18 May, 2024


Reform Resistance In Sri Lankan Politics

By Jayadeva Uyangoda

Prof. 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 away?

In Sri Lanka’s on-going political debate, there are several explanations being offered. Two stand above others. 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 Sirisena, and United National Party (UNP) led by Wickremasinghe. 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 Wickremasinghe’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 Wickremasinghe 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 Wickremasinghe, 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 criticize 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 than later. Why not exercise that freedom of expression for the common good of all before it is extinguished?

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Prof Uyangoda makes his case with characteristic elegance. It is a rather depressing conclusion though. Political and social reforms may wax and wane but the oligarchy always manages to resurrect itself. O tempora O mores!

  • 0

    Thank you Uyan.

    is it time for Sri Lankans to hold hands and sing “Move over darling!”?

    Seriously, perhaps the diagnosis of what seems to ail Sri Lanka needs review, maybe transitional justice, reconciliation etc, require various and detailed examinations. The PM is not a novice and knows state machinery its limits and power. How much has changed over the years of the commercial interests, their financial power and class aspects, should be something that the political managers are well aware of. After all they are funded by them and do their bidding. Empowering citizenry and local institutions – not simply the nationally visible civil society, might not be a task that this lot at the helm is up to.
    To the barricades then?

  • 1

    it is quite clear that british style parliamenrary democracy is manifestly unsuitable to sri lanka
    corruption is inbuilt in the system
    we have to think of a completely different style of democracy
    this needs an intellectual discussion
    i wonder whether JU can provide us with a suitable altrnative

  • 0

    Dear Professor. Uyangoda,
    I have browsed your article and carefully read the introduction and conclusions. I think that you have addressed some of the issues facing the country from Sociological and Political angle. But you could not analyse this articles from the perspective of Economics, Finance and Law and order. Yahalaplanya government came to power with the message of “Good Governance” and secondary objective of revitalization of economy. But they could not achieve any of these things. Instead of pursuing those matters, they, Yahapalanya” leaders engaged with the same old method of accumulating their wealth while asking the general public to tighten their belts. Some of the reasons why they failed are:
    1. They could not obtain any kind of capital resources from their so called international friends. They went around the world with the begging bowl but no body helped them. They destroyed the economic establishment of the country. Nobody is willing to invest in a country without any political and economic establishment.
    2. They do not have good, honest, intelligent people with decision making ability. At present, we do not know who is the CEO of the country.
    I can cite many other examples. It is certain that this government will end soon. As you have mentioned, we need a strong decision maker to run this country for another 10 or 12 years. But I cannot see that any intelligent man or woman is available in the two major political parties. From a materiality perspective (accounting and economics terminology), there is only one man in the horizon, that would be Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But mentioning his name is sending the shivering feeling among the NGO community of Sri Lanka. But I think, that most Sri Lankans would like to see a “strong benevolent dictator” government coming into power. I think that we can learn good lessons from United Arab Emirates and Singapore on this perspective.

  • 1

    A key weakness of Uyangoda’s analysis is the complete exclusion of the external dimension. May be because now Uyangoda earns a living by being a contributory analyst to some of those external actors. The last regime change was made possible by strategic involvement of external forces not for human rights, democratisation or reconciliation. But due to geo political rivalry for regional domination. In most part, the local actors were mere pawns of a greater game. We made the prediction in 2014 with logical reasoning, which I am sure Uyangoda and their ilk very well understood, that the yahapalana ideals were just a mask of a regime change project. The disparate cabal that was put together didn’t have time or space to even conjure up a coherent plan of governance post regime change. Therefore it is not surprising at all to witness it’s disintegration within such a short period of time.

    • 1


      “A key weakness of Uyangoda’s analysis is the complete exclusion of the external dimension.”

      How could Prof Jayadeva Uyangoda’s analysis change anything in this island if you believe people make informed choices and the country is a “sovereign” state.

      “The last regime change was made possible by strategic involvement of external forces not for human rights, democratisation or reconciliation. “

      Could you explain to us the reason as to why the external forces brought complete regime change in 2005, through your brethren the psychopath VP by bribing him Rs 185 Millions through Tiran?

      • 0

        If you want to return that money I am prepared contribute.

        • 1


          “If you want to return that money I am prepared contribute.”

          Its funny you should say that.
          Have you forgotten how Dr Gota’s boys broken into VP’s Fort Knox and stole cash and gold from LTTE’s Central Bank? The total loot comprised Dr Mahinda’s bribe (financed by those who were responsible for the victory of Clan) too.

          All you have to do is when you get a chance to carry Gota’s b***s next time around let him know you are not at all happy that the Sinhala/Buddhists owed Hindians the money plus the Hindian loans of about $2 Billion provided under the export guarantee scheme during the war.

    • 0

      Well said Hela

  • 0

    Mr. Jayadeva
    “but also the emergence of the country’s defence establishment as a competitive stakeholder of the state and state policy. “
    This is suggestive of Pakistan style dominant role by the defence. Pure imagination. I don’t observe any obstinate posture displayed by our defence establishment against any policy framework of the government. In fact it timidly swallowed even the Geneva agenda of the government. For its credit our defence establishment has never been accused of partison political involvements or ever challenged government during the full length of the 30 year war. ( Ranil Wickramasinghe approached Sarath Fonseka while still in uniform who was seduced for political power when everything was over, but that is altogether a different scenario). Only thing that could be safely stated is EX-Defence groupings are posing a formidable challenge in shaping the public opinion. Those in uniform remain non committal dutifully – give the devil his due. Thanks. Any comments Mr Jayadeva?

    • 1


      You are really a pathetic ignorant bigoted Sinhala/Buddhist.

      Who do you think is setting the agenda on the war crime investigation, law and order, investigation into financial fraud, ……………. and where people should live and die in the North and East, where one builds Buddha statue to hide buried bodies, ………..?

      Read the article published in 2014:
      Among the projects initiated by this new wave of military business ventures include:

      Marble beach – a resort located in China Bat and managed by the Air Force
      Eagles’ Golf Links – an 18-hole Golf course located close to the Trincomalee Harbour
      Eagles’ Heritage Golf Club – An Air-Force managed hotel in Anuradhapura
      Eagles Lakeside Banquet and Convention Hall – located in Attidiya and manged by the Air Force
      Eagles’ Lagoon view banquet Hall – Managed by the Airforce and located in Katunayake
      Sky Pet Animal Services – veterinary services offered by Air Force personnel
      Laya Hotels: a hotel chain managed by Sri Lanka Army
      Clippers – a beauty salon run by the Air Force located in Borella


      Please give us an presentation as to how Avant – Garde Security Services (PVT) Limited conducts its businesses of providing services.

      • 0

        Do you thinks those few puny business outlets set up to help resurrect local economy constitute “a competitive stakeholder of the state and state policy “. What Dr Uyangoda attempting is to create a picture analogous to Pakistan. When will your bigoted Tamil racist outlook meet rational reality?

        • 1


          “Do you thinks those few puny business outlets set up to help resurrect local economy constitute “a competitive stakeholder of the state and state policy”

          How does barber shop run by the state employed army boys in Murikandy help to resurrect local economy? How does army boys running state subsidized farms and industries in Vanni help resurrect economy?. In fact it ruins local economy. How does army boys supplying vegetable to markets in the North help local economy, undercutting prices with subsidized cost, conering the market, eventually will force the local farmers to exit from producing vegetables and fruits.

          Why is your head always being screwed up, cannot see facts from fiction?
          No wonder the fascists want to have a tight grip on all civilian life. LTTE did exactly that and no wonder you too support central control over who produce what, and ………………

          As a fascist supporting Sinhala/Buddhism would you also like to control the love life of every human being in this island?

  • 0

    Dr.Jayadeva Urangoda has made a masterly analysis. Clinical and detached. Elegant scholarship and lucid logic. It is essentially Uyangoda. .

    • 0

      True, but Sirisena could fool all of you.

  • 0

    It is because Jayadeva, you cannot ignore the aspirations and grievences of a 75% and regard only 12%’s aspirations and create a constitution. Even if you create one, you cannot force it on the 75% of the population just because you have Uncle Sam and the Scandinavians with you.

    • 1

      sach the very stupid

      Anyone can accommodate the aspiration of all 100% provided if they use their brain and not their bum.

      Actually Uncle Sam, Scandinavians and Hindians were/are with the rulers of corrupted state.

      It is too much for you to grasp.
      Go have a chat with HLD M, Shenali D Waduge , Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera (man gets free twice a year ticket to and from Geneva), Wimal Sangili, and rest of the doomsayers in the SPURISTAS.

  • 0

    Comment by Native Vedda….
    The parameter of political analysis by writer negative aspects of that ongoing political crisis was inevitable with represtattives democracy has been disorderly by the “rainbow revolution” in 2015 January 8th. It was to majority of people anger on someone over many of UNP -SLFP policy failure on last three years.
    The political approach of UNP are party of the counter-revolutionary of crony bourgeoisie.
    While that constitution ,the backbone of the’ rainbow –counter’ revolution.. This even we have been admitted by SLFP and JVP ruling bloc. While this political alliance of coalition govt. accuses by people which lack of policies has turn into a most original bloc confirmed by the composition of the by
    so-called the rule of law and ” good government or governances”….led by UNP leadership.

    Sri lanka is ruled by these two political alliance of new bloc. The bloc of SLFP and JVP and join with UNP political alliances. Of cause these political bloc who composition with all three political parties to obtain having right to rule nation?
    Therefor since 2015 January 8th,the inevitable result is a disorder of ours parliamentary democracy and its “rainbow revolution” for the parts new regime of by ruling bloc of alliances.
    The “revolutionary socialist” of JVP no longer believe in their revolution. While all other UNP and SLFP are afraid of democracy of parliament . In fact UNP and SLFP fear break with USA, UK and Indian hegemonies.
    Last result of local election mandate shows that UNP +SLFP are in the minority with voters. But… They are in power. They are have formed alliance with one another that last three years they see nothing result comes of their efforts . How can these UNP-SLFP help overcome political -economic crisis of People?

  • 0

    Comment by Dr Sarath de Alwis…..

    By combat of reform of resistance is not that politics of Sri Lankan cultural view of ours democracy .
    We are nation who resistance against British colonial occupation in 1818 and 1848 .
    We were born rebellions in case of occupation by foreign invades, what ever Tamil Nadu of Dravidian invaders Portuguesa, Dutch and British of Anglo-Saxon.
    By the way of suppressed by authoritative rule by tyrannical rulers our own Kings or Primers and Presidents of land of lanka we had been resist in different form of struggle for Freedom of Independence and Sovergnirt of Democracy of our country and people .

    In case of reform of politics of democracy last 70 years many political parties has been obtain for reform of political mandate has been betray all of leaders of political parties and classes them last several decades since 1948?

    All in all broken promised by political parties including UNP, SLFP, LSSP, CP Moscow-wing, JVP and TNA has only that given unspeakable and unconscious return to majority of people by form of universal franchised voted for REFOMS of democracy and Development by people of Island .
    The promised are given by political parties of all sort classes are which that People received on that uncouth and uncovered to reforms and democracy facts of history denied by writer ?

    As a whole that all promises are uncountable to current UNP+SLFP coalition are not that exception of other as well .
    Resistance of Reform having certain root cause within ours own moribund democracy, which has been promised by UNP -SLFP that “good governance and rule of law” by “Rainbow Revolution” that an unconventional and unconvinced leaders of MS, RW and CBK in 2015 January 8th?

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