Book review: The History of Sri Lanka From: Journal of Third World Studies

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jan 24 14:28:11 UTC 2008

The History of Sri Lanka From: Journal of Third World Studies
Fall 2007 | Date: 10/1/2007 | Author: Imtiyaz, A R M

Peebles, Patrick. The History of Sri Lanka . Westport , Connecticut.:
Greenwood Press, 2004. 216pp.

Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon till 1972) has a long and rich history. The
island, however, gained global attention in recent years, particularly
for its deadly ethnic civil war and the tsunami that swept the shores
of Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004 killing over 30,000 people. These
and other developments require impartial academic inquiry, and
Peebles' research on the key events and activities of Sri Lanka daring
from the early human settlements and socio-political activities of
28,000 B.C.E to the present is therefore timely and informative.
Therefore, it is a prudent academic exercise and the appropriate time
for someone, like Patrick Peebles to conduct a study from dated from
till early 2006.

Peebles mainly focuses on how the key political decisions and choices
made by the political actors affect the polity and relations between
different ethnic groups. In the early chapters of the book, Peebles
explains the complex relationships which existed between the Southern
kingdoms and the Northern kingdom dominated by the Sinhalese and the
Tamils, respectively, in the pre-colonial history.

Peebles then goes on to evaluate the processes and events which led to
the demise of different indigenous political systems in the North and
South of the island, and developments in the Western colonial society,
particularly the British handlings of ethnic identities of the local
people. Some assumed that the presence of the Western colonial system
could ease ethnic tensions. However, colonial Sri Lanka proved
otherwise, particularly during the British administration (1798-1948).
As Peebles noted, some key British policies exacerbated ethnic
tensions "emphasizing differences between ethnic groups," and
disproportionately allocating resources and opportunities to a certain
ethnic group (p.67).

Peebles' observations on post-independence Sri Lanka occupy the
chapters from 8-13. They are more appealing and help readers
understand how modernization efforts led by the Sinhala political
class rather than narrowing ethnic disharmony generated ethnic
tensions and distrust. Modernization can breed progress. However, when
political leaders abuse the system or manipulate ethnic differences,
modernization would likely produce blood rather than bread.
Postcolonial Sri Lanka proves this scenario, and Peebles confirms such

In 1956, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)
systematically mobilized a much more homogeneous Sinhala bloc than the
liberal leaning United National Party (UNP) had ever focused on and
favored the Sinhala Only as the official language with a reasonable
use of Tamil (p. 105). The Sinhalese, particularly urban
entrepreneurs, the rural petty-bourgeoisie, school teachers, village
physicians, notaries, and village monks supported Bandaranayke. They
felt that the minority Tamil community had taken an unfair share of
power during the British Colonial administration by profiting from the
opportunities for an English education which was available to them.
Ironically, the leaders of the ethnic Moors (Muslims), whose members
were the mostly Tamil-speakers, enthusiastically supported the
Sinhala-Only official language policy. In 1956, the UNP adopted the
Sinhala-Only policy and voted with the government (p.105). As far as
the minority Tamils were concerned, Sinhalanization of the island
eroded their trust in the impartial delivery of Sinhalese controlled
state and its institutions.
(start from here)

Peebles eloquently examines how the post-1956 political, economic and
social developments, particularly after 1970, shaped the island years
to come. The agendas of the Sinhala political class such as 1972
constitution, which included articles entrenching foremost place and
state patronage for Buddhism and re-affirmed the pre-eminence of the
Sinhalese language in all aspects of public life, and anti-Tamil
education policies, had radically affected Sri Lanka polity. Also,
such measures discouraged the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led
by S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, which believed that the Tamils could win
justice and peace without jeopardizing the unity of Sri Lanka . Sadly,
Peebles notes that Sinhalese political establishment swindled the
Tamil democratic voices. Thus, it encouraged some Tamils to adopt
violence to seek a separate state (p.115). Also, it pressured some
Tamil politicians to openly support the Tamil extremists and their
programs (p. 127). On May 5, 1976 Vellupillai Prabakaran formed the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Sri Lanka 's economy is struggling to survive. Foreign investors share
deep concerns over the chaos and instability. They expect warring
parties freeze the differences and seek political solutions. However,
efforts to seek political solutions, particularly since 1995,
subjected to the attacks by the Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalists
(p.171). As Pebbles correctly observes, devolution and power-sharing
could strengthen Sri Lanka's democracy, war-ridden economy, and ethnic
harmony, in other words, they can aid Sri Lanka to realize its long
beautiful dream- Singapore of South Asia.

Peebles, as an expert of modern history of Sri Lanka , offers
thoughtful and impartial investigation into the key events of history
and their implications. This book is a must read, therefore, I
strongly recommend the book to students, academics, and for general
reading to understand the island of Sri Lanka .

A.R.M. Imtiyaz
Temple University , Philadelphia , PA.

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