Democracy, people and government in Sri Lanka

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

Democracy as a system of government in a fully integrated society in which all the members have common interests, aspirations and concerns fits in with the classic meaning given as the government of the people, for the people , by the people. In this ideal case, it is also considered as ‘the right to a form of government in which power is invested in the people as a whole, exercised on their behalf by periodically elected representatives’. In divided societies characterized by regional, linguistic, religious and cultural differences, democracy can function smoothly and agreeably, only if the elected representatives responsible for legislative and executive decisions affecting the general well-being of the citizens give due consideration to the present and future needs of the minority groups that are powerless under the system. In other words, those exercising the power vested in the people living in the whole country must not act unjustly concerned only about the interests of the politically useful majority group.

In Sri Lanka democracy has not functioned as it should in a pluralistic society. The political parties competing for the centralized power to govern the entire island depend crucially on the votes of the ethnic majority group. Instead of strengthening the unity of all ethnic communities by ensuring equal rights, equal opportunities and balanced regional development that enhance not only the welfare of the people but also the country as a whole, the Sinhala-majority governments did just the opposite. The disastrous effects are seen now and the country is overwhelmed by several crises. The Sinhalese patriotic leaders thought they could safeguard the territorial integrity of the island and the future of the Sinhala race by making the minority ethnic Tamils politically and economically weak. This was really a pretext to protect the dominance of the Sinhalese political class. The legendary stories that are not unique to the island and have no relevance in the modern world were also vitalized by some Sinhala nationalists to infuse fear among the masses for political gain. In short, the goal was sought by negative divisive means.

The neglect of the aspirations, concerns, needs and rights of the powerless groups and the discriminatory ways the Sinhala-majority governments functioned led to the ethnic problem, which later escalated into full-scale war for separation. The present government, instead of addressing its causes is using the military campaign under the cover of eliminating terrorism to quell the LTTE’s demand for separation. This has now become counterproductive and damaging to the wellbeing of all the people and the future of the country. Moreover, the various executive decisions have exposed the hidden weaknesses in the system, proving it to be unsuitable for ensuring political stability, durable peace and better future for the vast majority of the population, who face uncertainty because of the prolonged unsettled conditions. According to a recent study, the rich had got richer and the poor poorer over the last decade and a half. Continued worsening of this inequality has the potential to cause social discord and uprising.

Politics and Buddhism

The outcome of any country-wide election depends crucially on the preferred choice of the Sinhalese voters outside the North-East. The Buddhist clergy played an important role in the political process with the aim of reinforcing and protecting the supreme position of Sinhala-Buddhists in the national government. This has been done in a secluded manner for decades until the Buddhist monks created their own political party (Jathika Hela Urumaya) and contested the April 2004 parliamentary elections. When they took to active politics stating their aim was to cleanse politics that had degenerated because of self-seeking politicians craving for power to fulfill their own ambitions, some thought that at last the much needed reform to make politics more useful to the people and the country was in the offing. Recently, the appointment of a Muslim by the UNP as its chief propaganda agent in Beruwella (a Muslim majority electorate) displeased the Buddhist monks. They have asked for a Sinhalese too to be appointed as the party’s agent.

Regarding the lack of the “expected ameliorative impact on the country’s degenerating state of politics”, the noteworthy editorial (Daily mirror August 6) stated: “One reason for the failure is the depth of its decline that yields no easy redeeming. The other is that the venerable monks in parliament themselves seem to have fallen prey to the putrid political culture”. There are good reasons to believe that the political monks have done more damage than good by indulging in activities that are blatantly at variance with the Buddhist doctrines. Like the short-sighted political leaders who by their neglect of national interest, public needs and unity of all ethnic communities tarnished worldwide the earlier image of the peaceful and prosperous island, where the army had only ceremonial duties to perform, the Buddhist monks have also done harm to Buddhism.

The allegations of using the parliamentary privilege to gain financial benefit and the involvement of the JHU Minister and the party’s Propaganda Secretary in the abduction of a businessman have caused additional confusion to an already muddled political scene. Addressing the media on August 5, the JHU Propaganda Secretary and Central Environment Authority Chairman Udaya Gammanpila said the Mercedes Benz 220 super luxury vehicle imported by the JHU MP Ven. Dr. Ellawala Medhananda Thera under Parliamentary privileges had been given to a businessman who supported the party. Since it is illegal for the MP to sell the vehicle imported duty free within five years, the word ‘sold’ is not used. To quote, “We have given the vehicle for the use of this businessman as he helps the party financially. Otherwise he would have spent a lot on a luxury vehicle using funds that he intends to donate to the JHU.” However, this contradicts with the statements on the transaction given to the media (BBC Sinhala service) by the businessman Nishantha Hemantha, who purchased the vehicle.

Regarding the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s allegation the JHU duo was responsible for the abduction of Nishantha Hemantha, who was keeping Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thera’s vehicle, JHU strongman and Environment and Natural Resources Minister Champika Ranawaka said that the abduction was stage-managed by the UNP as part of a smear campaign against the JHU. While the country is in precarious state and people are suffering due to exorbitant prices of essential goods, there is no let down in the charges and counter charges aimed at discrediting the political opponents. As in the venerable monk’s duty-free Mercedes Benz car episode, contradictions are seen in other excuses justifying the wrongdoings.

The acknowledged fact that the Mercedes Benz 220 super luxury vehicle was imported duty free by Ven. Dr. Ellawala Medhananda Thera MP raises a basic question. Why should a Buddhist monk who should not be seeking any materialistic benefit take advantage of the duty-free concession and import a luxury car? While addressing the SLFP ‘Jana Hamuwa’ (People’s Rally) in Kurunegala August 4 Chief Government Whip Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle said most of the MPs, including himself, had sold their car permits at various times and it is not only Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thera who had done so. This confirms further the fact that the corrupt political system is only serving the privileged few. The smart Chief Whip has recommended the legalization of the transfer of all MPs duty-free vehicle permits to avoid this problem!!! The Daily Mirror editorial has said pointedly: “Instead of steadfastly standing by their principle of honesty and simplicity and rejecting the offer, the venerable monks (MPs) too have fallen in line with other politicians, who have no compunction about enjoying such privileges at public expense. They have thus missed a good opportunity to set an example to other politicians. The claim that they are not using these vehicles and that the funds raised through the sale of these vehicles for party purposes carries no conviction”.

The allegations against the JHU led by Buddhist monks cannot be dismissed as completely baseless. Instead of examining the allegation seriously, the Ven. Tibbotuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Mahanayake Thera of the Malwatte Chapter is reported (Daily News August 7) to have said: “Even though he was non committal on the issue of Bhikkhus taking to politics, he could not approve anyone trying to ridicule the Maha Sangha on political grounds”. This is similar to the frantic reaction of the government to the recent Human Rights Watch report (discussed below) that is highly critical of the government’s conduct. Religion and ‘patriotism’ should not be a cover for any misconduct of politicians.

Rajith Dissanayake in his article (The Island August 4- ‘Statesmen are not Bhikkhus’) has said: “So why is it only in Sri Lanka of all Theravada countries that there is a cadre of monks who have turned into politicians who appear to preach a doctrine of hate? Are these monks in breach of the Vinaya which would invalidate their monk status? To my mind the answer is yes. In the Visuddhimagga, a great meditation manual composed in Sri Lanka around the 4th century CE, there are extensive canonical passages quoted about the sufferings that monks will face for using their status in milking people’s faith for ends that are far from peace and wisdom. The author Buddhaghosa is noted by some scholars to have been a Tamil from Tamil Nadu – and ‘The voice of the Buddha’ revelled in his credentials as a scholar, to make the Buddha’s teachings clearer. It is a sad fact that in Sri Lanka there are many false monks who engage in occupations unbecoming of a monk with no source of discipline like a king or synod to disrobe them as happens in Thailand.”

Abuse of power

The political class that became powerful dishonestly has been exploiting the acquired power of the people to further its interests. This has been done at the expense of ignoring even the needs of the very people, whose support was solicited to gain power. Corruption that is not only draining the public funds but also undermining the Rule of Law is the direct consequence of the abuse of power by politicians and officials.

It is astounding that millions are being spent by the government on foreign travel and other items that have no bearing on pressing public or national needs. Not only Sri Lanka has the largest cabinet of ministers (102) but also dispatches largest delegations to the UN general Assembly session and official visits to foreign countries. The government has spent a staggering Rs. 56 million out of public funds for the Presidential entourage of 192 members who visited China from February 27 to March 4, 2007 on an official tour. According to Prof. A D V de S Indraratna (formerly University of Peradeniya), public sector corruption is a key factor driving poverty and the country is losing two percentage points of economic growth a year from resources lost to sleaze. He cited among others the 3.2 billion rupee ‘value added tax’ fraud uncovered by the Auditor General.

The COPE report submitted on January 27 this year identified 26 state institutions where corruption was rampant. The estimated loss is Rs. 150 billion. The JVP spokesperson said at a recent press briefing, the President instead of initiating action against the wrong-doers had given various simple excuses. This seems to be the normal practice now because of the internal political necessity. There are many cases of carefree spending of public funds that are not at all beneficial to the public either in the short or longer term. These are also used by the government for its domestic political propaganda purposes.

The culture of impunity that is strikingly visible has contributed to the escalation of lawlessness in the entire island. Kishali Pinto Jayawardena, a highly respected and forthright Sunday Times columnist (also an attorney-at-law) in her August 5 focus on rights has said: “A persistent feature of the immediate years post the 2002 ceasefire agreement was that even despite the absence of war, practices of torture continued unabated. This shows the extent to which resort to abuse of power has become imbedded in our custodial system and further, corrupted other professionals who are supposed to impose safeguards against such abuses, including medical professionals and judicial officers. Those implicated range from senior medical officers to the junior level; this is a fact that disgraces the medical profession and should be examined by its professional body in a far more rigorous manner than only rapping an errant medical professional over his/her knuckles once in a while. What is important to note is that the police are not the only blameworthy individuals in this scenario. Apart from medical professionals, judicial officers have themselves not been blameless”.

The non-implementation of The Rule of Law has been pinpointed as the reason for the deplorable situation prevailing in Sri Lanka. Kishali has cited the following to be some of the abhorrent practices responsible for the deterioration in law enforcement:

The blatant disregard with which implicated police officers falsify official documents, including the Information Book – In one case where the court found that Grave Crimes Information Book and the Register/ Investigation Book had been altered with impunity and utter disregard for the law, the view was taken that it was unsafe for a Court to accept a certified copy of any statement or notes recorded by the police without comparing it with the original;

The police who are supposed to protect the ordinary citizens of this country have become violators of the law. Even where police officers (junior as well as senior) have been identified as personally responsible for acts of torture in courts of law, no internal departmental action has been taken against them. Directions of the Supreme Court to the police hierarchy to initiate disciplinary action against erring police officers are blatantly ignored;

Those officers in custodial authority found guilty by the Supreme Court were neither disciplined nor prosecuted – They were not even removed from their positions or interdicted;

And, the wide gap between judgments and their implementation.

The customary pattern of abduction and extortion by men dressed in police uniform using the ‘White Van’ that has acquired legendary fame is also intrinsic to the culture of impunity. In any other country where the rule of law is observed, the culprits would have been caught and brought to justice swiftly. The corrupt practices that have undermined ‘The Rule of Law’ would have been checked considerably had the independent National Police Commission been set up as intended in the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. The latter remains lifeless because of differences among political parties in the Opposition over the appointment of the members to the Constitutional Council. According to Kishali, the present Police Commission lacks legitimacy after the unconstitutional appointment of its members by the President. It is the importance given to personal and political interests of the parties over national interest that is responsible for denying the country the ‘Rule of Law’ and ‘good governance’.

Human rights violations

The US-based Human Rights Watch released its 129-page report, “Return to War: Human Rights Under Siege,” on August 6, the anniversary of the massacre in Muthur of 17 local aid workers attached to the French charity – Action Against Hunger. The Nordic ceasefire monitoring mission accused the Sri Lankan security forces for the horrendous crime, which the government rejected and created a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (CoI) in 2006 to investigate this and some other specific assassination cases, where the culprits remain at large. An International Independent Group of Eminent Persons was also appointed to observe the investigations. But to date not much progress has been made, because of various functional problems.

The HRW report cannot be dismissed cursorily as lacking in credible evidence, which has been the immediate response of the government, as the findings are based on the accounts given by victims and bona fide eyewitnesses. It has accused not only government forces but also the LTTE and the breakaway Karuna group operating with government’s tacit support for violating human rights with impunity. However, it is the government’s complicity in the shocking increase in human rights violations by the security forces that is pointedly condemned. This is the critical issue that the government should address.

The report says, ethnic Tamils have borne the brunt of these violations but members of the Muslim and majority Sinhalese population are not immune to government abuse. The report has received worldwide attention because of the emphasis given by international media – Reuters, AP AFP, BBC and others. Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch is reported to have said: “The Sri Lankan government has apparently given its security forces a green light to use ‘dirty war’ tactics. Abuses by the LTTE are no excuse for the government’s campaign of killings, ‘disappearances’ and forced returns of the displaced.” He also said: “The government is using its conflict with the LTTE and the rhetoric of counterterrorism to suppress dissent in Sri Lanka.” There is in fact the desperate need for the Rajapaksa government to consolidate the hold on power and prevent opposition moves to overthrow it. The war against ‘terrorism’ is presently serving as a useful means to achieve the government’s narrow political aim.

The following are some extracts from media reports on HRW findings:

The Sri Lankan government is responsible for many unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and other serious human rights violations since the resumption of major hostilities with the LTTE last year.

Human Rights Watch has called on the country’s donors and concerned governments to support a United Nations monitoring mission in Sri Lanka.

The LTTE, an armed Tamil secessionist group, is responsible for serious crimes such as targeted civilian killings, extortion and the use of child soldiers, which are not new and have been documented and condemned in the past too.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, have pursued military operations in the country’s north and east, with little regard for the security of the civilian population.

Security forces have subjected civilians to indiscriminate attacks and impeded the delivery of humanitarian aid. Some 315,000 people have had to flee their homes due to fighting since August 2006, the vast majority Tamils and Muslims. About 100,000 were displaced in March alone. Government authorities have forced some to return to areas that remained insecure.

More than 1,100 new cases of abductions and “disappearances” were reported between January 2006 and June 2007, the vast majority of them Tamils. While the LTTE has long been responsible for abductions, the majority of recent “disappearances” implicate government forces or armed groups (the ‘Karuna’ faction) acting with governmental complicity.

On the northern Jaffna peninsula alone, an area under strict military control, more than 800 people were reported missing between December 2005 and April 2007, 241 of whom were subsequently found. In the vast majority of cases, witnesses and family members allege that security forces were involved or implicated in the abduction.

In August 2006, the government reintroduced Emergency Regulations, which criminalize a range of peaceful activities protected under Sri Lankan and international law. The government has used the regulations to prosecute political opponents and members of the media. The government has tried to silence those who question or criticize its approach to the armed conflict or its human rights record. It has dismissed peaceful critics as “traitors,” “terrorist sympathizers,” and “supporters of the LTTE.”

The Karuna group, a Tamil armed group that split from the LTTE in 2004 and now cooperates with Sri Lankan forces against the LTTE, continues to abduct and forcibly recruit children and young men into its force with the complicity or acquiescence of the Sri Lankan government. The Karuna group has also kidnapped for ransom scores of Tamil businessmen in Batticaloa, Vavuniya, and the capital Colombo. Despite repeated promises to investigate state complicity in Karuna group abductions, the government has thus far not indicated that it has taken any steps to investigate, and the abductions have continued unabated.

Impunity for human rights violations by government security forces, long a problem in Sri Lanka, remains a disturbing norm. As the conflict intensifies and government forces are implicated in a longer list of abuses, the government has displayed a clear unwillingness to hold accountable those responsible for serious violations.

The entire report can be found at:

Evading responsibility

Human Rights Watch has also pointed to the crafty way the government is trying to evade responsibility for the crimes that no responsible government in the civilized world will connive or condone. On the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, it has observed that the purpose seems to be “an effort to stave off domestic and international criticism rather than a sincere attempt to promote accountability and to deter future abuse”. Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, the chief government spokesman for security and defence, refuting the charges in the HRW report told the BBC that every disappearance was being investigated. “The government is taking every possible step… The disappearances have been there, it is true. All of the cases that are reported are investigated.” This is not the first instance this stock reply has been given. Brad Adams in his comments to the media said: “The government has repeatedly promised to end and investigate abuses, but has shown a lack of political will to take effective steps. Government institutions have proven unable or unwilling to deal with the scale and intensity of abuse.” Any criticism of government’s misconduct in its military campaign is rebuked feverishly as a violation of the country’s sovereignty.

It is recalled not long ago the President stunned all knowledgeable persons when he announced there is no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. He confidently proclaimed, it is terrorism that has to be defeated militarily and all parties and peace loving people should support the government in this gallant effort. With regard to the numerous cases of ‘abductions’ and ‘disappearances’ reported by the affected family members and independent monitoring organizations, the President responded that the disappeared had either gone to France or Germany or returned to their homes. Domestic problems were also cited as a cause for the ‘disappearance’. The APRC was set up by the President to find a consensual solution to the ethnic problem. The government succeeded in dampening down the international pressure to find a political settlement to the ethnic conflict by appointing the APC, APRC and the Expert panel. All knowledgeable persons know that the LTTE leader will not voluntarily abandon his vowed goal, though many Tamils know it to be very unrealistic. Yet the government keeps on repeating that it is committed to negotiation with the LTTE whenever there is a dire need to placate calls for negotiated political settlement.

The latest ploy is the slogan – Development of the liberated East. Journalists who have visited the region recently have said that the people in the region are not interested right now in development or even a political settlement. They want urgently their lost houses and livelihoods back and the assistance to live without the fear and the suffering they have endured for years. They need protection from abductors and extortionists. When the climate for development was favourable there was no intention to develop the region but now suddenly when the needs of the people are basic for immediate survival, the emphasis is placed on development. Not only the unsettled conditions but also the lack of adequate funds (government thinks it can raise unlimited amounts through private bank loans, ignoring the unaffordable cost of borrowing) cast doubts on the feasibility. Rhetoric without any determined move to ease the suffering of the people will soon hurt not only the few playing the duping game but also the entire country.

Gareth Evans, the former foreign minister of Australia and current president of International Crisis Group (ICG), in his commemorative address on the eighth anniversary of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam delivered on July 29 in Colombo gave a vivid account of recent developments in the international humanitarian and human rights fields and their relevance to Sri Lanka. Titled, ‘The Limits of State Sovereignty: The Responsibility to Protect In The 21st Century,’ Evans elaborated on the state responsibility towards its citizens and the responsibility of the international community when this responsibility was not being met. He pointed out that when the state fails to protect civilians, either through inability or ill will, a secondary responsibility to protect falls on the wider international community. This did not go down well with the ‘patriots’. They are even against the UN monitoring the human rights situation in the volatile North-East. The LTTE too has ignored international calls to observe human rights, particularly the conscription of underage children and continued with this practice violating all civilized norms. But a democratically elected government cannot behave like a guerrilla organization operating outside both national and international laws with the sole aim of capturing power regardless of the suffering and losses of the people in the region.

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Print this page