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Hijacking a Third World State: Post-colonial governance, elitism and international law. The case of Sri Lanka.

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The creation of elitism, patronage and postcolonial governance

Sri Lanka’s idle paradise had operated, since the end of British colonialism, within the British institutional system and legal measures. These were embedded in an elitist system led by the prime patron, the prime minister, rather than by collegial attitudes or values. However, the Sri Lankan case offers a nuanced development, as elitist policies attempted to tap into the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and, by the introduction of executive presidentialism and emergency regulations in 1970s, alienated minorities and fortified Sinhala nationalism. The ambiguity in the constitutional arrangements laid the foundations for future political conflict in the post-colonial society. The end of the civil war has seen the growing entrenchment of Sinhala-Buddhist ordre public which has further marginalised minorities. To this end, this article will argue that British colonialism reproduced a violent elite that hijacked the state structures for the benefit of Western interests, which enabled further pillage and plunder of its resources. The elite in the country is solely the agent of Western imperialism, while British colonialism was replaced by the (Sinhala) internal colonialism.

British manipulation of local differences had catastrophic results for its present-day politics.[1] As Camilla Orjuela points out,

[C]olonial domination also had severe implications for power relations within Sri Lanka. Local religions, languages and ‘culture’ had a subordinate position in relation to Christianity, the English language and the ‘culture’ of the British rulers. Locals who adjusted to the British way of life by adopting the English language or Christian religion came to form a local elite.[2]

Colonialism lived and thrived from the exploitation of ethnic differences between the Sinhala  and Tamils, especially with regards to plantation economy.[3] After independence, a brand of aggressive populist-nationalism became dominant, which further complicated the divisions along the ethnic lines.[4] As Bryan Pfaffenberger had written:

Third World peoples have often created governments that celebrate their own traditions at the expense of minority groups. For ethnic and regional minorities in many Third World countries, the arrogance and injustice of these governments matches–and often exceeds–those of the departed European colonial regime.[5]

The argument of this article is that third world elitism is a wanted product of colonialism. This particular product of colonialism ensured the dependency from the former colonial rulers in the further making of international law. Moreover, this paper will argue, British colonialism was only replaced by Sinhala colonialism. The small circle of the Sinhala elite became acutely aware of the Sinhala nationalism as a convenient ideology to garner support for sustainable post-colonial governance.[6] Against this background, the ethno-religious awakening came with the first post-colonial constitution, the Soulbury Constitution, which provided the justification for a post-colonial governance within prescriptive colonial parametres.[7] As it is enunciated by Siri Gamage:

[A]fter political power was transferred to the local elites by the departing colonial rulers, absorption of masses to the established social institutions, mainly the central and provincial state bureaucracies, and their political mobilisation were main strategies adopted by ruling political elites to secure the faith of the masses, especially young voters.[8]

The country’s unique Buddhist history was subject to interpretation and manipulation for political gains and distorting history for assigning Sinhala supremacy.[9] In light of this, Neil DeVotta correctly notes that in the post-colonial era the two main Sinhala parties, United National Party and the Sri Lankan Freedom Party, started to outbid each other on the best governance for the Sinhala community. He writes: “[t]he country’s political parties have continued outbidding each other on various issues so that the practice is now embedded in the island’s political culture.”[10]  Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is the hegemon in the post-colonial public space. Sinhala nationalist dynamics are not only diffused by the elites, but co-owned by the public, as the social imaginary of Sri Lankan space as Sinhala Buddhist or the state vehicle is the driving force of post-colonial nationalism.”[11]  Sinhala nationalism became a hallmark in  the diverse apparatuses, permeating different layers of post-colonial governance and with a discursive unity through processes of hegemonisation.[12] The elite gifts the masses, given through public money  raised by taxes or loans, enacted and accepted as a benevolent gesture of an individual political figure who has  access  to  and  controls  the  distribution  of  resources.[13]  As it is written by Robert Young:

The problem is compounded by the fact that at independence power often passed to a native bourgeois elite produced during the time of colonialism that took on board many western presuppositions; for example, the idea of the nation‐state itself. Power passed to those who identified themselves nationally rather than to those with international or local identities and allegiances. The homogeneity of the nation‐state constructed and enforced at independence was quickly challenged by ethnic nationalisms.[14]

Michael Foucault writes that history, in this vein, is exploited by the sovereign to communicate power, control and mesmerise the people.[15]  The Sinhala elite has achieved exactly that with the Mahavamsa myth. It  engenders  a  very  personal  link between  the  citizen  and  ruler.    This also means  that  those  with  the  right  connections  will  have better  access  to  resources  than  those  who  do  not.   Patronage rather than  political  ideology  or policies becomes the source of power.

British imaginary, Sinhala reality and the making of international law

When Ceylon, how Sri Lanka was called once, became independent in 1947, the country was adamant about maintaining the ties to its former coloniser. Even the British themselves saw in the country more than an obedient colonised subject. Britain’s first High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Sir Walter Hankinson, communicated his views to London, shortly after the island’s

[T]here have been no startling changes in the domestic political scene; there have been no disturbances among any section of the population; there have been no sudden or sharp alterations in any of the institutions of Government; there have up to the present been no untoward changes in the economic situation … Nearly all the public institutions, Governmental and other in Ceylon, are based on English models, laid down often many decades ago by the Colonial administration. The result is that an appearance startlingly familiar to English eyes is presented by the political scene. The Cabinet, the House of Representatives, the manner in which Parliamentary business is transacted and relationship of the Civil Service to the political executive all follow the English model. This combined with good relations prevailing between Europeans and Ceylonese has produced an atmosphere in which an English observer feels almost strangely at home

Harshan Kumarasingham notes that the country’s elite wished to be following a true British Westminster model and not an adapted Westminster model, similar to be other colonised countries.[16] Leaders of the Sinhala elite, such as the first prime minister DS Senanayake wrote to the former colonisers:

[T]here has been no rebellion in Ceylon, no non-cooperation movement and no fifth-column: we were among the peoples who gave full collaboration while Britain was hard-pressed … We cannot offer you a rebel general – the experience of South Africa and Burma seems to suggest that it would be easier if we could – but we do suggest that an act of faith and generosity … will cement the bonds between our people. It will indeed do more. It will add to the powers of the British Commonwealth of Nations.[17]

Social structures were laid by colonial rule that privileged a small elite, Tamil and Sinhala alike, that dominated the colonial and post-colonial political cycle in Sri Lanka. As Vasuki Nesiah writes, ‘[t]he explosive limitations of the political terrain constituted by this political architecture is indicated by Sri Lanka’s history of brutal youth insurgencies in the North and South and three decades of equally brutal state violence.’[18]  Indigenous elites in postcolonial countries like Sri Lanka have uncritically embraced modernity and reproduced its hierarchical relations of power, just as their colonisers.[19] Fact is, however, that effective governance was passed to the Sinhala majority, while few Tamils remained part and parcel of governance. The issues in the country in its post-colonial making were eventually a product of political manufacture as it aligned with western norms and traditions.[20] To this end, Sri Lanka is a prime case study how colonial rule had created its own agents without an Empire to further Western capitalist world order.

Encountering the other and reproducing British colonialism

As it was presented before, the Sri Lankan elite has had a close relationship with the former colonisers. To this end, it is significant to point out to Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, who said: ‘[t]hink of Ceylon  as  a  little  bit  of England.  Ceylon will rival Australia as the first Dominion  to  rally  to  the  side  of  the  Mother  Country.’[21]
Sri Lanka, just as their former coloniser, is run by self-serving elite.[22] The eventual state capture by the Sinhala elite was a process in the making, which introduced post-colonial Sri Lanka to the accumulation of power between two rivalling families, namely the Senanayake and the Bandaranaike families (while another family has joined the table of elite governance: the Rajapakses). The first prime minister of the country was the aforementioned D.S. Senanayake. His governance was widely embraced and welcomed, in particular by the British as they believed he was conditioned and acculturated enough by British civilisational standards.[23]  As Manor had pointed out, the creation of a Westminster system locating  centralisation with the nascent, urban and Sinhala elite disabled the ability to spread institutions and promote local knowledge of government.  This failure of political integration led to the elite/mass discontinuity in the nascent statehood.[24] In light of general frustration of the majority,

SWRD Bandaranaike in particular was adept at mobilising the feelings of marginalisation and exclusion based on ethnic and religious identity, which were festering particularly among the majority Sinhala Buddhist community who felt that the minorities had been given special consideration by the colonial powers. [25]

The year 1956, meanwhile became a watershed moment for post-colonial politics: the election of SWRD Bandaranaike, carried into office by Sinhala-Buddhist revivalism in 1956, as the country celebrated the thousand five-hundredth year since Buddha’s death to restore the island’s historical legacy.[26] The Sinhala elite, intoxicated by the idea of power, entered an era of ethnic-outbidding. DeVotta, to this end, explains that

[R]acial or ethnic outbidding refers to the auction-like process wherein politicians create platforms and programmes to ‘outbid’ their opponents on the anti-minority stance adopted  Yet as Giovanni Sartori has observed, if ‘outbidding becomes the rule of the game’, then ‘somebody is always prepared to offer more for less, and the bluff cannot be seen’. What thereafter ensues ‘is no longer a situation which allows the survival of a political system based on competitive principles. Beyond certain limits, the politics of over-promising and outbidding is the very negation of competitive politics.[27]

Interethnic elite divisions, population differences, the lack of minority guarantees and the obscure electoral system created a political structure that ‘[m]ade outbidding an enticing strategy, especially for those politicians relegated to the opposition. Thus ethnic outbidding was introduced into the political arena less than a decade after independence.’[28]

Against this background, the later president of the country JR Jawawardene, said in “[T]he time has come for the whole Sinhala race which has existed for 2,500 years, jealously safeguarding their language and religion, to fight without giving any quarter… I will lead the campaign”.[29]  Former prime minister D.S Senanayake gave a speech delivered a speech again the backdrop of the resettlement of Sinhala colonists, who were transferred from Sinhalese-majority areas to Padavivya, areas to be known as Ta il homelands in a greater effort for colonisation and early forms of gerrymandering.[30] On this occasion, he echoed:

[T]oday you are brought here and given a plot of land. You have been uprooted from your village. You are like a piece of driftwood in the ocean; but remember that one day the whole country will look up to you. The final battle for the Sinhala people will be fought on the plains of Padaviya. You are men and women who will carry this island’s destiny on your shoulders. Those who are attempting to divide this country will have to reckon with you. The country may forget you for a few years, but one day very soon they will look up to you as the last bastion of the Sinhala.[31]

The Sinhala-Buddhist rely on their formative past and their alleged ownership over the country to establish control as it was explained in the earlier section,  The departing colonialists provided the practical legal means for the Sinhalese to obtain ownership of the whole of Sri Lanka due to the Soulbury Constitution which had  a majority bias. This has been achieved by the false British notion that Sri Lanka already constituted, or would hopefully become, a true nation state.[32] Hence, all communities were locked up together in a unitary state, governed by a British-type Parliamentary system with a sovereign Parliament (to which the majority has added an Executive Presidency), all of which have resulted in complete ‘ownership’ of the state by one community only. The British and Lankan notion of a true nation state has thus been trumped by a resurgent Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism that ensures permanent political power to one race and religion only.

The native elite has disregarded the minorities’ legitimate preferences, while being hijacked by nationalists who favour the institutional policies to benefit a majority or other community, which is precisely what ethnic outbidding engenders: those who are marginalised lose confidence in the states’ institutions.[33] To this end, M. Sornarajah accurately sums up:

[T]hird World states have created for themselves weaknesses such as excessive corruption, an intolerance of minorities arising from chauvinistic politics, and elite rule that drives divisions on the basis of wealth. Domestic elites form associations with foreign elites to ensure that their collective wealth remains intact. Other internal injustices persist, such as discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, religion and caste, as well as the disempowering of tribal peoples. These internal defects within the constitutional structures must be removed so that the people of the Third World can express themselves freely with a concerted voice.[34]

The growing disenchantment in the Sinhala-Buddhist community on many fronts, their economic and cultural insecurity in particular, allowed nationalistic political posturing to re-capture its lost appeal. Sinhala posturing, aligned with reinvention of victor myth  based on the Mahavamsa myth  after the end of the war evinces ethno-nationalism’s continued power as a tool to mobilise insecure masses.[35] Widening socio-economic inequalities, increasing economic precariousness and the concentration of power within a closed circle of global/local economic and political elites are potential ingredients for discontent, intolerance and terrorism. Since the end of the war, the country is failing to encounter ethno-religious nationalisms, entrenched social injustice and a political establishment that is increasingly out of touch with the people.[36] The country is not finding its voice to offer political strategies that can offer an alternative vision for the people, to find leaders who can inspire hope rather than contempt and cynicism. Frantz Fanon once penned that the Third World is  ‘not want to catch up with anyone. What we want to do is to go forward all the time, night and day in the company of Man, in the company of all Men… It is a question of the Third World starting a new history of Man.’[37] In the case of Sri Lanka, however, a new history was never started: history had solely replaced the old coloniser, manipulated the masses, while the elite mimicked the old coloniser  and intoxicated itself in the thirst for power under the pretext of nationalism, yet adherence to the Western neoliberal regime.


[1] For a more nuanced and detailed background, read Nira Wickramasinghe, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age. A History, New York/New Delhi: Oxford University Press,  2nd edition, 2015.

[2] Camilla Orjuela, Understanding power and change in the context of armed conflict and post-war reconstruction, Power and politics in the shadow of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict,  Nr. 25, Sida 2010, p. 14.

[3] Samir Jeraj, ‘The far right in Burma, India and Sri Lanka’, (June 2013),, (accessed 22nd of April 2019).

[4]  Neil deVotta, Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology: Implications for Politics and Conflict Resolution in Sri Lanka , pp.17-18, 2007 by the East-West Center Washington.

[5] Bryan Pfaffenberger, Fourth world colonialism, indigenous minorities and Tamil Separatism in Sri Lanka, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 16:1, 1984, p. 15.

[6] International Crisis Group, Sri Lanka:  Sinhala Nationalism and the Elusive Southern Consensus, Asia Report 141, 7th of November 2007.

[7] Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan, ‘Dum Vivimus Vivamus. The Tamils in Sri  Lanka: a  Right  to  External  Self-determination?’, Peace Human  Rights Governance, (2018), 2:1, 23-50.

[8] Siri Gamage, ‘Post‐independent political conflicts in Sri Lanka: Elites, ethnicity, and class contradictions, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies’, (1997), 20:s1, at 369.

[9] Read also: Steven Kemper, The Presence of the Past: Chronicles, Politics, and Culture in Sinhala Life. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991; John Rogers, 1990. “Historic Images in the British Period.” in: Jonathan Spencer,  Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict, London, Routledge, 1990. Lakshmanan Sabaratnam, “Motifs, Metaphors and Mythomoteurs: Some Reflections on Medieval South Asian Ethnicity.” Nations and Nationalism 3(3): 397–426., 1997.

[10]  Neil deVotta, ‘From ethnic outbidding to ethnic conflict: the institutional bases for Sri Lanka’s separatist war, Nations and Nationalism’, (2015) 11:1, at 142, 143.

[11] David Rampton,  ‘Deeper hegemony’: the politics of Sinhala nationalist authenticity and the failures of power-sharing in Sri Lanka’, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics,  (2011) 49:2, 254.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Harini Amarasuriya, ‘Elite Politics and Dissent in Sri Lanka’, ISAS Working Papers No. 223, 22nd of January 2016, 16.

[14] Robert Young, Postcolonialism, A Historical Introduction, Wiley Blackwell, 2016, p. 59.

[15] Michel Foucault, Society Must be Defended, Lectures at the College De France, 1975-1976, Picador, New York, 2003, p. 68.

[16] H. Kumarasingham (2014) Elite patronage over party democracy – high politics in Sri Lanka following independence, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 52:1, 169.

[17] D. S. Senanayake to Mr Hall, 16 August 1945 in 1948 in British Documents on the End of Empire, Series B – Sri Lanka, Part II, Towards Independence 1945–48, pp. 40–42.

[18] Vasuki Nesiah, Dynastic politics in Sri Lanka, online at:, last visited 15.09.2019

[19] Dianne Otto, Postcolonialism and Law?, Third World Legal Studies, Vol. 15, Article 1, 1999, p.5.

[20] Sanka Abayawardena, The core problem is the elites, not the people’: Sanka Abayawardena responds, online at:, last visited 08.06.2020.

[21] Harshan Kumarasingham, ‘Elite patronage over party democracy – high politics in Sri Lanka following independence’, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, (2014) 52:1, 176.

[22] Gary Younge, Britain is run by a self-serving clique. That’s why it’s in crisis, online at: (accessed 29th of September 2019)

[23] Ibid, p. 168.

[24] Manor, J. (1979). The failure of political integration in Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Journal of  Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, 17(1), p.22

[25] Harini Amarasuriya , Elite Politics and Dissent in Sri Lanka, ISAS Working Papers  No. 223 – 22 January 2016 , p.11.

[26] Supra note 6 Ananthavinayagan, 32.

[27] Supra note 8 DeVotta, p. 141.

[28] Supra note 8, DeVotta, p.141.

[29] Jeyaratnam Wilson, The Breakup of Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese-Tamil Conflict, (Hurst 1988), 222.

[30] For more info: Malinga Gunaratne, For a Sovereign State. Ratnamalana: Sarvopadaya Book Pub. Services, 1988; see also Pfaffenberger, supra note 5.

[31]  Ibid p. 201.

[32] L.C. Arulpragasam, Democracy, Nationalism and the Nation State, with Reference to Sri Lanka, online at: , (accessed  25th of April 2019).

[33] supra note 8, deVotta.

[34] Muttucumaraswamy Sornarajah,  ‘On fighting for global justice: the role of a Third World international lawyer’, Third World Quarterly, (2016), 37:11, p. 1986.

[35] supra note 17, Zuhair, 29.

[36] The Hindu: The days after in Sri Lanka,, (accessed 25th of April 2019).

[37] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, pp 254–255.

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