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Dominant culture my foot!

 The Sinhala Buddhist majority was so aggrieved and cowed that their condition gave rise to snide remarks such as the notorious aside about the Sinhala Buddhists being a ‘majority with a minority complex.’

by Rajpal Abeynayake

(November 30, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I had much opportunity to be harangued this week about the privileged position of the so-called dominant culture.

This was at a literary seminar called SLAM 2010, held in Peradeniya, in the salubrious environs of the sprawling and picturesque Pera’ campus. The organizers have to be given a hand.

But that apart, it had me wondering why there was so much that seemed to turn on this so-called concept of the ‘dominant culture.’ Apparently, or so I’m told, the dominant culture of Sri Lanka is the culture of the Sinhala Buddhists.

You could have fooled me, I almost said. I happen to be a Sinhala Buddhist and I say that with some trepidation, because it would invariably cause to deprive me of certain privileges that I would have undoubtedly have enjoyed if I did not happen to be a Sinhala Buddhist, expressly stated.

It is easy to throw around the appellation of dominant culture but what does this description in fact mean for those who inhabit the space of this so-called ‘dominant culture’?

For starters, it means that at a global level, those who inhabit the so-called dominant Sinhala Buddhist cultural space are a marginalized lot. But even locally speaking, those who do not have any Sinhala Buddhist connections would often find that they are among the privileged decision-making elite.

Those who do not have any entanglement with the Sinhala Buddhist dominant culture find that they often call the shots so to speak, in the privileged sectors of society or its decision making dovecotes. For example, if you would take the Colombo opinion making seminar circuit, certainly, if you were not a Sinhala Buddhist you would find relatively unfettered free entry to the charmed circles.

Why so? It is for the simple reason that the opinion making Colombo seminar whirl is quite often sponsored by the non-governmental sector that is funded by the non-Buddhist non-national forces of the Sri Lankan polity.

NGO activists


The informal academic sector that is peopled by NGO activists is almost exclusively funded by non-national non Sinhala Buddhist forces as well.

That being the situation, they dare to tell me that the Sinhala Buddhist culture is the dominant culture in our social space?

You would be lucky if you would get so much as a look-in within the so-called Colombo opinion making circuit if you happen to be Sinhala, and Buddhist.

On the global perspective, if you are Sinhala Buddhist, you are already a victim of the globally pervasive canard that there is hegemony of the dominant Sinhala Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka.

This is rich, particularly because in fact at the fag-end of the colonial era the Sinhala Buddhists found themselves to be a marginalized cowed majority that were subservient to the stratagems of the colonial power, exercised through the civil servant sub-stratum of the Tamil minority.

The Sinhala Buddhist majority was so aggrieved and cowed that their condition gave rise to snide remarks such as the notorious aside about the Sinhala Buddhists being a ‘majority with a minority complex.’

These were all glib things to say to a majority that found themselves subservient to a ruling elite that was almost totally comprised of members of the minority community. Strangely, as much as they would say otherwise, the trend today is much of the same after decades of independence.

If the Sinhala Buddhists fight a war to maintain identity and viability, the global regime of news dissemination would have it that the Sinhala Buddhists are engaged in a hegemonic war, for example.

Somebody couldn’t so much as attempt to say otherwise, because the orthodoxies are so regimented that one could not reasonably challenge these orthodoxies without looking to be too out on a limb, so to say.

So it is a no-win situation for the Sinhala Buddhists in the main. They are damned if they are to be protective of their lot, because they are instantly termed hegemonic if not aggressive. If they don’t protect themselves they are bound to be overrun anyway by the minorities which enjoy the sponsorship and the goodwill of the global forces of hegemony in any case.

If that sounds too abstract to you, all I’m saying is that if you are a Sinhala Buddhist you are not tied to any of the orthodoxies such as Catholicism, or the orthodoxy of global capital formation that invariably helps the minorities. Obviously that would begin to sound abstract again, and I’m not blaming anybody for thinking it is.

But the fact of the matter is that if you are Tamil, you were invariably either tied to the Catholic nexus — or the Western liberal orthodoxy of sympathetically identifying with minorities. The latter stance in turn stemmed from the principle of divide and rule that defined colonial domination, which gave way to what is now manifest as the Western liberal cultural orthodoxy.

This is all abstract, but it is not abstract to a member of the Sinhala Buddhist minority who feels that Colombo elite formation excludes Sinhala Buddhists, because such elite formation is generally enabled by foreign NGO funding.


Sinhala Buddhists

The less abstract we are the better. In plain vanilla lingo, Sinhala Buddhists would be very lucky despite all the suitable credentials, to be chosen for, say, a global think-tank effort such as Amnesty International for instance, because such entities automatically recruit on the basis of the Western liberal nexus which favours the minorities.

Not that there is something romantic or enabling about belonging to some outfits such as Amnesty International or Oxfam or whatever. But the fact remains that all of these well-heeled organizations continue to call the tune in civil society endeavors in the developing world and continue to be powerful elite forming entities. The Sinhala Buddhists continue to be excluded from such putative power bases. Good for them on a matter of principle, but it beats me that Sinhala Buddhists continue to be called the dominant culture despite being at the receiving end of such a raw deal at least in terms of how the global and thereby the local power hierarchies are ordered.

But maybe it’s a topic to be expanded on another day.

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