Nationalist Politics in Sri Lanka

Ritankar Mallick

April 3rd, 2021

Sinhalese Buddhists derive their sense of history from a sixth-century text called the Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle). Written by Theravada monks, the Mahavamsa claims that the Sinhalese arrived from North India and settled in Sri Lanka. In the third century B.C.E., the Indian Emperor Ashoka sent his son, monk Mahinda, to establish Buddhism, although the chronicle also claims that Buddha visited the island thrice to prepare it as the repository Of Buddhism and designate Sri Lanka as Ssihadipa (island of the Sinhalese) and Dhammadipa (island ennobled to protect and propagate Buddhism). This paper discusses about the growth of Nationalist politics in Sri Lanka in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It will unfold the rise and influence of such growth within the Sri Lankan majoritarian population. The Mahavamsa is not a canonical text, but it has achieved near-canonical authority in Sri Lanka and the vast majority of Sinhalese accept its pro-Buddhist and pro-Sinhalese accounts as indisputable history. It is nearly impossible to fully grasp the tenacity with which Sinhalese Buddhists relate to issues like devolution and “unethical” conversions without appreciating the role the Mahavamsa has played in conditioning their relationship to nation, state and religion.


The steep rise

The notions of Sihadipa and Dhammadipa featured prominently during the latter nineteenth-century Buddhist revival. Soon thereafter, Anagarika Dharmapala, who may be considered the father of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism promoted the myth of a once glorious and halcyon State governed by righteous and enlightened Sinhalese Buddhist kings, and a society that in turn exhibited the utmost respect for monks who sought to cultivate wisdom and moral conduct among the masses. He claimed such a reign could be reinstituted, although that required both laymen and bhikkhus to regain their rightful status in society. (Dharmapala was born Don David Hewavitarana but changed his name (to mean “homeless Guardian of the Dharma”) in an attempt to bridge the gap between the homeless bhikkhu’s traditional role and his new vision of an activist Buddhist community.

While Dharmapala wanted Buddhism revived and Buddhists empowered, it was scholar bhikkhu Walpola Rahula who radically transformed the monk’s role from a mostly reclusive but inspiring social guide to that of a political activist. In his 1946 work Bhiksuvage Urumaya—later translated as The Heritage of the Bhikkhu—Rahula argued that the bhikkhu’s role as a social servant was fundamentally political, and had been so since ancient times. He referred to The Mahavamsa and argued that monks had made contributions to politics throughout history, advising on legal matters and conferring legitimacy upon new rulers. He also suggested that monks had at times supported militarism against those threatening Buddhism, and that war and its attendant loss of life were justified if waged to liberate and protect nation and religion.

The 1956 elections saw both the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) try to outdo the other consistently to promote Sinhalese preferences. However, nationalist Buddhists disregarding how such out-bidding systematically marginalized Tamils, and demanded even more for their community. This was the basis for the Sinhala Urumaya (SU), or Sinhala Heritage Party, being formed in April 2000. The SU’s leaders argued that while Tamils and Muslims had political parties to represent them, the Sinhalese alone were deprived of a representation. They overlooked the manner in which the UNP and especially The SLFP, both comprised mainly of Sinhalese Buddhists, catered primarily to Sinhalese Buddhist interests. The SU claimed it wanted to rebuild the “unique” Sinhalese Buddhist Civilization founded in the third century B.C.E. and prevent President Kumaratunga from instituting her devolution proposals for the Northern and Eastern Provinces, which the party claimed would be a first step toward the country’s division.

Its expressed raison d’être was to ensure the majority Sinhalese alone benefitted socio-economically. During October 2000 Parliamentary elections it even promised to confiscate minority businesses and hand them over to the Sinhalese Buddhists if elected. Such politicking, combined with bilious anti-minority rhetoric, led the SU to be labelled a “racist” party. In October 2004, the charismatic Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) spokesperson, venerable Uduwe Dhammaloka, claimed the SU leadership was resorting to political opportunism and seeking to control and manipulate the JHU. Since then, the once close ties between the parties have dissipated. The JHU’s party manifesto was closely built on the SU’s platform. Both detested the rampant corruption and opportunism among the Sinhalese Buddhist political elite; wanted to strengthen further the socio-economic standing of Sinhalese Buddhists and opposed devolution that provided Tamils any autonomy. Both opposed the Norwegian involvement with the Peace process; and harboured deep suspicions that the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the NGO community were determined to keep countries like Sri Lanka emasculated.

Both the parties projected a determination to cultivate an ethical political milieu as they realized people could associate such visions with the bhikkhus’ saffron robes. The statement of Mahanayaka, (Chief Monk) Ramanya Nikaya, “Buddhist priests do not have a role to play in party politics and by doing so it will bring about the destruction of the Buddha Sasana” was argued by JHU by saying that “politics has become a stinking mess and they [the Mahanayaka] don’t want us to get smeared with that dirt, but we want to go to the House to cleanse politics. To clean up the mess.”


A Bill that added immense value to the Sri Lankan nationalist politics

In 2004, the JHU took part in electoral politics for the first time and introduced a 12-point election manifesto, where the central theme dealt with establishing a dharmarajya or righteous state. It called for maintaining the extant unitary structure and governing the island according to Buddhist principles so the Buddhist community’s rights were protected.

  • The manifesto also supported safeguarding minority rights, but the party’s rhetoric made clear that was to ensue only within the context of Sinhalese Buddhist domination. (For instance, in its Proposals to the All Party Representative Committee for Re-structuring the Sri Lankan State, the JHU claims that “The true homeland of Tamils is . . . Tamilnadu . . . in India . . . . Hence Tamils are a ‘nation’ in Tamil Nadu but are only an ethnic minority community in Sri Lanka.” The claim not only disregards the longstanding Tamil presence in Sri Lanka, it also reiterates the Sinhalese Buddhist belief in Sihadipa and Dhammadipa. Since entering parliament, the JHU has consistently acted in a way that has increasingly polarized relations between Sri Lanka’s ethno-religious communities.
  • On 28 May 2004, the JHU’s Omalpe Sobhitha Thera released the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion bill, which partly states that, “The Buddhist and non-Buddhist are now under serious threat of forcible conversions. In promoting the bill, the JHU’s monks were no doubt manipulating an emotional issue to attain political mileage, but many among them genuinely worried, and these in turn led to rumours that missionaries from these groups belittle and denigrate Buddhism in their sermons, dash Buddha statues in church houses and give Children “Buddha cookies” for consumption as part of Sunday school rituals, and make videos depicting men in saffron robes frolicking with women (so as to suggest that Buddhist monks are lewd). The groups are further accused of providing people with money, jobs, access to education in run-of-the mill international schools, clothing, food rations, radios, computers, And television—all in the hopes of gaining converts. Such tactics earned them the label of “unethical conversion.”


In August 2004, the court ruled that the sections requiring converts to notify the government of their actions violated Article 10 of the Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of religion. The ruling caused another spike in anti-Christian violence and may have further radicalized the JHU; a month later the party went even further in its efforts to establish Buddhist predominance by proposing an amendment to the Constitution that would declare Buddhism the state’s official religion Petitioners challenged this amendment as well, claiming it was vague and that it, too, violated Article 10 of the Constitution. On 10 December 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that most provisions in the amendment that did violate the Constitution, once again delivering a blow to the JHU’s Anti-Christian agenda.  It also ruled that while minorities (read Christians) have a right to practice their religion, they do not have a right to propagate their religion. The court further ruled to disallow Christian organizations combining religious instruction with charity from incorporating, although it did permit more than 100 Buddhist and Muslim organizations.

The charismatic monk

Another reason for the JHU’s success may be attributed to the popularity Gangodawilla Soma enjoyed, especially with urban Buddhists. Soma Thera’s modern sermons and opinions appealed to urban Buddhists as he suggested one could be a working woman and a capitalist, not frequent the temple, and yet live a good Buddhist life, provided the person meditated regularly and performed charity. He was also brilliant at inverting common perceptions, and this endeared him to many. For instance, during one call-in television programme, a viewer asked if menstruating women could be considered “clean” and allowed to visit temples. Soma Thera responded by saying women’s bodies at least got cleansed once a month while men do not get cleansed at all and from that perspective he could not see why menstruating women ought to be disqualified from attending temples. Such progressive ideas, combined with his ability to translate Buddhist doctrine into mundane practicability, were major reasons for his popularity with urbanites. Just like Rahula fuelled the aggressive Sinhalese Buddhism stance, monk Gangodawilla Soma paved the way for Buddhist nationalism in the 21st century. The minority played a very important role because the thin fragment of minorities have been purposefully used by the majority. The Easter Bombings of 2019 will be much easier to understand, if which sections of the minority proved advantageous for the majority can be traced.

***The author is research intern at Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific studies (KIIPS).