Sri Lanka’s national anthem change sparking widespread ethnic divisions


The 72nd Independence Day of Sri Lanka on 4th February was characterised by parades, celebration, and ethnic tension. For the first time since 2016, the Tamil-language version of the national anthem was dropped. This decision by the new government of Sri Lanka is a controversial one, raising concerns about ethnic reconciliation after the nation’s civil war. 

Despite Sri Lanka’s Civil War between the Sinhalese-majority Sri Lankan government and Tamil-minority insurgents (bearing in mind that the Tamil Tigers ended over ten years ago), ethnic tensions continue to persist. The conflict claimed the lives of as many as 100,000 people, and both government and insurgent forces were accused of committing human rights offences. With much of the Tamil community continuing to feel estranged from the state, the inclusion of both Sinhalese and Tamil versions of the national anthem in 2016 was an important step towards greater acceptance and feelings of belonging. 

According to the 2001 census, the Sinhalese community constitutes 82% of the population, whereas both Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils combined make up only 9.4%. However, the previous government made the decision to sing both versions of the national anthem in February 2016, in an attempt to promote harmony after the decades-long civil war, a choice which is provided for in Sri Lanka’s Constitution. The current government’s volte-face reveals for many a possible departure from attempts to continue reconciliation and peace between the two groups. 

Hope for further reconciliation remains

The nation’s new president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, held a senior position in defence during the civil war and was integral to the defeat of the anti-government insurgents, the Tamil Tigers. Rajapaska harnessed support during his election from the overwhelmingly Sinhalese Buddhist population, whilst the Tamil community overwhelmingly voted against him. Despite his affirmation in his Independence Day Speech that he represents the ‘entire Sri Lankan nation irrespective of ethnicity, religion, party affiliation or other differences’, his leadership continues to divide the nation along ethnic boundaries. That said, hope for further reconciliation remains, with a group of civil activists, Sinhalese and Tamil alike, singing both versions of the anthem elsewhere in the country.

Mano Ganesan, former Minister for National Integration and Official Languages, said in a tweet that the National Anthem in the Tamil language is ‘not just another song but “the Sri Lankan Identity” of the Tamil speaking community’. In order to foster feelings of inclusion and unity among all sections of this ethnically diverse nation, it is clear that seismic shifts must occur in the attitude of the government towards its people, regardless of ethnicity, language or religion.

Image: Stephen Parker via Creative Commons

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