Image courtesy Asian Mirror

Editors note: Also read Sri Lanka’s current political impasse: Some additional thoughts by the same author.

Is the Yahapalanaya (‘good governance’) regime jointly led President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe slowly abandoning its political reform commitments made during the Presidential and Parliamentary elections of 2015? Are the government leaders working towards their own political downfall, leaving the space for the return to illiberal and authoritarian politics?  Are our President and the Prime Minister proving the point often being made by the cynics that Sri Lankan leaders will hardly lose an opportunity to lose an opportunity for peace building and political reforms? These are questions any vigilant observer of Sri Lanka’s current politics will not hesitate to ask.  Many may even provide answers in the affirmative.

There are three components in the yahapalanaya government’s reform agenda, peace building, democratization and state reform. Each of these now appears to be no longer in the government’s list of policy priorities. In fact, one begins to wonder whether the government has any policy priority at all.  There are indications all around that the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government is now caught up with an ever – sharpening crisis of governance. As a supporter of the government commented the other day, there has to be governance to begin with, before it to be good or bad.  The government seems to be opting for a two- fold response to its crisis of governance: moving towards illiberal governance and embracing ethnic majoritarian populism. All this at the expense of its political raison d’etre – political reform agenda.

The peace-building component of the reform agenda has once again reached a stage of stalemate. The government’s reconciliation and constitutional reform initiatives have been facing repeated road blocs and setbacks. In a way, this is an old story reproduced anew. However, the story has a new content and material for new conclusions. It also offers some new issues to deeply worry about.

Sri Lanka provides a case study of retreat from liberal to illiberal peace building, and then transition from illiberal to liberal peace building. It is also a case study of contradictions within, limits of, and alternatives to, liberal as well as illiberal peace building. The complex politics of peace building with unanticipated twists and turns is a theme that this caste study will enable us to highlight.  

Peace Building

The present phase of Sri Lanka’s peace building began in 2015. It constituted a window of opportunity for a transition from illiberal peace to a stable form of post-illiberal peace in Sri Lanka. That political opening had been made possible largely by the struggles carried out by a broad coalition of opposition political parties and social movements for democracy, human rights, minority rights and peace amidst. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s democratic and peace communities had in 2014 began to join a campaign for a regime change on the assumption that closer cooperation between a right-wing liberal opposition party and left-liberal civil society movements would play an agential role to advance and implement a substantive political reform programme. That vision included justice to the ethnic minorities in the form of a new peace package.  The regime change did occur, yet the reform programme and the peace project began to move in the direction of a political stalemate. At present, there are no significant signs of the deadlock being broken. Nor is there a sustained public discussion as to how best the stalemate could be overcome at both at political policy levels. There is also reluctance among the official circles to acknowledge that there is a stalemate and that if it remains unaddressed the entire reform agenda can be in jeopardy.

Amidst uncertain progress, the peace-building process has also assumed the character of being one of minor victories, the latest minor victory being the passing of the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) law in parliament. Meanwhile, the government’s political capacity to implement the more substantive components of the peace building agenda, such as transitional justice and constitutional reform, during the second half of its term, is not likely to be improved. It is simple political logic that in an electoral democracy where the political pendulum swings rapidly, what a government fails to do during the first half of its tenure will find place only in the policy manifesto for the next election.

Peace Building Conundrum

Thus, we have before us a peculiar conundrum – let us call it ‘peace building conundrum’ –that has been built over several years and sharpened once again during the past two and half years. In other words, Sri Lanka’s peace building project is slowly returning to the drawing board, once again.  To resolve the conundrum in the battleground of politics, a two-fold programme of action is required from the government. The first is restoring stability of the peace building process. The second is re-forging a broad political consensus for reform.  Unless an effective way out is crafted and its execution begins within the coming few months, Sri Lanka might run the danger of relapsing into the cycle of ‘illiberal politics and illiberal peace’.  Already, the broad contours of returning to an ‘illiberal consensus’ have begun to appear in the horizon with the sharpening of ethnic and social tension.

Against unacknowledged setbacks and slow progress, how can we characterize the present stage of Sri Lanka’s post-war peace building? The concept of  ‘passive peace’ seems to capture its nature and limits. The defining feature of Sri Lanka’s present stage of passive peace is the continuation of the condition of the absence of war and war-related violence, without an effective process of reconciliation, transitional justice and state reform. It is a condition the basic premise of which has initially been laid out by the unilateral military victory to the state in 2009. That premise still remains intact, although it should have by now been altered.  In fact, the alteration of that basic premise was a key assumption in the Geneva Resolution of 2015, which Sri Lanka co-sponsored.

Passive peace is also a condition that endures, and reproduces itself, in the absence of any major non-military, that is political, steps being taken to address the causes for war and violence, outside the framework of war. Thus, Sri Lanka’s record of the passive peace continues to be one of piecemeal improvements and minor victories.

Feeble Democracy

The condition of passive peace also constitutes a tentative and unstable phase of the long process of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. It is unstable because, as I have already suggested, relapsing to illiberal peace and hard authoritarianism along with a new regime change is a possibility that cannot be ruled out. The return to authoritarianism and the restoration of mono-ethnic state form by democratic means is quite possible, particularly after accumulated popular discontent with the experience of what has become clear now – namely, disenchantment with a “weak/feeble democratic regime.’  I use the phrase ‘feeble democratic regime’ to characterize a specific stage of Sri Lanka’s contemporary political change. It is an impersonal heuristic devise. It is actually the antonym to a ‘robust democratic regime.’

Sri Lanka’s present stage of feeble democracy is a peculiar political phenomenon. It combines two contradictory drives; (a) the willingness to make a clear break from the pre-existing authoritarianism and illiberal peace by means of building a new political consensus for reform, and (b) the reformist regime’s incapacity to consolidate the democratic gains by completing its own agenda for transition. The government’s reform agenda is stuck halfway, and finds itself not being championed enough to be able to move forward. A weak or feeble democratic regime with a record of unfulfilled transition pledges is likely to run the risk of generating its own negation, authoritarianism and illiberal peace. In a context where, as it is in Sri Lanka today, political choices before the electorate are limited and creative alternatives are not visible in the horizon, promoting many forms of illiberal politics has already become attractive in the political market place.

The government leaders are not unaware of these negative possibilities of passive peace and feeble democratic governance; yet they are unable to move forward to establish positive peace and robust democracy. Such a move requires a sound analysis of the mid-term crisis of the government.  The government does not seem to have the intellectual capacity for such a serious political self-analysis. Some of its leaders seem to privilege populist demagoguery over sober introspection. That itself is a feature of a feeble democratic regime. In other words, the government seems to be living with the crisis, as if the crisis itself is a part of, to use a contemporary cliché, the new normalcy. Why is this peculiar normalization tendency in a regime with so much reformist potential?  That is the question of the questions which analysts of Sri Lanka’s current politics seem to debate these days.

As concerned and worried watchers of Sri Lankan politics, and also as students of comparative politics, we can only construct explanations in terms of larger structural factors that hamper Sri Lanka’s current agenda of peace building and democratic consolidation. Seeking an explanation, there are few more questions that constitute the larger problem. They are questions that arise from Sri Lanka’s specific political context in which the agenda of peace building has assumed a particularly complex character. Can an ethnic civil war that has ended in a unilateral military victory to the state be amenable to a post-war peace settlement in which ethnic hierarchies and inequalities of power are not acknowledged and reproduced?  Isn’t the international role of the peace process, which has facilitated the current peace-building initiative, losing its steam, giving greater autonomy to the domestic political actors to institutionalize a new policy option of deferral?  Isn’t regime change with a reformist promise an insufficient condition for designing and advancing a substantive and transformative political agenda? And, is Sri Lanka’s peace building process one of a series of many setbacks and a few minor victories with no major events of political or policy breakthrough?  Isn’t it the case that Sri Lanka’s has already lost, and lost irretrievably, its moment of peace and reconciliation through a macro reform project and grand political consensus?

Inadequacy of Regime Change

Answers to these questions at one level are quite simple. They are easily discernible to those who follow Sri Lanka’s political news even over a month.  At another level, the answers are rather complex. Taking the second option, I propose the following proposition for consideration: a mere regime change is not adequate to institutionalize a fair ethnic peace that can offer justice to the minority communities, while leading the majority ethnic community along a path of accommodation and reconciliation with its fellow ethnic communities. Nor can a mere regime change lead to a political reform process that alters the majoritarian and militarized structures of the post-war state.

These difficulties arise from the fact that the civil war and its aftermath has further rigidified the unreformability dynamics of the Sri Lankan state in such a way that a reformist regime change is only a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for any substantive breakthrough for peace building and political reform.

The condition of feeble democracy is the other component of the conundrum.  This warrants a little more reflection. Why is it that the post-civil war and post-authoritarian Sri Lanka has produced a feeble democracy, despite a clear shift of popular political allegiance from military triumphalism, majoritarianism and the politics of possible transition to autocracy? Why has the regime change did not produce a robust democracy?  This is also where we need to think about, from a comparative perspective, how the ways in which the civil war ends may provides incentives or disincentives to liberal as well as community-driven peace building. One point that warrants some sober reflection is the way in which Sri Lanka’s civil war ended has impacted on the countries different forms of political psychology among diverse class and ethnic segments.

Particularly crucial is the political psychology of the ruling elites. Of course, Sri Lanka’s political elites are a heterogeneous social entity. They have two major organized camps, vying for political power. The impact of the protracted war and the war victory to the state has reinforced in the political psychology of one camp a consciousness of ethnic domination. The political form of this model of ethnic domination is one similar to a possible modern version of internal colonialism in which citizenship is organized on the basis of hierarchy of rights, group obedience to the state, and moral inequality. The previous government’s thinking and action with regard to the ethnic conflict was an extension of this political psychology of a reinvented and soft version of internal colonialism. The other faction of the political elite managed to resist the temptation of sharing the worldview of soft internal colonialism. Being out of power for a relatively long period, the right-wing opposition could maintain a critical distance from the state type, which was being built as a new hegemonic force, with a renewal of its repressive vigour.

That is how this faction, despite its right-wing credentials, could reintroduce to the country’s political agenda a programme of state reform and peace building, in alliance with a broad coalition of political forces. That coalition included the Tamil parties who represented the political interests of the vanquished. Even then, its resolve to take the reform agenda forward became tentative within a few months of its leaders becoming the new managers of the post-civil war Sri Lankan state which had become doubly unreformable.  It realizes the need for reform, and uses it for electoral political gains; but is afraid, and therefore hesitant, to take the reform agenda forward.

Pretense of Reform

Meanwhile, the reform agenda presupposed, whether one acknowledged it or not, the dismantling of some structures of the national security state, radical restructuring of how the state power is distributed and shared, and moral empowering of the victims of war. These basic and elementary assumptions were there even in the rather mild recommendations of the Lessons Learned and the Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) Report of 2011. Eventually, and before long, the promise of state reform turned itself into a pretense of state reform and the promise of peace building into a pretense of peace building. The challenge centers on the question whether altering the structures of a triumphalist state is possible by a political coalition which has (a) not been a direct party to the final phase of the war, (b) not come to power through an immediate crisis of the state generated by the war, and (c) has only a transitory commitment to state reform.

This transition of reform promise into pretense has a bright side too. It seems to have so far saved the day for Sri Lanka’s democracy. Ironically, the pretense of state reform has a clear functionalist merit.  Thus, the feeble democracy with pretense to reforms is a tolerable best Sri Lanka can inherit at the present moment of unmanaged uncertainties and instabilities. It is also the bearable out of all the bad political choices – actually, there are only two,  — available.  There is no gainsaying the fact that it is the prevailing weak and feeble democracy that also stands as a buffer between the unreformed state and the disenchanted ethnic minorities. It is also the weak democracy that stands between Sri Lanka’s passive peace and illiberal peace. The immediate intellectual challenge before reform -oriented constituencies of the regime, before they get further isolated, is to craft a political strategy and path that could transform the present feeble democracy into a robust democracy and the passive peace to transformative peace.

Lack of Ideas

The last point I just made enables me to highlight another theme, the question of the lack of transformative ideas, a theme relevant to our discussion. Sri Lanka’s weak democracy is also characterized by the absence of a body of transformative political thought that can act as a mediatory link between the government and the ethnic communities, who look at the state reform and peace building through diverse and sometimes incompatible prisms of hope and suspicion. While the Tamil community seeks regional autonomy, justice and political equality, the Muslim community too seeks similar goals, with political guarantees of equality with the Tamil community.  It has given rise to an argument for a relationship of non-domination in inter-minority relations in power sharing in the periphery. Meanwhile, the sections of the majority Sinhalese community are still diffident and indeed suspicious about state reforms and peace building, because of the apprehension that only minorities will stand to gain. As Sri Lanka’s experience repeatedly reminds us, peace building in an ethnically plural society after a protracted civil war requires political and moral guarantees to all ethnic communities. Such guarantees should constitute a regime of political insurance that no community was going to be the losers and each community will gain.

Moreover, in order to enable the ethnic communities and the citizens schooled in strong identity politics, they should have access to a vision for a shared political future. That requires a transformative ideology grounded on a set of normative commitments such freedom, justice, equality, non-domination, freedom form fear, and peace. They should be common to all citizens irrespective of their communitarian allegiances.  Such a strong normative framework is essential in order to manage and counter the zero-sum expectations from any peace and political settlement. Then only could the political leadership have the intellectual confidence to prepare the society for the kind of radical changes that their reform agenda presupposed.

However, Sri Lanka’s peace building and state reform processes have not yet been backed by a strong, effective and persuasive counter narrative, capable of defending its claims, arguments and visions.  The past three years show the rather debilitating impact which the absence of a body of transformative political thought has had on the leadership of the reformist regime.  In crucial moments, leaders of the government have either remained silent or provided unconvincing and half-hearted answers, revealing self-doubts about their own commitments to reform.  The controversy on hybrid courts is a key example. The debate was over- politicized by opponents. Issues were distorted. The moment when the opposition’s old school lawyers with a nineteenth – century mindset, invoked the old Austinian argument of national sovereignty the government’s key representatives went on the defensive.

Without convictions of its own, the government lost the debate.  There are many other examples, major and minor, too. The point that requires reiteration is the following: peace building and political reform in the aftermath of an ethnic civil war is not possible unless the reformist political leadership also gives leadership to a sustained and spirited struggle for ideas.  Peace building in Sri Lanka is not only about negotiations and pacts among lawyers from the government and Tamil and Muslim political parties. It is not mainly about pledging to implement UNHRC resolutions and then repeatedly asking for postponement of deadlines for reaching the agreed goals. It is also about preparing all Sri Lanka’s citizens to accept a new political order in which ethnicity-based nationalisms are not exclusivist, ethnic diversity is an inherent asset, multiculturalism is not a threat, peace is a normative virtue which all ethnic cultures could cherish and from which all will benefit. It will also convince the citizens that the best future for Sri Lanka is one in which all ethnic and cultural communities, whether big or small, live as moral and political equals.

Shadow State

Why, then, is this reluctance to move forward with conviction and determination on the part of a reformist regime that commanded popular support, international good will and the advantage of the historical moment? There can be several answers to this difficult question. I wish to propose the thesis of the shadow state in order to shed some light on this issue.

Stated briefly, this hypothesis goes as follows: During the past four decades of secessionist war, the JVP rebellion, counterinsurgency warfare and political violence, a parallel structure of state power slowly emerged in Sri Lanka, claiming some measure of autonomy from the elected government. After 2005 regime change, that parallel structure grew rapidly and became fused with the civilian government, acquiring a significant degree of space and influence within the formal state structure.  The regime change of 2014-15 temporarily altered the balance of power at the level of the state, forcing the old coalition of the parallel power to retreat. However, the networking between the parallel state and the leaders of the old regime continued. It has during the past two years developed itself into a shadow state, acquiring the capacity to paralyze the reformist initiatives of the successor regime. The ways in which the leaders of the present government seem to handle the shadow state probably has many facets. Inaction in the peace building, reconciliation and constitutional reform fronts is only one.

Meanwhile, those who are knowledgeable about the recent setbacks to the implementation of many of government’s policy promises have expressed concerned about the role of the ‘deep state.’ There is no question that political leaders who mange the state are quite aware of the very complex challenge of dealing with the shadow state.

From an analytical perspective, Sri Lanka’s shadow state structure has two circles. The first circle consists of those civilian leaders out of power. Because it is they who built up the foundations and structures of the security-emergency state, they have a stake in preserving the national security state. There is also apolitical economy logic to their interest in preserving the national security state structure.  This is a theme that requires extensive, therefore separate, discussion. The second circle consists of those officials and businessmen who were partners and functionaries in the formal and informal structures of the war machine, the national security complex and the support structures of the hard authoritarian regime.  While some of them continue to occupy key decision-making positions in the state structure in spheres that are directly connected with the peace building and state reform processes, others continue to be key players in the economic sphere.

This issue allows us to revisit a question which we have already discussed: Has regime change been an adequate condition for peace building in Sri Lanka? This is where even a brief look at the comparative experience might come to our help. In almost all cases where internationally mediated and liberal peace-building projects have experienced some success, there have been two preconditions that ensured their relative or incomplete success. The first is that the peace-building agenda has been integral to a bi-partisan peace process in which the state and the rebels  — or the two principal parties to civil war –have participated as morally equal partners. The second is that the peace-building project was not a mere electoral promise of a political party, but an integral part of a larger project of political transformation involving the reconstitution of the state and re-organizing the nation’s power structures in a fundamental way. Regime change, as occurred in 2014-15 in Sri Lanka was a historical necessity. However, the change it has brought about has not touched the war-regime of state power in any seriously reformist manner.


The discussion developed in the analysis presented above points to three major conclusions.

First, Sri Lanka is losing its reformist peace-building moment, opened up in 2015 in a political condition marked by a feeble democracy and passive peace. In this condition, peace building and political reform agendas have been pushed into a phase of minor gains, and not major policy initiatives. What Sri Lanka seems to have articulated at present is a non-reformist, piecemeal and minimalist peace building programme.

The second conclusion is that Sri Lanka is also running the risk of relapsing into the cycle of illiberal peace and political counter-reforms.

The third is that the Sri Lanka has allowed another reform moment to slip away. It is not politically easy to retrieve a slipped opportunity. Tragically, its retrieval  may require another phase of setbacks, defeats and struggles.

One implication of these to conclusions is that the historical agenda of a reformist, democratic and pluralistic peace building in Sri Lanka has also shifted itself away from governments, political parties and electoral coalitions. It has to be reclaimed by a multiplicity of new social movements on the ground that is not subjected to the constraints and inabilities that the political parties and reformist governments fail to transcend. However, the social initiatives for peace building will have to pay a heavy political price. They cannot be agents for state reform, which is a key component of peace building. They can only initiate peace building from below, with community level praxis for solidarity, understanding, empathy, and moral justice while resisting the pressures of a hostile state and ethnic entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, the political argument for democracy, peace, human rights, justice and equality – in short, political emancipation — needs to be sustained with its periodic renewal and reinvention.  The survival and continuity of the critical and democratic political consciousness in society is the best antidote for all forms of illiberalism that seem to gather momentum these days. That perhaps is the only enduring and credible peace building practice available in Sri Lanka at present.