Southeast Asia finds Sri Lanka


Malay soldiers under
Dutch rule

The Sri Lankan Malays known locally as Ja Minissu (people from Java), originated in Southeast Asia. Their early ancestors came to the country when the island and Indonesia were Dutch colonies. However, references in the Chulawamsa (a historical record, written in the Pāli language, covering the period in Sri Lankan history from the 4th century to 1815) spoke about an invasion by a Malay King which makes it possible that the Malays had contacts with Sri Lanka earlier than the Dutch period. References to Malays in other historical works of the Sinhalese in the 13th and 14th centuries AD about Malay seamen and soldiers in the Sinhalese army suggest that there were Malays in the island before the Dutch and British colonial rule.

The Malay community today is a distinct ethnic group. Many of them were soldiers posted by the Dutch as garrison troops on the island. Other immigrants were members of noble houses and criminals from the Dutch East Indies who were exiled to the island. Since they came from the Malay Archipelago, Sri Lankan Malays are Muslim. Within their communities they speak a unique blend of SinhalaTamil and Malay. The present population of Sri Lankan Malays accounts for roughly 5% of the Moor (Muslim) population, which is about 10% of the whole population of Sri Lanka. Except for slight changes in numbers, the percentage of the Malay population has remained unchanged. One third of them live in Colombo, others are scattered out in several districts in the country. Among them, the largest number are found in southern Sri Lanka.

Malaysia, Ceylon and the British

Sri Lankan Malays

Sri Lankan Malays c1890
Courtesy: Images of Ceylon

During British times, Malays came from the Malay Peninsula when both Malaysia and Ceylon were part of the British Empire. They became a permanent source of military manpower in a Malay Corps, serving the British in the island.  The Malay Corps were admitted into the King’s service on 23 April 1801 forming a Malay Regiment for the first time outside the Malay Peninsula. Malays later became the first Asians to hold commissions from the British Sovereign.

Many Sri Lankan Malays have been celebrated as prominent citizens. Among them, Dr. T. B. Jayah was one of the most prominent. He was an educationist and a political visionary. Being a Malay Muslim, he strove for freedom of all communities. Known as a leader who put his country before community, it was his thesis that became a cornerstone of the present governance of ‘One Nation One Country’.