Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism and the Buddhist clergy
Dr. Brian Senewiratne, 1988
Princess Alexandre Hospital, Brisbane, Australia
Sinhalese Buddhist ethnoreligious chauvinism and its strongest advocates, the Buddhist clergy, are the most important factors that prevent a solution to the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict.
Sri Lanka belongs to, and is the homeland of all its people (Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, the Plantation Tamils, Moors, Malays, and Burghers) who have lived there for hundreds of years and have made it what it is. Despite this self evident fact, the Sinhalese majority have a deep rooted perception that Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese Buddhist nation which ‘belongs’ to the Sinhalese and is the custodian of Buddhism.
The most powerful advocates of this ethnoreligious chauvinism are the Buddhist clergy. “Even though non Sinhalese and non Buddhist have been living in this country for a long time, Sri Lanka is the country of the Sinhala Buddhist” writes the Venerable Madhie Pannaseeha, Mahanayake Thera of the Amarapura sect, one of the three major Buddhist sects in Sri Lanka. He is one of a group who has a major influence on the majority community in Sri Lanka, which can make or break governments. Statements by other leading Buddhist clergy are even more extreme. Those of the Venerable Chandananda Palipane, the Mahanayake (chief priest) of the powerful Asgiriya Chapter of the Siam sect and the Venerable Sobitha, President of the Sinhala Bala Mandalaya (Sinhalese pressure group) can only be described as bigoted.
Al Jazeera video on anti-Tamil Buddhist monks
This same Sinhala chauvinism is seen in the Sinhalese political leaders. David Selbourne, the British political commentator, has drawn attention to recent statements which have led him to conclude that in his opinion, a negotiated settlement is not on the political agenda of the Colombo regime. He points to recent statements made by Lalith Athulathmudali, the Minister for National Security. Addressing new recruits to the National Auxiliary Force in April 1986, this is what he said:
“By joining the Security Forces to defend the nation in its biggest crisis in history, each one of you have secured a place in your country’s history, like your forefathers, who have shed their blood on this very soil fighting against the foreign invaders”.
Selbourne points out that if the Minister for National Security sees the Tamils as foreign invaders in April 1986, we should not have any illusions about a negotiated settlement coming from this group of politicians in Colombo. President Jayawardene’s statements are equally disastrous. In an interview with the Canadian ‘Globe and Mail’, when presented with Canada as a model of Revolution of power, this is what he said:
“It is easy for Canada to settle its problems because all of your people are Canadians”.
If the President of Sri Lanka does not see the Tamils as Sri Lankans in 1986, what chance is there or terms being offered which will settle the problems facing the Tamils?
Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the Sri Lankan scene can recognise these statements by the religious and political leaders as the authentic voice of Sinhala chauvinism which is the single factor that has prevented any meaningful offer being made to the Tamils. Statements such as this are evidence of a very strong current of ethnic chauvinism which is destroying Sri Lanka. In such a context we cannot have any illusions of a negotiated settlement which makes a genuine accommodation of Tamil problems taking place in the next month, the next year or the next five years.
This chauvinism is deeply rooted in mythology, in history and in mythology masquerading as history. It is deeply ingrained in children and is evident in later life e.g. statements made by our political leaders.
Origins of ethnic groups & early history
Sri Lanka was populated from India and both races, the Sinhalese and Tamils, are of Indian origin. Scholars of international accepted texts by Stroudt and Bailey have concluded that the Sinhalese and the Tamils have been in the island for at least 2,000 years, and it is not known with certainty which ethnic group arrived first.
The present day Sinhalese however, choose to believe a legend and what is more, teach it to their children, that a Bengali Prince, Vijaya, arrived in Ceylon in 548 B.C. and founded their ethnic group. They base these beliefs on the ‘Mahavamsa’ and fail to realise that this socalled historical text was written by a Buddhist monk whose perceptions of Sri Lanka were probably no different from those of his present day counterparts. The Tamils point to equally dubious evidence that a South Indian Dravidian people were already there when Vijaya arrived.
There is evidence that there were civilised people in the country when Vijaya arrived but it is not known whether they were Dravidian Tamils from South India.
There is indisputable evidence that over the centuries, Sinhalese kings and nobles went across to southern India for their brides. Between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries this immigration from South India was particularly marked. These immigrants, though Dravidian (South Indian} in origin, adopted the customs of the Sinhalese people and became ‘Sinhalised’.
Referring to the origins of the races, Stroudt speaks of the Sinhalese as a “composite people which include, in addition to the Aryan speaking North Indian, admixtures from Dravidians of the south of India”. Gananath Obeysekera, an outstanding Sinhalese anthropologist has this to say:
“The Sinhalese identity nowadays is predicted on the view that since they speak an Indo European language, they are of North Indian origin whereas the Dravidian speaking Tamils are from the South. The historical reality however is totally different. Except perhaps for the oldest stratum of settlers prior to 200 B.C., almost all subsequent settlers in Sri Lanka came from South India, mostly from Tamil Nadu, Orissa and Kerala and quickly became Sinhalised. In fact, some of the most vociferous anti Tamil castes among the Sinhalese were post fifteenth century migrants from South India”.
These historical facts are at variance with what the present day Patriots’, believe. They preach their chauvinist gospel out of ignorance or to justify their chauvinism. Claiming that their ancestors arrived first, the Sinhalese feel that they own the island and have a right to make their language the sole official language of their country and their religion, Buddhism, the official religion. the Tamils believe equally strongly that they have been in the country for just as long (or longer), and that they should have equal rights in the country which is their home and that their language (Tamil) should have the same status as the language of the Sinhalese (Sinhala).
What is remarkable about all this nonsense as to which ethnic group arrived first is that supposedly sensible people should argue and indeed fight, about something that happened over 2,000 years ago, and should allow this to disrupt the country and threaten each others existence.
Because of the proximity of Sri Lanka to India, over the centuries there were invasions from India and at various times South Indian Tamil kings ruled the country. This historical fact of repeated South Indian invasion in ancient times is part of the basis for the current phobia among the Sinhalese of being overrun by India and in particular South India (Tamil Nadu), with its 50 million people who speak Tamil.
After centuries of fighting and a divided country, in 164 B.C. a young Sinhalese king, Dutugemunu, defeated the ageing Tamil king Elara and unified the country (for a period). The Sinhalese notion of an all island sovereignty goes back to this event which is magnified out of all proportion by the Sinhalese and is one reason why there is so much opposition to the current Tamil cry for a separate State in the North.
British contribution to ethnoreligious chauvinism
The colonial rulers and in particular the Christian missionaries, have played more than a minimal role in the intransigent attitude of the Buddhist clergy. It is not widely known that when the Christian missionaries arrived in Sri Lanka, they were welcomed by the Buddhist clergy in the true spirit of Buddhist tolerance in the belief that one religion is as good as another. In fact, it was the Buddhist clergy who assisted in the translation of the Bible into Sinhala. It was when insensitive missionaries with a colonial attitude denounced Buddhism as paganism and took unjustifiable steps to almost compel the inhabitants to abandon their Native’ religion by offering selective advantages in education and job opportunities to converts, that problems arose. The promotion of Christianity at the expense of Buddhism and active suppression of Buddhism resulted in an understandable hostile reaction of the Buddhist clergy.
There were other consequences of the British occupation of Sri Lanka. For centuries the Buddhist clergy had not only been the kingmakers in precolonial Ceylon but had acted as counsellors to the Sinhalese royalty. With the replacement of Sinhalese (Buddhist) kings by British (Christian) ‘kings’ and with the very obvious favoured treatment meted out to Christian converts especially in appointments to senior administrative positions, the Buddhist clergy lost their King making role. While Ceylonese politicians struggled to get political freedom from British colonial rule, the clergy struggled to regain their lost position.
Rise of Buddhist extremism
In the early years of this century, as the first steps were being taken by Ceylonese politicians towards self government, there was a Buddhist revival. There appeared several Buddhist propagandists who promoted a revival of Buddhism and a restoration of Sinhala to its former place. Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1931, formerly Don David Hewavitarne), Piyadasa Sirisena (1875-1946, formerly Pedrik de Silva), L.H. Methananda, the Principal of one of the important schools in Colombo and P. de S. Kularatne, are some of them. The gospel they preached was somewhat different to the present day proponents of the same gospel in that the latter, initially led by Cyril Mathew and his JSS and now by the JVP, have in their fold, armed thugs who are prepared to achieve a Sinhalese Buddhist country by violence, if necessary.
1948 saw the transfer of power from the colonial British to the Ceylonese elite in the United National Party (UNP). Although many of the new leaders were Buddhists (and Sinhalese) they refused to meddle in the inflammatory area of religion and language. Bandaranaike, a veteran Sinhalese politician in the UNP, was a Christian who had become Buddhist for political reasons. In 1951, the ambitious Bandaranaike resigned from the Sinhalese dominated UNP because of nepotism in that party and set up another Sinhalese dominated party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Having failed in his first attempt (1952) to wrest power from the UNP, he decided to introduce ethnoreligious chauvinism into Sri Lankan politics. He promised two changes guaranteed to get the support of the SinhalaBuddhist majority. The first was to change the official language from English to Sinhala without giving Tamil an equal place and the second, to make Buddhism the state religion.
The Buddhist clergy recognised that this was the man who would restore their ‘king making abilities’. Thousands of Buddhist priests left their temples to canvas for Bandaranaike who was elected to power with an overwhelming majority. The clergy had at last regained their position as King makers.
In addition to restoring their religion and themselves to their ‘proper place’, here was also a men who would offer selective advantages to the Sinhalese and discriminate against the Tamil minority which would take them towards their long cherished goal of making Sri Lanka into a Sinhalese Buddhist country.
Although religious extremism was at that time (mid l950s) less marked in the UNP opposing Bandaranaike’s SLFP, it is significant that when J.R. Jayawardene the Deputy Leader of the UNP protested against Bandaranaike’s important pact with the Tamils, his protest march to Kandy was led by the Buddhist clergy. Further, when the pact was finally torn up, it was because of pressure from the Buddhist clergy in association with Jayawardene and Bandaranaike’s own Minister of Health, Wimala Wijewardene.
Rise and fall of Cyril Mathew and the JSS
One of the important features of Sri Lankan politics in recent times has been that politicians have used dissatisfied urban people to intimidate their opponents and build up private armies of hooligans. These thugs, with the political protection they enjoy, not only intimidate the populace but also interfere with the activities of the law enforcing bodies such as the police.
Prior to the 1977 elections, the JSS (Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya) was an almost unknown working class trade union. Most of the trade unions in Sri Lanka are controlled by the Marxist parties which provide them with a Marxist ideology.
The JSS did not have any form of organised political leadership. They were a group of dissatisfied working class people, mainly centred in the slums and shanties around Colombo. At the 1977 election, some of their leaders were elected to parliament and found positions in Jayawardene cabinet. This gave them access to the bureaucracy. An important point was that the LESS lacked a political, or for that matter, any other ideology.
Here was a powerful group of hoodlums who were recruiting into their group large numbers of people by intimidation, who were devoid of a banner and who owed their allegiance to individual bosses some of whom were in Jayawardene’s new Cabinet.
Cyril Mathew, the Minister of Industries and Scientific Affairs in Jayawardene’s first Cabinet, is a politician with a power base in Kelaniya which is just outside Colombo. His political ideology has been of Sinhalese Buddhist extremism which has been clearly enunciated in his many publications and speeches in Parliament.
Just as Bandaranaike had seen the opportunities in 1956 for a political leader who could lead disgruntled Sinhalese Buddhist extremists, Mathew saw the potential of getting the JSS behind him. Capitalising on the fact that the JSS had no political ideology, Mathew provided his ideology which was Sinhalese Buddhist extremism, and the call to make Sri Lanka into a Sinhalese Buddhist nation (cf. Bandaranaike’s cry for Sinhalese Only and Buddhism as the State religion).
Mathew was elected President of the JSS which gave the JSS which already had access to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Transport, further access to another senior politician and gave the latter a power base in Colombo. If a destruction of the Tamil economic base in Colombo (Mathew was Minister of Industries) was what was needed to implement a plan to drive the Tamils away from Colombo and the south as a first step in the conversion of Sri Lanka into a Sinhalese Buddhist nation, Mathew had the necessary facilities to do so. This, and not the killing of the thirteen Sinhalese soldiers by the Tamil militants, was the factor responsible for the highly organised July 1983 massacre of Tamils in southern Sri Lanka.
For seven years Mathew and his band of hoodlums with access to the powers that be, inflicted a reign of terror in Colombo culminating in the 1983 holocaust when thousands of completely innocent Tamils were butchered for no reason other than that they were Tamils.
In 1984 Mathew overstepped the mark. Forcing his way into the All Party Conference with a band of equally rabid Sinhala extremists, he obstructed every meaningful offer Jayawardene made to the Tamils. At the end of the year, with belated courage, Jayawardene sacked Mathew from the cabinet. However, his demise and that of his hoodlums was followed by the rise of two new champions of Sinhala chauvinism Mrs Bandaranaike and the JVP she once tried to exterminate.
The new Sinhala extremism
With the possibility of a general election in the of ring, Mrs Bandaranaike is going down the well trodden path of espousing Sinhala chauvinism to get the majority community behind her. With her own civic rights only just restored, she was first to protest at Jayawardene restoring the long denied civic right of the Plantation Tamils. Later she protested that the 1987 Peace Pact gave too much away to the Tamils. The Tamils can hope for little better than what they obtained from Jayawardene if this new champion of Sinhala chauvinism succeeds him.
The JVP, initially a group of disadvantaged Sinhala youths from the periphery, have gone from Marxism to extreme Sinhala chauvinism, realising the political advantage of doing so. More virulent and murderous than Mathew’s JSS they have threatened to kill anyone who advocates any ‘concession’ to the Tamils. They have already assassinated scores of those who disagree with their extremism including Harsha Abeywardene, the UNP President and Vijaya Kumaranatunge, the leader of a moderate Sinhalese party. The current situation in Sri Lanka is that what matters is what this band of brigands is prepared to concede, not what political leaders decide.
The effects of Sinhalese Buddhist extremism
Sinhala Buddhist extremism has done serious damage to the settling of the ethnic conflict, to democracy in Sri Lanka (e.g. the violence unleashed by the JSS and now the JVP on the dissenting voice) and, above all, to Buddhism itself.
Reference has already been made to the sabotage in 1957 of Bandaranaike’s important pact with the Tamils which promised a degree of devolution of power to the Tamils. Dudley Senanayake’s pact in 1965 went the same way because of the same group. Jayawardene’s attempt in 1984 (the All Party Conference) was sabotaged by the same forces. Now, the 1987 Gandhi Jayawardene Peace Pact is under attack and those who support it are being assassinated. Until a Sinhalese leader is found who can stand up to the Buddhist clergy and Sinhala extremists, the chaos will continue. The problem in Sri Lanka is not Tamil terrorism but Sinhala extremism.
Serious damage has been done to democracy in Sri Lanka. In the first 7 years of the present government, JSS hoodlums prevented Sri Lankans of all ethnic groups from expressing an opinion which differed from that of the government. JVP extremists now threaten those who express an opinion which goes against Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism.
Enormous damage has been done to Buddhism. This great religion has survived for centuries without the need for sponsorship by hoodlums, terrorists and religious extremists. It is time that true Buddhists took some effective action to rescue their religion from these hooligans and thugs.
Teaching ethnic chauvinism in Schools
An important feature of postcolonial Sri Lanka has been the teaching of ethnic chauvinism and religious extremism to schoolchildren. Up to the 1960s, when the State took over the publication of all basic school textbooks, both communities were equally guilty of this, with the Tamils no less guilty than the Sinhalese. Children of one ethnic group were not supplied with information which would create an understanding and respect for the way of life, culture and religion of the other.
After the State took over the publication of textbooks and put the production of these in charge of Sinhalese Buddhist activists and extremists, the dominant ideology portrayed has been a Sinhalese Buddhist one. The Sinhalese are portrayed as a pure Aryan race and Sri Lanka as a Sinhalese Buddhist nation. It has been observed that if the government texts are all that a Sri Lankan child reads, he will be unaware that there are ethnic groups in the country other than Sinhalese Buddhists. This ethnic purity and racial superiority has a strong echo of Hitler’s doctrine.
In addition to propagating these Nazi type ideas, the government textbooks have portrayed the Sinhalese as “We” and the Tamils as `’They”. The foundation of this “We They” concept laid down in childhood, has persisted into adult thinking and has been a fundamental factor which has prevented nation building and promoted separation of the ethnic groups.
The damage done to ethnic relations by government produced school textbooks has been detailed by a Sinhalese, Reggie Siriwardene, in a well documented analysis of the effects of school textbooks on ethnic relations in Sri Lanka.
Aside from the Buddhist clergy, extremists in the JVP and political opportunists there is an alarming drift in the Sinhalese community towards ethnoreligious chauvinism. There are several reasons for this drift. The teaching of ethnoreligious chauvinism in schools which has now gone on for nearly fifty years is producing adults who think on chauvinist lines. There is the deteriorating economy which is due to several factors, some of which are related to the ethnic conflict and others which are not. Politicians find it convenient to attribute all the problems to the unresolved ethnic conflict for which they blame the Tamils.
There is the major problem of heavily biased anti Tamil press which has become the voice of Sinhala extremism to the exclusion of Tamil opinion. In a Buddhist country, it is surprising that in the past few years the view has been gaining ground that it is permissible to kill provide the victim is a Tamil. The Tamils have been dehumanised as have been the Blacks in South Africa. Above all there is the universally resented presence of over 70,000 Indian soldiers on Sri Lankan soil for which the Sinhalese blame the Tamils.
It is difficult to realistically hope for a reversal of Sinhala chauvinism. The unfortunate consequence is that with its current prevalence in the country, the building of a single undivided Sri Lanka may well be impossible. The 1987 Peace Pact, states that Sri Lanka is a “multiethnic, multi lingual. multireligious plural society in which all citizens can live in equality, safety and harmony ….”. Jayawardene and Rajiv Gandhi saying so for their own political survival and pursuit of regional power ambitions is of little consequence. The question is whether or not the majority community in Sri Lanka accepts that this is so. There is no indication that it does and until it does, the possibility that the various ethnic groups can coexist in equality and dignity is remote.