Democracy in Sri Lanka

We found the book The Cultural Construction of Politics in Asia edited by Hans Antlov and Tak-Wing Ngo (St. Martin’s Press, 2000) referred to in an earlier post (Democracy in India – 1) very useful in furthering our analysis of governance based on concrete case studies. In this post we summarize the experience in Sri Lanka using the chapter by Peter Kloos (Democracy, Civil War and the Demise of the Trias Politica in Sri Lanka).

The author starts by noting that in 1947 Sri Lanka seemed to have all that was needed to transform itself into an independent democracy and few post-colonial states had such a favorable point of departure:

It had already had an elected parliament for more than a decade and a half… [It] had universal suffrage earlier than several European states. It had a high rate of literacy and also a newspaper tradition of a century and a half. It had a well-established, island-wide legal system and it had, inherited from the British colonial government, a Public Service… that was virtually free of corruption. It was finally, one of the most affluent countries in Asia… This made possible a welfare state with island-wide free medical care and free education.

So how does one explain the transformation from a promising democracy in the 1940s to the state of the present? As in pre-partition India, the new form of governance could not adapt itself to the exigencies of reality and the lack of creative accommodation only heightened the divisions in society.

During pre-colonial times, Ceylon was politically united only for one brief period in the fifteenth century. At the beginning of the colonial era, the early sixteenth century, there were three kingdoms, two Sinhala ones… and one Tamil, with its capital in the present-day Jaffna. Ceylon was politically united for the second time in 1815 [by] the British…. In 1947, the Sinhala formed in this polity a clear majority of about 70 percent. There was a politically and economically quite powerful minority of almost 23 percent Tamils. Somewhat less than half… were so-called Ceylon Tamils who had lived in Ceylon for many centuries… Somewhat more than half, however, were Indian Tamils, who as contract labourers, had been brought from South India to Ceylon by the British in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Once again, “the politics of Independent Ceylon was based on general elections. The electoral system was similar to the British district system, each electorate supplying one member of Parliament. This implied that the ethnic composition of the population came forcefully to the fore.” The disconnect between the elective principle and the reality came into play right at the very beginning.

Amongst the earliest acts passed by the House of Representatives were the Citizen Act (1948), the Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act (1949), and the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Act (1949). The first two acts denied citizenship to the majority of Indian Tamils and the third one disenfranchised them. The political motive behind these Acts was fear of Sinhala leaders for the electoral strength that could be exercised by the Indian Tamils, especially in the Central Province, where they outnumbered the Sinhala in several districts.

The author sums up the case study by noting that “the introduction of the majoritarian model of democracy rule in Sri Lanka chosen already during the late-colonial period paved the way for political forms that were undemocratic in the moral sense of the term. In the end this led to violent opposition – and to dismantling of democracy…. The democratic process as a way of handling conflict failed and government rigidity led to violent opposition. The government answered in kind and in the ensuing life-and-death struggle began to manipulate both legislation and the judiciary, presumably to create greater freedom to fight its enemies. By doing so it contributed to further escalation of violence.”

The author notes that there are two dimensions to democracy – the instrumental one focused on regular elections, rules of representation (e.g., first-past-the-post or proportional representation), the drawing of electoral districts, division of powers, etc. and the moral one that includes an attitude to acceptance of majority rule and of respect for and protection of minority points of view. It should be obvious that for a system to work the moral dimension would need to take precedence over the instrumental one. Clearly, neither in pre-partition India nor in post-partition Pakistan or post-Independence Sri Lanka were ways found to make the borrowed system work. In fact, an elective principle was chosen that actually turned the rich diversity of society into its biggest weakness. Building a representative system on indigenous traditions or more creativity in adapting foreign ones might have prevented the loss of over a million lives sacrificed to mindless experimentation.

The bigger point the author makes in the context of Sri Lanka applies equally to all countries in South Asia:

Sri Lanka is a highly politicized society in the sense that the interest in the actual political process receives much attention. In fact, politics is one of the most common topics of discussion in most sections of society. But this discussion is predominantly on the level of actual political practices. Even among politicians and political scientists the interest in a more abstract political discourse regarding the principles of political behaviour is almost absent… Far-reaching decisions regarding the political process are based on political expediency rather than on fundamental discussions of democratic rule.

How relevant this is for Pakistan today heading once again towards the “restoration” of an instrumental democracy without any discussion of the adjustments that are needed to make democracy work in a society riven by extreme distrust and multiple conflicts.

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  • Radhika
    Posted at 18:08h, 15 June Reply

    I would say that the Sinhala only language policy had a greater dividing effect on Sri Lanka than electoral processes. This policy essentially derecognized the education of thousands of Tamils leading to unemployment and resentment. Again the policy played to the fears of sinhala politicians who feared the ascendancy of the Tamils in white collar positions particularly government where they had a stronghold for a long time. I found the attitude of the Sinhala (visavis Tamils) similar to Hindus (visavis Muslims) in India. Any statement that Tamils are being illtreated is vociferously denied and there is outrage at the thought of discrimination.
    One could assume that they dislike being thought of as illiberal. I have speculated about this and i attribute it to the conflict between their training in Buddhist sutras that preach a message of peace with their more mundane day to day concerns of employment, security and economics.

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