23 October, 2017

Now, Democracy – But Only For Us!

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Dr. Charles Sarvan

All human beings are equal in dignity and rights -Article 1, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

By way of a preamble, currently the worst political epithet is “terrorist”, such that states and leaders who resort to terrorism also hurl this linguistic stone of abuse at those who oppose them. “Terrorist” is an over-used and under-examined term. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, while unleashing state terrorism on oppositional groups, brands them as terrorists. Callum Macrae, writing in the Guardian newspaper, 3 September 2013, about his film, ‘No-Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka’, says that President Rajapaksa is bolstered by, and appropriates, “the West’s rhetoric of the war on terror” but over 70, 000 civilians were killed. “Victorious government troops systematically executed bound, blindfolded prisoners. Women fighters were stripped, sexually assaulted, blindfolded, and shot in the head” (Macrae).

In contrast, the cloak governments wish to be seen as wearing is that of democracy. I recall President Kaunda of Zambia describing his form of government as “one party participatory democracy”, either blissfully unaware of, or ignoring, fundamental contradiction. (Compared to the horror of some other dictators, Kenneth Kaunda is a near-saintly figure.) Democracy is the most challenging and responsible form of government, and for its successful functioning a mature, informed and, above all, a decent electorate is indispensable – “decent” as used by Avishai Margalit in his The Decent Society’:  see Sarvan, Sunday Leader, Colombo, 8 August 2010. As it was said when President Mohamed  Morsi of Egypt was ousted, July 2013, by the army, true democracy – a democracy in spirit and not merely in form –  is more than winning elections and having a majority in parliament.

Some friends, both Sinhalese and Tamil, have written to me observing that a few Sinhalese chauvinists are now voicing concern about the lack of democracy and freedom; the absence of a law-enforcing police force and an independent judiciary in the “Island of the Compassionate and Moral Doctrine of the Buddha”. My friends read this as a hopeful indication where the minorities are concerned. “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” (Shelley).  I fear they misread the sign.

Ancient Greece is celebrated in the West as “the cradle of democracy”. The Greeks publicly discussed and debated issues, and abided by what the vote indicated. But not only were women excluded from participation, Greece was a slave-owning society. Indeed, Aristotle in his Politics argued that some are naturally slaves and others naturally masters. So it was natural, and therefore right, that Greeks rule over barbarians (an idea taken over by Rome; later by Western imperial powers and applied literally all over the world) and that men rule over women.

The opening lines of the United States Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. These  wonderful  and stirring words have resonated throughout the centuries. In 1963, almost two hundred years later, Martin Luther King saw the declaration as a “cheque” that he presented at the “bank” of American public-opinion and conscience for realization. But at the time those noble words of the Declaration of Independence were proclaimed (1776) the US had been and was a slave-owning society. I have referred elsewhere to slavery in America, taking into consideration (a) its nature, (b) number and (c) duration, as the worst blot ever on human history. Douglas A. Blackmon persuasively and powerfully argues (‘Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War 11, 2009) that contrary to popular belief, ironically and tragically, slavery became worse after formal emancipation.

Let me here add in a parenthetic paragraph that some Tamils feel life has got worse, far worse, after Ceylon gained its independence in 1948. The first major piece of legislation to be passed by parliament was a bill disenfranchising “Indian Tamils”. (They were so classified, even though they had lived in Ceylon for generations and knew no other place as home.) Towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, Tamils not only joined in the struggle for independence from Britain but some were recognised as leaders of the movement. They saw themselves primarily not as Tamils but as Ceylonese. Tamil leaders and Tamils did not know that in the long run they were helping to exchange smarting (British) pepper for burning (Sinhalese) chilli.

Britain, combating Nazi Germany, proudly claimed to be fighting for freedom but, at the same time, held on to its imperial possessions, including India and Ceylon. The contradictory implications were suavely glossed over. At its height, the British Empire in extent was the largest the world had ever seen. Churchill, eloquent champion of liberty, was a chauvinist and unabashed imperialist. Subhas Chandra Bose saw through the hypocrisy, and sensed the danger. If Britain had not been exhausted and weakened, it would have fought hard to hold on to its imperial possessions after the war, not minding the rhetoric about freedom and democracy during it. The promises made and broken to the countries of the Middle East are proof enough. The conduct of France, the other imperial power, both in Africa and in the Middle East was no different.

I could cite other examples of lofty words accompanying very sordid practise. While justice is passionately claimed for oneself, it can be vigorously, even viciously, denied to others. Sri Lankans settled in the West (“West” here, irrespective of geography, includes Australia and New Zealand) take for granted their equality as citizens with those of their host country, yet some of these Sinhalese are virulently “racist”, and deny to Tamils back in Sri Lanka what they expect in the West; usually receive and enjoy. It is a case of multiculturalism and “live and let live” abroad but hegemony, forcibly established and maintained, at home. Perhaps, their chauvinism is intensified by feelings of guilt at having left “the Paradise Isle”?

Returning to the second paragraph of this note and to those Sinhalese chauvinists in Sri Lanka who now protest the absence of democracy and justice, it must be remembered that they did not protest the killing of thousands of Tamil civilians towards the end of the war. Nor do they complain about state-sponsored colonisation and the expropriation of land; the heavy presence of the army in the North and East even though the war has ended; the attempt to erase Tamil culture; to impose Buddhism on Hindus, Christians and Moslems, and the bullying , exploitation and humiliation of a defenceless, helpless, population. The Asian Times of 11 January 2005 predicted: “Without the protective role of the LTTE, the Tamils would be at the mercy of the Sinhalese chauvinists”.

The “racists” in Sri Lanka who now raise their voice for democracy have only their fellow Sinhalese in mind, and will be in the forefront of opposition – vociferous and violent – if even the smallest step were to be taken to extend equality to Sri Lanka’s minorities.

Their idea of “democracy” is one built on the foundations of exclusion, subordination and hegemony. In short, as in Greece, slave-owning America, the British Empire and elsewhere, it is a caricature of democratic ideals. The ‘Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956’ replacing the English language with Sinhala was generally, and correctly, known as the “Sinhala-only” bill: the emphasis being on only. Similarly: “Now that the Tamils have been rendered helpless, let there be democracy, justice and freedom – of course, for us only”.

Joachim Fest in his memoir ‘Not I’ records that his father opposed Hitler, not towards the end but right from the beginning and through the period when most Germans were simply ecstatic over him. At his father’s request, Joachim Fest and his siblings signed a piece of paper which read, Etiam si omnes – ego non! Freely translated: “Even if all others, yet not I”. One salutes, with gratitude and admiration, those Sinhalese who have, at cost to themselves, steadfastly opposed and oppose a discriminatory system claiming to be a “democracy”.

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    Government won the war with help of several countries but the same government didn’t win the Tamils hearts after the war now again the NP election results shows second time the government failed to win the Tamils hearts again
    This shows you can win the war with guns but you can’t win a election with guns

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      @ Pasel
      The only thing that held the RajaPoxsa thugs from massively rigging the Northern elections was the fact that India, the West and the UNHRC were watching and CHOGOM was around the corner. Don’t forget that they tried every dirty trick in the book including intimdation and bribery to try to win the elections. Mark my words, RajaPox is a crook who wants to win at any cost…as soon as CHOGM is over and the international community turns their eyes elsewhere he and his Goat brother will be up to all their dirty tricks. Even the murder or beating up of some of the TNA PC candidates may take place blaming it on LTTE remnants and international conspirators.
      Nothing is beyond this despotic family in their quest to form a dynasty.

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    wow, the number of casualties from the war keep increasing each year after the war. fist it was 9,000 by the ICRC accounts, then it was as much as 40,000 by the darusman report, now its 70,000 by Dr Sarvans calculations. I wonder how this is

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    Really, you equate sri lanka to “slave owning greece, slave owning USA and the British empire”. And this after the ‘sinhala only act was repealed’ more than 20 years ago. Sri Lanka may not be perfect, it might be far from it, but come on have some logic!!!

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      @ Podi Baba
      Is it logical that a non Sinhala Buddhist can never become the President of Sri Lanka?
      Is it logical that in this country that is supposed to be a democracy, the constitution gives pride of place to Buddhism instead of giving equal status for all religions?
      Is it logical that the constitution states the Sinhala is the national language and then adds that Tamils is also a national language instead of simply stating that Sinhala and Tamil are both national languages?
      Prof.Sarvan is 100% correct in what he says. The Sinhala Buddhists are considered the real boohmiputhras of the country while the Tamils, Muslims and Christians are considered as non Sinhalese and non Buddhists.

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        PJ,

        Racism does not find only among Sinhalese. Large number of Tamils are racist bigots too. Looking at this article, Sarwan seems to be such an extremist Tamil racist.

        a non Sinhala Buddhist can be a president if he/she can rise up to it. Sinhala Buddhists accepted Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe as their king until the massacre of Ehalepola family. Lakshman Kadirgamar came very close to becomming the prime minister (even JVP is said to have supported that idea) and his life was cut short (not by Sinhala Buddhists) by Tamil terrorists.

        Tamil has been legally recognised as a national language where 75% of the population do not speak it. Do a comparative study of other countries for similar language rights.

        The most developed democracies in the world have their political systems built on Christian God. Please tell us whether a non Christian can become a political leader in those countries. can you show any instance where non Christian phrases being used in those countries in their most important national and political occassions/ceremonies other than about Christian God.

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          Aiyoo Hela,
          Take a look at your big brother India. The country from where Vijaya came as a refugee and also the land of the Buddha.
          With over 80% of the population there Hindu, it was still possible for Manmohan Singh and Abdul Kalam to become prime minister and president of India?
          In Sri Lanka at the moment though, if you happen to be from the royal family, even Goat and Basil who are US citizens can become ofense secretary and minister of economic development… :-D

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    The ball is on the government court if they are truly democratic and exercising a genuine democratic process in the country for the good of Srilanka with one rule for all, we all will benefit from this process whether you are Singlease or Tamil or Muslim regardless of northerner to southerner or up countries or down-under or what ever. We all are watching from all over the world!

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      Rasty,

      It is the North who decided to do away with democracy. Therefore it is the North that needs to demonstrate their ability to work in Sri Lankan democratic system. The Northern Tamils who have migrated to the South are doing it. So the ball is in fact in Northern Tamil (and their TNA reps) court.

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    Though a late entrant Prof. Sarvan enriches these pages with well-structured and striking pieces. He is one of hundreds of brilliant English teachers and academics we lost – the pogroms of 1958, 1977 and 1983 being the reason. I understand he lost close relatives in all of these savage events. Africa and Europe gained where he is said to have taught thousands of talented students to become leaders. Evidently, he is still passionate about Sri Lanka and keeps in touch with many friends in academic circles. Like many, he probably awaits the return of those halcyon days where we were first Ceylonese above the racial and racial identity.

    Once again – a lovely and thought-provoking contribution.

    Senguttuvan

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    Dr Sarwan,

    I agree with the main thrust of your argument but would like to pick a few holes.

    1) Some friends, both Sinhalese and Tamil, have written to me observing that a few Sinhalese chauvinists are now voicing concern about the lack of democracy and freedom; the absence of a law-enforcing police force and an independent judiciary in the “Island of the Compassionate and Moral Doctrine of the Buddha”. My friends read this as a hopeful indication where the minorities are concerned.

    There is a Contradiction with the above as the term “chauvinistic” describes people ( Sinhalese) who strongly believe in the superiority of their own gender or kind. What your Sinhalese friends are talking about is the pinch they are feeling at the hands of the Current Rulers. But in a Sri Lankan context I am afraid that they are not as generous towards the Tamil Plight and so I beg to disagree that it is a hopeful indication where the minorities are concerned.

    2) The opening lines of the United States Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”.

    All me may have been created equal( debatable) but are they treated equally.
    These wonderful and stirring words have resonated throughout the centuries. In 1963, almost two hundred years later, Martin Luther King saw the declaration as a “cheque” that he presented at the “bank” of American public-opinion and conscience for realization.

    But in America the Cheque has bounced many times because the Bank of Conscience is overdrawn.

    3) Let me here add in a parenthetic paragraph that some Tamils feel life has got worse, far worse, after Ceylon gained its independence in 1948.
    The above is entirely true and that is what created Prabakaran

    4) While justice is passionately claimed for oneself, it can be vigorously, even viciously, denied to others. Sri Lankans settled in the West (“West” here, irrespective of geography, includes Australia and New Zealand) take for granted their equality as citizens with those of their host country, yet some of these Sinhalese are virulently “racist”, and deny to Tamils back in Sri Lanka what they expect in the West; usually receive and enjoy.
    The above is the hallmark of the Sinhala Race but having said that we Tamils are also hypocrites because we practice Caste system at home but expect equal treatment in the west.

    It is a case of multiculturalism and “live and let live” abroad but hegemony, forcibly established and maintained, at home. Perhaps, their chauvinism is intensified by feelings of guilt at having left “the Paradise Isle”?

    I am not sure if I agree with the above as Multiculturalism is enjoying and appreciating the diversity of cultures but in the case of Sinhalese Chauvinists in the west it is a question of please allow me to live as they don’t have anything superior to force down our throat.
    On the contrary we Tamils in the West enrich the West with our culture which can be seen by the interaction between Andrew Lloyd Webber and A R Rehman and Ilaiyarajah.

    5)Returning to the second paragraph of this note and to those Sinhalese chauvinists in Sri Lanka who now protest the absence of democracy and justice, it must be remembered that they did not protest the killing of thousands of Tamil civilians towards the end of the war. Nor do they complain about state-sponsored colonisation and the expropriation of land; the heavy presence of the army in the North and East even though the war has ended; the attempt to erase Tamil culture; to impose Buddhism on Hindus, Christians and Moslems, and the bullying , exploitation and humiliation of a defenceless, helpless, population. The Asian Times of 11 January 2005 predicted: “Without the protective role of the LTTE, the Tamils would be at the mercy of the Sinhalese chauvinists”.

    I agree Totally ( 110% ) with the above but they have been stopped in their tracks.

    6) The “racists” in Sri Lanka who now raise their voice for democracy have only their fellow Sinhalese in mind, and will be in the forefront of opposition – vociferous and violent – if even the smallest step were to be taken to extend equality to Sri Lanka’s minorities.

    This is why Sri Lanka descended in to a State of Civil war that lasted for 30 years.

    Their idea of “democracy” is one built on the foundations of exclusion, subordination and hegemony and I would add subjugation

    I am confident that we Tamils have turned the corner and it is now a march towards the Promised Land.

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