21 May, 2024


Sri Lanka: The Debate On Multiculturalism, Uniculturalism And Monoculturalism

By Leonard Pinto

Dr. Leonard Pinto

We need to define the concepts of multiculturalism, uniculturalism and monoculturalism before entering into a debate on their application, practice and future direction in Sri Lanka. Multiculturalism refers to that trend in the society where the different cultures are made inclusive, tolerated and accommodated, and these trends are institutionalised in legislation to respect other cultures. Canada, Australia and other western countries, where multiculturalism is the national policy, respect religions, ethnicity and cultures of different communities and their cultural rights, while a secular law common to all protect their human rights. They are not allowed to have a legal system (e.g. Sharia law) or practices (e.g. honour killing) that are contrary to the laws of the country. Some say that multiculturalism tend to divide and erase the original ethos of the nation and they suggest that uniculturalism is more appropriate, where minorities enjoy full expression of religious and ethnic cultures, while the historic continuity of the majority and their culture is recognised as the national ethos. Uniculturalism encourages integration, where cultural identities are lost in time. Monoculture is the social consciousness of the majority that dictates its culture is the right culture and only allowed culture, and people of other religions, ethnicity and cultures have the freedom to live, but their cultures have no place in the national culture. Monoculturalism aims at a homogeneous society through assimilation. This is not acceptable in modern heterogeneous societies. Sri Lanka seems to be moving in the direction of monoculturalism.

The debate on multiculturalism, uniculturalism and monoculturalism in Sri Lanka is current. Although illusive, it emerges in subtle forms in its applications. In my discipline of ecology, diversity is preferred to dominance, because diverse communities are healthier, fit and sustainable. Co-existence is preferred to mutual-exclusion, and cooperation to destructive competition. In the field of social science, the acceptance of diversity seems to be more difficult, although cultural diversity is said to be an indictor of a healthy society. In support of monoculturalism, many Sri Lankans assert that first settlers and their descendants have a priority rights over others. If this is taken seriously, Vaddhas the aborigines of Sri Lanka should have the priority rights in the country. Paradoxically, they have no say in the country’s affairs and their land rights are restricted to the jungles of Bintanne. At the height of Tamil separatist war, President J.R. Jayewardene trumpeted multiculturalism to attract international support to defeat the LTTE. After the triumph over LTTE, multiculturalism evaporated and political agitation changed direction towards Buddhist-Sinhalese monoculturalism.

Culture is a complex concept. In Sri Lanka, culture refers to the past, but internationally, it also refers to the present and the future. How cultured the nations are is reflected in their policies and how cultured the individuals are is reflected in their behaviour. Common to both are the right values and attitudes (i.e. samma sankappa) arising from tolerance and ‘gentlemanly’ behaviour (metta, karuna, mudita and upeksha), elegantly elucidated in Buddhism. While Sri Lankans are proud of the 2500-year old Buddhist culture, many leaders don’t demonstrate signs of a cultured nation. For instance, after the Sri Lankan government invited Ms. Navi  Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to see the progress of rehabilitation and reconciliation in the country, three cabinet ministers abused her during her recent visit in Sept 2013, one proposing to marry her so that she could stay in Sri Lanka and study human rights issues there. She was also racially insulted calling her UN Tigress, Tamil supporter etc. in the Internet and Buddhist monks asked her to go home. Prof. G. L. Peiris made a mockery of himself in London by trying to attack her quoting a UN report, which clearly showed the militarization of north and east. Being truthful and honest are important aspects of any culture, and if Sri Lanka is truthful and honest in what it says, there is no need to fear any independent and international investigation.

Sri Lankan society is hell-bent on Buddhist-Sinhalese monoculturalism. The strategy towards monoculturalism in Sri Lanka converges from different angles. The political path is through Hela Urumaya, the militant path is through Bodu Bala Sena, Ravana Balaya and Sinhala Ravaya, and the intellectual path is through history, archaeology, education, media and even law and business. Some say that we were a law-abiding nation before the Roman Dutch law was forced on us. Others say that Portuguese destroyed temples and built churches on them and converted people by force to Christianity. A few say that pirivena education was better than the ‘Judeo-Christian’ based science and mathematics brought to us from the West by colonialist. They imply that we go back to our pre-colonial times, when there was one nation, the Buddhist- Sinhalese monoculture. Wrong! When the Portuguese were invited by the Sinhalese king Bhuvenekabahu VII of Kotte to fight his brother Mayadunne of Sitawaka, there were five kingdoms; Kotte, Sitawaka, Raigama, Kandy and Jaffna. They say that in our religious land (Dharmadeepaya) there was no cattle-slaughter or exploitation of the Sinhalese by Muslim and Tamil businessmen in that pre-colonial era. They say that we must repeal the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, lest the Tamils become powerful and wealthy once again. The Defence secretary who is known to be the patron of Bodu Bala Sena, in his 2013 Defence Seminar address, blamed the Muslims and Tamils of insularity, accusing the Muslims of links with Islamic fundamentalists and Tamils with Tamil Nadu, while his secret service men were harassing at midnight those who have spoken to Human Right’s head during her visit. There are accusations and counter accusations. There is no nation building or building of trust and confidence in the north and east, but massive construction works that are naturally accompanied with financial benefits and inducements.

In 1980s, Dr. Susantha Goonatilake the president of Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science made a blunt attack on the research findings of Prof. Peter Schalk of Uppsala University Sweden, who concluded that (1) the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka was really an economic problem, on who could be rich and powerful (2) and, according to the preaching of monks, Buddha has indicated that Sri Lanka belongs to the Buddhist-Sinhalese. Although we disagreed with Prof. Schalk then, the post-war period events in Sri Lanka proves that his conclusions are indeed true. Further, in his book ‘A 16th century clash of civilizations, the Portuguese presence in Sri Lanka, Goonatilake rewrote the history of Sri Lanka in 2010, highlighting only the atrocities of Portuguese, laying a framework for attacks on Catholics and their churches in a subtle manner. The central Idea was that present day Catholic churches were built on the foundations of Buddhist temples, implying that attacks on churches are justified, concealing the fact that when Dutch came to power Catholicism was banned and they took over all Catholic institutions. With unconvincing evidence, Gamage (2001) went on to say that Madhu Church was built on a Hindu Patini temple, with affinities to Buddhism, obviously to bully Catholics. In the West, British, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, American and other nations have fought with each other, but they don’t dig into historical artefacts of atrocities, but move forward with modern values and attitudes seeking good relations.

Sri Lankan expressions at international forums show that Sri Lankan cultural values are different from those of the international community. They allege that we have violated human rights, but we say we have not. The Tamils say that they have no confidence in Sinhalese governments, but the government says, we have developed north and east. The need of the hour is confidence building and acceptance, so that every citizen feels that the police, judiciary and the State administration respect the individual rights of all, irrespective of their religion, ethnicity, wealth and political party affiliation. Most of us rightly, don’t like the horizontal division of the society; the division of police and ownership of land according to provinces. We also rightly, don’t like the vertical division of the society; superiority-inferiority based on politics, money, caste, religion or ethnicity. Buddhism must be given the right place, so also the rights of all citizens. Politicians must get out of their comfort zone of power and riches into sound ethics, morals and economic planning. Minorities must realise that they should not segregate in business ghettos, but work in partnership with the majority. They should research and find means of integrating and working with the majority, removing ethnic and religious barriers, while maintaining their identity. Unfortunately the attempts of inculturation by Christians have been misunderstood, and the moonstones at Maggona and Katukurunda Catholic churches came under attack from Buddhist Sinhalese militants, who insisted that Buddhist architecture should not be in Catholic churches. Buddhist monks must be educated to obey the laws of the country, without performing the duties of the police and judges for which they are not trained. They must also be educated to renounce monoculturalism, as Buddhist philosophy strongly leans on multiculturalism and uniculturalism.

We can learn a few lessons on multiculturalism, uniculturalism and monoculturalism from Singapore. The State of Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, because the Chinese in Malaysia felt that their future was bleak with the Bhumiputra policy that favoured the Muslim Malays in a monocultural policy. But, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a first class Chinese Cambridge graduate became the first Prime Minister of Singapore, Malay people in Singapore were treated equally and Malay language was made one of the four national languages. But, in due course English became the preferred language. He kept the Muslim symbol of star and crescent in the Singapore flag and his parliament elected Mr Devan Nair, an Indian Tamil as the President of the new Republic. Mr Lee Kuan Yew admired Sri Lanka of 1940-1950s and commented, “I will make Singapore another Ceylon”, but after 1960s when he saw the ethno-religious policies of Sri Lanka, he concluded that Sri Lanka is a good example for bad policies. His success was in winning the confidence of all ethnic groups (i.e. Chinese, Malays, Tamils and Eurasians) by eliminating corruption, inducing discipline and robust financial and economic strategies that benefited all by creating a true multicultural society.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Minorities must realise that they should not segregate in business ghettos, but work in partnership with the majority…………..

    Hey, you cannot be serious man! You work with those you trust.

    We did try with Lalith and Cecille and see what happened.

  • 0

    Politicians must get out of their comfort zone of power and riches into sound ethics, morals and economic planning…………

    Oh Doctor, pigs will fly on the day that our politicians do this.

  • 1

    Colombo September 2013

    57 years after SWRD elevated Sinhala to its rightful place, we still have an over powering dependence and use of English in our public life. This week, at a defence seminar in Colombo, Sinhalese speaker after speaker including Gota and GL addressed the seminar in English, their second language. Were they trying to impress the minority of visitors? What is wrong with speaking in Sinhalese and letting translators do some work for the benefit of non-sinhala speakers? No wonder the ordinary Sinhalese people are up in arms.

  • 0

    Thank You Dr Pinto for raising some very pertinent points.
    Sixty five years after shaking off the last colonial yoke, we are still labouring with the foreigner-induced traditions. We should have:
    – replaced Roman-Dutch law (as tweaked by the British) with our own code drawing on centuries of our own customs
    – left the Commonwealth that is simply a congregation of sycophants happy to perpetuate old colonial relations, and invested more time in building better relationships with our Asian neighbours
    – invested more in the development of the Sinhala language and our education systems
    – put more effort into ensuring harmonious relations with our minority communities. You can still search vainly in government departments for a proportional representation of any of the minorities, and as for the Sinhala-Buddhist armed forces, there is virtually no representation.
    The problem is that governments of SL over the years have used the communities to suit their current needs and never really made honest efforts to foster a true Sri Lankan identity that made every race that inhabits this land truly at ease with each other. Yes, individually, we all claim to know a ‘nice’ muslim, a ‘fine’ burgher, a ‘smart’ tamil etc but then collectively we knock them down.
    – etc etc etc

    But ofcourse political parties since independence have latched on to the secret of power in SL – never forget that 70% of the electorate is Sinhala-Buddhist. Not only must the sangha be looked after but the common man too. Everything else can be managed including a three-decades long war with the detestable LTTE. It was a convenient diversion for most governments (and a profitable one for many) so the necessary political resolve had to wait for the current government. Note that that same political resolve was promptly brought into play when it was the JVP that was involved in 1971, 1987-89 because with the JVP, electoral power was at stake.

    The show will go on.

  • 0

    On the whole, the author is correct in his analysis.
    However he says:

    “Multiculturalism refers to that trend in the society where the different cultures are made inclusive, tolerated and accommodated, and these trends are institutionalised in legislation to respect other cultures.”

    Minorities are not to be tolerated and accommodated, but must be respected as equals in a true democracy. This is not happening in Sri Lanka because Sinhala Buddhist majority wants to dominate in every sense.

    Furthermore, as he says Tamils had Jaffna kingdom, which consisted of the North-East, as an entity. Even during Dudagamini’s time Tamils existed as an coherent nation in Sri Lanka.

    Just because the rule has passed from the European colonialists, the Sinhala rulers want to change the demography of the island. Even the Muslims of Sri Lanka have existed from the Time Arab traders settled and assimilated with the Tamils in the North-East.

    The North-Eastern kingdom had trade with King Solomon more than two millenniums ago, and Christianity and Islam also came to Sri Lanka through Mannar port of trade.

    Sinhala Buddhists ambitions of multiculturalism, like Hitler’s pure Aryan race, will lead to further blood bath like in the Balkans!

  • 1

    A one-sided pro-Christian article. We can learn from Singapore? Lee Kuan Yew locked up the Opposition to carry out his plans. Today both Indians and Malays feel discriminated against. Ask any Singapore Indian (mostly Tamils) about this. We can also learn a few lessons on monoculturalism from the Vatican City State.

  • 0

    “Minorities must realise that they should not segregate in business ghettos, but work in partnership with the majority…………..”

    Dear Dr. Leonard Pinto,

    I admired most of your writing until you reach to the above sentence. You are segregating people of Sri Lanka based on the race and religion. The fundamental to the governance is to provide equality and equal opportunity to each individual irrespective of race or religion. Partnership with majority should not be based on discrimination or majority dominance principles. How do you want to define majority? Do you want to define majority based on number of people belongs to Sinhala race/Sinhala language speaking/ Buddhists?

    There are differences between races, religion, gender, language, geographical etc. You need to think about how you can minimise the differences to promote equality and equal opportunity and better future for all, not to the majority race or religion.

  • 0

    The labels we fix on ourselves identifying ourselves as distinct from others should be treated as rather out of date in larger society. While a personal identity might be useful as a private concept, it should really not be used to define who we are in the public space. Instead, a common identity for purposes of national distinction would perhaps serve us better.

  • 0

    The European nations that ‘fought with each other’ ultimately succumbed to the hegemony of the papacy which inherited the authoritarianism and barbarism from the Roman Empire. The violence was later used to subjugate and plunder the peoples of Africa, South America and Asia. There are no ‘historical artifacts of atrocities’ for them to dig……they only have to look among themselves. The writer seems to be a prospective applicant for a job as a Sri Lanka bashing NGO if not he is one already.

  • 0

    When we were small children, we had in our village a Tamil coming to collect old bottles, newspapers and pieces of iron. We had a Muslim man coming with a box of cloth to sell. We had a Muslim man called Nana who was the mason. We had a burgher who came to give English tuition. A Sinhala barber came to come our hair.

    Is that not this multicultural junk that we had in our village? Tolerate others but do not ask more than what is reasonable.

    Multicultural and interfaith junks are new colonialism with human rights weapon. The white colonial man after all the damage done now comes as the human rights guru to exploit former colonies. The black-whites in these former colonies love it.

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