10 minute read

Sri Lanka

History & Background


Historical Evolution: The history of Sri Lanka before 1500 C.E., as recorded in its Great Chronicles, is considered unverifiable and is largely an obscure, confusing, and conflicting set of records about wars, invasions, usurpations, and dynastic rivalries. Beginning with the thirteenth century C.E., Sri Lanka was divided into three major kingdoms: a Tamil kingdom in the north, a Sinhalese kingdom in the southwest, and the kingdom of Kandy in the interior. In 1505, the Portuguese came to the island and established settlements on the west and south coasts. Despite Portuguese efforts to subjugate the entire island, the Kandyan kingdom remained independent. In 1612, the king of Kandy formed an alliance with the Dutch, successfully defeating and dislodging the Portuguese by 1656. Unfortunately, in removing the Portuguese, Kandy traded one European colonial master for another. Sri Lanka was subservient to Dutch interests for over a century and a half. British trading interests in Sri Lanka led to the ouster of the Dutch in 1796. The 1815 unification of the island's three kingdoms under British rule continued until 1948, when Great Britain granted Sri Lanka its independence.

Ethnically, Sri Lanka's population is divided among Sinhalese (74 percent), Tamils (18 percent), Moors (7 percent), and Burghers, Malays, and Veddas (1 percent). Most of the people of Sri Lanka migrated to the island from India more than 2,500 years ago, often in the interest of trade, war, religion, economic opportunity, or colonization. The Sinhalese are allegedly the descendants of the Aryan Prince Vijaya, from India, and his 700 followers; they came to Sri Lanka about 485 B.C.E., chased from their homes for their marauding activities. Tamils fall into two groups: Sri Lankan and Indian. The Sri Lankan Tamils came to the island in the third century B.C.E., moving across the strait from India as part of the expansion by India's southern kings. The majority of Indian Tamils were imported by the British to work on the coffee and tea plantations in the island's interior during the second half of the nineteenth century. A few Indian Tamils came as traders. The Moors, or Muslims, came to Sri Lanka in the eighth century C.E., and are descendants of Arab traders. The Burghers are descendants of marriages contracted between Portuguese and Dutch settlers, or between the Europeans and the Sinhalese or Tamils. The Dutch brought over Malays as soldiers, and the Veddas are the aboriginal forest dwellers of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka's history left the island with a diverse population composed of self-conscious ethnic groups, differentiated by religion, language, and social customs. Hinduism, the island's first religion, came from India during its era of unrecorded history and is the faith of Sri Lanka's largest minority group, the Tamils. Theravada Buddhism was introduced from India during the third century B.C.E. and is the religion of the island's Sinhalese majority. Arab traders and western colonists brought Islam and Christianity in the tenth and sixteenth centuries C.E., respectively. In the modern era, Buddhists constitute 69 percent of the population, Hindus 15 percent, Christians 8 percent, and Muslims 8 percent.

Sri Lanka's commitment to education began more than 2,500 hundred years ago, when Hindu kings and chieftains received their education from Brahmins (Hindu priests), and education is thus closely tied to the religious history of the island. Similarly, early in Sri Lanka's history, education became associated with high caste status and privilege. The sweep of Buddhism from India into Sri Lanka in the third century B.C.E. converted kings and people. Monasteries were erected to educate bhikkus, or monks. These monks built the first pirivenas, or temple schools, in the villages, educating the laity in religion and secular subjects. Little information exists on the schools of Sri Lanka's minority populations of Hindus and Muslims, but it is generally assumed that each faith had temple and mosque schools, respectively, which provided an elementary education with emphasis on religion, reading, and writing.

Portuguese rule of Sri Lanka brought both Franciscans and Jesuits, who founded 41 parish schools, and three Franciscan and two Jesuit colleges. Converting the island's diverse population was a primary focus of this educational mission. The Dutch, who followed the Portuguese, replaced the Catholic parish schools with schools affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church. Both the Portuguese and the Dutch used religious conversion to promote access to educational opportunity. Native Sri Lankans quickly realized that if they wanted to gain a public office or qualify as a schoolmaster, they had to convert to the Dutch Reformed faith, and did. A Dutch seminary in Colombo, the capital, provided additional higher education. The Dutch educational system in Sri Lanka continued to foster the public's perception of a link between education and financial success.

When the British began their occupation of Sri Lanka, they gave responsibility for the island's education to Christian missionary societies who promoted an English, western-oriented education designed to "civilize" the Sri Lankan people. English schools charged fees and received British government grants. The island's nonEnglish vernacular (secular) schools were taught in Sinhala or Tamil, Sri Lanka's two principal languages. Vernacular schools were traditionally under financed because they were denied government educational grants. Without government subsidies, these schools could offer only the basics of an elementary education. Buddhist temple schools, primarily in rural areas, suffered the most: in addition to being denied government funding, they could not charge fees, the result of successful lobbying by the missionary societies who wanted the elimination of any rival religious schools. Under British rule, Sri Lankans who spoke English were eligible to become teachers. Colonial administrators only recruited only English-speaking Sri Lankans for government service. Thus the Sri Lankans who prospered under British colonial rule were more likely to be better-educated, high-caste Hindu Tamils, Tamils who converted to Christianity and were educated in English schools, or descendants of the Burghers.

Christians, the island's smallest minority, were historically the best educated. In 1901, approximately 55 percent of Christian males were literate, compared to only 35 percent of Buddhist males, 34 percent of Muslim males, and 26 percent of Hindu males. Among Christian women, 30 percent were literate, compared to 5 percent among Buddhist women, 3 percent among Muslim women, and 2.5 percent among Hindu women. The lower literacy rates among Hindu males can be attributed to the inclusion of the uneducated and stateless imported Indian Tamil males who worked tea plantations. Cultural factors account for the low literacy rates among Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu women. By 1921, within just 20 years, literacy rates among the island's male population rose to 66 percent for Christians, 50 percent for Buddhists, 45 percent for Muslims, and 37 percent for Hindus. For women, 50 percent of Christians were literate, while literacy rates among Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu women rose to 17 percent, 6 percent, and 10 percent, respectively. When independence was granted in 1948, Sri Lanka had 5,895 schools enrolling more than 1 million students. The nation's literacy rate was 57.8 percent, the highest among both Great Britain's colonies and Asian nations. Independence did not eliminate a colonial perception among the majority of Sinhalese that British rule had favored an English-speaking Tamil minority who benefited from better education, which led to higher incomes and more valuable careers.


Political, Social, & Cultural Bases: For centuries Sri Lankan Tamils used education to promote their social mobility. The Tamil region in northern and eastern Sri Lanka is arid and infertile compared to the rest of the island and is unsuitable for profitable farming. The Tamils depended on education to prosper. Under British rule the Tamil minority received a disproportionate share of university and government positions. Higher earnings among Sri Lankan Tamils plus the income sent home by overseas Tamils generated greater economic prosperity in the Tamil regions than in the rest of the country.

Independence changed the balance of power. Two major political parties formed—the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP)—and both political parties competed for the vote of the Sinhalese majority. The parties promoted Buddhism, nationalism, socialism, and non-alignment in the Cold War era, with little thought for Tamil issues. From independence until 1956, the more conservative UNP, advocating a mixed economy and private enterprise, maintained a parliamentary majority. However, during the 1956 election, SLFP leader S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike encouraged xenophobic fears among the Sinhalese majority, allying himself with Marxist parties advocating the nationalization of banks and industry and Sinhalese Buddhist extremists who wanted to replace English with Sinhala as Sri Lanka's official language. After Bandaranaike won the parliamentary elections of 1956, the SLFP approved the change of language, and established quotas limiting Tamil entry into government service and higher education, particularly in the fields of medicine and the sciences. The number of Tamil students admitted to medical school and engineering schools fell by 50 percent and 67 percent, respectively. Tamil recruitment by the central government in the general clerical services fell from a 41 percent high in 1949 to a mere 7 percent among recruits nationally in 1963. Less than 5 percent of Tamils were in the nation's police force and national army. By the 1970s, only 6 percent of newly hired teachers were Tamil, and university placement for Tamils in the science-based disciplines fell to 11 percent in 1974 from 35 percent just four years earlier.

Tamils organized to protect their interests, and extremist factions of all parties and nationalities employed violence to bring national attention to their concerns. The violence temporarily ended in 1959, when Prime Minister Bandaranaike was assassinated. During the 1960s and 1970s both the UNP and the SLFP competed with each other for a parliamentary majority among the Sinhalese. Consistently, Tamil interests were again ignored or forgotten by the central government and the politicians. In 1972, the Sinhalese majority voted to end its status as a monarchy, which had come to represent Sri Lanka's colonial past. The Constitution of Sri Lanka was substantially revised, and parliamentary government was replaced with a presidential republic dominated by a Buddhist, Sinhalese majority. President J.R. Jayewardene was elected in 1978; the Jayewardene administration continued reforms tending toward reconciliation of Sri Lanka's warring factions.

The civil war has persisted into the twenty-first century, fought primarily in the Tamil regions of eastern and northern Sri Lanka, but Tamil guerrillas have brought the war to all parts of the country. President Jayewardene's attempts to grant Tamil autonomy under Indian supervision caused great fear among the Sinhalese majority of the nation's impending division and permanent Indian occupation. Later Sri Lankan presidents accepted Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's offer to mediate the dispute between Tamils and Sinhalese. Gandhi's efforts ended tragically with his assassination in 1991, by Tamils opposed to Gandhi's use of Indian troops to suppress the Tamil insurrection in Sri Lanka. Two years later in 1993, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated five years into his presidency when he proposed substantial grants of autonomy in Tamil areas. Although blamed, the Tamil rebels rejected responsibility for his death.

Chandrika Kumaratunga, president of Sri Lanka since 1993 and the daughter of a previous prime minister and president, both named Bandaranaike, has scaled back many oppressive and discriminatory aspects of education and language laws that precipitated the civil war. Surprisingly, the university system in the Tamil region remains open and funded by the central government while Sinhalese universities suffer from Tamil insurgency. Long-term peace in Sri Lanka depends on the creation of a pluralistic and multiethnic nation. Proposals of the Kumaratunga government bear a striking similarity to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact of 1957, which proposed that Sri Lanka be a multiethnic state with Tamil as a national language in the northern and eastern sections of the country. The government would provide full protection for non-Tamil speakers and regional councils were permitted authority over centralized political system favoring the majority. Locally elected leaders could administer land development projects.

In December, 1999, as President Kumaratunga prepared to begin a second term of office, she barely survived an attempted assassination, and she did lose an eye. Her reelection came with 51.2 percent of the vote, the lowest percentage in the nation's history, and a realization that Sri Lankans were discouraged with politics. The assassination attempt increased President Kumaratunga's resolve to institute national reforms.


Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceSri Lanka - History Background, Constitution Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education