Whither 70 Years of Parliamentary democracy?

Survival in politics should not be through divisive tactics.

To effectively implement programs for the welfare and development of the nation it is perhaps expedient if decisions can be agreed upon by all in the political fray by consensus building. To politicians compromise seems to be anathema; they appear, at least in the Sri Lankan context, to prefer states of conflict to consensus building. The growth of political parties along with their respective ideologies has encouraged a mind set of hostility towards the other over and above accommodation. This hostility is actively encouraged by the leaders in order to encroach on the opponents turf to capture votes. It is the size of the vote bank that has become the focal point. The reach of success in welfare and development has become incidental although in their political dialogue lip service is paid to the welfare of the people. Their duplicity gains more and more polish in the course of their political dialogue.

Professional politicians a growing problem

Professional politicians have emerged as an identifiable entity and are here to stay. There was a time when men and women came into politics to work for the welfare of the people without expectation of remuneration. They more often than not spent for themselves and executed many personal and public functions from their own purses. Max Weber made the distinction between the person who lives ‘for’ politics and ones who live ‘off’ politics. Professional politicians belong to the latter category; they have made politics and activity around it a career for their own survival. The attraction of high salaries, allowance for maintenance of office, subsidized food in the parliamentary restaurant, train and bus passes, luxury car permits for personal use or to flog in the market robbing the depleted finances of the government are factors that have made a career in politics attractive. Many are the avenues available to the greedy politician who wants to live off the people and government and the fat off projects and commissions. No special qualification is necessary to contest elections. With all these facilities available many are those who enter the fray to fatten themselves. No questions are asked from those elected on his/her special qualification to become a representative of the people. The turnover gets reduced with the entry of the professional politician as those elected stay on until death or illness; new blood with new ideas is significantly low. This affects the quality of the elected representatives. Consequently the country is denied much needed new talent and scholarship of trained and qualified personnel in new technology and methodology.

Hardwork and planned programs for the welfare of the many is not a policy choice for the professional politician. Exploiting features in cultural heritage their choice regardless of its detrimental effects.

A majority of the breed of professional politicians in Sri Lanka believe that if they have strong links to the Sinhala Buddhist identity it will serve as their collateral to gain immortality for survival in Sri Lankan politics. Such persons are then certain that there is no situation over which they cannot triumph if they remain flag bearers of the Sinhala Buddhist culture. Their obligations to the people remain minimal, their strength not derived from their keenness related to people oriented work as much as to their militant loyalty and patronage to this powerful formula. They expect their verbosity to see them through the conflict situations their rhetoric creates. It is only an honorable man or a mighty fool who will make any adverse comments that could be interpreted as contrary to the populist Sinhala Buddhist culture. To do so would be to commit suicide. The practical man with a Machiavellian twist will sing the hosannas to anything and everything – to the good and not so good aspects – of this cultural heritage, this being the demonstrated pathway to success.

SWRD’s platform of ‘56

The prescription for cultural heritage received a quantum leap to prominence when SWRD Bandaranaike used the Sinhala-Buddhist identity as his major platform at the 1956 elections. This secured for him personally and to his newly found party victory at the elections. To this combination of race and religion he added a third feature – that of the Sinhala language. He made Sinhala the official language of the country in 1956. This move knitted together larger sections of the majority Sinhala community domiciled in the south, albeit through a narrow perspective, one which created fissures in society. This created space for suspicion, animosities and conflict between the majority and the other minorities with equally strong claims to rich and ancient cultures. Not too long after the leader himself fell victim to the narrowness in outlook that grew out of this identity heritage. He was shot dead by a member of the clergy. It is unfortunate that violence is used frequently to both entrench and dislodge this inflammable package, the Sinhala-Buddhist culture.

The Sinhala Buddhist enclave became the epitome of power when in the 1972 constitution Buddhism was made the foremost religion – other religions were assured of protection and freedom of practice. However the mere mention of the word ‘foremost’ religion gave Buddhism and Buddhists a special status in society. Various other factors also configured at the time to give Sinhala Buddhist communities living in the country a dominant position; the demography factor in the composition of the Sri Lankan population was one. The declaration of Sinhala as the official language of the nation was the other. Despite the claim to high literacy rate, many of the Sinhalese, as several others in the country did not have the advantage of depth in education which could either equip them to understand the lofty philosophy of Buddhism as well as the other ancient religions practiced in the country or the need to uphold the values and concepts in democracy. Consequently significant numbers of those in the majority community became convinced that they had the sole claim to ownership of the philosophy of the Buddha and to profess to be the first amongst equals (among the different communities) much the same way as the PM in parliament.

Tamil leadership

Insecurity was the prevalent mood amongst the minorities. The final blow to the dignity and security of the minorities was yet to come. It was the withdrawal of Article 29 of the previous Constitution that finally nailed the minorities to a subordinate position. Initially this clause was incorporated to the constitution in 1948 by the British to allay the fears of the minorities of dominance and security threat from the Sinhalese majority.

The incensed and insecure Tamil minority community realized that the Buddhist community was no longer bound by the benign philosophy of the Buddha who exhorted his disciples “to go forth and wander for the welfare and happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world……” Neither a majority among the clergy nor the lay followers of Buddhism seemed to remember this anymore. What followed later was somewhat removed from the benign influence of Buddhism although everyone professed deep empathy to the faith.

Sri Lanka at Independence

Sri Lanka at the time of independence was a leader in the South East Asian region in economic growth with impressive social indicators. But soon consumption patterns effectively cleared the balance of payments advantage the country had enjoyed. This resulted in shortages and rise in the cost of living which led to the unpopularity of the government. Sri Lankan government’s escape route to contain its unpopularity was to turn to divisive politics. As an escape mode the citizenship Act of 1948 was introduced and passed in parliament. The citizenship Act of 1948 removed major sections of the plantation workers from the electoral register; this was perhaps the first step in short term vision for sustainability in power. The other policy changes that worked to make an incisive majority minority division followed soon after as referred to earlier. Politicians deliberately created the drift towards conflict which they exploited to increase and sustain their voter base. It seems easier to mouth slogans of superiority of race, religion and language than to work out plans for national development and welfare of the people. The supporters of different political strands can be lulled for a while but in the long term they will demand action which will produce more equity in society.

Youth revolt

The youth were convinced that the political leadership in the country was indifferent to their economic travails. This was borne out by the lack of sincerity by the politicians to their campaign promises which provoked the youth to revolt against the government they helped to install in 1971. The revolt was crushed by the forces but the message was clear- nothing will be taken submissively any more. This was the first time organized violence was used to agitate for change. The violence that was leashed out again in 1989 by the JVP, once again against the then government, was on a scale not seen in this country before. It is difficult to believe that such violent acts could occur in a country where Buddhism was a serious personal faith and yet young boys and girls committed some horrendous atrocities. These were young people who had attended the dhamma classes on Sundays with regularity and were well aware of the difference between what is right and wrong in the Buddhist tradition of goodwill, compassion, tolerance and non violence.

Use of violence by the minorities

Using violence to agitate for demands was not a prerogative used only by the Sinhala youth in the south. The Tamil minority was not far behind. Many were the complaints by the Tamils of discrimination against them by the Sinhala leadership. The Tamils are proud of their language and culture no less than the Sinhalese. Hence they object to being coerced into accepting Sinhala only as the medium of instruction. Standardization and the quota system for University admissions followed to add to the list of woes as perceived by the Tamils. The minorities laid all these acts of discrimination on the threshold of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian arrogance. Many from minority communities migrated to other countries while no attempt was made to appease those who wanted to leave or those who remained behind. The Tamil youth were not willing to take it lying down. They discarded their leaders who they believed were paying lip service to the Tamil cultural heritage while doing very little else. They therefore decided to take arms against their leaders and the government. Many of the Tamil leaders were killed by the youth.

Neither Hindu nor the Buddhist heritage helped to prevent radicalism or violence that revolutionized society. The defense forces quashed the revolts.

Dilemma of Security Concerns

Finding easy ways to hang on to maintain their longevity in the political field has been the preoccupation of the politician. This is easier done than to strategize development programs to improve the quality of life of the people. During the youth revolts in the south and the terrorist war in the north concerns of security became foremost in the political agenda. After the end of the three decade war security planning became a primary concern of the forces stationed in the North. Sometimes this concern was a bogey to keep people distracted from live issues of immediate interest to the people. Now the politicians used all three – race, language, religion together with security to secure their objective of staying longer in office.

Radicalism Threatens Muslim Minority

To this portmanteau extremism as exhibited by the radical Buddhist clergy entered the fray. They helped radicalize opinion among the lay people and this time it was to draw the Muslims to perceive themselves as another unwelcome minority. They encouraged people to attack Muslim economic interests and their persons as well. There has been very little effective sanction against the radicals and they are moving around distorting concept of equality, of person and before the law.

Another popularity seeking route has been to become an apologist for the security forces and object to permit any kind of independent investigation for human rights violation during the conduct of the Northern war. Judicial inquiry into charges of rights violations is a taboo issue because they take cover over the fact that they defeated the terrorist forces. The apologists forget that the reference to inquiry is not levied against the entirety of forces but to an errant few. It would seem they are placed beyond the pale of judicial inquiry. But to maintain their popularity by upholding this position the apologists refuse categorically to entertain charges against the forces.

Another ruse adopted to avail them of cheap popularity was to play around with forms of government. Anything other than unitary was taboo for the southerners. Federalism was an institutional arrangement the South was opposed to because they feared it would lead to formation of a separate government. Knowledgeable persons do not furnish details and empower people with the meaning and implications of these forms of government so that people’s fear of these words can be removed. A people not sufficiently empowered with necessary information fall prey to adverse propaganda creating suspicion and distrust which aggravated ill will and divisiveness.

Majority and minority two sides of the coin

In the south as well as in the North the politicians took on their political journey relying too much on exploiting the language, religious or community features which in the final run did not help to keep the people appeased. Eventually they revolted because they wanted better life style and could not be fobbed off with emotive reference to a euphemistic cultural heritage. This truism has been demonstrated by the way people voted governments in and out. The lesson has not been learnt yet. Politicians continue to dabble in narrow sectarian politics not realizing that their voters are getting more and more empowered especially with information coming from the media both print and electronic. The voters have also shown the truth of the statement that it takes two to tango. They have learnt to play the game as their leaders do by playing one against the other and being opportunistic themselves.

In the immediate past, governments bent backwards to play the identity card. It did not pay off and the people rejected them at the elections clearly wanting an option to good governance, fairness in justice, an end to corruption and nepotism and importantly peace and cohabitation in a multi cultural, multi ethnic society. The present unity government has been tasked to fulfill the campaign promises. It is up to the leadership to fulfill their obligations to the people and not be side tracked over fears and trepidations over the identity culture.

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