The Sunday Leader

Government And Politics In Sri Lanka: Biopolitics and Security

Book Review

By S. V. Kirubaharan,


To write a review of a highly informative book is as difficult as writing the same. While a nasty review can damage a well-written book, a book with no substance can be promoted by a good review. However, when in the hands of intellectuals, academics and professionals – individuals holding balanced views will value a good book.

Thinking on these lines, with reference to former Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, “Government and Politics in Sri Lanka: Biopolitics and Security” written by Dr. A. R. Sriskanda Rajah, published by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group in the United Kingdom, caught my attention. In his ambitious work of one hundred and eighty pages, the author divides a wide range of material into six chapters.

The first chapter, titled Biopolitics contains introductory sections on Grasping Biopolitics and on Reconceptualising war. It discusses Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, how this is being used by scholars today, and how it can be understood to be a system of power inscribed with war.

Chapter two deals with Constructing an Ethnocracy and is set out under four subtitles: War through LawLaw through ‘Lawlessness’The Double-edged Sword and Completing Ethnocratic State-building. This chapter demonstrates how postcolonial Ceylon went about transforming itself from a democracy to an ethnocracy. It examines the role of law, the violence of law, and the violence of ‘lawlessness’ as Ceylon produced the effects of battle and transformed into an ethnocracy. It also analyses the Ceylon state’s use of emergency laws to crush the first Sinhala Marxist insurgency of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuṇa - JVP in 1971, allowing its security forces to commit mass atrocities against Sinhala Buddhists suspected of involvement in the insurgency. In doing so, the crucial question of how states are able to justify the use of violence against populations in whose interests they claim to use violence against other populations existing within their borders, is explored.

The third chapter, In ‘Defence’ of the Race/Species, includes the sub-titles: The Boomerang Effect; The Terror of Law and the Right to Kill; The Reformed Scaffold Service and Shifting Alliances and the ‘Enemy’ Within. Here the author, Sriskanda Rajah is concerned with the period commencing 1972 (when Sri Lanka became an ethnocracy) to 1990 when the Indian Peace Keeping Forces – IPKF departed from Sri Lanka (after occupying the predominantly Tamil speaking north and Eastern provinces for nearly three years). The focus is on the Sri Lankan state’s use of police brutality and military violence to unleash terror on the Tamils. Next, the reforms made to the violence of ‘lawlessness’ is discussed. The consequence of these tactics by the state was to turn lawlessness into an unofficially organised form of terror. The author then moves to a discussion of the brief tactical alliances the state made, first with India in 1987 to counter the threat posed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – LTTE, and later in 1989 with the LTTE to oust the Indian troops from the island. Throughout this period, in the South of the island, the state faced another Sinhala Marxist insurgency from the JVP. The author concludes this chapter with an examination of Sri Lanka’s use of tactics of terror during this tumultuous period of the island’s history to crush the JVP insurgency, and solidify and unify the loyalty of the Sinhala Buddhists to the state.

In his fourth chapter, the author gives his title as Unleashing Jihadism and ‘Starving the Enemy’ which includes the Background to Tamil – Muslim relationsJihadism vs. the LTTE; the New ‘Friendly’ Species and the Power of Economic Embargoes. It is interesting to note that here the author examines, Sri Lanka’s efforts in the 1990s to regain state control over the territories it lost to the LTTE consequent to the Indian troop withdrawal from the North and East in March 1990. The author provides an analysis of the tactical alliance that Sri Lanka made with the Jihadi extremists to drive the LTTE out of the populated areas of the Eastern province. In doing so, it shows that even though biopower may be exercised along ethnological lines by states upholding ultranationalist ideologies, this does not mean tactical alliances cannot be made with power complexes that adopt competing extremist ideologies. In the same chapter he also examines Sri Lanka’s use of economic embargoes on the LTTE held areas of the Northern Province to weaken the LTTE’s fighting capabilities and its ability to secure the territories that it controlled. This shows that it is not only law, but other power relations, in this case the economy, that are also capable of producing the effects of battle.


War Through ‘Peace’ is the title of chapter five and it contains Joining the Liberal Bandwagon; Tilting the Military Balance; the LTTE’s ‘Peace’ Strategy and Vanquishing the ‘Enemy’. This takes up the period, February 2002 (when a ceasefire agreement was signed between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government) to the LTTE’s military defeat in May 2009. The author shows how Sri Lanka, exploiting the Global War on Terror – GWoT and advocating neoliberal economic policies, used diplomacy as a way of waging war on the LTTE, leading to the latter’s eventual isolation at the international level; thus creating conditions for the state to commence the final military offensives to vanquish the armed Tamil (secessionist?) movement. Here, the author deals with how Sri Lanka perpetrated mass atrocities, unprecedented on such a scale in the island’s history, on the Tamils living in the LTTE held territories.


Here I do not agree with the author’s branding of the LTTE as a ‘Tamil secessionist movement’. I do not know whether it is a mistake or the author’s view since end of the war, to name the LTTE as ‘secessionist’. In every peace negotiation the LTTE agreed to examine any proposal for a permanent political settlement, put forward by the Sri Lanka government. A negotiated settlement could be within the sovereignty of Sri Lanka or outside. This decision was in the hands of the Sri Lankan government. Here, I do not know whether the so-called ‘Oslo declaration’ was in the mind of the author. In fact, the ‘Oslo declaration’ was a case of putting the cart before the horse. Without putting forward any viable solution, the Sri Lankan government wanted to start negotiations with limited terms and conditions. This fact was not properly understood even by some involved in the negotiations.


The sixth and final chapter, Managing Life in Pain contains Camps and Disciplinary Power; Producing the ‘Truth’ and Securing the Ethnocratic State Order. This is followed by the conclusion. The book also includes a map of Sri Lanka, abbreviations and acknowledgements.


This final chapter focuses on the state’s military defeat of the LTTE and its consequences for the Tamil people caught up in the zone of fighting. The state established mass internment camps to detain the hundreds of thousands of displaced and traumatised Tamils, and surrendered LTTE cadres, in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the LTTE’s armed struggle. Using witness testimonies, the chapter expounds on how the use of rape, torture and mass scale ‘disappearance’ disciplined the displaced Tamil civilians and surrendered LTTE combatants into submission, and how this became central to Sri Lanka’s biopolitics of securing the ethnocratic state order. The author addresses how these methods produced the effect of battle and complemented the state’s actions to produce a ‘truth’ about the LTTE, and to deny the mass atrocities perpetrated by its security forces in the final stages of the armed conflict.


The author insists that the election of a pro-western, pro-market government in Sri Lanka since January 2015 and the smooth transition from one regime to another, has led to western leaders and diplomats hailing Sri Lanka as a resilient democracy.


The Conclusion returns to the question of whether, following the biopolitical analysis set out in this book, the holding of regular elections, and the existence of state institutions based on those of western liberal states, is sufficient to refer to Sri Lanka as a democracy.


This book, “Government and Politics in Sri Lanka: Biopolitics and Security” by Dr A.R. Sriskanda Rajah is dedicated to his eldest sister Mala, thanking her for her support and encouragement. In a special note, he adds that without Mala’s encouragement, he would not have been able to write it. Also, he thanks his elder sister Divya, other family members and friends who have supported him.


This book supplies an in-depth analysis of history, politics, political negotiations and the approach of the Sri Lankan state. It should be read by intellectuals and academics, especially from the South who voice and write pretext after pretext against any political solution for the Tamils in the North and East.


The construction and orderly design of this book confirm the author’s academic credentials.

This book was launched in Westminster on 19th July. Politicians from both governing and opposition parties in the UK, intellectuals, academics and activists participated in the event. 


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