23 September, 2023


The System Is More Resilient Than People Like To Believe

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

We are a resilient nation and I’ve insisted on the point before. Sri Lanka is not a failed state but has signs of failing. That is not new either. The signs have been there at least as long as the moment J.R. Jayewardene brought in the Second Republican Constitution in 1978. Nineteen amendments later, all things considered, remedial measures have been few and far between and moreover taken the form of little more than patch-up.  

Sri Lanka is resilient. We have suffered two insurrections over the past 50 years, bloody and bloodily put down, a thirty year long struggle to rid the country of a terrorist menace, debilitating natural disasters including the tsunami of 2004, government after government by crooks, for crooks and with crooks, veiled and not so veiled threats and their open and frilled execution by a belligerent neighbor and a lot of bullying at multilateral forums. Sri Lanka has not gone down the tubes.  

That’s a positive. To get knocked down again and again but still being able to stand up, be defiant, deal with issues and smiles is a great thing. On the other hand what it also means is that there’s something or someone or many people who are ready to punch, trip and in other ways put you down.

We’ve heard it said before by those who claimed they would change things but then lamented about a pernicious culture that abides and inhibits and of course about officials who were intransigent and threw sand in the wheels. But where do such officials come from, how did this culture come into being and why does it persist?  

It is hard to pin it down to one single factor. Political culture is a very vague thing. Does this ‘culture’ inhibit or is a significant element of it an almost pernicious tendency to be laid back? And so, similar to the dictum ‘people get the governments they deserve,’ are we to conclude that culture is something we’ve made and is but a reflection of our ability and disability? Is it all about institutions which acquire ‘a life of its own’ like certain futuristic extrapolations of technology that have human-made robots operating with wills of their own?  

Karl Marx, in his celebrated essay ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapart,’ wrote this pithy line that may offer a window into this situation: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’

Pierre Bourdieu, the French Sociologist in his book ‘Outline of a Theory of Practice’ speaks of a dialectic relationship between structure and agency. He talks of ‘structured structures (structures structurées) that are predisposed to act as structuring structures (structures structurantes).’ It essentially echoes Marx’s notion.  Marx’s focus was on the French coup of 1851 which resulted in Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte assuming dictatorial powers whereas Bourdieu’s is a more sophisticated discussion on theories of domination.

Systems are of course made of rules, regulations, enforcers and so on. They don’t cave in when someone shouts or someone objects.  If objection is strong, the objectors many and if there’s perceived threat then systems (which, let us not forget, includes people, many of whom are conscious defenders or else defenders by virtue of simply using the system or endorsers on account of silence or acquiescence) rise to the occasion.  

Take the example of public interest lawyer Nagananda Kodituwakku. His is a lone voice on behalf of every single citizen of this country, a voice that’s raised again and again to object to wrongdoing of all kinds from the seemingly most trivial to the downright scandalous. It is a brave voice because it speaks truths that make certain people uncomfortable, people who fall into the system-defenders category, knowingly or unknowingly.  

And the defenders close ranks. It is as though they are convinced that if one bastion of the pernicious castle falls, the entire edifice will come down. Kodituwakku’s battering ram, then, needs to be destroyed. The gates have to be defended. And so we find key defenders of the judicial-element of the overall ‘system’ doing everything to thwart Kodituwakku, all to silence him. And the system is resourceful.  

There are the ‘in-built’ mechanisms such as court holidays and delaying tactics.  Then there’s the option of suspending his license. There’s of course always the white-vanning option. State Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe recently said at a campaign rally that the UNP (United National Party) ‘has still not resorted to thuggery but was prepared to do so if the situation so demanded.’ That’s the ‘system’ speaking on a specific matter; the system can also express itself more generally and move from threat to execution. Has been done a countless number of times here and abroad. It is happening now as it has happened for centuries.  

Now what if there were a thousand Kodituwakkus or if there were thousands backing Kodituwakku? Will the system recoil in fear and collapse of its own accord or would it have to be brought down, one element at a time or several clusters of them to make it untenable?  

The vote! Now that’s often enough been talked of as an option. But is it, really? We didn’t need to read Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ to understand that the devil (treat the word as metaphor) often comes wearing the garb of the savior (treat this word also as a metaphor). We ‘give’ our vote, we vote for manifestos and we find our so-called representatives re-defining ‘mandates’. Democracy, for all its lovely notions, is often the sauce with which we are consumed by the powerful.  

We get fooled by the process. We think we participate when in fact what happens is that we are made party to the processes that cheat us. Like credit cards. The moment we use them we set capital in motion. Many ardent socialists unwittingly buttress capitalism in this and other ways.   

The same goes for ‘revolutions’. There’s euphoria. There is belief that things will change. But as the Eagles’ song puts it ‘things in this life (world) change very slowly if they ever change at all.’ Systems are that resilient.  

All the more reason for being sober about change. All the more reason for exercising patience and fortitude. All the more reason to be like Nagananda Kodituwakku. All the more reason to think of taking resilience to the next level and to understand that this requires individuals to turn themselves into communities and for communities to value and nurture solidarity. 

No one said it would be easy. Neither did anyone say it was impossible. It’s not a walk in a park and neither is it a walk on burning coals; but we need to walk and to paraphrase Faiz Ahmed Faiz, ‘if your feet bleed, then be assured that something will surely bloom in the desert simply because you are walking through it.’

That’s being resilient too. And if we want a garden instead of a few flowers, then many must walk the desert.  

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Latest comments

  • 1

    If you see signs of failing state .
    Why you support these people ..
    UN P and SLFP..
    Vote JVP ..to correct it .
    What we need is a political correctness

    • 6

      This is what public intellectuals should do/be. ……. An excellent piece! ……….from someone I least expected.

      Gotta acknowledge ….where praise is due.

      ….. Never about personal agendas ……….. but what’s good for the country……………..

      • 2


        Gota acknowledge …. where praise is due.

        • 0


          “Gota acknowledge …. where praise is due.”

          Only if its due to him or if unavoidable, for example Hindia’s immense contribution in the war.

      • 1

        nimal fernando

        “This is what public intellectuals should do/be. ……. An excellent piece! ……….from someone I least expected”

        Are you losing your marbles?
        You are mistaken a public racist for a public intellectual.

        • 4

          Don’t you think Malinda is much better than the more notorious Dr. DJ?
          He does come out now and then with pieces that are well put together . At least he doesn’t seem to share the theory that the “Bond Scam” is the end of civilization as we know it.
          Note that he has criticized saviors who redefine their mandates.
          People do get the governments they deserve.

        • 3

          “Are you losing your marbles?
          You are mistaken a public racist for a public intellectual.”

          Oh c’mon Native

          Each piece on its merits. ……He has not displayed any racism in this piece ……….when he does we’ll take him to task! :))

          PS ……OC has said most of what I would have said……….much more succulently than I could’ve ………..he has a nice way with words ………well, in school, I couldn’t get past spelling!

        • 0

          Stupid native Vedda
          I can’t see any racism in this article. Perhaps the name of the writer which is of course a Sinhala name makes this extreme communalist hiding under a Vedda name to call him a racist. To this Tamil Vedda all Sinhalese are rAcists, and they have the Cheek to ask for power sharing.,

          • 1

            Percy dated and pathetic

            “I can’t see any racism in this article. “
            You stupid racist, did I mention about this particular Malinda;s typing? I was commenting Malinda’s pattern of typing. You have real problem with comprehension you damn fool. This what I wrote:
            “You are mistaken a public racist for a public intellectual”.

            “Perhaps the name of the writer which is of course a Sinhala name makes this extreme communalist hiding under a Vedda name to call him a racist.”

            When did Malinda officially become a Sinhala Name? Malinda is a very popular first name for women in Latin which means sweet.

  • 1

    They system we are talking about today is the system that started from 1948. IT had a lifespan of 70 years. Within that period nearly three-forth (75%) period was fall under blood, massacres, mass graves, war crimes, human right violations, and genocide. We are leading in all these aspects. We are resilient, we don’t give wide gap between episodes. we are now on the process of going for another bloodbath. Are these not due to failure of the system or failure of the state?

  • 4

    May be our System is resilient..Otherwise how on earth a PM who helped the biggest rort in Government Finances can still address the Nation and portray him as the Mr Clean ….
    A Failing State..Sure is, when I looked at the Economic Indicators from 2014 to 2017.
    Main indicators of Economic Development have all dropped since 2015…Eg
    Per Capita Income
    Only thing which has gone up is the Foreign Debt ….
    These are the issues which are important when it comes to elections and electing Politicians in developed Nations
    But our great majority of the Nation who are poor rural Sinhala and Catholic people do not understand .what these Indicators are ,or what they mean to their future and wellbeing..
    And our Politicians want to keep it that way.
    The so called Intelligentia who write about Politics, Social Issues and Human Rights also are not keen in educating the Electorate on issues which are relevant and important to them…

    • 0

      Kalu Albert

      Why do you sound like KASmaalam K A Sumanasekere?

  • 1

    An economic mantra of world powers is “Unemployment and poverty are necessary elements of vibrant economy”. A lemma is “To sustain economic success, failed states are collaterals”.
    Malinda is couching this theory with a cloak of ‘resilience’.
    Putting up with misery is the secret to evolution!

  • 1

    Malinda Senevirathne: System is more resilient than People like to believe. I don’t think you are educated. there are private colleges built nearby prestigious universities which uses the same name and run businesses which are offering degrees. You should be educated from one of those.
    Politicians are visionaries until the women working in the middle east boys work in South Korea send money. The system is also resilient as long as they have that money.
    I think Naganda Kodithuwakku can be a lone voice. He lived overseas and probably he has money earned there. See how many including BASL behaves – that is those live in Sri lanka. they are like vultures. some how try to eat a piece from some one.Y Ou are no different. YOu people do not criticize the system and build it. Instead, follow it.
    See JVP is very exemplary. See how they are exposing the corrupt govts. SLFP is corrupt. MY3 is silent. UNP, SLPP are all the same. Mahinda Rajapakse, Ranil arfe all the same. MAfia bosses.

  • 1

    Karl Marx is failed theory , you can’t be serious if you quote extensively from it . I suppose even China & Russia have capitalist economies, but they were failed states when run under command economies . This article is mixed up thinking.

  • 2

    The paragraph that contains ” the government by crooks, for crooks and with crooks”- prepositions rearranged, explaining our resilience seems brilliant. Referrence to Nagananda Kodituwakku however seems out of context…..with due respect to him. What he says we have already heared. ‘The devil comes in the garb of the savior’ applies to him too.

  • 0

    Hiroshima was resilient! Japan, Germany, Italy got back on their feet after millions were killed. The hallmark of civilization is to stay on one’s feet WITHOUT the bloodletting (or as minimal as possible).
    Living in delusion of monetary speculations is the the worst possible charade. When the present GoSL forces monetary policy with bogus lines of credit, oh, we’d be resilient all right……like Zimbabwe.

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