Colombo Telegraph

Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalism And Ethoc-Religious Conflict

By R.M.B Senanayake –

R.M.B Senanayake

When the Italians and the Germans unified their countries and became nation states they became aggressive and it is the new found confidence in themselves that led these two states to embark on wars. The Italians sought to build an empire in North Africa and invaded Abyssinia. Germans fought three wars against France beginning with the war in 1870 and then in 1914 and 1939.

We the people of Sri Lanka have failed to build a nation state on the basis of a common citizenship based on birth and residence in the land. At the time of Independence all three communities – the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims made common cause for freedom from the British. The British had ushered in a limited form of democracy in the sense of government by the people through their elected representatives. There is a difference between the exercise of political power by elected representatives and the fundamental freedoms of the people. The two did not go together in Britain where universal suffrage came long after the establishment of freedom through the Rule of Law adjudicated by an independent judiciary- independent of the Executive . The fundamentals of freedom such as the Rule of Law , the Independence of the Judiciary, a politically neutral public service and freedom of the press were in existence at the time of Independence.

Independence meant the transfer of the powers of the State to local politicians. The election of the Representatives of the people was based on the mobilization of the people’s votes. Originally the mobilization of the people was on the basis of a Ceylonese nation. But there was the issue of the official language. Under colonial rule the official language was English. But there were two groups of people who were speaking Sinhala and Tamil. Should there be one or two official languages was the issue that the political leaders had to decide. Should the decision be based on a majority decision of the people? But that meant ignoring the wishes of the Tamil speaking people. The Tamils realized that the best argument was for the use of Tamil in the northern and eastern provinces where the majority of the Tamil speaking people resided. So they asked for a federal state. But demagogic politicians realized that the Sinhalese majority could be mobilized on the basis of ethnicity and religion. S.W.R.D made just such an appeal. The masses had not been politically conscious of their political power as a majority until 1956 when the appeal was made to race and religion to win their votes. . SWRD appealed to the sentiments of the majority Sinhala Buddhists. He mobilized his political support on the basis of ethno- religious sentiment. The colonial power that was cast as the enemy in India was no longer available to be targeted.

Nationalism always needs an enemy either an external enemy or an internal enemy. We did not have an external enemy. So the political mobilization was on the basis of the minorities as the ‘other”. Firstly the Tamils were targeted on the basis that their numbers in the government employment gave them too much power and undue influence in the decisions of the State. The political mobilization was based on an allegation that the colonial ruler had favored them against the majority community in dispensing the fruits of power. It was argued that there must be affirmative discrimination to rectify the injustices perpetrated by the colonial power. So Sinhala was made the official language and the Tamils who had come to depend too much on state employment felt they were threatened.Their numbers have now come down even below their proportion in the country.

The Sinhala Buddhists had a sense of euphoria after the defeat of the LTTE. The political leadership indulged in triumphalism celebrating the victory over the LTTE. The need for reconciliation with the defeated Tamil community has never entered the minds of the present political leaders although they pay lip[ service to it. They do not realize that the willing consent of the minorities is needed to ensure a single state in a plural society. But the world recognizs the right of self government for those ethnic and religious groups who are harassed by an ethnic majority, Despite the end of the war the Government has no made any sincere efforts to win the consent of the Tamil people. They prefer to curb their civil freedoms instead in the name of monitoring any separatist tendencies.

Now the Government realizes that it cannot maintain the false standard of living created by it. If it seeks to resovle the economic crisis it will become politically unpopular and socialist populism is no longer available as a basis for political mobilization. So like SWRD in 1956 the regime has to resort to political mobilization on the basis of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. They think the ethno-religious basis of political mobilization is the way head. After all the present regime was elected by the majority Sinhala Buddhists on the basis of “we” versus “they”( the Tamils). So the present leadership does not accept any need for attending to the grievances of the Tamil minority. They only want to develop the whole Island and restore the Tamil areas destroyed by the war. They agreed also on the need for de-mining to make the area habitable and safe. But they don’t believe in reconciling with the Tamil community by giving some measure of power to the Provincial Council. They don’t trust the Tamils and only wish to prevent a re-kindling or revival of the LTTE through a military occupation of the North. They think the country can be unified if the Sinhala Buddhists are in a majority throughout the country so as to deny the concept of a Tamil homeland. The political objective is now to make the Tamils a minority in the north and east so that they could no longer make a claim for self determination. So the settlement of Sinhalese in the Tamil areas seems to be part of the nation building effort. The nation will consist of only the Sinhala Buddhists and the minorities have to accept their subordinate status. They will be allowed to live on sufferance of the Sinhala Buddhists. But unlike in the past there are now extremist Buddhist groups who do not even want these minorities to practice their own cultural and religious practices. The objective seems to be to assimilate them into the Sinhala Buddhist religion and culture. This type of nationalism based on the ethos of the majority has been practiced in several countries in the Balkans and in the Ottoman Empire. But such attempts at assimilation have failed.

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