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Democracy as Solution to Sri Lanka's Ethnic Crisis

The conflict in Sri Lanka arises from the irreconcilable goals of the Sinhalese political elite and the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Can a shift in emphasis from devolution to democracy help resolve this ethnic crisis?

COMMENTARYaugust 9, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly46Democracy as Solution to Sri Lanka’s Ethnic CrisisRohini HensmanThe conflict in Sri Lanka arises from the irreconcilable goals of the Sinhalese political elite and the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Can a shift in emphasis from devolution to democracy help resolve this ethnic crisis?The political Right and Left seem to concur in linking democracy to bourgeois rule; the two concepts have even been hyphenated in the adjec-tive “bourgeois-democratic”. Yet history gives us no reason to believe that there is a necessary connection between the two. It is true that when the bourgeoisie is fighting against feudal power to establish its rule, it seeks the support of the plebe-ian masses and in the process allows them to fight for their own demands: hence the famous slogan of the French Revolution, “liberty, equality and frater-nity”. Yet once their rule is established, they are quite capable of turning on their erstwhile allies, repressing or even slaughtering them. This is not to say that capitalism is incompatible with demo-cratic rights and freedoms either but to emphasise that the latter will prevail only if the working people fight to establish and defend them. Even in advanced capi-talist countries, long-established rights can quickly be demolished. Social-democracy in Germany was followed by fascism and even today, democratic rights are under attack in the heartlands of capitalism. In the former colonies there was, likewise, a popular movement for libera-tion from imperialism, often followed bya sense of disappointment when independence was won but the working masses remained in much the same condition as before. Again, the illusion that democracy is the free gift of the bourgeoise or a necessary condition of their rule is responsible for this dis-appointment. Alternatively, there has been a tendency, shared by both Maoists and Trotskyists, to deny that a bourgeois revolution has taken place or that capitalism is developing. A more realistic view would be to recognise that for the working class, independence from colo-nialism is only the first of many battles for democracy. The most common popular definition of democracy equates it with elections and parliamentary rule. While having elec-tions is better than not having them, this system of representative democracy is, even at its best, the rule of a minority. The representatives who are elected – and they tend to come from the wealthier strata of society – can go on to do what they like withoutanyreference to the wishes of their constituents and there is very little the latter can do about it until the next elections. If, as in theUS, there is a powerful president who is elected by a complicated system, which allows a candidate with a smaller proportion of the popular vote to win or as in the first-past-the-post system, a government can be formed by a party that gets fewer votes than one of its opponents, the representa-tive character of the government is even more tenuous.Another popular definition of demo-cracy is the rule of the majority. This is all too often used to justify discrimination against minorities as being inherent in the rule of the majority, especially in a capital-ist society where there is fierce competi-tion for jobs and resources. We have seen plenty of this kind of majoritarianism in Sri Lanka. From the disenfranchisement of upcountry Tamils and the Official Language Act to the recent revival of attempts at Sinhala colonisation of the East, successive governments or parties hoping to come to power have enacted or advocated policies that deprive members of minority communities of their citizen-ship, franchise, employment, education, land, homes and in many cases their lives, all in the name of the Sinhalese majority. Yet if we look behind the rhetoric and ask, “How many Sinhalese have benefited from these policies?” the answer is, “Very few”. The majority have actually suffered from the resulting war, which has dragged down their living standards and from the assault on the rule of law, which at its worst, allowed tens of thousands of Sinhalese to be killed with impunity in the late 1980s. In other words, majoritarianism is a way in which minority rule seeks to legitimise itself bycreating the illusion that a small elite speaks and acts in the interests of the majority.Rohini Hensman ( an independent researcher and writer.
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW August 9, 200847In fact democracy, properly defined, is not the rule of a minority or even the majority but rule by the people: all the people, without any exceptions. It is true that perfect democracy cannot be achieved in a class-divided capitalist society and therefore, it would be legitimate to distin-guish the more restricted democracy that is compatible with bourgeois rule from the full democracy that is possible in a class-less society. But the former is a necessary condition for the latter – only the struggle to defend and expand democracy under capitalism can create a truly democratic post-capitalist society.A Practical Problem If we define democracy as the rule of all the people, what measures are required to make it a reality? There is a practical prob-lem here because “the people” are not, of course, homogeneous. Every population is differentiated by age and sex and our own society also has class divisions. Most mod-ern societies embody linguistic, ethnic, religious and cultural differences. And if we are talking about a democratic order, there will be differences of opinion on all conceivable issues. How can these possi-bly be accommodated?Perhaps the first principle that needs to be laid down is that violence will not be used to resolve differences. The right to life and to freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is necessary to ensure that no one can prevail by annihilating or crushing the other. This already rules out many practices that are widely accepted, such as torture to extract information or confessions and judicial or extrajudicial executions. These rights should be regarded as absolute, in the sense that they cannot be denied evento criminals. The right to liberty, on the other hand, could be curtailed if some-one is proved to have violated the funda-mental rights of others but it would be important to have a carefully defined due process of law to ensure that this penalty is not misused.Equality is fundamental to democracy. Equality before the law and equal protection of the law need to be guaran-teed to all individuals, as well as freedom from discrimination and persecution on any grounds whatsoever. This would obviously rule out special privileges for any linguistic, ethnic or religious group; the special place given to Buddhism in the constitution of Sri Lanka erodes the demo-cratic character of the constitution with-out conferring any benefits on Buddhism. Implementing a policy of equality would also entail passing legislation and putting in place machinery to ensure non-discrimination and equal opportunities.Finally, democracy as the rule of all the people would require the right to informa-tion as well as freedom of expression and association, so that individuals have the means to participate in self-government. These freedoms should be restricted only where they encroach on the rights of others, for example, libel and slander are illegal because they can injure a person and similarly hate-speech or incitement to violence can injure a whole community. Establishing the distinction between legit-imate freedom of expression and hate-speech may not be easy. Banning books likeThe Satanic Verses because they hurt the sentiments of some people is not war-ranted; on the other hand, local radio was used to mobilise Hutus in the Rwandan genocide and there clearly should not be freedom to incite people to commit mass murder.The overall principle in this conception of democracy is that those who are most affected by a decision should have the most say in that decision. For example, the decision to continue or terminate a preg-nancy most affects the woman who is pregnant and she should have the final say in it, provided the pregnancy is not so far advanced that the foetus has become a baby who could survive on its own. Others may counsel her one way or the other but not decide on her behalf. The prospective father should also have a say but if his decision is different from hers, he would have to negotiate with her to bring her around to his point of view. If one lives in a block of flats or housing society, then the residents should make relevant decisions. And so on, up through municipalities and villages, provinces, nations and the world. But all of this, including the most personal decision concerning whether or not to have a baby, depends on a constitutional and legal framework that confers on indi-viduals the rights and the means to be informed about issues that affect them, engage in discussions on them and parti-cipate in the decision-making process. Framework for DevolutionI feel that in debates on a political solution to the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka, devolu-tion has been overemphasised and demo-cracy underemphasised. Within an overall democratic framework, devolution can certainly be a democratic measure. Instead of decisions about what happens in your municipality, village or province being made by people in a distant capital, who have little knowledge and less con-cerns about the place where you live and the effects of their decisions, you would be empowered to have more say in the deci-sions that concern you. But if it is not specified clearly that the purpose of devo-lution is to promote democracy, there could be many dangers. One possibility is that there is insufficient devolution of powers and the central government inter-feres unnecessarily in the affairs of the province, without any justification in terms of protecting people’s human rights or civil liberties. This has happened in India in the past and such interference was an important reason why the earlier experiment with provincial councils in Sri Lanka failed. It is also possible that it is the provincial government that is violat-ing people’s rights. In 2002, the state government in Gujarat carried out a genocidal pogrom against Muslims in the state and the central government, which ought to have intervened to protect the victims from mass rape and slaughter did not do so. Even after a Congress-led coalition came to power at the centre, Muslims continued to be persecuted and prevented from returning to their homes by the state government in league with the police, while the judiciary in the state was subverted to allow the criminals to gofree while incarcerating innocent Muslims. In essence, Gujarat was a fascist state withinthe framework of a more democratic one – a strange example of devolution gone wrong.In fact, if we try to imagine what would have happened if Prabakaran had been more flexible and had accepted a federal arrangement when it was offered to him during the peace talks in the wake of the
COMMENTARYaugust 9, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly482002ceasefire,it probably would have been something very similar to the situation in Gujarat. There would have been a fascist Tamil Provincial Council in the North-East, with Muslims of the North having no chance to exercise their right of return, and Muslims of the East facing ethnic cleansing too. The courts would function according to the dictates of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and democratic rights and freedoms would be non-existent. At the same time, violations of the rights of Tamils in other parts of the country could continue, despite devolution, if theprovincial council ruling over their area happened to be dominated by Sinhala nationalists. Displacement Again, in Sri Lanka, the central govern-ment is displacing people in the name of high security zones and special economic zones(SEZs) but in India, pitched battles have been fought by state governments against local communities facing displace-ment bySEZs. A democratic framework for devolution would allow neither the central nor provincial government to dispossess people of their land, livelihoods and homes but insist on the necessity of obtain-ing their consent and compensating them adequately. Moreover, the usual practice of denying workers basic rights inSEZs would also be impossible, whether it is under the jurisdiction of the central or provincial government.Even at the lower level of village coun-cils, devolution may not result in demo-cracy if the councils are controlled by the village elite. The movement that culmi-nated in the Indian Right to Information Act actually started at this level, when villagers demanded to know what was happening to development funds allo-cated to their villages, large quantities of which went missing without being used for the purposes for which they had been allocated. Subsequently this act has become a potent weapon against corrup-tion and abuse of power. Moreover, until legislation was passed reserving 33 per cent of the seats in the village panchayat for women, they hardly ever got a chance of being elected; a struggle for 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and state assemblies is still in progress. There may be cases where women are used as fronts for their menfolk but in many cases, the influx of women into local government made a real difference, with priorities shifting to development and welfare measures that really bene-fited the mass of the local people. This is a useful lesson for Sri Lanka, where women are conspicuously absent from government despite the relatively high level of female literacy and the presence of a large number of extremely able women. This is a huge loss, both for the women whose abilities are simply not being exercised and for the country but it is a problem that will not be addressed by devolution alone. Nor will devolution ensure respect for the rights of children, which are violated in so many ways: forced conscription, sexual abuse both commercially and within the family, physical violence, psychological trauma and neglect.It simply cannot be assumed that devo-lution by iself guarantees democracy. It is vitally important to spell out a Bill of Rights that will protect the fundamental rights of all citizens in all parts of the country and make it the duty of govern-ment at all levels to defend those rights. Only within this framework would devo-lution become a genuinely democratic measure, putting decision-making more securely into the hands of those who are affected by the decisions. Previous exercises in constitutional change have done exactly the opposite. It is well known that the republican consti-tution of 1972 abolished the protection of equal rights for minorities and estab-lished a unitary state but it is less often recognised that it also took away rights from the majority of Sinhalese people and concentrated power in the hands of the government. The constitution of 1978 further concentrated power in the hands of one person – the executive president – and took away more rights, including the right to life. The adverse consequences for Tamils were obvious immediately, as thousands of them “disappeared”, and were tortured and killed but the devas-tating consequences for Sinhalese did not become apparent until some years later. This very constitution, under which tens of thousands of Sinhalese disappeared and were tortured and killed between 1987 and 1990, is what the Sinhala nationalists are now trying so hard to preserve. And the separate state that the LTTE is fighting for would be exactly the same, with absolute power concentrated in the hands of one man – Prabakaran – and the majority of citizens deprived of all rights, including the right to life.Seen from this angle, it can be seen that the conflict in Sri Lanka is between a Sinhalese political elite fighting for a Sinhalese unitary state and the LTTE leadership fighting for a Tamil unitary state. Neither is willing to share power with minorities in their area of jurisdic-tion or with the majority of their own community. Their goals are therefore irreconcilable not only with each other but also with democracy. The majority of people in all communities would, on the contrary, benefit from constitutional changes that strengthen democracy and there is therefore no conflict between their interests on the basis of ethnicity. The great virtue of spelling out the idea of constitutional change in this man-ner is that it then becomes clear that it is not something that is just in the interests of Tamils – and that too, only those in the North-East, leaving out Hill-country Tamils and others living in the South – but a change that would empower the vast majority of people in Sri Lanka: all but the small elite who currently control all the power. A Marga Institute poll in mid-2007 suggested that when Sinhalese people realised that devolution could actually bring the government closer to them, the majority supported it. Unfortu-nately, the way in which the issue of devolution has usually been posed sug-gests that it is a zero-sum game, with more power for Tamils resulting in less for Sinhalese. We urgently need to explain to people that it is actually a win-win situation, where the rights of all people of all ethnic groups – bar a tiny minority who currently exploit and oppress the rest – will be strengthened. Moreover, it is the only long-term measure that can end the war. There was a separatist movement in Tamil Nadu earlier but it was settled through negotia-tion; today, if Tamils in India are asked
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW August 9, 200849whether they want to give up their Indian citizenship, the majority would reply, “No!” Similarly, if Tamils enjoy demo-cratic rights and freedoms in the whole of Sri Lanka, why would they want to fight for a much smaller separate state in which their democratic rights are sup-pressed? The leaders of the separatist struggle would find themselves isolated and the war would grind to a halt.On a Personal NoteAs a Sinhala-speaking half-Burgher Tamil from the South, who is also a labour activist and women’s rights activist, I feel that the one-dimensional and simplistic way in which identities are commonly defined is an important reason why a solu-tion to the crisis evades us because it erases important elements of identity like class, caste, gender, political belief and even mixed ethnicity, so common in Sri Lanka. In my neighbourhood in Sri Lanka, there are many middle-and lower-income Sinhalese, some of whom I have known since my childhood and I know for a fact that they do not hate Tamils because they protected my family in 1958 and 1983. They may insist that I share their meal with them but if they are asked to share power with the Tamils, I suspect their response would be, “What power? We don’t have any. How can we share what we don’t have?” And indeed, given that most of them struggle to make ends meeton insecure incomes in the informal sector, their sense of powerlessness is understandable. Those with formal employment may not be much better off. When I started working with women garment workers in the late 1980s, to attempt to organise in the free trade zones was to risk dis-appearance and death. Since then, there has been considerable progress in win-ning the right to freedom of association but hard-won wage gains are currently being snatched away by runaway infla-tion. As Padmini Weerasuriya of the Women’s Centre reported, “There is one girl who cooks herself one meal for the day…and for five days she ate only rice and ‘wattakka’ (pumpkin). It is pathetic but we found lots of examples like this.” Is this what Tamil people are demand-ing? I do not think so. I have not been to the rural areas since 1990, when I inter-viewed women widowed by the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna insurgency and government counter-insurgency. Their sense of powerlessness at that time was overwhelming and I imagine they experience a similar feeling of despair now as it becomes harder and harder to survive economically. Would it be surprising if such people get the feeling that Tamils are demand-ing more power than they themselves possess or allow themselves to be per-suaded that devolution will rob them of part of their country and is a concession to the Tigers who are killing Sinhalese? We have to counter such arguments by explaining that far from leading to a separate state, devolution within a demo-cratic framework is the best insurance against separatism and war, that it will empower not just minorities but also the majority of the Sinhalese and that those who oppose it and campaign for a unitary state are interested not in the welfare of the majority but only in the power of a small political elite. The All Party Representative Commit-tee (APRC) process to evolve proposals for constitutional change got off to an excel-lent start with the majority report of the panel of experts and professor Tissa Vitharana did a good job building con-sensus around proposals for constitutional change that would be acceptable to the democratic majority among the minority communities. What is lacking and has allowed the Sinhala nationalists to sabo-tage the process and bring it to a grinding halt, is a mass campaign to convince the Sinhalese majority that devolution within a democratic framework is as much in their interests as it is in the interests of the minorities. It is critically important that theAPRC proposals should be released to the public without any dilution – as in the case of the majority report, those who dis-agree can release alternative proposals – and a mass campaign launched to support them, drawing in everyone who is opposed to the war and in favour of democracy: progressive political parties, trade unions, women’s groups, religious organisations, academics and intellectuals, students, journalists, non-governmental organisa-tions and so on. The campaign should result in a popular outcry among Sinhalese against anyone who tries to derail the process of constitutional reform. Politicians should understand that the electorate will reject them if they put obstacles in the way of a democratic constitution. That is the only solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis.ConclusionsDevolution without democracy will not solve the ethnic crisis. Local minorities – Sinhalese in the North and East, Tamils in the rest of the country, Muslims and smaller minorities – would continue to be persecuted and even the rights of the local majority, especially vulnerable sec-tions like women and children would not be protected. Therefore, it is important to shift the emphasis from devolution to democracy, arguing for devolution as one measure among many necessary for democratising the constitution.A crucial element of this strategy is to have a truly democratic proposal for con-stitutional change in which the Bill of Rights is spelled out, so that everyone is clear about what rights are guaranteed to all citizens in all parts of the country. Any parties who are not willing to support a proposal that satisfies the democratic aspi-rations of the minorities must present their own alternative proposal(s) and the electorate must be given the opportunity to choose between the proposals. Any interim arrangements must await a deci-sion on the final shape of the political solu-tion and must contribute to progress towards it. In order to make the process of constitu-tional change itself a democratic exercise, the proposal or proposals should be pub-lished in all three languages and the public invited to consider them. It is then up to civil society groups to conduct a vigorous discussion on them before the issue is put to vote, whatever form that takes.Most members of the political elite in Sri Lanka have spent their time under-mining democracy and looting the country for the last 60 years, and are incapable of resolving the ethnic crisis. But I have great faith in the people of Sri Lanka and believe that if they are allowed to make an informed decision on constitutional change, it will be in favour of democracy.

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