The British Empire dramatically changed Sri Lanka. The actions it took in Sri Lanka were only based on what would increase their power and wealth, and what would bring most benefits back home to the far away motherland. The legacy they left behind is mixed.
We have a system of laws, a parliament, and franchise-based governance which is derived from the British model. These are good things. However, the British Imperialists also planted the seeds of many of our current problems – these originate from the occupation period, but their persistence is our own fault.
The British brought in tens of thousands of Tamils from South India, and later perpetuated the myth of a Tamil homeland on the island which their own records do not corroborate. This myth and later sponsorship of Tamil militancy created a terrorist insurgency which bled the country for over 30 years, and destabilized it so that foreign intervention would be required well into the post-Independence period.
The British offered low caste and poor people education and a path into a more prosperous life, as long as those people converted to Christianity. The descendants of these converts are now the “kalu-suddhas” who still seek to do their former masters’ bidding in order to suppress the majority population and to ingratiate themselves with the foreign neo-colonialists of today. Through this ingratiation, they are able to get NGO and embassy jobs instead of the civil service and professional jobs which they had preferential access to between 1948-1956.
The British created a colonial economy based on tea, rubber and other unfinished products. Without the application of the free market, capitalism and innovation which helped Britain itself become rich, reliance on this plantation economy caused poverty. Then, after Independence Sri Lanka’s masses became tempted by the poisonous and failed Marxist ideology as a means to better their lives.
The British responded swiftly and ruthlessly to the Sinhala Emancipation Rebellions in the early part of their rule, destroying tanks, burning orchards, and beheading men, women and children without mercy. We still suffer from dengue in many parts as a result of the mosquito-friendly marshlands created when the British destroyed the tanks. The merciless suppression pacified the colony pretty much until the end of the Empire itself.
Having said all this, there is however no need to judge these historical events as good or bad.
This is simply what happened. Though the British empire was highly skilled at the destruction of indigenous peoples and the distortion of demographics in their colonies, for the most part the behaviour of the colonialists was normal for the time period. They merely excelled at the ruthlessness required to create a global empire, which allowed their empire to be bigger and more successful than the French, Dutch, Portuguese or Spanish ones.
Since Independence, and especially since the Liberation of 1956, the ethnic, developmental, and economic problems Sri Lanka has faced – though stemming from imperial policies put in place to sow division and instability in the occupied land – could have been mitigated by leaders who had better foresight and resolve.
For example, if the Sinhalese political leaders had united as one around the Sinhalese Buddhist civilization which settled and built the country prior to Western occupation, then Tamil homeland myth spreaders and Christian superiority complexers would not have had the chance to bring terrorism and anti-Sinhala racism to Sri Lanka.
This is how Malaysian leaders acted, such as by instituting the Bhumiputra laws to correct the historical injustices faced by the Malay Muslim majority at the hands of foreigners the British had imported there (Chinese and Tamils, in that case). It was so effective that the earliest Eelamists decided to flee to Sri Lanka rather than continue their homeland mythmaking in Malaysia.
If Sinhalese politicians had focused on implementing capitalism in Sri Lanka instead of chasing behind anti-individual and wrong-headed Marxist policies, Sri Lanka would have become a highly prosperous and technologically advanced country like Singapore or South Korea (both countries were poorer than Sri Lanka in the 1950s).
Let me reiterate. It is somewhat silly to hoot and holler about the British Empire 200 years after the genocide they committed and 70 years after Independence. Though we must condemn what was done, there is no point in saying today that they were bad.
What is reprehensible however are the brazen attempts by the beneficiaries of the British Empire – the Tamils, the descendants of Burghers, and Christian converts – to try and paint the imperial period or the dominion period as a good time.
It was most certainly not a good time for the vast majority of the country, whose way of life was altered at the barrel of a gun, and whose country was handed over to local converts and foreign immigrants from south India.
Furthermore, what is equally bad is to hold up these foreign countries as some sort of model. Even supposing they wanted to help – which they don’t – how could they?
European countries, once the fount of global imperialism and economic development, are a shadow of their former selves. They are plagued by broken societies, high unemployment, and stagnation. They are drowning in debt, wracked by protests, and ruled by unelected bureaucrats who are not accountable to their people.
This idea that these countries can give us guidance is a total farce. It is as idiotic to look to them in 2018, as it was to follow the principles of socialism in the 1960s which caused the deaths of millions in countries like Mao’s China or Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
Singapore, South Korea and Japan all developed not by following any particular model, but rather by diligently applying some basic principles.
Hard work, civilizational sovereignty, national unity, rule of law, and capitalism are what brought these countries up from abject poverty to first world status.
They did not make fun of infrastructure projects as being “concrete jungles” (as Rosy Senanayake said). They did not say “any cow can wage war” (as Kiriella said). They did not say “I wish the foreigners were ruling us as a dominion” (as many UNPers say). They did not give in to terrorists and traitors as Ranil and Chandrika and Sirisena do.
These countries did not pander to minority extremists and did not hold out begging bowls to rich countries. They did not take from the majority to give privileges to minority groups. They made their own unique model of development by applying the principles I have listed.
So the next time you see someone saying how good things were in the British period, tell them to get out of their daydream, to de-colonize their brains, to stop spreading fake news and alternate history, and to start working hard for the good of all instead of pining for long lost apartheid-style privileges.