by Dr.Dayan Jayatilleka
What better sign that Sri Lanka is a functioning democracy, than the very presence of the TNA in parliament? I can think of members of the First World who would not and do not permit such parties to function.
Months after a bloody thirty years war, with a heavy military presence in the former conflict zones, a party which was a fellow traveller of the defeated terrorist enemy, was elected as the main representative of the Tamil people of the North. It is not just the holding of the election but the nature of the result that stands as testimony to Sri Lanka’s democracy.
Is that democracy flawed? Is it incomplete and in need of improvement? Most certainly, but can someone show me a democracy that has been through thirty years of war and has not been damaged and distorted by the experience, with variously atrophied and hypertrophied institutions, habits and practises which take years to overcome?
More basically, how many states in the global South, the Third World, have been through decades of war, not only at its periphery, but right in its capital city, and remained functioning representative democracies without a single episode of military rule?
While the recent constitutional amendment could be said to have narrowed the ‘structure of political opportunity’, it has in no way closed the electoral path to change. So long as the electoral option remains open and the opposition has not been suppressed, Sri Lanka cannot be classified as other than a democracy. Any criticism of Sri Lanka by Lankans or others must validate itself by basing itself on the recognition of this fundament.
Indeed, the degree of democracy prevailing in Sri Lanka would be almost revolutionary in scope, if introduced in several of the closest, most precious allies of precisely those of the international community who criticise Sri Lanka explicitly or implicitly. Some do not have elected leaders; others have no national elections, while still others have no political parties.
Sri Lanka has left the tunnel of a thirty years war, defeated a formidable armed enemy and preserved the foundations of a democracy and the rudiments of a welfare state. Nobody is dying of bomb blasts or machine gun fire, after decades. All those are achievements worthy of respect and recognition, celebration and defiant defence.
I was therefore distressed by the contending reactions to the TNA during the 18th amendment debate, with the government benches shouting ‘kotiya’ (Tiger) at Mr Sumanthiran (who has not said a word in support of, or, it must be said, in opposition to the LTTE) and the civil society liberals spreading his word as if he were an Old Testament prophet or John the Baptist. The catcalls of ‘Tiger’ were scarily reminiscent of the UNP’s collective vilification of Mr Amirthalingam in the 1977 parliament, which, as we know, was signal and symptom of the horror of July 83. I was also distressed by the fact that the obvious response was not made: that if the indictments of Sri Lanka’s democracy made in the TNA speeches were anything like accurate, they couldn’t have been in parliament delivering them!
One problem with Sri Lanka’s opposition is that it is, in the main, minoritarian or at the least, a minoritarian profile. This is not an argument in favour of a majoritarian one. India has a majoritarian opposition which hasn’t been successful. When the UNP tried majoritarianism under DB Wijetunga, it lost out to Chandrika. The answer is a pluralist patriotism. Minoritarianism has cost the opposition since Ranil took over and with or without him, it is a kiss of death as Sarath Fonseka found out the moment the TNA endorsed him. It was as if his credentials and campaign had been embraced by a political suicide bomber.
I don’t want to get into the naming game, but I’ve been struck by the fact that the most sensationalist propaganda protests against the administration are, disproportionately, Protestant. Unlike the far larger, more representative Catholic Church which seems to have opted for a studied and grounded stance of constructive engagement and responsive cooperation with the post-war regime, the most apocalyptic denunciations come from Anglican, Methodist and sundry evangelical/fundamentalist elements, which obviously do not believe in rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.
It is even more noteworthy (and hopefully unrelated) that these worthy critics of Sri Lanka’s democratic credentials and the state of Lankan democracy, will not urge the one move that could cause a democratic surge, thereby contributing to the health of the body politic: preventing the real-time collapse and probable crash-and-burn of the democratic alternative at/after the local authority elections, by immediately ejecting its discredited CEO. Is there a connection between the two factors, the raucousness on the regime and the silence on the opposition leadership? Is it part of a move to leverage regime change without and short of a change in the Opposition leadership?
No matter. What is really dangerous is the three- pronged effort to (a) damn Sri Lanka’s democracy by questioning its very existence (as distinct from a sharp criticism of this or that law, policy or deed as un-democratic), (b) accuse it of war crimes and (c) paint is as a proxy of China. A coalition of forces is trying to paint a target on Sri Lanka’s back.
This is where the question of the Opposition leadership comes up. While successive administrations over fifteen years have found the status quo in the UNP, electorally expedient in the extreme, to my mind it is not in consonance with the national interest. It is the present Opposition leadership that has consistently acted to weaken and discredit Sri Lanka in the international arena. Under his leadership the UNP has functioned as a base for those who would mount ‘deep penetration’ operations against our national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Throughout the war years, the UNP leadership articulated a position that tacitly shifted the blame from the Tigers onto the government, and did so internationally.
So long as the UNP leadership remains unchanged to a patriotic one, efforts at de-stabilisation will find a local partner and external exercises in ‘ regime change’ will proceed unabated precisely because they have a desirable local alternative. If a more patriotic or nationalist leadership takes over, these external efforts may tail off, precisely because there is no desirable domestic replacement.
It is also the present UNP leadership that has converted that party into an aircraft carrier or beachhead for NGOs, by which I do not mean the grassroots development NGOs that do such wonderful work for the poor and underprivileged, but the so-called peace NGOs who engage in unfair, unbalanced propaganda worldwide against Sri Lanka, softening up the country as a global target. Without the present UNP leadership, these ‘cosmopolitan civil society’ types will be like parasites without a host body, and will find themselves suspended in mid-air or inhabiting a social vacuum.
This is precisely why the civil society ideologues and opinion makers are waging a bitter rearguard action to save the UNP leadership, or minimise the changes and retain it in a crucial role, or substitute it with an essentially similar one in social and ideological terms, enabling it to remain in the role that it has played since the latter half of the 1990s. However the U.K. Labour party has just provided a contrasting example for the UNP, by swiftly selecting a new leader, who is young, committed to a new vision, and supported by the party’s grassroots organisations.
The latest arguments deployed by these opinion makers are that the country does not need another Mahinda Rajapakse or UPFA (an editorialist’s phrase is ‘Mahinda Rajapakse Lite’), and that ‘there is no space to the right of the Rajapakse administration’. De-coded, what these mean is that the UNP must not select a leader or policy option that would be as patriotic as Mahinda Rajapakse and the UPFA; it must not take a line that is firm on issues of national sovereignty and independence, territorial unity and integrity and national security.
These causes are seen as somehow to the ‘right’ of the UPFA, as if anywhere in the Global South, these are issues which do not engage the masses deeply and form an essential part of a progressive platform. In Latin America the victorious new Left project describes itself as ‘patriotic’, ‘national’ and ‘popular’. It is also absurd to argue that the UNP’s present leader, who has yet to say a word of criticism of the Tigers and self-criticism of his policy of appeasement, has affiliated his party with the global Right as represented in the IDU, and advocates economic neo-liberalism (which he practised as Prime Minister), does not occupy a political and ideological space to the right of Mahinda Rajapakse.
The politics of Sri Lanka and the world is replete with examples of the desirability and viability of status quo Lite or incumbency Lite. The mechanistic Marxists refused to recognise Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, because they saw it as colonialism Lite (allegedly we weren’t truly independent). The masses didn’t. SWRD Bandaranaike interpolated himself between the Left and the Right. He could have been regarded as UNP Lite or the Left Lite, and was probably an admixture. So what? Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council retrieved the sectors that had gone ‘Reagan Democrat’ by shifting the party to the centre, from the pacifist progressivism. Was he ‘Republican Lite? New Labour was in one sense, certainly Thatcher Lite. When the UNP, the state and society were besieged by the JVP’s xenophobic surge in the late 1980s, the electorate chose someone who was both JVP Lite and JRJ Lite, to wit, Premadasa. Often, Lite might be right.
As a political scientist who is a non-member of any party, I think Sri Lanka would be safer and more secure and its national interest better served, by an opposition leadership which is firm on issues of sovereignty and national security. We may and must fight on domestic policies (social, economic-developmental, educational, cultural, and ethnic), human rights and freedoms, constitutional architecture and good governance, but on issues of national sovereignty and security there must be consensus. There must be no daylight between Government and opposition for those who seek to trespass on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty or surreptitiously re-canvas the case of and for the Tigers or ethnic separatism.
Politically and ideologically what Sri Lanka needs, has always needed but never really had, lies somewhere in the triangle constituted by India’s Congress, the US Democrats and Britain’s Labour. That may be a task for the next generation of politicians, from the two major parties and elements of the left.
Sri Lanka’s future depends on the North understanding that whatever resonance the Tamil nationalist narrative may have internationally, the Sri Lankan Tamils have to live on this island with the Sinhalese and therefore it is not the world they have to convince of their case, it is the Sinhalese, and that too, the majority of the majority. No external leverage can substitute for internal, domestic goodwill— and as the late ’80s proved, can even be counterproductive as well as unsustainable. Recent news in the neighbourhood should teach Tamil politicians not to overestimate (once again) external capacities and inclinations.
For their part the South must understand that a running sore of discontentment in the North and East will prove toxic for the whole country and all its peoples; that the demographics of the neighbourhood and the reality of a globalised world economy with an even more globalised information system, leave no problem ‘purely internal’.
The country’s North and East are being materially re-connected with the South. The island is being reintegrated. Similarly, the country is being ever more connected with the world. It is up to the communities and their leaderships to follow suit. The subjective must reflect the objective.