Colombo Telegraph

Danger Of Desiring Democracy

By Suren Rāghavan

Dr. Suren Rāghavan

A year had gone since what some named as a silent revolution in Sri Lanka. While obviously it is too soon and flowery to use such name tagging, what happened on the 08th January 2015 was certainly a key transformation to dismantle a deepening dictatorship and desire democracy, non-violently. What is politically more important is that such inverse was achieved crucially because of the determined and decisive support given by structurally marginalized ethnic communities, socially concerned face book generation and very vitally, a moderate Sanga leadership. What is achieved during this year is far less than the aspirations of the peoples who architected it. Fundamental nature of realpolitik has not changed. The anti-corruption and law and order on which, the campaign for change was designed has not reached even the minimum level of satisfaction. Those same political pig heads of the former regime are holding key positions now. Not a single major corruption charges proven or punished yet and the continued violence against the unarmed students and civilians by the police are some reflectors the deep democratic deficiency. Yet in a comparative sense and at least at a rhetorical level the new rule has engaged itself in some level of attempts to reach a newer fact of democratic negotiations. Some slow yet solid steps in post war national reconciliation such as the approach to the UN resolution, land releasing in Jaffna (some occupied by the army over two decades) and accepting the TNA as the national opposition, can be considered as signs of a continued commitment.

However the acid test of the Maithri/Ranil rule is at two fundamentally important processes. 1) How it will meet the continuous demand for political autonomy of the minority Tamil nation and of the Muslim community. 2) Immediate economic and Socio-cultural expectations of the majority Sinhalas. These two are at one level mutually interdependent while at another definite centrifugal forces operating in opposite political destinies. The fundamental paradoxical paradigm within which these aspirations start to locate will be the ‘nature of the state structure’ and its post independent political institutionalizing on a premodern notions of State, Ethnicity and Religion (රට, ජාතිය ආගම) within the deepest end of majority Sinhala political psychology. If a genuine democratization process desired by the new rule, it inevitably will have to deal with these historic political archetypes.

Beyond the Boundaries

In an absolute majority based political system like in Lanka what/how the Sinhalas imagine and act about themselves and the political others right next them is a fundamental social and cultural energy in designing democracy. Majority Sinhala process of this ‘othering’ is still very deeply buried within the conceptual framework of a Mahāvamsic narrative of an ethnoreligious political project as textualized in the 6th century. Such discourse is not a mere static or abstract textualizing but an active reproduction in almost every aspect of the worldview the Sinhalas have constructed and held steady. Such ideology was institutionalized often with violent means during the post-independent state formation. While a few liberal/leftists who mostly use an “Anderson” prism to read the concept ‘nation state’, in Lanka, on the streets- the primordial belief that this is a land where Buddha visited thrice, sanctified, offered it to the Mahā Saṅgha seven times, under the patronage of the Sinhalas as a ‘chosen race’ is the unquestionable parameter within which the ‘citizenship’ is assumed. As we have researched and argued elsewhere (Rāghavan 2015) this cosmian ontology and the empirical islander insecurity are realities that imprison any alternative political imagination. Any realistic attempt to recast a new state structure will seriously be sensitive to this and seek how such historiacization can be carefully moved to the reality – that Lanka as a plurinational state.

The new rule has totally failed in this regards to originate such serious social debate with valid academic discourse on constitutional and political formation backed by a wide socialization of the same. Maithri seems to believe in the ‘power’ of a manipulative SLFP led party political force. A baggage he carries from his romance with the 1956 Bandaranaike politics while Ranil is more committed to his neo-liberal slavery for economic development as bargaining bribery to the Sinhalas and commendably failing at it with even more ignorant advisors around him. What M and R hybrid rule urgently need is to seriously engage in a wider- bottom up structured discourse with the rural Sinhalas and the growing diaspora which seems to be adhering an even narrower long distance nationalism in negotiating in finding new ways to re-conceptualize the ‘the state’ and emancipating themselves from state within a narrow and predatory ethnonationalist views. Sinhala Buddhists are a global minority on every sense. They need to be assured their future with unique identity. Only by positively assuring such security they will be able to move out of the paradigms they lock themselves. Maithri may be more qualified to lead such than any leader at present provided he gets his ideologies synchronized with a modern social realities. The main emphasis is here had be on state definitions as negotiated and contested. This approach will offer a conceptual framework with which to imagine how we might loosen the tight grip of ‘the state’ and live with a multi nation reality.

Plurinational Possibilities

There are more nations than states in the modern UN order. Many stable states are still purely mono national (e.g. Japan, Holland, Sweden). Yet all nations be it minority or majority in political sense, have the inalienable right to a nationhood and if desired to an independent sovereign state under the prevailing international relations law. However, all nations don’t have to aspire a separate states for them because there can be a multination or better plurination state with internal independence (e.g. Canada, Ethiopia or Spain). Most importantly a nation once recognized so has the moral obligation to negotiate its’ nationhood and very obviously the separate statehood with the existing ‘mother’ state as the case of Quebec in Canada (Keating 2001).

Tamils in Lanka have articulated, demanded and displayed all qualifications to be a nation. However, their demand for a separate state has not been recognized or accepted by anyone outside of the Tamil nationalist and diaspora discourse. One solid lesson confirmed by the death of Pirapaharan is that almost all Sinhalas and their state will never agree to a separate state carved out from present Lankan sovereignty and they will fight if needed in the most gruesome manner to defend that position. The rise and fall of the Tamil separatist discourse abysmally failed to realize this political reality in their internal and external self-rule articulations. War in Lanka may have ended for now but not the conflict. It has only changed its mode for the time. The essential moral obligation of any post war rule to is ensure the rehabilitation of the war victims (of both sides) and more importantly the mechanism to prevent another war.

The legal, political and ethical obligation of solving the national conflict is in the hands and mind of the Sinhalas and their collective/elected leaders. History bears witness, except for an extremely small number of idealists, the Tamils did not wish for a separate state during the first half of the post-independence. In fact, the Tamil elites were opposing such radical demands. It is the failure of the Sinhala state and the intransigently continued political power hegemony based on some ethnic superiority mythology that dismissed all possibilities of a deepening democracy towards a multination state and pushed the Tamil for to the brink of separatism. The contours of that journey has been well documented now (Cheran 2009, Shastri 1990, Joshi 1996).

In contemporary structural political formation, nations and state have taken at least three different approaches to define their existence. 1) Former independent states coming together as one entity for economic and defense corporations. European Union being the most successful example. 2) In opposite, nations and groups living within a state declaring as separate states. In Africa at the end of WW II there were less than five independent states. Today there are 53. South Sudan is the youngest state to become after separating. This is witnessed in the former soviet bloc states such Yugoslavia and 3) nations are either negotiating their nationhood or have waged wars to establish so. Lanka very neatly fits into the third category. After giving birth to South Asia’s longest and most brutal separatist war for the last 35 years, Lanka owns herself an obligation to imagine afresh how to meet the political reality fitting into a 21 century democracy. The possibility begins with the intellectual understanding of a plurinational state and a sociopolitical commitment to work towards that

Beyond Failed Federalism

The TNA, even as the elected national opposition has one more time reiterated its demand for a federalist solution as a means of satisfying Tamil nation’s political independency. This is a result of two factors 1) the TNA’s political philosophy is still stuck in the political knowledge and ideological realities of 1970s and 2) the key leadership of TNA overwhelmingly being lawyers who see politics quintessentially as a legal formation. Federalism is the unwanted F word in the political history of the greater part of Sinhalas. For them it stands for nothing but a future break of the island. It is a purposeful misreading of the concept and mechanism of federal form of governance. There is no country that separated only because it was federal. On the contrary many states remain as single entity only because they are federal. It is not the Tamils who started a federal demand in Lanka but the up country Sinhalas who considered themselves as a separate nation from the lower country. However, in the modern context all Sinhalas are a single political unit when negotiating nationalism.

In our analysis, the need and viable entry of plurination debate can begin on two fundamental basis 1) the need for a democracy that is build, sustained and developed on 21st Century understanding of equality of citizens. 2) the full deliverables of a good governance to all citizens alike. There is no question that there remains a minimum level of democracy amongst the Sinhalas that will support a justice and equality demand for all citizens. In fact, the Rajapaksa regime was defeated on the basis that it dismissed these virtues. Current Sinhala polity recognizes that challenge to right to exist with equal political rights is a direct discrimination for a modern homogeneity, although it has frequently been construed as such. They do realize that democracy (though as an exchange for market based neoliberal order) has come to stay as the most preferred mode of governance. The Tamil nation therefore should aspire the total and unconditional equal citizenship in the language of international human rights discourse than the inflammable federalist debate. Because political rights do not become realities because of labels or written documents. It is a result of the collective bargains agreed and delivered socially and structurally. There are many states with the federal label yet in terms without any meaningful federal form of governance while there are other states (like the UK) with far reaching federalist politics without such labels. Constitutional agreements for a plurinational state is a long way and the basis for that journey has one political morality: Equal Citizenship in every aspect of life. After a year on power the Maithri-Ranil rule needs to urgently construct and engage in such political re imagination and active engineering of the same. TNA and JVP can play a very important part in this if they are able to live above their regionalist mind set. It is believed that soon the current parliament will be converted to a constitutional assembly for the purpose of a national discourse on the future nature of the state.

Democracy is a dangerous possibility to dream because it will reveal our (in)ability to accept and recognize the ‘competing other’ as an equal also essential part of our own existence. Pluralist democracy is the only game that has produced best winning results in the second half of 20th century. Contrary to the current single identity hegemony and peripheralizing other nations, Lanka needs to embrace and engage with two undeniable modern political realities. To become (truly more) democratic and recognize the nations and communities with their full political aspirations within. A structured wider discourse on plurinational democracy is the most viable basis for such end. Gaining support from the key leadership of the Sangha fraternity and articulating the justice and equality of all citizens within a Theravādian Buddhist framework will be an essential part of such wider indigenous and locally owned discourse.


Shastri, Amita. “The material basis for separatism: The Tamil Eelam movement in Sri Lanka” The Journal of Asian Studies 49, no. 01 (1990): 56-77.

Joshi, Manoj. “On the razor’s edge: the liberation tigers of Tamil Eelam” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 19, no. 1 (1996): 19-42.

Cheran, R., ed. “Pathways of dissent: Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka” SAGE Publications India, 2009.

Rāghavan, Suren. “Buddhist Monks and the Politics of Lanka’s Civil War: Ethnoreligious Nationalism of the Sinhala Sangha and Peacemaking in Sri Lanka” 1995-2010, London, Equinox 2015

*Dr. Suren Raghavan PhD, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies – University of Oxford and a visiting professor at St Paul University Ottawa. Sociology of Political Religions and politics of Sinhala Buddhism in particular are his research interests. He can be reached at

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