South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

article_imageBy Jayadeva Uyangoda

One serious political question that emerges from Sri Lanka’s current political impasse is the following: why has a reformist democratic regime, with domestic popular support as well as international backing, begun to run out of its political energies, and political options, so early and is facing disintegration half way?

In Sri Lanka’s on-going political debate, there are several explanations being offered. Two stand immediately relevant. The lack of political will among government leaders, and their shaky commitment to the electoral mandate, is the first. The second is the ruptured nature of the coalition between the two traditionally rival political parties, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Maithripala Sirisena, and United National Party (UNP) led by Ranil Wickremesinghe. These are obvious reasons, and there is hardly any doubt about their explanatory value. But, for an analyst who would like to see some comparative sense in terms of things that are happening at deeper levels of politics, there are two themes that need to be added to the discussion: the unreformability of the ethnocratic state, and the irreversibility of corruption due to its peculiar political economy.

Sri Lanka provides for the comparative analyst a great case study of reform failure even under most propitious of circumstances. Let me very briefly explain the two themes.

Ethnocratic State

A great puzzle in the failure of peace building and constitutional reform in Sri Lanka since 2015 has been its lackluster attitude to these two fundamental commitments the new government made to the domestic constituencies and the international community. The new regime in October 2015 had the audacity to co-sponsor the UNHRC resolution on peace building along with the USA, only to be slowly de-emphasized and de-prioritized in its core commitments. These core commitments were in four areas of policy, articulated in the language of global liberal peace building: (a) sustainable peace, (b) reconciliation, (c) transitional justice, (b) democratization, greater devolution and political reform.

The government initially demonstrated an appreciable measure of passion for these four goals. Amidst complex political challenges without even a clear parliamentary majority, both the President and the Prime Minister showed a remarkable courage to get the 19th Amendment passed by parliament with the required two-thirds majority to reform the presidential system through a series of comprises with all the political parties in parliament. If a modern, democratic constitution is a bundle of compromises, Sri Lanka’s 19th Amendment is no exception. Although the government had earlier promised to totally abolish Sri Lanka’s presidential system, its reform with reduced powers of the president and enhanced powers to parliament and the prime minister is seen in Sri Lanka as a democratic gain of no mean significance.

However, the government’s state reform project has failed to move beyond the 19th Amendment. President Sirisena’s lack of interest in constitutional reform any further except electoral reforms and Prime minister Wickremesinghe’s overcautious approach to state reform, despite his unwavering passion for a new constitution designed along the Westminster model, point to a political reality that is not directly raised in Sri Lanka’s current political debate. To use a slightly Hegelian phrase, both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe are now unconscious tools of the negative forces of Sri Lanka’s contemporary political history.

National Security State

These negative political forces are embedded in two crucial dimension of Sri Lanka’s contemporary state, as evolved during and after the ethnic civil war. They are (a) ethnocratization of the state, and (b) consolidation of the structures and a mindset of national security orientation to the state. Both are inter-related processes of change, or more accurately, they are changes evolved in fusion.

Ethnocratization of the state is a complex process of change of the political order and politics in multi-ethnic societies in which the majority-minority ethnic relations are either conflictual or militarized. It reflects the capture of the state by highly ethnically politicized forces of the majority community and the establishment of a strictly hierarchical relationship between the dominant majority and the controlled minorities. National security orientation of the state is also a complex process. Simply put, it entails not only the primacy accorded to national security considerations over democracy, human rights – and also reconciliation and transitional justice, as in Sri Lanka’s specific case –, but also the emergence of the country’s defence establishment as a competitive stakeholder of the state and state policy. This competitiveness is in relation to civilian institutions of political power. Both these processes of state change became crystalized after the ending of civil war in May 2009, under the previous administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Political developments in Sri Lanka during the past three years are replete with evidence of how the new regime had to struggle with this peculiar political inheritance. The government’s overt sensitivity to the challenge of how to deal with resistance from the defence establishment to reforming an ethnocratic, national security oriented state has also been visible. Slowing down of the government’s peace building, reconciliation, and constitutional reform agenda is its ultimate price. The presidential branch of the yahapalanaya government seems to be largely responsible for this pulling back of the state reform agenda and trying to preserve the ethnocratic foundations of the state. Meanwhile, both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, as political managers of the state, have probably been coming to terms with this reality, as political leaders with limited vision and diminished political will usually do.

Question of Corruption

The government’s abandonment of the corruption-free, good governance agenda is blamed on the Prime Minister who has assigned to himself the task of managing the economy which is caught up in a debt trap. Once the elections were over, the promise of corruption free and transparent economic governance did not go beyond electoral rhetoric. Why?

The answer lies to some extent in the fact that after liberalization and under conditions of globalization, Sri Lanka’s economic reforms produced a new class of capitalists whose programme of capital accumulation had massive practices of economic transactions that were either on the margins of the law, or beyond the purview of the law. This is a new class that has also captured the political class, the bureaucracy and the institutions of governance through infiltration. They have a parallel hold of the state either in competition, or in alliance, with civilian political parties. The evidence transpired at the recent judicial inquiry into the Central Bank bond scam offered the public a rare glimpse of the extent to which the new business class, the political class and the economic bureaucracy are in networks of informal and hugely profitable alliances.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his United National Party initially gave the impression that they could compete with this new entrepreneurial stratum, discipline them, and even send some of their captains to jail after trial. Despite this initial optimism, police investigations into public sector and business corruption seems to have stalled, except in the case of the Central Bank’s bond auction scandal, allegedly carried out by a group of businessmen connected to the ruling UNP. There is also a sense of poetic justice there. When the UNP slowed down investigations into complaints of corruption against the previous regime as a part of the real politik strategies of its leaders, the so-called long arm of the law came to the UNP’s own doorstep. Meanwhile, there is also ample knowledge in the public domain now to suggest that the Prime Minister and the President have made unbelievable compromises with the new and powerful predatory business class that flourished under the regime of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, during as well as after the war.

Charles Tilly, an American historian of state formation in early Europe, described the early state as a ‘protection racket.’ Tilly’s argument is that the state emerged as institutionalization of informal organized entities that provided protection and security to predatory cliques of robbers and dacoits. The managers of our yahapalanaya (’good governance’) regime have proved that Charles Tilly’s imagery of the early state fits quite well with the contemporary Sri Lankan state. What a tragedy!


The lessons to be learnt are simple, thought they are not very pleasant, ones. The political economy of corruption tells us that (a) there is a new and powerful business class whose main strategy for profit seeking and capital accumulation is organized around large scale predatory practices on the margins, or beyond the pale, of law; (b) this class has captured the political parties and the bureaucracy from whom managers of the state and the economy emerge; (c) it constitutes a key component of the ‘shadow state’ that exists beneath the periodic democratic events of electorally induced regime change, and (d) a regime change with a promise of democratic reform could hardly alter these new fundamentals of politics and political economy.

Amidst the unfolding crisis, many Sri Lankan citizens, and the predatory business classes, are also awaiting the strong man to comeback, of course for different reasons. The slogan of ‘a strong leader for strong government’ has already begun to take shape.

Sri Lanka is obviously not alone in this type of scenario or its slightly different versions. It indeed calls for some fundamental re-thinking about the politics of democratic reform in South Asia. A post-BJP Congress government, if there is one at all, backed by the Left and other democratic forces, will face the same challenged in India.

To advance Sri Lanka’s agenda of state reform, minority rights and corruption- free governance, it will require, as things stand now, a political revolution. However, a revolution is no guarantee for democracy and good governance. That is the conundrum in which we all are caught.

PS. Sri Lanka’s citizens’ right to publicly criticise their government and its leaders even on legitimate grounds is not going to last long. That democratic window runs the risk of being closed sooner rather than later. Why not exercise that freedom of expression for the common good of all before it is extinguished?


Updated On: March 27, 2018