Journal Review

The Role of Indigenous Culture and Evolving Development Strategies: Is there a Right Policy Mix for Sri Lanka?

P Mendis (1994), Marga Quarterly Journal, Volume 13(1) (Colombo: Marga Institute).

Unholy Economics

Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalism comes in all shapes and sizes. Chauvinist ideology is part and parcel of everyday political life in Sri Lanka. The country’s politicians preach their divisive rhetoric, the state’s military machine turns the lethal words into deadly bullets and the island’s media faithfully recounts racist dogma.

But Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalism is not always so easy to spot. Speeches and newspaper articles are the tip of the racist iceberg. A range of more subtle and sophisticated measures gives legitimacy to these speeches and articles.

One such example is a seemingly harmless and novel article in a reputable academic journal by Patrick Mendis. Mendis is a Sri Lankan economist who writes on the question of economic development and poverty, with particular reference to Sri Lanka.

One of his recent contributions to the body of knowledge on the Sri Lankan economy is a 32 page article in a 1994 issue of the Marga Institute’s quarterly journal. In the article, Mendis examines the role of "indigenous culture" in Sri Lanka’s economic development.

At first sight, Mendis’ article is a timely study on cultural aspects of economies, especially in light of the so called ‘Asian values’ debate. He asks and answers a very important question about the Sri Lankan economy – Why is it that Sri Lankans on average enjoy a relatively good quality of life despite poor levels of income?

Sri Lanka has long been cited as an economic success story, outperforming all of its South Asian neighbours in most economic, social and health indicators. But, Sri Lanka’s per capita income is low in comparison to countries with similar rates of life expectancy or literacy. Worse still, the distribution of income is becoming increasingly unequal and has resulted in growing poverty.

Many commentators have presented their explanations. Sri Lanka’s success has been put down to the country’s commendable social welfare and pension policies, the effectiveness of disease eradication programmes or post-colonial policies that emphasised equity.

Mendis’ answer is relatively novel. He suggests that ‘the cultural and religious infrastructure’ is an important factor in advancing human development in Sri Lanka.

This ‘indigenous’ or ‘traditional’ culture and religion that Mendis refers to is the ‘ancient Buddhist heritage’. His support of "Buddhist economics" is emphatic:

"The legacy of Buddhist teachings, which laid the foundation for the value of simplistic living and promoted the benefits of the physical work and spiritual upliftment, is still pervasive in community life. Buddhism has placed great emphasis on human resource development throughout its history."

According to Mendis, Buddhism has had a positive impact on human development in Sri Lanka because Buddhist philosophies motivate both Governments and individuals to respect individual well being, good health and simple lifestyles.

Mendis believes that "it is reasonable to state that Sri Lanka had a welfare society based extensively on Buddhist teachings and its traditional culture long before Westerners landed in the coastal areas."

But, in placing his faith in Buddhism as the secret ingredient to Sri Lanka’s relative success, Mendis makes several assumptions that are untenable. Four basic facts undermine Mendis’ argument.

1. Not all Sri Lankans are Buddhist
While Mendis acknowledges in passing that Hinduism, Islam and Christianity may have had positive influence on the life of those religious groups, it is Buddhism that is Mendis’ focus: "Since the majority of Sri Lankan people have been practicing (sic.) Buddhism, this article limits its analysis to the Sinhalese traditional Buddhist culture."

This view ignores religious and cultural diversity within and between various groups in Sri Lanka.

2. Not all Buddhists practice "Buddhist economics"
Even that section of Sri Lanka’s population that is Buddhist may not actually adhere to the ‘simple and right’ livelihood advocated in Buddhist teachings. Traditional and non-materialist ways of living may be important to some degree in some sections of the community but it would be incorrect to conclude that "Buddhist economics" is the motivating factor.

3. Not all Buddhist countries have been successful
Mendis does not account for why other Buddhist countries have not enjoyed similar success. Countries in which a majority practises Theravada Buddhism have in fact done quite poorly in human and economic development. Only Thailand has performed marginally better than Sri Lanka while Bhutan, Cambodia and Laos have all done very badly.

4. Sri Lanka has not done all that well
While many Sri Lankans should consider themselves lucky that their standard of living is relatively high, two points put their luck (and Mendis’ arguments) into perspective.

First, Sri Lankans do not enjoy a quality of life anywhere near to that of the developed, industrialised world. Second, and to make matters worse, the Sri Lankan Government has consistently cut its education, health and social welfare budgets over recent years to pay for rising military expenditure and foreign debt. This has resulted in growing inequality and poverty. Who knows what standard of living all Sri Lankans would be enjoying had successive governments not chosen to plunder the country’s resources in a tragic and destructive war.

Apart from these factual inaccuracies, Mendis’ work can also be faulted for its political implications. While Mendis may not overtly support the ideology of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy, his work borrows from and contributes to racist ideology in numerous subtle ways.

At one level, Mendis’ article is informed by assumptions about Sri Lanka’s glorious and unbroken Buddhist heritage. He states without reference or qualification that Buddhists have been living on the island for 2,500 years and under an unbroken line of Buddhist monarchs. Indeed, by using the term "indigenous" in the title of his article, Mendis shows either that he does not realise that Buddhism in not indigenous to the island of Sri Lanka, or that he wants to subtly convince the reader that Buddhism is the indigenous religion in Sri Lanka.

At another level, Mendis contributes to Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalism by apparently providing evidence that Buddhism has made such a positive contribution to the Sri Lankan economy. Mendis has set out to show that "indigenous" Buddhism is an important and integral part of Sri Lanka’s approach to economic development.

While the discerning reader will not be convinced that he has achieved anything like this, there will of course be those who will take his work to its natural conclusion: that Buddhism and "Buddhist economics" must be preserved and encouraged in Sri Lanka.

This conclusion sits uncomfortably with Sri Lanka’s multicultural and multi-religious reality. If Mendis had been truly interested in racial harmony in a volatile and self-destructing Sri Lanka, he would not have written about the glorious contribution and values of one religion, especially with such little factual grounding. It is disappointing that the Marga Institute would publish work of such little quality and with such potential for fundamentalism.

One last criticism remains: even if, as Mendis argues, "Buddhist economics" has contributed to the relative success of Sri Lanka’s economic performance, we have seen that Buddhism in Sri Lanka has shown a far uglier face. Buddhist doctrine has for decades formed an integral part of the racism and violence that has plagued Sri Lanka. By ignoring these implications of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Mendis continues to build on the subtle but considerable apparatus that legitimises Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalism.

By Puthu Sivaguru