Turbulent state: Grasping the underbelly of Sri Lanka’s political crisis

Turbulent state: Grasping the underbelly of Sri Lanka’s political crisis

Benjamin Brown, V. Kajotha, Loritta Chan, and Kanchana N. Ruwanpura

After more than fifty days of protracted crisis, a semblance of normality has returned to Sri Lanka’s political system. Three years since a broad-based coalition brought about the electoral defeat of corrupt former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, his sudden reappearance at the heart of government sent shockwaves throughout the country, prompting unrest that was only quelled following reluctant backtracking by the country’s President.

On 26th October 2018, President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed the Prime Minister and declared that Mahinda Rajapaksa – an authoritarian nationalist notorious for his heavily militarised response to the country’s ethnic conflict – was set to replace him. This abrupt announcement was met with both jubilation and outrage, with the ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe decrying the decision as unlawful. For Sirisena, who rose to power on a platform of yahapaalanaya (‘good governance’), credibility has been stretched; the decision prompted a series of chaotic scenes in Sri Lanka’s parliament, with flagrant attempts to disrupt a no-confidence motion proposed by MPs. As paralysis gripped the political system and grievances spilled out onto the streets, the turmoil renewed fears over the fragile peace that has held since the end of civil war in 2009.

Many commentators, including Asanga Welikala and R.K. Radhakrishnan, have already discussed the ways in which this ‘constitutional coup’ unfolded, but less attention has been dedicated to understanding the antecedents which produced the current crisis. In this article, we aim to draw attention away from recent parliamentary antics, concentrating on the ways in which aspects of Sri Lanka’s post-war development vision might help to explain its current predicament. We draw on fieldwork conducted in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, where we witnessed how the Rajapaksa regime’s post-war stabilisation agenda prioritised infrastructure and economic growth at the expense of ethnic reconciliation and a credible political settlement. The Sri Lankan military’s resounding defeat of Tamil forces bred a triumphalism among Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists, to the consternation of the country’s Tamils and, increasingly, by a beleaguered Muslim community.

In the wake of war, a major road-building programme was inaugurated under the auspices of Rajapaksa’s Mahinda Chinthana (vision for the future), prioritising strategic military roads and highways over rural recovery and link roads for remote areas. The response of one Tamil resident near Jaffna was typical: “the A9 was opened for mainly political reasons, particularly military purposes. Because other countries knew us as Eelam [the proposed Tamil state], the government needed to show that Tamil and Sinhala communities were living in happily together in one country… You can see along the A9 highway, there are no peoples’ homes from Thandikulam on, but there are…military food corners, shops and military camps on the A9 road.”

The identities of Tamil youths, and former rebel territories in the North and East were securitised as ever-present threat requiring constant vigilance (Satkunanathan 2016), with little concern for the abiding sense of alienation which prevailed in the region among minority groups. Simultaneously, there was a push for connectivity to Buddhist shrines and war memorials – of the type that glorify militarism, rather than lament it – and territorialised policies to reconfigure the Northern Province’s demographic composition (De Mel 2007; Hyndman and Amarasingam 2014).

In one provocation, the Sihala Ravaya, a Buddhist-nationalist organisation, set up new temples to cater to a growing Sinhala population promised new homes on ‘vacant’ land. One Tamil businessman recounted how “Sinhala people come and settle down here… they just come and build their Buddhist temples, near every Hindu temple…they are building the temples in the most important places. So, we are thinking…it will create another war in the Northern Province.” This condemnatory testimony was echoed by others, angry and concerned at the derisory attitude displayed towards war victims and ethnic minorities, and the skewed ordering of political priorities in the immediate aftermath of war.

Without devising a strategy capable of bringing communities together around a shared vision of the future, the opportunity was missed to build a fair and equitable post-war political consensus. Instead, critical voices were swept away under a rhetoric of post-war ‘development,’ with brash reassurances that the economic benefits heralded by roads, ports, airports, and expressways would be sufficient to placate any lingering grievances.

Pledges made by Sirisena’s government to probe war crimes remain unfulfilled, and as we have documented previously, the desire for eye-catching mega-projects has taken precedence over justice and restitution for those disappeared and displaced during war. This business-for-peace agenda, first set in motion under Rajapaksa, has continued with little concern for the adverse socio-ecological consequences, and under philanthropic pretences, a resurgent Asian capitalism is now pursued with renewed vigour (Widger 2015).

The persistence of this market-oriented model for peace, lucidly described by Venugopal (2018), offers an important window into understanding Sri Lanka’s current political stasis.  The underbelly of today’s political crisis reveals a failure to confront ethnic cleavages that cut across Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhala communities; these were never fully addressed in the wake of Rajapaksa’s post-war triumphalism, and continued in a more muted form under the UNP-led coalition. Indeed, the move to install Rajapaksa was met with alarm by minority communities and civil society groups.

Optimists claim that progress has been made in healing the wounds inflicted on Sinhala-Tamil-Muslim relations, in part due to the investment channelled into roads for the Northern Province. In reality, our research suggests that, rather than facilitating rehabilitation and recovery, these new infrastructures mirror pre-existing political fault lines and entrench the privileged position of the military in Sri Lankan society. In the absence of an honest conversation about the human rights violations and crimes inflicted on civilians during the war, such shifts do little to avail persistent Tamil and Muslim sentiments of political marginalisation, aggravating social fractures and re-constituting the hegemony of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism.

Sirisena’s actions may have precipitated the recent political crisis; it is, however, indicative of the broader unresolved tensions that plague the post-war nation. Despite the reinstatement of ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the government’s credibility has floundered. The neglect of a post-war consensus is now likely to return to the forefront of Sri Lanka’s political arena, with major ramifications for peace and stability across the nation.

Brown, B, Chan, L and Ruwanpura, K N (2018) “’Handicapped Sovereignty’: Escalating costs of Sri Lanka’s post-war visionOpen Democracy October 20th 2018.
De Mel, N. (2007) Militarizing Sri Lanka: Popular culture, memory and narrative in the armed conflict. London: Sage Publications.
Hyndman, J. and Amarasingam, A. (2014) “Touring ‘terrorism’: Landscapes of memory in post-war Sri Lanka. Geography Compass, 8(8): 560-575.
Satkunanathan, A. (2016) “Collaboration, suspicion and traitors: an exploratory study of intracommunity relations in post-war Northern Sri Lanka.” Contemporary South Asia, 24(4): 416–42.
Venugopal, R. (2018) Nationalist, Development and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Widger, T. (2015) “Philanthronationalism: Junctures at the business–charity nexus in post-war Sri Lanka.” Development and Change 47(1): 29–50.


Benjamin Brown is a Research Assistant at the Institute of Geography, University of Edinburgh. You can follow him at @_dead_reckoning. V Kajotha is a freelance researcher and translator based in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. Loritta Chan is a PhD student at the Institute of Geography, University of Edinburgh where she is looking at education for waster picker children in an urbanizing India. Kanchana N. Ruwanpura is a Reader in Development Geography at the Institute of Geography and one of two Directors at the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Edinburgh.

Acknowledgements: This research was funded by a European Research Council (grant agreement number: 616393) for the project Roads: An Ethnographic Project on Roads and Politics of Thought in South Asia.

Image Credit: Kanchana N. Ruwanpura