18 May, 2022


When Elected Politicians Become Capitalists: Provincial Perspectives

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

There are numerous criticisms of politicians, politics and political culture by those concerned with the directions of the country, governance style, policies and programs, corruption, delay, and costs of living pressures. However, little attention has been paid to the manner politicians in Sri Lanka become capitalists during their tenure and move away from the socio-economic contexts that they were born into in the Provinces. In order to understand the reasons as to why democratic governance and rule of law are not functioning as expected by the broader population, and the social distance of elected politicians from the very masses who propel them to power, it is important to understand the process where politicians become capitalists and start operating on the basis of a completely different set of norms, motivations and desires compared to what they were elected for. In politics and governance, power is the key variable. In capitalism, capital accumulation including land, machinery, money is the key variable -though the control over labour is also important.

During the British colonial period (1796-1948), the power was vested with the imperial-colonial administration whose key positions were occupied by the British nationals. However, a layer of local chieftains called Mudaliyars occupied important positions in the administration and its institutions spreading into the Provinces in association with other local officials such as Vidane Arachchis. They were playing a supportive role to the British administrators. In return, these chieftains were rewarded with land, servants, status, monetary reward, share of power, titles, respect and recognition. They established mansions called Walawwas, controlled large tracts of highland and paddy land, ruled their respective divisions with an iron fist, and even executed justice at the local level (Research using oral history has the potential to shed new light on their behaviour, attitudes etc.) As in the Kandyan and other provinces, this was the case in the Southern province including the Hambantota district. After the independence, the situation changed and the power transferred to Sri Lankans even though the vestiges of colonialism continued including in areas such as education, law, medicine, religion, tea plantations and commerce. Populist politics to win over mass consent at elections came into being and various tactics including grand sermons, variety of rewards were used by the politicians to attract votes. A political stage was created where contenders became actors and the masses the audience.

During the colonial period, people in the Southern Province became rich by associating themselves with the colonial administration and getting rewarded for their loyalty. This aspect has not been researched adequately by our historians and social scientists in a systematic way though there are a few publications on the subject by historians. For example, I am not aware of a thorough study of Walawwas in the province or the lifestyle, income sources, accumulation of wealth, education, style of administration and its consequences, mannerisms etc. When travelling in the area one can see monuments established at the grave sites for the departed members of Walawwas, e.g. Dahanayake Walawwa in Hakmana, Hakuruwela Walawwa in Weeraketiya area (Some mansions have been transformed into tourism sites today). Research studies are necessary to understand the way a sub stratum of the ruling class from the natives was formed and operated during the colonial period dictating terms for the local population plus how some became rich capitalists. In the 1950s there was a national survey called Lanka Maneema. Land acquired by the crown was auctioned and many local chieftains and some entrepreneurs bought such land. Association with power afforded these chieftains and their families an advantage over the rest of the population for the accumulation of wealth and capital, in accessing English education, familiarity with legal procedures and making children professionals in various fields such as law and medicine.

In terms of the accumulation of wealth and capital, the other important segments were those engaged in agriculture, commerce and business activities.  During the colonial administration, various opportunities existed for highly motivated people from the South to enter into new ventures. Some of them migrated to Kandy and Colombo and established shops. Others found their wealth through construction, transport, catering, plantations etc. Some who acquired large extents of land by virtue of office held or sheer entrepreneurship added more land and/or crops to their profile to become significant players in the localities. Those business people who moved from coastal areas in the South-Western sea board to towns such as Walasmulla, Beliatta used accumulated capital from businesses to purchase land from the peasants who borrowed consumer goods on credit.  Likewise, until 1983, Tamil shop owners from the North operated businesses in these Southern rural towns and invested their profits in purchasing land in their own native areas and educating children. With the arrival of new technologies like tractors and farming methods including fertiliser associated with the green revolution, the productivity from the land increased and made some businessmen richer even though fluctuations of price for commercial crops affected the capital accumulation process e.g. citronella. Compared to the colonial period where the occupants of Walawwas by and large resided in their homes in the provinces, in time to come when the children were educated in English and entered the professions in the capital, absentee landlordism became a reality in areas such as Tissamaharama.

Politics became an avenue for accumulating wealth and capital since the doors were opened in the nation’s parliament for the locals starting in the 1930s. For many, legal profession coupled with family background and connections provided an avenue for entering politics without much hassle. Though the norms of democratic governance remained intact until after several decades since independence, the nexus between power and capital/wealth continued. The changes in the leadership, party structures, and the entry of petty bourgeoisie contestants to high office including from the South infused a new meaning to this relationship between power and wealth/capital starting from the late 80s. Meaning of representative democracy remained in words more so than in practice. Practice itself became the norm. Introduction of provincial Councils in 1987 provided an arena for local aspirants to high office to play the same games that national politicians played at macro level often with the blessings of party hierarchies. This changed scenario provides insights into how the politics is used as an avenue for accumulation of wealth/capital?  

Sociological studies can be designed to study the way average politicians transform themselves during their political careers from their small beginnings to be extremely rich elites. The emergence of professional politicians from the provinces provides an interesting case study in terms of this nexus between power and wealth/capital accumulation and its evolution since the 80s. If one were to pay close attention there are numerous examples from other provinces also indicating the same phenomenon. An important aspect of this phenomenon is as to the nature of relationship between such politicians and their electors which is mediated through various layers of coordinating and personal secretaries, family and friend networks, brokers etc. How the large masses become the power-less spectators of the political drama enacted by these politicians, particularly after the elections, and how a distance is created between the electors and the elected is an issue to examine further. Who gets included and excluded from the political process after the elections and the obstacles constructed for the average voter to access power is a critical dimension to investigate.

The irrigation and settlement projects have made a difference in the life chances of some peasants who were disadvantaged.  Opening of the job market in the middle eastern countries has also have opened opportunities for women who were not able to earn an income locally. Free market, open economic policies and programs as well as opening of borders through globalisation have encouraged young and middle aged, educated and skilled men and women to move out of their local contexts and seek greener pastures elsewhere. Even while such changes have allowed the lower to middle class inhabitants in the provinces to earn better incomes, migrate and even provide better education to children, those who have accumulated capital/wealth at a large scale through politics and other means seem to have elevated their capacities, power and status exponentially through such means as international partnerships and collaborations in mega projects and even corrupt activities. 

The stark differences in life’s fortunes between those wearing amude, redda, hatta –mostly subject to vicissitudes of weather and fluctuating incomes i.e. chena cultivators, compared to those born to privilege offered through high office, agriculture, business, education and professions, politics etc. kept changing as the country’s economy, polity, education and other services changed. Exposure to modernism, urban lifestyle and even foreign influences and experiences have ameliorated such differences to some extent. However, the stark disparities in the economic and social opportunities in terms of work, recognition, access to power and wealth/capital remain especially at provincial levels for many who are desiring to make a difference in the way the country is governed and the domination-subordination dynamic is operating.

Means of accumulating power and wealth/capital plus status as local and national elites have changed along with the changes in the political establishment, political culture, economy and investment opportunities, international aid and projects, NGO activities etc. During the colonial period, there were judicial and other mechanisms including the norms and procedures of governance coming from the imperial centre keeping a tab on local players and activities. How far they were socially just in terms of natural justice is a different question. Nonetheless at the time there were rules and regulations, and courts of justice to prosecute the same.  Those occupying high office in the government and judiciary probably had no vested interests other than to serve the imperial power in London. 

The situation has changed since the changeover of power to local elites. There is no need to expand on this as many a treatise has been compiled including in this paper earlier by others. The close relationships among people occupying high office allow themselves to be flexible in more than one way in executing their roles in the existing governing architecture. Apparently, rules get bended depending on who the protagonists are in a given case. No overarching normative framework –legal or moral- led by people of high integrity and eminence oversea the functioning of national institutions without being interfered by significant others. Opportunities for the accumulation process of power and wealth/capital seem to continue through legitimate and illegitimate means in the wider arena of human activity including by politicians, those holding high office in the bureaucracy and other important institutions. The mechanisms set in place to ensure the interests of those who are powerless and distant from the exercise of power have weakened in the face of this dominant politico-economic formation engineered by those who held political authority since independence, in particular the 1980s. There don’t seem to be a limit to the freedoms afforded to politicians to engage in the accumulation process without the gaze of law and community norms in the face of the functioning of invisible hands.

The innocence of inhabitants in parts of the Southern province such as Hambantota district and how their lives were governed by the colonial administration and the effects of harsh environment have been documented in works such as village in the jungle. While the dawn of independence in 1948 was assumed to be a turning point in terms of personal freedoms, access to equal opportunity, freedom from exploitation and discrimination, human and political rights, the issue today is whether the existing political party system and governance style, judicial process, knowledge construction and dissemination mechanisms, national discourses on race, economic servitude  etc. are affording the masses with such freedoms and rights OR in fact preventing them from exploitation by the rich and powerful? Whether the process of transforming average politicians to be capitalists through the electoral process is a barrier to achieve true equality for the many is a key question? In this context, we have to wonder as to whether we are we are living in a jungle village instead of village in the jungle?

How the very so- called democratic process of electing representatives to govern the country is playing a major role in the disempowerment of electors is not only an academic subject worth examining but also a great irony in modern era that has escaped the attention of intellectuals who are supposed to critically examine socio political issues.

Well-designed micro studies by social scientists and others focused on the Provinces can shed new light on these aspects and the new forms of accumulation, exclusion, exploitation, and dominance – even though the problem with social science is its focus on the abstract and national rather than the provincial and local. Dynamics of power and wealth/capital creation at various levels can be a highly rewarding research topic for the aspiring academics such as political scientists and sociologists while making a contribution to the understanding of a major process in contemporary Sri Lankan society that is making a few people and families rich and powerful while many become impoverished. 

The role of educated class and civic leaders concerned about the dire situation in becoming transformative/change leaders with civic responsibility and a greater responsibility about the nation’s future is crucial one in this context. Finding leaders who have the welfare of the nation at heart and devotion to public service rather than their own extended networks of friends and family is the key. However, the educated professionals and others some of who have experience in governance insitutions are reluctant to enter the political fray on their own partly because of the very nature of politics and its underpinnings. Even the country’s intellectuals are adept in expressing critical views and suggestions without any follow up action even at a small scale. If the process of elected politicians becoming capitalists to dominate the society in multiple means is to be avoided, communities and community organisations have to empower themselves via multiple means. This requires having a hard look at ways and means of empowering outside the mainstream political party process. Elsewhere in the world, there are examples of this happening in a variety of ways. Disenfranchised segments form themselves into pressure groups and employ multiple methods to advocate alternatives to mainstream politics, create awareness and form community organisations. Some even turn into national movements for change with a political bearing. Instead of groping in darkness or looking for imaginative alternatives while also assuming that politics is for politicians, it is important for those concerned about the directions of the country to be proactive and take a stand, develop strategies to empower and collaborate with like-minded others for democratic change and greater opportunities for those who are marginalised and impoverished. 

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Siri are you sure there were crown land auctions in the 50s, was it not before 1935? Wasn’t at the turn of the century (19/20) that landlords were created.

    • 2

      My information was based on oral history. This is a point requiring further investigation. Land that became crown land after Lanka Maneema are now called state land to be given to foreign countries and investors. The beaches are already lost to tourist companies. The dispossession of people in the Southern Province due to acquisition of land by the colonial state has not been researched well-though this has attracted much academic attention in the Kandyan provinces.

  • 1

    In the book “Nobodies to Somebodies” Kumari Jayawardhana describes the rise of the bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, in the South wasn’t it the Arrack tax that made a group of individuals very rich and consequently they had the money to buy the crown land for a pittance before ’35.

  • 1

    “Politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.” – by Charles de Gaulle, a former French President.
    I think we have come to that point now.
    SLFP, UNP, JVP, SLPP policies suck. They failed Sri Lanka pathetically for 70-years.
    I myself am dying to see a new APOLITICAL man as the next President!!!
    The only issue is Rajapaksa brothers at the political forefront.
    One has to have lot of courage to rise against them, enter the presidential race and win.
    Having said that, I regard former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s “Jana Bala Protest March” scheduled to be held on “September 5th” as the only platform to protest against government’s bid to sell our national assets to foreigners, SLSFTA, ETCA and the tax burden.
    Even those who do not accept Mahinda’s politics should take part in his “Jana Bala Protest March” AS THERE IS NO OTHER PLATFORM TO DO SO!!!
    Coming back to the topic of the article, which is timely (thank you Siri Gamage), the common man is seriously in need of a new movement with a new leadership. A leadership is necessary. Sinhalese were used to have a leader for all their historical struggles.
    I love and respect former President very much. I hold his leadership in high esteem. But I don’t want to see his former henchmen again. For that reason I want to see someone out of his league as the next President.
    This article is timely but it is too early for action as there is no Presidential election on the horizon. If someone comes forward at this juncture, this early, he will be suppressed by politicians using various means. This is Sri Lanka. If there is a new community movement for next Presidential election, then it should be unpremeditated for obvious reasons.

    • 0

      Charles de Gaulle, actually a former Prime Minister of France (not a President).

    • 2

      I think Junius Richard Jayewardene was the last politician who didn’t come to politics to enhance his wealth.
      After him, after 1988, there was a shift in Sri Lankan politics where greedy politicians with personal wealth interests started coming into power. With that there was a great increase in wealth inequality in our society. Politicians have created a new upper middle class and a new middle class.
      Interestingly all economic policies were/are formulated by the wealthy who have no real regard for underprivileged and unprivileged people.
      Anyways, the problem of wealth in politics is universal.

  • 0

    Great piece of writing.
    Once upon a time there lived a very rich family in village of medamulana.
    He was instrumental in finishing off the 30 year war.

  • 2

    What you call Oral TRadition has almost died including many sinhala words and, I heard, they now use english words in place. I think they should have tape recorded and writein in books those days. I heard this word Professional politicians only in Sri lanka, probably in India. In most other countries, politicians succeed as laders and then cabinet ministers, Prime ministers or presidents. buyt, once they have a little hiccup beczause something went wrong they step down. In Sri lanka like countries even after the mass corruption they stay there come to power back. Now, the corruption come to a very advanced stage beczuse of that in additon to the provincial council, there are state ministers, depurty ministers. Besides, every MP get some 20 million to look after projects in their elelctorate which they do not really represent. Their prerogative is they think they are the chosen people. Many write about DEMOCRACY. but, what demcoracy. voters have to elelct the same 225 every time (That is unless one diess drop dead inside the parliament and that person is always replaced by his children or family members.Sorry, your article is sort of academic. I wrote somethign else.

  • 0

    Anyway, it looks you propsoe probably for the next govt a way to study rajapakses as some sort of legendary politicans who came fom menial back grounds of colonial subservience. I think the proposal to write this came from rajapakses themselves.

  • 2

    What will be the new department in the MAtara University – Rajapakse studies ?

  • 3

    We must thank Dr. Gamage and CT for initiating a public discussion on a subject of the most crucial importance to the vast mass of voters in this country. This matter has not engaged the attention it should have – in the media, in social and intellectual circles and other. There is patently great public anger in the political class, with few exceptions, taking the public for a ride for far too long Resources that are meant to develop the electorate find the pockets of politicians – with few questions asked. Today politicians – certainly more than one – are busy readying their children to take over lucrative political leadership – Rajakama, if you like. Some of the young ones are clear mutts – often with questionable acadenikc qualifications – but the fathers carefully teach the children how to manipulate the electorate – and the people – to their dishonest advantage. The worm must turn sooner or later and some semblance of good governance must one day emerge ensuring democracy for the people and by the people.


  • 2

    A very good article highlighting the nature of Srilankan politics and how our politicians become capitalists and destroyed the nation. Srilanka was a united country before British rule. There was no racism or terrorism in this land before British. It is those who benefited from British to accumulate wealth (land, education, money) and power (Sinhalese & Tamil) who became political leaders and still continue to hold power. Basically Senanayaka, Bandaranaiyaka, Rajapakse, Ponnampalam and Selvanayagam Family dominated our politics and they created racism and terrorism and used that to control political power. They brought religion & race into the politics in order to keep the political power and they are very successful but the nation and people shed blood and their wealth.

  • 5

    How Madamulana Mee Haraka became the top most Sri Lankan richest politician with US Dollar 18 Billion a classic case to study.

    Career record of this man is intriguing. He slowly built up his professional skills as a thief by pocketing in tiny book fines at Vidyodaya several decades ago. The rest of the story of this curious thief is public knowledge.

  • 3

    I am really shocked to read that MR has 18billion US Dollars.Even 1 billion is so much.With that kind of money he could stay in power for ever.We the tax payers are fed up, robbed left right and centre for the benefit of the few who hove gone into politics,just to rob the country but not to serve the people,unlike in UK and in western liberal democracies.We want these democracies to come to our help,like what the colonials did for us during their rule.
    As this article had indicated they selected people like our families in the south who were given,titles,jobs and opportunities to buy land up North,all the way to Anuradhapura.Is there’s any thing wrong in that? Our families developed the areas of the country that was a waste land,giving many humble people something to live for.
    Our families started their migration from areas in Gall,to Baddegama where they even intermarried with the colonial types.Then our people moved to places like Kauthara,Mirihana,Kotte,then some went to Talawa and one of our families were built a walawa in Anrradhapura by the colonials.Where ever the colonials ruled they made the infrastucture to unite the country,contrary to what our idiotic leaders constantly uttered in the past,’devide and rule ‘bs.
    Our country is now divided as ever.They are the poor who could not make a living,the tax paying hard working middle class like us and the utterly corrupt politicians who think that they are above the law and entitled to our hard earned money.They cleverly us the Buddhist religion either to fool them selves or us the people.
    Ever since I landed in the island for a short business trip fallen sick as usual which is pollution related .

  • 1

    Since independence there is only one capitalist business government has formed.that is the mahindas slfp government which was formed on 2005. Jrj ,premadasa and chandrikas slfp government are not capitalist governments these are mixed economic javasaviya ,samurdi governments. When mahindas slfp took this countrys economy it is only a small 20 billion USD economy with 1000 dollor percapital,and less than 200 million FDI.mahindas slfp has converted this economy in to 80 billion USD and architected a huge business economy which has 1600 million FDI and 3800 USD per capital. During the unp rule up to 1994 the srilankan economy is less than 15 billion USD ,among this 15 billion. Economy any one can tell me how to form a capitalist economy, in this period how we can create business class, the poverty level is so high, the pettah traders are the favourite business class of unp.unp only have done a mixed economy ,there were no any business class favourites for unp. Even unp is not a wright wing these all are created myths by unp supporters by them self. See the slfp of Mahinda they are perfectly a wright wing , they have architectected a huge 80 billion USD business economy, all the high ranking business class and upper middle class and middle class are block votes and favorites for slfp of Mahinda.they have power ,they have media even they are in opposition. See all the private media with them. This the nature of the perfect wright wing or capitalist business party not the small parties like JVP or unp.but the problem of this super power slfp government is they are not that much care about democracy not like powerless unp governments.

  • 1

    There was a time when ‘elected representatives remained elected representatives.
    In due course some became capitalist.
    In the era of corruption/nepotism/impunity only capitalists get elected! The mega-capitalists have cornered the election market place.

  • 0

    The author’s use of word Capitalism is inappropriate. The accummulation of wealth through violation of property rights and special interest groups is not capitalism.

    What the author describes rather is Socialism, or more specifically the Corporate Fascism variant of Socialism.

  • 0

    Mahindananda Aluthgamage , more than once , live on TV debates blew his
    trumpet of going Royal college and belonging to a wealthy family . Akila
    Viraj , Kabir Hashim , Lakshman Kiriella and Wijedasa Rajapaksha had been
    the other notable guys who took pride in blowing the trumpet of their wealthy
    upbringing and other backgrounds JUST TO STAND OUT FROM THE REST and
    they didn’t feel shy about it ! Leave it aside for a minute and let us look at it with
    how the ordinary voters behave and their aspirations ! Today’s baby boys and
    girls are taught ” GEDARA BUDUN AMMA” and that same baby girls become the
    “GEDARA BUDUN AMMAS” of tomorrow ! What is this cycle of story telling us ?
    THIS IS THE FACT ? FUxxxNG and as a result get children and then all are Gods ?
    And all fathers who fxxk their wives are Gods ? I strongly believe it is this mindset
    that leads to nearly all evils . Some may not like the approach but this is ABSOLUTE
    TRUTH ! This is what you see in schools , This is what you see in hospitals , I mean
    teachers and doctors . They all want to be treated as Gods by pupils and patients !
    Get into a bus , the driver and his assistants , 95% of them are animals (especially
    private buses) . You name it . The democracy in my view is for HUMANS and not for
    GODS !

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