Sri Lanka: A Democratic Revolution in the Making ?

Change in Sri Lanka cannot end with the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa. An overhaul of the executive presidency and accountability for all war crimes going back to the 1970s need to be established and a
new economic and social programme needs to be undertaken. A manifesto for the new Sri Lanka.

Two disasters were averted in January in Sri Lanka.
  • The first would have been the re-election of the corrupt and brutal Mahinda Rajapaksa regime in the presidential election of 8 January 2015. Rajapaksa’s defeat can be credited, first and foremost, to democracy activists across the spectrum — Sobitha Thero, trade unionists, students, teachers, women’s groups, political parties, social activists, artists, lawyers, civil society organisations, the Movement for Social Justice, social media activists, and so on — who organised the campaign for a common opposition candidate with such skill and courage that it succeeded despite the huge amount of money and muscle-power employed on the other side. Also credit should be given to the election commissioner, who carried out a tolerably free and fair election against heavy odds.
  • Second, to Tamil voters, who overwhelmingly rejected the Tamil nationalist plea to boycott the election (Weerawardhana 2015). The Tamil National Alliance, in particular, has played a commendable role in recent years, affirming its faith in democracy by opposing the continuous slide into dictatorship under the Rajapaksa regime. For Muslims to support the opposition should have been a no-brainer after the state-sponsored pogroms against them by Buddhist thugs of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS); that it took so long for their leaders to disentangle themselves from the old regime is a sad comment on the corrupt politics of patronage.
Hill-country Tamils, most of whom had hitherto been in the clutches of plantation politicians like Thondaman of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress which supported the Rajapaksa regime, gave an overwhelming message that they can make intelligent decisions on their own.

However, there is no way the common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena could have won without the votes of Sinhalese voters, who voted for change in defiance of the violence, massive expenditure and racist fear-mongering of the Rajapaksa brothers. An analysis of the election results shows that Rajapaksa lost “because a large chunk of Sinhala voters who supported him in 2010 voted for the Opposition in 2015” (Gunasekara 2015). It is notable that even the Buddhist monk party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, articulated the need for change and mobilised their constituents to realise it. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) played an impressive role both in the campaign and before it, opposing attacks on Muslims by the BBS and highlighting the need for a political-economic democratic programme. Unfortunately, leaders of the mainstream left parties remained with the Rajapaksas right to the end, although many members joined the common opposition campaign.

The second disaster, perhaps even more ghastly than the first, would have been a coup by Rajapaksa in the wake of his defeat in the election. For many people in Sri Lanka, this was the greatest fear. It has been reported that he conceded defeat only after the attorney general, solicitor general, the army chief, and inspector-general of police refused to endorse an attempt by him, backed by Mohan Peiris, whom he had installed as chief justice, to stay in power (Sri Lanka Brief 2015). This allegation has yet to be proved, but if it is true, Sri Lankans owe an enormous debt of gratitude to these public officials who saved the country from sliding yet again into bloodshed and chaos.

Last but not least, credit goes to the unarmed civilians who risked and sometimes lost their lives in the struggle to resist right-wing Sinhala and Tamil nationalism and keep the flame of democracy burning. There is poetic justice in the fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa was voted out of power on the sixth anniversary of the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, who wrote to the former president in his prescient last letter, “In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other President before you” (Sunday Leader 2009).
However, the fact that these disasters were so narrowly averted means that the new political dispensation — the New Democratic Front — is exceedingly fragile. Strengthening it will entail confronting and resolving many difficult questions. A National Executive Council comprising representatives of all constituent parties of the new government as well as political groups and civil society organisations was set up on 16 January. It will be the task of this institution to tackle these questions.

Accountability for War Crimes

  • The new regime has declared that it will carry out an investigation of war crimes as required by the United Nations (UN), with international inputs if necessary. That is good so far as it goes. However, the terms of reference of the UN proposal are too narrow. J R Jayawardene’s regime effectively declared war on Tamils when it passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in 1979, and the war thus declared went on for 30 years. In the middle of it was the JVP insurrection and government counter-insurrection, which should also be counted as a war. Tens of thousands of civilians had disappeared and died in both wars before the international community took an interest in Sri Lanka; there should, as far as possible, be an accounting for what happened to them all. Every effort should be made to find the disappeared or at least their remains and return them to their families, who still suffer anguish over the unknown fate of their loved ones.
  • The war as a whole should be investigated not only out of consideration for the victims and their families but also out of fairness to perpetrators. Take, for example, the current Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was part of the government during the United National Party regimes of Jayawardene and Premadasa, and was implicated both in the 1983 massacre of Tamils, and in torture and extrajudicial executions during the southern counter-insurgency in the late 1980s (Thayabharan 2012). In an ironic twist, at the time when Wickremesinghe was involved in human rights violations, Mahinda Rajapaksa was a human rights defender, attempting to document those violations and take the evidence to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva (Fernando 2013). Gratitude to someone who stood up for their human rights when it was risky to do so could be an additional reason — apart from his winning the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — why people from parts of the country most affected by the counter-insurgency in the south (Colombo Telegraph 2013a) voted for him. As cynics have observed, some human rights violators and defenders from that period have simply swapped places, although it appears that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was a killer then and remains a killer now (Colombo Telegraph 2013b).
  • A truth commission consisting of people of integrity and without connections to any political party needs to be set up, with powers to call witnesses, investigate crimes, and question the accused. It can take off from the excellent work done by human rights groups like the Civil Rights Movement and University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), as well as earlier commissions of inquiry and the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. It needs to account for all the dead and disappeared, including tens of thousands of Tamils arrested by the LTTE who were never seen again, and combatants who surrendered or were captured by the army and subsequently went missing. The work of the truth commission, as it proceeds, should be put up on a website in Sinhala, Tamil and English, so that it is completely transparent.

Restoring Democracy

  • What can and should be done immediately is to restore the rule of law. Anyone, regardless of status or position, who engages or has engaged in arson, looting, assault, rape or murder in the post-war period, should be arrested and charged; all citizens should feel that they are protected by the law from such outrages. War crimes cases may take years, but prosecution of post-war crimes should be expedited because these criminals are a danger to society, and democracy cannot be restored while they are allowed to terrorise the public. Laws which undermine the rule of law, like the PTA, should be repealed.
  • Ensuring freedom of expression is a priority. Journalists who dared to report the truth have been exiled, killed or had their websites blocked. All those who have attacked journalists in the post-war period as well as those who have ordered such attacks should be arrested, charged and tried for these crimes. No writer or artist should have to fear such treatment now. Freedom of association should be ensured, as well as the right to peaceful protest. Academic freedom and immediate demilitarisation of education are also priorities.
  • None of these rights can be assured so long as the utterly corrupt and nepotistic appointments of the previous regime remain in place. All those who have been appointed to cabinet positions, the civil service, universities, and the public sector purely on account of being family members or stooges of the Rajapaksas should be relieved of their posts, and replaced with honest and competent people, many of whom had been passed over despite their obvious superiority to the incumbents. Restoring the independence of the judiciary, so shamefully undermined by the previous regime, must be a top priority. The reinstatement of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, who was illegally removed from office by the Rajapaksas, and the consequent removal of Mohan Peiris from the post, paves the way for this to occur.
  • In the longer term, constitutional change is required to safeguard fundamental rights and freedoms, as promised by the manifesto of President Maithripala Sirisena. But there is a problem here. Changing the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in parliament or a referendum. If Sirisena’s campaign had been fought on the single issue of abolishing the all-powerful executive presidency, then the election could legitimately be seen as a referendum on the issue; but if that had been so, he probably would have lost. Given that his campaign was fought on many other issues, it cannot be claimed that those who voted for him were necessarily voting for drastically curtailing the powers of the president. Therefore it becomes necessary to get a two-thirds majority in parliament in order to make this change.
  • In the current parliament, it is likely that Rajapaksa will direct his loyalists to vote against slashing the powers of the president, in the hope that he would have a chance to try for the post again. Given Wickremesinghe’s history of opposing the abolition of the executive presidency by “tearing and burning the draft Constitution that was introduced in Parliament in 2000” (Asian Tribune 2005), following which he twice contested elections for the post, it is possible that he and his supporters would do the same. Thus the passage by the current parliament of constitutional amendments that reduce the power of the president drastically without diluting the amendments or entering into corrupt deals with sitting members of parliament is by no means certain, and pro-democracy activists need to have a Plan B in case it fails to do so.
Democracy activists should 

(i) have their own discussions on the constitutional changes they would like to see and the time frame in which they want them implemented; 

(ii) monitor the National Executive Council to ensure that the promised constitutional reforms are carried out within a realistic time frame; 

(iii) identify potential parliamentary candidates in all constituencies who would support the constitutional changes sincerely; 

(iv) campaign vigorously for the selected candidates in the forthcoming parliamentary elections; and 

(v) pass any changes that could not be passed in the old parliament in the new parliament.

Economic Policy
  • The old Bandaranaike-Left project of a national developmental state was already in trouble in the 1970s, and is no longer viable. The brutal neo-liberal economy introduced in 1977 by J R Jayawardene (which included smashing trade unions and killing unionists) has collapsed not just in Sri Lanka but worldwide. The Rajapaksa model of unlimited corruption, crony capitalism and reckless indebtedness is the least viable of all. It is necessary to move to a new model, connected to the global economy but also addressing exploitation and inequality, and fostering social security and a welfare state.
  • The new government — which, sadly, has yet to appoint a labour minister — must ratify the International Labour Organization (ILO) Core Conventions (regarding abolition of forced labour and child labour, equal pay, non-discrimination in employment and occupation, and respect for freedom of association and trade union rights) and also the conventions protecting home-based, informal, domestic, and migrant workers, and ensuring occupational health and safety. These conventions should be translated into legislation and implemented in national policies, providing social and legal protection to workers. There should be a national minimum wage for all sectors, including casual workers. Plantation workers, who face limited livelihood options in estates where managements does not provide minimum workdays during lean crop months, must be provided with special guarantees or alternative employment to ensure their survival.
  • The problems of unemployment and inflation require creative solutions. If the measures outlined are taken, the government should succeed in its efforts to revive the European Union’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) trade benefits of the GSP + variant, as well as obtain investments from companies committed to abiding by the same conventions. This will create many jobs, but not enough to satisfy the demand for employment. One way of creating employment is through a scheme like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in India, which provides 100 days of employment per year per household in rural development projects. Another would be setting up centres to provide advice, seed money, and help with marketing for cooperatives, including industrial, agricultural, service, and consumer cooperatives. These would not only create employment but also help to reduce food prices.
Rights of Minorities
  • Equality before law and equal protection of the law for linguistic and religious minorities should be ensured immediately. So far as language rights are concerned, the new government has declared it will implement the 13th amendment. This is a good start, but that amendment itself needs to be amended before it can deliver. Instead of saying that “Tamil will also be an official language,” it should say that “Sinhala and Tamil will be official languages.” So far as devolution of power to provincial councils is concerned, it is meaningless so long as the president, either directly or through a governor, can interfere with the running of a province at will. All references to the president in the 13th amendment should be deleted, the governor should be appointed by parliament, and the chief minister and other ministers should be selected by elected members of the provincial council.
  • Already some forms (e g, passport applications forms) and street signs are in all three languages, and this should be extended to all official forms and signs in railway stations, buses, etc. All government offices, police stations and so on should have staff who collectively have competence in all three languages. If schoolchildren are taught all three languages, the language problem will disappear within a generation.
  • Anti-discrimination and equal opportunities legislation should be enacted, and an Equal Opportunities Commission set up to ensure equal access to education, employment, and so on. This should help to combat not only discrimination against linguistic and religious minorities, but also discrimination on the basis of gender, caste, class, geographical location, ability, and sexual orientation. Equality, the bedrock of democracy, should be made a reality and integrated at all levels of governmental institutions and mechanisms.
  • One of the first acts of President Sirisena was to replace the military governor of the Northern Province with a civilian governor, and the government has pledged to return private land seized by the military to its owners. This is a good start, but the demilitarisation of the Northern and Eastern Provinces needs to go much further. High security zones and big army camps should be dismantled, and all the families they have displaced — some of whom have been living in camps for decades — should be allowed to return and rebuild their homes and livelihoods.
  • Finally, the vexed issue of the merger-demerger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces should be laid to rest by carrying out a referendum in the Eastern Province to ascertain whether its people wish to merge with the Northern Province or remain separate. It is our feeling that the vast majority, including Tamils, would opt to remain separate. If this is the outcome, it would serve to counteract the fantasies of foreign Eelamists as well as Sinhala racist propaganda regarding a non-existent separatist threat (Ceylon Today 2015).
Conclusions

At this time, only one thing is certain: The practice of democracy has been so degraded by decades of totalitarian LTTE rule in the North East and over five years of the Rajapaksa dictatorship in Sri Lanka as a whole that democracy activists of all stripes, from socialists and feminists to honest liberals, will have to work together tirelessly for a long time to come before it is restored.



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