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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .


Sri Lanka Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Developments in the 19th and 20th Centuries
A. Jeyaratnam Wilson

London: Hurst and Company
203pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 35.00; ISBN 1-8506-5338-0. Pb.: 12.95; ISBN 1-8506-5519-7.



In this short history, Wilson gives a succinct yet comprehensive historical and contemporary overview of the genesis and subsequent trajectory of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka. He is arguably the leading expert in the field and his analysis is informed by first-hand knowledge of the situation in Sri Lanka. He has also come into contact with many of the actors who are discussed in the book. Wilson gives an excellent encapsulation of the situation prior to independence in 1948, which is sometimes overlooked by other authors. Indeed, Wilson amply demonstrates that no serious account of the contemporary conflict on the island can be complete without consideration of its antecedents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He also cogently examines the caste dimension of the Tamil Question and how this has influenced the development of the post-independence movement towards federalism, and later the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from the mid-1970s onwards. This book fills a much needed gap in the market, in that it provides both a concise and incisive introduction to the Tamil crisis in Sri Lanka, but also successfully avoids being overloaded with academic jargon. In contrast with some recent edited collections of conference papers, Wilson does not presume too much prior knowledge on behalf of the reader. The book can therefore be highly recommended to those who are either new to the subject or are studying South Asia at undergraduate level. Postgraduate students will also benefit from his summaries and insights. My only cavil would be that Wilson does not say more about events since the election of Chandrika Kumaratunga as President in 1994. Although there is a highly informative and trenchant personal account of the civil war given in Chapter 9 by the Reverend A.J.V. Chandrakanthan, I would also like to have read Wilson's views on Kumaratunga's so-called 'peace through war' strategy, which was adopted after attempts at peace talks failed in early 1995. The escalation of the conflict between the armed forces and the LTTE, and its cost in terms of lives lost and arrested economic development means that there is still ample scope for a definitive account of Chandrika's first presidential term.


Alan Bullion, Open University, UK



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