3 Political Lessons We Can Learn from Sri Lanka

by Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana

I am writing this article from Sri Lanka, where I preached at the funeral of my aunt Indranie Premawardhana, a powerful woman of faith. She effectively advocated, counseled and encouraged young women to leadership both in their communities and churches. She served as President of the Asian Baptist Women’s Union for many years, and as Vice President of the Baptist World Alliance. I am truly indebted to her for her example and leadership.

The following are reflections on political lessons and challenges from Sri Lanka. This is the third in a series as we prepare for SCUPE’s Immersion Journey to Sri Lanka, February 2-12, 2017.

A Glass Ceiling and a Sticky Floor

Nearly 100 years after the 19th amendment to the US constitution granted women the right to vote, we in the United States have failed to elect a woman to its highest office. Although we are seeing more women holding elected officethe US Senate now has a record number of non-white womenthe United States lags behind many countries in this area.

By contrast, the glass ceiling in Sri Lanka was shattered more than sixty years ago when in 1960 voters elected Sirimavo Bandaranaike as Prime Minister, the first woman in the world to serve as head of state. This was less than thirty years after Sri Lanka enacted universal suffrage in 1931just three years after Britain, and a decade after the US. 

Yet, Sri Lankan women enjoy high life expectancy (74 years), near universal literacy, and access to economic opportunities. Among the reasons for this are progressive public policies related to health and education. A network of hospitals and clinics provide free health services for all, including maternity and children’s services.  Free and mandatory public education to all boys and girls and the availability of free university education mean that parents don’t have to choose between investing in the education of sons or daughters.

Yet despite these advances, women’s representation in the various levels of government is dismally low. Women’s leadership in other branches of government and business is slightly higher, which begs the question: Why do Sri Lankan women who shattered the glass ceiling suffer from a sticky floor syndrome? How do entrenched stereotypes that privilege men as leaders and women as caregivers keep women from aspiring to high positions in public life?

Identity, Privilege, and Pluralism

© Creative Commons

© Creative Commons

Sri Lanka was subject to the colonial exploitations of the Portuguese, Dutch and British for 443 years, from 1505 to 1948. Now almost 70 years since independence, the country is still living through the trauma of that long period of subjugation. The protracted war the country engaged in between 1983 and 2009 was, I believe, directly related to the colonial legacy.

A key strategy that empires use to control local populations is divide and rule.  In Sri Lanka there are two primary ethnic constituencies: Sinhala and Tamil. Most Sinhalese are Buddhists, and most Tamils are Hindus. Christians are both Sinhalese and Tamils. Muslims are both a religious and ethnic constituency.  By solidifying binary identities such as Sinhala/Tamil, or Buddhist/Christian/Hindu/Muslim empires attempt to create an exclusive “us” versus “them” dichotomy. But no one can claim to be “pure” Sinhalese or “pure” Tamil. Similarly, Buddhists and Hindus particularlybut also Buddhists and Christiansfind that their worldviews are often co-mingled. Identities are much more fluid.

In 1956, Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike came to power by conflating two identitiesethnic and religiousto create an even greater power base that excluded all others. He coined the term “Sinhala-Buddhist” and promised them privileges. He later discovered that this conflation had left out a large population of Tamils predominantly located in the island’s north and east, and attempted to backtrack. This led to the first riots by Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists against Tamils in 1958, and his own assassination in 1959. The privileging led to injustices against the Tamil minority. In 1983, a riot by Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists which massacred Tamils particularly in minority areas was followed by a Tamil militancy, which terrorized much of the country until 2009. The war ended, but wounds remain.

The violence extends to religious minorities. While Sri Lanka recognizes freedom of religion it gives Buddhism a privileged status. The perception of continued threat to Buddhism by Christian missionary activity, and fears of Muslim militancy has led some Buddhist monks to take the unprecedented step of creating political parties. Some extremist Buddhist groups (led by monks) even engaged in severe violence against Christians, burning churches and killing pastors. These incidents, after reaching epidemic proportions, have now shifted to target Muslim communities.

Pluralism is the robust engagement with diverse identities and commitments. How do we retain all that is good in our particularities while allowing for fluid movement across exclusive identities that tend to divide us?

Government, Gods, and Goods

Colonialism was not only a political venture, it was primarily motivated by commercial interests, advanced to exploit the tropical island’s bountiful natural resources including a variety of spices and gems. British and Dutch East India Company’s controlled the economic interests of the empire.

All these ventures were supported and legitimized by religion.  

Sri Lanka youth evangelized by american christian missionaries  ©2005 by Vincent Isner

Sri Lanka youth evangelized by american christian missionaries  ©2005 by Vincent Isner

The religious license for colonial conquest came with the promulgation of a series of Papal Bulls starting in 1452 that led to the “Doctrine of Discovery.” With that license, Columbus and many other like him arrived in faraway lands, planted their countries’ flags (“discovered” them) and proceeded to kill and plunder wantonly in the name of God and empire. Behind soldiers with guns marched in an army of missionaries armed with Bibles. At first the British East India Company discouraged missionaries but soon discovered that when people converted from Buddhism to Christianity, they were also willing to trade their political allegiance from the Sri Lankan king to the British king. Less rebellion. More profit.

When I was growing up there was a saying: “When you get saved, you develop an American accent.” This demonstrated the view that conversion implied a shift in cultural allegiance as well. Today they say, “When you get saved, you develop a taste for Coca Cola!” Today, its not just cultural and political allegiance that’s at stake, but it is also an economic allegiance to corporate interests.

Sri Lankan economy, while still emerging from the 26-year-long war, is poised for significant growth. In the post war period, infrastructure projects, hi-tech projects and entrepreneurial ventures seem to be booming and the tourist industry is in a significant upswing. A well-educated and largely English-speaking workforce are poised to make Sri Lankan economy thrive again.

At this pivotal time in our history, there is much to learn from Sri Lanka’s past and present.  That’s why we are organizing a unique Immersion Journey to Sri Lanka, and YOU are invited!  In ten days we will explore these and other key questions as we immerse ourselves in Sri Lanka’s beauty, history, religious expression, and civic life:

  1. What can we learn from Sri Lankan society as it relates to women as full and equal partners in the society and political life?

  2. What is the impact of Empire (political and economic powers) on religions today in the US? What can we learn from Sri Lankan religious leaders about how they have withstood, or succumbed to those pressures?

  3. What lessons can we learn from Sri Lankan religious minorities about how to work to protect religious expression for all?

These and many more questions and experiences are waiting for you to explore with us.