By Izeth Hussain –
After the euphoria caused by what was for most people (though not for me) the unexpected election victory of Maithripala Sirisena, we are now in the post-euphoria phase in which we feel the need for sober assessment of what it’s all about and what the prospects might be. It’s quite confusing, pointing to a need to get down to the fundamentals. But first of all, since we Sri Lankans are a people who know how to be grateful and to give credit where credit is due, let us all acknowledge a vast debt of gratitude to the unsung hero of the hour, the local Nostradamus who predicted an MR victory and thereby enabled a thundering booting out of the Rajpak Gang two years ahead of time. Earlier under JRJ we had the Jay Gang, after which under Premadasa we had the Prey Gang, and since 2009 we have had the Rajpak Gang.
I am not being facetious. I am pointing to facts that are crucially important in our search for the fundamentals underlying the present political situation. Our democracy has a tendency to be deeply flawed partly because our majority ethnic group, the Sinhalese, seem for the most part unable to grasp the idea that democracy is not just the will of the majority, that the “tyranny of the majority” exercised against the interests of the minorities amounts to a negation of democracy, and that democracy makes no sense at all without the observance of democratic values and norms. Furthermore our democracy can sometimes break down almost completely with the Government showing contempt for the rule of law and other democratic norms. The Government then morphs into a gang.
What is the explanation? It is partly a question of personality. JRJ and Premadasa were men of power who were clearly addicted to power, and it was not at all surprising that when they got the upper hand they exercised power often in a brutal and unprincipled manner befitting gang leaders. But MR was famous as a champion of human rights, and did not seem addicted to power. Nonetheless he too became, in many ways, the leader of a gang. I believe that the explanation is that our democracy is not an indigenous growth: it was conferred on us in 1931 under the Donoughmore Constitution. But we did make a success of it between 1948 and 1956, and also in intermittent periods since then. The probable explanation for this is that democracy is not just a creation of the European Enlightenment but something that answers to deep universal human needs and aspirations. But the problem is that democracy keeps breaking down in Sri Lanka. I argued in my last article that no democracy can be established on an enduring basis without a vigorously active civil society. Consciousness of this fact of fundamental importance should become an integral part of our political culture. It should even figure in the school curriculum.
The Maithripala S victory is generally seen as a victory for democracy. I think that this is quite correct, which no amount of statistical casuistry about the voting pattern can conjure away. The most telling fact in this connection is that neither of the two major parties representing the minorities, the TNA and the SLMC, sought an agreement with MS about resolving our ethnic problems. An obvious reason is that doing so would have provided racist ammunition for the Rajpak Gang’s election campaign. The more positive reason, I think, is that both the TNA and the SLMC understood the importance of democracy for the solution of our two ethnic problems. If MR had won there would have been a relentless drive towards an absolute dictatorship, and our ethnic problems would have been aggravated, not solved.
I believe that the nexus between democracy, or rather anti-democracy, and ethnic problems should be regarded as one of the fundamentals that we have to grasp in coping with our present political situation. In this connection we will do well to consider the record of the Western countries, all of which have fully functioning democracies. Many have huge immigrant populations, France alone having five million Muslims, but we hear of no serious ethnic problems in the West. There are several separatist movements but there are no civil wars, evidently because the strategy used to cope with them is that of democratic accommodation. In Sri Lanka we had no ethnic problem from 1948 to 1956, and that was precisely the period when we had a fully functioning democracy. After that we had an ethnic problem, and that was precisely the period when our democracy was deeply flawed by the equation of democracy with the “will of the majority” without regard to democratic values and norms. Our worst period of anti-democracy was from 1977 to 1988 when the Jay Gang practiced State terrorism against the Tamils. It led to the thirty year civil war. The next worst period was from 2005 to January 8, 2015. The prospect for a political solution to the Tamil ethnic problem, which seemed very bright in 2009, vanished completely and we have seen the stunning creation of yet another ethnic problem, the Muslim one. The nexus to which I am pointing seems to be of fundamental importance. Accordingly we should witness at least an alleviation of our ethnic problems if a new Government proceeds towards a fully functioning democracy.
The ebullient joy of my first paragraph above reflects what many Sri Lankans have felt in the euphoric phase following the recent elections. The morning after, the time for taking account of unpleasant realities and making sober assessments, has to come. The first unpleasant reality that I would note is that the most important reason for the MS victory was the minority vote. The minorities were the king-makers, true, but that does not mean that they can throw their weight about and be wholly optimistic about the future. The reason is that we might expect the continuance of the solid majoritarian consensus between our two major parties that in the last analysis the Sinhalese should reign supreme in Sri Lanka. So, the fact that the minorities have been the king-makers has no great importance. Another unpleasant reality is that MS won mostly in constituencies where the UNP has been traditionally strong, which could mean that MR had behind him a solid Sinhalese racist constituency.
It might seem therefore that the outlook for the minorities remains dismal, that the SLFP Opposition will stoke up racist hatred against the minorities in advance of the General Elections which are expected, and that the Government will feel compelled to compromise so as to avoid a haemorrhage of its Sinhalese votes. That argument assumes that the Sinhalese are essentially racist and that therefore they will remain racist forever. But that essentialist way of thinking is itself racist, and besides it is totally unrealistic because no human group remains just the same forever. I believe that more and more Sinhalese have been coming to feel the need for reasonable accommodation with the minorities and the forging of some degree of national unity, the alternative to which could be very horrible in the long run.
What should be done? I believe that a political solution on the basis of 13A will not be possible without a tripartite understanding between the Government, the Tamils, and India. That will take time, but in the meanwhile much can be done to remove the grievances of the Tamils and the humiliations heaped on them in the North. The Government has made a good beginning by asking the military Governor of the NP to resign. As for the Muslims, I have shown in a series of articles that it is nonsensical to talk of their posing an existential threat to the Sinhalese, and that there are no intractable problems between them. In conclusion I must emphasize that the solution of our ethnic problems will not be possible without vigorous activity by the civil society, and that the struggle to solve our ethnic problems should be seen as part of the struggle to establish a fully functioning democracy on an enduring basis.