Colombo Telegraph

Whither Sri Lanka?

By Gamini Dullewe

The problem of quite a number in this country of their inability to cope with different Religions and different races in this Multicultural and Multi religious society is mainly due to the lack of knowledge of the history of origins of both the Sinhalese and also the Tamils. The Sinhalese believe, as mentioned in the Mahawamsa, authored by Priest Mahinda also not a Sinhalese, that the Sinhalese commenced occupation of the country, with the advent of Prince Vijaya and his retinue of seven hundred men. However Prince Vijaya was not a Sinhalese. Then how one could conclude that the progeny is Sinhalese is a point to ponder. Besides the Sinhalese of  today are not a pure race, but a mixture of nationalities that have assimilated over a period of time to the country’s population to call themselves as the Sinhalese. More than half the number, bear Portuguese names. While the Tamils too are migrants from South India as probably the land mass would have been connected then. Therefore to determine as to who came first is like the, hen and chick situation, which came first.  

Long before the advent of the Portuguese, Dutch and the English, the country was inhabited by the Tamils and the Sinhalese and both Tamil Kings and Sinhalese Kings have ruled parts of the country including the Nayakkars from India, the last King of Kandy. The majority of the Population has been this mixed race of the Sinhalese living in the South West and the Tamils Living in the NortEast have been a sizable minority. Then with trade some Moors also have settled down and married in to both the Sinhalese and the Tamils, to constitute a small segment of the county’s population as Muslims. In the early years under the Kings, a feudal system of governance has been in force, where there was no employment or unemployment in the present sense. All were vassals ruled by the Kings, assisted by a few families of the Aristocracy. There were no qualified doctors, Engineers, Accountants, Lawyers, School Principals, teachers, nurses, clerks, peons  or any other  employment in that system. The system had Vedamahaththayas to look after the sick, a family tradition. The Engineers were self-made individuals who were responsible for the construction of the old edifices like Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and the Irrigation network of canals for Agriculture. It was a very simple social structure where none had wealth to flaunt unlike today. The King owned all the land and doled out to the subjects to whom it was deserving according to performance of duty.

It was the British who changed everything by introducing a form of Governance. Along with the change they introduced a system of Education where the Christian Church played a significant role to churn the public to take up office to man the new system. Whereas, earlier there was only Pirivena Education that produced Sinhala Pali scholars and Buddhist Priests to propagate Buddhism. The Christian schools that were established by the British Christian Missionaries at the beginning, encouraged the Natives to convert to Christianity to enter such schools. The education enabled the natives to secure govt jobs after completing their education. Hence many Buddhists from the middle classes converted themselves to become Christians in order to receive an education and the qualification to secure employment. There were many Catholics in the coastal areas by then, who had already converted,  that enabled them to get an education. However the requirement to convert was relaxed and some Buddhists too managed to secure an education and then qualify and was able to secure employment in the new system.  It must be noted that none without qualification had been absorbed to the system, be they Sinhalese or Tamil as the British were handling the Management.

The reason why many Tamils constituted the Administrative Service at that time, was because they took to education in more numbers than the Sinhalese did, with an early start. The majority Sinhalese were quite content of their life styles that they preferred the Laisser-faire living to working for a salary. It was only much later the Sinhalese realized that a job and a salary provided means for a better living standard, that they also sought education. Here it must be remembered that the masses were emancipated by the British first, although the Socialists believe it was Bandaranaike who emancipated the masses, from being mere vassals in the country to become Professionals and Academics in society, long before Independence through an education system the British introduced. It was only afterwards that Henry Steel Olcott established Buddhist schools for the Buddhists of the Island, the facility to receive an education. This was the new beginning for all who enjoy today of being a somebody in society, from being nobodies then. 

Systems in the country functioned smoothly up to the time of Independence and a few years afterwards. Then with the onset of winning elections from ’56 started the bluff by the Politicians, ably supported by the Vernacular Pundits in search of positions in society to climb the social ladder and started to influence the Political leaders to change everything.  Their main slogan was Anti-Imperialism. They first pointed their guns at the non Sinhalese and then on the Western educated Sinhalese who were non Buddhists. Before long the Western educated Buddhists too were not spared. They started to spread canards that the British had favoured the minority Tamils over the Sinhalese, therefore promising the Sinhala Buddhists in the country of their due place in society and also a due place for Buddhism. The fact remains that the founder of the Philosophy Buddhism, Lord Buddha never fought for a due place for Buddhism when there was over sixty odd beliefs practiced in India at that time. As I have said before the British never gave employment to any without proper qualifications, be they Tamil or Sinhalese. Thus in fairness to Tamils, every Tamil who held office at that time in the govt, had the required qualifications. The next canard was that the Buddhists had been persecuted by the British. It is true that the system favoured the qualified Christians but the Sinhalese Buddhists too held high Office in the system in fair numbers. There is not a single Buddhist temple in the country that went in to closure due to British interference. On the contrary Buddhist temples started to mushroom at every nook and corner in the main cities wherever the crows had propagated the Bo-trees, even before the country gained Independence in 1948. This proves that there was no persecution as claimed by those who made use of Buddhism to climb the social ladder faster, to positions, espousing Buddhism. It is common for these Sinhalese Pundits of today, to accuse the British that they resorted to divide and rule. In reality it is the Politicians after Independence that resorted to dividing and ruling, whereas under the British there was amity and harmony between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. This amity between the Sinhalese and the Tamils started to disappear after ’56 with the introduction of the Sinhala Only Act. 

If one is to compare the majority Buddhists in the country, prior to Independence and afterwards, will realize that the Buddhists of yore, were more Buddhist, compassionate, considerate and tolerant. They allowed other faiths and all races to live side by side. Race and Religion were no issues. Mosques and Churches had been allowed to be built on Temple lands without protests by the Buddhists. Imagine the bloodshed, had the present day Buddhist’s mentality prevailed then? It is only after ’56 where it was publicly announced, what Henry Steel Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala laid the foundation for the present day Buddhists to revive Buddhism, that the majority Buddhists of today have become militant. Not only the Buddhists of today have become militant, they were successful in creating the Tamils also to take up arms to fight a thirty year war. Had saner council prevailed when the Tamils started to ask for equal status for the Tamils after Independence, the Politicians of the day interpreted that, the Tamils were demanding for half of the country. There were no homeland theories then. It was only after the early pogroms that the demand for a homeland was born when both Bandaranayake/ Chelvanayagam and Dudley-Chelvanayakam pacts were unilaterally abrogated by the Sinhala govts of the South. Leave alone reviving Buddhism, Buddhism has degenerated today to levels that were unheard of in the past, where Buddhist priests of today are more involved with politics even entering the Parliament. Buddhist priest are seen being baton charged by the long arm of the Law, in political demonstrations, running for dear life with their robes tucked high. It is not only the Buddhist priests that have degraded Buddhism, but even the Buddhist laity is responsible and the Politicians who have been riding on their backs.

Now that the war has been announced over, all are hoping the country will revert back to normalcy. I doubt very much. We as a Nation are not heading anywhere paying only lip service to reconciliation. Unless otherwise all Sri Lankans irrespective whether one is Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim or Burgher are recognized as equals, the Tamil’s cry for homeland and self-rule will remain. It is about time the Sinhala Buddhists took note that the failure to do so, there is a greater possibility of foreign intervention to settle for separation at some point in the future. There is no point blaming the Tamil diaspora then, as the majority Tamils have left this country due to disturbances, where their life and property has been at risk. Believe me if the Sinhalese were in similar plight they would precisely do the same what the Tamils are doing now.   

The only way this country can move forward is by providing equal opportunity and equal status to all it’s citizens, creating a secular society, avoiding the current mockery of trying to provide a due place for Buddhism over others with govt backing. Continuing the current process of doing so, all can see where the Sangha has ended up? The country has moved since Independence in trying to appease the Sinhala Buddhists that has caused much of the mayhem to the detriment of all. I know there will be more brickbats than flowers for this write up, like in the case of Kumar Sangakkara where he appealed to all Sri Lankans to be one family, only to face a barrage of criticism for his effort. I of course have no qualms as I am not the loser in the end. Don’t cry for me Sri Lanka I weep for thee.

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