ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Sri Lanka: The State Changes Face

During the course of the 25-yearlong civil war, the Sri Lankan state has changed character, which is now manifest very sharply. Sri Lanka has become a national security state where civil and political rights remain suspended where the civilmilitary relationship has changed and the military has been accorded greater say. The ethnic communal and majoritarian nature of the state is also now very apparent. The idea of Sri Lanka as a multiethnic and multi-religious society is one which the establishment refuses to accept.

LETTER FROM SOUTH ASIAoctober 25, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly8Jayadeva Uyangoda (uyangoda@gmail.com)teaches political science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.Sri Lanka: The State Changes FaceJayadeva Uyangoda During the course of the 25-year-long civil war, the Sri Lankan state has changed character, which is now manifest very sharply. Sri Lanka has become a national security state where civil and political rights remain suspended, where the civil-military relationship has changed and the military has been accorded greater say. The ethnic communal and majoritarian nature of the state is also now very apparent. The idea of Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society is one which the establishment refuses to accept. Sri Lanka’s raging war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) has given rise to a host of public debates and controversies. The constant revision of the military’s deadlines to “defeat” the LTTE in battle has raised serious misgivings about the Rajapakse administration’s understanding of the nature of the coun-try’s protracted civil war. The govern-ment’s cavalier attitude to the human rights and humanitarian consequences of the war and its hostile attitude to the international actors who raised concerns have to some extent isolated the regime internationally. The English-speaking spokesmen (they are all men with beards!) of the government seem to believe that they can intimidate regional and global powers into submission on humanitarian issues. Meanwhile, the sorry fate of the Tamil civilians who are caught in the cross-fire has caused much political con-troversy in Tamil Nadu. It seems that the Tamil Nadu political parties have sud-denly woken up to a reality that they had forgotten: their central government has been aiding and abetting a warring party that treats the Tamil citizens in a particu-larly degrading manner.Controversial StatementMeanwhile, Sri Lanka’s army commander has also created a controversy by pouring out his heart to a Canadian newspaper. In an interview, he has said, among other things, that Sri Lanka belonged to the majority Sinhalese nation and that the ethnic minorities should not put forward “unjust” demands. Two issues have been highlighted in the ensuing public contro-versy. The first is about whether it was proper for the army commander to make political statements, a function which is usually reserved for civilian politicians. The second is about the political incorrectness of the statement itself when one considers the fact that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Muslim and Tamil political parties in the opposition and civil society activists have expressed their shock over this statement. According to them, only extreme Sinhalese national-ists believe Sri Lanka to “belong” to the Sinhalese. How, as critics pointed out, can the head of the country’s army make such an outrageous statement while an ethnic civil war was going on?There is also another way to look at this controversy. The army chief’s statement, however outrageous and politically incor-rect it appears, actually demonstrates some of the dynamics of the politics of Sri Lanka’s ongoing war. Two of them can be easily discerned. The first is that the army chief makes important political state-ments, not because he has forgotten that he is a military man, but because he is a military man. He knows that the tradi-tional civil-military division of labour in the country has now been altered. It has been altered under conditions of the present war of which he is a leading stakeholder. The second is that the Sri Lankan state is both ethnic majoritarian and communal, a ten-dency which has resurfaced quite strongly under conditions of the present war. Supremacy of Military Concerning the first, it needs to be noted that Sri Lanka no longer seems to be an exceptional “third world democracy” in which the military is strictly under the civilian control. Twenty-five years of protracted internal war seems to have changed that old equation in favour of the defence establishment. This process began slowly during president Chandrika Kumaratunga’s time when she created the space for the military establishment to influence political decisions concerning the war against the LTTE. Quite symbolic of this change, she allowed her civilian deputy defence minister, an ex-colonel in the volunteer army who happened to be her uncle, to wear the military uniform. She even promoted him to the rank of general in the regular army! Under the present president, things have gone a little further. President Rajapakse has appointed
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