Bonapartist Autocracy in Sri Lanka from 1977 Onwards

Uditha Devapriya who notes that the article that followw here was published in two parts by “The Island” in its “Midweek Review” of December 2 and December 9, 2020. It has since  been edited to incorporate information which at the time of writing the author was not able to add.

 Napoleone di Buonaparte

I: Viewed in retrospect, the yahapalanaya regime seems almost a bad memory now, best forgotten. This is not to underrate its achievements, for the UNP-SLFP Unity Government did achieve certain things, like the Right to Information Act. It soon found out, however, that it couldn’t shield itself from its own reforms; that’s how 2015 led to 2019. Despite its laudable commitment to democratic rule, the yahapalanists reckoned without the popularity of the man they ousted at the ballot box. November 2019, in that sense, was a classic example of a populist resurrection unparalleled in South Asia, though not in Asia: a government touting a neoliberal line giving way to a centre-right populist-personalist.

What went wrong with the yahapalanist experiment? Its fundamental error was its inability to think straight: the moment Maithripala Sirisena reinforced his power by wresting control of the SLFP from Mahinda Rajapaksa, he ceded space to the Joint Opposition.

Roughly the same thing happened to the C. P. de Silva faction in 1970: after five years in power, it yielded to the same forces it had overthrown from its own party. The lesson de Silva learnt and the yahapalanists so far haven’t was that no progressive centre-left party can jettison its leftist faction while getting into a coalition with a rightwing monolith without having its credentials questioned at the ballot box. When voters responded by electing the leftist faction in 1970, the leader of the rightwing coalition, the UNP, faced electoral defeat. Dudley Senanayake had to step down, just as Ranil Wickremesinghe had to.

Deceptively conclusive as comparisons between 1970 and 2020 may be, however, there is an important distinction to make. The rightwing ideology the UNP under Dudley Senanayake adhered to was qualitatively different to the rightwing ideology Senanayake’s successor J. R. Jayewardene embraced. The two Senananayakes, Jayewardene, and John Kotelawala lived and had been brought up in the shadow of the British Empire. Upon coming to power they oversaw a shift in their party ideology from Whitehall to Washington; this process reached its climax in the McCarthyist Kotelawala administration.

Jayewardene was the last of the Old Right leaders whose fortunes were tied directly to the plantation economy and whose ideology cohered with the Bretton Woods Keynesian Right. The paradox at the heart of his presidency has much to do with the transition from this Old Right to a New Right. I begin my two-part essay with that transition.

The New Right, or the neoliberal Right, came into prominence via the massive election wins of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher on either side of the Atlantic. These two figures eschewed not just the opposition, but also predecessors from their own parties; Ted Heath remained to the Left of Thatcher, for instance, while Gerald Ford criticised certain parts of Reagan’s reform programme (though eventually he extended his support).

In the industrialised economies of the West, for a while, the Old Right adhered as much to price controls, quantitative easing, and economic stimulus as did their rivals on the Left. By contrast, the New Right preferred low inflation (even at the cost of full employment), the elimination of subsidies, and privatisation. Reader’s Digest called David Stockman “David the Budget Killer.” The epithet was not unjustified: at the Office of Management and Budget where he served as president during the first Reagan administration, Stockman oversaw the biggest rollback of the US state since the New Deal. Nixon famously claimed that we were all Keynesians, but Reagan enthroned monetarism. So did Thatcher.

How did that spill over to underdeveloped economies, particularly non-industrialised ones such as Sri Lanka’s? In the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, much of the Non-Aligned non-West suffered a full decade of unprecedented calamity in the form of famines, shortages, and inefficient, unresponsive bureaucracies. The governments of many of these countries opted for state-led industrialisation, which coupled with stagflation and incomplete land reforms at home failed to deliver on what it pledged and promised.

Indeed, laudable as Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s reforms were, they became mired in their own contradictions: as S. B. D. de Silva observed, they entrenched a class of intermediaries who benefitted from the regime’s economic programme. “Nothing came out of [its] attempt to industrialise,” he recounted in his last interview in 2017, “because the industrialisation was really foreign exchange driven.” In other words, embedded in it were the seeds of its own electoral destruction, a fate accelerated by the jettisoning of the Left in 1975.

The transition from the Old to the New Right in the West led to the growth of finance capital, the deindustrialisation of the West and the shift to Free Trade Zones in the global periphery, and the enforcement of structural adjustment vis-à-vis the IMF, the latter revolving around economic stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation.

Between 1970 and 1980 debt levels in Latin America alone rose by over a thousand percent. Structural adjustment, at the time lacking the kind of critique evolved later by the likes of Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty, promised a way out of indebtedness which would lead to growth, development, low inflation, and free trade. The flip-side to these benefits, which its champions left out of the discussion, was widespread poverty, a widening income gap, high unemployment, and trade practices slanted and tilted heavily to the West.

Not unlike the World Bank prescription that preceded it, structural adjustment favoured the dismantling of local industry. But where the World Bank had prescribed the establishment of small cottage industries and continued emphasis on agriculture, the IMF recommended the privatisation of local industry and agriculture to multinational corporations. This was in keeping with the new monetarist philosophy: reduce the money supply, lower marginal tax rates, maintain a minimal social safety net, and welcome the robber barons.

The East Asian economies grew against a different backdrop. Multinational companies until then were largely, if at all, limited to Central and Latin America: the United Fruit economies. In essence, the IMF and World Bank repackaged the United Fruit model and introduced it to countries newly embracing neoliberalism. Among these was Sri Lanka.

In a critique of Mangala Samaraweera’s maiden Budget Speech in 2017, Dayan Jayatilleka pointed out that inasmuch as the J. R. Jayewardene administration enacted open economic reforms, it did so within the framework of a centralised state. Therein lies a paradox I earlier alluded to of the Jayewardene presidency and, to an extent, of the Premadasa presidency: the dismantling of the economy did not follow from a dismantling of the state.

Yet this differed very little from what was happening in other countries enacting structural adjustment packages: economic liberalisation took place under the watch of a centralised, authoritarian state. Much of the reason for this has to do with the contradiction at the heart of structural adjustment itself: while it freed the economy, it shackled the majority, and to keep them from rising up in protest, it had to shackle dissent too.

It’s no cause for wonder, then, that many of the leaders of countries who would oversee the transition from state-led industrialisation to “export-oriented” MNC driven growth hailed from the Old Right. Jayewardene was no exception: an eloquent populist, he made overtures to a virtuous society while entrenching a merchant class of robber barons.

Meanwhile, the rise of a civil society posing as an alternative to the private and the public sectors, but in reality aligned with the private sector, made it no longer possible for radical scholars, educated in the West, to get involved in policy implementation with the state. As Vinod Moonesinghe has noted in a paper, after 1983 there came about a steep rise in NGO numbers. Elsewhere, Susantha Goonetilake has argued that the structures and relationships of power in and the activities of these enclaves came to reflect those of a private organisation more than of an institution affiliated to civil society.

In stark contrast to its earlier position of engagement with the public sector, civil society stood apart and aloof from the latter, inadvertently breaking away from its historical task of getting involved at the grassroots level in policy formulation and implementation. Ironically this served to speed up the government’s delinking from civil society: enmeshed in the private sector, NGOs ended up spouting postmodernist and post-Marxist rhetoric, offering no viable alternative to the UNP’s development paradigm.

Even more ironically, what that led to was a situation where, at the height of the second JVP insurrection, their most ubiquitous representatives took the side of the government over the rebels while taking the side of Tamil separatists over the government: a paradox, given that both groups were fighting the state over class as much as over ethnicity. The NGOs’ selective treatment of the JVP and the LTTE justifies the view that in the 1980s, ethnicity replaced class as the dominant topic of discussion by social scientists.

All this undoubtedly contributed to the separation of the state from the public sphere: a prerequisite of structural adjustment and economic liberalisation. Yet paradoxically, while that process of separation went ahead, it required as a lever an autocrat who could, and would, crack down on trade unions, appease a growing petty bourgeoisie and middle class, and in contradiction to the principles of nonalignment, ally with the West. This meant couching everything domestic in Cold War terms and slanting it to an anti-Marxist position: not for no reason, after all, did Jayewardene refer to the LTTE as a group of rebels fighting to establish a Marxist state in a BBC interview. Appeasing the middle-class with these methods was easy because the middle-class faced a dilemma: while it bemoaned the government’s authoritarianism, it was in no mood to revert to the autarkyism of the Bandaranaike era. It wanted more representation, while keeping the economy open.

At the heart of middle-class support for the Jayewardene presidencies, however, lay a fatal time bomb: its Buddhist constituency. When Jayewardene, in 1982, authorised the writing of a continuation of the Mahavamsa, he reaffirmed his regime’s commitment to a Buddhist polity. In an essay on the Jathika Chintanaya, Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri has argued that while in a way 1977 appeared to be “a symbolic marker of a new epoch”, in another it betrayed “a loss of something that is Sinhala Buddhist.” Supplementing this was the rift at the heart of J. R.’s reforms: political authoritarianism versus economic liberalisation. Both were viewed as betrayals of Buddhism, quoting Stanley Tambiah’s book; dharmista samajayak, after all, was as much the winning promise of Jayewardene’s campaign as it was the title of Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s critique of his regime’s breach of that promise.

The suburban Sinhala middle bourgeoisie of artists, artisans, and professionals responded lukewarmly to Jayewardene. The results of the 1989 election confirmed the scepticism with which they viewed the achievements and failures of his administration: more than 46% of the UNP’s votes came from a third of the country’s electorate, none of which comprised Colombo’s suburbs (except for the city and the Catholic belt to the north of Colombo), while 38% of the SLFP’s votes came from, inter alia, those suburbs. The new UNP candidate they viewed cynically; “they were not convinced that Premadasa represented adequate change” (Samarasinghe 1989). The SLFP’s popularity among state employees, in particular, showed when it won 49.5% of the postal vote. A crucial litmus test for Premadasa would therefore be how his presidency would be viewed by the Sinhala Buddhist middle-class.


There were three Bonapartist revolutions in post-independence Sri Lanka. The first was Ranasinghe Premadasa’s election in 1988, the second Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election in 2005 and his re-election in 2010, and the third Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election in 2019. I consider Premadasa, Mahinda, and Gotabaya to be more Bonapartist than fascist, contrary to most accounts of them by the left-liberal crowd. There is an important distinction to be made, as important as the distinction between the Old Right and the New Right.

A crucial difference between Bonapartism and fascism, with which Bonapartism is often conflated, is that the one responds to the public and the other regiments it. Bonapartism can deteriorate into fascism and it not infrequently does, yet its inherently populist-pluralist character deters it from doing so unless its co-option by a rightwing fringe group makes such a transformation inevitable. The latter point is important.

Here one must consider the first Bonapartist revolution, along with its impact on the Right. Mervyn de Silva called the 1988 election an event of sociological significance on account of who won it. Ranasinghe Premadasa has been called many things by many people. At the end of the day, regardless of whatever epithets or insults, he was, and remained until his passing away, a Bonapartist tied despite his populist trappings to the Right.

Yet under Premadasa the J. R. model altered considerably. Development theorists of the Left, including Samir Amin, were by then propounding a paradigm of delinking in response to IMF enforced dependence on MNCs. This was the position taken up by the Left as well, and it was in keeping with the Soviet Union’s policy of disengagement. Regarding the latter, it must be mentioned that the intelligentsia of the Third World put forward a different strategy at the height of their influence: a bourgeois modernisation scheme, with emphasis on industrialisation. This is what Sirimavo Bandaranaike tried to adhere to.

As I have noted in my essays on the NAM to The Island, such an approach fell victim to its own contradictions, prime among them the inability of bourgeois nationalist elites to take modernisation forward to its logical conclusion. Out of fashion then and out of fashion now, the bourgeoisie opted out of both disengagement and delinking.

In Premadasa they found the champion of their model: an open economy minus what the latter decried as “old style capitalism” vis-à-vis his predecessor. This, then, would be how the Bonapartist was to shed off the Old Right’s embracement of neoliberalism.

Foreign policy wise, Premadasa differed from Jayewardene’s pro-Western posturing. In 1977 Jayewardene stated that his policy of nonalignment would be “more genuine” that what it had been under his predecessor. Two years later, however, the New York Times reported his famous quote about nonalignment, the US, and the Soviet Union. With the establishment of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC), the government tilted definitively to not just the US, but also Europe and South-East Asia: Motorola and Harris Corporation began building plants “with an initial employment capacity of 1,850 workers.”

Goh Chok Tong’s and Lee Kuan Yew’s visits to Sri Lanka reinforced the belief that Sri Lanka would resume its interrupted journey to becoming the Singapore of South Asia, a prospect promised by the Mahaweli Development Scheme.

This put the country at the backbenches of the pro-Western bloc in the Non-Aligned Movement: while Jayewardene courted Western European and American help, he was careful not to alienate the non-Western bloc. His warm rapport with Fidel Castro, for all the theatrics of Third World unity at the 1979 NAM Conference in Havana, belied his pro-US sympathies, as did his appointment of A. C. S. Hameed as Foreign Minister.

Less well apparent was his selection of Premadasa as an emissary of sorts to multilateral institutions. At the 1980 UN General Assembly, Premadasa called upon developed countries to shoulder their share of responsibility for underdeveloped countries. He was firm on this point: responding to a remark by Michael Littlejohns (of Reuters) that OPEC’s intransigence prevented the First World from aiding the Third, he politely but firmly contended, “You can keep on saying that, but it will do no one any good.”

It hardly need be added that after he became president Premadasa took positions on foreign policy which contradicted some of Jayewardene’s, such as his expulsion of David Gladstone and his closure of the Israeli Special interests Section at the US Embassy; the latter act went as far as to provoke a confrontation with Stephen Solarz.

At a fundamental level, however, Premadasa’s vision remained bogged down in the IMF paradigm: Janasaviya, after all, was despite its pro-poor leanings funded by the World Bank. In other words it continued to alienate the section of the middle-class – Sinhala Buddhist – which had evolved a cultural critique of neoliberalism.

In the absence of, on the one hand, a strong trade union driven Left movement, and on the other hand an equally strong radical youth movement – both decimated by Premadasa and Jayewardene – the Oppositional space gravitated to a nationalist-populist vacuum. What remained of the amorphous Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP) gravitated either to the UNP (Ossie Abeygunasekera) or to the People’s Alliance (Chandrika Kumaratunga).

Premadasa courted considerable support among sections of the middle-class as well as the petty bourgeoisie, including artists and the clergy (as seen in the latter’s act of siding with his government after Gamini and Lalith launched their campaign against him). Yet in one respect he remained a part Bonapartist and not a total one: his inability to respond to the cultural critique of his politico-economic paradigm.

This widened a vacuum, filled by the Jathika Chintanaya; the latter’s evolution from an intellectual to a political movement, from Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara to S. L. Gunasekara and Champika Ranawaka, has been charted many times before by several commentators. All that needs to be noted here is that in the absence of a political critique of neoliberalism, especially in the face of neoliberalism’s consolidation by the People’s Alliance under Chandrika Kumaratunga, the cultural critique gained ground.

What helped that critique gain even more ground was the capitulation of the Left to the neoliberal line of the SLFP, as well as the dismantling of the state by the first Kumaratunga government. The latter point is significant, for unlike J.R. and Premadasa Kumaratunga set about rolling back the state while opening up the economy.

As Dayan Jayatilleka has suggested, the cooption of the Kumaratunga regime by NGOs and the new “civil society” did much to provoke the Sinhala nationalist lobby. Incensed, the latter sought a third force. In the absence of a viable Left alternative – for Kumaratunga’s first term was marked by the deterioration of the Left within the People’s Alliance – the critique of neoliberalism soon became a monopoly of cultural revivalists.

It must be noted that the SLFP-PA’s rightward shift did not transpire in a vacuum. After a decade of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, the Democrats in the US and the Labourites in Britain embraced what they euphemistically called “Third Way Centrism”, discarding their Leftist roots while toeing a neoliberal line. In Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the new SLFP thus had its Western archetypes to look up to, and to emulate.

Jayatilleka has argued that the SLFP-PA’s turn to the right was pragmatist. I disagree: it ended up decimating the Left, something not even three UNP administrations could do and something which paved the way for the nationalist lobby to gain in strength and numbers despite its convoluted, contradictory positions on the economy.

Indeed, the contents of the latter’s economic programme revealed its contradictions: the Sihala Urumaya Manifesto of 2000, to give a sampling, rejected a closed economy while rejecting neoliberalism, acknowledging that while “going back to a closed economy” was “unthinkable” it would, in stark contrast to its opposition to neoliberalism, avail itself “of the opportunities thrown up by globalisation.” Viewed this way, even Nalin de Silva’s campaign against Coca-Cola at the Kelaniya University in the 1990s seems to me more of a cultural rather than a political attack on globalisation; Sinhala nationalism of the petty bourgeois sort, after all, decries neoliberalism and also, paradoxically, lambasts Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s economic policies, ostensibly for having destroyed the “Sinhala businessman.”

In addition to strengthening the Sinhala nationalist lobby, by axing or relegating to the background the Left faction of the SLFP Kumaratunga not only moved her party to the neoliberal Right, she compelled the UNP to do the same as well.

Surprising as it may seem now, the UNP under Ranil Wickremesinghe originally opposed Kumaratunga over several sensitive issues, such as the proposed Federal Package. In the second CBK presidency, however, the UNP did a volte-face on those same issues. Ironically that time around it was left to Kumaratunga to rein in Wickremesinghe over his overtures to the peace lobby: at the very moment he landed in Washington after “brokering” a peace deal with the LTTE, she took over three Ministries and sacked him. That did not, however, incline her government automatically to oppose the peace lobby, as her experiment with P-TOMS (despite the opposition of the JVP) later showed.

The first Bonapartist revolt had taken place against the backdrop of an extreme Left uprising and widening discontent with an authoritarian rightwing presidency. A considerable section of the middle-class had voted for Premadasa despite their scepticism, but another section – Sinhala Buddhist nationalist – remained alienated from him.

The second Bonapartist revolt, on the other hand, took place against the backdrop of deepening neoliberalism, a rollback of the state unparalleled even by J. R. Jayewardene’s standards, and the internationalisation of a conflict the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist middle-class wanted a military, not a political, solution to. Since the Left could not, owing to the bottlenecks imposed on it, come up with a proper critique of these issues, it was left to the Jathika Chintanaya and its offshoots to so do from a cultural vantage point.

In 2000 Dinesh Gunawardena’s Mahajana Eksath Peramuna joined the People’s Alliance. At the 2000 parliamentary election Gunawardena contested and retained his seat; he would do the same at the 2001 parliamentary election, becoming Minister for Transport and rescuing the SLTB from the moribund state to which it had deteriorated by then.

Gunawardena’s ideology – an impeccable blend of socialism and popular nationalism, not unlike his father’s – provided an impetus to a revolt within the SLFP. That revolt culminated in 2004 when an overwhelming majority of the party stood behind Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid as party candidate for the presidential election. Rajapaksa revived Bonapartism in Sri Lankan politics thereafter, becoming an heir of sorts to Premadasa; not for no reason, after all, does Dayan Jayatilleka often compare the two with one another.

Where Rajapaksa differed from Premadasa was the acceptance he won among the Jathika Chintanaya ideologues and the Hela Urumaya MPs, as well as the Left (the Old Trotskyite-Communist plus the JVP). Not that their tactics and objectives converged totally; the Hela Urumaya for instance sought a wider post-war political agenda than the Jathika Chintanaya. Champika Ranawaka thus campaigned for Rajapaksa in 2005 and 2010 on the understanding that once they achieved their primary aim, the ending of the war, they would enact reforms that would free the public sector from the inefficiencies and the culture of corruption which two and a half decades of untrammelled privatisation had pushed it to.

When he and Rajapaksa disagreed over the direction the latter took towards the end of his second presidency, Ranawaka not only had to leave the government, he had to leave it while being forced to shed his nationalist credentials. In a big way, that says something about how Rajapaksa stole the nationalist light from its original torchbearers.

Today Ranakawa is caught adrift: on the one hand the Sinhala nationalist crowd attacks him as a renegade, while on the other ethnic minorities distrust him over his past. This was summed up at the recent parliamentary polls: despite being given the No 1 preferential vote for the Samagi Jana Balavegaya in Colombo, Ranakawa came second from last to Mano Ganesan; the Sinhala middle-class vote which he coveted went to the Pohottuwa, while the SJB vote trifurcated between the Premadasa Central Colombo bloc, Harsha de Silva’s suburban middle-class bloc, and the Rahuman-Ganesan minority bloc.

In other words, Rajapaksa has become not just a Bonapartist but a total Bonapartist, unlike his predecessor from the UNP. He remained so long after the JVP and the Hela Urumaya left his coalition, and one can argue he remains so even now. As for Gotabaya Rajapaksa and whether he has become a more right-leaning Bonapartist than his brother: well, it’s been a year, and a lot can happen in four years. No assessment of the Gotabaya presidency can be undertaken until it reaches its end. On the face of it, it hasn’t even begun to climb up to its peak. On the legacy it leaves behind will historians be able to record what is, to me at least, the third Bonapartist revolution in Sri Lanka. Until then, we will have to wait.

The writer can be reached at

ALSO SEE for Napoleone di Buonaparte”


Michael Roberts: “Mahinda Rajapaksa: Cakravarti Imagery and Populist Processes,” 28 January 2012,, …………. courtesy of Groundviews, where a different title was deployed: “Mahinda Rajapaksa as a Modern Mahāvāsala and Font of Clemency? The Roots of Populist Authoritarianism”

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