Featured image courtesy Rotary Peace Centre
“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” -Benjamin Franklin
It is ironic that Sri Lanka, which had such a favourable point of departure and was one of the most affluent countries in Asia in 1947; a model which even Singapore was yearning to emulate, gradually lost its sense of direction and purpose in an environment of increasing fragmentation and factionalism. The unity and mutual trust which emerged among the communities when gaining Independence quickly dissipated, with the hopes and aspirations of the people becoming evaporating fantasies in the process, as Dr Tambiah once put it. “The introduction of the majoritarian model of democracy rule in Sri Lanka chosen already during the late-colonial period, paved the way for political forms that were undemocratic in the moral sense of the term. Far-reaching decisions regarding the political process were based on political expediency rather than on fundamental discussions of democratic rule” as Peter Kloos in ‘Democracy, Civil War and the Demise of the Trias Politica in Sri Lanka’ pointed out.
It was unfortunate that following independence from Britain in 1948, cracks began to appear in inter-community cohesion and mutual mistrust led to decades of ethnic conflict between Sinhalese and the Tamils. Despite all the assurances of the leaders such as D S Senanayake and SWRD Bandaranaike to make Sri Lanka an inclusive nation for all communities, the historic reality in Post-Independence era has been that starting in the mid-1950s , both SLFP and UNP leaders have been seeking to outbid each other on who could most espouse the cause of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, creating a majoritarian model of democracy rule in Sri Lanka. Muslims meanwhile got caught in the crossfire , suffered and sacrificed heavily, but became the forgotten party in the Sri Lankan conflict, and were never been properly consulted on how to end the conflict. What transpired after the War against Tigers ended was regrettable; the majoritarian lobby emboldened by the tacit support received from the Mahinda Rajapakse Regime, began not only to further alienate the Tamils, but also Muslims as well, who also suffered heavily under Tiger atrocities.
Prof. S.J.Tambiah argues in ‘Buddhism Betrayed’ that ‘this (Sinhala Buddhist nationalist) ideology is so hegemonic that it led to the inferiorisation of a minority in Sri Lanka and to the generalization of a resistant attitude among many Buddhist nationalists towards any suggestion of devolutionary authority ,let alone the division and dismemberment of the Island’
It is however inaccurate to place all blame for the ills on Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism, as the Tamil leaders too did not take serious any conscious efforts to integrate with the Sinhalese. The ethical failure of Tamil nationalism, as writer Qadri Ismail (2000 223-24; 2005) has argued, is that it demands majoritarian status in response to its marginalisation rather than ethically re-configuring the discourse to re-imagine the nation as a more inclusive site based on principles of justice and equality for all communities. However, many analysts note that the dismal failure to creative an all-inclusive Sri Lanka was clearly due to the critical failure of the Post-Independence governments to act as a government for all and to bring about mechanisms to promote national reconciliation and their short sighted policies to surrender to the hegemony of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian lobby led by Maha Sangha, driven by political expediency. The reason why many have argued that the rise and institutionalisation of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism in post-independent Sri Lanka bear much responsibility for today’s ethnic conflicts between the majority Sinhalese state and the minorities!
Prominent Writer J.L. Devananada puts the impact of Mahavansa in creating this ‘Sinhala- Buddhist’ supremacist mind-set, in perspective. He says ‘the Mahavihara monks of Anuradapura, due to their strong devotion to Buddhism and desire to consolidate and protect this religion in Sri Lanka wrote the Pali chronicles Deepavamsa/Mahavamsa just to glorify Buddhism and the Buddhist kings of Sri Lanka and not to record objectively what happened. The ‘Lion Ancestry’ and the myths about the origin of the Sinhala race as pre-destined, true custodians of the island of Sri Lanka and guardians of Buddhism is a myth of the creative authors to protect Buddhism and is not the common true history. An analysis of the Pali chronicles (Deepavamsa/Mahavamsa) makes it very clear that the Mahavihara monks who authored them in the 5th century AD have created the ethnic identity Sinhala, yoked it with Buddhism and created a new ethno-religious identity in Sri Lanka known as Sinhala-Buddhist to sustain the religion in the country for 5000 years’. Thus, ‘ultimately, the Mahavamsa has transformed the Buddha into a special patron of Sinhala-Buddhism, an ethnic religion created in Sri Lanka.
He further says, ‘Ven. Mahanama’s Mahavansa created an imaginary link between the three elements, Country-Race-Religion and made it into one unit similar to the Holy Trinity, whereby Sri Lanka (Dhamma Deepa), Buddha’s chosen people (Sinhalese), and Buddhism (Buddha Sasana) should be protected for 5000 years. This is known as the Jathika chintanaya or the Mahavamsa mindset and its outcome is the ‘Sinhala-Budda Deepa’ and ‘unitary state’. Therefore, for the next 2500 years, a Sinhala Buddhist will never allow a federal state or any autonomy for others (non-Sinhala-Buddhists) in Sri Lanka’.
‘What we witness today therefore is a kind of political Buddhism trying to promote the interests of the Sinhala-Buddhist people, rather than religion (Buddhism) as a path for personal salvation, and it is the main impediment to peace in the Island of Sri Lanka because it is based on the doctrine of primacy and superiority of the Sinhala race and the Buddhist religion.
Scholars and analysts have identified that the ‘Sinhala (Mahavamsa) Buddhist mindset,’ (about the Sinhala Buddhist claim to the whole island of Lanka), as the reason why most of the Sinhalese cannot be rational and liberal’ opines Devananda.
Contrary to the dominant belief that Buddhism is the ‘sole’ preserve of the Sinhala Buddhists’ akin to Sinhala- Buddhism, historians have shown that in Sri Lanka, there were also Tamil Buddhists who followed Theravada Buddhism. In the 3rd century AD, Buddhism had spread widely in Tamil Nadu and won the patronage of the rulers.. Three of the greatest Pali scholars of this period were Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta, and Dhammapala and all three of them were associated with Buddhist establishments in the Tamil kingdoms.
It is pertinent to quote another eminent Sri Lankan historian, K.M. de Silva who points out that the Sinhala Buddhist revivalists had no time for such norms such as Multi-culturalism or multi- ethnicity : “In the Sinhala language, the words for nation, race and people are practically synonymous, and a multi-ethnic or multi-communal nation or state is incomprehensible to the popular mind. The emphasis on Sri Lanka as the land of the Sinhala Buddhists carried an emotional popular appeal, compared with which the concept of a multi-ethnic polity was a meaningless abstraction.”. This mind-set prevailed in post-Independence era as well as Nira Wickramasinghe, another author in history (2006) says that ‘the three Constitutions of post- independence Sri Lanka, helped demarcate and define a majority from within the citizens pitting them against non- Buddhists and non- Sinhala speaking minority communities…(.placing) minorities in a somewhat dependent and subaltern situation’.
Many subsequent historic opportunities were also missed to promote national reconciliation, and the reality in the midst of the above ‘Mahavansa’ mentality has been Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism ultimately triumphed, having found a safe place in the psyche of the Sinhala community. The latest being the defeat of the Tigers in 2009, as a result of vested political interests blinding the people with a web of deception, thus corroding the tolerance that characterizes our society. In 2009, when the SL Army defeated the Tigers, Mahinda Rajapakse became a Dutugemunu who appealed to the strong Sinhala Buddhist nationalist sentiments that prevailed, which made the Tamils already affected by the War feel more alienated. There was a sense of triumphalism and collective or group-level narcissism (excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and self-centredness). Post-war the nationalists needing a supposed enemy or threat to stay relevant, and with the LTTE militarily eradicated, the island’s Muslims and also Sinhala Christians have turned out to be convenient scapegoats to ensure the dominance of the Sinhala Buddhist supremacy and majoritarian lobby.
The Answer therefore lies in developing a two-pronged approach through constitutional, political, educational and social mechanisms. Firstly, the current reality in Sri Lanka is that whatever degree of “secularism” may have existed, still the Sinhalese Buddhist majoritarian lobby is relatively strong in statecraft, despite cosmetic changes and also some visible action being taken against the violent sections of this nationalist lobby by the present Maithripala-Ranil government. In this context, forcing the present regime to operate in a manner antithetical to majority Sinhalese Buddhist wishes could very well topple the government, catapult the ‘racist’ Rajapakse,to the helm, and propel the island once more towards sectarianism and authoritarianism. Therefore there is a need to look for solutions within this majoritarian framework, as Dr Tambiah suggests in his book ‘(to explore) whether framework of current Buddhist nationalism can in the future stretch and incorporate a greater amount of pluralist tolerance in the name of Buddhist concepts of righteous rule’ and sees ‘no reason to foreclose on this possibility, for there are precedents that can be positively employed to urge a new view’.
However, for this to happen, there needs to be a well-organised effort to allay the fears of mainstream Sinhala Buddhists who feel threatened by the minority communities namely the Tamils and the Muslims,whom they perceive have racial/religious links beyond the shores of Sri Lanka. There is a constant fear among them that their race and religion is under continuous threat from Christianisation and Islamisation, which Nera Wickramasinghe refers to as their ‘minority’ complex and is a cry in desperation for self-preservation than intended to hurt the minorities or deprive them of their equality of status as citizens. Unless these underlying fears and concerns of the Sinhala Buddhist people are addressed and sorted out,, in the same manner the concerns of the ‘other’ are addressed, it will be an utopian dream to achieve sustainable peace and development in Sri Lanka. Any meaningful provisions in the proposed constitution, to promote national reconciliation will only work if these majority community’s concerns are duly addressed.
Secondly, developing an intellectually mature looking civil society which will act as catalysts to re-engineer the society in the middle run and to target the university graduates and school children in the long run, to create a more inclusive and tolerant society. The government have already sought civil society expertise when writing the draft constitution, and the government should be encouraged to liaise with civil society and its’ intellectuals to promote national reconciliation and religious tolerance as well. Many Sinhalese Buddhists loathe the Bodu Bala Sena and its ilk but are especially averse to speak out against Buddhist monks. A government and civil society that is proactive against religious intolerance may empower them to oppose the extremists who tarnish Buddhism. The challenge for Sri Lanka will therefore be , how to promote ethno-religious tolerance and national reconciliation amidst majoritarian pressures and by allaying the reasonable concerns of the majority community.