By Natale Dankotuwage –
The Sinhala are privileged, I’ve been told.
So one must respond; how do you know? did television and the papers say so?
Spending time in Sri Lanka, I have found that the current Sinhala supremacist state broadcast via media is much different than the experience of being Sinhala on the ground.
Neo-colonial appropriation is as strong as ever, as is the lack of interest in indigenous heritage. It takes more than being Sinhalese to receive social value and worth. There are more people in this country appropriating western forms of dress and professionalism to gain social worth, than there are people trying to appropriate authentic Sinhala customs.
Traveling beyond Colombo out into the south, where Sinhala families predominate, the native Sinhala tongue is common and Buddhist temples line the streets like corner stores.
But, it doesn’t look like it matters how good your Sinhala sounds or how authentic the Sinhala garb; bare feet with a sarong. Political economy runs things out in the rural parts as well. Wealth, prestige and a corporate glow promise more value and worth than touting your Sinhalese lineage.
So these days I take this claim that the Sinhala are privileged and frown, especially when it’s related to social worth. Sure, there are a few that identify as Sinhala who are extremely privileged in Sri Lanka. But, there are also the many that are underprivileged; under-paid and devalued. How does one account for this?
It is essential to have an over-lapping dialogue about privilege. There are places where the concern about inequity in the nation overlap and goes beyond the dialogue of ethnic difference.Exclusively engaging with one’s ethnic group, will only give you a limited understanding of the ways members of the Sinhala community, especially those who retain indigenous practices, are de-valued as well. You will miss out in hearing the stories of the Sinhala migrant worker, farmer, fisherman, garbage collector, the man who sells pineapples for a living, housewife or underpaid employee. Inequitable access to “Privilege” is a common burden and struggle that members of all ethnic groups experience.
As one observes human beings in Sri Lanka, the way they create value structures in their minds, the way they define some with more value and worth than others… yes, ethnicity is at times a cue. But social roles, behaviors, the color of your skin, the sex you were born with are factors that too deem you inferior or superior.
And, I have found that the social cues that promise privilege in Sri Lanka often supersede one’s ethnic affiliation. Something I see every day as I observe the continued struggles of individuals who identify as Sinhala.
*Natale Dankotuwage was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. She has dedicated several years to reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka, where her family is from. She has worked closely with a Toronto think-tank called the Mosaic Institute to co-found the Young Canadian Peace Dialogue on Sri Lanka. She has assisted in founding the fundraising consortium Build Change and is a former board member of the Citizenship and Immigration funded non-profit organization Sri Lankans without Borders. She has recently returned from a fellowship in Sri Lanka funded by the Asia Foundation. She is also an avid journeyer, traveling the world and engaging in social venture projects such as Free Space, Roots Hyderabad and OMNI.