Sri Lanka National Flag
The Symbol of Inequality and Separation    

By N. Ethirveerasingham

The lion flag section of the national flag of Sri Lanka was the flag of Sri Wickrema Rajasingha, the last Sinhala King of Sri Lanka. I have not found any earlier reference to the lion flag. Did Sinhala or Tamil Kings of Sri Lanka before King Rajasinghe use a lion flag? This question is best left to historians? Some years ago when reading the life of Pompey (106 - 48 BC), in Plutarch’s Lives, the last paragraph shed light on the origin of the symbol, a lion holding a sword in its right paw. 

Ceylon (Lion) Flag
at Helsinki Olympics

The only other time I thought about the lion flag critically was when the Olympic Village in Helsinki raised the flag with the lion facing away from the pole. The Chief of Mission W.H.D. Perera got the Olympic Official to fly it the next day with the lion facing the pole. As a seventeen-year-old high jumper, a flag was not the centre of my universe. Its symbolism escaped me. I, like many school children, left it to the leaders to debate the merits of the symbols of lions and strips.

Now I wish that Senator Nadesan’s dissenting views, during the debate of the flag, was made required reading during my school day because of its language, reasoning and substance. I am glad that Tamil children of today are better informed and more involved in the defence of their rights than children of my generation were.

Fifty years after the debate, I read Senator Nadesan’s dissenting view on the form and composition of the national flag. It is as valid today as it was then. The events since then have painted a vivid picture of his reasoning.

I also read about the origin of the flag in the website of Sri Lanka’s embassy in Washington D.C. It said,

“Mr. A. Sinnalebbe, MP for Batticaloa tabled a motion in the State Council on January, 16, 1948 suggesting that the Lion Flag of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe which was taken to Britain in 1815 should be made the National Flag. This was debated and later Prime Minister Rt. Hon. D.S. Senanayake named an Advisory committee for the formulation of a National Flag. The Members of the Committee were Mr. J.R. Jayewardene, Mr. T.B. Jayah, Dr. L.A. Rajapakse, Mr. G.G. Ponnambalam and Senator S. Nadesan.… no finality had been reached when the first Independence Day was celebrated on February 4th, 1948. Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake unfurled the Lion Flag at the Octagon (Pattirippuwa) during the independence celebration held in Kandy on February 12th, 1948.”

Pompey and the Lion

Pompey, who was being chased by Julius Caesar, reached the shores of Egypt to get help from King Ptolemy. King Ptolemy’s Council decided to kill Pompey. The assassins also cut his head off. Plutarch wrote,

“Not long after, Caesar arrived in the country that was polluted with this foul act, and when one of the Egyptians was sent to present him with Pompey’s head, he turned away from him with abhorrence as from a murderer; and on receiving his seal, on which was engraved a lion holding a sword in his paw, he burst into tears.”

I wonder whether the members of the First Parliament of Ceylon were aware when they unfurled the Lion Flag on Independence Day, that the lion in the flag of the last king of Ceylon was in fact the seal of Pompey.

Irrespective of the origin of the lion with the sword in its right paw, Nadesan Satyendra’s observation that, “The decision to retain the Lion Flag in its entirety and keep the strips representing the minorities ‘outside’ its borders was symbolic of the will of Sinhala majority to build the newly independent state on the narrow and divisive foundation of the old Kandyan Sinhala kingdom.” (

Senator S.Nadesan, in his dissent has fathomed the heart of the ethnic problem. He said,

“ In my view a national flag apart from giving an honoured place to all communities, must also be a symbol of national unity.
 “…objection was taken to a Tricolour by several members of the Committee on the ground that the Lion Emblem will be considerably reduced in size and that it will not be acceptable to majority community, this proposal had to be abandoned.” 
“In my view this design if adopted far from being a symbol of national unity will be a symbol of our disunity.” 
“Once the committee agreed that the national flag should be devised by modifying the Lion Flag, one would have thought that any strips adopted for the purpose of satisfying the minorities will be integrated with the Lion Flag and that these strips will not be an appendage to the Lion Flag. Anyone looking at the proposed Flag will see the Lion Flag is preserved in all its integrity and outside that Flag, two strips are allotted to represent the minorities.” 

A symbol depicts the belief in an innermost thought of a concept. A symbol does not represent itself. Every community has its symbols. A Cross is a symbol that not only Christians but also others understand. The symbol can be a letter “V”, group of letters such as “mother”, a sound of a horn, or a picture of “Mona Lisa.” 

Some symbols are shared between two cultures. I called my father “Appu,” so does a Hungarian child call his father. A Sinhalese child calls her father “Thatha,” so does a Yugoslavian (Serbian) child. The letters may be different, but the sound is the same and the meaning is the same for all four children. The depth of positive or negative feelings depends on their individual relationship with their father. 


The Bo leaf is a symbol. The flag is a symbol. The lion flag with a stylised lion holding a sword in its right paw, irrespective of whether it was also the seal of Pompey, is the symbol of the Sinhala Buddhist of the Kandyan Kingdom. It was adopted by law in 1951 as the symbol of Sri Lanka, with two strips recognising the existence of two other communities occupying the Island. Senator Nadesan was not arguing against a piece of cloth, its colours, or the lion. In my view he saw in the lion flag the Sinhala leaders conception of what Ceylon is and what its identity is going to be, notwithstanding the Soulbury Constitution.

The compromise on the two strips and their position on the flag outside the yellow borders of the lion flag and more significantly within the outer yellow border of the new flag was the symbolic expression of the second class citizenship for minorities that in 1956, 1972 and 1978 manifested in Mr. Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Only Act, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s Republican constitution, and Mr. Jayawardene's Unitary constitution respectively. 

In the national flag, the Tamils and Muslims as Tamil speaking people were separated by a vertical yellow border from the Sinhala people. In rejecting equality of status for the Tamils and Muslims they also kept them symbolically in bondage with an all encompassing yellow border, the integrity of which Sri Lanka, and countries who support them, wish to maintain. The countries which had made such supportive statements should reexamine their statements based on the meaning of the borders around the flag, and the border that separates the symbol of the Tamil and Muslim communities from the symbol of the Sinhala community.

Senator Nadesan's Premonition

Senator Nadesan had foreseen the future of Tamils under a lion flag during the debate of the symbol. In trying to integrate the Tamil community with the Sinhala and Muslim community through a symbol that would be a unifying national symbol he ran against the rock of the fundamental belief of the Sinhala Buddhist concept of Sri Lanka and the identity of its citizens. He failed, like he did in his argument in the Senate against the Citizenship Act of 1948 that disenfranchised thousands of Tamils. In both instances he left a record of his well-reasoned dissent for posterity. His failures were the cornerstone of the case against the Sri Lankan state. He demonstrated that by not wanting any change in the symbol, the Sinhala Buddhist leaders refused to compromise on the fundamental ideas of the Sinhala Buddhist state that was represented in that symbol. A symbol cannot be changed unless the underlying concept of the symbol is also changed. The undercurrent of the debate in the flag committee was not of the form, colour and cosmetics of the national flag, but it was a debate of the nature and structure of the state, and the rights, relationships and identity of its citizens.

The fundamental position of the Sinhala leaders is also the position of a majority of the Sinhala people, which is that Tamils and Muslims are, like the two strips, an appendage outside the Sinhala Buddhist unit as represented by the lion flag. Mr. Nadesan tried to change that position to an equal status by integrating the flag to represent a common symbol and common identity.

He failed in the attempt not because his argument was flawed, or because the Sinhala leaders did not comprehend his argument. He failed because they understood the reasoning and the consequences of their acceptance too well.

 Mr. Nadesan, Mr. Chelvanayagam and other Tamil leaders who later joined them, excellent lawyers and outstanding citizens that they all were, followed the constitutional process and put their trust in the courts and the rule of law to bring justice to the Tamil community. Events that have occurred since the 1948 Ceylon Citizenship Bill have demonstrated the failure of majoritarian democracy, the constitutional process and the in ability of the rule of law in Sri Lanka to bring justice to the Tamils. The Tamil people therefore had no alternative but to begin the armed struggle to separate from the state that had rebelled against them. A state that had from the beginning symbolically separated them with a well-defined vertical border in the national flag.

The All Party Conferences, Select Committees and drafts of the constitution that the government has come up with are within the bounds of the meaning of this symbol - the National Flag with its lion with a sword in its right paw.

Any demands by the Tamils that violated the ideas represented by the symbol were not accepted by the government, like Mr. Nadesan’s proposal for the national flag.

His proposal for the flag was to reflect the spirit of the Soulbury constitution. It can now be reasonably concluded, based on the events that followed, that Mr. Bandaranaike, Mr. Kotelawela, Mr. Jeyawardena and other Sinhala politicians never had any intention of honouring Section 29 of the Soulbury constitution.

The Emblem

A quote from the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington D.C. with respect to the national emblem is as follows, “A new republican emblem was chosen after the country was declared a Republic on May 22nd, 1972.. In addition to the lion with sword and the ‘Palapethi’ design it portrays the punkalasa, dhammachakka, sun, moon and two sheaves of paddy. It is noteworthy that the Tamils did not vote for the 1972 constitution.

The Sinhala reaction to the armed struggle is to be expected considering their basic premise of the Sinhala Buddhist state and its territorial boundaries as represented in the national flag. 

In 1985, the Tamil parties presented to the Jayawardene government the four basic principles, called the “Thimpu Principles” at the Thimpu Talks (See N. Satyendra’s address to the Sri Lanka Government delegation at Thimpu on The Jayawardene government rejected it.

To accept the Thimpu Principles the Sinhala Buddhist leaders would have had to have altered the basic structure and nature of the Sinhala Buddhist State that is represented by the symbol. A solution may require a flag for the Tamil people in their own territory with their own symbol, and a lion flag without strips for the Sinhala people in their own territory. In addition, it could also lead to a third common flag that would be more like what Mr. Nadesan had in mind.

I was in Kilinochchi on the day the Sinhala Buddhist flag, called the National Flag, was raised in the newly captured Jaffna. In those troubled times the television set in the dining room of the Faculty of Agriculture and the generator that supplied the current worked overtime to listen to the Sinhala version of the news of the loss of Jaffna delivered by Tamil anchor persons.

 The hall was packed with not only students and staff but also people who lived close to the campus and some of whom had been displaced. We watched Deputy Minister Ratwatte raising the National Flag - a symbol of the Sinhala Buddhist domination of the Tamils.

There was not a dry eye in that dining hall.

They did not shed tears of joy. On May 25, 1958, I was proud to have caused a similar flag to be raised at the Asian Games in Tokyo not knowing that the Sinhala mob at home was committing crimes with impunity on my people. Since then the Sinhala flag meant less to me with each pogrom.

When Mr. Ratwatte raised the national flag in my hometown, soon after the tragedy of death and displacement, I realised how unrelated I was to the lion flag and the ideas and the people it represented.

We also later witnessed the ceremony in which President Kumaratunge received the scroll from the conqueror of Jaffna Mr. Ratwatte. The ceremony represented to me the rape of a nation of people and a celebration of that offense.

Instead of tears I saw anger in everyone’s face. 

Someone in the crowd wondered why the Madam had not honoured Mr. Ratwatte by naming Jaffna as Ratwattepura. The two ceremonies were symbolic in that they represented the inner most feeling and ideas of the nature of the Sinhala Buddhist state that ingrained in the Sinhala Buddhist leaders.

 To many Tamils those two ceremonies symbolised the separation of Sri Lanka from Tamil Eelam.

The overwhelming reaction of the Tamils in and out of Sri Lanka in support of the LTTE and against the possibility of proscription of the LTTE by the United Kingdom demonstrates their choice as to who should represent them in negotiation with the Sri Lankan government.

In my visits to many places in the NorthEast, my assessment was that about 80% of the Tamil people considered the LTTE as the only organisation that could negotiate on their behalf and be responsible for corruptionless reconstruction of the Northeast. I have stated my observations both nationally and internationally.

The fact that the students who continue to suffer under the hands of the government educationally, employment wise and under the hands of the armed forces physically and emotionally have now risen to the forefront to demonstrate and be counted is a positive new force to move the case of the Tamils to the Sinhala and the international communities.

In the euphoria stemming from the possibility of a solution with the mediation of Norway, we need to remind ourselves that great minds like Chelvanayagam and Nadesan, and later Ponnambalam, Sunderalingam and others could not change the fundamental frame of reference and the mindset of the Sinhala Buddhist leaders. Twenty years of armed struggle under the leadership of a great mind and a great warrior has not shifted the Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalist position substantially. However, the rights of the Tamil people and our right to self-determination is now debated in the international arena and is being accepted by many key governments and institutions.

Is there a solution within the Thimpu Principles and within the unwritten principles represented in the symbols - the national flag and the national symbol? A compromise principle acceptable to both communities will be hard to impossible to mould.

Based on the position of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Mahanayakas it is certain that if at all any flag is unfurled other than the current flag on the Pattiriuppuwa, it will only be the Lion Flag without the strips.

In the event that a well-designed flag, symbolising the Middle Path between the Tamil and the Sinhala Buddhist positions, cannot be agreed upon by both the LTTE, as the representative of the Tamil people, and the Government, the international community should enforce a separation to maintain peace in the Island and in the region.

After all, the two communities have, since 1948, symbolically in their minds, become two separate entities of their own volition.

Why would anyone want the Tamils to declare that they do not want to separate, when it is the Sinhalese who wanted them outside their borders in the first place and continue to do so.