Sri Lanka’s Malay Tamils and the fight for minority status

lee-kuan-yew-620x264The turbulent history of Sri Lanka’s tiny Malay Tamil community has been brought to the fore by the recent visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues to the island nation.

The UN Special Rapporteur Rita Izsak-Ndiaye arrived in Sri Lanka last Monday to examine the status of minorities in light of the aftermath of its bloody decades-long civil war.

She held her first meeting with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samarweera and will advise on, monitor and report on rights for ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities.

Rita then met Ahamed Nazeer Zainulabdeen, the Chief Minister of Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province to discuss the state of the Malay Tamil minority groups in Sri Lanka.

According to BBC Tamil, Rita presented the request of Malaysian Tamils to award them separate minority status in the Sri Lankan constitution.

Rita will present her full report of her findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March 2017.

Who are Malay Tamils? :

In the past population of Sri Lankan Tamils and Sri Lankan Sinhalese, Malay Tamils constitute less than 0.20% (40,000 as of 2011).

The Malay Tamils have a complex history of migration from the time of the Cholas in the 11th century and enforced by colonization in later centuries. Today, the Malay Tamils in Sri Lanka have a distinct culture within the broader Malay and Tamil communities in that country.

The Malays of Sri Lanka, are called as Javanese in Sinhalese, owing to their early origins in Java in present-day Indonesia. The ancestors of the present day Malay community arrived in Sri Lanka mostly during the colonial rule of the Dutch over present-day Sri Lanka and south-east Asia between 1796 and 1948.

The term “Malay” in the Sri Lankan context, actually refers to a large group of people whose origins lie not just in the Malayan peninsula, but also in the many islands of the Indonesian archipelago such as the Balinese, Tidorese, Madurese, Sundanese, Bandanese and Amboinese.


The origins of this movement of people began as early as the 13th century. A Malay ruler named Chandrabahanuinvaded the north of the Sri Lanka (present-day Jaffna) to retrieve a relic of Lord Buddha revered by the Sinhalese rulers.

The Malay community was known for its military prowess and in later years, served in the regular army of the Dutch led by the princely class of Malay/Javanese families.

Indonesian political exiles comprised a significant portion of the early Malay population brought to Sri Lanka by the Dutch.

After 1850, by which time the British were the dominant colonial power in Sri Lanka, there were no more battles to fight, and Malays gradually began to shun military service for a variety of reasons.

A few non-Malay Companies of Indian Sepoys and African origin people were attached to the Malay battalion.

Malays were also no longer engaged in combat duties, and instead performed guard duty.

During this time, plantations of crops such as coffee, tea, cocoa and rubber for export offered lucrative opportunity.

Tamils from Tamil Nadu flocked in as estate labourers, and Malays availed themselves of supervisory roles in the hill country estates and office jobs in the European agency houses.

Staunch defenders of Malay Culture in Sri Lanka: 

Many attempts have been made to revive the local Malay language and culture by organizations such as the Sri Lanka Malay Confederation, an umbrella organization of the local Malay community.

In Sri Lanka, Malays have retained certain aspects of their culture, and have strongly protected it, examples being the honorific Tuan which precedes the names of Malay males, their family names, social customs and culinary habits.

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