Engaging Sinhalese Buddhist Majoritarianism

and Countering Religious Animus in Sri Lanka: Recommendations for the Incoming U.S. Administration

Neil DeVotta

Prof. Neil DeVotta

by Neil DeVotta, ‘The Review of Faith & International Affairs,’ Summer 2016

Engaging Sinhalese Buddhist Majoritarianism and Countering Religious Animus in Sri Lanka Recommendations for the Incoming U S Administration

This essay, consequently, discusses the Sinhalese Buddhist-Muslim dynamic in the country as part of its focus on religion and public life in Sri Lanka. The essay has two sections: the first juxtaposes religious intolerance in Sri Lanka with Buddhist apprehensions, while the second discusses how best the United States may engage the country’s leaders on this front. With nationalist discourse often caricaturing the West (and especially the United States) as being part of a conspiracy to undermine Sri Lanka and Buddhism, the essay argues that a policy that combines discretion and persuasion with a firm stance consistent with United States ideals, rooted in religious freedom and tolerance, will be necessary when dealing with Sri Lankan stakeholders…

While the international community can try to build on this [opening due to the Pope’s visit & a new government], it will need to do so amidst a majoritarian milieu. This is because the notion that Sri Lanka is for Sinhalese Buddhists is now fully embedded, and policies supporting it are fully institutionalized. Trying to alter this is counterproductive and may only further complicate minorities’ position in the island. The reality is that Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has triumphed. The challenge for the United States when dealing with Sri Lanka is how to promote ethno-religious tolerance in the island amidst such triumphalism even as it balances its geostrategic preferences in the region.


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