by Nimmi Gowrinathan, ‘Outlook India,’ January 26, 2015
As the old guard in Sri Lanka was dramatically toppled in the recent presidential elections, best wishes were offered not only to the opponent, Maithripala Sirisena, but to a hopefully imminent resuscitation of a suffocated democracy.
For nearly a decade, former president Rajapaksa had steadily strengthened his hold on democracy, forcing its compliance in support of a near-complete autocracy. So feeble was democracy’s presence that during election time, the outgoing president was heralded for not orchestrating a military coup, and the poll process was deemed successful despite assaults on opposition candidates and the massive misuse of state resources.
In a post-Paris moment, where dictators joined hands in solidarity against a threat to the core values of democracy, there seems to be a desperation to celebrate any semblance of democratic resurrection—even one that springs from deeply rooted despotism.
For those inclined to see the outcome of the island’s voting process (where credit for the sudden vote sway was given to minorities and marginalised groups) as a call for a vibrant internal democracy, the promise of good governance, coupled with a free press and revived judiciary will be enough to breathe some life into Sri Lanka’s deflated democratic institutions.
Simultaneously, however, the new regime will remain committed to cancerous policies that have historically eaten away at the country’s democratic core. Excessive levels of militarisation will remain in predominantly minority Tamil areas for ‘internal security’. The complete destruction of civic life has left Tamil women vulnerable to gender-based violence, justified disappearances and torture techniques, prevented any form of protest and justified the use of heavy weaponry to protect the interests of a unitary state.
Militarisation, in itself, can deal the fatal blow to a dying democracy. The cure Sirisena’s regime will offer has been tried before. Inquiries and committees established to examine the abuse of power are used as a psychological placebo to convince constituents that democracy is alive and well.
As the Sirisena government looks abroad, it hopes to do so with a friendlier, more democratic face than its defiant predecessor. In earlier incarnations, the regime linked arms with the unlikeliest of allies, creating a protective barrier of sovereignty around its human rights abuses.
Sirisina’s cabinet will deftly turn towards the West, and slightly away from China, Sri Lanka’s long-time benefactor, to hopefully convince the world that a change of stance in itself is a renewed commitment to democratic ideals. However, it too, will not support the call for accountability, and reject a UN-led independent investigation into war crimes.
While regime change in Sri Lanka is welcomed, its democratic merits cannot be celebrated just yet. A fully functioning democracy is based on addressing demands, not simply witnessing a display of discontent. Its phantom limbs cannot be selectively displayed to confirm its existence. A people allowed freedom of press without freedom of movement are not free. An independent judiciary that will not objectively try government forces is not fair.
Casting a vote in Sri Lanka is the ability to make a restricted choice, not by itself an automatic guarantor of a political voice. In his recent visit, Pope Francis urged the administration to find the truth by listening, humbly and openly, to the people. Rajapaksa mistakenly looked to the stars for a truth that lies in ground realities, buried deep beneath army barracks. It is only by unearthing it that democracy in Sri Lanka can breathe freely.