Sinhala Nationalism in Sri Lanka and the Elusive Southern Consensus

Sinhala nationalism, long an obstacle to the resolution of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, is again driving political developments on the island.

Nationalist parties opposed to any significant devolution of power to Tamil areas of the north and east and to negotiations with the Tamil Tigers help set President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s agenda. The government takes a hardline stance, responding in part to opposition to the flawed 2002-2006 ceasefire and peace process.

Would-be peacemakers need to better understand Sinhala nationalism, which is too often dismissed as merely irrational and racist. With little likelihood of a new formal peace process soon, the long-term challenges it poses to the conflict’s resolution need to be addressed.

The search for a political solution to nearly 25 years of war has repeatedly foundered as a result of competition between mostly Sinhala parties in the south as well as excessive Tamil demands. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) have never been able to agree on a proposal for power sharing with the Tamil community. Instead, they have engaged in recurring bouts of ethnic outbidding, with each undermining the other’s devolution policies.

Opposition from more overtly nationalist parties, notably the left-wing People’s Liberation Front (JVP) and more recently the extreme Buddhist National Sinhala Heritage Party (JHU), has helped sustain this pattern. Both have flourished in opposition to the 2002 ceasefire and oppose any political settlement involving devolution of power to the predominantly Tamil regions.

Sinhala nationalism goes back to the British period, when it was part of a broader anti-colonial, anti-foreign movement, accentuated by Buddhist revivalism. It grew stronger with independence and electoral democracy. With society divided along caste, class and political lines, it has been a powerful unifying force, giving radical parties a platform for populist agitation and established politicians a diversion from their failure to address economic weakness, social concerns and pervasive corruption.

As the ethnic conflict grew more violent, the UNP and SLFP came to accept the existence of legitimate Tamil grievances and the need for devolution and other constitutional reforms, but LTTE brutality and intransigence have kept Sinhala nationalism alive. Together the two competing ethnic nationalisms have sapped the ability of governments to develop a consensus for a negotiated settlement and power sharing.

The election of President Rajapaksa in November 2005 halted the slow movement towards reforms. While many had hoped he would abandon the hardline approach that won him office and move to the centre to govern, the opposite has been the case. His government has increasingly adopted a hardline vision, leaving little room to be outflanked in the name of Sinhalese interests. The JHU has joined the government, and Sinhala ideologues are influential advisers. Since mid-2006 the government has been fighting the LTTE with the aim of defeating or at least severely weakening it militarily.

At the same time, Rajapaksa has repeatedly stated his commitment to a political solution. With international prodding, several efforts have been made to form a united front to promote a settlement. An October 2006 SLFP-UNP memorandum of understanding (MOU) expressed a superficially common position on the conflict but quickly collapsed, undermined by mistrust, a lack of commitment and ultimately the defection of opposition deputies to the government.

The All-Party Representative Committee (APRC) set up in 2006, is developing constitutional proposals intended to be endorsed by all parties. The progress made so far – against stiff resistance from the JHU and JVP and the president’s delaying tactics – threatens to unravel due to Rajapaksa’s insistence on maintaining the unitary definition of the state and the UNP’s decision to abandon the process. Unless domestic and international pressure can shift both Rajapaksa and the UNP, it seems unlikely the APRC will produce a proposal that can achieve the necessary two-thirds support in parliament and acceptance by Muslim and moderate Tamil parties.

The failure of the MOU and the president’s lack of enthusiasm for the APRC suggest the government is not serious about a political solution. Instead of working for a compromise the UNP could endorse, it has coerced most of the political establishment to support its military strategy, which has been accompanied by serious human rights abuses. Yet that strategy, especially if it remains unattached to serious political proposals, is unlikely to succeed.

The international community has struggled to come to terms with Sinhala nationalism, frequently misunderstanding its nature and legitimacy. Interventions, even including the Norwegian-sponsored 2002 ceasefire, which most Sinhalese ultimately judged as too favourable to the LTTE, have tended to stimulate xenophobic elements in the Sinhala community and help the extreme nationalist parties gain ground.

Given that the present administration is one of the most nationalistic in the country’s history, however, there is a need to review approaches to peacemaking. Domestic and international actors should begin to fashion new, long-term strategies that take into account the power of Sinhala nationalist ideology, while aiming to minimise the sources of its appeal and its ability to set the political agenda.

The International Crisis Group of course accepts that Sinhalese nationalism is not the only factor contributing to the present conflict. Subsequent reporting will address the challenges posed to peacemaking by Tamil nationalist ideas and organisations.

Colombo/Brussels, 7 November 2007