A mass campaign is needed to convince the Sinhalese majority that devolution and democratisation are in its interest as much as they are in the interest of Sri Lanka’s minorities.
The political right and left around the globe seem to concur in linking democracy to bourgeois rule; the two concepts have even been hyphenated in the adjective ‘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 plebeian masses, and in the process allows them to fight for their own demands – hence the famous slogan of the French Revolution, ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’. 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 democratic rights and freedoms, but to emphasise that the latter will prevail only if the working people fight to establish and defend them. Even in advanced capitalist countries, long-established rights can quickly be demolished. Social Democracy in Germany was followed by fascism; even today, democratic rights are under attack in the heartlands of capitalism.
In the former colonies, there was likewise a popular movement for liberation from imperialism. This was often followed by a sense of disappointment when, though independence was won, the condition of the working masses remained little changed. Again, the illusion that democracy is the free gift of the bourgeoisie, or a necessary condition of their rule, is responsible for this disappointment. 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 colonialism 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 elections 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 largely whatever they like, with little reference to the wishes of their constituents; indeed, there is very little the latter can do about it until the next elections. If, as in the US, there is a powerful president who is elected by a complicated system that 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 representative character of the government becomes even more tenuous.
Another popular definition of democracy 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 capitalist society where there is fierce competition for jobs and resources. This type of majoritarianism has been widely prevalent in Sri Lanka. From the disenfranchisement of Up-country 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 advocated policies that deprive members of minority communities of their citizenship, franchise, employment, education, land, homes and, in many cases, their lives. All of this has been undertaken in the name of the Sinhalese majority.
Yet if we look behind the rhetoric and ask how many Sinhalese have actually benefited from these policies, the answer is ‘very few’. The majority has actually suffered from the decades of war, which have dragged down their living standards. Furthermore, at its worst, the assault on the rule of law allowed tens of thousands of Sinhalese to be killed with impunity during the late 1980s. In other words, majoritarianism is a way in which minority rule seeks to legitimise itself by creating the illusion that a small elite speaks and acts in the interests of the majority.
In fact democracy, properly defined, is not the rule of a minority or even the majority, but rather rule by the people – all the people, without any exception. It is true that perfect democracy cannot be achieved in a class-divided capitalist society, and therefore it would be legitimate to distinguish a more restricted democracy, one that is compatible with bourgeois rule, from the full democracy that is possible in a classless 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.
Dealing with difference
If we define democracy as the rule of all the people, what measures are required to make this a reality? There is a practical problem here, because ‘the people’ are not, of course, homogeneous. Every population is differentiated by age and sex, and Sri Lankan society also has class divisions. Most modern 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. So how could these disparities be accommodated?
Perhaps the first principle that needs to be laid down is that violence will not be used to resolve differences. The rights to life and freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are necessary to ensure that no one can prevail by annihilating the other. This already rules out such practices as torture, and judicial or extrajudicial executions. These rights should be regarded as absolute, in the sense that they cannot be denied even to criminals. The right to liberty, on the other hand, could be curtailed if someone is proved to have violated the fundamental 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. Both equality before the law and equal protection of the law need to be guaranteed to all individuals, as does freedom from discrimination and persecution of any type. 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, for instance, erodes the democratic character of the Constitution without conferring any benefit to 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 people would require the institutionalisation of the right to information 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 legitimate freedom of expression and hate speech may not be easy. Banning books such as The Satanic Verses because they hurt the sentiments of some people is not warranted. 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 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 pregnancy most affects the woman who is pregnant, and she should have the final say in it. As another example, the residents of a block of flats or a housing society need to make collective decisions about issues that affect their living arrangements, and this process then continues up through municipalities and villages, provinces, countries and the world. But all of this depends on a constitutional and legal framework that confers on individuals the rights and means to be informed about issues that affect them, to engage in discussions on them and to participate in decision-making about them.
In past debates on a political solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis, devolution has tended to be over-emphasised and democracy has been under-emphasised. 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 concern about the place where you live and the effects of their decisions, you would be empowered to have more say in the decisions that concern you. But if it is not specified clearly that the purpose of devolution is to promote democracy, there could be many dangers.
One potential danger is that there is insufficient devolution of powers, and the central government could interfere 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, and why the Rajapakse regime’s determination to go no further than that experiment will also fail. But it is also possible that it is the provincial government that is violating the 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 go free while incarcerating innocent Muslims. In essence, Gujarat was a fascist state within the 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 Velupillai Prabhakaran had been more flexible and had accepted a federal arrangement when it was offered to him during the peace talks following the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, it probably would have been something very similar to the situation in Gujarat. There would have been a fascist Tamil Provincial Council in the northeast, with Muslims of the north having no chance to exercise their right of return, and Muslims of the east facing ethnic cleansing. The courts would have functioned according to the dictates of the 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 the Provincial Council ruling over their area happened to be dominated by Sinhalese nationalists.
In Sri Lanka, the central government has long been 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 displacement by SEZs. A democratic framework for devolution would allow neither the central nor the provincial government to dispossess people of their land, livelihoods and homes, but rather would insist on the need not only to obtain their consent as well as to compensate them adequately. Moreover, the usual practice of denying workers basic rights in SEZs, whether they are under the jurisdiction of the central or the provincial government, would also be impossible.
Even at the lower level of village councils, devolution may not result in democracy if the councils are controlled by the village elite. The movement in India that culminated in the Right to Information Act actually began at this level, when villagers demanded to know what was happening to development funds allocated to their villages, large quantities of which had gone missing. Subsequently, this Act has become a potent weapon against corruption and abuse of power. Moreover, until legislation was passed reserving 33 percent of the seats in the village Panchayats for women, the latter were rarely able to get elected. (A struggle for one-third 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 has made a real difference, with priorities shifting to development and welfare measures that have truly benefited the mass of local people.
Unitary or united?
This is a useful lesson for Sri Lanka, where women are conspicuously absent from government, despite the relatively high level of female literacy and large number of extremely able women. This is a significant loss, both for the women whose abilities are not being exercised and for the country. But it is a problem that will not be addressed by devolution alone. Nor will devolution in itself 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. As such, it simply cannot be assumed that devolution by itself will guarantee 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 to make it the duty of government at all levels to defend those rights. Only within such a framework would devolution become a genuinely democratic measure, putting decision-making more securely into the hands of those who are affected by the decisions.
In Sri Lanka, previous exercises in constitutional change have done exactly the opposite. It is well known that the Republican Constitution of 1972 abolished the protection of minorities and established 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 president – and took away more rights, including the right to life. The adverse consequences for Tamils were immediately obvious, as several thousands were disappeared, tortured and killed; but the devastating consequences for Sinhalese did not become apparent until some years later. This very Constitution, under which tens of thousands of Sinhalese were disappeared, tortured and killed between 1987 and 1990, is what the Sinhala nationalists are now trying so hard to preserve. And the separate state for which the LTTE has been fighting would be exactly the same, with absolute power concentrated in the hands of one man – Prabhakaran – and the majority of citizens deprived of all rights, including the right to life.
From this angle, it can be seen that the conflict in Sri Lanka has been between a Sinhalese political elite fighting for a Sinhalese unitary state and the LTTE fighting for a Tamil unitary state. Both leaderships have been unwilling to share power, either with minorities in their area of jurisdiction or with the majority of their own community. Their goals have therefore been 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 as a necessary measure to restore and strengthen democracy in Sri Lanka is that it quickly becomes clear that such change is not only in the interests of Tamils – and that, too, only those in the northeast, leaving out Hill-country Tamils and others living in the south. In fact, such a change would empower the vast majority of the people of Sri Lanka – indeed, all but the small elite who currently control all the power. In mid-2007, a poll by the Marga Institute of Colombo suggested that when Sinhalese people realised that devolution could actually bring government closer to them, the majority supported it. Unfortunately, the way in which the issue of devolution has usually been posed suggests that it is a zero-sum game, with more power for Tamils resulting in less for Sinhalese.
It needs to be clearly explained to the people of Sri Lanka that democratic devolution is actually a win-win strategy, ensuring peace and strengthening the rights of all people of all ethnic groups – bar a tiny minority who currently exploit and oppress the rest. The LTTE may be defeated militarily, but unless the democratic aspirations of the minorities are satisfied, conflict will surely spring up again. Conversely, if Tamils enjoy democratic 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 suppressed? Furthermore, the military victory has been won at the cost of a dangerous erosion of democracy in the south, exemplified by the harassment and murder of a large number of journalists, including Lasantha Wickrematunga. Reversing this trend will also depend on a common struggle for democracy by people of all communities.
As a Sinhala-speaking half-Burgher Tamil from the south, who is also an activist focusing on labour and women’s rights, I feel that the simplistic way in which identities are commonly defined in Sri Lanka today is one reason why a solution to the crisis has thus far remained elusive. Such an approach erases important elements of identity, including class, caste, gender, political belief and even the mixed ethnicity that is so common in Sri Lanka. In my neighbourhood, there are many middle- and lower-income Sinhalese, some of whom I have known since my childhood; I know for a fact that they do not hate Tamils, because they protected my family in both 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 meet on 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, simply undertaking to organise in the Free Trade Zones was to risk disappearance and death. Since then, there has been considerable progress in winning the right to freedom of association, but hard-won wage gains are currently being snatched away by runaway inflation. Back in 1990, when I interviewed women widowed by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgency and the government’s counter-insurgency, their sense of powerlessness was overwhelming. I imagine they experience a similar feeling of despair now, as it becomes increasingly difficult to survive economically.
Would it be surprising if such people get the feeling that Tamils are demanding more power than they themselves possess? Or that they could allow themselves to be persuaded that devolution would rob them of part of their country, and that this would be a concession to the Tigers, who are killing Sinhalese? Such arguments need to be countered by explanations that, far from leading to a separate state, devolution within a democratic framework is the best insurance against separatism and war; that it would 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 Committee (APRC), set up to find a political solution to the ethnic crisis, got off to a good start when the Majority Report of the panel of experts was released in December 2006, and Professor Tissa Vitharana later produced a draft proposal incorporating most of the elements of the Majority Report. But the task of building consensus around proposals for constitutional change that would be acceptable to the democratic majority among the minority communities later ran into trouble. What is grievously lacking in this process, and what has allowed the Sinhalese nationalists to sabotage it time and again, 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.
Particularly in the current environment of military ‘victory’ fervour, it is critically important that the APRC proposals be released to the public without any dilution, and that a mass campaign be launched to support them. The campaign would need to draw in everyone who has been opposed to the war and in favour of democracy: progressive political parties, trade unions, women’s groups, religious organisations, academics and intellectuals, students, journalists, NGOs and others. The campaign should result in a popular outcry among Sinhalese against anyone who tries to derail the process of constitutional reform. Politicians need to get the message 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.