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DeVotta, Neil. “South Asia Faces the Future: Illiberalism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka.” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 1 (2002): 84-98.


Despite 19 years of ethnic conflict, Sri Lanka’s political, civic, and religious leaders have failed–or refused–to see that their actions have poisoned interethnic relations and engendered a stubborn and cruel civil war.

The cancer that eats at Sri Lanka’s political life is “ethnic outbidding”: the auction-like process whereby Sinhalese politicians strive to outdo one another by playing on their majority community’s fears and ambitions. This “outbidding” has plunged the Sinhalese government in Colombo and the Tamil rebels who control parts of the northeast into a protracted conflict. There is no peace, and democracy has been reduced to a hollow shell. Democratic forms and institutions have been preserved for appearance’s sake, while the essentials of true constitutional liberalism–the rule of law; limited government; free and fair elections; and the freedoms of assembly, speech, and religion–have been perverted, crippled, or destroyed in an atmosphere of ethnic hatred. 1

Under normal circumstances, universal-suffrage elections, party politics, and elite competition are crucial for democracy. In Sri Lanka, however, misguided or malicious leaders have used these democratic mainstays to perpetrate ethnic conflict and gain politically. While in formal terms Sri Lanka may be a consolidated democracy, having managed the requisite two peaceful turnovers of power more than four decades ago, the actuality is sadly different. For if we ask whether the rules governing formal democratic processes are consistently observed by all parties, we can see just how badly ethnic particularism and outbidding have dominated the country’s politics since the mid-1950s and undercut democratic consolidation.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.