Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism

by S.J.Emmanuel

1. Ressurgence of Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism

( February 13, 2015, Geneva, Sri Lanka Guardian) Under 450 years of successive colonialism, it was the majority Sinhala people and their Buddhist religion suffered most and were greatly disadvantaged. In comparison to those who followed the religion and life-style of the colonial masters, the Sinhala Buddhists had less of religious freedom, education and social welfare. Hence with the dawn of Independence for the island in 1948, a combined resurgence of Sinhala Nationalism and Buddhists Revivalism, was justified as necessary and important. All the people of the country wholeheartedly wished for such resurgence and revivalism and none expressed any opposition to it.

Even today no one will question the right and privileges of a people and religion which have been identified with this island for more than two thousand years. The people, their language, culture and history have been enriched by the religion they embraced. Similarly the religion that flourished in Sri Lanka has been characterized and enriched by the rich heritage of the Sinhala people. What came to be evolved later as Sinhala Buddhism, distinct from other forms of Buddhism found in other Asian countries, definitely has a unique value and a motive force in determining the destiny of this island. This is well understood and recognized by all the non-Sinhala-Buddhists of the country.

The claim that the Singhalese people and Buddhist religion must be honored as the original or the earliest on the island is well understood and recognized by all the people who are neither Singhalese nor Buddhists.

2. Historical myths in support of exclusive claims

Unfortunately this movement for resurgence and revivalism was motivated and guided in ways contrary to historical truths and violating the rights of others living on that island for many centuries.

Firstly the claims of the majority for a privileged place for the race and religion in the island were linked to an exclusive role as protectors and custodians of the island and of religion as suggested only from a text of a 6th.century Mahavamsa Chronicle. According to K.M.D.Silva, an acknowledged objective Sinhala historian of our times these chronicles „ were the work of bhikkhus and naturally enough, were permeated by a strong religious bias, and encrusted with miracle and invention. The central theme was the historic role of the island as a bulwark of Buddhist civilization, and in a deliberate attempt to underline this, it contrives to synchronise the advent of Vijaya with the parinibbana (the passing away) of the Buddha“(italics mine)

The relevant and key text from the chronicles as translated by him:
‘When the Guide of the World, having accomplished the salvation of the whole world and reached the utmost state of blissful rest, was lying on the bed of his nibbana in the midst of the great assembly of gods, he the great Sage, the greatest of those who have speech, spoke to Sakka who stood near him: ‘Vijaya, son of King Sihabahu, is come to Lanka from the Country of Lala together with 700 followers. In Lanka, 0 Lord of gods, will my religion be established, therefore, carefully protect him with his followers and Lanka.’

Silva commenting further notes „This was to become in time the most powerful of the historical myths of the Singhalese and the basis of their conception of themselves as the chosen guardians of Buddhism, and of Sri Lanka itself as ‘a place of special sanctity for the Buddhist religion’ This intimate connection between the land, the ,race’ and the Buddhist faith foreshadowed the intermingling of religion and national identity which has always had the most profound influence on the Singhalese.“ ( A History of Sri Lanka, p.4, italics mine)

In the post-Independence Resurgence of Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism, this conception has deepened and given rise to a „Mahavamsa mentality“ which overlooks facts of history and the post-colonial changes in ground realities.

Secondly an arrogant exclusivism got embedded in their mentality to discriminate and disadvantage other peoples and the religions. And this was used by Sinhala Buddhist politicians for their ascendancy to power. They legalized discriminations against the non-Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinists by changing constitutions and passing laws to get the extremists into their vote-constituency. But their cheap politics paved the way for the long drawn out ethnic conflict and still continue to ruin majority-minority relations and obstruct any reasonable solution of the national problem.

Further with the growth of a Mahavamsa mentality, the multi ethnic and multi religious character of the Sri Lankan population, which had the potential to build up a unity in diversity and flourish as a model for people of diverse ethnicity and religions, was lost for ever.

3. Political vision influenced by a Mahavamsa-mentality

Analysing the root cause of our failure to build a unity in diversity and the consequent ethnic conflict, it becomes clear that a well intended ethnic nationalism and religious revivalism of the majority have been misused by religious fanatics and political extremists. By promoting the exclusivism of the Mahavamsa mentality they found justification for their narrow and selfish aspirations, namely discriminating against non-Singhalese and non-Buddhists.

Prior to colonialism of the 16th. century, when all the Singhalese were Buddhists and all the Tamils were Hindus, there were two Sinhala Kingdoms and a Tamil kingdom. The differences in race and religion did not create problem within kingdoms. But later when the people of Sri Lanka gradually came under successive colonialism, the ethnic and religious composition of the island underwent changes. It became a multi ethnic multi religious population. This change in the religious and ethnic composition of the people inhabiting the island should have been taken as an irreversible ground reality. But the majority Sinhala Buddhists, overlooked the changes which have overtaken the country during 450 years of colonialism and pursued a nationalism and a revivalism based on the exclusivism of the Mahavamsa chronicle.

With ethnic and religious fervour, the majority justly wanted a revival and a resurgence of their nationality and religion. As in all renewals and resurgence, religious motivations play an important role as motor. In the case of the Singhalese, whose majority were followers of Buddhism – their religion could have been a motivating force for renewal and resurgence.

But unfortunately, the Sinhala politicians found it useful to whip up an emotional nationalism by presenting the Mahavamsa chronicle as a true history of the island. They linked Buddhism in Sri Lanka to the Sinhala people and allowed this chronicle history to play a more important role in shaping their Buddhism as Sinhala Buddhism uniquely linked to the whole island and people.

This view spread and sank into the mind-set which claims the island as an island exclusively for the preservation and growth of a unique Sinhala Buddhism. Further Politicians motivated by this mind-set, misused this claim against the interests of the non-Sinhala and non-Buddhists.

4. State-aided Sinhala Colonisation of Tamil areas

It is true that the majority Singhalese have no objection to others living in their midst on any part of the island as long as they accept that the Singhalese are the true owners and primary citizens of this island. The Tamils who inhabited the Northeast of the island for a long time and gradually during the colonial times moved to the South, especially Colombo, for employment and commerce, bought properties and settled down in the South. Some Singhalese too settled in the arid North for commercial motives. All these went on peacefully under the colonial master.

But with advent of Independence in 1948, this scenario changed for the worse. The Government of the majority after depriving the Estate-Tamils of their citizenship launched state-aided colonization for the Singhalese in the traditionally Tamil areas of the North and East. Tamil families were ejected from their settlements and Singhalese brought in from the South were helped by the State to settle down. this was a hidden plan to reduce the parliamentary representation of the Tamils and change the demography of the North and East in favour of the Singhalese.

Ownership of land, on the basis of first come first served, has been a right of the peoples over many centuries ago and this right has been changing through wars, victories and defeats until a system of government took over the reins and legalized the handling of ownership. It is an anachronism to argue that the whole island of Sri Lanka belongs only to one people called the Singhalese and others are to be reckoned as „tenants“ or „creepers“ as claimed by President Dingiri Banda Wijetunge. Equally wrong is for the Tamils or Muslims or Tamils of recent Indian origin to claim exclusively a particular area as entirely theirs. If at all a region is claimed as traditionally inhabited by a people, it must not close its doors to other people coming freely and settling down.

5. Re-educating the masses about false Nationalism

But the post-colonial path taken by the two major political parties of the south made use of this extreme form of Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism for their political adventurism and prevented the masses from even understanding political structures such as federalism which were proposed to keep the island united as a multi ethnic and multi religious reality. Because the proposals came from the Tamils of Northeast, they were presented as poisonous and dangerous to the majority people, their religion and their land.

A series of mob and state terrors campaigns aimed at the Tamils followed by a 20 years of war have been the price paid so far for the wrong policies followed by the politicians and believed by the people. It is only after such a heavy price in life and property has been paid, that a genuine effort is attempted with the help of the international community to reach out for a peaceful and viable political structure for the island. But here too, the corollaries flowing from Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism impinge heavily on the vital questions to be answered for a resolution of the ethnic conflict and remain the biggest obstacle for any peaceful solution.

Unless and until the political parties of the South have the sincerity and the courage to own up to their past mistakes and take upon themselves the responsibility of re-educating the masses about the basis for a viable and peaceful solution of the ethnic problem, we have no hope for the future. Their job is made more difficult by the resurgence of Marxist radicalism and Buddhist nationalism.

6. Sinhala Radicalism and Nationalism threaten the future

There is no sign of the major Sinhala parties courageously taking up the responsibility of educating the masses about the whole truth of the national question. Though under pressure the UNP and the SLFP speak to the international donors about devolution of power to the Tamils, but have openly never campaigned for any federal form of government that would accommodate a multi-ethnic multireligious population in Sri Lanka. They still vie for power using their opposition to Tamil claims as criteria. The minimum they give to the Tamils the better for their political success. There is no positive national perspective motivating their propaganda. The southern masses are still asked to vote into power the party that can “protect the country’’ from “Tamil separatism and terrorism’’. Pressure is needed from within and without the island to make them revise their exclusive radicalism directed against the Tamils.

With the Cease Fire coming into operation and the major parties started opening themselves a little to devolution of power, the old radical party – the Janatha Vimukthi Perumuna (JVP) and the birth of a new Janata Hela Urumaya(JHU) – have raised their heads in opposing a peaceful settlement with the Tamils. The success of the JVP and the JHU at the 2004 general election brings in a two-way check on the traditional UNP and the SLFP. The historic entry of Buddhist clergy as a political party into Parliament to promote expressly Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism and keep a check on any compromise with the Tamils will make more difficult a peaceful resolution of the ethnic conflict. And the efforts of the anti-Tamil JVP to overtake power from the SLFP spells more disaster for a multiethnic and multireligious Sri Lanka. Thus even the recent openness shown by the SLFP and the UNP towards finding a political solution is threatened by the resurgence of Buddhist Extremism and Sinhala Left Radicalism. May Lord Buddha save Sri Lanka from committing a national suicide!