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  • Sinhala Buddhist Nationalist Ideology: Implications for Politics and Conflict Resolution in Sri Lanka - Neil Devotta
    East West Centre, Washington Publication, 2007
    [see also Comment by Nadesan Satyendra]

[Neil DeVotta is Associate Professor of Political Science at Hartwick College and Visiting Associate Professor in the Departments of Asian Studies and Government at the University of Texas at Austin during 2007-08. He can be contacted at devottan@hartwick.edu .]

[See also - 1. From ethnic outbidding to ethnic conflict: the institutional bases for Sri Lanka's separatist war  -  Neil Devotta in the Journal of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism  Vol. 11(1), 2005, 141-159 2. Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka - Neil Devotta, Political Science Department, Hartwick College, Oneonta, NY 13820, USA ]


Full Text in PDF

From the Back Cover -

This study argues that political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism have contributed to a nationalist ideology that has been used to expand and perpetuate Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy within a unitary Sri Lankan state; create laws, rules, and structures that institutionalize such supremacy; and attack those who disagree with this agenda as enemies of the state. The nationalist ideology is influenced by Sinhalese Buddhist mytho-history that was deployed by monks and politicians in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries to assert that Sri Lanka is the designated sanctuary for Theravada Buddhism, belongs to Sinhalese Buddhists, and Tamils and others live there only due to Sinhalese Buddhist sufferance. This ideology has enabled majority super-ordination, minority subordination, and a separatist war waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The study suggests both LTTE terrorism and the ethnocentric nature of the Sri Lankan state, which resorts to its own forms of terrorism when fighting the civil war, need to be overcome if the island is to become a liberal democracy.

The present government of President Mahinda Rajapakse is the first to fully embrace the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology, suggesting that a political solution to Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict is unlikely. Meaningful devolution of power, whereby Tamils could coalesce with their ethnic counterparts amidst equality and self-respect, is not in the offing. A solution along federal lines is especially unlikely.

Instead, continued war and even attacks on Christians and Muslims seem to be in store for Sri Lanka as the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology is further consolidated. The study recommends that the international community adopt a more proactive stance in promoting a plural state and society in Sri Lanka. In addition to countering the terrorist methods employed by the LTTE, the international community should initiate and support measures to protect fundamental civil liberties and human rights of Sri Lanka's ethnic and religious minority communities.


Executive Summary

Buddhism preaches tolerance and pacifism. However, many of its adherents among the majority Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka have resorted to ethnocentrism and militarism. Various arguments have been advanced to explain this paradox, although most objective observers agree that political Buddhism, which emphasizes politics over Buddhist values, and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism stoked ethnocentrism and militarism.

This study argues that they have also contributed to a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology that is now fully embedded and institutionalized as state policy. A fundamental tenet of that nationalist ideology is the belief that Sri Lanka is the island of the Sinhalese, who in turn are ennobled to preserve and propagate Buddhism. The ideology privileges Sinhalese Buddhist superordination, justifies subjugation of minorities, and suggests that those belonging to other ethnoreligious communities live in Sri Lanka only due to Sinhalese Buddhist sufferance.

The study disaggregates the nationalist ideology by evaluating five controversial issues in contemporary Sri Lankan society: (1) the claim that Sri Lanka is a country exclusively for Sinhalese Buddhists; (2) sentiment opposed to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); (3) the separatist struggle waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); (4) the anti-Christian milieu; and (5) population growth and minority emigration. Each contentious issue represents a strand servicing the extant nationalist ideology. Adherents to this ideology insist on expanding and perpetuating Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy within a unitary state; creating laws, rules, and structures that institutionalize such supremacy; and attacking as enemies of the state those who disagree with this agenda.

Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and Tamil nationalism are both reactive phenomena: The Buddhists retaliated against colonial maladministration and discrimination against Buddhism beginning in the late nineteenth century, and thereafter deftly utilized Sinhalese Buddhist mytho-history to mobilize and differentiate themselves from others. Upon independence Sinhalese Buddhist elites instituted discriminatory linguistic, educational, and economic policies.

These policies prompted Tamils to rise up against the state and led to a nearly quarter-century civil war between the government and LTTE, which claims dubiously to be the Tamils' sole representative.

The LTTE has resorted to terrorist tactics as part of its separatist struggle and its intransigence is one reason Sri Lanka has failed to resolve the ethnic conflict. However, the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology is also a major reason peace has not been achieved. LTTE intransigence and the ethnocentric nature of the Sri Lankan state, which resorts to its own forms of terrorism when fighting the civil war, must both be overcome if the island is to become a liberal democracy.

Not all Buddhists are nationalists, yet the Buddhist nationalist ideology appears to be widely accepted. Increased support for politicians and political parties toeing a pro-Sinhalese Buddhist line, favoring a military solution to the ethnic conflict, and supporting maintenance of the unitary state structure all signify this broad acceptance.

That the majoritarian ethos propagated by the nationalist ideology has taken hold is reflected in the decline of secularism, the rise in anti-Christian violence, the cavalier disregard for minorities' human rights, the culture of impunity surrounding the military (which is 98 percent Sinhalese) when dealing with Tamils, attacks against the media and others critical of the government, and the renewed colonization efforts by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists in the Eastern Province.

The present government of President Mahinda Rajapakse is the first to embrace eagerly this insidious mindset, which is partly responsible for the 5,000-plus (mostly Tamils) killed and more than 215,000 newly displaced persons in the last twelve months alone. The government has manipulated the global war on terror to mask its human rights abuses and has targeted innocent Tamil civilians in its military campaigns.

The international community has castigated the government for widespread human rights violations, yet not a single member of the military or paramilitaries (including Tamil paramilitaries) has been charged for the numerous kidnappings, rapes, torture, and murders that have accompanied military operations. Most troubling, the Rajapakse government believes in a military solution to the civil war and, consequently, has frowned on devolution of power along provincial lines, which is widely advocated by moderate Tamils, civil society, and the international community.

The institutionalization of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology means that a political solution to Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict is unlikely; meaningful devolution, whereby Sri Lanka's Tamils could coalesce with their ethnic counterparts and gain equality and self-respect, is also not in the offing—irrespective of how the conflict ends or the preferences of the international community. A solution along federal lines is especially unlikely. On the contrary, the Sri Lankan state, especially under the present government, will continue to seek a military solution and perpetuate the extant unitary structure. Irrespective of when the civil war ends, even Tamils who have clamored for autonomy within a united Sri Lanka are bound to be disappointed.

The analysis further suggests that other minorities (e.g., Christians and Muslims) also could come under attack as the nationalist ideology becomes further consolidated. The recent well calibrated anti-Christian violence and the intermittent Buddhist-Muslim clashes hint of the dangers ahead. Together, these factors bode ill for the thousands of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims who have been directly affected by the civil war and for an island that, notwithstanding nearly a quarter century of conflict, has most of the social attributes to become a successful democracy.

The study recommends that the international community advocate and foster the development of a plural state and society in Sri Lanka that can be home to all ethnic and religious communities. It should more forcefully utilize diplomacy, aid, and trade mechanisms to ensure all religious groups in Sri Lanka are dealt with equitably and none is discriminated against. Sri Lanka's impressive Buddhist heritage must be preserved, but this does not have to be at the expense of religious freedom and security for Hindus, Muslims, and Christians of all denominations.

While continuing to oppose the terrorist methods employed by the LTTE and the forcible recruitment of children, the international community should also link all military aid to the Sri Lankan government to human rights practices. Furthermore, international human rights monitors should be stationed in Sri Lanka to ensure minorities are protected.


Comment by Nadesan Satyendra

Mr.Neil Devotta's paper is an useful addition to the literature on the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka.

He is right to conclude that

"...political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism have contributed to a nationalist ideology that has been used to expand and perpetuate Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy within a unitary Sri Lankan state; create laws, rules, and structures that institutionalize such supremacy; and attack those who disagree with this agenda as enemies of the state."

However his view that "the present government of President Mahinda Rajapakse is the first to fully embrace the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology " is open to question.

MonkThe record shows that all Sinhala governments from D.S.Senanayake to Dudley Senanayake to  S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike to Srimavo Bandaranaike to J.R.Jayawardene to Chandrika Kumaratunga have always fully embraced the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology. Indeed, that after all is the thrust of Mr.Devotta's own conclusion "that political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism have contributed to a nationalist ideology that has been used to expand and perpetuate Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy." 

Mr.Devotta's own analysis shows that the ideology of  'Sinhala Buddhist supremacy' is not a 'party' matter but a reflection of the primordial in the Sinhala Buddhist psyche - a primordial to which Sinhala political parties have appealed and continue to appeal  in their search for power (and in that way reinforce). Sinhala Buddhist supremacy is the dark side of democracy in Sri Lanka.

Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism has been institutionalised in Sri Lanka and today it has become more powerful than the politicians themselves.This is the political reality that those who are aware of the Sri Lankan situation are well aware of. This Sinhala chauvinism which was nurtured by Sinhala politicians for their electoral advantage, has grown into a Frankenstein monster which now has the power to destroy and make politicians. This we understand very well..." Sathasivam Krishnakumar, June, 1991

Mr.Devotta suggests that both 'LTTE intransigence' and the 'ethnocentric nature of the Sri Lankan state' have contributed to the failure to resolve the conflict. In trying to straddle between the LTTE and the Sinhala Buddhist state Mr.Devotta falls between two stools.

On the one hand, he concludes that -

"...The institutionalization of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology means that a political solution to Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict is unlikely; meaningful devolution, whereby Sri Lanka's Tamils could coalesce with their ethnic counterparts and gain equality and self-respect, is also not in the offing—irrespective of how the conflict ends or the preferences of the international community. A solution along federal lines is especially unlikely. On the contrary, the Sri Lankan state, especially under the present government, will continue to seek a military solution and perpetuate the extant unitary structure. Irrespective of when the civil war ends, even Tamils who have clamored for autonomy within a united Sri Lanka are bound to be disappointed..."

On the other hand Mr.Devotta says that 'LTTE intransigence' has contributed to the failure to resolve the conflict. 'LTTE intransigence' if it be 'intransigence', is after all the intransigence of a people who have refused to submit to oppressive alien Sinhala rule. And the struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam was not created by the LTTE but arose as a response to "a nationalist ideology that has been used to expand and perpetuate Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy."

"Throughout the ages the Sinhalese and Tamils in the country lived as distinct sovereign people till they were brought under foreign domination... We have for the last 25 years made every effort to secure our political rights on the basis of equality with the Sinhalese in a united Ceylon. It is a regrettable fact that successive Sinhalese governments have used the power that flows from independence to deny us our fundamental rights and reduce us to the position of a subject people. These governments have been able to do so only by using against the Tamils the sovereignty common to the Sinhalese and the Tamils. I wish to announce to my people and to the country that I consider the verdict at this election as a mandate that the Tamil Eelam nation should exercise the sovereignty already vested in the Tamil people and become free." Statement by S.J.V.Chelvanayakam Q.C. M.P.  Gandhian leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front, 7 February 1975

One result of labelling the determined will of the people of Tamil Eelam to be free from alien Sinhala rule as  'intransigence', is that the recommendation that Mr.Devotta makes for the resolution of the conflict is fatally flawed.

He recommends that "the international community advocate and foster the development of a plural state and society in Sri Lanka that can be home to all ethnic and religious communities."  Mr.Devotta does not say how a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology which has been institutionalised in the Sinhala body politic and which has taken firm root from the days of Dutugemenu may be uprooted without destroying the Sinhala nation itself - a Sinhala nation which today seeks to masquerade as a 'civic, multi ethnic, Sri Lankan' nation. We need to recognise that multi ethnic plural societies cannot be created by dictat or made to order.

"...So-called civic nations like France, Canada, and the United States may have become relatively open societies that offer citizenship rights to all peoples, but they did not start out that way. In each case, they began with restricted core communities - be they white or Catholic or British or European - and expanded outward. As a result, when we urge nationalists, say in Bosnia or Kosovo, to follow our example and found nations solely on the basis of shared political principles, we are in fact urging them to do something that we never did ourselves..." The Myth of Civic Nationalism - Bernard Yack, July 2000 (see also generally - Civic Nationalism & Ethno Nationalism)

The mantra of a 'multi ethnic plural society' has a nice meditative ring to it. It conjures up the soothing vision of a society where all ethnic groups are equal and a plurality of view points is encouraged and secured. But mantras directed to resolve an armed political conflict, must fit the political reality on the ground - and not the other way round.

The political reality in the island of SriLanka is that which Tarzie Vittachi adverted to almost 50 years ago -

"What are we left with (in 1958)? A nation in ruins, some grim lessons which we cannot afford to forget and a momentous question: Have the Sinhalese and Tamils reached the parting of ways?" Tarzie Vittachi: Emergency 1958 - The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots, Andre Deutsch, London 1958

The political reality is that which Paul Sieghart Q.C. adverted to in 1984

 "... Communal riots in which Tamils are killed, maimed, robbed and rendered homeless are no longer isolated episodes; they are beginning to become a pernicious habit." Paul Sieghart Q.C  Report of a Mission to Sri Lanka on behalf of the International Commission of Jurists and its British Section, Justice, March 1984

The political reality is also that which Lee Kuan Yew adverted to in 1998 -

"..One-man one-vote led to the domination of the Sinhalese majority over the minority Tamils who were the active and intelligent fellows who worked hard and got themselves penalised. And English was out... Sinhalese was in. They got quotas in two universities ... And the country will never be put together again."

And, any meaningful attempt to resolve the conflict in the island will need to pay more careful attention to that which Professor Margaret Moore said in 2001 -

"...The problem in nationally divided societies is that the different groups have different political identities, and, in cases where the identities are mutually exclusive (not nested), these groups see themselves as forming distinct political communities. In this situation, the options available to represent these distinct identities are very limited, because any solution at the state level is inclined to be biased in favour of one kind of identity over another. That is to say, if the minority group seeks to be self-governing, or to secede from the larger state, increased representation at the centre will not be satisfactory. The problem in this case is that the group does not identify with the centre, or want to be part of that political community...One conclusion that can be drawn is that, in some cases, secession/partition of the two communities, where that option is available, is the best outcome overall. .."

But so long as the Sinhala people believe that they can conquer the Tamil homeland and rule a people against their will (perhaps through quislings and collaborators), so long will they fail to see the need to talk to the Tamil people on equal terms. So long also will they fail to see the need to recognise the existence of the Tamil people, as a people, with a homeland and with the right to freely choose their political status. So long also will they fail to see the need to structure a polity where two nations may associate with each other in freedom. So long also will they fail to see the force of reason in that which 17 non governmental organisations told the UN Commission on Human Rights at its 50th Sessions in February 1994:

'' There is a need to recognise that the deep divisions between the Sri Lanka government and the Tamil people cannot be resolved by the use of force against Tamil resistance. The Tamil population in the North and East of the island, who have lived from ancient times within relatively well defined geographical boundaries in the north and east of the island, share an ancient heritage, a vibrant culture, and a living language which traces its origins to more than 2500 years ago.

...Before the advent of the British ..., separate kingdoms existed for the Tamil areas and for the Sinhala areas in the island. The Tamil people and the Sinhala people were brought within the confines of one state for the first time by the British in 1833. After the departure of the British in 1948, an alien Sinhala people speaking a language different to that of the Tamils and claiming a separate and distinct heritage has persistently denied the rights and fundamental freedoms of the Tamil people. ..

It is ...our view that the Secretary General should consider invoking his good offices with the aim of contributing to the establishment of peace in the island of Sri Lanka through respect for the existence of the Tamil homeland in the NorthEast of the island of Sri Lanka and recognition for the right of the Tamil people to freely determine their political status.''

There is also another matter. In making his appeal to the international community to 'forcefully utilize diplomacy, aid, and trade mechanisms', to secure a 'multi ethnic plural society' in the island,  Mr.Devotta fails to address the very real and ever present (and differing) strategic interests of the international community itself.

"...We cannot ostrich like bury our collective heads in the sand - and, to mix the metaphor, ignore the elephant in the room. Whilst the goal of securing peace through justice is loudly proclaimed by the international actors, it is real politick that leads them to deny the justice of the Tamil Eelam struggle for freedom from alien Sinhala rule. The harsh reality is that on the one hand international actors are concerned to use the opportunity of the conflict in the island to advance each of their own strategic interests - and on the other hand, Sri Lanka seeks to use the political space created by the geo strategic triangle of US-India-China in the Indian Ocean region, to buy the support of all three  for the continued rule of the people of Tamil Eelam by a permanent Sinhala majority within the confines of  one state..." International Dimensions  of the Conflict in Sri Lanka - Nadesan Satyendra,  2 October 2007

As for the Tamil people, many will be compelled to agree with the Tamil Guardian editorial of 9 November 2007  titled 'No Choice' which rightly pointed out:  

"..For all the noise about human rights (and much of that has dissipated now), the Sri Lankan state actually wants for nothing.Ironically, the more the international community is convinced the LTTE can be defeated, the freer the hand it will have....
 


U.S. Ambassador Robert O. Blake, Jr. and Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy at the 8 November 2007 ceremony in Trincomalee to hand over military assistance.

...Let there be no mistake: irrespective of the extent of the casualties or suffering the Sinhala military inflicts on Tamil civilians, the international community will not restrain the state. Not, that is, until the military is checked on the battlefield by the LTTE's counter-violence. If the state fails to defeat the LTTE then it will be compelled to negotiate with the Tamils. If it wins, we are lost. But, then, it was ever thus. "

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