Further debate about Sri Lanka will be generated by a new television documentary this week which will focus on the closing stages of the civil war. But to understand how it all began, historians must look to a neglected period of the 1950s.

The seeds of conflict: how history can help our understanding

Sri Lanka is due to hit the headlines again with the screening of Channel 4’s follow-up to its original documentary, “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”. While attention will focus on what actually happened during the closing stages of the civil war, it is pertinent to consider when and how the seeds of that long-running conflict were sown.

The causes of the war are not widely understood – even amongst Sri Lankans themselves – but they can be traced to a short, but crucial period of history: S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s incumbency as prime minister (1956 – 1959). 

Mr Bandaranaike was a consummate spin-doctor, portraying himself as a man of the people, although he was an Oxford-educated aristocrat. Brought up as a Christian, he converted in adulthood to Buddhism – the religion of the Sinhalese majority – and worshipped at a cult shrine to the god Hooniyam. While his father had upheld British colonial rule in Ceylon (acquiring a knighthood along the way), S.W.R.D Bandaranaike rode to power on the back of a political coalition that included a vociferous nationalist/religious element.

What is rarely discussed is the important political role played at this time by a militant Buddhist clergy that was re-evaluating its past and its place in society, largely as a reaction to Independence from the British.

Key to Mr Bandaranaike’s election success was the Buddhist abbot of Kelaniya, Buddharakkita Thera – an important historical figure who has been conveniently forgotten. As a young monk, Buddharakkita was introduced into the family of one of the most nationalistic and politically influential families in the country: the Wijewardene clan. Helena Wijewardene, the matriarch of this group, financed the restoration of the once great monastery of Kelaniya whose abbots had been advisers to Sinhalese royalty.

But it was the Helena’s daughter-in-law, Vimala, who was to become Buddharakkita’s political ally and close personal friend, playing a crucial part in the future direction of the country. Vimala’s marriage had been one of convenience. When her older sister died, Vimala married her widowed husband who was considerably older than his young, second wife.

However, Buddharakkita and Vimala were much closer in age and their mutual passion for politics formed the basis of a friendship which was described as “intimate”. When he became abbot, Buddharakkita supported Vimala’s political career, pouring money into her election campaigns and using his influence until she was not only elected to Parliament but also to a ministerial post.

Vimala was not the only political candidate to enjoy the abbot’s support. Buddharakkita also threw his weight behind Mr Bandaranaike’s election campaign, sending thousands of monks into the rural areas to canvas for votes. It is likely that his support was decisive in obtaining Bandaranaike’s landslide victory.

However, political success came at a high price. The nationalist elements that had supported Mr Bandaranaike demanded the introduction of the Sinhala Only Act. By replacing English as the official language of the administration, this had the effect of dislodging well-educated, English-speaking Tamils from their influential civil service posts. It also deprived them of the ability to run regional governments in the Tamil strongholds of the North and East in their own language.

Government-sponsored colonisation of ethnic areas, a growing population, land hunger, lack of jobs and the political disenfranchisement of a large community of Indian Tamils all contributed to an explosive situation which erupted in a series of bloody race riots in 1958. This violence was exacerbated by the Prime Minister’s inflammatory radio address to the nation in which he wrongly (and possibly intentionally) blamed the outbreak of violence on the Tamils – an error that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.

Ironically, it was not the Sinhala Only Act – or even a Tamil – that brought about Mr Bandaranaike’s demise, but his failure to appease his erstwhile political ally, Buddharakkita Thera. The abbot sought – and was refused – a lucrative government contract for a shipping company run by his associates.

As Buddharakkita’s trial records show, this was the last straw for the abbot who expected some return on his political investment. By now, he was almost certainly broke.

The Prime minister’s refusal to throw the abbot a financial lifeline was tantamount to betrayal. Furious and determined to have his revenge, Buddharakkita masterminded an assassination plot, recruiting another Buddhist monk who shot the Prime Minister during a public audience at his home.

When researching the background for my novel which is set in this period, I was privileged to hear eye-witness accounts of these extraordinary characters. My mother-in-law lived in the same road as Vimala Wijewardene and witnessed Buddharakkita’s visits to her home. She described the abbot as being fair – that is, light-skinned – and told me that he made his visits in ‘mufti’, wearing a western-style suit and a black homburg hat. She also said that he “smiled” at her – a term initially lost on me until it was explained that this is a Sri Lankan euphemism for a lecherous look.

Sadly, textbooks skim over this period. Few even mention Buddharakkita. During my research, I got the distinct impression that this was due to embarrassment. The Prime Minister was murdered, not by a political enemy, but by one of his closest allies.

A study of this neglected corner of history reveals a set of complex political and personal relationships which not only shaped the future of a nation, but also set it on a disastrous course. It also explains why, when the United Nations proposed independent monitoring of the post-war situation in Sri Lanka, it not only met with ferocious resistance from the Government but also from large groups of Buddhist monks who staged noisy demonstrations outside the UN headquarters.

For a true understanding of the war that tore a nation apart, it is essential to examine not only how it ended, but also how it began.

Photographs and further information relating to the characters mentioned above can be found under the ‘History’ tag on my website.