Tyranny of the Majority: Sri Lanka and Buddhist Majoritarian Politics

Buddhism as a religion is a proponent of equality and typically condemns discriminatory and hierarchical structures in society. However, the involvement of Buddhism in Sri Lankan politics has often contradicted these teachings. While Sri Lanka is home to a diversity of different religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the religions of the local indigenous groups, the majority Sinhalese population is predominantly Buddhist. 69 percent of Sinhalese in Sri Lanka are Buddhist, and Sinhalese make up approximately 74 percent of the population. The largest minority group is the Tamils, who are mostly Hindu and are approximately 18 percent of the total population of the island state. [1]

The political and nationalist fervor, along with Sinhalese pride, has led to constant conflict on religious, linguistic, and regional grounds between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations.  Devastating violence between these groups erupted during the Sri Lankan civil war between 1983 and 2009. Legislation in Sri Lanka today still contributes to ethnic political disputes, with various laws threatening the culture and identity of Sri Lankan Tamils. Sri Lanka passed several discriminatory laws both under British dominion and as an independent nation. Even more troubling is the disregard for the rule of law during and since the war against the militant separatist group called The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Due process has often been replaced by patronage systems based on Sinhalese politicians, their families, and their ardent supporters.

The International Human Rights Association’s report in the People’s Tribunal of Sri Lanka lists some of these unfair, discriminatory laws that have been passed since 1948. [2] Tamil people living in the tea plantation areas, mainly in the central highlands, became the first victims of racially motivated attacks by the Sri Lankan state in 1948 and 1949. Then Prime Minister of the Ceylon dominion, Don Stephen Senanayake moved to pass the Ceylon Citizenship Act no. 18 of 1948 and Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act of 1949, which stripped these ethnic groups of their citizenship rights. This legislation was followed by a third act, Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Amendment Act, no. 48 of 1949, which took away their voting rights. These bills were in clear violation of Article 29 (2) of the island nation’s Constitution, which was drafted by the British Soulbury Commission before granting them the Dominion status. [3]

In the beginning of the twentieth century, the island grappled with the use of indigenous languages instead of English. This later took the shape of a resolution that demanded that the teaching of Sinhala in Tamil schools and Tamil in Sinhala schools be made compulsory. However, due to the nationalist tendencies of the Sinhalese majority, this proposition failed. Therefore, in May 1944, in reaction to the former resolution, the emerging leader of the Ceylon National Congress, J. R. Jayawardane, moved another resolution in the state council. He proposed to make Sinhalese the medium of instruction in all schools as well as making it a compulsory subject in all public examinations. [4] Later, in 1956, through Official Language Act No.33 Sinhala was made the sole official language, amidst protests by Tamil people and the leftwing parliamentary groups. The bill was unofficially termed as the “Sinhala Only Act” which replaced English with Sinhala as the sole official language. [5] These rules suppressed the linguistic identity of the minority communities of Sri Lanka, as it allowed an unfair and biased domination of the Sinhalese language. Moreover, it also made important legal documentations inaccessible to the communities that did not speak the language.

In 1979, J. R. Jayawardane, at the head of the elected United National Party, began a program of armed oppression of the Tamil population. This was done through the enactment of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Introduced as a temporary act, it was later made permanent through an amendment in 1981. The act intensified the repression of the Tamil community in a mandated, state-sponsored manner.

The division in Sri Lanka became more visible with the active involvement of Buddhism in policy-making. Sinhalese Buddhists institutionalized and legitimized the discrimination of the minorities, giving rise to the ‘Tyranny of the Majority’. The Sinhala majority was mobilized around a message of religious justice, in response to the unfair and discriminatory British rule that benefitted certain minorities economically. Walpola Rahula, a Buddhist monk advocated that other monks become involved in politics, which paved the way for the tradition of modern social and political Buddhism during the process of achieving independence from the British in 1948. [6]

The conflict witnessed the emergence of militarized Buddhist monks, who actively were involved in both politics and military interventions during the civil war. They opposed negotiations, ceasefire agreements, or any devolution of power to Tamil minorities, and mostly supported a violent resolution to the conflict. [7] The politicization of Buddhism also led to an active involvement of the religious leaders as decision-makers of the state. The civil war, therefore, became an example of the armed mobilization of Buddhism, an otherwise peaceful and passive religion. The conflict witnessed huge amounts of atrocities from both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government’s side, leading to various human rights groups calling them out for their violations of international law. The war ended in the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, bringing a hope that the thousands of lives lost would lead the government to addressing causes of ethnic grievances on the island. However, the victory of the government simply helped it strengthen and validate the idea of Buddhist nationalism even more. Only this time, the focus of discrimination has been shifted to the Sri Lankan Muslims.

Sri Lanka has seen a rise in the level of violent attacks, demonstrations and hate speech targeting its Muslim population. The violence is mainly perpetrated by Buddhist fundamentalist groups. The events have left the country’s second largest minority community feeling afraid and vulnerable. [8] The government’s authoritarian and majoritarian agenda has threatened the sustenance of the rule of law and the bond of reciprocity with its  citizens, especially the minority communities.

Works Cited

[1] Senanayake, Darini Rajasingham. “Buddhism and the Legitimation of Power: Democracy, Public Religion and Minorities in Sri Lanka .” National University of Singapore, 26 Nov. 2009.

[2] International Human Rights Association. “Discriminatory Laws and Regulations.”  People’s Tribunal of Sri Lanka, pp. 1-17.

[3] R, Edirisingha, et al. “Power Sharing in Sri Lanka: Constitutional and Political Documents 1926-2008.” Colombo: Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2008, pp. 204.

[4] International Human Rights Association. “Discriminatory Laws and Regulations.”  People’s Tribunal of Sri Lanka, pp. 1-17.

[5]  International Human Rights Association 08

[6]  Senanayake, Darini Rajasingham. “Buddhism and the Legitimation of Power: Democracy, Public Religion and Minorities in Sri Lanka .” National University of Singapore, 26 Nov. 2009.

[7] Mahinda, Deegalle. Buddhism, Conflict and Violence in Modern Sri Lanka. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006.

[8] Aliff, S M. “Post-War Conflict in Sri Lanka: Violence against Sri Lankan Muslims and Buddhist Hegemony .” International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences, vol. 59, 11 Sept. 2015, pp. 109–125.

Shreyashree Nayak
Shreyashree Nayak is a YRIS Foreign Correspondent at Ashoka University writing from New Delhi, India.