From democracy to farce

“Majority decisions tell us what people want at the moment, but not what it would be in their interest to want if they were better informed… The argument for democracy presupposes that any minority opinion may become a majority one.” – F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty

“…there is no room anymore to assist terrorism directly or indirectly, and talk about democracy. This is because they use this democratic space to design the destruction of the entire society. The democracy that creates an opportunity for terrorism is a joke. It is no simple joke but a deadly joke.” – The President, Address to the Nation, 6th December 2006

In an article I wrote recently titled Enemy of the State and published in these pages, I said that there is no longer any difference between the Government and the LTTE in the manner in which they understand democracy and use terror to serve their own ends. I also said that this government’s war on terror is not in my name. More than any article I’ve written in the past 7 years, it received an exceptional outpouring of support from Sri Lankans in the country as well as from the diaspora, both Sinhala and Tamil. There were those who spoke of a “silent majority” whose spirit I had captured – a corpus alienated by this Government and its significant contributions to and justification of State terrorism. Some said the State, as a direct actor in or tacit attendant to the perversion of democracy by the systematic violation of human rights, needed to heed more voices such as myself. To both, I expressed a deep skepticism – I don’t claim to know the contours, composition of and or indeed believe in the very existence of a silent majority against this administration. Even if I did and I animated them briefly with an inspiration they had found wanting in themselves, I don’t believe that a peoples movement in support of democracy on the lines of the Nepali example is imminent in Sri Lanka.

More on this anon, but it is in this light that the significance of and resulting disconnect between the understanding and practice of democracy by Hayek and our President must be seen. Hayek posits a compelling vision of what a democracy should be. The President’s statement is a chilling reality of what it is in Sri Lanka today. There is no cognition of diversity in the timbre of democracy, or what passes for it, in Sri Lanka today. Indeed, it is the democratic space itself that is a threat to “national security” – since my own voice, and that of others not in line with the government, is seen, branded and subsequently eliminated as those directly or indirectly supportive of the “terrorist threat”. So the overt war on terror is covertly also about defining the art of the possible within a democracy. To paraphrase Fareed Zakaria writing in the late 90’s on the rise of illiberal democracy, Sri Lanka’s emergent socio-political cancers are those within democracy. This makes them more difficult to handle, wrapped as they are in the mantle of legitimacy given by peoples kept largely in the dark. In Sri Lanka today, there is single Chintanaya – an omnipresent and omniscient vision – that trucks no dissent or question. Like Chavez in Venezuela, this President preserves democracy only to gradually and inexorably eviscerate it. In an incredible yet revealing move, there is now even a special police unit formed to monitor any public admonition of the Chintanaya in particular and the government in general. Free speech, it seems, is increasingly an unwarranted appendage to what is required of true patriots in a time of war – blind faith, a slavish subservience and supine acceptance of Truth as determined by a coterie not known for their intellectual rigour.

A case in point of this singular dullness was the President’s recent interview with Al-Jazeera. It is a confused and confusing riot. Reading it, I was almost convinced that all one really needs to do to secure peace, and indeed, for the LTTE to take the upper hand in global media stakes, is to stay silent and watch the ignominy of this government drowning in a quagmire of its own confusion. And yet, some of that which the President asserts is so outrageous, so incredible, that to allow them to pass without question is untenable. For example, the President on human rights in Sri Lanka:

Are you willing to accept that there are violations of human rights occurring?

Knowingly, a state will not violate human rights, abduct people. That must be stated very clearly.

But Human Rights Watch has documented at least 700 and more abductions during your term.

Many of those people who are said to have been abducted are in England, Germany, gone abroad. They have made complaints that they were abducted, but when they return they don’t say. Some talk of a few people abducted from Colombo. We do not know whether they are fighting in Killinochchi, we have no way of finding out. This is all against the government.

The first answer gives rise to all manner of glorious possibilities as to how human rights violations grow apace without the knowledge of the head of the state. Plausible deniability after all is a centre-piece of diplomacy and especially when one has trusted family to take care of the unpleasantness of contrary opinions voiced against one’s thought and actions. But it is the second that is really incredible. Clearly, my erstwhile colleague Vijayan, abducted from the heart of Colombo recently and transported some 200km to Badulla – traumatised and more than a little lucky to be alive – must have been attempting passage to Europe. And the hundreds of persons who have been meticulously documented by the Civil Monitoring Committee and human rights groups local and international, as having been abducted, missing or killed over the past year alone, are quite possibly enjoying the dolce vita on the French Riviera. This is farcical and to reiterate the gravity of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka at present is really to flog a dead horse – the damning facts and figures are a matter of public record. Multiple parties have been involved in the violations and they are growing unabated in a culture of total impunity. We are fighting terror with terror, with democracy, or what little is really left of it, blind and powerless. As the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) recently said in response to an accusation that it was harder on the Government and softer on the LTTE which is a greater violator of human rights “…that the point here simply is that a democratically elected government that functions under the law is obviously to be held to higher standards of behaviour than an organisation recognised to be terrorist in nature. The point is not who is the greater offender. It is bad enough that the government is an offender.”

During the course of the interview with Al-Jazeera, the President contradicts himself (”As a government we cannot have talks. We say that we are ready for talks always”), confuses (”Like I said before, [Prabhakaran] thought that we were weak, that the state is weak, that he is strong. But now, he has come to a point, where he has accepted that”), perplexes (”For the people, LTTE, peace – the people want peace, that is the truth, without defeating the LTTE, without defeating the terrorism of the LTTE. There is no politics in this”), and ends up undermining his own war against terror (”If they do not attack me, I will not attack. If they stay where they are, keeping their arms, I have no problem with that”). Out of a confounded farrago of befuddlement, we are left with the suggestion that an armed terrorist group in Sri Lanka is not a problem if they stay where they are and don’t bother “us”. Question obviously is what we make of the recent hue and cry of “liberating” the peoples of the North and East from the clutches of the LTTE?

Quite frankly, the problem here is not even one that is based on the significant differences of opinion with the President on matters of conflict transformation and peacebuilding. Fundamentally, it is one of communication. Except through coercion, outright terror, spin and disinformation (in Sinhala primarily) this government, like any other illiberal regime, is unable to secure and strengthen support for its war against terror domestically or internationally. A coherent, principled articulation of and for war requires an intelligence, moral authority, strategic vision and process design well beyond the capacity of this government. Ignorance is bliss and an electorate enveloped in bliss is one that will countenance economic depravity, corruption, nepotism and a further erosion of rights.

But for how long?

Already, signs are growing of sky-rocketing inflation and economic downturn that will be exacerbated by soon to be introduced insurance surcharges on shipping, which will render unworkable and useless the three year plan of this government for ultimate victory against the LTTE. This is quite simply the inescapable reality of asymmetrical warfare – the LTTE only has to strike occasionally and approximately at key financial, public and military targets to maintain a fear psychosis, whereas the Government has to (in principle) avoid civilian casualties, maintain human rights and regularly drum up significant victories against the LTTE in order to show its local support base, and the international community, of progress in the battle-field. Ultimate victory will be invariably Cadmean in nature – a victory that damages the victors as much as the vanquished. Put another way, there is emphatically no military solution to this conflict – only a political one, founded on a radical, democratic transformation of the State and the manner in which it is imagined, constituted, governed and given expression to in a new constitution.

It is incontrovertibly not a task this government is up to.

I fear that if we as a nation and peoples cannot find expression at all levels of polity and society to that which binds us in a greater humanity and overarching Sri Lanka identity, we tacitly contribute to the emergence of careerist political prostitutes, illiberal regimes and in essence, terrorists, that make a mockery out of democracy.

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