Rise Against the Machine: Sri Lanka’s Resistance Against the Third World Elite Commentary
AntanO, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Rise Against the Machine: Sri Lanka’s Resistance Against the Third World Elite

These days, the Sri Lankan rupee has fallen by almost 45 percent compared to the US dollar. Its foreign exchange reserves are nearly dry, having dropped below $1 billion. Meanwhile, the island nation has to repay debts of about $4 billion in the rest of this year, including a $1 billion international sovereign bond that matures in July 2022. Sri Lanka faces imminent default. Against this background, the World Bank is to provide $600 million in financial assistance to address the current economic crisis, while $400 million will be released shortly. 

The financial meltdown of the island nation impacts the most vulnerable in the country, as power cuts darken homes, people are forced to stand in miles-long lines outside petrol stations, and a medical crisis is triggered as pharmacies and hospitals do not have access to crucial drugs. School exams and newspapers have had to be canceled. The reason: government and media houses can’t afford the paper to print them on. Meanwhile, warnings have been issued that starvation could be imminent for the country’s 22 million residents.

The people are in the streets and the protests are growing—but is it going anywhere?

Accelerating Protests: A Cathartic Moment in Sri Lanka’s Post-Colonial History?

Sri Lanka sees the most powerful protests in decades: but where were these protests when the Tamils were slaughtered and Muslims persecuted? The protests seem to trigger the majority people, the Sinhala, as they suddenly realize that their own elites have plundered and embezzled money in cooperation with neocolonial masters such as China, India, and international financial institutions.

One commentator writes:

The protests have led to demands for reform in areas beyond the immediate financial crisis. At Gota Go Gama, demonstrators have set up people’s protest boards to address specific demands, such as abolishing the executive presidency as it currently exists, resetting the political system, and demilitarizing the country’s north and east, where Tamil people have long faced persecution. Protesters have also adopted platforms to address structural issues, such as constitutional reforms, parliamentary reforms, state-sanctioned violence (particularly against Tamil people in the north and east), threats to free press, and environmental justice.

However, the matter of the fact is: Sri Lanka is captured by a Third World elite that manipulates international law for its own benefit. The ones who are footing the bill for the state’s capture are the people. It was colonialism that allowed the members of the Third World elite to sit at the table with the former colonial masters and discuss a new international legal regime—much in the way and manner the former colonial masters wanted it to be. Colonialism might have ended, but not the colonial state. Third World elites aided, abetted and assimilated the Western hegemonic project, and, speaking with Frantz Fanon, rose to power by mimicking the colonial and neo-colonial masters. The Sri Lankan governing elite placed more emphasis on economic  development and neoliberal expansion. This development meant furtherance of industrialization and modernization while posing a threat to ethnic identity. In the end of the process, the state, not an ethnic group, was the “source of authority and recipient of allegiance.” The development state was not neutral; it was, rather, a forum of ethnic rivalry, elitist competition and where, finally, the seizure of power translated into ethnic domination.

Is There Any Role of International Law to Hold the Elite Accountable?

Prof. Muttucoomaraswamy Sornarajah writes:

Historically, international law has functioned as the instrument which condoned enslavement of the vast majority of the peoples of the world. The potential for the continuation of this instrumental use of international law remains, predisposing international lawyers of the Third World to view the discipline with suspicion, while recognising that it also has an immense potential for achieving good for humanity.

Emphasis, however, should be placed on civil society actors to achieve a shift in global justice: holding powers in the Western world and elite in the Third World to account. The Sri Lankan example has shown that modest changes were possible through international (legal) engagement, while using the civil society actors as the triggering mechanism; civil society actors are “[a]ctors in international politics, scaling up their impact beyond the local level.” In the era of development and globalization the violation of human rights is considered to be necessary requisite for growth, but in fact it is planned misery in constant and repetitive interaction between global corporatism and elites from the Global South. The formation of associations between domestic and foreign elites in their reciprocity accumulates wealth in their concentrated form with them. The exploitation of (Western) international law creates a conducive environment to this end, while internal injustices remain intact in terms of caste, gender, ethnicity, religion. To this end, the [p]owerless need to internalize rights language and rights claiming to be able to appeal to, and use, the language of international law effectively as sustained mobilization effort for change.”


The type of resistance goes beyond the usual protests observed and perhaps even welcomed by the Western world. To this end a commentator wrote a rather superficial, optimistic and Western observation of the developments in Sri Lanka: “These are signs of hope, and offer the battered country a real chance to rebuild its republic and its destiny 50 years after it was formed. The pathways to building a pluralistic and economically stable society are still unclear, but Sri Lankans are demanding change at a pace not seen in previous years.”

This commentator is plain wrong. The Rajapakse clan, like many Third World clans and elites, were not mistakes of history. Their loyalties lie with global financial capital. They are part and parcel of the manipulation of the international law and the perpetuation of hegemony. To build counter-hegemonic resistance, the population needs to realize that our resistance roots in common suffering at the hands of the elite that has used the differences in the country for their neoliberal paradigm of a post-colonial society. This neoliberal paradigm had assisted in building a world economy that submits to the Western institutions and international laws. Balakrishnan Rajagopal sketches out that we need to stay engaged in counter-hegemonic resistance. He states:

A fundamental requirement for a counter-hegemonic international law is to develop a critique of the fetishism of institutions. This is important for two reasons: first, to prevent an institutionalisation and consolidation of hegemony; and second, in that process, to prevent dissipation of much of the resistance to it.’

Only when the Third World peoples, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, realize the potential of their shared suffering and the liberation thereof from the post-colonial internal colonizer who mimics the external colonizer will these and other protests end colonialism. As Obi Okafor ascertains in his Report as the  Independent Expert on Human Rights and International Solidarity, the:

growing sense of economic insecurity affecting large segments of the population of many societies. This economic insecurity and the growing inequality in distribution of wealth represents a threat to the enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic and social rights. It also poses as significant a threat to the enjoyment of the right to human rights-based international solidarity.

When Third World peoples realize that these elites have put the economic security of the people at peril by using identity politics—it is only then when international law becomes truly international—and metamorphoses into the law of the peoples. 


Dr. Thamil Ananthavinayagan is a teaching associate in international human rights law at the University of Nottingham School of Law.


Suggested citation: Dr. Thamil Ananthavinayagan, Rise Against the Machine: Sri Lanka’s Resistance Against the Third World Elite, JURIST – Academic Commentary, May 9, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/05/thamil-ananthavinayagan-sri-lanka-resistance-against-third-world-elites/.

This article was prepared for publication by Katherine Gemmingen, JURIST Co-Deputy Executive Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org

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