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A professed abolishment of the caste system, heavy Buddhist influences, and a powerful president, who holds the roles of both head of government and commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, are all Sri Lankan realities. The specifics of Sri Lanka as a South Asian country with a tumultuous history of political and social conflict, which often goes back beyond even colonial times, create inherently unique developmental circumstances. Seoighe describes the country as having an “unhappy history of colonial rule, racial discrimination, separatist violence, and state atrocity,” outlining its poignant history, laced with conflict and ethnic disagreements (3).
Therefore, describing Sri Lanka’s contemporary social and political structures allows achieving a better understanding of South Asian realities, which are rooted in history and developed in the modern world. The exceptionality of the Sri Lankan state stems from the presence of multiethnic relationships and destructive conflicts within it, thus, making an overview of its civil state of affairs and government establishments acute.
The declared structure of a government may allow drawing a variety of conclusions from its self-identification and Sri Lanka is officially a democratic socialist republic that is guided by a constitution. Therefore, the country separates its executive and legislative branches, which contingent and proportionally representative voting form respectively (Venugopal 197). Oscillations between authoritarian and resolutive tactics within the government body center themselves around the precarious national issue made acute by the multicultural makeup of the Sri Lankan state (Breen 28).
The recently ended civil war makes the government wary of any ethnic conflict, forcing them to fall back on “white van” scare tactics, which allows outlining the government’s primarily repressive nature (Seoighe 111). Within the government structure, however, the instituted mechanism of checks and balances between different branches of government allows delineating the dominating role of Sri Lanka’s president.
It is necessary to outline the lesser capacity of the nation’s parliament when compared with the powers attributed to the country’s president. The Sri Lankan Parliament is a unicameral structure that is elected once every five years, and the sole legislative branch of government, which is meant to balance out the capacities of the head of government (Venugopal 196). The main parties may be identified as the United National Front, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, and the Tamil National Alliance (Seoighe 67).
Additionally, Venugopal states that the reforms of 2015 made the parliament a structure “more democratic… giving smaller parties and dispersed ethnic communities a commensurate share of legislative decision-making power” (196). Thus, the parliament becomes one of the most representative parts of the government for ordinary people, primarily due to the nature of the voting system.
While the three branches of government are separated, Sri Lanka’s president coincidentally remains the head of government, state, standing army, and the country’s executive arm. The president, who is elected for five years, answers to the parliament, but can disperse and call for its reelections, making the post an opposing balance in the dispute between political elites and commoners (Venugopal 195). Additionally, the president has powers to appoint people personally to various positions, making questioning his function an appropriate course of political action (Seoighe 113).
Historically, this extent of the president’s powers “undermined the legitimacy of the office,” creating prerequisites for the rise of national grievances (Breen 42). The president, thus, plays a significant role within the Sri Lankan government, which may be considered overpowering, bringing into question its democratic nature.
Ethnicity plays a significant role in the social life of Sri Lanka’s citizens, often becoming a decisive factor in political affiliations and voting habits. While politically these circumstances mean a recurring threat of ceding territories, socially it necessitates the institution of a policy of non-decimation based on ethnicity and public standing for the country’s multicultural citizens (Breen 43). However, while the probability of inter-ethnic conflict may become a considerably rare occurrence, the idea of a potential conflict continues to carry significant weight (Venugopal 65).
Thus, methods of social control, such as “militarization, surveillance, and intimidations,” maintain their existence (Seoighe 17). These circumstances allow delineating the social structure of Sri Lankan society as slightly differing from its historical variants in terms of caste and ethnicity.
The South Asian conception of caste may be reintegrated into their society through the notion of class, basing itself on the distribution of wealth among the island inhabitants, their education levels, and sociopolitical activities. Rosel delineates the currently existing social structure as free from caste influences, which he identifies as “vanished, at least from the public eye” (18). Additional features of high-standing citizens may be determined by their speech, dress, mode of travel, and living area when high-class nationals are more westernized while low-class individuals follow ways of life that are considered traditional (Ekanayake and Guruge 104).
Researchers identify colonial rule as one of the most influential factors behind these changes in the caste system, as it attributed value to new social elements (Seoighe 40). This structure of Sri Lankan society, thus, allows for a heightened degree of vertical social mobility, especially in urban areas, where the effect of ethnic traditions is considerably less than in rural areas.
Ethnic variety in Sri Lanka is closely tied with religious diversity, necessitating outlining the impact of citizens’ beliefs on their social standing. The majority of the island of Sri Lanka may be ethnically divided into Sinhalese and Tamil citizens, who respectively adhere to either Buddhism or Hinduism (Ekanayake and Guruge 99).
While no political post or public position is closed off to Hindu, Muslim, or Christian minorities, a degree of preferential treatment may exist within the education and public service system (Seoighe 51). This distinction is especially evident in rural communities, where discrimination against Tamils is prevalent (Seoighe 204). Therefore, Buddhism, as a government-backed religion is granted more privileges, which becomes a basis for discrimination against various minority communities.
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Sri Lanka, as a 21st-century country, demonstrates a tendency of growth towards democratic and nondiscriminatory practices, using their previous multi-ethnic struggles as a developmental experience. The country’s president and parliament play primarily counterbalancing roles between the nation’s urban elites and people living in countryside areas. However, the government continues to be demonstrative of an authoritarian approach to national security, identifying various ethnic and religious groups in rural regions as potential threats.
These circumstances may be indicative of modern-day echoes of the endured harsh ethnic and religious conflict, which may be reinstated easily as a part of contemporary Sri Lankan life and, thus, requires close government surveillance. Therefore, Sri Lanka may be identified as a multiethnic South Asian country with a questionably democratic government, whose primary goal is curbing the nationalistic tendencies of ethnoreligious minorities, which stem from history and modern-day discrepancies.
Breen, Michael G. “The Origins of Holding-Together Federalism: Nepal, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.” Publius: The Journal of Federalism, vol. 48, no. 1, 2017, pp. 26-50.
Ekanayake, Samantha E. M., and Chamini Kumari Guruge. “Social Stratification, Modernization and Restructuring of Sri Lankan Society.” International Journal of Arts and Commerce, vol. 5, no. 2, 2016, pp. 96-107.
Rosel, Jakob. “Elites and Aristocracy in Colonial and Postcolonial Sri Lanka.” International Quarterly for Asian Studies, vol. 48, no. 1-2, 2017, pp. 15-32.
Seoighe, Rachel. War, Denial and Nation-Building in Sri Lanka: After the End. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
Venugopal, Rajesh. Nationalism, Development and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Cambridge University Press, 2018.