Colombo, Politics and Governance

How does one BECOME Sinhalese or Tamil in Sentiment?

My interpretation of the present impasse in the politics of Sri Lanka, determined as it is by the competitive jostling-cum-conflicts between the three main ethnic groups (where “Muslim” is ‘ethnic’ by virtue of its relationship of opposition to “Sinhalese” and “Tamil” in the same sentence), leans towards an emphasis on how one should address present circumstances. Though I am a historian, I believe that delving into ancient history is of limited value for any exercise in rapprochement. Indeed, I would go further and insist that the circumstances of the immediate present, today in 2008, must mould any constitutional and economic arrangements seeking a modus vivendi. We cannot erase memories of the atrocities committed by all parties in the conflict that rest within the minds of today’s victimised survivors. But, subject to such caveats regarding the immediate past, a bracketing and limiting of historically-based claims would be of immense benefit towards paths of reconciliation. Even the census of 1981 cannot be a baseline for territorial adjustments. The hard realities of the present-day ground situation must assume predominance for pragmatic adjustments of accommodation.

History, however, looms large in the claims to space within Sri Lanka among the propagandists and ultra-nationalists who are at the cutting edge of claim and counter-claim. Historical data, or, rather, what passes for data, is at the root of arguments of legitimisation and demand. Any Tom, Dick or Harry in the ultra camps feels that s/he can deploy bits and pieces of historical ‘fact’ to support the various claims to island-space. They also voice interpretations of the more recent past to emphasise their grievances and the legitimacy of political position.

These claims cannot be majestically cast aside: for the reason that they emanate from emotional commitments and earnest belief and, as such, are part of the politics of identity and political competition. It is for this reason that I addressed the subject of “History-Making” in an article that appeared in cyber-space within The main argument was directed towards illustrating the sweeping character of the theories about the ancient history of Sri Lanka presented by some of the ultra TomDHs who ventured boldly in this field without any expertise in the subject. The emphasis was not on their lack of disciplinary training, but on the manifest absurdity of some arguments and the manner in which vast claims were asserted on the basis of one alleged ‘fact’, a fact that, as often as not, was of dubious authenticity.

Insofar as some of the extreme views that I challenged had harped on racial distinctions, one of the subsidiary themes in History-Making argued that the peoples of Sri Lanka were racially mixed and that blood-distinction was a non-issue. This assertion — and let me stress that it is a conjectured assertion – is based on common sense and the geographical location of the island in the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, its proximity to the Indian sub-continent and a considerable body of widely-known facts about bodies of people who migrated to Sri Lanka at various moments during the last fifteen centuries or so.

Strikingly, though, this sub-theme is the issue that attracted most comment (thus far a week into the event). Apart from a few carping attacks by readers who had not understood my contentions, both Dushy Ranetunge and the pseudonymous Dingiri concentrated on this facet of my argument. Both in fact supported my thrust and stressed the mixtures of ‘blood’ or country of origin that have shaped the genes of the peoples who have lived in Lanka in recent past and distant past. Both even sought to provide a positivist cast to our series of assertions by suggesting DNA testing as likely proof.

It is this emphasis that gives rise to this particular essay. The emphasis on the racial aspect, our blood pedigree so to speak, is worrying even if the speakers are taking a moderate line that celebrates hybridity. For one, it demonstrates the power exercised by the racial categories spawned in the West and imported in the course of imperial expansion in an era marked by Darwinian currents. Such forms of thought found fertile soil in countries where varna theories held sway and caste distinctions averse to the mixing of blood (just read Piyadasa Sirisena’s novels of the early 20th century and the first chapter in People Inbetween re this issue) had deep roots.

For another, it encourages a misunderstanding of ethnicity in the contemporary world and the force exerted by its depth of subjectivity. Ethnic differentiation is not solely “racial” or based on contemporary beliefs about supposed racial distinction (though that can be one powerful ingredient in such distinctions). Ethnicity is a subjective group sentiment. It is such sentiment that drives the ideologues who seek to manipulate the sentiments for their own immediate purposes. As subjective sentiment, ethnic identity is always in context and in relation to other groups in an interactive setting in territorial space. There is a “We”:”They” dimension to ethnic differentiation, one that can differentiate XYZ from several categories of neighbouring people (so that “They” can be a cluster of named others).

Such differentiation can be sharpened where there is competition for resources and for institutional power, including state power. That type of competition will be familiar to most readers so let me focus here on the cultural ingredients of subjective We-ness, that is, the cultural practices that sustain the distinctions and, then, reproduce them over generational-time in dynamic ways that can insert shifts in emphasis amidst significant continuities.

Language is often a fundamental dimension of one’s experience of the world, though it does not necessarily serve as a major factor of distinction everywhere or constitute difference in the same fashion. It is also a complex phenomenon because there can be meaningful dialect differences within each language. The dialect variation among the English and the Germans, for example, have been of considerable import for centuries and one facet of their emergence as “nations” was the moulding of an overarching ‘standard’ form of English or German that confederated their loyalties within the emergent new state.

The state as an institution was so central to the development of Englishness in the period extending from the 15th to 18th centuries that some historians depict the process as one involving a state-become-nation. But this state encompassed the British Isles and was known as “Britain” rather than “England.” Thus, the Scots, Welsh and Cornish were among those drawn into the confederative concept of Britain in the early modern and modern eras, an incorporation that was made easier by the economic opportunities opened up by the imperial expansion of Great Britain.

A subjective attachment to “Us” as distinct from neighbours is rarely constituted, and then re-produced over time, by just one central factor. It is a multi-factor process. Among other factors, self-perceptions and the sentiments around such affinities are moulded by everyday practices of a complex kind engaging preferences in cuisine, dress, tonsure, cosmetics, bodily cleanliness, architecture and so on. Let me illustrate from close to home.

In the late 21990s I was sent a draft manuscript by an Indian journal for review as Referee. The article was by Dennis McGilvray, an experienced American anthropologist conversant in Tamil and familiar with the Eastern Province. Addressing the issue of Tamil and Muslim identities in the Eastern Province his conclusions stressed the many commonalities they share and expressed a hope for political reconciliation in the immediate future. This emphasis was clearly motivated by well-intentioned hopes of peace, besides his knowledge of the regional scene. [See McGilvray’s revised article in Contributions to Indian Sociology and then again as a Marga Monograph in 2001 entitled “Tamil and Muslim Identities in the East”].

In reviewing the draft I expressed my reservations about the overly one-sided stress on similarities. Besides the evidence of recent clashes of a violent character between elements within these two bodies of people in the EP, sometime back I had chanced upon a Jesuit missionary document that recorded a violent riot some 110 years earlier in the 1890s. I also suspected that over the last century there would have been occasional bazaar clashes and land disputes with ethnic hues, flash-points that never reached newspaper reportage. So I had always been sceptical of platform rhetoric from local politicians affirming life-long amity among the different communities in the Eastern Province.

This caution was backed by my attentiveness to the significance of cultural difference of the sort embedded in practices of cuisine, coiffeur, tonsure et cetera and the reproduction of community endogamy because of the limited degree of cross-ethnic marriage throughout Sri Lanka. I therefore suggested that McGilvray’s essay could be improved if he attended to a whole range of seemingly minute areas of difference: for example (a) architectural practice relating to the directional location of one’s household cesspit and (b) the trimming of pubic and armpit hair that was enjoined on good Muslims.

Marriages across ethnic boundaries do occur in Sri Lanka. With reference to the  last two centuries, say, from 1796-to-1981, one can say that in some areas, such as the Chilaw-Negombo coastline and the sparsely populated dry zone jungles there has been some degree of inter-marriage between Sinhalese and other ethnic categories — including Väddas in some places. Likewise, in the slum and shanty areas in Colombo and among the jet-set elites such cross-ethnic marriages seem to be greater than among the general populace. But subject to such caveats one can present broad generalisations to the effect (1) that Muslim women have rarely married outside their community, though some Sinhala brides have been absorbed by the community; (2) that caste-oriented marriage practices among the Sinhalese and Tamils have assisted a broad process that sustains ethnic endogamy as a general feature and (3) that the Burghers have shown the greatest propensity to marry outside their group, though even here the pukka upper-crust Burghers tried to remain pukka.

Thus, for every instance of cross-ethnic marriage in the recent Sri Lankan past one could find another case where an individual who defied community and/or parental preference was disinherited or shunned; and there are surely enough anecdotal tales of boy-girl love interests that were vetoed by parental or sibling fiat.      

Marriage, however, is not the only arena where one can evaluate degrees of cross-ethnic amity. Food sharing and funeral arrangements provide litmus tests. It is not enough to share Muslim feasts at Ramazan or other symbolic moments. It is when and with whom food is shared that is significant. For that matter, it is how food is shared: does a visit to a Muslim household by a Tamil or Sinhalese friend (male?) involve eating rice out of the same main dish as everyone sits on the floor in a circle around the repast? The latter practice is one sign of Muslim-ness, inclusion in the brotherhood of local being, albeit, ultimately, a pointer towards the pan-Muslim community or ummah.

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This long digression is directed towards emphasising the significance of a range of cultural practices – which obviously vary with area, climate and peoples – in moulding community sentiment of an ethnic kind in the global universe writ large. Travel and migrant movement in this era of globalisation may generate melting pot conditions in some places, but at the same time one also finds the development of heightened ethnicity shaped by nostalgia, ethnic networks of support, urban clustering, ghetto situations and the prejudices of host populations. Thus, ethnic affiliations always emerge in particular “sites” in the broad sense of the latter word (inclusive of class and time-period). They also are shaped by their relational field of structured social exchanges, including the impact of demographic weight and the control of resources and state power.

Thus, the appeal in this article is for us to move away from a focus on racial pedigree or beliefs about racial origins (though the latter can be one factor in the scenario) and to consider the range of factors, including seemingly benign everyday ways of dressing, cooking, eating or refining one’s body, that constitute difference.     

Towards this end I would ask each Sinhalese who reads this piece to reflect on the following issues: What makes you FEEL that you are a Sinhalese? How did you become Sinhalese? What made your parents think and feel themselves Sinhalese? And are you at the same time a Sri Lankan in sentiment? Or is the last question redundant in that “Sinhalese” is equivalent to “Sri Lankan”?

Likewise, with adjustments and a deletion of the last question, this battery of reflective questions can be pondered over by Tamils of Sri Lankan origin, some of whom may well have jettisoned their Sri Lankan-ness at this stage of their life as a result of recent experiences. In this regard the Tamils can also ask themselves if they have any sense of warm affinity to Tamils nourished in Tamilnadu, Malaysia or Fiji? In other words, is one’s “Tamilness” locale-specific and rooted in memories of place or places, say, Manipay, Paranthan or Pasakudah?

To put my question in a nutshell: how did each of you become Sinhalese or Tamil and develop attachments to that entity? The inspiration for this question, I add, comes from the grave. On one occasion in August 1983 a few weeks after the anti-Tamil pogrom of that year, Charles Abeysekera and Newton Gunasinghe (both now deceased) were at the SSA office in Nawala Road reflecting on the situation facing their country. As related to me once by Newton, he was forced to confront a question on the lines above raised by Charlie: “how do you know you are Sinhalese and what makes you Sinhalese?” It was not a joke, but an analytical twister. Newton had proceeded to address it with due seriousness and in analytical fashion. It is this I ask of you.

  • dias

    Tamils, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Sinhalese, Burghers, Americans, Jews, Arabs, or whatever our compositions – in the final analysis as per Teilhard de Chardin, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience but spiritual beings having a human experience. And unless Sri Lankans recognize that what we are presently experiencing is a crisis of our spirit we will continue to be blinded through our negative human behaviors perpetuating the national crisis.

    It is both encouraging and refreshing to read the acknowledgement by Michael Roberts about the imperative to be grounded in the present to discover constructive solutions for the nation’s future. The Sri Lankan challenge though a difficult one, is certainly no rocket science and one that is solvable. The general consensus among American solutions experts about the biggest obstacle to the discovery of a solution to the Sri Lankan challenge is the incapacity of Lankan solutions professionals to overcome their personal attachments and emotions. Even the crème de la experts of Sri Lanka impulsively become emotional when it comes to discussing solutions slamming doors shut to objectivism – the downfall of the Presidential Expert Panel effort of summer, 2006.

  • people who cannot come to a judgment ( in spite of well substantiated evidence of ltte’s actions) about whether ltte terrorist group is a armed gang of criminals that do not deserves any place in any kind of society, are obviously suffering from certain deficiencies in their moral and pragmatic sense of judgment. michael roberts and charles abeysekera fall/fell under this category.

    as for the question considered in this post , it is of interest only to academics with too much time on their hands, and racists who try to portray any attempt to defeat that ltte terrorist criminal gang as a conflict between races. these racists include people who believe and accept the criminal gang’s obviously absurd propaganda about fighting and representing tamils.

  • Deshan

    (1) What makes you FEEL that you are a Sinhalese?

    Was born to Sinhalese parents, speak the Sinhalese language, follow Sinhalese traditions, come from the Sinhalese Nation’s homeland of Sri Lanka.

    (2) How did you become Sinhalese?

    My answer is, how did you become Burgher?

    (3) What made your parents think and feel themselves Sinhalese?

    The same thing that made your parents think and feel themselves Burgher.

    (4) And are you at the same time a Sri Lankan in sentiment?


    (5) Or is the last question redundant in that “Sinhalese” is equivalent to “Sri Lankan”?

    In some respects Sinhalese is equivalent to Sri Lankan. When someone asks me what I am I say Sri Lankan. But at the same time it’s the Sinhalese who give the island its uniqueness. In the same manner, Tamils give Tamil Nadu its uniqueness. Malayalis give Kerala it’s uniqueness, Kannadigas give Karnataka its uniqueness and so on and so forth.

    I certainly hope this is not an attempt by Michael Roberts to try and claim that the Sinhalese identity is all made up with no basis, whilst the Tamil one is not. Eelamists have been trying really hard to do that during the last few decades (with no success mind you). The Sinhalese have existed as group for thousands of years. Their identity was solidifed when ever they were persecuted. The two main causes were

    (1) Tamil invasions into the island which had the double effect of increasing Sinhalese ethnic consciousness and the binding of Buddhism and the Sinhalese because of ethnic and religious persecution.

    (2) Persecution by the colonialists. Once again Buddhism and the Sinhalese were bound together because the colonials tried their very best to destroy it and convert everyone to Christianity. Once the colonials left many of the “rice Christians” converted back to Buddhism.

    And now the war in the country also continues to solidify the Sinhalese identity as Sinhalese nationalism and Tamil nationalism clash. The Tamil ethnic identity is also being solidified because Tamils feel they are being persecuted.

  • Bala

    If LTTE are criminals did you ever sit down and wonder the inability of the GOSL to not get rid of them for almost 30 years. This alone is proof Sri Lanka is a failed state should be broken up in two avoid more bloodshed.

  • I agree with Michael Roberts that Sinhaleseness and Tamilness are not things people feel during birth but are made to feel after birth by the society. I am sure this is true with “Blacks” ,”whites” and others.

    Whatever happened in Sri Lanka in the past, consciousness of a group of people called Tamils and another called Sinhalese, have developed over centuries. Now we find that they confine themselves to two separate territories and developed different cultural traditions; evident during marriage ceremonies and rituals during death.

    Therefore, the reality is that we have two nations, namely, the Tamil nation (TN) and Sinhalese nation (SN).

    Where there are two nations in any country, one nation will inevitably dominate the other nation to achieve its own agenda, within the broader agenda of the country. And the dominant group will never allow less dominant one to outshine it in the greater scheme of things. In the process, the dominant nation, blinded by arrogance will oppress the less dominant. Therefore, unfair governance practice would be a norm than exception.

    This is what exactly happened to Sri Lanka. And when this happened, there was tendency for Tamils to join politically with the Sinhalese thinking that Tamils could survive the dominance of SN and become equals. What really happened was their action did not nullify the dominance of the “emperor” . “Emperor” continued to grow in naked anti Tamilism. A master-slave attitude started to grow. The diginity of Tamils eroded away.

    A master-slave attitude has made the Sinhalese to think that Tamils are property less than human. Even on common problems, the thinking is different. A Sinhalese would close his eyes and say any Tamil freedom fighter who seeks redress as “terrorists”, not realising that the dominant Sinhala state is the worst State terrorist in the world.

    Now Sinhaleseness and Tamilness have grown into an irreversible state of murder, displacements, torture, destruction and war. The only pragmatic approach would be to restore the dignity of the Tamils by granting them self rule so that they detrimine their own future.

  • Sinhala Buddhist

    ETHNICITY is NOT only what is make up and ancestry…this only sub-part. The world view you hold, the language you use to articulate your world view, environment, social relationships within that context is ethnicity.
    It is Mind+Body not body or mind exclusively.

    Human Beings are not only individuals acting in isolation like spiders they have a group instinct and a desire to be part of a community or a group. This creates and have created cultures, ways of life, languages, world views….and finally concept of ETHNICITY.

    So Sinhala, Sinhalaness or Tamilness is just the same as above.

    Tamil Culture world view is NOT restricted to Sri Lanka ONLY. It is NOT unique to Sri Lanka. The HOME of Tamil is Tamil Nadu. I wonder whether you or anyone can dispute that. There is NO racism in this statement. I do NOT consider myself in anyway superior to any human being nor inferior.

    The concept of Sri Lankan is a recently new arrival to Sri Lanka. This has come about as a result of WESTERN LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC POLITICAL THEORIES. The membership of a state (Sri Lanka).

    The Ethnic and sub-Ethnic (Caste) membership is a older grouping in places like Sri Lanka and India as well as other asian countries.

    Of course, one can say Sri Lankan or Sinhalese. If you are speaking to fellow Sri Lankan you will have to go down to another layer and be more specific. Whereas if you are talking to foreigners who wants to know roughly where you come from you would say Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan.

    Sri Lankan identifies a STATE MEMEBERSHIP. It does NOT reflect who you are.

    Because there is NO such thing as a Sri Lankan Culture or way of life. This is ONLY really applicable to Sinhalese culture and Veddah Culture as they are the only cultures that are unique to Sri Lanka.

    Tamilness, Muslimness, Europeaness Christianess, Hinduness, Buddhistness (practical) is NOT unique to Sri Lanka. It is the SINHALA/Sinhaleness Modulated by BUDDHIST world View that is UNique to Sri Lanka today and Veddah peoples’ culture and way of life.

    I believe this answers the below questioons effectively:

    What makes you FEEL that you are a Sinhalese?
    How did you become Sinhalese?
    What made your parents think and feel themselves Sinhalese?
    And are you at the same time a Sri Lankan in sentiment?
    Or is the last question redundant in that “Sinhalese” is equivalent to “Sri Lankan”?

  • Sam,

    “not realising that the dominant Sinhala state is the worst State terrorist in the world.” – Honestly, where you come up with these statements is beyond me. I admit that GOSL has a terrible record and they are by all means engaged in all sorts of activities that violate people’s rights…but “worst state terrorist” …I don’t think that’s a qualified statement. Given your passionate stance towards a separate state, I don’t think you’d have the objectivity to really analyze the true implications of such a statement on a global scale.

    I for one believe that ethnicity is over-hyped in Sri Lanka and in many asian countries for that matter. I think the times during which we held on to religion and race as solidifying factors is eroding on a global level (perhaps being replaced by other ideologies). I just see myself as a Sri Lankan and that’s what I identify myself as being…not a race (they are intertwined on some level but I think nationality overrides it).

    What is happening in Sri Lanka for the longest time has been the politicization of race . The stirring of pride and prejudice to fulfill the aspirations of a bureaucratic elite….and it has been consuming and corrupting even more minds. To the extent that no side’s extremists don’t seem to even want to give co-existence a shot.

    Culture, values and norms are dynamic concepts. This war has and will continue to have a lasting effect on all the cultures and people involved. It will carry a legacy of hate and intolerance that we will have to continuously fight (figure of speech) to rid from the consciousness of current and future generations.

  • Michael, I observe that you have really touched on the foundations of ethnicity in Sri Lanka.

    Adolf Hitler of former Germany, and Hendrick Verwoed of former Apartheid South Africa, buillt up German and Afrikaans racial superiority based on untruth, which the respecive people believed as the absolute truth. Similarly, Sinhalese base their superiority and claim to the island, based on untruthful and unscientific philosophy of “lion blood” or “Sinha-lay” in their blood veins.

    Hitler said the Aryan race to be superior. He could not face reality even when Jessey Owens won in Olympics. Verwoed said that Afrikaaners were chosen to protect Africa. Those were their foundations for racism.

    Similarly, the falsehood of “Sinhaleseness” is the cause for ethnic oppression in Sri Lanka. Sinhalese have been told myths as real history to create “Sinhaleseness”. And they remain brain washed into historical stupidity.

    The story of Vijaya and his 800 men coming to the island is one such myth on the origin of Sinhaleseness.

    The sea journey those days were arduous. They had only crafts to travel. For the 801 men to come from West Bengal to Ceylon would have taken at least a 100 days as they depended on wind and sea currents to travel. A simple balanced person would ask the following questions;

    1) How did all the 801 persons survive at sea?
    2) How did they drink water and take food? Sea water cannot be consumed and
    raw fish is not princely food!
    3) How come none died of sea sickness or scorching sun?

    I challenge any “Sinhala historian” to give me a satisfactory and sscientific answer.

    The truth is that the closest people to this island were Dravidians living in South India. They came to this island when the island was still linked to India. The animals too came to exist whilst this island was still connected.

    Marco Polo visited this island about 600 years ago and he wrote that he met the king of the entire island, named Sandanam. This truth is not taught at schools because the intent is to create Sinhala bias.

    The International Community fails to understand that the Tamils need liberation for political freedom at the same time the Sinhalese need liberation to know historical truth.

  • Shanil,

    I call Sri Lanka state to be the “worst state terrorist country” in the world because Amnesty International documented state terrorism in Sri lanka namely the displacements, torture, murder and disappearances in, and classified Sri Lanka as the country with “most disappearances in the world”. Therefore it is not my invention.

    I am glad that you too agree that the GOSL has “terrible records”. How should we call such a country?

  • Yes. I don’t disagree that the record is damning, but to label it as the world’s worst terrorist state, in my view (you are free to disagree) is an exercise in naivety , given that there are many oppressive regimes in the world.

    And while I deplore this government and the general progression of all the chauvinist governments of the past…the records by orgs. I don’t believe that all rights/humanitarian organizations are free of bias and motives either (I work for and study them). But i’m not of the view that the west is trying to taint GOSL’s precious image…

    I do not believe in all this ethnic hatred. I think our common enemy is the LTTE AND the Government …not the institution itself…but the cronies and crooks in it…and the hatred and corruption they’ve propagated… Who cares where the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims came from? The end result is …we have an opportunity to live together and create a peaceful existence for ourselves and our children…..or …argue and kill each other….strangely the latter has been particularly attractive to most on the island….all because each is hung up on racial pride.

    I don’t contest that there aren’t very legitimate claims to equality by the tamil minority…but I hold that war achieves nothing…in fact it has only deteriorated the situation and led to the further oppression of the poor, particularly stranded refugees who are caught in all this politics. It is all a vicious cycle.

    I think to look at one party and call them terrorists and killers and totally disregard the other is hypocrisy….if the SL Govt practice terrorism…then the LTTE is a similar animal if not worse…combined they have stolen so much …both tangible and intagible..from the masses who blindly support either of them.

  • I often wonder as to whether a person could really state “Sinhala-Buddhist” as a his or her identity in Sri Lanka.

    A recent study of the DNA has shown that the blood of the Sinhalese is more closely connected to the blood of people South India. The blood of Tamils of North East is less connected to the blood of the people of South India. It may be shocking to any Sinhalese who brands himself as a “Sinhalese” but the scientific truth is undisputable. Therefore, Sinhalese have a Dravidian origin, not Aryan, as often falsely portrayed !!

    Therefore, Sinhalese have more South Indianness and less Sri Lankanness than Tamils of North East.

    Looking at Buddhism, I am not a Buddhist but from the bit I have read about Buddhist History in Sri Lanka, King Devanabiya Tissa was a non Buddhist and a lover of hunting animals. Asoka, who was a Buddhist missionery, told the king that it was wrong to kill animals and converted him to Buddhism.

    If Asoka came today to Sri Lanka, he would shout and screem at the entire Buddhist clergy and Mahinda Rajapakse saying that it is completely wrong to kill Tamils. He will preach real Buddhism and convert a “Buddhist” to be a real Buddhist.

    Strangely, contrary to Buddhist fundamentals, Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka openly support war and killing, indicating that they are not Buddhists. Therefore, what we find in Sri Lanka is not Buddhism but a religion called “Budddhism” and people take advantage out of it.

    Resultantly, in “Sinhala- Buddhist” culture, we find those who call themselves “Buddhist Clergy”, have become a brood of vipers, openly violating the basics of Buddhism on killing. Sinhala Historiansn are full of falsehood. Sinhala politicians are dishonest, untruthful and break away any political promises and agreements. Does this not make anyone shameful to say that he is a “Sinhala- Buddhist”? Can the non “Sinhala-Buddhist” ever co exist with such degraded culture?

  • Ekcol

    Prof Roberts,
    I think the Genome Project has reasonably proved, for the time being at least, that all Homo Sapiens Sapiens originally came out of Olduvai in the areas in and around the current state of Kenya and dispersed to various parts of the globe. It is also reasonably established by scholars that there is enough evidence that our Island was settled by waves of immigrants and each wave added their knowledge, skills, beliefs and culture over thousands of years. The current inhabitants are recipients of those gifts for better or for worse. Each generation added to it and on occasions destroyed and continue to destroy parts of it.

    You have raised an important issue – “How does one BECOME Sinhalese or Tamil in Sentiment? ” I think Charlie, with whom I have interacted many times and would like to call him a friend, put the question simply, ” How do you know you are Sinhalese?” He was, I am sure, not expecting an answer or at least not a simple answer but may have wanted to start a train of thought in the listener. Groundviews readers may wish to refer to discussion on, “Who is a Tamil?” in Read it only if you are in a mood for a real chuckle and of course to understand how difficult it is for anyone to answer such questions. Such a question, as you know, does not lead to a definitive answer. It however makes people to analyse, ad infinitum, like those before us have done to add their thoughts for us to review.

    The answer to the questions Charlie and you raised lies in the fields of neuropsychology and behaviour, social anthropology, and the social behaviour of Chimpanzees and Gorillas. No pun intended. For an understanding of the first field, the first book I will recommend is the one written, with a lot of diagrams and MRI photos, with the general population in mind, by Rita Carter, Mapping of the Mind, 1998. For those who want to know more recent information, can read more when you google the word – Brain or mind.

    With respect to the social behaviour of Chimpanzees, Jane Goodall’s research is the best. I like to quote a few paragraphs from her book, “Reason for Hope -” 1999. I shall take the liberty to reverse the order of the paragraphs to illustrate an answer for the questions, “What makes us Sinhalese or Tamils?” and “How does one become Sinhalese or Tamil in Sentiment?” I shall let the reader relate what Goodall says to our own human communities without my interruptive comments.

    Goodall said that, “One of the most significant facts established about human behavior, as it relates to warfare and other acts of violence against conspecifics, is the following; cultural evolution permits the development of pseudospeciation. Pseudospeciation, simply defined, means the transmission of the individually acquired behaviour from one generation to the next within a particular group. Over time this leads to the collective culture (the customs and traditions) of that group. Pseudospeciation (or cultural speciation as I prefer) in humans means, among other things, that the members of one group (the in-group) may not only see themselves as different from members of another group (the out-group), but also behave in different ways to group and non-group individuals. In its extreme form, cultural speciation leads to the dehumanizing of out-group members, so that they may come to be regarded almost as members of a different species. This frees group members from the inhibitions and social actions that operate within the group, and enables them to direct acts toward “those others” which would not be tolerated within the group. Slavery and torture at one end of the scale, ridicule and ostracism at the other.”

    “The Gombe chimpanzees quite clearly show the precursors of cultural speciation. Their sense of group identity is strong; they clearly differentiate between individuals who “belong” (to the community) and those who do not. Infants of females who are part of the group are protected while infants of females who do not belong may be killed. This sense of group identity is far more sophisticated than mere xenophobia. The members of the Kahama community had, before the split, enjoyed close and friendly relations with their aggressors; in some cases they had grown up with them and had traveled, feel, played, groomed, and slept together. By separating themselves, it was as though the Kahamans had forfeited their “right” to be treated as group member – instead, they were treated as strangers. And, just as civil wars in our own species can be the most shocking, so it was with the assaults on these onetime friends. All those attacks were brutal, but the worst, for me, was the attack on my old friend Goliath, who had, inexplicably, cast his lot with the southerners. He was so ancient, thin, and frail and utterly homeless. He was trying desperately to hide, crouching under some thick undergrowth, when they found him. He was dragged out, screaming. Five adult males, his former grooming partners, took part in this assault. And an adolescent seized every opportunity to rush in and contribute his own small blows, screaming in excitement. For eighteen minutes they attacked, hitting and biting and dragging, twisting one leg round and round. When they left, with excitement, the old male tried to sit up, but fell back, shivering. Although we searched for him everyday for a week we never saw him again.” (p129)

    “Human wars are waged between countries; and between factions within countries – revolutions and civil wars have been among the most brutal of all. The Four-Year War of Gombe chimpanzees could not, of course, measure up to human warfare of this sort, yet it had become clear that the apes were on the very threshold of the otherwise uniquely human achievement. After all, in human history the large-scale deployments of men and weapons did not emerge, fully fledged overnight. Like all our cultural advancements, war evolved gradually over the centuries from primitive Chimplike aggression to the organized armed conflict of today. There are still living groups of indigenous people whose form of warfare is not so different from that of the Four-Year War of the Gombe Chimpanzees – where raiding parties creep into the territory of the next village to kill and plunder.”

    “Whilst warfare in its typical human form is a cultural development, certain preadaptations must have existed in our earliest ancestors to permit its emergence in the first place. The most crucial of these would have included cooperative group living and hunting skill, territoriality, use of weapons, and the ability to make cooperative plans. There would also need to have been an inherent fear of hatred of strangers, expressed by aggressive attack. The Gombe Chimpanzees clearly possessed, to a greater or lesser degree, the above qualities. Certainly chimpanzees were aggressively territorial. Not only did they protect their home range from incursion by “strangers” – that is, individuals of either sex (with the exception of adolescent females) from neighboring communities – but they also actively patrolled the boundaries of their home range at least once a week, monitoring the movements of their neighbors. And not only did they defend their territory, they also sometimes enlarged it at the expense of a weaker neighbour. The most likely cause of the Four-Year War at Gombe was the Kasakela males’ frustration at being denied access to an area over which they had roamed until it was occupied by the breakaway community.”(p127).

    Now to answer Prof Roberts question directly, my Identity is formed by the genetic and cultural contribution of those from whom I evolved, and more recently from those who formed the cultural speciation of the family and community in which I was born and grew up. That identity is however modified over the years by the sum of my learning and experience in and out of the Island. The first phase gave me my Tamil identity. My experience in other parts of the Island and out of the Island helped me to evolve a “Humane Identity” on top of my Tamil identity. The Humane Identity did not recognize in-groups or out groups, or ‘territorial imperatives’. It abhorred direct and indirect harming of any human. But, as Locke would say, if any person tries to put my family or me under his power, I shall rebel against him. Naturally, by extension, I would do the same if one community anywhere in the world tries to put another community under its own power. In my view, the “humane identity” does not evolve out of thin air. It has as its substratum one or more cultural identities. A cultural identity that does not evolve to a humane identity would stagnate in a blind alley for generations and gradually become extinct like the Neanderthal.

  • Michael,

    I completely agree with most of your points. Especially with regard to the hypocrisy of this war from a Buddhist perspective. It is entirely “un-Buddhist” and I speak as one. As for the genetic roots of Sinhalese, I honestly have a clue and the results would not shape my life in any way. It is a reality to which I am apathetic though I can see how it’s a big deal to many people in the country.

    Although it’s a seemingly clinical assessment on my part and it’s by no means a justification…what I find rather one sided…is how all this is portrayed as being endemic to “Sinhala Buddhists”. It’s not! Yes in Sri Lanka they are but this also happens in pretty much every multi-racial country in the world, to varying degrees. No religion, unless grossly misinterpreted condones war and killing, so many ethnic majorities have slaughtered and massacred minorities or rival ethnicities. Having grown up in Africa, i’ve seen it happen more times than I can stand. Like i said, forgive me if I sound like i’m protecting these thugs that are called politicians and the large numbers of “my kind” who lust for war as a solution to their problems…. all i’m saying is that what is unfolding and has unfolded in the past is more a microcosm of the problems of humanity itself…

    it has got little to do with race itself, had the composition of the population been different, it is very likely the majority would make these same impositions on the minority race(s). Call me narrow but I believe this to be true seeing how people work…especially in Asian cultures.

  • To ALL: Thank you for responding and do accept my apologies for not responding earlier – due to other pre-occupations. Needless to say I cannot take up all the strands of comment and must necessarily be selective.

    I will proceed in stages. Here I address the comments from Deshan and Sinhala-Buddhist.

    Deshan does address my overlapping series of questions and does so aggressively by aiming at me and asserting that he became a Sinhalese in the same way that I became a Burgher, et cetera, etcetera. NOW, it would be easy for me to retort by asking him WHY he thought I was a Burgher when I do not consider myself one (and when few in Galle, least of all the venerable Burghers of the Fort quarter, thought my family was Burgher). But this type of verbal fisticuffs gets us nowhere. My intention – one appreciated by some of the others who penned comments – was to underline the complex process (really processes) through which we become Sinhalese, Tamil, Scottish, Japanese, etc.
    Though I left it unsaid, it was implicit that not every Sinhalese became Sinhalese in the same way or felt Sinhalese to the same degree at any one point of time (and Shanil demonstrates this dimension in his being and life journey). So let me emphasise that point. By way of illustration let me note that I have been fascinated by the complex story of Greek migrants to Australia over the last 50 years. In my reading from outside their world, it seems that some second and third generation migrants from Greece and its islands identify themselves subjectively as “Australian” – full stop. But yet others of the same generations present themselves as hyphenated-Aussies, namely, “Greek Australian.” And I know one chap from Adelaide who is positively anti-Aussie and thus “Greek” in sentiment.
    With necessary adjustments one could make the same contentions for the Italian and other migrants to Australia. Likewise, the diverse bodies of Sri Lankans who have migrated abroad I over the last 50 years have experienced changes in their identity in ways that merit the same introspective examination that I have requested (and which Shanil mentions in passing). In many instances marginalisation within the host society, nostalgia and the ramifications of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka have heightened the attachments to homeland identity (whether Tamil, Sinhalese or Sri Lankan in different measures) though second and third-generation migrants may not always follow their parents in these sentiments. Arguably some of the most rabid Sinhala and Tamil chauvinists can be found among elements living abroad.
    In other words, not all individuals within a named body of people identify staunchly and patriotically with that entity. There are always a few, maybe even more, with whom – and WITHIN whom — collective identity sits lightly.
    Though appreciating his intentions I also found Deshan’s clarification of his journey to Sinhala-ness rather shallow in an analytical sense (though not in the sense of sentimental affinity) and also quite oversimplified. He refers to the fact that he and his parents follow “Sinhalese traditions” as one part of his answer. But it was the unpacking of such traditions etc that my question was directed towards. Would every Sinhalese list the same traditions and give all the same weight? It is not just a ‘shopping list’ that I am probing for, but those facets of one’s life world that one is deeply attached to and those moments in memory that remain indelibly inscribed in mind and being in ways that constitute one’s SUBJECTIVITY. The stress on becoming via capitals was meant to underline the depth of feeling that can be associated with ethnic identity for some people, an emotional attachment that is shaped by taken-for-granted practices as much as those stressed, so that body deportment and preferences in coiffeur are among the profound ways of being that constitute collective identity.
    Deshan does realise that the war in recent times has sharpened both sets of ethnic identity within Sri Lanka and he is sufficiently open-minded to see that the Tamil sentiments have been “solidified because Tamils feel they are being persecuted.” But, elsewhere, he displays the hegemonic Sinhala notions that have been one of the fundamental causes of conflict in the first place. This occurs (1) when he states that “in some respects Sinhalese is equivalent to Sri Lankan;” and (2) when he adds that it is “the Sinhalese who give the island its uniqueness.”
    Significantly, Sinhala Buddhist echoes Deshan in underlining the unique situation of the Sinhalese in relation to the island (albeit with the Vädda people as adjunct-unique) as the foundation for his explicit proclamation of Sinhala Buddhist primacy in the island. Uniqueness becomes the touchstone for political claim to territorial space and nationhood (statehood). Since he also asserts that “the HOME of Tamil is Tamil Nadu,” his contentions in effect suggest that the Tamils of Sri Lanka can bugger off to that country. I have it on good authority that some politicians of the present regime occasionally voice the same idea.
    This is colossal blindness, the very stuff of Sinhala chauvinism and one of the inspirations for the Tamil separatist movement (with all its own excesses in reaction and in conflict) in the first instance. It is not only short-sighted and counter-productive, but also PLAIN WRONG.
    On reliable information from Tamil friends on both sides of the Palk Strait I stress here that the Tamil dialect spoken in the north of the island and the dialect in the eastern regions (which is different from that of the north) are both distinctively different from that prevailing in southern India. A Sri Lankan Tamil [in the old pre-81 census sense of the term] is immediately identified as such when in Tamilnadu. Sivarasan and Subha (the reserve bomber) found it impossible to merge with the local population after they were identified and on the run after killing Rajiv Gandhi (read Kaarthikeyen and Raju’s book).
    As an aside, let me note on the authority of Maya Ranganathan of Chennai and La Trobe University as well as Murali Reddiyar of the Hindu that the Dravidistan movement has been on the outer margins of Tamilnadu politics for 30 years or so despite loud noises in the press occasionally by a tiny minority that happens to be organised. It is only the paranoid attitude of Sinhala extremists that render them into a threatening force and a looming ally of the LTTE. There are self-fulfilling fears at work here and Deshan’s reference to the effect of Tamil invasions caters to extremist mis-judgments and exaggerations.
    It is, however, true that stories about such past invasions and the “sädi demalu” and “Kerala Devils” featured in Sinhalese historical representations over many centuries– even prior to the modern era of print technology — in ways that have sustained Sinhala consciousness of self. It may not be entirely surprising that such disparaging epithets enter the Sitavaka Hatana of the late 16th century, but when I found that the phrase sädi demalu (filthy, low and wicked Tamils) entered letters from the Kandyan court to John D’Oyly (agent of the British) in 1811-12, it was one hell of an eye-opener (see Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, Yapa Publications, 2004). This was one facet that I tried to clarify in that book.

  • Michael Roberts has put forward some interesting points. Of particular importance to the present day in relation to SL’s ethnic conflict is the diaspora phenomenon. The ramifications of the ‘homeland identity’ is far reaching.


  • Dias,

    American [edited out] solutions experts ARE the biggest obstacle to the discovery of a solution EVERYWHERE including iraq, israel, sri lanka, kosovo, chechnya etc, . that’s exactly what THEY DON’T WANT – SOLUTIONS. In fact in iraq they have created a complelely non existent problem & now spend billions in fighting it. NOBODY HAS THE FAINTEST IDEA WHERE THE OIL & BILLIONS OF $ ARE EVAPORATING TO. THIN AIR!!!

    They are fantastic at business & that’s all they want. any cost. That’s why they paid the least during tsunami crisis.

    USA are extremely bad friends & very good enemies. [Edited out] while they will kick their colored allies at the drop of a hat to safeguard their interests, they will NEVER forgive or forget their enemies. EX- CUBA, RUSSIA, IRAN, CHINA-(LOVE HATE) etc.


    what they want is a plan to get us into debt thru world bank, impose conditions & squeeze our testacles so they can call the political shots. that’s the name of the game.

    anyway who [edited out] wants solutions imposed by outsiders? would u like a powerful rich neighbor of urs to bully u into accepting a domestic solution which u don’t like?

    where do u live? we are fighting the world’s most dangerous terrorist org, which is closely linked to Al queda.

    what we need is not spiritual thinking, but military superiority. we can think about spirituality after we [defeat the LTTE].

  • dayan john

    As a Sri Lankan, I am very happy to read the discussion on the scholarly article written by Michael Roberts. Many who have responded have spent considerable time and energy and articulated their views in this dialog.

    What we need is just this. More dialog in all forums. For long we have been subject to Myths, constructed on the whims of our leaders. I am referring not only to the recent past but also to the Mahavamsa era and even before.

    Therefore, what we need to do is to make is an objective audit of the present scenario, generate alternatives, and proceed forward.

    To put in a nutshell, my analysis fo the present is as follows:

    The GOSL is approaching the probelm only on one front, which is to defeat the LTTE militarily.

    The GOSL, is completely ignoring the all important objective of winning over the Tamil people, and enticing them to embrace the idea of one Sri Lanka.
    The need of the hour is to Show the Tamils some semblance of a proposal which will satisfy their aspirations. This the GOSL has fialed.

    Therefore the end result could well be a case of , DEFEATING THE LTTE, BUT UNABLE TO DEFEAT SEPARATISM. It is the writers opinion that the next phase of the eelam struggle will be a political and non-violent struggle which will be hard to defeat.

  • Ekcol

    dayan john:
    The non-violent struggle from 1956 to 1976 achieved only the wrath of the Sinhala people and the government leading to armed conflict that had divided the people. What lessons have we learned from both campaigns? Is there are NEW approach in this new era rather than repeating failed approaches?

  • dayan john

    Dear Ekcol,

    YES, there is a new approach. All Sri Lankans need to construct their vision of SL, based on knowledge and a bit of research. The difficulty is, not all citizens will be able to devote time. This is where the MEDIA has to play it’s role. Again, there is constraint, in the form “neck-squeezing” (of the Mass media) practiced by the GOSL.

    People like you and I, however diverse our views maybe, need to discuss this, even at person to person basis. Communication does not always have to be “Mass”. It could be Interpersonal. The discussion needs to take place at Family level, Work place level, and at the level of the other institutions of society.