Prospects for democracy brighter in Sri Lanka than US

by Rohini Hensman

In recent years, America’s claim to be a democracy has been seriously damaged in the eyes of its own citizens. Even the most minimal definition of democracy – that it entails free and fair elections – was contradicted by two presidential elections (in 2000 and 2004), in which there was damning evidence that George W. Bush won only because the vote was rigged. The fact that the overwhelming majority of those who were disenfranchised in the elections were Black Americans linked up this outrage to the persistence of discrimination and violence against minority communities in the US. A lack of equal rights, exclusion from the franchise, and, after the attacks of 9/11, a rapid erosion of civil liberties: these were the marks of a state heading towards totalitarianism.

Against this backdrop, the election of Barack Obama to the presidency came as a much-needed reprieve. And the people who deserve the most credit for it are the majority of the electorate. They turned out in large numbers to vote for the candidate they had chosen, and also monitored the voting and vote-counting – no easy task with electronic voting machines – to try and ensure that the election would not be stolen. For veterans of the civil rights movement, the success of an African-American was an outcome of their struggles; indeed, as Obama himself acknowledged, it would not have been possible without a long history of patient opposition to horrific oppression. But it is also true that it would not have been possible without a large number of white people casting their votes for him. The vicious White supremacism that produced the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs was still very much in evidence in Sarah Palin’s rallies where the crowd chanted "Kill him! Kill him!’ (referring to Obama). But in this election, they did not prevail.

In this context, there was every possibility that Obama would fall between two stools, and at times that appeared to be happening. The son of a Black African father and White American mother, who had spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, the diversity embodied in his physical being could have been a reason for everyone to reject him. For many White supremacists, the very idea of a Black president was anathema. Added to this was his foreign-sounding name, which made them denounce him as not being ‘American’ enough (such an irony, given that White Americans are no more indigenous to the US than Black ones!). Others repeated his middle name, ‘Hussein’, and circulated pictures of him at school in Muslim Indonesia, insisting he was a Muslim: a powerful attack in the current climate of Islamophobia. On the other side, for many Black Americans he was not Black enough, given his White mother, and had not shared enough of their struggle, since he was not the descendent of slaves. It is to Obama’s credit that he was sufficiently comfortable with his own identity to ride out these attacks with equanimity, reiterating his belief in a non-racial nation.

Finally, those who organised his election campaign also deserve credit for a magnificent job well done. Obama was nowhere when he first stepped into the race; even Black Americans backed Hillary Clinton because, among other things, they simply could not see Obama winning the presidency. Thus, the whole success of the campaign hinged on grassroots mobilising of people, many of them young, who otherwise might not have voted at all, and on combating the cynicism and despair resulting from a feeling that nothing that ordinary people did could change anything. It was only after the enthusiasm of these marginalised people had been aroused that more mainstream figures came forward to back Obama. Critics from the Left who suggest that Obama won only because he was backed by the establishment need to be reminded that even if this was true after the financial and economic crisis broke out in the US, it was certainly not true at the beginning of his campaign for nomination. And while it is likely that he will not live up to the expectations of many who voted for him, this does not detract from the significance of the fact that he was elected.

Elections in Sri Lanka

The situation in Sri Lanka in many ways resembles the situation in the US prior to the elections there. Minorities in Sri Lanka, like minorities in the US, have been disenfranchised in various ways since Independence, starting with the legislation that deprived hill-country Tamils of their citizenship and franchise. They have also been subjected to all-pervasive discrimination, persecution and violence, like African-Americans in the US. This has been orchestrated by virulent Sinhala supremacists, including our home-grown equivalents of the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs which have periodically been turned loose to visit horrific bouts of torture, rape and murder on minority communities. These people are still very much part of the ruling elite; when we hear Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and Minister Champika Ranawaka voicing the belief that ‘this country belongs to the Sinhalese’, and ‘other communities are all visitors to the country’, we know that our country is governed by the Sri Lankan version of the jingoists who were defeated in the US election. And, as in the US, the irony is that Sinhalese are no more (or less) indigenous to Sri Lanka than Tamils.

That Fonseka and Ranawaka make such statements in public makes it clear that the government is waging a war not against the LTTE but against the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. Special Report 31 of University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) (UTHR-J) reports that many of the LTTE’s conscripts are either very young children or so unwilling to kill that they prefer to kill themselves. In such circumstances, an offer of a just political solution and humane treatment for those who escape from the LTTE’s clutches would end the war very soon and save innumerable lives, including those of the Sinhalese poor who are being used by the government as cannon fodder. Yet the president has repeatedly sabotaged attempts to put forward proposals for a just political solution, and, according to UTHR-J, those who escape the LTTE are treated with sickening brutality: ‘The government in turn confines those escaping LTTE-controlled areas in mass detention centres from which they are not allowed to leave. Those in Vavuniya find themselves in a place of crime and lawlessness, where torture, murder, extortion, abduction and rape are routine and women are powerless.’

One of the main obstacles to minorities voting in free and fair elections has been constituted by the violence of the LTTE, which has thus acted as an accomplice of the Sinhala supremacists in depriving minorities of their democratic rights. Here there is a marked difference from the US. There has been a Black nationalist separatist movement in the US, embodied mainly in Nation of Islam (NoI); and when Malcolm X, who was a member for several years, left the organisation and moved closer to the civil rights movement, advocating the use of international human rights to bolster the struggle for the rights of Black Americans, the NoI leadership responded with public death threats. Shortly afterwards, he was assassinated by members of the group, but there were strong suspicions that agencies of the state, which had infiltrated NoI, were also involved. However, this was an exception, not the rule. Despite sharp differences between, say, the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers, Black activists did not collude with the racist state to kill each other.

In Sri Lanka, by contrast, the LTTE has acted as the agent – in Premadasa’s time as the paid agent – of Sinhala supremacists in their drive to eliminate every Tamil leader of any importance. Those who remain have been driven underground or into exile, or forced to accept the protection of the state, thus restricting their freedom of action severely. Nor has the supposedly non-violent TULF been innocent of such activities. The first murder of a Tamil political leader who expressed his desire to work for a Sri Lanka which was not divided along ethnic and religious lines was that of Alfred Duraiappah, who was issued with public death threats by TULF leaders (exactly as in the case of Malcolm X) before he was assassinated by their gun-wielding disciple Prabakaran in 1975. They were thus instrumental in creating the Frankenstein’s monster which later turned against them.

The combination of LTTE terror, state terror and the violence of armed groups allied to the state has ensured that there have been no free and fair elections in the North and East for decades, up to and including the recent Provincial Council elections in the East. The situation is, indeed, much worse than it has been in the US. If Mahinda Rajapaksa calls for snap elections, as it has been rumoured, it is likely that he, like George W. Bush, will win a second term, given that a large number of Tamils will not be able to vote freely. But, like George Bush, he will then have to face the consequences of massive military expenditure combined with profligate luxury consumption by the political elite, even while the mass of the people suffer a steep reduction in their standard of living. If Sri Lanka loses its GSP+ trade preferences from the EU on account of the failure of the government to achieve the relevant human rights standards, the consequences would be even far worse. The inevitable economic collapse will ensure that he leaves office as hated as his US counterpart.

Prospects for Democracy in Sri Lanka

Despite all these drawbacks, prospects for democracy in Sri Lanka are in some ways brighter than in the US. Supporters of Sinhala supremacism are a smaller minority in Sri Lanka than supporters of White supremacism in the US, and unlike Martin Luther King, we do not have to dream of a day when little Sinhalese and Tamil girls and boys play together, since most of us have witnessed such a sight or even experienced it in our own childhood.

What is lacking, however, is an organising drive which can bring together and energise opponents of ethnic supremacism in the way that Obama’s campaign did in the US. The fact that witnesses in the cases of the murdered five students and ACF workers could be terrorised by the police throughout, without effective opposition from civil society, demonstrates the weakness of the supporters of democracy and the rule of law in Sri Lanka. NGOs, whose personnel depend on being paid to do their work, cannot be a substitute for a vibrant civil society movement whose participants freely contribute their time to a struggle for justice and equality in our country. Until that can be built, our democracy will continue to go down the drain.