26 May, 2022


Why Ethnicity Matters in Sri Lanka: An Author’s Response To Criticism

By Sinthujan Varatharajah –

Sinthujan Varatharajah

Following our Sinhala privilege piece published on our Tumblr, ‘Check your Des(h)i Privilege’, we received a number of responses from Sinhalese and Tamils alike. As one of the co-authors of the piece, I’ve observed some of the conversations that were incited by the piece on social media and felt compelled, now after almost a month since publication, to respond to some of the assertions made and beliefs uncovered in the wake of the debate. Although we have already provided a general response in an interview given to the Tamil Guardian, a personal reply may be helpful to some.

Some of our critics may conflate privileges with rights, which is an issue that needs to be addressed elsewhere, or read up in a number of available sources. Others may not necessarily understand the concept of intersectionality, i.e. the interconnection between social, cultural and biological categories, such as race, ethnicity, class, caste, gender, sexuality, able bodiedness, etc., which do not exist in isolation but interact and stand in correlation to produce and coin our lived experiences as individuals and groups within societies. I will address the latter in my response.

Any discussion on privilege needs to begin with a discussion on the nature of state and society: Sri Lanka is a country where the infamous politics of ‘bhumiputra’ (Sanskrit: son of the soil/land) may only (and conveniently) be claimed by the extreme Sinhala right, while it has in reality been widely mainstreamed and, importantly, invisibilized. Sinhalaness has indeed been abstracted to the extent that it has taken decades to come into discussion despite being so ubiquitous. Like other Asian nation-states, such as Malaysia or Burma, Sri Lanka has, by introducing discriminatory political and legal frameworks, created social realities which negatively affect minority populations while benefitting and uplifting the majority population (vis-à-vis minorities). Structural racism, just like structural sexism, heteronormativity, casteism, classism, etc., disadvantages one group to the benefit of another. Institutional racism against Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups in, for example, the UK increases the exclusion and peripheralization of BME while providing ample advantage and opportunities to white British, including white British anti-racists. The exclusion of Tamils more so than Muslims from certain employment and education sectors and institutions similarly provides more space, opportunities and mobilities for Sinhalese, no matter their gender, class, sexual, political et al. affiliation or orientation, to progress as individuals or as a social group. Privilege is ultimately a question of social, economic, and political access that some groups may have over others.

Going back in history, the island state emerged as a bastion of Sinhala dominance and Tamil, Muslim et al. subordination with the flag change from British Empire to independent Ceylon, later Sri Lanka, in 1948. The postcolonial nation-building project was designed upon the activation of reactionary ethnolinguistic and ethnoreligious political forces amongst the majority Sinhalese coupled with the marginalization of non-Sinhalese. Sri Lanka’s nation-building project is, however, not a tale of its past, dusting in historical archives and university lectures, but stretches right into our present. The social arrangements that disadvantage non-Sinhalese to the benefit of Sinhalese continue to exist and continue to be expanded, renegotiated and further normalized. Indeed, being Sinhalese has over decades been made the norm in the country while citizenship and belonging of non-Sinhalese has increasingly and predictably been contested, challenged and revoked. Just as whiteness is invisible in (post)colonial, globalized, capitalist world order, Sinhalaness is similarly invisible in the neo-colonial, globalized and capitalist order of Sri Lanka.

Our piece deliberated specifically and exclusively on the question of race and ethnicity in the country – not gender, class, caste, sexuality, able bodiedness, etc.. Although we consider them all to be crucial categories and identities that need separate and intersectional analysis, we came to agree that looking at Sri Lanka’s recent history, particularly its forms of racial violence, no question has been more urgent and polarising than the question of race and ethnicity. Some of our critics have claimed we disregard existing nuances between groups, but as already stated in our interview, we do the opposite, we acknowledge the multiplicity of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim identities and experiences. These intra-group differences, however, don’t eliminate the existence of inter-group differences and inequalities as well as how state structures and societal structures relate and are built around identifying ethnic sameness and difference. They aren’t mutually exclusive but co-existing.

The most commonly cited example to ‘debunk’ our claims to Sinhala privilege was the example of the lower caste/ rural/impoverished/Sinhalese/woman who, according to some, is able to defy our Sinhala privilege theory.  It is, however, conveniently deemphasized in the argument that we never contested the existence of intra-ethnic inequalities and (dis)privileges centred around questions of caste, wealth, sexuality etc.. Our contestation is placed, and exclusively so, between the question of race and ethnicity in the country (!). Some Sinhalese may very well be disadvantaged to say, a heteronormative, upper caste, middle class, urban, professional Sinhalese couple living in, for example, Colombo. Their grievances and marginalization are real and not to be ignored. The question in our analysis however is, whether a lower caste/rural/impoverished/Tamil/woman is equally disadvantaged in regards to representation, welfare and respect than a Sinhalese woman who checks the same criteria? Those of us who aren’t drunk on denial and revisionism will probably agree with me when I say, there is no balance in how both women of ethnic difference are placed in contemporary Sri Lanka.

A more concrete example of what non-Sinhalaness means, in other words what Sinhalaness means, is the case of Nethmi Lavanya Yogendra. The then 10-year-old Tamil girl achieved the second highest grade of Colombo District in her scholarship exam in 2007. Nethmi applied for admission to Vishaka Vidyalaya, a prestigious and traditional Sinhalese (Buddhist) girls school in Colombo. The school authorities initially accepted her application as she met all grade requirements and the girl’s parents paid the facility fees. Weeks later, Nethmi’s parents received, in unusual manner, a letter straight from the Sri Lankan Ministry of Education. The then Minister for Education, Susil Premajayanth, a Sinhalese, explained in the letter that Nethmi was refused admission to Vishaka Vidyalaya despite her excellent academic record in what he called ‘her own good’. The reason for her rejection: her Tamil ethnicity. The Minister made, unlike many others, no calms about his office’s ethnic discriminatory policies and declared that ‘her ethnicity would have caused her much worse problems’ in the school. Premajayanth’s confession is more honest than what we usually hear from government/state representatives no matter their ethnicity. His written words from 2007 stand particularly in contrast to the state’s post-war rhetoric which preaches post-ethnicity (‘there are no more minorities’) while living off ethnic chauvinism.

Some apologists may argue now Nethmi may not have spoken Sinhalese or would have possibly felt estranged in a Sinhala Buddhist majority school. The explosive detail about Nethmi’s case however was that the young Tamil girl was educated throughout her life in Sinhalese and is, like her father, a Buddhist. The question of course arises whether there was potential political reasoning behind the father’s conversion to Buddhism and choice of Sinhalese as the medium of instruction of his child. Considering that many leading Sri Lankan educational institutional don’t offer Tamil medium instructions, and considering the larger anti-Tamil state structures in the country, it seems plausible to suggest that assimilation can be a means of invisibilizing ethnic difference and circumventing ethnic discrimination. This seems more common than talked about. Having personally encountered few ethnically mixed families (via the paternal side) who identified as Sinhalese yet carried Tamil names, I’ve seen cases of families altering their Tamil sounding surnames to Sinhalese sounding ones, e.g. from Dharmaratnam to Dharmaratne, from Amarasingham to Ameresinghe. This of course helped easing their life in the island and escape anti-Tamil policies and other forms of ethnic discrimination. It, however, equally is an acknowledgment to the existence of an admission to Sinhala privilege.

For Nethmi it was never her possible lack of proficiency in Sinhalese or her cultural distance as a non-Buddhist that might have caused issues. It was nothing but her ethnicity, her blood, which posed the problem to the Sri Lankan state. Would this question ever have arisen to a Sinhalese girl who had similar grades as Nethmi and applied to the same school?

Probably not. Nethmi’s lack of Sinhala privilege was articulated upon.

You can very well be a Sinhalese who is poor, lower caste, female, queer and so and forth and yet benefit from the existing state framework, which is constructed upon alienation, disenfranchisement, criminalization, externalization, colonisation and erasure of Tamil, and today also Muslim, presence. Just as white people benefit, conscious or not, wanted or not, from the exclusion and differential treatment of non-white people in many Western societies, Sinhalese people benefit from the exclusion, differential treatment and contestation of place and belonging of Tamils and Muslims in the national framework. Whether you agree with it or not.

Our translation of the Sri Lankan problem, i.e. a Sinhalese problem which becomes everyone’s problem thanks to majority dominance, is the non-acknowledgment of the existence of Sinhaleness and how it affects your life and our lives as non-Sinhalese. Denying ethnic privilege comes close to denying that race and ethnicity matter in the country. Clearly they do matter though as seen in the example of Nethmi. For there to be equality, justice and sound race relations, it is especially your responsibility as Sinhalese to see Sinhala privilege where it is unseen, to name it where it is unnamed and challenge it where it is unchallenged.

All we ask that members of the Sinhalese majority think about the ways that social, political, and economic benefits can be co-extensive with ethnic identity in Sri Lanka, as well as in the diaspora. This doesn’t require that they accept everything or anything on our list. It does, however, require acknowledging that Sri Lanka’s social and economic arrangements, practices, and norms are skewed to the benefit of some groups over others, namely, the Sinhala majority.

*Sinthujan Varatharajah is a PhD Candidate in Political Geography at University College London, University of London, and a researcher for Euro-Islam.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 1

    Sinhala Buddhist identity is by no means ‘invisible’ or just taken for granted in Sri Lanka! Man it is the only road show in town and meant to be..
    Sinhala Buddhism is so OFFICIALLY visible that it has got to be a pathology! What is really missing here, is that analysis of the INTERSECTION of linguistic, religious, gender and CLASS discrimination to understand how the ethnic political game works to exclude and marginalize select groups.. This work remains to be done..

  • 0

    why are these minorities so worried about us, the sinhalese buddhists majority? it’s because these stupid minorities know that they are second class citizens in this country.

    • 0

      well said modaya. .you count more than three.

    • 0

      ela kolla,

      We are second class in Sinhala Lanka but First Class in Eelam

      You are second class in Eelam and may be First Class in Sinhala Lanka which is deabtable.

  • 0

    What is race. What is Ethnicity. Is it an illusion a mayava. Is it due to ignorance. I am a Sinhala Christian. As in Buddhism we must fight ignorance. We must see what many Extremist bloat up images that arouse people for economic, political and social gain. What we must do is to change our character to the better and by our lifestyle be an example to others. In Christianity Jesus helps us to become a better person. In Buddhism a person through his will power banishes ignorance and changes for the better.
    Race has mainly biological features. The Sinhala race consists of ancestors who have come from North and South India at different periods of time. There has being many cross marriages. Sinhala Kings have married Tamil people from South India. We are definitely a mixture and we prefer not to trace our family trees. The ones w3ho are most vocal often have other blood and cover it up with racist talk. If we are to really want to identify our Race we may have to study our DNA. Are we ready for this Test. Throwbacks to a long forgotten ancestor may be the result of such a Test.
    Ethnicity depends a lot on cultural background. The majority community consists of assimilated minorities who have absorbed different languages, Dietary habits, Dress and art. Today the American dream is that whatever society and class you are in you can by hard work become successful in a Worldly way. We from the East value character much more. We now strive to master English be in with the latest western fashions and art. Middle Eastern returns bring their changed values and ethics back. Ethnicity can change. TV,DVD, Internet is rapidly changing our culture. Let there be light. Let us be the salt of the Earth. Let us banish ignorance And accept the truth./ Let us meditate on the Noble Truths. Let us think globally in a background of Eastern Culture. Truth Conquers.

    • 0

      the only difference between Tamils and Sinhalas are that Tamils are united under the Language Tamil whether, they speak Tamil or not. anatomical feature wise, they looks almost the same. For example, both Mahinda Rajapakse and Velupilli Pabakaran ahd the same mustach and both looked fat. Some Tamils, may not use Tamil at all except in their home when they talk with the wife. Because their working language is another language and their children speak the majority language in that country such as english, French or Norwigian, etc.,

      Only in Sri Lanka, Tamils do now want to talk Sinhala. Because their are 65 million in the other side of the Palk Strait and they feel inferior.

      Whose Fault.

      It is the Sri Lankan govt’s fault.

      • 0

        Jim Sooty,

        You are bloody illeterate man and your IQ is the lowest after Fat” Mama ” Fuk U Shima of Mankind which has graced this Planet.

        For your information we Tamils dont speak any other language other than our clonial masters English.

        Tamil Nadu is the olny State in India which does not speak Hindi which is inferior to Tamil.
        Eelam will never speak Sinhalese which is inferior to Tamil.

        By the way I would like you to listen to Modis speech in Chennai and alram bells are ringing.
        6 Have been charged over the murder of the aid worker from UK. Heat is getting closer to MR by March 2014 he is looking at Hague. Gotha has disappeared. Lord Buddha is begining to turn the Screw.

    • 0

      Well said ! it is said ignorance is bliss…may be for a short time,and then there is a huge price to be paid.

    • 0

      Right on Ranil!

      Sinhala Christians are far more enlightened and liberal that the Sinhala Buddhist who are the modayas – this is a fact I have observed in Lanka!

  • 0

    ‘The ones who are most vocal often have other blood and cover it up with racist talk’. Absolutely true!

    Sengodan. M

  • 0

    It is not the ethnicity matters in SL, but the political abuse of ethnicity. People should be aware of such tactics. Democracy in SL is still young and seems to be developing to a malformation of democracy called autocracy

  • 0

    Looking at things in another mode our situation is that the problem is a problem of transmission and reception.We have created for ourselves a more complex problem by placing the natural undivided state outside ourselves as we are,which needs in having to search for peace in dealing with the natural peacefulness of ourselves.
    In trying to do that more divisions are created which are in fact really meaningless.It is like a menu without a meal,mere hypocrisy and commercialism.That is why there is something radically wrong with our perception of religion.Obviously religions are false that is why there are divisions,yours mine.

  • 0

    Fat “Mama” Fuk U Shima,

    I have just posted a comment in response to your other half Jim Sooty. Hope you enjoy it.

    Repeat Prescription:

    I am a Wahabi Slave
    Tamil Widows

  • 0


    I think you are making a mountain out of a mole hill. I dont see any problem with Nethmis csse. Let us not pretend that Ethnicity doesnt matter. In reality it does matter not just in Sinhala Lanka but all over the World.
    If in Sinhala Lanka there are Sinhalese Schools exclusively set up for the Buddhist Sinhalese I dont see a problem with that Just like in England there are Jewish Schools where you have to be a Jew to gain entry.
    Although there are Muslim School for Muslims there is a fuss about the exixtence of such schools but that is hypocracy but that is the World that we live in.

    For me there are two disticnt Ethnic Groups in Sri Lanka and each group has a right to preserve its language and cultre and I dont see a problem with that.

  • 0

    Nethmi’s case illustrates that the minister himself beleives that she,being a tamil,does not belong in a ‘sinhala-buddhist school’.
    He should be praised for stating the views of the government to which he belongs.
    Now that this is public knowledge,what is the view of the President – who bleats from the rooftop that there is full democracy in sri lanka?
    If Nethmi appeals to the supreme court,will the judge rule her plea
    inadmissible according to the laws and customs – according to his own personal knowledge?
    Is there a code of admission to schools?
    Was this violated?
    Are schools divided according to ethnicity according to the law?

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.