Terrorism, security, and development in Sri Lanka: In the national, regional, and global context

Stanley W. Samarasinghe


In 2009, Sri Lanka emerged from over thirty years of terrorism, insurgency, and civil war driven by ethnic nationalism and related socioeconomic and security issues. For the past decade it has been struggling to cope with its aftermath and chart a fresh course toward peace and prosperity. The events in Sri Lanka did not occur in isolation. The regional power of South Asia, India, played an active role in the Sri Lankan saga. Other foreign entities, most notably, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Norway, China, the European Union (EU), and the U.S., also played prominent and varying roles. As explained later, the profound changes that the global system underwent in the past four decades not only provided a context for the events in Sri Lanka but also had an impact. Moreover, in some respects, the Sri Lankan experience was not unique. It mirrored similar problems and processes that many countries have faced. For that reason this case study has broader applicability to better understand issues of terrorism, security, and development.

This chapter is presented in six parts. Part 1 provides the global, regional, and conceptual and theoretical frameworks for the Sri Lankan case study. Part 2 addresses the principal features of the Sri Lankan conflict including the demographic context, historical roots, causes, conflict resolution, and transition from peaceful political discourse to terrorism and then to insurgency and finally to civil war. Part 3 deals with three major questions associated with the conflict: terrorism, the issue of “Failed State,” and peace initiatives. Part 4 reviews the end of the war and its aftermath. Part 5 deals with what Sri Lanka can realistically look forward to in the next several years. Part 6 presents some key conclusions drawn from the study.



Sri Lanka’s experience with terrorism, security, and development should be understood in its global and regional context. Between the mid-1970s and 2020 the world has radically changed. The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet

Union, leaving the U.S. as the sole superpower. In the political facet of globalization, liberal democracy that had spread rapidly in the 1990s and early 2000s appeared to be the winner. Globalization accelerated the rapid growth of international trade, investment, and technology transfer. A substantial reduction in global poverty was in motion. Francis Fukuyama (1989) interpreted these changes as the triumph of the West, coining the memorable phrase the “end of history.” In retrospect, the post-Cold War political changes were the beginning of a new and more complicated history.

Freedom House (2020), which tracks the health of democracy in 195 countries, reported this year that for the 14th successive year, on balance, globally democracy has been in decline. The Chinese one-party authoritarian state is posing itself as an alternative to the democratic liberal model. Non-state actors have emerged to challenge states both individually and collectively with acts of terrorism and in some cases insurgency. The 9/11 attacks on the U.S. placed this problem in the center stage of politics and diplomacy.

Economic globalization has been much steadier. There is no serious challenge to the market economy model that almost every country has adopted. The state-private sector balance and the regulatory role of the state vary depending on the country. The globalized economy has faced its own set of challenges. The East Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 was the first. The Great Recession of 2008 that hit major Western economies followed. These crises cast doubt on the viability of the International Monetaiy Fund (IMF)-led structural adjustment liberalization model that underpinned economic globalization. China is challenging the U.S. economic and military hegemony. The Covid-19 crisis has introduced a new uncertainty globally to almost all aspects of life. The emerging situation calls into question the old paradigms that we use to understand individual and collective security.


Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbor to the north, India, is the most important part of the regional context to understand Sri Lanka’s experience with terrorism, insurgency, civil war, and its aftermath. India and Sri Lanka have much in common. Both are former British colonies. India won its independence in August 1947 and Sri Lanka in February 1948. Both countries have managed to preserve parliamentary democracy and a system of public administration that they inherited from the British. India is one of the most diverse countries in the world in language, ethnicity, and religion. It also has caste divisions. But it remains a secular state. Notwithstanding its share of terrorism, insurgencies, and separatist movements, the country has managed to preserve its territorial integrity. Sri Lanka has almost all the features of India described earlier but on a much smaller scale. For that reason alone Delhi is not keen to see Sri Lanka set an example by being split into two countries along ethnic lines because it can set an example to Indian separatist movements. At the same time Delhi has to be sensitive to the concerns of the 68 million Tamils in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu who have been supportive of the Sri Lankan Tamils. In the 1960s India cooperated with Sri Lanka to find a solution to the problem of stateless Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka. They immigrated to the island between the 1830s and 1930s to work on coffee and tea plantations. India agreed to take back about half of the stateless people and Sri Lanka gave citizenship to the other half. Both countries had been prominent members of the Non-Aligned Movement during the height of the Cold War. Delhi was generally seen as an ally of Moscow during the Cold War. Delhi was particularly comfortable with left-of-center governments in Colombo (1956-1964, 1970-1977) that were also friendlier to Moscow (Nissanka, 2010, pp. 217-257).

Conceptual and theoretical framework

Some scholars assert that the state-centric world still remains notwithstanding globalization (see, for example, Ayoob, 2005). But most believe that the world has become part state-centric and part multicentric as a result of globalization (see, for example, Booth, 2005). Terrorism is a key component of the multicentric world. There is broad acceptance that terrorism has substantially changed both individual and collective security. It has also forced us to reexamine the old paradigm of security (Paul, 2005). Some see it in terms of physical insecurity that terrorism brings and the military or “hard” response to it. Some define security more broadly to include socioeconomic well-being or the lack thereof. The lack of development and the persistence of global poverty are also seen as security failures. The Covid-19 pandemic has been interpreted as one of the greatest security threats in living memory. This broader view of security does not necessarily preclude a military response to terrorism. But depending on the situation, a “soft” solution, usually political reform such as power sharing, may be more appropriate or even essential. In the real world we find a mixture of the two with the balance depending on the particular country (Aydilini, 2005). This chapter will use the broader paradigm of security when analyzing the case of Sri Lanka.

Globalization notwithstanding, nationalism, defined here as the belief that the interests of one's own country or people come first, remains a powerful driver of politics, economics, and related matters. Nationalism provides a theoretical basis for this analysis. Brexit, the problems that the Word Trade Organization (WTO) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are facing, and the lack of support from major countries such as the U.S. and China for international organizations such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague are evidence of this situation.

Analysis leads to policy. Policy needs to be based on a philosophy of governance. The philosophy of governance that underpins multiethnic societies in the 21st century must have as its core value the principles of equity and freedom that respect diversity. These should be nonnegotiable. Equity and freedom provide a morally and ethically acceptable framework for an ethnically plural society emerging from a protracted civil war to create a roadmap for transitional justice, accountability, reconciliation, reconstruction, and nation-building to

Sri Lanka 45 have lasting security. The policy perspective presented in this chapter is based on the above.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >