Is Sri Lanka on the East Asian Path?
Many questions with regard to democratic values and system of government in Sri Lanka have surfaced in recent years and it has been argued by some that Sri Lanka is heading at accelerating pace towards an authoritarian regime similar to that can be found in countries like Zimbabwe. An assassination of media persons, curtailment of civic rights, death threats for dissidents, non-implementation of relatively democratic amendments to the constitution are depicted as symptomatic of this trend. In this note, I argue that this analysis lacks theoretical consistency as well as empirical substance and reveals major flaws in Sri Lankan democratic discourse. In a nutshell, my main argument here is that in recent years Sri Lanka has shown a clear tendency of moving towards the East Asian and South Asian variety of democracy. If Sri Lanka can address the issue of internally displaced people reasonably well and in a short span of time, this regressive tendency towards East and South Asian variety of democracy is not something that the so-called international community (=global north) cares that much. Let me also note that while in the case of East Asia and South East Asia, this variety of democracy emerged as a result of long struggle by students and democratic forces and therefore a step forward from prolonged period of authoritarianism, in the case of Sri Lanka, moving towards this variety is a reversal.
No, I am not talking about the East Asian path of economic development; my focus in this note is somewhat different. Many people have suggested that Sri Lanka emulate the growth strategy of the East Asian ‘tigers’ and the Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs) in South East Asia as these countries were able to overcome economic underdevelopment in a relatively short period of time, say in two to three decades. Although I would like to write on this subject at a future date, my concern here is more about the nature of the political regime in those countries rather than their economic strategy. Suffice is to say here that all these countries adopted a development strategy that in many ways deviated significantly from the neo-liberal version on economic growth and development. The post-development phase in almost all these countries was characterized by a democratic wave led by the students and new middle class that at the end of the day brought in a semblance of democratic regimes elected by a popular vote. However, the democracy evolved in the East and South East Asia including Japan has been significantly different from the democratic traditions of the West. One salient feature has been that although a multi-party system exists and different parties contest in elections, one single party dominates the political landscape in these countries. Political differences are expressed in the form more of inner-party rivalries and competition than of inter-party competition. Moreover, serious restrictions and constraints on freedom of speech and assembly exist even more than a decade after the so-called wave of democratization. Although there is no united position on it among neo-liberals, they tend to believe either that economic prosperity be sooner or later followed by a vibrant system of democracy or democracy and economic advancement reinforce each other.
Then how do we explain this co-presence of economic prosperity and restrictions on democracy? Of course, this complex symbiosis needs multiple explanations. First, although, capitalistic development and democratization were coterminous in the West (not Global North), two were not an outcome of a single and uniform process. In fact, the process of democratization in many instances went against the process of capitalistic development. Secondly, as it was shown in many parts of the world, the freedom and democracy that nascent middle class is interested in is a different kind of democracy. That explains why we see many ‘democratic gaps’ even in developed capitalist democracies. As Ha-Joon Change correctly observed, ‘market and democracy clash at a fundamental level’. ‘Democracy runs on the principle of â€œone person, one vote”. The market runs of the principle of â€œone dollar, one vote” (Bad Samaritans. p. 172). So the political stability over democracy is looked upon as the primary goal. Thirdly, because of the role the state led by ‘developmental elites’ had played in the process of economic development, many tend to believe that too much democratization can be achieved only at the cost of political stability that they value more. As Kellee S Tsai in her exciting book, Capitalism without Democracy, has shown, a similar tendency can be depicted in China in recent years. Hence, capitalism especially its neo-liberal variety is more comfortable with restrictive democracy than ‘real’ democracy.
Recent developments in Sri Lanka have led me to speculate if Sri Lanka is regressing towards the East and South Asian model of democracy. Three inter-related tendencies may be identified. First, as a consequence of the military victory over the LTTE, we witness the emergence of new political elite that integrated popularly elected President and his party with elitist section of the bureaucracy, a section of the business class and military leadership. So a new political alliance has been formed. Secondly, the business community and middle class and general public tend to believe that newly established political stability and status quo are conducive to country’s progress so that current state of affairs be maintained notwithstanding their dissatisfaction over some of the events. The election results in all the provinces, except in the North and East have indicated that people do not wish a regime change many economic hardships and restrictions on democratic rights notwithstanding. Thirdly, coterminous with the first, the opposition led by Ranil Wickramasinghe has shown its complete impotency and incapacity in addressing relevant key issues so that it has failed miserably in confronting the emerging new politico-military ‘democratic’ alliance. They attacked on the government not over its weak points but on it strong points. The other oppositional movements, like Platform for Democracy have finally ended up being cats’ paws of the United National Party so that those movements have failed in equal proportion to encounter anti-democratic tendencies prevailing in the country.
The regressive tendency towards East and South Asian democratic model has been facilitated by the structure laid out in the Second Republican Constitution of 1977. Neo-liberal economic policies introduced in 1977 has produced a new middle class and new generation that think and operate in terms of instrumental calculation so that the regressive constitutional structure has received the support of this class. This is even reflected in the democracy discourse in Sri Lanka that in my opinion dominated by if borrow the term used by Amartya Sen in his analysis of justice, transcendental institutionalism. It focuses more on a definition of perfect democracy rather than the comparison of democracy and undemocracy. Secondly, this concept of democracy emphasizes more on institutional set up and pays less attention on human behavior and actions. Such theory invariably fails to propose necessary ameliorative measures that could counter this regressive tendency