Buddhism, Nationalism and Politics

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

On 4 February 2008, Sri Lanka will be in the 60th year of independence. Although the Government will celebrate the day pompously, the people carrying the burden of the internal war and the high cost of living will have little cause to rejoice. Politicians, particularly those who have benefited tangibly and those anxious to seek power that could be easily abused under the system introduced to serve the self-interests of the power holders will brag about the past achievements and deceptively highlight some positives expected in the near future. Since the time self-governing power was acquired without much struggle, thanks to the non-violent struggle in India for independence under Mahatma Gandhi’s guidance, the main interest of the leaders of the island’s major political parties has been on matters useful for gaining this power. The perpetual contest for power had been at the cost of ignoring national unity, peace and development. It is the sovereign power of the people in all regions and communities exercised irresponsibly by the elected representatives who failed to observe their obligations to the voters, the society and the country that resulted in the loss of unity, peace and indeed the concept of one multi-ethnic Nation. The challenge now is to find sensible ways to regain the lost Nation and ensure it remains united and full of hope for all the communities. One thing that has become increasingly certain is that this cannot be accomplished left solely to the politicians.

[Adams Peak]

Nation lost after independence

Instead of focusing on nation building and balanced development of the regions which would have made the multi-ethnic country increasingly united, politically stable and economically strong, considerable time and effort were spent on fighting for power. The ethnic factor was made an issue and exploited by the power seekers. The decisions and actions taken by the power greedy political leaders over the past five decades resulted in the loss of the common national identity-Ceylonese-that all citizens regardless of their ethnic, religious and regional affiliations proudly embraced at the time of independence and the next few years. Ceylon was a peaceful prospering Nation, a shining star that many newly independent countries wanted to emulate. Now, Sri Lanka is just a state that is in conflict with itself.

Ethnic identity has acquired importance in the daily lives of citizens, because of the sustained divisive politics of the parties competing for dominance. There are many common features in both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities that could have been harnessed to build a robust nation (Footnote 1). The success of intermarriages is due to mutual understanding, love, trust, concerns and interests of the partners. This kind of partnership is lacking at the national level. Politics in Sri Lanka has often ignored common national interest, the focus being mainly on short-term political interests.

The conditions for promoting unity in the multi-ethnic society and a liberal outlook among the youth existed after independence. The importance of equipping the youth to meet the challenges of the post colonial world, giving them the ability to interrelate with the outside world was overlooked and parochial isolationist policies were introduced. Many decisions were made that were neither beneficial to the people nor to the entire country. The costly mistake of abolishing English in schools and universities and teaching all subjects in the mother tongue of the students was realized several years later. Even after accepting both Sinhalese and Tamil as official languages and English as the link language, no determined effort was made to implement the amended language policy. It is this conscious neglect in many key areas that has contributed to the intense mistrust of the minority Tamils in the unitary or majoritarian system of government.

Loyalty and devotion to the nation were assumed by the Sinhalese leaders to be present only in their community. This was certainly not the case at the time of independence. There was no valid reason to suspect the allegiance of the Tamil speaking people to Ceylon especially when Tamil leaders were in the forefront, campaigning for the country’s independence. They demanded freedom for the entire population-Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers. But after independence the Sinhalese nationalistic leaders thought of empowering the powerless Sinhalese by divesting the Tamils of the rights and opportunities they had at the time of independence. Sadly, this led to the ethnic majority-minority division with the Sinhala majority assuming innately a superior status. The Sinhala supremacists believe the rule of the Sinhalese should prevail throughout the island and the welfare of the ethnic minority communities depend on their goodwill.

The unitary structure is essential for ensuring this dependency. The problem here is the past record of unfulfilled promises and even declared official policies and approved legislations makes it difficult for the ethnic minorities to depend solely on this goodwill. When the Tamil people rejected federal and supported unitary system during the early years of independence they expected a fairly balanced and not majoritarian rule as it turned out to be later on. The case for a devolved political structure arises from the failure of the unitary structure to buttress and strengthen the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural character of the Sri Lankan polity. It is through the fostering of plurality and diversity in an accommodative national environment that unity and lasting peace can be realized.


The present Constitution has given the foremost place to Buddhism and the State is duty bound to protect and foster it. But its principles did not guide the powerful leaders in deciding matters relevant to human rights, justice, unity and peace in the blessed island. Buddhism and Hinduism with same roots have coexisted in the island for centuries. Lord Buddha himself was a Hindu prince who introduced certain concepts to make religious beliefs to be in harmony with the devotee’s own conscience. He gave more emphasis to ethics than to myths and mere worship of the statues of various deities. Meditation plays an important role in attaining the mental state to decide or act according to one’s conscience. Obviously, this is not the way of thinking of majority of politicians. Politics is said to be the art of the possible. But what is possible should not be against moral principles, in other words own conscience of the decision maker. There are three practices that help to make the right decisions in harmony with the teachings of Lord Buddha. Sila-virtue, good conduct, morality-is based on the principle of (i) equality: that all living entities are equal; and (ii) reciprocity: to do onto others as you would wish them do onto you. Samadhi is: Concentration, Meditation, Mental development. Prajna is: Discernment, insight, wisdom, enlightenment.

Buddhist prelates belonging to both the Theravada sect and the Mahayana sect met in Sri Lanka in 1966 and approved, inter alia, that ‘the purpose of life is to develop compassion for all living beings without prejudice and to work for their good, happiness, and peace. (Footnote 2) One fundamental belief of Buddhism is the concept that people are reborn and a Sinhalese now can be a Tamil in the next birth and vice versa. Hindus too believe in reincarnation. What is striking in the small island is the continued existence of ancient Hindu temples in five different locations in the East, North, South and West dedicated to God Siva (Footnote 3). These are: Nuguleswaram Kovil-North; Ketheeswaram Kovil-North West; Koneswaram Kovil-East; Munneswaram-West; and Tondeswaram-South.

Buddhists too visit many other Hindu holy sites for veneration Kathiragama or Kathirgamam is one such place revered by both Buddhists and Hindus. Sri Patha or Sivanoli Patham also known as Adam’s Peak is sacred to both Sinhala Buddhists and Hindu Tamils. There are many holy days in a year common to both Buddhists and Hindus. The first full moon in the calendar year is Duruthu Full Moon Poya for Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Thai Poosam for the Hindus. Both observe the same day in April as the dawn of the New Year. Besides this religious link, there are some common social customs.

[Ganesh idol at the foot of Dell House, which leads to Adams Peak, Pics by: Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai]

Ven. Dr. Walpola Piyananda, Chief Nayake Thera of America recently said both sides have made mistakes in the past. “Let us learn from these errors in action. These misdeeds are a part of our history. We cannot undo them, even though some scholars try their best to re-write history; but we can pay attention to it and learn its lessons”. He appealed to all political factions to “accept the reality of living in the present. Here in the present, where life really takes place, we all have the opportunity of creating a better future based on our ability to let go of the past.” He declared that this is the only way to move forward. (The Island 9 January 2008) An international summit of religious leaders for promoting peace building was held in Jaffna last November. Such occasional appeals have fallen on deaf ears. A concerted effort by the Buddhist prelates is needed to bring about the much needed change in attitudes.

The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the political party led by Buddhist monks entered Parliament claiming to cleanse democratic politics that had become increasingly meaningless to the masses and incapable of resolving national issues. Ironically, the political Buddhist monks have not only failed miserably but also discredited the noble role expected of them in serving the society. The political monks remained unmoved, while corruption, human rights violations, abductions and killings with impunity and intimidation to silence dissent in the media were rising. The culture of violence with impunity is a serious threat to the Buddhist way of life.

In a stimulating article in ‘The Island’ 25 January 2008, Jayatissa Perera has drawn attention to the difference between rumours, legends and beliefs. Unlike rumours, legends are not transitory. They exist even after known to be unreal, because unlike rumours which are spread by word of mouth, legends are written down. Ancient history is mostly legend. “Sri Lankans still think that a man called Vijaya came from India and established his kingdom here”. The legend, unlike the rumour, is planted firmly in the consciousness of believers and no amount of verification will erase it. History is mostly legend. Text books on the island’s history have done a lot of damage to the unity of the country and the trust needed for building a united nation. Beliefs should not come from legends but on verified facts or morals preached by great spiritual leaders who wanted humanity and peace on earth. Some years ago there was a move to remove history from the school curriculum so as not to prejudice young minds with racial hatred and distrust. It is worth giving further thought to this move. Religion should serve to instill beliefs that promote equality, justice and respect for life. There is now the feeling that misguided beliefs are replacing religions. In Sri Lanka it is the former that are influencing political thoughts.


When majority decisions do not reflect the interests, concerns and aspirations of ethnic minorities who are intrinsic part of the society, internal conflicts are bound to arise. And if these remain unresolved for a long time the break-up of the nation is inevitable. This is precisely what happened in Sri Lanka. Democracy taken simply to mean majority rule in a multi-ethnic country with the regions having diverse demographic features, becomes meaningless to the minorities left out of the decision-making processes. Moreover, democracy is regarded by the ethnic majority merely as a legitimate way to acquire and exercise power. Corruption, nepotism and abuse of power for personal or political gain add to the disillusion of the poor in the ethnic majority community too. Those who oppose devolution of powers to the ethnic minorities or any power-sharing arrangement are really not embracing democracy. The former Soviet Union disintegrated because the centralized system of government denied freedom to the people in the different states.

It is the participation of all citizens through their elected representatives in decision-making processes that fundamentally distinguishes democracy from dictatorship. Politicization of government or semi-government institutions that serve directly or indirectly the people also undermines democracy. These are mentioned here to draw attention to the weaknesses in the decision-making processes under the existing system.

The lack of interest of the government to set up the Constitutional Council as per the 17th Amendment to the Constitution also reflects the low priority given to matters important for strengthening democracy. The country needs good governance now as never before and this is the objective of the 17th Amendment (Footnote 4). Politicians in Sri Lanka have usurped the sovereign power of the people through the electoral process (free and fair elections that underpin democracy existed throughout the country only until 1977) and used it to meet their individual and party’s needs. The political culture that has evolved since independence is such that there is no enthusiasm to implement the 17th Amendment. The rare consensus of all the parties at the time of approving the Amendment Bill was mainly because no party wished to be seen then as irresponsible and unconcerned about improving the system of governance by the electorate.

Free media is intrinsic to democracy. The recent violent attacks on print and electronic media personnel and the questionable methods taken by the authorities to arrest the real culprits have also weakened democracy. With these negative developments, how can one say democracy is thriving in Sri Lanka?

Resurgence of Sinhala nationalism

A study of the factors that influenced decisions on matters of great importance to the future welfare of the country and the people or even their procrastination will reveal the risky games played by the political parties. The focus was on dealing with current political exigencies and defeating the main opponent. The culture of confrontational politics has been the bane of Sri Lanka since independence.

Because of Sinhala nationalism hoisted by the JVP and JHU – a political party led by Buddhist monks, the government is increasingly sensitive to their nationalistic views on ethnic issues than to the legitimate grievances of the ethnic minorities. The failure of past governments to address effectively their causes culminated in the demand for separation by Tamil nationalists. The country also incurred enormous losses because of the violent uprising and slow pace of economic development. These are unimportant to the ultra nationalists. Their influence in decision making was seen from the time of the forced abrogation of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact. And now with the revival of Sinhala nationalism following the victory of President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the November 2005 Presidential election with the support of the nationalists, the same old pattern of obstructing any political settlement of the ethnic problem based on equitable power-sharing arrangement has re-emerged. Ironically, separatism has received a boost as a result of recent developments. Terrorism may be eliminated but not separatism, unless some significant changes are made to the present governing system.

All Party Representative Committee (APRC) process

The government’s own political concerns and interests in decision making is quite apparent from the conflicting moves of President Mahinda Rajapaksa since 2006, when he announced he was seeking a ‘home grown’ political formula to settle the ethnic conflict. This was a clear message to the international community to keep out of the internal political process. He set up the APC, the APRC and the Expert Panel to assist the latter in its assigned task of recommending suitable proposals for conflict resolution through constitutional reform. The majority report of the experts from all three ethnic communities was balanced and the proposed changes focused on removing the causes of the conflict and securing lasting unity and peace. But these were not acceptable to the President and the Sinhala nationalists. The chairman of the APRC, Prof. Tissa Vitharana, who is also a government Minister then presented another report that took into account some recommendations in the minority report of the Expert Panel. This too was rejected by the President, who as leader of the SLFP guided the members in drafting the party’s recommendations to the APRC. These wee based on the prevailing unitary system and district as the unit of devolution and were widely dismissed as not useful for resolving the ethnic problem. There was also resentment within the coalition government.

The APRC after 63 sittings over a period of 18 months was in the process of finalizing its report on constitutional reform, when the President instructed the Committee to submit a set of proposals for implementing the 13th Amendment. According to independent media reports even the original proposals for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment were pruned to tally with his preferences. The watered down APRC report presented on January 23 to the President has evoked mixed feelings. Public statements and comments on the proposals have compounded the confusion.

Lal Wijenayake of the LSSP was highly critical of the way the painstaking work of the APRC was undermined by the President persuading the APRC chairman to submit the desired proposals as those of the Committee. He is reported to have said: “The whole exercise is a deceit enacted to mislead the masses and the international community. This deceit will only aggravate the crisis and will not in anyway help to overcome the crisis. This will further alienate the minorities from the Government. The international community will lose whatever faith it has on the ability of the Government to find a political solution.” Batty Weerakoon another LSSPer has also expressed similar views. To quote: “To say that the proposed exercise is an attempt to implement the 13th Amendment is a cynical misrepresentation.” (Sunday Island 27 January 2008)

Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, Secretary General, Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (the process that vanished long time ago) on 28 January 2008 released his report titled ‘Negative Criticisms of the APRC Proposals’. As mentioned earlier, these are not the Committee’s proposals but those considered by the President to be desirable at the present juncture. Second the main opposition parties-the UNP, JVP and TNA did not participate in the APRC meetings for various reasons. Hence there is no consensus across the political divide. The smart Professor has rejected the negative criticisms because these are mostly based on “ignorance and illogicality, and is symptomatic of a general tendency to look at matters in a negative frame of mind”! The main focus in this paper is on the process that resulted in the submission of this contentious report by the APRC Chairman on January 23. This is a major concern to all who want a permanent political settlement in united Sri Lanka that will enable future generations of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims to co-exist in a congenial environment as equal citizens of one nation.

The doubts about the proposed implementation of the 13th Amendment as a first step towards conflict resolution stem from the following. The first step is decided before the release of the complete set of final proposals of the APRC. The two phrases ‘full implementation of 13th Amendment’ and ‘maximum devolution’ under the 13th Amendment are misleading. The 13th Amendment for implementation by the present government is without the temporary merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces and the devolved powers over finances, police, education and land. As it is there is no provision to prevent the center depriving funds to the PCs just because a Provincial Council is considered politically awkward. The APRC report also recommends the implementation of the language provisions in the Constitution to enable the Tamil speaking people to exercise their lawful right. Surely, an all-party consensus is not required for this administrative decision. Even to implement an Article in the Constitution relevant to the ethnic minorities, if consensus of all the parties is needed what confidence can the minorities have in any decision made as the first step to a final settlement?

Clause 3.4 relating to the setting up of Interim (Advisory) Council to aid and advise the Governor in the exercise of his executive powers until Provincial Council elections are held in the North has been abandoned days after the Report was hailed as a crucial first step towards final political settlement. At the January 30 Cabinet meeting, it was decided to appoint a cabinet sub-committee, headed by the Prime Minister, to seek out ‘ways and means’ of implementing the 13th Amendment as indicated in the APRC Report. This committee comprises the leaders of the political parties that are in the ruling coalition. The JHU and MEP leaders who are also government ministers (although the JVP not a coalition partner has some influence) will be in the committee deciding on the ‘ways and means’. The setting up of committees to avoid direct action by the Executive has been the standard practice. This approach serves to give the impression that any contentious matter is being pursued and not abandoned completely. The dilemma is due to several factors. A critical one is the system bestowed by the 1978 Constitution with little chance for any single party to form a government with absolute majority in the Parliament. The system itself has been weakened by excessive political interference and malpractices.

The Sinhala nationalist parties are against the 13th Amendment. The JVP’s argument is that it was forced under the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord and not the result of independent decision by the Sri Lankan polity. The party also holds the position that Provincial Councils with substantial devolved powers would help the separatists in the north and east to strengthen their position. Paradoxically, the JVP has its own elected members in the PCs established under the same Accord. The JHU is also against the 13th Amendment in principle, but for the present supports the President’s proposals for selective devolution of power in view of the need to protect the government from further alienation by the international community. India does not want the Sri Lankan government to be completely out of external influence on the ethnic issue. Hence, New Delhi’s tactical support to the ‘first step’ of Colombo towards a political settlement. India’s abiding interest on the political settlement of the ethnic problem developed after the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom when thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils started seeking refuge in Tamil Nadu. Sinhala nationalists have expressed concern about India’s renewed interest.

What the President and his Sinhala patriotic allies have done is to open another glaring split in the Sri Lankan polity. The divide between the moderates and nationalists is now another threat to the future of the island nation. What remains of the democratic socialist Republic will vanish soon if peace is imposed deceptively, without the political changes needed to unite the divided nation. Nation building has to be on a solid foundation.
In conclusion

Lord Buddha has shown the sensible way to resolve conflicts in our present lives. The following excerpts from: ‘Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society’ (1992) by Sulak Sivaraksa, Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, seem appropriate here.

“The first step in the art of conflict resolution is to regard conflict as an opportunity and to look for skillful means (upaya) to apply appropriately. Generally, when people think about conflict, they believe that there are only three possible outcomes: victory, defeat, or compromise. From the Buddhist point of view, the end result is less important than the way we work with it”.

“In conflict situations, nonviolence is the desired end as well as the means to achieve it. The Buddhist approach to conflict resolution requires concentration and the practice of mindfulness. When we make nonviolence a part of our daily lives, we water the seeds of a nonviolent society”.

Buddhism has always professed to offer a ‘middle way’ in resolving dilemmas we face in this world. The key to the resolution of our national problem also lies in discovering the arrangement that best exemplifies the middle way. The middle way is not a compromise between the extremes but a way that rises above them, avoiding the potential disasters into which the extremes lead.



1) According to Prof. H. L. Seneviratne Sinhalese and Tamil speaking people come from the same ethnic and linguistic roots. He has reminded the Sinhala Buddhists that Buddhism prevailed in South India for centuries after it was forsaken in the North. About half the Sinhala aristocracy signed the Kandyan Convention in Tamil. A significant proportion of the inhabitants of the southwestern seaboard are descendents of Tamil Hindus who arrived in the island during the Dutch era. There is a fishing community in the Negambo area which speaks Tamil at night and Sinhalese in broad daylight. “Names we now consider Sinhala, like Kodippili, Samarappili, Samarakkodi, Kuruppu, Samaradivakara, Samarasinghe, and many more are Malayalam, a language close to Tamil, and Ileperuma, Mannapperuma, Pullaperuma, Ponnamperuma, Alahakone, Ilangakone, Ilangasinghe and many more are Tamil. A particularly interesting example is Kumaranatunga, where the “na” after “ra” reveals its Tamil origin, with the Tamil “n” Sinhalaised as “na”, and the name as a whole Sinhalised by dropping that “na” altogether. Names like Kumara(na)tunga and Kulatunga, though of Sanskrit origin have come to us via Tamil. “Fernandopulle” presents an even more interesting and creative blend, combining as it does Portuguese and Tamil”. (His interesting observations are in his two articles in ‘The Island’ of 13 and 21 January 2008.)

Incidentally, Prof H. L. Seneviratne’s comment on the resemblance of Sinhala and Tamil words also applies to names of many places in Sri Lanka. For example Ampara and Amparai; Tambalagama and Tambalagamam; Yapana and Yalpanam refer to the same areas. Weli Oya and Manal Aru have the same meaning.

2) The following ‘Basic points unifying the Theravada and Mahayana’ were approved by the Buddhist prelates of both sects in 1966:-Buddha is our only Master.-We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. – This world is not created and ruled by a God. – The purpose of life is to develop empathy for all living beings without prejudice and to work for their good, happiness, and peace. Last but not the least; we need acquire acumen that will lead to the realization of Ultimate Truth. – We accept the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism – All accustomed things (samskaara) are transient (anitya) and dukkha and all conditioned and unconditioned things (dharma) are without self (anaatma). – The Thirty-seven qualities helpful in Enlightenment are different aspects of the path taught by the Buddha. – There are three ways of attaining Enlightenment, namely as a Disciple, as a Pratyeka-Buddha and as a Samyak-sam-Buddha. The life of a Bodhisattva, who is striving to become a Samyak-sam-Buddha, is the highest, noblest and the most heroic. – The different Buddhist beliefs, practices, rites and ceremonies, customs and habits followed in different countries should not be confused with the essential teachings of Buddha.

3) Panchamee Hewavissenti in Sunday Observer 13 January 2008 – In ‘five corners’ of the island Historical Hindu temples of Lord Siva.

Nuguleswaram temple (Keerimalai Kovil) is located in Northern part of Jaffna close to Kankeasanthurai. It was destroyed by Portuguese and reconstructed after four hundred years in about 1894 C.E. It was reconstructed again after destroyed again by fire in 1918. Munneswaram Kovil is situated in Chilaw in the Puttalam District. Many Sinhala Buddhist devotees go on pilgrimage to this temple. This temple is mentioned in the Kokila Sandeshaya during the time of the Sinhala King Parakramabahu VI in Kotte. It was also destroyed by the Portuguese completely in 1578 and reconstructed in 1875. Improvements were done again in 1919 and in 1963. Koneswaram temple also known as Thirukoneswaram is located in Trincomalee town. This temple is believed to have been a major religious shrine even before the arrival of Prince Wijaya, 2500 years ago. Tondeswaram Kovil is situated in Galle town in Dondra head, which is also known as Dewinuwara located in a Sinhalese Buddhist oriented area, an important port in medieval time. After the destruction by the Portuguese, it was rebuilt by the locals. Devoted later to God Vishnu, it is now worshipped mostly by Buddhists. Katheeswaram – Temple is situated 7 miles away from the Mannar town. The history of this temple goes back to 2,500 years in the history. This was also destroyed by the Portuguese in their campaign to exterminate Hindu and Buddhist temples. It was renovated again in 1976.

4) No person shall be appointed by the President as the Chairman or a member of – (a) The Election Commission; (b) The Public Service Commission; (c) The National Police Commission; (d) The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka; (e) The Permanent Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption; (f) The Finance Commission; and (g) The Delimitation Commission – except on a recommendation of the Council

No person shall be appointed by the President to any of the following offices:

(a) The Chief Justice and the Judges of the Supreme Court;

(b) The President and the Judges of the Court of Appeal;

(c) The Members of the Judicial Service Commission;

(d) The Attorney-General;

(e) The Auditor-General;

(f) The Inspector-General of Police;

(g) The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Ombudsman); and

(h) The Secretary General of Parliament – unless such appointment has been approved by the Council on a recommendation

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]

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