Soon after the government withdrew its draft constitution from Parliament on 8 August, the gaunt face of Hedigalle Vimalasara Thero appeared in a rash of posters. He staged a fast-unto-death during the mass protest campaign, which derailed the government´s ambitious 17th amendment. The Bill sought to end a costly civil war and guarantee the rights of minority Tamils through a package of devolution.
Printed in Sinhala, the poster hailed the monk as a hero of the Sinhala Buddhist race who prevented the great tragedy that would, have befallen on the Sinhala nation had the government pursued the reforms, which also needed two-thirds majority in Parliament to become law.
Saffron-robed men such as Wimalasara epitomise the virulent opposition that is mounting, not only against President Chandrika Kumaratunga´s recent efforts to find a political solution for the country´s ethnic tangle, but against any such attempt by governments that have been dominated by the southern Sinhalese.
In 1987, when the late president J.R.Jayawardene and Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the Indo-Lanka peace accord to introduce a provincial system of government to end the country´s raging ethnic conflict, there were mass protests spearheaded by thousands of Buddhist monks, including leading prelates. An armed rebellion by the revolutionary Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) erupted alongside, crippling the country and killing more than 60,000 people, including a number of Buddhist monks, in the counter-insurgency operations.
The spectre of diehard Sinhala nationalism has reared its head, time to time, during the last five decades, whenever the Sinhalese and the Tamil politicians agreed on some sort of constitutional arrangement to ease the post-Independent ethnic politics of the nation. It reached a crescendo during the 1950s when Tamil politicians began to explicitly reject the unitary state identifying it as the source of their woes, and stepped up a campaign for a federal system of government. Today, the struggle has evolved into a full-scale war, draining nearly SLR 50 billion (USD 1.03 billion) annually. Then the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchu (ITAK) or the Federal Party (FP) argued that the Sinhalese and the Tamils had two distinct worlds of culture and language. While stressing this polarity, they demanded that the constitutional framework should be altered to ensure self-rule for the Tamils. The federalists´ campaign portrayed the minority Tamils as a servile race suppressed by the political will of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist state.
The search for harmony in this pluralist society began with the 1958 Bandaranaike Chelvanayakem Pact. Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the father of president Chandrika Kumaratunge, and S.J.V Chelvanayakem, the leader of the Federal Party, signed the historic pact, better known as the B C Pact. Buddhist monks opposed it by resort¬ing to a satyagraha and pressured Bandaranaike to undo the accord. Wilting under the pressure of the Sangha, Bandaranaike unilaterally abrogated it, clearly showing that Buddhist monks could make or break any constitutional arrangements aimed at sharing state power with the minority Tamils.
During the anti-B-C Pact campaign, the monks were able to rouse up Sinhala passion with the slogan: “The Sinhala race is dead, and Buddhism is dead”. They have always hedged criticism of their extremist religio-ethnic politics by citing Tamil communalism, and thus have been able to keep the ember of nationalism alive. This explains why The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), the main proponent of a separate homeland for the minority Tamils, have put the monks on their hit-list. When the Tamil politicians shifted their position from “cooperation with the majority for survival to separatism”,the Buddhist monks became a force to reckon with.
Immediately after the 1983 pogrom, the LTTE overseas propaganda used terse lines such as “Sunday sil (Buddhist ritual), Monday kill” to indicate the sinister hand of the Buddhist priests in Sri Lanka´s ethno-nationalism. Tamil separatists have always associated Buddhism with what they call the genocidal programme of the Sinhala state. And the monks have been branded as “prophets of violence”. Tamil separatism, therefore, has to fight two battles: one with the armed forces of Chandrika Kumaratunga´s government and the other with the Buddhist clergy who provide the ideological engine to the Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian-unitarian state.
The Buddhist monks, on their part, assert their legitimacy by harking back to the pre-colonial past. As custodians of the Dhamma, they claim to have had a political mandate when Sri Lanka was under monarchic rule. They played the role of consultants to the monarch. With the arrival of the colonial powers, the religious and political clout of the monks eroded. However, after Independence, the politicians realised the political value of the monk. Thus we saw for the first time monks being reinstated and politicised under the catchy election slogan of prime minister Bandaranaike: “Pancha Maha Balavegaya” (the five great forces). He lists the Sangha–the monks–as the first great force that would determine the progress of the country.
The Buddhist clergy´s mediation in interpreting the Sinhala race, Buddhism and the State, has provided the teeth to several other nationalist movements in the country. Since Kumaratunga´s government came to power in 1994, at least three Sinhala nationalist movements have sprouted: The National Movement Against Terrorism (NMAT), the Veeravidhana, and the Sinhala Urumaya (which is now a registered political party). Much earlier, movements such as Bhumiputhra and Jathika Chinthanaya emerged carrying the baggage of extreme Sinhala nationalism. Despite being ridiculed and derided, they still linger on spreading their views through the local media.
Roughly, the Sinhala political ideology runs like this: the country´s political order should ensure a Sinhala majoritarian rule; the nature of the state should be unitary; Buddhism should be officially recognised by the Constitution; the Buddhist clergy must be allowed to play a vital role in the running of the state; Sinhala language should enjoy primacy of place; and that Sri Lanka is not a pluralist society.
According to this, there is nothing called a Tamil ethnic problem, it is a hoax; Sri Lanka has only a terrorist problem created by the LTTE. The solution is a military campaign by the government. Historically, the argument goes, Sinhalese have suffered much more than the Tamils and the government should address their grievances first. Interestingly, when the Sihala Urumaya had to select a party symbol out of four choices, they opted for the ´primitive´ bow and arrow. The quip is that their political ideas are as primitive as their symbol.
These groups also echo the atavistic fear of losing the Sinhala nation to the Tamil invader the ´traditional enemy´ of the Sinhala race. Sinhalese, they say, have no other country, whereas Tamils have Tamil Nadu. And further, the Sinhalese led by Buddhist monks protected Theravada Buddhism when it got wiped out in India, and though the Sinhala language derives from Sanskrit, it is only found in Sri Lanka; Tamils, therefore, are here in sufferance. Any talk of federalism, devolution or power-sharing are merely propaganda for Tamil Eelam, and every Tamil is an LTTE sympathiser. Thus any attempt by the government to re-do the unitary constitution should be stopped.
They say that there´s a whole array of conspirators out to destroy the Sinhala Buddhist nation, which include the LTTE, the foreign missions in Sri Lanka, the Catholic church, UN organisations, NGOs, the World Bank, and the IMF. As for foreign mediation, the contention is that it is just a way of perpetuating neo-colonialism. Ironically, these groups have been re¬producing the same old nationalistic logic despite several attempts in the past by majority Sinhala political parties to recognise Tamil grievances in the areas of franchise, citizenship, official language, education, employment, land development, colonisation, economic development, security, and even devolution.
The recent protest against the government´s devolution proposal, which was presented to Parliament as a Bill clearly signifies the thorny path that has to be tread towards the goal of state-building in Sri Lanka. Except for one party, namely the EPDP (Eelam People´s Democratic Party), all other Tamil political parties have rejected the draft constitution. The LITE rejected the proposal outright, and the moderate TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) said it lacked a true federal structure and insisted on the involvement of the LTTE in the negotiation process.
While the Tamil political parties are trying to persuade the government to grant more concessions for the Tamils, the Sinhala nationalist groups are demanding that it should not budge from the position of a Sinhala-Buddhist unitary state. It is clear that the LTTE and the Sinhala nationalist movements led by the Buddhist clergy will remain the most crucial factors in the whole process of constitution-building in this island where an 18-year old war has killed more than 55,000 people.
— Brian Jeganathan is a Colomb-based journalist and freelance researcher.