Photo courtesy Thailand News

At present there is much drama regarding the cross overs from the ruling coalition to the opposition and vice versa on the political stage. On one hand these cross overs have generated much interest in the political campaign in general and anticipation about who would cross next kind of mentality on the other. Little we realise that these cross overs are happening within the same ‘political class’ which has been formed primarily during the post independence politics in the country-though some players have lineage to historical political figures who were active in politics during the pre 1948 period. One aspect of these cross overs relates to the concepts of positions (tanaturu) and privileges (vara prasada). These have to be examined in the country’s historical and sociological context for a better understanding.

Sinhalese people are fond of positions and privileges (I am not sure about the extent of the fondness that the Tamils or Muslims displayed toward positions and privileges during the pre-colonial and colonial periods?). This can be seen from the long name titles (vasagam) that the Sinhalese used to carry. It is known that the long titles in the surnames of those from the Kandyan territories were indicative of the positions their ancestors held in the King’s administration e.g. Atapattu, Kodikara, Dissanayake, Midiyanse. The kings used to offer various titles, positions and privileges, including villages and land, to heroic people who performed extraordinary deeds. But the most common exercise of offering titles and privileges was reflected in the way the powers and privileges were offered to those who held positions in the King’s central administration (e.g. Adigar) and to those who held positions as provincial heads (e.g. Disawe).

These officials and their families enjoyed great privileges of office by having extraordinary houses or mini palaces, servants including palanquin carriers, retinue, elephants, security personnel, personal attendants and the like. When the officials who held positions and privileges lost favour with the King, historical records show how they lost these privileges and even condemned as drohiyas (traitors). Those who haven’t read the history of Sri Lanka pertaining to the pre-colonial period are encouraged to access various sources available and acquaint themselves about these practices of the Kings who expected total loyalty from those holding various positions granted to them. In such records, there are also stories about certain provincial chiefs who rebelled against the King and conspired to install another chief into the Kingship.

During the colonial period, the Sinhalese had to play a different game, as the colonial masters were not local. The latter spoke a different language, practiced a different religion, wore different dresses, practiced different customs and had their authority derived from European imperialist sources. Yet the manner some Sinhalese acquainted themselves with foreign languages, religions, customs and found ways to get close to colonial powers ‘in search of positions and privileges’ is fascinating to read about. This was under circumstances where charges of being drohiya (traitor) could have been directed at them and their families by the broader Sinhalese-Buddhist community. Cultural revival in the 19th century was the result of collective frustrations the SB Community had about the religious conversions, cultural imitation, service to the imperial-colonial master and derogation of native culture and people by the Westernised mudaliyar class and their followers.

The emergence of ‘the mudaliyar class’ during the European colonial period is a phenomenon that has been much written about by historians (for example, see the works of K M de Silva, C R de Silva, Michael Roberts, and Nira Wickramasinghe). These individuals and families who got close to the colonial administration and obtained positions and privileges in it, served the interests of colonial masters –whether they be the Portuguese, the Dutch or the British- and in return received numerous privileges. These privileges were both material and symbolic. Materially, they received a salary and crown land at a discounted rate during the British period. They were also able to build mini palaces with a large number of rooms, e.g. in Embilipitiya still there is Maduwanwela walavva (manorial house) with 40 or more rooms, Attanagalla walavva is another (see the biography by SWRD’s father). The land held by walavva of various sorts had different names. As Hambantota district was divided into several Pattuwa (divisions) and the person in charge was called Pattuwe Ralahamy, the land owned by him was refereed to as Pattuwe Ralahamige Watta. In Weeraketiya, the Kondagala walavva was the house owned by D.M Rajapaksa subsequently occupied by George Rajapaksa and his mother in the mid to late 70s. This walavva was different from those owned by Mudaliyars (higher officials) in the broader area such as Molamures, Dahanayakes, and those in the Hakuruwela walavva.

Provincially, the mudaliyars became mini rulers of the people who translated and interpreted Sinhalese thought, customs, practices and everyday issues to their masters while collecting taxes. These mudaliyars expected honour and respect from the inhabitants by virtue of the positions they held. Another privilege these holders of colonial positions had was their ability to send children to English or bilingual schools for education and to England for higher education in the professions such as law, medicine, and accounting during the late British colonial period.

During post independent Sri Lanka, the political influence of families who held positions and privileges in the European colonial administrations, in particular the British period, could be observed in the early decades, i.e. 50s, 60s, 70s. Though the country gained independence in 1948 and Sinhala was declared the official language – a change from English – after the 1956 victory of SWR D Bandaranaike, the power of English language continued in politics, governance, administration, commerce and trade, education, international relations and various professional fields. Thus those who had a better English education and knowledge about Western ways and thought had an ability to hold positions of power in various roles within various administrations. An example is Bradman Weerakoon who was the secretary to a number of Prime ministers. Attendance at elite schools such as Royal and St. Thomas was a qualification to get privileged administrative positions. The civil service positions were coveted by many but acquired by a few due to the competitive nature of the entrance examination (for more information read Wisva Warnapala’s book on the civil service in Ceylon). However, the situation changed when ‘politicisation’ started to creep into various sectors of the society including the civil service and later Foreign Service in subsequent decades.

Even in village society, people holding petty positions were held in high esteem. When I worked as a research assistant to Mr. Sunimal Fernando, a Sociology lecturer then at the department of Sociology at University of Peradeniya in the early 70s conducting a survey in Tangalle –Kadurupokuna area, I had the opportunity to interview householders from about 500 houses. I found how important even the petty positions some residents held in the Kachcheri, Courts, Police, Prisons etc. and the privileges these positions offered to the incumbents. By virtue of their positions these individuals held and the income, they were able to build better houses, access those in authority for various favours, wear a uniform signifying the position held, accumulate land, and command some respect from the rest of the village community. The inhabitants of a particular village could seek assistance on various matters from these individuals. If they were not on good terms, inhabitants had to show subservience (unless they are related by kinship or marriage or went to school together) and carry gifts to please the person holding the position. In time to come, some of these people in various petty positions in the administration became rich by purchasing coconut land or paddy fields etc. Thus one could find names such as Tanayamwatta to refer to the land held by a local official in Walasmulla area.

In time to come, politics became a vocation, meaning a class of professional politicians emerged largely representing political families from Colombo and provinces. Political party became the vehicle of not only proposing programs for development and governance but also providing employment to unemployed youths and subsidies to farmers and workers. Yet underneath all this, political families once in power looked after themselves by appointing their kith and kin and close supporters to key roles at the electoral level and in Colombo offices. These positions offered to the kith and kin and close supporters provided not only access to the centres of power but also numerous material and symbolic privileges e.g. telephones, vehicles, salaries, extra funds, crowd control at home when people visit, authority to do coordinating work in the electorates and ministries/departments on behalf of the politician. The distinction between ‘official’ and ‘personal’ became diluted. Often the ‘personal’ came to prominence over the ‘official’. A system within the system was created and the ‘official’ system became secondary to the ‘unofficial’ and ‘personal’ system thus constructed in time to come.

Consequently, use of state resources for private purposes became a common practice even though there are regulations prohibiting this. One phenomenon visible in all these practices is the craving of politicians, bureaucrats and even higher officers in the security forces to be ‘semi chieftains’ reflecting ‘walavva mentality’ by constructing mini palaces with swimming pools, acquiring most modern motor vehicles, keeping household staff (servants in local usage), and acquiring symbols of power and wealth. For example, I was recently informed about a current politician in the Kandy district who bought a bungalow that belonged to a Sudda (foreigner) and being renovated at great cost possibly to convert it to a tourist accommodation. The informant told me that he is supervising about 40 workers (masons, carpenters etc.) in the renovation work. This shows the scale of the work being undertaken in this example. Having a Manson like house in Colombo and a holiday place in Nuwara Eliya or elsewhere in the Island including coastal areas is another common practice among politicians and those close to them. Now of course establishing links with foreign countries by way of sending children for education and employment or investments in business has become another common practice.

Instead of the external colonialism that we witnessed during the European colonial period (1505-1948), what we witness today is an ‘internal colonialism’ so manifestly and brutally constructed by the ‘political class’ since the 70s by increasing the importance of the ‘unofficial system’ within the ‘official system’ of governance thus creating room for gaining wealth, privilege and positions as well as trappings of power and wealth through extra-legal means. The political class has become essentially the translators and interpreters of what’s going on internationally and nationally to the majority in the non-political classes and those who live in poverty. Thus we find competing discourses advanced by elements of this political class at crucial times in the election cycles, e.g. anti-western, nationalistic, patriotic, treacherous, developmentalist, or environmentalist.

An essential feature of this ‘internal colonialism’ or ‘the system within the system’ constructed and perpetuated by the Sri Lankan political class is the continuing ‘master-servant relationship’. This embodies certain subtle characteristics of feudalism and capitalism. It is visible in the political, economic and security service spheres. Popular forms of address such as ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ symbolises this relationship-though this is now spread to the broader society also (Among the youths and students however, one can see expressions such as ‘Aiya’ and ‘Akka’). Politicians- more importantly their spouses, siblings and adult children- function as patrons of this system and everyone else who come into contact with them in personal capacity function as clients. For example, last year I was talking to paint bass (painter). In the conversation he said that he works for prominent people including politicians in Kandyan areas. In particular, he mentioned that it is the wives of politicians who manage the house construction, furnishing and maintenance work in political families by selecting the tiles, curtains and furniture etc. He told more details about this side of the politicians’ life but suffice it to say that politics and material constructions in the domestic sphere attract many artisans and workers such as masons, carpenters, electricians, and painters to their households in patron-client kind relationships. Though wages are paid in the form of contracts or daily pay, these clients also function as those who offer ‘honour’ to these politicians and their families in the process.

But the average Sri Lankan who is not either related or linked to politicians and their families in some manner are excluded from such a close yet unequal relationship. They can meet these politicians in a formal capacity in their residences or rarely in parliamentary offices but the outcome of such discussions depend very much on what they can offer the politician in return crucially at the time of elections or in their other entrepreneurial or domestic activities. If none, these people are ‘no bodies’ deserving nothing. None of these practices can be detected when you see politicians in pristine national dress on the public stage. They look like average Sri Lankan villagers or small businessmen except that most of them are heavy built, travel in chauffer-driven luxurious four -wheel drive jeeps or expensive cars, have defender jeeps if they are ministers, and enjoy many other privileges. One could ask why not?

Being elected representatives they are entitled to some comforts. But the issue is the privileges and salaries offered officially are one thing. Those acquired otherwise are another altogether. For example, how can average Sri Lankan politician who enters politics as a representative of the common man come to own tourist hotels, mini estates, shares in companies, and other large-scale investments in a matter of a few years? Those who are preaching about western dominance conveniently forget about this internal colonialism and bandism associated with it because they are looking at the situation in the country with partisan eyes. Only the neutral and critical observer can detect these aberrations of democracy, good governance, and fair play in the public life as a result of the growing influence of the political class in every sphere of life including the academia, domestic and Foreign Service and the judiciary. Sociologists in Sri Lanka have an important role to play by examining this phenomenon in depth and bringing out delicate details to the attention of the public along with alternatives.

In a recent article, Nalin de Silva says,

It is clear by now that the main issue to be addressed at the forthcoming presidential elections is our attitude towards the west, and whether we want to be dominated by the westerners or to be free from them as much as possible. However, that does not mean that all those who vote for Mahinda Rajapaksa are interested in freedom from the west as most of them are still guided by western knowledge especially in Social Sciences headed by Economics, Political Science and Sociology.

(Mid Week Review, The Island 24.12.2014)

In my view, it is more important today to ask whether we want to be dominated by this political class who enjoy so much power, wealth, positions and privilege or to be free from them as much as possible? To my knowledge, going by the past record the only two parties that are not motivated primarily by positions and privileges are the JVP and TNL.

Freedom from the West by way of its domination of our economic and cultural sphere –not necessarily the political sphere- as well as from the internal grip maintained by the political class, whether they come from the SLFP led coalitions or the UNP led coalitions, is necessary for the people who don’t belong in the political classes and those who are poor (the masses). However, I doubt whether this can be achieved in the next few years because those who have access to the levers of power are not going to give up their positions, privilege, wealth and power for the sake of creating a different kind of society and a governance system that address the needs and aspirations of the masses only. Instead they will prefer to function as interpreters and translators as well as decision makers for the masses even by crossing party sides when their positions of privilege are under threat. A new kind of elitism is being formed in the country by those who have access to vast sums of money, power and wealth and the gap between the rich and the poor is growing.

Thus when we see cross overs of politicians during this election campaign period from either side we have to look at these not necessarily as principled positions but also as those motivated by positions, power and privilege. Some cross over because they did not get their due place from the current political leadership or their voices were marginalised in the decision making process. Others cross in anticipation of a government change. The crucial question to ask is whether the political culture promoted by the political class that has been constructed from political families and the system within the system will change with the next Presidential election? Which coalition will change it and how? Will the ‘official’ system become prominent over the ‘unofficial’ and the ‘personal’? Who will translate what and how for us and with what credibility?


Wickramasinghe, N.2006. Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A history of colonial identities, Hurst and Co, London.

Spencer, J. 1990. A Sinhala Village in a Time of Trouble: Politics and change in rural Sri Lanka, Oxford University Press, London.

Silva, K. M. de 1973. University of Ceylon- History of Ceylon, Vol 3 from the beginning of the 19th century to 1948, University of Ceylon, Peradeniya.

Roberts, M. 1982. Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: the rise of Karava in Sri Lanka 1500-1931, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kandiah,T. 1984. ‘Kaduwa’: Power and the English language Weapon in Sri Lanka, in Honouring E.F.C. Ludowyk: Felicitation Essays, (eds) Percy Colin Thome and Ashley Halpe, Tisara Prakasakayo, Dehiwala, Sri Lanka

Gamage, S. 2014. Changing patterns of Anthropology and Sociology Practices in Sri Lanka in the Context of Debates on Northern and Southern Theory, Social Affairs: A Journal for the Social Sciences, Vol.1 (1), Colombo.