by Keith Carey
After almost 30 years, we are finally doing a prayer guide devoted entirely to the island nation of Sri Lanka located just south of India. It is very easy to forget about this country because India, her northern neighbor, is so big and has thousands of unreached people groups. Sri Lanka has two main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, and both of them have some gospel witness. People might think that there aren’t enough unreached people groups on this island to cover a full month of prayer. Not so. According to the Joshua Project web site (joshuaproject.net) there are 20 million people living on the island and 64 unreached people groups.
The good news is that many of these unreached people groups and tribes in Sri Lanka also live in India’s southern states, where there is a strong Christian Church. The Malayalees and the Tamil groups in India actually send out hundreds of missionaries, but their southern neighbors in Sri Lanka have not responded to the good news. Let us pray that the unreached people groups in Sri Lanka are like low-lying fruit, ready to be picked!
Keith Carey, managing editor, GPD
by Wesley Kawato
Sri Lanka: God’s Teardrop on Earth
The beautiful, resplendent island of Sri Lanka is shaped like a teardrop. Perhaps there is something symbolic in this act of creation. Their recent history has been discolored by tragic racial strife between the Sinhalese majority and the large Tamil minority.
The Roots of Ethnic and Religious Conflict
The Sinhalese people group probably immigrated to Sri Lanka around 500 B.C. It is believed that they may have been Hindus there at the time. Buddhism probably arrived about 200 years later. Buddhist missionaries quickly converted the Sinhalese. Under the influence of Buddhism, Sri Lanka developed a strong civilization that mastered the art of irrigated farming. Sinhalese Buddhists built large water storage tanks. Thanks to royal patronage, Sri Lanka remained a Buddhist stronghold even after India returned to the Hindu religion.
Around 300 B.C. Tamil family groups from south India began settling the north coast of Sri Lanka. The Tamils clung to their Hindu religion. Although always a minority, the Tamils grew powerful enough to decide which Sinhalese dynasty would rule the island.
For hundreds of years before 1000 A.D. various kingdoms in India would invade and try to conquer Sri Lanka. These kingdoms often befriended the Tamils living on the north coast of the island because they practiced the Hindu religion, and the Tamils, in turn, would help the invaders. Eventually the Hindu Indian kingdoms became weak, and the island regained independence under the rule of a Buddhist dynasty. The animosities between the Hindu Tamils and the Buddhist Sinhalese began in these early times and remain to this day.
Around 700 A.D. Islam arrived in Sri Lanka, introduced by Arab merchants. Islam won only a few native converts, mostly women who married Muslim traders. These mixed marriages created a small Muslim community. The rulers of Sri Lanka never considered the Muslims to be a threat.
The Portuguese and Dutch Reach Sri Lanka in the 1500s
In the 1500s, Sri Lanka was divided into three kingdoms. Buddhist Sinhalese kings ruled the areas of Katte and Kandy, while Jaffna in the north was ruled by a Tamil Hindu king. The first European explorer to arrive on the island was Don Lourenco de Almeida, a Portuguese adventurer. He negotiated trade agreements with one and than another of the three kingdoms. Portugal quickly began to dominate the politics of Sri Lanka through these agreements by selling superior European weapons to the various kingdoms. Whichever kingdom had the favor of the Portuguese received the best weapons and used them against the other two kingdoms.
The Portuguese also brought Catholic missionaries with them. They won many converts in the Kingdom of Jaffna, which included most of the residents of the island of Manar, located near Sri Lanka. An alarmed king sent an army to kill the missionaries and 600 of their converts. This massacre was a good excuse for Portugal to invade Jaffna. Katte was also soon conquered. Only Kandy remained independent.
In 1638 the Dutch became interested in Sri Lanka. Holland already controlled Indonesia and felt that a Portuguese controlled Sri Lanka would be a threat to the sea route that connected Indonesia with Holland. In 1638 the Dutch negotiated a military alliance with Kandy. A year later the Dutch began attacking Portuguese ports on the island. By 1656 Holland ruled Sri Lanka.
Dutch Reformed missionaries arrived shortly after the conquest, but they didn’t win many converts. Unlike the Portuguese, the Dutch tried to regulate the religious life of Sri Lanka. Hindu and Buddhist practices were outlawed, but these laws were only enforced in the cities. Fearing that Catholics would be Portuguese sympathizers, the Dutch persecuted Catholic believers and burned their churches.
Dutch control was strongest in the coastal areas of Sri Lanka which set a pattern for the future. Because of their exposure to European influence, the coastal regions of Sri Lanka would develop faster than the interior.
Both the Portuguese and the Dutch sometimes intermarried with the local Sinhalese and Tamil populations. The children of such mixed marriages would come to be known as the Burghers. In the years to come the Burghers would often become administrators for their colonial masters. Other people groups in Sri Lanka would view them as collaborators.
During the 1600s the British became interested in Sri Lanka. This was during the decline of the Mughal Empire in India. By 1750 the Mughals were on the verge of collapse, and the various European powers were positioning themselves to fill the void. In order to be in a position to conquer the Mughals, the British needed a base in or near India. Sri Lanka was in a good location for the establishment of a military base to achieve their goals.
In 1766 the Dutch forced Kandy to sign a treaty that effectively ended that nation’s independence. By 1795 Kandy was ready to rebel. They entered a military alliance with England. A year later the British invaded all of Sri Lanka and ousted the Dutch with little effort. Kandy quickly learned that it had traded one European master for another. By 1815 the British conquered Kandy and began ruling the island directly through governors until 1948.
Between 1795 and 1948 the British shaped what kind of country Sri Lanka would become after independence. Democracy would take root on the island. As early as 1833 the British allowed local rulers to regain some power in governing Sri Lanka. Today Sri Lanka is still a parliamentary democracy. The British also resisted the temptation to split the island into Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic enclaves, thus creating the foundation for the multi-racial state that exists today.
The British also brought economic changes to Sri Lanka. Most important was the introduction of plantation agriculture. At first the major crop was coffee, but after 1869 tea became king. Today Sri Lanka is still a major tea exporter. Tea cultivation was labor intensive, so the British plantation owners imported Tamil workers from south India. This increased the island’s racial problems. Most tea plantations were located in the central highlands, an area that had been almost wholly Sinhalese prior to 1869. Now that region developed a significant Tamil minority population.
By the 1930s rising expectations had led to demands for independence. Sinhalese and Tamil rivals worked together to pressure the British government for increasing amounts of self-rule. The British weren’t about to give up control of the island as long as it had military value. In those days Japan posed a serious threat to the British Empire. Sri Lanka had army and navy bases that were vital for Britain to retain control of her Asian colonies. During World War II Japanese carriers raided the seas near Sri Lanka, sinking several British ships. The British granted Sri Lanka independence only after the collapse of Japan in 1945. There was a three-year transition period prior to full independence in 1948.
Ethnic Tensions Intensify After Independence
From 1948 to 1956 Sri Lanka was ruled by the United National Party, which believed in racial equality. The leaders of that party tried to keep the Sinhalese and Tamils working together, like they had prior to independence. Then the election of 1956 brought the Freedom Party to power. This party believed that the Sinhalese majority, making up 87 percent of the population, should have special rights. The first step on the road to disaster was the attempt to make Sinhalese the national language. Now and then the United National Party would return to power for a few years, but couldn’t repeal the unfair laws passed by the Freedom Party. Even when out of power, the Freedom Party controlled enough votes to water down reform legislation.
One of the last steps on the road to civil war was the passage of the new constitution in 1972. That document contained no protections for minority groups like the Tamils. Five years later an election left the Tamils badly under represented in parliament. For many Tamils this was the last straw. In 1977 the Tamil Tigers guerilla group formed, leading to 32 years of bloody, low intensity war. In 2009 the Sri Lankan army broke through into the Tamil heartland on the island’s north coast, killing many leaders of the Tamil Tigers.
That ended the civil war, but the process of reconstruction has just begun. Thousands of Tamils still live in refugee camps. Land mines make travel off the main roads very dangerous. Elections were held in Sri Lanka in 2010 and the old government retained power. Right now no one knows if these reelected leaders will take the steps needed to create racial equality and a lasting peace.
The age of colonialism left most Sri Lankans disillusioned with Christianity. Only 7.5 percent of the population knows the Lord. There are many people groups on the island that have yet to hear the message of salvation.
Pray for lasting peace and racial reconciliation.
Pray that missionaries may preach the message of salvation in safety. Ask God to open the hearts of all people groups on the island to God’s message.
Pray that the Lord would mobilize the Church in Sri Lanka to reach out to their unreached neighbors.