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Fonseka, Democratisation and the White Man’s Burden

by Dr S Sathananthan, November 1, 2010

What Ceylonese politicians learnt at the feet of their colonial masters is how to execute racist authoritarian rule behind facades of democracy lubricated by the vacuous rhetoric of liberalism...

The true choice is between the anti-democratic forces the two demons represent on the one hand and, on the other hand, a credible democracy movement, which must not be a focus-less agitation for vague rights. On the contrary, it should be a single-issue struggle with the concrete, focussed aim to reduce the concentration of central State powers in Colombo. As always, the tantalising question is: who will bell the cat?

The activists, groups and political parties protesting the conviction and incarceration of Sinhalese former Chief of Army Sarath Fonseka have reincarnated him as a ‘political prisoner’, a victim, they say, of almost unspeakable injustice and deserves to be exonerated. Many are backing Fonseka against President Mahinda Rajapakse as a pragmatic choice of the lesser of two ‘demons’. Either way, they claim to be defending citizen Fonseka’s fundamental rights and condemn the alleged a miscarriage of justice.

A Sinhalese activist underlined why Fonseka’s rights must be defended by quoting Thomas Paine: ‘He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach himself’ (Dissertations of First Principles of Government). She asserted, as a matter of principle, ‘ignoring the plight of Prisoner No. 0/22032 is a non-option’ and unequivocally declared: ‘the law must prevail’.

There is a political dimension. They are booming ‘war hero’ Fonseka as the democratic alternative to mobilise public opinion against President Rajapakse’s autocratic rule. Championing Fonseka, they hope, could be a short-cut to realising their hopes of ‘restoring democracy’.

But Fonseka was a part of the ruling cabal that made certain the law did not prevail for others. As Chief of Army, he had presided over the unprecedented genocidal slaughter of Tamils in the Vanni in 2008/09. Under his command the army allegedly committed war crimes: it deployed banned weapons – fuel air explosives (FAEs), cluster bombs and/or phosphorus munitions – against civilians, inflicted widespread torture, enforced disappearances, operated motorcycle death squads and, by his own admission, executed surrendees of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Have the ‘free-Fonseka’ activists evaluated the odious role of Fonseka – who joined the army in 1970 – in the blood-soaked history of Tamils?

Indeed do they know whether or not he is complicit in the butchery of Sinhalese during the Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna’s (JVP) second uprising (1987-89) or in the murder of numerous Sinhalese journalists (2006-09) including Lasantha Wickrematunga? The activists’ unwise choice has irretrievably compromised their political credibility and fatally undermined the prospects for ensuring justice and accountability.

Nevertheless, if Fonseka is rescued, what comes next? Do his saviours intend to put him on trial for alleged war crimes or cynically sweep them under the rug in the name of democracy to promote his political challenge to Rajapakse? If the latter, what is the moral logic of the ‘free-Fonseka’ campaign? If he were elected President, would his rule be qualitatively better than Rajapakse’s? Most unlikely. On what pragmatic grounds, then, is he the lesser evil?

Desperately clutching at every political straw to arrest the dizzying slide into autocracy is understandable. But Fonseka is a false choice; backing him is an illusory short-cut. The regime’s chosen agent of death cannot be a constructive alternative. Predictably, there are precious few takers.

The uncomfortable truth is that most Sinhalese do not see Fonseka’s plight as a departure from the long-established national norm. For them, it is entirely consonant with the culture of injustice sanctified by practice and cheerfully endorsed by civil society against Ceylon Tamils, Muslims, and Up-Country Tamils. They had sanguinely watched their oligarchy, led by DS Sananayake, heartlessly pluck the fundamental rights of citizenship and franchise from defenceless Up-Country Tamils on the eve of Independence (1948); and they hypnotically followed the oligarchy’s other Sinhalese Pied Piper, SWRD Bandaranaike, who violated Tamils’ fundamental language rights in 1956. The law did not prevail.

The oligarchy, by its sheer lawlessness, vaccinated the Sinhalese people against rule of law. The rulers organised and executed with utter impunity several anti-Tamil pogroms from 1956 to 1983 with the connivance and participation of the Sinhalese bureaucracy and armed forces (including the police). Their sense of justice has been blunted by the oligarchy’s ‘patriotic’ State terror let loose by the military in the north from 1961 (a decade and half before the LTTE emerged as the dialectical, violent response) and later in the east. Indeed, hardly anyone in the south shed tears over the ethnocide of Tamils epitomised by the deliberate burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981, supervised by two Sinhalese Ministers of the regime, and the grotesque Chemmani mass graves under Gen Fonseka’s watch.

So far the scale of blatant impunity staggers the mind. Not one civilian or politician, not one military or police personnel has been convicted for the countless murders, rapes, arson, disappearances, war crimes and mass graves brazenly inflicted upon Tamils over several decades. (The conviction of a lowly army corporal for raping Krishanthi Kumaraswamy and murdering her and three others is the solitary exception that confirms the rule.)

Those who ‘discovered’ impunity during Eelam War IV (2006 – 2009) are strongly advised to read post-Independence Tamil history.

Tamils anticipated the south’s descent into autocracy and worse. From the 1950s Tamils warned Sinhalese civil society that defiling the rights of one community and regularising the rape of rule of law through Acts of parliament are setting up dangerous authoritarian precedents that entrench and legitimise injustice. Echoing Thomas Paine’s dictum, Tamils also emphasised the oligarchy will manipulate precedents and exploit impunity to target other communities and, in the fullness of time, the Sinhalese too. Sinhalese ideologues and intelligentsia peremptorily dismissed the warning as a Tamils’ plot to pit the people against the beloved leaders!

In short the law has not prevailed for Tamils as a people in independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka. Civil society, under the diabolical pretext of ‘uniting the country’, has by and large condoned with equanimity the systematic and sustained violence Tamils have suffered. The crass duplicity of killing-to-unite is indescribable!

The consequences are profound. The ubiquitous and unbridled anti-Tamil mayhem systematically brutalised the Sinhalese, a transformation not dissimilar to how Gen Zia ul Haq’s public floggings and executions corroded the values of a generation of Pakistanis. In Sri Lanka the atrocities have thoroughly acclimatised the Sinhalese polity to what Basil Fernando condemned as ‘abysmal lawlessness’, in which, argued James Yap & Craig Scott, law has swiftly ceased to be a reference and therefore legal redress is the stuff of fairy tale. Today, the decree by the ruler, laced with ‘patriotism’ and rubber stamped by an impotent legislature, IS the law. He or she defines what is black and what is white!

Not surprisingly, most Sinhalese possess an apparently feeble grasp of the relevance of challenging lawlessness. Political consciousness does not fall through the roof. Sinhalese civil society should have assiduously and painfully build it brick by fundamental-rights brick by organising and leading popular opposition to the oligarchy’s any and every transgression, through public meetings, street protests and, if necessary, courting arrest, and thereby rooted constructive dissent as an unshakable political culture.

Instead civil society activists gave carte blanche to the regime to jackboot over human and fundamental rights in name of ‘economic development’ or ‘combating terrorism’. They have bought into the belief that lawlessness – ‘Let the robber barons come’, as JR Jayawardene had put it – is a necessary ingredient of economic growth and prosperity.

It is no surprise that the perfunctory agitation in support of Fonseka by political parties opposed to the regime has evoked at best lukewarm interest. It is an almost pathological condition, eloquently captured by the title of the Civil Rights Movement’s critique of the 18th Amendment: ‘Rise Silent Majority, Rise Now or Sleep Forever’. The odds favour blissful, undisturbed sleep.

Tamils, too, do not see the connection between the ‘free-Fonseka’ campaign and democratisation for a different reason. For them, the country’s political problem is rooted in the inherited colonial structures that were not been reformed and indeed have been reinforced in the period after Independence.

Primarily to reform the colonial institutions and practices, Tamils launched in the 1950s the first and only non-violent pro-democracy movement. They proposed federalism to mimic the essentials of the Indian model of linguistic states that re-structured the inherited colonial State and set that country on the path to democracy; Tamils struggled for similar constitutional reforms to disperse power to future Tamil and Sinhalese linguistic states, re-structure the colonial State bequeathed in its monstrous totality to Ceylon’s oligarchy and to build an inclusive, participatory democratic system of government.

Sinhalese civil society lurched in the opposite direction. It irrationally and unrealistically equated the oligarchy’s centralised power in Colombo to the mirage of democratic governance and fobbed off Tamils’ demands for State re-structuring with the liberal shibboleth of equality among individuals as citizens. Drunk with power and unwilling to relax its grip, the oligarchy haughtily dismissed the federal initiative and justified the perfidious action by darkly accusing Tamils of plotting to ‘divide the country’. And civil society went along with the chauvinist drift and jettisoned the first opportunity offered by Tamils to re-distribute power and promote democracy.

Without a doubt all those individuals and parties that obstinately rejected federalism fatally undermined the attempt to democratise the inherited colonial State.

Neither the theocratic 1972 Constitution nor the authoritarian concentration of power in the 1978 Constitution would have seen the light of day under the checks and balances of a federal system.

The Sinhalese rulers have done worse than British colonialists. After Independence, the oligarchy continued to amass more and more power in the executive of the inherited and unreformed colonial State through frequent and prolonged Emergency Rule, by creating a presidential system, vastly empowering an Executive Presidency and enacting draconian national security laws. The list is virtually endless. The 18th Amendment is the high water mark in this unremitting concentration of executive power from1948 to the present. The proposed Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Bill 2010 further intensifies the centralisation while pretending to promote ‘representative democracy’.

Tamils tried once more, this time through armed resistance sacrificing their blood, to structurally reform the handed-down, second-hand, moth-eaten colonial State. The LTTE-led Tamil national movement’s demand for an independent Tamil Eelam galvanised almost three generations of Tamils. While independence was the avenue of last resort, it was primarily a cry for change; that is evident from the alacrity with which in December 1994 the LTTE offered to drop the Tamil Eelam demand in return for a `substantial [devolution] package'; and again agreed to ‘explore a federal alternative’ at the 2002 Oslo Talks that compelled then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe to follow suit.

In an almost Pavlovian response, civil society fell back on the mindset that despised federalism. Sinhalese questioned yhe LTTE’s ‘sincerity’ rather than put it to the test. They pilloried Wickremasinghe for ‘caving in’ to the LTTE; he fell back on sophistry, retorting he merely accepted to ‘explore’, not the alternative per se. They patriotically endorsed the regime’s denigration of Tamils’ struggle for State-reform as ‘separatism’ and condoned the regime’s blatant violations of the Constitution and international humanitarian laws to crush ‘terrorism’. In this way, civil society once again helped the oligarchy to reinforce its centralised archaic colonial powers, bury the prospects for structural democratisation and, tragically for the country, nurtured tyranny. The catastrophic consequences for the whole country are unfolding with chilling efficiency.

While Sinhalese ideologues continue to berate LTTE’s ‘barbarism’, those Tamils who had condemned the Organisation are veering round to the conclusion that its armed resistance and methods are justified by the regime’s barbaric butchery of Tamils in the Vanni and in the light of its treacheries after May 18.

But philistines allege Ceylon has been a ‘vibrant democracy’ from the time of Independence. They are petty retailers of the racist ‘theory’ of the White Man’s Burden, that British colonialists tutored the Ceylonese in modernity and democracy, that ‘they’ civilised ‘us’. These dilatants delude themselves that the First Parliament of independent Ceylon was inundated with British-trained ‘democrats’!

It is bizarre because colonial rule is the very opposite and cruel negation of democracy. The process of colonialism – unfolding before our eyes in Iraq and Afghanistan – is first, military conquest to unseat nationalist rulers under one pretext or another; second, pacification of restive populations; and third, select native satraps and henchmen who help in the pacification and through whom the colonialists rule. Invariably the second and third phases parallel and reinforce each other and constitute indirect colonial rule. The occupying US military held so-called ‘elections’ under its watchful eye and manipulative control and engineered the collaborators’ ‘victory’ in the caricature of a legislature in the two countries.  The ruling satraps are propped up by mercenary forces trained by the coloniser’s armies.

In colonial Ceylon, universal franchise, state council, senate, courts of law and so on are instruments the colonialists imposed to co-opt and rule through native collaborators. The real power, of course, lay in the British-created, British-trained and British-controlled executive (civil and military).

The principal task of the supine collaborators who populated the State Council and Senate was to sell, for their own survival too, the lie of democracy to the hapless population. They paraded the array of empty trappings – constitution, legislature, parties, elections, etc – that resemble facades on a movie set, which, thanks to the participation of the short-sighted and opportunistic Left, acquired a veneer of credibility that the British exploited to the hilt to titillate and mesmerise the polity.

But the trappings remained facades with no democratic content because they were not and are not products of or rooted in a culture of democracy, which is non-existent in the country. The call for restoring democracy is populist deception; one cannot restore that which did not exist in the first place!

What Ceylonese politicians learnt at the feet of their colonial masters is how to execute racist authoritarian rule behind facades of democracy lubricated by the vacuous rhetoric of liberalism.

After Independence, the larger Sinhalese faction of the oligarchy quickly marginalised the rest citing majority rule. It has relentlessly strengthened the executive to further entrench centralised authoritarian rule, laced with the potent supremacist ideology of majoritarian Sinhalese-Buddhism papered over with patriotism.

In stark contrast, India built democracy after Independence. Linguistic federal states twinned with secularism are the primary motive forces and the process is continuing with the creation of three new ones – Chhattisgarh, Uttaranchal and Jharkhand – in the year 2000, with all states incrementally extracting greater autonomy from the Centre. Telangana is on the anvil. Whether the process will become flexible enough to accommodate aspirations of Kashmir and the North East peoples, remains to be seen.

That Sri Lanka was and still is a ‘vibrant democracy’ is a Goebbelsian Lie, the Big Lie that comprador elements repeatedly assert evidently following Goebbels’ advice: ‘the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.’ So they make a fetish of parliament and elections to play, like children, make believe democracy; they point out all democracies transfer power through elections and exhort people to believe that Sri Lanka is a democracy because it holds elections; rather like claiming since all dogs have four legs, every animal with four legs is a dog!

Without a doubt in the interstices of authoritarianism a few seedlings of future democratic practice sprouted, such as some radical trade unions, a few moderately independent media institutions and a minuscule critical intelligentsia.  The regime encouraged them since they confer a democratic veneer but they soon outlived their decorative function. The system will not defend an individual or institution beyond the convenience of those who wield power; and the regime evidently took heed of Goebbels’ warning: it is ‘vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State’. So it acted swiftly to crush genuine unions, whip media to heel and silence detractors.

As ‘democracy’ is becoming less ‘vibrant’, charlatans singing for their supper are shifting tracks to pedal ‘national democracy’, whatever that means, which the President-turned-political-Santa Claus is supposed to shower upon the people out of goodness of heart. The less said the better about this ghastly gibberish.

To repeat, colonialism is utterly incapable of imparting the principles of democratic governance. After Independence, the essence of the semi-feudal oligarchy’s so-called ‘parliamentary politics’ was dynastic competition for power through their respective fiefdoms (parties) and hangers-on at the national and local levels. That fringe groups and interests took the opportunities to form political parties changes nothing; nor does it herald a ‘multi-party democracy’.

The culture of democracy does not fall from the sky. Nor do rulers grant democracy and weaken their own power merely because people ask. Everywhere and always in history democracy has been the product of relentless political battles over generations in which people clawed out their democratic rights, invariably making historic sacrifices. They learned and internalised the inalienable, non-negotiable Rights of Man in the crucible of struggle and committed to defend them against all-comers; that is the culture of democracy.

In Ceylon/Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese did not pursue a sustained struggle for democracy. Indeed they sabotaged Tamils’ two movements for democratisation and blissfully condoned the regime’s ‘patriotic violation’ of fundamental rights.  The reactionary JVP has sought, through its insurrections, to capture, preserve and rule through the authoritarian State.

In short, there was and still is an utter absence of a culture of democracy. Therefore, true democratic institutions and practices did not and cannot take root; what passes for them are deceptive, cruel political facades propped up by the State’s armed forces.

What next? The choice is not between two demons. Introducing checks and balances piece-meal and legal safeguards for individual and human rights are mirages under the current near-dictatorial conditions. The true choice is between the anti-democratic forces the two demons represent on the one hand and, on the other hand, a credible democracy movement, which must not be a focus-less agitation for vague rights. On the contrary, it should be a single-issue struggle with the concrete, focussed aim to reduce the concentration of central State powers in Colombo. As always, the tantalising question is: who will bell the cat?

1 November 2010


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