15 April, 2024


The Deformed System, Cultural Problem, The Protests & The Citizen Rights In Sri Lanka

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Often, we hear the argument that there is a problem in Sri Lanka in relation to the Political Culture. This is a reference to the way elected politicians function when performing their roles in the government rather than the government or the system itself. Indirectly, it implies that the system is fine so long as the politicians elected to various roles behave according to the democratic norms and rules. Nonetheless, we all can agree that there is a problem in the political culture or the way of living, doing and working while covering up the actual happenings with fancy words, arguments or myths to appease the public. The broader question here is whether the culture problem is limited to politics and governance only? Isn’t there a culture problem in the public and police services, religious establishments, media and even in education and higher education institutions? In the institutions responsible for socialising children and young people, do they pay enough attention to the teaching and learning of the accepted moral code embodied in various religions and common culture or has it been submerged due to the ever-expanding emphasis on the material aspects of life and associated aspirations that are unrealistic for many to achieve? In short, can we explain and interpret what is happening in Sri Lanka today in various institutions responsible for leading the nation to this missing link? If so what needs to be done to correct the course?

Political Drama

Various activists involved in the current protest campaign describe the rule since independence in 1948 as a great political drama performed by the rulers to deceive the people by using various tactics such as nationalism, mythical danger to the nation, religion or country. They believe the people have been caught up in such political rhetoric from time to time so they didn’t see the real situation. The rulers have not been truthful, transparent or trustworthy. What the country experience today is the result of this misguided political drama. Protesting youths and others are demanding that the system in place, in particular the political and economic system be changed to create a People’s government that is truly representative of the sovereign people.

The System and its Deformities

The so-called system in Sri Lanka has been historically made to provide privilege for those in power and control the majority who are underprivileged. To achieve this goal, various hierarchies with access to resources are in place. A majority in the society can be categorised as underprivileged and a selected few as privileged. Though there have been initiatives to level the playing field in the past, their impact on eliminating inequality has been withering away with the implementation of neoliberal economic policy and cutting welfare since 1977 e.g. public health services. The people reluctantly tolerated this system that made a few super rich and the majority under privileged, until the recent expression of dissent by the youths in Gall Face in Colombo and elsewhere.

Some say that the colonial subject did not become a citizen after Sri Lanka gained independence due to the elitist nature of governance reinforced by the education system, political system, narrow nationalism, and the continuation of colonial norms and practices in institutions of governance. The governance system including the public service at different levels is organised to serve those who have access to them -not the citizens in general as in other liberal democracies. We have had a liberal democracy by the time of gaining independence. However, it has been deformed by various acts of commission and omission afterwards by successive governments.

New Ruling Class/Clique

A different class of people entered the political system and its leadership roles since the 70s compared to the English educated, upper middle-class members from elite families as was the case previously. By and large, this new class of rulers -both at the national and provincial levels- gained power by association with a particular political party and leader rather than due to individual merit or effort. Loyalty to the leader and party was expected and required. The decadent system that was designed to keep the natives under control by the British rulers continued until now with the knowledge of and cultivation by this new ruling class. This class prevented the emergence of a free society and a free citizen with full rights as in other liberal democracies in order to preserve their positions and status in the overall system or within specific institutions.

What I say here can be witnessed if one visits a police station to make a complaint. Even in countries like Thailand the visitor will be greeted with native expressions such as Sathika.

In Sri Lanka, instead of being greeted with Ayubovan, the visitor has to pay homage to the police officers and constables to get their attention. They ignore you until you go after the officers and constables pleading for what you need. They do not simply do their duty with due respect to the citizen. Even the constable treats you as a colonial subject or the worse as a slave with no identity, rights, status or feelings. This is the cold hard truth prevailing in the country, especially in rural and regional areas. So, the crisis in Sri Lanka is not only economic. It is political, bureaucratic, semi-colonial, sociological and psychological. Inferiority complex in the official hierarchies, especially lower layers, turn into a superiority complex when the citizens without access to political or bureaucratic power visit government or semi-government institutions to obtain a service. The moment those you are dealing with in official venues come to know that you are a somebody, officials change colour like Katussas and become courteous.

Thus, a fundamental question that needs to be raised is whose interests are served by the various institutions of power associated with the governance and service provision in Sri Lanka? i.e. executive including administrative, legislative and judicial. It appears that they are there primarily to serve the interests of those holding positions in them rather than the general populace many of whom are frustrated due to the poor services available or the semi-colonial attitude of those holding positions. The system is so deformed and far from the norms and practices of a liberal democratic society (not to mention social democracy), that they have stopped being institutions that serve the needs and interests of people in general. Modern customer relations are almost absent in them. Those holding positions look at the citizens who come to obtain a service as colonial/post-colonial subjects. This is even apparent in judicial and law enforcement institutions. Delays, disappointments and frustrations are common in the people’s experiences. Even the higher education institutions such as universities are no different because the students are treated as empty vessels that the imported knowledge has to be filled with through the teaching process. They are treated as subjects rather than those with critical thinking abilities that need to be nurtured.

Archaic Procedures

One reason for the delays, disappointments and frustrations of the citizens is the fact that the institutions still follow enactments, norms and procedures inherited from the British colonial masters since the 1800s with minimal changes. Administration by circulars is quite common. It reflects the hierarchical authority instead of a flexible system of management required for modern society designed to meet the needs and aspirations of people in a cooperative manner. In many institutions, consultation in making regulations or changing is almost absent. The administrative authorities appointed by the political authority make decisions without consulting the stakeholders in their given fields of operation. Politically aligned experts, advisors and consultants assist the bureaucrats and politicians in the decision-making process. The role some of them play is questionable. Moreover, they seem to operate within narrowly defined realms and frameworks that are imported from overseas. No due consideration is given to the intricacies of the local system, needs or context. Whether the archaic rules, norms, concepts and practices are suitable for the local needs and context as well as 21st century is beyond their comprehension. It is as if the role of advisors and experts is to reinforce the existing system rather than change it with creative ideas, arguments and proposals. Often imported concepts, frameworks and practices come with borrowed money as well. Herein lies the problem.


Another factor that has contributed to the deforming of institutions and their management styles is the rapid politicisation in the last seven decades. By politicisation, I not only mean the appointments in the Government and Ministry offices given to family members of elected or appointed (national list) politicians, but also the enormous influence exercised by those close to the ruling parties or coalitions in various institutions including the trade unions associated with the ruling parties. Such scenarios can be witnessed in the central government, Provincial Councils, Municipal Councils or Pradesheeya Sabha offices. The ground situation amounts to the administration by the party or parties rather than the government per se. Such systems generally exist in countries like North Korea or before the cold war in countries that belonged to Soviet Union.

Under this scenario, instead of an independent public service, we witness a highly politicised one, meaning that public servants are following the dictates of the ministers whose expertise to do so is questionable rather than giving the ministers independent advice. Instead of a police service that serves the needs and interests of the citizens, we see a highly hierarchical system where the policemen and women do not have operational autonomy. They simply follow orders from the higher officers who in turn follow orders from the politicians/ministers in authority. We can see the pathetic results of such a system from incidents like Rambukkana police shooting or the many interactions between protesters and the police in Colombo streets.

Furthermore, the appointments to head various governance institutions are mainly political appointments. So are the appointments to the foreign service. Even various committees appointed by the government to investigate and report on specific issues are packed with political appointees. Universities lack autonomy to make decisions to suit their needs. They have to obey centrally determined circulars and rules. They are being managed as if all universities are the same! No respect for diversity in such a system. How can the citizens expect justice and fair play in a sick system like this? How can the country prosper in a system like this when individual effort is not admired, and when individual effort and creativity are not appreciated? Satisfying the masters -bureaucratic and political- is the main criteria for survival and even promotion.

Preservation of Sinhalese Buddhist Identity, Language and Religion

There is a strong view that the present rulers misled the Sinhalese Buddhist voters at the last elections showing that there was a terrorist threat to the preservation of mother country, its sovereignty, identity and religion by using the Easter Sunday terrorist incidents that took place in churches and tourist hotels. Since the government or the courts have not been able to prosecute anyone involved and no accountability for the lack of prompt action to prevent the incidents has been taken by those who were in power at the time, this view has gained wider acceptance. Stakeholders in preserving the Sinhala Buddhist identity, language and religion needs to be mindful about how to preserve it within a multireligious, multicultural or diverse society instead of attempting to become a hegemonic force that tries to deny the minorities their rights or identities. If we continue to believe that Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese Buddhist country only, this view will not be compatible with a modern, progressive nation that can accommodate diverse identities, languages and religions. Such a belief can lead to an exclusivist ideology. Most important is not to politicise religion, language or identity for sectarian or party-political purposes. Yet the reality has been the opposite.

Modernism, Tradition and Patriarchy

Although Sri Lanka inherited features of a colonial-modern system of governance, education and welfare, after the independence the system reverted to the traditional features such as patriarchy and manipulation of democratic institutions for securing the power of families and groups with loyalty to caste, locality or the leader of a political party. Broader welfare and service of the citizen was not the aim. Male power dominated in the institutions of power -except in two occasions when the Bandaranaikes were the head of state. All Rajapaksas with power are males. During their rule, they formed the core group holding actual power even though they operated within a party and a coalition. When a core group based on factors other than political control the levers of power in a government, it has the potential to exclude many others even within the coalitions or parties. Male power is also based on family networks. Networks of old boys and girls emerging from the places of education or work tend to follow patriarchal mode of power and control rather than challenge it. To some extent, the present crisis in Sri Lankan society is related to this gender inequality but it is not openly discussed due to the priority being given to other factors.

Trickle Down Economics

It is widely believed in free-market neoliberal economics that the fruits of economic growth (if there are any?) -engineered by those who have the capital and know-how, meaning usually the private sector companies including multinationals -will trickle down to the general population when a freehand is given to the private sector to engage in their enterprises with less government control. It appears that this did not happen in Sri Lanka’s case. Instead, things became worse. Is this an error in the economic theory or the way it was applied in the Sri Lankan case? Is it the fact that the government or those behind the driving seat did not allow the market to be free? Or is it the result of government and the ruling class getting involved in the economy (black and white) in the economic enterprises, public and private, beyond reason? These questions will inevitably be raised in the current context where Sri Lanka is facing the worst economic crisis in the recent past.

The current crisis shows that the neoliberal economic model implemented since 1977 by governments of all persuasions has failed. It has increased the inequalities in society, put more burdens on the disadvantaged segments, made a few richer, and thrown the sick, frail and elderly from frying pan to the fire. It also pushed thousands of qualified people to leave the country -some permanently. Government has failed to attract new significant investments from abroad. Along with other foolish measures, the Super market economy that gives priority to imported products rather than local produce has made the agriculture sector vulnerable along with the farmers. All this raises the question as to whose side are the rulers on? Big end of the town or the down trodden masses? Same question can be asked about the governance system and institutions associated with it. It is necessary to highlight the feature of this system where the elected politicians function with a technocratic and bureaucratic coterie in making decisions on behalf of the people without much consultation with the stakeholders and the people in general. Some are appointed as advisors to the President and Prime Minister. Questionable appointments to a whole range of other positions by the ministers and MPs such as personal staff, coordinating secretaries often family members make the system not accountable. No wonder the educated young people who are protesting against such a system.

Decolonisation of institutions

Was there a significant degree of decolonisation in the institutions of governance and those supposed to produce economic and social capital after Sri Lanka gained independence? E.g. education and higher education. Or did the ruling class continue with the same institutions with cosmetic changes so that they serve their own interests while the economy and society were made more dependent on foreign interests? The evidence suggests that it did the latter. If decolonisation means real independence, are we now independent of the global capital and regional geopolitics? If we go by the foreign debt we cannot say that we are independent. Instead we are caught up in a dilemma when it comes to our obligation to pay back the loans obtained by the governments while using available foreign exchange to pay for the necessary imports. We cannot claim that we are culturally and epistemically decolonised either.

Though we have espoused (ethno)nationalism since independence with destructive consequences (with liberal pluralism in the background), our education and socialisation mechanisms including the media have produced generations of young people who are trained not only to admire but also imitate Western culture, ways of thinking and doing. Such a dominant process has placed our indigenous/local ways of thinking and doing to the backburner. Our religion trains followers and faith communities -not necessarily critical thinkers who are able reflect on an issue of personal significance from diverse perspectives. Freedom does not necessarily emanate from religion, polity, or education. Loyalty to the country needs not be narrowly defined. In the globalised era, it can manifest in many different forms. Political liberation is part of the very existence for many but for some it is a debating point only or a theory with no practical dimension. Continuing loyalty to the ruling elites/class -even though elected by the people in an election- does not guarantee that security for the people-economic, civic, or cultural. It is here that the diaspora can play a role in broadening the mental faculties and personal experiences of the young and old with cross cultural experiences and perspectives. Decolonisation of education and knowledge should be a priority in a freedom struggle.

Education and Learning

Secularisation of education and higher education started with the British colonisation process. Partly, this was the result of separating education into publicly funded and privately funded and those affiliated with various Christian denominations. Speaking about the publicly funded education and higher education, teaching of religions became a subject (or discipline in the case of universities). Science and social science and the practice of looking at the society and its problems through scientific and social scientific way became the fashion. In this exercise, religion and culture are not to be mixed with teaching science and social science subjects because the traditional thought systems can interfere with the so-called objective way of analysing and interpreting scientific or social scientific phenomena. Such a belief exists in our education and higher education process even now. As a result, we have been producing doctors, engineers, accountants, scientists and social scientists who would approach their objects of study and analysis from a detached way or from a distance. In other words, even when they study and analyse human beings, the practice was to approach them as research subjects -not as thinking individuals with human emotions, desires and concerns.

Instead of applying imported concepts, theories and frameworks from science and social science (mainly in English) to solve human problems and issues facing the country as a developing one, the emphasis was to produce knowledge from the global periphery to feed into the theories originating from the West. Codes of conduct or ethics existed in the disciplines especially when conducting research but research itself was oriented to the abstract needs of disciplines themselves rather than the people’s living and working context as such. This process seems to have created a cleavage between the needs and desires of the young generations who went to study and those academics engaged in the teaching process. Many of them graduated from Western universities and institutions whose interest is not necessarily to solve the problems of peripheral countries but to be part of a network of institutions dominating the teaching and learning process globally.

Awakened and Active Citizens

This is important for a functioning and effective democracy especially when the governance system is corrupt and does not serve the interests of many. The problem with older generation is that even though some were alert and informed about the weaknesses and rorts in the system, they were unable to take effective action to counter. They simply went along with the system changing parties or coalitions at election times. It is only now that the younger and older generation seem to have forged an essential link to not only criticise the existing system but also to seek its change though public protests like GotaGoHome Campaign. In such movements, it is not enough to be awakened and alert but the participants have to be actively engaged in the political process-if not the existing process work towards creating a new political process ground up. Political activism beyond the established parties can be a drawing card to attract mass support. However, along with a political strategy, an economic strategy is also necessary to address the country’s problems.

Way Forward

It is important for the protest movement to think beyond the current phase and plan for the next phase required to bring about a system change through the parliamentary and constitutional process. This means that it needs to map out a strategy to contest next round of elections in an organised and meaningful way by developing electoral committees of awakened citizens -young and old at the provincial/district or electoral levels.

Protesters need to develop an elaborate plan and an organisational mechanism to be able to field candidates in a future election and launch a massive campaign against corruption, waste, privilege, etc on one hand and seeking a socially just society (Dharmishta Samajaya) and a governance system on the other. Protests of various forms can continue while developing such an organisational mechanism throughout the country. A different approach to the development of local economy based not on competition but collaboration of the people in economic activities under a social democratic model of development is also required. Instead of imports that need to be paid from the borrowed money, local production and manufacturing from home gardens to local enterprises need to be encouraged. Collective energies recalled by the masses for organising protests -though unheeded by those in authority- need to be channelled towards a future project to salvage the country and nation both from the corrupt rulers and international lenders.

This option, if successful, will utilise legal and constitutional mechanisms in order to bring about a change in the governance system and ultimately the constitution itself with a new set of parliamentarians. It embodies a long-term vision and a strategy.


It is evident that the government (including its 3 main branches) has moved away from the values, norms and wishes of a majority in society towards a deep state characterised by self-preservation rather than the common good. At the end, the people whose sovereignty has been transferred to the rulers for a period to govern the country had to come out to the streets and other public places to protest for course correction. The situation that emerged on the streets, public places and in the media -mainstream and social- can only be characterised by a struggle between the evil forces (Adharmista) and forces characterised by just forces (Dharmishta). Such moments are witnessed in societies rarely. They are transformative moments that carry the seeds of change. Sri Lanka is witnessing such a moment. What led to this moment has been the evil forces including those who were elected to govern the country on people’s behalf that brought about immense suffering, inequality and injustice in everyday life. This should be a moment of deep reflection and course correction for a better Lanka based on the principles of social justice, non-violence, egalitarianism, trust, liberalism and humanism. A change that will correct the many deformities creeped into the system since Colonisation and independence in 1948 is the desire of Sri Lankans at this critical juncture.

Limiting reform exercise to politics and governance alone is not enough as the moral basis and compass of society has been severely affected by the process of European colonisation (this continues in a different form today) and the post-independence state making. Institutions beyond politics and government such as religion, education and higher education, judiciary, health service – those supposed to provide security including social security to the citizens -have been deformed to some extent and their functioning paralysed to the extent of not serving their aims. An awakening to examine such deformities and necessary steps to bring them into line with a new social contract between the people and the state is highly important to save the nation from future calamities that are man-made. In essence such efforts are to be guided by the moral question beyond the political question as it seems to be the deeper issue at hand.

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    Yes, it is true. The system is very deformed. We can go through the whole history of the nation, and still never come up with a reason or value why this our land cannot lift itself up. We can speculate on if it is the nature of the people themselves. I myself am very puzzled by our Lankan mindset and attitude. It is quite shameful to observe sometimes- debilitating jealousy, shameful lies, belittling, bullying, nitpicking…..all take center stage away from national consensus and development. It’s like there is some diabolical spirit amongst so many.

    Only way to get rid of the Lankan scourge is to start from scratch, like you say. The people who should be got rid of are the pro-capitalistic parties like the UNP and SLPP. Party like JVP-NPP is the only one that Lankans can pin their hopes on. It will cost us some amount to install the decolonized system into Sri Lanka. Sirimavo tried to install it, but it was not given a chance to develop as Jayawardena came in with his pro-capitalistic stance. Places like Vietnam and Singapore can lend us their expertise. We only hope that parties like the JVP-NPP will not get too closed in and obtuse in their ideologies, but also rely on global expertise and trends. They should form a coalition with SJB.

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