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A symposium on the crushing of the 1818 rebellion in Sri Lanka

By Kamal Chandra Bose

(June 30, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The announcement of a symposium to be held in Sri Lanka on the 1818 British genocide on Sri Lanka's Wellasa is welcome news. The 1818 rebellion by Sinhalese against the British was crushed with absolute ruthlessness, killing large numbers of people, burning villages and doing every kind of atrocity with impunity. During the 20th century, several historians have documented the history of this crushing of rebellions with such ruthlessness as to silence everyone in the future. However, there was a further rebellion in 1848 which too was crushed ruthlessly. A third historically recorded ruthless suppression happened in 1915. Many similar rebellions were crushed in India, and in fact in all parts of colonies of the British as well as of others.

The demand for compensation for colonial destruction became a familiar theme, particularly during the last quarter of the 20th century. There are global movements, particularly from Africa and Latin America, making this demand. And there is a solid global lobby on this issue, supported also by people of the former colonial powers themselves, like the way Mahatma Ghandi was supported a large section of the British empire, forcing the Britain to abandon the empire. Though Churchill said that he will not be the prime minister under whom the empire will be dissolved, nonetheless later the British were forced by forces of resistance, from outside and within, to abandon the empire.

The issue of compensation for colonialism came up in the 1993 International Gathering on Human Rights, known as the Vienna Conference, which laid down several important principles relating to human rights. The same issue came up in the United Nations conference on racial discrimination, held in 2003. This was one of the issues on which there was serious divergence of opinion.

Strangely, one of the most vociferous movements demanding compensation for colonial destruction came from liberation theologians who rose after the Vatican Council, which was called by John the XXIII. Perhaps Marxist influence on some liberal theologians, particularly in the Latin American countries, may have contributed to this development. However, there were movements that were not necessarily leftist which supported this position.

In South Asia, one of the persons who initiated the movement relating to this matter was Father Tissa Balasuriya of Sri Lanka. Some twenty or more years back, he was a very active Catholic theologian participating in many global movements and also having particular links with Asian countries. He often visited Indian theological groups and wrote extensively on this issue. He clearly deserved to be recognized as a pioneer of this movement when no-one in South Asia, including Sri Lanka, was vocal on this matter.

The theme is of great significance, as the symposium organizers have announced that they will also look into 21st century international legal doctrines to present a case for compensation to the British government. Perhaps this will be the first symposium at which these international legal doctrines of liability for by any government, colonial or otherwise, on commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity will be discussed. Thus the importance is not only on the past issues but also on contemporary issues, where questions of liability of the states themselves will be discussed.

The rebellion at Wellasa is not a mere past event. The British laid the foundation for the Sri Lankan military and the police. The habit inculcated for ruthlessness in 1818, 1848 and 1915 has been repeated by the Sri Lankan armed forces in 1971, 1987-1991 in crushing southern rebellions, and from the early '80s up to 2009 for crushing of the northern rebellions. The habits acquired under the colonial times have been continued without interruption.

During the 1987-1991 period there was the case of Ambilipitiya children. These children were abducted and killed inside a military camp. Despite the attempts to find records about people who were kept in that camp, there was no trace of the killings of these children in any of the records. The keeping of records and inquiries by the military themselves through military police into atrocities has not been part of the tradition imparted by the colonial officers.

Thus, discussion on the 1818 rebellion and the liabilities involved will open up great opportunities for learning to deal with problems of liability arising from the 21st century legal doctrines, within the context of Sri Lanka in particular, and on South Asia in general.

The symposium could also be an occasion for public discussion on these issues.

-Sri Lanka Guardian


Fran said...

Hmm .... and we cannot forget that Catholic Italy, Spain & Portugal, France etc. built Empires & mini-Empires too. How about some compensation for the destruction brought about by these Catholic
countries ?

Darmarathna said...

What would Mr. Bose say about the Indian invasions and the destruction. Anuradapura civilization was destroyed by invasions and for hundreds of yours Indian way of life was introduced here. Caste system was imposed and that created deep devisions. Buddhism was destroyed from Tamils areas thus laying the foundations for the problems Sri Lanka is having up to now. All this also must be compensated. No?

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