Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Democratic Debates in 2011

I am not aware of another county in the UN’s 200 odd membership that debates on its national anthem some 62 years after independence from colonial rule. Since we all agree that Sri Lanka is a unique state in many ways this is not a surprising development. What creates an abysmal level of inquisitive disappointment is that the decisions the country’s top executive body makes on this issue and the rationale put forward for such. This brief note is not on the latest saga around our national anthem but the subterranean political dynamic that governs such outcome.

The notion of Political Power Sharing in Sri Lanka, however symbolic or tokenism it appears is antithetical and a dynamic centrifugal force that clashes head-on with the centripetal ethnoreligious political structure of the state. This is so deep and wide especially in the postcolonial setting. Postcolonial democratization, may it be at civic centered transparent governance or a Federal form of power sharing with the minorities has met with repeated formidable often-violent oppositions. Almost at every juncture a new and renewed set of actors and the forces behind them have held fort,  pushed back the liberal potential of Sri Lanka’s multiethnic ( if not plurinational) socio-political development. Thus from a promising postcolonial state, we have arrived at where we are. I try to ask the reason for such development (or lack of it) and find that this historical struggle for liberal democracy had been always a mismatched diagnosis, recommendation and attempt of implementations either by accepted institutional mechanisms such as multiparty elections or radical non- state actor rebellions.  Looking at the counter forces and their repeated success there are few inalienable facts that govern the fundamental structure of the political psychology of Sri Lanka. Ignoring these given realities had produced repeated waves of resistance and destructive irreversible impacts.

  1. Sinhalese are a (approximately) mere 16 million in population compared to their competing minorities.  The Tamil are at least a 100 million across the globe and the Muslims are even larger in size and strength. Therefore, the Sinhalas are in every sense a regional and global minority in its true sense.
  2. Sri Lanka’s is one of the smallest states in the world. True she is twice bigger than Belgium or Switzerland. But the regional reality  is that she is only about three percent of a her immediate neighbour India and the Indian ocean is eroding this limited landmass relentlessly.
  3. The popularly accepted narrative of the history of Sri Lanka ( however ethnic biased or religiously flavored that may be)  is a written record of repeated invasions and attempts to conquer this land by almost always by non- Buddhist forces.
  4. The class/caste and regional struggle amongst the Sinhalas has prevented them to develop a cohesive identity within, They are unable to unite without having an oppositional reference to an enemy from out side. An ontologically securitized insecurity
  5. The post 1983 Tigerish separatist bloody war by the LTTE reinforced those Mahavamsica imaginations of a threat to the identity and integrity of this island as a unitary state that would be the abode of Theravada Buddhism.

Against these ground realities that naïve Norwegian attempt to bring a negotiated permanent political settlement , Colombo ( 3, 5 and 7) based ‘civic’ society cry for democracy and lamentably dysfunctional ‘left’ has not been able to make any noteworthy dent on the democracy debate. Instead, it is Wimal Weerawanse’s ‘foul-fish’ nationalism and Champika Ranawaka’s structural hegemonic racism that have become defining guidelines for the modern politics of this island. This political culture of course is, further flavored by the indigestible Mervin Silva politics that are either backed or protected by the top executive. This brings questions on not just political, but anthropological nature of the modern socio-politics of my motherland. The politics we have created in a Post-Prabha context led by a true Bhoomiputra of the south is yet top synchronize with the state as a whole and the multiple ethnic identities within.  If we are happy with this status, then we all can relax and look foreword to more political fun in the next year. In case you belong to the odd category of questing citizenship then the politically valid intellectual challenge in Sri Lanka at least in the coming year is to find a path we can navigate ourselves through these tsunamic tidal waves frustrating us. Whatever position one is willing to adopt there are few options available:

  1. Strengthen the hand and activities of the present regime by providing some (often pseudo) intellectual legitimization for (personal and) potential public benefit. It is simply because this is the regime that defeated the LTTE. Dr Dayan Jayatilleke leads this camp.
  2. Oppose the regime with all your available means to bring change (actually replace) with new faces and personalities. Sarath Fonseka and Mangala Samaraweera represent this school
  3. In between are the forces waiting without much directions or waiting for better opportunities to either oppose or support the regime, Rauf Hakim and Sampanthan led largely defused traditional  minority parties are in such category.
  4. All others, be they I/NGOs, popular artists, para- militaries groups are merely surviving for their own tomorrow.

Then, very urgently an honest intellectual and academic debate should formulate a common ground and context in which the subterranean forces will foster and emerge to direct the destiny of democracy in our island motherland of Sri Lanka.

How shall we then generate such debate individually and collectively? How shall we construct such context in the year/s ahead?