Colombo Telegraph

Strangling A Democracy – Collectively

By Suren Rāghavan

Dr. Suren Rāghavan

All states have nations. However, all nations may not have a state. A bitter political reality the Tamil separatists should get into their political psyche and come to live with. This is not to deny the Rowlinian justice to a ‘minority’ nation that has lived and struggled for their political freedom with huge historical human and cultural cost: but to negotiate with the global, regional and contemporary national strategic/security realities within the Lankan context. In the same breath one must reiterate to the extreme Sinhala nationalists and their often violent ethnoreligious politics- that oppressing and continuing to deny the fundamental political freedom and the inalienable rights of a nation within their majoritarian ethnic state with such historicized centripetal interpretation and mobilization of ‘superiority’ political power, will not only work as a barrier to the stability of their own ‘Dhammadīpa’ but in fact will be a self-constructed destroyer within a postwar context even with the new found limited opportunities for the recovery of a working democracy.

There are two popular, often asked questions aiming to analyze the bi-polar positions that leads to the structural crisis within the state of Lanka. 1) Why is the nation of Sinhalas, which claims to be the bearers of the pristine Buddhist doctrine cannot construct harmony but take violent paths in their political conflict resolution? 2) Why are the ‘moderate’ Tamil intellectuals silent and disengaged in the face and history of the separatist discourse? The answers vary based on who is asked of, because the questions are raised on false or lopsided conceptual notions of important terms here.

One needs to ask which ‘Buddhism’ are you comparing to conclude that Sinhalas live in contrary and does your ‘moderate intellectuals’ mean those who deny the rights of the Tamils for their self-determination even leading to a separation if such is possible (non-violently)? Because searching for a historical pure Buddhism and come to conclude that it is ‘betrayed’ in Lanka is a ‘Tambiahian’ paradigm constructed and propagated well within a Western/ Protestant understanding of Buddhism. Sinhala Buddhism had never been what is termed as Pāli Buddhism. Instead it arrived, established and continues as a political process of redefining the past, present and future of the Sinhala ethnic nation and their structural power aspirations. For this reason Buddhism is the means not the end within the Sinhala political hegemony against the ‘Asinhalas’ sharing the island. Similarly if a Tamil is considered a moderate because s/he openly stand to oppose the idea of an independent sovereign state for the Tamils carved from the territorial boundaries of present Lanka, then you are not only dismissing the fundamental aspects of modern democracy but also contemporary understanding of collective Human Rights guaranteed by the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. This makes an a paradigmatic approach to the intellectual discourse of the ethnoreligious and ethnolinguistic nationalisms of Sinhalas and the Tamils respectively – a sociopolitical funambulism. Yet one cannot be silent far too long in the face of the abysmally decomposing democratic nuances even under a so called ‘Rule of Good Governance’

Southern Leadership – a Near Failure – Again?

My support for a regime change and to defeat the Rajapaksas in January 2015 was open, public and a conscience act of political engagement. Like millions of other ordinary Lankans, I joined that process realizing it is our present collective responsibilities that will unavoidably reshape our individual future. Therefore, there was no desire of power or profit except to live in a society governed by democratic justice for all. May be I took more than necessary risks given to my background and the vulnerability of arrest, torture or death – to which in fact I came very close, thanks to racist journalists such as Keerthi Warnakulasooriya. After the elections, the Hansard has recorded how the Opposition elect TNA offered to work with the JVP and included Anura Kumara Dissanayaka as the chief opposition whip. My friend Sumanthiran may remember my humble contribution and coordination between these otherwise distant parties to make such thing happen. Because of my firm belief in a participatory democracy that is only possible with an accommodative and active opposition. Looking back, I don’t regret for I did but certainly a deep disappointment is anchoring to observe the way Sirisena-Ranil had failed to uphold some of the basic aspirations on which the civil mobilization that occurred. In no means it was any form of revolution as some had tagged but certainly a rare display of the strength and belief in democracy especially by the same people often marginalized by the state mechanism on the basis of ethnic or religious identities.

Nevertheless in post-election rule, Ranil on his part appointed the most unfitting cabinet portfolios. Most of his ‘Royal’ colleagues are either totally ignorant of the subject matter like the Minister of Education or arrogant like the minister for Higher Education. I don’t see many except for the Foreign Affairs Minister, Mangala Samaraweera who has delivered his duties beyond the expected levels. I don’t say so because Mangala is a friend. But what Lanka has achieved in a year to turn around the international relations and the opinion, cooperation and positive support of key players is a huge score and a political reality that even harsh critiques cannot deny or hide. Even here Ranil, due to his self-centered approaches, has diminished a person like Mangala. It is no secret Mangala failed as the district leader to secure the victory of Matara district at the August general election. In fact the only constituency that Mangala managed to make win was his own that is with a paper thin margin of 2,468 votes – a seat he won with a landslide victory of over 100,000 votes in 2000. Why Mangala performed so badly in his own district needs a separate analysis by his political advisors. One can only think that if Mangala alienates himself from his grass root support base, winning the international community will means nothing at the next general election and he may be forced to seek an international job than to represent Matara in the next parliament. Ranil seems to be well designing such natural outcome by making sure that Mangala has no local powers or possibility to foster his individual career.

Then Ranil’s method of appointing and justification of key position like the Governor of the Central Bank to a point that needs contestant defending of corruption of mega deals is far from the process of transparency that was expected of him. His approach to the media has only increased in hatred and disproportional reaction. True, majority of Lankan journalism is ethnically biased and controlled by a Sinhala- Buddhist chauvinism. Yet winning the media is a democratic process even in limited ways. Ranil has not apologized for his belief in the brutal police regimes in the way it handles the student protests and growing police led crimes such as the murder of the young father at a private party in Ambilipitiya. It took longer and softer than necessary to inquire MP Hirunika Premachandra for her abduction politics. The long list of journalists including the best security analysist Lanka every produced Taraki – Sivaram who were murdered, made to disappear or flee the country remains the same with no substantial progress of justice. His justification to administer ‘bitter medicines’ to the economy and the society at large only displays with top down elitist method that made him lose more than 20 elections. One more of his -Royalist and rainbow friends- national-list MP Malik Samarawickrama has yet failed to give reasons why he is die hard pushing the 65,000 houses project in the war destroyed Jaffna. Elected MPs and professionals of the region and very importantly the recipients of these aluminum prefabricated structures imported at a higher cost have rejected it. A participatory approach to democracy for better shareholder involvement is very alien to Ranil. There is only line of political credit in his defense. He is not given into the popular Sinhala nationalism to hold his political popularity.

President Sirisena has lost most of his earned charisma so soon. He may have come closer to Gandhian values by pardoning the Tiger suicide bomber – his would have been assassin. Yet his inability to think as a 21st century leader of a state where the majority population falls within the 15-45 demographic bracket was on display by his outburst at the Enrique fan behavior. That was a single signal of his deeply pre-modern views on life, entertainment and more importantly on the freedom of women. His nominations to the cabinet from the SLFP are even more disappointing and dangerous. Many like S. B. Dissanayake who are clearly rejected by the voters for their unruly and mindless political views and behaviors are back with handsome rewards. His campaign mate and Health Minister is entangled in numerous corruptions charges and goes to Singapore for his own medical treatments. Sirisena’s struggle with strong man Mahinda for the control of the party has made him a symbol of shameless compromise when he approves the political return of people like Lansa and Sajin Vass. They are not only die hard Mahinda loyalists but also have undoubted corruption /criminal charges against. President’s fear of losing the party control shows his inability to imagine out of the box and lack of confidence to lead a new generation of young democratic process if needed with a totally new political ideology.

When both key actors of a ruling consensus government fails so soon in the eyes of the civic society then the ability of such government to achieve significant transformations will be a day dream. It appears that the only positivity that goes for constructive democracy in south Lanka is the active participation of a young politically aware population that dreams for democracy.

Northern Actors and their Flames of Federalism  

Tamils of Lanka have struggled for their political equality like no other community in the South Asian region. Irrespective of the multi-faceted interpretations an abysmally violent war funded and led by the Tamils, it only stands as an indication to their failed hopes, dismissed aspirations and then an unextinguished political anger with the state of Lanka. Now there is enough academic literature available to confirm how the Tamils self-designed and funded such a text book separatist war with strategic military precisions and supreme operational discipline only led by an elusive school dropout until he was defeated and killed at the Nandikadal lagoon by the determined Sri Lankan Army – which was backed by some 15 other states directly and indirectly. Such paradigm shifting non-state militarism is only a mirror reflection of the historicized intransigent nature of the Sinhala hegemon to refuse political accommodation of Tamils as equal and qualified partners in constructing and governing the state of Lanka.

Until the centralized tight fist majoritarian control was directly and politically challenged by separatist ideologies of the Vaddukoddai Declaration, majority of Tamil politics gravitated around various forms of federal arrangements as a means of winning political equality. Of course the history of federal discourse did not start with the Tamils but the Sinhalas, first by the Kandy National Assembly and then SWRD Bandaranaike who went far as suggesting Ceylon to be a partner of greater confederation with India for security and Indian Ocean strategic reasons (I have elsewhere written and argued this aspect in length including in my new book).

Federalism has many forms and shapes. Unlike in the popular Sri Lanka discourse where Buddhist monks like Bengamuwe Nalaka and former singer Madu Madhawa Aranvida tries to become experts on theatrical and implicational aspect of federalism, accordingly Danial Elazar – a world authority on federalism- it is conceptually a ‘covenant’ between two or more partners to respect individuality while working together for common achievements. Such covenant may have had its root in how the Jews arranged their governance in line with Abrahamic tradition and later amongst the 12 tribes. Such may have accorded around the 2000 BCE according to the Biblical records[1]. It may be for this reason that out of the 27 federal countries only India where the dominant religious culture is non Abrahamic. Federalism come for various reason and as a result of various influences. It may be a colonial arrangement to govern a large country like Australia or Canada. It also can be a totally indigenous political development of a very small country like Switzerland. It may be adopted as an idea of independent states trying to work together like in the modern EU or imposed as a way to stop a country like India breaking on the basis of different languages or ethnicities[2]. Whether it is holding together federalism or coming together federalism, the fundamental factor is that partners willing to treat each other as political equals and the social and cultural capital of that country can support such political worldview. For this reason as I have argued[3] achieving a full federals governing mechanism is not possible in Lanka as long as the Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic ideology dictates the structural mindset. In theory some Pāli text may support equal human existence but Sinhala Buddhist political formation firmly rejects such equality especially with its Tamil ‘other’.

Such process of othering is a result of the historicization of Sinhalas who are a majority on the island but in fact an unsecured minority for actual and perceived reasons. The cornerstone narrative of the Mahāvaṃsa is the textualized evidence of such ontological insecurity that travels through the history.

It is sad that Chief Minister and former justice Wigneswaran does not know this or does not wish to acknowledge such reality but reconstruct the same federal mind set and willfully ignites a political flame that can only burn down any hope of winning democracy and equality. I argued with my friend Sumanthiran about the wisdom in including such federalist terminology in the 2015 TNA election manifesto. While I did not get a clear answer I could understand that was a strategic compromise for a minimum accommodation of the highly vocal diaspora which still argues for separation. I am neither supportive nor in opposition to federalism. As a political theory and mechanism federalism is ideal for a state that embroiled itself on powersharing. But after reading a PhD in comparative politics, taking Lanka as my case study, I argue federalist discourse only will further deeply divide this island on the line of ethnicity due to the misunderstanding of federalism from both sides of the divide. For the Sinhalas, federalism is the beginning of a separate state while for the Tamils it is the minimum achievement instead of separate state. Such diagonal contradictions cannot core exist, even if it is super imposed by an outside super power as what is happening in former Yugoslavia.

Wignesawaran (un)knowingly may become the ‘perfect other’ of all Sinhala nationalists from Nalin de Silva at theoretical and Mahinda Rajapaksa at political level. Notwithstanding, such political bi-polarization cannot produce a working democracy. The International Community may pressure Lanka to adhere to basic form of western democracy. For a country at a time when its total GDP is not sufficient to service the total foreign debts and its major exports are based in the key western markets and only surviving relief is a newly announced 2.0 billion IMF loan , there is not much leverage to negotiate its nationalist pride and prejudices. Lanka needs to very urgently come out of the Rajapaksa mania of this genre of rather a self-defeating dualistic nationalism. It needs to offer a political alternative to the separatist and regionalist Tamil extremists.

There seems only a few positive options – envisioning and delivering a pluri national working democracy is one such viable alternatives. Loggerhead ultra-thick nationalism of Wimal Weeransa and Sivaji Lingam can collectively produce one thing. Continue to be divided and suffer both as the oppressed and oppressor. In reality the majority of the responsibility lay with the Sinhalas not merely because they are majority but also because contrary to the popular myths propagated by ill-informed Saṅgha community who in turn codify an eternal fear, the Sinhalas have grown in numbers. They were 4.6 million or 69% of a population of 6.6 million in 1947 just prior to the independence. Thanks to all the welfare regimes they are 15.3 million and very importantly 75% of a 20.3 million population in 2012. Comparatively the Lankan Tamils were 730,000 or 24% in 1947 and 2.2 million but only 11% of the total population in 2012. A clear indicator there is no issue of expansionism or pan- Tamil approach in Lanka. On the other hand for the Tamils – a 30 years of destructive war has only brought misery and diminishing.

The language of the right to self-determination can always be a high sounding and neatly fitting to an INGO theoretical discourse but it does more harm than benefit at ground level. Because the normative issue here – at the heart of Lanka’s power sharing paradoxical paradigm is a ethical one and political morality – one that could be achieved only by the political art of compromise and bargaining. A further reality is that such bargaining happens only within the framework where the established ‘state’ has a leverage not the non-state actors even at the UNHCR. Ethnic, linguistic or religious nationalism is a zero sum game compared to a liberal civic, collective and liberal versions of nationalism. As we know today and thanks to the aggressive on slaughter of the neoliberal globalization, some form of nationalism is a reality in every state or nation. Whether it is primordial, instrumental or structural, dealing with competing nationalist claims has few options – that is a creatively reimagine their state and invite all those who feels as part of it to participate equally to enrich the life of that state. What federalism can offer is that fundamental spirit of such partnership and equality not the word or label that either satisfy the Tamils or inflame the Sinhalas. There are enough and more modern examples of such constitutional arrangements and achievement to accommodate and recognize competing interests- such are called a Multination Democracy with different levels of a shared sovereignty. We do not have to look into an Abrahamic framework like federalism if that does not make us feel safe. Within the texts of Buddhism there is abundant support for equality and sharing. It will be a role model if Lanka can find, adopt and be an example of such principles based on Buddhism. My unshaken belief is that the Saṅgha community and its learned members should lead such wider political imaginations if they are to be the real Buddha putras as well as Sinhala Bhumi putras. The active civil society ought to seek and empower such Saṅgha members who by way of default are enshrined with the responsibility of guarding Lanka, Sinhalas and Buddhism.

*Dr. Suren Rāghavan is a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies – University of Oxford. His research book – Buddhist Monks and the Politics of Lanka’s Civil War: Ethnoreligious Nationalism of the Sinhala Saṅgha and Peacemaking in Sri Lanka 1995-2010. Equinox 2015 is now on Amazon. raghavansuren@gmail.com


[1] Elazar. Daniel J., The Political Theory of Covenant: Biblical Origins and Modern Developments, Publius Vol. 10, No. 4, Covenant, Polity, and Constitutionalism (Autumn, 1980), pp. 3-30

[2] See: Watts, Ronald L. “Federalism, federal political systems, and federations.” Annual Review of Political Science 1, no. 1 (1998): pp 117-137.

[3] Rāghavan, Suren. ” Ethnoreligious nationalism and the rejected federalism of Sri Lanka.” In Politics of Religion and Nationalism: Federalism, Consociationalism and Secession. Requejo, Ferran, and Klaus-Jürgen Nagel. (Eds) London: Routledge   (2014): pp 121-136

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