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From Feudalism to Egalitarianism in Sri Lanka


From Feudalism to Egalitarianism in Sri Lanka Ranjan Ramasamy Rainfall zones of Sri Lanka Statistics LEGENDARY HISTORY Earliest reference in legends - Skanda Purana ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: From Feudalism to Egalitarianism in Sri Lanka

From Feudalism to Egalitarianism in Sri Lanka
  • Ranjan Ramasamy

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Rainfall zones of Sri Lanka
  • 65,525 sq km
  • Population 20 million
  • Sinhala, Tamil English spoken
  • Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam
  • Executive President Parliament
  • Roman-Dutch English law Islamic, Kandyan,
    tessavalamai laws
  • Tea, rubber and coconut exports
  • Apparel and light manufacturing industries
  • Middle East labour
  • Hydropower fully resourced 40 of electricity
  • 60 of energy from fuelwood.

  • Earliest reference in legends - Skanda Purana or
    the rise and fall of a titan overthrown by Hindu
    god Skanda. A shrine to god Skanda persists in
    Kataragama in the South-East.
  • In the later Ramayana the kidnapping of Queen
    Sita by Ravana and the destruction of Lanka by
    Rama. Place names such as Sita-ela, Sita-waka
    persist to this day in the central hills.

  • Taprobane to Greeks and Romans. Derived probably
    from the river Tamraparni on the opposite Indian
  • Serendib to Arabs from Sihala Dwipa island.
  • Early history recorded later in written
    chronicles such as the Mahavamsa and Chulavamsa
    written by Buddhist Sinhalese clergy. But also
    South Indian Tamil writings lesser consideration
  • Subsequent reliance on stone inscriptions and
    archaeological artefacts.

First record in Sinhalese chronicles is the
arrival of Wijaya an exiled North Indian
Gujarati probably nobleman and his retinue.
Sinhalalion race as Wijaya claimed descent from
a lion. He married an aboriginal
Negroid/Melanesian race peopling much of
South/SE Asia at that time ? 500 BC princess,
subjugated the inhabitants in much of the island
and later discarded her for a princess from the
Pandyan court in Tamil Nadu. Many of his
followers also married similarly. They were
Hindus and developed a North-Indian language
that became Sinhalese. There probably were Tamil
settlements in the North of the island that were
separated from the developing Sinhala kingdom by
extensive dry-zone jungle of the Vanni
region. Cultivation of rice was begun with aid
of imported Tamil farmers Tamil word
arisi?oryza?rice and played an important part in
the developing culture.
Present day rice harvesting
Early Kingdoms
The 5th king in Wijayas line ? 400
BCestablished the capital of the Sinhala kingdom
at Anuradhapura in the North-Central dry
zone. The Sinhala king in 300 BC converted to
Buddhism which was spread by Emperor Asoka of
India. In 237 BC, the Wijaya dynasty was
replaced by Tamil chieftains and the Chola kings.
Notably King Elala ruled for 44 years in
Anuradhapura with legendary justice. The ageing
king was overthrown by Dutugemunu, a scion of the
Wijayan line, who emerged from his power base in
the remote South of the island. Subsequent
history of the island until the arrival of the
Portugese, is one of continuing conflict between
South Indian Tamil kings and the Sinhalese kings
in the North-Central dry zone. Some times Sinhala
kings reigned supreme and exerted suzerainty over
the whole of the island while in other times
Tamil kings e.g. the Chola emperor Rajaraja
Chola I, 985-1014 AD controlled it.  
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During this period however great irrigation works
were completed involving large lakes, smaller
reservoirs and canals to facilitate rice
cultivation. There were extensive contacts with
China, SE Asia, the Arab world, and Europe. Huge
cities, temples Buddhist and Hindu were built
and there was every indication of an advanced and
prosperous society.
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While Hinduism re-established itself in India the
island retained Buddhism and protection of
Buddhism and the Sinhala race became a central
tenet in Sinhala culture, because of continuous
Tamil invasions.   The collapse of the kingdoms
based in the North Central dry zone, a reduction
in the population, and the shifting of the
capital of the Sinhala kingdom ever southwards
may be partly attributed to the Tamil invasions
but upsurge of malaria may have had a role.   At
about 1400 AD there were Sinhala kings ruling
from Kandy and Kotte while there was a separate
Tamil kingdom in Jaffna. Arya Chakravarti of
Jaffna at about this period exerted suzerainty
over the entire island for a time. Malay and
Chinese invaders were fought.
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Advent of European Powers
Between 10th and 15th centuries Arabs traders
were prominent and some of them settled in
coastal areas. They were involved in exporting
pearl, gems, spices, elephants etc. Their
descendants and those of indentured Malay
soldiers are the muslims of today.   Portugese
sailors first landed in 1505AD, and soon obtained
trade concessions. They captured coastal areas,
including the Tamil Kingdom of Jaffna in the
North and proselytized people to Catholicism. Two
of the most magnificent Hindu temples, at Dondra
and Trincomalee were destroyed. However there was
constant battle with the Sinhala Kings from
Kandy. The Dutch were invited by King Rajasinha
as allies to oust the Portugese, which was
achieved but the concessions granted to the Dutch
also led to them assuming control of the coastal
areas. The Dutch began the successful plantation
cultivation of cinnamon in these areas because
they were banned by the Kandyna King from
collecting wild cinnamon.  
The descendants of Portugese and Dutch are termed
Burghers and many migrated to Australia in the
1960s and 1970s.   The British arrived to oust
the Dutch during the European war and in 1796 all
Dutch-held territories were ceded to the British.
At this time the Kings of Kandy were Tamils
originating from the Nayakar court, who has
inherited the throne through marriage. By 1815
the British had fought the Kandyan King and
exiled him to Tamil Nadu. British reign continued
until 1948.   It is probably true to say that the
last Tamil and Sinhala Kings, ruled as absolute
despots and were often cruel and whimsical. A
network of local feudal aristocracy existed in
the Kandyan kingdom and they also behaved with
little understanding of citizens rights and
concerns. This helped the Colonists capture
The British and the Dutch used the existing
feudal network to promote their administration
and also created a new breed of aristocrats that
were servile to them.   During the British
reign, Tamil low-caste labour was brought from
India to work the tea plantations being
established. Their descendants are termed
Indian Tamils as opposed to the native Jaffna
Tamils and Sinhalese educated elite joined forces
with some reservations being expressed by a few
Tamils to demand independence. The distinctions
between Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims, were kept
in cold-storage during the latter stages of
European colonization. There was no power
struggle between them as democracy, and
consequently, political influence, was not an
option open to the vast majority of the
people.   The United National Party UNP gained
the mandate to govern in 1948. One of the first
acts of this government was to disenfranchise the
nearly 1 million Indian Tamils living in tea
estates. There has always been considerable anger
among Kandyan peasantry during the British rule
at the taking over of surplus land by British tea
planters. However the rights of these people who
had brought much wealth to the country through
their labour were not considered.
Sinhala Only
In 1956 SWRD Bandaranaike, an Oxford educated
lawyer born a Christian, fought the general
election on the theme of giving more power to the
Sinhala peasantry and Buddhism, and won a
majority in Parliament. Sinhala was made the
official language of government, and Buddhism
exalted. This led to emigration of the Burghers
and alienation of the Tamil-speaking minority.
Although Bandaranaike later tried to make
amends in the interests of the country the flames
of racism had been fanned and there resulted a
violent, partial ethnic cleansing of Tamils from
outside the Northern and Eastern provinces.
Indian Tamils were also attacked. Bandaranaike
was assassinated by a Buddhist monk a few years
later. He was replaced by his widow Srimavo as
head of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party SLFP and of
the Government. The SLFP years saw the economy
collapsing under socialist policies, gross
reduction in the use of English, an apartheid
like segregation of Tamils and Sinhala children
in schools and fairly blatant discrimination
against Tamils in all spheres, notably in Higher
Education and the Professions.  
Origins of the LTTE
The UNP government that gained office in the
1970s altered the British-parliamentary style
constitution to produce an all powerful Executive
President and a cabinet of Ministers under a
Prime Minister. They embarked on economic
liberalization, together with large
hydropower/irrigation schemes but did not reverse
the anti-Tamil trend among the Sinhalese. In 1983
there was a widespread anti-Tamil pogrom, with
overt support by some Ministers, that was sparked
by an ambush of soldiers by the fledgling
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam LTTE. This
resulted in a mass exodus of Tamils to the North
and migration abroad. The LTTE gained many
recruits and the civil war begun. The army was
asked by President Jayewardena to brutally stifle
the uprising but it could not do so. There was
also a very violent revolt by the extreme left
Sinhala Peoples Liberation Front JVP in Sinhala
that had its base among rural and disenchanted
Sinhala youth. The JVP was brutally crushed by
Forest Cover 1965 to 1992
Peace ?
However this brutality and the high level of
corruption in the then UNP govt led to the
SLFP-led Peoples Alliance of Chandrika
Bandaranaike coming into office in 1994. This
govt pursued a so-called war-for-peace strategy
which led to serious economic collapse and
unabated corruption. In 1999 this daughter of
SWRD Bandaranaike was re-elected President for 6
years, in a sympathy vote, immediately after
being blinded in one eye by an LTTE suicide
bomber. But in 2002, the UNP under Ranil
Wickremasinghe won the Parliamentary election
with a small majority in coalition with Tamil and
Muslim parties. The govt declared a ceasefire
with the LTTE and commenced direct negotiations
with them to evolve a Federal structure. The
Norwegians and other foreign governments were
invited to partake and facilitate the peace
While the economy has partly revived and there is
great expectation of peace, the President has
been biding her time to overthrow the govt using
the draconian powers vested with her in the 1977
UNP-devised constitution. The JVP, which has
become a legal party, is in tow with the PA and
maintains a strident anti-Tamil policy. The
Muslims who are presently about 7 of the
population the Indian and Jaffna Tamils probably
constitute about 18, although accurate numbers
are obviously not possible are demanding a level
of autonomy in areas of the East where they are a
majority. Although Muslims are distributed
widely, they speak Tamil in the East and some
speak Sinhala in the Sinhalese areas.  
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Feudal factors
  • The constitution
  • Family hegamony in political parties e.g. the
    Bandaranaikes in the PA
  • Disregard for human dignity and rights
  • Government attitude to citizens still
  • Corruption and usurpation of justice
  • Courts are not sufficiently responsive to
  • Education? responsibility, independent thinking

Egalitarian Factors
  • Mass media, IT, and travel?modern values
  • Free education
  • International European involvement
  • Resurgent use of English
  • Declining influence of conservative aspects of
  • Proliferation of non-governmental organisations
    on human rights/freedoms

Perceptions of Global Trends
  • Trade liberalisation- Multinationals vis-à-vis
    Traditional Production
  • Low investment?ST marginalisation
  • Vested interest of arms suppliers.
  • Indian socio-political impact
  • Islamic fundamentalism?Muslims
  • Centralisation of global military power in the US
    and materialism replacing traditional Christian

  • EU as an European club with economic and military
    arms NATO?
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