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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Tamilnation > Library > Eelam Section > The Break-Up of Sri Lanka : The Sinhalese-Tamil Conflict - A.J.Wilson


*Wilson, Jeyaratnam A. The Break-Up of Sri Lanka : The Sinhalese-Tamil Conflict published by C.Hurst & Company, London, Orient Longman Ltd., 1988.

from the inner flap: from the preface: from Chapter 1 The Origins of the Unitary State of Sri Lanka

from the inner flap:

The Break-Up of Sri Lanka : The Sinhalese-Tamil Conflict - A.J.WilsonA. Jeyaratnam Wilson has had exceptional opportunities to observe the movement of the `locomotive of history' in the island state of Ceylon since it obtained independence in 1948. From 1978 to 1983 he was also intimately involved in the island's affairs and was successful in negotiating a compromise agreement between President Jayewardene and the leaders of the Tamil United Liberation Front. That agreement was watered down at the stage of legislation, due to the historic enmity between the two major communities, Sinhalese and Tamil, who inhabit the island. Worse still, it was not implemented in the proper spirit. That was the point when the present civil war was triggered off. The author was personally involved in all the phases of the `gathering storm'. He uses his personal experiences and inside information to analyse, in the framework of contemporary history and political science, the island's gradual downward slide since independence. The majority ethnic grouping's alleged fears of the geopolitical situation, its antipathy to the competitive Tamil minority and the refusal of its elites to share power with the latter are, in his opinion, the causes for the disintegration of the island polity: geography made the island one country but historical processes will make it two states.

Wilson raises relevant questions and provides answers to why and how events took the turn they did. Contrary to the accepted view that the first Prime Minister, Don Stephen Senanayake (1947-52), successfully welded the island's multi-ethnic communities into a unified whole, he concludes that Senanayake was the begetter of Ceylon Tamil nationalism, and rejects the argument that fear of India compelled the Sinhalese to refuse to accommodate Tamil claims. After independence, the shift in the balance of power, if not its near-monopoly by the Sinhalese, was the reason for Sinhalese unwillingness to make the Tamils feel they belonged to the island polity. The author provides evidence of these trends even before independence. A recurring theme in the book is the Sinhalese insistence on a centralised unitary state. This has now nearly collapsed.

The author provides insights into India's stake in the island's affairs both as the major power in South Asia and because of the Tamil minority's ties with the sizeable neighbouring unit of Tamil Nad in the Indian federation. Some cliches in political science have come true, with yesterday's heresies (the demand for federalism by the Tamil Federal Party) becoming today's orthodoxy. Quotations from letters and documents provide evidence of the Tamil leadership's endeavours to seek an accommodation, and the loss of perspective by the Sinhalese elites. The abandonment of constitutional designs to end a soluble internal civil conflict has resulted in cruelties perpetrated by the state. The author ends his analysis with the view that even if the state secures a victory over the forces of the Tamil freedom movement or a patchwork compromise underwritten and monitored by New Delhi, the end-result in the foreseeable future will be two sovereign states.

A. Jeyaratnam Wilson taught at the University of Ceylon and held the founding Chair of Political Science at that University (now the University of Peradeniya) before being appointed Professor of Political Science at the University of New Brunswick in 1972. In 1978-83, he acted as an unofficial constitutional adviser to the President of Sri Lanka, and was intermediary between the President and the Tamil United Liberation Front and one of two vice-chairpersons of the Presidential Commission on Development Councils (1979-80).

He is the author of Politics in Sri Lanka, 1947-73 (1974, 2nd revised edn 1979), Electoral Politics in an Emergent State (1975), The Gaullist System in Asia (1980), and co-editor of The States of South Asia (1982) and From Independence to Statehood (1984).

from the Preface:

"I was reluctant to write this book, and for a long time after 1983, I could not resolve the matter in my conscience. A major factor was that I was close to President J.R. Jayewardene in the critical phase from 1978 to 1983. But as I kept reading with horror the operations by security forces of the island state, I realised I could no longer be a silent witness. The community of scholars interested in Ceylon had to be told what happened when I was intermediary in the Sinhalese Tamil dispute in the years 1978-83. I realised too that an analysis of the political process of which I had an inside track since the island's independence in 1948 would place in context my role in the years concerned.

I have used 'Ceylon' advisedly because that is how the country was called for well over 150 years before Sri Lanka was unilaterally introduced into the vocabulary of international usage in 1972; this was done without the consent of the principal minority, the Tamils, the community to which I belong. Sri Lanka is used in the title to convey to readers evidence of the disintegration of the polity under its new name.

My considered view is that Ceylon has already split into two entities.

At present this is a state of mind; for it to become a territorial reality is a question of time. Patchwork compromises, even if underwritten by New Delhi, are passing phenomena. The fact of the matter is that under various guises the Sinhalese elites have refused to share power with the principal ethnic minority, the Tamils. The transfer of power by Britain to the Sinhalese ethnic majority in 1948 brought in its wake an unfortunate train of events which can best be described as a loss of perspective on the part of the Sinhalese political elites. Their anxiety for power led to the abandonment of principle.

My interpretative analysis is based on inside knowledge of political events, which in turn is derived from my acquaintance with many of the political leaders of the Sinhalese and Tamils and important members of their respective elites. Most instructive, however, were two leading statesmen. One of these was my father-in-law S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, who led a revived Tamil nationalism and with whom I was in frequent contact from 1948 till his death in 1977. He was at the centre of events as a leading Opposition figure.

The other was President Jayewardene, whom I came to know intimately in the years 1978-83. He was in many ways on a lonely eminence. He does not have a helpful cabinet, and came to office very late in his life. Whenever I was visiting Colombo from Canada, I spent much time with him, sometimes every day. I travelled about Ceylon with him, and was occasionally his only companion. We had wide-ranging discussions, but I have only referred to selected matters relevant to this book because of confidentiality and respect for our relationship in those years. Mrs Jayawardene, a gracious lady with considerable political acumen, joined us at times in our discussions.

I have tried to treat my subject in consonance with my academic calling, and thus with my conscience. I have presented the facts in a historical frame of reference. The authenticity of many of the facts can be verified in due course through the archival arrangements I have made with Columbia University in the City of New York. There is a proviso that the documents be made accessible after a thirty-year time lapse. For the rest I have depended on my own notes and on primary and secondary sources.

We live with a Third World largely of artificial sovereign geographical expressions. The proliferation of mini-states is inevitable. Ethnicity transcends barriers of region, religion, class and social distinctions. Leaders and political parties in these post colonial states, whether democratic or authoritarian, respond to pressures from their ethnic groupings. My view of the future is reinforced by the certainty that political problems owe their existence to circumstances that are of more than 2,500 years' standing* especially when the political processes have been modernised. When the geopolitical situation has also been activated, the hopes of an island unity are dim...

*Apart from the political activities of the Buddhist clergy in independent Ceylon (and in the days of the Sinhalese kingdoms), D.C. Wijewardene's The Revolt in the Temple: Composed to Commemorate 2500 Years of the Land, the Race and the Faith (Colombo, 1983) conveys the depth of Sinhalese Buddhist feeling on the need to safeguard the Sinhalese people and Sinhalese Buddhism.



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