Photo courtesy Ingulfed

Review of Nation, Constitutionalism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka by Roshan de Silva Wijeyeratne , Rouledge, London, 2014, ISBN 978-0-415-46266-2,250pp


This treatise encompasses a vast span of time and straddles both the pre-modern and modern periods of Sri Lanka’s history down to the present moment. It engages, deploys, transcends and weaves through a vast array of scholars: Berkwitz, Chakrabarty, Collins, Duncan, Greenwald, Kaviraj, Kemper, Obeyesekere, Rampton, Roberts, Smith and Tambiah among others, with Bruce Kapferer as the guiding inspiration. As such, it is an ambitious tour de force that seeks a synthesis.

The book is heavy reading and not a task for those weak or impatient. They have to comprehend a battery of difficult concepts in noun and adjectival form: ontology, episteme, refraction, governmentality, hermeneutic, telos and cosmic sovereignty for instance.

Deploying both my researches and that of others, de Silva Wijeyeratne (hereafter Wijeyeratne) breaks free of post-modernist misrepresentations and insists that the weight of the categories “Sinhala” and “Tamil” predate the colonial penetration generated under the British. He therefore traces “the long-term genealogy of Sinhalese Buddhist othering” (p. 8). These pre-modern epochs were marked by a form of “cosmic sovereignty” directed by metaphors of unity, fragmentation and reordering. The violence emanating from kingly interventions in the face of disorder was “thoroughly restorative” (193). A persuasive argument this.

Such modalities of being in the world, however, were then subject to the modernizing transformations occurring from the early nineteenth century under British rule. The establishment of a rational bureaucratic order meant the eventual “triumph of the epistemic register over the ontological register” (194). Among other trends, one witnessed the influence of Orientalist thinking which re-moulded the political thinking of Sinhalese Buddhists such as Anagārika Dharmapāla in their resistance to Christian evangelization and Western contamination of Sinhalese customs. Thus “modern Sinhalese Buddhist identity cum nationalism [has been] thoroughly permeated by the logic of colonial governmentality” (194). However, the “ontological ground of the cosmic order” prevailing in pre-British times remained vibrant and has continued pertinence in the here and now. The result has been “an over-determining violence, [targeting] both Sinhalese and Tamils, now directed by a hierarchical bureaucratic state.” This violence does not seek exclusion. It is regenerative in focus (194-95). These contentions are equally persuasive to my mind.

Among other substantive arguments, Wijeyeratne contends that the language debates and political tussles of the 1950s-and-thereafter implanted “animosity between Sinhalese and Tamils [because they were] conditioned by the ontological ground of the Buddhist cosmos” (12). Thus the constitutions created in the 1970s and the devolution debates in the past half-century have been subject to the debilitating influence of “the cosmic order of Buddhism with its structurating metaphors of unity, fragmentation and reordering” (12). So, today, one sees the “overdetermined reproduction of Sinhalese language tropes, now within a nationalist idiom” (194).

Wijeyeratne’s emphasis on the hierarchical imperative of cosmic notions that work in subliminal and complex ways is a fruitful perspective that requires continuing attention. I have reservations, however, about his emphasis on the distinction between “the virtual” and “the actual” in the forms of power exercised in the pre-modern Sinhalese states of yesteryear (59, 62, 69, 71-75). This is to rely on modernist bureaucratic preconceptions. From my viewpoint, therefore, the use of the term “devolution” in his survey of the relations between “centre” and “periphery” in what we — following S. J. Tambiah — understand to be “galactic polities” is likely to mislead. The historical record indicates that the bonds with the kingly centre displayed by distant ‘chiefs’ and/or communities (e.g. the Väddas) were meaningful and thus actual; while on the odd occasion the heavy hand of central power wrought vengeance on regional chieftains or headmen who assumed unacceptable symbols of power/status.

Given the expanse of territory and time traversed by Wijeyeratne it would be surprising if scholars do not raise quibbles through specific empirical notations. Thus, I find his reading of the period 1918-1940s shallow and do not agree with his contention that the “Sinhalese Buddhist leaders began to adopt an increasingly ethno-chauvinist tone” in the late 1930s (98). This arises in part from his failure to consult Documents of the Ceylon National Congress (1977).

This book would have taken much of its shape by 2009/10 at a point when Eelam War IV was brought to an end with the defeat of the insurgent Tamil nationalist state set up by the LTTE. Its concluding chapters reiterate one of its principal arguments, namely, that “Ceylonese and Sri Lankan postcolonial modernity seamlessly inhabited the same discursive space as the pre-colonial Sinhalese Buddhist imaginary, and shifted the register of its activation to that of the bureaucratic order” (185).

Fair enough. But Wijeyeratne’s concluding pages then put the boot in with excesses that are guided by the ammunition wielded by the powerful alliances engaged in the propaganda war that have enveloped the battles from 2008 to the (ongoing) present day. Residence in Australia and a dependence upon limited local circuits of information seem to have rendered him gullibly receptive to extremist claims. Unsustainable and exaggerated empirical claims are tacked onto his main thesis. Thus he refers to (A) the “intensity of the violence directed against the Tamil civilians in the last stages of the war” (187, emphasis mine); (B) speaks of the detention centres set up for the Tamil populace as “military prisons” (187); (C) and contends that since the end of the war “the state has pursued an ongoing war by other means, most clearly evidenced in the physical dislocation of Tamils from their ancestral land in the north-east” — so that “much of this land has been expropriated with a view to either resettling Sinhalese families or developing niche tourist resorts” (188).

There is ideological blindness here — directed in part by a remarkably successful propaganda campaign mounted by Tamil nationalists (LTTE and migrant networks) supported by Western media networks, Western governments and human rights agencies. In early/mid 2008, with their backs against the wall in military terms, the LTTE decided to cajole and pressurize their civilian population to retreat ahead of the battle lines. Their strategy was to raise the spectre of “an impending humanitarian disaster” in order to promote intervention from the West, such as a “ceasefire” or a US-led rescue operation. As their terrain shank in size and civilians were exposed to increasing danger and casualties rose, the Tamil networks fed this picture through reports from the medical men and NGO functionaries working within their territory, with an emphasis on shellfire hits on hospitals. The Western reporters in Colombo and such personnel as Marie Colvin of The Times in London joined in the refrain. In brief, this line of propaganda was swallowed hook, line and sinker. It remains a fixe idee (fixed idea) in the mind of liberals and radicals hostile (on varied justifiable grounds) to the Rajapaksa regime.

This overarching LTTE strategy meant that the Tamil civilians became one part of the defensive formation — just so many sandbags in effect — within a context in which many Tiger fighters did not wear fatigues. As a result, from late 2008 to May 2009 the Sri Lankan government faced a stark Hobson’s choice.

The Western world’s failure to recognise these aspects of the war scenario indicates ideological blindness and a cloistered incapacity to read the unfolding battlefield scenario with its cartographic, pictorial and empirical specifics. On this issue Wijeyeratne is a Western clone. We now require someone with the expertise displayed by Wijeyeratne to perform a Wijeyeratne on Wijeyeratne’s circuit of being — by dissecting the lineaments and motivations that sustain this contemporary ideological cavern. How was it that (i) The Times, Guardian, New York Times and leading Western networks, and (ii) moral crusaders such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, became instruments of LTTE strategy, while (iii) leading Western governments (note the interventions by Clinton, Brown, Miliband and Kouchner in 2009) became de facto agents in this Tamil nationalist project in 2008/09? The Western states may well have been directed by their geo-political and economic interests in adopting this position. But it is the human rights agencies, Western reporters and intellectuals such as Wijeyeratne that are at the centre of my criticisms here. The success of the Tamil nationalist strategy was not only a product of clever packaging; it was made feasible by the ideological commitments and associated gullibility of a whole corpus of intellectuals. One mark of this charge lies in the outstanding empirical errors in the concluding segment of Wijeyratne’s book that I have highlighted.

Furthermore, how is it that intellectuals such as Wijeyeratne remain imprisoned in this scheme of evaluation? True, the Mänik Farm camps cannot be termed “humanitarian centres” in the asinine terminology deployed by the Government of Sri Lanka. But they were not “military prisons” either. They were temporary detention centres with screening, protective and welfare facets. While under military oversight from early 2009, they became the hive of sustenance for a mass of Tamil people who had survived the crucible of war. The sustaining work involved a combination of international NGOs, local NGOs as well as civilian and military personnel. The civilian and NGO personnel working their butts out at these camps included many Tamils. Wijeyeratne needs to have extensive chats with the Tamil (and other) personnel manning such outfits as CARITAS, SEWALANKA, LEADS, CHA and ZOA, besides independent social activists such as Myrna Setunga and Manori Unambuwe who inserted themselves into these operations as do-gooders and whose voices are not official parrots.

The pre-existing consortium of NGOs based in Vavuniya under the leadership of Singham (the head of SEED and a Tamil returnee from Germany) was at the coalface in this remarkable work. The barriers around the camps eased from December 2009 and the camps were sustained for many years till the residents could return to their homes in the Vanni after the road and administrative infrastructure was partially in place and the demining nearly completed — each of them monumental tasks. Intellectuals in Lanka need to comprehend the sweat and endeavour borne by those rendering social service in community-kitchens, medical relief and the logistics of administering and delivering essential supplies.

My limited exposure to the work pursued at Manik Farm in 2010, and its resulting reach backwards in time via interviews, was an eye-opener. It provides a foundation for my chastisement of the people of the pen in Lanka and the chattering classes in the cities who (mostly) have little comprehension of these efforts. Indeed, to this day the failure to tell the world about the processes and outcomes at the IDP camps remains a standing indictment of the media and academic world in Sri Lanka. Incompetence and laziness may provide one part of the reason. This localised failure has in turn fed the ideological commitments of intellectuals such as Wijeyeratne who reside abroad.

The distorted evaluation of the IDP camps set up at Mänik Farm and elsewhere is of minor import for the cast of Nation, Constitutionalism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, considerable space has been devoted to this issue because this specific failure serves as a barometer for an ideological puzzle. How did de Silva Wijeyeratne fall into this trap? Answer: certainly not through incompetence or laziness, though residence abroad provides one element in the puzzle. Is it that liberal-radical thinkers in highly contentious political fields tend to read these scenario in black and white terms — in other words, are they subsumed within an either/or epistemology? Perhaps the answer requires less verbosity: in simple language it would seem that the heat of debate in this particular “soccer field” induced de Silva Wijeyeratne to hack away at the shins of a hated ogre rather than playing the ball or reading the soccer scenario. As a devoted soccer player, I consider that ugly.


A fuller list can be located in Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Essays and Tamil Person and State. Pictorial (Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014) taken together.

Darusman Report 2011 Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts report on Accountability in Sri Lanka, March 2011…. POE_Report_Full.pdf.

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2010a “Information Warfare and the Endgame of the Civil War,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, May 2010, 30/4: 35-37, http://wwwasiapacificdefencereporter. com/articles/40/Sri-Lanka.

Engage Sri Lanka 2013 Corrupted Journalism. Channel 4 and Sri Lanka. A Collective Work by Engage Sri Lanka,

Gray, David 2009 “A Day at the Front Line in Sri Lanka (Photographer’s Blog),” 27 April 2009,

Harshula 2011b “Australia’s Tamil Eelam Lobby and CHOGM,”

Harrison, Frances 2012 Still Counting the Dead, London: Portobello.

[Herath, Hemantha] 2011 From Tsunami Medical Logistics to IDP Camp Medical Aid, 2004-09. Q and A with Dr Herath,”

IDAG 2013 “The Numbers Game: Politics of Retributive Justice,” OR

Mango 2014 “Sri Lanka’s War In Its Last Phase: Where WIA Figures Defeat The Gross KIA Estimates,” 14 February 2014,

Marga 2011 An Analysis and Evaluation of The Report of the Advisory Panel to the UNSG nn the Final Stages of the War in Sri Lanka,

Marga 2014 Issues of Truth and Accountability. The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka,

Noble, Kath 2013b “Numbers Game reviewed by Kath Noble: The Full Monty,” 14 July 2013,

Prasad, Kanchan [2009] “Mullivaikkal Hospital in NFZ Last Redoubt,”

Reddy, B. Muralidhar 2009a “An Escape from Hellhole,” 2009042558390100.html.

Reddy, Muralidhar 2009c “A first-hand account of the war and the civilians’ plight as Eelam War almost comes to a close,” Frontline, 26/11, May 23-June 5, 2009.

Roberts, Michael 2010 “Dilemma’s at War’s End: Clarifications and Counter-offensive,” www., rep. in Roberts, Fire and Storm, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 275-87.

Roberts, Michael 2011 “A Think-Piece drafted in May 2011,” http://thuppahi.wordpress. com /2011/07/23/a-think-piece-drafted-in-may/#more-2998, 23 July 2011

Roberts, Michael 2011 “Amnesty International reveals its Flawed Tunnel-Vision in Sri Lanka in 2009,” 10 Aug. 2011,

Roberts, Michael 2012d “Blackmail during the Endgame in Eelam War IV,” 12 April 2012,

Setunga, Myrna 2009e “An Overview: Setunga V,” 22 July 2009 22 July 2009,

Shanmugarajah, V. 2014 Dr. Veerakanthipillai Shanmugarajah’s Affidavit Description of Conditions in the Vanni Pocket in Refutation of Channel Four,” 5 January 2014,

Unambuwe, Manori 2009 “The Fallacy of Concentration Camps,” The Island, 3 May 2009,

UTHR 2009 Let Them Speak: Truth about Sri Lanka’s Victims of War. Special Report No. 34,

  • Fitzpatrick

    It is unfortunate that the UNHCR investigative report has been delayed by 6 months. It would have put paid to the likes of Michael Roberts and his false claims.
    He repeats arguments previously made by him and discredited by many including Sri Lanka Campaign right here on Groundviews regarding the final phase of the war.
    Going by Michael’s arguments it seems the whole world is gullible except him !

    • puniselva

      UNHRC, not UNHCR.

      United Nations Human Rights Council, not United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

      UN is snowballing, but unable to protect the minorities around the world from oppressive majorities.