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date: 13 June 2024

Sri Lanka’s Military: From Ceremonial to Professionallocked

Sri Lanka’s Military: From Ceremonial to Professionallocked

  • Ayesha SiddiqaAyesha SiddiqaCentre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS University of London


Civil–military relations (CMR) in Sri Lanka are an outgrowth of its military’s primary role of defending the state against domestic insurgencies. Historically devoid of any external threat, the main role of the Sri Lankan Army, which was the only active service at the time of independence of the island state in 1948, was ceremonial. Later, when the Air Force and Navy were also established, the role of the armed forces remained limited to policing. This function grew as a result of multiple insurgencies in the south, and later, north and northeast of the country. The CMR balance is defined by Sri Lanka’s politics. Successive governments have used the armed forces as a policy tool in enforcing a political philosophy that upholds Sri Lanka’s status as a Sinhala-Buddhist state. Over the years, the state was gradually transformed from its secular and semi-European character to predominantly, Sinhala-Buddhist. This resulted in the first coup attempt in 1962 by officers that were fearful of “Sinhalization” of the state, which went against the traditions the military had inherited. While the attempt failed, the political leadership speeded up the process of changing the ethnic balance in the armed forces through increasing Sinhala intake. Other policy changes like introducing Sinhalese as the only state language went against the inherited secular structure of the state. This caused a spike in internal tension that presented itself initially as a class conflict, and later morphed into ethnic contestation between the Sinhala and Tamil populations. The internal ethnic war that was fought from the 1970s onwards solidified both the Sinhala ethnic character of the state and the military.

These domestic conflicts have also defined the professionalism of the armed forces. While ensuring that the military remains under control, the civilian leadership invested both in making the armed forces professional and ethnically tilted toward the majority. This contradiction represents Sri Lanka’s politics and CMR balance. Since the 1980s with a rise in Tamil insurgency, successive governments in Colombo appreciated the need to professionalize the military to fight internal wars. More money was spent on honing the defense services’ capabilities. However, this capacity building ensured that the military and its military capacity would serve the political interest of the Sinhala elite and majority population, with little concern for the political rights of the Tamil. In this respect, Colombo’s politics is unrepresentative and its CMR balance makes for a model that can only be explained as positively favoring civilians if viewed only from the theoretician Samuel P. Huntington’s viewpoint as laid out in his book ‘The Soldier and the State’. This makes Sri Lanka’s case similar to those of other regional democracies like India where the majority ethnic group or the ruling elite partner uses the armed forces to enforce its legal and constitutional framework, which does not necessarily favor minority groups, or certain regions. Such a framework means that the CMR balance must be described as representing not a strong and stable democracy, but a weak democratic structure.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence

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