The Sinhala Only Policy, Tamil “rights” and the validity of calling Buddhists extremist in Sri Lanka

One Sri Lanka


By Shenali Waduge

To sufficiently address a global and local campaign that has as its clear objective to project Buddhists in Sri Lanka as extremists, chauvinistic and even militant is not easy and impossible given that the gavel has concluded its verdict. Then there is also the notion that the Sinhala Only was the root to Tamil discrimination. When Tamil was never an administrative language used in governance during colonial rule and even upon post-independence how can Tamils claim they had been denied this right? The politicians that claimed “grievance” in denial of Tamil usage were studying and using English in employment along with their Sinhala counterparts. Tamil language was never used on an official basis. These Tamil leaders had taken the Sinhala politicians for a ride – from no Tamil use, they got “reasonable use” and then “official use” after the Indian intervention in 1987. All through the entire process Buddhists and Buddhism had been demonized and continue to be so.

No amount of theories placed by opponents has succeeded to nullify the fact that the Sinhale race of Buddhists has an embedded and historical lineage in the land of Sri Lanka. That centuries old historical civilization collapsed only after the arrival of the European colonials. The very exponents of human rights were responsible for the murder, mayhem, looting and raping of thousands of natives in territories that belong to the people of Africa and Asia. These very nations that today demand “inquiries” have failed to even say “sorry” for their crimes. These very nations that speak of “equality”, “freedoms”, “rights” came to take over by force nations, to plunder their wealth and to convert the people to Christianity. That objective remains and explains why the majority of humanitarian and charity organizations describe themselves as “Christian/Catholic Organizations”. It is these movements that use Tamil grievance as a ticket to create a Catholic enclave like East Timor to eventually create a Christian base in a geographically strategic location like Sri Lanka.

The European policy to marginalize Buddhists lasted for 500 years.

Their policy of divide and rule created the majority-minority gulf. The process of pauperizing and eliminating the Buddhists took the form of violence, murder and mayhem, acquisition of land, destruction of Buddhist paddy fields and animal husbandry, addicting people to liquor, importing Indian labor to bridge the Sinhala-Tamil gap and the denial of education. Minorities were given the best of missionary education once they converted and enjoyed employment and social status while Buddhists who refused to give up their language or their religion were confined to the village. With time Buddhists that converted also enjoyed English education and it was these who became the politicians of post-independence – the vernacular speaking Buddhists saw little change to their status quo.

At post-independence both Sinhala and Tamil politicians were those who had by conversion obtained English education and belonged to the elite. It was the Vellala caste Jaffna Tamils who were to decide what they thought was best for all Tamils in Sri Lanka and it was no different for the Sinhalese elite. By independence in 1948, 80% of public service jobs were secured by Christian Tamils (all from Jaffna elite Vellala caste) and the rest by mostly elite Christian Sinhalese. Both the army and navy were headed by Christian Tamils.

The situation that befell Sri Lanka no sooner independence was given was the fact that no minority was willingly to accept a reversal in the manner “they” had been dominating the Buddhist majority for over 200 years. “They” meant a handful of elite English speaking Christian converted Tamils who belonged to the Vellala caste. While we cannot blame the minorities for feeling arrogant and superior to the majority natives who were confined to the village, we should also understand the sense of loss the Buddhist natives would have felt by the injustice. This was not how the ancient Buddhist kings had envisaged would happen to Sri Lanka in the manner they ran the country over centuries.

Yet, this was the British legacy to Sri Lanka. All nations became “independent” of colonial rule only after these nations became connected to the international banking system and world markets. There is not much difference in nations under colonials in the past and neo-colonials in the present.

The Sinhala Only Bill

With the departure of the British and with Sri Lanka left to run its own country – there was an imbalance that no one could ignore. Could a country run with over 95% in the villages with only the knowledge of Sinhalese and little education while a handful were enjoying English education and automatic employment opportunities? The Tamil/Sinhalese elite class was faced with a looming problem. 3% English educated elite Tamils and Sinhalese were in no position to run a country on its own. Could Sri Lanka run a country with just 180,000 English educated Tamils and Sinhalese, and treble the number of vernacular educated youth who knew little or no English when the population stood at 6.6million.

Sinhala as a State language was not an injustice perpetrated against the Tamils as is promoted but against the English educated elite of both Tamils and Sinhalese who had been enjoying undue privileges over the majority Buddhists. It was really a case of Non-speaking English majority vs the handful of English speaking people who were Tamil and Sinhalese Christians.The uprising of Sinhala youth in later years was to show their dissatisfaction that even upon independence the injustices prevailed for Buddhists. Reiterated again is that it was the Buddhists who suffered discrimination.

It was J R Jayewardene who brought a resolution in 1944 to make Sinhalese the official language in Ceylon. The resolution was amended by JRJ making Sinhalese and Tamil as official language and passed though Dudley Senanayake and 4 others voted against it. Incidentally, SWRD voted in favor while in the UNP. However, everything was done in English so it made little difference to non-elite Sinhalese or Tamils.

Nevertheless, tardiness of politicians since independence to systematically introduce English to rural Sri Lanka whilst protecting vernacular languages and cultures have failed. This remains a challenge but one that has to be done.

In 1914, only 37,500 pupils attended English schools of a total population of 4.1m while 347,500 were registered in “vernacular schools” – for both Buddhists and Tamils.

In 1931, there were 84,000 pupils in English schools while 476,000 went to vernacular schools.

In 1948, 180,000 were in English schools while 720,000 attended vernacular schools.

The choice was to either educate that 97% in English or to get the 3% to learn and function in a language that the majority spoke in order to congregate the entire populace. The 2nd choice made logical sense.

Any shrewd politician would have done what SWRD Bandaranaike did – it was the only practical thing to do. He gave up Christianity, left the UNP and using the 5 power centers – he won a landslide victory. However, it was not articulated properly and this opened doors for the rift that ensued because elite Tamil politicians thought it the perfect opportunity to make their demands. What elite Vellala Tamil politicians wanted to do was to continue the privileges they had been enjoying since colonial rule by using a bogus discrimination theme to maintain their status quo above all Tamils. There was no real love for the ordinary Tamil people or for the Tamil language. Always hidden was that these Vellala’s did not want any low caste Tamils getting education even in Tamil.The caste issue was not as rigid in the Sinhalese as in the Tamils but it certainly did prevail in education, employment and marriage. These are issues that the international community cannot understand or link to political decision making.

What must be remembered at all times is that elite Vellala Tamils did not want to give better opportunities to their own people – with or without Sinhala Only. They wanted to remain rulers of all these low-caste Tamils and that has not changed still.

No one seems to have asked at which time in governance, administration was run in Tamil language for them to feel that making Sinhala Only denied them a right – Tamil language was never used administratively to claim denial? Elite Tamils and Sinhalese were studying in English and employment was also in English – Sinhala Only did not mean Tamil was prohibited from being spoken – vernacular schools taught in both mediums upto grade 5 only!

The truth was that no one wished to admit that Tamils did not want a reversal to what they had been unfairly enjoying for 200 years and instead it worked well to create a notion of ethnic-discrimination and language-discrimination – when in reality those creating these notions were English educated and probably did not even speak in Tamil at home or cared to uplift the lives of Tamils who studied in Tamil upto grade 5 only!

Permission had to be sought in Parliament to speak in Sinhala prior to 1956! While parents had to sign that they did not mind their children learning the Bible.

So what exactly were these elite Tamils missing to feel a “grievance” when Tamil was never the language of governance in Sri Lanka until it came to be “reasonably used” after the Sinhala Only bill and thereafter made an official language following the Indian intervention in 1987?

Obviously, even SWRD Bandaranaike fell for the ruse when politicians could have easily nullified these unnecessary demands because all those demanding for Tamil language rights studied in English – so what was this new demand for Tamil language status? SWRD in an interview however did say that there would be “reasonable-use” to Tamil as a language of a minority in education, examination, public service and correspondence.

However, situations like 1983 worked perfectly to nullify the truth. Not many were willing to say that it was J R Jayawardena, a few UNP goons and external hired forces that unleashed the riots – the Sinhalese provided safe haven to their Tamil neighbors. JRJ was never a friend of the Buddhists and many other leaders join that list.

Those that side with Tamils and their reasons to demand separation may first like to provide answers to

· Why in 1941 Tamils demanded a separate Tamil state from the British Empire?

· Why Tamils refused the British policy of one-man/one-vote system?

· Why Tamils created an ethnic-based political party (All Ceylon Tamil Congress) in 1944 if they wanted to live in peaceful co-existence?

· Why Tamils demanded 50-50 representation in Parliament when Tamils at independence were just 733,000 and Sinhalese population was 4.6million? Lord Soulsbury declared the request a “mockery of democracy”. If the other Tamil-speaking communities can co-exist with the majority without making extremist demands why is it that only the Jaffna Tamils need special rights to live in peace and harmony?

· Why in 1949 an imported Chelvanayagam would establish the “Federal Party” – its English term hiding the Tamil meaning of “separate state” in its party name?

· Why was it acceptable for LTTE to declare “Tamil Only” in 1990 in a defacto region in which LTTE had its own post offices, police, currency/notes, stamps etc?

Lets now move on to the argument that promotes the notion that BUDDHISTS run Sri Lanka?

Though Article 9 of the Sri Lanka Constitution makes special mention of “Buddhism”, can we be happy that the State has fulfilled its duty of “protecting” and “fostering” the Buddha Sasana?

The economic conditions of Buddhists remain dismal in comparison to that of minorities even after the open economy in 1977. So, when media, organizations and individuals take pains to promote the theory of Buddhist chauvinism – why is it that Buddhists remain paupers compared to the other ethnic groups? Can anyone give valid points as to what Sinhalese enjoy over Tamils?


· In a “Sinhala” state – how is it that Muslims and Tamils make up more than 2/3 the population in Colombo?

· In a “Sinhala” state – how is it that the main wholesale trading is virtually run by either Muslims or Tamils?

· If Buddhists run Sri Lanka why is the commercial activity of Sri Lanka in the hands of non-Buddhists and in the capital itself the Sinhalese remain the minority populace?

· In a “Sinhala” state – how is it that Tamils and Muslims can purchase property, land and live wherever they like but when a Sinhalese want to live in the North it is termed as “colonization”?

· In a “Sinhala” state – how is it that no Tamil, Muslim child is denied education in any school be it national, international, semi-private etc?

· In a “Sinhala” state – where does it deny Tamils or Muslims employment in either Public or Private sector because of their ethnicity? Yet, do Tamils and Muslims not openly declare they do not sell to Sinhalese (Buddhists), they do not employ Sinhalese (Buddhists)

Is it wrong for Buddhists to reclaim their rightful heritage? Those that promote the notion that Buddhists discriminates against non-Buddhists because the Government is Buddhist are mistaken. The Government is not Buddhist and no one can give a single example as to how any Government has given special privileges to Buddhists over non-Buddhists except to grace events and cultural programs. This was not so in ancient times – Kings ran the state for a) protection and b) prosperity of its citizens following the dasa rajya dharma providing for all the needs of the citizens within a fair and pure administration. Even the enemy Elara was certainly not like Prabakaran as the Mahavamsa refers to Elara as a noble man who rules “with even justice towards friend and foe, on occasions of dispute at law”.

All that the Buddhists wanted at independence and especially through the Sinhala-Only bill was for Buddhists to reclaim their cultural and religious heritage that had been targeted for elimination. Have Buddhists significantly gained anything post-independence apart from an internationalized continuation of what they suffered from during colonial rule? Is there really a place given to the Temple, Tank and Paddy that characterized Buddhist rule of yonder years?

Therefore repeated again is the question what do the Buddhists have that a Tamil does not have – the question is never answered? Instead Buddhists are accused of chauvinism, Mahavansa mentality and discriminating Tamils simply because Buddhists realize the dangers of extremism and are now exerting pressures to stop extremism that would lead to a scenario that Europe is now experiencing.

However, minorities have made it a habit to use sporadic events as “grievances” to create a scenario of state oppression and thereafter to exert undue pressure and force politicians to officially provide them legal rights when there is little to substantiate their claims. As such Buddhist opinion has subtly been excluded from discussions between GOSL and Tamil leaders and whatever opinions expressed on behalf of the Buddhists has been by mostly Christians. At no point in time however the land rights of the Buddhists that had been acquired by force ever come into discussion or inquiry. It is on these grounds that Buddhists have a greater reason to accuse the Church of attempting to undermine Buddhism in Sri Lanka and the Catholic Action movement cannot deny this.

If unbiased coverage is what media promises can media claim to provide Buddhists the same place it gives to non-Buddhists when publishing critiques of religions? Buddhism is not about division of nikayas, stone stupas, idol worship, monks living in luxury, similarly Christianity is also not about conversions, pedophiles, homosexualism and Islam is not about Wahhabism or vandalism. Politicians have not helped in the least as power and money often ends up determining their actions. The truth is priests belonging to all religions are not without their vices but that cannot change the message propagated by the leaders of these faiths.

Certainly we have come to another phase of extremism. It was elite Vellala Jaffna Tamils that first started making extremist demands which turned into terrorist demands with time. Now, Wahhabism and Sharia laws have come to take the newest phase of extremism. If majority of Tamils did not party with the 1st extremism and the new extremism is not shared by Muslims, it is time to take proper actions instead of diverting the issue by promoting Buddhist extremism to hide the truth.

If the people of Poland could recover their culture and language despite it being governed by Germany, Russia, Hungary and Austria – what is wrong with the Buddhists recovering their culture and language – it was that which the colonials denied?

Are these arguments abusing Buddhists and Buddhism all coming down to promote the notion that everyone would be happy if we go back to colonial rule where minorities enjoyed all the privileges and the Buddhists remained confined to the villages?

Sri Lanka does not belong to any individual, group or even the State. It belongs to all those who are committed to act as trustees, sharing it in common, protecting each other and the environment which includes all the animals as well. Both man and animal have a right to life.