30 September, 2022


Sri Lanka’s New Right-Wing Politics

By Jayadeva Uyangoda

Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda

There are two new developments in Sri Lanka’s contemporary politics which is getting crystalized and clearer these days. They are: (a) the consolidation of a hard right-wing alternative to a weak and shaky democratic regime option, and (b) the projection of an ex-military officer as the embodiment of the new Right-wing agenda. At the core of the first are groups of Buddhist monks, and retired military and navy officers who took part in the final phase of the war against the LTTE.

This essay comments on the first of the two right-wing political formations, the new movement of Buddhist monks, that has openly expressed its desire to see a ‘Hitler’ type military ruler winning Sri Lanka’s next presidential election due in late 2019.

  • The new right-wing Buddhist clerical movement has so far revealed the following key characteristics:
  • It is a post-democratic political formation.
  • It does not follow political parties. Rather, it wants political parties to follow its agenda.
  • It has selected its own lay political leader, who is an ex-military person, as an ideal dharmika,or ‘righteous, ruler (dehemi palakaya).
  • It has conceptualized the concept of ‘dharmikaruler’ within a post-democratic paradigm of political thought.

In the rest of this essay, I will discuss the following two features of this neo-right wing movement of the Buddhist Sangha: (a) the emerging paradigm of the ideal of dharmika ruler, and (b) its post-democratic character. I will also reflect, though briefly, on the political consequences of (a) and (b).

That discussion will also offer a brief account of the conceptual evolution of the notion of dharmika ruler.

 Dharmika Ruler as ‘Strong’  Ruler

The idea of dharmika ruler has an extremely interesting conceptual history in South Asia’s religious, social and philosophical thought. It is rendered into Sinhalese as ‘dehemi palakaya’ and the word ‘dehemi’has a complex set of meanings. Ven. Vendaruwe Upali, who wants Gotabaya Rajapaksa to emerge as a Hitler-type dharmika ruler, is conveying only one version of it. It suggests ‘a strong ruler who can re-build the country in alliance with the military.’

Iy needs to be acknowledged that the present Sinhalese-Buddhist notion of ‘strong ruler’ derives its meaning in opposition to the yahapalanaya regime of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe which is a weak, vascilating, and disunited government with no political will even to pursue its own reform agenda. Sinhalese nationalist groups are also thoroughly displeased with the regime which they see as one which has been giving into the pressures of ethnic minorities as well international – all ‘anti-national’ — forces.

The emergence of the clamour for a strong ruler also indicates that there is now an emerging shift in the public pinion in favour of a regime change. It would be near impossible for the leaders of the government to reverse this shift in the political consciousness of the voters.

Against this backdrop, the notion of a new regime under a dehemi palakayaembodies to some degree concretization of a slogan that can appeal to Sinhalese-Buddhist voters, but threaten even the fragile sense of security among the ethnic and religious minorities. MP Vijayakala’s nostalgia for the days of LTTE administration in the North in a way indicates how both Sinhalese and Tamil polities can even compete with each other in proposing post-democratic alternatives to post-yahapalanaya Sri Lanka.

Dharmika Ruler as a Concept

The idea of a dharmika ruler, which can be loosely translated into English as ‘duty-conscious,’ or ‘righteous’ ruler, has a long history in South Asia’s political and social thought. To understand its evolution as an idea and a concept in its changing historical contexts, let us see at least briefly its different versions as a conceptual category in Indian Hindu, Indian Buddhist and Sri Lankan Buddhist thoughts.

In the classical Hindu social and political thought evolved in pre-Buddhist India. The concept of dharma did not have an overtly religious meaning. Rather, it had a secular-ethical meaning. It simply meant the ruler’s adherence to the raja dharma, or the duties and responsibilities of the King to his society as acknowledged in the Brahmin-dominated socio-cultural order. According to Manusmruthi that codified the dharma principle evolved during the Vedic period, the foremost duty of the Buddhist dharmika ruler was a secular one, that is, a ruler who ensures social unity and integration of the polity.

It is extremely noteworthy that the Buddha re-interpreted the Hindu concept of dharmika ruler, but still within the secular paradigm. The Buddha’s notion of dharma was social equality. His strong advocacy of social egalitarianism through the reinterpretation of the pre-existing concept of dharma was a total rejection of social inequality sanctioned by the Hindu social ideology. Contrary to contemporary Sri Lankan understandings of the idea of dharmika ruler, the Buddha never expected the kings or the ruling class to protect his teachings (dharma), or the movement (sasana) he launched. Although the Buddha was a keen observer of politics of North India at the time, he never condoned the mixing of his ethical-spiritual movement with politics.

Meanwhile, Emperor Asoka, who ruled north and central India three hundred years after the Buddha’s death, gave another interpretation to the idea of dharmika King that was indeed built on the Buddha’s ethical teachings. What he did was the re-elaboration of the notion of dharma (duty) outside the Vedic framework of caste rules and rituals and placing of it within the frame of the Buddha’s ethical teachings of tolerance, forbearance, truthfulness, equanimity, compassion, non-violence, and welfare of all living beings.

Asoka’s example gave rise to the subsequent South Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhist concept of dharmaraja (‘King guided by Dharma’) as a paradigm of ethical kingship. As John Holt remarks in his study of the Sri Lanka’s Kandyan King Kirthi Sri Rajasinha, dhammaraja meant to be a ruler who fostered order in the world by appealing to the norms of ethical righteousness embodied inpanchasila (fivefold morality), rather than by means of expedient military power (danda).

King Kirthi Sri Rajasinha duing the 18thcentury, also gave rise to a second meaning of the paradigm of dhammaraja. This second meaning was, as John Holt suggests, constructed around the specific account of Asoka’s dhammaraja rule given in Mahawamsa, the foremost chronicle in Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist tradition. In this new account, dharmika king wasthe ruler whose actions were to be guided by the ethical principles of Buddha dhamma, dedicated himself to the protection of Theravada Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism alone, and subjected himself to the authority of the Sanghae lite. It is these second and third components that constituted the core of the Sri Lankan appropriation and re-conceptualization of the dhammaraja ordehemi raju, in Sinhala.

Thus, the Sri Lankan post-colonial concept of dharmika palakaya, as developed by the intellectual Buddhist monks, has its roots in the second meaning of dhammaraja developed by King Kirthi Sri Rajasinha.

Dehemi Palakaya: Contemporary Meanings

In the modern Sinhalese Buddhist political thought, the concept of dehemi raju, or dharmika palakaya,has acquired a host of nuances in Sri Lanka’s specific post-colonial contexts. Foremost among them is the notion that the elected Prime Minister or the President should be a protector of the interests of the majority Sinhalese community. This also meant that a non-Sinhalese, or a non-Buddhist, would lack legitimacy to be the country’s democratically elected PM or President. The ruler’s commitment to the constitutional guarantee for Buddhism’s foremost place in relation to minority religions has to be unwavering. In the style of the old ‘tradition’, the rulers should obtain ‘advise and counsel’ of the Sangha leadership on matters of governance, public policy, and statecraft (rajya palanaya).

This notion of dehemi/dharmika palakaya in turn offers a reciprocal set of political functions to Buddhist monks. This is a point which has not received much attention of scholars of contemporary Sri Lankan Buddhism. Not only the leaders of the priestly hierarchy and the elite, but also ordinary demagogic monks who are active in various populist political projects think that listening to them and following their agendas is the unconditional duty of political leaders if they were to abide by the dehemi/dharmika palakaya ideal. They also consider it their constitutional duty to protect the unitary character of the state which politicians of all hues have thought warranting some change.

This has created a situation, as we have notice since 1987, where politically mobilized Buddhist monks emerged as the most ardent opponents of devolution. They genuinely believe that the protection of the unitary state that the British colonial rulers introduced to Sri Lanka, is their sacred religio-moral duty amidst threats to it emanating from some Sinhalese rulers themselves. J, R. Jayewardene, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe are prominent in the list of these ‘untrustworthy’ Sinhalese leaders.

Meanwhile, the relationship that the Sangha hierarchy maintains with Sinhalese political leaders is mixed with ritualistic and political significations. Frequent visits to the temples belonging to the top order of Sanghahierarchy by political leaders and high state officials, including the heads of the armed forces and the police, with offerings (ata pirikara) on important occasions are a ritual with rich and fascinating symbolic meanings. It suggests, among other things, the acceptance of the supremacy of the religious order over the secular political order. The white clothes these politicians wear, their deceptive and often amusing body language, and their false mannerisms in these ritual moments show how a tradition that King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe inaugurated in order to secure legitimacy in a feudal society that was culturally alien to him, survives even in a post-colonial democratic setting in a manner that is totally at odds with modern, democratic, and egalitarian ethos.

This ritualistic submission of the lay political and bureaucratic elites to the religious authority is now showing signs of moving out of its world of symbolism and entering the actual world of politics and state power.

A Shift in the Political Order?

One way of interpreting the confluence of post-democratic political forces around a neo-right-wing agenda and a personality constructed in the mould of adharmika ruler is that Sri Lanka’s contemporary political order is set to experience a major qualitative shift. In that emerging political order, there might develop two parallel authority structures, one secular, and the religious.

As mentioned above, the new Sangha mobilization in Sri Lanka, with its right-wing political agenda, is a post-democratic phenomenon. The elaboration of this point warrants a separate essay. For the moment, we may note two of its defining characteristics. The first is the inability of the Sanghapolitical movement to positively engage with modern democracy and pluralism and adopt its political and social visions to the post-feudal world. The second is its absolute disregard for a modern doctrine of social equality and therefore its lack of an egalitarian social ideology.

What one can see now is the assertion of the religious authority structure over the secular authority structure in order to secure its place in the political order. The enormous setbacks that the Sri Lanka’s resurgent democracy has suffered due to the failing of a weak democratic regime of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremensighe are setting the context for this shift.

The politics after 2020 will tell us how this emerging equilibrium will impact on the nature Sri Lanka’s state, governance, political institutions and ethnic relations. Thus, the presidential election of 2019 has the potential to mark a crucial turning point in Sri Lanka’s future political history.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Kallathoies similar to Native veddah and people of same category no doubt do not know the history of Sri Lanka simply because they are kallathonies, plunderers, smugglers, captured during invasions and brought to work in Tobacco and tea plantation as Slaves.

    • 4

      N.T Wijethunga
      When were you born? Yesterday I guess.
      Play boy Vijaya came as Kalathonis with his merry men and landed blindfolded in Thambapane.
      Were you aware of that part of the history of your ancestors.
      Don’t blow out your ignorance through your trumpet. Lazy Pimps were only good for pealing cinnamon sticks, fishing and bun making.
      Tobacco and tea plantations were only cultivated in the recent century .. That too have been destroyed by greedy Modayas like you.

    • 3


      Kallathoni is a Tamil word used by the native Tamils of Eelam for illegal immigrants who just waded over from Demala Nadu. Almost 80% of the Kallathonis who just waded over from Demala Nadu got converted into Sinhala-Buddhists and Sinhala-Christians. They were also brought to work in Cinnamon and Coconut plantation as Slaves.That is how the Sinhala population became a majority and that is why the native Vedda population and the native Tamil population became a minority.

    • 0

      Don’t you guys see the GOVIGAMA MAFIA RULING ELITES’ work behind all of these criminality politics that you find Ethno Religious Fascism? If you can’t see this element, means, you will be forced to shadow fight an enemy non existent.The GOVI gang has created the system with its parts are all held and headed by them. So, when the people needs an alternate party to fix the system, know that they too are controlled by the same GOVI HEGEMONIST subsidiary. Ruling party, opposition party, and even the ones that are small groups are all belong to Evil Govigama Mafia. So, people are betrayed all the time.

  • 4

    You are fundamentally wrong. What you call Right is in fact the new Left of Sri Lankan politics.

    The Sinhala Buddhist majority, tired of 500 years of colonial exploitation, abuse and corruption of their culture and civilisation are now beginning to take action. So the Sinhala Buddhist movement is more of the Left than of Right.

    Failed leftists of Sri Lanka should stop firing shots at this new Left movement by labelling it as Right.

    Anti-colonialism is Leftist and was never a Rightist idea!

  • 3

    There is no such a thing as right wing in Sri Lankan politics. Only the right Buddhists side or wrong Muslim/Tamil /chrustian side

    • 2

      Jim Softy Dimwit

      “Only the right Buddhists side or wrong Muslim/Tamil /chrustian side”

      If we go by your definition you must be a Muslim/Tamil /chrustian/Assgiria/creep/ loudmouth/ jerk/dunce/../…/……/dipstick

  • 0

    Read theProf. Jayadeva Uyangoda’s article but found it difficult although Jayadeva writes in simple terms.
    Here is a layman’s version of politics in Lanka based entirely on commonsense.
    SL (formally Ceylon) had left wing politics perhaps for the one and only time in the August 1953 Hartal of 1953. It is worth noting that the Federal Party supported the LSSP lead. There was no overly visible language/religion-divide. The 1953 Hartal was the equivalent of the 1905 Russian Revolution. The minds started ticking and SWRD masqueraded as a leftist but his ‘Ape Anduwa’ was only for one ethnic group. The revolution has led us into this neither-here-nor-there land.
    One thought that the left defended the oppressed, be it economic exploitation or otherwise. This mission no longer exists.
    If I may skip a few sentences: GR pampered the Sanga to the extent that there was the demand for GR to be made Minister for Buddha Sasana. Will GR, or for that matter any politician, point out the caste considerations in the Sanga hierarchy. Just over 50% of Lankan Buddhists (women) are denied any place – they may however cook the alms!
    The governing elites started the mono-ethnic Armed Services and near mono-ethnic Police. They have become a rule unto themselves. Till they decide to rule, they are able to dictate as to the governing super elite. This is the onset of the extreme right.
    Are we on our way to be an Egypt? This is where the danger is.

  • 0

    Funny how this person ‘Native Vedda’ call Sinhalese to go to India. Lol. Why should we ? We have a unique our own language. No one in India speak Sinhala!! But Tamils here speak a language which is completely similar to Tamil in tamilnadu. 100% similar. Lets assume for a moment both Singhalese and tamils came from India then how come Tamils speak a language commonly spoken in tamilnadu while sinhalese ended up with a unique language ???

    Next,You don’t even have unique name to your ethnicity. Sri Lankan tamil is what you are called while no one call Sinhalese Sri Lankan Sinhalese! Why is that ? Why the confusion ? Indian tamils, Sri Lankan Tamils etc ? Also Sinhalese don’t give a crap about india. Same can’t be said about sri Lankan tamils. They love tamilnadu sooo much. Even during the war most tamils happily fled to tamilnadu. Tamils until this day have a very close contact with India. It’s obvious who came here from india and who’s not.

    • 1

      This is how Native Vadda will answer this question……

      “How is Sinhala unique? Who told you Sinhala is unique, How come Sinhala has bla bla number of words if it is unique.”

      Then than siva siva siva will come and say,,,,,,Sinhala is from Tamil…..bla bla bla…..

      Tamil has made up a historically wrong, illogical, bizarre and equally hilarious history to massage their ethnic ego. In Tamil history everything under the sun is Tamil. This is a rare case of a whole community suffering from a single mental disease. In fact the inherent fascist racist tendencies in tamil society is what has caused this. In the world of linguists, Tamil is a source of entertainment. These people has revised history for their nationalist aims. So what Tamils say is a very bizarre illogical history. The Lankan issue is nothing but a history debate. That is why I say more and more research into Tamil nationalism should be done. Only then we can see the REAL roots of Lankan issue and solve the problem.

    • 2

      Pissu Hutan

      “Funny how this person ‘Native Vedda’ call Sinhalese to go to India.”

      Its not funny, I am demanding all Kallathonies, Tamils, Sinhalese, Sinhala/Buddhists, Muslims, Parangies, ………………………. Malays, to go home.

      Where did Buddhism come from, where did your public racist Aryan Anagarika Homeless Dharmapala lived and died, where does the lion flag come from, ……..

      Pissu vediwellavatha?

    • 0

      Pissu Hutan
      Having a unique own language does not mean that you did not come from anywhere. Why don’t you read your own so called ‘Sinhala history’? It clearly says your ancestors came from India. Other than the Sinhala language that was developed in Sri Lanka with the support of many Indian languages everything else what you have is from India. The Indian King Asoka gave you Buddhism to practise, Prakrit/Pali language to speak (later developed into Sinhala), Buddhist culture to practice, Brahmi script to write, technology to build Buddhist structures, and an Indian Lion symbol to your flag, you think you people developed all these?

      • 0

        Please get some education on linguistics and history of Sinhala language.

  • 2

    The shift occurring now is a consequence of the abject failure of “yahapalanaya”, a version of “dahamy palanaya” of the liberals & neo liberals including the good prof Uyangoda himself. It is funny that these learned professors and their ilk failed to recognise that “yahapalanaya” was only a mere slogan to catch the votes of primarily the cosmopolitan intelligentsia. They failed to see what is inside the crust………..a highly inept yet extremely corrupt cesspool. Or did they intentionally overlooked it in their haste to defeat a benevolently authoritarian rule?

    • 2


      “The shift occurring now is a consequence of the abject failure of “yahapalanaya”,”

      Actually it was in the 1950s collective wisdom bidding adieu to this island which brought the country to this pathetic state.
      Since you are part of the “cool” generation of Pancha maha balavegya you are responsible for the mess.

  • 1

    Professor Uyangoda’s attempt to intellectualize the Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony on the basis pseudo intellectual arguments stands as a deliberate attempt to “justify” the existence of and the acceptance of majoritarianism within the democratic frame work as an inevitable condition in our socio political context. Though he appears trying to understand the present context through the evolution of ideology in the Sinhala-Buddhist psyche the slip shows by not analyzing the political context in which his so called ideology functioned. It is well known that Kings of Indian ruled Sri Lanka and regarded as guardians of Buddhism.

    He has also forgotten that Ceylon had 3 administrative divisions from ancient times till the British amalgamated all three regions into one for the ease of administration. During the periods there were three regions Buddhism in the down south and the hill country under different kings. King Ashoka sent the Theravada Buddhism to Ceylon and gave protection to the Kings to safeguard it as it was vanishing from India. Buddhism is not a religion in the proper sense it does not have the mythical aspect to assure the populace to fall back during despair. Ceylon being an island nation was the suitable place to keep Theravada Buddhism in tact.

    Professor probably had cold feet since his last write up and taken a turn to intellectualize a pathetic situation. Rajapakse’s are no guardians of Buddhism they had racing in front of Dalada maligawa. GR has ganged up with his former army and navy men along with greedy businessmen and some lowly so called academics. If he comes into power not the Tamils or Muslims going to be his main target it will be Sinhalese Christians and intellectuals.

    • 3

      We had uneducated Psychopaths like R Premadasa and V Prabakaran killing the educated intellectuals left, right and center. Do we need another uneducated Psychopath? GR is no different to the above two.

  • 0

    “The 1953 Hartal was the equivalent of the 1905 Russian Revolution. “
    That is more than a little over the top I would say.
    Using that kind of logic one may even claim that July 1970 General Election was the equivalent of the 1917 October Revolution.
    The FP supported the Hartal for one good subjective reason. It was the CP in the north that protected it against Tamil Congress hooligans.
    The language divide was there from State Council days. But the importance of the issue was exaggerated on both sides of the “divide” from 1956. There were bigger issues about which the FP paid scant attention. Successive governments got away with a lot of mischief by appearing to concentrate on the language issue.

    • 0

      SJ ~ “That is more than a little over the top I would say”.
      It was a layman’s opinion.
      But not too lay-laymanish!

  • 0

    This Benevolent Dictatorship aka dharmika ruler thingy never existed.
    Philippines’ Duarte and Turkey’s Erdogan are trying on this mantle. Erdogan has removed mention of ‘Theory of Evolution’ in schools.
    Bush and Blair combo destroyed Iraq using ‘tyranny’ as the reason. Some read ‘benevolence’ in Saddam.
    In SL politicians used the Sanga. SWRD B gave the Sanga a special slot but did Buddharakirtha show any gratitude?

  • 0

    The political elitisms has no place in terrorism cum anarchism origin which that whom had been undermined democratic order in country since 1971 April insurrection by JVP carders.!
    Indeed that right-wing political terrorism was back by JVP “left-wing infantile disorder ‘ that politics of anarchism by JVP or ex-JVP’s political roots.
    But not other than any other political party of bourgeoisies elements of progressive elements had any masses power to back by right-wing editorship by replace Parliamentary system of governances.
    That was right-wing coup in 2015 January 8th by Gamralalga Sirisena alias of MS-New UNP carders and Ranil Wicks of Old UNP and CBK of Tamil-federalist of Old SLFP leadership has been appear in right-wing!

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