Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Blaming the Past in Sri Lanka

by an historian
Blaming the past for all of Sri Lanka's current ills has become fashionable. The convenient arch villain has been identified as the Portuguese by some Sri
Lankan Pundits. The recently held "International Conference on the 500th Anniversary of the Portuguese Encounter at the prestigious BMICH in Colombo" is an attempt in that direction.

If we can blame the Portuguese for today's societal ills, then can the Veddas, the Sri Lankan aboriginals, blame the Gujaratis for their current plight? Because as Sri Lankan children have been taught from their kindergarten, it is Gujarat that gave birth to the Sinha[la] bahu clan that has been directly instrumental in the cultural and physical annihilation and genocide of the aboriginals.

In fact, I made the commentary to show how absurd it is to blame the Portuguese for today's ethnic and social problems. Many of the pundits in the conference have conveniently forgotten to mention some of the positive aspects of Portuguese colonization. These positives were accrued mostly by the majority Sinhala Buddhists who are decrying the effects today of Portuguese colonization which happened more than 400 years ago.
We can say very confidently that it is because of the Portuguese colonization that the Sinhalese find themselves as an overwhelming majority in Sri Lanka today viz a viz the Tamil minority. As Sri Lanka's written historical annal, the Mahavamsa, mentions, ethnic Tamils have found themselves in Sri Lanka in a political culture that promoted Buddhism from the beginning of written history. As a consequence, ethnic Tamils have assimilated into Sinhala Buddhist identity at varying rates since that time. It is no different than the invading Normans and Danes, as well as the viking invasion of Englandindigenous Celts, becoming English over a period time in England. Whether Tamils were in Sri Lanka prior to this Gujarati colonization or not is immaterial, because during this period the Sinha[la] Bahu clan eventually imposed its cultural traits on everyone.
But this state of affairs did not last forever. Long before the arrival of the Portuguese the Tamils had been able to organize themselves as a separate political entity under the auspicious of the Jaffna kingdom. This kingdom was not restricted to the northern Jaffna peninsula alone as biased contemporary Sri Lankan history maps would indicate. It had suzerainty over the pearl rich western Puttalam area
and further south as recorded by a traveling Chinese historian Fa Hien of those days. This kingdom provided the political space for Tamils to survive as a separate ethnic group without the need to assimilate as Sinhala Buddhist as they had done in the post-Gujarati colonization period.

Further, the coastal littoral of southern Sri Lanka was inhabited by simple folk of South Indian origin whose main livelihood was fishing, pearling, toddy tapping, cinnamon peeling and being the cannon fodder of local petty kings and chiefs in their constant fights.

These were, by and large, Tamil or Malayalee-speaking Hindus as can be attested by the "Ge" or house names of their descendants today in South Sri Lanka. Their primary function of fishing and toddy taping had prevented them, namely the Karave, Salagama & Durave castes, from being absorbed into Buddhism as fishing and toddy tapping were abhorrent functions to the Buddhists.

Although some amongst these castes, due to their military service, had ingratiated their lineages with the dominant Sinhala Buddhists and received land grants. It is this group that has turned out to be the true villains of Sri Lankan history, not the Portuguese.
Although most of the descendants of these groups today deny their obvious South Indian origins, true historians know the truth. If left alone, most of these coastal people would have coalesced into the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka. If that had happened Tamils might not have been the minority at all. But that is not what happened. The most important contribution that the Portuguese did to the Sinhalese was the elimination of an important social distance indicator between coastal Tamils and Sinhalese in converting both to the Catholic faith. It enabled the age-old assimilation of Tamils into Sinhalese to happen again, an assimilation which had come to a halt due to political and religious reasons.
Church in Galle with dagoba

As a caveat, during the Buddhist revivalist period instigated by Anagarika Dharmapala, who was born into a Catholic Salagama family, many of these coastal Catholics both Tamils, Sinhalese and Sinhalised Tamils converted enmass to Buddhism, and even created their own Buddhist organizations because the traditional upper Govi caste-oriented prelates refused entry of these newly converted Buddhists of dubious caste origins into their organizations.

Even today Sri Lankan Buddhist prelates are organized by caste, such as the Govi, Karavae and Salagama, because of this very reason.  If there is to be a loser due to Portuguese colonization in Sri Lanka, then it is the Tamils more than the Sinhalese. Tamils lost their independent Jaffna kingdom and lost a
very large percentage of their ethnic brethren to Catholicism. These brethren have become Sinhalese Buddhist and Sinhalese Catholics, all the way from western Puttalam region to southern Matara and beyond. It is only in the Northeastern provinces that Catholics have maintained their Tamil identity.

Bell tower of the Cathedral of St. James the Greater, Colombo
St James the Greater, Colombo

Today just one village in the Western coast hangs on to its Tamil identity. It is Uddappu, one of out of a thousand villages and towns which spoke Tamil
and dotted the coastal region once upon a time. All other surrounding Catholic or Buddhist villages are self-considered to be Sinhalese, even if they spoke Tamil at home just a generation ago.

Further down in the South, Tamil has been replaced as a mother tongue many generations ago. Although, as presented in the conference, Portuguese did destroy many Hindu and Buddhist places of worship, today's new Buddhists have taken over many Hindu temples as Buddhist Vihares, as can be seen by the statutes of the Hindu deity Ayyanar on horseback in these Vihares' complexes close to Negombo.

dagoba kataragama sri lanka Kataragama
These new Buddhists, like all the newly converted around the world, overwhelmingly supported, and still support, the suppression of Tamil language and civil rights since the populist prime minister Solomon West Ridgeway Diaz Bandaranaike came to power in 1956. He himself came from an uppity coastal caste of formerly Hindu, then Catholic, and later Protestant background. He converted to Buddhism as a way to gain power, only to be shot dead by a Buddhist monk. In a nutshell, Bandaranaike's family's ascent to power as Sinhala elites from their lowly roots shows the hybridization that is the norm amongst the Sri Lankan ruling class. Since Bandaranaike, his clan has provided two more leaders for the country, who have managed to push it beyond the abyss.
Sri Lanka has not being able to overcome its colonial history, not because of the effects of colonialism, but because of the lack of vision of its post-colonial political class. This cabal owes its current success to its ability to ingratiate itself with whoever and whatever has been perceived to be dominant.  This group has appropriated whatever has been necessary to succeed. During pre-colonial times, it was for land grants from petty Sinhalese chiefs and titles for offering their kinsman as the cannon fodder for war. During the Portuguese times, the path to success was Catholicism and Portuguese names. During the British time most converted to Protestantism and picked up Anglo names. Today the same people are Buddhists of the first class. Their continued usage of racist supremacy as a political card displays the inner insecurity of the ethnically hybridized ruling class, but also - primarily - their crass opportunistic behavior. 
The entire top rung of the pseudo-Marxist, but ideologically racist JVP (the third largest political party) politburo hails from these coastal littoral areas. Family origin in these areas lie in the murky waters off the Palk Straits. Today these people are upkeepers of the virulently superior Sinhala Buddhists interests.  This also applies to the current President and his coterie of Southern advisors and military leaders with Iberian patrilineal last names open or hidden.
It is this ruling class catering to a narrow, parochial and racialist world view that has brought the country to its current abyss, not Portuguese colonialism as the conference presenters would have us believe. The people who pay the price for such opportunistic politics are the common family man, the fisher and the farmer who have from time immemorial wanted to live in peace and love with their neighbors, true to their religious teachings, not the corrupt Pajero-driving Swiss bank account-holding ruling class.
If Sri Lanka is to emerge from its current abyss, then its highly educated people need to look at who is leading whom in what direction. Is the tired old virulent Sinhala Buddhist rhetoric used originally by the Diaz Bandaranaike clan and now being offered anew by the Mahinda Rajapakses, JHU & JVP the right message
for them?  
Who does this virulent and racist message benefit? It only benefits the ruling class and their hangers-on that have, like the chameleon, changed their colors to hold on to their petty perks at the cost of millions of common people. They have sacrificed the future of growth and economic stability that was Sri Lanka's due like in Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand just for their selfish interests. Their ancestors sacrificed their kinsman for a few acres and useless titles, and today's cabal of Hennanayakes, Rajapakses & de Silvas are burying the birthright of all Sri Lankans.