Debating Modern Ceylon History with Daggers Drawn: Roberts vs De Silva, 1986-91

Two Peradeniya colleagues from yesteryear, Professor Kingsley de Silva and Michael Roberts, took sharply different positions on facets of the island history in British colonial and post-1948 times in hardhitting essays in local journals and newspapers in the period 1986 to 1991. The series began with Michael Roberts’s article-length review of KM De Silva:  Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multi-Ethnic Societies: Sri Lanka, 1880-1985  (Lanham, University Press of America) ….. and continued with KM De Silva’s hard-hitting review of the book, People Inbetween (Colombo, Sarvodaya, 1989) where Roberts was the principal author in a triumvirate that included Percy-Colin-Thome and Ismeth Raheem.

These rounds of interpretive conflict should be set within the traditions of debate established by the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya University from 1968 and the promotion of journals suc h as the Ceylon Journal of Historical & Social Studies (in which KM de Silva was the main hand) and Modern Ceylon Studies (where Tissa Fernando, Gerald Peiris and Roberts were founding figures).

Students of the British colonial period and those interested in the political conflicts which developed in the post-1948 period may profit from an examination of the interpretational issues embodied in these hard-hitting essays. This item, therefore, is a servicing item: it provides a convenient bibliograpahical list of the items assembled in Thuppahi.

That the sharp debate occurred in the years 1986-91 is not happenchance. The storm clouds and apprehensions aroused by the event marked as “the riots of July 1983” were one conditioning factor:  in part because Roberts has always treated that set of events as “a pogrom” –in keeping with the Russian usage of the term as equivalent to “destruction.”

Another conditioning factor, of course, was the huge set of cumulous clouds associated  with the insurrectionary challenge posed by a number of Tamil militant groups (with support in India). By happenchance when participating in a 18-month long fellowship in Western Germany in 1975-76, I had chanced upon data that led me to a pessimistic reading of the island’s future. As embodied in an article drafted in 1976 in Germany which came out in the public realm in 1978, I forecast then in 1976-78 that it would only be a matter of time before the Tamil radicals became a major threat (see Roberts,”Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation,Modern Asian Studies, 12, 353-376).


In this reading, therefore, the events of July 1983 ensured such an outcome. Black clouds of pessimism and searing anger directed at the UNP governmental leaders were at the back of my mind — THEN in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Several lengthy stays in Sri Lanka on research work [leading to the book People Inbetween) had sustained this despair and also provided snippets of information which serviced my responses to Professor KM De Silva.


Michael Roberts: “Sri Lanka: Ethnic Conflict and Political Crisis: A review article,” Ethnic Studies, 1988, vol 6, 40-62.

KM De Silva: “Political Crisis and Ethnic Conflicts in Sri Lanka: A Rejoinder to Michael Roberts,” Ethnic Studies Report, vol. VI/4, January 1988, pp 63-94 ……

KM De Silva: “The Burghers in Sri Lankan History,” Daily News, 19 September 1990.

KM De Silva: “Why the Burgher Exodus,” Daily News, 20 September 1990.

Michael Roberts: “People Inbetween and Professor De Silva’s diehard history,” Daily News, 27 March 1991….. now seen here as

KM de Silva: “A diehard empiricist historian replies,” Daily News, 8 April 1991 … now seen here

Michael Roberts: “The Burgher Elite and the British Raj,” 20 May 2021, .. now seen here

Michael Roberts: “Eating stones, drinking blood: A Tale of Sinhala Resistance,” Sunday Observer, 14 April 1991

Michael Roberts: “Lawyers, Clients and Caste in British Ceylon,”

OTHER PERTINENT WORK … limited listing

Michael Roberts: “Peradeniya Practices: Face-to-Face in Debate,” 14 May 2021,

Michael Roberts: “The Burgher Elite and the British Raj,” 20 May 2021,

Michael Roberts: “Percy Colin-Thome and the Composition of the Book People Inbetween,” 23 May 2021,

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Filed under accountability, atrocities, British colonialism, chauvinism, communal relations, cultural transmission, disparagement, economic processes, Eelam, ethnicity, governance, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, insurrections, language policies, life stories, LTTE, patriotism, politIcal discourse, power politics, riots and pogroms, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil Tiger fighters, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, vengeance, world events & processes

One response to “Debating Modern Ceylon History with Daggers Drawn: Roberts vs De Silva, 1986-91

  1. San de Silva

    WOW! Never a day of boredom!
    Many thanks, Michael!
    My heart swells up with pride for a Galleian Giant of such great stature!!

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