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In the Eye of the Storm: Sri Lanka's Front-Line Civil Servants in Transition


  • Bart Klem

    1. is completing a PhD on the transition associated with the end of the war in eastern Sri Lanka. He works in the Political Geography section of the University of Zurich, Switzerland ( More widely, he has a research interest in the socio-political dynamics of war-torn and post-war societies. Alongside scholarly ethnographic work, he is engaged in policy-oriented research (
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The fieldwork for this article benefited tremendously from support by Jasmy and Shahul Hasbullah. Constructive feedback on earlier versions from Harini Amarasuriya, Sarah Byrne, Michelle Engeler, Georg Frerks, Urs Geiser, Jonathan Goodhand, Tobias Hagmann, Benedikt Korf, Ariel Sanchèz Meertens, Jonathan Spencer, and two anonymous reviewers is gratefully acknowledged. The research was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (ProDoc, grant no. PDFMP1-123181/1).


This article narrates how bureaucrats in eastern Sri Lanka operated during and after the war. They managed to keep minimal state services running whilst being locked between the government and the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). When the government defeated the LTTE in 2009, civil servants were freed from rebel coercion, but they also lost their counterweight against unappreciated policies from the capital and interference by local politicians. The article links the thinking on armed conflicts with the literature that conceptualizes ‘the state’ not as a coherent entity, but as a subject of continuous negotiation. The state's insigne provides a sense of legitimacy and supremacy, but governments have no monopoly on using it. Other powerful actors capture state institutions, resources and discourse for contradictory purposes. This perspective helps us reconcile the appearance of bureaucratic order with the peculiar and hybrid forms of rule that emerged in the war between rebels and government, and it sheds light on some of the surprising changes and continuities that occurred when that war ended. Public administration is neither just a victim of war, nor plainly a victor of the post-war situation.