17 June, 2024


Ceylon’s Sinhalese Buddhists & America’s White Supremacists

By Vishwamithra

“What lies behind us, and what lies before us, are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

One has a civilization of more than two thousand five hundred years; the other, as Oscar Wilde said, has no civilization. In the year 1293, Marco Polo sailed homeward bound from China, pausing at Ceylon along the way; he wrote thus: “On leaving the island of Andaman and steering for 1,000 miles a little South of West, the traveler reaches the island of Ceylon. This, for its actual size, is better circumstanced than any other island in the world.” 

Nevertheless, the dissimilarities are more pronounced than the similarities between the two countries. One might wonder, what an absurd attempt to compare America to Ceylon! Yet what’s apparent and still appealing to human curiosity in this twenty first century is breathtakingly remarkable. At the same time when considering the preposterous religious-racial beliefs on the one hand and their consumption of common sense on the other, the two countries and their respective sociopolitical stances deserve critical analysis.

Majority in a minority thinking frame

Majorities of both, the United States of America and Ceylon, suffer from an incorrigible complex which usually is attributed to minorities in the context of relative numbers. An overwhelming seventy five percent (75%) of the American population is white; fourteen percent (14%) is African American while six percent (6%) represents Asian (all Asians counted as one single grouping). 

In Sri Lanka, Seventy five percent (75%) is Sinhalese while the Tamil population, both Sri Lankan and Indian Tamil, constitute a mere fifteen percent (15%). The similarity is so stark and clear. But how each majority community, represented by a specific political coalition, is responding to emerging global realities? How and why is the majority feeling so insecure that the political party that is burning ethno-religious flames in each case is elected without much ado? 

Human condition is such; a well-crafted appeal to its base instincts could be irresistible. Yet a minority of the human population may well consist of those whose base instincts are vulnerable and ready to be seduced by those appeals. An educated mind might react to these entreaties in a totally different fashion, yet find it hard to set aside the base instincts at the beginning of the process. In a situation of riots and mayhem, all intellectual sentries may run away leaving a hitherto-armored mind helpless and waiting to be exploited in a very negative way. A guarded and cautious approach, more often than not, may not be in the realm of occurrence.

It is to this mindset that a shrewd and crafty politician would make his appeal. Majority always seeks refuge in numbers and they justify their dominance in the very numbers they enjoy when confronted with nuanced aspects of human rights, fundamental beliefs in equality of treatment to all and every segment of all members in a community they dwell in. It is a natural phenomenon that does appeal to an educated and intelligent mind. Yet when faced with defining moments in history, man seldom chooses to ignore the unwise and momentary allurements to his base instincts.  

Ceylon, even though, could boast about a civilization, which is more than two millennia-old, founded on Buddhism, a religion whose fundamental principle is Ahimsa (non-violence), has had her darkest moments when confronted by either Tamils or Muslims. She resorted to the most brazen and abject forms of violence. These violent acts so executed by the average Sinhalese Buddhist have been led by the Maha Sanga, an integral part of society that had been in search of a more prominent place in shaping and introducing state policy on non-financial matters. Sanga’s intervention in state policymaking has not only damaged the country’s image as a secular constitution-centered governance-nation, it has time and time again contributed towards sharpening of an extreme and fringe-laden mindset. Macabre riots in 1983 and utterances and chaos created by Galagoda Atthe Gnanasara are mere reflections of that mindset. 

Furthermore, it has helped one political party, namely the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), to secure success at the elections. Average Lankan, especially Sinhalese Buddhist, could be downright vulnerable to the vagaries of political propaganda based on religious principles. These religious and ethnic beliefs are totally based on the Mahāvaṃsa, The Great Chronicle) the original author of which is presumed to be Mahānāma Thero, a Buddhist Monk. 

Chronicles of Sri Lanka

‘The substantive material begins with the immigration of Prince Vijaya from India with his retinue and continues until the reign of King Mahasena, recounting wars, succession disputes, the building of Stupas and reliquaries, and other notable incidents. An extensive chronicle of the war between the Sinhala King Dutthagamani and Tamil invader, and later king, Elara (861 verses in the Mahāvaṃsa compared with 13 verses in the Dipavamsa) may represent the incorporation of a popular epic from the vernacular tradition.

While much of the contents of the Mahāvaṃsa is derived from expansions of the material found in the Dipavamsa, several passages specifically dealing with the Abhayagiri Vihara are omitted, suggesting that the Mahāvaṃsa was more specifically associated with the Mahavihara’. (Source: Wikipedia).

During the times of our Kings, in addition to his main Amathis (the Cabinet in modern day terms), Maha Sanga was the primary advisor to the throne and played an exclusive part in monarchical decisions. The other civilian and military leaders of the then governance machinery were essentially secondary. As a matter of fact, Maha Sanga formed the elite of the elites during these times in Lankan history. This influence and its storied journey throughout the centuries had not diminished until the country was invaded firstly by the Portuguese then followed by the Dutch and the British.

With the introduction of the Soulbury Constitution which was fundamentally secular in veneer and character and democratic and liberal in details, the government machinery continued until 1972 as a developing liberal democracy with.    

Asanga Welikala in his book titled ‘The Failure of Jennings’ Constitutional Experiment in Ceylon’ explains thus: ‘In sum, therefore, Section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution was a classic representation of ‘manner and form’ entrenchment, which envisaged a general constitutional prohibition on ordinary legislation having the effect of discriminating, whether to impose a disability or to confer a privilege, on any community or religion (both terms being left undefined), subject to the review of the courts, unless such legislation is passed as an amendment to the constitution by the supra-majority of two-thirds of the members of the Lower House and certified by the Speaker that the due procedure has been followed.’      

What happened precisely in 1970 was this. When the coalition formed by Sirimavo Bandaranaike, NM Perera and SA Wickramasinghe of the SLFP, LSSP and CP respectively were elected with a two thirds majority and with resounding endorsement of the Manifesto so presented to the people at the General Election campaign, it could be interpreted as a mandate to change the constitution in terms of the chapters and verses of the coalition manifesto. Out went the limitations presumed to be imposed by the majority on the minorities and in came a special status for Sinhalese-Buddhism.

The stranglehold on the country’s political culture both in terms of social advancement and the use of language and practice of religion by the majority Sinhalese Buddhists was not only made legitimate and legal, it was made an integral part of our constitution. This resulted after two and half decades of the Swabhasha policy of SWRD Bandaranaike. In other words, Sri Lanka became enslaved to Sinhalese-Buddhist majoritarianism. Whenever the question arose whether a choice had to be made between a Sinhalese Buddhist and a Tamil or a Muslim, the majority, whether they were educated, sophisticatedly elitist, the vote was for the Sinhalese Buddhist. This indeed is a cruel reality one has to face, whether it’s in ancient Ceylon or in the twenty first century.

Catapulting us back to the far west, in America today, when Donald Trump announced his candidacy for Presidency in 2016, his slogan was ‘Make America Great Again’. It was a loaded slogan, loaded with a lot of appeal and latent messaging towards the Whites of America. Although Trump’s appeal was basically against the ‘Browns’ (Hispanic communities) at the time, his earlier behavior against African-Americans, which was well chronicled, managed to galvanize the fringe elements in American landscape towards his candidacy and the Republican Party.

As I wrote at the beginning of this column, Sri Lanka is a nation going 2500 years or more, America’ has hardly gone beyond 250 years. Her history is short but achievements as one cohesive nation is far too long even for a historian to pen down. However, a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde has the famous aesthete remarking that America is ‘the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between’. The latent salivation for white supremacy has been reborn under Donald Trump and the riots that Trump himself engineered on January 6, 2021 is ample testimony to such disgraceful conduct by quite a sizeable part of the white community and its justification or disregard as a merciless expression of a decadent mindset.

Two countries, geographically situated at the two extremes of the globe, one almost a continent and the other a tiny island are faced with the same problem with the same inherent characteristics and idiosyncrasies.  

Our appeal should be to those who are educated and yet idealistic: treat every human being as your brother, sister, father, mother of child. You won’t go wrong.

*The writer can be contacted at vishwamithra1984@gmail.com 

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Latest comments

  • 11

    Well laid out and written!! Noble ideals!!
    My thinking is that they as you claim of an existence of Similarities of a Continent and Island, would repeat Sri Lanka, in re-electing DJ, who was booted out in 2016, resulting in the Riots or Mayhem of 6th January 2016, Next Year!!
    if that doesn’t happen, then DJ would (may) Lose and there would be Riots as a consequence and untold misery!!
    they may not end up starving – as much it was predominantly grievous in SL but deliver a great blow to the Super power status of America in the minds of people at large!!?

  • 16

    Thanks for your rational analysis.
    Fear is an indication that we know we are weak inside.
    Weak people will resort to any means to hang on to any advantage we have.
    Instead of working hard and doing what is right, we have chosen to suppress those that are working hard using numbers.
    This is where democracy fails.

  • 11

    Although it’s a well written piece that sorta hits the nail ………. you miss out on a few things.

    Unlike Lanka’s landslide victories ……… a majority of Americans didn’t buy into the “doctrine” ………. Trump lost the popular vote both times. ……. The first time, the choice was between Hilary and Donald. People saw through the cynical opportunism of the Clintons and Hilary was a much despised figure. She was so sure of victory …… she didn’t even first campaign in some Democratic strongholds that later went to Donald – it was too late when she discovered the threat and started campaigning.

    Some areas of the country …….. are rife with the Republican Party’s gerrymandering ……. the true popular will/vote of the people has no chance of being counted.

    The Republican Party has a long history of race-baiting (and systematic breaking the law) – long before Donald appeared on the scene – starting with Ronald Regan in recent times – they learned from Nixon’s mistakes in Watergate and set it up much better to handle things, starting with the Iran-contra affair. The same lawbreaking and race-baiting continued under the 2 Bushes but it was more subtle and underhand.

    • 5


      Although Dick Chaney was one of the worst ……. his daughter Liz Chaney is playing holier-than-thou with Donald. ……. Like now, how the Lankan pols are playing holier-than-thou with ol’ Jerome …….. human-nature is just breathtaking.

      “The White alone population accounted for 204.3 million people and 61.6% of all people living in the United States.” ……. “Together with the 31.1 million people who identified as White in combination with another race group, such as Black or African American or Asian” ………. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/08/improved-race-ethnicity-measures-reveal-united-states-population-much-more-multiracial.html

      “treat every human being as your brother, sister, father, mother of child.”

      Lousy analogy! ……. I hate my entire family! ……… No wonder, I hate Native, SM, OC, RTF, Nathan, …………. the entire blooming lot.

      • 4

        But you’ve offered SM a free trip wherever he wants. Do you hate him less than the rest of us (or less than his wife hates him) or is there an ulterior motive?

        • 5


          I don’t have to like anyone (before Native gets ideas, “like” is a loaded word! :))) ) …… but I have a weakness for people – especially teachers/profs – who have stayed behind. I thought, after a lifetime of wallowing in everything English ……… he deserves to at least go and walk around in England: if that’s his wish.

          England is not the England of my schooldays. Many places are the same: changed unrecognizably ……. but some places have remained the same.

          • 4

            nimal fernando

            “I don’t have to like anyone (before Native gets ideas, “like” is a loaded word! :))) )”

            I am sure you would have met or heard of a few Devil’s Advocates.
            Are you saying ideas and rational arguments can be extracted from the words and phrases that are used to hide them?

  • 13

    There may be 2500 years of history but it is not Sinhalese Buddhist history as always inaccurately described. Buddhism only arrived 2300 years ago on the island. Prior to that the population most probably were primarily, semi-Tamil or other proto-Tamil/Dravidian-speaking Saivite Hindus, animists or ancestors or even demon worshippers. This is evidenced by the fice ancient Ishwarams dedication to Lord Siva along the coasts. North, west, south, east and north-west coast. The prehistoric Tamil Hindu site in deep south-east of the island Kathirkamam, in honour of the Tamil god Lord Murugan, was now deliberately converted to a Buddhist site and the name changed from Tamil Kathirkammam to Sinhalese Kataragama Sinhalese. The Sinhalese language only came into definite existence around 7AD, largely from the Semi and Proto Tamil/Dravidian-speaking Saivite and other types of worshippers especially the Dravidian Yakka population down south converting to Buddhism on a very large scale and corrupting their local semi or proto Tamil dialects and at times proper Tamil dialect with the Pali and Prakrit of Buddhism, gradually starting to create a new identity and language over the centuries from Tamil Saivites and others to Tamil Buddhist and then by 7 AD to Sinhalese Buddhists. So how can a Sinhalese Buddhist civilisation exist 2500 years ago, when the Sinhalese language and people only appeared around 7AD?

    • 13

      Yes, it was their ancestors who would have created this civilisation but then their identity was different, they were then Tamil Hindus and Buddhists, many of whom later became Sinhalese over the centuries. Your story is like someone stating, the prophet Moses took the ancient Israelites out of the Arab Islamic Republic of Egypt. Yes, it is the same place and people, however, they were not Arab or Islamic at that time, and that identity came thousands of years later. This is like many modern Malyalis, many of them not friendly towards Tamils, boast about the ancient Malayalam culture, civilization, and martial arts of Chera Nadu, completely and conveniently ignoring the fact that ancient Malayalam was the western Chera Tamil dialect, differently from modern Malayalam what is just a few centuries old and this ancient civilization that they are boasting about was a Tamil civilisation. When St. Thomas arrived in ancient Kerala, he arrived in ancient Tamil Chera Nadu and not in modern Malayalam-speaking Kerala, as many of them would love you to believe in. This sort of identity and language change did not occur in the north or east, even when a large part of the population at one time converted to Buddhism, as the Dravidian tribes living in these areas were largely Naga and wherever the essentially elite Naga predominated the ancient Tamil identity and language has prevailed to this date.

      • 12

        . Finally, Tamils are now only 15.4% now due to the racist ethnic cleansing, structural genocidal and marginalisation policies that had been carried out by all Sinhalese-led governments from the time of independence, starting from the making over a million Indian origin estate Tamils a people who had then lived on the island for over a 100 years at that time, earning most of its wealth, stateless soon after independence. Then they started on the indigenous Tamils from the north and east, denying them everything, higher education, government jobs, language use, stealing their land and stealing their history, and symbols and claiming them all as Sinhalese Buddhist destroying their places of worship to build Buddhist temples with impunity. Tamils were 26% at the time of independence and even in 1983 they were around 20% of the population now 15.4% within 75 years of independence. Sinhalese have increased from 66% from the time of independence to 75%. How come? This is due to chasing around 1 million Indigenous Tamils largely to the west, in the past 30-40 years never to return and another million Indian origin estate Tamil made stateless and most of them forcible deported to India, a strange land to them. If this is not deliberate calculated structural genocide and destruction of Tamil history, symbols and lands then what is it? The Canadian Prime Minister is correct.

    • 1

      A little knowledge is dangerous. It appears to be true that inhabitants of Lanka have migrated from India. Please take the time to explore Prof Raj Somadeva and other similar academics work, if you really want to know what it appears to be to date. Sinhala and Dravida, Chola, et. al. are so intertwined it is very difficult to separate the two races. Also keep in mind that Tamil is only a language spoken by many races of South India. These historical ‘stories’ depend on who is relating the ‘story’.

  • 5

    Nandi Jasen

    This is one of Vishwamitra’s best among many excellent columns. The truism of the comparison between visibly fast returning to a totally racist American society, thanks to Trump, and historically racist Sri Lanka apart, the critical role of the easily ignitable base instincts, which is the underpinnings of the column, should be pondered upon by thoughtful minority trying to find ways and means of building a society based on the core of Dhamma – Ahimsa. There lies the solution, one that is at arm’s length, yet a herculean task to reach! Vishwamitra’s timely reminder surely makes this column an outstanding one.

  • 9

    As always well analysed and written. The “Maha” Sangha is a disgrace. They stood against all the reasonable settlements to the ethnic issues like the B-C Pact. These would have solved the problems long ago. Now the Sinhala Buddhists find themselves difficult to crawl out of the Mahavamsa mud-hole into which they have descended. Buddhism, a religion of kindness, has become a weapon of hatred and oppression. Sinhala Only has meant that the poorer Sinhalese are without access to knowledge in the sciences. The children of their chauvinistic leaders like Solomon West Ridgway and the Borulugoda Lion studied in the West and then became leaders of the Sinhalayas whom they kept in darkness using the Buddhist monks. So, our story will go on without end only because the Sinhalayas seem to enjoy wallowing in the Mahavamsa mud-hole. The left movement was destroyed by NM and others for a couple of ministries.

  • 0

    To disprove your claim, that the united Front had a mandate in 1970 to bring in a new Constitution, I present the General Election official results, extracted from the declared results.

    The General Election Results-1970
    United Front.
    SLFP obtained 1,839,979votes 36.86% and 91 seats
    LSSP obtained votes 433,244 votes 8.68%and 19seats
    CP Obtained 169,199 votes and 3.39% and 6seats and Other parties including UNP, FP and all Ceylon Tamil Congress and several others obtained the rest of seats.
    Totally United Front had obtained 2,442,422 votes which is 48.93%Where is the mandate?

    • 1

      Based on the 1970 General Election results, you claim that the United Front of SLFP. LSSP and CP had a mandate to bring in a new constitution is false.

      The election was conducted in terms of first pass the post electoral system and although the United Front gained more than 2/3 majority when the number of seats won only is taken into consideration. It is a misleading claim.

      When you consider as mandate on national issues, such as mandate to change the constitution, you must take Sri Lanka as a whole a single electorate a single unit or constituency and consider popular vote only- each party obtained in the entire country as the yardstick and not number of seats won .
      It is misleading!

      The 1972 first Republican Constitution is illegal.

      • 2

        “Totally United Front had obtained 2,442,422 votes which is 48.93%Where is the mandate?”
        What mandate did the TULF have to ask for Tamil Eelam?
        The claimed electorate was Tamil speakers of the country.
        If it is the people of the N&E, then too there was no majority.

        • 0

          Yes, of Course!

  • 2

    As always?

  • 1

    The writer’s attempt to draw a parallel between Sinhala Buddhists and White Supremacists of the US is quite ridiculous. It is well chronicled that Buddhists of this country, were persecuted by successive foreign invaders commencing 1505, and culminating in or around 1948. The atrocities of the British in the aftermath of the Uva Wellassa rebellion of 1817, make Israeli excesses in neighbouring Palestine look like a Sunday School picnic. Little wonder then, that post-independence rulers of Ceylon adopted -rightly or wrongly, a ‘never again’ policy.

    One issue which sticks out like a sore thumb though, is the plight of the plantation workers of Indian origin. Although their standards of living have improved in the last few decades, the levels of domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and incest remain at alarmingly high levels. This coupled with the lack of access to good education, housing, health care and job opportunities is indeed a sad indictment of successive governments. This, however, could not be likened to the wanton discrimination and neglect imposed on ‘persons of colour’ by the White Supremacists of the US which continues unabated to date. The plight of the plantation workers of Sri Lanka remains a legacy of British rule in colonial Ceylon and a stark reminder of their inhumane realm.

    • 1

      Well said!

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