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Development is a rather ambiguous term lacking a clear definition; nevertheless, it holds positive connotations to rehabilitation, progress, prosperity and wealth. Subsequently, it is propagated with such values in the discourses of international neo-liberalism and national modernization. What is not illuminated in such state-corporate centred narrations is that the nature of the very development supposedly in the benefit of locals is often directed by extra-local power holders. In order to understand the implications of extra-local decision making it is necessary to remember that development is not implemented in a vacuum but within the context of larger socio-political and historical processes. For these very reasons development has therefore neither been apolitical nor neutral and demands critical assessment.

srilankan leadersWhereas there is plenty of critique of the development paradigm of state and transnational companies, there remains a need to analyze development as a structural component of oppressive and even genocidal processes. In contexts where the state concerned perpetuates military violence against “locals”, it is imperative to account for the real implications of development. Being possibly incorporated into the larger coordination of plans of genocidal states, development becomes a discourse and process which legitimizes national oppression with international facilitation. To examine such possibilities and implications it is worth examining the case of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka: developments of genocidal characteristics

The Sri Lankan state has been organized as a centralized and unitary political system ever since the administrative model was established by the British in 1833. This disregarded the boundaries between the traditional homelands of mainly two nations: Tamils to the north and east, Sinhalese in the central parts, south and western coast. From the early 20th century the Sinhala political leadership and the English educated bourgeoisie pursued the development of a Sinhala Buddhist nation-state consolidating power and unifying the Sinhala speakers through the perpetuation of Sinhala chauvinism.

Over the course of post-independence several processes were coordinated by the state which effectively targeted Tamils. Briskly after independence constitutional legislations were employed as an ingenious means to legalize the collective oppression of Tamils. Barely a year after independence, the infamous Citizenship Act of 1949 was passed, which disfranchised over a million hill-country Tamils. They were Tamils of Indian ancestry who had been brought in a century earlier as indentured laborers by the colonial regime to establish the economic backbone of the island: the plantation economy and the railway infrastructure. The Official Language Act of 1956 was another discriminatory law which ensured collective marginalization of Tamil speakers by establishing Sinhala as the sole official language. Apart from discriminatory legal measures that affected the Tamil speaking people in the fields of education, employment, land ownership, religious beliefs, as well as cultural life, the prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1979 legalized the unlawful detention of Tamils by empowering the security forces to detain anyone without trial and retain in incommunicado up to 18 months under the suspicion of “unlawful activity” (Leary 1981). Coordinated with these processes were anti-Tamil pogroms of which major ones were sporadically orchestrated in 1956, 1958, 1961, 1977, 1981 and 1983 which resulted in the massacres of thousands of Tamils. The pogroms targeted the life, liberty and property of Tamils in a coordinated manner with the tacit support of the state. From the late 1970s onwards the state adapted a well-calibrated counter-insurgency war assisted mainly by the US - UK and Israeli experts to materialize its genocidal pursuit to subjugate the Tamil nation which had by then organized armed resistance to the storming state terrorism.

Besides the processes mentioned above, from early on the state employed development as a means to camouflage various plans of coordinated actions to destroy in whole or part the essential foundations of the Tamil nation. These are known as state aided colonization schemes which were almost exclusively employed in the Tamil speaking regions of North and East Sri Lanka. Central to such state actions is the intent to appropriate the land and water resources of Tamils, to alter the demographic composition of their traditional homeland and to wedge the territorial contiguity between the north and eastern regions of the Tamil homeland.

Development and Genocide: A colonial legacy

The British colonial rule empowered the Sinhala English educated bourgeoisie to exercise self-rule through a state council in the 1930s. Incidentally one of the first laws enacted by the Sinhalese state council was the Land Development Ordinance of 1935 which sought to legitimize state appropriation of private lands (Peebles 1990: 37). Subsequently, large scale developmental projects were undertaken to camouflage state aided colonization schemes in the Tamil speaking eastern regions of Sri Lanka.

"Even before independence, as minister of Agriculture in the State Council, Senanayake had started many peasant colonisation schemes at high cost and with hardly any impact on agricultural output. By 1947, there were already 12 major Dry Zone colonisation settlements established at a cost of over Rs.30 million and having 3,000 settlers. " (Ponnambalam 1980: 22).

It seems that for the state council economic productivity was irrelevant as discernible from the low profit and high cost of the schemes. Rather incentive for colonization was based on the growing Sinhala chauvinism which propagated a nationalistic ideology representing the Tamils as invading usurpers and the Tamil homeland as a territory to be re-conquered by the Sinhala state. The Sinhala bourgeoisie consolidating political power through nationalistic mobilization cultivated a racist anti-Tamil logic, institutionalizing discrimination and oppression through laws and state-sponsored violence.

After independence in 1949, Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake inaugurated the most grandiose of the colonization projects, the Gal Oya Multi-Purpose Project in Paddipalai in the east (present-day Ampara district). Addressing a crowd of settlers in Padaviya, the newly appointed Prime Minister vividly elucidates the motives of state-aided colonizations in the Tamil homeland.

“Today you are brought here and given a plot of land. You have been uprooted from your village. You are like a piece of driftwood in the ocean, but remember that one day the whole country will look up to you. The final battle for the Sinhala people will be fought on the plains of Padaviya. You are men and women who will carry this island’s destiny on your shoulders. Those who are attempting to divide this country will have to reckon with you. The country may forget you for a few years, but one day very soon they will look up to you as the last bastion of the Sinhala.” (Gunaratna 1988: 201).

D.S. Senanayake cleverly camouflages his anti-Tamil and Sinhala chauvinistic ideology in this speech, and for the untrained eye, the significance of the statements "the final battle for the Sinhala people" and "those who are attempting to divide this country" are easily missed. Here he distinctly identifies the Sinhala nation as representing the nation-state and as rightful inheritors of the island. Those who complicate this national project are Tamils who inhabit the north and east, the areas established as to be "conquered". The settlers were rhetorically identified as saviours of the Sinhala nation by their participation in colonizing Tamil areas. This settler discourse would be integral to the state practices of genocide as well as the state-centred Sinhala nationalist ideology.

Modelled after state procedure in the east, colonization schemes commenced in northern-central areas of the island in 1977 under the Accelerated Mahaweli Project, consequently penetrating deeper into the Tamil homeland (Peebles 1990). The project was a massive neo-liberal undertaking with heavy international financing, in particularly from Britain, and reflects how international finance was instrumental in the genocidal processes(1). These schemes were strategically situated within crucial areas which ensured the territorial contiguity between the various districts of the Tamil homeland. Thereby developmental measures in Sri Lanka as observed were interrelated to larger genocidal processes targeting Tamils. These development measures had thus the ulterior motive to disrupt the demographics and territorial contiguity of the Tamil homeland in order to create conditions of life which could eradicate the essential foundations of Tamil peoples’ national existence.

Thereby developmental measures in Sri Lanka are inevitably interlinked with genocidal processes perpetuated by the state. Moreover, international developmental activity in Sri Lanka is subjected to approval from the Ministry of Defence in order to operate, thus they risk becoming interlinked with state actions such as observed which, in Raphael Lemkin's words, aims at the 'destruction in whole or part' the life, liberty and property of the Tamil nation.

Any understanding or analysis of development in Sri Lanka has to account for the history of state discrimination and national oppression of the Tamils. This is of relevance today, as the process of colonization and Sinhalization has accelerated and became unfettered due to the hegemonic military occupation of the Tamil homeland. Any meaningful effort at genuine reconciliation has to account for the national oppression of Eelam Tamils and the adequate political solution which can effectively arrest the former. Only through self-determination and adequate bodies of governance can the Tamils safeguard their civil and legal rights as well as their homeland. As one can induce from the historical trajectory of the island, developmental measures have been ingrained in state apparatuses as a practice which facilitates Sinhala chauvinist actions with genocidal intent. Likewise successive governments have since independence coordinated state-sponsored colonization schemes with discriminatory laws, anti-Tamil pogroms and from the 1970s incorporated counter-insurgency, bringing about the destruction of the essential foundations of the Tamil people.

Post-War: International discourse of Reconciliation and Development

The Tamils mobilized armed resistance as a strategy to arrest these genocidal processes and achieve national liberation. The struggle was brutally destroyed in 2009, in which tens of thousands of Tamils were massacred and a whole movement annihilated. Since 2009 in the so-called post-war scenario, the Sri Lankan state and its armed forces are unchained regarding the implementation of various coordinated plans with the motives to furthermore subjugate the Tamil nation.

In this pursuit, the Tamil homeland has been turned into one of the heaviest militarized territories in the world. It has been reported that there is a solider present for every five civilians in the north, which holds a force density of 198.5 soldiers per 1000 civilians- higher than the Russian occupation of Chechnya during the Second Chechen War and the French occupation of Algeria during the War of Independence(2). Moreover, large swathes of lands in the northern province of Jaffna have since the 1990s been occupied by the military through the establishment of High Security Zones (HSZ) which resemble the Israeli policy of "Zoning" around military instalments. According to Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran, more than one-third of the land (7000 sq. km of 18 880 sq. km) in the North-East has been forcefully appropriated by the military, clearly indicating a hegemonic militarization alienating Tamils from their homeland(3). Internationally financed development measures are being implemented due to the military occupation and colonized lands. Chief among the intentions behind the post-war development is to colonize Tamil majority areas with extra-local Sinhalese. By doing so the government is also shrewdly attempting to satisfy depressed Sinhala workers and farmers and cultivate southern businesses within the broader state agenda. Such an agenda orients towards the colonization of the Tamil homeland as well as the facilitation of national and international capitalistic exploitation. Instead of being provided secure livelihood opportunities in the south, the Sinhala workers and peasants are seduced into the multi-national commercial ‘development’ projects in the Tamil homeland with an undertone of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy. In this process, local Tamil labor and enterprises are ignored, furthering the economic marginalization of Tamils. Development in Sri Lanka converges clearly with the practices of state violence, genocide and militarization. 

In December 2013, an international panel of prominent lawyers’ experts on genocide and academics convened in the German town of Bremen under the aegis of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal (PPT), to hold the Peoples Tribunal on Sri Lanka. The verdict concluded upon found Sri Lanka guilty in perpetuating an ongoing structural genocide towards the Eelam Tamil nation. The U.S. and U.K. were found complicit in genocide owing to their longstanding geopolitical interest in the region. Furthermore, it was stated that Western support of the government also brought about the massive silencing of the atrocities in international media during the last war.

Subsequently in the post-war period, there has been widespread international approval of the Sri Lankan government as a legitimate agent in determining the future of the Tamils. Central to this post-war international policy is the advocacy of development measures and political devolution in the form of Provincial Councils as elaborated in the 13th amendment. Consequently, the provincial councils are presented as an adequate political solution and the development discourse is promoted, coupled with lip-service regarding human rights violations which fail to identify the regime in the Tamil homeland as genocidal.

The Northern provincial council election (NPCE) held in 2013 November, witnessed a phenomenal display of courage by the Tamil voters, who defied the military occupation and en masse voted for the TNA on a mandate of self-determination, justice for atrocities and national identity. Such a mandate clearly indicates a rejection of the sovereignty, the national integrity and the rule of Colombo. Despite such a clear mandate Colombo tries to present the elections as a sign of improvement regarding accommodation of the Tamil demand. In the aftermath of the NPCE victory of the TNA, the Supreme Court in Colombo briskly passed an order which deprived the NPC of land and police powers; the minimum political power needed to arrest the large-scale land grabbing, militarization and persecution. Recently the military governor of Jaffna denounced the budget presented by the NPC. These incidents display the ease in which Colombo is capacitated to override the powers of the NPC- thereby the NPC or the 13th amendment is clearly inadequate as a mechanism and impotent as a political solution to safeguard Tamils from the Sinhala chauvinism, extra-local rule let alone genocide. 


Nevertheless, it is within such a ground reality and historical context that the international community and Colombo promotes the discourse of “development, rehabilitation and reconciliation” in the Tamil north and east. In this spirit, the Sri Lankan state labels the state and military-run development schemes and colonization projects implemented in the Tamil homeland as the Northern Spring and the Eastern rise. Under the pretext of development, the Sri Lankan state coordinates processes of militarization, land alienation and Sinhala colonization targeting Tamil people and their homeland. The development discourse is oblivious to the implications of a hegemonic military occupation, and neither does it scrutinize the effect of the unitary administrative system on any form of rehabilitation, development and reconciliation. That development can be pursued in isolation without addressing the implications of state oppression amounts to a blatant lie, when the fact is that such development risks becoming complicit in genocide. What is most ironic is that the discourse mystifies the fact that when political empowerment and justice is to be substituted with development, it implies denial of self-determination and imposition of extra-local decision making, i.e. it is the Sri Lankan government and its international financiers who are to decide the future of the Tamils, and not the people themselves.

- Athithan Jayapalan is a student in social anthropology and studied in Oslo and Pondicherry universities. Born in Jaffna, he currently lives in Oslo, Norway.

Internet References:

1) See:
3) For the extent of Militarization in the Tamil homeland, see:


Leary, V. 1981 Ethnic Conflict and Violence in Sri Lanka - Report of a Mission to Sri Lanka on behalf of the International Commission of Jurists, July/August 1981. Geneva: International Commission of Jurist.
Peebles, P. 1990. "Colonization and Ethnic conflict in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka" in The journal of Asian Studies, vol. 49(1) : 30-55. Association For Asain Studies.
Ponnambalam, S. 1980. Dependent Capitalism in Crisis: The Sri Lankan Economy 1948 - 1980. London: Zed Books.
Gunaratna , M. H. 1988. For a sovereign state. Colombo: Sarvodaya Publishing Services

(This article was published in Fortnightly Magazine 'Abel', August 31, 2021)

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