The “Sad” History of Sinhala Nationalism

By Rathindra Kuruwita (Ceylon Today)

Last week a group calling themselves ‘alt-right Sri Lanka’ started following me on Twitter. Apparently they want to make Gotabaya Rajapaksa President and as Donald Trump would say they made me feel ‘sad’.

It’s especially ‘sad’ because the last few years have been good for ethnic nationalism. In the United States Richard Spencer and the alt-right memed a President into power, Narendra Modi and his BJP won big in 2014 and the Identitarian movement in Europe has propelled a number of ‘fringe’ parties into positions of power.

And of course, startled by these developments,we have started hearing a lot about Sinhala nationalism again, from the liberal left and what passes on as the ‘right’ here. But the point everyone seems to be missing is that elements that try to pass as the political right in Sri Lanka, from Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) to Joint Opposition (JO), have learned nothing from what has been happening around the world in the last five years.

Cartoon added by TW from internet

Image result for nationalism cartoon

A recent history

So I am going to look back at the recent history of Sinhala nationalism, although it’s going to make me feel ‘sad.’ A lot of people talk about Anagarika Dharmapala when they think of Sinhala nationalism. To be honest, looking back at Dharmapala for critical insight into Sinhala nationalism today is pointless. Dharmapala was a complex thinker and after his death no one continued to develop the intellectual foundations he laid. So there is no real connection between him and the Sinhala nationalist movement which emerged at the latter half of Chandrika Bandaranaike administration.

Essentially the emergence of organizations like Sinhala Weera Vidahna, Desha Hithishee Jathika Viyaparaya and Sihala Urumaya was the pushback from a section of the Sinhala community who were angered by what they saw as continuous attacks on their beliefs, culture and tradition under the Chandrika Bandaranaike administration which came into power in 1994.

1994 was a land mark year. The dreaded 17-year-old United National Party (UNP) rule was defeated and some of these progressive elements, who had led the struggle against the UNP, found that they had nothing to occupy themselves. And from 1994 these sections of the left and alternative media, shifted focus from labour and class to identity politics became their raison d’être.

So from 1994 onwards these progressive elements filled the newspapers, appeared on TV and radio and became a part of the establishment which targeted the Sinhalese, criticizing their customs, their heroes, their religion and traditions. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with criticizing the customs, heroes, religion and traditions of an ethnic group, in fact frank and brutal critique of these things are paramount to progress. But the problem is focusing on one particular group while letting everyone else a free pass. Once again let me tell you that we need to be brutally critical about patriarchal power structures we have here, because let’s be honest this is not really a great place to be a woman and for religious and cultural aspects which gives a mystic veneer to manmade inequality. But these are issues that prevail in all three main groups in Sri Lanka. By targeting one particular group you make members of that group suspect your agenda and there is inevitable pushback, which manifested as the Sinhala nationalist movement in the early 2000s.

Opportunists without an ideology

Unfortunately, this Sinhala nationalist movement was immediately taken over by a bunch of opportunists who wanted political power, without actually caring about the race or having ideals. Instead of developing a cohesive and coherent seat of ideas and policies about strengthening the Sinhala nation and addressing historic injustices, bigotry became the be all and end all of this movement. Still despite these handicaps a significant number of Sinhalese found this shifting of the Overton Window (the range of ideas the public will accept) liberating. Someone was finally saying things that were in their heads, ‘we are not the biggest ass ***** in this country’ and ‘compared to other majorities in the world we are not bad’ (not that it makes the minorities feel much better), etc. And then came along Mahinda Rajapaksa who took over the movement and well that was it. That was the end of any intellectual progression, not that there was much to start with, and that is why you see the JHU repeating what they were saying in 2002 and Champika Ranawaka and Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe are trying to become the anti-corruption crusaders. Really? Anti-corruption? That’s all you can come with?

This is why this movement is unlike the intellectual framework of Dharmapala, and Gunadasa Amarasekara who is the best out of the jathika chinthana thinkers were unable to lift the movement and mentor a newer generation of Sinhala nationalistic thinkers. That is why we don’t see Richard Spencer or even a Markus Willinger and that is why ‘alt-right Sri Lanka’ is trying to get Gotabaya as President.

Gota is the worst choice

Lining behind Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the worst thing that the Sinhala nationalist movement can do because he symbolizes all the wrong turns the movement has made in the last 15 years and because he is the only candidate that Ranil Wickremesinghe can beat in a presidential election. And movements that back losers often end up in the fringes.

Rathindra can be reached via

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