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

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Publication Date: January 2007

Publisher(s): East-West Center Washington

Author(s): Neil DeVotta

Series: East-West Center (Washington, D.C.). Policy studies ; 40

Topic: Culture and religion (Multiculturalism and cultural relations)
Politics (Nationalism)

Type: Report

Coverage: Sri Lanka

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.