Centre for Policy Alternatives on 20 April, 2016

Dynamics of Sinhala Buddhist Ethno-Nationalism in Post-War Sri Lanka

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20 April 2016, Colombo, Sri Lanka: Almost seven years have lapsed since the end of the war, yet Sri Lanka continues to remain a deeply divided society. Empirical evidence from the four waves of the ‘Democracy in post-war Sri Lanka’ public opinion survey conducted by Social Indicator (SI), the survey research arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), corroborates this ground reality: Sri Lankans are polarised along ethnic lines on key questions related to governance, and the task of promoting reconciliation between the island’s diverse communities has been identified by the current administration as a key priority. A special Presidential Task Force on Reconciliation, which subsequently metamorphosed into the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) was thus appointed in March 2015, with a specific mandate “to lead, facilitate, support and coordinate matters related to national unity and reconciliation in Sri Lanka”.

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. This report examines the phenomenon of ethno-nationalism, broadly defined as “the extreme political expression of ethnicity”, among the island’s largest ethno-religious group – the Sinhala Buddhist community, and the dynamics of Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalism in the post-war context. Contrary to some interpretations that ethnicity has lost its power as a tool for political mobilisation, this report contends that Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalism remains a highly potent force. Nationalistic fervour appeared to be on a downward trajectory following the January 2015 presidential election in which Maithripala Sirisena won campaigning on an anti-corruption platform which pulled together a number of divergent political forces. However, the growing disenchantment in the Sinhala-Buddhist community on many fronts, their burgeoning economic woes in particular, at least in part has made it easier for nationalistic political posturing to re-capture its lost appeal.

This report also argues that while the vast majority of Sinhala Buddhists embrace rationalistic values and are amenable to sharing power with the minorities, nationalistic forces within the community continue to subsume moderate voices. As a direct result of their dominance and the centre’s apprehensions of triggering an extremist backlash, arriving at a sustainable political solution to the country’s ethnic question will remain a contentious issue. Therefore, although the government has accorded priority to ‘reconciliation’ as a policy objective, a meaningful reconciliation process which – most critically – includes the formulation of an inclusive political system whereby minorities will have an equitable stake in governance will be extremely challenging in view of this reality.

Download the report here.