Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Elections, Identity, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Politics of Sinhala Nationalism: Underpinning of the UPFA Victory and Undermining of the Sri Lankan Nationhood

“Politically speaking, tribal nationalism always insists that its own people is surrounded by a world of enemies, one against all, that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man”. Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism, p.293, 1996).

The UPFA’s continues its political hold on Sinhala nationalism after President Rajapaksa’s convincing victory in the Presidential election and it is likely to be repeated in the General Elections on 8th April. In electoral terms, this has been the most significant electoral victory Sinhala Buddhist nationalism has gained since the victory of 1956 over the Sri Lankan polity signaling grim   prospects for the building of a Sri Lankan identity accommodating the aspirations of the ethnic minorities. We have already paid a high price for the tragic political outcome and the continuing legacy of the 1956 victory.  The victory of the Presidential election and the up-coming general elections in April 2010   and its likely outcome can take us to a political project similar to the 1956 political project, making ethnic relations between the Sinhala community and ethnic minorities politically unworkable as well as discriminatory towards the Tamil community

The main thrust of this article is an attempt to understand the workings of Sinhala nationalism and why it has undermined the Sri Lankan nationhood in order to survive as a nationalist ideology, depriving democratic rights for the ethnic minorities. This in turn has undermined the democratic rights of all communities, including the Sinhala community.

The UPFA victory in the Presidential election happened after the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers last year. It appears that the Sinhala nationalist ideology triumphed and was endorsed by the Sinhala polity largely due to the UPFA’s conspicuous absence of a firm commitment to the devolution of power to the Tamil community. The Sinhala leadership has failed to show the much needed political reconciliation with the Tamil community and has not made any firm commitment towards the devolution of power despite the general elections in the offing in April. Without doubt the Tamil community in the North and East will repeat the outcome of the Presidential election in the upcoming general elections in April by demonstrating their opposition to the UPFA.This ethnic and political cleavage between the Sinhala and the Tamil community is capable of setting in motion political events that will continue to politically destabilize the country in coming years in the absence of any political project to address the Tamil grievances. Is the Sinhala leadership’s politically intransigent posture mainly due to their limited world outlook? Or is that they continue to represent the narrow aspirations of the Sinhala nationalistic sentiments of the Sinhala electoral base? If not, do they really believe that an oppressed community can be made silent just because the Tamil Tigers were militarily defeated and the threat of separatism has disappeared along with their defeat? If the answers to these questions lie in how we interpret our history, disregarding the current political realities of discrimination, then the UPFA victory will not bring a solution towards making of a sustainable Sri Lankan nationhood.  If the Sinhala political leadership refuses to understand the basic political issue at stake at this political moment, our history of the ethnic conflict will continue to be repeated and the political and human cost is unimaginable. Where are we heading? Where will it end if the current triumhalism continues?

It has been long argued by  some historians and anthropologists that the way the Sri Lankan history is analyzed and interpreted has been  to burden the present with our ‘glorious’  history of  Sinhala Buddhist exclusiveness and non inclusiveness of Tamils  as a barrier    to form  a  Sri Lankan nationality. That argument remains pertinent. Since independence, Sinhala political parties have used   the ideology and politics of the Sinhala Buddhist historical claim that they should rule Sri Lanka .They have used this to bolster their electoral base at the expense of ethnic harmony and basic democratic rights of the Tamil community. The strength of the UPFA’s political base and its forgiveness for many of their political mistakes stems from the identification of the UPFA as the proven savior of the Sinhala Buddhist ideology.

Until the recent defeat of the Tamil Tigers, political violence had overtaken any negotiated settlement. Now the historic opportunity has been opened up. The main drawback appears to, be the Sinhala leadership’s lack of commitment to a political ideology of the Sri Lankan nationhood. The victory that legitimized the UPFA hold on Sinhala Buddhist nationalism continues be the most important and dominant ideology that would guarantee the political power in the state. This also demonstrates continuity with the dominant ideology.  The 1956 victory is attributed to the great five fold social forces, the Buddhist clergy, aurvedic physicians, vernacular teachers, peasants and working people (sanga, weda, guru, govi kamkaru) and the UPFA’s Presidential electoral victory has added another social force, heroic soldiers (Ranawiru) and acknowledged   the security forces’ continues contribution to the populist Sinhala hegemonic project that has been in existence since 1956. In so doing the UPFA has taken a firm hold on the political and social forces of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. In this way ideologically and politically it has been connected with the Sinhala hegemonic project of 1956.The natural heir to this ideological project is the SLFP.However, its ideological and political defenders have emerged from time to time from other parties and groups. The elites of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), Weerawansa’s NFF and Jathika Chintanaya have become its contemporary vociferous defenders. Any anti democratic action or deprivation of rights of the minorities is unashamedly defended and endorsed by them in the name of the Sinhala hegemonic project. Dissenters are condemned as traitors rather than accepting that the others have different views.

One of the most disturbing factors is that the tendency in the Sinhala constituency to disregard democratic rights when violated in the name of Sinhalaness. In the early 1980s at grass roots level there was an ideological and political movement within the Sinhala polity to challenge Sinhala chauvinism but this became politically untenable when the LTTE started to bomb Sinhala civilians. The activists and the public intellectuals who were involved in this project either became silent or simply disappeared from the scene. There is a political need to recommence this to make even a small contribution to building a Sri Lankan nationhood incorporating ethnic and political pluralism. At present the Sri Lankan political forces are replicating the pre war political formations in both Sinhala and Tamil polity and these require a re-evaluation of their political demands.

Moreover, the UPFA is campaigning for a two third majority in the parliamentary election. In the absence of a clarification of how they are going to use such a majority and why they want to have such massive power, such requests are not conducive to democracy. The United National Front Government of 1970-1977 as well the UNP Government of 1977 after winning the parliamentary elections by a two-third majority became the most repressive and anti democratic governments. Our recent political history, tells us that such majorities are not the necessary condition for democracy and in fact work quite to the opposite effect.  After all it will be more constructive and politically more meaningful for democracy to have a strong opposition rather than a two third majority for the UPFA.  If a UPFA government wishes to make major constitutional changes it is always safer, democratic, and politically decent to work with the opposition rather than taking the full credit for any positive change. If the government intends to devolve power to the Tamil community it would be more acceptable if the government is able to get the cross party support.  However, if the JVP is going to be part of the future opposition they will always oppose any devolution of power.  Moreover, if the government’s objective of having a two third majority is to devolve power, then they should be campaigning vigorously in the North and East.

In the absence of ideological and political challenge within rural Sri Lankan social formations, political parties such as the UPFA have benefited from a Sinahala nationalist and one-sided interpretation of Sri Lanka’s history. The school, the village temple and the rural peasant family   have formed an organic social triangle which ideologically and politically grew stronger and stronger during the war against the Tamil Tigers fostering the   politics of the hegemonic Sinhala ideology. This was the electoral bulwark of President Rajapaka’s electoral victory and is likely to be repeated in the general election in favor of the UPFA, in spite of a war hero, Sarath Fonseka, behind bars. The renewed threat of war crimes will motivate the rural masses to demonstrate their solidarity with a political leadership who stands against world powers. As in 1956, the current government has propagated a perception that its refusal to bend to international pressure is because of an anti imperialist mission – an essential ingredient of the Sinhala nationalist project.  In order to build a Sri Lankan nationhood it is imperative that the rural social and political classes to be convinced  that our political stability and common humanity with all other minorities in the country is our future,  and that every human being has a right to enjoy a decent human existence irrespective of their nationality, language and social class. After all it is quite accidental we are born Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims in this tiny island. We need to tolerate, accept and respect this difference in order to form our Sri Lankan nationhood.