By Anura K. T. De Silva –
Many debate if Democracy suits all countries, if Democracy should be uniquely tailored to each country or if Democracy should be a universal panacea as there is ample evidence of successful and failed nations that are democratic. Therefore, it is important to understand the fundamental principles of Democracy before we can determine the merits of Democracy for some of the people some of the time or all the people all the time.
It is widely accepted that the fundamental principles of Democracy are Liberty, Equality and Justice for all rather than for a majority or a few as did the British colonizers. Interestingly, those core values of Democracy are rooted in the Buddha’s teachings as they both interpret life based on reason and rationality to elevate what it needs to be human and to derive social justice. Therefore, we need them both simultaneously to succeed in this modern world where we can live with dignity, life and justice and to collectively face global challenges. While Democracy is needed to develop the environment through ethics & institutions, Buddhist teachings help to develop the individual. It is evident from history, that there have even been feudalists, monarchs and emperors who have brought peace and order by embracing the teachings of Buddha. What is important to note is that the Buddha’s teachings contain advice to rulers about self governance, warnings about the dire consequences of allowing to be ruled by others, and how corruption, fraud and crime can hurt an entire society. In the realm of political practice, teachings of Buddha can genuinely influence governments as a source of their true authority and legitimacy. But even though many nations in Asia understand their governments to have a duty to rule in a way that is consistent with Buddha’s teachings, only a few nations have truly done so, but instead use a twisted form of the teachings as an ‘ism’ (ie Buddhism) to propagate political ideologies.
When an element of democracy (ex: universal franchise in 1931) was introduced to colonial Ceylon, the colonial rulers ensured that their powers were not threatened and power always concentrated at the top rather than among the people. Therefore, voting was mostly controlled by the elite minority as the majority of voters were enslaved by the landowners who colluded with the political elites. Once power was transferred from the colonial masters in 1948, the local power elite continued to follow the same elitist systems for the benefit of the local elites, while institutionally ignoring the needs and wishes of the common people. As a result, the totalitarian system of governance of the colonizers was transferred to an autocratic rule instead of transforming to establish new foundations and pillars needed for democracy in the new nation.
Hence, our forefathers in each ethnicity never utilized the strengths in our diversity and deprived the talents of the vast majority for political mileage. Therefore, our nation was born through a totalitarian mother but with many fathers that ranged from monarchism, elitism, militarism, despotism, theocracy, tyranny and oligarchy of illegitimate power elites who continued to regard the general public as adulterated orphans rather than as cohesive citizens. As colonial subjugation and social divisions continued, the general public never gained their right of place in society even after independence. As a result, the nation squandered to advance universal human values even after gaining independence that has now resulted in our current economic decay and a dysfunctional political system all rooted in various forms of exclusions, oppressions and subordination.
Hence, as the British colonials handed over independence to a cartel of brown colonials who used twisted forms of Buddha’s teachings and Democracy to fuel nationalism, superiority, division and servitude to grab and hold on to political power. Their goal was to safeguard elitism rather than to be guardians/custodians of the people towards developing a new set of fundamental values in the new nation’s psyche. Therefore, Ceylon adopted a bad system led by bad decision makers stagnated with colonial sins of false promises, false democracy and untruths, heavily diverted from the teachings of Gauthama Buddha or even most values of Democracy. As a result, Ceylon was built on a weak social foundation of a cocktail by politicizing everything in an archaic colonial vessel. Today, we are left with a dysfunctional social fabric with nothing more than hopelessness, failure on all fronts, distrust & divisiveness among families, neighbors and communities.
As our social fabric has eroded, we have lost our inherent worth, authenticity, empathy and dignity of people unable to cultivate their humanity with vibrant souls & true selves and forced to create false identities. Even compared to most animals, some people engage in a host of behaviors that are destructive to themselves. People not only lie, cheat and steal, violence has become a common norm to settle disputes or disagreements even in the parliament that has contributed to engraving the social fabric with bribery, fraud, corruption and crime as part of the way society interacts with each other especially by those holding the most powers. As a result, the general norm of most transactions are intended to fool each other while the politicians reign by fooling the people in lock, stock & barrel to grab people’s power and then to rob the people rather than serve the people. Sadly, the net result is that the general public don’t even understand that they are deprived of most freedoms and continue to vote as indentured servants. In fact, some people still don’t know what they have lost as many cannot value what they didn’t have. In reality, most people have lost most of their fundamental rights, freedom, justice and society has become a breeding ground of cronyism.
Today, democracy in Sri Lanka has been polluted with totalitarian characteristics consisting of limited independence in political, economic, social and judicial institutions under the total control by corrupt powers. Such a backdrop easily succeeded in introducing an authoritarian constitution by leveraging the unprecedented majority the UNP cartel received at the July 1977 election. Instead of using the will of the people to serve the people, they vested all powers to an unaccountable Chief Executive with unchallenged control over the parliament and the Judiciary and to remain above the laws of the country.
Today, Sri Lanka’s democracy is limited to elections primarily for power grabbing by the handful of omnipotent elites who collude with crooked business, religious and media elites to rob public wealth by compromising the rights and will of the general public. As a result, people naturally have lost their rights and powers to the political authority who did not hesitate to apply violent and controlling police and military powers to crackdown any dissent including the peaceful & non-violent Aragalaya. When people are dehumanized through unjust laws or violence, it is no surprise that people have become despair. Hence, the divide between democracy and autocracy is fundamental as we track a new future as it cuts to the core of what it means to be human and self-govern rather than to be ruled. While autocratic systems elevate the worth of dictators as the ultimate end to a state, individuals have no inherent worth other than their worth to the state like in today’s Russia or if we look back in our crony democracy. More damaging is that authoritarianism corrupts society and twists the soul making people become more inhuman, who easily seek violence against the weak, such as cruelty to animals, the environment or each other.
Even though the 1978 authoritarian regime established the nation as a Democratic, Socialist, Republic to build a ‘Nidahas, Nivahal, Samajayak’, its primary goal was to hoodwink the people to grab excessive power to concentrate all powers to the political cartel with immunity from the laws. As a result, various types of new political cartels mushroomed similar to the way drug cartels propped up when law and order was compromised in certain countries. These political cartels did whatever it took including various nefarious crimes, fraud and corruption to grab and protect their powers as they were immune from the laws.
While political cartels changed hands during each election since 1978, each new cartel used their authoritarian powers to oppress individual freedom of the people and inject politicization into public administration and public institutions. To add fuel to the fire, a handful of traitorous people dressed as Buddhist priests along with opportunistic media and monopolistic business tycoons colluded further to do the bidding for the political cartels. As a result, crime, fraud and corruption among the cartels, within themselves and later spread among the people has become the norm across the society while most parliamentarians have become the gamers and breakers rather than representatives of the people. Today, matters of public interest towards the welfare of the country are very rarely discussed in our parliament other than to protect their own privileges, funnel public wealth for their own gain or cover up their own frauds.
During the last few decades, only a few Sri Lankans have had the courage to even question the direction of our social, political or economic decay until the economy hit rock bottom. Various uprisings were attempted for selfish reasons in the past but the Aragalaya was the very first time a collective uprising was observed whose efforts succeeded to chased away its enemy #1 of the people. It was encouraging for everyone to observe that the Aragalaya youth aspired for a new nation we all deserve. It was evident from the Aragalaya that the youth who were not only awoken but progressive in their aspirations to envision a new social foundation of inclusiveness, freedom, fundamental rights, so they can establish Liberty, Equality & Fraternity as the pillars of building a true Democratic nation we all deserve.
Therefore, humanity for all will need to become the supremacy rather than racial, gender or ethnic supremacy to remain as the law of the land. The new generation will need to enable the rights & responsibilities for everyone to live on democratic principles by introducing pragmatic innovative public policies on democratic principles instead of authoritarian & populist ideals. They sure has a major challenge to inform and educate the elder generations who may be benefitting from cronyism that it is time we need to build a diverse new society based on individual rights, individual freedom, free speech and strong human rights for every citizen where people can succeed independent of our background, race, color, creed or political association, before we should waste our efforts on elections to turn the wheels on the same bearings. It is only then people should take ownership of open and transparent self governance rather than outsource everything to a central government of 225 people to ensure governments work for the good of all the people, respects its own rules under proper checks and balances, and grants its citizens free choice and control over their lives. Most importantly, a system of governance of the people, for the people and by the people that can preserve civil liberties and equal freedoms for everyone and a free and independent media unhindered by government interference, influence, or intimidation.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org