The argument that a unitary state with one religion and one language is required to honour the sacred trust of Lord Buddha, has clear ramifications for the self-determination aspirations of Tamils and other minorities living in Sri Lanka. A corollary of this argument — that federalism constitutes a threat to Buddhism — is voiced by some bhikkus and by ordinary Sri Lankan Buddhists too. According to some Sinhala factions, all minority ethnicities should respect the dominance of Sinhala Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka and assimilate into it.
As a counterpoint to this radical nationalism, secular democrats, one or two small left-wing parties and a handful of trade union groups have consistently campaigned within the Sinhalese polity for a more moderate approach to the ethnic problem. From 1987, the United Bikshu Congress, an organisation of social activist monks, also started campaigning for devolution. Due partly to the efforts of these groups, strident Sinhala nationalism has become increasingly marginalised in recent years. Today, though 'federalism' remains outside the bounds of acceptable political vocabulary, the need for 'devolution' is widely accepted.
This sea change within Sinhalese society has been gradual as the open market, modern education and globalisation have lessened the political influence of the Sangha. It was strengthened after the 1990 renewal of hostilities in the north and east between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which demanded increased army recruitment and the sustained sacrifice of young Sinhalese lives. The popular thirst for an end to the war was then nurtured and consolidated by the People's Alliance and its leader Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, who in 1994 achieved unprecedented electoral success on a platform of peace and negotiations with the LTTE.
As euphoria at the prospect of peace spread, the precepts of non-violence and accommodation regained primacy within the Buddhist establishment, even among those who had vigorously opposed the Indo-Lanka Accord. This was illustrated in 1995 in a joint statement issued by prominent members of the Sangha and the Catholic clergy which broadly supported government devolution proposals. The statement clearly acknowledged the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and accepted that war was not a legitimate solution. It suggested instead that a negotiated settlement based on devolution of power was the only way forward, specifying that, 'whatever the solution may be, it should not be a Sinhala solution imposed by force on Tamil people’.
Perhaps the most important indication of the erosion of hardline Sinhalese opinion, however, was the publication of the interim report of the Sinhala Commission in September 1997. The commission consisted of a large number of Sinhala nationalist organisations from all parts of the country, convened in December 1996 'to inquire into and report on the injustices caused to the Sinhala people'.
The interim report was primarily a riposte to the PA government's draft constitution. Couched in pro-Sinhala language, it roundly condemned 'Eelamists' (an ill-defined group possibly including liberal federalists as well as LTTE supporters). 'With the emasculation of the powers of [central] government', it stated, 'the future of Buddhism in this country will indeed be bleak'. Despite its hardline rhetoric, however, the surprise of the Interim Report was its tacit acceptance of the principles of the 13th amendment to the constitution which enacted the devolution provisions of the Indo-Lanka Accord. Ten years earlier, these provisions had been bitterly opposed by Sinhala Buddhist nationalists.
Popular Sinhala Buddhist opinion, therefore, has largely conceded the need to respect and protect the civil liberties of Tamils and other minorities. While many continue to equate a threat to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka with a threat to the Sinhala identity, it is also widely accepted that devolution per se will not mean the bifurcation of the island. Nevertheless, many Sinhalese remain suspicious that Tamil nationalist claims for 'self determination' still entail the division of the country, and the hardline demands of the LTTE continue to inspire heartfelt resistance. Reflecting this popular dichotomy, Sinhala politicians in the south now argue about the appropriate degree of devolution while, in the north and east, the military execute war on the LTTE with ever-increasing vigour.
The Dalada Maligawa
The Dalada Maligawa is at the heart of Sinhala Buddhist identity. Worship of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha housed in the temple is considered equal to the worship of Lord Buddha himself. While of enormous religious significance, the relic is also associated with the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. When it was captured by the British in 1818, this was considered by many a defeat more decisive than the loss of lands; it signified the beginning of total subjugation. As its loss has symbolised ultimate defeat for the Sinhalese, the exploding of a high powered bomb only a few feet from the relic was hugely provocative.