A Burgher perspective on politics in Sri Lanka today
Ha! Said a Burgher who was having a chat with me about the current
political situation and the politics of Sri Lanka in general. If you
didn't know it, Burghers are passionate, even fanatical, individualists
and if there are 45,000 of us in the country, that's 45,000 different
opinions about politics, politicians and everything else.
Even though designated a political community by the British in 1800,
Burghers have, by and large, avoided politics like the plague (and
sundry other factors) their ancestors fled from. Certainly, this does
not mean that they didn't take to politics. They did. That was in the
late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As a matter of fact, the first voice raised for internal
self-government and subsequently for full independence came from leading
Burghers who led the embryonic movement for representative government.
However, the agitation was conducted with decorum, decently and in order
and without breaking the Law that then prevailed.
Ha! Continued my Burgher friend, You must be off your b--y rocker to
write about Burghers and politics. Perhaps he was right but I also have
the right to freely express my opinion and what I think is the Burgher
perspective on politics in the country today.
Burghers, as a people of European origin and of mixed descent, have
always been a bridge between the indigenous inhabitants and those from
the West because they share the cultures of both and have evolved their
own unique synthesis of both to create a distinctive Burgher culture.
Therefore, they, more than anybody else, have always possessed an
advantageous overview in other words, the Big Picture that is being
painted on the canvas of Time.
It should also be said that activist Burghers are not afraid to swim
against the current and stand up and be counted. Some notable examples
come to mind: A.E. Buultjens, a Cambridge graduate who became a Buddhist
and the first principal (1890-98) of the leading Buddhist educational
institution in the country: Ananda College.
Buultjens was also a pioneer of the nascent labour and trade union
movement, organising printers at H. W. Cave & Co., who struck work in
1893. Then, Pieter Keuneman, another product of Pembroke College,
He was the only Burgher to be prominent in post-independence, was
successively secretary and president of the Cambridge Union and edited
the Union's learned journal, 'Granta', worked as a journalist in Lake
House for a short while and went on to become a founding member of the
United Socialist Party in 1941.
That became the Ceylon Communist Party in 1943. He was the Party's
first secretary-general, president of the CP-led Ceylon Trade Union
Federation and in Parliament continuously from 1947 to 1977 representing
the multi-member Colombo Central constituency. He became a fluent
speaker in Sinhala and Tamil.
He left his library of over 10,000 volumes to the Jaffna Public
Library. George Keyt was a cultural catalyst, a leading modern artist
and well versed in Sinhala and Sanskrit.
The Legislative Council from 1833 to 1931 had many Burghers who
represented the community and distinguished themselves. The Colombo
Municipal Council, founded in 1856, had a Burgher Mayor, Dr. Vivian R.
Schokman, in 1937, and several prominent Burghers were members from its
founding to recent times. Some of these notable personalities were:
Charles Ambrose Lorenz, C.L Ferdinands, Dr. J.W. van Geyzel, and F.C.
Loos; (Sir) Samuel Grenier was its first secretary. Dr. Peter Daniel
Anthonisz served in the Galle Municipal Council and by special
permission of the Governor was also a member of the CMC and represented
the Burgher community in the Legislative Council from 1886 to 1895.
The first Burgher in politics was J.H. Hillebrand who was followed by
J. B. Giffening, then (Sir) Richard Morgan, C.A. Lorenz, James Maartensz,
C.H. Ferdinands, James van Langenberg, (Snr.), Dr. P.D. Anthonisz, H.L.
Wendt, F.L. Loos, James van Langenberg (Jnr.), Francis Beven, and Dr.
W.G. van Dort.
The first elected members were: Sir Hector van Cuylenberg, Charles
Vander Wall, Allan Drieberg, N. J. Martin, Arthur Alvis, H.A. Loos, C.E.
de Vos, George A. Wille, and Dr. V.R. Schokman. Others in the
post-independence era were R.S.V. Poulier, Dr. Eric S. Brohier, and
Senator Eric LaBrooy.
However, racism (and racist politics) slowly raised its head (a first
manifestation was during the Sinhala-Moor riots of 1915) during the
deliberations of the Donoughmore Commission (1927-31) where D.S.
Senanayake, representing the conservative political establishment, was
on record as strongly opposing the grant of universal adult suffrage,
i.e., the vote to all permanent inhabitants of the Island.
He also strenuously opposed giving the vote to the plantation workers
of recent Indian origin then disparagingly referred to as coolies.
The Commissioners disallowed his submissions, granted full adult
universal franchise and scrapped an income qualification that would have
limited the vote to just about 200,000 voters out of a then population
of four million. The Burghers saw the appointment of the new government
under the Donoughmore Constitution as the writing on the wall. Their
perception has been proved right over and over again by subsequent
events, most of them both tragic and traumatic.
Even though DS was always portrayed as a strong nationalist, his
policy of drawing the various ethnic groups together into a cohesive
whole had one glaring exception: the hard-working, almost slave-like
Tamil plantation workers who had been involuntarily brought into the
country since 1822 by the British to work on the tea and rubber
plantations. Several generations had been born on the plantations and
they had no other home even though some of their wealthy supervisors (thalaivars/kanganies)
travelled frequently between British India and Ceylon.
DS saw the election of seven plantation Tamils elected to the State
Council in 1931 and again in 1936 and though he had a congenital fear of
communism he knew at first hand that their natural leader, Satyamurthy
Thondaman, was no Marxist and wouldn't lead his people into the
communist fold and he didnt from 1931 to 1947 a sixteen-year period
during which he led the Tamil plantation workers until the Ceylon Indian
Congress was formed in 1939, (which later became the Ceylon Workers
Congress, the country's largest trade union).
He led it and transformed it into a powerful political party, and was
successful in obtaining full citizenship status for his people
disenfranchised by DS in 1948.
The Burgher leaders watched with considerable and growing disquiet
the formation of the first Tamil political party, the All Ceylon Tamil
Congress in 1944, and the breakaway faction that became the Tamil
Federal Party in 1949, and also took serious cognizance of Moor
organisations converting themselves into political parties representing
the interests of the Muslims (Moors and Malays mainly). This was
race-based politics that began sounding the death-knell of liberal
democratic politics in this country.
They steadfastly refused to convert the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon
into a political party, preferring to exert their influence culturally,
socially, and economically and as always, staying loyal to the
Government in power and abiding by the laws of the land.
The Burgher leaders shone in the first half of the 20th century; the
same cannot be said of the leaders of the community that followed from
1951 because their eyes were focused on greener pastures overseas,
notably Australia, Britain, and Canada.
They failed to provide enlightened leadership to the community and,
as a direct result; the Burghers gradually sank into a shadowy obscurity
and a debilitating poverty barring a few fortunate exceptions.
Indeed, there was nothing to prevent Burghers from learning the
Sinhala and Tamil languages and excelling in them except that their
leaders provided no back-up to them to become an essential part of the
Sri Lankan nation.
As the 21st century dawned, Burghers realised that they must emerge
from their obscurity, leave the shackles of poverty behind, and once
again claim the natural rights of fully co-equal citizenship. A new
generation of dynamic Burghers has now emerged and is restating in no
uncertain terms their right to be both seen and heard.
The unfortunate division of the Sri Lankan polity into politics based
on nothing more than personalities rather than policies that would
develop Sri Lanka leaves the Burghers increasingly dismayed because such
shallow and superficial politics is contributing to the rapid
disintegration of Sri Lanka into ethnic-based enclaves run by gangsters
Burghers, whatever their political affiliation (or the lack of it)
strongly believe that liberal democracy (as practised in, for example,
Switzerland) does not mean domination by either a majority or
manipulation by a minority as has been the practice in Sri Lanka since
1931. For them the practice of liberal democracy means distancing
themselves from the narrow confines of race, caste, class, religion,
language, and territorial homelands.
They would welcome a secular polity that strongly believes in the
Rule of Law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the several
conventions thereunder, transparency, and clean politics free of the
taint of majoritarianism and the twisted compromises that favour one
minority over another.
Burghers are appalled by terrorism and terrorists and have never ever
believed that such methods should be used to gain political or other
Therefore, it is safe to state that Burghers can never support the
objects of terrorism and that they also strongly abhor the use of
violence to attain any object. They believe that fundamental reforms are
necessary and that structural changes should be made to ensure a just
and free society but that such things should be done in a civilized
manner as befits human beings.
For Burghers, the very essence of life means the attainment of
refinement, improvement, sophistication, and elegance; it means an
appreciation of the fine arts and the highest ideals of civilization.
Such a condition of tranquility could only exist within the cocoon of
Peace (not the temporary absence of war) can only come if it is
recognized that every permanent inhabitant of this island is a fully
co-equal citizen possessed of an inherent dignity and innate
self-respect as a human being and that this condition of equality is
recognised by all the majority as well as all the minorities and that no
one is more equal than anybody else.
It would also mean a constitutional sea change that would recognize
the unconditional equality of all races, religions, languages, cultures,
and the social and economic status of all the permanent inhabitants
without even a wisp of a shadow of favour to any. That means that
bigotry, racism, intolerance, divisiveness, and chauvinism, would be
All decent citizens of Sri Lanka would endorse the Burgher
perspective on what the politics of Sri Lanka should be (and could be)
if we regain our senses and halt the slide over the abyss into
As that genetic fusion of East and West the Burghers whose ancestors
literally fled the ever-contentious continent of Europe because of
persecution, tyranny, poverty, and discrimination, a strongly imprinted
racial memory remains in the Burgher consciousness that abhors
everything that smacks of the use of force, duress, coercion, and
compulsion. Burghers are free spirits who joyously celebrate life as a
perpetual fiesta and they do so on every occasion that presents itself
without being melancholic or fatalistically submissive to karma or
Let this be a catalyst that would resurrect the process of recreating
a just society where free spirits could thrive to the fullest extent of
each individuals natural potential.