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Multiculturalism, uniculturalism and monoculturalism

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An Article from the Asian Human Rights Commission

SRI LANKA: The debate on multiculturalism, uniculturalism and monoculturalism

Dr Leonard Pinto

We need to define the concepts of multiculturalism, uniculturalism and monoculturalism before entering into a debate on their application, practice and future direction in Sri Lanka. Multiculturalism refers to that trend in the society where the different cultures are made inclusive, tolerated and accommodated, and these trends are institutionalised in legislation to respect other cultures. Canada, Australia and other western countries, where multiculturalism is the national policy, respect religions, ethnicity and cultures of different communities and their cultural rights, while a secular law common to all protect their human rights. They are not allowed to have a legal system (e.g. Sharia law) or practices (e.g. honour killing) that are contrary to the laws of the country. Some say that multiculturalism tend to divide and erase the original ethos of the nation and they suggest that uniculturalism is more appropriate, where minorities enjoy full expression of religious and ethnic cultures, while the historic continuity of the majority and their culture is recognised as the national ethos. Uniculturalism encourages integration, where cultural identities are lost in time. Monoculture is the social consciousness of the majority that dictates its culture is the right culture and only allowed culture, and people of other religions, ethnicity and cultures have the freedom to live, but their cultures have no place in the national culture. Monoculturalism aims at a homogeneous society through assimilation. This is not acceptable in modern heterogeneous societies. Sri Lanka seems to be moving in the direction of monoculturalism.

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The debate on multiculturalism, uniculturalism and monoculturalism in Sri Lanka is current. Although illusive, it emerges in subtle forms in its applications. In my discipline of ecology, diversity is preferred to dominance, because diverse communities are healthier, fit and sustainable. Co-existence is preferred to mutual-exclusion, and cooperation to destructive competition. In the field of social science, the acceptance of diversity seems to be more difficult, although cultural diversity is said to be an indictor of a healthy society. In support of monoculturalism, many Sri Lankans assert that first settlers and their descendants have a priority rights over others. If this is taken seriously, Vaddhas the aborigines of Sri Lanka should have the priority rights in the country. Paradoxically, they have no say in the country's affairs and their land rights are restricted to the jungles of Bintanne. At the height of Tamil separatist war, President J.R. Jayewardene trumpeted multiculturalism to attract international support to defeat the LTTE. After the triumph over LTTE, multiculturalism evaporated and political agitation changed direction towards Buddhist-Sinhalese monoculturalism.

Culture is a complex concept. In Sri Lanka, culture refers to the past, but internationally, it also refers to the present and the future. How cultured the nations are is reflected in their policies and how cultured the individuals are is reflected in their behaviour. Common to both are the right values and attitudes (i.e. samma sankappa) arising from tolerance and 'gentlemanly' behaviour (metta, karuna, mudita and upeksha), elegantly elucidated in Buddhism. While Sri Lankans are proud of the 2500-year old Buddhist culture, many leaders don't demonstrate signs of a cultured nation. For instance, after the Sri Lankan government invited Ms. Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to see the progress of rehabilitation and reconciliation in the country, three cabinet ministers abused her during her recent visit in Sept 2013, one proposing to marry her so that she could stay in Sri Lanka and study human rights issues there. She was also racially insulted calling her UN Tigress, Tamil supporter etc. in the Internet and Buddhist monks asked her to go home. Prof. G. L. Peiris made a mockery of himself in London by trying to attack her quoting a UN report, which clearly showed the militarization of north and east. Being truthful and honest are important aspects of any culture, and if Sri Lanka is truthful and honest in what it says, there is no need to fear any independent and international investigation.

Sri Lankan society is hell-bent on Buddhist-Sinhalese monoculturalism. The strategy towards monoculturalism in Sri Lanka converges from different angles. The political path is through Hela Urumaya, the militant path is through Bodu Bala Sena, Ravana Balaya and Sinhala Ravaya, and the intellectual path is through history, archaeology, education, media and even law and business. Some say that we were a law-abiding nation before the Roman Dutch law was forced on us. Others say that Portuguese destroyed temples and built churches on them and converted people by force to Christianity. A few say that pirivena education was better than the 'Judeo-Christian' based science and mathematics brought to us from the West by colonialist. They imply that we go back to our pre-colonial times, when there was one nation, the Buddhist- Sinhalese monoculture. Wrong! When the Portuguese were invited by the Sinhalese king Bhuvenekabahu VII of Kotte to fight his brother Mayadunne of Sitawaka, there were five kingdoms; Kotte, Sitawaka, Raigama, Kandy and Jaffna. They say that in our religious land (Dharmadeepaya) there was no cattle-slaughter or exploitation of the Sinhalese by Muslim and Tamil businessmen in that pre-colonial era. They say that we must repeal the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, lest the Tamils become powerful and wealthy once again. The Defence secretary who is known to be the patron of Bodu Bala Sena, in his 2013 Defence Seminar address, blamed the Muslims and Tamils of insularity, accusing the Muslims of links with Islamic fundamentalists and Tamils with Tamil Nadu, while his secret service men were harassing at midnight those who have spoken to Human Right's head during her visit. There are accusations and counter accusations. There is no nation building or building of trust and confidence in the north and east, but massive construction works that are naturally accompanied with financial benefits and inducements.

In 1980s, Dr. Susantha Goonatilake the president of Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science made a blunt attack on the research findings of Prof. Peter Schalk of Uppsala University Sweden, who concluded that (1) the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka was really an economic problem, on who could be rich and powerful (2) and, according to the preaching of monks, Buddha has indicated that Sri Lanka belongs to the Buddhist-Sinhalese. Although we disagreed with Prof. Schalk then, the post-war period events in Sri Lanka proves that his conclusions are indeed true. Further, in his book 'A 16th century clash of civilizations, the Portuguese presence in Sri Lanka, Goonatilake rewrote the history of Sri Lanka in 2010, highlighting only the atrocities of Portuguese, laying a framework for attacks on Catholics and their churches in a subtle manner. The central Idea was that present day Catholic churches were built on the foundations of Buddhist temples, implying that attacks on churches are justified, concealing the fact that when Dutch came to power Catholicism was banned and they took over all Catholic institutions. With unconvincing evidence, Gamage (2001) went on to say that Madhu Church was built on a Hindu Patini temple, with affinities to Buddhism, obviously to bully Catholics. In the West, British, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, American and other nations have fought with each other, but they don't dig into historical artefacts of atrocities, but move forward with modern values and attitudes seeking good relations.

Sri Lankan expressions at international forums show that Sri Lankan cultural values are different from those of the international community. They allege that we have violated human rights, but we say we have not. The Tamils say that they have no confidence in Sinhalese governments, but the government says, we have developed north and east. The need of the hour is confidence building and acceptance, so that every citizen feels that the police, judiciary and the State administration respect the individual rights of all, irrespective of their religion, ethnicity, wealth and political party affiliation. Most of us rightly, don't like the horizontal division of the society; the division of police and ownership of land according to provinces. We also rightly, don't like the vertical division of the society; superiority-inferiority based on politics, money, caste, religion or ethnicity. Buddhism must be given the right place, so also the rights of all citizens. Politicians must get out of their comfort zone of power and riches into sound ethics, morals and economic planning. Minorities must realise that they should not segregate in business ghettos, but work in partnership with the majority. They should research and find means of integrating and working with the majority, removing ethnic and religious barriers, while maintaining their identity. Unfortunately the attempts of inculturation by Christians have been misunderstood, and the moonstones at Maggona and Katukurunda Catholic churches came under attack from Buddhist Sinhalese militants, who insisted that Buddhist architecture should not be in Catholic churches. Buddhist monks must be educated to obey the laws of the country, without performing the duties of the police and judges for which they are not trained. They must also be educated to renounce monoculturalism, as Buddhist philosophy strongly leans on multiculturalism and uniculturalism.

We can learn a few lessons on multiculturalism, uniculturalism and monoculturalism from Singapore. The State of Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, because the Chinese in Malaysia felt that their future was bleak with the Bhumiputra policy that favoured the Muslim Malays in a monocultural policy. But, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a first class Chinese Cambridge graduate became the first Prime Minister of Singapore, Malay people in Singapore were treated equally and Malay language was made one of the four national languages. But, in due course English became the preferred language. He kept the Muslim symbol of star and crescent in the Singapore flag and his parliament elected Mr Devan Nair, an Indian Tamil as the President of the new Republic. Mr Lee Kuan Yew admired Sri Lanka of 1940-1950s and commented, "I will make Singapore another Ceylon", but after 1960s when he saw the ethno-religious policies of Sri Lanka, he concluded that Sri Lanka is a good example for bad policies. His success was in winning the confidence of all ethnic groups (i.e. Chinese, Malays, Tamils and Eurasians) by eliminating corruption, inducing discipline and robust financial and economic strategies that benefited all by creating a true multicultural society.

Dr Leonard Pinto

(This article was sent as a Letter to the Editor of Sunday Times –Sri Lanka, but for some good reason the editor refused to publish it)

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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