There are no longer respectable alternatives to democracy; it is part of the fashionable attire of modernity. Thus the problems of governance in the 21st century will likely be problems within democracy. This makes them more difficult to handle, wrapped as they are in the mantle of legitimacy.
“The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” – Fareed Zakaria, Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec. 1997
Harold Pinter, the renowned playwright and activist, was fond of quoting a story that he called the proudest moment of his life. Over dinner at the residence of the US Ambassador in Turkey in 1985 and in the company of his friend and fellow playwright Arthur Miller, referring to the on going torture of the Kurds and in response to the Ambassador’s plea to understand the “realities of the situation”, Mr. Pinter stated “the reality I’ve been referring to, is that of electric current on your genitals”. Mr. Pinter didn’t stay much longer at dinner, and was followed out the door by Mr. Miller as well.
Later, he recounted how the American Ambassador was revolted by the mention of genitals, but not by the act of torture itself. Words, in this instance, were more repugnant to the Ambassador than the opprobrium towards a heinous act.
In light of a rapidly deteriorating democratic architecture and a growing culture of violence and impunity, we must also ask ourselves whether words alone suffice to maintain what is left of the rule of law and constitutional governance in Sri Lanka.
Recently, the All Party Conference, convened by the President, sat down to begin deliberations on the creation of a new constitutional blueprint to facilitate a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Though one is tempted to draw a causal link between the APC and decrease in violence in recent weeks, there is little evidence to support such a contention. The peace process remains transfixed to the mercurial actions and thoughts of those in high political office, while on the ground, little has changed for citizens struggling to live in the midst of constant threats to life and limb. The process, as ever, fails to include the aspirations and fears of citizens. To this end, the APC’s request for the public to submit proposals to help their deliberations on constitutional design is commendable. However, in calling for written submissions, the process excludes illiterate Sri Lankans (not to be taken to mean that they are ignorant of principles of good governance), those who are physically challenged and unable to write and those living in areas where the postal services remain a good idea in need of implementation. Regrettably therefore, the submissions received by the APC will be, for the most part, from civil society in Colombo.
How much can we really expect of the APC?
Some voices within civil society have already called the APC a stalling mechanism – a process that masks preparations for war by both parties. Others sing its praises, stating that its very existence is proof that the government and President are serious about a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict. Given the root and branch transformation of the Sri Lankan State needed to bring about an end to the ethnic conflict, the APC needs to be seen as a process of democratisation in Sri Lanka – a mechanism that can galvanise critical public opinion and debate on democracy, governance and peacebuilding.
It is precisely here that the APC falls short of its avowed goals. The absence of the main opposition party is an obvious flaw. Furthermore, there is not a single female party representative in the APC. To deliberate constitutional reform without gender equity and equality is akin to envisioning the Iraqi democracy without factoring in oil futures. That the APC has not, to date, recognised or attempted to address the serious gender imbalance in its membership brings to sharp relief the lip-service to an engendered peace process and ridicules the President’s own “Diriya Kantha” programme as stated in the Mahinda Chintanaya, which states that “women will be assured of enjoying equal status in the society (sic)”.
But there is more wrong with the larger process of constitutional reform and democracy. The President, responsible for instigating the APC and the process of constitutional reform, at the inaugural meeting of the APC on Constitutional Reforms and the Panel of Experts, said:
“In the settlement of the conflict we cannot for short term expediency sacrifice our cherished democratic values and our commitment to the rule of law.”
These are eminently laudable ideals indeed.
And it is precisely here that we must recall Pinter’s remark to the US Ambassador. While the President, since his election, has continuously and effusively iterated his commitment to peace and a negotiated settlement, his actions tell the very different but familiar story in Sri Lanka – the callous disregard for constitutional governance by those in high political office. As the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) stated in response to the President’s unconstitutional appointments to the Human Rights Commission established and supervised under the 17th Amendment:
“This authoritarian and unconstitutional appointment is also in violation of Sri Lanka’s pledge made before its election to the new UN Human Rights Council. While Sri Lanka pledged to build the ”capacity of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and other independent statutory bodies established as a part of a national human rights protection system,“ its first act after becoming a member to the UN body has been to destroy the independent character of the Human Rights Commission.”
This essential hypocrisy needs urgent redress.
The APC needs to be much more than a coterie of elites. Rather, and especially in light of the President’s scant regard for constitutional governance, the APC needs to wean itself away from the parochialism high political office and instead function as a weathervane of public opinion on the issues most critical the root and branch transformation of the Sri Lankan state.
Why is this important?
Firstly, any process that is hostage to the myopia of those in power is highly unlikely to galvanise consensus in a highly partisan polity and society. The APC, as long as it is perceived to be largely driven by the interests of a few – some of whom are vehement critics of federalism – negates the full incorporation of ideas from individuals and groups who feel that all is not kosher with a unitary state, a centralised bureaucracy and a majoritarian, illiberal government. Hayek is particularly instructive on this point, when he states in “The Constitution of Liberty”:
“The ideal of democracy rests on the belief that the view which will direct government emerges from an independent and spontaneous process. It requires, therefore, the existence of a large sphere independent of majority control in which the opinions of the individuals are formed. There is widespread consensus that for this reason the case for democracy and the case for freedom of speech and discussion are inseparable… The argument for democracy pre-supposes that any minority opinion may become a majority one.”
And therein lies a large problem when speaking of constitutional reform in Sri Lanka – a public sphere pulsating with creative ideas, independent of majority control, that Hayek submits is the bedrock of democracy, is precisely what we lack and have failed time and again to create.
The APC is no exception. Under the guise of a seemingly multi-lateral and inclusive approach, it is unclear how the deliberations within the APC, to which the public is regrettably not privy to, will lead to the creation of a blueprint to end violent conflict that captures the aspirations of all communities in Sri Lanka.
It would be unfair, however, to prophesise a premature and ignoble death for the APC. Our responsibility is to make it abundantly clear to this government, and indeed, any government that institutes such a process, that a process of making constitutions is not limited to those in power, but is essentially a process of public dialogue that in fact has no definite end. From every street corner to every backgammon game in the remotest villages, people need to be asked to participate in a process that writes in their aspirations to a blueprint that is the foundation of a new socio-political and economic order, transforming violence into dialogue, arms to reconciliation, alienation to inclusion.
Important as it may seem, such a process seemingly has little chance of success in Sri Lanka. We have two options in the absence of the desired leadership. One, to lament and disengage – let Sri Lanka go to hell, because there is nothing we can do about it. The other, more desirable course of action is to engage with the seemingly impossible – to encourage change, as best we can, for as long as we can. Donors and the larger international community have a great responsibility in this regard, to not just hold the LTTE accountable to its terrorism, but to also hold the tyranny of an illiberal and authoritarian government accountable for the deterioration of democracy. Action needs to follow words – speechwriters, however eloquent they make politicians seem, are not known for their larger social commitment. And yet, by their utterance of ideas and words given to them, politicians open themselves up to public scrutiny based on what they say. We have no one to blame but ourselves if we let the action or inaction of those we elect to office further erode our basic human rights and democracy.
To paraphrase Niebuhr, though man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. In Sri Lanka, injustice is not a mere inclination, it is a virulent and highly contagious epidemic.
We have a clear responsibility to stem its growth.