Cycles of history | Daily News

Cycles of history

Professor K M de Silva is one of the most renowned scholars of Sri Lankan history. His book, “A History of Sri Lanka,” published in 1981 and re-issued in 2005, is seen by many as the most comprehensive account of the island’s history written to date. He is the author of political biographies of former Prime Minister D S Senanayake as well as J R Jayewardene, Sri Lanka’s first executive president. He holds a PhD from the University of London, and he founded the International Centre for Ethnic Studies.

Professor de Silva sat down with the Daily News at his office in Kandy last week to dissect the results of the recent local government elections from a historical perspective, as well as look to the future of Sri Lankan politics.

Q: As the local election results came in earlier this month, I was reminded of a line from your book. It reads: “When the Sri Lankan electorate is in one of its not very infrequent moods of disenchantment with the regime in power, it gives vent to its displeasure with an exuberance and vehemence which all but obliterates the governing party.” So I’m wondering, how do you see the local elections in the context of Sri Lankan political history?

Prof. K M de Silva 

A: My attitude is somewhat different. We have pretended to be a rural society these last 75 or 80 years. But in fact the census reports show that we are a semi-urban society. And we haven’t done very much for these suburban people. So there has been a shift of focus, which these guys in local government don’t understand. You’re going to have more attention being paid to the urban areas and suburban areas.

You’ve noticed that there’s rather unusual figure who has emerged as Mayor of Colombo: Rosy Senanayake. How she will manage in politics, I don’t know, but I think she has the potential to be a very good mayor. She and some of the other younger people are likely to accept the fact that yes, we are suburban, and urban, so let’s build on that. That is my interpretation of the recent elections, at least in Colombo.

But you have a lot of people that are disenchanted. You are seeing the Rajapaksas again – I used to call them “a government of thieves.” He is lucky that our courts take so long. We used to have a culture of law. If we ever return to it, it will be difficult for the politicians.

Q: Many people see Rosy Senanayake as standing for a progressive platform, and she did quite well in Colombo. But another powerful force in the urban area, as we’ve seen in places like Maharagama, are groups like the Bodu Bala Sena.

A: I wouldn’t bother too much about it. They are not as powerful as the Buddhist movement of the recent past. If Venerable Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera is ever searched by the police, they will find lots and lots of money that he has got from unscrupulous businessmen who want his help in dealing with their rivals. So it’s not so bad.

Shall we put it this way? We have to accommodate ourselves to the emergence of a new generation of politicians. Rosy Senanayake is one of them. But look at what’s happened to the Bandaranaikes. Electorally, they have lost very badly this time. There is no hope of recovery unless you are willing to put up with the young people in your party who do not belong to your family. This they have not been able to do.

Q: Do you think a political dynasty like theirs is capable of change?

A: No, the change has come. But they don’t know it has come. The crucial electorate for Chandrika Kumaratunga is Attanagalla. They have lost it badly. They no longer have the sort of clout they had in those days. I would say this is all part of a period of change in which we are moving from rural Sri Lanka to suburban Sri Lanka.

Q: With the emergence of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s new party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, I was thinking about an example from history, that of E W Perera breaking from the Ceylon National Congress. He formed his own party, the All Ceylon Liberal League, which you say is a classic move for “dissident and disgruntled” politicians in Sri Lanka. But it did not last long. Do you see a similar fate for the SLPP?

A: The All Ceylon Liberal League fizzled out quickly. They were opposed to things like the income tax, and poor old E W Perera fizzled out with it. I see a similar future for the SLPP.

The SLPP is headed by a man I know very well, Professor G L Peiris. He was an accomplished teacher of law. But you also must remember that his mother was an heiress to a huge fortune. He has never been guilty of throwing some of that money to charity or the poor. He is a very solid scholar. But there’s not much that he can do unless he’s willing to spend his money on some well-placed charities. People don’t think of him like that. GL has never recovered from the privileged existence which he got from the time he was born.

So now, as far as the Prime Minister is concerned, if he knows what he wants, and works with the younger group of MPs, he should be okay. Because at least he doesn’t have the disadvantages that Chandrika Bandaranaike has.

Q: What do you see as the important trends going into the Presidential and Parliamentary elections?

A: I cannot predict anything. But I was one of the few who foresaw the fall of the Left in this country, which is something we are all grappling with now. It’s a long time before another group comes up to take their place.

There’s a political space that’s been left empty. The UNP has taken advantage of this, to a point. Let’s look at the mathematics of it: if you get the Sinhalese Christians, the Muslims, and the Tamils together, they work out to something like 26 percent of the vote. If you have that, and you’re sure you have it, you need very little more. The political arena has to accommodate these people.

Because that space will be filled, we don’t know by whom. The Prime Minister can sit easy for a while, until somebody comes up to take advantage of that. We are going to have very interesting times ahead, until that vacuum is filled by some very dynamic young man or woman. For example, who could have predicted that Rosy Senanayake would be Mayor of Colombo?

Q: One problem the current government has had, and which appears to have cost them in the local elections, is that they have not delivered many of the promises they made about reconciliation: releasing military-held land, giving information about missing people, and punishing criminals. It seems Tamil voters are extremely disenchanted with the promises they were given and how they feel they’ve been broken. Can that coalition you speak of really be re-created?

A: The history of Tamil grievances, specifically in the North, goes back much further than the war. Yes, they backed the LTTE, which was absolutely defeated. But the Kingdom of Jaffna, in the 17th century, was destroyed, obliterated, by the Portuguese. So they’ve had in a few hundred years two whitewashes. So if you want reconciliation, you have to be more imaginative. And what about the tensions between the Muslim and Tamil communities? No one looks at that problem, but it is a huge problem.

In the past, Tamil politicians backed the claims of the plantation workers and their children, and the Tamils who lived in the mountain areas. But there was a split. Now, when I speak with up-country Tamils, many say: “Professor, we are Tamils, we are not hill country Tamils. So when they are talking about the Tamils they have to talk to us, too.” The problems of the Tamils do not just exist on that little peninsula. These are problems that need to be addressed. It’s going to be a fairly interesting situation for all the minorities, who form about 25 to 30 percent of the population.

The unity government seemed to recognize this in 2015. But I predict someone young will come up from the Tamils to face these issues.

Q: A force you’ve pointed to as influential in Sri Lankan history is the merging of “Sinhalese traditionalism” with radical ideologies from Europe. This fusion was apparent in the rhetoric leading to the 1848 rebellion, and even more apparent in the mass nationalism around 1956 and the passage of the “Sinhala Only” Act. How do you think these forces currently affect popular politics?

A: This fusion is so significant, but people don’t know it. Europe has had the same problems: after the Marxist movements have disappeared the nationalist fusions are still there. People need to stop and think about this.

I used to reflect on this, and I came to a conclusion. Once every 20-25 years, there is a radical change in Sri Lanka. When that happens, the government in power pays hugely: it happened in 1956, it happened in 1977. But it hasn’t really happened since.

So it’s like this now. There’s a place called Dankotuwa, in Kurunegala. It’s now producing porcelain of international quality. The head of this company is a Tamil Christian. He told me the area used to be known for what he calls “Dankotuwa special,” or pot arrack. But they’ve moved on from that.

They know they can’t compete with the Japanese, but they can do something similar. They employ many young women, and they’re well-paid and happy. These changes are possible.

So let’s see how it goes. But I must say, I was not jolted by this recent election result. 

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