After Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa established an all Sinhala task force, which includes Buddhist monks and alleged war criminals, to “preserve the historical heritage of Sri Lanka” in the Eastern province, we take a closer look at Sinhalisation efforts that have already taken place in the region.
The Presidential Task Force at their inaugural meeting last week
The announcement last month stated that the role of the Archaeological Heritage Management is to:
- Identify sites of archaeological importance in the Eastern Province.
- Identify and implement an appropriate program for the management of archaeological heritage by conserving and restoring such identified sites and antiquities.
- Identify the extent of land that should be allocated for such archaeological sites and take necessary measures to allocate them properly and legally.
- Preserve the cultural value of sites of archaeological importance and promote the uniqueness of Sri Lanka, both locally and international, and make recommendations for the promotion of such heritages.
While Sinhalisation is not a new phenomenon in the North-East, there has been an influx in the “rediscoveries” of Sinhala Buddhist sites in predominantly Tamil and Muslim areas by Sri Lanka’s Department of Archaeology. There have been increasing concerns over the exploitation of archaeology as a justification for the expropriation of Tamil and Muslim land.
The United States 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom also highlighted that “the construction of Buddhist shrines by Buddhist groups and the military in the predominantly Hindu and Muslim Northern and Eastern Provinces constituted religious intimidation, as some shrines were built in areas with few, if any, Buddhist residents”. “According to local politicians in the north, the military sometimes acted outside its official capacity and aided in the construction of Buddhist shrines. Reports published by various civil society groups indicated security forces continued to be involved in constructing Buddhist religious sites, citing archaeological links in places where there were no Buddhist populations,” the report added.
Efforts have already been underway in the North for several decades, but have also seen a recent intensification.
In 2018, a Sinhala Buddhist monk constructed a large Buddha statue encroaching on Neeraviyadi Pillaiyar Kovil in Semmalai and a Tamil language sign indicating the Hindu temple was destroyed and replaced with a Sinhala sign. Last year, the Mullaitivu Magistrate’s Court ruled in favour of the Neeraviyadi Pillaiyar, confirming its longstanding existence in Semmalai. Ignoring the court ruling, the Sri Lankan army set up a sham archaeological museum opposite the temple, claiming the artefacts were from the area and belonged to the disputed Buddhist vihara next to the temple, highlighting that Tamils are not even protected legally from this encroachment.
Not only are these “rediscoveries” of Buddhist sites an assault on the Tamil community’s ancestral ties to the North-East as their homeland, it is evident the unaccountable task force will expand Sinhalisation further under the guise of archaeology with military backing.
In this series, we look at sites across the East that have already been battling against state-sponsored Sinhalisation efforts.
Verugal, an area known for its rich cultural history, is located in the Trincomalee district and in recent years has been the focus of intense Sinhalisation efforts - many of which has involved Sri Lanka's archaeology department.
In the village of Ilankaithurai Muhaththuvaram, the local population was displaced due to the fighting in 2006. When the Sri Lankan army took over the area from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Former Chief Justice Sarath Silva, was taken on tour by the military where he ‘discovered’ the ‘Lanka Patuna Samudragiri Vihara’. This area was then “reclaimed” as a historic Buddhist site by the Department of Archaeology.
Photograph by PEARL
“When the villagers returned in 2008, they found several Hindu temples destroyed, including the Veddah’s traditional place of worship on the hill. A large Buddha statue, and a new temple, constructed by the army, was found in its place.” – PEARL report.
Photograph by PEARL
"The Archaeological Department's sign is often the dreaded first indication that the government is about to take over land." - PEARL report.
PEARL noted that Sri Lanka's archaeology department had designated the area as a "historic Buddhist site". In 2007, a Sri Lankan military commander officially declared open the Buddhist vihara and the village was also officially renamed to the Sinhala “Lanka Patuna”. The new Sinhala name now appears on official government documentation, including on both certificates.
Bus loads of Sinhala Buddhist tourists reportedly flock to the newly established site, with a road bridge is built to link the shores across the strait.