Sri Lanka’s Flawed Path to Independence 

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Sri Lanka’s Flawed Path to Independence 

Sri Lanka’s elite-driven independence process laid the groundwork for the problems that continue to plague the country today, from ethnic tensions to inequality. 

Sri Lanka’s Flawed Path to Independence 

Sri Lankan soldiers dressed in traditional costumes carry national flags during the Independence Day celebration in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, Feb. 4, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

Sri Lanka’s independence process is very much lauded by scholars and historians. The author of a “History of Sri Lanka,” K. M. de Silva, noted the peaceful process of independence and juxtaposed Sri Lanka’s path to that of other countries in South Asia such as India and Burma. Sri Lanka acted as a rare example of authority being transferred through the electoral process, “completely democratically and constitutionally, from the original legatee of the British to a successor.” The British High Commissioner compared Sri Lanka’s perfect transition to a “newly launched vessel [which] slips from its yard into the sea.”

Yet, the post-independence period has revealed that the process had not been as seamless as it appeared from the distance. The context that the process came out of and the impact of the process has made it impossible to enact people’s demands from last year’s protests.

During the colonial era, Ceylon’s elite rose in rank, status, and influence because they traded commodities such as timber and brick or consumables such as tea and arrack. They also received appointments to posts such as mudaliyars and benefited from land distribution. In her book “Nobodies to Somebodies,” Kumari Jayawardena labeled the elites as “ a ‘dependent’ rather than an ‘independent’ class,” whose “creation and continued existence was based on protection and opportunities provided by the colonial state.”

These elites studied at Oxford or Cambridge and returned to Sri Lanka indoctrinated in values such as the importance of justice and liberty. They occupied positions in education, civil service, and the judiciary. In the state, they represented farmers and peasants – and mistakenly believed that they could control the socioeconomic factors that created tensions and impose their values on local people.

In the meantime, pressure from petitions and small local movements pushed the colonial government in 1911 to set up elections for a limited franchise for a select number of members in the Legislative Council, an advisory body set-up in 1833.

As the push for representation continued, ethnicity materialized as a divisive element. In the late 1920s, the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) pushed for the Legislative Council to be elected based on a territorial basis, but minority members perceived this as a threat to balanced representation. Important Tamil and Muslim members exited the CNC, leaving the party primarily with Sinhalese politicians. This event ended the CNC’s multi-ethnic membership.

The Donoughmore Commission in the 1930s ended communal (ethnicity-based) representation. This led to a boycott in Northern areas by Tamil parties. As a result from 1931-1934, the Northern electorates had no Tamil seats, and the entire legislature only had three Tamil seats. As a result, the Sinhalese obtained a majority over all the other communities in the island.

“The elite of the Ceylon National Congress also dominated the newly created Board of Ministers and, with few changes, it was this leadership that would take Ceylon on the path to independence,” lecturer at the University of Edinburgh Harshan Kumarasingham noted in the Heidelberg Papers.

Sri Lanka never had an independence movement that mobilized the local masses – the first mass movement occurred in 2022, 74 years after independence. Small-scale movements that contested imperialism existed, such as the Suriya-Mal Movement, a protest centered on the use of the poppy to honor ex-British servicemen rather than Ceylonese servicemen. But none of these movements had the vision for self-rule, the numbers, or the cohesion of the Indian National Congress-led independence movement in India.

Eric Meyer, previously the Head of the South Asia Department at Inalco – Institute of Oriental Studies of the University of Paris, in a paper noted the three primary reasons for the lack of a mass movement in colonial Sri Lanka. First, the elite did not have a close relationship to the ordinary people. Second, Sri Lanka’s political elite perceived India through suspicious eyes, in case they interfered in Sri Lanka’s independence process. Third, politicians kept peasant dissatisfaction and revolt to a minimum through land redistribution and the provision of hydraulic infrastructure.

“The absence of an Indian-style mass independence movement meant that there was no open space in which the political articulation, contestation and popular engagement with notions of independent nationality and statehood could have occurred prior to independence,” Dr. Asanga Welikala said in his study. He believed that the process of “nation-building” in Sri Lanka was delayed to the post-independence period.

While India had a series of political parties in the lead up to independence, several colonial commissions noted the absence of political parties in Sri Lanka.

Kumarasingham examined this in his book, “A Political Legacy of the British Empire: Power and the Parliamentary System in Post-Colonial India and Sri Lanka.” Parties, such as the United National Party (UNP), were dominated by their leaders – they ran on the fuel of their leader’s personalities leading to the “personalization” of the political landscape. Leaders did not root their parties in causes or movements, evinced by the lack of party manifestos. D. S. Senanayake dominated the UNP and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike later dominated the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). More recently, parallels can be seen in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s dominance over the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

Political parties nurtured informal relationships with close and extended family. As Kumarasingham claimed D. S. Senanayake “also kept his power, however, by using the Eastminster tools of kith and kin.” (Eastministers is a term used for ex-colonies in the East that had the Westminster parliamentary systems implanted into the country.)

Finally, Sri Lanka’s parties functioned on informal lines. For example, no formal mechanisms existed for the election or disposal of leaders inside parties. As a result, leaders and candidates could not be held accountable or removed for their actions or mistakes.

In the post-independence period, the UNP and SLPP monopolized the political landscape.  “As one dissident Sri Lanka communist, himself a cousin of Bandaranaike, stated in 1968, the political power system in Ceylon was ‘a game of musical chairs’ by which a Bandaranaike (SLFP) or a Senanayake (UNP) can alternatively come to power,” Kumarasingham observed in his book.

With the exception of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), no other political party rose in prominence until the Rajapaksas’ SLPP in 2016 and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) in 2019. Unlike in the Westminster system, a politician could not be simply voted out. As families dominate parties, an entire party’s political infrastructure, such as their control of mass media, trade unions, and civil society organizations, must be uprooted to remove their influence across the political nexus.

Despite the protests in 2022, Sri Lanka’s democracy is barren of choice — there appears to be no alternative to the political elite. The protests had several examples of youth leaders, but none of these candidates can enact many of the core demands because they have not uprooted the culture of personalization or the informal infrastructure created by these political families.

As de Silva described in his book, “[T]he final phase in the transfer of power, 1942-7, was dominated, so far as Sri Lanka was concerned, by one man, D. S. Senanayake.” Born to a family that made their fortune by trade and rose in rank by colonial appointments, Senanayake had a dominant personality.  He initially used his authority to remove the CNC’s leader and his rival, Don Baron Jayatilaka.

In 1939, he defeated G. G. Ponnambalam’s 50:50 proposal of 50 percent Sinhalese seats and 50 percent Tamils seats in Parliament. In 1943 Senanayake exited the CNC, and he formed the UNP in 1947.

“Senanayake’s prestige and political dominance was such that not only were the rest of the Board of Ministers and the State Council reduced to merely rubber stamping his decisions, but he appears to have impressed all of his British interlocutors, and not least the Soulbury Commission, to an extent that he nearly always got what he wanted,” Welikala noted in his study.

Senanayake created a “small club” of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and Sir Ivor Jennings to steer the independence process.

“They knew that mass movement could mean certain things in Ceylon’s context. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike had already flirted with Sinhala nationalism by that time and they wanted to avoid that,” Welikala told me over the phone. “They wanted to ensure that these things were [squashed]. An elite statecraft model would be the way forward.”

“The examples [the trio] looked to in terms [of the transition] were not from those of mass politics and violence. They looked at Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa where there was an ‘educated question of constitutional politics.’ That had been the preferred model of the Ceylon elite. That’s the reason our process of decolonization had been small – it had been entirely negotiated and constitutional,” Welikala told me.

Jennings helped Senanayake and his team project a favorable impression to the Colonial Office and the secretary of state and expedited the independence process. He contributed to the Soulbury Constitution (a document that should have been called the “Jennings Constitution,” Welikala said). Jennings made important decisions about defense, foreign policy, and public offices in the constitution. He also decided on the component for minority protection. He actively chose Article 29 (a non-discrimination clause) modeled on the traditional Westminster practices.

This closed process helped Sri Lanka receive dominion status quickly and smoothly. On December 7 1947, the British Parliament adopted the Ceylon Independence Act. On February 4, 1948, the Dominion of Ceylon received independence by an Order of Council, rather than the more extensive process of an Act of Parliament. The country transitioned to the republic of Sri Lanka in 1972.

Unlike India, Sri Lanka also did not have a Constituent Assembly that included voices across the country to create a national document in the post-independence period.

“In India, a Constituent Assembly was established and lasted until 1949. This was a place where a lot of constitutional ideas were discussed,” Kumarasingham told me over the phone. Representatives had committees for areas such as minority rights and tribal land. “This could have been an opportunity to discuss different ideas and perhaps have more local voices included.”

A more extensive process that considered the complexity of Sri Lanka, like India did, could have created a more robust political infrastructure. The country could have also taken a step further from a representative to a participatory democracy – a system that involves the public rather than excludes them.

Despite the various calls for constitutional reform in last year’s protests, such as the abolishment of the executive presidency and the return to a parliamentary system, the 22nd Amendment to the constitution is mere lip-speak for reform, as it helps the executive retain most of its authority. In Sri Lanka, constitutions are still made by the political elite, for the political elite. The demands and interests of the people are still pushed to the background.

Four years after independence, D. S. Senanayake died in 1952 and his son, Dudley Senanayake replaced him. This act set a precedent in the country’s post-colonial political culture that is still mimicked today: The political culture is mostly patrilineal.

Political reach spanned across time as sons replaced their fathers, like D. S. and Dudley Senanayake. Children reproduced, reinforced, and expanded their families’ legacies. Most recently, this can be seen in the grooming of Namal Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s son, to be the future leader of the SLPP.

Since independence, the Wijewardene-Senanayakes have maintained their dominance over the political landscape at the expense of the country’s citizens. As the country celebrates 75 years of independence from the British, Senanayake’s unelected relative, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is at the helm of the country at the expense of the citizens and their demands