what was happening in India delayed Sri Lanka’s progress by a couple of years or so. Because in 1945 D.S. [told the British leaders to their face]: “how did India help you during the war? We helped you. Why don’t you give us our due?” The British had no answer for that, but they said, no India is more important. Obviously, it’s more important. It was wealthier, more important for the British.

So, we had to wait, but, eventually, they sent over the Soulbury Commission. I think there was an official boycott of that Commission. The Board of Ministers refused to meet them but who was in charge of the arrangements for the Soulbury Commission? None other than OEG – that kattaya [cunning schemer]  clever, cunning organizer and he made sure that the opinions of the Ministers and D.S Senanayake were conveyed to the Soulbury Commission. He organized their programme and eventually the Soulbury Commission recommended, full dominion status and Sri Lanka got independence in 1948, a bit later than India, Independence but independence that one could say was perhaps flawed in certain ways.

But it was total independence. Because, as part of this independence, D.S Senanayake and Cabinet agreed, had a defence agreement with Britain because Sri Lanka was important for the British interests in the Indian Ocean and the East so they had a defence agreement — the bases of Koggala, Trinco, Katunayake with British service.

Note that I was born and bred in Galle and I have been to Koggala and I have seen the British soccer team play our guys in Galle in the early 1950s. So the British were still there n the early 1950s and of course, the Leftists complained that Ceylon was still under the imperial thumb and that we were still servants of the British and that the Brits were bound to keep these bases. But latter, when a new government, a radical government came up in 1956, there was no problem in asking the British to leave and the British had to leave. So legally, these bases were there on sufferance with the agreement of the Sri Lankan government because for one thing the Sri Lankan armed forces did not have the capacity to defend Sri Lanka. So in a sense, DS and others in pragmatic ways, palmed [the defence of Ceylon] off on the British, because they were concentrating on more radical things,

They were not totally idiots…….not totally conservative because in 1953 they signed a rubber rice deal with China, refused pressures from the West and they signed. Quite a radical step in reaching agreement with China on exchanging rubber for rice. So, they were while conservative, while capitalist, they were not totally idiotic.

However, I’d like to raise questions. OK, so it was independence and now universal suffrage from 1931 and independence from 1948. Those independence day ceremonies from 1948-1949  ……… they are interesting to watch on You Tube. But there are lessons one has to pursue.

Democratisation? getting rid of colonial rule …..  having people elect the chief ministers from 1931 and then electing a fully independent government in 1948 meant democratization Yes.

But there is a But: namely, one qualification: one set of people had limited voting rights. These were the plantation workers who had come from India from the late 19th century and had been residing there for a long time. These people are known as “Indian Tamils”; most of them are plantation workers, but not all, there are traders and others. Now ….. only limited numbers had the vote in 1931 and even less so in 1948. This was/is the non-representative, not wholly democratic aspect of the 1948 situation.

And well the Sri Lankan leaders of 1948 have been criticised for that, criticised especially by the Leftists. Now, the story is not that simple. I mean it was a very complex situation. Let me put it this way. P. de. S. Kularatne who is not a conservative but I suppose one could say he was a pro-Sinhalese radical – he was part of the Bandaranaike government. P. de S Kularatne once – and he was a headmaster – he said, “the problem with these people – these plantation Tamils, is that they have one foot in Sri Lanka and two feet in India.

This [description] is not wholly untrue: these people had had strong links with India – but Kularatne’s position also reflects certain Sinhalese prejudices. But the problem is that they were plantation workers and many radical thinking Sri Lankans — Sinhalese Sri Lankans — generally looked on the plantations with hostility because they were seen as a Western capitalist [intrusion]. So, their main target was the white British rulers and the pukka sahibs in the plantations. But in the process they were also prejudiced against the Indian Tamil plantation labourers. To understand this, all you have to look at the writings and presentations of Bernard Aluwihare, who was a great follower of Nehru but when it came to the plantation issue and the Indian Tamils, he was conservative. He didn’t want any [voting] power given to the plantation workers.

Thus, there are all sorts of ironies and anomalies in the democratic process and that you can look at, find out by looking at the positions taken by different politicians. So there was this issue of the plantation labour which continued. In 1964 when Mrs. Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister there was a Sirima-Shasthri pact to sort that out, well one step in the process, and then there was a repatriation of quite a number of plantation Tamils, who went back to India with assistance. But those who remained eventually got the vote I think in 1983 or so under a right wing UNP government, so now they have the vote. Not only that, Nuwara Eliya District has a majority of Indian Tamil plantation worker people, well Indian Tamil voters – they are not …some of whom are plantation workers but not all are. So, they have now a bastion of sorts, politically speaking. They therefore work in alliance with the Sinhalese parties rather than with the Tamil parties of the North. So that has been a complicated factor and a side stream which you can’t neglect when you are looking at democratisation. Because these are working people who have helped produce the wealth of the country and who have suffered and who were, well, very subordinate till I’d say the last 30/40 years when some had got educated and got positions, not all  but they are still, they are still among the working class the majority of them.

But one thing they’ve done: they have produced a guy called Muttiah Muralitharan, who is a godsend, has been a godsend to cricket but also shown that he is a sensible fellow who is not easily manipulated by ‘Lords’ from England like David Cameron and others. He refused to kow-tow to them. He has been a relatively sensible voice in the cricketing world.

So yes democratisation ….. but with universal suffrage. But I think there still are major problems. We secured independence in 1948 – under right wing government capitalists whose [principal opponents then were Leftists]. But actually, it was not the leftists who overturned the right-wing ruling elements, but Sinhala Buddhist forces coming up with a programme to reduce the power of the English educated ruling class of Sri Lanka. This they did through the vote, led by an English educated capitalist called Bandaranaike. They displaced the ruling elements, who had won independence. They seized power in 1956 on a programme, which in short form is known as Sinhala Only. So, it was an attack on the dominance of the English language and on the dominance of the Westernised English-speaking elite including the Burghers.

Bandaranaike in full flow

So, as a result of what happened in 1956, a political revolution through the vote, a democratic political revolution through the vote, from 1956 you had an overturn. What did this do? For one thing, some of the Westernised elements, especially the Burghers began leaving Sri Lanka. The Tamils however felt that they now were second class citizens. So, this sharpened the rift, between Sinhalese and Tamils.

So, here’s democratisation, but sharpening the ethnic divide. Also leaving/migrating from Ceylon, were anglicised Western people while the Sinhalese became the language of government. These developments sharpened conflicts with the Tamils.

But at the same time, English was still de-facto, a powerful shaper of class advantage. Thus, that’s why some of the Sinhala educated, the vernacular educated, whether Sinhalese or Tamils, but especially the Sinhalese, saw the English language as a sword. So, here’s democratisation, sharpening class conflict between the Tamil and Sinhala speaking persons and the bilingual people. So that became an issue in the 1960s and 70s and there were rebellions…and a complex story.

Let me add to the complexity. Then this whole issue of democratisation, for the vote in 1948, the 1956 ‘revolution’, and during the 1960s, the voting system was organized according to single member constituencies, you did not have PR or proportional representation. I have a feeling that if we had a system of PR from 1948, some of what happened in the 50s and 60s would not have taken place. Because PR could be a fairer system. But we didn’t have it and so I think there were imbalances in representation but this theory, this is a theory, a speculation, I got it from Robert Kearney, a political scientist, but it has to be tested out by other scholars.

So: democratisation is not a simple issue. How do you set up a voting system? All the nitty gritty of voting has a bearing on democratisation. So, that’s one lesson I’ll present to you today.

But there are other aspects and that’s what I call the political influence, the subterranean political weight, of cultural practices, which can be very deeply ingrained among the people. This is a very tentative theory, but [let me voice it].

Democracy means participation in decision making. OK, you set up people with authority, but authority has to be limited by ability to listen and ability to take decisions in a relatively egalitarian, consultative process. One of the problems in Sri Lanka is the fact that people at the bottom look to the top for decisions. They pay great respect to people with power. They kow-tow to power. Not only do they kow-tow to power, they want their everyday problems, here at the grassroots, the decisions to be taken by the guy right at the top, not by anybody in-between. So, they go straight to the top. It’s a top-down flow of authority, which as a form of administration is inefficient. A single person at the top cannot take one million decisions in the course of a month. He has to be able to delegate.

Thus, there is, I think, inadequate delegation of authority in Sri Lanka. A democracy requires organized, rational delegation of authority, but if people demand all decisions to be taken by the lokka at the top, by the big man at the top, it is inefficient and it creates inefficiency. But it also creates obeisance, acceptance of the power of the guy at the top. It actually conduces towards authoritarian rule …………………… kingship, modern forms of democratic kingship and this is seen in the bearing of big men, prime ministers, presidents.

*****  **********

SOME READINGS which are not part of the Video Lecture presented to the Korean audience

Roberts: “Some pillars for Lanka’s future,” Frontline, vol 26/12, 19 June 2009.

Roberts: “The Rajapakse Regime & the Fourth Estate,” http://www.groundviews.org, 8 December 2009.

Roberts: “The Rajapakse Regime: Brickbats, Plaudits,” http://www.groundviews.org, 16 December 2009.

Roberts: “The Sinhala Mindset,” www. thuppahi.wordpress.com, Dec. 2009

Roberts: Tamil Tigers & Their Practices of Homage,” http://www.thuppahi.wordpress.com, Dec. 2009

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