Whither enemies of the state: The political debate in Sri Lanka today
“Unarm, Eros; the long day’s task is done“ – Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, 4.14
The current Sri Lankan political discourse, thin gruel though it is, contains three morsels of content:Â democracy, the electoral system and national sovereignty. Some question whether the ‘mere fact of elections’ qualifies Sri Lanka, or any country for that matter, as a democracy.Â The second discussion is on the electoral system. The third debate revolves around human rights and international factors, with some emphasising national sovereignty and the others, democratic rights and freedoms.
Let’s take it head-on. How did the Tamil nationalist cause, its military manifestation crushed and its propaganda arm in self exile, make such a comeback in the form of the TNA resurgence? How can it be in question as to whether the ruling coalition will or will not obtain a two thirds majority, with its game-changing consequences? How was the outcome of the Eastern province election in doubt?
The answer to all these questions is that elections in Sri Lanka can and do make real changes. The people’s vote or if you prefer, the peoples’ (Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim) vote, counts for something more than mere camouflage. If for instance, the UPFA is forced to form an administration with the help of the UNP or the TNA, it will significantly alter the complexion of that administration and its policies.Â Had Prabhakaran not enforced a boycott of the presidential election of 2005, Sri Lanka’s and his own fate would have been drastically different. What more evidence is needed that what Sri Lanka still has, a multiparty electoral system, is real and worth protecting? Contrary to some nihilist critics of Sri Lanka who demonstrate their illiteracy in political thought, a renowned scholar of democratic theory Prof John Dryzek, confirms that for â€œ…Rousseau, [according to whom] the general will can be ascertained by voting”. (Handbook of Political Theory, SAGE, 2004, p148)
The UPFA promises to change the electoral system and abolish the pernicious procedure of the preference vote. To what intent and purpose, and to be replaced with what? To strengthen the sole decision making power of the party leader in the nomination of the party representatives? The preference vote at least gives the voter the right to indicate his or her preference among the individuals on the party list, and as the Southern PC election showed, that is no small deal, because the electorate does indeed decide against the favourites of the palace or party centre.
We are reassured that the German model will be the replacement, but we do not know what percentage of the seats will be directly elected and what percentage on the basis of PR.
The UPFA’s election propaganda seems a straightforward pitch for a return to the good old days of the pre-JRJ Westminster model. I find that prospect a wee bit chilling when I remember that all the discriminatory legislation that this country witnessed was passed under the old system and virtually none under the combination of PR and the directly and nationally elected Presidency.
The debate on human rights, or, more correctly the levelling of charge and counter-charge, continues, spiced up with the unconfirmed yet persistent report of Indian absenteeism in the NAM statement criticising Ban Ki Moon for his idea of an expert panel to investigate Sri Lankan wrongdoing. If the report of India sitting it out is true, it is truly portentous, but I shall not comment upon it unless and until it is confirmed.
The polarisation on human rights is not very helpful. It seems that some prefer to defend democracy even at the cost of national sovereignty while others prefer to defend national sovereignty even if it means putting violations and erosion of democracy on a back burner. First things first: there are those who believe that in an era of globalisation, national sovereignty, especially that of small states like Sri Lanka, is a fiction. Such people are in denial. It is precisely the inequities of globalisation that has caused a resurgence in the defence of national sovereignty, and if the cosmopolitan critics want to see what national sovereignty is like, let them meditate on Prabhakaran at Nandikadal, where the Sri Lankan state reasserted its sovereignty over its national territory and was stopped by none as it reunifiedÂ the country, exterminating its armed enemyâ€”despite a multidimensional external campaign involving states, movements, the media, and global civil society. The cosmopolitans underestimate the relative autonomy of the nation, the state and politics.
A mirror-image of these critics is those who over-estimate national sovereignty to the point of ‘absolutising’ it. For them, national sovereignty can be maintained against all comers and at any cost, while any criticism from overseas and any act of international solidarity are seen as neo-colonial violations of sovereignty. The paranoid mentality of such elements, and more dangerously, the spread of such paranoia, is evidenced in the twisted use of the Sinhala language itself, with the introduction of the new term, used in a wholly pejorative sense, to wit, â€œjaathyantharaya”. In its literal translation it means ‘The International’ as in the marching song of the international workers’ movement, The Internationale, or the Third International or Comintern.Â However, in current Sri Lankan political usage it means ‘the international factor’ or ‘the international actors/community’, with its abbreviation to ‘the international’ deployed with a totally negative, ominous inflection (‘jathyantharaya’ instead of ‘jathyanthara prajawa or ‘jathyanthara sadhakaya’ or ‘jathyantara kramaya’). These ideologues and apparatchiks do not care if democracy decomposes and rights are robbed, so long as national sovereignty is defended.
So in this sad polarisation, some use democracy to prise open the shield of national sovereignty, while others, their opponents, use national sovereignty as a shield to shroud the ghastliest violations of human rights and democracy. What has the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda have to do with national sovereignty? Why are lamentable wartime practices, explicable as the brutalisation of a thirty years war against a fanatical foe, going unchecked in peacetime, and since its alleged prime wartime practitioner is out of action who is continuing to do this, whyâ€”and what does it say about the earlier episodes?
None of this is necessary. National sovereignty and democracy plus human rights can both be protected by the establishment of a strong, internationally credible national commission of human rights.Â Why not a powerful national human rights commission such as those in the rest of South Asia? Neither the critics nor the defenders of the government take up this slogan: the critics prefer to push against national sovereignty hoping to puncture it and make for external intervention which can catalyse regime change â€“ itself a silly thought because external pressure especially in the case of a small island, only cements the ideology of populist patriotism. Â The defenders of the government come up with plans on paper, which totally lack any credibility, local or international. They would prefer not to appoint a powerful national commission invested with resources and comprising independent persons of distinction, even though such a move would take the wind out of the sails of Sri Lanka’s critics in the West and the UN and strengthen our defenders in the global arena, because patriotism is only a device to shield the state and the administration from genuine scrutiny and accountability, even if purely domestic.
While the war was on, it was necessary to err in the direction of the defence of national and state sovereignty in the face of doctrines such as R2P which could have been used to forestall our decisive victory over the Tigers.Â Today, with the war over almost a year ago, there is no such need to compromise on democracy and human rights, especially when there are solutions that can protect both while not harming national sovereignty. Today, there are no more enemies within Sri Lanka’s borders; the people of Sri Lanka have no enemies among our fellow citizens.
To conclude, the stakes and prospects at Sri Lanka’s elections show that we have a real and resilient democracy, while the debate on human rights, culture, etc reveal that this democracy is still a far cry from the norms of a healthy modern liberal democracy. To me, it really doesn’t matter whether, in a time of peace, the private media get its funding from overseas and to what purpose. After all, the tax payer funds the state media, which according to alarming recent accounts, sponsors extravaganzas at which songs are sung extolling an imaginary monarchy.
Yesterday, at war with the ‘textbook fascist’ Tigers we had to defend the democratic state even when it abused its power. Today we are no longer burdened by that imperative.Â Today, the right of the state to defend itself can and must be distinguished from the abuse of power by the state even in the exercise of that right. Yesterday we, the country, the people, the state, faced an existential threat; today we do not. Yesterday, when we were at war, certain things mattered; certain polarisations and demarcations, certain walls and drawbridges, were necessary. Today they do not, and what is to be commended is the slogan (sadly observed for too short a while) of no less a fighter against imperialism and for national liberation and the people, than Mao Ze Dong: â€œLet a Hundred Flowers Bloom! Let A Hundred Schools of Thought Contend!”