20 January, 2022


Democracy & The Critical Role Of Civil Society: The Lankan Experience

By Lionel Bopage

Dr Lionel Bopage

Dr Lionel Bopage

Democracy and Civil society are usually dependent on the constitutional space governments have designed to protect the interests and privileges of a certain segment of society. As such, a constitution may be suspended or superseded when it is found unable to protect the interests it was originally intended to safeguard. Generally, constitutional change arises in a society that is plagued with political crises. Only on rare occasions has the majority of citizens taken part in the process of constitutional development. With or without consultations, the ruling elite usually imposes their will upon society with or without constitutions.

This paper will first discuss the conceptual frameworks of democracy and civil society, and their interdependence. Next it will discuss the manner in which civil society has played a positive or negative role in safeguarding or endangering democracy in Sri Lanka. Then it will deliberate on the critical and positive role civil society would need to continue to play in the future, for the purpose of safeguarding Lanka’s democracy.

Concepts: Democracy and Civil Society

Democracy and Civil Society are complex conceptual constructs. Although these are theoretically vague, and idealistic, they embrace certain concrete political connotations. Civil society provides an enabling framework for democracy to function. At the same time, it also includes an intrinsic tension in the form of a fragile balance between private and public interests[1]. This allows a plethora of interest groups to selectively use these constructs for achieving their utilitarian self-serving objectives. For example, Adam Smith’s conception of civil society is associated with a free market economy. However, his conception does not separate state and civil society as Marxists have done.


Democracy is a nuanced concept. Depending on the stage of development of a society, democracy can take different forms. It can be direct, representative, liberal, industrial, bourgeois, proletarian, social democratic etc. Democracy is supposed to be a political system. A system in which governments should be held accountable to the people, and mechanisms exist for making it responsive to the peoples’ passions, preferences, and interests. A liberal democracy that Sri Lanka purports to be needs to provide for the rule of law. Then, protection of the right of individuals and groups to speak, publish, assemble, demonstrate, lobby, and organize to pursue their interests become an essential requisite[2].

Western bourgeois democracy is seen as and said to be the ultimate test of transparency and accountability. In developing countries where large sections of a society remain poor, bourgeois democracy can become unstable and subversive. As it can easily be manipulated to protect the interests and privileges of an autocratic family, clique or regime. In that sense, democracy is a contested concept with no clear single meaning. Bourgeois democracy in capitalist society generally appears to encapsulate the rights to vote, free speech, pluralism, social and cultural tolerance, and rule of law. Mass democracy in an autocracy is only a sham, as an autocratic state has no democratic content at all.

When democracy produces what the ruling elite likes then democracy is not considered a threat. However, when it develops or produces anti-establishment forces and demands, then democracy will become a threat to the ruling elite. Then the state machinery either directly or through other media, will threaten, destabilise and/or overturn the democratic process. So it could be observed that historically the economically powerful have always become the enemies of democracy.

In this era of neo-liberalism, maintenance of democratic practices and good governance has become much more complex and difficult. The world is being constantly pushed towards increased militarization of civil society and government administration, as crimes against humanity, mass violence, terror, fundamentalism, and global pillage of resources have become the order of the day. This autocratic approach is quite different to the solutions individuals, communities and societies develop in relation to their governance systems based upon their material and historical experiences.

Neoliberalism is a political process, where global multi-national corporations and their bureaucrats make decisions about economy, through mechanisms incorporated into trade agreements. With this qualitatively new phase of capitalist development, the hegemony of globalized finance capital has become heightened, while curbing and eroding bourgeois democratic rights intensified. Nationally, existing social and cultural divisions in society are used as instruments to consolidate a certain form of authoritarian rule. The ruling elites do not allow elections to change its established economic policy. Citizens are simply remodeled into becoming consumers. Thus, the existing political system is reshaped through emerging anti-democratic trends that narrow down democracy. Such trends emanate from within the constitutional framework itself and from forces without. This situation gives rise to an authoritarian version of ‘constitutional democracy’.

Civil Society

Civil society is the precondition for democratic decision making[3]. Civil society is different from society in the sense that it involves citizens acting collectively in a public sphere to express their interests, passions, preferences, and ideas, to exchange information, to achieve collective goals, to make demands on the state, to improve the structure and functioning of the state, and to hold state officials accountable.[4] Civil society is an intermediary phenomenon that stands between the private sphere and the state. The concept of civil society encompasses all the associations and organisations that do not fall within the scope of the state. The idea of civil society can be traced back to classical Roman and Greek philosophers (Ehrenberg 1999) and is described as “a politically organised commonwealth[5]. After its disuse over time, Antonio Gramsci revived this concept by noting that civil society is a special nucleus of independent political activity and a crucial sphere of struggle against tyranny.

The concept of civil society has been used by those who fought not only against ‘right-wing’ dictatorships, but also against ‘left-wing’ authoritarianism. Thus, civil society as a whole is engaged in a continuous struggle within itself. It encompasses bourgeois democratic features to socialist social changes, as exemplified by the Weimar Republic to the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany. Civil society has played an extremely active and valued role in fostering civic and political participation with mixed results. For example, Germany’s pro-democratic civil society of the 1920s and 1930s failed to safeguard democracy. Fascism ensued. On other occasions, civil society action had become a means of social renewal, in many countries repressed by the established monolithic party systems. Thus, civil society can become a tool for forging connections for empowering citizens in a country.

Lankan Experience

In a geo-political, mercantile, and militaristic sense, Sri Lanka is strategically located in the South Asian region. In this region, China and India are competing with each other to expand their spheres of influence. Lanka’s democracy by its nature has been very fragile. The ruling elite’s antipathy towards it has been extremely pronounced, and it has always sought to undo it. In the recent past, any entity that promoted good governance, democracy, the rule of law[6], and human rights was under the threat of extermination. Disappearances, torture, harassment and censorship were rampant at the time.

However, civil society was able to achieve change by enlightening and activating society, so a temporary breathing space for democracy and good governance could be established. In Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, all the associations and organisations representing political and cultural entities, trade unions, professional associations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), commercial and sports bodies etc., comprise civil society. They create policy awareness in society through community education and encouraging peoples’ participation in community activities.


Since 1948 Sri Lanka has witnessed the ripple effects of neo-colonial policies on democracy resulting in the erosion of freedom of expression and human and political rights and the rise of bribery and corruption. Since the 1970s, younger generations of Sinhalese and Tamils of similar socio-economic backgrounds have revolted against the erosion of their socio-economic, political and cultural rights. Regardless of their political hue, all post-colonial governments have failed to see and address the underlying causes of these revolts, which are discrimination and lack of opportunities. The state’s response of increasing repression pushed them further to revolt.

Sri Lanka inherited the Soulbury Constitution[7] from the British in 1948. A parliamentary government in the form of a unitary state was established. It was imperialistically imposed on a devolved system of local governance that had been based on several kingdoms of multiple nationalities. English was the sole medium of administration. The new Republican Constitution of 1972 took away the safeguards provided to the minorities as enshrined in Section 29 of the Constitution. This Constitution contained a declaration of fundamental rights and freedoms, but was contravened by the sections referring to language and religion.

The current constitution adopted in 1978 was mainly designed to deal with issues that were expected to arise as a result of introducing an ‘open economy’ based on ‘free trade’. This change led to certain positive and negative socio-economic and political consequences in civil society. Legitimacy of democracy comes from parliament. The sovereign power of the Parliament in Sri Lanka had been made into a cruel joke by just making it a rubber stamping institution for the executive.


In 2015, Sri Lanka had an economy that was worth about USD 81 billion. It has been able to maintain an annual economic growth rate of around 6.5 percent. After the end of the armed conflict in 2009, Sri Lanka has been able to surpass other countries in the region in per capita GDP growth. The free trade economy also contributed to two uprisings in the country, the 1988-89 insurrection in the south and the long term armed conflict from 1978 to 2009 in the north.

Free trade also caused local industries to close down, and local agricultural production, like onion, chili and rice production was severely affected by the cheaper products being imported. Many rural young women became wage labourers in the textile sector. Unemployment rates among the educated grew and the gap between the wealthy and the poor grew even worse. The current public debt to GDP ratio is around 72 percent.

The new regime elected in 2015 has proposed certain economic reforms to move the country towards an upper middle income economy. This is to be achieved through the creation of a knowledge-based export-oriented market economy and a Megapolis in the western province with a financial hub in Colombo. Several tourism zones and specialized business and technology development zones are also to be established. Hence, the new constitution, despite its consultative mechanisms, can only be expected to serve the interests that the new regime represents. The new constitution is also said to have the intention of strengthening democracy by devolving power, promoting reconciliation and addressing alleged war crimes committed during the 26-year conflict between the state and the LTTE rebels. It is also said to guarantee fundamental rights and freedoms. These are yet to be seen in action.

Effectiveness of Civil Society and Democracy Deficit

The years of instability in Sri Lanka reflects the weak, distorted and manipulative governance practices used in the name of protecting ‘democracy’. The first significant event that blotted the history of democracy in Sri Lanka was the deprivation of citizenship and voting rights of nearly a million Malaiyaha Tamils[8] in 1948 for the benefit of the post 1948 bourgeois ruling elite. The government attempted to rectify this injustice in the 1980s, mainly due to the influence of non-Malaiyaha Tamil militancy. Of course, the government did not want to face two simultaneous battle fronts in the north and the south. Those who opposed this disenfranchisement were mostly from the left, but their voice was not strong enough to change the views of the majority of civil society. The attitude of the majority of civil society towards the regime’s effort to impose restrictions on Sri Lanka’s ‘democracy’ was either neutral or supportive.

In August 1953, the trade unions mainly led by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), and the Ceylon Communist Party of (CCP) called for mass action in the form of a Hartal. This resulted in the first mass political action in the form of a general strike and an island wide civil disobedience. The aim was to protest the policies and actions of the regime. The catalyst for the protest was a proposed cut to rice subsidiary and other welfare measures. Irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, language, caste or gender, people took part in the widespread protest. However, the left leaderships who called the Hartal did not intend to take it beyond the protest stage. The majority of civil society appeared to have backed the Hartal. The SLFP, who benefited from this vacillation of the left, won the 1956 elections mainly on the ‘Sinhala Only’ slogan.

In 1958, 1961, 1971, 1974, 1983, 1987 to 1989 and 1983 to 2009, tens of thousands including Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims had been brutally attacked, subjected to terror and tortured; tens of thousands had been massacred in cold blood. The erosion of civil liberties and the degeneration of democracy in the last fifty-eight years resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, mostly civilians; many more hundreds of thousands being displaced, countless thousands disappeared. Tens of thousands became refugees in their own land. This left the entire island psychologically scarred. When this destruction occurred, the attitude of the majority of civil society appeared to be one of supporting the government’s anti-democratic processes.

During the 2015 presidential elections, the previous regime continued to use fear psychosis and physical violence. The likelihood of generating serious election-related violence, and the possibility of using extra-constitutional means to continue their family run authoritarian rule were real. A wide spectrum of organisations and individuals comprising the majority of civil society took a leading role in removing them from power. This has resulted in some breathing space for the continuation of peoples’ campaigns for socio-economic and political justice. Yet, Sri Lanka lacks systems, mechanisms and practices of accountability. Decisions are not made until pressure is built up so that the regime and bureaucrats find it impossible not to act, leaving none to doubt the ineffectiveness and the inefficiencies of the system.


Democracy needs mechanisms for the civil society to express their interests and preferences, to influence policy, and to scrutinize and check the exercise of state power continuously, in between elections as well as during them[9]. ‘Democracy’ has been manipulated and restricted to protect the interests and the privileges of the ruling elite using the state machinery. Thus, the gun, rather than the ballot, became the tool for many in their struggle for socio-economic justice. The majority of the civil society in Sri Lanka appears not yet been able to defeat such manipulations and restrictions of democracy. Progressive elements in the country have so far failed to create sufficient awareness among the people to counteract this tendency.

As the Lankan experience has repeatedly indicated without free, fair and regular elections, regimes cannot be held accountable. However, just holding elections alone do not necessarily ensure an accountable democracy and rule of law. The ruling elites appear to have manipulated the judiciary and all other arms of government. For example, despite the UN Human Rights Council resolution that emphasised on taking action on the practice of torture, it is still being inflicted on a grand scale by the security forces.[10]

It is essential therefore that the values of civil society need to go beyond narrow individual interests and grasp social interests as the norm. Even when democracy is established, civil society action is needed for keeping its quality intact, without being subject to deterioration by the harmful autocratic or authoritarian influences. Sections of the ruling elite have manipulated the concept of civil society to capture power, and then to abuse the power that civil society has just granted them.

The political and bureaucratic ruling elite has failed the Lankan civil society. Civil society, in turn, has failed to resist attempts to make democracy in Sri Lanka dysfunctional. The continuing practice of neo-liberal policies as stated several months ago, may perhaps lead to anti-austerity movements initiated by new young political leaders. Society will become fed up with the kind of politics and policies that will reproduce the crises that once led the island towards its disintegration, as the current trajectory of the state does not seem different from that of the past.

In countries like Sri Lanka, democracy is yet to become more liberal, transparent, and institutionalized. Practices of corruption and repression are so entrenched, that even those who are elected to reform the system, are found to have a stake in maintaining the corrupt, anti-democratic status quo. Only civil society through its activity can engender the political pressure and power to push those who had been elected to bring about reform. Otherwise the cycle of violence, corruption, social inequity and ethnic scapegoating could again become the norm.


[1] Stevers B 2009. What is Civil Society? In Grantmakers in the Arts: Supporting a Creative America (GIA), 20, 1 Spring

[2] Diamond L. 1996. Is The Third Wave Over? Journal of Democracy 7, 3: 20-37.

[3] Post, R C and Rosenblum, N L 2002. Civil Society and Government, Princeton, 16

[4] Diamond L 1989, Civil Society and the Development of Democracy, In Obadare E 2013. The Handbook of Civil Society in Africa, 260, Springer Science & Business Media

[5] Ehrenberg J. 1999. Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea. New York University Press: New York

[6] Essential to guarantee other elements of civil society, especially the protection of individual rights, from the arbitrary exercise of power: Dahrendorf R 1990. Threats to Civil Society East and West. In New Perspectives Quarterly, Spring

[7] Contained in the following documents, the Ceylon Independence Act 1947 and the Ceylon (Constitution and Independence) Orders in Council 1947

[8] Tamil workers with Indian origin brought by the British to work in their plantations.

[9] Diamond L. 1999. Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation, JHU Press

[10] Freedom from Torture, 5 January 2016. Torture casts a shadow over Sirisena’s first year as President of Sri Lanka. at http://www.freedomfromtorture.org/news-blogs/8786

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Latest comments

  • 0

    “Democracy and Civil Society are complex conceptual constructs.”

    What nonsense?

    Democracy in a politically illiterate country like Sri Lanka is designed for the rich and elite sections of society – bloodsuckers in other words – to buy their way in to power every 3-5 years without
    any economic developent or other programs to base their bid for power.

    The current Yahapalana fraud is the best example of the sort of “democracy” Bopage is speaking about in post-independence Sri Lanka. Their plan for the economy is to go before the IMF and World Bank with the begging bowl in hand, promising to carry out all the belt tightening and privasatio of national assets these blood suckers demand.

    The so-called “civil society” is the American-US-Norwegian and other western funded groups who are so compromised to these ‘funders’ that they do their bidding in the country. They are the biggest threat to national sovereignty and well being of countries like ours.

    People like Bopage is trying to dress up these frauds as “complex conceptual constructs” in order to benefit thieves like( [Edited out]) who are profiteering through this fraudulent foreign funds.

    So, these are not complex conceptual constructs at all, but clear and open frauds that need to be stamped out if we are to develop as a country!

    • 0

      Very good letter by Lionel exposing the real truth.
      Hetu-vadiya is obviously someone who has the incurable decease call “Mahindunmaadaya”.

      Which person who likes to see the country developed attach the concept ‘good governance ‘ except someone mad like Hetu Vadiya.?

      Best example to real ‘fraud’ in Lankan politics is the recent announcement by a man who is known to have killed the rugby player Wasim Thajaudeen. He recently said CBK is responsible for Kosagama disaster since she insisted locating the armoury there despite specialists advised against it. He does not even have a simple brain to see his father’s own mistake of not relocating it when he had all the power and time ( 10 years) to do it if that location is not good. Yet this type of murderous fools are being elected democratically.

  • 0

    This paanduka has got his knickers in knots about my comment!
    I did not say that Mahinda’s government or politics was any better. What I said was all are the same.
    Can’t help Paanduka’s inability to understand English.

    Then he goes on to praise CBK, the prime example of what is wrong with our democracy ruled by family connections. Would that woman ever won an election without her fatherly-motherly-brotherly connections?

    It is idiots like Paanduka who keep this version of democracy going on in our island.

  • 0

    [Edited out]

  • 0


    Sure I cannot understand you English. why don’t you learn grammar first

    “People like Bopage is trying to dress up these frauds …”

  • 0

    He is above democracy!

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