1958 riots in Ceylon Sri Lanka

4 09 2009

1958 riots in Ceylon also known as 58 riots was first island wide ethnic riots that targeted the minority Sri Lankan Tamils in Ceylon after it became an independent country from Britain in 1948. The riots lasted from May 22 until May 27, 1958 although sporadic disturbances happened even after the declaration of emergency in June 1, 1958. The event is generally termed as an ethnic riot, but in some geographic locations in its scale of its destruction, it was a pogrom.[2] The estimates of the murders[3] range based on recovered body count from 70 the to 300.[1] Although most of the victims were Sri Lankan Tamils, some majority Sinhalese civilians and their property was also affected both by attacking Sinhalese mobs who attacked those Sinhalese who provided sanctuary to Tamils as well as in retaliatory attacks by Tamil mobs in Batticalao and Jaffna.[2]As the first full-scale race riot in modern Sri Lanka in over forty years, the events of 1958 shattered the trust the communities had in one another and led to further polarization leading up the Sri Lankan civil war.

In 1956, Solomon Bandaranaike came to power in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), on a majority Sinhala nationalist platform. The new government passed the Sinhala Only Act, making Sinhala the sole official language of the country. This was done despite the fact that nearly a quarter of the population used Tamil as their primary language. The Act immediately triggered discontent among the Tamils, who perceived their language, culture, and economic position as being subject to an increasing threat.[4]

In protest, Tamil Federal Party politicians launched a satyagraha (Nonviolent resistance) campaign. This led to an environment of increased communal tensions and to the death of over 150 Tamils in the Gal Oya riots in the east of the country.[1]Eventually Bandaranaike entered into negotiations with them and the Federal party and agreed to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957, which would have made Tamil the administrative language in the Tamil-speaking north and east regions. But he was forced to cancel the pact under pressure from Sinhala nationalists and some Buddhist monks, particularly the United National Party, which organised a ‘March on Kandy’, led by JR Jayawardene.[4][5] [6]

Meanwhile, 400 Tamil labourers were laid off when the British navy closed its base in Trincomalee. The government proposed to resettle them in the Polonnaruwa district. This angered the Sinhalese population there, which began forming gangs and threatening vigilante attacks on any Tamil migrants to the region.[7]

Attack on trains

The Federal Party was to hold a convention in Vavuniya. Sinhala hardliners decided to disrupt party members travelling there by rail. Polonnaruwa station was the first to be attacked, on May 22. The following night a train from Batticaloa was attacked, and two people killed. It later turned out there were hardly any Tamils on the train. The Polonnaruwa station was attacked again on the 24th, and nearly destroyed.

Farm violence

Sinhalese gangs attacked Tamil labourers in Polonnaruwa farms. Tamils who tried to hide in sugar-cane fields were surrounded there and the fields set ablaze by the mobs. Those who fled were clubbed down or hit by machetes. In Hinguarkgoda, rioters ripped open the belly of an eight-month-pregnant woman, and left her to bleed to death. It has been estimated that 70 people died the night of May 25. [8][9]

Polonnaruwa had only a small police presence. Those Sinhalese policemen who tried to protect Tamils were attacked by the mobs; a few had their brains bashed in. The next morning, a small army unit of 25 men arrived, but found itself confronted by a civilian Sinhalese mob of over 3,000. The crowd dispersed after the soldiers fired a Bren gun at them, killing three.[1

The violence spreads

On May 26, Prime Minister Bandaranaike said the riots had started with the death of Nuwara Eliya mayor D.A. Seneviratne the previous day (actually the riots had begun three days before). This gave people the impression that Tamils were behind the riots. Soon gangs began beating Tamils in Colombo and several of its suburbs. Shops were burned and looted.[11]

In Panadura, Tamils had cut off the breasts of and murdered a woman teacher. In revenge, a Sinhalese gang tried to burn down the Hindu Kovil; unable to set fire to the building, they pulled out a Brahmin priest and burned him alive instead.[12] Gangs roamed Colombo, looking for people who might be Tamil. The usual way to distinguish Tamils from Sinhalese was to look for men who wore shirts outside of their pants, or men with pierced ears, both common customs among Tamils. People who could not read a Sinhala newspaper (which included some Sinhalese who were educated in English) were beaten or killed.[13]

One trick used by the gangs was to disguise themselves as policemen. They would tell Tamils to flee to the police station for their safety. Once the Tamils had left, the empty houses were looted and burned. Across the country, arson, rape, pillage and murder spread. Some Sinhalese did try to protect their Tamil neighbours, often risking their own lives to shelter them in their homes.

Revenge attacks

Tamils in the east carried out a few attacks as revenge. In Eravur, fishermen from the two communities fought on the seashore. In the same town, Tamil gangs set up roadblocks, beating up motorists believed to be Sinhalese. 56 cases of arson and attacks were registered in the Batticaloa district.[14] No deaths were reported in Jaffna district, but some Sinhalese merchants had their inventories burned. Several Sinhalese were severely beaten, including members of Marxist parties, who stood for parity of status. A Tamil mob destroyed the Buddhist Naga Vihare temple, which was rebuilt afterwards.[15]

Government response

For five full days the government did nothing. Finally, on 27 May, a state of emergency was declared. The Federal Party and Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna were both banned. Most of the country’s senior Tamil politicians were Federal Party members and were later arrested. Within two days, the military had restored order in Colombo and eventually the rest of the country. Nearly 12,000 Tamil refugees had fled to camps near Colombo. The government secretly commissioned six European ships to resettle most of them in Jaffna in early June. The army was eventually withdrawn from civilian areas in the rest of the country, but remained present in Jaffna for a quarter century.

On 3 September 1958 the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act – which provided for the use of the Tamil language as a medium of instruction, as a medium of examination for admission to the Public Service, for use in state correspondence and for administrative purposes in the Northern and Eastern Provinces – was passed, substantially fulfilling the part of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact dealing with the language issue.[16]


As the first full-scale race riot in Ceylon in over forty years, the events of 1958 shattered the trust the communities had in one another.[17] Both major ethnic groups blamed the other for the crisis, and became convinced that any further compromises would be interpreted as a sign of weakness and be exploited. Thus, the path to civil war was clear. Velupillai Prabhakaran, a small boy at the time of the riots, said later that his political views as an adult were shaped by the events of 1958.



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