What The Majority Sinhalese Must Know

By Brian Senewiratne

Dr. Brian Senewiratne

The majority Sinhalese (74% of the population) have been carefully and deliberately shielded from reality by manipulation of the media by Sinhalese politicians, and ethno-religious bigots, especially the Buddhist monks, playing to the chauvinist gallery.

The Sinhalese have been fed with myths and legends (masquerading as facts), and downright lies or not told what they should have been told. The realities have never been disclosed as to do so would lead to widespread misgivings about the wisdom of the Sri Lankan government’s policy.

This is something that has to be addressed since it is the Sinhalese who elect those to run (or ruin) the country. A separate publication is needed and this must be circulated in the Sinhalese area – something that is likely to be blocked by those in power – all of whom have the Mahavamsa mind-set” (see below).

There are at least four important factors that have to be addressed:

  1. The failure of the colonial British to see the difference between a nation and a community. Sri Lanka is a British colonial construct that has failed – as have so many colonial constructs.
  2. The Mahavamsa and the Mahavamsa mind-set that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist nation. If it is, then there is no alternative to setting up a separate Tamil State since the Tamils are neither Sinhalese nor Buddhist.
  3. The Dutugemunu-Elara war – between a Sinhalese prince from the South and the ageing (Tamil) king originally from the Chola dynasty in South India who was ruling Anuradhapura – the ancient capital of Ceylon.
  4. The claim that Sri Lanka is too small to be divided. That is arrant nonsense. After division, the Sinhalese State is larger than 63 UN nations and the Tamil State larger than 38 UN nations.

It is simply not possible to deal with these crucially important points here. A separate publication is needed. All that can be done here is to deal with them in the barest possible manner.

Sri Lanka has two nations (Sinhalese and Tamil) and five communities (Indian Tamils, Sri Lankan Muslims, Indian Muslims,, Burghers and Malays). A ‘nation’ is fundamentally different from a ‘community’.

A Nation

A nation is a historically evolved stable community of language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture. It is generally accepted that a nation possess a common ethnic identity, a continuous linguistic and cultural tradition, a definite territory as a homeland and a shared historical experience. It is all these that together that generates in a nation a dominating sense of collective consciousness which gives it the capacity and will for organisation.

The colonial British

The British failed to relaise that there are two nations in Ceylon. Prior to the arrival of the British, for hundreds of years there were three separate ‘Kingdoms’ (essentially ‘States’) – the Tamil Kingdom in the North (Tamil), the Kotte Kingdom in the South (Low-country Sinhalese) and the (massive) Kandyan Kingdom (Kandyan Sinhalese) which occupied most of the island.

The invading Portuguese (1505) quickly overran the Jaffna Kingdom and the Kotte Kingdom but not the Kandyan Kingdom. So also the Dutch who replaced the Portuguese in 1640 and finally the British in 1796.

All of them administered the three Kingdoms separately. The Kandyan Kingdom was finally ceded to the British and, for the first time, the entire country was under foreign rule.

In 1833 the British for administrative ease ‘unified’ that which was divided and centralised power in Colombo in the Sinhalese area. The Colebrooke=Cameron ‘Reforms’ of 1833 was about the worst thing that the colonial British did.

In 1948 when Independence to Ceylon was granted the very least that the British could have done was to leave two Federal States especially since the Tamils were seriously concerned as to what would happen to them under Sinhalese rule. However, the British only wanted their tea estates and military facilities in Trincomalee and Colombo in ‘safe’ hands. They were not particularly concerned as to what happened to the Tamils.

They were to find out before the year ended when a million Plantation Tamils of Indian descent brought by the British to work on the tea estates were decitizenised and disenfranchised in one of the most brutal acts of political irresponsibility in the world. One seventh of the population in the country became non-citizens.

More was to follow as the Ceylonese (Sinhalese) government turned on the Indigenous Tamils who had been there for thousands of years, and passed highly discriminatory legislation. English was replaced by Sinhalese only and not Sinhalese and Tamil. Discrimination in education followed, with the Tamil students having to get a higher mark than the Sinhalese to enter the University.

What did the British do? Nothing. The British have more than a case to answer for the chaos that followed.

The Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle)

This extremely anti-Tamil chronicle written by a Buddhist monk, Mahanama “for the serene joy and emotion of the pious” is regarded as a historical text by the Sinhalese (which it is not). Written in the 6th Century AD about events he thought had occurred in the 5th Century BC, it glorifies the Sinhalese as saviours of Buddhism and derides the Tamils as invaders, vandals, marauders and heathens. It essentially says that multiethnic, multireligious, multicultural, multilingual Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist country. If that is what the Sinhalese believe, then there is no alternative to the establishment of a separate Tamil State- Tamil Eelam – since the Tamils are not Sinhalese nor Buddhists. As Voltaire said “ Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities” which is what has happened in Sri Lanka since Independence.

Tamil Eelam is not the creation of the Tamil people but the result of ethnoreligious chauvinism by the Sinhalese based on Mahavamsa doctrine. This Mahavamsa mind-set has been the hallmark of every Sinhalese leader since Independence. The foremost proponents of this are the Buddhist monks who have the same mind-set as Mahanama who wrote this chauvinist nonsense.

The Dutugemunu-Elera fight

Elara (Ellalan in Tamil) was a Tamil prince from the Chola dynasty in South India who ruled Anuradhapura. He was well known as a just king.

Dutugemunu was the son of a Sinhalese king in the South, King Kavantissa. Kavantissa refused to fight Elara. The 16 year old Dutugemunu thought otherwise. He was found lying crouched and when asked why he replied that he could not stretch himself because he felt boxed in ‘by the Tamils to the North and the sea to the south’. He ridiculed his father and said ‘If [my] father were a man he would not speak thus’ and sent him a piece of women’s jewellery.

The King urged him not to go to war and said that if he did he should not go north of the ‘great river’ (probably today’s ‘Mahaveli)’) which runs across the island about half the way to the North saying that the land below that was more than enough ‘for us’.

However, Dutugemunu was determined to kill Elara. The fighting was so severe that the Mahavamsadescribes that the lake in Anuradhapura was ‘red with blood’.

Finally, Elara and Dutugemunu decided to fight each other than sacrifice so many lives. The Chronicle says that the ageing Tamil king was felled by a ‘dart’ (probably an arrow) fired by the young Sinhalese prince, who was the first to rule the entire island. It is of interest that the previous Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who also comes from the South, fancies himself as the present day Dutugemunu. When he was President it was common to see a large cardboard figure of Dutugemunu with a smaller cardboard figure of Mahinda Rajapaksa standing by his side in Colombo.

Dutugemunu had ‘10 brave worriers’. One of them was called ‘Gotabaya’. Interestingly, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s murderous brother, the former Defence Secretary, was also Gotabaya.

Though Buddhism infinitely values human life as being the one and only thing necessary to achieve nirvana, the ultimate state of ‘nothingness’ for Buddhists, Buddhist Sri Lanka has one of the highest murder rates per capita in the world. The Mahavamsa made a virtue of killing in defence of Buddhism. In the victories of Dutugemunu over the Tamil king Elara, in the 2nd Century BC when thousands of Tamils were killed, the Chronicle capriciously states that Dutugemunu’s war cry was: “Not for Kingdom, but for Buddhism”.

The Mahavamsa states that Dutugemunu , in repentance over the lives lost in the war, addressed the eight arhats (Saints):

“How shall there be any comfort for me, O venerable sirs, since by me was caused the slaughter of a great host numbering millions?”

The arhats reply (as quoted in the Mahavamsa) was disturbing:

“From this deed arises no hindrance in they way to heaven….Unbelievers and men of evil life were they, not more to be esteemed than beasts. But for thee, thou will bring glory to the doctrine of Buddha in manifold ways. Therefore cast away care from thy heart, O ruler of men”. That was in the 2nd-Cenrury BC.

Much more recently in 2006, during the slaughter of Tamil civilians in the North, a Sinhalese soldier, a Buddhist, troubled by the slaughter asked his boss: “Sir, I am a Buddhist. Is it acceptable for me to kill these people”. The officer reassured him: “I am also a Buddhist. What the Buddhist teaching says is that killing human beings is not acceptable but this is not what you (and I) are doing. So worry not.

As the son of a devout Buddhist (my mother) I find this completely unacceptable and an insult to one of the great teachers the world has seen. If ever there was a time for the revival of Buddhism, it is long overdue.

Sri Lanka is too small to be divided (into a Sinhalese area and a Tamil area

So say the ‘patriotic’ Sinhalese. That is arrant nonsense. Sri Lanka is not a particularly small island. It is 26,000 sq miles– about the size of Tasmania.

After division, the Sinhalese State of seven provinces – 18,800 sq miles will be larger than 63 UN nations. The Tamil State of two provinces – 7,200 sq miles, larger than 38 UN nations.

There are several islands that are much smaller than Sri Lanka that have been divided.

Cyprus, 3,372 sq miles, an eighth of the size of Sri Lanka, is divided into the Republic of Cyprus (Greek Cypriot Republic) 2,276 sq miles, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (Turkish Cypriot Republic) 1,295 sq miles.

Timor, 11,850 sq miles is divided into Timor-Leste 5,400 sq miles and West Timor (Timor Barat) 6,100 sq miles. Timor-Leste became a sovereign State on 20 May 2002, the first new sovereign State in the 21st Century, and joined the UN.

The Caribbean island of Hispaniola (30,417 sq miles), only slightly bigger than Sri Lanka (25,332 sq miles), is divided into the Dominican Republic (18,700 sq miles) and Haiti (10,521 sq miles).

This is by no means an exhaustive list but sufficient to show that the claim that Sri Lanka is too small to be divided is arrant nonsense.

It is of even greater interest that Israel and Palestine together (10,343 sq miles) are half the size of Sri Lanka. Israel is 8,019 sq miles and Palestine, 2,324 sq miles. Barack Obama in his famous Cairo speech (4 June 2009) said:

“The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states where Israelis and Palestinians each live in security”.

If a Two-State solution is the only solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, why not Sri Lanka?

With this long but essential preamble, I can now deal with the situation in Sri Lanka, particularly focussing on the Sinhalese people.

The cause of the conflict

The true cause of the conflict – ‘war’ – has been Tamil nationalism and the Sri Lankan government’s decision to resist it, irrespective of the financial cost or human cost (to the Tamil people, and even to the Sinhalese). This has never been clearly explained to the Sinhalese people. What has been claimed is that it is ‘Tamil terrorism’ or a variant “The Tamils are trying to divide and destroy Sri Lanka”.

That is simply not true. The Tamils never wanted a Separate Tamil State. They were driven to it because of Sinhala-Buddhist ethnoreligious chauvinism and deliberate discrimination against the Tamils by a succession of Sinhalese governments. Even then, the Tamils tried non-violent Ghandi-style protests for decades. It got them nowhere.

It was a documented failure of non-violent protests that drove the Tamil youths (in 1972) to pick up arms to force the Sri Lankan government to address the problem.

To claim that it was the Tamil Tigers who wanted a separate Tamil State is arrant nonsense. It was the Tamil people who, in the 1977 General Election, gave their elected representatives an overwhelming mandate to secure a Separate Tamil State, Eelam.

Solutions other than war

There were other solutions available. The obvious one was to establish two Separate States – a Sinhalese State and a Tamil State as has been done in several countries – just a few of which have been set out above. This has certainly not been explained to the Sinhalese people.

“Giving our land” to the Tamil people

The entire concept of “giving” something to the Tamil people – in this case one third of “our land”, has been a serious problem. Discussions by Sinhalese of the Tamil people’s aspirations have always been couched in terms of a demand by “them” for something from “us”. What has been presented to the Sinhalese people is that “They want our land and we are not going to give it to them.

Sinhalese politicians, the Sinhalese media, and the most vociferous of them all, the Buddhist monks – all have used this frame of reference. The Sinhalese people do not have the slightest inkling of the fact that the Tamil people want nothing from them. The Tamil people are in possession of their homeland, they already live there (and have done so for centuries). All they want to do is to establish for themselves a State of their own in their homeland. The Sinhalese are not called upon to give anything to the Tamil people. A recognition that the Tamil nation owns the homeland in the North and East in which they live is simply a recognition of a self-evident reality. It s not an act of giving or sacrifice by the Sinhalese people – one cannot give to others what already belongs to them. If there is going to be peace, and most certainly, peace with justice, the Sinhalese consciousness must be changed to accept the true nature of the situation and that the misguided idea of “giving up” or “sacrificing” a part of “our territory” should be abandoned.

The mythical insecurity of the Sinhalese people

This goes back to Dutugemunu who felt that he could not stretch himself because of Tamils to the north and the sea to the south. This is why I dealt with this in some detail.

A latter day variant of this is that the Sinhalese have nowhere to go whereas the Tamils always have a home-base in India. A further variant is that the Sinhalese are a minority compared to the neighbouring Tamil people including the Tamil population of the Indian state of Tamilnadu.

These emotive ideas have been expressed by a succession of Sinhalese political and ethnoreligious chauvinists for a very long time. However absurd, they have played a major role in the Sinhalese psyche and ‘justification’ for crushing the Tamils.

None of them bear rational examination. Nobody is threatening to expel the Sinhalese from the territory they have lived for centuries and to drive them into the sea. Such fantasies are not consistent with even the most elementary level of sanity and are unworthy of a people such as the Sinhalese who have had a long and civilized history – and are reasonably well educated.

Equally nonsensical is the bogey that the Sinhalese nation has nowhere to go but the Tamil people have India. The first characteristic of a nation is that it is rooted to its territory. Nations do not pull up their stakes and march en masse into another country. There is no call on the Sinhalese people to go anywhere; the territory in which they have lived for centuries has sufficed pretty well for them and in many respects they are very fortunate in its possession. They should rejoice in it and prosper with its many resources instead of hallucinating about “nowhere to go”.

It is perfectly true that the Tamil people, taken as a whole, are more numerous than the Sinhalese. The whole world is covered with such juxtapositions. Indeed, the juxtaposition of small nations with big ones is the rule rather than the exception, and calls not for hysterical alarm and dismay but for sensible good neighbourly policies. No Sinhalese politician or leader has tried to dispel these fears – indeed many have played on them to draw support for their ethnic strategy.

To create the climate needed to turn the Sinhalese people towards peace and sanity, these psychological cobwebs should be dusted off and they must be encouraged to confront the world reality with clear-eyed vision and confidence.

There are other ‘problems’, all of which can be settled.

The ‘wrong’ ethnic group in the ‘wrong place’

There are about quarter of a million Sinhalese (increasing by the day!) living in the Tamil area (the North and East). If there is a sensible solution to this problem, they might find that they are a minority after being a majority. The same fears arose when the French under de Gaulle withdrew from Algeria leaving behind a population of a million ethnic French. It was then pointed out that an even larger number of ethnic Algerians had already settled in France.

There are at least half a million Tamils living in the Sinhalese South.

The existence of a minority of one ethnic group living in the ‘wrong place’, calls for reasonableness and moderation – not for panic.

The Muslims have resided in both the Sinhalese areas and the Tamil areas and have a centuries-long experience of being a minority wherever they have lived. They have faced no problem.

The ‘loss’ of land and coastline

If/when sense dawns, and the Tamil people are allowed to do what they want to do – secure the land (North and East) where they have lived for centuries, one-third of the land area and two thirds of the coastline will be in Tamil hands.

As for the land area, it will not be possible for the Sinhalese from the South to come en masse and steal Tamil lands (which they are doing at an alarming rate today). The question is “Where do they go?” The answer is that there are vast tracks of land in the Sinhalese South – in places like Sabaragamuwa, Uva and Southern provinces where resettlement (or settlement) is possible. There is no ‘need’ to steal Tamil lands.

I draw attention to what I have stated earlier that the Sinhalese King Kavantissa who totally opposed his son Dutugemunu’s intention to fight the Tamils in the North, said that if he is determined to do so he should stop short of the ‘Great River’ because the land below this is more than enough for us to develop.

As for the coastline falling into Tamil hands, it is migrant Sinhalese fishermen who would be affected. It is very unlikely that this will be stopped since some of the fish are sold in the local market and will be beneficial to the local people. It is possible that there will be some sort of levy which will be passed on to the purchasers of the product so that the net effect on the fishermen will be marginal.

Cost saving by winding down the (massive) military

No one has pointed out to the Sinhalese that at the height of the war there were 175,000 military. After the end of the fighting, this has escalated to 200,000 and now to 300,000. The question is “Who is the enemy?”

It is a very relevant question because the Sinhalese people are paying for this massive military, the highest number per capita of the civilian population in any country in the world.

If there is peace with justice such a massive number of people in uniform, doing nothing, simply cannot be justified by even the most pessimistic.

Is the current ‘military solution’ really a solution to the problem?

The vast majority of the Sinhala people and all their leaders without a single exception believe that the current “military solution” has not only been possible but is also desirable. This illustrates how the long period of warfare has begun to obscure any clear understanding of the causes of the conflict. The fact that the LTTE is not the cause of the problem but the result of it is beyond the comprehension of the Sinhalese. The cause of the problem is Sinhala-Buddhist ethnoreligious chauvinism and simply crushing the result, the Tamil Tigers, is not a ‘solution’ There is a facile assumption that with the military defeat of the LTTE, Tamil nationalism itself will disappear. The lessons of history have simply not been learnt – that nationalism cannot be crushed. Two decades after the end of World War I, German nationalism reared its head again with a vengeance. After the end of World War II it was the vanquished who won the peace so resoundingly. The desirability of a military solution is a view that can be held only by ignoring the greatest and most pervasive international trend of 20th century history – the rise of ethnic nationalism.

The Sinhalese will have to ask the hard questions

The Sri Lankans, in particular the Sinhalese, will have to ask the hard questions from their Government and demand a response. It is their country that is being dragged before the UN Human Rights Council; it is their country that is being (rightly) targeted by internationally credible human rights groups and others.

Here are some questions that the Sinhalese will have to ask:

  1. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group have been excluded from the country. Why? What is there to hide?
  2. The Tamil areas in the North and East are under military occupation. The military are not there to administer, they are there to defend the country. What is the justification for military rule?
  3. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), condemned by every major human rights group in the world, remains unchanged. There are no longer ‘terrorists’. What then is the need for the PTA?
  4. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former Defence Secretary, against whom there is overwhelming evidence as the man responsible for the most serious violation of human rights, including mass killing, has not been charged. Why?
  5. What is the need for a 300,000-strong Armed (‘Defence’) Force? From whom are they defending the country?
  6. The country is seriously in debt and barely able to pay the interest without further borrowings. The people, their children and even grandchildren are being saddled with a crippling debt. Is that acceptable?

There are other questions which do not need to be gone into here because they have been very well dealt with in the just-released publication by PEARL (see below).

Hiding the truth. Continuing violation of human rights in the Tamil North and East

For the Sri Lankan government to simply prevent human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group and even UN investigators from entering the country achieves nothing In this day and age it is simply not possible to hide what is going on behind closed and censored doors. To believe that it can be is a demonstration of ignorance.

As recently as 21 April 2016, the Washington-based ‘PEARL’ (People for Equality and Relief in Sri Lanka) published a 48 page report:

“Withering Hopes” – New Report raises Concern – Sri Lanka’s Window for Reconciliation is Closing.

This explores why Sri Lanka’s elusive peace remains out of reach, detailing ongoing human rights violations, the militarization of the North-East, and obfuscation from the government on key issues such as accountability.

Continuing human rights violations in the North-East include violence and harassment by members of the security forces, occupation of traditional Tamil lands acquired illegally, torture and sexual violence of Tamils, absence of answers for families of the “disappeared,” and the continued detention of Tamil political prisoners without charge. The military remains heavily involved in civilian activities, such as running shops, farms, hotels and even pre-schools.


“Sri Lanka’s continuing lack of progress on key issues such as accountability and demilitarization throws into question the government’s sincerity and political will to implement the pledges it has made,” PEARL’s Advocacy Director Mario Arulthas said. “The government could have taken strong,  concrete measures to build confidence amongst Tamils over the last 15 months, but instead has continued policies in place under the Rajapaksa regime. This is not conducive for accountability and for an end to decades of state-impunity for crimes, both of which are integral to a lasting peace in the island.”



For Sri Lanka to experience lasting reconciliation between all communities, the grievances of the Tamil people must be addressed. This requires justice for the mass atrocities committed throughout the armed conflict, and significant changes to the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist nature of the state. Sustainable peace and reconciliation will require the government to act meaningfully, expeditiously, and in good faith when addressing Tamils’ legitimate misgivings and distrust, while also educating the Sinhala polity on the need for credible accountability and an inclusive, pluralistic society.

‘Peace’ with amity or enmity?

The Sinhalese people will have to decide whether they want to live with the Tamils in the North and East in amity or permanent enmity. The latter is what is happening today, and will continue to do so unless there is a change in strategy.

The Tamils wanting to develop their homeland, call it Eelam or anything else, is a state of mind. One cannot crush a state of mind with KFir jets, bombs and rockets. Indeed, the opposite. The suppressed anger of those who are the victims (Tamil civilians) has not gone away – it has only been silenced. It is a silence that might not, indeed will not, last.

It is now up to the Sinhalese people to get involved and ask the hard questions as to what is going on in the Tamil areas.

(My admiration and gratitude to an exceptional Sinhalese, the late Adrian Wijemanne, who told me on his death bed: “Use whatever I have written in any way that you want for the cause of the Tamil people who have suffered so much under a succession of senseless Sinhalese politicians”. This is what I have done.)