By Laksiri Fernando –
There was general consensus among many political scientists that democracy in Sri Lanka by and large functioned smoothly in the 1950s or even 1960s. This impression was shared by both local and foreign scholars such as AJ Wilson, IDS Weerawardena, Howard Wriggins, Calvin A Woodward or James Jupp. This impression was correct when referring to institutional structures, competitive party system, press freedom and the periodic elections that allowed the changes of government from one party or coalition to another. Compared to a country like Burma, which achieved independence in the same year as 1948, Ceylon was much better and stable. Burma was beset with violence and ethnic strife from the beginning.
Erosion of Democracy
Even during this period, however, as the time passed, the quality of democracy diminished due to the factors such as ethnic majoritarianism or conflict and political favouritism. Another aspect of favouritism was based on urban-rural divide or language proficiency in English. This prevailed both among the political decision makers and the bureaucracy. The citizenship issue of the Tamil plantation workers was handled arbitrarily soon after independence, and the official language legislation completely discriminated against all Tamil speakers in 1956. After these two events, Ceylon could hardly be called a proper democracy, but it escaped the attention of many observers.
The formal institutional structures of democracy alone could not prevent these deformations. Only leaders, political parties and citizens could prevent them if they share a democratic value system based on equality, fairness and justice. Democracy is not only an institutional edifice. It is profoundly a value system based on human rights that should govern the everyday lives of people and the leaders of our political parties. In this particular case of discrimination against the minorities in the initial stages of post-independence Sri Lanka, the failure to forge civic nationalism instead of ethno nationalism could be highlighted as a major underlying factor. The leaders of both the majority and the minority communities were responsible for this failure. In a multi-ethnic society like in Sri Lanka, without civic nationalism, democracy cannot survive properly.
In any emergent society after independence, there were obviously competing claims from various social sectors and population groups. Nevertheless, the grievances of the rural masses or the youth were not only competing claims, whether in the South or in the North. They were related to profound social injustices as the institutional structures were dominated by the urban and the rich. After the formation of the SLFP and the FP, these masses were politically mobilised and gradually brought into the political scene. They were mere spectators during the colonial times or even the yearly years of independence.
In terms of democratic values or practices, there was a difference between the urban and the rural. Although the urban could not be considered ‘higher’ in understanding democracy, the rural were by and large deprived of modern education. While Sri Lanka boasted about higher literacy rates in general, there was a vast difference between the educational achievements between the urban and the rural, and this gap still prevails. The social formations or ethos in villages are more pre-modern than in towns, not so conducive to democracy.
This is not to blame the rural for any democratic deficit or degeneration in the country, but to highlight a seemingly crucial problem and to emphasise the importance of democratic and human rights education in any regeneration of democracy. Those who brought the rural masses into politics not only failed to educate them in democracy but also utilized their submissive populist political instincts to create authoritarian leaderships. Populist instincts of the masses are perennially submissive to their leaders, parties and authoritarian structures. These instincts are mainly concerned about the delivery of certain ‘goods’ to them or to the country, real or imagined.
Economy and Population
Two other factors that dislocated the functioning of democracy are population explosion and economic stagnation. Even after the opportunities became available under what is termed as the ‘new international division of labour’ (NIDL), Sri Lanka failed to rescue its economy from the old ‘dependency trap’ in time. When it ‘opened’ the economy in 1977, it was too late and too little. Although the economy was opened, the polity was closed. The 1978 constitution was more authoritarian than even the governor’s rule during the colonial times. The initiative for authoritarianism came from a leader who was ‘urban’ and who belonged to a party which was ostensibly committed to democracy. This shows the gravity of our democratic dilemma.
In politics, no one could be totally believed if he or she is motivated purely by power or position. This applies more to the incumbent President who was a ‘human rights agitator’ in late 1980s. What might require are firm guarantees to the people in terms of democracy and human rights and a proven track record. Alternative might be the forging of a collective leadership of equally competent group of people again with firm guarantees on principles. The history has shown the emergence of such leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi or Nelson Mandela who worked collectively with others.
Since independence until early 1980s, the population in the country almost trebled giving rise to a politically explosive situation. The percentage of the youth in the population was extremely high without proper employment prospects or better educational opportunities. Youth were impatient about the slow democratic processes and took the path of armed struggle, insurrection and even terrorism also due to ideological reasons. The results were disastrous. Sri Lanka is a small island packed with over 20 million people which is in itself a strain on the democratic system. The system is vulnerable to instability and chaos unless firm institutional structures, committed political leadership and commensurate civic awareness are built or in place. The pure military power will not manage the system.
Sri Lanka had a strong trade union movement in early decades of independence which was a counter balance for an already degenerating democratic system. But the TUs also became degenerated and instead of bargaining for workers’ rights, often resorted to affiliation with parties and coalitions in power hoping to win over some concessions as favours. Parallel development was the degeneration of the old left parties. The new left that emerged to fill the gap in a sense was much worse in terms of democracy or democratic values.
In Sri Lanka there had been so far two main authoritarian trajectories. The first came in 1972 in the guise of socialism and populism which wanted to assign all authority to one chamber on the pretext that it is elected. The second came in 1978, installing an executive presidential system insulated from parliament also with other powers and immunities. At present there is a growing amalgamation of the two. There are current efforts to unequivocally establish that the judiciary does not have any review functions over the legislative or other matters of Parliament. Two term period for the office of the President is already removed; independent commissions subjugated. The remaining obstacle for a full authoritarian system on the vertical dimension is the existence of the provincial council system under the 13th Amendment. The next effort would be to repeal it, if the opposition does not prevent it through strong resistance.
Any glance at the challenges that democracy in Sri Lanka has faced reveal that resurrecting democracy in Sri Lanka is an arduous task, nevertheless possible and necessary. It is not only a task of changing the regime but also the system. If democracy is not reinstated in the foreseeable future, the country will plunge into both political and economic chaos.
One mistake that the critics, however, should not do in assessing the present status in the country, in my opinion, is to consider that all democratic potentialities are exhausted. That is not the case, or that is not the way it should be perceived. The regime is authoritarian but sitting on a democratic system however weak or fragile. People love their freedoms however they understand, and they deserve more. People are also rights conscious, and they deserve more and full measure of the fundamental rights. Any attempt at violent overthrow like in ‘Arab Spring’ not only would be a disaster but also can strengthen the authoritarian character of the regime. A new regime installed through violence or force would not be democratic either. It would create another cycle of violence and further degeneration of democracy. The change should be peaceful but forceful.
Another error might be to think that the international community (IC) can do the change, however you define the IC. It has to be understood that the international solidarity for regime and system change is necessary but it has its own limitations as well as disadvantages. The engineering of selective pressure might be the best. It has to be the people who have to mobilize themselves to assert democracy, human rights and justice to all communities. International standards are important as bench marks. It is through that kind of a social process and transformation that the people could educate themselves to the tasks of upholding democracy not only in politics but also in their personal lives.
Unity between and solidarity among various communities and sectors are important. There is a profound feeling of alienation within the numerically minority ethnic communities and particularly the Tamils from the political system. Unless and until their grievances and the issues of accountability are taken up in a genuine fashion, building of proper solidarity might be difficult. That is also the right thing to do by an authentic democracy movement.
Similar solidarity should be forged between the urban and the rural and the initiative should come from the urban as they are better organized and also privileged than the other. There can be apprehensions among the rural about the intentions of the urban groups. These should be properly alleviated.
Democracy is important both for the labour and the business. The public sector trade unions have a major role to play in resurrecting democracy in the country. They are the bulk of the organized working class. The existence of a vibrant and also a democratic trade union movement is part and parcel of a healthy democratic system. A similar or perhaps a larger role is left to the media, both printed and electronic. If there had been circumstances under which the media had to operate with some self-censorship, now it is time to shake off the fetters. Social media is also pivotal.
What about the role of the political parties in the opposition and for the time being in the government? Major political parties and their leaders are obviously responsible to various degrees in the process of degeneration and even stifling of the democratic system in the country. The resurrection of democracy in the country should also mean the resurrection of democracy within political parties. All parties need to reaffirm their commitment to democracy and human rights and ensure measures that all leaders and members abide by the principles. The civil society organizations need to pressure the political parties to make these commitments to the people. No democratic party should keep anyone in the leadership or even in the membership who have involved directly in human rights violations. Political parties should be purged to eliminate violent, corrupt and communalist politicians from their ranks.
The four major parties – the UNP, the SLFP, the TNA and the JVP – and also the left and the other parties may have different roles to play in the process. The SLFP appears to be completely hijacked today by a family/military/bureaucratic clique completely against the founding principles of that party whatever the past mistakes or deviations. It has to break away from the authoritarian grip. The UNP may have a similar task of reform itself as it has become seemingly paralysed to face up to the challenges posed by the authoritarian regime.
Most important might be to build a second-track leadership both to pressure the existing political parties and also to play an independent role in resurrecting democracy combining both principled issues and day to day grievances of the masses. No democracy movement will succeed purely based on ‘textbook’ issues. The issues should be practical without being opportunistic. In recent past there had been three movements that emerged. First was by the academics who demanded 6% allocation to education among other matters. Second was by the lawyers who stood for the independence of the judiciary against the impeachment of the CJ. The most recent was by an assorted group of youth who stood against ‘hate speech’ and for inter-ethnic justice.
All these are incipient democratic movements. If a second-track leadership for example of 100 committed people – of academics, lawyers and youth – could be built in the coming few months based on these three movements, that would be a centre of attraction for further enlistments for a broader democratic movement. The next to come into the democratic struggle would be the trade unions.