Saturday July 20, 2019

Sri Lanka’s Nationalism and hate is an illiberal European Import : Bellwether

By Bellwether

Feb 05, 2016 07:28 AM GMT+0530 | 4 Comment(s)

Kristallnacht:  A Jewish-owned shop destroyed during Kristallnacht (the "Night of Broken Glass"). Berlin, Germany, November 10, 1938/Pic US Holocaust Museum

ECONOMYNEXT - A Hungarian camerawoman trips a desperate Syrian refugee running into the country across the border with his little kid in his arms. In Sri Lanka, a ‘Sinha Le’ campaign targeting minorities is taking off again as the country celebrates independence from British rule.


What is the connection?

Although Sri Lankans call it Independence Day or nidahas dinaya (Freedom Day), marking the peaceful breakaway from British rule, what people in the island received in 1948 was not freedom, but self-determination.

Many believe that Sri Lanka’s nationalism is homegrown or that our economic and political problems are related to imperialism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While it is true that nationalism emerged when empires broke down, empires had ended in earlier ages with no such results.


Under self-determination, freedoms can be taken away or expanded by the new rulers once an empire breaks down or monarchic rule ends. Freedom comes from how that self-determination is used to make laws, constitutions or other interventions that either expand the freedom or sovereignty of the individual or takes it way.

In the past, what is now called Sri Lanka (or sections of it) had been part of Dutch and Portuguese empires that fanned out of what is now called Europe, and before that, several empires that expanded out of what is now called India, including Kalinga and Chola empires.

Sri Lanka itself was most likely colonized by North East Indian empires including what is loosely called Kalinga, as symbolized by the legend of Vijaya, after they drove out or swamped the then-resident population signified by figures like Kuveni. This was a recurring theme in South East Asia, where also Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms displaced the native Austronesian or tribal population.

Bloody wars were associated with many of the changes in rule, at least from the history that we think we know after the Mahavamsa was translated during British rule and its contents known widely. There were wars with foreign powers and domestic wars among regional rulers in the island. In 2009, a 30-year internal war ended.

From the history that we now think we know, most of the wars in Sri Lanka’s past did not last that long. The 30-year war was also different from civil wars fought in the past.

Wars that kings fought

In the feudal era, wars were rarely if ever fought on linguistic nationalist lines, although some were fought on religious lines after mischief-making by priests. Many of the wars were fought between the ruling aristocrats, and ordinary people were not very involved in the politics of feudal wars and in fact resented them.

Many wars were also fought between professional soldiers or mercenaries. Indian mercenaries (Damila kuli hewayo) figured in many of the civil wars between our kings even according to the Mahavamsa. In fact, for some people – the so-called martial races in India - war was their livelihood, and even the British recruited them. In the same way European professional soldiers fought for and even commanded the forces of Sinhala kings against their brethren from Europe. A mercenary or professional soldier who pledges allegiance to one king will fight for him until his contract ends.

The grounds for enthno-religious nationalist wars proliferated mainly in Europe with the breakdown of feudal rule and the emergence of the European (unitary) nation-state.

Why War?

Before freehold land emerged in Britain, and serfs and peasants started to own land, all over the world including in Sri Lanka kings owned the land. Even regional leaders or ministers did not actually own the land, but had control over them at the pleasure of the king. Countries or empires were identified by the sovereign. In Sri Lanka, property rights for ordinary citizens started to emerge during Dutch rule.

In Europe and elsewhere, property rights changed hands by war. Very rarely did kings sell land (Napoleon sold Louisiana to the US). Land was also be given away by marriage. Although wars were fought to settle disputes, kings generally fought wars to acquire land, along with the people to work it and increase their tax take and the realm. There was no nationalist hate.

After a new territory was annexed, the country’s border expanded. The country was identified with the sovereign. Once the war was lost, local lords who accepted the new king would go on as before. Peasants and serfs could not care less.

The war was a game played by certain accepted rules. The least costly option to decide the outcome of the game was by single combat (dvanda sataner) saving many lives and resources.

The rulers did not hate the people for being different. The rulers were an aristocratic minority. They were clearly separate from the ordinary people. They usually spoke a different language. Their religion could also be different. The term ‘pagan’ in Europe denotes that those living outside the city walls followed a different religion. In Europe, for a long time, the ruling classes spoke French. They married among each other. Indeed, it was the practice to marry into the ruling families of any new countries that were conquered.

But trouble brewed if the new king or their heirs were unjust or taxed too much (to fight new wars usually).

The principle of a just king was very important throughout the world, especially including in South Asia and Sri Lanka. That is why King Dutugamunu had to fight very hard from outside to dislodge King Elara, a just king with whom the people and local leaders were happy. After his victory, Dutugamunu was careful to have proper funeral rites and build a monument for him so that the people would not be upset.

Empire Building

Successful, long-running empires ruled over a diverse people with many languages and religions as each new country was annexed and the religious pantheon grew; the process of religious assimilation could work both ways.

Religious syncretism was widespread.

A case in point relevant to Sri Lanka are the empires and kingdoms built by the Greeks. Among the results of Alexander’s conquest of South Asia were Bactrian (present day Afghanistan, Pakistan and India) and Indo-Greek kingdoms. Under the likes of King Demetrius, it is now believed that Greek artists first gave human form (anthropomorphic representation) to Lord Buddha, ending the earlier aniconic tradition of symbolic representation.

The statues started depicting Lord Buddha in a himation (a toga like garment) and curly hair in the likeness of Apollo Belvedere. Some of the earliest surviving examples include the Bimaran casket and the standing Buddha from Ghandara (present day Pakistan), although there is some uncertainty in dating them. The process continued under Kushan rulers.

Although priests made mischief from time to time, even during the multi-god period, the problem became more acute with monotheism. Monotheism gained popularity with Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian and later Muslim religions.

However, at first, kings tended to be more accommodative, as seen in the early Persian Sassanid empires and even Muslim empires, for example.

Monotheism set a stronger ideological ground to persecute 'non-believers', and discourage syncretism, although for kings and emperors there was no real incentive to eliminate people, as they could be valuable for various skills.

Usually kings tended to be suspicious of people who followed religions of their rivals for political reasons thinking they may collaborate with the enemy.

Nationalist Hate

The modern nationalism that we are familiar with in Sri Lanka started with the breakdown of feudal rule in Europe and the popular vote. With liberals breaking down monarchic rule, parliaments were springing up. With printing and education becoming more widespread, ordinary people - not just the aristocracy - started to engage politically and spread ideas. In Europe, the Austro-Hungarian Empire where all kinds of people - Germans, Hungarians, Romanian, Serbs and Czechs to name a few - had lived started to break down.

In Europe, as elsewhere, borders changed constantly. A country that was identified as such only a few years earlier was radically changed later. In a lifetime people switched the language that they spoke. With no visas or citizenship, it was common for people to migrate and spill across borders.

When modern nation-states emerged, those involved in political machinery tried to create countries along linguistic lines. There was no nationalist hate. Early liberals in Eastern and Central Europe had tried to create nations along existing linguistic lines instead of going back to older borders.

"Thus the right of self-determination and of government by the people, as expounded by western liberalism, becomes transformed into the principle of nationality as soon as liberalism becomes a political factor in Central Europe," notes Ludwig von Mises, a political philosopher and economist who observed closely how Nazism evolved in Europe.

"The political terminology begins to differentiate between state and nation (people). The people (the nation) are all men speaking the same idiom; nationality means community of language."

Redrawing Borders

The desire to confine a nation of people speaking one language itself did not involve nationalist hate. The liberal idea for a linguistic nation-state was a ‘natural state’ that a prince or king could not change by war, because they could not expand the natural state whose borders were already defined by language. They hoped therefore that peace would prevail and war could no longer be justified, say Mises.


The key problem with the idea was that neither populations nor languages were static across time.

In areas inhabited by Poles and Magyars (Hungary) the intention was different, notes Mises. They wanted to create a Poland and Hungary within a boundary of a bygone past, not the borders of an area where a group of people spoke one language at the time of independence.

"They did not look forward to a new liberal Europe, but backward to the glorious past of their victorious kings and conquerors, as depicted by their historians and writers," says Mises.

"The principle of nationality was derived from the liberal principle of self-determination.

But the Poles, the Czechs and the Magyars substituted for this democratic principle an aggressive nationalism aiming at the domination of people speaking other languages. Very soon, German and Italian nationalists and many other linguistic groups adopted the same attitude."

Hitler's Third Reich was an attempt to re-create the glorious historical past of the First Reich - The Holy Roman Empire.

Political Chauvinism

With political power coming through popular vote, non-feudal leaders now had the incentive to stoke nationalism to get votes, unlike feudal rulers who had no incentive to do so. Chauvinist ideas prevalent among some people could now be given political effect through parliaments, in effect, nationalism. This allowed legalized discrimination of minorities though such rule were against the basic principles of a 'law'.

"He who lives as a member of a linguistic minority, within a community where another linguistic group forms the majority, is deprived of the means of influencing the country’s politics," notes Mises. "In this struggle of ideas, linguistic minorities cannot take part. They are voiceless spectators of the political debates out of which the deciding vote emerges.

"For them, democracy does not mean self-determination; other people control them. They are second class citizens.

"This is the reason why men in a democratic world consider it a disadvantage to be members of a linguistic minority. It explains, at the same time, why there were no linguistic conflicts in earlier ages, where there was no democracy."

‘State languages’ could now be decreed by law. In the West the practice of a state religion were ending with religious emancipation and the secular state. But parliaments in the East could now recreate state religions or designated other religious to second-class status. That Christianity was imported to Europe from elsewhere did not matter.

State interventions in business and other spheres gave post-feudal rulers tools that no feudal ruler ever had to intervene and oppress minorities. State education was also a tool of nationalism.

A centralized syllabus could be used to brainwash any child. History could be revised and taught along with language. There was no opportunity to learn anything else.

Says Mises: "Western Europe developed the system of obligatory public education. It came to Eastern Europe as an achievement of western civilization. But in the linguistically mixed territories, it turned into a dreadful weapon in the hands of governments determined to change the linguistic allegiance of their subjects."

Triangular Nationalism

The linguistic minority in another country across the border now became the irredenta or the unredeemed people who the main linguistic majority in the next country said they should help.

Rogers Brubaker, a US academic, calls this a triad or ‘triangular’ nationalism.

In one country the ethnic majority claims the country as their own homeland, putting people speaking other languages into second class. The minority insists that their area is also a homeland and tries to prove it by showing how long their ancestors have lived there or spoken the language.

Across the border in the next country, the large majority who claim it as their homeland tries to help their ethnic, linguistic or ethno-religious brethren.

Brubaker finds the following characteristics in this triangular nationalism.

There is a ‘core nation’ or nationality defined in ethno cultural terms that is different from the current resident population.

The core nation legitimately ‘owns’ the polity. That the core nation is not flourishing or is in decline, and specific action is needed to promote language or other aspects.

During socialist rule, nationalist ideas took a back seat, but after the breakup of the Soviet Union, nationalists raised their head again in Europe.

In Hungary, even now, neo-Nazis and nationalism is a problem. Under rural nationalist ideology – like in Sri Lanka - laws make it difficult for foreigners to own land and, as a result, is finding it difficult to fully integrate with the EU.


In both the US and South America, such ideas were not prevalent as in Eastern and Western Europe, Mises points out. In Germany, Marxists and nationalists defeated liberal ideas. In the linguistic nation-states of Italy, Spain and Germany, Fascism and Nazism came and the Germans tried to create a larger Germany.

The nationalists were fundamentally different from earlier empire builders. They did not want land with the people to work it, but living space (lebensraum) for the people who spoke the language (volksgenossen). They try to eliminate existing residents. Or they use colonization schemes to expand the living space of the majority to other areas.

The Nazis started to eliminate the Jews, despite the fact that they were German and spoke German. Nazism was a Christian (Catholic and Lutheran) linked phenomenon, although the Vatican opposed Nazism later when mass killings started.

Roman Catholicism, said Mussolini in his Doctrine of Fascism, was "the special, positive religion of Italians."

"The Fascist state sees in religion one of the deepest spiritual manifestations and for this reason it not only respects religion but defends and protects it."

A liberal state on the other hand is secular and leaves religion to the people. Mussolini followed up with his own version of Nuremburg laws to discriminate against Jews; Jesus, however, was a Jew.


Humans were degenerating to tribalism, but on a much grander scale than in earlier ages, as nationalism, fascist totalitarianism and Nazism used the tools of the European post-feudal state – the standing army and legislating powers of intervention - to achieve its ends.

Other concepts such as Aryanism and racial superiority came into the mix, and pure Germans also wanted to eliminate the Slavs, who were second class.

Among those who propagated the idea of a superior or fourth race was Helena Blavatsky (who had German origins), one time Secretary of the Theophysical Society.

Other secret or occult societies were also active in Germany including Thule Society, whose membership had some connections to what became the Nazi Party. Nazis seized ideas such as the Aryan language group, turning it into a race issue and using ‘science’ to prove nationalism.

In the US and South America East European-style nationalist ideas were largely absent as more liberal ideas were able to remain on top, like in Western Europe. Only in French-speaking Quebec are there calls for self-determination even now.

Slavery, although bad enough, was not the same as nationalism coming with the popular vote. Slave owners do not desire to eliminate slaves; they were valuable property.

Like in most countries , even Sri Lanka had slaves until the British abolished it through a series of legislative acts and compensation. Under pressure from abolitionists in London, the British Empire had mostly ended slavery through a series of legal and other actions by 1835. In Ceylon, it was in 1840. The abolition of slavery fully all areas was delayed in the US because it was no longer part of the British Empire.

But several decades after Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in the remaining states through an act of war, nationalism and white superiority also infected the US in the form of Jim Crow laws, which segregated ‘whites’ from those with black and Indian blood. No such problems were found in South America. Jim Crow laws were later repealed but the effects linger.

European nationalist ideas also spread to the British Empire, mingled with anti-imperial efforts as self-determination, setting the stage to recreate the conditions of Eastern and Central Europe.

As Nehru was a left-leaning atheist and Mahatma Ghani was a true nation builder, India escaped. But in countries like Malaysia and Sri Lanka, nationalism took root. In India it is coming up now.

Decadent West

Although societies were degenerating to tribalism and worse under nationalism, the proponents of such ideas thought they were doing the opposite.

The cry of ‘western decadence’ (decline) was taken up. The idea of western decadence was a criticism taken up in Eastern Europeans (Germany for example was not really considered a ‘Western’ country at that time) by fascist-nationalists who thought that liberal ideas such as emancipation of black slaves, religious freedom and liberal attitude towards sex (ending double standards against women) spelled the end of the glorious European civilization. It had nothing to do with Asia.

Although Marxists also thought western liberalism was decadent, fascists held that socialism was also contributing to decadence as did free-masonry and democracy in general.

"The organism of the west has been weakened, debilitated by these ideologies," wrote Oswald Spengler in Decline of the West. "Well, there is in existence only one movement at the present time, which has the courage and possesses the power of a great nation to be fundamentally, openly, ferociously anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-Freemason: Fascism."

In Sri Lanka, Fascism is glorified just as it was glorified in Italy in the 1920s. Although real liberalism is largely absent in Sri Lanka, even neo-liberalism which is a shadow of classical liberalism and borders on mercantilism is derided here.

Economic Nationalism

Nationalism and Marxism started to pick up in the second half of the 19th century in Europe, shortly after liberals ended slavery and brought freedom to many people, and gave universal franchise. It also seems to have filtered into Sri Lanka around the same time.

In Sri Lanka, activists like Anagarika Dharmapala preached exclusively to the Sinhalese, unlike Mahatma Ghandi in India, who wanted self-determination for all linguistic and religious groups.

Ethnic and religious nationalism was intrinsically tied up in economic nationalism in terms of self-sufficiency and state intervention in Europe.

In Sri Lanka, activists including Anagarika Dharmapala preached the message of self-sufficiency and against minorities in the same breath, helping spread similar dangerous ideas.

"The broom which is used to sweep roads built with earth and stones from the Sinhala land is imported from abroad," he said Anagarika Dharmapala in one of his writings. "The bullock cart built with material born in the Sinhala land has a number plate made with a steel plate imported from England.”

In the next paragraph, he relates a conversation he had with a Muslim (hambayek) who had said the blood of the Sinhalese was not clean because they drank alcohol and Sinhalese women were not chaste enough.

"Hamba, marakkala kadawalata yaner sthreenter honder wenter ider nather (No good will come to Sinhalese women who go to the shop of a Moor). Para hambayagen kemer kaner Sinhalaya rodiyeki (The Sinhalese who eats from Para Hambaya – a pejorative term referring to foreign or Muslim outsiders - is a very low caste person).”

These ideas were dangerous to building a free peaceful country, and laid the foundation for war and oppression.

Around the same time, Buddhist devotees in Sri Lanka set up a missionary effort, taking the philosophy of Lord Buddha to many lands; especially and among the beneficiaries were people in Britain itself.

Spreading a religion peacefully and spreading linguistic or religious superiority ideas and targeting minorities are completely different. Full religious emancipation came to Britain in the early 19th century, ending centuries of discrimination against Catholics and others. Similar laws were already in place in Sri Lanka under the Dutch, which ended shortly after the British came.


In a capitalist system with free trade and private property, it is difficult to discriminate against minorities. For a nationalist there is little or no difference between a foreigner and a domestic minority. A minority has a 'foreign' origin. Of course the majority also probably has a 'foreign origin'. But that is conveniently forgotten.

This was also the case in Europe.

"In a world in which people have grasped the meaning of a market society, and therefore advocate a consumer’s policy, there is no legal discrimination against Jews,” explains Mises.

"Whoever dislikes the Jews may in such a world avoid patronizing Jewish shopkeepers, doctors and lawyers. On the other hand, in a world of interventionism only a miracle can in the long run hinder legal discrimination against Jews.

"The policy of protecting the less-efficient domestic producer against the more efficient foreign producer, the artisan against the manufacturer, and the small shop against the department and chain stores would be incomplete if it did not protect the ‘Aryan’ against the Jew."

The good news of course is that people are not naturally nationalist.

That is why Sri Lankans buy from Muslim shops, just like Germans bought goods from Jewish shops or married Jewish girls

People have to be forced to not buy from Muslim shops -- the BBS ran pickets, just like the brown shirts did in Germany.

Sri Lankan buy Indian goods despite nationalists trying to stop free trade. Capitalist businesses employ foreigners, even illegal immigrants.

The end of feudal rule brought forth several political philosophies. Liberal ideas competed with Marxism and nationalism. Some ideologies such as anarchy have since disappeared.

The happiness of people and whether there is peace or prosperity lies in which idea and philosophy dominates. Socialism lead to economic problems as markets are suppressed. Nationalism leads to conflict and war.

Nationalism and trade controls lead to bad relations between neighboring countries which can also lead to conflict and war.

In Germany liberalism lost to nationalism and was restored only after World War II.

When there is self-determination, whether a country descends to nationalism and division like in former Yugoslavia or where a journalist trips a refugee, or people live in freedom and togetherness is up to the residents and their willingness to believe in equality and liberty.

Feedback and queries:

This column is based on 'The Price Signal by Bellwether' published in the November 2015 issue of the Echelon Magazine. To read Bellwether columns as soon as they are published, subscribe to Echelon Magazine at this link. The i-tunes app can be downloaded from here.


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  1. Bellwether March 12, 12:23 PM

    @DilanJ. Yes. That is what this column says. It is virulent nationalism that made the Hungarian journalist trip the refugee or others now make people turn back refugees. People in Sri Lanka got these nationalist ideas from Europe.When the Dutch who were protestants started to persecute the Catholics in Ceylon they fled to areas under the Sinhala kings. There is no record to say that they were turned back. In fact some Portuguese who were captured by a Sinhala king was settled in Vahakotte. That does not mean all Europeans are nationalists. There are enough people who value humans for what they are. So it depends on whose ideology is in the ascendancy at any given time.

  2. Dilan J February 08, 09:07 AM

    What about some US states refusing any refugees..? What about the recent development in EU countries against refugees? What about UK painting the doors in red color of refugees? Why are you targeting the so much suppressed Sinhalese Buddhists people over the last couple of centuries? Why not talk about Islamic terrorism which is gripping the whole world?Why not talk about KSA spending billions of dollars to spread the wahabism? Why not?

  3. Bellwether February 07, 07:14 AM

    BJP is nationalist not socially liberal but with pro private sector bias. But it is not capitalist liberal. This will be like the nationalist wing of the Republican party. Like Donald Trump for example. That can be dangerous.

    The Congress has socialist roots and is socially liberal. But in the past they have been pro state. They are like the left wing of the Democratic party in the US. Kind of what some people call pinkos.

  4. Prasanna February 05, 05:58 AM

    Where does BJP fall? What about that?

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