Failure of the Middle Classes: A Sri Lankan Perspective
by J Jayasundera on 16 Apr 2012 39 Comments

Failure of the middle classes is not something peculiar to Sri Lanka, it emanates right through our world. The failure is worst in post colonial countries, Sri Lanka being a microcosm of South Asia. To understand the middle classes, one must understand their origin and progress to this day. Sri Lankan society was based on the simple philosophy of temple, tank and paddy fields, prior to the invasion of European colonialists. The temple addressed the educational and spiritual needs of society and gave it moral guidance. The temple was also the conduit to the ruling elite and the vehicle through which the King was made to observe the dasa raja dharmaya or Ten Commandments of Governance.


The tank and paddy fields gave society a sustainable economy. When the Europeans arrived around 1500 AD, centrifugal forces of Indian invasions, failure of the temple, and disunity amongst the Sinhalese, had partially disrupted society. In its endeavour to rid itself of the foreigners, the Sinhalese appealed to the Europeans for help, who accepted the invitation but had plans of their own. This trust gave us 400 years of colonialism during which time every effort was made to undermine society. In 1815, the Kandyan kingdom was handed over to the British under the Kandyan convention.


The British never had any intention of observing this convention. The trust misplaced, the natives revolted; they were brutally suppressed using native soldiers. The British mercilessly killed innocent villagers; burnt Buddhist libraries, most importantly the library in Aluwihare where the Tripitakaya was translated; and killed every boy over the age of 16 years from the ruling classes. Then they took over the temple lands to undermine the authority of the temple. The lands of the Sinhalese peasantry were taken over using the Wastelands Act, and sold cheap to Christian collaborators and Europeans for development of tea, coconut and coffee plantations. A pauperized peasantry made it easier to create a society completely dependent economically on the colonialists.


Having used the stick, the domination of society was further entrenched by the Colebrook Commission (1828) which was the beginning of the so called British aristocracy that has since matured into the present middle class. Reverberations of the recommendations of the Colebrook Commission are the cause of many a problem in the island nation.


Recommendations of Colebrook Commission


1.      Establishment of the legislature, appointment of 3 collaborators: a Sinhalese, a Tamil and a burgher (a European remnant), all Christians.

2.     Establishment of public service appointments only for Christian collaborators.

3.     Establishment of 9 provinces from the Tri sinhale or three provinces. The provinces were created in such a manner as to divide the Sinhala society with indentured Tamil labour brought for the plantations, which created its own continuing problems.

4.     Start of Christian schools to create an elite in the mould of Macaulay’s intent; a policy that still continues.


Colonialism was thus based on 3 basic policies

1.      The policy of might is right in suppressing legitimate grievances.

2.     Public service employment based on religion (Christianity) was the basis of recruitment.

3.     An education system geared to produce an elite in the Macaulay mould (Macaulay was the first commissioner of education who said that the aim of education would be to create Indians brown in colour but who think and dress like the colonial rulers and would act as go-betweens with the rest of Indians).


The middle class elite had no problem being subservient to the white races who claimed that western culture and behaviour was the most civilized and indigenous culture was a dark land of heathens wallowing in a corrosive moral evil, hopelessly burdened by prejudice and superstition, effete by its own social contradictions. British rule based on Christian values was the only panacea… Frances Chapman, founder of Bishops College, Colombo, said that if a Ceylonese woman received a Christian education she would be treated as a companion of her husband instead of the degraded slave, the heathen wife and the mother, invariably the victim of superstition. In a society where motherhood is sacred, where the mother is greeted before the father, this was either sheer arrogance or ignorance or a despicable attempt to destabilize society.


Anyone who did not convert to Christianity was not given an English education, the language of governance. The British gave better opportunities to the minorities in order to utilize their services. For example, Jaffna, the main city in the Tamil areas, had more schools than the rest of the country barring Colombo. Thus, 2000 years of history and culture was pushed aside and a middle class elite created, mainly of Christians, but also Buddhists and Hindus who had converted to get education but reverted back to their native religions after their education, but became essentially nominal Buddhists and Hindus, a servile group who had lost their identity and roots and to imitate the white races. The rest of the populace was given a vernacular education. The poor and the natives who decided not to convert were dispossessed of the opportunity to take part in the governance of the country.


Origin of the present middle class


The British thus created a middle class brain washed by an education system , economically powerful at the expense of the poor who were made to feel separate from their own indigenous culture and people but servile to the colonialists. This was the conduit for the transfer of resources. The indigenous leaders of the country were killed, pauperized and any effective leader from that class was nipped in the bud by killing all the young men from the age of 16 years.


Buddhist revival of the late 19th century


Under the guidance of Col Olcott and Hikkaduwe Sumangala, there was a revival of Buddhist philosophy. The intellectual middle classes fought with great vigour to enlighten and uplift the Buddhists. The trigger for this was the Panadura philosophical debate between a Buddhist priest and a Christian clergyman, which was apparently won by the Buddhist priest.


The Buddhist revival was not only the trigger factor for the establishment of Buddhist schools with the opportunity to learn the English language; it also created Sinhala consciousness and the social reform group. The social reform group enlightened the public that everything emanating from England was not necessarily the most ideal, and that natives should look at their own culture and philosophy. They spoke about the destruction of our heritage in the name of renovation by architects who were destroying local technology and replacing it with western technology.
This created a small elite that appreciated native culture. In 1931, Sri Lanka was offered  universal franchise which helped enhance the power of this group. This was the impetus for the free education and health care system and the revival of agriculture. Attempts to universalize education and healthcare were only grudgingly accepted by most of the middle classes who wished to deprive the poor and dispossessed Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus and the Muslims of that privilege and the social mobility it would create.


At independence in 1948, when the Macaulite ruling classes were handed over power, the British gave the Sri Lankans the ability to govern, but never let go of the world trade and the international monetary system. The stranglehold on the economy continued. The British left Sri Lanka with an efficient public service, judiciary and an education system geared to producing a servile elite. The majority of Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil Hindus was not part of it.


Post Independence: 1948-1956


Independence was essentially a process by which British rule was replaced by the English speaking elite led by Christians and nominal Buddhists and Hindus. The Tamil and Sinhala middle classes were united in their opposition to British domination but wished to imitate the colonial masters in every other aspect. After independence, the Tamil middle classes very selfishly felt they would lose the privileged position they enjoyed under the British, and thus began the move towards separation led by a Christian, Chelvanayagam.


The Sinhala and Tamil middle classes were never interested in the liberation of their people with whom they did not identify. They used the communal card to highjack the power of franchise that the poor and the deprived enjoyed. This was the start of the communal politics of Sri Lanka. This self-motivated power hungry group could never think of the welfare of the many; they were robotic slaves of British colonialists.




After eight years of independence, the majority of Sinhala Buddhists could not see any light at the end of the tunnel. Sinhala speakers found a voice in Solomon Bandaranaike, a converted Christian. He started the Sri Lanka Freedom Party geared to the Sinhala educated masses; that was the start of the much criticized Sinhala Only policy. This was a political demand of the majority who were deprived of an English education by the British. Bandaranaike, an Oxford educated brilliant orator, belonged to a family of Christian converts and collaborators, who never integrated with the majority of Sinhala society.


Although he came into power on the back of a Sinhala Only policy, he never gave adequate thought to its implementation. One of the themes of the 1971 insurrection was that educated Sinhalese were still deprived of decent employment because of the lack of knowledge of English. They called it the kaduwa or sword. This was an indictment of Bandaranaike’s policy. The Sinhala Only policy was ammunition for the Tamil middle classes to further foment communal dissent.


The brief resurgence of Sinhala Buddhists was challenged by a attempted coup by Christian military officers, both Sinhala and Tamil, in 1962. Catholic Action was challenged which was a way by which Catholics were able to get unfair advantage in employment, business etc. However, the expectations of this class were finally achieved through J.R. Jayewardene, the Christian convert who misled the masses with false promise of a Dharmishta society. He created the most adharmishta society and earned the most despised position in the country as the architect of all evil in Sri Lanka.


Colonialism revisited under J.R. Jayewardene


Prior to 1977, the nationalist government led a frugal economy with a positive trade balance and low foreign debt. In the 1977 election, Jayewardene and his coterie propagated the theory that the West was going to help Sri Lanka to be the best example of democracy, an example to the world. What happened was just the opposite. Jayewardene was elected with a two-third majority after an election many believed was manipulated by the CIA. His regime was characterized by

1.      Open Economy with strict adherence to IMF/World Bank advise

2.     Subjugation and disenfranchisement of the people as a necessary evil to develop and promote Democracy

3.     Foreign policy subservient to the West

Open Economy


An open economy was a means to extract the wealth of nations by a ponzi world economy run by the west. The IMF and World Bank were the patrons of this world economy – a debtocracy, not a democracy. If forceful extraction of wealth was the characteristic feature of colonialism, debt with monopoly money was the neo-colonial mechanism. The west thus entrenched itself in the country’s economy in the name of a free market. The servile middle classes exploited the new economy completely funded by ponzi money borrowed in the name of the many who were not stakeholders in this inflated economy. In this new economy, capital made more capital. The middle classes had a field day with lifestyles imitating the white man at the expense of the majority – a far more extravagant form of middle class behaviour under colonialism.


Loss of innocence of the middle classes


Instant gratification and pursuit of monopoly money became the new god of the middle classes; wheeler-dealing and networking became their culture. New fraternities were developed, and bribery and corruption became a necessary evil. Commissions, not production, became the norm.


Commercialism infiltrated even the sacred medical profession, a reflection how far the country moved away from its time honoured value system. Drunk with the power of money and an education geared to be servile to the west, this elite group cannot understand that its power would be transient as political power was with the poor. Sri Lanka is still a divided nation as under colonialism - the rich and the poor. The communal card is only a façade as Sinhala and Tamil poor are in the same boat. Both feel they have no future in the country.


Free Health and Free Education


If social mobility was achieved by free education established by the enlightened section of the middle classes of the 1950s, today under the influence of the IMF-World Bank, the subsidy on education has been curtailed to such a degree that the majority of students in public schools need tuition to progress. Having undermined these hallowed institutions, the present middle classes have been forced to send their children to International Schools geared for foreign examination and undergraduate studies. Having deprived the poor of a decent education, the middle classes send their children abroad for education with money borrowed from the remittances from the slaving poor in the Gulf. This Western educated class is the new elite with a servile mindset, geared to exploitation of poor countries by the ponzi world economy.

Subjugation and Disenfranchisement of the Poor


This unjust new economy cannot be conducted without ignoring the legitimate rights of the people. Protests are violently suppressed, a lesson the political business class has learnt from the British colonialists. If the Uva Welessa uprisings were against the unjust rules of British colonialists, the three uprisings of the last 40 years are against unjust governance by the ruling elite.


Part of it is due to the unjust world economy. These uprisings have been violently suppressed by a military geared not to external threat but to internal dissent. The uprisings have allowed the ruling elite to entrench themselves using thugs to suppress the legitimate rights of the people under the pretext that the uprisings were acts of pure terrorism.


The government has taken a leaf out of the Colebrook commission - if Christianity was the determining qualification for employment in public service then, now it is party affiliation, a group created to carry out the unjust instructions of the ruling classes.


Democracy has become a farce. The poor in whose name money is borrowed and whose environment is destroyed in the name of economic policies geared to the western concept of creative destruction, have no hope in the future of the country. Migration for work as slave labor to the Gulf or illegal immigration to the West is the only hope. But that is also a false dawn as the west is suffering economic collapse because of the ponzi world economy.


In this divide, the poor have lost all faith in the middle classes. The only power they have is the vote, in which too they have lost hope. They continue to elect men of poor intellect and no vision. Their only desire is to emulate the middle classes to earn money. This is gradually undermining society, a constant complaint of the middle classes. Unfortunately they lack the wisdom to understand the part played by them in this predicament.

Geopolitics and Sri Lankan middle classes


Exploitation and transfer of resources is the Zeitgeist of the present world economic system. For this, the western empire needs a divided society as a united society will never allow an unjust system to continue. Hence it is in the interests of the rich and powerful to destabilize society. This is achieved by various pressures


1.      Economic pressures – Sri Lanka has been subjected to import restrictions

2.     Minority Human Rights - Human rights apply equally to minorities and the majority. Recent accusations against Sri Lanka by the greatest abuser of human rights in the world show how internationally, institutions are hijacked to destabilize countries. The international ruling elite do not realize that these institutions are discredited in the eyes of right thinking people and no international organization can survive if people do not trust it. These countries believe that immorality can be achieved by might.

3.     NGOs –funded by foreign countries are only created to voice dissent, but ignore the real issues of morality in society

4.     Funding insurrections – powerful countries funded the insurrection in Sri Lanka and even tried to save the leaders of the insurrection. One lakh innocent people have been killed. Should not these countries be accused of human rights abuse?

5.     Religious radicalization funded by the West and the Gulf.

6.     Using Diaspora in the West to create dissent


Thus we have a New World Order, no different from the Old Colonialism, in which the rich get richer at the expense of the poor; might is right; resources are transferred by debt; and the nations are divided.




A fundamental question remains – can any country prosper in an enduring manner if the privileged section refuses to see any interests or priorities beyond self interest? Will the elite be able to rid itself of mental servility to the white races created by a education system created by the colonialists to entrench the exploitation of poor nations?


Political power is now with the poor. They have lost all respect, trust and hope in the middle classes who are blindly emulating the West. Social stability has been undermined under their noses. What hope is there for the middle classes? Migration? The prospects are dim with a failing economy in the West.


If this is true of Sri Lanka, it is true in the whole of the sub continent.


The author is a citizen of Sri Lanka

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