In 1956, Singapore’s budding leader Lee Kuan Yew visited Ceylon. He was impressed with the country, and noted that it was far ahead of Singapore in many respects. He decided he wanted to make Singapore another Ceylon.
That same year, Solomon Bandaranaike was elected President of Ceylon. His election promise was to make Sinhalese the sole national language and Buddhism the sole national religion. After being elected by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, he was true to his word.
Without any warning, Sinhalese replaced English as the language of education and business. Tamils, Muslims and Burghers who had their entire education in English realized they were no longer economically useful. Hindus, Muslims and Christians realized their religion had no place in the national framework. Sinhalese Buddhist monocultural nationalism had taken root in Ceylon. The implosion had begun.
Politicians justified their monocultural nationalism by quoting the Mahavamsa, the national epic of the Sinhalese people which includes the life story of Prince Vijaya, the founder of the Sinhalese race, and the arrival of Buddhism on the island. Politicians interpreted the Mahavamsa in their own way to claim that the island of Sri Lanka was gifted to the Sinhalese Buddhists, and they were the rightful ruling race. The Sinhalese symbol – the sinha, or lion – found a place in the national flag, representing the divine right the Sinhalese people had over the island.
The national framework of Sri Lanka completely ignored the fact that northern Sri Lanka had been Tamil territory for its entire recorded history. A combination of political rhetoric, cultural marginalization, and – most importantly – economic disenfranchisement, meant that the Tamils were second class citizens. In later years, things became worse with outright ethnic cleansing of Tamils. Murders and rapes of Tamils became common, as did damage to Tamil businesses and institutions. The Sencholai Massacre, Jaffna Public Library Destruction and Black July 1983 were some of the many horrifying incidents.
It was a matter of time before the chickens (or in this case, tigers) came home to roost. In 1970, an unknown Tamil man burnt a public bus. It was the first act of violence against the Sri Lankan state. In 1972, the same man founded an organization to rise up against the government. In 1975, the same man assassinated a Tamil mayor of Jaffna who had aligned himself with the Sinhalese government. The unknown man was no longer unknown. Today everyone knows who is that man, and which is the organization he founded.
With the Tamils taking up arms to fight for their rights, it was no longer a one dimensional matter of a majority-ruled state persecuting a minority community. The backlash had begun. For every massacre perpetrated in the Tamil fortresses of Jaffna and Trincomalee, the backlash was felt in the Sinhalese heartlands of Colombo and Kandy. With a lion and a tiger locked in unceasing conflict tearing each other apart, the entire jungle has suffered and become a mass grave. Millions of lives have been stunted by death, disability, displacement and despair.
In the meantime, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew chose not to go down a path of monocultural nationalism. He gave equal rights to every language and every religion, and enshrined a culture of absolute meritocracy. The outcome was a prosperous, progressive and harmonious country.
The same Lee Kuan Yew now mentions wistfully that he saw a promising country, Ceylon, go to waste. He comments on the irony that a country whose ancient name Serendib gave us the word serendipity is now the epitome of pain, sorrow, despair and hopelessness. Serendib is one of the most naturally gifted countries in the world. Its beaches and harbours are among the best. Tea, crabs and other natural resources give it immense economic potential. The legendary religious sites of Anuradhapura, Kandy, Jaffna and Trincomalee are potentially great tourist spots. And as an English-speaking country, it’s not hard to imagine the outsourcing boom spilling over there.
All these went to waste because of the decisions of a few men at a critical juncture of the country’s history. As P G Wodehouse used to describe houses which looked beautiful but were ruined by the wrong people, Sri Lanka is a country where every prospect pleases and only man is vile. The damage looks irreversible now. Too much water – and blood – has flowed under the bridge.