Photo courtesy of BBC

This article questions how we understand what is meant by state security. Rethinking what we mean by state security has to start with how we understand the state. The state is usually treated state as a concrete, self-contained entity that has attained a final status. The physical geographic space covered by the state is securitised, and this is called national security. This spatial unit is objectified in maps, and borders are drawn to demarcate it. The legal notion of sovereignty strengthens this way of looking at the state.

Those who control the state and their ideologues always try to convey this notion. A whole paraphernalia of rituals, histories and symbols are developed not only to promote this idea but also to convey the eternal character of the state. This conventional approach, because of its conservative political orientation, makes it difficult to bring about reforms in the fundamental features of a state such as its institutional structure and identity.

This article looks at the state as a product of historical processes, just like any other social phenomenon. States are formed under certain specific historical conditions. They continuously undergo changes and under certain circumstances can even totally disappear. A cursory glance at the history of the world shows this. State formation involves developing mechanisms to control territory and manage state-society relations. This takes place in a specific historical context where certain state-society relations become more strategic for the state formation process. These strategic state-society relations can be maintained either through use of the coercive power of the state or through a process of consultation with society leading to social reforms. This creates the conditions for consent in state-society relations.

When consent overrides coercion in this process, we have states that have legitimacy in society. These states are strong. When coercion predominates, state security is given priority but it undermines the security of individuals and groups in society. These states are weak. This way of looking at the state gives us a completely different understanding of what state security is. Obviously if we are to work towards a strong state, we need to find consensual ways of managing strategic state-society relations.

This historical process of state formation has to be analysed taking into account the world around it. In other words, state formation always take place in a global context. The system of political power that controlled the geographic space that we call Sri Lanka today underwent a significant change under British colonialism. After the British took over control of this land, the earlier spatial identities were replaced with ones that used the sides of the modern compass to identify spatial units. This was depicted on a map. The techniques of state formation included dividing the territory into spatial units and having administrators in charge of each of them and a regular census to count people and divide them into categories. One aspect of the census was dividing people into ethnic categories. With this, these cultural identities, which had been fluid and changing in society, turned into something that is static and recognised by the state. Over and above all this, the coercive power of the colonial state helped to control the territorial space.

The fact that the British controlled the entire territory helped them to intensify the promotion of colonial capitalism based on an export-oriented plantation economy. This in turn transformed the territory. The 1946 census shows that 80% of the plantation economy, and 80% of the population lived in an area covering the hill country and the South West part of the country. This shows how far these changes have affected the livelihoods of bulk of the population. For the state formation process, a key aspect was linking the economy of the island with global capitalism.

The Sri Lankan state became independent both because of what happened within the territory identified at that time as Ceylon and because of the weakening of the British Empire from the time of the First World War. During the post-colonial period, the centralised state formed under British colonialism continued. In the post-colonial period two strategic state-society relations became crucial.

The first is the relation between the centralised state and minority ethnic groups. Sinhala Buddhist nationalism was a key political force in anti-colonial politics. In the post-colonial period this political force become the hegemonic power controlling the centralised state. A key indicator of this development was how the post-colonial state defined who are its citizens. This led to the bulk of the Indian Tamil population becoming stateless. At the time of 1946 census they had been the largest minority ethnic group. This led to a section of the Sri Lankan Tamils demanding fundamental changes in the institutional structure of the centralised state, by transforming it into a federal state.

The second strategic state-society relation was the one between the state and Sinhala majority in the context of the politics of capitalist transition. The socio-economic impact of capitalism is always unequal. This means some sections of the Sinhala majority benefitted more than others from capitalist transition. Political responses from the Sinhala majority to these unequal benefits of capitalist transition could always combine with the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that legitimised the state to oppose the regime in power. Sometimes the opposition to regimes could turned into an opposition to capitalism itself.

Unfortunately for Sri Lankans, the post-colonial experience within both strategic state-society relations has not been positive-to put it mildly. The post-colonial period witnessed a deterioration in the relations between the centralised state and Tamil minority leading to conflicts with significant social costs. There have been similar events when it comes to relations with the Sinhala majority in the context of politics of capitalist transition. One of the earliest such events was what is popularly known as hartal and state repression that followed.

Post 1977 was a much worse period in the state formation process due to changes that had an impact on both strategic state-society relations. Due to deteriorating relations between the Sri Lankan state and Sri Lankan Tamil minority, the main political party of the latter contested the 1977 general election demanding a separate state. By that time there were also armed groups within the Tamil polity fighting for the same cause. A major response of the Sri Lankan state was to introduce the notion of terrorism and use the coercive power of the state. Activities of the armed groups continued. In 2009 the centralised state consolidated the territory of the state through military means. During the years immediately after the end of the armed conflict we saw rise of extremist Sinhala Buddhist groups. Other minority religious groups, such as Muslims and Evangelical Christian groups, came under attack from them. Although the armed violence has ended fundamental issues around managing the question of state-minority relations still need answers. Key dimensions of the question are institutional structure of the state, public policies in certain areas and the identity of the state.

Post-1977 also marked the beginning of a new period of capitalist transition which emphasised the private sector, markets and openness to global capitalism. The politics of managing relations with the Sinhala majority in this context included significant changes to the institutional structure that controlled the state, and use of coercive power of the state against organised opposition to economic reforms. Establishing a presidential system and proportional system of elections to choose MPs were key institutional reforms. One of the first major events using the coercive power of the state against organised opposition to economic reforms was state repression during the July 1980 general strike. Many other events followed where coercive power of the state was used. The 1989/90 period or what became known as period of beeshanaya was one of the worst periods. The notion of terrorism and the legal framework brought in to deal with Tamil separatism, helped this state repression. The latest such event occurred when the process of capitalist transition faced a crisis, because the Sri Lankan state was unable to fulfil the demands of global financial capital. Due to socio-economic fall out of this event there was social unrest. This was once again met with the familiar state repression.

The social costs of using the coercive power of the state to manage both strategic state-society relations during the post 1977 period have been enormous. We still have to write a comprehensive account of this. There is a significant amount of material collected by various organisations, which can be used together with detailed case studies of chosen locations. There are also contributions by creative writers. In addition, we need to use this experience to begin a fresh discussion on what we mean by state security. Since this has to be done in the specific historical context of Sri Lankan state formation, we have to combine issues related to social justice within capitalism and promoting pluralism in a multiethnic and multireligious society. This has to be done together to avoid past mistakes. When doing this we need to remember that there is no one big answer to this question of state security. But we could identify strategic spaces in the current historical context where we could promote a different idea of state security.