From monarch, colony to executive presidency


 “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.”

—Ernest Benn

 What Sri Lanka is going through now is only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, there is a lot of mess that has been piling up for decades courtesy unwise and selfish decisions of politicians. We have been discussing this for the past two weeks to make an attempt to understand the country’s recent political history.

 To know more about the political mess we are facing today, we contacted an expert on this subject, Kaushalya Abeywickrama who is a journalist, author, and researcher on Political Communication. She is also a woman and child rights activist, a motivational speaker, and a life coach. She holds two post-graduate degrees in Mass Communication, and Conflict, Peace, and Development Studies.

It all started in 1505

In 1505 Lourenco de Almeida (1489 – 1508), a Portuguese military commander arrived at the shores of ancient Ceylon. They landed in Galle and they sailed to the kingdom of Kotte which was the capital of Sri Lanka at that time.

The Portuguese saw the potential and the economic benefits of this little island kingdom and decided not to leave too soon. The rich aromatic spices, herbs, and ivory were invaluable treasure sources for the Portuguese. They were a rising naval and political power in Europe and they were able to gain authority over the Indian Ocean, and eventually succeeded in taking over much political power in Sri Lanka.

 “The Portuguese robbed us for about 150 years,” said Abeywickrama.

 The Portuguese introduced Catholicism to the island and succeeded in converting a large number of islanders to the new religion. 

Abeywickrama said that it is recorded that approximately 480,000 people were converted into Catholicism by this time and the influence of Portuguese culture on local architecture, paintings, sculpture, music, and attire is something we still witness.

Then the Dutch raided Ceylon

In 1656 the Dutch set their eyes and foot on Sri Lanka. With the help of the Dutch, the Sinhala king in Kandy, succeeded in getting rid of the Portuguese who were by this time had been a great threat to the country. In 1602 the Dutch communicated with the Sinhala king in Kandy, king Wimaladharmassuriya I (1590 to 1604) by sending gifts and letters to the king. They did this by first communicating with the officials at the Batticaloa Harbour which was under the rule of the king of Kandy.

“They lent their support to the kings of Kandy and Kotte and fought battles against the Portuguese.”

 The agreement signed between the Dutch and the Sinhalese king Rajasinghe II (1629 – 1687) in 1639 was disgustingly violated by the Dutch.

“As per this agreement, the Dutch should have handed over all the Portuguese forts back to the Sinhalese king, which they did not abide by.”

 In 1656 Admiral Westerwolt succeeded in seizing Batticaloa, Negombo, and Galle harbours. The agreement between the Dutch and the Sinhalese king deceived the king. Hence, they succeeded in ruling the coastal areas of the country for 140 years. The main intention of the Dutch is to earn as much as possible by making the best use of the resources of the island. Spices, ivory as well as introducing plantations (commercial crops), and taxing the public were the extremely lucrative ways the Dutch earned from old Ceylon.

Laws and regulations and policies introduced by the Dutch are still in use in Sri Lanka.

 From 1505 to 1656, 16 Portuguese governors and from 1656 – to 1796, 37 Dutch governors ruled the coastal areas of Sri Lanka.

Ceylon becomes a Crown Colony

In 1796 the East India Company in Madras was successful in taking over the authority of the coastal areas of Sri Lanka which were under the Dutch rule. The new British rulers appointed people of a Tamil ethnicity as officers in the new company who were faithful to the British. They removed the Mudaliars and the old staff of the company who were mainly Sinhalese Mudaliars. Hence the Sinhalese people rioted against this act of the British. This resulted in the British monarchy deciding to take Ceylon directly under the rule of the British monarchy and declaring it a Crown Colony.

 On 12 October 1778, Friedrich North arrived in Ceylon as the first British Governor ruling the coastal areas of the island. Since then the British conspired to invade the Kandyan Kingdom and threaten the sovereignty of this little island kingdom that had been unshaken for almost 23 centuries.

The 1815 Kandyan Convention

As a result, not by bloodshed or by victory over war, but by a shrewd conspiracy and then later by a tricky treaty, the British surrendered the Sinhalese monarchy to the rising British Empire. The treaty or the Kandyan Convention was signed on 2 March 1815.

 Just as the Dutch did, the British too never abided by the rules in the agreement. They violated it.

Colvin R. de Silva writes in his book Brithanyayan Yatathe Pawthi Lankawa, that it seems as if the 1815 treaty is merely an agreement between the British Government and the Kandyan Kingdom to hand over the Sinhalese Crown.

Till the year 1833, the British ruled Ceylon under the Marshal Law.

 From 1798 to 1949, 29 British governors ruled Ceylon, starting from Friedrich North to Henry Mason Moor.

 From 1949 to 1954, Soulbury was the British Governor in Ceylon. Sir Oliver Goonathilaka was the first Sinhalese Governor who governed from 1954 to 1962.

William Gopallawa was the Governor from 1962 to 1972, and after the country was declared a republic, he became the president of the new republic of Sri Lanka till 1978.

Ceylon becomes Sri Lanka

Until Ceylon gained independence in 1948, the British Governor was the head of the State. He was the supreme authority and Head of the Legislature, the Executive, and the Judiciary. Yet, this independence was only dominion independence; which means, Ceylon was still under the rule and control of the British Crown.

 Ceylon gained full independence in 1972 after it was declared a republic and then the power of the Parliament became the representation and authority of the people of the country. Afterward, politicians and political parties would rise into power and establish governments.

Executive presidency

From 1970 to 1977 Sirimawo Bandaranaike’s party, Samagi Peramuna was in power, and in 1978 she was defeated by the United Nations Party, led by J.R. Jayawardene. Jayawardene, having the favour of a five-sixth majority approved a new constitution for Sri Lanka. This put an end to the British-style Parliament Sri Lanka had till then. The president who was elected by the majority of the public was also the ruler of the people’s sovereignty and the judiciary. This introduced the ‘executive presidency’ to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka was a monarchy till 1815, for almost 23 centuries. Since 1815 the entire country went through a complete change in its political, economic, and social aspects. We adopted a novel Cabinet system and a Presidency system introduced to us by the British. However, we need to be educated about this novel system in order to play it well. Due to the lack of knowledge of this new system, Sri Lankan politicians tend to go back to a monarchy system and mock public sovereignty. If this continues, there wouldn’t be any difference between the executive presidency position and the British Crown under whose rule we once had an extremely bitter experience. 

To be continued…

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy