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Tamilnation > Tamilnation Library> Eelam Section > Sinhala Buddhist Nationalist Ideology: Implications for Politics and Conflict Resolution in Sri Lanka - Neil Devotta
TAMIL NATION LIBRARY: Eelam
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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.
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.
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
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.
The 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 the primordial). Sinhala Buddhist supremacy is the dark side of democracy in Sri Lanka.
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 -
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."
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.
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 -
The political reality is that which Paul Sieghart Q.C. adverted to in 1984 -
The political reality is also that which Lee Kuan Yew adverted to in 1998 -
Any meaningful attempt to resolve the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka will need to pay more careful attention to that which Professor Margaret Moore said in 2001 -
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 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.
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: