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.