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Sri Lanka. “Now, democracy - for us only”

Paper No. 5565                                     Dated 19-Sept-2013

Guest Column by Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

All human beings are equal in dignity and rights:  Article 1, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

By way of a preamble, currently the worst political epithet is “terrorist”, such that states and leaders who resort to terrorism also hurl this linguistic stone of abuse at those who oppose them. “Terrorist” is an over-used and under-examined term. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, while unleashing state terrorism on oppositional groups, brands them as terrorists. Callum Macrae, writing in the Guardian newspaper, 3 September 2013, about his film, ‘No-Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka’, says that President Rajapaksa is bolstered by, and appropriates, “the West’s rhetoric of the war on terror” but over 70, 000 civilians were killed. “Victorious government troops systematically executed bound, blindfolded prisoners. Women fighters were stripped, sexually assaulted, blindfolded, and shot in the head” (Macrae).

In contrast, the cloak governments wish to be seen as wearing is that of democracy. I recall President Kaunda of Zambia describing his form of government as “one party participatory democracy”, either blissfully unaware of, or ignoring, fundamental contradiction. (Compared to the horror of some other dictators, Kenneth Kaunda is a near-saintly figure.) Democracy is the most challenging and responsible form of government, and for its successful functioning a mature, informed and, above all, a decent electorate is indispensable – “decent” as used by Avishai Margalit in his The Decent Society’:  see Sarvan, Sunday Leader, Colombo, 8 August 2010. As it was said when President Mohamed  Morsi of Egypt was ousted, July 2013, by the army, true democracy – a democracy in spirit and not merely in form -  is more than winning elections and having a majority in parliament.

Some friends, both Sinhalese and Tamil, have written to me observing that a few Sinhalese chauvinists are now voicing concern about the lack of democracy and freedom; the absence of a law-enforcing police force and an independent judiciary in the “Island of the Compassionate and Moral Doctrine of the Buddha”. My friends read this as a hopeful indication where the minorities are concerned. “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” (Shelley).  I fear they misread the sign.

Ancient Greece is celebrated in the West as “the cradle of democracy”. The Greeks publicly discussed and debated issues, and abided by what the vote indicated. But not only were women excluded from participation, Greece was a slave-owning society. Indeed, Aristotle in his Politics argued that some are naturally slaves and others naturally masters. So it was natural, and therefore right, that Greeks rule over barbarians (an idea taken over by Rome; later by Western imperial powers and applied literally all over the world) and that men rule over women.

The opening lines of the United States Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. These  wonderful  and stirring words have resonated throughout the centuries. In 1963, almost two hundred years later, Martin Luther King saw the declaration as a “cheque” that he presented at the “bank” of American public-opinion and conscience for realization. But at the time those noble words of the Declaration of Independence were proclaimed (1776) the US had been and was a slave-owning society. I have referred elsewhere to slavery in America, taking into consideration (a) its nature, (b) number and (c) duration, as the worst blot ever on human history. Douglas A. Blackmon persuasively and powerfully argues (‘Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War 11, 2009) that contrary to popular belief, ironically and tragically, slavery became worse after formal emancipation.

Let me here add in a parenthetic paragraph that some Tamils feel life has got worse, far worse, after Ceylon gained its independence in 1948. The first major piece of legislation to be passed by parliament was a bill disenfranchising “Indian Tamils”. (They were so classified, even though they had lived in Ceylon for generations and knew no other place as home.) Towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, Tamils not only joined in the struggle for independence from Britain but some were recognised as leaders of the movement. They saw themselves primarily not as Tamils but as Ceylonese. Tamil leaders and Tamils did not know that in the long run they were helping to exchange smarting (British) pepper for burning (Sinhalese) chilli.

Britain, combating Nazi Germany, proudly claimed to be fighting for freedom but, at the same time, held on to its imperial possessions, including India and Ceylon. The contradictory implications were suavely glossed over. At its height, the British Empire in extent was the largest the world had ever seen. Churchill, eloquent champion of liberty, was a chauvinist and unabashed imperialist. Subhas Chandra Bose saw through the hypocrisy, and sensed the danger. If Britain had not been exhausted and weakened, it would have fought hard to hold on to its imperial possessions after the war, not minding the rhetoric about freedom and democracy during it. The promises made and broken to the countries of the Middle East are proof enough. The conduct of France, the other imperial power, both in Africa and in the Middle East was no different.

I could cite other examples of lofty words accompanying very sordid practise. While justice is passionately claimed for oneself, it can be vigorously, even viciously, denied to others. Sri Lankans settled in the West (“West” here, irrespective of geography, includes Australia and New Zealand) take for granted their equality as citizens with those of their host country, yet some of these Sinhalese are virulently “racist”, and deny to Tamils back in Sri Lanka what they expect in the West; usually receive and enjoy. It is a case of multiculturalism and “live and let live” abroad but hegemony, forcibly established and maintained, at home. Perhaps, their chauvinism is intensified by feelings of guilt at having left “the Paradise Isle”?

Returning to the second paragraph of this note and to those Sinhalese chauvinists in Sri Lanka who now protest the absence of democracy and justice, it must be remembered that they did not protest the killing of thousands of Tamil civilians towards the end of the war. Nor do they complain about state-sponsored colonisation and the expropriation of land; the heavy presence of the army in the North and East even though the war has ended; the attempt to erase Tamil culture; to impose Buddhism on Hindus, Christians and Moslems, and the bullying , exploitation and humiliation of a defenceless, helpless, population. The Asian Times of 11 January 2005 predicted: “Without the protective role of the LTTE, the Tamils would be at the mercy of the Sinhalese chauvinists”. The “racists” in Sri Lanka who now raise their voice for democracy have only their fellow Sinhalese in mind, and will be in the forefront of opposition – vociferous and violent – if even the smallest step were to be taken to extend equality to Sri Lanka’s minorities. Their idea of “democracy” is one built on the foundations of exclusion, subordination and hegemony. In short, as in Greece, slave-owning America, the British Empire and elsewhere, it is a caricature of democratic ideals. The ‘Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956’ replacing the English language with Sinhala was generally, and correctly, known as the “Sinhala-only” bill: the emphasis being on only. Similarly: “Now that the Tamils have been rendered helpless, let there be democracy, justice and freedom – of course, for us only”.

Joachim Fest in his memoir ‘Not I’ records that his father opposed Hitler, not towards the end but right from the beginning and through the period when most Germans were simply ecstatic over him. At his request, each of the children signed a piece of paper which read, Etiam si omnes – ego non! Freely translated: “Even if all others, yet not I”. One salutes, with gratitude and admiration, those Sinhalese who have, at great cost to themselves, steadfastly opposed and oppose a discriminatory “democracy”.

(The author is an English Professor, stationed in Germany)