Skip to content Skip to footer

The Sepal Amarasinghe case, Sinhala Buddhist nationalisms, and party politics in Sri Lanka

The parliament proceedings over the Sepal Amarasinghe issue indicate the different nationalist stances that political parties are likely to pursue, which they hope would appeal to a post-Aragalaya electorate that is expected to re-evaluate the place of nationalism in politics and governance.

In the first parliament sitting for 2023, the discussion on the parliament floor touched on the issue of hate speech versus freedom of speech. The televised proceedings on 5 January concerned a controversial video shared on social media, where a popular YouTuber, Sepal Amarasinghe, made disrespectful remarks about the sacred Tooth Relic of the Lord Buddha. Amarasinghe identifies as an atheist, and among other things, alleges misconduct in organised religion, especially Buddhism, followed by the country’s majority. 

Amarasinghe was arrested the following day and charged under Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act of 2007 and Article 291 (B) of the Penal Code. On 7 January, President Wickremesinghe shared that measures were underway to introduce a law similar to Singapore’s Social Media Regulation Act. The misuse of the ICCPR Act of 2007 in Sri Lanka has long been criticised by human rights defenders, as it has enabled arbitrary arrest in the past, especially of ethno-religious minorities. The recent arrest of Amarasinghe and steps taken towards State regulation of social media must therefore be examined closely, as it can inform us about the present nature and future trajectory of Sri Lankan politics.  

The parliamentary debate cannot be examined in isolation from the deep democratic deficit that the current leadership and Government is trying to improve in the backdrop of a debilitating national crisis. 

How politicians approach the question of Sepal Amarasinghe’s speech and the variety of nationalism each political party invokes in their response is important. The issue can serve as a litmus test for political parties to determine which type of nationalist messaging resonates with voters in post-Aragalaya Sri Lanka. Similarly, it provides an opportunity for voters to observe the types of nationalism each political party is willing to embrace. 

Varieties of nationalist attitudes in party politics

Thus far in Sri Lankan politics, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism has been a key campaign issue for at least one mainstream political party. Even in election cycles where the key campaign slogan focused on the economy or corruption, mainstream parties rarely distanced themselves from nationalism with any conviction. Nationalism has become so deeply embedded in Sri Lankan politics, that unless a party expresses a clear stance against it, by default, voters have come to assume that the party endorses at least some degree of nationalism. This condition reveals the pervasiveness of nationalism, not only in formal politics but within Sri Lankan society at large. 

Nationalism and nationalist attitudes are, however, not monolithic. Ethnonationalist attitudes are characterised by the creation of ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ based on ethnic, religious, and linguistic identities. Ethnonationalist rhetoric is the expression of nationalist attitudes in terms of one’s own in-group identity. On the other hand, civic nationalist attitudes are inclusive of all citizens of a state and place greater emphasis on their shared state identity. The prevalent type of nationalism in Sri Lanka is ethnonationalism. 

However, ethnonationalist attitudes differ not just in degree, but in composition too. Variation in the composition of ethno-nationalist attitudes refers to the in-group identity traits that a person identifies as important, regardless of how strongly they feel about it. Variation in degree is the measure of the strength of that attitude. This makes it possible for an individual to simultaneously hold some ethnonationalist and some civic nationalist attitudes, although one type of attitude might be more dominant. 

Among the types of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, for example, is one of ethno-religious supremacy that defines itself in negation of minority rights. A variation to this, commonly invoking pre-colonial Sinhala kingdoms, advocates a Sinhala Buddhist ‘civilisational state’ where Sinhala Buddhism has the foremost place but while recognising minority rights. There are several other nuanced permutations.

Recalibrating politics of ethno-nationalism

The present is a moment where Sri Lanka’s mainstream political parties are, out of necessity, redefining and realigning the type of nationalist rhetoric they incorporate into their communication. The Sepal Amarasinghe case provided a platform for these parties to reintroduce nationalism as a key political issue. The debate in parliament provides intriguing insights into the ideological positions assumed by the different parties. 

From the SLPP camp, the main line of attack against Sepal Amarasinghe’s speech was legal and constitutional, but specifically in relation to the ‘rightful place’ which Buddhism should be accorded. Emphasis was placed on the state being constitutionally enshrined to protect Buddhism and the Buddha sasana, followed immediately with the clarification that this support would be extended to minority religions as well. This is in keeping with the provision first found in the 1972 constitution and which remains unchanged, that “In the Republic of Sri Lanka, Buddhism, the religion of the majority of the people, shall be given its rightful place, and accordingly, it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Basic Resolution 5 (iv).”

There is a nationalist flavour to the SLPP remarks, as words such as anagamika and niragamika are loosely used alongside mithyadushtika to describe Amarasinghe. These are terms that have not been used by the main political parties in describing past extremist attacks and incidents of hate speech by Sinhala Buddhist groups against minority religions. Justice Minister MP Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe’s speech, while making a legally sound argument, utilises religiously-charged language to reassure nationalist voters and Buddhist monks, and projects the image of a paternalist yet ‘benevolent gatekeeper’ who is willing to accept the Tamil minority into the fold. A similar comment was made by MP Shantha Bandara, who refers to the ‘restraint’ shown by the Sinhala Buddhist majority in the past, in the face of LTTE attacks on Buddhist sites. 

According to this framing, there is a clear distinction between an ‘in-group’ which has a particular set of desirable characteristics, and an ‘out-group’ which is unable or unwilling to adhere to laws of non-violence and restraint. This type of ethno-nationalist rhetoric emphasises the supremacy of one’s in-group. It contains within it a politics over which groups belong and which groups are excluded from asserting their rights. 

The secular state and democratic politics 

MP Wimal Weerawansa concurred with the SLPP camp in defining the limits of freedom of expression. He claimed that while persons without a religious inclination had a right to their opinion, they did not have the right to attack the religious beliefs of others. He made an impassioned claim that if this issue went unaddressed, there was little use of him remaining in parliament and that there was no need for that type of a ‘democracy’ in the country.

Weerawansa was part of the SLPP ruling coalition until he left with a group of MPs last year. Subsequently, he and a group of independent political parties and parliamentarians launched a new political alliance called the Uththara Lanka Sabhagya. 

Weerawansa’s comments in parliament highlight the use of secular civic nationalist rhetoric to convey an ethno-nationalist attitude. By using civic nationalist frames to defend ethno-nationalist ideals, his comments exemplify a variant of ethnonationalism that is highly exclusionary. For example, Weerawansa’s central argument invokes the concept of statehood and claims that Buddhism is the symbol of Sri Lanka’s statehood. Using the state and statehood as a rallying point is characteristic of civic nationalism, which is inclusive of all citizens of the state. However, by referring to Buddhism as the symbol of statehood, he defines statehood in terms of Buddhism. Doing so, this brand of nationalism excludes the identities of other religious communities from state identity. 

MP Weerawansa’s speech also brought to the forefront the question of liberal democracy and its purpose. This type of democracy had been under attack during the majoritarian populist campaign of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019. The political system was criticised as an imported, Western model, overrepresented minority grievances at the expense of majority Sinhala Buddhist welfare. Weerawansa’s present claims hark back to those politics over liberal democracy. 

Post-Rajapaksa politics and Aragalaya as ‘anti-Buddhist’ 

From the ranks of the political opposition, MP Lakshman Kiriella, while decrying Amarasinghe’s conduct, went on to say that the social media influencer had been the head of a corporation during Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government and a close ally of it. These comments point to the fractures in the Rajapaksa nationalist armoury, severely cracked during the Aragalaya last year. The Rajapaksas, having sustained the most successful nationalist platform in the recent past, especially following the end of the war, experienced a major downfall in 2022. Their inability to avert the nation’s worst economic crisis since independence, under their watch, led to a loss in political stature cultivated over the past 15 years. That a member of the SJB in the political opposition is competing to assume a nationalist mandate through attacking the SLPP’s nationalist credentials, by drawing links between Amarasinghe and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and thus riding on the Aragalaya’s discourse, is significant. 

The response to this by the SLPP is also noteworthy. SLPP MP Mahinda Amaraweera denied that Amarasinghe had headed a corporation during Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government or that he was a patron of the SLPP. He claimed that, to the extent of his knowledge, Amarasinghe was a member of the Aragalaya. Another MP from the Government, Diana Gamage, said that people like Amarasinghe have a hidden motive behind their actions. This is to receive overseas asylum through instigating controversy and forcing the Government’s hand. These remarks lumping Amarasinghe and his alleged political opportunism with the broader Aragalaya can be viewed as an attempt to delegitimise the authenticity and genuine grievances of the protest movement.

These comments from the ruling party are significant, in the context of the Government’s crackdown on the Aragalaya, especially since July last year. There has been a consistent narrative which tries to paint the protest movement as captured by a radical and violent left movement intent on creating anarchy to unlawfully gain political power. It is worthwhile remembering that during the people’s protests last year too, there were attempts at painting the Aragalaya as anti-Buddhist, although they failed to take off. These attempts reveal the existential threat the Aragalaya posed to politicians, especially to the ruling party, and attempts by the latter to neutralise the Aragalaya’s potency through a narrative that they are anti-Buddhist.

Since Amarasinghe is said to have spoken in favour of the JVP/NPP in the recent past, it was interesting to see whether this party would distance itself from the YouTuber’s conduct. In parliament, the NPP leader, AKD took on a rather muted position, and did not make outright reference to the State’s responsibility to protect Buddhism. His political rhetoric was the least ethno-nationalist of the lot, and cautioned against the danger of another extremist conflict that some groups (he did not make reference to any in particular) were keen on starting. He said that the country and its people had already suffered immensely during the civil war and religious conflict in the post-war years and that the way forward was not through creating divisions among communities. These remarks reflect the NPP’s latest attempts to create a more inclusive image in contrast to its past nationalist record. At a more recent press briefing, AKD denied any links between Amarasinghe and the NPP, stating the YouTuber had been in the Rajapaksa political camp during the last general and presidential election cycles.

Reclaiming identity politics

During times of crisis as in Sri Lanka last year, it was observed that economic issues superseded ethnonationalism as the most salient political issue. However, as we have seen in the past, nationalist attitudes are often latent attitudes that can be activated by triggering events and manipulative politics. Beyond rhetoric, there is little evidence to suggest that the Sri Lankan public have reached a post-ethnonationalist moment. While many ask whether Sri Lanka’s post-ethnonationalist moment has passed, it makes more sense to question whether Sri Lanka ever truly experienced a moment of ethno-religious unity during the Aragalaya. We know that alliances of convenience can form during times of crisis but such alliances are rarely sustainable.

The parliament proceedings over the Sepal Amarasinghe issue indicate the different nationalist stances that political parties are likely to pursue, which they hope would appeal to a post-Aragalaya electorate that is expected to re-evaluate the place of nationalism in politics and governance. Which of these varieties of nationalism will resonate best with voters is something we have yet to see.

Meanwhile, the President appears to be intent on pushing through with a solution to the ethnic question, promising to provide a solution by Independence Day. This will be no small task, as ethnonationalist attitudes that are prevalent among the public and the elites stand in the way of seeking out and implementing a sustainable and equitable solution. Addressing such a diverse set of attitudes will require the President to consult a broad representative section of the population. However, we have yet to see a consultation of that nature. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s failed attempts to solve social problems unilaterally, suggest that if Ranil Wickremesinghe were to take a similar approach, he is not likely to find a durable solution to the ethnic question. As the President is governing amidst an unprecedented economic crisis and is in power with a majority-SLPP government, there is every chance that a failed attempt might further exacerbate these outstanding issues.

Rajni Gamage and Nimendra Mawalagedara

This article was originally published in the DailyFT on 13 January 2023.

Image Copyright (c) 2023 Nazly Ahmed and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license