Political Economies of Illiberal Peacebuilding in Asia

Dr Lars Waldorf
University of York
Dr Claire Smith
University of York


This project aims to increase our understanding about how to bring about peace after violent conflict. Peacebuilding policy and practice is dominated by efforts to build liberal democracies and free markets, despite mixed results in places like Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Timor-Leste. Peacebuilding scholarship is also very normative and overly focused on this liberal paradigm. What is mostly overlooked is how some post-conflict states have taken a very different route to peace, using illiberal means to achieve political stability, physical security, and economic growth over the medium-term. The pressing questions are whether illiberal methods can create durable peace and openings for future liberalization. These questions can best be answered using a political economy approach that draws on recent scholarship on political settlements and political marketplaces.

The project will fund a workshop to stimulate innovative and collaborative research into illiberal peacebuilding in Asia. There is very little theorizing or comparative work on illiberal peacebuilding so the workshop can help fill that gap. The workshop will bring together 10 early-career and established researchers from different disciplines and different methodological approaches to look at specific case studies and cross-cutting themes. The workshop is being held in Sri Lanka as that offers an opportunity to engage in knowledge exchange with local researchers, policymakers, and peacebuilders as that country makes a tentative shift from illiberal to more liberal peacebuilding. The workshop has three components: a one-day public conference on Sri Lanka’s peacebuilding, a one-day closed workshop, and a three-day “peacebuilding tour” of the north.

This project helps further ISRF’s goals by promoting a cross-fertilization of social science disciplines in tackling one of today’s most pressing problems: the search for sustainable peace after conflict. It addresses this specific call by applying a political economy lens to illiberal peacebuilding.

The Research Idea

This project will help fund a workshop in Sri Lanka to advance innovative and inter-disciplinary scholarship on illiberal peacebuilding in Asia. Most of the peacebuilding literature is dominated by debates over the “liberal peace” – the policy prescription of liberal democracy and economic neo-liberalism for sustainable peace in conflict-affected states. Consequently, the focus is on states where the United Nations, NATO, and/or Western donors have played large roles. What has been largely overlooked is how some conflict-affected states successfully use illiberal peacebuilding – a mix of authoritarianism and neo-patrimonialism – to successfully maintain peace. Even democratic states, such as India and Indonesia, engage in illiberal peacebuilding when confronting sub-national conflicts. The only comparative studies of illiberal peacebuilding focus solely on sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, this project simultaneously addresses the need for more comparative theory-building about illiberal peace and more Asian case studies.

The workshop will address several key research questions:

• Why do some regimes select illiberal peacebuilding?
• How do the policies and practices of illiberal peacebuilding vary across different states and why? In particular, why are some illiberal peacebuilding processes more “liberal” than others?
• What is the frictional engagement between illiberal and liberal peacebuilding at the international, regional, national, and local levels?
• How durable is illiberal peace? What are the positive and negative outcomes of illiberal peacebuilding, and how do we explain that variation?

We will apply a political economy approach in tackling these questions, making use of recent work on political settlements and political marketplaces.


Since 2000, the international community has pushed a liberal peacebuilding agenda in conflict-affected states with very mixed results. Scholars have weighed in, with some championing and others challenging liberal peacebuilding (e.g. Campbell et al. 2011; Paris and Sisk 2009). An influential strand of “critical peacebuilding” has focused attention on how the international model of liberal peacebuilding is resisted and re-negotiated by local actors, giving rise to more “hybrid” peacebuilding (e.g. Mac Ginty, 2011; Richmond and Mitchell 2012). This turn to the local has prompted a disciplinary shift from international relations to political sociology as well as a methodological shift from quantitative to ethnographic studies (e.g. Björkdahl et al. 2016; Millar 2014). Still, Roland Paris (2010) astutely observes that hybrid peacebuilding mostly critiques the practices rather than the liberalism of liberal peacebuilding. The upshot is that scholars have largely ignored illiberal peacebuilding.

Prominent proponents of liberal peacebuilding have quickly dismissed illiberal peacebuilding as “problematic” (Paris 2004: 180) or “normatively unappealing” (Call 2012: 219). Meanwhile, prominent critics have largely conceptualized the local as emancipatory or “post-liberal” rather than illiberal (see Nadaraja and Rampton 2015). This inattention to illiberal peacebuilding is all the more surprising given the number of post-conflict states that have achieved peace through authoritarian, developmental, and neo-patrimonial means which oppose, parallel, or engage the international community’s liberal peacebuilding efforts.

The Focus

This project will take some of the theoretical and methodological insights from hybrid peacebuilding and apply them to illiberal peacebuilding in Asia. The reasons for focusing on Asia are three-fold. There are interesting case studies in Cambodia, northeast India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Also, there are tentative shifts from illiberal to liberal peacebuilding in transitioning states, such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Finally, the only comparative work on illiberal peacebuilding has focused on a few states in sub-Saharan Africa (de Oliveira 2013; De Waal 2015).

The project comparatively examines variations in illiberal peacebuilding across Asian states in terms of political, institutional, economic, legal, and social dynamics. First, it looks at the different political settlements and political marketplaces at play. Second, the project explores the varying strength of informal institutions (such as patrimonialism and corruption) that operate outside the formal legal sphere. Third, it seeks to understand how illiberal transitions from war to peace economies lead to variations in developmentalism, primitive accumulation, and horizontal inequalities. Fourth, it examines different manifestations of illiberal rule by law and their impact on the legal disempowerment of ordinary people. Finally, it investigates why some forms of illiberal peacebuilding are more inclusive of ethnic and religious minorities than others.

Theoretical Novelty

This project addresses a large gap in the existing peacebuilding scholarship, which has been dominated by liberal and hybrid peacebuilding theory. Recent case studies – including work by the PI and co-PI on Rwanda and Indonesia, respectively – have shown how illiberal processes play important roles in peacebuilding (de Olivera 2011; Smith 2014; Venugopal 2015; Waldorf 2015). These processes include consolidating elite/military power, shrinking civil society space, fostering oligarchic/neo-patrimonial economies, and practicing rule by law and victor’s justice. In some instances, these illiberal methods have succeeded in strengthening state institutions, forging political stability, and boosting economic growth. Of course, they can also produce human rights violations, increased inequality, and corruption, but then too so can liberal peacebuilding – as demonstrated in Afghanistan (Ponzio 2011), Iraq (Vermeer 2009), and Kosovo (Knudsen and Lausten 2006).

Illiberal peacebuilding is very under-theorized: it is more descriptive category than analytical tool at the moment (e.g. de Olivera 2011). This project aims to engage in inductive theory-building using multiple case studies in Asia, while also drawing on comparative studies of illiberal peacebuilding in Africa (de Oliveira 2013; De Waal 2015). More specifically, we need to develop a theory that will explain: why and when states adopt illiberal peacebuilding; variations in methods and outcomes; its hybridization with international and local peacebuilding norms and practices; and, most importantly, the durability of illiberal peace.


The project will adopt a comparative, political economy approach to illiberal peacebuilding. This involves paying attention to political settlements (especially in peace agreements) and political marketplaces (Bell 2015; De Waal 2015; Di John and Putzel 2009).

The project brings together a mix of early career researchers and prominent academics across various disciplines (and methodological approaches):

• Sanjib Baruah (Bard College/Politics) – India
• Alex de Waal (LSE and Tufts/Anthropology) – Sudan, South Sudan
• Rachael Diprose (Melbourne/Development Studies) – Indonesia
• Professor Caroline Hughes (Bradford/Peace Studies) – Cambodia
• Professor Duncan McCargo (Leeds/Politics) – Thailand
• Professor Chaw Chaw Sein (University of Yangon/Politics) – Myanmar
• Dr. Claire Smith (York/Politics) – Indonesia/Timor-Leste
• Professor Jayaveda Uyangoda (University of Colombo/Politics) – Sri Lanka
• Dr. Rajesh Venugopal (LSE/International Development) – Sri Lanka
• Dr. Lars Waldorf (York/Law) – Rwanda

The workshop is being held in Sri Lanka for several reasons. First, it was a prime example of illiberal peacebuilding under the Rajapaksa government (Goodhand et al. 2011; Höglund & Orjuela 2012). Second, 2016 is a critical year for Sri Lanka with consultations for constitutional reform to resolve ethnic conflict at the forefront of policy debate. Third, as discussed below, the workshop is designed to have public outreach and research components in a conflict-affected state. Finally, Colombo is approximately midway between the UK and Australia so a less costly venue for our participants to travel to.

Work Plan

This proposal builds on an earlier (though differently themed) workshop in Myanmar in summer 2015 that received seed-funding from York, LSE, and Australian National University. The Sri Lanka workshop will follow a similar format and mostly involve the same scholars. It will be hosted by a local academic: in this instance, Professor Jayaveda Uyangoda at the University of Colombo and the Social Sciences Association. The workshop has three components. It will start with a one-day conference at the university that brings together policymakers, donors, civil society representatives, researchers, and students for a public discussion of peacebuilding in Sri Lanka. The second day will involve a closed workshop where the scholars listed above will present papers on their case studies or specific themes. Finally, the workshop will end with a three-day “peacebuilding tour” of the north-east region of Jaffna to meet with various officials and NGO staff.

The intended outputs from the workshop are: (1) draft articles for a Special Issue in Journal of Peacebuilding and Development; (2) agreed strategy for a large, comparative research bid; and (3) knowledge exchange with scholars and policymakers in Sri Lanka.

The proposed time-line is:

15 December 2016: PI and co-PI to circulate draft articles and draft research strategy
4 January 2017: Public conference at University of Colombo
5 January 2017: Closed workshop at the Social Sciences Association
6-8 January 2017: Peacebuilding tour of Jaffna
1 June 2017: Submission of Special Issue to journal
1 September 2017: Submit research grant to ESRC open call


This project has two longer-term outcomes. The first is to develop a collaborative network of researchers working on illiberal peacebuilding. The Sri Lanka workshop will reinvigorate the initial collaboration begun at the Myanmar workshop in 2015 with many of the same participants attending. It will provide an important opportunity for participants to share individual case studies, draw comparative lessons, and begin theory-building while, at the same time, learning from stakeholders involved in peacebuilding efforts in Sri Lanka. The workshop will also generate a Special Issue that, in turn, will stimulate further research into illiberal peacebuilding. While our initial focus is on Asia, we plan to use the workshop to begin seeking out larger grants and wider collaborations to enable comparative research across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The second outcome is to produce research and publications that inform the policies and practices of peacebuilding. It has become painfully clear that liberal peacebuilding is unlikely to produce free elections and free markets in the absence of inclusive political settlements, civil society space, and citizen demand. This makes it all the more necessary to figure out how the international community can encourage illiberal peacebuilders to be less illiberal or to foster conditions (e.g. stability and security) that may allow for more liberal outcomes.