Fostering National Unity and ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ factor

This is a response to the essay of Dr. A.C. Visvalingam in the Sunday Island of August 26 titled “Improving the Atmosphere to Foster National Unity”.

I am sending this response because I thought it is an effort by Dr. Visvalingam to focus on some of the road blocks to national reconciliation and since it is useful to address such issues direct, in an effort to clear such road blocks. It is necessary to discuss such issues boldly if we are to clear the atmosphere. If a genuine integration among the communities is to be achieved it is necessary that what afflicts the innermost feelings of the different communities be addressed and clarified so that a sincere understanding of each other is to be accomplished. There is no point in hiding or shying away from the issues that cause concern to each side. Although expressing these feelings openly may irritate the affected parties initially, it may still help parties to mull over them and find solutions or ways of working around some of the problems.

To me it appears that a common feature of these problems is those of perceptions. Different communities seem to view this problem from their respective perspectives. Once those perceptions are laid bare, we need to examine their validity dispassionately as far as possible and hit at some common grounds to prepare the ground for reconciliation. The purpose of this essay is to take a hard look at the perceptions of the Sinhala Buddhists themselves and where possible, of the other communities so that the thinking on such issues could be understood with some clarity.

It is seen from what is stated by Dr. Visvalingam, there are certain facts that one has to accept as given. He begins by saying, “The composition of the population of Sri Lanka is such that no one can ordinarily become its predominant leader unless he happens to be a Sinhala Buddhist. Needless to say, the leader would make his own assessment of the stance that most Sinhala Buddhists would be likely to take on important national issues and adjust his political manifesto accordingly.” This is indeed a natural phenomenon anywhere in the world where there is democracy and it would also be so if it was the other way round viz., if the Tamils or Muslims or the Christians were the numerically larger community here. It so happens that the Sinhala Buddhists are the larger community in Sri Lanka at present. One has to accept that whether one likes it or not, as much as India is a big power that is only 22 miles away from Sri Lanka. There is no way that we could push either away to a safer distance if either party would not like each other for any reason. We are stuck with it. Those elements who could not accept this reality as a given, tried to find other solutions by cleansing some portions of the country of the ‘offending’ community and claim that, those particular portions were the exclusive homelands of them alone and that they would wish to have self-rule in those respective areas as separate states, within this little place called Sri Lanka. This perceived solution once ended in disaster for everybody. But some of them seem to still pursue the same end, as their only solution.

The other way out is for all communities is, as suggested by Dr. Visvalingam, to think of this land as the country of all of us which everyone living here could claim as our own, as equals. Here again there are some problems some of which are highlighted by the writer. Some of these problems need further examination. He says ” He ( the leader) would also know deep within them, most Sinhalese believe, without overt racist intentions, that they are “a little more Sri Lankan” than those of the other ethnicities here…………His decisions and actions would be in accord with this entrenched idea of the greater “Sri Lankanness” of the Sinhalese”. The issue does not end here. The question remains to be asked, why do they think like that? To my thinking, the following in brief are the reasons why the Sinhalese think so.

= The Sinhalese have a long history of having continuously lived in this country for over 26 centuries with an unbroken recorded history with an unbroken line of monarchs governing the whole of this land albeit a few short breaks.

= Over these years their ancestors have built a civilization, consisting of a unique irrigation system, architecture, art, craftsmanship, language & literature, dance, music, war-craft, shipping and a knowledge system which give them a distinct identity in this world which is comparable with many developed ancient civilizations.

= They have an unbroken recorded history supported by epigraphic evidence of their own, like of which few countries/nations could boast.

= They have fought foreign invasions mostly by themselves for the last 26 centuries to ward off foreign invaders, in order to preserve the Independence of this country until 1815 A.D.

= They are the people who preserved Theravada Buddhism in its purest form for this world and this country to date is considered the cradle of Theravada Buddhism by all other Buddhist countries.

= It is the Sinhala Buddhist monks who had the teachings of the Buddha which was preserved in oral tradition, committed to writing as early as 3rd century A.D., to preserve Buddhism in its purest form, for posterity as a world heritage.

= It is the Sinhalese Buddhists who fought, all by themselves, the Western Powers continuously for three centuries to keep them at bay until 1815 A.D. when they ceded their last kingdom to the British only due to unresolvable internal squabbles. They are perhaps the only people in the world who successfully resisted the Western powers for such a long period.

= It was they alone who rebelled against the British in a bitter fight in 1818 and again in 1848 in an effort to oust them.

= Until the British times, this country was known in the world as Sihala Dweepa or Seehalam/Eelam and Seylan, meaning the land of the Sinhalese

In addition to all this, the fact remains that even to this date, the national identity of this country in the world is characterized by the culture of the Sinhala Buddhists who are the major community and no other.

In these circumstances, it will be seen that the “idea of the greater Sri Lankanness of the Sinhalese “referred to by Dr. Visvalingam, is but inevitable. For, it is natural and difficult to, and no Sinhalese would, want to forget these attributes of themselves. This may be their collective memory and tradition.

Taken in this light it is difficult to think that the Sinhala Buddhists who managed to preserve the unity of their country for so many centuries through bitter fighting through 26 centuries with bigger powers, would in the future too allow the territorial unity of this country to be dismembered. The resistance may be inbuilt as a national heritage.

These are some of the hard facts which all peoples inhabiting this country may have to put up with, even if it were not to their liking. It will be the same with Sinhala Buddhists too. It will not be possible to get behind them even if they would try to. Perhaps that will be the source of their national pride. Perhaps this is what is verbalized in our national anthem as “Oba apa aaloke, apage anuprane ,…..apa jeevaya obawe”. “You are our light, the inspiration and our very life’s strength.”

Besides this there is also the global scenario. It could best be stated as follows. Let us examine how the other countries in the world get their national nomenclatures and identities.

It would appear from the above table that commonly, a people is identified by the language they speak and the country they inhabit derives its name by the name of the people whose identity is determined by the language those people speak. We have to discern here that the language by which the people and the country are identified is determined by the language of the majority of the people in these countries. It appears that even if some other people migrate into that land they adapt themselves to the language spoken by the majority in that land. But if one applies this norm, what could be the language of the Sri Lankans? Going by the logic here, it has to be ‘Sri Lankan’. Now is there a language called Sri Lankan?! There is only Sinhala, Tamil and English. English came into usage in this country only since 1796, after the arrival of the British. As far as we know it may be spoken by a minuscule minority in this country. On the other hand, more people could speak Sinhala than the number of Sinhalese living in this country.

Before the advent of the British however, this country and its people were known by nomenclature of the same norm given above. Viz. Seehala or Sinhala was the name of the language of this country, Seehelas or Sinhala was the name of the people who mainly inhabited this country whose language was Sinhala and their country was known as Seehala Dweepa or simply Sinhale, further simplified as Hela Diva. The three component regions of the country were known as Thun Hele (Threefold Hela) or Tri Sinhale. The name Ceylon was a corruption of Sinhale or Seylan, as much as the Sinhala term Kande becoming’ Kandy’. Thus it would appear that there has been some confused thinking that went into the adoption of the name Sri Lanka when this country retrieved its lost sovereignty when becoming a Republic in 1972. This appears in turn to have given rise to a term called ‘Sri Lankans’ who do not have a common language and therefore do not exist as a people judging by the above norm and therefore ‘Sri Lanka’ seems to be a misnomer giving rise to some non-existent problems!? Therefore, could we be chasing a mirage in search of a nation called ‘Sri Lankans’ who have no common language?

This does not mean by any measure of imagination that the people other than the Sinhalese are of a lesser status in this country. Dr. Visvalingam states here “The sticking point here that all members of the minorities (ethnic, religious or any other) who are citizens of Sri Lanka see themselves as the absolute moral and legal equals of any Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lankan.” I do not think there is any Sinhalese who would disagree with this idea. But the real sticky point is, when some Tamils run to India to get that country to pressurize Sri Lankan Government when the Sinhalese embrace Muralidaran saying “apey Murali”, and when some Muslims cheer for Pakistan when they beat Sri Lanka at cricket. That does not happen in India? Dissatisfied Indian nationals do not go to other countries to pressurize Indian Government or Indian Muslims do not cheer for Pakistan or Bangladesh when they are playing India at cricket. There appears to be something gone wrong somewhere.

In the same breath, it has to be mentioned that though “all members of the minorities ( ethnic, religious or any other ) who are citizens of Sri Lanka see themselves as the absolute moral and legal equals of any Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lankan,” the Sinhalese have doubts whether they as community enjoy the same confidence in respect of the one third of the country viz., in Northern and Eastern provinces of this country and in some other smaller places where the ‘minority’ communities are clustered in a majority. The Sinhalese find that they cannot purchase or rent land or buildings in the Northern Province and difficult to do so in the Eastern Province when the Tamils and Muslims have no such problems anywhere in this country nor to run any businesses there. It is alleged that the government is trying to disturb the ‘ethnic balance’ in these two provinces whereas no such allegation or hostility from the Sinhalese is encountered by these two communities in any other part of the country.

Since the Armed Tamil Terrorist insurrection, the Sinhalese fisher folk of the South & the North West who earlier used to do seasonal fishing in the Northern and Eastern seas, do not feel confident to do so any longer. The Sinhalese and the Muslims who were ousted from the Northern and Eastern Provinces by the LTTE are yet unable to return to their lost lands since the end of the fighting, though many Tamils have returned. The Sinhalese find that they are suffering from landlessness in the south, but are unable to move into the vast unpopulated land spaces of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, in the face of allegation of Sinhala colonization when no such allegation is made by them when the Tamils or Muslims come to live amongst them. In fact they readily sell land to them. Hence the Sinhalese feel that they are the community who are worse off in this country as a community, besides now not being able to travel in the neighbouring Tamil Nadu too. This perception is further buttressed by the fact that the Sinhalese find that though they have elected to power a larger number of Sinhala Buddhists into Parliament & when their representatives form a government they are unable to get their interests attended to by the government which is apprehensive of disturbing the susceptibilities of the ‘minority communities’. Thus, the Buddhists in this country have so far failed to get the government to present in Parliament a law against unethical conversion of people into other religions. And this is even after voting Buddhist monks into Parliament! Similarly the government is hesitant to check the indiscriminate spread of mushrooming belligerent Muslim mosques quite disproportionate to their population.

This brings us to the question of fears entertained by the Sinhalese in this country. As stated above the Sinhalese perceive this country where their ancestors have continually lived for 26 centuries as one of the smallest countries in the world geographically, with limited natural resources, being constantly bullied by their rapidly growing closest neighbour, India, but have no other country to go to. They see themselves as one of the smallest and weakest communities in the world threatened by Christianization and Islamization who would one day be overrun in due course by rapid population expansion by the other communities in this country. They think that their language will in the future go into extinction owing to the persistent use of English and other dominant languages of the world. They are experiencing hostility from Tamil Nadu with a population of 60 million who are menacingly breathing down their neck. Besides this, they find themselves numerically going down progressively due to family planning by taking the government policy too seriously. They also think that they are morally going down with lack of patriotism owing to pre-occupation with selfishness, with immorality, crime and corruption. Hence they entertain the constant fear that as a nation they would be wiped out from the face of the earth in the not too distant future. In such circumstances, contrary to what Dr. Visvalingam says, it is the Sinhalese who are asking “grant” “concessions” from the minorities in respect of the Northern and Eastern Provinces where their ancient civilization flourished.

Placed in such a situation it is quite correct when Dr. Visvalingam says that “Minorities must appreciate the psychological position that, if they keep on referring to themselves as ‘Tamils”, “Muslims”, “Christians” etc., the Sinhalese will understandably react by emphasizing their “Sinhaleseness”. There are some reasons for that too. In the 19th Century after 1815 A.D. the Sinhalese Buddhists were the underdogs. There was a time that they feared or were reluctant to openly say that they were Sinhala Buddhists. They went into shameful extents of self-humiliation having lost national pride and self-esteem. It was because of the indefatigable work done by Anagarika Dharmapala, Col. Olcott and his supporters that the Sinhala Buddhists retrieved to some extent their self-respect and self-worth. Actually, the idea of Sinhala Buddhist came about in this period. Really it was to distinguish the Sinhala Buddhists from Sinhala Christians and has nothing to do with Muslims and Tamils. (Before the arrival of the Christian Missionaries, this country was approximately 96% Buddhist. Hence there was no need for such identification.) This was in order to galvanize the people to counter the massive Christianization of Buddhists that was dominant at this time. It was also necessary to remind them about their forgotten great history to inspire their self-confidence and self-worth to impel them to start the fight for freedom from the British also inspired by the great Freedom Movement of India. It is the momentum of this movement that ended up in the silent revolution of 1956 where the power finally was transferred to the common man whether they were Tamils, Muslims or Christians. It is during this fight back that “leaders of opinion such as school teachers, priests, writers keep on repeating the “mantra’ that this is a ” Sinhala Buddha rata” which Dr. Visvalingam states is “particularly hurtful to the minorities”. It will be seen that being placed in all this unsatisfactory scenario that it is necessary for the Sinhala opinion makers to keep reminding the people with this “mantra”, not to put down their guard. It is a cry in desperation for self-preservation than intended to hurt the minorities or deprive them of their equality of status as citizens.

It has to be realized really by all people irrespective of community in this country, they suffer not due to communal strife per se but from inequalities, mis-governance, corruption, injustice and politicization of the vital government institutions which the minorities seem to see as adversely affecting them only as they were the minority. Hence one could not but agree with Dr. Visvalingam that “Initially everyone should concentrate on solving those problems which beset all Sri Lankans equally irrespective of group affiliations. Once those problems which beset all ethnic, religious and other groupings get together in similar joint endeavours to improve the position of all citizens, the position of all citizens vis-à-vis a mindless bunch of politicos, blinded by impunity, and sycophantic, spineless administration, they would be mentally more receptive to dealing with those issues that trouble various subgroups of population” The question is, will the Tamil and Muslim politicians who are busy looking for communal issues which is their daily bread and butter, come round to think in this way? I doubt it. For, without communalism, they are bankrupt.

By Sugath Samarasinghe 

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