United National Party "Majority" Rule, 1948-56
The largest political party in independent Sri Lanka, the
United National Party (UNP), emerged as an umbrella party from
the colonial era. It was similar in some respects to the Indian
National Congress. Like its Indian counterpart, the UNP
represented a union of a number of groups espousing different
personalities and ideologies. Known later as the "uncle-nephew
party" because of the kinship ties among the party's top
leadership, the UNP served as the standard-bearer of conservative
forces. In late 1947, when the party won the country's first
general election, the UNP attempted to establish an
anticommunist, intercommunal parliamentary form of government.
Prominent nationalists, such as D.S. Senanayake and S.W.R.D.
Bandaranaike (the country's first and fourth prime ministers,
respectively), led the UNP. The party's internal differences
gradually worsened, however. The first and most serious break
came in July 1951, when Bandaranaike's left-of-center bloc
seceded to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the first
major non-Marxist political movement to oppose the UNP.
Despite the benevolent guidance of Senanayake, the UNP could
not defuse the nascent dissension between the Sinhalese and the
Tamils. Some of Senanayake's policies, particularly his awarding
of land grants to Sinhalese settlers for the resettlement of the
northern dry zone, precipitated renewed competition between the
two ethnic groups.
When Senanayake died in a horseback-riding accident in March
1952, not only the UNP, but also the entire nation suffered from
the loss of the only man who could pose as a credible symbol for
the country's unity. In the election that was held immediately
after Senanayake's death, the UNP, led by his son Dudley, and the
SLFP, led by Bandaranaike, vied for Sinhalese votes, while the
Tamil Congress and Federal Party competed for the Tamil vote. The
UNP won the election, and the SLFP emerged as major opposition
party. The SLFP managed to win only nine out of forty-eight seats
in Parliament. The Tamil Congress, having supported the UNP, lost
much of its following to the Federal Party, which continued to
advocate an autonomous homeland within a Sri Lankan federation.
Ethnic tensions, although mounting, remained manageable.
After D. S. Senanayake's death, the nation's economic
problems became apparent. The terms of world trade were turning
against Sri Lanka. The population was growing faster than
production in most sectors. A
World Bank (see Glossary)
completed in 1952 noted that social and welfare services were
consuming 35 percent of the budget. The report recommended that
the government rice subsidy--which accounted for the major
portion of the expenditure--be reduced. Prime Minister Senanayake
followed the advice, but the move proved to be his political
undoing. A massive, sometimes violent civil disobedience movement
was launched to protest the reduction of the rice subsidy and
provoked the resignation of Senanayake. In October 1953, his
cousin, Sir John Kotelawala, became prime minister and remained
in office until the UNP defeat in the 1956 election.
The UNP government under Kotelawala disagreed with India's
interpretation of political solidarity in the developing world.
This divergence became painfully clear to India at the Colombo
Conference of 1954 and the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in
1955. Kotelawala's strident condemnation of communism, as well as
the more fashionable condemnation of Western imperialism,
especially irritated India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Kotelawala was also anxious to have Ceylon join the Southeast
Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), but he encountered strong
domestic opposition to the plan. The Soviet Union was especially
sensitive to what it considered the government's pro-Western
attitude and repeatedly vetoed Sri Lanka's application to join
the United Nations (UN). Sri Lanka was finally admitted in 1955
as part of an East-West agreement.
The UNP continued a defense agreement with the British that
spared Sri Lanka the cost of maintaining a large military
establishment. National defense consumed less than 4 percent of
the government budget in the postindependence years, and hence
the military was not in a position to interfere with politics.
Data as of October 1988