The Gal Oya massacre

4 09 2009

The Gal Oya riots or Gal Oya massacre were the first ethnic riots that targeted the minority Sri Lankan Tamils in post independent Sri Lanka, an island nation in South Asia.[3] The riots took place from June 11, 1956 and occurred over the next five days. Local majority Sinhalese colonists and employees of the Gal Oya settlement board commandeered government vehicles, dynamite and weapons and massacred minority Tamils by the hundreds. It is estimated that over 150 people lost their lives due in the violence. Although initially inactive, the Police and the Army were eventually able to re-take control of the situation and brought the riots under control.

Background information

During the British colonial period, when Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon, most civil service jobs were (roughly 60%) held by minority Sri Lankan Tamils who comprised approximately 15% of the population. This was enabled due to the availability of western style education provided by American missionaries and others in the Tamil dominant Jaffna peninsula. The preponderance of Tamils over their natural share of the population was used by populist Sinhalese politicians to come to political power by promising to elevate the Sinhalese people. The pro-Sinhalese nationalist Sri Lanka Freedom Party came to power in 1956 promising to make Sinhala, the language of the majority Sinhalese people the sole official language. [5] The so called Sinhala only policy was opposed by the Sri Lankan Tamil, Federal party which conducted a non-violent sit in protest on June 5, 1956 in front of the parliament in Colombo , the capital city. About 200 Tamil leaders and politicians took part in this protest. But the protestors were attacked by a Sinhalese mob that was led a junior government minister. [6] The same mob after listening to a speech by populist Sinhalese politicians urging them to boycott Tamil business went on a looting spree in the city. [6] Over 150 Tamil owned shops were looted and many people were hospitalized for their injuries. But these disturbances were quickly brought under control by the police.[7]

Gal Oya settlement scheme

Gal Oya settlement scheme was begun in 1949 to settle landless peasants in formerly jungle land. Gal Oya river in the Eastern province was dammed and a tank was created with 40,000 thousands acres of irrigated land. In 1956 the settlement had over 50 new villages where over 5,000 ethnic Sri Lankan Tamil, Muslim, Indigenous Veddha and Sinhalese were settled. The Sinhalese were approximately 50% of the settlers. Sinhalese and others were spatially separated from each other as Sinhalese were settled at the more productive headwaters of the Gal Oya tank and the Tamils and Muslims at the down rivers closer to their former native villages. Settlement of large number of Sinhalese peasants in what Tamil nationalists considered their traditional Tamil homeland, was a source of tension within the settlement area. [8]

The massacres

As information about disturbances in the capital Colombo reached the outlying area, the riots began on the evening of June 11, 1956 when agitated mobs began roaming the streets of Gal Oya valley looking for Tamils. Property owned by Tamils including that of Indian Tamils were looted and burned down. In the following days number of rumors began to spread. The chief amongst them was that a Sinhalese girl was raped and made to walk naked in the street in nearby Tamil dominated Batticalao town by a Tamil mob. Although this proved to be false later, the rumor inflamed the passions of the mob and led to further massacres and property destruction.[9]

There were further rumors that an army of 6,000 Tamils armed with guns were in the process of approaching the Sinhalese settlements in the Gal Oya valley. This led to local groups of Sinhalese men to commandeer government vehicles to travel to outlying Tamil villages. [10] According journalist W. Howard Higgins and Manor well over hundred Tamils were massacred by the mob. [11] At first the local police did not make any attempt at controlling the mob as they said that they were outnumbered by the rioters. It is only the arrival of the Army reinforcements and stern action by them to contriol the riots, that the killings and destruction was brought under control.[12]


  • Vittachi, Tarzie (1958). Emergency ’58: The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots. Andre Deutsch. OCLC 2054641.
  • Tambiah, Stanley (1997). Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia. University of California Press. ISBN 0-5202-0642-8.
  • Horowitz, Donald (2001). The Deadly Ethnic Riot. University of California Press. ISBN 0-5202-2447-7.
  • Chattopadhyaya, Haraprasad (1994). Ethnic Unrest in Modern Sri Lanka: An Account of Tamil-Sinhalese Race Relations. South Asia Books. ISBN 8-1858-8052-2.
  • DeVotta, Neil (2004). Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-4924-8.



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