Sri Lanka’s history since 1505 shows clearly that it was the intervention of an external power that had always helped us to get rid of a foreign occupier from the country’s soil. Our embattled Kings sought the help of the Dutch to throw out the Portuguese (1658), then solicited the British to overcome the Dutch (1796), and nearly 150 years later the entry of another external power; Japan, into Lanka’s (and India’s) geo – political region with the battle cry ‘Asia for Asians’ sealed the fate of the British Empire such that within 2-3 years towards the end of the second World War and Sri Lanka, India and Burma became independent countries.
Sri Lanka gained Independence in February 1948, almost effortlessly (without blood letting) when compared to what other countries had to face. There was no mass-based independence struggle or armed rebellion in Sri Lanka akin to that in India, Burma, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Indonesia and Vietnam. Except for Anagarika Dharmapala, Sri Lanka never produced a single iconic global figure in the pre-independence period that the rest of the colonized world could look up to as an inspirational figure for their liberation struggles. Letter writing, essay writing and speech making which was the hallmark of our local national leaders never really disturbed or effectively weakened the foreign occupier.
Armed resistance did. After the last two great Sinhala rebellions in 1818 and 1848, which were brutally crushed the political will for any more such armed uprising in Ceylon against the foreign occupier simply disappeared.
Colonialism – a crime against humanity
Colonialism and foreign occupation constitute crimes against humanity. They represent some of the most serious violations of national sovereignty of States and breaches of international law, and in almost all colonial territories in Asia, Africa, North and South America, horrendous crimes against humanity have been committed by the occupying colonial powers. The perpetrators have yet to be held accountable and brought to book under international law for these genocidal crimes.
As Sri Lanka celebrates the 68th anniversary of the grant of independence from British colonial rule, it is necessary to recap that during the period of foreign occupation of Sri Lanka (then known as ‘Sinhale’) by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British (1505–1948), our forebears were exposed to a wide range of systemic and gross violations of human rights and freedom, including dispossession, displacement and denial of their right to self- determination and independence with huge restrictions placed on freedom of religion. Buddhism in particular was denied its rightful place and singularly targeted for rapid displacement from public life and the belief system of almost the entire citizenry.
George Orwell, the reputed English writer referred to the British Empire as “despotism with theft as its final object”.
Orwell’s penetrative insights were valid truths for millions of Asians and Africans then calling for an end to western control of their lands. But what is surprising and morally repugnant today is the unrepentant nostalgia for a western dominated hegemonic global order, that has not only gripped many prominent Anglo-American leaders and opinion-makers but also several servile Asian politicians, NGOs and newspaper columnists writing as cheer leaders of neo–colonialism, who strive to see Asia through the narrow angle of protecting western colonial interests, leaving unexamined the historical memory and the unhappy collective experiences of Asian peoples during the dark period of colonial rule.
It must be readily acknowledged that Sri Lanka benefited massively from the blood sacrifices of fellow Asians though we have yet to concede this fact in public. The British Empire would have clung to its colonial possessions in Asia for a much longer time, if Japan did not make aggressive war against the West in Asia and drive fear into the colonial west of the dangers of continuing with European colonial rule East of the Suez Canal. This was the only language that the imperial west understood and grudgingly respected.
Despite all the rhetoric of fighting for freedom from tyranny under Hitler, two major colonial countries namely France and Netherlands returned to Asia to retake their colonial possessions in Indo–China and Indonesia respectively. The Vietminh under Ho Chi Minh and Indonesian liberation forces under Sukarno put paid to these vile ambitions through successful counter attacks such that these colonial powers had no other choice but to surrender and leave the occupied lands in disgrace.
Asia’s debt to Japan
When the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee on a visit to India in 1947, he was asked a question on the extent to which Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement had on the British Government’s decision to vacate India, Atlee had replied slowly by saying ‘ M-I-N-I-M-A-L’.
Reflecting on the factors that guided the British decision to relinquish the Raj in India, Clement Atlee had cited several reasons, the most important of which were the INA (Indian National Army) activities of Nethaji Subhash Chandrabose, which weakened the Indian Army – the foundation of the British Empire in India – and the RIN (Royal Indian Navy) Mutiny that made the British realise that the Indian armed forces could no longer be trusted to prop up the Raj. The threat of mutiny of the Britain Indian Army in 1946 following an ill-advised decision to put INA officers on trial for treason, convinced the British Raj to quit India without delay.
Therefore it would not be wrong to say that the heroic sacrifices of external actors in Asia mainly the Japanese and Indians, and the war waged by the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) contributed substantially to the prompt grant of independence to Sri Lanka in 1948, than any collective input from local actors.
An additional point being stressed in this piece is that there is another narrative that must be heard regarding the causes that led Japan to enter the war and the acknowledgement and credit to which Japan is entitled to especially from Asian countries that gained their independence within less than a decade of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7, 1941.
Pankaj Mishra’s book
Japan’s spectacular military victories at the beginning of the 20th century and their impact on Asian intellectuals are well documented in Pankaj Mishra’s (an Indian author) book called “ From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia”.
The book begins with an electrifying moment in Asia’s struggle for independence: The spectacular Japanese naval victory over Russia at the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905, which stunned the world.
Japan’s stunning early military victories
36 years later, Japan struck the greatest decisive blow ever by any non – white country or non – white people to European power in Asia with the attack on Pearl Harbour. In about 90 days beginning on December 8, 1941, Japan overran the possessions of Britain, the US and the Netherlands in east and south-east Asia, taking the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies; much of Siam and French Indochina and Burma with bewildering swiftness to stand poised at the borders of India by early 1942.
It is political correctness and revelations of Japan’s conduct in war related atrocities during the Second World War that prevent Japan from being given due credit for its unique contribution towards hastening the liberation of Asia from western colonial rule.
Though we, in Sri Lanka live under a self–styled grand delusion, that independence for Sri Lanka was won from Britain exclusively by our own local efforts through an exchange of correspondence and political negotiations without any supportive foreign factor, it is factually unsustainable and a big lie. We were extremely lucky.
The West was grudgingly forced to withdraw from Asia by the assaults of Japan and other armed liberation movements such as the INA and Vietminh. The retreat of the West from its colonies in the East may well be said to be the singular most important event of the 20th century.
Senaka Weeraratna is an Attorney at Law. Holds an LLB degree (University of Sri Lanka), and Master of Laws (Monash University, Australia).