Political Crisis and Ethnic Conflicts in Sri Lanka: A Rejoinder to Michael Roberts

K. M. de Silva, being an article published in the Ethnic Studies  Report, Vol. 6/1, January 1988 …. a riposte to a Review of his book Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multi-Ethnic Societies: Sri Lanka, 1880-1985, (1985)


I have long believed that the author of a book under review should not bother to write replies to reviewers however perverse he believes the latter to be. After all he has had his say at greater length than the reviewer. My present departure from this practice, and the response I write to Michael Roberts’s review of my book Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multi-Ethnic Societies: Sri Lanka 1880-1985 stems from two considerations. Invited to write a short review (1,500 words or so) in the style of the present journal Michael Roberts writes a review essay of 20,000 words. It has been reduced to about 2/3rds its length for our journal but it is still the longest review we have published. Secondly, he proceeds to write two reviews of the same book, one for this journal, and one for another [see p. 61 above, Michael Roberts 1987 (a)]

Michael Roberts does not believe in brevity in reviews. Indeed, he never writes a short review; it is always a review article or, as in this instance, a review essay, in which he proceeds to show how he would have written the book under review if he had been asked to write it himself; in the process, as in this instance, his views, opinions and theories abound in his reviews. He is not a man for short sprints, a 100 metres dash or even a 400 metres sprint, but is essentially a long distance runner, a 5,000 or 10,000 metres man. Sometimes, as in this instance, it is a cross-country run where he frequently meanders away from the path laid out for runners, and gets hopelessly lost before he returns to the track.

One of his main criticisms of my book is that I have written a book on the theme of management (or mismanagement, as he chooses to see it) of ethnic relations and ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, without the moral indignation which he regards as essential to the task. To that charge I readily plead guilty. He is, consciously or unconsciously, an adherent of Edward Gibbon’s view of history as the record of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of man. It is perhaps the right approach in looking at ethnic conflict whether in Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland or the Punjab, but few can handle a seething undercurrent of scorn and sarcasm with the restraint and subtlety of Gibbon and mere mortals like us should be well advised not to generate more moral indignation than our modest literacy skills can cope with.

Michael Roberts’s review of my book provides several rich nuggets of evidence in support of my cautionary words on the perils of letting moral indignation guide one in any study of prolonged ethnic conflict. For example, he asserts on p.49 above that in: “…combination these racial pogroms [riots directed against the Tamils] amount to a damning condemnation of those who participated in them and ipso facto of the institutions, and the society which nurtured such violent persons”.

The first part of the charge will find general support from a wide range of people, but few would agree with his root-and-branch condemnation of the “institutions and society that nurtured such people.”

Indeed that unrestrained general condemnation of a “society” (a code word in this instance for the Sinhalese) is as good example as we are ever likely to get of an author generating more moral indignation than he can contain and letting it spill out in intemperate and awkward language, hasty judgments and skewed assessments.

There has been so much passion spent on the analysis of Sri Lanka’s several episodes of ethnic conflict, so much moral indignation generated, that I think the most appropriate tone for a scholar in dealing with these is dispassionate analysis, to look for the truth as one sees it in so far as that is possible in these matters, and to aim at a revelation of the complexities of the problem, – and the problems are indeed very complex – rather the one-side-is-always-right-and-the-other-is­-totally-wrong approach of those who indulge in an excess of moral indignation.


In my book I set out to look at the management of ethnic rivalries and tensions in Sri Lanka over the last century, that is to say over the last sixty years of colonial rule, and nearly forty years (my book stopped at 1985) since independence. The last decade, i. e. the post 1977 phase, forms about a fifth of the text (i. e. pp. 287-358) and the riots of 1983 are dealt with in only 3 pages. Yet most of Michael Roberts’s review essay deals with these 70 pages of text, and the concluding chapter of the book. Two themes form the core of his criticism of the book. The first is that the Sinhalese in general and the Sinhalese Buddhists in particular have been and are beastly to the island’s minorities. The corollary of this view is that any book, such as my book which he reviews here, or article on Sri Lanka’s ethnic problems, which does not convey this forcefully enough is intrinsically flawed. The second theme is equally significant: the present UNP government’s own failures in regard to the management of ethnic relations, and Michael Roberts’s charge in relation to the riots of July-August 1983: “that state and UNP functionaries, some of whom were of ministerial rank, had a hand in that part of the pogrom that was sponsored”.


He accuses me of being partial to the present government, and of glossing over its “contribution to the heightening of the ethnic conflict”. “The most glaring failure” he says is my “assessment of the governing party’s role in the racial pogrom directed against Tamils in July-August 1983”. In tracing the complexities of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious tensions over the last century, I have dwelt at length on one of the most significant and divisive issues, the tensions and rivalries that flowed from the extra-ordinary dominance Sri Lanka’s small but powerful Christian minority had on the country’s public life and the political ramifications of this dominance. The Buddhist majority were the underdogs if not victims there. Michael Roberts has no comment on that, but picks on a minor theme in the first part of the book, the rivalry between the Muslims and the Tamils that emerged in the 1940s, and identifies that as a major contribution of the book. To my mind that was a peripheral issue – and one I have dealt with in earlier publications – in relation to the more complex ones involved in negotiating the transfer of power from the British, except in 50 far as it demonstrated how the competing interests of Sri Lanka’s minorities make the management of Sri Lanka’s ethnic problems all the more difficult. Be that as it may, I was amused at one of his comments on this theme: he detects a note of glee in my analysis of the unfolding of these minority rivalries. The glee is in the eye of one beholder, Michael Roberts’s, who perhaps feels that the revelation of these details was meant to divert attention from the charge of the Sinhalese mismanaging their relations with the minorities by showing that the Tamils were no better.


Michael Roberts has four principal criticisms (critiques as he prefers to call them) of my book. Three of them relate to the position of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority within the Sri Lankan polity, their political attitudes, the evolution of Tamil nationalism, and the responses of the Sinhalese majority and the Sri Lankan state to the challenges posed by Tamil Nationalism.  The Fourth deals with a general view of democracy, or — as he would prefer to see it — what passes for democracy in Sri Lanka.  I shall turn to these presently but after I deal with two other issues: first of all, to his criticism that I have adopted an old-fashioned neglect of oral history techniques in my book, and secondly his use of the term pogrom to describe Sri Lanka’s ethnic or racial riots.

Michael Roberts’s comments on the value of oral history techniques relate to my analysis — very brief — of the riots of July-August 1983 (p. 330).  There is a time and place for oral history of such techniques and in my view a book like the one he reviews here does not lend itself to the utilisation of such techniques.  His own use of such techniques in this present review, and the questions he raises, undermine his case far more effectively than anything I can say here.  For example, in his comments on the prison massacres that occurred in Colombo on the second and third day of these riots his footnote (footnote 27) states: “personal communication from Manik Sandarasagara and L. Piyadasa, 1984.”  At first glance it would seem a nice mixture of oral history techniques and published material.  But L. Piyadasa, 1984 refers to “L. Piyadasa” The Holocaust and After, and “L. Piyadasa” is a pseudonym for a group of Sri Lankan radicals who have chosen an unmistakably Sinhalese name for their collective pseudonym, a clever piece of jesuitry in the circumstances.  Then again there is his reliance on Manik Sandarasagara, man-about-town, raconteur, film producer.  To resort to evidence of this sort cuts across one of the basic criteria of historical research, that evidence and data used by an author must be accessible for assessment and evaluation by others.  We have no record of what Manik Sandarasagara actually said or wrote to Michael Roberts available for assessment and evaluation.

We do have an official record of this horrible incident in the evidence and findings of the Magistrate’s inquiry that was conducted on this occasion.  That report is available, and has been made accessible because large extracts from it were published in the local newspapers.  Had be read this report, or even interviewed prison officials, and police officers, apart from or in addition to Manik Sandarasagara, and other links in what he calls his “oral grapevine,” he may have had clearer answers to the questions he poses: whether or not “thugs and other outside elements (including army personnel”) were able to enter Welikada Jail in Colombo and combine with thugs in jail to murder a large number of Tamil political prisoners”.

Magisterial inquiries into homicides in Sri Lanka are professionally competent judicial hearings at which a large number of eyewitnesses are called upon to give evidence, and evidence is called from doctors who performed post-mortems, and from officials in a position to help in the inquiry.

In challenging my assertion that no firm evidence has yet emerged to support the view that government politicians were involved in organizing the riots that erupted in that fateful week of July 1983, he argues thus:

“There are methodological issues here as to (i) what measures of verification one can secure of conspiratorial organisation in such instances and (ii) as to what constitutes “firm evidence”.  When British district officers presented reports on the Sinhalese attacks on Moors during the communal disturbances of 1915, they incorporated information provided by subordinates and other informants.  Tarzie Vittachi’s Emergency ’58 is a distillation of information gathered as a journalist, a great deal of it hearsay that gained its validity from the repetition of similar stories and the context of its telling. It is on hearsay that one can draw the conclusion that some SLFP/MEP functionaries had a hand in fermenting the riots in Gal Oya in 1956 and the more widespread attacks on the Tamils in mid-1958. The evidence against UNP functionaries in 1983 is of a like order, gaining its persuasive power from the number of voices which say much the same thing and the wide range of persuasions to which these voices belong…”

I do not intend to deal with the reports of British officials writing on the 1915 riots because they were so many and varied so much in the comprehensiveness of material they provided, and in the accuracy of the information they submitted that they cannot, as a collection, provide support for or against Michael Roberts’s arguments here. But Tarzie Vittachi’s Emergency ’58[1] effectually undermines Michael Roberts’s case. For Vittachi was no ordinary journalist, but the most influential one in the country at that time, with necessary information from official circles, and that information included official records from the Governor General’s office, from Cabinet sources, from the government parliamentary party, from senior government officials, and from the police, quite apart from material provided by the journalistic resources of his organization, the country’s largest. If Michael Roberts were to read Emergency ’58 again, he will find that it is more than a “distillation of information gathered as a journalist, a great deal of it hearsay that gained validity from the repetition of similar stories and the context of its telling”.

Vittachi says of the riots of 1958 that once they broke out they “provided an opportunity for many groups ready to fish for power in troubled waters”. And he quotes the Deputy Inspector General of Police in charge of the Criminal Investigation Department, Sidney de Zoysa (the brother of the then Minister of Finance) to the effect that: “that politicians covering the entire gamut from Right to Left had tried to turn the situation to their own advantage”.

Vittachi adds: “The communal fires spread so fast and furiously that no one was able to harness their power and direct its spread towards any particular goal”.

All this is not very different from my analysis of the outbreak; spread, and involvement of the country’s various political groups, in the riots of July/August 1983.

Let me conclude these comments on Vittachi’s book with the following quotation from it (Vittachi, Emergency ’58, p.104) “When the Gal Oya riots of 1956 broke out… the police were already demoralised, until Deputy Inspector General of Police Sidney de Zoysa went there and threatened to arrest even Cabinet Ministers if they incited the mob to violence, the politicians made inflammatory speeches against police action”.

Here we have the sort of evidence one craves for with regard to the involvement of politicians in the riots of July 1983. Vittachi has access to information but he does not identify individuals (obviously because of the laws of libel in the country) but states quite categorically that a senior police officer had threatened to arrest even senior politicians if they incited the mob to violence, implying, of course, that such senior politicians had indeed incited mobs to violence (against Tamils).

I would not agree with Michael Roberts’s contention that: “No scholar can pinpoint his sources of information on the involvement of senior politicians and other government and party functionaries in the [riots of July/August 1983] because the threat of victimisation imposes ethical restraints. This in itself is a commentary on Sri Lanka’s political order”.

There is plenty of evidence available and many eyewitnesses to incidents in the riots are more than willing to talk about what they saw, but only some of them will give Michael Roberts much satisfaction in substantiating his hunches about the role of some prominent politicians in the leadership of the riots. If there is any restraint at all, it is the law of libel, which prevents the publication of such evidence, not the threat of victimisation or “ethical restraints” whatever that may mean.

Let me turn next to Michael Roberts’s use of the term pogrom to designate Sri Lanka’s race riots. A good dictionary would have told him that the word pogrom is derived from the Yiddish and that it means destruction, or devastation. Any dictionary would also tell him that a pogrom is an organised massacre, the annihilation of anybody or class, especially of Jews; an organised persecution or extermination of an ethnic group, especially of Jews; and especially in Tsarist Russia. It is, in fact, specific to Central and Eastern Europe, and it involves officially sanctioned and officially directed persecution or extermination of an ethnic group, a despised group confined to a specific quarter or parts of a town or region – the ghetto.

Some Sri Lankan radicals also use the term in their writings on Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflicts, and as we have seen “L. Piyadasa” talks of the Holocaust and After. This is a 1980’s style, not a 1950’s or 1960’s one, for nobody speaks of the riots of the 1950’s as pogroms [certainly not Vittachi). All the political imagery of the Sri Lankan radicals is derived from Western if not European models, and they use these without regard to their appropriateness for an Asian situation. Some British academics (Bruce Kapfrrer is an example) use this same term too in reference to Sri Lanka’s ethnic riots. Michael Roberts with his background in history, and his well-known commitment to precision in the use of terms should do better than that.

I have never been able to understand why the term pogrom should be used in studies of Sri Lanka’s race-riots, when nobody uses it of say, the anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi (1984) or the Sikh­-Hindu riots of recent times in the Punjab and its neighbouring states, or indeed of the Hindu-Muslim riots in India. Unless of course the intention is to argue that there is a special quality in the Sri Lankan riots that compels one, on reflection, to use the term quite deliberately – that these riots have official sanction and leadership, that the victims are confined to Sri Lanka’s version of the ghetto, and that the riots are directed at their extermination, or for their maintenance at an appropriate level of social, economic and political subordination? Michael Roberts would have to admit that he has been grossly lax in his use of terms, or that he genuinely believes that the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka has been kept in an officially sanctioned state of subordination as second class or third class citizens as were the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. I prefer to believe that Michael Roberts has been very careless in his use of terms. And let me provide some evidence in his support. After all, only a careless person would describe the riots of 1915 as a Sinhalese pogrom against the Moors – a riot between two groups of subject peoples in a colonial society could hardly be a pogrom by any stretch of imagination – anthropological, or historical, or both. But he uses the term pogrom so consistently that one cannot be unmindful of the possibility that it is not merely a careless use of a term but a matter of deliberate choice.

I prefer to use the correct term here: racial riots, or ethnic riots, or religious riots. Pogroms are specific to some parts of Europe, at certain times of history. Holocaust is also culture specific. And the ethnic riots of Sri Lanka for all the inhumanity they display, and all the cruelty they inflict on totally harmless people, ere nothing compared to the planned extermination of Jews in Europe at various times and culminating in the holocaust organised under Hitler or the massacres of Armenians by Turks, or the massacres of Hindus and Muslims as a prelude to and in the aftermath of the partition of British India.


Post-independence Sri Lanka has seen two phases or cycles of violence, the first in the period 1955-1960, and the second beginning around 1975 and persisting now for over a decade with several episodes of violence. In both instances the violence was triggered off by sharp disagreements over fundamentally important issues relating to national and ethnic identity, and over the nature of the Sri Lanka polity. The first saw the emergence of the powerful force of linguistic nationalism. Its divisive effect stemmed from the fact that it affected Sinhalese and Tamil alike in a clash between two competing linguistic nationalisms. In the second period the powerful force that disturbed the peace was Tamil separatism and the threat it posed to the integrity and indeed the survival of the Sri Lankan state in the form it has taken since 1815-1818. I have traced the evolution of these conflicting nationalisms, and the emergence of Tamil separatism in detail in my book. Michael Roberts has his own version of the evolution of Tamil nationalism set out in this review but that version is not original – he and several others have said it before – and it is not though I have ignored discussion of this theme myself. But his contention is that Tamil nationalism is a reactive force, reacting against the excesses of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism. I disagree. No nationalism is entirely reactive, and certainly not Tamil nationalism, given the proximity of Southern India, the reservoir of Dravidian and Tamil nationalism and separatism, to Sri Lanka. Michael Roberts makes no mention of this latter factor in his survey of the emergence of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka.

I find myself recoiling instinctively from the more extreme forms of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism, and I have seldom hesitated to criticise these. But, at the same time I do not accept the position that Michael Roberts takes, that the current problems of Sri Lanka are the inevitable result of the working out of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism. I would not absolve Tamil politicians of the Tamil Congress, the Federal Party and the Tamil United Liberation Front from some blame in this regard.

I have shown how the Tamils’ conception of their place in the Sri Lanka polity has kept changing over the last sixty to seventy years, from regarding themselves and being regarded as one of two majority communities (that is, parity of status with the much larger Sinhalese community), to the position of the principal minority group in the island and indeed the leader of the minority groups, to a search for a something akin to majority status through the so-called “50-50” scheme whereby membership of the legislature was to be artificially divided into 50 for the Sinhalese and 50 for the minorities. That reductio ad absurdum of legislative gerrymandering never had a serious chance of acceptance by the British. But the “50-50” agitation led directly and indirectly to an advocacy of federalism where majority status could be achieved in some part of the country either as an integral part of a second tier of government, or as an autonomous region. From this to separatism was the next – but not inevitable – step.

Separatist movements generally have terrorist wings or groups operating sometimes at their periphery, sometimes as the core of the movement. In the case of Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka the terrorist wing was from the outset nearer the core than the periphery. Michael Roberts takes issue with me on the use of the word terrorist in the context of Tamil separatist activism. In my analysis of this problem I carefully distinguished between extremist political activism and agitation, guerrilla warfare, and terrorism. But even that is inadequate for Michael Roberts in so far as I do not describe the Sri Lanka states’ military response against separatist violence as terrorism (state terrorism, perhaps] and ethnic riots directed against a minority as terrorism too. This last flows from his conception of ethnic riots as pogroms, but as I have pointed out there is a world of a difference between a pogrom and a race riot even though Michael Roberts does not and cannot see much of a distinction between the two in the Sri Lanka context. I have argued that force used by a government, and especially an elected democratic government, against those who rise against it is legitimate, and that terrorist violence in democratic societies is “an illegitimate and unjustifiable use of force”. It is a distinction he does not accept because he regards terrorism as essential to the function of state building. The separatist activists, he points out, are rejecting the political status quo in Sri Lanka and are intent on building a new state. This sophisticated defence of Tamil terrorism also flows logically from his belief that they (the Tamil terrorists) have been driven to this position by the excesses of Sinhalese and especially Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism.

One of the critical areas in the generation of ethnic tensions in the last phase of British rule was the question of state employment. In regard to that the starting point of any attempt to understand the bitterness of the controversies on it, is the Tamils’ traditional anxiety to secure employment in the state services. The economic resources of the Northern province were and are severely limited and as early as the last quarter of the 19th century population increase in the region outstripped the resources necessary – and available – to absorb growing numbers in the traditional occupations based on land. The Tamils turned to state employment and the professions, much more than to plantation agriculture and trade, in search of avenues of employment; in brief, they exported labour to Colombo and the Sinhalese areas of the country. Indeed by the early years of the 20th century the Tamils had come to be singularly dependent on government service and precisely because they had no deep roots in the plantation economy or trade for that matter, they were moved to defend their position in the public service in all the more zealously. They had very little competition from the Sinhalese till the 1920s and 1930s.  As late as 1938 the Tamils had a disproportionate share of positions in the public service much to the chagrin of their Sinhalese competitors. The struggle for places in the public service had become a major issue of the time of the transfer of power.

The drop in the numbers of Tamils in the state service was very marked after 1956, and representatives of Tamil opinion often argue that this was the inevitable result of the change in language policy adopted in that year.  But the change in language policy was only one of several interlocking factors.  After independence, competition from the Sinhalese increased exponentially, especially with the rapid expansion of educational opportunities in the Sinhalese areas.  This greatly reduced the prospects of the Tamils in their search for positions in government service.  Given the demographic profile of the country, the Tamils could hardly have maintained the percentage of posts they held in British time.  The number of Tamils in government service today is still around 12% of the total; their percentage of posts in the higher technical and professional positions of the state service is still substantially higher than that.

Most scholars of Sri Lankan politics and history would find little to quarrel with in this brief summary of a complex issue; indeed there is wide agreement on most of this. Michael Roberts, on the other hand, gets himself into all sorts of difficulties on this issue. He admits that the views I express here are in conformity with the facts as they are known to be, and accepted by scholars; he even adds that he had, in the past, expressed much the same views. But he argues that I have been partisan in this analysis in ignoring the fact that the Tamils’ share in plantation agriculture and trade was very modest, and that, by implication, their strong position in public sector enterprises compensated for this.  I have not ignored the latter points. Both in the present book and elsewhere I have drawn attention to these. But Tamils showed a preference for state employment, the economic security of what the Chinese call the iron rice-bowl and their over-representation in the state services was such that it became a major political issue in the late 1930s and 1940s. Such was the salience of this factor in ethnic rivalries in South Asia, in general, that some prominent historians of the 1940s and 1950s, for example C. H. Philips on India and G.C. Mendis on Sri Lanka, argued that communal conflict in these societies was nothing more than a sordid middle-class (their term, not mine] struggle for posts in the bureaucracy.

Michael Roberts’s response is confused and confusing. He accepts this position and seeks to explain how this came about – or to be more accurate, tries to explain it away – an explanation that is neither here nor there, and then proceeds to a curious argument:

“The greatest problem I have with de Silva’s position, however, is its philosophical foundation. This criticism extends to my own contributions in previous publications. The point is that once one talks of “disproportionate shares” or “privileges” one is introducing corrosive criteria into a multi-ethnic body politic that can only survive as such on the foundations of an ecumenical ethos. Indeed, it is arguable that the polity will prosper if this ecumenical ethos goes so far as to applaud those segments within the polity who have secured the heights”.

There are unexceptional sentiments, but this resort to a “philosophical” argument actually evades the issue. In the real world of many multi-ethnic societies people think in terms of shares, of advantages and losses, and politicians and academics who ignore those arguments do so at their peril. As for me, I was not making any moral judgment about the shares each group had. I merely pointed out as many other scholars have done, that a redressing of the balance was inevitable, however painful it would be to those who would lose an advantageous position.


The final part of Michael Roberts’s review article (the fourth “critique” of my book] is at once a wide-ranging attack on the limited (from his point of view) range of issues I have raised in the conclusion, and at the same time a full-blooded revisionist view of Sri Lanka’s claim to be a democracy. What he asks for is “a theory of the post-colonial state in Sri Lanka”, a study of Sri Lankan political developments since 1948 “rich in its ethnography and theoretically sophisticated”, concerns which “in their turn, demand attentiveness to the international economic order… [and] the realm of political economy”.

My needs, so far as the book under review was concerned, were much more modest than that. I needed to write a short concluding chapter! Theories of the post-colonial state rich in ethnography etc. etc. I would leave to those who, like Michael Roberts, are more competent to handle such themes – in one vast volume, or more. A related, indeed integral, part of that revisionism is his somewhat subdued rejection of my argument that despite the ethnic conflicts of the last 30 years the Sri Lankan talent for compromise has enabled the country’s political leadership to work out, on a long-term basis, pragmatic accommodations on several divisive issues of the pre-independence and post-independence phases of Sri Lanka’s political history.

Actually most of these compromises have been worked out when UNP governments or UNP-led coalitions have been in office, and many of them have been accomplished over the last 10 years. Two of these are: the university admissions issue, one of the most contentious issues of the 1970s and the crucially important question of devolution of power. The accommodation on the Indian citizenship problem was primarily an achievement of Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s initiatives of 1964 and 1974. But this accommodation has been consolidated and the agreements reached then between the governments of India and Sri Lanka have been implemented in a much more humane manner by the UNP-led coalition of 1965-70 and the UNP government of today.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the newly-elected UNP government moved towards a more equitable university admissions policy, a mixture of admissions on merit at a national and at a district level and a form of affirmative action for backward rural areas – Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim.   Nevertheless memories of the unilateral and discriminatory change in university policy made in the early 1970s still remain fresh in the minds of Tamils, although the policy has been changed. There has been a very substantial expansion of university places in the sciences in general and in medicine and engineering in particular after 1979 in an effort to provide greater opportunities to students from all sections of the population. The Tamils’ share of places in the engineering and medical faculties has varied from 35 to 25 since 1978-9 well above the proportion of Tamils in the island’s population (about 11%).

The struggle over devolution of power lies at the core of the current political crisis in Sri Lanka, and of all the recent negotiations on a political settlement of the island’s ethnic conflicts. I have shown how the processes of centralization vigorously pursued by the British during their rule in the country have proved to be a formidably stable political legacy, and how post-independence regimes have been both reluctant and unable to repudiate this legacy till the 1980s.

In the early 1980s, under the present UNP government a scheme of District Development Councils was introduced as part of a political settlement with the Sri Lankan Tamils. Yet these Councils failed to give the restive Jaffna peninsula in the north of the island a durable peace. Against the background of continuous ethnic strife since 1983, a more radical re-structuring of the Sri Lanka polity was devised between 1984 and 1986, and institutionalized in 1987-88. This latter theme was not discussed in my book [it stopped at 1985) but I hinted at the possibility of such a change in the future.

The central feature of this exercise is a system of provincial councils (based on the island’s provinces) with many of the powers of the states in the Indian Union, but with the essential difference that they would operate within the framework of Sri Lanka’s constitutionally-entrenched unitary system.

While these efforts marked a very significant extension of the scope of creative political initiatives in an area that had hitherto been notable for a lack of political will, they also had the effect of stretching the limits of political action available to Sri Lankan politicians to the breaking point. This was evident in the widespread civil commotion that erupted in late July and early August 1987 against a political settlement which incorporated proposals for institutionalising a scheme of devolution of power agreed upon between the governments of Sri Lanka and India.

An accommodation on language policy was reached very early. The fact is that “Sinhala Only” proved to be an elusive objective, and it was never implemented in the form in which it was presented to the electorate, and in which its more committed and enthusiastic advocates insisted it should be implemented. For one thing the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act No. 28 of 1958 modified the original policy change of 1956 substantially. Even though the regulations required for the effective implementation of the 1958 Act were approved by Parliament only in 1966, the use of the Tamil language administrative matters, in the national legislature, and local government institutions, in the law courts, and above all in the school system and in tertiary education, proceeded in an uninterrupted continuity from the pre-1956 situation. In brief, the rhetoric of “Sinhala Only” was not reflected in the humdrum reality of public life. A modus vivendi emerged between 1958 and 1978. The essence of that accommodation was embodied in the constitution of 1978 in considerable detail. This realistic adjustment to life in a plural society all but conceded parity of status to the Tamil language. Parity of status came in 1987/88, three decades after the introduction of the Official Language Act No.33 of 1956.

Quite apart from providing solid evidence of the working out, on a long-term basis, of pragmatic accommodations on acutely divisive issues, they provide a refutation of Michael Roberts’s contention that the Sri Lanka political system and peculiarities of its electoral base have made it impossible to reach an accommodation with the Tamil minority.


Michael Roberts’s revisionist view of Sri Lanka democracy, or what passes for democracy in Sri Lanka as he sees it, has a number of arguments. These are: the hierarchical heritage which deforms the structure of political organisations and seriously distorts political attitudes; over-centralization of government processes in Colombo with a strengthening of the executive over the legislature and the bureaucracy; the divisiveness of party conflicts and the violence it leads to; and the weak ideological foundations of democracy and democratic institutions.

I would agree that parties in Sri Lanka are leader-oriented, and provide much fewer opportunities for challenges to policies or personalities within the structure than parties in many other democratic countries. It is, as Michael Roberts points out, part of Sri Lanka’s political culture. Similarly trade unions are appendages of parties (with the possible exception of the Ceylon Workers Congress, the trade union-cum political “party” of the Indian plantation workers).

All this seems reasonable enough, till he begins to leave the solid ground of empirical observation for the ratified heights of theory. And we are regaled once again to a brief exposition of one of his new theories: “the Asokan Persona”. When he outlined the “Asoken Persona” to Sri Lankan audiences they generally reacted with disbelief that a scholar with a training in history could be expounding such a theory with so little regard for historical evidence to support it. Since then he has tried to meet these criticisms but with no great success. Nothing daunted he sets it forth once again in this review, linked in this instance to a chart [Chart I) which appears on p.53 of his review.

Perhaps it is best to let Michael Roberts speak for himself in regard to these. He introduces the chart thus:

“This paradigm has not been constructed as a monocausal explanation of Sri Lankan politics. It is intended as a contribution towards the understanding of hierarchical practices and centripetal tendencies within Sri Lanka’s political order. It assumes the pre-existence of certain hierarchies founded on other structural forces and suggests that the practices depicted as the Asokan Persona have assisted in the reproduction of these hierarchical forms”.

He adds parenthetically that “… the use of such an analyst’s tool will have to allow for the influence of universal suffrage. Universal suffrage has not prevented a broad trend towards centralisation in the government of Sri Lanka (a trend which is now challenged by the Eelamist movement). Several commentators, among them K.M. de Silva himself, have drawn our attention to this development during the past-colonial era”.

He then proceeds to buttress his arguments with a sweeping generalisation in the form of a footnote (footnote 25) which reads as follows: “As this model is from Sinhala Buddhist practices and the Sinhala monarchical order, in my analysis its application is specially confined to Sinhala society. But all those who were bred in Sinhala-majority districts would have been influenced by these dispositions in some measure”.

This “model” is a piece of intellectual gimmicry designed to conceal the lack of substance in his arguments by seeming to give validity to a set of commonplace if not dubious propositions arranged in an artful but illusory dichotomy. What does this diagram really tell us? What contribution does it make to our understanding of issues that the author seeks to clarify for us? I would say quite categorically that it tells us nothing, and the only contribution it makes is to provide “evidence” in support of his pre-conceived notion that the Sinhalese-Buddhists of Sri Lanka seem to be intrinsically incapable of sustaining democratic norms and attitudes, because they are so deferential to superiors, and those in a authority; and that the incapacity is communally or ethnically congenital, stemming as it does from “Sinhala Buddhist practices and the Sinhala monarchical order” (which latter came to an end 170 years ago).

A hundred and fifty years ago Thomas Carlyle in his essay on Chartism cautioned his readers about the pitfalls inherent in statistical table. His words, and especially the last sentence in the extract we quote, seem singularly appropriate to Michael Roberts’s exercise in model-building: “Tables are like cobwebs, like the sieve of the Danaides; beautifully reticulated, orderly to look upon, but which will hold no conclusion. Tables are abstractions, and object a most concrete one, so difficult to read the essence of. There are innumerable circumstances; and one circumstance left out may be the vital one on which all turned. Conclusive facts are inseparable from inconclusive except by a head that already understands and knows”.

So much then for his comments on hierarchy and the Sinhalese Buddhist mind and its ideological inheritance.  The rest of his criticisms of Sri Lankan democracy are old hat.  These have been made by others as well, not in the same carping denigratory spirit he adopts, but with greater shrewdness in their judgements and much greater understanding of the often conflicting and seemingly contradictory forces at work in nay democratic system.

Nor were they guilty of the naiveté that Michael Roberts displays.  Thus, expanding on his arguments of the weak foundations of Sri Lankan democracy he makes the point that “undergraduates from all campus parties during [his] teaching experience at Peradeniya from 1966 to 1976” showed “an unwillingness to listen to the dissenting voice of the other and an inclination towards the elimination of the other when one is on top”.  Can one seriously come to conclusions about the democratic consciousness of any society by reference to its undergraduates and other students? In every society students are more inclined to support radical and undemocratic causes and individuals than the rest of the society.  More important, they outgrow these attitudes when they graduate and become employees and employers.

The strength of democratic roots in the country was demonstrated afresh between April to July 1988 in the elections to the Provincial Councils, when large numbers of people braved the fearsome threats of youthful political activists who killed candidates and their key supporters and threatened to kill voters as well in an unsuccessful bid to wreck the elections.  The undergraduates in Sri Lankan universities provided some of the cannon-fodder of that political movement and some of the leadership. But people voted in larger numbers than at any local government election in the past

Or again take the argument in footnote 29 of Michael Roberts’s review article: “… One can surely raise questions about the political maturity of an electorate which swallows the promises of an opposition simply because of its reaction against the existing government…”

Is this true only of the Sri Lankan electorate?  Is this not true also of electorates in the older and presumably more mature democracies?  I can only ask Michael Roberts to look around him in Western societies, even in Australia and New Zealand and whether the same criticisms cannot be made of those electorates as well?

Then again there is his high-toned but sweeping indictment of “Sri Lanka’s leading politicians since the 1950’s” of whom he says “virtually everyone… toyed with dictatorial schemes”. Once again the passion is so disproportionate to the strictures because the strictures themselves are so hazy. There is a blithe disregard for specifics and evidence, and a failure to distinguish between the substantial and the vaporous in the charges and counter-charges in the often frenetic exchanges between Sri Lanka’s politicians.

As I said earlier in this paper most of the criticisms of Sri Lankan democracy made by Michael Roberts have been made by others. They have written on the violence that has become part of the Sri Lanka’s political process; they have written also on the Sri Lankans’ proclivity [true of the Sinhalese more than others] to carry partisan politics to extremes in occasional bursts of self-wounding and wasteful perversity. But – and this is where they would be seen to part company from Michael Roberts – they have also written on Sri Lanka’s ability to endure this violence and partisanship, and to prevail over them in a remarkable resilience that is one of the hallmarks of Sri Lanka’s version of democracy.

The Sri Lankan political system has sustained a mini-welfare state, a genuine multi-party structure, with frequent changes of government, on a per caput Gross National Product [GNP] of $ 360 per annum. It is a remarkable tribute to a small and troubled country that democratic institutions — fallible, and frail, defective though they may seem to Michael Roberts — have survived in such circumstances.


Michael Roberts had many advantages as an observer of the Sri Lankan scene. The son of a British civil servant (a member of the elite Ceylon Civil Service) he was born in Sri Lanka, educated in Sri Lankan schools, and at the University of Ceylon before moving to Oxford for post-graduate work; he grew to maturity in the country. He was thus singularly well-equipped to assess the strengths and weakness of Sri Lanka’s post-colonial political system with the insights of a knowledgeable insider and an outsider’s objectivity. But as this essay, and many of his recent writings have shown, he provides a good example of a man growing up in a society and not developing any sympathetic understanding of it or its peoples – or to be fair by him, of some (in this instance, the majority] of its people. He asserts that he has tried hard to “put [himself] in their [the Tamil minority’s) shoes”. Had he shown a similar willingness to step into the shoes of the Sinhalese majority as well, his writings on Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict would have a greater objectivity than they now do.

K. M. de Silva is Professor of Sri Lanka History at the University of Peradeniya, and Executive Director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

[1]             See, Bruce Kapferer, Legends of People, Myths of State, Violence, Intolerance and Political Culture in Sri Lanka and Australia, Washington, D.C. and London, 1988.

A NOTE from Michael Roberts, 14 May 2021

This re-presentation of Profesor KM de Silva’s review article has been made possible by the cooperation and work of Iranga De Silva of the ICES, Kandy. As Editor, Thuppahi I have refrained from my usual policy of inserting highlighting emphasis onto the text  in order to aid readers.

Presenting this old debate to readers is part of a project wherein THUPPAHI will display a series of debates between Kingsley de Silva and myself which did not prevent ongoing cooperation in academic activity that has continued to this day. Several more items will enter these Thuppahi pages in the next few weeks  and one has already entered its books: viz. ………………………………………… https://thuppahis.com/2021/05/20/the-burgher-elite-and-the-british-raj/


Filed under accountability, British colonialism, centre-periphery relations, communal relations, constitutional amendments, disparagement, electoral structures, ethnicity, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, insurrections, island economy, language policies, Left politics, legal issues, life stories, modernity & modernization, nationalism, parliamentary elections, patriotism, political demonstrations, politIcal discourse, power politics, power sharing, riots and pogroms, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, trauma, truth as casualty of war, welfare & philanthophy, working class conditions, world events & processes

3 responses to “Political Crisis and Ethnic Conflicts in Sri Lanka: A Rejoinder to Michael Roberts

  1. Lakshman Gunasekara

    The calibre of the book’s author’s response to the review and, that of the reviewer, is such that both form and substance distract from the actual points of contention! Having read De Silva, I can only profoundly disagree with much of what he argues, not only about the ethnic conflict but also his rather ossified conception of historiography per se. Mike Roberts, on the other hand, is theoretically very inter-disciplinary in a most fluid, authentic, way, but sometimes that fluidity takes him into territory (like the Vanni and its civilian casualties) that seem to push the boundaries a bit too far (oops! I hope my mention of ‘boundaries’ doesn’t prompt an outburst on cricket!).

  2. Pingback: Debating Modern Ceylon History with Daggers Drawn: Roberts vs De Silva, 1986-91 | Thuppahi's Blog

  3. Pingback: Confronting Ethnic Violence and Its Roots in Vengeance | Thuppahi's Blog

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