“….When other ‘sectors’…..I don’t like to use this word ‘minorities’…. by the way ,….because we are all citizens of one country.” When that was said, there was loud applause from the audience. It was at the interactive session held by the self-proclaimed UNP Presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa at the plush auditorium of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute on 27 of August or so. The audience was from a select group of English speaking Colombo upper middleclass invitees. In their own socio-economic enclaves in city life, this “sector” - to use a “Sajith term” more appropriately - seldom feel ethnically discriminated. They therefore love to wear this “Sri Lankanness” ignoring ethnic identities around them.
“One country” this is, with three very distinct cultural identities that have organically evolved through a long historical process and come to live side by side. Historically, “Ruhunu, Pihiti and Maya” kingdoms evolved over centuries to establish one distinct identity since the arrival of Buddhism. With Sinhala also evolving as a language by late 08th Century, a “Sinhala Buddhist” culture evolved that bound people into a common identity in these Southern parts of the island. Meanwhile in Northern Sri Lanka a Tamil speaking Hindu culture evolved. Tamil language borrowed from Dravidian ancestry along with Hinduism was gradually transformed into a new Tamil cultural identity with their own rule established in Nallur as an Aryacakravarti kingdom. These two distinctly different cultures with their own feudal kingdoms, at times over run by invading Chola and Pandiyan armies nevertheless gained much from those cultures in fashioning their culturally different identities.
The third came with seafaring traders from Arabia on the “Silk Route”. Their presence is marked from the Anuradhapura period by Lorna Devaraja in her essays on ancient Ceylonese history. Trading Moors thus had Royal acceptance to settle in the island. Even before the 16 Century R.L Brohier records there were 02 Mosques in the vicinity of the “Colombo bay”, the seaport used for trading. Their common identity as a single Muslim community began evolving from around the 15 Century when Dravidian Moors were brought here by the Dutch, the British and by voluntary migration with growing local trade within the country. These Dravidian Moors dominated and a common Muslim identity evolved as Tamil speaking Muslims during late 19th Century. Within this Muslim community there is also a comparatively small Malay and Javanese Muslim communities whose mini culture is accepted within the Muslim community.
These three cultural identities that we live with now, are not mere historical mentions and records, but are vibrant and still evolving identities that demand respect and dignity in every aspect of social and economic life. Three different cultures in present Sri Lanka that wish to individually and collectively maintain their historical presence within post independent politics. Conflict between them evolved with Sinhala Buddhist dominance usurping political power. Sinhala trader and merchant community on the advantage of large numbers and widely spread geographical presence of Sinhala Buddhists, worked towards political power even before independence. In a democracy where everything is reduced in political terms to “democracy with majority consensus”, a Sinhala majority in the legislature allows for political decisions in governance for Sinhala Buddhist advantage. Disfranchising and de-citizenising of the upcountry Tamil labour in 1948 and establishing Sinhala language as the “only” official language in 1956, were such majoritarian “democratic” decisions.
“Ceylon” even after independence, that came to be renamed as “Sri” Lanka in 1972, with the new Republican Constitution explains this dominance of the majority. The name “Ceylon” was dropped for its “colonial” inheritance, but Sinhala Buddhist leadership did not want “Ceylon” to be named as “Lanka” like “Chad”, or “Cuba” or as “Fiji” and be constitutionally called the “Republic of Lanka”. “Shri” as a phonetical character considered exclusively Sinhala Buddhist (as Sri Maha Bodhi, Sri Sambuddha Jayanthi) and also its absence in the traditional Tamil alphabet, used as the prefix for “Lanka” gave Sinhala Buddhists a new political satisfaction and a stubborn pride they have once again regained ownership of the country. This Sinhala trend was set with the use of “Shri” brought into official use by replacing the English letters in vehicle registration in 1957 with “1 Shri” in place of “EN” and led to a militant anti “Shri” campaign by Tamil nationalists.
These led to polarisation between Sinhala and Tamil societies based on cultural identities. Sinhala leaders asserting their right to govern as they wish and Tamil political leaders demanding equal opportunities, equal treatment by the State and equal social acceptance and dignity. This as we know led to a bloody war. Tamil nationalism was compelled to decide on a “separate Tamil State” after decades of serious negotiations and compromises failed with Sinhala leaders backtracking. Sinhala Buddhist “ownership” of this “Unitary Sri Lankan” nation State was thus challenged by armed Tamil militancy. The whole State in the hands of the Sinhala Buddhists with their elected government that also had Tamil and Muslim representation in parliament, provided governments a “legitimacy” to wage war against armed “Tamil Separatism” in the name of “national security” and “sovereignty”. That “sovereignty” was always and is, sovereignty of the “Sinhala Buddhist” Unitary State.
Conclusion of the military conflict in 2009 May brought more urgent and humanitarian issues in to political dialogue. In the South, Sinhala Buddhist dominance gained a supremacist presence, with a militarised political leadership that further polarised society. That polarisation gave way to Sinhala Buddhist dominance that adamantly resisted war crimes, crimes against humanity and accountability the Western power bloc worked overtime in trying to corner the Rajapaksa government into compromise. Yet they never challenged the ethno-racial polarisation that continued to guarantee Sinhala Buddhist dominance in its extreme form.
The regime change in 2015 January the US and its Western allies wanted, was only meant to dislodge Rajapaksa from power in an effort to distance China from including Sri Lanka in their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). With US and its allies unable to get on their feet post 2008 global meltdown, the UNP led government could not be funded to have the political ability to decide as they wished. Wickramasinghe government therefore was compelled to compromise with China on all projects the Rajapaksas signed into and on the external debt Rajapaksas left behind. Financially weak and struggling while politically in confusion, the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe alliance was into conscious compromising with Sinhala Buddhist extremism, to continue in power and as “investment” for next elections. In conflict and giving into Sinhala Buddhist extremist demands also left the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe combination, wholly dependent on the State security establishment as well. What thus emerged after the Easter Sunday Islamic terror attacks was a super hype on “national security” as the most urgent and important issue. A dependency on security and intelligence establishments with an emerging military dominance in macro politics.
To cut short a long story of rising Sinhala Buddhist extremism with this “yahapalanaya” government, here are few recent anti-Muslim campaigns that reflect how dominant the Sinhala Buddhist State is and in politics. Apart from extreme violence against Muslim people in Digana and in parts of Kurunegala district that was reluctantly controlled but with no perpetrators seriously dealt with, never in history has the medical profession, the legal fraternity including the judiciary and top district police officers teamed up in fabricating a judicial case using anti Muslim protests and demands of Buddhist monks. Never has police acted on the dictates of Buddhist monks as in Hasalaka and in Trincomalee to arrest a Muslim and a Tamil woman for wearing costumes the Buddhist monks decided were insulting Buddhism and Lord Buddha. Never has the police arrested and remanded a creative writer with the Magistrate accommodating allegations made by a Buddhist monk, the fictional story was an insult to Buddhist monks. Never in history had anyone gone free and is treated with privilege after publicly accusing and insulting top CID officers purely because the racist rhetoric comes from an extremist Buddhist monk as in this rare case of CID officers discharging duty with serious responsibility, extreme independence and with professionalism in exposing heavy fabrication against Dr. Shafi Shihabdeen.
This then is the “one country we are all citizens of”, and Sajith Premadasa was applauded for saying it. It is insane to believe the “Sri Lankan” identity could wipe out ethno-religious identities and remove “xenophobia” with this utterly fierce polarisation. It is sheer hypocrisy to say “I don’t like the term minority and there should not be xenophobia.” They are all there, cultivated and nurtured by politicians including Sajith who never took a stand against Sinhala Buddhist racism in his whole political life. “Sri Lankan identity” therefore is a fraud for those who do not want to be seen and heard as utter Sinhala racists. In this country, “Sri Lankan” identity would be nothing less than the “Sinhala Buddhist” identity. Minorities? “Just forget them”, is what Sajith and all other fellow travellers cannot possibly turn into words loud enough.