The civil service in Sri Lanka was established during the colonial period and in the late 1980s continued to operate in accordance with well-established British precedents. It was hierarchical in structure. At the apex of the hierarchy was a well-defined elite, the Sri Lanka Administrative Service, which was composed of talented men and women chosen by competitive examination. They were well-educated generalists, expected to take a broad perspective in their work in contrast to specialist personnel operating on the lower ranks of the hierarchy. They enjoyed tremendous prestige. Because government employment on practically all levels offered economic security as well as status, competition for civil service and other government positions remained intense. One of the most important sources of Tamil disaffection from the Sinhalese-dominated political system has been their perception that government service opportunities for members of their community were decreasing. This view is borne out by statistics: in the administrative service, the number of Tamil officeholders declined from 11.1 percent of the total during the 1970-77 period to only 5.7 percent during the 1978-81 period. Spokesmen for the Sinhalese majority have asserted that the British traditionally favored the employment of Tamils over Sinhalese in the colonial bureaucracy and that the declining Tamil percentages reflected an equitable redressing of the balance. The percentage during 1978-81, however, was substantially lower than Sri Lankan Tamils' percentage of the total population (12.6 percent in 1985).
Especially since the early 1970s, the civil service has been subject to intense political pressures. Under the British-style 1946 constitution, the highest-ranking appointed officials in the government were the secretaries attached to each ministry. But after the adoption of the 1972 constitution, secretaries have been political appointees. This change and the dynamics of patron-client politics have compromised both the bureaucracy's claim of political neutrality and the quality of its staff. The power of patronage means that each member of Parliament has jobs, ranging from professional positions like school teachers or engineers, to clerkships and menial labor, which the members can distribute freely to followers. The eclipse of Tamil influence in Parliament has meant that such benefits were not generally available to the Tamil community.
In the late 1980s, about 25 percent of all employment in Sri Lanka was in the public sector. In addition to the civil service, this proportion included the police, the armed forces, and public corporations, which continued to dominate the economy despite Jayewardene's liberalization policies since 1977.
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