Educated Unemployed Youth in Postwar Sri Lanka: Saman’s Story

From the Series: The Politics of “Postconflict”: On the Ground in South Asia

Photo by Sara Shneiderman.

In 2009, the nearly thirty-year-old war between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended with the defeat of the LTTE. Many young people, such as the one around whose story this essay is constructed, saw the end of war as promising new opportunities for the future. But what I found while conducting research with young, educated unemployed Sinhala youth in Colombo was that the hope they held out for secure employment and better futures was also tinged with an ongoing sense of dejection that so-called peacetime had not curbed. As they saw it, the encroachment of politics on state employment opportunities—and, increasingly, on private-sector employment—contributed to a disappointing gulf between their aspirations and their lived realities. They respond to this situation through what I call skilling up, relentlessly chasing after further skills and qualifications in the hope that their extra efforts, coupled with their university education, will help them to secure decent employment and better futures.

Young people in many ways suffered the worst of the war, as government soldiers or guerrilla combatants on the front line and through missed educational and employment opportunities. Furthermore, prior to the war, the postindependence government was entangled in two other violent conflicts with educated, unemployed, young Sinhala militants from marginalized backgrounds, led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front). Grievances regarding state power and politics, exclusion, resource distribution, and access to quality education and employment underpinned all of these conflicts. Many of the grievances persist, making postconflict peace fragile. Paying attention to young people’s attitudes toward politics is therefore key to the success of any attempt to promote sustainable peace.

Saman’s story illustrates the struggles of educated, unemployed young people in postconflict Sri Lanka. Saman grew up in a small border village in the north squeezed between the ferocious fighting of the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE. The son of Sinhala Buddhist peasant farmers, his childhood was marked by war, poverty, and disrupted education. Sleepless nights spent hiding in the jungle or bunkers, poverty exacerbated by war, chronic teacher absenteeism, and the conversion of his school into a refugee camp adversely impacted his education. Nevertheless, Saman was determined to make it to university, driven by the desire to leave his village and secure a decent job that would uplift his family. He was finally admitted to a university in greater Colombo, where he was pursuing his degree when the war ended in 2009.

When I met Saman three years later, he was a dejected twenty-six-year-old unemployed graduate. Saman and his family had invested hope in the “transformative potential” (Jeffery, Jeffery, and Jeffery 2008, 76) of education, considering it the only means available to escape violence and poverty. But, in reality, Saman’s life as an educated young man was marked by a series of disappointments. Saman remained in Colombo after completing his degree, doing various temporary service-sector jobs while he continued to seek secure employment. He barely made enough money to get by. Saman described his current existence as one of degidiyāwa (uncertainty) and anxiety about the future. He felt unable to move forward with his life due to his lack of decent employment. He couldn’t economically support his family, build a house, or get married. Caught in a liminal place between youth and adulthood, Saman sought to improve his marketability by attending courses in English, information technology, and human resources.

Saman, like many others, aspired to a job in the state sector. But he identified the stranglehold of politics (dēshapālanaya) on the employment sector, entailing recruitment based on political patronage, nepotism, and corruption, to be the key barrier he faced here. Saman considered these barriers to be an injustice (asādhāranakama) wrought on young people like himself. While political patronage primarily applied to securing work in the state sector, the increasing entanglement of politicians and their relatives in private businesses postwar has caused politics to creep into the private sector too. When I asked Saman why he didn’t cultivate links with politicians to secure a job, he responded: “We can’t keep our good character and engage in such work!”

Many educated Sinhala youth explained to me that politics is a dirty and dangerous game, seeing involvement in it as immoral and even shameful. Involvement in politics would compromise not only one’s moral standing but also the dignity conferred upon an individual by education. These youth drew my attention to the greed and belligerence of politicians, including fighting and shoot-outs between political factions, explaining this with a sense of disillusionment, disenchantment, and apathy. Saman expressed profound concern about the future degeneration of the country, due to the mismanagement of incompetent and corrupt politically appointees. He stated: “The state must stop the interference of politics in employment. But this will never happen . . . no matter what party comes into power it is the same . . . . You can’t break this system.”

Saman, nevertheless, maintained hope for the future and held firmly onto the belief that in five years he would be in “a good place,” with a secure state job and married with a family. Despite his disaffection with the state and politics, Saman nonetheless held out for the government to deliver the promised fruits of education, a civil service job. To this end he continued busying himself with skilling up.

Like Saman, the Sri Lankan state is in a liminal place. During the postconflict period, it has failed to address the fundamental grievances that fueled its postindependence conflicts. This situation has created much uncertainty, causing people like Saman to have an ambivalent relationship with the state. Despite his morally charged critique of “dirty politics,” he invests hope for his future in the prospect of the state providing him with a fundamental resource (stable employment) and the social capital that would go with it (Spencer 2007). Skilling up enables young people like Saman to garner a sense of control over dynamics that are beyond their power. It is a future-oriented mode of being for unemployed youth, an important means through which they give meaning to and negotiate a postconflict context ridden with uncertainty and anxious liminality (see also Snellinger 2011).


The research for this essay was conducted as part of a project titled “Alchemists of the Revolution? The Politics of Educated Unemployed Youth” and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.


Jeffrey, Craig, Patricia Jeffery, and Roger Jeffery. 2008. Degrees Without Freedom? Education, Masculinities and Unemployment in North India. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Snellinger, Amanda. 2011. “Space within Limits: How Nepali Student Activists Orient Themselves in the Political Landscape.” Paper presented to the Anthropology and Sociology Department, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., April 21.

Spencer, Jonathan. 2007. Anthropology, Politics, and the State: Democracy and Violence in South Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press.