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From majoritarian to authoritarian rule under the guise of necessity

Jul 3, 2010 5:54:39 AM- transcurrents.com

Current moves undermine further Democracy in Sri Lanka

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

The Government of Sri Lanka has been successful in brushing off the alleged accusations of war crimes during the final stage of the war and violations of the basic rights of the survivors after it ended May last year with the crushing defeat of the Tamil militants (LTTE), who fought for a separate independent Tamil State (Eelam).

Their ruthless methods of warfare that ignored completely international laws and norms, including forced recruitment of children to the warring unit and targeted killings of civilians infuriated many countries sympathetic to the oppressed Tamils in Sri Lanka, particularly after the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom

Although many Tamils disapproved the brash methods of their self-proclaimed liberators (LTTE), they had no way of seeking their freedom, rights, dignity and security, denied by successive governments that were highly concerned about safeguarding or enhancing the support of the ethnic Sinhala majority, crucial for winning power. In fact, the ethnic division was exploited for gaining political power. The strategy of the militants was to widen this division to the extreme and create the conditions for the partition of the unified island State. Although their intention to establish autocratic rule in the contemplated separate Tamil State was evident, the entrapped Tamils had no way to resist this despotic aim of the LTTE.

Nationally damaging decisions

The racially biased political decisions intended to help the advancement of the (Sinhala) nation turned out later to be counter-productive. On the other hand, the brash decisions in support of the secondary Tamil nation that emerged as an alternative in response to the divisive actions of the Sinhala majoritarians/patriots also harmed the politically powerless ethnic Tamil community. The Tamil people were caught between two illiberal forces; one reluctant to grand their legitimate rights in order to avoid weakening the countrywide Sinhala majority rule and the other determined to capture the North-East of the island, inhabited largely by the Tamils for self-rule.

Given the routine failure to fulfil the promises to address the grievances of the ethnic Tamils, the division of the island nation into two self-governing states was believed to be the only alternative. This perception also gained vigour with the sustained distrust between the Sinhala and Tamil political entities consequent to the broken promises and abrupt discard of pledges. In many cases, these happened because of the pressure exerted by Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists and/or the perception that any change favourable to the Tamil speaking people would damage the chance of winning elections.

Regrettably, no attempt was made since then to educate the people of the virtues of unity in diversity and the importance of adhering to the basic principles of democratic system, which is not the rule of the majority ethnic group ignoring the rights, interests and concerns of the ethnic minorities. The overall effectiveness of democratic system depends crucially on the recognition it gives to all the inherent demographic and regional features of the nation so as to avoid the exclusion of any constituent of the plural society from the centre of governance. Unfortunately, this was not observed and a section of the population was left out. This also accentuated the regional division which is coupled with the ethnic division because of the neglect of the regions inhabited largely by ethnic minorities. The neglect was intentional as development would enhance the clout of the politically powerless people.

The removal of English from the curriculum, compelling students even at the tertiary level to learn all subjects in their own mother tongue was a thoughtless decision made for political expediency. The enforcement of Tamil only as the medium of instruction for Tamil students, while enforcing Sinhala as the sole official language was intended to give a significant advantage to the Sinhalese over their Tamil counterparts seeking employment. It also served to deny opportunities for Tamil youth to seek skilled jobs abroad. This in turn diminished the prospect of securing economic benefits to the Tamil community.

It has taken half a century for the Sinhala nationalists to realize the folly of the adverse language policy that denied opportunities for many Sri Lankans to seek a better future. It also contributed to the lack of national development. Many countries with relatively low per capita income have progressed swiftly after gaining independence. The overall living standards of their citizens are much higher now, whereas relatively less developed Sri Lanka continues to depend on foreign countries for funds and employment. If not for the wages of Sri Lankan housemaids and other unskilled workers employed in the Middle East, the financial cum economic problem would have been more serious.

Moreover, the emphasis on obsolete conflicts in the island between medieval rulers that had no relevance in the modern world also promoted distrust and ethnic division. This is not the only blunder made by myopic political leaders that blighted the future of their own loyalists. It is mentioned here to draw attention to the fact that decisions intended to be advantageous to the ethnic Sinhalese by denying the just rights and economic opportunities to the ethnic Tamils have ultimately turned out to be self-damaging. The entire nation has paid a heavy price for such parochial decisions. The extended damaging effects resulting from the denial of democratic rights and freedom to the ethnic minorities are yet to be realized by the majority of the Sinhala people. The current move towards nationwide authoritarian rule must be seen in this context.

Human rights activist Rajan Hoole of UTHR-J is quite right in saying that the current disturbing moves are the consequences of “the country’s post independence political legacy.” Violations of human rights, rule of law and in general democratic principles and bad governance because of corruption, nepotism and political interference in public administration and even in the judicial system are due to the “fact that the country drove itself into creeping anarchy by repeatedly spurning opportunities to put its house in order”.

The resounding military victory, notwithstanding the great cost and the contentious ways it was achieved, gave the opportunity for the triumphant government to restore quickly the democratic freedoms, accountability and the rule of law that deteriorated under the current Executive Presidential system lacking adequate checks and balances. The euphoria of the people liberated from the fear of sudden attacks by the terrorists is not going to last forever. The government’s stratagem of propagating that the danger still exists and it has the proven ability to thwart terrorism is also intended to facilitate the implementation of its political agenda. The hurry to proceed with ii is also because of the awareness that this induced anxiety is unsustainable. Moreover Sri Lanka cannot afford to continue ignoring the demands of friendly countries notably India for a permanent political settlement of the ethnic issue that is the root of the national problems obstructing the much needed progress in many fields. Development without political settlement is like putting the cart before the horse.

Sri Lanka’s democracy

To some Sri Lankans, democracy is simply the right to select their representatives
through the electoral process, which since the late 1970s is marred by various corrupt practices. No serious efforts have been made to ensure the elections are ‘free and fair’ as were three decades ago. The misuse of power and state resources has increased in the absence of effective preventive mechanism. The process of distorting democracy originated with its interpretation as unrestrained majority rule by the elected representatives of the people. In brief, majoritarianism in a plural society is contrary to the democratic ideals. Democracy in a multi-ethnic society should not be the free will of the ethnic majority denying the effective participation of other groups in the decision-making process at the national and regional levels. There are various established ways of accommodating all groups in the democratic process making it functional nationally.

The architects of the first Constitution of independent Ceylon knew the inherent risk in the decision-making process under unrestricted Sinhala majority rule. Hence Section 29, notably the sub-sections 29(2), 29(3) and 29(4) in the Constitution which too proved ineffective when the government elected with the popular support of the Sinhala nationalists in 1956 soon after the stunning election victory enacted the Sinhala only official language Bill, although Section 29 prohibited the adoption of any legislation that discriminated against the ethnic and religious minorities. Anyway these constitutional restrictions were abandoned with the adoption of the 1972 Republican Constitution. All ties with the British monarch were also severed. The political problem is that the majority rule is not representative of the entire multi-ethnic society. Moreover, a truly functioning democracy must also be guided by the underlying principles of equality, justice and fundamental rights and freedoms of all citizens. Under the pretext of national/state sovereignty, sovereign rights of citizens should not be dismissed. These fundamentals are observed in truly democratic countries, though not stated in their written constitutions. Their political stability is also due to the adherence to these basic principles.

From the June televised 4-part BBC Hard Talk programme presented by Stephen Sackur, it is also apparent there is the perception in Sri Lanka that those elected to govern the country have the right to act freely. Whatever they do should be taken as for the good of the people and the country. If the people are dissatisfied, they have the opportunity to reject them at the next election. Apparently, the emphasis is on the outcome of the elections not even on the ways these are conducted and what happens afterwards. The latter are matters entirely for the elected representatives of the people to deal with independently. The reason for the prevailing conflict between national interests and the interests of the ruling party/parties is discernible from this stance.

Besides the non-implementation of some provisos in the Constitution, some other decisions are alleged to be violating the current Constitution. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s sudden decision to bring the Attorney General’s office directly under his purview has raised great concern among discerning persons. Civic Rights and Social Justice leaders including the public spirited persons in the ‘Friday Forum’ (their statement was posted by transCurrents on 30 June 2010) have urged the government to bring back the A-G’s Department under the purview of the Ministry of Justice. The independent status of the Department is vital for the rule of law and democracy.
Some jurists have also condemned the decision to bring the A-G’s office directly under the President as unconstitutional. Moreover, no one has opined that the relocation is for ensuring the rule of law. For decades the A-G’s Department has been a ‘non-ministerial’ office unlike other government departments, though it came under the purview of the Ministry of Justice. Although the A-G’s office is constitutionally required to come under the purview of a ministry, the unwritten rule is neither the Minister nor the Secretary of the Ministry has any role in its legal work. But this does not mean they cannot officially meet and discuss administrative and other routine matters as in the case of other government departments. It is questionable whether this arrangement remained solid after the sovereign island became Republic in 1972 and the subsequent changes made to the administrative, legislative and judicial systems. A healthy democracy also requires the observance of unwritten rules.

Constitutional reforms for unrestrained Presidential rule

Despite the urgency to settle the protracted political problem that denied peace, progress and prosperity to the vast majority of citizens, the Sri Lankan government has given importance to the following set of constitutional amendments:

1. Removal of article 31 (2) of the constitution which states: “No person who has been twice elected to the office of President by the People shall be qualified thereafter to be elected to such office by the People.” The denial of the right to contest after two terms as Executive President is said to be undemocratic!

2. The aim of the proposed elimination of the Constitutional Council (CC) that is at the centre of the 17th Amendment is to enable the President to appoint members to several independent commissions in consultation with the speaker and the Prime Minister. It is recalled the main object of the 17th Amendment was to restrict political influence in general administration, including the administration of police, judiciary and the office responsible for conducting elections. Under the existing amendment, the CC was tasked to appoint members to the independent Election Commission, Public Service Commission, National Police Commission, Human Rights Commission, Permanent Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption, Finance Commission and Delimitation Commission. Without the recommendations of these commissions no appointments can be made to key posts.

3. The third proposed amendment would require the Executive President to be present in Parliament once in every three months. The real motive behind this move is unclear.

The above constitutional reforms are to be introduced in Parliament as urgent Bills. Another human rights advocate, Kishali Pinto Jayawardene in her column in the Sunday Times (20 June 2010) has stated blatantly that these are “for entrenching authoritarianism in the dark”. The elimination of the CC will facilitate “unfettered Presidential appointments with only a vague duty to 'consult' others before making the appointments to key offices as well as the constitutional commissions”. Some spurious reasons have been given for the wholesale jettisoning of the CC. One is to prevent the Council pandering to the tune of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and another is that it is not an elected body, whereas the Executive President is chosen directly by the people. Incidentally, both the NGOs and INGOs have under Sri Lankan government’s surveillance. .

The Eelam quest

At the risk of repeating, it is stated here that the contradiction between the configuration of the island nation and the lopsided unitary structure is the root cause of the national problem. The various changes to the Constitution made since 1987 have failed to remove this anomaly. Moreover successive governments ignored blatantly the security concerns, political aspirations and common interests of the Tamil people. The abrupt swing from non violent protests to violent struggle for total freedom from centralised Sinhala majority rule occurred with the unleashing of organized violence against Tamil civilians. The targeted attacks took place under the nose of the law enforcement authorities. The attackers too knew they were acting with impunity. Some post 1956 governments, notably the one in 1983 thought this kind of intimidation would force the powerless Tamils to succumb to their dictates.

The obsession with the Eelam goal blinded its seekers of many realities and the powerful external forces that opposed the creation of a separate Tamil state in the island that gained independence from Britain in 1948. Paradoxically, it was the then Tamil leaders who wanted a unified and not even a federal state for self-rule, while some Sinhalese, particularly the Kandyans were urging for a federal structure.

In the opinion of this writer, Tamil Eelam was only a wish of the desperate people in the absence of a just solution to their communal problem that degraded them to the status of second class citizens not entitled to the same rights and privileges as the majority ethnic Sinhalese, claimed by the ultra Sinhala nationalists to be the sole inheritors of the island.

The unresolved Tamil problem and State terror that led to the emergence of the Eelam concept requires not only a trustworthy political settlement but also a major shift in the mindset of the majority of Sinhalese, who believe they have the sole right to rule the island, as the non-Sinhalese are the progenies of foreign settlers. Even if this is the case, it should not influence the political decisions in modern democratic Sri Lanka. This is crucial, if Sri Lanka is to avoid the disturbances and destruction of the recent past. On the disputed history of the early settlers in the island, researchers have come to the conclusion that the people of South India and Sri Lanka are of the same stock. As in South India that includes Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry (union territory), in Sri Lanka too there are different linguistic groups traditionally settled in separate areas.

The hegemony of the ethnic Sinhala majority is contrary to both democratic and socialist principles; let alone the basic Buddhist ideology. The Sinhala nationalists have the strong desire to sustain this supreme status by retaining the centralised power structure useful for governing repressively. The reluctance of the present government to devolve powers, despite the willingness of the majority in all ethnic communities must be seen in this context. The survey conducted under the direction of Dr. Colin Irwin of the University of Liverpool revealed the broad approval of the people for the proposals of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) set up by the incumbent President after the Eelam war resumed in 2006. Incidentally, the sudden termination of important committees and Presidential commissions before the completion of the assigned tasks has cast doubts on the intents of the Executive.

Underneath this reluctance is the desire to retain the divisive unitary structure because of its usefulness for the Sinhala majority rule. From the foregoing analysis, it is also clear that this restricted structure is the main cause of the internal problem. How this could be amended to make it useful for all to live harmoniously with members of other communities as equal stakeholders is the challenge facing all committed to durable peace, national security and development that benefits all communities and the nation as a whole. It is useful to stress here that the Eelam concept is not rigid faith; it can easily be got rid of by suitable changes to the present political structure in order to be useful to all ethnic groups. The willingness of some former Tamil separatists to cooperate with the government in the post-war rehabilitation process reinforces this possibility. It is not difficult to remove the Eelam concept permanently from the minds of disillusioned Tamils. But this requires essentially, changes that make sovereignty and democracy meaningful to all citizens regardless of their race, caste, creed and residing areas.

It is relevant here to remind the willingness of the Tamil political leaders instrumental for adopting the 1976 Vaddukoddai Resolution to accept a political settlement within undivided Sri Lanka. The TULF accepted the District Development Councils (DDC) Bill of 1980 and contested the 1981 DDC Elections. This system collapsed for the simple reason it was not introduced in good faith. Decentralization and devolution were not in the then government’s agenda. There is now similar constraint with regard to the implementation of the 13th Amendment. If the devolution of powers to the provinces as envisaged in 1987 is in the political agenda of the government, the road to lasting political settlement will be straight and clear of obstacles.

The Tamil problem is now overshadowed by another national problem that is threatening more directly the democratic freedom and rights of the Sinhalese too. Besides the ethnic division, the nation is divided between the Sinhala nationalists and liberal democrats/ socialists. The swift support of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) to the proposed amendments to the Constitution unrelated to the pressing national problems indicates the emerging division not only within the coalition government but also amongst other southerners. The North-South divide cannot be bridged by strengthening politically the Sinhala nationalists despite the encouraging rhetoric of their leaders, who have been promising an acceptable ‘home-grown’ political solution to the ethnic problem, while rejecting all proposals for sharing power equitably proposed by local expert committees. Although the majority of the members were from the Sinhalese community, their recommendations did not tally with the expected ‘home grown’ variety of the government leadership.

The refusal to demilitarize the former war-zone, the establishment of new military bases there, the continued existence of paramilitary armed groups controlled by parties in the North and East that supported the government’s war against the LTTE, continuation of the Emergency Regulations (ER) and Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and importantly the stratagem to delay the promised implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution indicate the plan to keep the embarrassing political issue on the back burner, hoping it will just fade away. The Sinhala nationalists/patriots opposed to devolution have rejected the 13th Amendment on the grounds it has been imposed by India.

The government feels that last year’s military victory has also routed separatism. This presumes that the Tamils have been weakened drastically they cannot demand ‘home land’, self-determining right and, of course, the Eelam. As mentioned earlier the latter is just a concept which cannot be defeated militarily. It can be removed from the minds of the desperate and disillusioned Tamils only by means of a sensible alternative to both Eelam and the present centralised Sinhala majority rule. In effect, what is needed is the transformation of the superficial Democratic Socialist Republic to be a truly Democratic Socialist State, where the rule of law prevails respecting the human/fundamental rights of all citizens at all times. On the contrary, at present there is the feeling among discerning persons that the Republic is being transformed into an undemocratic state with a wider role for the military in ensuring national security and peace.

In the article titled ‘Need for harmonization of Sinhala-Tamil relationship in post-war Sri Lanka’ (Posted by transCurrents on 26 June 2010) Gnana Moonesinghe has highlighted what need to be done in several areas for the good of all the people and the country to progress smoothly free from the obstacles faced during the past several decades. The country has paid a huge price for the failure of the two main political parties to act in the larger interests of the entire nation. The current moves in post-war Sri Lanka are said to be also counterproductive to the building of a fully integrated robust nation. The striking gap between declarations and the reluctance to act accordingly has never been as ominous as it is now. The lack of political will has been the hallmark of national politics in Sri Lanka for decades. It seems to be not different now, despite the known need for decisive actions.

The presumed necessity

From the above analysis it is apparent the Tamil speaking people, including those in the Diaspora are in an awkward position. Some top government leaders want to seize anything to justify the continuation of the aggressive methods used to win the war sans the firepower for achieving their political objectives. The transformation of the ‘no-war’ situation into lasting peace without compromising their political aims is also intrinsic to this plan. The often repeated warnings of imminent attack from the Tiger fugitives and the possible regrouping of the Tiger supporters abroad for seeking the same old Eelam goal are for justifying the government’s high-handed moves. The allegation that there is an international conspiracy against the Sri Lankan government that vanquished the LTTE is also helping to maintain its popularity among the Sinhala patriots. An added force is given to this conspiracy theory by the allegation that the LTTE supporters in the Diaspora are behind it.

Now the Tamils have an exceptional opportunity to join with the Sinhala moderates who are against authoritarian rule. All Sri Lankans must realize the present move to abandon democratic principles is the outcome of the high-handed ways the ethnic minorities were treated after independence. It is the inequitable way democracy functioned, disregarding the intrinsic features of the multi-ethnic nation that has brought about the current muddled situation. What the island nation needs now for sustainable unity and peace is true Democracy that ensures the freedom and rights of all citizens regardless of their ethnic, religious, caste and regional differences.

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]