Sinhalese-Tamil Ethnic Nationalism In Real Terms

Sinhalese-Tamil Ethnic Nationalism In Real Terms

By Daya Gamage –



There is a tendency among academics and others commenting on the separatist war in Sri Lanka to see Tamil nationalism as largely a function of inter-ethnic relations and majoritarian politics within the confines of the island.  In this view, a Tamil ethno-political identity was engendered and amplified in the post-colonial era by discrimination and persecution by the majority community, which is commonly depicted as being driven by a domineering, exclusivist nationalism. 

Scholar Neil DeVotta in his “Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology: Implications for Politics and Conflict Resolution in Sri Lanka,” explained in 2007, during the brutal end-game of the war, the roots of the conflict lay in a supremacist ideology based on an ethnic identity that is inextricably fused with Buddhism : 

“. . . Political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism have created the nationalist ideology currently prevalent in government and in the predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist society.  Adherents to this nationalist ideology insist on expanding and perpetuating Sinhalese-Buddhist supremacy within a unitary state; creating rules, laws, and structures that institutionalize such supremacy; and attacking those who disagree with this agenda.  For those who have bought into it, this ideology is sacrosanct and hence non-negotiable. . . Although such dogmatism may promote political participation, . . . it undermines civil society and fosters illiberalism.”

One problem with this line of analysis is that it often veers into a kind of reductionism that seeks the roots of nationalism and exclusivist aggression within the history and doctrines of religion rather than in social structure, competing economic and political interests, and the architecture of the state. 

Tamil writers, in particular, tend to blame Tamil rejection of a unified Sri Lankan state on “Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism.” As the respected Tamil academic Ratnajeevan Hoole has expressed it, “The focus on minorities as the agents of secession is . . . misplaced. The principal threat to the unity of the nation is the chauvinism of the majority.” One does not have to defend Sinhalese nationalism to understand that it is a product, at least in part, of the historic memory of centuries of existential threats from larger and more powerful Hindu polities from just across the Palk Strait. Some recent writers have been critical of Sinhalese nationalism for vaunting Sri Lankan sovereignty and unity, but many nations would consider these to be fundamental and legitimate pillars of patriotism. Other scholars recognize that both Hindu and Buddhist nationalisms have been reactive, i.e., both developed as defensive shields against perceived threats from the other.   

This more aggressive interpretation of Buddhist doctrine is not shared by most Sri Lankan Buddhists. By way of comparison, the Sri Lankan government does not enforce institutionalized systems of discrimination and human rights abuses against any of its ethnic minorities the way the Israeli government does toward its Arab citizens, especially in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Despite decades of ethnic conflict, there have been no calls in Sri Lanka for the kind of ethnic cleansing of Tamil-majority areas that has been carried out by Buddhist-majority Bhutan against Nepali ethnics and Myanmar against Muslim Rohingyas. Nor has the Sinhala-majority state subjected its Tamil-majority provinces to the kind of military occupation and repression that India has instituted in Muslim-majority Kashmir.  In Pakistan, security forces have been free for years to use kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial killing to suppress defenders, real or imagined, of the rights of the Baloch people. And, despite centuries of Tamil-Sinhalese co-existence in Sri Lanka, Tamils there have not suffered the long-term pressures for cultural assimilation that the government of Thailand has applied to its minority hill tribes, ethnic language communities and Muslims. 

Nearly 50 percent of Sri Lanka’s Tamils live in Sinhalese-majority districts in the south, where they own property and carry out their occupations peacefully. Statistics show that Sri Lankan Tamils constitute 29 percent of residents in the Colombo Municipal Area, where they enjoy all the facilities and advantages of urban dwellers. In the greater Colombo area, both Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils own some three-quarters of the retail shops and small businesses and have nearly controlling interests in the import-export trades.  Tamils of Indian Origin constitute around 2 percent of the capital area, and Muslims nearly 24 percent. After the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, when blood banks appealed for blood donations—mostly to treat Tamil victims—close to 90 percent of those who volunteered to donate were Sinhalese. During the war, the Sinhalese community as a whole was almost unbelievably restrained, not reacting vindictively when LTTE terrorists penetrated the South, murdered Buddhist monks and villagers, massacred 146 pilgrims, and attacked several busloads of school children and the most sacred Buddhist shrine in the country, the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.  Although not often mentioned, it is remarkable that there have been no anti-Tamil riots since 1983.  And despite the anti-minority rhetoric of Sinhalese hardliners, Sri Lanka has not suffered from the kind of institutionalized racism that in the United States led to the attempted genocide of indigenous Americans, the murder of Hispanic immigrants, and centuries of violent enslavement, segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans. Sri Lankan police do not shoot Tamil civilians to death with the same regularity that U.S. police shoot unarmed American Blacks.

The Sinhalese population as a whole did not feel threatened even when the fighting in the North and East led to an exodus of Tamils (now numbering 50 percent of the total community) into southern Sinhalese-majority districts. Because of this religious self-confidence among Buddhists, radical Sinhalese nationalists, who inveigh against alleged threats from Hindus, Christians and Muslims, have not achieved wide political traction in Sri Lanka.

Post-colonial Sinhalese politicians did much to shake Tamil confidence in the fairness of the democratic system, but Tamil nationalists were predisposed even before independence to abandon a unified Sri Lankan state in favor of separation and even merger with their co-ethnics in India.  A leading Tamil legislator, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam declared in the first parliament in September 1947 (some five months before independence) that “If Ceylon is fighting to secede from the British Empire, why should not the Tamil people if they feel like it, secede from the rest of the country,” documented in 111 Hansard, Official Parliamentary Record, November 26, 1947, column 232. This represented the beginning of the vicious cycle of action and over-reaction that has bedeviled ethnic relations and Sri Lankan national politics since independence.  Tamil elites, unwilling to accept a diminution of the advantages they enjoyed under the British, rejected the compromises of party politics to demand devolution of power that would permit them to preserve their status and influence, at least among the Tamils. Sinhalese leaders, on the other hand, unwilling to forego the political advantages of majoritarian politics, bridled at Tamil threats of secession and refused to compromise on power sharing.

S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, rejected attempts by the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) to work with the Sinhalese parties. Chelvanayakam, impressed by the Islamic separatist and Dravidisthan movements in India, declared that Sri Lanka’s Tamils “could not wait one moment without fighting for the creation of the Tamil state.”  Spurning inter-ethnic cooperation and the “loaves of office” in a Sinhala-led government, Chelvanayakam led a group of dissidents out of the ACTC in 1949 and founded the Sri Lanka Tamil State Party (Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi), or ITAK in its Tamil acronym. Significantly, Chelvanayakam’s party gave itself the moderate-sounding English language name of the Federal Party, which suggested that it sought only Tamil self-governance within a federal system. G.G. Ponnambalam accused Chelvanayakam of “attempting to foist on the Tamil people a party whose very name shows that it was formed to deceive and mislead the people and that the terms [it uses for a Tamil homeland] connote an entity clothed with the absolute attributes of sovereignty.”

While ITAK leaders denied any such deceptive intent, the founding principle of the ITAK in 1949 made it clear that the freedom and self-respect of the “Tamil nation” could be guaranteed only through their having their “own autonomous state [with] self-government and self-determination.” This use of ambiguous language, especially in English, to define their political goals became a standard feature of Tamil separatists’ campaigns to win international support, and persisted through the last days of the LTTE. 

Two respected scholars who have done field research in Sri Lanka have described this dynamic. British historian Jane Russell, writing about the Jaffna Vellalars and their rejection of democratic politics within a unified Sri Lanka, opined that “as they were unwilling or unable to recognize the democratic rights of certain [lower-caste] members of their own linguistic-religious community, their inability to recognize the legal sanction of a democratic majority was therefore not wholly unjustified.” (Jane Russell, Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931-1947, Colombo: Tissara Publishers, 1982).

American anthropologist Brian Pfaffenberger has written about the “ancient patterns of caste and regional discrimination favoring the powerful and conservative Vellalar caste of Jaffna” and how they motivated secessionism. “While Tamil separatists by no means aim to renew the ancient forms of Vellalar predominance, it is nonetheless true that the cultural conservatism that helps to justify the separatist drive is insidiously tied to the legacy of Vellalar domination.” (Brian Pfaffenberger, The Sri Lankan Tamils: Ethnicity and Identity. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994).

It is indicative of the extent to which the activism of elite Tamils was driven more by caste privilege than inter-religious tensions that Chelvanayakam was raised and identified as a Protestant Christian.

The general election in Sri Lanka in August 2020 was an overwhelming display of majority power. An SLPP-led coalition won 145 of the 225 seats in parliament. The older of two parties representing Tamil interests, the Tamil National Alliance, won 10 seats. The Sinhalese-dominated UNP, the longest established party in the country, suffered a split over leadership and won only a single seat. This outcome appeared to be the in-built Sinhalese Nationalism among the majority Sinhalese used in a democratic fashion rather than engaged in a pogrom. The absence of anti-Tamil pogrom since 1983 was clearly reflected in the two nationwide elections in 2019 and 2020 in a different manner. The electoral results appear to have been driven by the enhancement of nationalist feeling among the Sinhalese to long advocacy of devolution, federalism and separatism, at some stage peaceful and other times brutal. It is true that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is credited with leading the defeat of the LTTE, but landslide Sinhalese support for his candidacy was a vote for that Sinhalese Nationalism rather than a show of force against the Tamils. 

What has changed fundamentally in the national landscape of Sinhalese-Tamil relations is that the divisive issue of secession has been eliminated for all practical purposes. Sri Lanka’s Tamils in the North want to reconstruct their lives rather than press for independence, and the Sinhalese do not have secessionism to fear as a minority rallying cry. 

Latest Comments
  • GATAM / May 3, 2021 4 7Strange the article leaves out Tamil Nadu which houses 90% of world Tamils!REPLY
    • old codger / May 3, 2021 4 3“Because of this religious self-confidence among Buddhists, radical Sinhalese nationalists, who inveigh against alleged threats from Hindus, Christians and Muslims, have not achieved wide political traction in Sri Lanka.”
      Really, Mr.Gamage? If they haven’t achieved “wide political traction”, who are these crackpots like Weerasekara, Kamal Gunaratne, and Jayasumana who are running the country now?
      Oh, I just realized that you don’t live here like us plebs, but prefer to inhabit the more salubrious USA.REPLY
  • soma / May 3, 2021 5 10An accurate portrayal of the ground reality since and immediately prior to the Independence.
    What is now needed is to move forward with a frank discourse on the EXISTING demographic distribution. It is time the Tamil polity realized that they can’t eat the cake and have it too. They have to acknowledge that they can’t remain ostriches anymore over the fact that +50% Tamils (Tamil speaking people) consider Sinhala Buddhist society is far more conducive for peaceful living than a Tamil only enclave notwithstanding the distant, dismal memory of 1983.
    However if the Tamil political class desires a ethnic configuration according their whims and fancies they must begin with the Tamils themselves.

  • Mallaiyuran / May 3, 2021 7 5I don’t know if Ceylon pharmacies and supermarkets have ran out of mouthwash, Lot of bad breath & foul smell.. When Rajiv came, JR’s honor guard attempted kill him. He was made a parliamentarian by Sinhalese. But the guy who honked to Chinese Defense Minister is already in the hand of CIDs. The guy, smartly avoided touching the pending war crime Accusation in Geneva and their initiation of colleting evidences. Using that weakness, Dragon is spewing fire and burning the Sinhala nation Lankawe, but this guy is playing fiddle with Zero Casualty talk. Anything he talks is utter lies.
    “Sri Lanka’s Tamils in the North want to reconstruct their lives rather than press for independence, ”
    First time, after first winning of majority seats in Tamil area, the new Avatar of Federal Party(TNA) has seen a major setbacks in 2020 election. Strong Independence advocating parties have taken a large chunk from Federal Party. ICG forecasted this trend, as early as in 2017.
    In US all states are called “States”; In India, all states are called “States”. Lankawe supreme court has given the verdict that “Federal Party’s Federalism is not separatism”. If this guy does not want to accept the court, he can have the floor next to Ranjan Ramanayake’s reserved for him.REPLY
    • Eagle Eye / May 3, 2021, 4 11Mallaiyuran,
      “Lankawe supreme court has given the verdict that “Federal Party’s Federalism is not separatism”

      The Supreme Court’s verdict ‘Federal Party’s Federalism is not separatism’ is irrelevant now. In 1976, Tamil politicians gave up Federal System and passed the Batakotte Resolution proposing to create a separate State for the descendants of Dravidians brought to Yapanaya by the Portuguese and declared war against the Sinhala Nation. Tamils massacred Sinhalayo and fought the war with Sri Lanka Armed Forces for three decades and lost.
      After losing the war, these separatists are begging Sinhalayo to give something for them instead of accepting the defeat and live with Native Sinhalayo in a Unitary State. After a war, the winner dictates the terms for the loser.REPLY
      • old codger / May 3, 2021 6 4Eagle,
        Where is this Batakotte that you keep talking about? Is it near Panaturai or Kalturai? Or is it close to Maturai?REPLY
    • GATAM / May 3, 2021, 4 4Malliuran, Your handle has an apt meaning in SL language. So what happened to the federal party? Even if you get federal the central government will be Sinhala.REPLY
  • Mallaiyuran / May 3, 2021, 9 3Though Robert Knox said Sinhalese are cursed with lower cunningness, but the misunderstands it with gifted intelligence, it was the Western researchist told that Sinhalese are Aryans.
    Jane Russell wrote her book about before freedom. Britain willingly introduced the unitary constitution to get Trinco, but at the end, it took only the Sinhala branding on the back, when its properties in Lankawe were nationalized.
    I don’t know what this guy is thinking of of him. Sinhala Buddhist’s annual celebration of pogroms were not stopped by JR, after the 1983, he declared if Tamils are starved more the Sinhalese would be happy and thus, he invited more to take place. But it was stopped by Leader Pirapaharan by tit for that. My way is not that but I 100% agree with leader Pirapaharan on that only, for having saved many Tamils’ lives and properties. After the killing of 150,000 in Mullivaaikkaal and ending up in UNHRC, Geneva, Lankawe’s Appe Aanduwa stopped targeting Tamils overtly, (though the war without witness is continuing at Tamils; this is recorded by many INGOs and reports are being submitted to UNHRC, continuously. The author should read those to know where Lankawe fame stand within IC.)REPLY
  • Mallaiyuran / May 3, 2021, 8 2This guy probably doesn’t read the news on a contemporary basis. Aanduwa, in the fashion of one at the time, being satisfied with having ended the history of Tamils, started with Muslims, who were used as mercenary forces to save the Sinhala Lankawe. After 2009, all riots were mainly targeted on Muslims; from metropolitan Fashion Bug-s to villages’ street corner smoke shops, restaurants,… it was all Muslim businesses set on fire. Tamil bashing was not the main technique in the 2019-2020 elections, but it was Muslim Bashing. Hafeez Hisbullah, PC like Muslim VIPs are in prison without any reason because of this.
    Aanduwa’s propped up two urgent matters to cover up Covid 19 & Pong Cing’s downfall are, (1.) Investigation drama of Muslim’s terrorist planting bombs on Tamils’ and Foreign tourists’ location and (2.) Muslim women wearing full cover. The 4/21 was organized, funded, and staged by Citanta-Yahapalanaya (or SLFP-UNP) crook politicians. That is the one that gave 2/3 to Royals in 2020. Muslim progressive activists have been asking to reform the MMDA and enable them to have the upper hand in the community. But Aanduwa is forcing an un-Islamic law on Ceylon Muslim women. Again, the progressive activists have been saying face covering is not Islamic, though head covering exists, they want themselves to educate their community slipping into cultural and civilizational backwardness, rather than Aanduwas passing anti-Islamic laws.REPLY
  • Mallaiyuran / May 3, 2021, 9 2These strange species of Sinhala Intellectuals always explain they do all crimes in the world because Americans did war crime in the Muslim middle east. Beyond any Zero Casualty truth in that talk, it is not an argument at all. There are many people-centric, democratic & human rights laws in practice in many western worlds. Further, other Lankawe friends like China, Russia, Cuba countries are known atheist countries, not secular nations, unlike Western Democracies. Next to explicit Sinhala Buddhist fanatism mentioned in the Lankawe Buddhist constitution, it is only ME countries have religious constitutions. But Lankawe only has MMDA, PTO, Sinhala Only, Standardization……..this guy again fall on the same pit of blaming centuries-old American internal wars. What that honestly means is he is explaining that Sinhala Buddhists are 300-500 years behind in American civilizational advancement. That is why this 2500-year-old, tribal society is now practicing what Americans did 500 years ago. western democratic countries banning facial cover has a negligible effect on their willingness to uphold democratic, human rights law. Lankawe, a country accused of genocide one minority in Geneva is now banning another minority’s perceived religious practices is nothing but racism; nor security precaution.REPLY

This is a blatant and naive attempt to whitewash Sinhalese racism as Sinhalese patriotism.

Since independence through a series of legislative and administrative diktat, the government has colonized the North East with Sinhalese under the guise of settling landless peasants! The Gal Oya, Allai-Kantalai, Morawewa, Manal Aru (renamed as Weli Oya) colonization schemes were meant to alter the demography of the Tamil population.

In 1946 at the time of independence Tamils constituted  136,059 (48.75%)  of the population in the Eastern province while the Sinhalese population was only 23,145 (8.40%). According to the 2012 census, the Tamil population was only 617,295 (39.79%) while the Sinhalese population took a quantum leap of 359,136 (23.59%) people. This is an almost seven-fold increase compared to 1946. As already stated the increase is solely due to state-aided and planned Sinhalese colonization of the Eastern province. The process of colonizing the traditional and historical habitat of Tamils homeland is ongoing.

In the East, the Archeological Department and the Heritage Task Force appointed by the President are engaged in grabbing private lands belonging to the Tamil people. Wherever the Task Force identifies a Buddhist site thousands of acres of land are forcibly grabbed by Gazette notification. In the process, even Hindu temples are under siege by the Presidential Task Force. This is a textbook example of structural genocide aimed at destroying the language, cultural and religious identity of the Tamil people.

Genocide is defined as follows:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Secretary-General visits Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

The word “genocide” was first coined by Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. It consists of the Greek prefix genos, meaning race or tribe, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing. Lemkin developed the term partly in response to the Nazi policies of systematic murder of Jewish people during the Holocaust, but also in response to previous instances in history of targeted actions aimed at the destruction of particular groups of people. Later on, Raphäel Lemkin led the campaign to have genocide recognised and codified as an international crime.

Genocide was first recognised as a crime under international law in 1946 by the United Nations General Assembly (A/RES/96-I). It was codified as an independent crime in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

✎ EditSign (the Genocide Convention). The Convention has been ratified by 149 States (as of January 2018). The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has repeatedly stated that the Convention embodies principles that are part of general customary international law. This means that whether or not States have ratified the Genocide Convention, they are all bound as a matter of law by the principle that genocide is a crime prohibited under international law. The ICJ has also stated that the prohibition of genocide is a peremptory norm of international law (or ius cogens) and consequently, no derogation from it is allowed.

The definition of the crime of genocide as contained in Article II of the Genocide Convention

✎ EditSign was the result of a negotiating process and reflects the compromise reached among United Nations Member States in 1948 at the time of drafting the Convention. Genocide is defined in the same terms as in the Genocide Convention in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court✎ EditSign (Article 6), as well as in the statutes of other international and hybrid jurisdictions. Many States have also criminalized genocide in their domestic law; others have yet to do so.

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide✎ EditSign

Article II

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Elements of the crime

The Genocide Convention

✎ EditSign establishes in Article I that the crime of genocide may take place in the context of an armed conflict, international or non-international, but also in the context of a peaceful situation. The latter is less common but still possible. The same article establishes the obligation of the contracting parties to prevent and to punish the crime of genocide.

The popular understanding of what constitutes genocide tends to be broader than the content of the norm under international law. Article II of the Genocide Convention

✎ EditSign contains a narrow definition of the crime of genocide, which includes two main elements:

  1. A mental element: the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”; and
  2. A physical element, which includes the following five acts, enumerated exhaustively:
    • Killing members of the group
    • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
    • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
    • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
    • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

The intent is the most difficult element to determine. To constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Cultural destruction does not suffice, nor does an intention simply disperse a group. It is this special intent, or dolus specialis, that makes the crime of genocide so unique. In addition, case law has associated intent with the existence of a State or organizational plan or policy, even if the definition of genocide in international law does not include that element.

Importantly, the victims of genocide are deliberately targeted – not randomly – because of their real or perceived membership of one of the four groups protected under the Convention (which excludes political groups, for example). This means that the target of destruction must be the group, as such, and not its members as individuals. Genocide can also be committed against only a part of the group, as long as that part is identifiable (including within a geographically limited area) and “substantial.”

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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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