Contemporary validity of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism as a political strategy

Friday, 5 April 2024 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism occupied a prominent position within the political battlefield of Sri Lanka since the beginning of the 21st century. Nationalism, particularly in the South Asian context has revolved around asserting the dominance of the majority ethnic/religious communities. Unfortunately, such tactics have more often than not resulted in curtailing the rights of minorities in South Asia. 

In the West, nationalism is associated with opposition to migration, bigotry towards Muslims, trade protectionism and resistance towards multilateralism. The victory of Brexit campaign and emergence of politicians like Donald Trump have been attributed to the rise of nationalistic sentiments across Europe and the US.

The Rajapaksas were the flag bearers of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism for a considerable period of time over the last two decades. The victory against the LTTE in 2009 firmly established the Rajapaksa family as the foremost representatives of nationalistic politics in the island. The previous Presidential election witnessed the deployment of nationalism at its fullest scale by capitalising on the anti-Muslim feelings within the electorate in the aftermath of the 2019 Easter Sunday terrorist attack. The military service record as well as the role played in the capacity of the Defence Secretary by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa coupled with national security becoming the central issue of the election campaign provided the ideal background to make such a strategy successful. 

Even after emerging victorious, policy decisions by the administration characterised a willingness to cater to the feelings of its bigoted vote base disregarding rationality and the views of experts as manifested by the controversial rule which enforced compulsory cremation of COVID-19 victims to appease the anti-Muslim groups that rallied behind the SLPP’s victory in 2019 and 2020.

One of the main themes of nationalistic propagandas in successive elections has been the pronouncement of the presence of so called international conspiracies against Sri Lanka. President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP were always at the receiving end of such slogans and were portrayed as subservient to the Western political powers. Agreements such as Millennium Challenge Corporation were projected as efforts to sell the country.  Undoubtedly, the appeal of nationalism has diminished considerably with the state of the economy becoming the defining issue of the forthcoming Presidential Election. The unprecedented deterioration in the standard of living of Islanders post-2019 has made nationalism redundant as a basis for political campaigning. The Rajapaksas and the SLPP – who were considered as champions of Sinhalese-Buddhist majoritarianism – have virtually been decimated from the political landscape. Politicians like Udaya Gammanpila and Wimal Weerawansa – prominent cheerleaders of nationalism – too have lost their standing while suffering a tremendous decline in their followership.   With Rajapaksas getting eliminated from the forefront of national politics, who would fill the void in terms of spearheading nationalistic politics? Could it be the businessman-turned political enthusiast Dilith Jayaweera, who has declared himself as the most suitable person to contest from the SLPP for the top post? Dilith’s credentials with regard to nationalism are strong. His media network has historically highlighted the supremacy of Sinhalese Buddhists. It was Triad – the advertising agency co-owned by the Presidential aspirant – which carried out the highly popular “Api wenuwen Api” campaign to boost recruitment to Tri forces during the height of the war. 

A decade ago, he was leading a campaign against imported milk power brands targeting multinationals – an act which enhances his acceptability to nationalists. During a recent media interview, he had further solidified his nationalistic purity by declaring – “Sri Lanka’s civilisational values are built on Sinhala and Buddhist influence. In fact, it is the Sinhala-Buddhist civilisation. Accepting and advocating this is our nationalistic approach.” Nationalism as a political strategic tool might have reached a state of hibernation within the political spectrum of the country, however, empirical evidence, both locally and internationally, suggests that it would not remain dormant permanently, hence, it could resurface at any given time in the future.