Political economy of state policy and practice
by Chamindry Saparamadu and Aftab Lall, Centre for Poverty Analysis, January 2014
Nearly three decades of civil war in Sri Lanka between the armed forces of the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in May 2009 with an overwhelming victory for the GoSL armed forces. The final military offensive in the North of Sri Lanka generated massive displacements unparalleled in the history of the country, with up to an estimated 300,000 IDPs in the North. Soon after hostilities ended, the GoSL started an accelerated programme to resettle these IDPs.
This paper aims to understand the various dynamics of state policy and practice with regard to
resettlement of conflict-induced IDPs in Northern Sri Lanka through a political economy lens. More
specifically, the paper seeks to address the following questions:
■ What particular path has the resettlement process taken in the post-war North?
■ How are larger economic and political developments influencing the resettlement process?
■ How do different actors and their incentives shape the resettlement process?
The paper focuses on the post-war processes and issues around the return and resettlement of recently
displaced persons in the North who were housed in Manik Farm, a state-run IDP camp. The study is
based on a review of available secondary material, which includes reports of governmental and nongovernmental organizations, limited academic studies and media reports. An effort was made to
address the gaps in the literature through primary data gathered from qualitative interviews with
selected government officials and civil society representatives. The authors conducted interviews in the
Jaffna and Mannar districts. These included meetings with District and Divisional officials, community
based organisations, rural development society and women’s rural development society members and
beneficiaries of donor-funded projects. Due to the stringent security measures at the time and the
short duration of the visit, the authors did not conduct interviews with displaced peoples. The analysis
adopts the political economy analytical framework developed by DFID, UK, namely the Drivers of
Change (2009) to examine the role of structures, institutions and actors in the resettlement process.
The resettlement process (which largely includes the return of conflict induced IDPs in the North to their
place of origin) has been subject to top-down control by political elites and the military.
There have been a multitude of other actors, internal and external, involved in the resettlement
process: state authorities at both local and national level, humanitarian agencies, UN agencies,
multilateral agencies and bilateral donors. However, they have merely supported the centrally-driven
process with limited influence over state policy and practice.
The political regime’s pursuit of rapid macro-economic development and its national security agenda
has shifted its attention away from issues of continued displacement, limited access to basic services
and rights violations. These continuing problems show that the resettlement process has fallen well
short of attaining the durable solutions sketched out in the UNs Guiding Principles on Internal
Displacement. The State emphasis on infrastructure development coupled with the military’s
involvement in civil administration and the local economy are creating tensions amongst the Tamil
community in the North, who suspect that development is tied to a state-sponsored project of
These conditions led the authors to characterise the resettlement of IDPs as a practice underpinned by
centralisation of power and militarisation. This is usually done by regime elites and military actors
exercising control over the key ministries which affect policies and practice on land issues and
economic development in the North.
Policy processes lack transparency and are alleged to serve the interests of political elites. Meanwhile,
the significant role of military actors in governance of land related matters has restricted the autonomy
of the civil administrators in the North. The ad hoc demarcation of High Security Zones (HSZs) has
prevented IDPs from returning to their places of origin and affected their livelihoods. A large military
presence in the North has created an atmosphere of insecurity and fear, especially amongst women.
The reluctance of the GoSL to devolve powers to the North as per the Thirteenth Amendment to the
Constitution of Sri Lanka allows the GoSL to maintain control on all land matters including allocation
Presidential rule, patronage politics, a history of tensions between Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority
communities and ethnicised politics all play a significant role in processes of regime consolidation and
militarisation of the North.
Although centralisation of power is a country-wide phenomenon, the expansion of the central
government in the Northern region is an attempt to legitimise its authority where it has little political
support. A large part of the Northern region has undergone an alternate process of state-building under
the LTTE for nearly three decades. Consolidation of the central state in these areas is a strategy
deployed to delegitimise any claims for alternate state formation within the Tamil community.
Control over distribution of resources in the North helps build direct loyalties towards the regime by
entrenching systems of patronage. The threat of an LTTE resurgence is used to legitimise militarisation
of the North and to garner support from the regime’s political stronghold in the South.
External actors have supported the centrally driven resettlement process by providing financial
resources required by the GoSL. A diplomatic strategy informed by the geo-politics of aid enables the
GoSL to mobilize resources to pursue its resettlement and development agenda. By linking western
governments’ position on human rights to the separatist project, the GoSL was able to thwart
international pressure to address human rights, accountability and governance issues. New
partnerships were built with non-traditional donors such as India, China and the Gulf countries, who
take the position that intra-state conflicts are matters that fall under the domain of a sovereign state.
The Indo-Chinese competition for influence in the region and the GoSL strategy of playing one against
the other propel India and China to engage with Sri Lanka on unconditional terms.
This analysis highlights a number of structures, institutions, actors and their incentives that combine in
multiple ways to shape the resettlement process in the North. The paper also attempts to explore how
broader political, social and economic issues influence the micro level issues confronting the IDPs in
the North. The paper however does not undertake an in-depth study of resettled people’s experiences
from their perspective. As such, further research is required to address this research gap and to obtain
a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the resettlement experience.