Political Culture of Sri Lanka

| by Helasingha Bandara

( December 9, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) This is election time. Seeing what is happening, hearing what is being said, recognizing who comes to the fore, it is inevitable that our attention is drawn to the concept of South Asian political culture. Some highlights may shed light on the direction this article is taking. The other day someone took about ten minutes to remove the garlands from around the neck of Maithreepala. Maithreepala claimed that he will continue to call Chandrika, a Madam and Ranil, a Sir. Starting from Polonnaruwa, huge rallies are being organized and massive crowds flocking to hear politicians. The entire country is littered with campaign material, particularly of the current regime at the cost of billions of public money. Politicians of all hues come out from their dens and start shouting at the top of their voices that they are for the people, with the people and they want to win to safeguard democracy, ensure economic prosperity and social wellbeing. The country has a circus atmosphere and it really is entertaining. For a whole month or so the poor and the rich alike are entertained. Indeed the entertainment value of this whole saga should not me undermined because at least for the poor masses, elections are the only means of entertainment. Thanks to the politicians, some form of election is held somewhere in the country at least once a year.

Garlands and beetle leaves

The current politicians, prospective politicians, potential politicians and even the retired politicians are garlanded and given stacks of beetle leaves by the citizen bending 135 degrees even at the smallest of political and other events. The irony that the citizen does not understand is that the beetle leaf gesture is an invitation to rob the citizen’s wealth, commit all forms of crimes against the citizen and to discard the citizen as a Bulath Hapa (a lump of beetle waste) after the invitees are elected. In return a politician has never garlanded a citizen for whatever he/she has achieved. 135 degree bending is impossible for the politician because they are a different entity after being elected as their egos rise sky high. It is the lesser humans who garland higher humans. A while after the election they cannot bend anyway because they are too fat with bulging bellies. In Sri Lanka’s political culture this one sided garlanding is accepted as the norm. The citizen would not comprehend if he heard that in other cultures, garlanding, giving beetle leaves or similar gestures are a two way process that is always reciprocated.

Sir/ Madam

In Sri Lanka those terms have different connotations. The person who calls another sir/madam usually assumes inferior status. Although the politicians gleefully accept the honour, it is never returned to the citizen. Only during an election a politician does manage to put his/her palms together and address the citizen ‘your honour ‘(Obathuma). After this holy period if the citizen calls the politician by name or Oya, Meya (you) the politician would be outraged and the citizen would not get anything done because everything in Sri Lanka is decided by the politician. Sri Lanka citizen would be shocked to hear that there are other cultures where people believe in ‘you call me sir/madam and I call you sir/madam’. The citizen of Sri Lanka will be amazed if they hear that there are other cultures where people call each other by name irrespective of their social, economic, educational or political status.

Politician does everything
In Sri Lanka political culture the politician assumes the status of the deliverer. So it is the politician who decides who gets what. He/she has the authority in every sphere of life of the citizen while the citizen has no say in what he gets from the state or what he gives to the state. The politician is anything and everything in that political culture that the citizen believes it is the norm. The citizen of Sri Lanka would not believe that there are other countries in which politicians are limited to legislating policies. Those policies are implemented by others and the politician has no say in that process. The citizen would not even recognize most of the politicians if they meet on the road. Politicians get on with their work and get by like any other person

I did it/ I gave it claim

“I defeated terrorism” and “I gave 30 Million Rupees to your temple” are some examples to highlight this trend. The politician in Sri Lanka political culture is not used to the term ‘We’. To the politician it is “I who did it”. “I gave you roads, I gave you pensions, I gave you motorcycles etc”. The citizen does not think beyond such statements but blindly believes that politicians give them jobs, roads, pensions etc. They do not know what the politician has claimed to have given is owned by the citizen by default. The citizen does not understand that they are entitled to a share of their own wealth. They do not know that the politician is expected to do some work for the salaries they get paid and numerous undue luxuries they enjoy. Our citizen would be surprised to realize that there are other countries where politicians never use ‘I’ but ‘we’. Instead of “I gave you two measures of rice” they will say “we will continue with the current economic policies that have brought economic prosperity to our country under our administration during the past five years”. Sadly the citizen of Sri Lanka believes that it is the politician who has the right to give or not to give.


Some politicians have made it a habit to use the term democracy (Prajathanthrawadaya) and the economy (Aarthikaya) at every five word interval like how some people of English speaking countries use the F word every five words. Unfortunately Prajathanthrawadaya and Aarthikaya have lost their meaning in the same way that the F word has. They have become commonplace that people do not think beyond the sound of it. It is like Bata for flip flops and Hoover for vacuum cleaners. In Sri Lanka political culture democracy probably means holding elections, be they fair and free, or not, and economy means salaries. There are millions of Sri Lankans who do not know what is meant by democracy and there are millions who do not get a salary. If someone can talk about freedom of speech, freedom to write, freedom of assembly, freedom to elect representatives without being intimidated, right to life, right to work, right to equal opportunity etc, instead of Prajathanthrawadaya and Aarthikaya the citizen may understand better.


Our culture is about agriculture. We used buffaloes to thresh our rice harvest. They say “Kole yana haraka Kole kanawamai” (It is unavoidable that the buffalo eats some of the rice harvest while going round and round threshing it). For Sri Lankans, mainly being the farmers or being the descendents of farmers, such eating is generally acceptable. In such a culture it is not surprising that the citizen accepts that the politician is allowed to eat a bit. This means, collectively people believe and accept corruption to be an integral part of politics. Sadly the politicians of today’s political culture of Sri Lanka do not eat like buffaloes but like elephants emptying the coffers pretty quickly. Politicians have no shame or fear to be corrupt in the open and even to admit it. It is a fact that developing countries have to undertake development or infrastructure projects on borrowed monies. If the citizen falls into a debt of 10 Rupees having got 10 Rupees worth of work done, that is fair. Yet if the citizen is in debt of 100 Rupees for 10 Rupees worth of work because the rest of the 90 Rupees is stolen by the politician, it spells disaster for the citizen. The citizen of Sri Lanka does not understand this. For them the argument is “we have got roads, the previous government did not even do that”. The consequences that today’s children and their children will have to face have no effect on the today’s ignorant citizen. Corruption in Sri Lanka culture is boundless. From the Pradeshiya Sabha member to the MP and their cronies, all steal. The head of the government allows this to happen because if he does not please them, his victory at the next election is doomed.

Same politicians

In Sri Lanka’s political field the same names appear again and again. The passing of the baton from farther/mother to son/daughter is such that new people however educated and talented they are, have a very slender chance of getting into politics. The fathers have been stupid and corrupt and the sons or daughters are worse. They change parties when the opportunity arises. There is no difference in policies of the two main parties. So the pole-vaulting from one party to another is the norm in Sri Lanka politics. Those pole-vaulters still bear the same names of the politicians who did the same over the years of independent Sri Lanka. The citizen supports the name not the person. Even if it is a moron of a son of a reasonable father, they just vote for the name of the father.

Promises never kept
Promises and price reductions, preceding an election, are the two major phenomena of Sri Lanka political culture. The citizen is immune to the fact that those promises have never been kept. The major highlight of this is that Mahinda Rajapaksha has promised to abolish the executive presidency twice and twice he has failed the citizen. He is promising again. The citizen will believe him again! The citizen knows that the price reductions are very temporary until the election is over. But they can still be bought by such promises. The Sri Lankan citizen would be gob-smacked if they knew that in other countries such promises are condemned as bribes and people suddenly change their mind. For example at the recently concluded Scottish referendum the expected margin between the “Yes” vote and “No” vote was 20 percent. Since the British Prime Minister and his cronies came to Scotland in the last week before the election and tried to bribe people with false promises, the expected original margin was reduced to 10 percent.

Blame culture

The politicians of the two main parties blame each other for the same things that both parties are guilty of. The opposition blames the Government of corruption, crime, the law and order situation and so on. When they come to power they usually forget all that and continue to govern the country in the same way. Once the defeated party is in the opposition they use the same criticisms to come to power. This goes on in cycles. The best example is that the UNP having murdered more than 60 thousand people in two years, alleges the current regime murders opponents. Sadly our citizen forgets what the politicians have done before once a few years have passed with them being powerless.

Autocratic personality and goon culture

It is part of Sri Lanka’s political culture that democratically elected political leaders turning into autocrats. JRJ, Premadasa and Mahinda are the prime examples. Sri Lanka may not have seen a more autocratic politician than MR, given Premadasa did not live long enough to be the worst. The change in him from a meek Mahinda who ran errands for Chandrika and her parents to be an absolutely undisciplined monster is beyond comprehension. The whole country raved about corruption and lawlessness at the previous presidential election. MR was not shaken. The present lawlessness, prejudice in the armed forces, police and the judiciary is unprecedented. It has become the main slogan of the opposition at this election. So far, MR has said nothing about the accusations and has made no promises to rectify the situation. He seems to have been immune to such accusations, maybe for unavoidable reasons. He is still surrounded by people like Mervin Silva, Johnston Fernando, Sajin Vass, Duminda Silva and so on who allegedly plunder public wealth and engage in crimes and other nefarious activities with impunity. The Sri Lankan citizen would be astonished if they heard that in other countries such Ministers would have gone home ages ago even for much lesser offenses such as having a mistress.

Revealing culture

It is customary in Sri Lanka that parliamentarians reveal the secrets or misdeeds of a government only when they change sides. There is absolutely no way for Maithree, Navin and others to absolve themselves having remained in the government for so long raising their hands to everything MR had proposed. If they claim that they feared for their lives, it is untrue. Mahinda is greedy for power and wealth but he is not known to murder people to retain that, notwithstanding allegations of war crimes during the war. The truth is that they did not stand up to the misdeeds of a government for the fear of losing position, power and the perks that come with them for themselves. No two ways about it. Yet the decision to stand up against bad governance even at the last minute has to be appreciated.

Misuse of public resources culture

It is accepted in Sri Lanka political culture that those who are in power are allowed to abuse state resources at elections without fear, shame or remorse. The law enforcing authorities turn a blind eye when the regime breaks the law. The Sri Lanka citizen would not believe that there are other countries in the world that do not allow the use of state resources for any party and give equal opportunity to use the platforms to all parties to present their point of view peacefully. No violence, no intimidation and no abuse of any sort are allowed.

Protective culture

The richest in Sri Lanka society are the politicians, their families and the cronies. Whoever comes to power protects the previous culprits because they intend to do the same as politics is the most lucrative occupation in Sri Lanka. If there is a system to check how they become that rich within a short period of time, most of the politicians can be held accountable for stealing public money. Some of the defenders of the regime have stated that no money has been misappropriated. It is only a matterof looking into the assets of politicians and asking how they have amassed such wealth within a short period. It is impossible to justify that it is what they have saved from their salaries. In Sri Lanka political culture such stealing is accepted as the norm. Because of this protective culture, the killers of Sri Lanka under both parties still roam the country’s streets murdering more people.