1.4 The historical basis of the unitary structure of the state in Sri Lanka
The slogan that Sinhala nationalist hard-liners invariably invoke the 'defence of the unitary structure of Sri Lanka' when they call for a military solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. But it is important to note that the construction of this structure had nothing much to do with the Sinhalese or for that matter the Tamil people in the island. It was the British colonialists who created 'the unitary structure of Sri Lanka' in 1833 by artificially amalgamating the Sinhala and Tamil Kingdoms that had existed previously (1).
The British created a unitary structure to solidify their control as a measure to create a safe military post in this strategically placed island (2). For the British, India was the Jewel in its colonial crown, from which it extracted the most amount of wealth. And, it was in the context of controlling India that colonisation of Sri Lanka became important. The geographic placement of the island, and in particular of its spacious natural deep sea harbour in Trincomalee (Admiral Nelson called it 'the finest harbour in the world') made it particularly desirable for the British – the pre-eminent colonial power at the time. In fact Trincomalee, in the Tamil inhabited North-East, was the first place that the British occupied in the island. In 1795, when they ejected the Dutch to achieve this, most of the island had been under Dutch control for around 150 years.
This was a period of great upheavals and revolutions in the centres of power in the world. After the 'seven year war' (1756 – 1763) Britain gained territories in the Indian subcontinent from the French, establishing itself as the dominant European power in India. This enabled Britain to eventually conquer all of India and use its resources to further expand the empire. Most 'non-Eurocentric' historians accept that British control of India is what gave the main impetus for the Industrial Revolution to take place at the time it did.
For an accurate understanding of the interests of the of the British in the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) it is important to have background picture of the overall situation in the region at the time. It is instructive that during the 'treaty of Amiens of 1802', when Colonial powers were bargaining with each other for this or that 'possession', the critical importance of Trincomalee was underlined (3). What the British had to confront is the inevitable increase of the resistance to its rule from the people of India. The advantage of having one of its most strategically important military posts free from turmoil and destabilisation would have been obvious to them. The problem is that the Tamils who inhabited the Trincomalee and the North and East of the island had a strong connection to the large number of Tamils who inhabited Tamil Nadu, in the south of India. Through this connection, it was a certainty that the Indian resistance to British rule would find a resonance among the Tamils in the North East of the Island. But the Sinhalese, who inhabited the rest of the island had no such connection to India. By, amalgamating the Tamil and Sinhala kingdoms – the British created the conditions, in the long term, for the Sinhala people (the majority if the island was taken as whole) to have effective control of the Tamils and also the crucial Trincomalee harbour.
The British proceeded to create a race that is loyal to the interests of the British, the majority in the island, but a minority in the Indian subcontinent (4). The British 'unitary system' in the island – turned out to be critical as they used Sri Lanka as a safe military post in the turbulent times of the Indian independence movement and the second world war (5).
|(1) The Portuguese(1505-1658) and the Dutch(1658-1796) colonialists who came before the British ruled the Sinhala and Tamil kingdoms separately. The British(1796-1948), after getting control of the whole island, created through the 'Colebrooke-Cameron Commission' the basic 'unified' structure that exists today. It is not surprising that the British, past masters at 'divide and rule', created the conditions for the ethnic conflict to erupt in the island. (back)
|(2) The island was exactly on top of the crucial 'Sea Lane', therefore all colonial powers understood its importance for commercial as well as military reasons. An early colonial rationale for capturing the island contained in a letter King Emmanuel of Portugal sent to Francisco de Almeida the Portuguese viceroy of Goa, "We are informed that on your return voyage, if the good lord permits, you will be able to land in Ceylon, a very important kingdom of India. It... is situated close to the harbour of Bengal and Malaka and to the place called Kayal and because no ship sailing between the striates of Malaka and the harbours of Bengal can pass unnoticed,..... when you make this aforementioned isles your headquarters as decreed you become the centre of all of our fortresses and possessions in the east and from this place you may organise everything better than from any other place. Therefore it is our wish and our decree that you endeavour to fulfil this."|
|(3) The strategic importance of the Island as a whole and in particular the harbour of Trincomalee were indispensable for the British interests in the whole region. As William Pitt remarked in Parliament on the acquisition of the Dutch possessions in 1795 "It is to us the most valuable colonial possession on the globe as giving to our Indian empire a security which it had not enjoyed from its first establishment". Further as Turner remarks of Trincomallee "the finest and the most advantages bay in the whole of India. The equal of which is hardly known, in which a whole fleet may safely ride and remain in tranquillity". Governor Maitland later called it "the real key by possession of which alone you can hold naval superiority of India. Its mere geographical position ... if looked at nearly carries perfect conviction on this head along with it, but when you couple with its situation the periodical winds that blow in this country, when we reflect that no vessel can sail from one side of the Peninsula of India to the other without coming nearly in sight of it, not a doubt can remain in the mind of any considerate man that it is the sole point in India that can enable you to enjoy the full benefit you ought to derive from your naval power in this country". This can be further seen from the following two quotes. At a time when the Dutch possessions were not yet fully settled upon the British as they were under the treaty of Amiens of 1802, Lord Malmesbury the British negotiator at the Lille negotiations quotes the response of the Dutch envoy on the possibility of Ceylon being handed over permanently to the British "that he could never consent to cede to England neither Ceylon nor Trincomallee which he considers as the source of the riches of the (his) country and the key to the other possessions and which would make England the mistress of India". At the same time Governor North, British administrator of the maritime provinces of Ceylon wrote to the colonial office "should European complications and indifferent success necessitate partition with the Dutch, the North and the East should be retained in view of Indian considerations".|
|(4) The Sinhalese did not share the language (Sinhala) with any race in the Indian sub-contiment nor did their religion (Buddhism) have a major resonance in this region. This isolation and the possibility to construct and develop an 'insecurity psyche' among the Sinhalese was understood by the British. Institutions backed by the British, went ahead to emphasise Aryan lineage of the Sinhala race. The Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle) which has, today, become the most important legend for the Sinhalese is a historical poem of its Aryan lineage and dynasties written in the Pali language which is believed to have become extinct in 3~5 AD. The Mahawamsa is pointed to by all Sinhala nationalist hardliners. What is noteworthy is that the first printed edition and English translation of the Mahavamsa was published in 1837 by George Turnour, a historian and officer of the Colonial 'Ceylon Civil Service'. Sinhala translation came nearly 50 years after that of the English! By establishing and bringing forward Mahavamsa ideology as the authority of Sinhala Buddhist history, the British re-structured the race relations of the island. Not only did the restructuring make the psyche of (Aryan) Sinhala race further isolated but also managed to project (Dravidian) Tamils as the arch enemy of the Sinhalese by showcasing the debris of history. This took the Sinhala psyche back to the medieval age by constructing a prison. The only way out of it was through connecting with the Tamils who had a strong organic link to the sub continent. In this way the British, brilliantly, diverted any hatred that 'their chosen people' Sinhalese would develop against them, towards the Tamils and other races. Strength of British manoeuvring vividly manifested in Sinhala Buddhist revivalist movement came into being in the late 19th century, campaigns of which viciously targeted Tamils and Muslims. But at the same time one of the greatest heroes of the Sinhala Buddhists, Anagarika Dharmapala once said his respect to the British Crown was rock solid.|
|(5) In October 1943, Churchill appointed Admiral Lord Mountbatten as the Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Theatre. Mountbatten moved the Head Quarters of South East Asia Command (SEAC) to Kandy in Sri Lanka from India in 1944.|