Malaya and Sri Lanka: Communal Politics or Communal War?

Sri Lanka's bitter war of terror - one that practically invented the infamy of the suicide bomber - had been showing signs of abating of late. But a bitter power struggle between Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and a schism among the rebel Tamil tigers, now threatens to reignite the violence. Their political duel was aggravated recently when the President, wary that her prime ministerial rival was "too soft" in dealing with the rebel Tamil Tigers, sacked three ministers and took over their portfolios. Now she has dissolved parliament and set new elections for April, three years before they are due.

Having lived through the Malayan war of 1947-1960, I often wonder why Sri Lanka's war has been so much more difficult to end. On the surface, much about those two wars seem similar. In Malaya, ethnic Chinese fought British and Malay regiments and police, which is roughly comparable to the Tamils' fight against the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Like the Tamil Tigers, the Malayan Communists were also damned as terrorists, but the casualties they inflicted were small compared to the mass killings caused by both sides in Sri Lanka's war.

Back then, Malaysia's ethnic tensions produced communal riots in which both Chinese and Malays were killed. These, however, were never allowed to degenerate into the outright communal slaughter that the war in Sri Lanka has often produced.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.


Log in;
  1. Patrick Kovarik/Getty Images

    The Summit of Climate Hopes

    Presidents, prime ministers, and policymakers gather in Paris today for the One Planet Summit. But with no senior US representative attending, is the 2015 Paris climate agreement still viable?

  2. Trump greets his supporters The Washington Post/Getty Images

    Populist Plutocracy and the Future of America

    • In the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump has consistently sold out the blue-collar, socially conservative whites who brought him to power, while pursuing policies to enrich his fellow plutocrats. 

    • Sooner or later, Trump's core supporters will wake up to this fact, so it is worth asking how far he might go to keep them on his side.
  3. Agents are bidding on at the auction of Leonardo da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

    The Man Who Didn’t Save the World

    A Saudi prince has been revealed to be the buyer of Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi," for which he spent $450.3 million. Had he given the money to the poor, as the subject of the painting instructed another rich man, he could have restored eyesight to nine million people, or enabled 13 million families to grow 50% more food.

  4.  An inside view of the 'AknRobotics' Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

    Two Myths About Automation

    While many people believe that technological progress and job destruction are accelerating dramatically, there is no evidence of either trend. In reality, total factor productivity, the best summary measure of the pace of technical change, has been stagnating since 2005 in the US and across the advanced-country world.

  5. A student shows a combo pictures of three dictators, Austrian born Hitler, Castro and Stalin with Viktor Orban Attila Kisbenedek/Getty Images

    The Hungarian Government’s Failed Campaign of Lies

    The Hungarian government has released the results of its "national consultation" on what it calls the "Soros Plan" to flood the country with Muslim migrants and refugees. But no such plan exists, only a taxpayer-funded propaganda campaign to help a corrupt administration deflect attention from its failure to fulfill Hungarians’ aspirations.

  6. Project Syndicate

    DEBATE: Should the Eurozone Impose Fiscal Union?

    French President Emmanuel Macron wants European leaders to appoint a eurozone finance minister as a way to ensure the single currency's long-term viability. But would it work, and, more fundamentally, is it necessary?

  7. The Year Ahead 2018

    The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.

    Order now