Since its independence, Sri Lanka has undergone a major social, economic and cultural transformation. These changes have had a positive as well as a negative impact on the very existence of Sri Lanka. It is important that we, as people today, carefully examine the past to see where we have gone wrong in 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.
“A.E. Gunasinghe, a trade union leader at the time, told the Donoughmore Commission that universal suffrage should be given to Sri Lankan workers and the general public, regardless of income or education. Through the Donoughmore Commission, the public was granted universal suffrage. Everyone over the age of 21, regardless of gender, was eligible to vote,” she started.
The first election was held in June 1931. Sri Lanka is the first country in Asia to have universal suffrage. During this election, as local political parties had no names, the ballot paper had to be placed in the ballot box of the candidate of one’s choice.
Francis Molamure was the first Speaker of the first State Council held on 7 July, 1931. The total number of votes cast in this election was 708,319 with a percentage of 58 per cent. The State Council, established under the Donoughmore Constitution, was dissolved on 7 December, 1935, at the end of its five-year term.
The second State Council election was held on 19 March, 1936. The founders of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, Philip Gunawardena and Dr. N.M. Perera were elected to the State Council by a majority vote. S. A. Wickramasinghe, who was elected to the first State Council, and E.W. Perera, a prominent leader in the freedom struggle, were defeated. Eight other Tamil council members, including Natesa Iyer and S. P. Chaithyalingam, were elected to the second State Council for the Hatton and Talawakelle electorates representing the Tamil community in the plantation areas. H.R. Freeman, a European civil servant, was elected unopposed to represent Anuradhapura.
Westminster module constitution of Ceylon
Memorandums drafted by the Cabinet appointed under the Donoughmore Constitution were vehemently rejected by the minorities and they asked for an opportunity to express their views. As a result, in 1944 a committee was appointed, headed by Soulbury, who was a minister of the Conservative Party in Britain, headed by Sir Frederick Reese and Sir Frederick Rose. Accordingly, the Soulbury Constitution, the constitution of independent Ceylon with the characteristics of Westminster, was established.
After a long struggle by those who opposed the imperialists, Ceylon gained independence in 1948. This was a ‘Dominion Independence’ and the Head of State was the British Crown and the official language of the country was English.
“It can be said that by this time the self-sufficient economy of Sri Lanka had begun to falter. Sri Lanka’s agrarian economy, known as the ‘Granary of the East’, began to collapse as the Waste Land Act forced the use of traditional lands for plantations, degrading local agriculture and disrupting Sri Lanka’s irrigation system. The Sri Lankan people were severely affected by the sale of liquor (The 1912 Excise Act – See the previous article of this series), giving priority to missionary education and undermining education and cultural identity in the country.”
According to the Independence Act of 1947, only the British Parliament could amend the Constitution of Ceylon. The Parliament of Ceylon had the power to legislate, govern, replace the Governor with the Governor-General, the power to enter into international treaties and conventions, and the power to appoint officers of State Defence and Administration. Eventually, Britain withdrew from Government matters. Parliament was placed above the nominal executive and the judiciary.
The Soulbury Committee introduced the cabinet system to Sri Lanka. Lord Soulbury was Governor of Sri Lanka from 1949 to 1954. The first Sinhala Governor was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke (1954 – 1962) and William Gopallawa was the Governor-General from 1962 to 1972.
Rise of ethnic conflicts
Abeywickrama also explained that due to the Citizenship Act enacted after independence, nearly 900,000 Indian Tamils in the plantation areas were deprived of the right to vote in the first general election held in Sri Lanka. However, seven Tamil MPs from the plantation areas were already in the Parliament. The group led by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, who split from the Tamil Congress, formed the Federal Party. They then fought for a federal Constitution instead of a unitary one.
“They were the first to call the North and East the homeland of the Tamil-speaking people. It must be said that the British also provided the background for the ethnic crisis that exists to this day. It was a vicious move to bring in Indian mercenaries to develop the tea industry by disrupting Sri Lankan agriculture and today it has become a major political, socioeconomic problem,” said Abeywickrama.
S.W.R.D.’s wrong moves
In 1956, The People’s United Front was formed under the leadership of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. The nationalist movement regarded it as a victory and some considered it to be the beginning of an era of common people in Sri Lanka. The Bandaranaike Government was able to liberate the British-controlled Trincomalee Port and Katunayake Airport, and also focused on building new ties with socialist countries such as China and Russia.
The 1956 Hartal, the Youth Awakening in the South, and the L.T.T.E. armed conflict are notable among the people’s struggles that have been created in Sri Lanka since 1948 based on political and social rights.
Bandaranaike, who became the Prime Minister in 1956 through the Sinhala Nationalist Movement, made Sinhala the official language and introduced new laws to strengthen the Sinhala Buddhist ideology. The anti-Tamil riots of 1958 erupted in the face of protests against the Sinhala Buddhist ideology and political movement.
Laying the foundation stones of a New Sri Lanka
The Ceylon economy of the period 1948-1960 has several key features. Features of the colonial era continued to strive with only a few changes. The World Bank’s influence on the economy for the first time could be seen during this time period. Agriculture saw a revival and large-scale agriculture happened during this time including agribusinesses and commercial agriculture. The beginning of the balance of payments crisis, commencement of economic planning and policymaking, the adoption of semi-open economic policies, the implementation of comprehensive welfare programmes, and the launch of nationalised enterprises, and so on happened.
“At the same time, the self-sufficient local economic system was gradually depleted. Traditional knowledge systems and lifestyles gradually started to vanish in the face of rising westernisation. A new local generation rose to power who adopted British ways such as eating meat, use of alcohol, and giving priority to the English language. This new class was prominent in new Sri Lanka in the aspects of culture, society, economy and politics,” Abeywickrama concluded.
To be continued…
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy