University of Illinois at Chicago

Ethno-nationalism and Political Policy: Marginalization of Sri Lankan Minority Narratives, 1948-1977

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posted on 2019-02-01, 00:00 authored by Maria Ritzema
This dissertation investigates how political policies, and the rhetoric they engaged, led to a populist, exclusionary Sinhalese nationalism following independence from Britain in 1948. Legislation argued about and passed in the first two decades of independence revealed an increasing turn to ethno-nationalism, couched in populist terms of representing ‘the people.’ My work relies on a close reading of the parliamentary debates combined with oral histories that focus on how a variety of Sri Lankans who chose to emigrate viewed these policies. The first four chapters follow parliamentary debates over policy on language and education, and also trace how a series of national emergencies arose from these tensions. I demonstrate how Sinhalese Buddhists played a large role in pushing for policies that favored Sinhalese. Chapter One traces how communal relations between Sinhalese and Tamils broke down over the official language. At independence, most politicians favored both Sinhala and Tamil. However, in 1954, Sinhalese Buddhist politicians turned to ethno-national rhetoric advocating for ‘Sinhala only.’ After this, political language was frequently framed in ethno-nationalist terms. Chapter Two continues this theme of legislation crafted in favor of Sinhalese Buddhists by revealing how politicians argued that the education system inherited from colonial powers favored Christians and elites while discriminating against Sinhalese Buddhist in particular. Chapter Three examines the outbreak of communal tensions that emerged due to the language and education policies. During the five states of emergency called between 1956 and 1966, the arguments about these states of emergency were couched in populist terms of the government not representing ‘the people’ as well as accusations of incompetence on behalf of the government. The final chapter shifts from political language about policies to narratives about the reception of these policies by marginalized groups who perceived the change in language and education policies negatively. The émigrés I interviewed pointed to linguistic and educational policies as well as to government incompetence as factors in their decision to leave. They worried about keeping employment, their children receiving a quality education, employment prospects for their children, and the safety of their children due to rising ethnic tensions.



Mantena, Rama


Mantena, Rama



Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Committee Member

Boyer, Christopher Hostetler, Laura Liechty, Mark Mohanraj, Mary Anne

Submitted date

December 2018

Issue date


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