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The British monarch and the colonial legacy of Sri Lanka

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Today Britain’s longest-ruling monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, passed away peacefully at her Scottish estate. Across the globe, messages of condolence have poured in to mourn the passage of the British head of state whose reign spanned over 15 Prime Ministers.

Elizabeth came to the throne in 1952 amidst a period of rapid decolonisation and bore witness to the demise of the British empire. Yet the process of decolonisation was not seamless. Instead, Britain’s colonial elite refashioned entire countries with the stroke of a pen. For the English liberal imperialists, this project of nation-building was a noble duty. Britain was promoting its values of democracy, liberty and the rule of law across the globe, and in South Asia, Ceylon presented its first test case.

In 1931, Ceylon adopted the British Donoughmore Constitution and became “the first British colony in Asia- and indeed the first Asian country- to enjoy the principle of universal suffrage”. However, throughout this period, Tamils on the island continued to raise alarm over the growing threat of majoritarian rule and the insufficiencies of the constitution. Ganapathipillai Gangaser Ponnambalam, founder of the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), would advocate during for a “fifty-fifty” compromise. The first of many attempts to broker a power-sharing arrangement with the Sinhala South.

The Donoughmore Constitution was not ignorant of the diverse ethnicities on the island, rather the drafters outright rejected communal representation as they saw it as an obstacle to nation-building.

“These diverse elements and distinct classes, even if not antagonistic to each other, are in more or less separate compartments, this resulting in the lack of homogeneity and of corporate consciousness which make it difficult to achieve any national unity of purpose”, wrote the commissioners in their report.

“It is our opinion that only by its [communal representation] abolition will it be possible for the diverse communities to develop together a true national unity”, they added.

Whilst presented as an impartial governance structure, scholar Madura Rasaratnam notes how “the Donoughmore report reproduced the modern ‘Mahavamsa’ narrative of Sinhalese Buddhist colonisation, flourishing and Tamil invasion precipitating decline in the introductory pages of its report”. Under the veil of an independent observer, the British state sided with the Sinhala majority.


Visiting the island in 1954, Queen Elizabeth expressed her confidence that the Sinhala rulers would be able to find a political solution to the strife that plagued the island. She would even visit Buddhist sites which reified a vision of a Sinhala Buddhist land. Two years later, state-sponsored Sinhala mobs would descend onto the streets and slaughter over 150 Tamils across the island - the first of many massacres that were to take place in the decades to come. The explosion of violence was aimed at Tamil demonstrators who had taken to peacefully demonstrate outside Sri Lanka’s parliament in opposition to the Sinhala Only Act.

Upon a hurried decolonisation process, the island was left with few parliamentary checks and balances to protect the numerically smaller nations on the island. It is this legacy that has unleashed a virulent form of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that has resulted in more Tamil deaths in the last 70 years than during the entirety of the monarchy's colonial rule of Sri Lanka.

An oversight that remains one of the root causes of instability on the island.



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