Posted on September 16th, 2016


It has been suggested, and I think quite rightly, that the most valuable function of a public intellectual is to provide interesting and stimulating ideas for public discussion, which in turn can ground material changes, whether in politics, arts, science, or any other field, in order to benefit society as a whole.

In my view, Gunadasa Amarasekara’s new book, Sabyathva Rajya Kara (Towards a Civilizational State) does the above.  I shall briefly discuss the main idea in the book, and offer some comments thereon.

His idea has three components:  first, that the political system of Sri Lanka for the past sixty years—i.e. ‘Westminster’ model, party politics, ‘democracy’ and so on—has utterly failed.  Second, the reason for the said failure is that the said institutions, which were foisted on this country by the British, are inherently at odds with the cultural ethos of the majority of people of this country, i.e. the Sinhala-Buddhists.

Third, the solution to the above problem is to generate a system of governance that is in tune with the said cultural ethos, which is to say, through a Civilizational State.  As far as I understand it, by ‘Civilizational State’ what Dr. Amarasekara means is the set of institutions, customs and practices (or principles derived from same) that helped sustain a Sinhala-Buddhist kingdom in the island for roughly two thousand five hundred years.

With respect to the first point, I don’t think any contemporary observer of Sri Lankan politics will disagree with Dr. Amarasekara’s conclusions.  Here for instance are some of the things he says about the present stage of evolution of Sri Lankan politics, that is, after Mr. Sirisena came to power:

‘After attaining [the Presidency] he took over the leadership of the SLFP.  Using the powers of his office, but without any basis in law, he removed the then-serving Chief Justice and had the previous CJ, who had been removed from that office, re-appointed.  Though there was a Prime Minister at this time, he appointed a different one. By making use of the National List, he appointed to Parliament certain persons who had been rejected by the people at the polls, and through this consolidated his power.’[1]

Given the above facts, especially the last one, about consolidating power by exploiting the National List, (a Parliament formed through such a process is now attempting to introduce a new constitution to the country) it is, as I said, very difficult to disagree with Dr. Amarasekara’s conclusion that the political institutions the British left us (or slight modifications to same) have utterly failed.

I shall next turn to the reasons for the above failure, and here I think there’s room for debate.  There are two positions:  one, is the reason for the failure the inability of Sri Lankan politicians to make use of the relevant institutions competently?  Or, is it that those institutions are inherently unsuited to the local soil?  Dr. Amarasekera gives some cogent reasons as to why the answer is the latter.

In my view, the outcome of the debate is immaterial to the larger point Dr. Amarasekara is trying to make—i.e. the need for a Civilizational State.  Dr. Amarasekara points out that, the Sinhala-Buddhists had maintained a kingdom in the island for 2500 years, until 1815.  True, the kingdom retracted, and retreated at times in the face of numerous challenges, but it never died out, or was wholly extinguished, throughout that period.

If Sri Lankans, in the 60 years since independence, have come to the present predicament by relying on the best ideas on government the West has to offer, it makes sense that they should look to their own traditions, see how their ancestors managed a polity for 2500 years, and extract some lessons that might be useful in finding a way out of the present mess.

The third and final part of Dr. Amarasekara’s argument, his call for a system of governance based on a Civilizational model, is the controversial part of his book.  I shall briefly discuss two objections that I expect critics, particularly in the West, to make to his proposal.  I make these observations as someone who, for better or worse, was educated in the West, and like to think I understand something of how the ‘Western mind’ works.

Dr. Amarasekara bases his concept of a Civilizational State on an idea advanced by Samuel Huntington in his book, the Clash of Civilizations.  Huntington’s idea, as far as I understand it, is that certain cultural paradigms distinguish large segments of the world’s population, that these paradigms are inherently incompatible with each other, and such incompatibilities will be the primary source of conflict in the post Cold War world.

By implication, each civilization must rely on its own cultural resources not only to survive, but to progress and develop to its highest potential.  When this idea was first propounded (if I recall, in 1993 or so) there was a furor.  Huntington’s supporters argued that he had identified a realistic way in which one could go about addressing some of the major problems in the world.

His detractors, on the other hand, argued that if one accepted the idea of a fundamental ‘clash of civilizations’ it locked one into considering the relevant segments of the world’s population as perpetual antagonists or enemies, which is not only unhealthy, but unhelpful to solving any problem.

They also pointed out that, ‘civilizations’ were not monolithic, and the historical record showed that every civilization had borrowed from, or been nourished by, other civilizations, hence there was no factual basis for saying there were insurmountable incompatibilities between them.

To turn to Sri Lanka, a critic will say that, if Dr. Amarasekara’s idea becomes a reality it will split this country into hostile camps, i.e. Sinhala-Buddhists, Tamils, Muslims, etc. for perpetuity.  Such a situation (they will say) will only exacerbate the problems of this country, not solve them.

The present review is not intended as a critique of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis, or to assess its relevance to Sri Lanka.  I can only say that, as far as my reading of Dr. Amarasekara’s book is concerned, his use of the idea of a Civilizational State is for its regenerative power, that is, its capacity for inspiring or instigating creative thinking among the Sinhalas, in order to generate lasting solutions to present-day problems.

Dr. Amarasekara emphasizes that the Civilizational State he proposes has to be accompanied by a parallel cultural revival.  He says, for instance:

‘Because the cultural invasion that the Foreigner carried on for two centuries, and which the ‘Macaulay Generation’ that he created carries on to this day, what we have today is a nation of persons who are devoid of any civilizational understanding, and are in effect ‘headless.’  Until a ‘head’ is fixed on these people, it is impossible to think of going towards a Civilizational State, let alone any other journey [towards national liberation]’

‘In the first half of the last Century, Anagarika Dharmapala launched his ‘Cultural Revival’ because he understood this.  He realized that no national liberation was possible in this country until the cultural knowledge that lay dormant in the minds of people, was re-awakened….What we must do today is to start where he [Dharmapala] left off’[2]

To repeat, Dr. Amarasekara’s idea of a Civilizational State involves re-awakening or rejuvenating a cultural tradition dormant within the Sinhalas:  the idea (if I understand it correctly) is that the said re-awakening will result in a renewed vibrancy in the intellectual and moral climate of the country, and it is this vibrancy that is expected to produce the relevant solutions.

It follows that, if there is friction with other groups, the creative forces unleashed by the revival will prompt novel solutions to such situations as well—solutions, at any rate, possibly better that the ones that imported modalities of thought have produced thus far.

The second objection that I think a critic will make is that Dr. Amarasekara is proposing a return to Nativism, or Ultra-Conservatism, and the danger in this is that it can lead—and indeed has led in various countries—to evil, for instance, to Fascism, Nazism, and so on.  Is it possible that Dr. Amarasekara’s idea can be exploited by some demagogue (or politico, as the case may be) in order to do evil?

I have two replies.  First, a public intellectual can be expected to present ideas, but they cannot be expected to anticipate, far less control, the uses for which those ideas may be put by others.

Second, and more important, I think that as a substantive matter Dr. Amarasekara’s idea is not amenable to being exploited by demagogues, because of the following reason.  As pointed out earlier, Dr. Amarasekara’s idea is predicated on there being a parallel cultural revival.

To the best of my knowledge, a cultural revival involves a process that goes far beyond people merely collecting information about their history and culture and being proud of the accomplishments of their ancestors.  A cultural revival, in essence involves a transformation within each individual member of a culture, whereby they change, at a fundamental level, their basic outlook on the world.  Such a process, by definition, requires intense introspection on the part of each individual.

I am hardly an expert on group behavior, or the dynamics of mobs, but it seems to me that, where demagogues have succeeded in firing-up a crowd by exploiting culture and history, it is by evoking the grandeur of the past in order to trigger various emotional responses in the hearers.  In such situations, I don’t see the hearers engaging in introspection.  In fact, it seems to me that, introspection on the part of the hearers will work counter to the purposes of the demagogue.

In any event, to turn to the question of whether Dr. Amarasekara’s idea can be exploited by a demagogue, or politico, in order to gain some nefarious end, in my view, if the ‘Civilizational State’ is understood as something that has to be accompanied by a cultural revival also, it is not amenable to such abuse.

In sum, Dr. Amarsekara has put in play a very powerful idea.  It is up to the Sinhalas to decide what they do with it.

Dharshan Weerasekera is an Attorney-at-Law.  His latest book, The Relevance of American Constitutional Principles to Solving Problems of Governance in Sri Lanka, will be in bookstores shortly.



[1] Gunadasa Amarasekara, Sabyathva Rajya Kara, Visidhunu, Colombo, 2016, Pg. 9

[2] Ibid, pg. 50


  1. Christie Says:

    We are a colony of the Indian Empire.

  2. AnuD Says:

    systems failed it is because of the people. there are no checks and balances to remove thieves, criminals, con-artists. System protects them.

    change the system to make that criminals, thugs, rapists, financial fraudsters are jailed and not allowed.

    then everything changes.

    Until that nothing will works

  3. Christie Says:

    look since 1956 except for few years ; Dudley and Mahnda, the country was run by India and Indian colonial parasites. The economy is in the hands of Indian colonial parasites merchants. The Sinhalese have only politics and are financed by Indians. Unless we unite and stand up to the Indian colonial empire we will die away,

  4. Charles Says:

    A Nation I think is identified by its culture. The culture is invariably related to the religion or the belief system of that nation. There are conquests, incursions or immigration into a nation state which introduces other cultures and belief system by force in case of conquests, but the culture of the nation state remains intact by other cultures or belief systems though it cannot stay without being influenced without integration by certain aspects of other cultures and religions that have come into its midst. However the main culture and the belief system of that nation state will remain protected, accepted as its identifying culture. That would be its primary identity with other culture coexisting without putting into danger the original culture with which the nation State is identified.

    Applying this to Sri Lanka it should be identified as a Sinhala Buddhist nation . The other cultures in the country like Christianity which was forced into it. Hinduism and Islamisms brought in through incursions, and immigration all coexist within the Sinhala Buddhist Culture. The constitution accepts the system lays down the methodology of its functioning. But the constitution cannot be adjusted enable reconciliation with communities, because it is the communities that should adopt and accept the Constitution of the Nation State. If that is what is happening then it could be the Sabyathva Rajya.

    Democracy is of course a foreign invention introduced to our country by the British. Once it has been accepted into the political system it has to be accepted and introduced in all political activities by the Nation State composed of the communities that make up the Nation State along with its original people of the culture with with Sri Lanka is identified.

    But it is an aberration of this concept to accept the proposal suggested in a recent Derana TV Programme Aluth Paralimenthuvak by TNA Parliamentarian Sumanthiran, that a new constitution should be written removing the 9th Article with protects Buddhism as the foremost religion as it provides a special privilege to the Sinhala Community, which is denied to other communities. He argues that the Tamils had not been given their rightful place since independence, being treated as second class citizens. Wignesvaran the Chief Minister of the North Provincial Council . North and East should be exclusively Tamil Provinces and the new Constitution should be a Federal constitution in which the rights of the Tamil people are expressly stated. That would be very far from Sabyathva Rajya.

    Strangely the Yahapalana leadership seems not averse to these suggestions.

  5. Fran Diaz Says:

    Ever since Colonisation commenced in 1505, and particularly with British rule in Lanka, the Colombo vs rural areas were set in place. The British ‘divide & rule’ succeeded up to a point. When parts of the Ruling Class sees their own rural folk as people apart from themselves, then that country is in danger of being re-colonised.

    How is the country thus divided to be brought together again ?

    Here are a few practical ideas :

    (a) Using the Buddhist Teachings, we propose that Buddhist Meditation be introduced to all schools that will accept Meditation. Ought to be compulsory in govt schools i.e. classes are offered and children who participate given special credits. Schools can have mixed school classes so that the different ethnic groups can meet in the Meditation room.

    Also, teach Buddhist Meditation to all adults who wish to learn it, from every sphere of life. This is now done to some extent, but ought to be govt sponsored.

    (b) Govt should guide all citizens to be aware of Climate Change & Global Warming. What can ordinary citizens do to combat these life threatening events ?

    (c) Air, Water & Food Supply : Govt can bring awareness to all citizens on How to Keep the Air, Water & Food Supply clean.

    (d) Patriotism : Ought to be taught to all youngsters, whatever ethnicity.

    I am sure there are many more ideas. Let us all participate in Joyful and Trustworthy Reunion !

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