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Sri Lanka and the dark side of democracy

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On an official visit to Sri Lanka, not long after the 1983 state-backed pogrom against the Tamils, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher hailed the country as a “five star democracy”. Her host on that visit was, of course, the pro-West President J. R. Jayawardene.


Although Tamils were horrified by her endorsement of a government that had recently participated in “acts of genocide” – as the International Commission of Jurists described the July 1983 massacres – in one important sense, she was right: the governments of Sri Lanka have generally reflected the collective will of the majority Sinhalese.


From the disenfranchisement of the Upcountry Tamils in 1948 to the all out war against the Tamil homeland in 2008, Sri Lankan governments have responded to the sentiments of the Sinhala majority.


Note that during the thirty years of mob violence up to 1983 and, especially, thirty years of all out war afterwards, over a hundred thousand Tamils have died in massacres by Sinhala thugs and, later, Sinhala soldiers, air strikes, artillery and naval shelling of schools, churches, temples and hospitals, sinking of refugee boats, and so on. Thousands have been arrested and disappeared, raped, tortured or shot on the streets.


Yet not one person has been convicted for these crimes in sixty years.


Today, even as formally Sri Lanka joins Sudan and the Congo as one of the world’s eight red alert areas for genocide, the Sinhalese people overwhelmingly support the Rajapakse government and its violence. So much so that the government is considering calling early elections to consolidate its power base.


According to a poll by private research group, TNS Lanka, over 75% of people were firmly in favour of military action to answer the Tamil question.


While western policy makers insist that the military offensives are about ‘terrorism’, not the status of the Tamils, the top flight Sri Lankan leadership see no such distinction.


A few months ago, Sri Lanka’s top military officer, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka explained to The Telegraph newspaper: “I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese but there are minority communities and we treat them like our people...We being the majority of the country, 75%, we will never give in and we have the right to protect this country... They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things."


In short, the island belongs to the Sinhalese, the Tamils may live in it as long as they act their place and do not demand their own identity or equality to the Sinhalese (“undue things”).


Interestingly, some of the liberal think tanks in Colombo huffed and puffed. But even they merely questioned whether the military should pronounce on matters politic and avoided the central question here.


Moreover, Lt. Gen. Fonseka was merely articulating the aspirations of his people and his soldiers. Indeed, the place of the Tamils in Sri Lanka has been the central political question in Sri Lanka since independence, as reflected by the disenfranchisement of the Upcountry Tamils and ‘Sinhala Only’.


This column has argued in a recent series of articles that drew on notable theorists of genocide how Sri Lanka’s policies towards the Tamils amount to precisely that, the wiping out of a people and their identity.


The arguments won’t be repeated here, for reasons of space, but it suffices to say that the present war, being waged by President Mahinda Rajapakse and being backed by the main Sinhala opposition parties, is a continuation of the state’s efforts to erase the Tamil political, economic and physical presence on the island.


The point here, however, is that each of the steps undertaken by Sri Lankan leaders in this regard always had the overwhelming support of the Sinhala majority.


This is why, despite the crushing economic conditions, the slow disintegration of non-military state institutions (health, education, etc) and the increasing international pressure, the Rajapakse administration enjoys extraordinary popular support for its war.


The majority of Sinhalese believe the island belongs to their people and the Tamils are unwelcome invaders who may remain provided they know their place as second class citizens.


Sri Lanka’s first post-independence Prime Minister, D. S. Senanayake, still known as the “Father of Sri Lanka”, made this clear as early as July 1937: "we must realise that the Sinhalese are the rightful sons of this fair country, and that we must organise ourselves into a determined body and even risk our lives in doing it service. The minorities choose to believe that we are not trustworthy.”


Ceylon’s first post-independence (UNP) government, under Premier Senanayake, enacted the 1948 and 1949 citizenship legislation that deprived a million Upcountry Tamil people of citizenship, regardless of whether they had been born in the island or brought down by the British from India. After many years of statelessness, over half of these unfortunates were ultimately deported “back” to India. 


The point is that this policy was enacted on the basis of these people’s ethnicity. Although its defenders have since tried to portray the Citizenship Bill as class war rather than a race war, the citizenship legislation referred explicitly to ancestry (ethnicity), not economics.


As Tamil Senator and Queen’s Counsel S. Nadesan winding up the debate on the Ceylon Citizenship Bill said on 15 September 1948, "... the Government wants to exclude as much of the (plantation Tamil) population as is possible from becoming citizens of this country ... On the unqualified statement made that Ceylon has the right, as every other country, to determine the composition of its population. When Germany under Hitler, started to de-citizenise the Jews, every civilised country in the world condemned it. Hitler said that he has absolute power to determine the composition of the population of Germany; and he did determine that to his own satisfaction.”


In 1956, the UNP was defeated by the SLFP. Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike came to power on a single promise to the voters: that if he was elected, he would make Sinhala, instead of English, the official language of the country. The SLFP won by a landslide.


Thus, far from being an oddity, Lt. Gen Fonseka’s views on Sri Lankan citizenship have a long pedigree in mainstream Sinhalese election politics.


The West has struggled to accept the self-evident reality that the Sinhala majority vote on racial issues first and everything else second.


Some Western commentators suggest that Sri Lanka’s problem stems from the repression of the English speaking media. They imply that the Sinhalese people would not support such policies if they were more open debate.


“What Sri Lanka needs is a serious and open debate about where this war is leading the nation,” writes Peter Foster of The Telegraph. “The Government's relentless crushing of debate means that it's hard to see how Sri Lanka's next General Election (which my sources predict might be called soon, particularly if there's a victory in the north) can be free and fair.”


But this attitude is extraordinarily elitist: it implies the Sinhala people do not know what they are doing vis-à-vis the ethnic question, that they do not know what kind of politicians they “should” elect or support, that they are not educated enough (exposed to “serious debate”) to make decisions.


This perspective fails to grasp scholar Michael Mann’s central point: genocide is the dark side of democracy.


Genocide is a direct result of the democratic process; it is not an exception or some failure of the process. Improving the democratic process does not prevent genocide if genocide is, in fact, the will of the majority.


Given Mann’s hypothesis, the unbroken chain of racism that runs through successive governments – the elected representatives of the Sinhala people (regardless of political party) – is unsurprising.


It is unsurprising that today all main Sinhalese parties – the SLFP, UNP and JVP - support the genocidal war: all these parties, not just the ultra-nationalist JVP, cater to the Sinhala electoral constituency.


This, lest it be forgotten, is democracy at work. Sinhala leaders have always successfully used anti-Tamil rhetoric to win Sinhala votes.


For example, SLFP leader Bandaranaike openly stated the logic for the Sinhala Only Act: “with their books and culture and will and strength characteristic of their race, the Tamils (if parity were given) would soon rise to exert their dominant power over us.”


Although Banadaraike brought the Sinhala Only Act into being, it was the opposition UNP leader (later President) Jayawardene who had first called for it. In his own words, “the great fear I had was that Sinhalese, a language spoken by only 3 million in the whole world, would suffer if Tamil was also placed on an equal footing with Sinhalese.”


In 1957, Jayawardene, who became Sri Lanka’s President in 1977, declared: "the time has come for the whole Sinhala race which has existed for 2500 years, jealously safeguarding their language and religion, to fight without giving any quarter to save their birthright... I will lead the campaign."


Consequently both the SLFP and the opposition UNP, the two main Sinhalese parties voted for the Sinhala Only Act. The SLFP and UNP have both always agreed on the subordinate place of the Tamils, although as scholar Amita Shastri noted in 2004, the two main Sinhala parties, increasingly sensitive to international opinion, were becoming “careful how they expressed themselves on the ethnic issue.”


It is worth noting that today, the UNP – hailed by the international community since 2001 as ‘pro-peace’ – is not opposing Rajapakse’s visibly vicious war: only the very small left-wing Sinhala parties are openly calling for peace.


It is also worth noting that the 2001 victory of the ‘pro-peace’ UNP alliance was on the strength of the overwhelming votes by Muslims, Upcountry Tamils and Tamils outside the Northeast: the majority of Sinhalese, despite the crushing economic pain, voted for the hardline SLFP and JVP.


In the Presidential elections of 2005, the majority of Sinhalese voted for Mahinda Rajapakse over Ranil Wickremesinghe (who, it was argued, had betrayed the country by seeking peace with the Tamils).


Just days before the July 1983 pogrom, President Jayawardene’s, whose UNP had swept to power on a landslide, infamously declared in a radio broadcast: "I am not worried about the opinion of the Tamil people... now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion... the more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here... Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy."


Jayawardene’s regime was a darling of the liberal, democratic West. Note British Premier Thatcher’s warm words above. The practice of the West ignoring the manifest racism of Sinhala leaders has been consistent.


In the nineties, SLFP President Chandrika Kumaratunga, lauded by the West as a liberal, as a human rights champion, as a democrat, grumbled on South African television, "They [Tamils] are wanting a separate state – a minority community which is not the original people of the country." 


Those Western commentators lamenting the lack of awareness amongst Sinhala voters forget that these Sinhala leaders have been educated in the West. SWRD Bandaranaike and Jayawardene were graduates of OxfordUniversity, Dudley Senanayake of Cambridge, Kumaratunge of the Sorbonne.


There is no evidence to suggest more open debate amongst the Sinhalese will lead to more tolerance, though this is the dogmatic view of Western commentators. “Debate” presupposes rationality and liberal values: racism is not seen as rational.


However, every step of the genocide – deprivation of citizenship, ethnic cleansing of Tamil areas, pogroms, legislated seizure (by state acquisition of Tamil-owned land and businesses) – has been endorsed and presaged by the democratic process and the support of the Sinhalese People.


Indeed, these steps have been supported by the West too. Every Sri Lankan leader, irrespective of their support for anti-Tamil actions, has been able to draw considerable Western aid: military, economic and political.


A common refrain amongst international commentators is that the brutality in Sri Lanka today is a peculiarity of the Rajapakse administration. Change the regime, change the politics, they say. This may be true when it comes to foreign policy: the UNP has traditionally been pro-West, the SLFP pro-China.


However, a closer look at the specificities of the conduct over the past sixty years of both UNP and SLFP-led governments outlines how, for the Tamils, it has been a question not between two parties, but between a West backed, media savvy genocide (the UNP’s) or a brazen, China/Iran-backed one (of the SLFP).


Sri Lanka, one of eight countries on the New York-based Genocide Prevention Project’s red alert list, is a living example of the “dark side” of democracy.


The island’s conflict is one of the last race wars of the 21st century, a violent manifestation of the “problem of the other” as President-Elect Barak Obama has described it. Until this is accepted, there will be no solution, only bloodshed and suffering.

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