By Laksiri Fernando -
It has come from the horse’s mouth. Sri Lanka needs a “strategy for democratic resistance.” However, there can be several or multiple strategies for change and not one, at least at the beginning. Many have already aired their views and Dr Dayan Jayatilleka’s recent article is one among the others or a rejoinder to others. What would finally work is a matter for the history to decide. Of course history is not the fate of the providence, but a product of human efforts and forces. What needs to be avoided as much as possible is the clash of forces going in the same direction of reinstating democracy in the country while a healthy debate on theoretical and practical issues might be useful. Fierce debates are rather old fashioned and may be counterproductive.
Sarath Fonseka and the DNF made a premature effort at the last elections and got badly defeated. Except for his bitter personal experience, it was not clear in what direction that the Rajapaksa regime would proceed after the end of the war or in the second term. People wanted to give them a chance. It was not possible for those who supported the government’s effort in defeating the LTTE for good and valid reason to oppose Rajapaksa at that juncture. Even if the trends were correctly anticipated, a credible and effective opposition was practically premature. But after three years since then, defeating the LTTE is not the only criterion in determining the future of the country. Both democracy and economic development are decisive criteria. The general masses however might not grasp this reality instantly unless a credible opposition is launched.
Apart from the relative stability that is created after the defeat of the LTTE, there may be few marginal benefits that the general public accrued through the so-called economic development of the government. But the main benefits, by any assessment, are with the ruling political elite, politically related business classes and the new (corrupt) bureaucrats serving as intermediaries between business, politics and international operations. These are not difficult to see irrespective of the government propaganda but must be properly exposed by the opposition. On the spatial plane, these contrasts are more dramatic and indefensible affecting the majority of the people living in rural and minority areas. Sri Lanka is sure to face a ‘revolution of rising expectations’ soon on the economic front given the demonstration effect.
The political balance sheet so far is more pathetic than the economic balance sheet and the ‘authoritarian trend’ of the government perhaps is also in preparation for future economic fallout. The main thrust is related however to the way the war was waged against the LTTE. Unless and until this matter is properly addressed, the democratic forces in the country would not be able to unite the masses across the ethnic divide, thus not be a proper democratic force.
The first major deviation of the government after the war from a possible democratic and reconciliation path in my opinion was on the accountability issue. I say my opinion, to admit that there can be credible other opinions. Accountability issue of a war situation in any country is manifestly an international concern. It is a latent but potent force in reconciliation in a domestic context. The President first conceded to address the issue with the UN Secretary General and then backtracked on it.
Accountability issues are raised usually in different forms and on different interests. The proposed EU resolution before the Human Rights Council in 2009 went beyond the issues of legitimate accountability issues to denounce the war. The defeat of that resolution was necessary, skilfully handled by the then Ambassador Jayatilleka , on the basis of giving certain guarantees and assurances on reconciliation. But the victory over the resolution was taken as an excuse for neglecting accountability and reconciliation by the government for obvious reasons. The rest is history and towards blatant authoritarianism. Completely unnecessary or rather vindictive persecution of Sarath Fonseka, the 18th Amendment and the recent Impeachment against the Chief Justice are some of the landmarks in this process, in addition to the continuous violations of human rights of journalists, political activists, students and the minorities – religious and ethnic.
National and International
The struggle for democracy in any country is primarily a national struggle but not necessarily a nationalist one. Democracy is not in essence a national phenomenon but an international one. The Janasammathawadaya that Mahinda Chinthana talks about is not democracy but authoritarianism on the basis of popular sanction. Sri Lanka has already seen the debacle of fighting for democracy on the basis of nationalism in the 1956 revolution. Nationalism however defined is very easy to get degenerated into ethno-nationalism. This does not mean at all that a democratic struggle should be an anti-nationalist or an anti-nationalism movement. There are obvious national interests of the country that needs to be safeguarded and even promoted. Striking a balance between the pressures from the West and the East is a necessary perspective in an enlightened foreign policy for a country like Sri Lanka. There is a good measure of rational patriotism that is required for the national development. But patriotism is not a monopoly of the rulers or a blind obedience by the people for the ruling classes.
The power balance of the world has so much changed today, particularly in the economic sphere; Sri Lanka does not need to worry much about Western imperialism. Sri Lanka along with India has a strong tradition of seeking the popular support of the people in those countries, the Labour in particular, against any undue pressure from the British or the Western governments. As history has shown, not only the support of the people but also the governments might be necessary in certain measure in struggling against tyrannical movements or rulers in countries where democracy and human rights are at stake. In any event, a distinction needs to be made between what is inimical to the interests of the country and what is supportive of developing democracy in the country. If this understanding is met then any democracy movement in a country could easily work with international democratic forces in promoting democracy and human rights in the particular country. Sri Lanka has come to this stage.
It is obvious that international pressure is not a substitute for a hard national struggle for democracy. Those who wait for the ‘international community’ to sort out matters in the national context in order that they could have a cakewalk for power are terribly mistaken. What the international community could do varies and also is limited however it might be decisive in certain junctures. But this is not a reason to underestimate the importance of the international factor in democratic development. In a ‘classical model’ of human rights or democracy development in a country, as Richard P. Claude used to argue, the national mobilization is the sole and primary force. But even in the 18th century, the circulation of ideas and the ‘international environment’ propelled the democratic revolutions in America and France contiguously and a thinker like Thomas Paine used to influence both countries.
The relative weight of the international factor in democratic development, in a ‘neo-classical model,’ is more decisive today, after the Second World War, the formation of the UN and various other multilateral organizations such as the Commonwealth Association. There are conventions and international laws governing them. No state can exist without the attendant obligations of these realities or organizations. No Chinese Wall can circumvent these pressures. Both the government and the opposition should grasp these realities and act accordingly without being the proverbial ostrich. The revolution in IT has enhanced these processes to a great extent that no one can hide its head today in the national sand. It is in a context of China moving towards democracy, grudgingly though, Sri Lanka tries to emulate the past regimes of China or more correctly North Korea. It is possible that Mahinda Rajapaksa received his formative political education from Kim Il-sung rather than Mao Zedong in early seventies when his books were translated into Sinhala.
There are examples from our own region that signify the importance of international pressure or factor in transforming countries into democratic or semi-democratic pathways. Apart from the UN pressure, the ASEAN played a decisive role in releasing Cambodia from the remaining grip of Pol Pot after Vietnam decided to withdraw irrespective of the previous Chinese support for the Khmer Rouge. By this time even China had dropped its support for Pol Pot. Apart from the US, ASEAN again was a decisive factor in changing the political landscape of Myanmar or Burma, however you call it, in recent times again irrespective of the Chinese backing for the military or Tatmadaw. Recent Sri Lanka itself is an example and shows the interplay between national and international factors in forging a democratic opposition to the autocratic Rajapaksa regime.
The raising of the accountability issue by the UN Secretary General in May 2009 itself was an eye opener for many in the country for possible civilian atrocities during the war against terrorism. This must have encouraged the former Army Commander to defect among other factors and also to reveal the so-called ‘white flag incident’ although his political backers pressured him to withdraw some of the statements later. It is undoubtedly the impending appointment of an UN expert panel (Darusman Committee) that prompted the government to appoint its own LLRC. Its report again was the sustenance for the US to bring a resolution against Sri Lanka with the support of India at the last Human Rights Council session in March 2012. It should be noted that the US and India are the two main countries who backed the government in defeating terrorism. It is my contention that if not for that UNHRC resolution, the Chief Justice or the judiciary would not have got the necessary courage to assert the previously lost independence of the judiciary against the Rajapaksa regime that led to the impeachment confrontation thereafter. There was a considerable internal weakening of the regime after the resolution. There is no need to say that the lawyers’ movement against the impeachment, however vacillating it was, was encouraged by the international protest against the impeachment move.
There have been of course several domestic dynamics unrelated to the international pressure or dynamics. These have been crucially important. The defection of Karu Jayasuriya even before the end of the war revealed some of the vindictive and authoritarian tendencies within the regime. Hemakumara Nanayakkara also defected for the same or related reasons thereafter. During the local government and provincial council elections, internal rifts became aggravated and killer instincts of the regime became abundantly exposed with the murder of Bharatha Lakshman in Colombo. Kelaniya was a major flash point which has erupted again and again with several killings. These are in addition to the continuous human rights violations, abductions and disappearances both in the North and the South. There have been three key defections from the regime which might indicate the future directions. First was the former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka. Second was the Chief Justice, Dr Shirani Bandaranayake. Third is the former Ambassador, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka. All these have considerable ramifications.
There have been critical policy issues related to education that led to major trade union action by the university academics led by FUTA last year. Some of the decisions of the Supreme Court that angered the government also related to these policy matters. The so-called ethnic reconciliation was a non-starter without the government being able to credibly persuade the TNA to participate in the PSC. The nature of a PSC under the present regime was completely exposed during the impeachment saga. There are emerging but slow domestic and national dynamics against the regime after the 18th Amendment although there was no visible opposition to this outrage from any credible quarter at that time. Only the CP and the LSSP have accepted their decision to support the amendment as a mistake yet with dissent. It is a positive sign that the CP, the LSSP and the LP (Liberal Party) did not vote with the government on the impeachment motion. But they didn’t vote against the impeachment either. They are still lingering around the government for some reason and a major breakthrough for democratic resistance could be achieved only when they decisively break from the government and align with other oppositional forces.
There are of course several other issues in terms of strategy or manifesto. Not only the form but also the content of a ‘democratic manifesto’ is important. It would largely depend on how we understand the ‘democratic challenge of the country’ or the ‘nature of the present regime.’ Even if we agree on the importance of ‘necessary international solidarity’ for a democratic transformation then there would be the unanswered issue of how to counter the anti-international or anti-Western mobilizations which would be the modus operandi of anti-democratic and authoritarian forces based on archaic patriotism and parochial nationalism.
It is in the above context that Sri Lanka (both the government and the human rights lobby) would be going to Geneva in March to attend the UNHRC meeting. It is announced that Minister Mahinda Samarasingha would be leading the official delegation. He did the same last time, but I have seen on You Tube that Mr Mohan Pieris prompting him from his side even the actual pronunciation of some words when he was delivering the final statement! Perhaps Pieris was the chief mover and architect of all the HR defences of the government last time. Now this time he is the Chief Justice of course. Therefore, Geneva would miss him unless the Chief Justice himself is sent there to the Human Rights Council.
Last time the TNA was reluctant to go. I am not sure whether they would be going this time. I am raising this issue because Geneva 2 is going to be a decisive juncture for the future of democracy and human rights in Sri Lanka. It would also be interesting to know whether Prof. Rajiva Wijesingha and his Liberal Party or Council would be going to Geneva or not with their side show of ‘human rights and reconciliation.’ They were there last time. The next stage of polarization for democracy and (if I may say) dictatorship in Sri Lanka would be after March. It is my hope that the CP, the LSSP and the LP leave the government as soon as possible without confusing the people as to what strategy that they should adopt in defeating the authoritarian scheme of the government and upholding democracy and human rights.
If we want to find a leader who could challenge Mahinda Rajapaksa whose credentials are not tainted with any anti-patriotic deviations who would also be unhesitatingly willing to abolish the presidential system, then there can be few, but DEW Gunasekera might be the best choice not as a communist party or left candidate but a common candidate. There is also the historic precedent, the communist party during the war aligning with the Ceylon National Congress or the embryonic UNP. Although he has been a ‘communist,’ he has been one of the most liberal persons in politics in my personal view. Why not, even the democracy movement against the Rajapaksa autocracy might even get the China support in addition to the US sympathy!