The nexus of militarisation and corruption in post- conflict
Sri Lanka confounds much of the common wisdom about civil wars. A functional democracy with well-established government institutions, the country boasts a literate population, low birth rates and economic growth for much of the past four decades. There is a written constitution, a functional court system, regular elections, and a competitive party system; most other post-conflict countries can only aspire to these formal institutional arrangements. Indeed, creating a bureaucracy that functions as well as Sri Lanka’s is often the end goal of many international peacebuilding efforts. Beneath the surface, however, the country’s institutional framework exhibits several severe pathologies that threaten to unleash a third round of domestic bloodletting. A closer look sheds light on how corruption can remain endemic and detrimental to peacebuilding efforts, even in contexts where the formal institutional setting is relatively robust. Some 26 years after its official beginning, the brutal Sri Lankan war ended in early 2009 with the total victory of government forces over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The optimistic view on civil war termination is that it will precipitate a broader transformation of society. It can be an opportunity to take stock and implement new institutional frameworks to prevent political disputes from turning violent. Immediately after the war many hoped that the country had left its violent past behind. However, knowledgeable observers were already raising alarms barely one year later (International Crisis Group 2010a). Sri Lanka’s war did not end with an internationally mediated peace process, but rather through a brutal two-year siege over insurgentcontrolled territory by government forces. Consequently, it did not trigger a broad transformation of the overarching political infrastructure. Rather than initiating a new political order, the end of the war represents an evolution of prior militaristic tendencies. This chapter makes the case that corruption in post-conflict Sri Lanka must be understood as part of broader political and economic historical trends. I argue that the antecedents for the post-conflict dispensation – epitomised by the increasingly autocratic position occupied by President
Mahinda Rajapaksa – are traceable to changes in Sri Lankan state and society resulting from two decades of conflict.1 While Rajapaksa’s emergence as the most powerful political leader in the country’s history is frequently blamed for the spike in corruption, treating his rise as a distinct moment ignores the precedents established by his predecessors. Rather than personalising the country’s predicament, I situate the contemporary period within the broader political context from which it emerged. Using such an approach is the best way to understand the evolution of the majority Sinhalese position in the aftermath of the LTTE’s demise. When considering the role that corruption plays in the post-conflict period, it is essential to assess the larger relationship between the state and society in Sri Lanka. I trace several political tendencies that emerged during the war and show how they contributed to the explosion in corruption. Specifically, I look at how the militarisation of the state during the conflict led to the centralisation of power in the presidency and to the closure of the democratic space, fostering distinct forms of corruption at every level of government. Contrary to other analyses that view corruption as a disease that can undermine legitimate authority in post-conflict settings (see Philp, this volume), I argue that corruption in this case is not the cause of dysfunction, but rather the most overt symptom of these broader pathologies. I also examine the legacies of the war on the reconstruction process, arguing that the impact of the above transformations undermined the potential for building a durable peace. Sri Lanka demonstrates the limits of peacebuilding approaches that emphasise formal institutional structures in a post-conflict regime, without resolving the underlying political cleavages (Carothers 2007). I show how the territorial division that characterised Sri Lanka during the war continues to shape post-conflict realities, leaving the entire reconstruction process vulnerable to endemic corruption. Finally, I assess the transformation of the geopolitical context and its role in furthering corruption at the highest levels of Sri Lanka’s government in the post-conflict period. While the emergence of corruption in the 1970s was tied to pro-Western free market reforms, currently, it is the rise of Chinese influence that poses the greatest challenge to curtailing corruption.