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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 51 December 16, 2023

Sri Lanka: The Future of Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism | Shashik Silva & Ammaarah Nilafdeen

Saturday 16 December 2023


During his recent visit to the United States, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the leader of the National People’s Power, addressed an interesting question from a Sri Lankan resident. The person highlighted the significant dominance of the white population in the US but also emphasized their peaceful coexistence with other migrant communities despite their majority status. In drawing a comparison to Sri Lanka, the person underscored the prevalent presence of the Sinhala people yet pointed out instances of discrimination faced by them, particularly in specific areas where it is more pronounced. He appealed to the NPP leader to recognize the challenges currently faced by the Sinhala community in their homeland. This interaction prompted us to examine and discuss the ever evolving nature of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, particularly in light of the expanding influence and affluence of the global Sinhala diaspora. This essay seeks to foster a discussion on how the growing support from this thriving Sinhala diaspora for contemporary temples might shape the future of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism within the realm of long distance nationalism.

What is long distance nationalism?

As of 2020, Sri Lanka had an estimated three million emigrants, with one million having permanently settled abroad, creating a unique one-to-twenty diaspora to population ratio for the country (Jayawardena, 2020). Considering the increased outmigration during the financial crises, this figure is likely higher now. A recent survey by the Social Indicator – Centre for Policy Alternatives revealed that 67.7% of Sri Lankans express a willingness to migrate and reside in other countries, a percentage that continues to rise. In light of these trends, the significance of the diaspora is expected to grow in the coming years.

Long distance nationalism denotes various identity assertions and activities that connect individuals across different geographical regions to their ancestral homeland. These activities span from political participation, such as voting and lobbying to financial contributions and artistic expression (Schiller, 2005). Commonly referred to as the diaspora in everyday conversations, this group plays a crucial role in the political, economic and cultural landscape of Sri Lanka. According to the National Peace Council’s study titled Language of Peacebuilding in Post-war Sri Lanka, while the term Tamil diaspora has historically carried negative connotations among the Sinhalese, it is important to shift some focus to the increasingly influential Sinhalese diaspora, considering their status as the majority ethno-religious community in the country. Notably, the Sinhalese diaspora has become a significant patron for artists, businesses, media outlets, and politicians, as well as modern temples and influential monks. This essay seeks to raise pertinent questions regarding the potential impact of this diaspora on the future of Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism.

Sinhala Buddhist nationalism: dominance and impact

Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism is a political ideology that emphasizes the significance of Sinhalese culture and ethnicity, intertwining elements of national identity and pride. Initially conceived as a response to the British colonial rule, which promoted Christianity and adopted divisive strategies favoring minorities over Buddhists (DeVotta, 2007), this ideology gradually evolved to foster discrimination against other minority groups in the country, particularly gaining prominence after Sri Lanka gained independence. A key tenet of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is the notion that Sri Lanka inherently belongs to the Sinhalese Buddhists with minorities permitted to reside only due to the tolerance of Buddhists (Kapferer, 1988). The ideology also relies heavily on the significant influence wielded by the Sangha, the community of Buddhist monks, within the political sphere. It is widely recognized that Buddhist monks possess the capacity to impact the establishment and dissolution of governments, as well as to exert pressure on elected representatives (Seneviratne, 2007).

The rise of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist ideology during British colonial rule was significantly influenced by the leadership and affluence of intellectuals, elites and the middle class. Notably, the advancement of education for Buddhist girls was propelled by the wealth generated from profits in the liquor and plantation industries. This advancement aimed to cultivate educated Buddhist wives, seen as a countermeasure against the perceived threat of Christian or non-Sinhalese spouses, thereby safeguarding Sinhala Buddhist identity. It was believed that educated mothers would be instrumental in producing the next generation of Sinhalese Buddhists. This perspective primarily stemmed from the efforts of national minded Buddhist intellectuals and the middle tier of Sinhala Buddhist shopkeepers and traders (Jayawardene, 2007). On the other hand, the contributions of individuals such as Anagarika Dharmapala, a prominent figure in the Buddhist revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were particularly notable owing to his affluent background (Roberts, 1997). Dharmapala played a pivotal role in establishing the Sangha’s involvement in secular activities, which significantly contributed to the evolution of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the subsequent years (Seneviratne, 2007).

Over the past two decades, there has been a noticeable surge in Buddhist activities, often backed by funding from successive governments and business entities. This trend has contributed to the pervasive influence of Buddhism in the public domain and within the political system, often encroaching upon and marginalizing other communities (Dewasiri, 2019). Recent Budhisisation endeavors have demonstrated a keen interest in reaping political and commercial benefit. Notably, these interventions seem to coincide with the timing of significant events such as the 2019 presidential election and the commercial peak seasons during the Sinhala-Hindu New Year and Christmas (MinorMatters, 2022).

The predicament with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism lies in its dominant position, which despite its historical roots as a response to British colonial rule, has increasingly curtailed the rights of other ethnic minorities over time. This has been evident in various practices such as successive governments prioritizing Buddhism over other religions, the political sway exerted by Buddhist monks and also in certain instances targeted violence against minority religious groups. These developments have underscored the complex challenges stemming from the influence of this ideology on the sociopolitical landscape of Sri Lanka.

Modern temples and long distance nationalism

In this essay, the term modern temples refers to temples that operate at the national level, assuming more extensive political, economic and social roles compared to the traditional duties of village temples, which primarily participate in local religious ceremonies such as bangedara, pansukulaya deema and other religious events. Many of these modern temples actively contribute to the promotion of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism by engaging in national level politics assuming the belief that Buddhists should have greater autonomy in governance. Umandawa Global Buddhist Village and Sandagiri Maha Viharaya serve as examples of such temples that benefit from the Sinhala diaspora.

In the case of Umandawa, the temple openly aligns itself with specific political figures while voicing discontent with others. Moreover, it has garnered support from influential entities for its construction initiatives. These temples frequently engage in critiquing government policies and actively participate in endorsing particular political agendas. They also utilize their extensive reach on social media platforms to disseminate their opinions and ideas effectively. Likewise, the monk associated with Sandagiri Seya has shown support and loyalty to specific political ideologies. For instance, in 2014, he embarked on a 30-day walk to bestow blessings upon the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government for their endeavors in defeating forces opposing Sri Lanka. The temple currently receives support from Dilith Jayaweera, a businessman turned politician actively involved in various political campaigns over multiple elections. It is essential to note that the construction of the stupa at Sandagiri Seya was carried out on government owned land in an area where the predominant community is the Malaiyaha Tamils, with a smaller population of Sinhala Buddhists residing in the same area.

The increasing popularity and appeal of these modern temples have positioned them as trusted recipients of financial support from the Sinhala diaspora. These funds are often allocated for various purposes including the construction of religious sites, the implementation of youth training programs, engagement in social welfare initiatives and, in some exceptional cases such as Umandawa, the establishment of hospitals. Remarkably, even during the initial phase of the financial crisis when many construction projects across the country came to a halt, these prominent temples continued their construction activities without impediment. Social media plays a pivotal role in enabling these monks to connect with the diaspora while providing diaspora members who contribute funds the opportunity to witness how their financial support is being utilized through these online platforms. Engagement with these temples facilitates a connection between diaspora members and their home country, offering them a sense of social recognition that might not be easily attainable in their host countries. Notably, this practice has created opportunities for individuals from diverse backgrounds, ranging from unskilled laborers to professionals, to make financial contributions toward these initiatives.

In a recently published YouTube video, Sri Samanthabhadra from Umandawa emphasized the potential to secure essential financial support from the diaspora for his projects if the government were to endorse his initiatives. He has been actively engaging in foreign tours and meetings with members of the diaspora, cultivating their assistance for his endeavors. During these visits, the monk expresses gratitude for the diaspora’s support and ensures that these patrons receive social recognition from their home country by featuring them in his YouTube videos. Likewise, as seen in videos released by the Gangasiripura Dhammaloka monk from Sandagiri Maha Viharaya through their Facebook page, it is evident that the Sinhala Buddhist community has been contributing funds for the construction projects at the temple and the social service initiatives led by the monk. Moreover, the diaspora sponsors meals for individuals taking part in the shramadhan activities at the temple. It is also observable that these sponsored activities from the diaspora hold a particular appeal among the youth users of various social media platforms.

Long distance nationalism to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism

In this context, one might perceive the funding directed to modern temples as indirect support for Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, considering its role in reinforcing the political influence wielded by these modern temples. However, an alternative perspective could argue that the diaspora’s support for modern temples does not necessarily aim to promote Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Engaging in a deeper discussion could involve probing into the reasons why the Sinhala diaspora chooses to fund these modern temples.

Long distance nationalism often resonates among individuals who reside away from their home country but seek to have some form of political influence in their country of origin (Skrbi, 1999 as cited in Schiller, 2005). This may not directly apply to the majority of the Sinhala Buddhist diaspora, primarily driven by aspirations for financial prosperity. Nonetheless, many individuals who migrate to developed nations encounter challenges related to being perceived as the “other” and experience a decline in social standing within the host country, regardless of their citizenship status. Consequently, they may be driven to strengthen their connection with their homeland to bolster their personal self-esteem (Schiller, 2005). This scenario could significantly resonate with the growing Sinhala diaspora, suggesting that their involvement with Sri Lanka is likely to increase in the future.

Evidently, the migrating community may uphold Sinhala Buddhist ideological practices more fervently compared to those living within the homeland. This observation finds support in the earlier discussion, where the diaspora recognizes the significance of their homeland while navigating a host society where they may not be fully integrated.

The active participation of the Sinhala diaspora was observed during the 2019 presidential election with many Sinhalese living abroad returning to the country to support Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This action carries significant ideological weight, especially considering the heavily Sinhala Buddhist nationalist driven campaign led by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Additionally, various political parties continue to receive crucial backing from the Sinhala diaspora, highlighting the ideological commitment of this community. In the recent visit to the US, Anura Kumara was urged by an individual to “protect the country,” further underlining the diaspora’s ideological interests. Thus, it is worth reflecting whether the contributions of the Sinhala diaspora to modern temples can be interpreted as more than just financial assistance.

The funding provided by the Sinhala diaspora to modern temples has significantly bolstered the secular role of the Sangha, an integral aspect of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Even during times of financial crises, this support has enabled modern temples to maintain a robust presence. While one can appreciate the work carried out by the Sangha in terms of their involvement in social work and other construction projects, this significant contribution could also have the potential to nurture influential Buddhist monks capable of exerting influence in governance in the future.

Consequently, discussions on the correlation between long distance nationalism and the promotion of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism are expected to become increasingly pertinent in future. In contemplating the impact of the diaspora’s increasing engagement and assistance on the future power dynamics and beliefs in Sri Lanka, this essay aims to stimulate a discussion and encourage readers to consider how the evolving roles of the diaspora and modern temples might shape the social and political landscape of the country in the years to come.

(Authors: Shashik Silva and Ammaarah Nilafdeen)

[The above article from Groundviews is reproduced here for educational and non-commercial use]

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