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In the aftermath of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election victory, a number of competing narratives have emerged offering differing explanations of how we arrived at this result. The prevailing liberal account, favoured within significant sections of both the local and international commentariat, frames Gotabaya’s popularity as largely a result of ethnic majoritarianism on the part of his mostly Sinhalese voter base. Indeed, recent comments by BBS leader Gnanasara Thero, who noted that the work of organizations like his are no longer required under a Gotabaya presidency, makes it difficult even for SLPP supporters to deny that he has the backing of racist elements.

However, in an engaging article in the Hindu immediately after the election, Ahilan Kadirgamar of Jaffna University posits an alternative account, where rather than ethnic majoritarianism being the main factor it is ‘perhaps lower- and middle-class economic disenchantment and youth disillusionment that ensured a mass vote for Mr Rajapaksa’. On this view, Gotabaya’s win can be seen more as a function of economic self-interest, with the Yahapalanaya experiment taking a toll on the livelihoods on a great number of working and middle-class people who have expressed their justified frustration by voting them out.

The kind of account suggested (but not definitively endorsed) by Kadirgamar has some appeal as a counter-narrative to an explanation which frames the result as a simple function of the racism of voters. Articulations of the standard ethnic majoritarian account of Gotabaya’s victory seem to underplay the extent to which the Yahapalanaya government failed to repay the faith that was put in them. Indeed, much of the pull for this argument on economic grievance comes from a sensible aversion to an easy narrative which would castigate and put the blame on working people as part of a justificatory story for the failures of the previous government.

However, just as with the ethnic majoritarianism account of Gotabaya’s victory, in providing a neat causal narrative which asserts the primacy of the economic sphere, we run the risk of ignoring the extent to which the two phenomena feed into and interact with each other. Even if we accept a multifactorial account where we acknowledge that each may have played its own unique role, there will still be salient considerations missing from our analysis for it is perhaps in the porous boundaries between these various factors that the most important lessons about our political culture may be learnt. Neither racial animosity nor economic grievances are exogenous factors around which politics is subsequently structured; each is continuous with the other and neither can be seen as the beginning of the causal chain to a particular political outcome in any salient sense.

In this piece, rather than assert a specific narrative about the reasons Gotabaya has come to power, I wish to use the debate in the aftermath of the election result as an entry point into exploring this interplay between ethnic majoritarianism and economic grievance across the Sri Lankan political landscape.

Standardisation, Colonisation and Sinhala-Tamil Conflict 

The link between legitimate economic grievances and ethnocratic populism in the run-up to the 2019 election is the latest manifestation of a long-standing trend in Sri Lankan political discourse. Both real and imagined economic exploitation have always played a role in narratives which have been weaponised by Sinhala nationalist political movements. However, the issue goes deeper than the trivial observation that economic issues feature in ethnonationalist narratives. After all, economic grievances are a significant aspect of most people’s lives and it would be strange if ethnonationalist ideologies (as with any ideology which seeks to provide a political framing for people’s experiences) did not have an economic component. It is not just that racist narratives incorporate economic elements, but rather that economic insecurity and ethnic majoritarianism are mutually constructive, intertwined in a way that makes it impossible for us to understand either in isolation.

The various policies which disenfranchised Tamil people and created the conditions for ethnic conflict have been well documented. These ethnic majoritarian policies did not emerge merely out of some instinctive and non-contextual hatred of an out-group, but also out of a set of concrete grievances and the way these grievances were framed and dealt with institutionally.

With regard to the build-up of ethnic tensions, the relationship between Sinhalese economic grievances and ethnic majoritarianism performed dual functions: Firstly, in terms of the fostering of resentment towards the generally more economically successful Tamils; Secondly, in terms of the bias in development policy towards the rural Sinhalese, often at the expense of the needs of the Tamil community.

The way that ethnic majoritarianism manifested as state ideology was highly influenced by the material realities of electoral makeup, specifically the historical predominance of lower-income Sinhala people in the electorate and the development priorities of the state in light of this. If a government wanted to stay in or come to power, the electoral composition necessitated that more attention is paid to the problems experienced by the rural Sinhalese. This dynamic was especially prominent prior to the 1978 constitutional reform as the first-past-the-post system resulted in the greater electoral weight given to rural voters.

Poverty thus played a role in both the ideological and institutional manifestations of ethnic majoritarianism in the country. A clear example of the latter is in the land policy of the post-colonial Sri Lankan state, particularly the colonisation schemes in the dry zone where large numbers of Sinhalese people were relocated to formerly Tamil dominated areas. Such policies, whilst benefitting the Sinhalese people who were relocated, were economically and socially damaging to the Tamil communities already living in those areas.

This was also apparent in the policy of standardisation and the introduction of district quota programmes in universities in 1971 and 1972 respectively. These were implemented on affirmative action grounds, with the scheme mainly benefitting economically marginalised Sinhala communities in poorer districts whilst disadvantaging Jaffna Tamils, who had hitherto been overrepresented in higher education. In 1971, ,for instance, the average qualifying mark required for a Sinhala student to study medicine and engineering was 229 for the former and 227 for the latter, whilst Tamil students on average required a mark of 250 for each. The scheme resulted in a drastic reduction in Tamil student enrolment in universities, thus taking a significant toll on incomes and livelihoods of Tamil communities, intensifying the feeling of being unjustly treated by a partisan state.

Thus, the ethnocratic policies of the Sri Lankan state cannot be understood without reference to the underlying electoral motivations and the economic conditions which created them. Moreover, just as much as Sinhalese economic grievances spurred discriminatory policies, the Tamil backlash to these policies was similarly galvanised by the economic disenfranchisement they engendered. In each case ethnonationalist discourses and economic grievances could not be so clearly parsed from each other, it was their coalescence and mutual reinforcement which resulted in the creation of the conditions for ethnic conflict.

Thus, ethnic conflict was not the result of an innate antagonism between intrinsically opposed groups nor just the product of a chauvinist victory in some free-floating battle of ideas, but rather a phenomenon which emerged out of specific conditions of inter-ethnic economic competition and their institutional manifestations.

However, we must avoid the temptation to conceptualise racism and inter-ethnic conflict as purely emergent phenomena, as if they are mere secondary effects. Just as much as economic considerations play into ethnonationalist narratives, the opposite is also true in that these ethnonationalist narratives provide the context in which specific economic grievances translated into a political ideology. Indeed, it need not be the case that each particular individual who engages in racist discourses is economically insecure. More important than the economic grievances of the narrator is the role played by the collective economic insecurity of an imagined community in the narrative, and how these narratives are weaponised. This is made especially clear upon examination of another laceration in Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic social fabric, that which has emerged out of anti-Muslim violence.

The Dharmapalite Agenda, Economic Disenfranchisement and the Anti-Muslim Riots of 1915

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka provides a clear demonstration of the extent to which ethnic majoritarianism and economic grievance are mutually reinforcing. To best understand this, we must look at it in its historical context, tracing the sociological development of anti-Muslim bigotry, and how the discourses which characterise it have come into being. The antecedents to the anti-Muslim riots of 1915 offer us a window into these dynamics.

A key aspect of anti-Muslim bigotry is the space occupied by Muslim businesses in the Sinhala nationalist imagination. In 1915 antagonism towards Muslim traders came in the context of a colonial economy in the aftermath of the  first World War. Shortages caused the price of food to greatly increase, and the economic strain was worsened by reductions in wages and increases in unemployment for skilled workers in towns.

There was competition between Sinhalese and Muslims for retail trade and employment in factories, ports and railways were scarce and contested over. The monopoly on money lending by the Muslim community was another important factor with many Sinhalese people coming to regard Muslim lenders as fundamentally predatory.

In this context, there was a great deal of resentment against those regarded as profiteers. However, there was a particularly racialized character to judgements about those who were deemed particularly worthy of scorn, with Muslims bearing the brunt of this anger. Indeed, an important dynamic within the ethnonationalist discourse is the shrinking of who counts as part of ‘the people’ and the identification of internal enemies within the polity. Whether the source of one’s exploitation is within or outside the boundaries of this community will thus shape one’s political reaction to it. This framing of economic hardship as if it were the result of zero-sum competition between ethnic groups was a clear antecedent to the anti-Muslim riots of 1915.

Anagarika Dharmapala, arguably the progenitor of modern Buddhist ethnonationalism, wrote in 1915 that “The Sinhalese son of the soil, whose ancestors for 2358 years has shed rivers of blood to keep the country from alien invaders…are in the eyes of the British only vagabonds…The alien South Indian Muhammadan come to Ceylon, see the neglected villagers without any experience in trade. The result is that Muhammadan thrives and the son of the soil goes to the wall.”

Here we see one of the earliest recorded examples of a narrative in which it was particularly minority-owned profiteers who were purveyors of exploitation, rather than profiteers in general. Economic antagonisms provided political fuel for ethnonationalist ideologies such as those propagated by Dharmapala, resulting in the formation of a number of prejudices which remain today. Economic insecurity and its attendant anxieties and legitimate grievances are thus co-opted and the anger it elicits, directed at those outside one’s immediate community. Dharmapala’s project thus took a legitimate material concern (the poverty of the rural Sinhalese) and framed it in a larger story of minority predation and privilege.

This animosity towards Muslim owned business was not just a symptom of an ingrained animosity, it was also an integral part of a political ideology which incorporated specific ideas about the causes of and cures for Sinhalese poverty. The economic aspects of Dharmapala’s agenda were not separate to, but rather continuous with his larger ethnonationalist project.

Just as significant as Dharmapala’s vilification of Muslims was for ethnic majoritarianism as a political force, so was his positive economic vision of rural regeneration as a utopian foil to his ethnonationalist critiques. During the nascent stages of Dharmapala’s political project, there was a widely recognized need to improve living standards in rural communities, though, for Dharmapala, such a project would have to operate on a particular cultural foundation and a certain set of assumptions.

The end goal of Dharmapala’s notion of rural development was the ideal Sinhala village. A self-sufficient agricultural economy modelled on the structure of pre-colonial Sri Lankan society. This served as part of the ideological architecture of Sinhala nationalism, the ideal mode of social organisation which politics would serve to bring about.

It is in this convergence of the material and the mytho-ideological, that the interlinked nature of the economic grievance and ethnonationalism is made especially apparent to us. The appeal of the idealisation of the Sinhala village in the ethnonationalist imagination must be understood in conjunction with both the lived experience of poverty as well as the fear and resentment at the perceived economic superiority of those in minority communities. It is significant that Dharmapalite political project was oriented around bringing this mode of social organization into existence to the extent that it gives a clear example of the ways in which ethnonationalist ideology precludes certain forms of political reaction to the economic grievance.

For instance, Dharmapala’s political vision had no room for a more general class critique. This would only serve to destabilise the hierarchy of deference which underpinned the idealised village life. The problem was not exploitation per se, but exploitation from those not integrated into one’s broader imagined community.

As such, there was a circular, mutually reinforcing the relationship between the ideological pronouncements of Dharmapala’s Buddhist revivalist movement and the everyday animosities and contestations within the economic sphere. Racist narratives cannot be understood without understanding the material conditions out of which they arise; at the same time, however, the existence of those material conditions do not fully explain racist narratives. In a different context, with different ideological framing, the economic grievances of Sinhala people could have manifested very differently. Instead of anti-muslim riots, for instance, one could easily imagine such a situation leading to political anger being directed elsewhere, such as at the urban elite or the colonial administration. That is to say, though these economic conditions are a necessary condition in terms of our understanding of racist violence, they are by no means a sufficient condition.

The anti-Muslim sentiment we see today represents a continuation of the kind of discourses we saw at the beginning of the 20th century, though it is also constituted by more modern, imported islamophobic talking points in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks. That being said, it is clear that the conceptual foundations for racism were laid long ago, with economic insecurity playing a significant role in the laying of those foundations.

Muslim businesses are still consistently the sites of Sinhala nationalist conspiracy, for instance, the ‘wanda pethi’ controversy, where the absurd accusation that (as yet uninvented) sterilisation pills were being put into food was levelled at Muslim business owners. Indeed, it is significant that the boycotting of Muslim businesses in favour of Sinhala ones has been one of the main strategies employed by ethnonationalists, with racist discourses creating new spaces in the market for businesses which trade on their Sinhala-ness. Just as with the recent anti-Muslim violence, it is no coincidence that mob violence against Tamils has often involved the destruction of Tamil owned shops. Such cases are emblematic of the incentive for various actors to weaponize economic disenfranchisement and direct it against a symbolic other, in doing so creating a story in which a thread connects Sinhala people’s own experience of economic hardship with the economic success of minorities. These stories can be used to obfuscate the origins of economic grievance in the service of one’s own economic and political gain, further complicating this interplay between economic considerations and racism as a political force. This historical confluence of the economic and the ethnocratic continues to exert a significant influence, directing the currents which politicians continue to ride to victory today.

Gotabaya’s Appeal

Following this trend to the present and the election result which spurred this debate, we see convergences of a very similar kind. Gotabaya’s appeal has been discussed in terms of two broadly distinct features: the image of him as a no-nonsense technocrat who will bring about economic development, and his reputation as a Sinhala nationalist. However, we cannot ignore the extent to which the very idea of what it means to be a no-nonsense leader in the Sri Lankan context takes for granted certain ethnic majoritarian presuppositions.  These presuppositions are not separable from, but rather play into the perception of Gotabaya as a strong and pragmatic statesman within a context where minority demands are presented as impediments to the fundamental goal of economic development. That is to say, the perception that he will address the economic and security needs of the country, are closely related to further assumptions from the public about his inter-ethnic politics and how each of these factors will play into one another.

For instance, in an interview with Padma Rao Sundarji of Hindustan Times, Gotabaya stated when asked about devolution, “Tamil politicians must understand, since independence they’ve been talking about devolution and all that but they were not considering the development of that area, they were not answering the problems of the people, the issues with the fisheries, with agriculture, with education. These are things that I want to tackle, otherwise, at the end, you’re nowhere. The last government they were drafting constitutions and all those things, we have to understand without the consent of the majority we can’t give a solution. If you come out with things which are suspicious to the majority community they cannot be implemented.”

This is part of a longstanding trend in which demands for human rights and civil liberties have been presented as decadent political luxuries for which there is no genuine demand by ‘the people’. The acceptance of a highly centralised unitary state as a given along with the framing of the demand for alternatives as both unrealistic and suspicious is central to Gotabaya’s wider political project. As such these statements reveal to us that certain majoritarian premises about ethnic politics in Sri Lanka underlie what is often presented as a post-ethnopolitical focus on development. This was further demonstrated in an interview with Nitin A. Gokhale of Bharat Shakti when, in response to questions about reconciliation, Gotabaya stated:

“I believe development is the answer. For the last so many years, Tamil political leaders and also Sinhalese political leaders were talking about things which were impractical only to fool the people. We should focus on what we can do first. Give everybody the opportunity to live as a Sri Lankan in this country. To get education, live a better life, get a good job and live in dignity. I will create that environment, let the other political things go on, you can’t only focus on that…. This is my focus, develop these areas so they can get opportunities like the others. (Interviewer: So, reconciliation will automatically happen?) It will happen.”

He continues, on the topic of human rights violations charges, “Rather than just criticising… I’d like even the Tamil diaspora to forget about these things, nobody is benefiting from this. We must work together to develop the country and to help the people in the country. I’m sure if the minority community understands this, (that) only if they do certain things which create suspicion in the minds of majority community, only then will the majority community react. They have to understand, everybody is a Sri Lankan citizen if they’re born in Sri Lanka, they have equal rights, but they should not do certain things, they have to understand the reality. Even within the so-called advanced societies, these problems are there.”

Within this framework, the focus on human rights violations is presented as backwards-looking, unpatriotic and inherently in conflict with a future-oriented development project which in itself will provide solutions to issues of reconciliation. The fact that Gotabaya rejects calls for the devolution of power is not separate from the appeal of his economic project but central to it. The removal of this purported barrier is presented as a necessary prerequisite to Sri Lanka’s progress. As such, the boundary between a vote for Gota, because he will bring about economic prosperity and a vote for Gota because he will not ‘pander to minorities’, is not as clear cut as it may initially appear.

In each of these cases, the conception of Gotabaya as being a politician who can ‘get the job done’ economically cannot be untied from his broader nationalist ideology and its implications for inter-ethnic politics. Neither economic grievance nor ethnic majoritarianism can be ascribed as primary determinants of Gotabaya’s success, rather they are related components within a lattice of inter-causal relationships which collectively undergird the Sri Lankan political terrain.


But what does all this actually have to tell us about how we ought to think about Sri Lankan politics, the communal tensions and divisions which continue to characterise it and how we ought to move on from here?

If nothing else, the dynamics I’ve attempted to illustrate allow us to recognize that political polarisation and division are neither the result of an inevitable tension between innately opposed communities nor a mere by-product of economic hardship which we can ameliorate via development as per Gotabaya’s model.

This contingency of the ailments which have afflicted Sri Lankan society should be cause for optimism. By rejecting the framing of economic disenfranchisement or majoritarianism as fixed and distinct ultimate causes, we can recognize them as phenomena which are shaped, directed and framed by one another, but which only do so by way of ourselves as political agents. In engaging this way, the potential for political action opens up in that fertile space between the misplaced hopelessness of ameliorating a perceived pre-political antagonism, and the naivety of assuming our ethnic divisions will be made to vanish by the magic wand of economic development. Our collective political future will be determined by how we choose to occupy that space.



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