Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

National flags and the symbolism of accomodating minorities

This is a reaction to Saman’s comment on the article The Needs of the Hour by Professor Michael Roberts. Saman says that Sri Lanka flag has accommodated minorities, and asks:

“looking at other world flags, interesting to see how many countries have been so inclusive… (oh yes.. british, india, malaysia…???)”

I will briefly explain about the British, Indian, and Malaysian flag issue he has raised to show that despite his implied criticism of these countries their national flags are more inclusive of minorities than Sri Lanka’s flag.

The British National Flag


The Union Flag, popularly known as the Union Jack, is the British national flag. The Union Flag symbolises the administrative union of the countries of the United Kingdom. It is made up of the individual Flags of three countries that are united under one Sovereign; i.e, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Wales was not a Kingdom at the time but a Principality. So it could not be included on the flag. However, there has been a debate to include a uniquely Welsh element in the Union Flag by combining it with the Welsh flag to reflect Wales’ status within the UK, and the Red Dragon to the Union Flag’s red, white and blue pattern. This debate is in progress.

The Indian National Flag


The Indian national flag made up of just ‘Khadi’, a special hand spun yarn made up of cotton, silk and wool, represents India’s long struggle for freedom, which Sri Lanka did not have. As an aside, actually it was not the Sri Lankan Sinhalese but Sri Lanka Tamils who first demanded SwaRaj for Sri Lanka from the British colonialists. The Indian flag, a horizontal tricolour, has three equal strips of deep saffron on the top, white in the middle and dark green at the bottom. In the centre of the white band, there is a wheel in navy blue representing the Ashoka (or Dharma) Chakra, the wheel of law in the Sarnath Lion Capital. This center symbol of the Dharma Chakra, is a Buddhist symbol dating back to 200th century BC. This is in a country where Hinduism and Islam are predominant. The Dharma Chakra has 24 spokes, which intends to reflect that there is life in movement and death in stagnation. The saffron stands for courage, sacrifice and the spirit of renunciation; the white for purity and truth; and the green for faith and fertility. The flag symbolizes freedom. The late Prime Minister Pandith Nehru called it a flag not only of freedom for Indians, but a symbol of freedom for all people.

The Malaysian National Flag


The Malaysian National Flag consists of fourteen red and white stripes (along the fly) of equal width, a union or canton of dark blue, a crescent and a star. The red and white stripes stand for equal status in the federation of the 14 member states and the federal government of Malaysia (Perlis, Kedah, Perak, Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, Johor, Malacca, Negri Sembilan, Selangor, Penang, Sabah, Sarawak and the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Labuan). The union or canton of dark blue represents the unity of the peoples of Malaysia. The union contains the crescent which is the symbol of Islam, and the star, the 14 points of which symbolise the unity of the 13 states of the federation with the federal government. The yellow of the crescent and the star is the royal colour of the Rulers.
As could be seen any of the flags of the United Kingdom, India or Malaysia do not have a major portion to represent a majority ethnic community of their countries. The UK has a Union, India Dharma Chakra and Malaysia a crescent and star. As everybody knows Malaysia is criticized by its minorities for its religious eccentricity and other existing deficiencies, but this is not reflected in it’s flag which is inclusive.

The Sri Lankan National Flag

Sri Lanka

The National Flag of Sri Lanka represents the country and her heritage, but is also a rallying device that integrates the races within a majority and minority design framework. In contrast the other three national flags do not refer to ethnicities based on race.

The civil standard of Sri Lanka’s last king, Sri Wickrama Rajasingha had a passant royal lion with a sword in it’s right fore paw at the center, and a bo-leaf on each of the four corners on a plain border. When the British colonised the island in 1815, the Union Jack was imposed on its people. The civil standard of the last king was hoisted once again in 1948. The new improved national flag was approved in 1950, where the lion represents the Sinhala race and the sword of the lion the country’s sovereignty. The handle of the sword highlights the elements of water, fire, air and earth. The lion’s body parts signifies diverse characteristics of Sinhala Buddhists: tail the noble eight fold path of Buddhism; the curly hair on the lion’s head religious observance, wisdom and meditation; the beard purity of words; the nose intelligence, and the two front paws purity in handling wealth. The orange vertical stripe represents the minority Tamil race, the green vertical stripe the minority Muslim race, and the yellow border the other minor races. The bo-leaves at the four corners represent Buddhism and its influence in terms of the four virtues: Kindness, Friendliness, Happiness and Equanimity, and the maroon coloured portion of the flag represents the other minor religions.

In Sri Lanka, the Lion is a historical symbol of the Sinhala people. In the flag it represents Sinhalese community and as Saman has stated the two stripes represent minorities and the bo leaves Buddhism.
History tells us that the unitary constitution and its traditions were introduced to Sri Lanka by the British colonial rulers. Nevertheless, the British themselves have been moving away from this tradition as indicated by the developments of the last two decades to become more inclusive. However, many nationalist Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora, wax eloquently against colonialism, yet ironically defend a colonial construct and a colonial tradition.

His last comment ‘lets not go rushing to be too accommodative’ shows his arrogant disregard for the other, and lack of respect for the other’s dignity. Shame on him, I would add. It is this lack of accommodation of the language of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka that led to the “Tamils dream of a statehood” that Sri Lankan ruling elite and Sinhala nationalists have been trying to shatter and crush since the seventies, and that was said to be “shattered and crushed once and for all” many times before in the history of Sri Lanka.

As far back as 1958 by the then commander of the Sri Lankan Army Major General Richard Udugama and later in 1978 under a government that placed Jaffna District under Emergency Regulations (ER), and gave the armed forces led by General Tissa (Bull) Weeratunga the power to shoot and kill any suspected persons and to dispose dead bodies without an inquest.