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A deficit in Sri Lankan democracy?

Amidst the liberal hand-wringing over the prospects for peace in Sri Lanka, political culture in the Tamil areas of the island has become a critical point of concern for many activists and analysts in the south. The ongoing violence in the Northeast that prevents vigorous electoral campaigning and widespread electoral participation is seen as symptomatic of a deeper political malaise. It is argued that extensive democratisation of the Tamil areas is an absolute prerequisite for a genuinely lasting and peaceful solution to the island’s ethnic conflict.

In this view the democratic deficit in the Tamil areas is characterised in two ways. The first is the presence of the authoritarian and anti democratic LTTE that has consistently stifled the growth of a genuinely democratic culture. The second area of democratic deficit is to be found in the Tamil people themselves, who have either been seduced by the LTTE’s exclusivist ideology and have become ‘comfortable with terror’ or are so terrified by its coercive might that they are unable or unwilling to voice their true opinions. Democratisation and therefore peace therefore requires not only radical transformation of the LTTE but also of the Tamil people themselves, who need amongst other things education about the basic processes and principles of democracy

The force of this argument rests on a simplistic assumption about the nature of the LTTE and, by implication, its support base. This assumption checks a more nuanced analysis of both the LTTE and politics in the north-east as a whole. Demands for greater democratisation in the northeast inevitably characterise the LTTE as a clandestine organisation, immersed in an exclusivist ideology and held together by the authoritarian and charismatic leadership of one man. This caricature of the LTTE allows many committed human rights activists living in Sinhala dominated areas to provide two very different explanations of deviations from liberal democratic norms in the north and the south. Assassinations of journalists and political opponents, systematic electoral malpractice, and widespread human rights abuses in the south are criticised, but understood mainly as deviations from the norm. In other words, the Sri Lankan state, its armed forces and political parties are seen as complex multifaceted institutions that can be reformed. In contrast, human rights violations by the LTTE are often held up as merely symptomatic of its dark and menacing nature.

Such a one dimensional and simplistic portrayal cannot capture the reality of a large organisation that engages in a wide range of both military and civilian activities. An estimated force of twenty thousand cadres in uniform and several thousand more civilians including both paid workers and volunteers cannot be held together by the sheer force of charismatic personality. Like any other complex organisation, the LTTE has bureaucratic structures, chains of command and decision-making processes. It could not function as it does otherwise, either in a military or civilian capacity. Even its most ardent critics have been forced to admit that the LTTE’s all out mobilisation in the aftermath of the Tsunami was effective in both halting the spread of disease and rehabilitating the worst affected civilians. To refuse to engage the LTTE’s successes and failures in terms that recognise it as a complex, multi-layered and multi-faceted organisation is to abandon the terms of rational analysis for those of mystification and obfuscation.

The related simplifying assumptions about the LTTE’s support base also do not stand up to scrutiny. Support for the cause of Tamil political independence cannot be explained away as either the result of coercion by the LTTE or conversely the attractions of exclusivist Tamil ethnonationalism. Tamil political mobilisation behind the cause of independence has been too long lasting, varied and deep to be understood as either forced or irrational. Support for the cause of Tamil political rights arises not just from the LTTE controlled areas, but also from areas under Army control and, very importantly, from the Diaspora. Conversely, to suggest that Diaspora support is simply armchair nationalist indulgency ignores the fact that most Tamils in the Diaspora have extensive and close familial connections with the northeast - and that most are refugees or earlier migrants spurred by portends of troubles to come. Many Diaspora Tamils have taken advantage of the relative peace afforded by the ceasefire agreement to volunteer their time and skills for rehabilitation projects across the northeast.

It is also a misreading to understand Tamil politics as the result of a surrender to a charismatic ideology that implies ancient glory and promises utopia. Tamil nationalists themselves have rarely if every resorted to myth and history to justify their demands for Tamil political rights. The Federal Party leader SJV Chelvanayagam stated early on that he was not interested in history: “Solve a modern problem in a modern way. Do not solve a modern problem in a medieval way. Bring to bear towards the solution of a twentieth century problem, a twentieth century mind.” The demand for Tamil political autonomy is not the result of a misplaced belief in the need to protect some alleged ancient glory but on the need to secure a political present and future that is safe from the policies of governments elected on the rhetoric of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Tamils consistently supported the Federal party from the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s because they thought it provided the best means to secure their political autonomy. Tamil participation or abstention from the most recent elections has to be understood in the same terms.

The assertion that peace requires the urgent democratisation of the Northeast conceals an unwillingness to confront two unavoidable realities of Sri Lankan politics. The first is the uncompromising postures adopted by mainstream Sinhala Buddhist actors towards Tamil interests and rights. The fate of the PTOMS, a fairly banal administrative structure that had the sole purpose of alleviating the suffering caused by the December 2004 tsunami, exposes the extent to which even the most basic conditions of Tamil life are hostage to Sinhala Buddhist sentiment. Addressing this sentiment, however, poses a far more difficult and daunting challenge for indignant liberals in the south than lecturing the Tamils on their inadequate grasp of the principles of liberalism and democracy. Challenging the critics of the PTOMS and the Ceasefire Agreement means facing up to an ideology that is not only politically dominant but also socially deeply entrenched.

Calling for greater democratisation of the Northeast also conceals the far more acute need for military de-escalation and normalisation. These areas of the island have borne the brunt of the civil war many and Tamils are displaced and living in refugee camps where the normal processes of every day life are next to impossible. Under these conditions it is difficult to imagine the possibility of genuine democratic engagement and reflection on the choices offered. Similarly, while the Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE are engaged in a ‘shadow’ war, the free movement of people, ideas and goods that is critical to democratic politics is impossible. The more banal, practical difficulties of democracy in militarised Sri Lanka are amply demonstrated by the activities of Army-backed paramilitaries this week.

A peace process that has democratic legitimacy is infinitely preferable to one that is unilaterally imposed or unacceptable to significant sections of the population. However, the political culture of the northeast is not the most challenging or even the most difficult obstacle to creating a negotiated solution with democratic legitimacy. It must be remembered that the most sustained support for the peace process has come from the Tamils, in the island and in the Diaspora. The uncompromising demands of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism have to be challenged. This is likely to be a difficult and long-term task. A more immediate objective is to work towards the de-escalation and normalisation of the northeast. The humanitarian interests of people who are displaced are beyond democratic debate. However, the uncomfortable reality is that even the most prosaic moves demilitarisation and normalisation will be hostage to the democratic legitimacy of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.