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If Sri Lanka really could be good, then why has it been so bad?

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As Sri Lanka struggles to fend off a critical resolution at the UN Human Rights Commission, international pressure on Sri Lanka is coalescing on three key demands.

International actors are demanding that Sri Lanka implements reforms to usher in good governance, credibly investigates and prosecutes those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity and finally meets Tamil demands for meaningful self government.

While the substance of these demands is entirely reasonable and plausible, the presumption that Sri Lanka might somehow meet these expectations is not.

For if Sri Lanka really was capable of such enlightened behaviour then why has its post independence history been one of relentlessly escalating ethnic antagonism and brutality, culminating in the bloodbath of May 2009? What explains the ongoing militarised repression of the Tamil speaking regions?

The very need for such overt international insistence on measures that are patently necessary reveals precisely why all such pressure is futile.

The reasonable is impossible

The three key demands made by the international community cannot be met because they all in some way challenge the foundations of the island’s post independence political order; namely a Sinhala first ethnocracy.

The first demand, namely that Sri Lanka takes concrete steps to implement administrative and legal reforms – including some that are set out in the LLRC – is in effect a demand to radically transform the nature of the state.

For if Sri Lanka were to meet this demand it would stop being a centralised, autocratic and ethnically politicised state and become instead an inclusive polity bound by the rule of law in which public authorities delivered a reasonable standard of governance to all citizens regardless of their ethnicity.

Crucially it is only if Sri Lanka can meet this seemingly prosaic first demand for good and ethnically neutral governance would it be able to meet the second two. After all if a state is incapable of implementing the rule of law it would also be incapable of investigating and prosecuting grave allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Similarly if Sri Lanka remains incapable of equitable governance it will also remain incapable of delivering a political solution that would end Sinhala domination over the Tamils.

There is therefore nothing objectionable in the demand that Sri Lanka reforms. If Sri Lanka were to meet this demand it would instantly embark on a path to political stability and prosperity ending decades of ethnic polarization, state violence and economic dysfunction.

The will to power

So while there is nothing objectionable in the substance of international demands, what is objectionable is any easy presumption that Sri Lanka is capable of such reform.

In the words of the political scientist Neil De Votta, Sri Lanka’s current state formation can be described as an ‘illiberal, ethnocratic regime bent on Sinhalese superordination and Tamil subjugation.’ (2004; 6)
The emergence of this violently ethnocratic state formation did not happen by accident. Instead, it has emerged from a long historical process driven by Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism.

Prof. Mick Moore writing in 1985 states that:

‘The use of state power for the benefit of ordinary Sinhalese has been, and remains, the primary legitimation, implicit or explicit, of all governments elected since 1956 at least, and arguably since 1931.’ (29)

He adds that successive Sri Lankan governments have consistently,

‘..pursued policies which have been designed for, and have largely succeeded in, establishing the symbolic supremacy of the Sinhalese and Buddhism; enforcing the use of Sinhala as the official language; and stripping the various minorities of their privileged positions in public sector employment, commerce and higher education.’ (Ibid)

Furthermore in relation to Sri Lanka’s well established policies of state sponsored colonisation in the Tamil speaking areas, he writes:

‘.. not only have large-scale irrigation schemes intruded Sinhalese settlers into areas formerly occupied mainly by Tamil speakers – Sri Lanka Tamils and Muslims – but this has been the conscious and admitted intention. There is thus a territorial dimension to what has been termed, in relation to Sinhalese political and cultural resurgence, “The Myth of Reconquest.” Land policy, and the ideologies which support it, have in general focused much more on the control of land than on the cultivation or use of land.’ (46).

Understanding refusal

It is not that the Sinhala polity and political establishment have collectively failed to understand the principles of the rule of law, accountability or a condition Tamil Sinhala political equality. These things are clearly understood. Indeed they have been lavishly promoted by donor funded programmes and studies for several decades.

The problem is not one of understanding but one of will. All these good things are clearly understood by the Sinhala polity and its leadership and have been resisted for several decades on the basis of this clear understanding. Everybody knows that establishing the rule of law, accountability for war crimes and political reforms to end Sinhala domination of the Tamils would also effectively end the Sinhala ethnocracy.
The Rajapakse government, the main opposition parties – the UNP and JVP - as well as the vast majority of the Sinhala electorate see nothing wrong in the present state of overwhelming Sinhala military, political and economic domination over the Tamil speaking population.

Quite the reverse, it is the ideal and expected outcome of the Sinhala military’s victory of the LTTE.

Reason and force

Rajapakse’s apparent solid grip on power has on occasion been challenged by vociferous protests in the Sinhala areas that at times have successfully overturned specific economic or fiscal decisions. In May last year for example the government’s plans to reform garment workers’ pension entitlements were overturned by sustained protests.

In contrast, Rajapakse’s concerted efforts to violently impose a Sinhala first political and economic order in the Tamil speaking areas has consistently won at least tacit approval and more usually enthusiastic support from the Sinhala electorate and the main opposition Sinhala parties.

It is for this reason that the international community’s exhortations will be entirely futile unless backed with the possibility of enforcing change from without.

In the decades since independence Sri Lanka has effectively become a state that exists to secure the domination of the Sinhala people. It will take more than international exhortation alone to overturn this historically established and entrenched reality.


Neil De Votta (2004), Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Stanford, Stanford University Press

Mick Moore (1985), The State and Peasant Politics in Sri Lanka. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

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