By Laksiri Fernando –
Three major evils of the present ‘degenerated democratic system’ inSri Lankacan be identified as violence, corruption and communalism. While these three ills are not of recent origin, they are also not the only ones that have affected the political system negatively. It was the Donoughmore Commission (1929) that first identified ‘communalism as a cancer in the body politic.’ That time communalism was not violent. But since then it has not only become violent, but violence has also spread into other areas of political and social life. The most harmful for democracy is the violence used to acquire and retain political power both at the electoral and the national levels.
The motive behind power or position for most politicians today seems to be to acquire wealth but not to serve the people unlike in the olden days. At least wealth acquisition has become an integral part of politics. This is happening through blatant corruption. If you compare the assets of politicians before and after politics, it would become abundantly clear how much wealth that they have acquired through politics. The present obligatory declaration of assets to Parliament is not sufficient for this assessment; even that is not properly compiled with by many of the MPs or Ministers. This is what has denigrated the democratic system.
Instead of the election or representative aspect of democracy, cutthroat contest or winning dimensions have become predominant. The elected ‘representatives’ believe that they win elections not because of the ordinary voters; it is attributed to their own strength or merit. The winner gets all credit. The accountability thus has become a major casualty. This is partly because of the present electoral system with aggressive preferential voting competition. But that is not the whole story. The degeneration of democratic values, expensive election campaigns and the nexus between power and wealth are some of the other reasons. No one would say that politicians should be paupers. No one would object to the wealthy taking to politics. But, what is objectionable and detrimental to democracy is the use of political power as well as influence to acquire wealth through corrupt means.
Root causes of conflict
Communalism particularly afterIndependencehas been the root cause of the ethnic conflict and the war that engulfed the country during the last three decades or so. After the end of the war, there is more reason to do away with communalism on all sides and all shades. Instead, communalism is raising its ugly head again disturbing the peace between communities, ethnic and religious. Communalism does not mean the efforts to preserve, safeguard or promote the identity or culture of particularly ethnic or religious communities, minority or majority. What it means is the advocacy of hatred against other communities and the denial of equal rights to all communities. The unconcern for other communities also can be a part of communalism. The extreme form of communalism is ‘racism’ which attempts to suppress other communities through violence. Racism is also the extreme form of hatred expressed against other communities, through language or behaviour.
There, of course, are other ills. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) last year identified the breakdown of the rule of law as a major malady in the present political system. The judiciary, the police and the public service are the main bearers of this responsibility while violent and corrupt politicians are the main breakers of the rule of law. The public and the voters hardly can change the judiciary, the police or the bureaucracy while they definitely can change politicians, if there is will and necessary support given to them, as it is suggested in this proposal.
Likewise, there are some who identify the ‘family rule’ as the major malaise of the present democratic predicament. While this is largely true, that ‘ailment’ is only the pinnacle of the political structure consisting of violent, corrupt and communalist politicians in general. Therefore, a more profound structural change is necessary rather than a mere change at the top. Otherwise, the replacement of one family-rule might bring another family-rule or something similar. In the future, we may suggest different proposals for different ailments.
The proposal is to identify, expose and eventually get rid of the violent, corrupt and communalist politicians from the political scene of the country through democratic means. The democratic means should be emphasised.
The process of identification and exposure could begin with all 225 members of Parliament belonging to all political parties irrespective of ethnicity, religion or other distinction. It could be done through a specialised website, a kind of WikiLeaks. Beginning with MPs, it should continue for the Provincial Councils and Local Government institutions. Those are the nurseries of violent, corrupt and even communalist behaviour of politicians.
The results of identification and exposure should be shared widely with all the media, print and electronic, and information should be available for the general public and the voters in their languages, Sinhalese and Tamil.
The identification of violent politicians could be relatively easy. Mervyn Silva easily tops my list. People have tolerated him for a very, very long time. Duminda Silva is a close second. But, the ruling party politicians are not the only culprits. It was thanks to Uvindu Kurukulasuriya that I came to know about the ‘nose-biting’ MP of the UNP, Dunesh Gankanda. There may be so many others of all parties and much of our concern should be about political and electoral violence. In some cases of political violence, politicians are behind the scene like in the case of the recent shooting at the JVP meeting at Katuwana, Julampitiya Amere or his associates merely being the cat’s paw. But it might not be difficult to find out the mastermind.
There is much documentation on electoral violence in the country in the past and these records should be utilized to identify the real culprits through further and continuous investigation. I remember investigating the electoral violence in the Moneragala District during the Provincial Council elections in 1999, and there were seven killings, and all were ordinary people—unemployed youth. The politicians in the fray were the real culprits. The newest trend is that politicians resort to violence not only to win elections but also to keep the Opposition and contenders in their own parties or coalitions under control. Violent politics also involve abusive/violent language used by the likes of Buddadasa of Kaduwela and Mervyn of Kelaniya.
There is, of course, corruption and misuse of funds in other sectors, alarmingly even in the free media movement or NGOs as revealed by Frederica Jansz and others recently. But the current focus could be on the key politicians and all parliamentarians at present. Others undoubtedly would be exposed in the process including the top bureaucrats. Corruption is something that needs to be handled carefully. There are reports of the Auditor General and the COPE but their focus is on institutions and not necessarily on corrupt politicians. Therefore, further investigations need to be conducted to find the real culprits.
The reports of the Transparency International (TI) are extremely useful and perhaps TI could make a considerable contribution to eliminating corrupt politicians from the parliamentary landscape as well. I was impressed by the most professional manner that C. J. Weliamuna uncovered an apparent nexus of corruption between the Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC), the Carlton Sports Network (CSN) and the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRC) recently. The loss making public corporations and enterprises and the politicians behind them need to be identified to ascertain whether the losses are due to unavoidable reasons or corruption like Mihin Lanka since Sachin Vass Gunawardhana’s time. Even without direct involvement in corruption, the persons in charge should be held accountable for the loss of public funds under their management. This is a matter that Dr W. A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank has strongly raised. When they become MPs the responsibility should be direct and much more.
Like corruption, communalism is also widespread in the other sectors as well. Unfortunately, within the Sinahla polity which I know most, it is some of the Buddhist monks who are blamed for communalism. It is unfortunate because, as E. W. Adikaram convincingly argued, it is against the basic tenets of Buddhism. There are communalists and extremists among all communities of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Some are professors, writers and journalists. But for the progressive regeneration of democracy, our concern should be on the tricky politicians and particularly at this juncture, the MPs.
The outright affiliation to a communalist party is one instance of communalism. The JHU is one such example. People should not vote at all with such an extremist party. The minority parties such as the TNA or the SLMC do not come under this category although the party titles carry the names of their respective communities. The minorities are a vulnerable group in society. Minority rights are a special category of rights. This does not mean that the majority community does not have rights. Those rights are structurally and securely preserved within the political system and further protected by the national parties in the case ofSri Lanka. However, within the minority parties, there are those who go beyond the legitimate or reasonable rights of the minorities or national groups. There are those who are outright communalists. The effort should be to identify those in the political scene and replace them with moderate and sober minority rights politicians.
The whole effort is to get rid of the extremists, like the violent and corrupt politicians. The country needs moderate politicians in Parliament for reconciliation and peace, and for a viable political solution.
What is proposed, as stated before, initially is a website with a database for all 225 MPs listed on the alphabetical order. This could be expanded on to the provincial councils and other politicians. With brief descriptions of them, they all should be ‘on trial’ for violence, corruption and communalism. Of course, there can be good people on all counts or some counts and it might prove that perhaps women MPs are the best. This also might give a particular indication for the future, the possible synergy between regeneration of democracy and more participation of women in politics. Whatever we say, men are the most violent, corrupt and even communalist in politics and ordinary life.
The public should be encouraged to submit ‘injunctions’ on all three evils involving MPs with some ethical guidelines or rules. The charges would not necessarily mean that the accused are guilty. With the submission of information, the provision of documentary or corroborative evidence should be encouraged. But the guilty parties should be named and shamed for the benefit of the public. The technical details of the website could be undertaken by those who take up this proposal seriously.
There can be two main objectives for the project. First, after the identification of culprits on violence, corruption and communalism, all political parties should be pressured to get rid of them from their respective parties on disciplinary or other grounds. All political parties should have provisions in their constitutions to oust violent, corrupt and communalist members from their parties. Second, is to get rid of guilty members and candidates at future election by not casting a preferential vote for them whatever the party that the voters decide to vote for. This is a task for the voters. The three evils are not confined to one party but all parties.
The general effort should be to get rid of violence, corruption and communalism from the body politic. The media and journalists as well as the intellectuals could play a major role in association with professional, trade union, and civil society and NGO organisations or individuals. Two of the key journalists who have already played a balanced role in this respect in my opinion are Namini Wijedasa and Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena. One caution in this respect is not to indulge in emotionalism, malice or what can be construed as character assassination. The effort is not personal but public.
The cynics might cast doubts about the practicality of the proposal. At present, the most corrupt and violent may be the most ‘popular’ at least in terms of preferential votes. This is a tragedy! What you get in politics is what you deserve. But some even might be manipulating the preferential voting. Violence, corruption and communalism, however, are endemic in society. There is a kind of lethargic tolerance when it comes to the matters of politicians’ violence or corruption. People have got so much used to these ills in society. People also hold on to communalist views and attitudes by habit, influence or without perhaps knowing the irrationality. Widespread public education is the answer. There is also emerging understanding particularly among the ‘new’ youth that communalism takes the country nowhere. The war and the conflict in the past have been so horrific.
A recent Marga publication of the Sinhala translation of “Introducing Democracy: Questions and Answers” by David Beetham and Kevin Boyle might be useful for public education on democracy. The original is a UNESCO publication and the translation is by the present author. It should be translated into Tamil as well. Likewise, similar translations or original works by Sri Lankan authors for public education on ethnic issues, democracy and human rights could be utilised particularly in Sinhalese and Tamil.
There is also emerging resistance to violence and corruption. In recent times these were visible in Kelaniya and Kolonnawa. Many people have asked whether it is at all possible to get rid of a person like Mervyn Silva as he is apparently backed by the highest authority. It might be the case, to take the good old parable of the ‘Hunter and the Flock of Birds,’ that the Hunter’s net on corruption and violence is so wide and strong. One bird might not be able to lift it. But a ‘flock of birds’ all together could do it. The effort against violence, corruption and communalism should be a concerted one throughout the country to get rid of violent, corrupt and communalist politicians. This is the struggle for democracy.