Sri Lanka: Reflections on state formation

Since the socio-economic impact of capitalism is always unequal, in Sri Lanka various sections of the Sinhala majority benefitted more than others from capitalist transition.

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Sri Lankan Navy personnel conduct a gun salute for the 75th Independence Day in Sri Lanka [ Photo: Thilina Kaluthotage]

This short article explains a framework for analysing Sri Lankan state formation and understanding the current challenges that the country is facing. My interest in state formation began when trying to make sense of the data on political violence and state repression that I had collected from 1977. I realised that I could easily expand this database to cover the entire post-colonial period. It was also clear that this violence was not an abberation or exception, but a systemic characteristic of Sri Lankan society. The data collected largely consisted of numbers and reports of individual events. It just touched the surface of the problem. To understand the impact of political violence and state repression in Sri Lankan society you need to go deeper, preferably using a case study method. This is a task for future researchers.

The dominant essentialist categorisation of the Sri Lankan state -that it is a democracy or a welfare state – was not compatible with the level of political violence and state repression that I was witnessing. In the meantime, I had also begun to analyse political answers to the Tamil demand for a separate state, with a focus on state reform. But this notion of state reform fitted with the conventional approach to studying a state. This approach treats the state as a concrete, self-contained entity that has attained a final status. The legal notion of sovereignty strengthens this idea. Those who control the state, and their ideologues, always try to convey this notion. A whole paraphernalia of rituals, histories and symbols have developed – not only to promote this idea, but also to convey the eternal character of the state.Much of the effort to promote goals such as economic growth, social development and democracy are based on a notion that states have been formed, and now the task is to focus on promoting these objectives.

In contrast to this, the moment you begin to look at states as a product of historical processes, new ways of looking at the state and new avenues of research emerge. This is the way we look at other social phenomena – so why not states? States are formed under certain historical conditions. They continuously undergo changes, and under certain circumstances can even totally disappear. A cursory glance at the history of the world will show this.

At this point it is important to emphasise that, although states are a product of history, once formed they have a degree of autonomy from other societal processes. This means that states cannot be understood by reducing them to any other feature in society. The earliest efforts within Marxist tradition explained the state as a product of capitalist development. This economic reductionism was replaced by a notion of the relative autonomy of the state. Now there are studies focusing more on the autonomous power of the state.

State formation involves developing mechanisms to control territory and to manage state-society relations in a specific historical context. The identity of the state, institutions and public policies are key dimensions in this process. State-society relations are maintained through coercion and consent. When consent overrides coercion, we have states that have legitimacy in society. In such situations the hegemony that sustains the state is strong. When coercion predominates, state security is given priority – but it undermines the security of individuals and groups in society. There is an inherent weakness in the hegemony that sustains this type of state. These processes don’t develop in the same way in all states. They have to be analysed taking specific historical context into account.

A state needs resources to sustain itself, and to manage relations with politically important social groups. These two dimensions constitute the economic security of the state.These resources have to be secured within the process of capitalist transition. When the state has enough economic resources and is able to manage relations with the politically important social groups through specific policies, there is an element of consent in certain dimensions of state-society relations. When this fails the state resorts to coercive measures, and this affects the pattern of state expenditure.

State formation always takes place in an international context – the study of state formation is a study of an individual state in a global context. The international context consists of a system of states, organisations formed by these states and global capitalism. The relationship between the states and global capitalism cannot be seen as a zero-sum game. Changes in global capitalism transform states and the relationship between them. Developments in global capitalism can make some states strong, and some weak.

The international system changes over time. This, in turn, has an impact on the state formation process of individual states. Changes in the global system are determined by the actions of the more powerful players in the international system. The capacity of smaller states to influence changes at the global level is limited. But global-level changes have an impact on the state formation process of smaller states like Sri Lanka.

In the post-colonial history of state formation in Sri Lanka, three types of state-society relations have been important:

– First, relations between the centralised state, inherited from the British colonial period, and minorities. State formation involves bringing together diverse ethnic and religious groups under a single policy.This has not been an easy process in many parts of world. When identity groups have a special link with a part of the territory of the state, it creates special problems. This dimension has been a major source of violence in the history of state formation of Sri Lanka. Trying to construct a centralised state defined by the identity of the Sinhala majority led to Tamils demanding a separate state covering the Northern and Eastern Provinces. What happened in 2009 was consolidating the territory of the centralised Sinhala nationalist state through military means. There has been little progress towards a state that has legitimacy in a multi-ethnic society. The social costs of the last stages of the war have created new problems. In addition, discussions on state-minority relations today cannot be confined to the problems of Tamil people alone. The concerns of other two numerically large minorities – Muslims and Hill country Tamils must be considered.

– Second, electoral politics and state formation. On one hand, electoral politics is a mechanism through which the political elite that controls the state is chosen. On the other side, it is also a mechanism to manage relations between rulers and the ruled. The history of state formation in areas where electoral politics has existed for a long time shows that the characteristics of the political system that emerges is an important factor in constructing a national political space. Constructing a national political space is an important factor in creating a unified state. This means that breaking down territorial cleavages is not simply a result of social changes, but also a product of the actions of parties and characteristics of political systems.

In the case of the post-colonial state formation of Sri Lanka, the dominance of ethnicity right from the beginning gave rise to a political system that could not contribute to the construction of a national political space.Instead, electoral politics and the political system produced regional political spaces with ethnic characteristics. This means that the electoral politics of the post-colonial Sri Lankan state has to be discussed taking account of ethnic political spaces, rather than treating Sri Lanka as a unified political space. The vote in Sinhala majority districts was critical in deciding who came to power.

While electoral politics undermined the formation of a unified state in a multi-ethnic society, its institutionalisation resulted in a competitive system of politics within the Sinhala majority. However, today this aspect of the political system which depends on the support of the Sinhala majority, is highly fractured. Two trends dominate – the struggle to control the presidency and enjoy the power that comes with it and deal -making politics for the sake of power. How this political system can tackle the multiple problems that the country is facing is an open question. Certainly, legal reforms alone will not go very far.

– The third important variable in post-colonial state formation of Sri Lanka is relations between the state and the Sinhala majority in the context of the politics of capitalist transition.Capitalist transition within a state is a process that involves changing institutions or the ‘rules of the game’, so that markets become the primary mechanism for resource allocation. These changes must be legitimised at an ideological level. When institutions to establish markets are successful, they become ideas that seem to be natural and common sense, thereby creating a hegemony. The establishment of the hegemony of markets is not a technocratic process, but a political process. Conflicts and struggles are always a part of this. The process of capitalist transition takes place in a particular society within its own history. This means that capitalism is not some sort of model. It is shaped by political struggles and historical processes in a particular context.

Since the socio-economic impact of capitalism is always unequal, in Sri Lanka various sections of the Sinhala majority benefitted more than others from capitalist transition. In other words, although the Sinhalese were unified in ethnic terms, they were divided in class terms. The inequality generated by capitalist transition within the Sinhala majority could always combine with the Sinhala nationalism that legitimised the state to oppose the regime in power. The opposition to regimes could also turn into an opposition to capitalism, and a general opposition to the state itself. In order to meet this challenge, the post-colonial state developed a number of policies. These are what is usually called ‘welfare’ policies. The use of the term welfare ignores their strategic role as a technique of state formation. This makes it easier to argues that these policies are luxuries we cannot afford.

The ability of the state to continue with these policies depends on the performance of the Sri Lankan economy within global capitalism. In post-colonial historythere were several instances when this strategy of state formation broke down, resulting in protest, sometimes violent challenges to the state and state repression. At present we are witnessing another such instance because the Sri Lankan state was unable to satisfy the demands of global financial capital. This is happening in a society with the socio-economic impact of three decades of armed conflict, and four decades of more liberal economic policies. The latter has resulted in an increase in socio-economic inequality. Instead of trying to make use of this opportunity to rethink social policy while restoring economic growth, what prevails are the same old ideas of safety nets and, of course, state repression.

To end this short piece, I would like to emphasise that there is no one big answer to Sri Lanka’s problems. The outcome of answers to one issue can contradict answers to other questions. In addition, the analysis of the present must be done with a historical sense. Many are preaching single-factor answers for various reasons. Some are simply a reflection of self-interest, and nothing more. It is time to shift this debate, so that we can take into account of the complexity of the situation.

Sunil Bastian

Sunil Bastian is a political economist. His current research interests are politics of state formation and development of capitalism in Sri Lanka. He has published widely and authored many books. He has been a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo and chairperson of the Centre for Poverty Analysis. He has more than two decades of consultancy experience with a range of donor agencies.

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