Authoritarian Developmentalism in Contemporary Sri Lanka

  • Sören Köpke (Autor/in)


After the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983–2009), the victorious Government of Sri Lanka was confronted with the need to “win the peace” and re-build the nation in both material and ideological terms. The rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa (president 2006– 2015), an example of authoritarian populism in power, was characterized by an infrastructure construction frenzy and the attempt to establish national unity on the terms of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. The post-war period also saw the emergence of new tensions, namely the conflict between Sinhalese Buddhist militants and the Muslim minority, as well as the precarious human rights situation in the formerly secessionist north. Discontent with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s increasingly authoritarian rule and the unsolved problems of the civil war legacy brought his rival Maithripala Sirisena into power in 2015. Sirisena’s attempts to rule on a platform of liberal, more inclusive “good governance” (yahapalana) failed due to power struggles within his alliance and a lack of coherent policymaking. The 2019 Easter Bombings by domestic Jihadist terrorists marked the beginning of a new phase of securization and militarization. With the victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the 2019 presidential election and the subsequent instatement of Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister, a process of authoritarian consolidation was initiated. The Covid-19 pandemic opened a window of opportunity to reconfirm the leading role of the security forces in handling domestic crises. Yet the country’s ongoing financial and economic crisis, aggravated by debt and the slump in global tourism connected to Covid-19, question the prospect of stability. The social and ethnopolitical contradictions in Sri Lankan society are not addressed by the current authoritarian policies. Therefore, these contradictions are prone to further undermining the long-term consolidation of governance institutions, national identity, and non-sectarian civil society.


Authoritarianism, Sri Lanka, ethnopolitics, Sinhalese nationalism, post- conflict development