Sinhalese - Sociopolitical Organization



Sri Lanka is a parliamentary democracy with a president as the head of the state. There is a strong two-party system in which politics are dominated by the centrist United National party (UNP, in power since 1977) and the center-to-left Sri Lanka Freedom party (SLFP). Both are dominated by Sinhalese politicians and appeal to Sinhalese sentiment.

Social Organization. The Sinhalese caste system is milder than its Indian counterpart; it lacks Brahmans and the stratifying ideology of Hinduism. Most Sinhalese villages lack caste organizations ( panchayats ) which, in India, punish transgressions of caste; enforcement of caste endogamy, for instance, is left up to families. Because property is inherited bilaterally, however, families have very strong incentives to enforce endogamy (this is one reason for their authoritarian nature). The Sinhalese ideology of caste is derived from precolonial feudalism, in which castes of almost all statuses were granted lands, contingent on their performing services for the king and local aristocrats. The highest caste, the agricultural Goyigama, comprise about half the population and count among their ancestors the aristocrats of the precolonial Kingdoms. Among the Kandyans, additional castes include Service castes, such as the Hena (washers), Berava (drummers), Navandanna (metalworkers), and the "lowest castes," such as the Rodiya, who were formerly itinerant beggars. Among the Low Country Sinhalese, three highly entrepreneurial Maritime castes (Karava, Salagama, and Durava) have risen to economic and political prominence in this area, which has long been under European influence. Most Sinhalese continue to see caste as a positive principle of social affiliation but deny that castes should be ranked or given special privileges. A major consequence of the colonial period was the development of an achievement-oriented national elite based on education and especially knowledge of English. Persons of low caste have won membership in this elite. However, local elites continue to be dominated by high castes or locally powerful castes.


Political Organization. The Sri Lankan state, an artifact of colonial rule, is excessively centralized and politicized; the country's provinces are governed by agents appointed by the president, and virtually all services—roads, railways, education, health services, tax collection, government-owned corporations, land registry and allocation—are administered by centrally controlled ministries. Efforts to devolve power and resources to the provinces, including the Tamil Northern Province and Eastern Province, have been opposed by Sinhalese chauvinists who see devolution as an erosion of Sinhala sovereignty. Members of parliament select the candidates for government positions, including even the lowliest menial jobs, on the basis of political loyalty. Politicization has severely eroded the autonomy of the civil service and judiciary. The JVP insurgency and its popular support can be seen in part as a broad-based rejection of an unresponsive and corrupt political system, but the JVP offers few solutions.


Social Control. Within the village gossip and ridicule are strong forces for social conformity. The family regulates behavior through the threat of excommunication (deprivation of lands and family support in seeking employment). With growing landlessness and unemployment, however, many families are increasingly unable to deliver on their material promises and the threat of excommunication has become an empty threat. The JVP insurgency is in part a rejection of parental authority.

Conflict. Traditionally, violence occurred within families, often as the result of long-standing grudges and obsession with one's "enemies," real or imagined. In the absence of sustained economic growth, aspirations for social mobility cannot be fulfilled, and as competition and anomie grow more intense, ethnic and political violence occurs as various groups compete for state resources. A late-nineteenth-century riot occurred between Buddhists and Christians; later clashes pitted Sinhalese against Muslims (1915). After the "Sinhala only" language act of 1956, communal riots involving Tamils and Sinhalese occurred in 1958, 1977, 1981, and 1983. There was an aborted military coup in 1963, and violence often occurred during and after elections. Political violence has now become institutionalized in the form of youth insurgencies and government "death squads."


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