Tamils have Tamil Nadu Muslims have Arabia, Christians have the West, we Sinhala Buddhists only have this little island


I’m sure you have heard a version of it at some point in your life. No? Lucky you. Growing up I used to hear its variations of this sentiment about as frequently as bomb blast during the war years. Not very often. Just enough to stay in the mind. Thankfully voiced by non immediate family members. Though my Jaffna relative, without a hint of irony, warned us kids to preserve the purity of the Sinhala race by never marrying those “dut-ti Tamils”.

It’s a nasty reminder of the power of colonial era ethnic/cultural/religious divisions. Yes, there’s a “Sri Lankan” identity. It gets trotted out during international cricket. Rest of the time we are a worm pile of labels and suspicions.

For decades we never really wanted to deal with that reality.  Now its impossible to ignore and is feeding a greater evil. This can’t go on. Irrespective of history, it is a toxic way to live. I feel its slowly killing us all. As history has shown, it only serves the politicians.

All my life I have heard the sentiments of the title. From a disconcerting sampling of society. Consultant medical types. A driver holding forth to his fellows outside a tuition class. A mathematics teacher aghast at how “those Tamils” are learning Sinhala. She seemed to imply some sort of “takeover” was underway. From Old Girls Association aunties grumbling about minorities creeping into “good Colombo Buddhist” schools. Domestics gossiping down the lane. From orange sheeted skinheads who are neither the Buddhists nor the monks they claim to be. The list goes on.

Irrespective of the speaker, there was never any immediate disagreement from its Sinhala audience. The shrillness of such talk made disagreement an act of ethnic treason. You either proudly declared your agreement or nodded submissively before changing the subject to something pleasant. An aversion to politics seemed an acceptable excuse.

Most of such sentiments ride on a familiar sense of imminent ethnic annihilation in Sinhala culture. A fear built on historical and demographic fact. A few are selectively emphasised (as with most talk of histories and politics). Their nuances get blurred through repetition. A sense of grievance rises as the shrill dominant emotion. All adding to a sense of paranoia. Of cracks in the dam, writing on the wall and other signs of oozing apocalypse.

The threat of ethnic doom is drilled into you at school. It starts with the golden ages of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Templates for the ideal Sri Lanka. Ruled with stern fatherliness by benevolent kings. Whose absolute power is blessed by a pious religious establishment. A time pictured in vast irrigation works. On whose waters dance reflections of stunning stupas (not kovils, mosques or churches). Surrounded by endless fields of paddy signifying self sufficiency in rice and independence of the outside world.

These utopias are shown getting pounded south by the regular invasions of Cholas and Pandyas (unsubtle proxies for Tamils). The counter punches of heroic kings ultimately futile. Thus the “Tamil North” gets painted as a result of invasion. An foothold of the “55 million” Tamils (a frequently bandied number) just waiting to cross the palk straits and wipe “us” out. During the war years, the LTTE was the advance guard of this invasion. Now it’s anyone taking about “Tamil lands”.

Next comes the cunning greedy “West”. The brutal Parangi (Portuguese), Dutch and the insidious English. Buddhist temples destroyed. Monks slaughtered. Destruction of the Buddhist establishment hits at two implications.

  1. Removing the institution that legitimises local rulers
  2. Replacing it with a belief system that is a political/cultural assimilation tool of empire.

Christianity is shown as that belief system. Its local converts, even in the most “detached” narratives are implied as traitors. Selling out their Rata, Jaythiya, Argama (country, race, religion) for perks below their station.

The notion lingers today. Predatory Catholics are supposedly out to bag Buddhists through “love marriages” and baptise the children. The evangelicals buy converts with their dollars.

By this time the “discussion” implies a numbers game. A brutal matter of who out breeds who. Typically I heard this in mutterings about family planning as a plot to thin the Sinhala herd. While the Muslims in particular are patau gahanawa – having multiple children as if by the litter.

The inevitable next topic is what to do. Its conclusion: “protections” for the majority. Or else get snuffed out. The national flag offers a model for this mindset. The minorities kept in their place. By the roaring lion of aggressive ethnocentrism and the sword of the state. If the minorities even increase slightly, “they” will start to “take” parts of the country. “Look at how Wallawatte has become a little Eelam” was considered the final say in the matter.

Descriptions of these “protections” I have heard tend to be of privileges. Cultural ones to puff the ego. Legal ones to make the bully feel powerful. Economic ones (supposedly for the “common” Sinhalaya) but in reality, ones that push the crony net work up a notch. Translating into political power to the men who claim to be monks. Spots in “good” schools. Jobs, business opportunities etc reserved for those who go to bodhi pujas and have Sinhala names. So if you needed a heart transplant it will be the ethnicity not competence of the doctor that decides if you lived or died.

Thankfully I have never heard of anyone suggesting mass killings of “the other”. Perhaps there is some residual Buddhism managed to seep through the usual bhodi puja idolatry. Maybe it’s the stain of 1983. Most likely its the notion that getting one’s hands bloody and lugging petrol soaked tires is too low class.

Such attitudes make it is easy to dismiss all Sinhalese as a bunch of Nazis. It’s what the pro LTTE types want you to do. Or agree that such views are justified as the local Nazis claim. The reality is too complicated for a blog post.

At the root of it is a political system running on the manufactured racism from the colonial era. A system that rewards its practitioners with easy power. Far easier than coming up with sustainable economic policies. Not to mention the headache of implementing them and then being held accountable at election time for the results. Accountability is poison to political power. Which is too important to be decided by voters.

Far easier to champion the island’s master race. Offer the best protection against the “Demalas” and “Thumbiyas (Hambayas)”. It gets people excited. Makes them feel they are special without actually having to achieve anything. Feeds nicely into the physical thuggery of retail politics. Fits the implicit view of the state (personified in a leader) as a paternalistic feudal monarch. Our current rulers have pulled this off better than anyone in the past. I could go on and on. Devolving this post into attempted political analysis. Which only turns the wheel of bickering.

In the light of recent events, turning such broadly accepted perceptions into fringe beliefs, seem impossible. Its not. Just slow, complicated and very hard. How will it happen ? What will it take? I have no idea. Other than a gut level feeling that it will happen. Though I fear only after much blood and tears have flowed.

For once history offers a twisted slice of hope. It took nearly 90 years after independence and a blood civil war for U.S to formally abolish slavery. A longer time had to pass for the notion of racial equality to go main stream. All before the election of a black president. Yet after all that time, the principles of its constitution are uneven on the ground. In this context Sri Lanka with a mere 66 years as an “independent” nation has a long way to go.

How long will it take for a Sinhala majority to elect a Tamil president? Simply because he has good policies and a realistic path to implement them ? Impossible? A person in 1842 USA (66 years after their independence) would react similarly to the idea of a negro president.

Chances are neither you nor I will be around when ethnicity is not the dominant factor of life let alone politics in Sri Lanka. The change needs to happen in places untouched by solidarity rallies and blog posts. Namely in the Sinhala heartland. Which needs to find a way of making a sustainable fulfilling living. Without feeling insecure about its cultural survival.

Sound impossible no? Since fear is the ancient default political power tool, it seems so. Yet I choose to remain hopeful despite my own cynicism. Sri Lankans will eventually think of themselves as a community of humans and get along. We won’t be around to see it. I wish I knew what I could do add a drop to make that happen but I don’t. Do you?

Thank you for reading this far. Your endurance puts you among an exceptional few.

7 comments

    • Thank you🙂 the voices must be obeyed or they reduce what left of my mind to blubber.

      I think you’ll have something more concrete to add than I do.

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  1. “I wish I knew what I could do add a drop to make that happen but I don’t. Do you?”

    Well you have already started and added more than a drop.

    This is an anguished post, I feel a lot of pain and disbelief here.

    I know how you feel and it is enough to make you lose faith in your fellow man. I have heard a lot worse in the couple of years since I have been back.

    The majority seem to have their tail up and looking to bully and belittle the other groups.

    We have the highest literacy rate in south Asia, but it means nothing if people do not bother to understand their history and the political machinations that got them here. The majority still believe in a system of social and cultural demarcation that was used a hundred plus years ago and a convenient means of governing the country on behalf of a foreign monarch.

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  2. Bloody good stuff. but as always this message must go out in SINHALA. the mindset has to change in the boonies!!

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    • Thank you🙂 thrilled you like the post.

      I think combatting the fear of ethnic domination will take a longer, broader approach. Similar to combatting the insane ways sex and rape are viewed in Sri Lanka.
      It can’t be too explicit. Specially on social media. There’s a large powerful local right wing political elite that depends on this kind of thinking to justify their right to rule as “protecting” the “Sinhala jathiya”. They have ingrained these beliefs as part of the “normal” way of thinking. They have an incentive to propagating such views. Getting human empathy to cut through such offical myths is hard. I think if it happens in tandem with economic mobility and less dependency on state patronage, change could happen in a generation.

      Sort of like marriage equality in Ireland. Or the end of legal segregation in the US. Changing how history is taught in rural schools will be a powerful key. What ever the case it will be a long slog. Hopefully our grand children will see the fruits of it.

      Even then there will be racism. At least it will be a fringe belief and not a basis of “mainstream” attitudes.

      Like

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