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Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology : implications for politics and conflict resolution in Sri Lanka

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Abstract

This study argues that political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism have contributed to a nationalist ideology that has been used to expand and perpetuate Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy within a unitary Sri Lankan state; create laws, rules, and structures that institutionalize such supremacy; and attack those who disagree with this agenda as enemies of the state. The nationalist ideology is influenced by Sinhalese Buddhist mytho-history that was deployed by monks and politicians in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries to assert that Sri Lanka is the designated sanctuary for Theravada Buddhism, belongs to Sinhalese Buddhists, and Tamils and others live there only due to Sinhalese Buddhist sufferance. This ideology has enabled majority superordination, minority subordination, and a separatist war waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The study suggests both LTTE terrorism and the ethnocentric nature of the Sri Lankan state, which resorts to its own forms of terrorism when fighting the civil war, need to be overcome if the island is to become a liberal democracy. The present government of President Mahinda Rajapakse is the first to fully embrace the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology, suggesting that a political solution to Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict is unlikely. Meaningful devolution of power, whereby Tamils could coalesce with their ethnic counterparts amidst equality and self-respect, is not in the offing. A solution along federal lines is especially unlikely. Instead, continued war and even attacks on Christians and Muslims seem to be in store for Sri Lanka as the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology is further consolidated. The study recommends that the international community adopt a more proactive stance in promoting a plural state and society in Sri Lanka. In addition to countering the terrorist methods employed by the LTTE, the international community should initiate and support measures to protect fundamental civil liberties and human rights of Sri Lanka's ethnic and religious minority communities.
Policy Studies 40
Sinhalese Buddhist
Nationalist Ideology:
Implications for Politics and
Conflict Resolution in Sri Lanka
Neil DeVotta
East-West Center
Washington
East-West Center
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West Center Washington is to further the East-West Center mission and
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on the themes of conflict reduction, political change in the direction of
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standing of and engagement in Asia Pacific affairs.
Sinhalese Buddhist
Nationalist Ideology:
Implications for Politics and
Conflict Resolution in Sri Lanka
Policy Studies 40
___________
Sinhalese Buddhist
Nationalist Ideology:
Implications for Politics and
Conflict Resolution in Sri Lanka
___________________________
Neil DeVotta
Copyright © 2007 by the East-West Center Washington
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology: Implications for Politics and
Conflict Resolution in Sri Lanka
By Neil DeVotta
ISBN: 978-1-932728-65-1 (online version)
ISSN: 1547-1330 (online version)
Online at: www.eastwestcenterwashington.org/publications
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1819 L Street, NW, Suite 200
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The Policy Studies series contributes to the East-West Center’s role as a
forum for discussion of key contemporary domestic and international
political, economic, and strategic issues affecting Asia. The views expressed
are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Center.
This publication is a product of the East-West Center Washington project
on Internal Conflicts and State-Building Challenges in Asia. For details, see
pages 65–81.
The project and this publication are supported by a generous grant from
the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Contents
List of Acronyms v
Executive Summary vii
Introduction 1
Ethnic Demographics and Sons of the Soil 5
Explaining Political Buddhism and Sinhalese
Buddhist Nationalism 10
Factors Promoting Political Buddhism and Sinhalese
Buddhist Nationalism
13
Colonialism and Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism 13
Anagarika Dharmapala and Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism 14
Independence and Religio-Linguistic Nationalism 17
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism and Secularism 19
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Political Parties 24
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna 24
Sinhala Urumaya and Its Successor, Jathika Hela Urumaya 26
The Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 29
Sri Lanka for Sinhalese Buddhists 29
Nongovernmental Organizations and Western
Conspiracy against Sinhalese Buddhists 33
Terrorism by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam 36
The Christian Threat against Buddhism 40
The Numbers Game and Civil War 45
Conclusion 50
Endnotes 55
Bibliography 59
Project Information: Internal Conflicts and State-Building
Challenges in Asia 65
• Project Purpose and Outline 67
• Project Participants List 71
• Background of Sri Lankas Conflicts 77
• Map of Sri Lanka 81
Policy Studies: List of Reviewers 2006–07 83
Policy Studies: Previous Publications 85
iv Neil DeVotta
List of Acronyms
ASP Assistant Superintendent of Police
HSZ High Security Zone
JHU Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Sinhalese
Heritage Party)
JVP Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front)
LTTE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
MEP Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (People’s United Front)
NGO nongovernmental organization
P-TOMS Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure
SLFP Sri Lanka Freedom Party
SU Sinhala Urumaya (Sinhala Heritage Party)
UNP United National Party
Executive Summary
Buddhism preaches tolerance and pacifism. However, many of its adher-
ents among the majority Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka have resorted to
ethnocentrism and militarism. Various arguments have been advanced to
explain this paradox, although most objective observers agree that politi-
cal Buddhism, which emphasizes politics over Buddhist values, and
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism stoked ethnocentrism and militarism.
This study argues that they have also contributed to a Sinhalese Buddhist
nationalist ideology that is now fully embedded and institutionalized as
state policy. A fundamental tenet of that nationalist ideology is the belief
that Sri Lanka is the island of the Sinhalese, who in turn are ennobled to
preserve and propagate Buddhism. The ideology privileges Sinhalese
Buddhist superordination, justifies subjugation of minorities, and suggests
that those belonging to other ethnoreligious communities live in Sri Lanka
only due to Sinhalese Buddhist sufferance.
The study disaggregates the nationalist ideology by evaluating five
controversial issues in contemporary Sri Lankan society: (1) the claim that
Sri Lanka is a country exclusively for Sinhalese Buddhists; (2) sentiment
opposed to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); (3) the separatist
struggle waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); (4) the
anti-Christian milieu; and (5) population growth and minority emigra-
tion. Each contentious issue represents a strand servicing the extant
nationalist ideology. Adherents to this ideology insist on expanding and
perpetuating Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy within a unitary state; creat-
ing laws, rules, and structures that institutionalize such supremacy; and
attacking as enemies of the state those who disagree with this agenda.
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and Tamil nationalism are both reac-
tive phenomena: The Buddhists retaliated against colonial maladministra-
tion and discrimination against Buddhism beginning in the late nineteenth
century, and thereafter deftly utilized Sinhalese Buddhist mytho-history to
mobilize and differentiate themselves from others. Upon independence
Sinhalese Buddhist elites instituted discriminatory linguistic, educational,
and economic policies. These policies prompted Tamils to rise up against
the state and led to a nearly quarter-century civil war between the govern-
ment and LTTE, which claims dubiously to be the Tamils’ sole representa-
tive. The LTTE has resorted to terrorist tactics as part of its separatist strug-
gle and its intransigence is one reason Sri Lanka has failed to resolve the
ethnic conflict. However, the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology is
also a major reason peace has not been achieved. LTTE intransigence and
the ethnocentric nature of the Sri Lankan state, which resorts to its own
forms of terrorism when fighting the civil war, must both be overcome if
the island is to become a liberal democracy.
Not all Buddhists are nationalists, yet the Buddhist nationalist ideol-
ogy appears to be widely accepted. Increased support for politicians and
political parties toeing a pro-Sinhalese Buddhist line, favoring a military
solution to the ethnic conflict, and supporting maintenance of the unitary
state structure all signify this broad acceptance. That the majoritarian
ethos propagated by the nationalist ideology has taken hold is reflected in
the decline of secularism, the rise in anti-Christian violence, the cavalier
disregard for minorities’ human rights, the culture of impunity surround-
ing the military (which is 98 percent Sinhalese) when dealing with Tamils,
attacks against the media and others critical of the government, and the
renewed colonization efforts by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists in the
Eastern Province.
The present government of President Mahinda Rajapakse is the first to
embrace eagerly this insidious mindset, which is partly responsible for the
5,000-plus (mostly Tamils) killed and more than 215,000 newly displaced
persons in the last twelve months alone. The government has manipulated
the global war on terror to mask its human rights abuses and has targeted
innocent Tamil civilians in its military campaigns. The international com-
munity has castigated the government for widespread human rights viola-
tions, yet not a single member of the military or paramilitaries (including
Tamil paramilitaries) has been charged for the numerous kidnappings,
rapes, torture, and murders that have accompanied military operations.
Most troubling, the Rajapakse government believes in a military solution
to the civil war and, consequently, has frowned on devolution of power
along provincial lines, which is widely advocated by moderate Tamils, civil
society, and the international community.
viii Neil DeVotta
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology ix
The institutionalization of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideolo-
gy means that a political solution to Sri Lankas ethnic conflict is unlike-
ly; meaningful devolution, whereby Sri Lankas Tamils could coalesce with
their ethnic counterparts and gain equality and self-respect, is also not in
the offing—irrespective of how the conflict ends or the preferences of the
international community. A solution along federal lines is especially
unlikely. On the contrary, the Sri Lankan state, especially under the pres-
ent government, will continue to seek a military solution and perpetuate
the extant unitary structure. Irrespective of when the civil war ends, even
Tamils who have clamored for autonomy within a united Sri Lanka are
bound to be disappointed. The analysis further suggests that other
minorities (e.g., Christians and Muslims) also could come under attack as
the nationalist ideology becomes further consolidated. The recent well cal-
ibrated anti-Christian violence and the intermittent Buddhist-Muslim
clashes hint of the dangers ahead. Together, these factors bode ill for the
thousands of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims who have been directly
affected by the civil war and for an island that, notwithstanding nearly a
quarter century of conflict, has most of the social attributes to become a
successful democracy.
The study recommends that the international community advocate
and foster the development of a plural state and society in Sri Lanka that
can be home to all ethnic and religious communities. It should more
forcefully utilize diplomacy, aid, and trade mechanisms to ensure all reli-
gious groups in Sri Lanka are dealt with equitably and none is discrimi-
nated against. Sri Lankas impressive Buddhist heritage must be pre-
served, but this does not have to be at the expense of religious freedom
and security for Hindus, Muslims, and Christians of all denominations.
While continuing to oppose the terrorist methods employed by the
LTTE and the forcible recruitment of children, the international com-
munity should also link all military aid to the Sri Lankan government to
human rights practices. Furthermore, international human rights moni-
tors should be stationed in Sri Lanka to ensure minorities are protected.
Implications for Politics and
Conflict Resolution in Sri Lanka
Buddhism is widely regarded as one of the world’s more peaceful religions.
Although Buddhism, like other religions, historically has been associated
with violent episodes, these do not compare with the carnage perpetrated
by adherents of the world’s other faiths—especially Asias three monothe-
istic religions. This relative lack of violence is partly due to the fact that
Buddhists have not sought to proselytize vigorously, and Buddhism, like
other Indic faiths—Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism—but unlike its
monotheistic counterparts, does not emphasize a monopoly on truth.
Buddhisms fundamental tenets and attempts by Buddhists over the cen-
turies to live by those tenets are major reasons that the religion and its
adherents are viewed as nonviolent. Indeed, globally and in Sri Lanka,
individual Buddhists, Buddhist clergy, and Theravada Buddhist kingdoms
were among the most accommodating of people of other faiths.
This portrayal, however, contrasts with violent episodes involving Sri
Lanka’s Buddhists. All agree that Buddhist philosophy eschews violence,
yet in Sri Lanka (and elsewhere) some Buddhist monks and especially
Buddhist political elites have used jathaka tales dealing with Buddhas
reincarnated lives and Buddhist mytho-history to celebrate and justify
violence. Buddhist monks, for example, conspired and assassinated Prime
Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in September 1959. The militarist
posture adopted by certain bhikkhus (Buddhist monks) over the island’s
Sinhalese Buddhist
Nationalist Ideology:
ethnic conflict has caused even the state-owned press to note how fright-
ening it is “to observe the insouciance with which the most revered
prelates of the Maha Sangha talk of . . . recourse
to arms” (Sunday Observer 2000). Analyst
Jayadeva Uyangoda has argued that “Sinhalese
Buddhism has made no significant contribution
to the evolution of a non-violent social ideolo-
gy. On the contrary, the Sinhalese Buddhist his-
toriographical tradition and ideology inherent
in it supports ethnic political violence”
(Uyangoda 1996: 129, n. 5). Events that tran-
spired in post-independence Sri Lanka when
Buddhist leaders and Buddhist monks campaigned for policies that exac-
erbated ethnoreligious violence highlight Uyangodas argument.
Beginning around the late nineteenth century, Buddhist rhetoric in
Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) took on a blustering tone and promoted
intolerance. Bhikkhus especially entered the political fray after Sri Lankas
independence in 1948, a phenomenon that can be called “political
Buddhism.” The rhetoric has, among other things, led to the abuse of
Buddhism by monks and opportunistic politicians to justify antiminori-
ty practices. Nearly a quarter century of ethnic conflict between the
predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist state and the separatist Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has only hardened the antiminority stance
among nationalists.
Scholar monk Walpola Rahula best articulated the bases of political
Buddhism in a 1946 book entitled Bhiksuvage Urumaya (later translated as
The Heritage of the Bhikkhu), which argued that given their mandate to
perform social service, monks could participate in politics and had done so
since the time of Buddha. Although historically monks did advise kings,
legitimize rulers, and thereby influence policy, H. L. Seneviratne (1999)
has vigorously challenged Rahula’s claim. However, many Rahulite
bhikkhus have resorted to radical politics and have espoused positions anti-
thetical to Buddhist teachings. Significantly, political Buddhism empha-
sizes politics over Buddhist values (Schalk 2007) because it disregards Sri
Lanka’s polyethnic heritage and seeks to institutionalize a Buddhist ethos
for the entire country. Criticizing political Buddhism, which resorts to
antidemocratic and ethnocentric practices, is not to criticize the Buddhist
religion: the former merely highlights how laymen and monks alike have
manipulated Buddhism for political ends and contributed toward
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism.
According to Ernest Gellner, “Nationalism is primarily a political prin-
ciple, which holds that the political and the national unit should be con-
2 Neil DeVotta
Buddhist leaders...
exacerbated
ethnoreligious violence
b
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 3
gruent” (Gellner 1983: 1). Gellner considered nationalism a recent phe-
nomenon related to modernization and industrialization, but a funda-
mental assumption of political Buddhism is that this harmony between
state (political) and nation (national unit) has existed in Sri Lanka since
ancient times and that Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has survived in
some form for two millennia. Political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist
nationalism thus feed off each other.
Each nation justifies its sense of nationalism on specific beliefs. The
most fundamental belief anchoring Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism is that
Sri Lanka has been preserved for Sinhalese Buddhists, and minorities live
there only because of Buddhists’ sufferance. This sentiment automatically
privileges Buddhists, marginalizes those of other religions, and justifies
Sinhalese Buddhist superordination and minority subordination.
Although not all Sinhalese Buddhists are nationalists, the sentiment is suf-
ficiently embedded so that Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, aided by polit-
ical Buddhism, has undermined Sinhalese-Tamil relations and attempts at
devolution of power, conflict resolution, and dispassionate governance.
Does an overarching explanation exist for political Buddhism and
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism? How does Sinhalese Buddhist national-
ism manifest itself in contemporary Sri Lanka? Most important, to what
extent do political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism impact
the quest for a peaceful solution to the island’s bloody ethnic conflict?
This study argues that political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nation-
alism have created the nationalist ideology currently prevalent in govern-
ment and in the predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist society. Adherents to
this nationalist ideology insist on expanding and perpetuating Sinhalese
Buddhist supremacy within a unitary state; creating rules, laws, and struc-
tures that institutionalize such supremacy; and attacking those who dis-
agree with this agenda. For those who have bought into it, this ideology is
sacrosanct and hence nonnegotiable, and consequently all who question
or oppose it are considered enemies of the state. Although such dogma-
tism may promote political participation, especially among the majority
community, it undermines civil society and fosters illiberalism. Five
prominent issues facing contemporary Sri Lanka—the notion that Sri
Lanka is only for Sinhalese Buddhists, sentiment against nongovernmen-
tal organizations (NGOs), the separatist struggle waged by the LTTE, the
anti-Christian milieu, and population growth and minority emigration—
epitomize this extant nationalist ideology. Each could be considered
unique and disparate, but they are best understood as intertwined issues
servicing the nationalist ideology.
This study also argues that a political solution to Sri Lankas ethnic
conflict rooted in meaningful devolution of power is unlikely in the fore-
seeable future; and structural changes, if instituted at all, would be
cosmetic and within a unitary state. A federal arrangement, which the
international community strongly supports, is especially unlikely. On the
contrary, the state will seek to defeat the LTTE militarily. If it cannot do
so in the near future, it would (especially under
the present government) seek to perpetuate a
stalemate, believing time is on its side. This
means that irrespective of when the civil war
ends, even Tamils who have been clamoring for
autonomy within a united Sri Lanka are bound
to be disappointed. The analysis also suggests
that Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism will
remain potent for the foreseeable future and
could target other minorities (e.g., Christians
and Muslims). Together, these factors bode ill for the thousands of
Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims who have been directly affected by the
civil war and for an island that, notwithstanding nearly a quarter centu-
ry of conflict, has most of the social attributes necessary to become an
economic success story.
The analysis begins with a discussion of the island’s ethnoreligious
demographics and contested history, for Sri Lanka represents a classic case
of how opportunistic elites manipulate a disputable past to influence
the present. It proceeds to (1) explain briefly ways in which scholars
have sought to categorize political Buddhism and account for ethnic
violence in Sri Lanka; (2) elaborate on the causes that have contributed
to political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism; (3) argue that
political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism have under-
mined whatever secular legacy once existed; and (4) examine individual
issues that, when taken together, represent the extant nationalist ideolo-
gy. Factors that contribute to this ideology have long been present in Sri
Lanka, but they have, especially since the mid-1950s, become institution-
alized and embedded. Consequently, a new political milieu exists that
all—Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike—must negotiate. Buddhists,
their clergy, and politicians are not monolithic (de Silva 1998), yet it
appears that the deep-seated nationalist ideology influenced by political
Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism may be irreversible. In
turn, the extent to which Sri Lankans of different religious and ethnic
persuasions may coalesce under conditions of equality, self-respect, and
peace is uncertain.
4 Neil DeVotta
a political solution...
rooted in meaningful
devolution...is unlikely
b
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 5
Ethnic Demographics and Sons of the Soil:
Myths of Provenance
According to the last all-island census conducted in 1981, Sri Lankas pop-
ulation consisted of: Sinhalese (73.95 percent); Sri Lankan Tamils (12.70
percent); Indian Tamils (5.52 percent); Sri Lankan Moors (Muslims) (7.05
percent); Burghers and Eurasians (0.26 percent); and Malays (0.32 per-
cent). The same census indicated that 69.3 percent of the island’s popula-
tion was Buddhist, while 15.48 percent, 7.55 percent, and 7.61 percent
were Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, respectively. Approximately 10 per-
cent of Sinhalese and Tamils are Christians, with most being Catholic. The
Sinhalese speak Sinhala, and the Tamils and Muslims speak Tamil. The
Muslims, however, utilize their religious identity as their primary identity,
thus differentiating themselves from the Tamils. Rarely does one run into
a Sinhalese who is Hindu or a Tamil who is Buddhist. The Indian Tamils
came to the island in the eighteenth century as indentured laborers to
work on plantations, just like their predominantly South Indian cousins
migrated to Africa and the Caribbean. Although some sympathize with
the Sri Lankan Tamils, they are not involved in Sri Lanka’s civil war.
Both the Sinhalese and Tamils resort to mytho-history to legitimize
“sons of the soil” status, with the Sinhalese
claiming their ancestors were the first to
arrive on the island from North India.
Sinhalese derive this certainty from the
Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle), first writ-
ten around the sixth century CE and
updated during the thirteenth, fourteenth,
and eighteenth centuries to explain
Buddhisms ascendance and preeminence
in Sri Lanka.
Ernest Renan has observed that “the nation is a soul, a spiritual
principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or
spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the pos-
session in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day
consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the
heritage that one has received in an undivided form” (Renan 1996: 52).
The Mahavamsa helps link past and present and enables the Sinhalese
Buddhist nation to coalesce as a spiritual principle.
The vast majority of Sinhalese Buddhists have not read the
Mahavamsa; but the text occupies such a central place in their collective
raison d’etre that they are intimately familiar with it. Indeed, without
appreciating the extent to which the island’s Buddhists have internalized
the Sinhalese claim...their
ancestors were the first to
arrive on the island
b
and embraced the Mahavamsa as sacred and indisputable history, it is
impossible to comprehend the passion with which Sinhalese Buddhists
relate to Sri Lanka, the impetus for political Buddhism on the island
throughout the twentieth century, and the implications for the ethnic con-
flict and conflict resolution.
According to the Mahavamsa, Prince Vijaya and 700 followers landed
on the island after the depraved prince was forced into exile from his
father’s kingdom in the land of the Vangas. Sinhalese believe the land of
the Vangas was located somewhere in today’s West Bengal and Bangladesh
and claim Vijaya as their progenitor.
The Mahavamsa says that the daughter of the king of Vanga, as proph-
esied, was carried away by a lion and forced to cohabit with it. They con-
ceived a boy and a girl. The son, Sinhabahu, eventually killed his leonine
father, became king, and married his sister, Sinhasivali. They in turn had
twin sons, of whom Vijaya was the eldest. Gananath Obeyesekere (1970:
45) has observed that this origin myth is rooted in bestiality (due to the
princess cohabiting with a lion), parricide (due to Sinhabahu killing his
father), and incest (due to the siblings marrying); but the story provides a
“‘mythomoteur’ or constitutive myth of the [Sinhalese] ethnic polity” (A.
Smith 1986: 15) that enables Vijayas supposed progeny to call themselves
“people of the lion.” It also partly explains the sword-carrying lion on the
country’s national flag, which most among Sri Lankas minorities disregard
because it represents a hegemonic Sinhalese symbol.
The Mahavamsa myth also claims Vijaya landed in Sri Lanka the day
Lord Buddha died, thus suggesting the island was destined to be a reposi-
tory for Theravada Buddhism and leading to the widely held Buddhist
belief that the country is Sihadipa (island of the Sinhalese) and
Dhammadipa (the island ennobled to preserve and propagate Buddhism).
This belief is mainly influenced by the Mahavamsas claim that Lord
Buddha visited Sri Lanka thrice: first in the southeast, where he forced the
Yakshas (demons) into submission; second in the north, where he similar-
ly forced the Nagas (snake beings) into submission; and third in the south
and elsewhere to consecrate the island as a sanctuary for Buddhism. The
Mahavamsa claims that Vijaya arrived in Sri Lanka and Lord Buddha died
in 543 BCE, although most scholars place the Buddhas death between 486
and 483 BCE. The Mahavamsa clearly was written to legitimize, cement,
and propagate the Buddhist association with Sri Lanka. Yet in the hands of
opportunistic elites, it has taken the place of indisputable history. Renan
has noted that all ethnic identities are constructed and that “getting its his-
tory wrong is part of being a nation” (Hobsbawm 1990: 12). Forgetting
and inventing are prerequisites to creating an “imagined community.” The
Sinhalese Buddhists are no exception.
6 Neil DeVotta
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 7
Upon landing in Sri Lanka, Vijaya is said to marry a demoness called
Kuveni, with whom he has a son and a daughter. Vijaya thereafter drives
away Kuveni and the children into the forest, however, and their progeny
are said to be today’s Veddas (Sri Lankan aborigines). Vijaya then marries
a princess from Madurai in South India, but what the Vijaya myth today
does not emphasize is that this marriage makes the Tamils “not only kin-
folk but also cofounders of the nation” (Obeyesekere 2006: 139).
The Vijaya myth is now taught in schools, so that most Sinhalese chil-
dren consider it indisputable history. As Renan also has observed: “Of all
cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate, for the ancestors have
made us what we are. A heroic past, great men, glory, . . . this is the social
capital upon which one bases a national idea” (Renan 1996: 52). The
Vijaya myth provides much of that, as do other myths and dubious histor-
ical episodes that have helped foster a modern Sinhalese Buddhist identi-
ty antithetical to the tolerance espoused by Buddhism.
The Sinhalese Buddhist myth that has been most baneful to intereth-
nic harmony is the embellished and dissembled account in the
Mahavamsa dealing with King Duthagamani (second century BCE).
According to this myth, Duthagamani was the son of a southern ruler
who was exceedingly unhappy when Cholas from South India usurped
power in Anuradhapura, the island’s capital at the time. The young
Duthagamani went to battle against the Chola king Elara and killed him.
The Mahavamsa makes clear that
Elara was among thirty-two rulers
Duthagamani waged battle against
and that many Buddhist rulers sup-
ported Elara. The Dipavamsa,pre-
cursor to the Mahavamsa, makes no
special mention of a war between
Duthagamani and Elara. But nearly
a century later the Mahavamsa’s
author, Mahanama, elaborated at
length on the account. The battle may have been a regional affair.
Mahanama also may have exaggerated the Duthagamani-Elara episode to
overcome “sectarian struggles” within the sangha and privilege his order at
a time when it was being marginalized (Kulke 2000: 134). Whatever the
reasons, Buddhist nationalists, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, have emphasized the Sinhalese and Tamil ethnicities of
Duthagamani and Elara, respectively, and have claimed that the
Sinhalese-Tamil conflict is two millennia old.
Buddhist nationalists...claim...
that the Sinhalese-Tamil
conflict is two millennia old
b
A number of details in the Duthagamani myth help solidify Sinhalese
Buddhist identity. Duthagamani’s army is said to be accompanied by five
hundred ascetic Buddhist monks; one of Duthagamani’s leading generals is
an ex-monk named Theraputtabhaya, who rejoins the sangha (Buddhist
order) after Elara and his army are defeated; and Duthagamani goes to war
carrying a spear containing a relic of the Buddha himself. When
Duthagamani laments over the thousands he has killed, the eight arhats
(Buddhas enlightened disciples) who come to console him say: “Only one
and a half human beings have been slain here by thee, O lord of men. The
one had come unto the (three) refuges, the other had taken unto himself
the five precepts. Unbelievers and men of evil life were the rest, not more
to be esteemed than beasts. But as for thee, thou wilt bring glory to the
doctrine of the Buddha in manifold ways; therefore cast away care from the
heart, O ruler of men.”1
The Duthagamani myth thus not only provides a context, no matter
how dubious, for thinking that the Sinhalese and Tamils have been neme-
ses for two millennia, but also justifies dehumanizing non-Sinhalese, if
doing so is necessary to preserve, protect, and propagate the dhamma
(Buddhist doctrine). Furthermore, it legitimizes a just war doctrine, pro-
vided that war is waged to protect Buddhism. Together with the Vijaya
myth, it introduces the bases for the Sinhalese Buddhist belief that Lord
Buddha designated the island of Sri Lanka as a repository for Theravada
Buddhism. It claims the Sinhalese were the first humans to inhabit the
island (as those who predated the Sinhalese were subhuman) and are thus
the true “sons of the soil.” Additionally, it institutes the belief that the
island’s kings were beholden to protect and foster Buddhism. All of these
legacies have had ramifications for the trajectory of political Buddhism and
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism.
As noted, nineteenth and twentieth century Buddhist nationalists
deftly used the Duthagamani myth to institute Sinhalese Buddhist domi-
nation. According to Walpola Rahula, “The entire Sinhalese race was unit-
ed under the banner of the young Gamini [i.e., Duthagamani]. This was
the beginning of nationalism among the Sinhalese. . . . A non-Buddhist
was not regarded as a human being. Evidently all Sinhalese without excep-
tion were Buddhists” (Rahula 1956: 79). Rahula is no doubt influenced by
the Duthagamani myth in dehumanizing non-Buddhists.
Some scholars take umbrage that such myths are utilized to highlight
Sinhalese Buddhist identity and political Buddhism (Wickremeratne 2006:
120–23), but politicians, the sangha, and their acolytes regurgitate these
accounts to justify policy prescriptions, including ethnocentric practices,
8 Neil DeVotta
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 9
and legitimize their standing as good and valiant Sinhalese Buddhists.
Some even equate themselves with these mytho-historic heroes. For
instance, the military successes against the LTTE under the current
Rajapakse government have led to Rajapakse being compared to
Duthagamani.2Toward the end of 2006, a massive cardboard cut-out of
Rajapakse was even erected at the junction at Maradana, Colombo, pro-
claiming, “Our President, Our Leader; He is Next to King Dutugemenu.”
If Sinhalese claim that their Buddhist ancestors were the first to settle
the island, some Tamils argue that their Dravidian ancestors, who on a
clear day could see Sri Lanka from southern India, were ever-present and
that originally all Sri Lankans were Tamils; it was Buddhism and its Pali
scriptures that created an “ascriptive cleavage” among the Dravidians and
thereby divided the islanders into Sinhalese and Tamils (Ponnambalam
1983: 20). Commonsense suggests that if people from Southeast Asia
could have migrated to Australia some 35,000–40,000 years ago, it is
unlikely that South Indians did not know about and try to investigate Sri
Lanka, which is only twenty-two miles across the shallow Palk Straits
(DeVotta 2004b: 25). Indeed, anthropological studies evidence how many
people of Dravidian ancestry (even during the past two generations)
embraced the Sinhala language and became classified as Sinhalese (Manor
1994: 774; Roberts 1995).
The LTTE’s attempt to be the sole representative of Tamils has
led some of its supporters to emphasize the state’s antiminority policies
and mask caste, class, and reg-ional differences among Tamils.
The Tamil community is diverse (Wickramasinghe 2006: 254–67;
DeVotta 2007) and should not be represented in a monolithic fashion.
The exploits of the LTTE and its leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, have
also become part of Tamils’ mytho-history, especially for those who are
part of the global Tamil diaspora.
Myths clearly have been used, especially since the nineteenth century,
for politicking purposes and have been deleterious to the fashioning of a
peaceful polyethnic society with a
common Sri Lankan identity.
Sinhalese and Tamil claims and
counterclaims notwithstanding,
Buddhism thrived in Sri Lanka
even as it lost its luster in the rest of
South Asia. Thanks to the creativity of certain outstanding monarchs, the
island’s Buddhists crafted a remarkable civilization even as some among
them later used their religion
to craft an insidious nationalist ideology.
Buddhism thrived in Sri Lankab
Explaining Political Buddhism
and Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism
Scholars disagree about the historical periods when Sinhalese Buddhist
identity and its attendant nationalism were forged. K. N. O. Dharmadasa
argues that this identity had been established by the fifth century CE
(Dharmadasa 1992b and 1996). R. A. L. H. Gunawardana, on the other
hand, argues that while successive South Indian invasions and the pillag-
ing of Buddhist temples helped consolidate Buddhist identity in
precolonial times, it was only during British colonial rule “that the
Sinhalese consciousness underwent a radical transformation
(Gunawardana 1990: 70). K. Indrapala (2005) claims that Sinhalese and
Tamils developed distinct identities only around the thirteenth century,
although miscegenation and acculturation continued. Gananath
Obeysekere suggests it may be impossible to provide a definitive date when
such identity and ideology were solidified (Obeysekere 2006: 161–62, fn.
18). Bruce Kapferer traces the provenance of modern Sinhalese Buddhist
ideology to the ontological aspirations of ancient monks and argues that
“the ideological distortions of the past” have enabled “the foundation of
the ideological distortions of the present” (Kapferer 1988: 82). Others
(Kemper 1991; Rogers 1990; Sabaratnam 1997; DeVotta 2004b) also
make clear that Sri Lankas unique Buddhist history has been reinterpret-
ed and manipulated to suit the needs and aspirations of modern times.
Because the requisite imagining had been performed centuries before,
modern Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists did not need to recreate a mytho-
history when they began calibrating an ideological project to ensure their
group’s supremacy.
Some point to this indelible consciousness crafted over 2,000 years to
explain how Sri Lankas predominantly Buddhist society could have toler-
ated, and some among its bhikkhus justified and encouraged, ethnoreli-
gious violence (B. Smith 1978; Little 1994). Tessa Bartholomeusz (2002)
claimed a strong just war doctrine exists within Theravada Buddhism.
However, as Premasiri points out, Buddhism emphasizes nonviolence, but
“considers conflict as an unavoidable evil in society” (Premasiri 2006: 82).
Violence thus has little to do with Buddhism and much to do with the
socio-psychological cravings of human society.
Others point to British colonial practices that intensified racial, class,
and religious divisions and argue that such divide-and-rule policies and the
attendant marginalization of Buddhism are mainly responsible for the
extant political Buddhism and violence (Malalgoda 1976; Tambiah 1992).
A number of scholars also have suggested that glaring contradictions in
Buddhism, especially related to the island’s ethnic conflict, can be
10 Neil DeVotta
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 11
explained by the manner in which Buddhism has sought to negotiate var-
ious modernist challenges of the twentieth century (Obeyesekere 1970
and 1995; Seneviratne 1999; Gombrich 1988; Bartholomeusz and de
Silva 1998). One author claims that when the LTTE’s attempt to divide
the island and its attacks against the clergy and temples are taken into con-
sideration, “the anti-Tamil sentiment of some members of the Sangha and
their approval of war do not actually constitute a betrayal of Buddhism as
it has evolved in Sri Lanka” (Tilakaratne 1994, as quoted in de Silva and
Bartholomeusz 2001: 11). This, however, fails to explain the rabid anti-
Tamil sentiments among some in the sangha during the two decades
preceding the LTTE’s formation. Another author suggests that “given the
ideological universality of violence and its ubiquitous presence,” the vio-
lence seen in Sri Lanka may not be an “aberration, or . . . a uniquely Sri
Lankan phenomenon” (Wickremeratne 2006: 126). In short, Sinhalese
Buddhists are no different from other groups when it comes to tolerating
and perpetrating violence.
Indias proximity to Sri Lanka and its 850 million Hindus (over 60
million of whom are Tamils in the southern state of Tamil Nadu), the mil-
lions of Muslims in nearby states, and the dominance of Christianity in
the West are also said to have caused “a deep seated sense of insecurity”
(The Island 2006a) among the Sinhalese Buddhists, leading this majority
community to suffer from a minority complex and embrace nationalism.
From this standpoint, political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nation-
alism are phenomena based on regional pressures, threats, and insecurities.
Yet others have sought to understand political Buddhism and its sub-
sequent nationalism and violence within the context of fundamentalist
movements (Bartholomeuz and de Silva 1988). Fundamentalist move-
ments seek ethnic, religious, and cultural domination using historical or
religious texts that delineate certain fundamental beliefs and practices.
Thus the bases for Christian, Jewish, and Islamic fundamentalisms are the
Bible, Torah (or Pentateuch), and Koran, respectively.
Theravada Buddhism (the Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka, India,
and Burma that is doctrinally closest to Lord Buddhas teachings) is based
on the Tripitakaya, which comprises the Vinaya Pitakaya (Book of
Discipline), Sutra Pitakaya (Buddhas Discourses), and Abidhamma
Pitakaya (Philosophical Teachings). The Tripitakaya, however, is a
religious text that has nothing to offer Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists,
who instead justify their claims and ideology using the Mahavamsa.
Sinhalese Buddhists base their colonization myth and notions of Sihadipa
and Dhammadipa on the Mahavamsa, because the Mahavamsa, while “not
a canonical text, . . . nevertheless has canonical authority” (Ibid.: 4).
According to Marty and Appleby (1991: 819–21), fundamentalist
movements, divergent cultures notwithstanding, tend to include certain
common characteristics: they are dependent on religion for legitimating
purposes; they operate with a clear sense of who does and does not belong
to the group; they espouse a belief in radical eschatologies; and they dram-
atize and mythologize their enemies. Buddhist fundamentalism encom-
passes these traits as well, although not all agree that the fundamentalist
label is the best way to describe and understand Sinhalese Buddhist nation-
alism in Sri Lanka (Manor 1994: 770–84).
In a seminal article and subsequent related publications, Obeyesekere
referred to the cultural and political shifts postindependence Theravada
Buddhism in Sri Lanka was experiencing as “Protestant Buddhism,” given
that “many of its norms and organizational forms are historical derivatives
from Protestant Christianity” and that “it is a protest against Christianity
and its associated Western political dominance prior to independence”
(Obeyesekere 1970: 46–47). Although it may be a misnomer to refer to
Theravada Buddhism as Protestant Buddhism (Holt 1990), Obeyesekere
was seeking to explain the significant ways in which the sangha was being
challenged by the modern milieu confronting it. The political Buddhism
of the sangha may indeed be due to such challenges.
The problem for Buddhists is that even as monks have become increas-
ingly involved in politics, the concomitant forces of modernization and
their attendant materialistic culture have in turn corrupted the monks.
Thus some monks run nursery schools, garages, taxi services, and even
operate as investment specialists (Seneviratne 2001: 16). Others discard
vinaya (monastic) rules and demand that alms given to temples include
chicken (Obeyesekere 2006: 135). Some monks
smoke, imbibe alcohol, maintain paramours,
take bribes, and resort to homosexual activity
with samaneras (novices). Many monks refuse to
serve in rural areas and to participate in all night
pirith ceremonies, and some are known to frater-
nize with village and town thugs. A few have
applied for drivers licenses and to become
lawyers. One monk recently insisted on being
allowed to take an endurance test so he could
become an Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), leading The Island
newspaper to say, “We have had Provincial Council monks, MP monks
and now it looks as if we are going to have ASP monks as well” (The Island
2007a). Many monks also leave their robes after gaining a university edu-
cation, thereby further depleting the sangha. In short, although the sangha
12 Neil DeVotta
modernization and...
materialistic culture...
corrupted the monks
a
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 13
may be no better or worse than the clergy among other established reli-
gions, such mercenary and immoral practices threaten an institution that
has played a pivotal role for over two millennia in Sri Lanka and perhaps
further contributes to political Buddhism.
Factors Promoting Political Buddhism
and Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism
Buddhism, as traditionally practiced, was dependent on largesse from the
state or lay persons to survive. It therefore thrived among generous bene-
factors from the royalty or rich individuals in society. In Sri Lanka too an
interdependent relationship took hold between the Buddhist clergy and
those governing the state: the sangha supported and thereby provided
legitimacy to rulers, and the rulers promoted Buddhist doctrine by provid-
ing steady subvention to the sangha. This at times led each party to use and
abuse the other, but it was an arrangement that, in the main, enabled
Buddhism in Sri Lanka to survive and flourish. Indeed, a number of kings
in the Kandyan Kingdom, one of the most important Buddhist sites both
past and present, were Tamils from India who adopted Buddhism in order
to rule effectively. It is clear that they succeeded, because the sangha cared
more about these kings providing subventions and protecting Buddhist
assets than their ethnicity.
Colonialism and Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism
Sri Lanka was divided into three kingdoms when the Portuguese landed
in 1505 (a division that those today clamoring for maintaining the
unitary state conveniently disregard). The Kingdoms of Jaffna and Kotte
in the north and south, respectively, resisted yet succumbed to the colo-
nial powers, while the Kingdom of Kandy, mainly due to the treacherous
terrain in the south-central highlands, fought doggedly and maintained
its independence.
The Kandyan Kingdom, however, fell to the British, the third and
final colonial power to rule the island, in March 1815. The British conse-
quently became the only colonial power to control the entire island. When
the British signed the Kandyan Convention, they wisely agreed to support
and protect Buddhism, as had previous local rulers. They continued this
policy until the late 1840s, when British evangelicals pressured the colo-
nial government to reverse policy (Malalgoda 1976).
The new colonizers thereby not only failed to live up to their treaty
obligations, but supported foreign proselytizers’ efforts to make the island
a bastion of Christianity. These proselytizers vilified Buddhism and
Hinduism and were especially critical of Buddhist monks. Such actions,
combined with the British practice of divide and rule, whereby they dis-
proportionately provided government employment to minority Tamils and
favored Christians over those of other religions, soon caused the majority
Buddhists to mobilize.
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, as we currently know it, is conse-
quently a reactive phenomenon. Notwithstanding the ethnocentric twist
foisted by the Duthagamani account in the Mahavamsa, Sri Lankas
Buddhists had coexisted with their Hindu counterparts for centuries.
Buddhists likewise were tolerant of Christian missionaries during the early
colonizing era and went so far as to host proselytizers and provide venues
for them to preach the gospel. Such hospitality did not elicit gratitude from
the foreign Christian proselytizers; instead, they characterized the monks
as careless, indifferent, illiterate, and imbeciles. When the monks retaliat-
ed, they evidenced that they could beat the missionaries at their own game.
The monks created associations to better organize themselves (e.g., The
Society for the Propagation of Buddhism in 1862 in Kotahena), establishe-
d printing presses (e.g., Lankopakara Press in Galle in 1862), and resorted
to public debates to disabuse Buddhists of Christian teachings. Among the
numerous debates held to counter the proselytizing Christian missionaries,
the ones in Baddegama (1865), Udanwita (1866), and Gampola (1871)
received much attention. But the seminal debate took place August 26–28,
1873, in Panadura, a town south of Colombo. The Buddhists were repre-
sented by a formidable monk named Migettuvatte Gunananda Thera, who
thereafter was considered the leader of the Buddhist Revival. The revival
received a boost when Theosophists Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (a former
officer for the North in the American Civil War) and Madame Helena
Petrovna Blavatsky visited the island in May 1880 and publicized British
mistreatment of Buddhists. Olcott may not be a familiar name in contem-
porary America, but his organizational skills led to the creation of a num-
ber of excellent Buddhist schools—schools that in a short time churned out
middle class men and women who were crucial to solidifying Sinhalese
Buddhist nationalism.
Anagarika Dharmapala and Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism
The man who was most responsible
for influencing radical change—and
can thus be called the father of mod-
ern Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism—
is Anagarika Dharmapala. Born Don
David Hewavitarne in 1864 and
initially educated at Christian schools,
Dharmapala became influenced by
14 Neil DeVotta
the father of modern Sinhalese
Buddhist nationalism is
Anagarika Dharmapala
a
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 15
the Theosophists. By the time he reached his mid-twenties he had taken on
the name Anagarika Dharmapala (the Homeless Guardian of the
Doctrine), adopted a vow of celibacy, and devoted his life to the regenera-
tion and propagation of Buddhism. The British considered Dharmapala a
homosexual, although they did not publicize what others also suspected;
the minorities considered him a racist. Dharmapala was certainly insensi-
tive and hostile toward all things un-Sinhalese and non-Buddhist, but his
attitude must be viewed within the context of Buddhisms marginalized
and diminished status in pre-independence Sri Lanka.
Dharmapala claimed that the Sinhalese, who were “the sweet, tender,
gentle Aryan children of an ancient, historic race . . . [were now being]
sacrificed at the altar of the whiskey-drinking, beef-eating, belly-god of
heathenism” (Guruge 1965: 484). He blamed the British for giving “the
Aryan Sinhalese poisons of opium and alcohol which are destructive for
the continuance of the Sinhalese race” (Ibid.: 530). He encouraged young
Buddhists to “believe not the alien who is giving you arrack, whiskey,
toddy, sausages” and challenged them to instead “enter into the realms of
our King Dutugemunu [or Duthagamani] in
spirit and try to identify yourself with the
thoughts of that great king who rescued
Buddhism and our nationalism from oblivion
(Ibid.: 510). He argued that Buddhism was the
only reason “the Sinhalese have not met with
the fate of the Tasmanian, the African savage, or
the North American Indian” (Ibid.: 207) and
proclaimed that “[n]o nation in the world has
had a more brilliant history than” the Sinhalese
Buddhists (Ibid.: 735). Dharmapala ridiculed
Sinhalese Buddhists who adopted British custom and dress: “Fancy the
descendents of Vijaya having names like Pereras, Silvas, Almeidas, Diases,
Liveras” (Dharmadasa 1992a: 231). He evidenced that he too had inter-
nalized the racist mindset of the colonialists toward Africans by noting,
“there is only one other idiotic and loathsome human group in the whole
world who indulge in such bovine stupidity. That is the small Kaffir ele-
ment in Africa who have embraced Christianity. The Sinhalese who fol-
low European ways and those Christianized Kaffirs, both are found behav-
ing in the same manner” (Guruge 1965: 231–32).
Dharmapala oversaw a pro-Sinhalese Buddhist periodical called the
Sinhala Bauddhaya (Sinhala Buddhist), and he and his followers resorted
to undisguised racism to traduce the island’s minorities. They may have
occasionally equated Sinhalese and Tamil suffering under colonialism, but
Dharmapala ridiculed
Sinhalese Buddhists
who adopted British
custom and dress
b
they were consummate Sinhalese Buddhist supremacists. One writer
referred to Muslims as “barbarians” vis-à-vis the Aryan Sinhalese
(Dharmadasa 1992a: 138). To Dharmapala the Muslims were “alien peo-
ple . . . [who] by Shylockian methods became prosperous like the Jews
(Guruge 1965: 540).
It is difficult to defend Dharmapala against claims of bigotry, although
it is also clear that his rhetoric was designed to shame his fellows for
embracing all things foreign and, therefore, alien to Sinhalese Buddhist
culture. He wanted the Sinhalese to appreciate their ancient, splendid her-
itage rooted in Buddhism. His harangues were certainly inspired by delib-
erate British efforts to marginalize Buddhism, but his racist rhetoric also
laid the groundwork for subsequent generations of monks and politicians
who adeptly manipulated Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism to create an eth-
nocentric state and thereby propel the island toward civil war.
Dharmapalas influence on the Sinhalese Buddhists was massive.
Thanks to his efforts, thousands cast aside their English names for
autochthonous ones, just as he had done; and they adopted the native dress
he recommended to replace the Western attire hitherto preferred. People
also sought to live by the 200 rules he devised for the laity.
H. L. Seneviratne (1999) has argued that Dharmapalas agenda com-
prised both economic and cultural aspects, and that soon after his death in
1933 each was adopted by different groups among the sangha. According
to Seneviratne, the monks at the Vidyodaya Pirivena subscribed to the
moral-economic teachings, emphasized village development and a crime
free society, and overall adopted a more pragmatic and progressive stance
designed to foster compassion, tolerance, and polyethnic coexistence. The
monks associated with the Vidyalankara Pirivena, however, disregarded the
moral-economic imperatives in Dharmapalas teachings and instead mere-
ly emphasized anticolonialism, Sinhalese Buddhist cultural renewal, and
Buddhist supremacy. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, the latter won out. The
culmination of this victory was the publication of Walpola Rahulas
Bhiksuvage Urumaya. The political bhikkhu was thus born and has had a
baneful influence on the sangha and the island’s politics, as discussed
below. For Seneviratne, however, Rahulas political bhikkhu is antithetical
to the sort of monks Dharmapala clamored to promote, and the domi-
nance of the Rahulites has only corrupted the sangha and made monks
more materialistic. Even Rahulites are not a monolithic entity and sub-
scribe to variegated opinions (de Silva 1998), but Seneviratne’s point is that
we mostly see today a sangha that propagates, advocates, and defends
Buddhism without following its noble precepts and practices.
16 Neil DeVotta
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 17
Independence and Religio-Linguistic Nationalism
Although the burgeoning Sinhalese Buddhist
nationalism and disagreements over representa-
tion had led to tensions between Sinhalese and
Tamils, their leaders maintained a united front
when clamoring for independence from the
British, and Sri Lanka became a free state in
February 1948. None then could have antici-
pated the virulence and intolerance Sinhalese
Buddhist nationalism would embrace.
The influence of the political bhikkhus
and the power of Sinhalese Buddhist national-
ism did not become evident until the revolutionary 1956 election. It was
the first election won by a group opposing the United National Party
(UNP); the first election that saw a coalition of forces (the so-called
Pancha Maha Balavegaya, or Five Great Forces, comprised of teachers,
Buddhist monks, farmers, laborers, and ayurveda physicians) rally as
Sinhalese Buddhists to induce political change; and the first election in
which political parties resorted to ethnic outbidding, an insidious practice
whereby parties representing the majority community try to outdo each
other to provide the best deal for their ethnic kin, usually at the expense
of minorities (DeVotta 2004b).
Sinhalese and Tamil leaders had joined forces to clamor for swabasha
(self-language), whereby both Sinhala and Tamil would replace English as
the island’s official languages. But S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and his Sri
Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) realized they could use a Sinhala-only
platform to outdo the UNP, and Bandaranaike soon campaigned on the
slogan “Sinhala only in twenty-four hours.”
The marginalization of Buddhism during colonialism; Britains
divide-and-rule policies that favored the Tamil minority; the subsequent
Tamil overrepresentation in the civil service, armed forces, universities,
and professional bodies; and the political maturity and patron-client
expectations generated from voting had contributed to clamor by
Sinhalese Buddhist forces for a Sinhala-only policy. Bandaranaike soon
became the leader of this movement. When it became clear that the UNP
was not going to prevail over the SLFP by sticking to bilingualism, their
party leaders also adopted a Sinhala-only policy. But Bandaranaike and his
coalition, the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (Peoples United Front, MEP),
enjoyed the monks’ support. Indeed, some bhikkhus went house to house
campaigning for the MEP.
Sinhalese and Tamils...
maintained a united
front...[in the struggle
for independence]
a
Clearly linguistic nationalism was the main theme that dominated the
1956 election (Kearney 1967; DeVotta 2004b), but with Sinhala consid-
ered the language of Sri Lankas Buddhists, it was easy for candidates to
fuse language and religion for nationalistic purposes. As noted, not all
Sinhalese are Buddhists, and tension had existed between the Sinhalese
Christian minority and the Sinhalese Buddhist majority; but the quest to
make Sinhala the only official language
allowed the Sinhalese to subsume their
religious differences and join forces as
speakers of a common language. Also in
1956, Buddhists celebrated the Buddha
Jayanthi, the 2,500th anniversary of
Lord Buddhas death. This enabled
Buddhist nationalists to infuse religion
into the debate on language. With Buddhist monks playing a leading role
in forcing the government to institute a Sinhala-only policy, it is not sur-
prising that some like G. P. Malalasekera, who was a leading proponent of
the policy, could claim that “[t]he [1956] Ceylon elections were decided on
a few very clear-cut issues. The chief of these was the Buddhist issue.”3
Religion and language are paramount to group identity, and they often
promote zero-sum considerations, as was the case in the decision to insti-
tute an official language following the 1956 elections. An equal position
would have required making both languages national languages, as the
swabasha movement had initially proposed. But with Sinhalese leaders
having committed to a Sinhala-only policy, the stage was set for Tamil
nationalism to counter Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism.
S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike thought he could accommodate the Tamil
language after becoming prime minister, but he underestimated the
forces with which he had colluded to attain the premiership. Sinhalese
Buddhist nationalists thus forced him to abrogate agreements reached
with moderate Tamils. Buddhist monks played a major role in exerting
such pressure, with monks leading protest rallies and hunger strikes
against the Tamil language and the Tamil populations legitimate griev-
ances. In September 1959 a Buddhist monk, Talduwe Somarama, shot
Bandaranaike at his official residence, and the prime minister died soon
thereafter. The SLFP ended up recruiting Bandaranaikes wife, Sirimavo,
to lead the party; and she became prime minister, and the world’s first
ever woman leader, in July 1960.
Given the SLFP’s rhetoric during the 1956 election, one could not
blame voters for believing the Sinhala-only policy would change their for-
tunes for the better overnight. Of course, fortunes did not change
18 Neil DeVotta
linguistic nationalism...
dominated the 1956 election
b
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 19
overnight, and in trying to expeditiously meet the expectations of those
who voted for the SLFP, Mrs. Bandaranaike pursued illiberal policies that
sought to pander to her Sinhalese Buddhist constituency—policies that
emboldened the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists even as they radicalized
Tamil nationalists and disenchanted Tamil youth. Thus, Sinhala-only was
introduced to the court systems even in the predominantly Tamil
northeast, and Sinhalese civil servants were stationed in Tamil areas to
ensure linguistic hegemony; Tamil civil servants were forced to study
Sinhala in order to be promoted; well-calibrated policies were introduced
to keep the number of Tamils hired into government service extremely
low; Tamils were required to score higher on exams to gain entry into the
country’s universities; quota systems were introduced to increase the
number of Sinhalese university students, in particular from rural areas;
the government avoided allocating resources to Tamil areas and only
invested in the northeast to support transplanted Sinhalese from the
south who were promoting the state’s colonization designs; and
Buddhism was provided the “foremost place” in the island’s 1972
constitution, thereby discarding the island’s secular status. Indeed, with-
in sixteen years of the 1956 election, Sri Lanka regressed from a vaunted
liberal democracy to an illiberal ethnocracy (DeVotta 2004b; 2002a).
The first ever anti-Tamil riots took place a couple of months after
the 1956 election. More anti-Tamil riots followed in 1958, 1977, and
1981. The 1983 anti-Tamil riots were a veritable pogrom, with Buddhist
monks leading rioters in some instances. The 1983 riots led to the ongo-
ing ethnic conflict, from which a Tamil diaspora of between 800,000
and one million has fled and now helps support the LTTE. Over 70,000
have been killed, and tens of thousands of poor and innocent Sinhalese,
Tamils, and Muslims displaced. What is arguably most tragic is that the
1956 election forced Sri Lanka to adopt a trajectory that disempowered
Sinhalese and Tamil moderates and instead empowered extremists. Now
the LTTE—which is branded a terrorist organization by the European
Union, India, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and
Canada—is pitted against a radical Sri Lankan state responsible for man-
ifold human rights violations. The extremists feed off each other, but the
majoritarian rule that has sustained them has also jettisoned secularism,
encouraged jingoistic political parties, and created a nationalist ideology
that undermines attempts at conflict resolution.
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism and Secularism
The ideological basis for a secularist tradition includes colonialism, espe-
cially under the British; the Western-educated elites’ belief in the virtues
of secularism, exposure to universal franchise, and attempts, together with
the British, to ensure the country evolved into a liberal democracy; and the
tolerance espoused by the Buddhist religion. Yet if these antecedents but-
tressed secularism, they also influenced the Buddhist nationalist trek
toward communalism. For example, colonialism may have exposed the
elites and many others to liberal ideas and ideals, but the colonial influence
also deliberately marginalized Buddhism.
For most Westerners, the word secularism denotes “absence of religion
or “neutrality on religion,” and a secular state is considered to be one that
eschews religious influence in governance. Thus the Establishment Clause
in the U.S. Constitution is used to claim that America was created as a sec-
ular state, although this separation has always been contested (Sandel
1998). In fact, although the West touts the values of secularism, Western
countries have had to seek various compromises regarding coherence of the
religious and the secular. It is therefore hardly surprising that secularism has
also been an issue in South Asian states like Sri Lanka, where religion is
omnipresent at all levels of interaction. Consequently, in the South Asian
context, secularism may be defined as “equal respect for all religions (and
for those who choose not to follow any religion)” (Aiyar 2004: 5).4
Three main Buddhist nikayas (sects), organized along caste lines, exist in
Sri Lanka: Siam (comprising the Asgiriya and Malwatte chapters),
Amarapura, and Ramanna. The Siam Nikaya is the largest and numbers close
to 18,000 monks, while the Amarapura Nikaya has over 11,000 monks. The
Ramanna Nikaya only consists of around 7,500 monks. Although each
nikaya maintains a hierarchy, no clear-cut, indisputable hierarchy exists
across the sangha (as, for example, one sees in the Catholic Church), and the
sangha has often been unruly (de Silva and Bartholomeusz 2001: 14).
Consequently, the mahanayakes (chief priests) of the nikayas command
enormous influence, and politicians cave in to their every whim and fancy.
The resultant milieu is one in which few major decisions, especially regard-
ing ethnic issues, get made without the Buddhist leaders’ imprimatur. In
some instances mahanayakes have changed their positions after being provid-
ed with Benz cars and millions of rupees in “donations,” although such cor-
ruption has not been related to issues promoting secularism.
Sri Lankas constitution gives Buddhism the “foremost place” on the
island, without making it the state
religion. Those defending Buddhisms
special status in Sri Lanka claim that
if non-Protestants cannot ascend to
the throne in the United Kingdom,
the head of state and a third of the
20 Neil DeVotta
Sri Lankas constitution gives
Buddhism the “foremost place
a
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 21
House of Representatives must be Lutherans in Norway, and the proposed
European Union constitution can seek to adopt a Christian identity, then
giving Buddhism the foremost place in Sri Lanka is very appropriate (The
Island 2004a).
According to Article 9 of the constitution, “The Republic of Sri Lanka
shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the
duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring
to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e).” Article 10
provides for “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the
freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice,” and Article
14(1)(e) gives the individual the right “to manifest his religion or belief in
worship, observance, practice and teaching,” alone or as part of a group,
“in public or in private.” Even the draft constitutions fashioned by the
Chandrika Kumaratunga government in the mid-1990s provided
Buddhism privileged status, going beyond the 1972 and 1978 (present)
constitutions to attempt to organize a Supreme Council comprising the
chief priests, who would ensure Buddhism was protected and fostered. In
addition, the Kumaratunga constitution proposed a Minister of Buddhist
Affairs with cabinet rank and government support for Buddhist education
by providing textbooks, building Buddhist educational centers, allocating
land for Buddhist activities, and renovating Buddhist temples.
Extremist Buddhist organizations—ably assisted by the nationalist
Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka—have long tried to introduce a
nineteenth amendment to the constitution and thereby make Buddhism the
official state religion. They want to prohibit all those born Buddhist from
converting to any other religion while, it seems, allowing those from other
religions to convert to Buddhism. These organizations insist that only a
Sinhalese Buddhist culture exists (or ought to exist) in Sri Lanka, which sug-
gests that the only valid ethnic identity for a Sri Lankan is a Sinhalese
Buddhist identity. Their leaders argue that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist state, and
accommodating other religions on an equal footing would make the coun-
try a secular state, which they claim they would fight to their deaths to pre-
vent. Ironically, although they all laud Sri Lankas democratic status (which
is understandable given that the island’s illiberal democracy has consistently
enabled their preferences), they insist on a democracy devoid of secularism.
Sri Lankas Hindus, Muslims, and Christians have protested occasion-
ally over Buddhisms special standing, but the political bhikkhus’ influence
has only increased in the past four decades since Buddhism was first pro-
vided foremost status. Indeed, any attempt to rearrange the status quo
would most likely unleash religious turmoil, which is the last thing an
already war weary Sri Lankan society needs. Today Buddhist ceremonies
are afforded a prominent place on radio and television, all major state
functions are accompanied by Buddhist rituals, and a Buddhist television
channel was inaugurated in July 2007. Hindu, Christian, and Muslim
clergy are asked to participate at major national functions, although typi-
cally the Buddhist prelates are the most conspicuous and dominate reli-
gious proceedings. Even non-state-related events, such as the Sri Lankan
cricket team leaving the island to play abroad, are often preceded by the
sangha dispensing their blessings. That some of these ceremonies are cali-
brated to conspicuously emphasize Buddhisms indefeasible status, as
opposed to being rooted in deep religious belief, is evident by how the
cricket team, for example, gets a blessings-filled homecoming only if it has
not disgraced itself abroad. It is now standard practice for a newly elected
prime minister or president to offer flowers at a Buddhist temple (usually
the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy), and in so doing pay obeisance to the
sangha even while reiterating the state’s Buddhist credentials. Indeed, even
non-Buddhists nominated to prominent government positions are
expected to visit leading Buddhist prelates before assuming office. To do
otherwise would be blasphemy before Buddhist eyes and would undermine
the official’s political or administrative career.
All this notwithstanding, many Buddhists have joined forces with their
non-Buddhist counterparts to promote inter-religious cooperation. The
Inter-Religious Alliance for National Unity, although not necessarily clam-
oring for all religions to be treated equally, provides a forum for coopera-
tion and abstains from the antisecularist rhetoric espoused by extremist
forces. Other organizations, such as the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice
and Equality, also wield a positive influence. One may fairly assume that
the various local and foreign civil society groups (including various NGOs)
are potential allies when promoting a truly secular society. That said, little
noise has been made in Sri Lanka over the past three decades for religious
equality or anything resembling the U.S. Constitutions Establishment
Clause. In any case, the Buddhist clergy and Buddhist politicians view the
latter as a Western construct unsuited for Sri Lanka and Buddhism. They
do have a point: Buddhism, as noted, has always had patrons, be they rich
private individuals or the monarchy. The nature of the religion mandates
that not all in society can practice its precepts at the same level. The per-
petuation of Buddhism is thus dependent on patronage. The question,
however, is whether the source of the patronage ought to be the state (with
other religions not provided similar largesse) and whether Buddhist leaders
should dictate the state’s decisionmaking processes, as at times does Sri
Lanka’s sangha.
The sangha remains the most important force opposing secularism in
Sri Lanka: hardly one prominent monk in the entire country is willing to
22 Neil DeVotta
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 23
call for all religions to be treated equally. This reluctance is partly due to
the fact that they all believe Sri Lanka was the destined repository for
Theravada Buddhism and that the preferential status for Buddhism has
now been institutionalized. Not only have many Buddhist monks facilitat-
ed and encouraged communalism, especially in the postindependence era,
but many have threatened to further undermine secularism and intereth-
nic coexistence. Some have demanded that bhikkhus be allowed to serve as
election observers. They also demand a consultative role (read veto) over
any attempt to draft a new constitution. Although monks, like all others
in society, are entitled to voice their opinions on such matters, the
demands made by the radical bhikkhus would make them constitutional
engineers—a role they are usually unsuited for, if only because their nar-
row religious education typically precludes the requisite training in politi-
cal theory, political science, and international affairs, areas in which a
constitutional expert could be expected to have some specialization.5
Some extremist monks, like their lay colleagues, also argue that fed-
eralism (or devolution of power) would eventually dismember the island
and that a unitary state that ensures Buddhisms dominant status is sine
qua nons for propagating Theravada Buddhism. Fears concerning a frac-
tious and disunited sangha may be associated with many monks’ aversion
to devolution (de Silva 2006), although the separatist conflict has certain-
ly encouraged a militarist and uncompromising attitude among Sri
Lanka’s Buddhist clergy (Premasiri 2006: 79). Thus, for instance, when
asked in an interview if “fighting” (i.e., waging war) was justifiable from
the standpoint of the dhamma, Walpola Rahula replied: “Why not? Take
King Kosala a disciple of the Buddha. He did fearlessly fight terrorism in
his Empire. The solution has to be the solution of the majority of the
people” (Peiris 1996).
Monks justify Buddhisms privileged status by arguing that Hindus
control India, Muslims the Middle East, and Christians the West, where-
as Buddhists have only tiny Sri Lanka. The National Sangha Council also
has encouraged the armed forces to
disobey civilian leadership if the
main political parties pursue negoti-
ations with the LTTE. Indeed, some
monks have threatened to go house
to house to prevent devolution from
being instituted, and some have
even defrocked themselves to serve
in the army as foot soldiers. With President Rajapakse equating service
to the sangha with service in the military (Bandara 2007), it would not
be surprising if more monks took to the gun. These political bhikkhus
some monks...even defrocked
themselves to serve in the army
b
hold rallies, go on hunger strikes, block the road to parliament, and
threaten all sorts of instability if the government hints that it will ignore
their preferences. These actions hardly promote interethnic accommoda-
tion and secularism.
As evidenced above, Sri Lankas major political parties have manipulat-
ed the monks—seeking their imprimatur to legitimize political platforms
but trying to counter their influence upon winning office—and some frus-
trated bhikkhus have tried to play a more direct role in politics. At the same
time, new parties fully subscribing to the nationalist ideology have attained
prominence, and the UNP and, especially, the SLFP have adopted hard-
line positions. Three political parties have played prominent roles in fur-
thering and consolidating the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology.
Their politicking and relative success, addressed below, partly suggest why
a political solution to the ethnic conflict has eluded Sri Lanka.
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Political Parties
In postindependence Sri Lanka, numerous extremist Sinhalese organiza-
tions have mobilized against the devolution of power to the Tamils. These
groups support political Buddhism even as they manipulate Buddhism.
They most certainly are among the protagonists promoting the national-
ist ideology. The three most prominent political parties in this regard are
the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front—JVP), the
Sinhala Urumaya (Sinhala Heritage Party—SU), and the Jathika Hela
Urumaya (National Sinhalese Heritage Party—JHU).
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna
The JVP first came to prominence when it sought to topple the second
Sirimavo Bandaranaike government in 1971. The military, with Indian
assistance, crushed the insurrection, leading to over 10,000 deaths. The
JVP joined the mainstream in the late 1970s but was among the three
parties President J. R. Jayewardene banned after the 1983 anti-Tamil riots.
Jayewardene falsely claimed that the JVP was part of a “Naxalite conspira-
cy” responsible for the anti-Tamil violence. His real motive was to cover up
the carnage the United National Party’s thugs and racist politicians had
perpetrated during the insurrection.
The JVP initially sympathized with the Tamils’ plight and even argued
that its cadres and Tamil rebels were fighting against the same oppressive
regime, but the party changed its position and embraced nationalistic rhet-
oric when doing so suited its purposes. The JVP turned especially national-
istic after the July 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord was signed. The accord was
exceedingly unpopular in the mostly Sinhalese south, and the banned JVP
24 Neil DeVotta
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 25
vilified the Indian presence and conducted a murderous campaign seeking
to topple the government. J. R. Jayewardene promised to crush the JVP,
although it was the beleaguered government of President Ranasinghe
Premadasa that ultimately retaliated ferociously against the group by
unleashing paramilitary forces that systematically carried out thousands of
extrajudicial assassinations. By the time the rebellion was completely
crushed in January 1990, over 20,000 youths were killed or disappeared.
The JVP reentered mainstream politics in 1994 and is presently a
leading nationalist party. It opposes attempts to accommodate the
minorities and is hostile toward devolution or a negotiated settlement to
the ethnic conflict. Consequently, the JVP rails against any ceasefire
agreement between the government and LTTE, demands that the civil
war be prosecuted more forcefully until the rebels have laid down their
arms and renounced separatism, and campaigns against the Norwegians
who are operating as peace brokers. Having joined the SLFP in January
2004 to form the United People’s Freedom Alliance coalition, the JVP
left the alliance in June 2005 when President Kumaratunga agreed to the
Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure with the LTTE.
6
Indeed, the party has warned that any concessions made to the LTTE based
on the group’s Interim Self-Governing Authority proposals (LTTE
demands put forward in 2003 as an alternative to a separate state) would
lead to another youth uprising like those of 1971 and 1988–90.
The JVP has done well since it reentered mainstream politics. It won
ten seats in the October 2000 parliamentary elections and sixteen seats in
the December 2001 elections. The party performed best in the April 2004
parliamentary elections, which it entered as part of the United People’s
Freedom Alliance, and won thirty-nine seats. The JVP is unlikely to repeat
such success by participating alone, and this realization will have an
impact on how the party continues to adapt to democratic politics.
The JVP has infiltrated the armed forces and commands strong sup-
port among the military’s rank and file, so much so that in some camps a
majority of soldiers may have voted for the JVP in the last parliamentary
elections.7The JVP has launched fundraising and poster campaigns to
support the war; party members have at times accompanied soldiers to the
battle field; and party leaders have visited military camps to deliver
morale-boosting speeches even though the JVP is not part of the present
government. Indeed, in a few years the JVP may be in a position to use
friendly elements within the military to conduct a coup d’etat. This is
especially likely if the LTTE would prove victorious in battles that embar-
rassed the military and government.
Sinhala Urumaya and Its Successor, Jathika Hela Urumaya
Sinhala Urumaya (SU) was organized in April 2000 under the pretence
that the economic and political fortunes of the Sinhalese people were
endangered. Party founders argued that while the Sri Lankan Tamils,
Indian Tamils, and Muslims all had political parties along ethnic lines, the
Sinhalese alone did not. Party leaders claimed they were thus forced to
organize “to prevent the ultimate betrayal of the Sinhalese people” and
promised to ensure that the “aspirations of the majority Sinhalese . . . [will]
take precedence over . . . minorities such as the Tamils” (The Island 2000).
The SU is not only nationalist; it is patently racist. The party has
asked Sinhalese Buddhists to boycott Muslim and Tamil stores, twisted
history to encourage violence against minorities (e.g., recasting the anti-
Muslim riots of 1915 as an anti-Sinhalese
affair), and claimed (during the October
2000 parliamentary elections) that if elect-
ed it would commandeer minority-owned
businesses and transfer them to the
Sinhalese. During the December 2001 par-
liamentary elections, the party also claimed
that if elected it would force all those under
eighteen years of age to join the Buddhist clergy, leading some to wonder
if Sri Lanka was witnessing the birth pangs of a Sinhalese “Buddhist-
Taliban” (Sunday Times 2004a).
The SU, which many predicted would do well during the October
2000 parliamentary elections, especially in the southern regions, captured
only 1.47 percent of the national vote. The group fared even worse in the
December 2001 parliamentary elections, capturing only 0.57 percent of
the vote and not winning a single seat in parliament. The SU did not con-
test the April 2004 elections; it instead helped create the Jathika Hela
Urumaya (JHU), comprised solely of Buddhist monks, which stunned the
electorate when it captured nine votes in parliament that year.
A Christian pastor sat in the State Council in the early 1930s, but only
in 1943 did the first Buddhist monk contest unsuccessfully for the
Colombo Municipal Council. Only in 1957 did a bhikkhu win election to
a village council in Matara, a city about 100 miles south of Colombo. A
number of monks were thereafter elected to village councils. In 1977, a
monk unsuccessfully contested a parliamentary seat for the first time
(Deegalle 2006: 234–35). The 2001 general elections, however, enabled
Baddegama Samitha, a bhikkhu from the leftist Lanka Sama Samaja Party
(Lanka Equal Society Party), to enter parliament from the Galle District in
Southern Province for the first time. In this light, the JHU’s performance
must be considered revolutionary.
26 Neil DeVotta
The [Sinhala Urumaya]...
twisted history
a
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 27
The JHU was organized just two months prior to the elections and
barely a week before the deadline for candidates to file their nominations.
The party fielded 286 monks. It promoted itself neither as Marxist nor
right wing but as one that would ensure good governance within a right-
eous state (dharmarajya). The JHU’s elected monks asked not to be called
members of parliament but “advisors” to the masses, and argued that their
main goal was to create a block in parliament to protect and propagate
Buddhist interests. Many Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists have embraced
the slogan jathika chinthanaya (national consciousness). The JHU shares
their belief that, given the island’s 2,500-year-old civilization, the people
should embrace its roots and seek to reinstitute cultural nationalism.
Indeed, the term chinthanaya has now become a slogan for Sinhalese
Buddhist supremacy and, not accidentally, President Rajapakses election
manifesto was advertised as the Mahinda chinthanaya, indicating that he
seeks to satisfy Sinhalese Buddhists.
The JHU has called for a ban on cattle slaughter, encouraged the gov-
ernment to work with the Karuna faction that broke away from the
LTTE, crafted legislation to prohibit Sri Lankans from converting to
Christianity, proposed that the government close down garment factories
that employ thousands of mostly young rural Sinhalese women, sought to
justify Sinhalese Buddhist civilians taking the law into their hands if the
government fails to protect them against the LTTE, encouraged the gov-
ernment to arm thousands more Sinhalese home guards so they could pro-
tect border villages from the LTTE, demanded that the Norwegians be
removed as peace facilitators, sought the de-merger of the Northern
Province from the Eastern Province, and insisted on a military solution to
the civil war. Although a few Buddhist monks have defrocked themselves
and joined the military, peace advocates generally castigate those in the
JHU (and JVP) for not making any personal sacrifices when advocating
war. As the Sunday Leader (2005a) noted in reference to the JHU, the
monks, “yellow robes and all, have preferred to play the role of Ayatollahs,
sending other mothers’ sons off to war, while they sit back and enjoy the
dhan [alms].” The only JHU demand the Rajapakse government has met
so far is support for the Karuna faction and pursuit of a military solution
to the ethnic conflict. With its monks craving the limelight and harbor-
ing political ambitions, the JHU is a divided entity. It, in a real sense,
reflects the nonhierarchical sangha.
What explains the JHU’s rise? The sudden death of the enormously
popular Gangodawila Soma Thera, a telegenic monk who was partly
responsible for anti-Christian violence in 2003–04, no doubt influenced
many monks to engage in politics on a more competitive level, and the
JHU may be part of his legacy. A few monks would like to be successors to
Gangodawila Soma, and the JHU provides a platform for them to seek that
status. Frustration with mainstream politicians and the sense that typical
politicians manipulate and use bhikkhus also may have played a role in the
JHU’s formation. As venerable JHU leader Uduwe Dhammaloka noted,
“They [mainstream politicians] come to power with the help of Buddhists,
and then they become anti-Buddhists. They dont care about us” (quoted
in Biswas 2004). The monks have run the gamut participating in politics
for over fifty years; all that was left to do was contest elections directly, and
the JHU is a natural extension of such political Buddhism. Furthermore,
it appears that the rise in Christian evangelical groups and the fear this has
unleashed among Buddhist nationalists about “unethical” conversions also
played a role in the JHU’s creation.
Many Buddhists are uncomfortable that monks participate so conspic-
uously in politics, and a 2002 Presidential Commission report recom-
mended that bhikkhus not be allowed to contest elections and engage in
politics. For those who favor a more secular Sri Lanka, the monks’ election
to parliament only “lowered the world’s
opinion of our nation, reducing us to the
status of Ayatollah-driven clown ‘democra-
cies’ like Iran” (Sunday Leader 2004). Some
secularists, out of anger and frustration,
have even referred to the Jathika Hela
Urumaya as the Jathika Hela Karumaya
(National Sinhalese Curse). The vast major-
ity of Buddhists oppose bhikkhus seeking
political office because they fear it would
compromise the sangha. Such fears were realized when JHU monks were
attacked during the election campaign and assaulted in the well of parlia-
ment by some of their colleagues. As The Island (2004b) noted, “Buddhist
monks who are venerated” were “jeered, abused and had even books
thrown at them” during their very first appearance as parliamentarians.
The JVP and JHU ardently support a military solution to the conflict
and harbor almost no concern for the plight of innocent Tamil civilians.8
This attitude was most prominently displayed when they resorted to the
“Go Go” (Yamu, Yamu) poster campaign, which urged the military to
march to the rebels’ headquarters in Kilinochchi (after the military had
reached the Mavilaru anicut, which the LTTE had taken over and deprived
farmers of access to water). Moreover, the parties adopt the same positions
regarding devolution and the fostering and propagation of Buddhism.
However, they also compete for the same voter base. Consequently, JVP
28 Neil DeVotta
The vast majority of
Buddhists oppose [monks]
seeking political office
a
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 29
supporters and politicians were most responsible for the harassment and
violence against the JHU monks in 2004.
Although most Buddhists disapprove of monks running for political
office, since the mid-1950s the radicals among the bhikkhus have avidly lent
their imprimatur to political candidates who have sought to marginalize the
minorities and create an ethnocracy in Sri Lanka.
9
President Premadasa’s
regime helped consolidate the monks’ ability to organize across the caste
divide by creating a Supreme Advisory Council in 1990 (Bartholomeusz
and de Silva 1998; Seneviratne 1999; Abeysekara 2002), and, arguably, the
monks are now a more potent force than they were in the 1950s. However,
given the degree to which the JHU has hitherto compromised itself, the
party is unlikely to fare better in future elections. Irrespective of its future
success, the party’s monks will continue to play an influential role in the
effort to expand the extant Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology.
The Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology
In recent times Sri Lanka has experienced numerous controversial
incidents impacting various constituencies that have combined to make
the country look intolerant and ungovernable. Although these incidents
may at first glance appear disconnected, the involvement of Sinhalese
Buddhist nationalists is a common element in each. Some Buddhists sym-
pathize with the nationalists’ position on particular issues (e.g., defeating
the LTTE), but it appears that most Sinhalese Buddhists do not support
the nationalists in all their activities. This is perhaps why the UNP and
SLFP garner the most votes during presidential and parliamentary elec-
tions. That notwithstanding, of late the electorate appears increasingly to
favor Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists. This is evidenced by the increasing
support for a military solution to the conflict, decreasing support for
devolution of power to the provincial level or through federalism, the
increasing influence of the JVP and JHU in the Rajapakse government,
and the government’s conspicuous antiminority policies. The new trajec-
tory in Sri Lankan politics is best understood within the context of the
now-institutionalized nationalist ideology. The five prominent issues that
service that nationalist ideology are addressed below. When combined
with the LTTE’s intransigence, reference to ideology explains why conflict
resolution in Sri Lanka has been intractable and why a settlement to the
civil war based on meaningful devolution is unlikely.
Sri Lanka for Sinhalese Buddhists
As noted previously, most Buddhist nationalists sincerely believe that
Buddha designated Sri Lanka the repository of Theravada Buddhism and
that the island therefore belongs to Sinhalese Buddhists. As one nationalist
noted in a letter to a newspaper, “Rome is sacred to the Catholics, so is
Jerusalem to the Jews and so is Mecca to the Muslims. The tiny island in
the Indian Ocean . . . where the Sinhalese lived
for over 25 centuries . . . is the hallowed land of
Sinhala Buddhists.”10 For such writers and their
fellow nationalists, the claim that Sri Lanka is
the land of the Sinhalese Buddhists is indis-
putable because the Mahavamsa says just that.
An associated argument holds that all non-
Buddhists live in Sri Lanka thanks to the
majority community’s benevolence. Thus, cab-
inet minister Gamini Dissanayake, in a speech
to Tamil estate workers on September 5, 1983—only a month after the
most infamous anti-Tamil riots—said:
Who attacked you? Sinhalese. Who protected you? Sinhalese. It is we
who can attack and protect you. They are bringing an army from India.
It will take 14 hours to come from India. In 14 minutes, the blood of
every Tamil in the country can be sacrificed to the land by us. It is not
written on anyone’s forehead that he is an Indian or a Jaffna Tamil, a
Batticaloa Tamil or upcountry Tamil, Hindu Tamil or Christian Tamil.
All are Tamils.11
Notably, Dissanayake was considered smart, talented, efficient, suave,
articulate, and modern, to the point where many considered him a poten-
tial president long before he launched his presidential campaign in the
early 1990s. That such an individual could resort to these vile threats says
much about the supremacist mindset that has seared the psyches of even
progressive Sinhalese Buddhists.
This viewpoint is further strengthened by the fact that for Sinhalese
Buddhists notions of state and nation are easily conflated. As the historian
K. M. de Silva has noted, “In the Sinhala language, the words for nation,
race and people are practically synonymous, and a multiethnic and 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 emo-
tional popular appeal, compared with which the concept of a multiethnic
polity was a meaningless abstraction” (K. M. de Silva 1986: 35). Although
some Sinhalese Christians may get offended when Sinhalese and Buddhism
are used interchangeably, Sinhalese Buddhists find such interchangeability
unproblematic. Thus, most Sinhalese Buddhists would not find the follow-
ing claim by Cyril Mathew, the Minister of Industries who egged on riot-
ers during the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, to be controversial:
30 Neil DeVotta
For...nationalists...Sri
Lanka is the land of
the Sinhalese Buddhists
b
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 31
The link between the Sinhala race and Buddhism is so close and insepara-
ble that it had led to the maxim, “There is no Buddhism without the
Sinhalese and no Sinhalese without Buddhism.” This is an undeniable fact.
The literature of the Sinhalese is Buddhist literature. The history of the
Sinhalese is the history of Buddhism. The language of the Sinhalese is
enriched by the doctrine of the Buddha. The era of the Sinhalese is the
Buddha era. The culture of the Sinhalese is Buddhist culture. The flag of
the Sinhalese is the Sinhala Buddhist flag.12
Walpola Rahula made the same point in an interview with the Sunday
Times newspaper:
Get this straight and quote me. Sri Lanka is a Buddhist Sinhala country.
Let no one make a mistake. Seventy percent of the country consists of
Buddhists and Sinhala people. Also make this clear that Sri Lanka is the
only Buddhist Sinhala country in the world. If we don't live here, are the
LTTE and some of the Tamil Parties asking us to jump in to the sea?
I got angry with [former Sri Lankan president] Premadasa because he
chose to call Sri Lanka a multi-national and multi-religious state. No. It
is a Buddhist Sinhala State. . . . (quoted in Peiris 1996).
Such thinking is so ingrained among nationalists that it is quite com-
mon to hear people say if the Tamils cannot live in a society dominated by
Sinhalese Buddhists they should go back to India. Even some in the
Buddhist clergy hold such views (Weerakoon 2004: 377, fn. 10).
Not surprisingly, some in various Sinhalese Buddhist organizations
insist that the one valid ethnic identity for a Sri Lankan is a Sinhalese
Buddhist identity. They are no different from the extremist Hindu forces
in India who want to see a Hindutva (Hinduness) agenda instituted so
that all Indians, irrespective of their religious beliefs, would embrace a
Hindu ethos. Globalization, and especially the spread of religious
extremism since the end of the Cold War, have enabled extremists in one
country to copy the tactics and demands made by extremists in other
countries, even if they belong to different religions. Sri Lankas Sinhalese
Buddhist nationalists have certainly been influenced by their counter-
parts in Indias “saffron movement.”
Some among the nationalists have also demanded a ban on private
tuition classes held on Sunday so youth can instead attend religious class-
es in temples; yet others have suggested controlling the noise created by
loudspeakers used for prayer and the manner in which animals are
slaughtered (both of which would especially affect Muslims); and nation-
alists have, furthermore, tried to erect Buddha statues in non-Buddhist
areas to reinforce the notion that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist state, even as
they have encouraged laws to control other religions’ symbols along the
island’s highways. A 2002 report published by Sri Lankas Buddha Sasana
Presidential Commission partly demanded that all schools, irrespective of
their religious affiliation, fashion “a Buddhist environment for Buddhist
children” to assist in “their personality development.” It went on to
demand that all Christian prayer meetings conducted in houses and
buildings other than churches be halted and that the Ministry of the
Buddha Sasana be allowed to approve visas for those entering the island
for missionary work.
The internet has enabled groups to network and promote their agen-
das, and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists too have mobilized to share ideas
and lend support to each other. Writers usually encourage a military solu-
tion to the conflict; they vilify individuals, NGOs, and foreign govern-
ments that may protest the Sri Lankan government’s disproportionate
prosecution of the civil war; and they resort to propaganda that praises
the actions of their Sinhalese Buddhist fellows while traducing Tamils.
One contributor even recommended a policy of genocide against the
island’s Tamils, as that “will solve the terrorist problem for good”
(Kannangara 2006).
Associated with the belief that Sri Lanka is a nation exclusively for
Sinhalese Buddhists is the notion that the Sinhalese are superior vis-à-vis
Tamils and Westerners and that historically both groups have been respon-
sible for repressing the Sinhalese, to the point even of colluding during the
colonial period. Such conspiracy theories partly help the nationalists
explain how, the superiority of their ethnic group notwithstanding, pre-
dominantly Sinhalese Buddhist Sri Lanka was vandalized by South Indian
regimes and thereafter colonized for nearly 450 years by European pow-
ers. Sri Lankas impressive civilization under its ancient kings is thus val-
orized and Western accomplishments ridiculed. In short, all things
Sinhalese are more virtuous and noble than anything promoted elsewhere.
For example, notwithstanding the troubling slide in educational standards
in Sri Lankas universities, those educated abroad are vilified for having
been corrupted by Western values and interests that are antithetical to
what is supposedly espoused by the sons of the soil (and in this critique
only the Sinhalese Buddhists qualify for such lofty status).
The above rhetoric and sentiments are justified by the belief system
that claims Sri Lanka is Sihadipa and Dhammadipa. This belief system is
32 Neil DeVotta
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 33
the most important strand of the now embedded nationalist ideology, for
all else follows from it.
Nongovernmental Organizations and Western
Conspiracy against Sinhalese Buddhists
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists maintain a virulent anti-NGO sentiment,
primarily because NGOs promote the peace process and oppose a military
solution to the civil war. With the nationalists bent on defeating the
LTTE militarily, all those who support
a peaceful settlement automatically are
branded terrorist sympathizers, para-
sites, and traitors (DeVotta 2004a;
2005). Norway has acted as a facilita-
tor between the combatants, and its
efforts to treat dispassionately the
LTTE as an equal negotiating partner
especially has led to vilification of the
country and its diplomats. This black-
guarding of Norwegians, foreigners, and locals associated with NGOs
who call for conflict resolution is another facet of the extant Sinhalese
Buddhist nationalist ideology.
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists generally believe that NGOs are
influenced by notions of imperialism, are lackeys of those advocating
neocolonialism, and are part of a Western conspiracy sympathetic toward
LTTE attempts to dismember Sri Lanka. In short, the nationalists see the
NGO community as a fifth column for the LTTE and consider “the
acronym ‘NGOs’ . . . one of the dirtiest four-letter words in the political
vocabulary” (Mahindapala 2006). Thus the JHU’s leader and member of
parliament, Ellawela Medananda Thera, has said that “those NGOs and
government servants who have requested the surrender of a part of our
country are traitors” and “should be set on fire and burnt” (Daily Mirror
2006). As one publication ranted, the foreign-funded NGO community
resorts to “an anti-Sinhala bias,” given that they are “proponents of an
American funded evil Western conspiracy that has every single one of the
NGOlogists (this is one of the more endearing terms that those who
work in NGOs have been called in recent times) well and truly bagged in
its kitty” (Lanka Academic 2005).
Among Westerners, the Norwegians especially have borne the brunt
of the nationalists’ ire because they are considered biased toward the
LTTE. They have thus been called “salmon eating busybodies,” and one
contributor to a nationalist website claimed that “the affairs of a Buddhist
Sinhalese Buddhist
nationalists maintain a
virulent anti-NGO sentiment
b
nation should not be in the hands of the ex-Nazi racist Lutheran Vikings
and their running dogs the foreign funded NGOs” (Lanka Web 2004).
Indeed, it is puzzling why the Norwegians have not walked away from
trying to facilitate peace, given how they have been excoriated by all lev-
els of Sinhalese society. Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists have accused the
Norwegians of “not only . . . being deliberately blind and deaf, but figu-
ratively ‘dumb’ at best or perverse and dishonest at worst” because they
are “propagandists of, or apologists for, the LTTE” and have “left no
room for doubt that they are not, and never have been, a balanced, gen-
uine or honest facilitator” (Gunasekera and Dayasri 2006).
Some NGO officials have only themselves to blame given their less-
than-honest practices. For instance, immediately following the
December 26, 2004, tsunami a number of NGOs, both local and for-
eign, were set up with no proper coordination, expertise, and oversight;
and quite clearly some among them inadvertently or deliberately violat-
ed their mandates. Some groups provided further fodder to their critics
by using the tsunami crisis to try and import duty free computers, video
phones, and other expensive electronic items for personal use. Seeking to
avoid rampant government corruption, the vast majority of foreign
funds sent to Sri Lanka for tsunami-related programs were channeled via
NGOs; consequently, these groups had ample opportunity for misallo-
cating and wasting funds. The fact remains that the local and foreign-
funded NGO community mobilized most efficiently to assist those
impacted by the tsunami, so much so that one newspaper noted, “their
patriotism in this hour of trial has been compared to that shown at
Dunkirk” (Sunday Leader 2005b). For many, however, the tsunami was
a godsend for NGOs living off poor Sri Lankans’ misery, and hence one
account noted sarcastically: “When the ascetic Siddhartha attained
enlightenment, the first thing he did was to spend a week gazing upon
the Esatu Bo Tree that had given him shade during the long years
of contemplation. We call it animisa lochana poojawa. It was an act of
gratitude. Similarly, on December 26 there is something that all NGOs,
especially International NGOs, should do. They should all go to the
nearest beach and spend a few hours casting their thankful eyes at the
sea” (Cooray 2005).
The Buddhist nationalists and the media that support them laud the
NGO community whenever it sides against the LTTE, but they take an
opposite position whenever NGOs blame the government and security
forces for human rights violations or a hard-line attitude toward the
peace process.
13
The JVP, for instance, has encouraged its supporters to
spit on NGO personnel and accused NGOs of undermining the coun-
34 Neil DeVotta
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 35
try’s sovereignty. Most foreign states encourage a federal structure for Sri
Lanka as a way out of the civil war, and the JVP and JHU are particular-
ly opposed to such a solution. This is the primary reason for their
hostility toward NGOs. The JVP consequently has called for NGOs to
be investigated, and the new Rajapakse government has initiated steps to
do just that. The government wants to bar all UN agencies and NGOs
not connected with the Red Cross from operating in LTTE-controlled
areas, and it has taken measures to require all NGOs working in the so-
called uncleared areas to register with the Defense Ministry. It even wants
all NGOs that decide to terminate operations to turn over their utensils
and supplies temporarily to the government so as to prevent these mate-
rials from falling into LTTE hands.
A standard operating practice for Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists is
to automatically castigate anyone accusing the government or security
forces of human rights violations as unpatriotic or pro-LTTE, and the
NGO community and intergovernmental representatives typically take
the brunt of their criticisms. Tarnishing and blackguarding the messen-
ger is thus a standard strategy to cover up government malfeasance.
Thus, in November 2006, after Alan Rock, the UN Advisor for Children
and Armed Conflict, accused the country’s security forces of colluding
with the breakaway Karuna faction, named Tamileela Makkal
Viduthalaip Pulikal (Tamileela People’s Liberation Tigers), to kidnap
children to fight against the LTTE, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists led
by Buddhist monks conducted protest marches claiming Mr. Rock was
an LTTE supporter.14
The belief that a conspiracy exists between NGOs and Western gov-
ernments to tarnish the image of Sri Lanka and its armed forces, favor the
LTTE, and thereby also undermine the island’s sovereignty is deep-seated.
For instance, after the military pushed back the LTTE in early September
2006 and captured Sampur, a strategic area in the Eastern Province, a
nationalist newspaper said: “It is the duty of the hurrah boys and the intel-
lectual pimps in NGO garb drumming up support for the LTTE and the
international community to prevail upon him [LTTE leader Vellupillai
Prabhakaran] to come to terms with reality and depart from the path of
violence” (The Island 2006b).
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists and the country’s military also resent
the NGO presence in the northeast because it prevents them from acting
in a heavy-handed fashion against the Tamil community. Many Tamil
civilians in the northeast depend on the NGO community for sustenance,
but they also see NGOs as a buffer against a vindictive military that oper-
ates with impunity. For instance, in the recent past government forces and
their anti-LTTE Tamil paramilitary allies have been accused of extorting,
raping, torturing, kidnapping, and killing dozens of Tamils, especially in
the northeast, and no one has been arrested and prosecuted for such
actions. With the LTTE (often forcibly)
training the young and old within their terri-
tories to fight, the armed forces and current
government feel justified not differentiating
between LTTE cadres and civilians when
waging war. The state’s indiscriminate attacks
have led the international community to
protest. It is in the military’s interest to bar
NGOs from investigating such incidents, and
the armed forces, with the government’s connivance, have worked to make
the NGO presence in these violence-ridden areas difficult and minimal.
The military, which is 98 percent Sinhalese, has adopted a hostile attitude
toward NGOs working among Tamils. Assassinations have been carried
out—as when sixteen Tamil and one Muslim aid workers for the French
NGO Action Against Hunger were executed in their office in Mutur in the
Eastern Province.15 Although arguably the worst ever attack against an
NGO anywhere in the world, it is but one in
a series of events where the state and nation-
alist forces have targeted the NGO communi-
ty working in the northeast. NGO workers
are documenting and confirming such crimes,
and the military and the nationalists are
attempting to stop them. The anti-NGO
stance that is a strand of the current Sinhalese
Buddhist nationalist ideology must be viewed
in this light.
Terrorism by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
Creation myths framing the two ethnicities as millennia-long antagonists,
the British attempt to marginalize Buddhism and favor minority Tamils
and Christians over Buddhists, and the realization that democratic politics
could be used to institute their preferences allowed Buddhist nationalists
to introduce anti-Tamil policies in the postindependence era. But the
LTTE’s attempt to create a separate Tamil state has especially exercised the
nationalists, and their opposition to the LTTE is a major facet of the
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology (although nearly all Muslims and
many Tamils also now loathe the LTTE for various reasons). The national-
ists differ from the general public in their attitude toward the LTTE: the
36 Neil DeVotta
the state and nationalist
forces have targeted the
NGO community
b
Many Tamil civilians...
see NGOs as a buffer
b
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 37
population at large is more amenable to peace via dialogue and compro-
mise than the nationalists, who are against any form of peace talks and
insist on military victory.
The overarching ideology of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists is hostile
toward Tamils, but now they can mask that disapproval by directing their
wrath at the LTTE.16 Elsewhere, extremists commonly seek to put a posi-
tive spin on their ideologies, arguing in favor of what they are trying to
defend as opposed to focusing on what they loathe. White supremacists,
for example, emphasize being pro-white, not anti-black or anti-Jewish.
Likewise, Indias Hindutva forces do not claim to be anti-Muslim; they are
simply pro-Hindu. Sri Lankas Buddhist nationalists too now eschew
being anti-Tamil; they merely claim to be pro-Sinhalese Buddhist.
Whatever they oppose is justified by this pro-Sinhalese Buddhist stance.
They thus perpetuate their anti-Tamil and antiminority agenda even
while resorting to a more acceptable rhetoric. The upshot is that only the
rhetoric has changed; seeking to further consolidate a supremacist
Sinhalese Buddhist state remains their primary goal.
They consequently embrace the refrain that Sri Lanka does not have
an ethnic problem; it merely has a terrorist problem. In doing so, they
portray the LTTE as the main reason for the civil war, thereby deftly
avoiding the civil war’s root causes, which have to do with the quest for
Sinhalese Buddhist domination. The global war on terror waged by the
United States and others has made the nationalists’ focus on terrorism
effective, and emphasizing it has enabled the present government to
deflect questions concerning its gross human rights violations against
Tamil civilians.
Tamil nationalism is a reactive phenomenon (Kearney 1967; Tambiah
1986; Harris 1990; Swamy 1995; Wilson 2000; DeVotta 2004b;
Sahadevan and DeVotta 2006). The Tigers too were made, not born. Both
Tamil nationalism and the subsequent phenomenon of the LTTE were
products of ethnocentric policies embraced by successive Sri Lankan gov-
ernments. As Nigel Harris has aptly observed,
Successive [Sinhalese] governments were more preoccupied with secur-
ing their own base among the Sinhalese . . . at virtually any cost—or
rather, in the political auction, preventing themselves being pushed out
by their rivals. If the Tamils had not existed, Colombo would have had
to invent them. And, in an important sense, it did. It was Colombo that
forced the inhabitants of the north to become different, to cease to be
Sri Lankan and become exclusively Tamil (Harris 1990: 221).
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism acted as midwife during this process
by lending legitimacy to the ethnocentric elements. Sinhalese Buddhist
nationalists categorically refuse to consider that the problem facing the
island may be the nature of the Sri Lankan state, because the present state
is one that has been crafted according to their preferences.
The nationalist ideology dictates that the LTTE are intransigent,
incorrigible, and not to be trusted; the military must therefore eradicate
the organization if Sri Lankas territorial integrity is to be safeguarded. The
position is understandable, given the LTTE’s quest to divide the island and
the nationalists’ determination to preserve the island’s present unitary sta-
tus. Since November 2005, when the present Rajapakse government took
office, many also have come to ardently believe that the Sri Lankan securi-
ty forces can militarily defeat the LTTE. They also believe that the vast
majority of Tamils sympathize with the LTTE and that it is futile to try and
differentiate between innocent Tamil civilians and LTTE cadres. The mas-
sive human rights violations that have been perpetrated especially in the
island’s northeast must be analyzed within this context.
Tamil nationalism and the LTTE may be reactive phenomena, but
Sinhalese Buddhist antipathy for the LTTE and the determination to
preserve the island’s unitary status have been solidified thanks to LTTE
attacks on some of Buddhisms most sacred symbols. For instance, in May
1985 the LTTE attacked monks and worshippers in Anuradhapura around
the Shri Maha Bodhi, one of the most sacred sites in all of Buddhism,
killing 146 people; in June 1987 Tamil rebels murdered 33 young
Buddhist clergy and their mentor, Hegoda Indrasara Thera, at Arantalawa
(Amparai); and in January 1998 they bombed the Temple of the Tooth
(another of Buddhisms most sacred sites, which houses a tooth relic of
Lord Buddha). Although some monks in Sri Lanka are criticized for indis-
cretions, all Buddhists highly respect the institution of the sangha and
hence treat even wayward monks with grudging respect. Because the sang-
ha is one of Buddhisms triple gems (or three sacred refuges)—the other
two being the Buddha and dhamma—the desire to seek refuge in the sang-
ha (sangang saranang gachchami) is an everyday invocation among
Buddhists. Buddhists commonly refer to a controversial monk by saying
they have no regard for him but respect the robe (sivura) he wears, given
that the saffron robe represents both the Buddha and sangha. Even young
trainees (samaneras) not even in their teens sit at a higher elevation among
lay persons and remain sitting even when before the country’s president
and prime minister.
Thus, an attack on a monk is not a mere attack on an individual but
on an entire institution considered most responsible for preserving
38 Neil DeVotta
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 39
Sinhalese Buddhist society. The monks enabled the Sinhala script, paint-
ing, sculpture, architecture, meditation, and the propagation of
Sinhalese Buddhist sociocultural values (Phadnis
1976: 40). Historians claim that no society has
lasted more than three generations that did not
associate its raison d’etre to religion, and clearly
the main, if not only, reason Sinhalese culture has
survived so long is due to Buddhism. The LTTE
may not have understood all this when it
attacked Buddhist institutions; or perhaps the
LTTE understands this all too well and was hop-
ing its attacks would unleash a Sinhalese
Buddhist backlash against Tamils, which t
hen could have been used for
propaganda purposes.
Given its policy of not tolerating dissent and its desire to be the
Tamils’ sole representative, the LTTE has killed numerous Tamil intellec-
tuals and politicians. Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists highlight such assas-
sinations to emphasize the depraved nature of the LTTE; they also
demand revenge for LTTE assassinations of a number of Sri Lankan lead-
ers, including President Ranasinghe Premadasa in May 1993. Sinhalese
Buddhist nationalists argue that to deal with the LTTE after such attacks
on Buddhism and the country’s politicians is traitorous and would only
reward terrorism.
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists typically claim that Tamils exaggerate
their grievances against the state; they argue that anti-Tamil riots, especial-
ly the 1983 riots, were set off by a few Sinhalese thugs and individuals
within the governing UNP regime and that anti-Buddhist elements, both
local and foreign, conspire to use the riots to tarnish the image of
Buddhism; they defend the military’s malpractices in the northeast no
matter how much evidence points to soldiers’ culpability; and they malign
all who call for peace talks with the LTTE. Nationalists also justify exces-
sive and indiscriminate force against Tamil civilians by pointing to Indian
actions in Kashmir, U.S. actions in Iraq, and Israeli actions in Lebanon
and the Palestinian occupied territories. Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists
also claim that the military cannot be blamed for the deaths of innocent
Tamils because innocent people always get killed during war (as even
acknowledged by the United States with its reference to “collateral dam-
age”). They further point to the LTTE massacres of Sinhalese villagers
over the years to justify the military’s indiscriminate use of force in the
northeast; and refer to the Tigers forcing Muslims and Sinhalese out of the
Northern Province and eastern areas such as Batticaloa to make the case
Sinhalese culture has
survived so long...
due to Buddhism
b
that the LTTE has resorted to ethnic cleansing. Privately, some say the
Sinhalese should do likewise.
Although the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists’ hatred for the LTTE is
understandable, the solutions they advocate are conducive to maintaining
a supremacist Sinhalese Buddhist polity, not a polyethnic society where all
can coalesce in unity and with self-respect. Yet these supremacist solutions
too are understandable, as their demands are consistent with the overarch-
ing nationalist ideology that now dominates Sri Lankas political landscape.
The Christian Threat against Buddhism
The Buddhist revival that took place in the latter part of the nineteenth
century was inspired by Christian proselytizers. The anti-Christian vio-
lence experienced in Sri Lanka during the past few years too was inspired
partly by evangelical proselytizing. Whether a specific cause of this odious
phenomenon exists is unclear; however, opportunistic religious and politi-
cal elites ably assisted by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists have sought to
promote a Buddhist-Christian divide and benefit from the mayhem.
Additionally, such anti-Christian sentiment clearly is another strand of the
extant nationalist ideology.
The very first riot in modern Sri Lankan history was not between
Sinhalese and Tamils but between Buddhists and Catholics. The so-called
Kotahena riot of 1883 was quickly put down by the British authorities, but
it highlighted the growing religious divide between the two communities,
especially at a time when Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism was on the
upswing. This burgeoning Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, however, was
subsumed by Sinhala linguistic nationalism, which enabled all Sinhalese,
irrespective of their religious beliefs, to mobilize to make their language the
island’s sole national language. It also has enabled Sinhalese Christians to
oppose the LTTE as passionately as do Sinhalese Buddhists. Indeed, some
of the most prominent generals in the Sri Lankan military have been
Christians. The Sinhala language has succeeded so well in unifying
Sinhalese Buddhists and Christians that the predominantly Sinhalese
Catholic clergy in the south often refuse to speak out against military
atrocities perpetrated on Tamil Catholics in the northeast; and the
Sinhalese Catholic leadership in Colombo is known to treat complaints
and grievances against the state by their northeast Tamil counterpart with
indifference.17 Also, while interethnic Sinhalese-Tamil marriages have
declined over the past quarter century, Sinhalese Christians and Buddhists
marry each other frequently. The most recent anti-Christian violence
(which has, in the main, been intraethnic violence) threatens to undermine
this Sinhalese unity: The message emanating from the nationalists suggests
that the only worthy Sinhalese are Buddhist Sinhalese.
40 Neil DeVotta
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 41
The recent attacks on Christians began in 2000. Such anti-Christian
incidents are common in India and Pakistan, but not in Sri Lanka, and the
violence consequently caught many by surprise. Buddhist priests and
influential organizations like the Center for Buddhism International, the
Buddhist Dharmavijaya Foundation, and the Center for Buddhist Action
have claimed that various evangelical groups from the United States and
South Korea, such as Campus Crusade for Christ and Christian Literary
Crusade, are abusing the Companies Act of 1982 (which missionary
groups have used to register as corporations) to convert Buddhists and
Hindus. The Buddhist organizations fan the public’s fears by claiming that
just as South Korea was made a majority Christian country following
World War II, Sri Lanka too will soon become a majority Christian island
if the Christian organizations are allowed free reign in the country. Their
fears were apparently taken seriously, given the manner in which Sinhalese
Buddhist nationalists, including nationalist parties like the JVP and JHU,
politicized the so-called unethical conversions issue and supported or con-
ducted anti-Christian violence.
According to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka,
fourteen attacks occurred against Christian churches in 2000, while only
thirteen such incidents took place in 2001 and 2002. But the number of
attacks rose to 146 in 2003 and 2004. Other accounts have placed the
number of attacks during 2003 and 2004 at over 200.
Notably, the violence took place when the LTTE and government
were not at war, suggesting that the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist project
needs to rely on an adversary—be it the LTTE, supposedly unscrupulous
Western missionaries, or Muslims.18 That aside, two events can be said to
have especially contributed to the anti-Christian violence: the death of
monk Gangodawila Soma and post-tsunami proselytizing.
A telegenic and telefluent monk, Gangodawila Soma was partly
responsible for the anti-Christian violence of 2003 and 2004. The monk,
who harbored presidential ambitions, initially built a following by advis-
ing people on mundane matters but gradually took on controversial issues,
including the ethnic conflict, supposedly pro-LTTE nongovernmental
organizations, and unethical conversions. Gangodawila Soma repeatedly
asserted that two types of terrorism confronted Sri Lanka: LTTE terrorism
and missionary terrorism. In doing so, he resorted to chauvinistic rhetoric
and made the missionaries look just as villainous as the LTTE. Not sur-
prisingly, especially in the last year of his life, his fans began attacking
Christian churches just as a previous generation had attacked Tamil homes
and businesses. When Gangodawila Soma passed away in December 2003
while in Russia, his followers and political opportunists claimed his death
was part of a Christian conspiracy to undermine Buddhism. Although the
autopsy proved the monk’s demise was due to a diabetic-related heart
attack, they resorted to a poster campaign claiming he had been murdered.
When the JHU’s Ellawala Medhanannanda Thera spoke at Gangodawila
Soma Theras funeral, he reiterated that the monk did not die naturally, but
was killed (apawath una nevei, apawath kala). Within a month of the cre-
mation, fifty-four places of worship had been attacked, which helps to
explain the higher number of attacks for 2003 and 2004. By some
accounts, over 140 places of worship were forced to close down within four
months of the monk’s death.
Even though Gangodawila Soma passed away on December 12, 2003,
Buddhist nationalists tried to postpone his cremation until Christmas so as
to dampen the nativity celebrations. The funeral was ultimately held on
December 24. When a musical event headlined by the popular Indian
movie star Shah Rukh Khan was scheduled for December 11, 2004, JHU
monks resorted to hunger strikes and demanded the event be banned,
claiming it was disrespectful to hold such events when the country was
observing the first anniversary of Gangodawila Soma’s death. Hand
grenades were thrown during the event, nearly killing the Indian perform-
ers and leading to the deaths of two fans. That Christmas, just as in the
previous year, Catholics in certain areas were warned not to go to midnight
mass and not to light firecrackers, a popular tradition observed on
Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Throughout this period, the threats were
accompanied by intermittent poster campaigns, with the posters often
printed out in maroon, the color of the Jathika Hela Urumaya and its pred-
ecessor, the Sinhala Urumaya.
Extremist Buddhist clergy led the anti-Christian violence in some
areas (U.S. Department of State 2004), and the perpetrators were
supremely confident they could act with
impunity. For instance, when a woman
complained to the police about the attack
on her place of worship, she was told: “You
are a Christian. You have no right to speak
[for] this is a Buddhist country”
(Weerasooriya 2004). Apologists for the
nationalists claimed that the church attacks
“were self inflicted by certain Evangelical
pastors,” who thereafter accused Sinhalese
Buddhists for the nefarious actions.19
The anti-Christian violence was also encouraged by JHU and JVP
members, who claim that Christian missionaries resort to bribery and
42 Neil DeVotta
Extremist Buddhist clergy
led the anti-Christian
violence in some areas
b
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 43
materialistic inducements to unethically convert poverty-stricken
Buddhists and Hindus. The number of Christian evangelicals supported
through various Western churches—mostly American–operating in Sri
Lanka indisputably has increased. What is debatable, however, is whether
any of these missionaries resort to bribery when trying to convert people
to their denominations. Indeed, in many areas, most converts to new
denominations used to be Catholics. This fact has not prevented Buddhist
extremists, however, from attacking Catholic churches. In some instances,
Catholic churches that have existed for decades have been attacked even
though Catholic clergy do not proselytize openly and are circumspect
about converting Buddhists and Hindus.
Two recent bills introduced in parliament, the Prohibitions of
Forcible Conversions to Religions Bill (proposed by the JHU) and the
Protection of Religious Freedom (also known as the Anti-Conversion Bill
or Government Bill and ardently supported by Prime Minister Ratnasiri
Wickramanayaka), demonstrate clearly that the issue of conversion is
being used by political parties to outmaneuver each other, but the vast
majority of Buddhists on the island appear to support such legislation.
The country’s Supreme Court has ruled that all except one clause in the
former bill are unconstitutional, but even passage of the Anti-Conversion
Bill could lead to sentences ranging from five to seven years in prison and
fines between 100,000–500,000 rupees.
Sri Lankas Supreme Court has long been a conservative entity that
has rarely ruled against the state’s preferences. Not surprisingly—its ruling
on the Prohibitions of Forcible Conversions to Religions Bill notwith-
standing—the Court also has ruled that the right to practice one’s religion
does not include the right to propagate that religion. It has, consequent-
ly, denied Christian service organizations the right to incorporate, claim-
ing that doing so would undermine the foremost place guaranteed to
Buddhism under the country’s constitution. In short, the Court has ruled
that no Christian organization may be incorporated if part of its mission
includes proselytizing and that it is illegal for a church to combine reli-
gious instruction and charity. Yet, the incorporation of 178 Buddhist and
Muslim organizations that combine religious instruction and charity has
been approved (Jansz 2004).
These so-called anti-conversion bills seek to prohibit unethical con-
versions based on “allurement,” “force,” and “fraudulent means.” Yet
given the way these terms are defined within the bills, any conversion can
be easily deemed unethical, and persons associated with the conversions
prosecuted. The standard refrain among Buddhist monks and nationalists
is that although Buddhism too is a proselytizing faith, Christian evangel-
ical organizations accost and impose themselves on people, but Buddhist
temples only cater to those who express interest. That noted, the bills as
currently written violate clauses in the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN
Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and
Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, the American Convention on
Human Rights, and the European Convention for the Protection of
Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
The anti-Christian hysteria led to numerous troubling incidents, and
they collectively signify how the nationalist ideology espoused by extrem-
ist Sinhalese Buddhists can be utilized to target Christians. Anti-Christian
violence in the recent past has included “beat-
ings, arson, acts of sacrilege, death threats, vio-
lent disruption of worship, stoning, abuse,
unlawful restraint, and even interference with
funerals” (Ekanayaka 2004). In one instance
dealing with the latter, a bhikkhu refused the
family of a long-standing convert to
Christianity the right of burial and forcibly
carried out the last rights according to
Buddhist rituals (Weerasooriya 2004). This anti-Christian hysteria has led
also to a number of ridiculous accusations, such as the following sent in to
a newspaper:
To add to the list of anti-conversion tactics mentioned—after a period of
expert brainwashing, an image of the Buddha is dashed on the floor, and
the erstwhile Buddhist children and . . . adults are made to spit or do worse
on the shattered pieces, while chanting, “See, he cannot save himself.”
The children are told that Satan in other countries has horns and hooves,
but in Sri Lanka he is robed in yellow and they should run away at [the]
sight of him. They are made to sing that the road leading to the Buddhist
temple is the one that leads to hell. The list is long and outrageous. Men
are dressed like Buddhist monks and paid to misbehave with liquor and
women in public. Monks are enticed to go abroad “for higher studies,”
[but] after . . . [their] conversion they have to disrobe and spread the
word of Christ (The Island 2004c).
The December 26, 2004, tsunami and the manner in which some
evangelicals sought to use the tragedy to attract people to their faiths also
upset Buddhists and contributed to anti-Christian sentiment. Relief organ-
44 Neil DeVotta
anti-Christian hysteria
has led...to a number of
ridiculous accusations
b
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 45
izations associated with Christian sects have been especially conspicuous
following the tsunami, the more prominent among them including World
Vision, Antioch Community Church, Samaritans Purse, World Relief,
Humedica, Gospel for Asia, and Caritae. Even Muslim leaders in the deep
south have expressed fears over Christian proselytizing and have visited
Muslim homes in areas like Hambantota to ensure their flocks have not
been ensnared by the foreign missionary dragnet.
Many Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists have an ambivalent relationship
with the West: they admire its lifestyle and affluence even as they loathe its
promiscuousness and general latitudinarianism; they envy its economic
and military power even as they decry its hypocritical foreign policies.
They thus toast the West whenever it praises Sri Lanka and traduce the
West whenever it criticizes Sri Lanka. With Christianity identified with
the West and many nationalists believing in a vast foreign conspiracy to
undermine Buddhism, the strongest anti-West sentiments seem to accom-
pany the anti-Christian violence. All of this has led to ironic situations in
which, for instance, nationalists excoriate the West even as they try to send
their children to study there or they themselves try to migrate there.
Anti-Christian sentiment in Sri Lanka is nothing new: the recent wave
of anti-Christian violence is not influenced solely by proselytizing mission-
aries. New proselytizing Christian groups have been operating places of
worship since the late 1970s, and Assembly of God and Jehovahs
Witnesses pastors and missionaries were conspicuous in their activities
before that. Beginning in 1978, Mormon missionaries too began prosely-
tizing and even providing free English classes through one of Colombos
Rotary clubs as a way to attract converts. The post-tsunami missionary
activities also do not explain the recent anti-Christian hostility, given that
churches began to be attacked at the turn of the century—nearly four
years before the tsunami hit. Thus the church attacks amidst renewed hos-
tility toward all Christians are better explained as part of the overarching
nationalist ideology.
The Numbers Game and Civil War
The Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology further dictates that war is
good even if it is not winnable, because war causes Tamils to flee the north-
east and vitiates the LTTE’s attempt to create eelam (Tamil State). For sim-
ilar reasons, nationalist forces want the Northern and Eastern Provinces
de-merged.20 They were dealt a victory in October 2006 when the
Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the 1987 merger was invalid.21
Buddhist nationalists especially eye the Eastern Province because the
historical record disputes that the east was part of a Tamil homeland and
because they also believe the province can be easily made a majority
Sinhalese area. The colonization policies successive governments have pur-
sued since independence have been engineered by insisting “that such
colonization is a Sinhalese entitlement on historical grounds, in which the
resources of the state are dedicated to one community with no comparable
benefits to others” (Peebles 1990: 52). This approach has allowed Sinhalese
especially from the southwest to be transplanted to the east. Such coloniza-
tion has altered radically the areas ethnic demographics, proving that the
nationalists’ aspirations are based on well-tested strategy.
The nationalists also know that the LTTE’s quest for eelam would be
dealt a major setback if the Eastern Province were administratively de-
merged from the Northern Province and if the Sinhalese were to become
the largest ethnic group in the east. Prior to the civil war some nationalists,
such as the Buddhist monk Madihe Pannaseeha, even demanded that the
government deploy permanent military detachments to ensure Sinhalese
colonized the Northern Province as well (Pannaseeha 1979: 16–18). The
government has managed to realize these aspirations through the so-called
High Security Zones (HSZs) that the military has set up throughout the
northeast: many encompass some of the best real estate and most fertile
land in the region. Significantly, in almost all cases the military has refused
to allow displaced Tamils to return to these HSZ areas even after fighting
has ceased.22 Also notable, many Tamils relate the HSZs to government-
sponsored colonization and believe they will not be allowed to resettle
these areas even after the civil war ends.
In seeking to consolidate the east for Sinhalese, the government also
has targeted Muslim areas, especially the predominantly Muslim District of
Ampara. There, the Rajapakse government has issued directives to place
certain lands under the state’s custody and has transferred some Muslim
areas under predominantly Sinhalese divisions. Most ominously, the
Rajapakse government chose a new flag for the Ampara District depicting
a lion similar to that on the national flag and widely associated with
Sinhalese Buddhists.
The LTTE has not allowed the government to hold censuses in the
northeast—both in areas they control and areas administered by the
state—making it impossible to determine the country’s Tamil population
precisely. The Census Department estimates that Jaffna was the only dis-
trict in the country to experience negative population growth from 1981
to 2001. While the twenty-four other districts saw a rise in population
density per square kilometer, the numbers in Jaffna dropped from 795 in
1981 to 528 in 2001. Indeed, some estimates place the current Sri Lankan
Tamil population between 8 and 9 percent, a decline that challenges the
46 Neil DeVotta
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 47
LTTE’s quest for a separate state and also debunks the argument that
Sinhalese Buddhists may soon lose their majority status because the
minorities are multiplying at a faster rate. This fallacious and fantastic
claim is similar to that made by Indias radical Hindus vis-à-vis that coun-
try’s Muslims (DeVotta 2002b).
Indeed, the percentage of Sinhalese and Buddhists has increased due
to the ethnic conflict and the subsequent exodus of thousands of Tamils
from the island, coupled with the state’s discriminatory policies toward
its Indian Tamils, which caused thousands more among the third and
fourth generation born in Sri Lanka to be forcibly resettled in India—so
that the island’s Indian Tamil population dropped from 11.73 percent in
1946 to 5.52 percent in 1981. For
example, in 1911 the Sinhalese and
Buddhists accounted for 66.1 percent
and 60 percent, respectively (Denham
1912: 196, 245), which means that by
1981 the Sinhalese percentage had
increased by 8 percent and Buddhists
had increased by an equally impressive
9 percent. This obsession with population figures gets the least publici-
ty; yet it is an important part of the nationalist mindset because it is asso-
ciated with security, majoritarianism, and domination. Thus a promi-
nent monk noted, “When 74% of the population [Sinhalese] is united
what can 26% [minorities] do” (quoted in Tambiah 1992: 124).
This notwithstanding, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists have called for
a military solution to the island’s ethnic conflict partly because they
believe the LTTE will not give up on its goal of eelam but also because
they think continued war will lead more Tamils to leave the country and
thereby further strengthen the Sinhalese population. Many nationalists
therefore support bombing campaigns in the northeast and encourage
sanctions on trade and essential items. The ensuing food shortages
combined with forcible recruitment into the LTTE have caused many
Tamils in so-called uncleared areas to flee to South India and to govern-
ment-controlled areas. Buddhist nationalists use these refugees to adver-
tise the LTTE’s depravity. Some also feign sympathy for the destitute
Tamils while hoping more would cross over to government-controlled
areas. Their long-term goal is to combine such Tamil displacement with
Sinhalese emplacement and thereby permanently alter the demography in
the northeast. China has proven in Tibet and Xinjiang Province that
ethnic flooding can tame separatist aspirations. A similar scenario has
unfolded in Quebec, where an influx of immigrants has undermined
the percentage of Sinhalese
and Buddhists has increased
b
attempts by the Parti Quebecois to drum up support for secession. These
episodes must surely encourage some among Sri Lankas nationalists. As
one Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist (now a retired government servant)
noted: “People in the south complain that the city of Colombo is now
more Tamil than places in the north [due to Tamils having migrated for
economic and security reasons]. I say let’s move all the Tamils south,
because we can control them here and then take over the north and east.”23
The nationalists seem to be succeeding, so much so that formerly
Tamil towns in the Eastern Province have taken on Sinhalized names:
Pankulam to Pankulama; Mudalikulam to Morawewa; Vilankulam to
Diwulwewa; Kumaresan Kadavai to Gomarankadawela; Kallaru to
Kallara; and Thambalagamam to Thambalagamuwa. One commentator
argues that there is now a new Pancha
Maha Balavegaya, or Five Great Forces
(the old one being the coalition that
brought S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and
the MEP to power in 1956) supporting
such colonization, and it comprises
bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen,
Buddhist clergy, and the military (Jeyaraj
2006). The recent fighting between the
government and the LTTE has caused
over 200,000 Tamils to be displaced in the east; and thousands more have
fled to Tamil Nadu in India since January 2005. The return and resettle-
ment of these refugees in their former abodes is not guaranteed, as it
would not suit the nationalists’ designs.
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists are unhappy that the city of Colombo
is almost 65 percent Tamil-speaking, mainly due to Tamils in the northeast
having moved south to avoid war but also due to the city’s large Muslim
population. Most high-rise flats built in Colombo (where property values
compare to prices in major Western cities) have been purchased by diaspo-
ra Tamils for relatives in Sri Lanka or by wealthy Tamils doing business in
the south. Many Sinhalese nationalists are also piqued that, notwithstand-
ing the destruction of hundreds of Tamil businesses in the 1983 anti-Tamil
riots, the community has bounced back to lead thriving establishments.
The recent rise in abductions, extortions, and murders of Tamil business-
men has led many Tamils to leave the island or close shop,24 which suits the
overall designs of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists.
The calibrated policy among nationalists also extends to erecting
Buddha statues in predominantly Tamil or Muslim areas in the Eastern
Province, a practice also associated with their goal of eventually pushing
48 Neil DeVotta
formerly Tamil towns in
the Eastern Province have
taken on Sinhalized names
b
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 49
the minorities out. The JHU, JVP, and numerous Buddhist organizations
use home security guards and criminal elements with ties to certain seg-
ments of the military to support these actions. Indeed, in many instances
it is the security guards and criminal gangs that have operated as foot sol-
diers erecting Buddha statues.
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists erect Buddha statues knowing the mil-
itary will thereafter step in and prevent them being demolished.25 Often
the statues get placed on public property so they do not violate private
property laws; thereafter a court case is filed against removing the statue,
with the petitioners knowing full well the snail’s pace at which cases typi-
cally proceed through the country’s politicized court system. The statues
clearly are not erected to satisfy people’s religious needs; rather, they are
planted to signify that the country belongs to the Buddhists. Indeed, in
some instances Buddha statues have been planted close to mosques or
Muslim areas with no Sinhalese living in the vicinity. Buddha statues are
also erected to reassert claims that the Eastern Province is not part of a
Tamil homeland.
The preference among nationalists to see Tamils leave the northeast is
related to their call for Sinhalese Buddhists to have more children. In
nationalists’ minds, Sinhalese Buddhist fertility is connected to the unitary
state: the more Buddhists there are, the easier it becomes to colonize non-
Buddhist areas and prevent devolution of power to and autonomy for
Tamils. One of the leading proponents of this strategy is Prime Minister
Wickramanayaka, who has claimed that certain foreign powers are
colluding with local groups to ensure the Sinhalese become a minority. He
has argued that “the declining population is a serious threat to the coun-
try’s unitary status” (Jayasinghe 2006). Extremist nationalist monks have
also urged Buddhists to have more children, with the late Gangodawila
Soma Thera encouraging Buddhists to avoid contraceptives and out-breed
the supposedly more philoprogenitive minorities. The islands Muslims
tend to be the minority most targeted in this regard, although explicit
accusations are usually made in private. But Gangodawila Soma once
accused Muslims and Hindus of conspiring to make Buddhists a minori-
ty community (Balachanddran 1999).
Sri Lankas annual population growth rate from 1975 to 2004 was
1.3 percent, the lowest in South Asia, and the projected growth rate for
2004–2015 is 0.7 percent per year. The estimated 240,000 annual abor-
tions on the island (compared with 360,000 births) (Jayasekera 2007; see
also The Island 2007b) contribute to low population growth, although
nationalists prefer not to address abortion because it tarnishes the
Sinhalese Buddhist image.26 The prime minister and other Sinhalese
Buddhist nationalists consider the low birth rate among Buddhists a chief
reason for the supposedly low number of bhikkhus and the difficulty
recruiting soldiers into the military. Wickramanayaka also claims that
family planning has contributed to these shortfalls and encourages
Sinhalese Buddhists to disregard the “Small is Beautiful” programs
instituted in the 1970s.27 The prime minister, who is also Minister of the
Buddha Sasana, has even placed advertisements in newspapers
encouraging Buddhists to join the sangha and recruited lay persons to pay
for the novices’ upkeep. Such efforts have mainly ended in failure. The
shortage of bhikkhus may have more to do with a materialistic sangha
desiring greater comforts; many among the nearly 37,000 monks try to
avoid serving in villages because they prefer the better endowed temples
in urban areas. As noted above, many also leave after they receive a uni-
versity education. Together, this has left numerous rural temples without
monks (viharadhipathis).
The nationalists are obviously concerned that the population density
in the south is 599 persons per square kilometer but only 167 persons per
square kilometer in the northeast (Sunday Times 2004b). Despite the rela-
tively rampant development that has taken place in the south (especially
when compared to the northeast’s blight), the nationalists monomaniacal-
ly compare the south with the northeast and focus on population growth
merely to perpetuate Sinhalese Buddhist domination. Sri Lankas govern-
ment seems to share their concern: a 2004 circular announced that the
eighty-four-day maternity leave allowed government employees for their
first two children will now apply without a limit. Since nearly 95 percent
of all government servants are Sinhalese, little danger exists that such a pro-
gram would overly benefit ethnic minorities.
Conclusion
Students of Sri Lankas politics are familiar with the controversial issues
documented above. These apparently disparate issues must be considered
conjointly to appreciate why a political solution that satisfies Tamils’ fun-
damental grievances is not in the offing.
The monograph also makes clear that political Buddhism has
strengthened in the past half century; so much so that the demands, fears,
and aspirations it has inspired have led to a nationalist ideology now
embraced by many mainstream Buddhists. This ideology is partly justi-
fied using mytho-history, thanks to texts such as the Mahavamsa. In addi-
tion, however, the ideology compromises the moral, ethical, and peaceful
values of Buddhism and undermines democratic governance.
In a troubling development, the present government of President
Mahinda Rajapakse is the first to operate comfortably within this ideolog-
50 Neil DeVotta
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 51
ical mindset. On the war front, Rajapakse and his ministers seek to enforce
a “southern strategy” against the LTTE and their suspected sympathizers
that uses indiscriminate force in utter
disregard of Tamils’ human rights. Such
a strategy has defined President
Rajapakse’s short tenure in office, which
has seen over 5,000 killed and over
215,000 displaced persons in just the
past year.28 Yet Rajapakse has remained
popular in the south, and according to a
February 2007 poll, nearly 60 percent
of Sinhalese support a military solution
to the ethnic conflict (Center for Policy Alternatives 2007).
Notwithstanding increasing support in international law for the
Doctrine of Ingérance, which claims that the international community has
an obligation to intervene in states violating their citizens’ human rights,
countries like Sudan and Sri Lanka highlight the difficulty of actually doing
so. The LTTE was easily branded a terrorist group; but the international
community is unsure how to deal with “the government of President
Mahinda Rajapakse [that] also uses terrorism” (The Economist 2007).
Many among Rajapakse’s advisors and die-hard supporters consider
themselves true sons of the soil and dismiss the Sinhalese Buddhist cre-
dentials even of past presidents J. R. Jayewardene and Chandrika
Bandaranaike Kumaratunga because they had anglicized (and hence
pseudo-Buddhist) backgrounds and their ancestors colluded with the
colonizers. That noted, as a son of the nationalist south, Mahinda
Rajapakse could perhaps sell the Buddhists a compromise deal on the
peace process. However, he would first need to jettison the nationalist
ideology he subscribes to. Thus far he appears unwilling (or unable) to
do so. This was especially clear when the government introduced
proposals for devolution on April 30, 2007. Rather than expanding on
the recommendations made during the 1990s that focused on federalism
at the provincial level, the Rajapakse proposals call for creating thirty
districts from the extant twenty-five districts and devolving power to
these miniaturized units. Overall, the Rajapakse proposals encourage
centralization (and continuance of the unitary state structure) under the
guise of a dubious devolutionary system.
The LTTE’s intransigence is rightly cited to explain why successive
peace processes have failed. However, as this monograph details, political
Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism also have precluded a com-
prehensive peace from taking root. Indeed, political Buddhism and
nearly 60 percent of
Sinhalese support a military
solution to the ethnic conflict
b
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism predate the LTTE and therefore could be
considered more culpable, especially given that Tamil nationalism and the
subsequent LTTE separatist struggle and resort to terrorist methods devel-
oped in reaction to the ethnocentrism championed by political Buddhism
and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism.
The LTTE is not in a position to realize eelam, and Sri Lanka will not
be divided. Most Tamils today merely want peace with dignity and self-
respect, and many soured on the LTTE long ago. Recent allegations that
the LTTE accepted money from the Rajapakse camp to prevent Tamils
from voting in the November 2005 presidential elections have further
sullied the organization’s image.29 The international community too
would not tolerate a state created by a group widely considered terrorist.
As this monograph suggests, however, irrespective of when the civil war
ends, Sri Lankas Tamils and other minorities may have no choice but to
continue to live as subordinated citizens in a state dominated by political
Buddhism and the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology. Taming or
vanquishing the LTTE may be a prerequisite for peace, but those who
support eradicating the LTTE as a prerequisite for federalism or expan-
sive devolution fail to understand the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist
agenda (and may be inadvertently assisting that agenda). Consequently,
the international community’s entreaties notwithstanding, Sri Lanka is
unlikely to institute in the foreseeable future any devolution that satisfies
basic Tamil aspirations.
Political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism have played
leading roles in Sri Lanka, especially since the 1956 elections. The only
exception was the short period following S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s
assassination, when the country debated bhikkhus’ involvement in politics.
Buddhist monks will continue to play a pivotal role in Sri Lankan politics
unless drastic changes take place within the sangha. So will Buddhist
nationalists, whose influence has now reached new heights. Once the
LTTE’s separatist struggle is neutralized, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists
may even renew campaigns against Christians and Muslims, for their ide-
ology is fundamentally antiminority and requires agitprop to mobilize and
survive. An anti-Muslim milieu could cause Middle Eastern states, which
employ nearly one million Sri Lankans, to react more forcefully than did
Western states to the recent anti-Christian violence. That potential sce-
nario highlights the influence the international community can exert in
Sri Lankas affairs.
It behooves the international community to maintain pressure on both
the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. The international community
should continue to oppose the LTTE’s fundraising efforts and forcible
52 Neil DeVotta
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 53
recruitment of children, which enable the group to wage war; and when
dealing with the Sri Lankan government it should link all military aid to
human rights practices. Given the culture of impunity surrounding the
country’s security forces, international human rights monitors should also
be stationed in Sri Lanka to make sure minorities are protected.
Furthermore, the international community should more forcefully utilize
diplomacy, aid, and trade mechanisms to ensure all religious groups in Sri
Lanka are treated equitably and none is discriminated against. Sri Lankas
impressive Buddhist heritage must be preserved, but not at the expense of
the religious freedoms and security due to Hindus, Muslims, and
Christians of all denominations.
Ultimately, no positive change to the current violent milieu will be
possible unless Sinhalese Buddhists, who form a clear majority, compro-
mise along ethnic, political, and religious
grounds. Yet, as indicated in this mono-
graph, compromise is unlikely in the near
future. The attendant illiberalism is not
simply affecting ethnic and religious
minorities, because illiberalism cannot be
compartmentalized so as to only target a
particular community; it eventually
spreads like a cancer to impact all.
Unbridled Sinhalese Buddhist national-
ism consequently figures to promote more instability for all concerned.
no positive change...will be
possible unless Sinhalese
Buddhists...compromise
b
Endnotes
1. Mahavamsa XXV: 108–12, as quoted in Bartholomeusz 2002: 56.
2. On August 2, 2006, thousands of Buddhists began flocking to temples throughout the
south claiming that Buddha statues were emanating rays (Buddhu ras). The prominent
political bhikkhu Ellawala Medananda Thera claimed these rays signaled that Sri Lanka
was being blessed through President Mahinda Rajapakse, who was a modern day
Duthagamani. And a government minister recently referred to the president’s brother,
Basil, as “chief minister of King Dutugemunu.” Such statements indicate how
Sinhalese Buddhist mytho-history is easily transferable to the contemporary political
scene. See Sunday Times (Colombo), “JVP Puts Forward Demands,” August 6, 2006;
Sunday Leader (Colombo), “How the Plan to Make Basil National Organiser
Backfired,” January 28, 2007.
3. Extracted from a letter written by Malalasekera to the New York Times, “Voting in
Ceylon,” May 6, 1956.
4. As Aiyar further notes, a secular state is one that concerns “itself not with religion but
with protection of all, equal opportunity for all, equitable benefits for all. No religious
community should be singled out for favours; no religious community should be sub-
jected to any disability or disadvantage” (Ibid: 6).
5. This, however, has not prevented Buddhist politicians from pandering to the monks
dictates. For instance, during the October 2000 parliamentary elections, UNP leader
Ranil Wickremesinghe claimed his party would not endorse any legislation on devolu-
tion without the monks’ imprimatur; and Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka
sought to outbid him by saying his People’s Alliance coalition “will seek the views of
the Mahanayake Theras on each and every paragraph of the draft constitution, so that
they could correct us where we have gone wrong.” Quoted in The Island (Colombo),
“New Draft Constitution Only After Consulting Mahanayake Theras–PM,” August
13, 2000.
6. The P-TOMS agreement would have enabled the government and LTTE to utilize
funds the international community had set aside for developing tsunami affected
areas. The government, however, avoided implementing the agreement when
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists opposed it tooth and nail. The Supreme Court even-
tually ruled the agreement was unconstitutional, but the P-TOMS is among other
agreements successive Sri Lankan governments have reached with Tamils only to
abrogate them later under pressure from Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists.
7. Author’s interview with a senior officer in the Sri Lanka Air Force, August 2006.
8. For instance, members of these parties visiting military personnel in Jaffna claimed
that the problems there could be solved easily by resorting to bombing: “There’s no
problem. You can bomb the place and solve the problem in 24 hours. It is no big
deal” because “they are all demalu [Tamils].” Bombing LTTE-controlled areas indis-
criminately has become a hallmark of the Mahinda Rajapakse government. Quoted
in Sunday Leader (Colombo), “How the PNM Wants to Deal With the Demalu,”
July 30, 2006.
9. An ethnocracy ensues when the dominant ethnic group eschews accommodation,
conciliation, and compromise with the state’s minorities and instead seeks to institu-
tionalize its preferences so that it alone controls the levers of power.
10. Quoted in Bartholomeusz 2002: 20.
11. See “Indictment Against Sri Lanka,” Tamilnation.org, at www.tamilnation.org/indict-
ment/genocide83/gen26.htm. Accessed on November 17, 2006.
12. From a 1982 leaflet, parts of which are reproduced in “Sinhala Buddhist
Chauvinism—The Record Speaks,” at www.tamilnation.org/tamileelam/fundamen-
talism/index.htm. Accessed on September 12, 2006.
13. Even the United Nations, which has repeatedly condemned the LTTE, gets lambast-
ed if and when it says anything negative about the government. Thus The Island
newspaper claimed that “tiger tails [are] concealed under the coat tails of UN bigwigs
in Colombo. They are pimping for the pro-terror NGO circuit and conspiring
against a UN member state.” See “Of that ‘Impatient and Fast-Talking Woman,’”
January 18, 2007. Also see DeVotta 2005.
14. The charges against elements of the military have also been documented in Human
Rights Watch, Complicit in Crime: State Collusion in Abductions and Child
Recruitment by the Karuna Group, January 2007, Vol. 19, No. 1(C), at
http://hrw.org/reports/2007/srilanka0107/srilanka0107sumandrecs.pdf. Accessed
February 25, 2007. Indeed, during the author’s interviews conducted in Batticaloa in
July 2006 a number of citizens substantiated what Alan Rock and Human Rights
Watch subsequently publicized. The charges are serious, given that hitherto it was the
LTTE that were repeatedly condemned for forcibly recruiting children to fight the
Sri Lankan government. See Human Rights Watch, Living in Fear: Child Soldiers and
the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, November 2004, Vol. 16, No. 13 (C), at
http://hrw.org/reports/2004/srilanka1104/srilanka1104.pdf. Accessed on December
14, 2005.
15.
The government has strongly denied military involvement, but the head of the Sri
Lanka Monitoring Mission (comprised of Scandinavians) and local and foreign
human rights organizations have all accused the armed forces of the executions. For
a concise account of the executions, see Somini Sengupta, “A Year After Massacre of
56 Neil DeVotta
Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology 57
Aid Workers, Sri Lanka Still Asks Who, When and Why?” New York Times, June
24, 2007.
16. Buddhist nationalists are not averse to collaborating with Tamil politicians, provided
the latter do not seek to rebel against the nationalist ideology. This explains the
nationalists’ support for anti-LTTE Tamil parties and paramilitaries and for Tamils
like the late foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. It is instructive that Kadirgamar
almost never acknowledged the human rights violations committed against Tamils,
even though he rarely missed an opportunity to promote his being Tamil, through
which he sought to burnish the government’s image.
17. The present Colombo archbishops apparent disregard for the plight of his northeast
flock, coupled with his condescending attitude toward northeast Tamil priests, has
led some Tamils to privately complain that he is more Sinhalese than Catholic. Part
of this hostility toward northeast Catholic priests is because some among the latter
have supported and sympathized with the LTTE.
18. Indeed, the civil war masks the extant racism among many Sinhalese Buddhists
toward the island’s Muslims. The language radical Sinhalese Buddhists use to vilify
Muslims can be so derogatory that it sometimes goes beyond the rhetoric used
against the LTTE. Such uninhibited racism bodes ill for the island’s Muslims, and the
fallout is likely to be ugly, especially after the civil war has ended.
19. See, for instance, the article by the Yahoo Web Community of Sinhalyo, Buddhist
News Network, that appeared in the The Island (Colombo), “Sri Lanka Buddhists
under Siege,” August 5, 2004.
20. The two provinces were merged as part of the July 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord and by
the 13th Amendment to the constitution that same year.
21. The country’s Supreme Court in 1987 responded to petitions filed against the merger
and determined by a 5–4 vote that two bills in parliament dealing with the merger
did not need to be approved at a referendum. The Court in 2006, however, respond-
ed to petitioners from the Eastern Province who argued that their fundamental dem-
ocratic rights were being violated because they were denied the opportunity to elect a
Provincial Council to represent them.
22. Two HSZs were created in May 2007 in Muttur East and Sampur, areas the military
captured from the LTTE in August and September 2006. Even though commercial
activity is permitted in both HSZs, nearly 20,000 Tamils have been barred from reoc-
cupying their homes.
23. Author’s interview, Dehiwala, August 6, 2006.
24. It is instructive that after P. Radhakrishnan, the deputy vocational and technical
training minister, met with Mahinda Rajapakse on behalf of affected Tamils and pro-
vided the president “the telephone numbers of several extortionists, along with an
appeal for immediate intervention” he found himself “summoned by the police to
explain how he got the telephone numbers” (Handunnetti 2007: 19). Also see D. B.
S. Jeyaraj, “An Overview of the Enforced Disappearances Phenomenon,” Sunday
Leader (Colombo), April 15, 2007.
25. Buddhist nationalists have also learned from prosettlement forces in Israel. As one
Sinhalese Buddhist activist promoting Sinhalese settlement in the Eastern Province
said: “If the Israeli army can protect and promote Jewish settlements on Palestinian
territory, our Sinhalese Buddhist security forces can protect Lord Buddha’s statues
anywhere in Sri Lanka.” Author’s interview, Colombo, December 21, 2005.
26. Women from all religions resort to abortion, but Sinhalese Buddhist women comprise
nearly 70% of the female population and happen to be the group most affected (The
Island 2007b).
27. BBC News Online, “Sri Lankans Urged to Multiply for War,” June 19, 2001, at
http://news.bbc.co.uk//low/english/world/south_asia/newsid_1396000/1396590.stm.
Accessed June 19, 2001.
28. Between June 2006 and March 2007, over 800 extrajudicial killings, kidnappings,
and disappearances took place throughout the country, with over 100 kidnappings
taking place in Colombo (often in broad daylight). According to the Special
Presidential Commission on Disappearances, 430 civilians were killed and 2,020 peo-
ple abducted (of which 1,134 were eventually released) between September 14, 2006
and February 25, 2007, alone. Influential Tamils who were kidnapped have been
released “after their families appealed to the highest echelons of the state.” Somini
Sengupta, “Kidnappings Return to Haunt Long Ethnic War in Sri Lanka,” New York
Times, November 7, 2006. Also see U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy,
Human Rights, and Labor, Sri Lanka: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
2006, March 6, 2007, at www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2006/78875.htm. Accessed
March 10, 2007.
29. The vast majority of Tamils vote for Tamil parties or the UNP. By preventing Tamils
especially in the northeast from voting, the LTTE helped Mahinda Rajapakse win the
presidential contest.
58 Neil DeVotta
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64 Neil DeVotta
Internal Conflicts and State-Building
Challenges in Asia
Project Information
67
Project Rationale, Purpose, and Outline
Project Director: Muthiah Alagappa
Principal Researchers: Morten Pedersen (Burma/Myanmar)
Saroja Dorairajoo (southern Thailand)
Mahendra Lawoti (Nepal)
Samir Kumar Das (northeast India)
Neil DeVotta (Sri Lanka)
Rationale
Internal Conflicts and State-Building Challenges in Asia is part of a larger
East-West Center project on state building and governance in Asia that
investigates political legitimacy of governments, the relationship of the
military to the state, the development of political and civil societies and
their roles in democratic development, the role of military force in state
formation, and the dynamics and management of internal conflicts arising
from nation- and state-building processes. An earlier project investigating
internal conflicts arising from nation- and state-building processes focused
on conflicts arising from the political consciousness of minority commu-
nities in China (Tibet and Xinjiang), Indonesia (Aceh and Papua), and
southern Philippines (the Moro Muslims). Funded by the Carnegie
Corporation of New York, that highly successful project was completed in
March 2005. The present project, which began in July 2005, investigates
the causes and consequences of internal conflicts arising from state- and
nation-building processes in Burma/Myanmar, southern Thailand, Nepal,
northeast India, and Sri Lanka, and explores strategies and solutions for
their peaceful management and eventual settlement.
Internal conflicts have been a prominent feature of the Asian political
landscape since 1945. Asia has witnessed numerous civil wars, armed
insurgencies, coups d'état, regional rebellions, and revolutions. Many have
been protracted; several have far-reaching domestic and international con-
sequences. The civil war in Pakistan led to the break up of that country in
1971; separatist struggles challenge the political and territorial integrity of
China, India, Indonesia, Burma, the Philippines, Thailand, and Sri Lanka;
political uprisings in Thailand (1973 and 1991), the Philippines (1986),
South Korea (1986), Taiwan (1991) Bangladesh (1991), and Indonesia
(1998) resulted in dramatic political change in those countries. Although
the political uprisings in Burma (1988) and China (1989) were sup-
68
pressed, the political systems in those countries, as well as in Vietnam, con-
tinue to confront problems of legitimacy that could become acute; and
radical Islam poses serious challenges to stability in Pakistan, Bangladesh,
and Indonesia. The Thai military ousted the democratically-elected gov-
ernment of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. In all, millions of people have
been killed in the internal conflicts, and tens of millions have been dis-
placed. Moreover, the involvement of external powers in a competitive
manner (especially during the Cold War) in several of these conflicts had
negative consequences for domestic and regional security.
Internal conflicts in Asia can be traced to contestations over political
legitimacy (the title to rule), national identity, state building, and distrib-
utive justice––that are often interconnected. With the bankruptcy of the
socialist model and transitions to democracy in several countries, the num-
ber of internal conflicts over political legitimacy has declined in Asia.
However, the legitimacy of certain governments continues to be contested
from time to time, and the remaining communist and authoritarian sys-
tems are likely to confront challenges to their legitimacy in due course.
Internal conflicts also arise from the process of constructing modern
nation-states, and the unequal distribution of material and status benefits.
Although many Asian states have made considerable progress in construct-
ing national communities and viable states, several countries, including
some major ones, still confront serious problems that have degenerated
into violent conflict. By affecting the political and territorial integrity of
the state as well as the physical, cultural, economic, and political security
of individuals and groups, these conflicts have great potential to affect
domestic and international stability.
Purpose
Internal Conflicts and State-Building Challenges in Asia examines internal
conflicts arising from the political consciousness of minority communities
in Burma/Myanmar, southern Thailand, northeast India, Nepal, and Sri
Lanka. Except for Nepal, these states are not in danger of collapse.
However, they do face serious challenges at the regional and local levels
which, if not addressed, can negatively affect the vitality of the national
state in these countries. Specifically, the project has a threefold purpose:
(1) to develop an in-depth understanding of the domestic, transnational,
and international dynamics of internal conflicts in these countries in the
context of nation- and state-building strategies; (2) to examine how such
69
conflicts have affected the vitality of the state; and (3) to explore strate-
gies and solutions for the peaceful management and eventual settlement
of these conflicts.
Design
A study group has been organized for each of the five conflicts investigat-
ed in the study. With a principal researcher for each, the study groups
comprise practitioners and scholars from the respective Asian countries,
including the region or province that is the focus of the conflict, as well as
from Australia, Britain, Belgium, Sweden, and the United States. The par-
ticipants list that follows shows the composition of the study groups.
All five study groups met jointly for the first time in Washington,
D.C., on October 30–November 3, 2005. Over a period of five days, par-
ticipants engaged in intensive discussion of a wide range of issues pertain-
ing to the conflicts investigated in the project. In addition to identifying
key issues for research and publication, the meeting facilitated the devel-
opment of cross-country perspectives and interaction among scholars who
had not previously worked together. Based on discussion at the meeting,
twenty-five policy papers were commissioned.
The study groups met separately in the summer of 2006 for the sec-
ond set of meetings, which were organized in collaboration with respect-
ed policy-oriented think tanks in each host country. The Burma and
southern Thailand study group meetings were held in Bangkok July 10–11
and July 12–13, respectively. These meetings were cosponsored by The
Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University.
The Nepal study group was held in Kathmandu, Nepal, July 17–19, and
was cosponsored by the Social Science Baha. The northeast India study
group met in New Delhi, India, August 9–10. This meeting was cospon-
sored by the Centre for Policy Research. The Sri Lanka meeting was held
in Colombo, Sri Lanka, August 14–16, and cosponsored by the Centre for
Policy Alternatives. In each of these meetings, scholars and practitioners
reviewed and critiqued papers produced for the meetings and made sug-
gestions for revision.
Publications
This project will result in twenty to twenty-five policy papers providing a
detailed examination of particular aspects of each conflict. Subject to sat-
isfactory peer review, these 18,000- to 24,000-word essays will be pub-
70
lished in the East-West Center Washington Policy Studies series, and will be
circulated widely to key personnel and institutions in the policy and intel-
lectual communities and the media in the respective Asian countries, the
United States, and other relevant countries. Some studies will be published
in the East-West Center Washington Working Papers series.
Public Forums
To engage the informed public and to disseminate the findings of the proj-
ect to a wide audience, public forums have been organized in conjunction
with study group meetings.
Five public forums were organized in Washington, D.C., in conjunc-
tion with the first study group meeting. The first forum, cosponsored by
The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies,
discussed the conflict in southern Thailand. The second, cosponsored by
The Sigur Center for Asian Studies of The George Washington University,
discussed the conflict in Burma. The conflicts in Nepal were the focus of
the third forum, which was cosponsored by the Asia Program at The
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The fourth public
meeting, cosponsored by the Foreign Policy Studies program at The
Brookings Institution, discussed the conflicts in northeast India. The fifth
forum, cosponsored by the South Asia Program of the Center for Strategic
and International Studies, focused on the conflict in Sri Lanka.
Funding Support
The Carnegie Corporation of New York is once again providing generous
funding support for the project.
71
Morten Pedersen
United Nations University
Principal Researcher
Mary P. Callahan
University of Washington
Christina Fink
Chiang Mai University
Saboi Jum
Shalom Foundation, Yangon
Kyi May Kaung
Freelance Writer/Analyst
Washington, D.C.
Tom Kramer
Transnational Institute, Amsterdam
Curtis Lambrecht
Yale University
David Scott Mathieson
Australian National University
Win Min
Chiang Mai University
Zaw Oo
American University
Martin Smith
Independent Analyst, London
David I. Steinberg
Georgetown University
David Tegenfeldt
Hope International Development
Agency, Yangon
Mya Than
Chulalongkorn University
Tin Maung Maung Than
Institute for Southeast Asian Studies,
Singapore
Ardeth Thawnghmung
University of Massachusetts, Lowell
Meredith Weiss
East-West Center Washington
Khin Zaw Win
Independent Researcher, Yangon
Harn Yawnghwe
Euro-Burma Office, Brussels
Project Participants
Project Director
Muthiah Alagappa, Ph.D.
Director, East-West Center Washington (from February 2001 to January 2007)
Distinguished Senior Fellow, East-West Center (from February 1, 2007)
Burma/Myanmar Study Group
Mahendra Lawoti
Western Michigan University
Principal Researcher
Itty Abraham
East-West Center Washington
Meena Acharya
Tanka Prasad Acharya Memorial
Foundation, Kathmandu
Lok Raj Baral
Nepal Center for Contemporary
Studies, Kathmandu
Surendra Raj Bhandari
Law Associates Nepal, Kathmandu
Chandra Dev Bhatta
London School of Economics
Krishna Bhattachan
Tribhuvan University
Saroja Dorairajoo
National University of Singapore
Principal Researcher
Thanet Aphornsuvan
Thammasat University
Marc Askew
Victoria University, Melbourne
Suchit Bunbongkarn
Chulalongkorn University
Kavi Chongkittavorn
Nation Multimedia Group, Bangkok
Neil John Funston
Australian National University
Surat Horachaikul
Chulalongkorn University
Srisompob Jitpiromsri
Prince of Songkla University, Pattani
Campus
Joseph Chinyong Liow
Nanyang Technological University,
Singapore
Chandra-nuj Mahakanjana
National Institute of Development
Administration, Bangkok
Duncan McCargo
University of Leeds
Celakhan (Don) Pathan
The Nation Newspaper, Bangkok
Surin Pitsuwan
MP, Thai House of Representatives
Thitinan Pongsudhirak
Chulalongkorn University
Chaiwat Satha-Anand
Thammasat University
Vaipot Srinual
Supreme Command Headquarters,
Thailand
Wattana Sugunnasil
Prince of Songkla University
Pattani Campus
Panitan Wattanayagorn
Chulalongkorn University
Imtiyaz Yusuf
Assumption University, Bangkok
72
Southern Thailand Study Group
Nepal Study Group
73
Sumitra Manandhar-Gurung
Lumanthi and National Coalition
Against Racial Discrimination,
Kathmandu
Harka Gurung (deceased)
Transparency International, Nepal
Dipak Gyawali
Royal Nepal Academy of Science and
Technology, Kathmandu
Krishna Hacchethu
Tribhuvan University
Susan Hangen
Ramapo College, New Jersey
Lauren Leve
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill
Prakash Chandra Lohani
Former Finance Minister, Nepal
Pancha Narayan Maharjan
Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur
Sukh Deo Muni
Observer Research Foundation
New Delhi
Anup Pahari
Foreign Service Institute, Arlington
Rajendra Pradhan
Social Science Baha, Kathmandu
Shree Govind Shah
Environmental Resources Planning
and Monitoring/Academy of Social
Justice & Human Rights, Kathmandu
Saubhagya Shah
Tribhuvan University
Hari Sharma
Social Science Baha, Kathmandu
Sudhindra Sharma
Interdisciplinary Analyst (IDA),
Kathmandu
Dhruba Kumar Shrestha
Tribhuvan University
Seira Tamang
Centre for Social Research and
Development, Kathmandu
Bishnu Raj Upreti
National Centre of Competence in
Research, Kathmandu
Samir Kumar Das
University of Calcutta
Principal Researcher
Dipankar Banerjee
Institute of Peace and Conflict
Studies, New Delhi
Sanjay Barbora
North Eastern Social Research
Centre, Assam
Kalyan Barooah
Assam Tribune
Sanjib Baruah
Center for Policy Research
New Delhi
Bard College, New York
M.P. Bezbaruah
UN – WTO (World Tourism
Organization), New Delhi
Pinaki Bhattacharya
The Mathrubhumi, Kerala
Subir Bhaumik
British Broadcasting Corporation,
Kolkata
N
ortheast India Study Group
74
Bejoy Das Gupta
Institute of International Finance,
Inc., Washington, D.C.
Partha S. Ghosh
Jawaharlal Nehru University
Uddipana Goswami
Center for Studies in Social Science,
Kolkata
Sanjoy Hazarika
Centre for North East Studies and
Policy Research, New Delhi
Anil Kamboj
Institute for Defence Studies and
Analyses, New Delhi
Bengt Karlsson
Uppsala University, Sweden
Dolly Kikon
Stanford University
Ved Marwah
Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
Sukh Deo Muni
Observer Research Foundation
New Delhi
Bhagat Oinam
Jawaharlal Nehru University
Pradip Phanjoubam
Imphal Free Press, Manipur
V.R. Raghavan
Delhi Policy Group
Rajesh Rajagopalan
Jawaharlal Nehru University
Swarna Rajagopalan
Chaitanya––The Policy Consultancy,
Chennai
E.N. Rammohan
National Security Council
New Delhi
Bibhu Prasad Routray
Institute for Conflict Management,
New Delhi
Ronojoy Sen
The Times of India, New Delhi
Prakash Singh
Border Security Force (Ret’d.)
George Verghese
Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
Neil DeVotta
Hartwick College
Principal Researcher
Ravinatha P. Aryasinha
American University
Sunanda Deshapriya
Centre for Policy Alternatives,
Colombo
Rohan Edrisinha
Centre for Policy Alternatives,
Colombo
Sri Lanka Study Group
75
Nimalka Fernando
International Movement Against All
Forms of Discrimination & Racism,
Colombo
Bhavani Fonseka
Centre for Policy Alternatives,
Colombo
Mario Gomez
Berghof Foundation for Conflict
Studies, Colombo
Air Vice Marshall Harry Goonetileke
Colombo
Anberiya Hanifa
Muslim Womens Research and Action
Forum, Colombo
Dayan Jayatilleka
University of Colombo
N. Kandasamy
Center for Human Rights and
Development in Colombo
S.I. Keethaponcalan
University of Colombo
N. Manoharan
Institute of Peace and Conflict
Studies, New Delhi
Dennis McGilvray
University of Colorado at Boulder
Jehan Perera
National Peace Council of Sri Lanka,
Colombo
Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam
MP, Sri Lanka
Mirak Raheem
Centre for Policy Alternatives,
Colombo
Darini Rajasingham
Centre for Poverty Analysis, Colombo
John Richardson, Jr.
American University
Norbert Ropers
Berghof Foundation for Conflict
Studies, Colombo
Kanchana N. Ruwanpura
Hobart and William Smith Colleges,
New York
P. Sahadevan
Jawaharlal Nehru University
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu
Centre for Policy Alternatives,
Colombo
Muttukrishna Sarvananthan
Point Pedro Institute of Development,
Sri Lanka
Peter Schalk
Uppsala University, Sweden
Asanga Tilakaratne
University of Kelaniya
Jayadeva Uyangoda
University of Colombo
Asanga Welikala
Centre for Policy Alternatives,
Colombo
Jayampathy Wickramaratne
Ministry of Constitutional Affairs, Sri
Lanka
Javid Yusuf
Attorney-at-Law, Colombo
77
Background of Sri Lankas Conflicts
FSri Lanka gained independence in 1948, after almost 450 years of colo-
nial rule under the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. This history—and the
country’s proximity to India—helped produce a polyethnic, multireligious
population consisting of Buddhists (69%), Hindus (15%), Muslims (8%),
and Christians (8%). Britains colonial policies and practices helped create
fissures, especially between the majority Sinhala and the minority Tamils.
Post-independence Sinhalese elites made use of this division both to pur-
sue anti-Tamil policies that benefited their community and to build a
Sinhalese Buddhist nation-state that marginalized minorities. Tamil elites,
in the main, initially demanded a federal solution whereby the predomi-
nantly Tamil northeast, considered part of the Tamil homeland, could
enjoy autonomy from the Sinhalese-dominated south. When such
demands were disregarded, the moderate Tamil elites lost out to extremist
youth, who by the early 1970s began clamoring for a separate state.
The state’s discriminatory policies led to anti-Tamil riots in 1956, fol-
lowed by deadlier riots in 1958, 1978, 1981, and 1983. The 1983 riot was
especially gruesome and caused thousands of Tamils to flee to India and
Western countries as refugees, producing a vibrant Sri Lankan Tamil diaspo-
ra. This diaspora plays a major role in financing the Tamil separatist strug-
gle now waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). By
eliminating other Tamil guerrilla organizations, the LTTE claims to be the
Tamils’ sole representative. The LTTE’s practices of forcibly recruiting child
soldiers and resorting to suicide bombings have caused a number of states
and political entities—including India, the United States, Canada, Australia,
and the European Union—to proscribe it as a terrorist organization.
The civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE has
killed more than 70,000 people. Most agree that a political solution to
the conflict is necessary, yet the two main protagonists have cast aside
four attempts to reach a peace agreement. The most recent peace process
began in February 2002, when the United National Front coalition
government, headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe, signed a Memorandum
of Understanding with the LTTE. War was avoided until June 2006,
when the LTTE’s intransigence and the newly elected government’s
uncompromising policies led to renewed conflict. Overall, the peace
processes have failed mainly due to the conflicting parties’ unwillingness
to reconcile the LTTE’s maximalist demands and various Sri Lankan gov-
78
ernments’ minimalist responses. Intransigent positions have also made it
impossible to collaborate constructively in the wake of the devastating
December 2002 tsunami.
Many argue that the LTTE has never jettisoned the quest to create a
separate state and has simply used the peace processes to rearm and
regroup. The LTTE says that it could agree to a federal arrangement, yet
its proposals for conflict resolution are more confederal than federal in
nature. It is also clear that successive Sri Lankan governments have been
unable to craft a political arrangement that would allow the island’s Tamils
to live with dignity and self-respect. Most Sinhalese oppose federalism.
They fear it would eventually lead to the country’s dismemberment. In
addition, radical Sinhalese and Buddhist nationalists insist that Sri Lanka
be maintained as a unitary state. These radicals have adopted hostile atti-
tudes and policies toward parliamentarians, civil society activists, diplo-
mats, clergy, and NGOs advocating devolution or federalism as a solution
to the civil war.
The LTTE, which controls large areas of territory in the Northern and
Eastern provinces, suffered a split in March 2004 when its eastern com-
mander broke away and began collaborating with elements in the military.
This has weakened the LTTE, and the group has since lost strategic terri-
tory in the Eastern Province. The large Muslim population in the Eastern
Province also undermines the LTTE’s goal of creating a separate state for
the island’s Tamils. The Muslim dimension introduces a new element, fur-
ther complicating the peace process and a future settlement.
In November 2005, Mahinda Rajapakse was elected president with
the support of Sinhalese nationalists who demand a military solution to
the ethnic conflict. Although Rajapakse has yet to follow through on all
the pro-nationalist promises he made in his election manifesto, his admin-
istration and the military have been emboldened by the recent war gains
in the Eastern Province. The Rajapakse government has consequently
adopted a military strategy of massive retaliation against the LTTE at the
expense of a political strategy that promotes conflict resolution. This has
contributed to gross human rights abuses and increased the misery of the
Tamils, especially those living in LTTE-controlled areas.
The LTTE’s rise has also complicated India-Sri Lanka relations. India
supported the Tamil rebels in the early 1980s, when Sri Lanka disregard-
ed Indias regional preferences and sought to draw close to the United
States and other Western interests. This led to the Indo-Lanka Peace
79
Accord of 1987 and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) stationed in
the northeast. For various reasons, the IPKF and LTTE ended up fighting
each other in what became Indias longest war. India proscribed the LTTE
in 1992 because the group had assassinated former Indian Prime Minister
Rajiv Gandhi the previous year. But having done so, India is now unable
to play a direct role in conflict resolution. Complicating matters further
for India are Tamil Nadu’s more than 60 million Tamils, who sympathize
with their beleaguered cousins across the Palk Strait.
Sri Lanka has paid a massive price for civil war. At the time of inde-
pendence, Sri Lankas high literacy rate, experience with universal fran-
chise, and relatively high socio-economic indices led many to predict that
it was the most likely of the newly independent states to become a peace-
ful, liberal democracy. Ethnically divisive policies and subsequent civil war
have undermined that promise, although this island the size of West
Virginia still has vast potential, provided peace can be achieved between
its two principal ethnic communities.
Map of Sri Lanka
83
Itty Abraham
East-West Center Washington
Jaya Raj Acharya
United States Institute of Peace
Vinod K. Aggarwal
University of California, Berkeley
Muthiah Alagappa
East-West Center Washington
Walter Andersen
The Johns Hopkins University
Edward Aspinall
Australian National University
Marc Askew
Victoria University, Melbourne
Dipankar Banerjee
Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New
Delhi
Sanjay Barbora
Panos South Asia, Guwahati
Upendra Baxi
University of Warwick
Apurba K. Baruah
North Eastern Hill University, Shillong
Sanjib Baruah
Bard College
Thomas Berger
Boston University
Ikrar Nusa Bhakti
Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta
C. Raja Mohan
Nanyang Technological University
Mary P. Callahan
University of Washington
Richard Chauvel
Victoria University, Melbourne
T.J. Cheng
The College of William and Mary
Chu Yun-han
Academia Sinica
Ralph A. Cossa
Pacific Forum CSIS, Honolulu
Sunil Dasgupta
Georgetown University
Chandra R. de Silva
Old Dominion University
Neil DeVotta
Hartwick College
Dieter Ernst
East-West Center
Greg Fealy
Australian National University
David Finkelstein
The CNA Corporation
Michael Foley
The Catholic University of America
Sumit Ganguly
Indiana University, Bloomington
Brigham Golden
Columbia University
Michael J. Green
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Georgetown University
Stephan Haggard
University of California, San Diego
Natasha Hamilton
National University of Singapore
Susan Hangen
Ramapo College of New Jersey
Farzana Haniffa
University of Colombo
Rana Hasan
Asian Development Bank
M. Sajjad Hassan
London School of Economics
Eric Heginbotham
RAND Corporation
Donald Horowitz
Duke University
List of Reviewers 2006–07
The East-West Center Washington would like to acknowledge the
following, who have offered reviews of manuscripts for Policy Studies.
Chinnaiah Jangam
Wagner College
Brian Joseph
National Endowment for Democracy
S. Kalyanaraman
Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses,
New Delhi
Bengt Karlsson
Uppsala University
Damien Kingsbury
Deakin University
Mahendra Lawoti
Western Michigan University
R. William Liddle
The Ohio State University
Satu P. Limaye
Institute for Defense Analyses
Joseph Chinyong Liow
Nanyang Technological University
Owen M. Lynch
New York University
Gurpreet Mahajan
Jawaharlal Nehru University
Onkar S. Marwah
Independent Consultant, Geneva
Bruce Matthews
Acadia University
Duncan McCargo
University of Leeds
Donald McFetridge
Former U.S. Defense Attaché, Jakarta
Udayon Misra
Dibrugarh University
Uptal Raj Misra
The Johns Hopkins University
Pratyoush Onta
Martin Chautari
Andrew Oros
Washington College
Morten Pedersen
United Nations University, Tokyo
Steven Rood
The Asia Foundation, Philippines
Danilyn Rutherford
University of Chicago
Kanchana N. Ruwanpura
University of Southampton
James Scott
Yale University
Amita Shastri
San Francisco State University
Emile C.J. Sheng
Soochow University
John Sidel
London School of Economics
Martin Smith
Independent Analyst, London
Selma Sonntag
Humboldt State University
Ashley South
Independent Consultant
David I. Steinberg
Georgetown University
Robert H. Taylor
University of London
Tin Maung Maung Than
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore
Willem van Schendel
Amsterdam School for Social science Research
Jayadeva Uyangoda
University of Colombo
Meredith Weiss
East-West Center Washington
Thongchai Winichakul
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Sastrohandoyo Wiryono
Center for Strategic and International Studies,
Jakarta
Wu Xinbo
Fudan University
Harn Yawnghe
Euro-Burma Office, Brussels
84
85
Policy Studies
Previous Publications
These issues of Policy Studies are presently available in print and PDF.
Hardcopies are available through Amazon.com. In Asia, hardcopies of all titles, and electronic
copies of Southeast Asia titles are available through the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies,
Singapore at 30 Heng Mui Keng Terrrace, Pasir Panjang Singapore 119614. Website:
http://bookshop.iseas.edu.sg/
Online at: www.eastwestcenterwashington.org/publications
(continued next page)
Policy Studies 39
Assessing Burma’s Ceasefire Accords
Zaw Oo, American University
Win Min, Independent Researcher, Thailand
Policy Studies 38
The United Wa State Party:
Narco-Army or Ethnic Nationalist Party?
Tom Kramer, Transnational Institute, Amsterdam
Policy Studies 37
The Islamist Threat in Southeast Asia:
A Reassessment
John T. Sidel, London School of Economics and
Political Science
Policy Studies 36
State of Strife: The Dynamics of Ethnic
Conflict in Burma
Martin Smith, Independent Analyst, London
Policy Studies 35
Rebellion in Southern Thailand:
Contending Histories
Thanet Aphornsuvan, Thammasat University
Policy Studies 34
Creating a “New Nepal”:
The Ethnic Dimension
Susan Hangen, Ramapo College of New Jersey
Policy Studies 33
Postfrontier Blues: Toward a New Policy
Framework for Northeast India
Sanjib Baruah, Bard College
Policy Studies 32
Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Changing
Dynamics
Jayadeva Uyangoda, University of Colombo
Policy Studies 31
Political Authority in Burmas Ethnic Minority
States: Devolution, Occupation, and
Coexistence
Mary P. Callahan, University of Washington
Policy Studies 30
Legalizing Religion: The Indian Supreme Court
and Secularism
Ronojoy Sen, The Times of India, New Delhi
Policy Studies 29
Conspiracy, Politics, and a Disorderly Border:
The Struggle to Comprehend Insurgency in
Thailand’s Deep South
Marc Askew, Victoria University, Melbourne
Policy Studies 28
Counterterrorism Legislation in Sri Lanka:
Evaluating Efficacy
N. Manoharan, Institute of Peace and Conflict
Studies, New Delhi
Policy Studies 27
Japanese Public Opinion and the War on
Terrorism: Implications for Japan’s Security
Strategy
Paul Midford, Norwegian University for Science and
Technology, Trondheim
Policy Studies 26
Taiwan’s Rising Rationalism: Generations,
Politics, and “Taiwanese Nationalism
Shelley Rigger, Davidson College
Policy Studies 25
Initiating a Peace Process in Papua: Actors,
Issues, Process, and the Role of the
International Community
Timo Kivimäki, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies,
Copenhagen
Policy Studies 24
Muslim Resistance in Southern Thailand and
Southern Philippines: Religion, Ideology, and
Politics
Joseph Chinyong Liow, Institute of Defence and
Strategic Studies, Singapore
86
These issues of Policy Studies are presently available in print and PDF.
Hardcopies are available through Amazon.com. In Asia, hardcopies of all titles, and electronic
copies of Southeast Asia titles are available through the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies,
Singapore at 30 Heng Mui Keng Terrrace, Pasir Panjang Singapore 119614. Website:
http://bookshop.iseas.edu.sg/
Online at: www.eastwestcenterwashington.org/publications
Policy Studies
Previous Publications continued
Policy Studies 23
The Politics of Military Reform in Post-Suharto
Indonesia: Elite Conflict, Nationalism, and
Institutional Resistance
Marcus Mietzner, Political Analyst
Policy Studies 22
India’s Globalization: Evaluating the
Economic Consequences
Baldev Raj Nayar, McGill University
Policy Studies 21
China’s Rise: Implications for
U.S. Leadership in Asia
Robert G. Sutter, Georgetown University
Policy Studies 20
The Helsinki Agreement: A More Promising
Basis for Peace in Aceh?
Edward Aspinall, Australian National University
Policy Studies 19
Nine Lives?: The Politics of Constitutional
Reform in Japan
J. Patrick Boyd, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Richard J. Samuels, Massachusetts Institute of
Technology
Policy Studies 18
Islamic Radicalism and Anti-Americanism in
Indonesia: The Role of the Internet
Merlyna Lim, Bandung Institute of Technology,
Indonesia
Policy Studies 17
Forging Sustainable Peace in Mindanao:
The Role of Civil Society
Steven Rood, The Asia Foundation, Philippines
Policy Studies 16
Meeting the China Challenge: The U.S. in
Southeast Asian Regional Security Strategies
Evelyn Goh, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies,
Singapore
Policy Studies 15
The Xinjiang Conflict: Uyghur Identity,
Language Policy, and Political Discourse
Arienne M. Dwyer, The University of Kansas
Policy Studies 14
Constructing Papuan Nationalism: History,
Ethnicity, and Adaptation
Richard Chauvel, Victoria University, Melbourne
Policy Studies 13
Plural Society in Peril: Migration, Economic
Change, and the Papua Conflict
Rodd McGibbon, USAID, Jakarta
Policy Studies 12
Sino-Tibetan Dialogue in the Post-Mao Era:
Lessons and Prospects
Tashi Rabgey, Harvard University
Tseten Wangchuk Sharlho, Independent Journalist
Policy Studies 11
Autonomy in Xinjiang: Han Nationalist
Imperatives and Uyghur Discontent
Gardner Bovingdon, Indiana University, Bloomington
Policy Studies 10
Secessionist Challenges in Aceh and Papua:
Is Special Autonomy the Solution?
Rodd McGibbon, USAID, Jakarta
Policy Studies 9
The HDC in Aceh: Promises and Pitfalls of
NGO Mediation and Implementation
Konrad Huber, Council on Foreign Relations
Policy Studies 8
The Moro Conflict: Landlessness and
Misdirected State Policies
Eric Gutierrez, WaterAid, U.K.
Saturnino Borras, Jr., Institute of Social Studies,
The Hague
(continued next page)
87
Policy Studies 7
The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics
Elliot Sperling, Indiana University, Bloomington
Policy Studies 6
Violent Separatism in Xinjiang:
A Critical Assessment
James Millward, Georgetown University
Policy Studies 5
The Papua Conflict: Jakartas Perceptions
and Policies
Richard Chauvel, Victoria University, Melbourne
Ikrar Nusa Bhakti, Indonesian Institute of Sciences,
Jakarta
Policy Studies 4
Beijing’s Tibet Policy: Securing Sovereignty
and Legitimacy
Allen Carlson, Cornell University
Policy Studies 3
Security Operations in Aceh: Goals,
Consequences, and Lessons
Rizal Sukma, Centre for Strategic and International
Studies, Jakarta
Policy Studies 2
The Free Aceh Movement (GAM):
Anatomy of a Separatist Organization
Kirsten E. Schulze, London School of Economics
Policy Studies 1
The Aceh Peace Process: Why it Failed
Edward Aspinall, University of Sydney
Harold Crouch, Australian National University
These issues of Policy Studies are presently available in print and PDF.
Hardcopies are available through Amazon.com. In Asia, hardcopies of all titles, and electronic
copies of Southeast Asia titles are available through the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies,
Singapore at 30 Heng Mui Keng Terrrace, Pasir Panjang Singapore 119614. Website:
http://bookshop.iseas.edu.sg/
Online at: www.eastwestcenterwashington.org/publications
Policy Studies
Previous Publications continued
Policy Studies
A publication of the East-West Center Washington
Editor: Dr. Muthiah Alagappa
Co-editor: Dr. Satu P. Limaye
Publications Coordinator: Jeremy Sutherland
Description
Policy Studies presents scholarly analysis of key contemporary domestic and international
political, economic, and strategic issues affecting Asia in a policy relevant manner.
Written for the policy community, academics, journalists, and the informed public, the
peer-reviewed publications in this series provide new policy insights and perspectives
based on extensive fieldwork and rigorous scholarship.
Each publication in the series presents an 18,000- to 24,000-word investigation of a
single topic. Often publications in this series will appear in conjunction with East-West
Center research projects and fellowships; stand-alone investigations of pertinent issues
will also appear in the series. Submissions should address a contemporary, broadly policy
relevant issue, puzzle, or problem and provide a new insight or argument.
Submissions
Submissions may take the form of a proposal or completed manuscript.
Proposal. A five-page proposal indicating the issue, problem, or puzzle to be analyzed, its
policy significance, the novel perspective to be provided, and date by which the manu-
script will be ready. The series editor and two relevant experts will review proposals to
determine their suitability for the series. The manuscript when completed will be peer
reviewed in line with the double-blind process.
Complete Manuscript. Submission of a complete manuscript should be accompanied by a
two- to three-page abstract that sets out the issue, problem, or puzzle analyzed, its policy
significance, and the novel perspective to be provided by the paper. The series editor and
two relevant experts will review the abstract. If considered suitable for the series, the man-
uscript will be peer reviewed in line with the double-blind process.
Submissions must be original and not published elsewhere. The East-West Center will
have copyright over all material published in the series. A CV indicating relevant quali-
fications and publications should accompany submissions.
Notes to Contributors
The manuscript should be formatted per the guidelines laid out in the Policy Studies
stylesheet, which can be made available upon request. Manuscripts should be typed,
double-spaced, with notes double-spaced at the end. Citations should be embedded in
text with minimum endnotes and a complete bibliography. Use of double quotes, and
single spacing after punctuation is desirable. All artwork should be camera ready. Authors
should refrain from identifying themselves in their proposals and manuscripts.
Submissions should be sent to:
Editor, Policy Studies
East-West Center Washington
1819 L St., NW, Suite 200
Washington, D.C. 20036
Tel: 202-293-3995
Fax: 202-293-1402
Submissions can also be forwarded by e-mail to
publications@eastwestcenterwashington.org
About this Issue
This study argues that political Buddhism
and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism have con-
tributed to a nationalist ideology that has been
used to expand and perpetuate Sinhalese
Buddhist supremacy within a unitary Sri Lankan
state; create laws, rules, and structures that
institutionalize such supremacy;and attack
those who disagree with this agenda as enemies
of the state.The nationalist ideology is influ-
enced by Sinhalese Buddhist mytho-history
that was deployed by monks and politicians in
the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries to
assert that Sri Lanka is the designated sanctu-
ary for Theravada Buddhism, belongs to
Sinhalese Buddhists, and Tamils and others live
there only due to Sinhalese Buddhist suffer-
ance.This ideology has enabled majority super-
ordination,minority subordination,and a sepa-
ratist war waged by the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam (LTTE).The study suggests both
LTTE terrorism and the ethnocentric nature of
the Sri Lankan state, which resorts to its own
forms of terrorism when fighting the civil war,
need to be overcome if the island is to
become a liberal democracy.
The present government of President
Mahinda Rajapakse is the first to fully embrace
the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology, sug-
gesting that a political solution to Sri Lanka’s
ethnic conflict is unlikely. Meaningful devolution
of power, whereby Tamils could coalesce with
their ethnic counterparts amidst equality and
self-respect,is not in the offing.A solution
along federal lines is especially unlikely. Instead,
continued war and even attacks on Christians
and Muslims seem to be in store for Sri Lanka
as the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology is
further consolidated.The study recommends
that the international community adopt a more
proactive stance in promoting a plural state and
society in Sri Lanka. In addition to countering
the terrorist methods employed by the LTTE,
the international community should initiate and
support measures to protect fundamental civil
liberties and human rights of Sri Lanka’s ethnic
and religious minority communities.
About the Author
Neil DeVotta is Associate Professor of Political Science at Hartwick College and Visiting Associate
Professor in the Departments of Asian Studies and Government at the University of Texas at Austin
during 2007–08. He can be contacted at devottan@hartwick.edu.
Previous Publications:
Policy Studies 39
Assessing Burma’s Ceasefire Accords
Zaw Oo,American University
Win Min, Independent Researcher,Thailand
Policy Studies 38
The United Wa State Party:
Narco-Army or Ethnic Nationalist Party?
Tom Kramer,Transnational Institute,Amsterdam
Policy Studies 37
The Islamist Threat in Southeast Asia:
A Reassessment
John T. Sidel,London School of Economics
and Political Science
Policy Studies 36
State of Strife: The Dynamics of Ethnic
Conflict in Burma
Martin Smith, Independent Analyst, London
Policy Studies 35
Rebellion in Southern Thailand:
Contending Histories
Thanet Aphornsuvan,Thammasat University
Policy Studies 34
Creating a “New Nepal”:
The Ethnic Dimension
Susan Hangen, Ramapo College of New Jersey
Policy Studies 33
Postfrontier Blues: Toward a New Policy
Framework for Northeast India
Sanjib Baruah, Bard College
Forthcoming:
“Muslim Perspectives on the
Sri Lankan Conflict”
“Civil Society, Conflict, and Peace
in India’s Northeast”
ISBN 978-1-932728-65-1
... Sri Lanka offers a vivid example of the change in MOI in education to the national languages (Sinhala and Tamil) as one main root cause that exacerbated the ethnic conflict. This change was later utilized by conflict entrepreneurs for cadre mobilizing (Bannon, 2003;Buckland, 2005;De Votta, 2007;Sandagomi 2009;Saunders, 2007). The British language policy on English Medium Instruction (EMI) in education in Sri Lanka created intense socioeconomic stratification (Bickmore, 2008;Kandiah, 1984;Stewart, Brown & Langer, 2007), especially among the majority -the rural Sinhalese (Soulbury Commission, 1945). ...
... For instance, the issue of lack of equity in education together with language policy is recognized as one of the key causal factors of Sri Lankan ethnic conflict. These aspects were key tools in violent group mobilization and recruitment of cadres for separatist militant groups in Sri Lanka (Bannon, 2003;Buckland, 2005;De Votta, 2007;Sandagomi, 2009;Saunders, 2007). ...