Why Ethnicity Matters in Sri Lanka

An Author’s Response To Criticism

bu Sinthujan Varatharajah, ‘Colombo Telegraph,’ October 16, 2013

Following our Sinhala privilege piece published on our Tumblr, ‘Check your Des(h)i Privilege’, we received a number of responses from Sinhalese and Tamils alike. As one of the co-authors of the piece, I’ve observed some of the conversations that were incited by the piece on social media and felt compelled, now after almost a month since publication, to respond to some of the assertions made and beliefs uncovered in the wake of the debate. Although we have already provided a general response in an interview given to the Tamil Guardian, a personal reply may be helpful to some.

Some of our critics may conflate privileges with rights, which is an issue that needs to be addressed elsewhere, or read up in a number of available sources. Others may not necessarily understand the concept of intersectionality, i.e. the interconnection between social, cultural and biological categories, such as race, ethnicity, class, caste, gender, sexuality, able bodiedness, etc., which do not exist in isolation but interact and stand in correlation to produce and coin our lived experiences as individuals and groups within societies. I will address the latter in my response.

Any discussion on privilege needs to begin with a discussion on the nature of state and society: Sri Lanka is a country where the infamous politics of ‘bhumiputra’ (Sanskrit: son of the soil/land) may only (and conveniently) be claimed by the extreme Sinhala right, while it has in reality been widely mainstreamed and, importantly, invisibilized. Sinhalaness has indeed been abstracted to the extent that it has taken decades to come into discussion despite being so ubiquitous. Like other Asian nation-states, such as Malaysia or Burma, Sri Lanka has, by introducing discriminatory political and legal frameworks, created social realities which negatively affect minority populations while benefitting and uplifting the majority population (vis-à-vis minorities). Structural racism, just like structural sexism, heteronormativity, casteism, classism, etc., disadvantages one group to the benefit of another. Institutional racism against Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups in, for example, the UK increases the exclusion and peripheralization of BME while providing ample advantage and opportunities to white British, including white British anti-racists. The exclusion of Tamils more so than Muslims from certain employment and education sectors and institutions similarly provides more space, opportunities and mobilities for Sinhalese, no matter their gender, class, sexual, political et al. affiliation or orientation, to progress as individuals or as a social group. Privilege is ultimately a question of social, economic, and political access that some groups may have over others.

Going back in history, the island state emerged as a bastion of Sinhala dominance and Tamil, Muslim et al. subordination with the flag change from British Empire to independent Ceylon, later Sri Lanka, in 1948. The postcolonial nation-building project was designed upon the activation of reactionary ethnolinguistic and ethnoreligious political forces amongst the majority Sinhalese coupled with the marginalization of non-Sinhalese. Sri Lanka’s nation-building project is, however, not a tale of its past, dusting in historical archives and university lectures, but stretches right into our present. The social arrangements that disadvantage non-Sinhalese to the benefit of Sinhalese continue to exist and continue to be expanded, renegotiated and further normalized. Indeed, being Sinhalese has over decades been made the norm in the country while citizenship and belonging of non-Sinhalese has increasingly and predictably been contested, challenged and revoked. Just as whiteness is invisible in (post)colonial, globalized, capitalist world order, Sinhalaness is similarly invisible in the neo-colonial, globalized and capitalist order of Sri Lanka.

Our piece deliberated specifically and exclusively on the question of race and ethnicity in the country – not gender, class, caste, sexuality, able bodiedness, etc.. Although we consider them all to be crucial categories and identities that need separate and intersectional analysis, we came to agree that looking at Sri Lanka’s recent history, particularly its forms of racial violence, no question has been more urgent and polarising than the question of race and ethnicity. Some of our critics have claimed we disregard existing nuances between groups, but as already stated in our interview, we do the opposite, we acknowledge the multiplicity of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim identities and experiences. These intra-group differences, however, don’t eliminate the existence of inter-group differences and inequalities as well as how state structures and societal structures relate and are built around identifying ethnic sameness and difference. They aren’t mutually exclusive but co-existing.

The most commonly cited example to ‘debunk’ our claims to Sinhala privilege was the example of the lower caste/ rural/impoverished/Sinhalese/woman who, according to some, is able to defy our Sinhala privilege theory.  It is, however, conveniently deemphasized in the argument that we never contested the existence of intra-ethnic inequalities and (dis)privileges centred around questions of caste, wealth, sexuality etc.. Our contestation is placed, and exclusively so, between the question of race and ethnicity in the country (!). Some Sinhalese may very well be disadvantaged to say, a heteronormative, upper caste, middle class, urban, professional Sinhalese couple living in, for example, Colombo. Their grievances and marginalization are real and not to be ignored. The question in our analysis however is, whether a lower caste/rural/impoverished/Tamil/woman is equally disadvantaged in regards to representation, welfare and respect than a Sinhalese woman who checks the same criteria? Those of us who aren’t drunk on denial and revisionism will probably agree with me when I say, there is no balance in how both women of ethnic difference are placed in contemporary Sri Lanka.

A more concrete example of what non-Sinhalaness means, in other words what Sinhalaness means, is the case of Nethmi Lavanya Yogendra. The then 10-year-old Tamil girl achieved the second highest grade of Colombo District in her scholarship exam in 2007. Nethmi applied for admission to Vishaka Vidyalaya, a prestigious and traditional Sinhalese (Buddhist) girls school in Colombo. The school authorities initially accepted her application as she met all grade requirements and the girl’s parents paid the facility fees. Weeks later, Nethmi’s parents received, in unusual manner, a letter straight from the Sri Lankan Ministry of Education. The then Minister for Education, Susil Premajayanth, a Sinhalese, explained in the letter that Nethmi was refused admission to Vishaka Vidyalaya despite her excellent academic record in what he called ‘her own good’. The reason for her rejection: her Tamil ethnicity. The Minister made, unlike many others, no calms about his office’s ethnic discriminatory policies and declared that ‘her ethnicity would have caused her much worse problems’ in the school. Premajayanth’s confession is more honest than what we usually hear from government/state representatives no matter their ethnicity. His written words from 2007 stand particularly in contrast to the state’s post-war rhetoric which preaches post-ethnicity (‘there are no more minorities’) while living off ethnic chauvinism.

Some apologists may argue now Nethmi may not have spoken Sinhalese or would have possibly felt estranged in a Sinhala Buddhist majority school. The explosive detail about Nethmi’s case however was that the young Tamil girl was educated throughout her life in Sinhalese and is, like her father, a Buddhist. The question of course arises whether there was potential political reasoning behind the father’s conversion to Buddhism and choice of Sinhalese as the medium of instruction of his child. Considering that many leading Sri Lankan educational institutional don’t offer Tamil medium instructions, and considering the larger anti-Tamil state structures in the country, it seems plausible to suggest that assimilation can be a means of invisibilizing ethnic difference and circumventing ethnic discrimination. This seems more common than talked about. Having personally encountered few ethnically mixed families (via the paternal side) who identified as Sinhalese yet carried Tamil names, I’ve seen cases of families altering their Tamil sounding surnames to Sinhalese sounding ones, e.g. from Dharmaratnam to Dharmaratne, from Amarasingham to Ameresinghe. This of course helped easing their life in the island and escape anti-Tamil policies and other forms of ethnic discrimination. It, however, equally is an acknowledgment to the existence of an admission to Sinhala privilege.

For Nethmi it was never her possible lack of proficiency in Sinhalese or her cultural distance as a non-Buddhist that might have caused issues. It was nothing but her ethnicity, her blood, which posed the problem to the Sri Lankan state. Would this question ever have arisen to a Sinhalese girl who had similar grades as Nethmi and applied to the same school?

Probably not. Nethmi’s lack of Sinhala privilege was articulated upon.

You can very well be a Sinhalese who is poor, lower caste, female, queer and so and forth and yet benefit from the existing state framework, which is constructed upon alienation, disenfranchisement, criminalization, externalization, colonisation and erasure of Tamil, and today also Muslim, presence. Just as white people benefit, conscious or not, wanted or not, from the exclusion and differential treatment of non-white people in many Western societies, Sinhalese people benefit from the exclusion, differential treatment and contestation of place and belonging of Tamils and Muslims in the national framework. Whether you agree with it or not.

Our translation of the Sri Lankan problem, i.e. a Sinhalese problem which becomes everyone’s problem thanks to majority dominance, is the non-acknowledgment of the existence of Sinhaleness and how it affects your life and our lives as non-Sinhalese. Denying ethnic privilege comes close to denying that race and ethnicity matter in the country. Clearly they do matter though as seen in the example of Nethmi. For there to be equality, justice and sound race relations, it is especially your responsibility as Sinhalese to see Sinhala privilege where it is unseen, to name it where it is unnamed and challenge it where it is unchallenged.

All we ask that members of the Sinhalese majority think about the ways that social, political, and economic benefits can be co-extensive with ethnic identity in Sri Lanka, as well as in the diaspora. This doesn’t require that they accept everything or anything on our list. It does, however, require acknowledging that Sri Lanka’s social and economic arrangements, practices, and norms are skewed to the benefit of some groups over others, namely, the Sinhala majority.

*Sinthujan Varatharajah is a PhD Candidate in Political Geography at University College London, University of London, and a researcher for Euro-Islam.

No Responses to “Why Ethnicity Matters in Sri Lanka”

  1. Angela

    Great response to critics. The situation in Sri Lanka can be greatly mirrored to that of the United States after the civil war that freed black slaves and enabled them to become ‘citizens’. Sure they were free and able to work for themselves and even go to school and own property but not without a good amount of white privilege to hold them back. They didn’t have all the rights and even with some they were held back, some brainwashed with a ‘slave mentality’ that to get by in the country they had to appease the whites in anyway even if their given rights were infringed. The situation in Sri Lanka today is eerily the same as that of something that happened nearly 200 years in the past! The irony of it all, that it has a Buddhist government that acts like an ex-slave master to another population in the current century. The majority would be benevolent racists; they aren’t outright hostile, but are aware of the inferiority of the Tamils’ condition compared to that of theirs and pity them, but are nonetheless complacent and joyful.

  2. VK

    Those who talk of ethnicity are historically illiterate. It was promoted even during the time late Neelam Thiruchelvan via ethnic insititute directed by rathika coomarsamy. Fact remain tamils had their own kingdom just like Sinhalese had their own kingdom 200 years ago while muslims happily fit into the nation sfor more than5oo years living harmoniously .As such tamils should have their own nation within the united srilanka and not down grade their status as equal power sharing nation of people with Sinhalese and muslims should decide if they want to be classed as people with their preferred language either as tamil or sinhalese rather than muslims,hindus or buddist and Christians. . .