Sinhala Only

Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is going through an uncertain trajectory, where an inclusive dialogue, coupled with a reconciliation process, is the need of the hour.

By Muhammad Omar Iftikhar | September 2023

A socio-political ideology, the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka has significantly shaped the history and current landscape of the island nation. It is rooted in the cultural and religious identity of the Sinhalese majority and promotes the idea of Sinhalese Buddhists who consider themselves the rightful guardians of the nation.

The historical context of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism can be traced back to the colonial era. During this time, Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon. The British colonists implemented policies that favored minority communities, particularly Tamils, which created a sense of alienation among the Sinhalese majority. The Sinhala Buddhist nationalism emerged with the rise of the Theosophical Society, which also promoted Buddhist revivalism.

Sinhala Buddhist nationalism draws inspiration from historical narratives, including the belief that Sri Lanka is the sacred land of Buddhism and the birthplace of Sinhala civilization. It asserts the pre-eminence of Sinhalese culture, language, and Buddhism that defines the nation of Sri Lankan nation.
Sinhala Buddhist nationalism has had a profound impact on Sri Lankan politics. Political parties that promote this ideology, such as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP), emerged and gained prominence over the years.

One of the major consequences of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism has been the rise and fanning of ethnic tensions, particularly with the Tamil minority. Policies such as the Sinhala Only Act made Sinhala the country’s sole official language, and discriminatory land policies created a sense of demotion among Tamil communities. This eventually contributed to the rise of the Tamil separatist movement and the civil war.

However, in 2009, the end of the civil war presented an opportunity for reconciliation. The aftermath witnessed a resurrection of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the form of aggressive rhetoric and the rise of ethnoreligious tensions. Certain Buddhist extremist groups, such as Bodu Bala Sena, gained prominence.

According to Ayesha Zuhair, a Sri Lankan journalist and researcher, “Divisive nationalist posturing from the country’s main ethnic communities has presented the singular most formidable challenge to reconciliation, social cohesion, and the vision of creating a united Sri Lanka. Ethno-nationalism is broadly defined as “the extreme political expression of ethnicity among the island’s largest ethno-religious group – the Sinhala Buddhist community, which accounts for 70.2% of the population. The Buddhist belief system is regarded as anti-doctrinaire, and Buddhism is widely accepted as a pacifistic and tolerant religion. Yet political Buddhism has been linked to ethnic violence in both Sri Lanka’s pre and post-independence history. The end of the war in May 2009 saw the resurgence of Sinhala-Buddhist ethnonationalism as a prominent force, the most patent instance of its link to violence being manifested in the June 2014 anti-Muslim riots in the country’s south-western coastal belt.”

Read More