Sri Lanka is a feudal monarchy


We Sri Lankans treat government as a paternalistic feudal monarchy. We always have and from the looks of it, will continue to do so (not that we will ever admit it). Democracy is merely a stage to act out the brutalities of feudal politics. The rituals of electoral democracy, socialistic bureaucracy, and constitutional republicanism are essentially props in a political theatre barely changed since the bronze age. The props look modern and democratic if you are political or just got off the plane. Whether such a mind set is bad or good depends as much on the nature and tightness of your ideological underwear as the manners of the ruler on the throne.

A consequence of any form of government is a hierarchal power structure. It is supposedly the rule by a few for the good of the herd. The reality ends up being shepherding of the many for the benefit of the few. Whatever ism or cracy you want to call it, we are still a herd of apes who willingly or otherwise are “led” by a dominant caste with a leader. Whether this caste is a hereditary aristocracy, a corporate elite, party aparachiks, or anything else is, in the greater scheme of things, irrelevant. The primordial template is a monarchy.

At the summit of the political pyramid is the king. His power is enforced through tiers procured loyalties. At the top end are local aristocrats paid with titles (ministries), shielded from the inconveniences of laws and protected (often with life sustaining security details) by the king. These characters ensure local support for the king unless someone pays them better. At the bottom are serfs performing favours for powerful patrons be it a humble a task as providing faces at a political rally. They too may switch patrons if someone dangle a marginally better looking morsel. The only visible benefit is that changes in kingship are significantly less bloody. Election violence is almost Gandhian compared to the bloody power struggles of our ancient kings.

Sri Lankan acceptance of kingship is rooted deeper than the dynastic nature of south asian “democratic” politics or the kingliness of executive power. As in the centuries past, government IS the king (who is called something else these days). The king is seen as a stern yet distant paternal figure with the sole right to hump mother Lanka. He is perceived as infinitely rich, the giver of hand outs and funder of civic (irrigation/religious) infrastructure projects. In the old days all daddy government was supposed do was fight off invaders and maintain a basic semblance of public order. Any extra goodies are gratifying yet random acts of fickle generosity. Thanks to a generation or two of socialism we now expect free education, jobs, and a better life.

Cruelty, and mystery are the accepted consistent personas of daddy government. The individual is a pawn, to be used, crushed, rewarded or ignored by inscrutable whims of the throne and karmic flux. However there is always the perception that the crown will soften to flattery and pleadings of mercy from the helplessly weak. This can turn out be a successful strategy.

Crumbs of leniency from the throne pass off as virtuous fireworks, gets enshrined in popular myth and generally makes for good PR (specially if the ruler is concerned about his Mahavamsa and Chulavamsa profiles). These days things it is more efficient to show oneself directly resolving bureaucratic quagmires with a phone call before the cameras. It goes along with the timeless political charade of showing the common touch.

The awe of kingship lives in all of us serfs as it did in our ancestors. Their expectations of kings applied to all monarchs. Irrespective of the whether the monarch was in Anuradapura, Polonaruwa, Tanjore, Lisbon, London, Kandy, Senkadagala, Colombo, or Kotte. Tempting to say it is in the blood. A more accurate quip is that it is in the language.

Sinhala words describing government are rooted in monarchial references. The term for “government” is “Rajaya” which is has the connotations of “to rule/ruler/king” (right down to the root “Raj”). Even words used to describe employment — “Rajyakaria” — translates around permutations of “the tasks assigned by the king”. It is psychologically difficult to view term such as government service “raja-ye se-va-ya” (literately in the service of the monarch) as anything but monarchial.

Our view of government in feudal monarchial terms does not diminish the principles of democracy. I am certainly not suggesting that we uncivilised darkie primitives can’t govern themselves. Sri Lankans have long since adapted to living amidst feudal politics. It is our reality and we have survived wars, rebellions and other farts of history. No matter whatever shit that hit the fan, we are better off than Somalia, the Congo, Iraq, Pakistan, and other hell holes. Subconsciously I think we know accept the rituals of our politics into the rhythms of life. Fits in with the rambutan season, the “traditional” new years, and our interlinked families.

Yet Sri Lankan kingship is not totalitarian but a rather shaky set-up. That is for another post (coming soon). Must not keep these political rants going on longer than a glass of good arrack.

For a more dispassionate post on this topic check out this post by Dr Rohan Samarajiva Ph.D post.

18 thoughts on “Sri Lanka is a feudal monarchy

  1. Looks like you’re veering off politics in to anthropology and linguistics, it wil be a nice ride, looking forward to the posts.
    I have always assumed that the vocab, syntax, grammar & all the other bits of a language sets the limits on what can be thought – apparently this was deeply unfashionable, although I did not know about this until very recently. However, now it seems there is some truth behind it, shall dig up a link.

  2. “The king is seen as a stern yet distant paternal figure with the sole right to hump mother Lanka”

    Cerno, you sir are a genius! :o seriously! This is totally what I think about the Sri Lankan political setup myself! :D

  3. Kiri: Thank you :)

    chamira: Thank you – home I’m not raising any home with my keyboard mumbling. You are right about how language can define what can be thought. There’s a lot of Orwell (specifically 1984) in there. I think the links between language and thought go in many directions. No doubt very complicated. Look forward to you links.

    Chavie: So I’m not exactly alone in thinking so :D

    Nimal: You already have your wish – we do have a Royal family. In fact, Sri Lanka has had, and will continue to have them. I won’t flame you ;) but most of the time Royalty in Sri Lanka has been a curse than a blessing.

  4. i was sorry to read this very forced attempted ‘description’ of sri lanka. it is rather ignorant and coming from you, pathetic .
    and you continue take cover behind vague statements. shame!

    so according to you we have a feudal society ( i thought ‘feudal’ describe a particular system in europe, evolved btw long after bronze age ) run by a king ( i thought feudal system was a very decentralized way of governing ) with electoral democracy, socialistic bureaucracy, and constitutional republicanism as props? etc …
    lol

    are you sure they are props?

    did we not have choices before us? did we not make choices in past with real consequences .
    then how is electoral democracy a mere prop ? how was that choice any different than choices before, and made by, those societies where ‘whitey moderns’ ( to invert you own choice of words ) live ? seriously?

    i understand you don’t like what ‘darkie primitives’ decide and feel frustrated.

    but they do decide.

    i don’t like some of the decisions. but just bc i and ppl who think like me are unable to convince ‘darkie primitives’ to decide as i wish, that is no excuse to launch in to a vaguely defined and plain wrong headed general attack.

    if you feel dissatisfied with the way things are, that is partly your fault and partly result of free specific choice of other individuals . acknowledge your responsibility and point out and even attack those choices of others (and individuals too if you want), but don’t run from responsibility in this pathetic way or hide behind cowardly and wrong generalities.

    1. I was using the term ‘darkie primitives’ to describe the way some outsiders view Sri Lankans. Particularly those who think Sri Lankans should have overthrown their rulers for ending a supposed peace with terrorists.

      I was using the feudal system as the rough analogy — not as a literal equivalent. Though feudal structures are decentralised, there is a constant struggle between kings and regional power holders aspiring to be a king. The problem is that choices the ruling class take are to serve their own interests and at the detriment of the general populace.

      The electoral democracy, socialistic bureaucracy, and constitutional republicanism are props when they are supposed to indicate that we Sri Lankans view government and politics in the same way as the West. These institutions are tools are used for obtaining/expanding political control and power over their supposed benefit of the general public. They are also a means of restricting individuals into depending on patronage of politicians for access to opportunities.

      No different to the way a general might exploit a mountain range or a river to win a battle or gain a strategic advantage.

      The only benefit is that at least elections resolve leadership struggles among the political class without guns and bombs. It allows people to display their allegiance to one leader over the other and settle leadership struggles without catastrophic violence.

      It is the reality that the people of this country have lived with. I certainly don’t hold them in any sort of contempt for that. They have often had to choose between the grim choices they were dealt. They made their choices without the aid of the fancy analysis and accepted the consequences.

      I have no frustrations or dissatisfactions with that. It is the way things are and the way they have been. We have survived and sometimes thrived despite it.

      After a lifetime spent listening to the conversations around me and watching the politics, I am convinced that most politicians are plunders. They use government as imprison people in cycles of dependency.

      Being the coward that I am, I won’t bother attacking them from behind a pseudonym. It’s not going to change anything. The only things that will are things that let people escape from their dependence of government, and by extension politicians.

      I doubt that can be done via a blog. I am not out to convince anyone. This is yet a sloppily written spew generalisations, not a political treatise. If they are wrong so be it.

      1. point i made was that general populace in sl, do decide and have decided in the past what they want and as such your attempted description of sl as ‘feudal monarchy ‘ is false

        history shows that politicians here after seeking ppl’s support and using that support, act both according to general populace’s interest or/and their own selfish interest.
        this is true in west as well

        did ppl here decide they want universal government supplied ‘free’ education and heath ? yes. did they decide they want a open economy ? yes . did they decide that they don’t want cfa and rather want terrorists defeated ? yes etc. etc.
        you might disagree with them but they were free informed choices by ppl .
        no more different than the choices made by ppl in west ( btw there are fancy analysis here as well as in west but in both places ppl don’t use it bc it is … fancy)

        to say that here election are mere “leadership struggles among the political class” is patently false as in west . it is that and more everywhere.

        that politicians while implementing these choices selfishly increase their power and wealth is also true. again as in west

        “These institutions are tools are used for obtaining/expanding political control and power over their supposed benefit of the general public.”
        i agree , but others don’t .
        and you can’t say (as you do ) that is different from west . look at what obama is doing about heathcare. same thing . that is exactly why bismark started the welfare state in first place. instead of being inaccurately described ‘feudal’ state, we are a welfare state by choice, as in west. that is not a good thing in my opinion. but if anyone want it changed convince the ppl .

        “choices the ruling class take are to serve their own interests and at the detriment of the general populace.”
        yes they were selfish (who isn’t?), but were their actions completely detrimental and deceptive ? no. ppl know what they do and still vote them in bc that is what they want .
        fact that you cannot get ppl to decide as you want is no excuse to say they were fooled into deciding this or that bc of some ‘feudal ‘ mindset

        “I won’t bother attacking them from behind a pseudonym”
        good thing my name is on display in non text format in my blog and available to any one who asks for it :-)

        “It’s not going to change anything. The only things that will are things that let people escape from their dependence of government, and by extension politicians.”
        so why don’t you work towards that? why haven’t you? given up? haven’t even started? frustrated? bitter ?
        that is what this post looks like

        “I doubt that can be done via a blog.”
        of course not.

        to repeat, just bc some find it hard to change the things here and clearly feels frustrated does not justify ‘a vaguely defined and plain wrong headed general attack’ using false comparisons.

  5. “Subconsciously I think we know accept the rituals of our politics into the rhythms of life.”
    I could not agree with you more. One element in the Sri Lankan lives is that the average man knowns with a certain certanity that his life will not change who ever comes into power. I think that is the essential element of a true democracy. We know that there is corruption and we still know that amidst all that one can have a decent existance.

    As for “No matter whatever shit that hit the fan, we are better off than Somalia, the Congo, Iraq, Pakistan, and other hell holes” I do take great insult.
    How can we be as good as Singapore or certain parts of India when we keep saying that we are better than the “hell holes” ? This is where the “herd” can be manipulated to become more than what they are now.

    Super read Cerno. Keep them coming.

    1. Glad you liked the post :) Personally I think that the whole idea that someone ascending to the throne will solve everything is a fantasy. I’m quite sure that most people know this. They just have to support the least worst alternative and make do with what they can.

  6. can i ask why my comment is still “awaiting moderation”? when anne’s comment which was posted later was published .
    of course you have a perfect right to do whatever you want in your blog, not questioning that.

    1. No idea why it was “awaiting moderation” just logged in and saw it as “awaiting approval”. I guess that’s how the wordpress.com system works.

    2. Beacuse I am sweeter than thou :)
      Snut,
      When will you start writting again ?
      Enough with the holiday calender.
      Quite interested to know about your opinion of UN not sending
      their lot for the elections.

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