The Question of Militarisation in Post-war Sri Lanka

A political economic study of militarisation in Sri Lanka must situate it within the neo-liberal transformation of the country, the changing role of the state in the economy this has entailed, and the state-society model which has enabled regime consolidation through significant electoral victories. The international image of the military as a force of untrammelled power within Sri Lanka and the image being constructed within Sri Lanka of the military as capable of winning all battles are both flawed and undermine progressive politics. The need is for serious analysis and a far-reaching debate on militarisation which can enable dissent and contribute towards post-war democratisation.

| by Ahilan Kadirgamar 
This article was originally published by the Economic and Military Weekly. Please click here to those who like to comment on this article.

This article benefi ted from discussions with Thushara Hewage.

Only under the second Bonaparte does the state seem to have made itself completely independent. As against civil society, the state machine has consolidated its position so thoroughly that the chief of the Society of December 10 suffices for its head, an adventurer blown in from abroad, raised on the shield by a drunken soldiery, which he has brought with liquor and sausages, and which he must continually ply with sausage anew. Hence the downcast despair, the feeling of most dreadful humiliation and degradation that oppresses the breast of France and makes her catch her breath. She feels dishonoured. And yet the state power is not suspended in midair. Bonaparte represents a class, and the most numerous of French society at that, the small-holding peasants
– Karl Marx
In the case of a Bonapartist dictatorship, the state does not need a serious popular support to the extent a fascist one does, because its function is to serve in the long run the interests of the dominant class by playing upon the dynamic of the fundamental contradiction itself. Thus it allows for the existence of legal political struggle which it favours and directs accordingly.
– Nicos Poulantzas (Martin 2008)

( February 10, 2013, Jaffna, Sri Lanka Guardian) The military is prominent in the image and discourse of Sri Lanka within and without the country. This is in part due to the military’s decisive victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but also an effect of its continued prominent presence in the country as well as the continuing war crimes debate in international media and forums. Yet there is little clarity by what is meant by militarisation. Is it the consolidation of the power of the military as an entity? Is it a process of significant change in the relationship between the military and the regime, the state and society? Or is it a process of increasing securitisation of state institutions and society? How is a security consciousness including the inculcation of military discipline in society related to state power and the politics of the regime? These are important questions when thinking about militarisation. However, the absence of conceptual clarity and the lack of a debate on militarisation in post-war Sri Lanka have hindered nuanced analysis of militarisation. This article attempts to raise some questions about the relationship of the military to the ruling regime, state, economy and society as well as the processes of securitisation in Sri Lanka. This article is both a call for and premised on the importance of bringing class back into a much needed debate on militarisation.

Despite these global and national continuities which characterise the role of the military in the post-war context, the contemporary image of the military as the dominant actor arises in great part from the very real brutality of the end of the war in which tens of thousands of civilians perished.
‘War on Terror’, Security and Development

The image, strength and politics of the military in Sri Lanka necessarily relates to the decades of war and its brutal end. The last phase of the war was framed by the global discourse of the “war on terror” initiated by the George W Bush regime after 11 September 2001. The politics of the “war on terror” prioritised a security mindset over that of broader humanitarian concerns, rights or welfare. Furthermore, this global security mindset had been in the making for some time, with the role of states shifting from a social contract based on welfare policies to that of an increasingly repressive agent for liberalising economies. Neo-liberal policies aggravated class relations in the interest of finance capital, and as David Harvey (2003) has articulated sought avenues for accumulation through dispossession. The international context then for Sri Lanka’s “war on terror” – in reality backed by powerful actors in the region and the west – was both the neo-liberal global economy prioritising the expansion of markets and the accumulation of capital, and the global “war on terror” ready to deploy tremendous lethal force.

Next, there is both a continuity and consolidation of security, instituted by the military and shaped by neo-liberal development in post-war Sri Lanka. This merging of security and development is neither new nor unique to Sri Lanka. Indeed, the merging of militarised security and neo-liberal economic policies is rooted in the political economy of Sri Lanka since the inception of open economy policies in the late 1970s and the decades of armed conflict. Internationally, there has been a significant push towards global stability through increasingly repressive security measures even as accumulation by finance capital in the neo-liberal era inevitably leads to resistance and instability. This has been the characteristic feature of global hegemony under the United States (US) imperialism, even as that hegemony unravels precisely due to the global economic crisis constituted by US imperialism’s neo-liberal policies and the defeats of its “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite these global and national continuities which characterise the role of the military in the post-war context, the contemporary image of the military as the dominant actor arises in great part from the very real brutality of the end of the war in which tens of thousands of civilians perished. Internationally, a campaign by the western media, international organisations and some powerful states, including the US and the European Union led by the United Kingdom, continue to scrutinise Sri Lanka solely through processes of accountability for the civilian causalities during the end of the war. However, their narrow focus on the final stages of the war disregards the political economic processes shaping Sri Lanka.

India as the regional power has been no lesser champion of the nexus of neoliberal policies and the global “war on terror”. Indeed, India was a central supporter of the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to decimate the LTTE. India’s external policies towards Sri Lanka have attempted to balance its regional hegemonic aspirations with engagement, despite increasing domestic and international calls to confront the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led regime. India’s engagement has been broader, both due to its status as the largest trading partner and a significant investor in infrastructure in Sri Lanka, as well as on account of its continued prodding of Sri Lankan actors towards a constitutional political settlement based on the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution. However, analysis of post-war Sri Lanka in India has been limited, due in part to the security mindset of Indian analysts on Sri Lanka, many of whom are veterans or commentators of the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka during the 1980s. This dominance of security thinking has similarly contributed to a militarised image of Sri Lanka, which obscures significant political economic changes within the island. It also reduces and appends the political questions of contemporary Sri Lanka to a preoccupation with the competition between India’s and China’s regional spheres of influence.

Thus the first point this article seeks to make is that the international and national political economic processes and their relationship to the continuing role of the military in Sri Lanka are neglected by the circumscribed image of post-war Sri Lanka depicted by much international analysis. A corollary to this point is the need for any analysis of militarisation in Sri Lanka to register the global and national continuities and shifts over the last few decades. Such analysis should locate the military in the post-war era in the context of broader political economic changes in Sri Lanka, the global economic crisis and the crisis of imperial legitimacy triggered by the “war on terror”.

State and Regime

The armed conflict between the Sri Lankan state and first various Tamil militant groups, the later war between the state and the LTTE, as well as the two major insurrections in the South by the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), drastically expanded the military and state’s estimation of its importance. Successive governments linked their survival to the military managing the conflicts and even the protection it afforded individual government members from assassinations. This situation was paralleled by the deterioration of many state institutions including the judiciary and criminal justice system as a whole, the civil administration and even educational institutions. It is important to note though that these governments accorded differing levels of importance to the war effort, the military and negotiations with the LTTE.

This is where Karl Marx’s (2004) distinction between state and regime in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is important. Different regimes that came to power – and in postcolonial Sri Lanka this has always been through electoral politics – were committed to different visions of managing the ethnic conflict, and varying alliances with nationalist and class forces. The concept of the regime is also more appropriate than say party or government. For example, both Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa belong to the same political party but have had very different visions of addressing the ethnic conflict. Furthermore, the centralised executive presidential system brought about by the 1978 Constitution led to the concentration of power around an individual and a few close actors, who in turn determined state policies. The Rajapaksa regime, close to two decades after the failed Indian intervention was willing to mobilise tremendous military force to decimate the LTTE. Here, the regime gave full political backing to the military and deployed considerable state resources towards a military solution.

The present regime’s relationship to the military has to be conceptualised in the context of the regime’s relationship to state and society. The regime’s contested struggle to occupy and exert a hegemony at the level of the state must be situated historically and here an attentiveness to the tradition of the study of the state in Sri Lanka is instructive. An earlier debate on the state by Newton Gunasinghe, Amita Shastri, Sunil Bastian and Jayadeva Uyangoda engaged Michal Kalecki’s (1972) theory of intermediate regimes to account for the historical weakness of bourgeois ruling elites and the character of the postcolonial state-society relationship in Sri Lanka. This weakness required that elites ally with certain intermediate classes, such as rural smallholders and the petty bourgeoisie, deploying state resources to sustain their social reproduction. Here I want to stress how the relationship between the Rajapaksa regime and the state must be historically and theoretically situated in terms of the limitations and possibilities provided by this state-society model. In this context, the changing character of the state under a neo-liberal economy, may pose contradictions between the regime and its social base, from which the military predominantly draws its recruits. Indeed, under neo-liberal policies the role of the state has been curtailed with significant cuts to social welfare.

The second point then that this articles makes is that any understanding of the military, as it emerged out of the war, requires an analysis of the Rajapaksa regime and its relationship to state and society under a neo-liberal economy. Here, it is important to note that the Rajapaksa regime over its seven-year tenure has not been consistent, but has also varied, particularly following the political gains produced by the war victory. Furthermore, there are historical constraints at work with the state-society model that brought the regime to power. A careful analysis of the Rajapaksa regime’s trajectory will shed light on the military’s independence and the extent to which it serves regime’s interests.

Regime Consolidation and Political Economy of Defence

In the post-war context, the Rajapaksa regime is buttressed by an accelerated neo-liberal development programme, an electoral machine which is proving to be extremely effective and the military to control public institutions and guard regime interests. What the regime is not, is a military regime. In fact, it is its economic programme – what I have characterised elsewhere as a second wave of neo-liberal reforms with extensive financialisation and major infrastructure construction – that is the regime’s priority. And by the same token it is the Achilles heel of the regime, in the sense that this wager with neo-liberal reforms in the event of a major national economic crisis, could produce a conjuncture triggering the regime’s collapse.

The regime’s strength is its mastery of electoral politics from the local, provincial and parliamentary levels. Over the last three years, there have been untrammelled electoral victories, with the exception some Tamil majority electorates. In fact, almost every political party has been broken by the strategy of co-opting party factions into government and in the process rendering the opposition, led by the biggest loser in Sri Lanka’s political history, Ranil Wickramasinghe, completely ineffective. It is the merging together of the regime’s economic policies, transformation of state institutions and electoral patronage that is reflected in the Divi Neguma Bill, which attempts to centralise and transform a programme of poverty alleviation and rural development. The bill further financialises the local economy through microfinance and rural banks. It undermines devolution and local participation in the interest of instituting patronage networks to ensure electoral strength, through control by the economic development minister, a brother of the president. Indeed, the priority of this bill and the regime consolidation it represents, is reflected in the immediate move to impeach the chief justice in response to the legal challenges to this bill by the Supreme Court. Indeed, it is perhaps the fragility of coalition politics despite the seemingly invincible electoral strength that is leading the regime to attempt consolidation by building direct lines of patronage with Divi Neguma. In this analysis, the importance of the military to the Rajapaksa regime has to be understood relative to the priorities of neo-liberal development and its strategy of political patronage, co-optation and consolidation.

Now, some analysts have claimed that the military takes a central role in the economy and that is their starting point for a political economy of defence. They point to the fact that the largest allocation of government expenditure is for the defence ministry. But they fail to consider the large numbers of cadres employed in defence by the end of the war, and the fact that much of the allocation is towards recurrent expenditure, particularly the salaries of security forces personnel. This is the case of the 2013 budget, barring the considerable allocation for capital expenditure on the Air Force, the rest is allocated towards recurrent expenditure. Moreover, the class character of the military, especially in the lower ranks, in which the employment of rural youth creates significant incomes for rural villages, is similar to the manner in which migrant labour and remittances are also sustaining rural Sri Lanka. What military employment has not done is transform class relations and politics; for example through an officer class as a primary form of class mobility and power, as is the case in Pakistan. While there are colonial continuities in the structure of the military including its juridical relationship to state and society, in Sri Lanka, there was no powerful “bureaucratic-military oligarchy” and certainly the military was not a significant component of what Hamza Alavi (1972) characterised as the “overdeveloped state” brought about with colonial rule. The expansion of the military in Sri Lanka has been relatively late, where it has grown in response to the insurrections decades after independence, and its role in the economy in terms of production, control of resources and collusion with big business has been relatively limited.

Two contemporary features of militarisation should be more noteworthy to any political economy of defence. First, the usurpation of the police by defence, which perpetuates the war-time culture of impunity. The centralisation of the repressive apparatuses of the state under the defence secretary, the brother of the president, allows state repression, intimates dissent and continues the climate of fear. Its most visible appearance is in the abductions and killings, but it also targets citizens’ organising, for example, the student movement and trade unions mobilising larger protests. The massacre of tens of prisoners at Welikada prison marks its most recent appearance.

The second and more significant feature of the political economy of defence is the manner in which the military has usurped civil administration. A fairly large chunk of the defence budget goes towards the urban development authority, which is now part of defence. Indeed, the rationale for absorbing urban development is the centrality of urbanisation to the neo-liberal economy, which in Sri Lanka draws on a tourism and real estate boom. Indeed, on the grounds of the “beautification” of the country, the military has evicted slum-dwellers in cities and others living on prime real estate along coastal tourist centres. A similar politicisation of the civil administration is particularly evident in the conflict affected North and East, where military figures have secured significant postings as governor and government agents in recent years, and the presidential task force for resettlement and development is packed with military personnel. The complexity and the deep reach of the military into society in the North and East requires discussion in an article of its own and cannot be addressed here. In any event, incorporating sections of civil administration under the military chain of command is both about extending the reach of the military, but also accelerating the process of neo-liberal development.

Thus the third point this article makes is that a political economy of militarisation must situate it within the neo-liberal transformation of Sri Lanka, the changing role of the state in the economy this has entailed, and the state-society model which has enabled regime consolidation through significant electoral victories. The implications of such analysis is the possibility of a political economic crisis. Such a crisis can be constituted by the conjuncture of the neo-liberal wager with financialisation unravelling into a national economic crisis and a political crisis for the regime with the unravelling of the state-society model that has ensured hegemony over various classes. In drawing from the theorisation of Nicos Poulantzas, how will the condensation of class forces impinge on the processes of regime consolidation and state formation, fundamental to analysing the role of the military in post-war Sri Lanka? Such theorisation shifts from an emphasis on individual members of the ruling regime and their instrumental control of the state and the military to class relations as the determinant of the potential and limitations of regime consolidation, state power and hegemony over the various classes in society. In other words, an understanding of militarisation in relation to state and society and the different political forms that regimes may take, requires bringing class back into the analysis.

Ideological Manoeuvres

The ethnic problem in Sri Lanka extends back to the colonial period, well before the emergence of the armed conflict. It is linked to the emergence of both Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and Tamil nationalism, both ideologies initially shaped by the colonial legacy and transformed in their engagement with the postcolonial state. The Rajapaksa regime mobilised Sinhala Buddhist ideological forces during the last phase of the war as it put the entire country on a war footing. The regime gave central stage to Sinhala Buddhist nationalist parties such as the Jathika Hela Urumaya, which in reality only have a marginal social base, and through such mobilisations pushed the discourse on a political solution to the margins. Furthermore, with the war victory, such mobilisations moved to triumphalism and a rejection of earlier political efforts to accommodate minorities through a constitutional settlement. This triumphalist discourse exalted the military as the force that delivered the war victory, merging Sinhala Buddhist nationalism with the military achievement. The military was pitched as an entity beyond criticism inside the country. Such an ideological manoeuvre was strengthened even as international scrutiny for accountability was rejected, as western interference and an attack on Sri Lankan sovereignty. In the public sphere, the military was given primary importance as the institution that could defend Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.

This was the context for rhetorical moves as well as sometimes concrete efforts to call on the military to solve a range of problems; from rectifying “indiscipline” in universities by compulsory leadership training for university entrants by the military, and to creating security firms under the military, such as “Rakna Lanka”, to its role in urban development. The ideological boost given to the notion of military discipline in society was built on the images of the war victory and was an attempt to quell any opposition to the regime by equating dissent with betrayal of the military’s sacrifices. However, such ideological construction has its limits and is already starting to wear thin. Three and a half years after the war, the triumphalist narrative and the regime’s ideological mobilisations are facing resistance from different quarters as bread and butter issues gain importance. Indeed, struggles attendant on the increasing costs of living reflect the rising disaffection with the economic state of affairs, even as the discourse of the war victory loses its allure.

The fourth point this articles seeks to make is that ideologies such as Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and the narratives about the military built with the war victory are also subject to ideological contestation. An essentialist view of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism or a reductive view of the unconditional acceptance of the military in Sinhala society, as proposed by some commentators, is flawed and undermines analysis of militarisation. Rather, the strength and weakness of nationalist and militarist ideologies and their uses for regimes in power have to be analysed in the context of the conjunctures such as the last phase of the war that provided the space for ideological mobilisation and the political strategies deployed by the regime. Furthermore, by the same measure, other conjunctures creating a crisis for state and society could weaken the power of such nationalist and militarist ideologies and enable forms of resistance.

Resistance and Democratic Challenges

The year 2012 was one of many protests despite the ineffectiveness of the opposition party. Prison uprisings, major protests against price hikes, a crippling three month long strike action by the university teachers, many other trade union mobilisations, and a major challenge by the judiciary all pointing to great disaffection with the regime and its management of state, economy and society. Yet the capitalist class is unlikely to challenge the regime. Sri Lanka has a weak bourgeoisie and in any event the regime serves the interests of the elite and financial classes, through the promotion of neo-liberal financialisation as evident in its promotion of the stock market, banking reforms and financial deregulation more generally. Indeed, one reason why the main opposition, the United National Party (UNP), is so weak is that the regime has co-opted the UNP’s politics, including its programme of neoliberal reforms.

Nevertheless, it is this wager with the neo-liberal reforms as a crisis prone venture – subject to the whims of global capital markets and the global economy more generally and susceptible to bubbles in finance and real estate – that may also test the project of regime consolidation. The balance of payments problems in February 2012 and the major fuel price increases led to major hartals shutting down parts of the country. If such protests mount in the future what will the military do? Will the military obey orders from the regime to fire on the Sinhala population, including the very social base of the regime? Historically, seemingly invincible regimes, such as the UNP during its 17-year tenure from 1977 to 1994, was overthrown and replaced with a new leader, Chandrika Kumaratunga, propped up by social and political forces. If such a situation emerges will the military blatantly support moves to undermine electoral democracy?

Therefore, the fifth point this article makes is that an understanding of the changing forms of resistance is important for any analysis of militarisation. The future role of the military should be analysed in the context of class struggles and democratic challenges. Finally, if a major movement for democracy emerges to arrest the increasing authoritarianism, the cuts to social welfare and decline of state institutions, and dispossession with a exploitative finance-centred economic policies, will such a movement demand demilitarisation as a necessary condition for democratisation?


This article is a call for a debate on the military and militarisation in Sri Lanka. Simplistic and reductive discussions of militarisation and the Rajapaksa regime detract from sound analysis, and more importantly foreclose political openings in post-war Sri Lanka. Sound analysis requires situating Sri Lanka in its historical continuities and the international context, rather than caricaturing Sri Lanka either as an exception or a country fully consumed by the war. It requires a far deeper analysis of the state, rather than reductive and reified notions of a Sinhala state allow. This entails distinguishing between the state and regime and understanding the contingent character of ideological mobilisations. Finally, even as the processes of regime consolidation proceed apace, it is important to understand and learn from the various forms of resistance that also point to cracks and fragility of this process of regime consolidation. In thinking about the question of militarisation this article has emphasised the importance of bringing class back into the analysis of the military, including how the condensation of class forces shape the relations between regime, state and society. I return to the theme of the image of the military with which I introduced this article. The international image of the military as a force of untrammelled power within Sri Lanka, and the image being constructed within Sri Lanka of the military as capable of winning all battles are both flawed and undermine progressive politics. The need of the hour is serious analysis and a far-reaching debate on militarisation which can enable dissent and contribute towards post-war democratisation.


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Kalecki, Michal (1972): Selected Essays on the Economic Growth of the Socialist and the Mixed Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Martin, James, ed. (2008): The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law, and the State (New York: Verso).
Marx, Karl (2004): Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers).