Democracy deficit & two movements

Published : Jun 19, 2009 00:00 IST

HOURS after the Sri Lankan military announced the recovery of the bullet-ridden body of Velupillai Prabakaran, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) put out an analysis under the title Sri Lanka: Wijeweera and Prabakaran rebels within a dysfunctional democracy.

Made in the form of a statement, it provides insights into the militant politics pursued by the Janata Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) chief Rohana Wijeweera and the LTTE supremo and throws light on what could be gained by studies and reflections of the movements they led.

Two unsuccessful ultra-left insurrections under the command of Wijeweera, according to one study, led to the death of 80,000 to 1,20,000 people. Most of those killed were Sinhalese, from all sections of society. The four Eelam wars waged under the leadership of Prabakaran are believed to have led to a loss of at least 80,000 lives representing all segments of Sri Lanka society. Actually, it is still early to put even an approximate count of the total number of casualties in the four Eelam wars.

Both the JVP and the LTTE were decimated by the Sri Lankan military and the police with generous help from the outside world. Leaders of both the JVP and the LTTE died or were believed to have died in combat. Historians in due course will judge both personalities and their style of functioning and ability to galvanise virtually a whole community, mostly Sinhalese in the case of Wijeweera and Tamils in the instance of Prabakaran, to embrace death for a cause that was no more than a pipe dream. However, there is little doubt that in the post-independence history of the island nation no one dictated the contours of the politics of hate and violence as Wijeweera and Prabakaran had done.

The Hong Kong-based AHRC, founded in 1984, defines itself as a regional non-governmental organisation (NGO) monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia.

We publish below excerpts from the 3,400-word, two-part statement:

Following the demise of the LTTE leadership there is now much discussion about the LTTE itself. In 1971 a similar movement in the south to the LTTE was the JVP and this movement, led by Rohana Wijeweera, took to arms again from 1987 to 1991. Of course, there are vast differences in the two movements. The JVP was broadly based on class orientation, while the LTTE was based mainly on race orientation. However, there are many strong similarities:

Both were non-elitist movements.

The working language of each was their own language, Sinhala or Tamil, and not English.

Both leaders represented socially lower strata and lower income groups and drew heavy support from the castes which were normally considered in Sri Lankan traditional society as low caste.

Both had no faith at all in democracy. Wijeweera, after the failure of the 1971 insurrection, when released from prison, worked for a short while within the democratic framework. However, soon, for various reasons, he opted out of democratic politics. Prabakaran did not have any faith at all in the democratic process.

Following these considerations, both believed in armed struggle with emphasis on assassination as a tool of their strategy.

They and their followers more or less belonged to the same age group and were mostly products of the countrys free education system.

The suppression of both movements was brutal and based on the premise that those things cannot be done according to the law, as a former Deputy Minister, Ranjan Wijeratne, told Parliament.

Discussions about these movements by others, particularly those associated with the state, and the status quo, are more characterised by heat and hate rather than attempts to arrive at a rational understanding of these movements.

Why did they not trust democracy? Posing this question, the AHRC goes on to make a case that Sri Lanka does not have a functioning democracy that can make a convincing argument that all the problems that might arise within this society could be resolved within the framework of democratic institutions.

To the politically active young people it has created a sense of nihilism, which considers everything as permissive. In the political field, it means a belief in violence for its own sake. It is hard to believe that either Wijeweera or Prabakaran would have seriously believed that they would be allowed to achieve the aims they were claiming that they were trying to achieve. It is most likely that both, as persons who were hardened by the politics of violence, would have known the end that they faced.

That a whole young generation would have no political aspirations except for protest for its own sake reflects as to how deeply the dysfunctional nature of Sri Lankan democracy has affected the entire nation and particularly the young. Despite the violent ends of both these leaders and many of their followers, the basic lessons of what a dysfunctional political system does to the entire population and particularly to the young cannot be ignored.

One of the early writers to understand the impact of the result of dysfunctional democracy was the well-known author and journalist, the late Tarzei Vittachi, who in his celebrated book Emergency 58: The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots wrote:

Unfortunately the Government made the mistake of throwing the baby away with the bath water. While repressive legislation and irksome, outmoded attitudes which had kept the masses in thrall had to be hurled away without delay, it was vital for the peace and order of the country, especially in times of rapid social change, to preserve and strengthen the rule of law and the authority of the officers who enforce the law. This salutary rule was ignored.

The abandonment of the rule of law and the authority of institutions, which was already visible in 1958, became a much greater problem in the years that followed, with a similar political approach by subsequent governments and even radical experiments to undermine democracy and rule of law in favour of the executive, particularly the adoption of the 1972 and 1978 Constitutions.

The only time there was a rare unanimity by all political parties in Sri Lanka was in 2001 when, on the basis of the admission of the collapse of all public institutions, an amendment to the Constitution was passed to take some limited measures to attempt to recover the authority of these institutions. This was again abandoned after a few years. The country is now run by the executive President and the armed forces.

Holding of elections alone is not democracy. Many rogue systems have many forms of manipulated elections for no other reason than to have some legitimacy, particularly before the eyes of the international community. However, any reading of the material produced by the movements led by Wijeweera and Prabakaran, particularly in the early periods of their inception, would demonstrate the cynicism that their generation has for the mockery of democracy.

It is not only rebels that cannot understand democracy. The numerous spokesmen for the government, including Ministers and those who deal with media and information, demonstrate a very clear lack of understanding of democracy. Just to mention one example, following the declaration of the victory against the LTTE by the government, there were many spokesmen who condemned Western governments for allowing the Tamil diaspora to have demonstrations and protests in their own capitals.

For these spokesmen, it is the duty of the Western governments to suppress all these protests and demonstrations. They also cannot understand how there can be any war crimes when the government was pursuing a good cause like the elimination of terrorism. According to this way of thinking, there cannot be any war crimes, either in wars between countries or civil wars, on the part of governments which are pursuing the good cause, for example, the allied powers trying to defeat Hitler. The forced disappearances of 30,000 persons in the suppression of the JVP were no crime at all.

The mentality of this distrust of democracy will remain so long as democracy itself does not exist by way of functioning institutions within the country. Dysfunctional institutions will confirm every day to the population, and its younger generation in particular, that there is no way to have any problem resolved within a framework of democracy in the present context of Sri Lanka.

Those who are seriously concerned with understanding the political developments in Sri Lanka, including also the rebel movements, need to pay attention to the way in which Sri Lanka has become a dysfunctional democracy.

Exactly what made both movements represented by these two leaders (the JVP and the LTTE) abandon the struggle for democracy and rule of law altogether and resort to violence reflects on the limitations of other political movements within the country. At no time was there a single political party or tendency in Sri Lanka which made it its aim to construct and improve the institutions of the rule of law and democracy. In this the Sri Lankan experience differed from that of India where the National Congress Party, which was started in 1885, had two programmes which were both pursued vigorously for a long period of time; the programme of emancipation of India from British rule and what was called the social programme, which was to prepare people for the democracy that would come after independence.

This, however, was not the case in Sri Lanka. Among the movements that came to light in Sri Lanka first was the labour movement which, by the 1930s, was under leftist leadership. While these leaders contributed to democratisation in some way, their main goals were more utopian. These utopian values remained throughout their decline which, coincidentally, was the time when both the JVP and the LTTE had their origins. The parties of the elites such as the UNP [United National Party] and the SLFP [Sri Lanka Freedom Party] never had a programme for improvements and the consolidation of the institutional framework of democracy.

We have earlier quoted Tarzei Vittachi, who in 1958 observed how these political leaders abandoned the need to maintain the rule of law. The same can also be said of the Tamil political parties. As against the political opportunism of the majority-based parties, the minority parties made demands for respect for the minority purely as a separate issue.

Thus the political and intellectual heritage of the leaders of the JVP and the LTTE was paltry. The JVP made a revolution with Marxist, Leninist, Maoist, Che Guevarist rhetoric but, in fact, there was nothing worthy of any intellectual exposition of its political philosophy. Nothing in that literature indicates any interest in democracy and the rule of law.

As for the LTTE, its expressions were based on race alone, which, of course, could never be the basis of democratic discourse. Its avowed goal of a separate state achieved by force alone left no room for democratic discourse even within the Tamils themselves. In fact, the killing of all Tamil opponents was one of the central components of the LTTEs ideology. This was noted very early by leaders such as Rajani Thiranagama, who was one of the first Tamil intellectuals to be assassinated by the LTTE.

By 1970 all the major political parties in the country had expressly rejected democracy as a suitable form of government for the country. The government of Mrs. Sirimao Bandaranaike, which included a coalition of three major parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist party, embarked on a new Constitution spoken of as a home-grown Constitution, which was incongruously called a socialist Constitution. In 1977, J.R. Jayewardenes United National Party was elected and in 1978 it abolished liberal democratic constitutionalism altogether in favour of creating a monster called the Executive President, who had more power than anyone under any government.

This was the political ethos within which these two rebels, Wijeweera and Prabakaran, had their movements. The overall system unleashed terror on all political dissidents. They, in turn, attempted to outdo the state apparatus in terror. A terror v. terror situation developed and the ultimate consequences are now a known fact.

Wijeweeras JVP was far removed from the underprivileged groups of the country and Prabakarans LTTE removed itself completely from the Tamil community. While there are discussions about solutions to the minority problem, all such discussions will come to nought if they are confined to pure rhetoric.

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