History Repeating Itself: The Possible Return of Sinhalese Nationalism

Sri Lanka is a nation with a history of long-standing and underlying ethnic tensions. Now, still recovering from a bloody civil war that ended roughly 10 years ago, the country must look back to the root of the problem, a nationalism targeting a populace within its own borders. 

Sinhalese nationalism, a Buddhist ideology originating in response to British colonization and widely accepted by the majority of the Sinhalese populace, was spearheaded by the administration of the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, and excluded the Tamil people, causing undue tension and strife. This exclusion led to the nearly 25-year-long civil war, a clash spurred on by nationalistic pride that has continued into the modern day. Now, the fear of the return of an authoritarian rule that would target and persecute minorities is resurfacing. 

The origin of the nation’s ethnic nationalism, specifically Sinhala nationalism, may be traced back to even before the nation’s independence from Britain in 1948. Back then, the not-yet-formed nation was part of a broader anti-colonial, anti-foreign movement. After independence, and with the formation of an electoral democracy, Sinhala nationalism grew stronger. 

As the government just started to gain its balance following independence, the Sinhala language was made the language of the state. While it is the majority language spoken in Sri Lanka, the decision made the minority Tamils feel marginalized. With the formation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (L.T.T.E.) and subsequent attacks in an attempt to create a separate state, the bloody civil war began. 

The rule of president Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2005-2014 saw the declaration by the president that he would vow to end the long war. What followed was the decimation of the remaining L.T.T.E. in 2009. The brutal victory was accompanied by tens of thousands of Tamil civilian deaths and the stoking of Sinhala nationalism by the Rajapaksa administration. 

The war’s end gave Rajapaksa increased power and popularity, which he used to silence critics. Those in opposition to him and various journalists were attacked with impunity. Corruption was rampant as many of his relatives quickly found positions at government posts. 

Since 2019, the Sri Lankan government has been controlled by the Rajapaksa brothers, who retook power following their defeat in 2015. The older, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former general who led the Sri Lankan Armed Forces to defeat the Tamil Tigers, holds the office of president and the younger, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the 6th president of Sri Lanka serving from 2005 to 2015, holds the office of prime minister. In 2015, following victory over then president Mahinda Rajapaksa, the administration of the 7th president, Maithripala Sirisena, passed a constitutional amendment imposing a two-term limit on the presidency and revoked the president’s immunity from prosecution. The chances for those amendments to be repealed and even more radical changes to the Sri Lankan government are higher than ever as the current administration needs only five more seats for a supermajority in the parliament, which would enable them a massive amount of control over the government with little resistance. The victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa caused rights groups to worry that he would seek to undo those reforms. Bandula Gunawardena, a spokesman for the Rajapaksa government’s cabinet, said,  “We hope to change the Constitution.” The threat of an authoritarian rule and a return to the country’s nationalistic ways could be imminent if the actions of the Rajapaksa brothers continue down the path they are heading.         

The Sinhala nationalism fueled by past administrations and the scars of civil war and the atrocities committed by both sides still remain. While the Tamil people may no longer be the target of direct action by the government, the minority populations residing in Sri Lanka, including the Tamil people, still fear the possibility of the reigniting of the nationalism of the past.

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