Democracy is a Means, Cannot be the End

by N Sathiya Moorthy

(September 22, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) The inclusion of Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan, the elected Chief Minister of the Eastern Province, in a high-level delegation led by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremenayake, to Tokyo recently should be welcome by all. Yet, to expect that such symbolism would satisfy, if not satiate, the Tamil community nearer home or the international community hoping for early return of peace and prosperity in the island-nation can only be counter-productive at best.

It is months since the Eastern Province got a Tamil-speaking Chief Minister. It is months since the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised the early implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment as an interim arrangement. This was also the one argument of sections of the Tamil polity, particularly the 'LTTE sympathetic Tamil Nationalist Alliance (TNA).

If the Provincial Council elections in North-Central and Sabaragamuva intervened and thus kept the political parties on the Sinhala side, busy, they are now behind the nation. President Rajapaksa has also indicated that he does not plan to advance any other elections, particularly Parliament, until they are due.

Militarily too, the time is ripe for the Sri Lankan Government to display its sincerity on the political front, both to the nation and the rest of the world. For, a wholesale military victory, if it came to that, will produce no tangible and sustainable result unless it is accompanied by a political process.

There is thus a parallel to what is happening in Sri Lanka at present and the events in the extended neighbourhood. The parallels between the US-led war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Washington's claims to ushering in democracy in those countries with what is happening now in Sri Lanka are too stark to be overlooked any more.

Whether by design or otherwise, the Sri Lankan Government seems to have borrowed every leaf out of the US book in the neighbourhood. Hence, it has also become easy for Colombo to speak the language that the international community understands in context, and convince them, too, on its sincerity and also the possibilities.

It is thus possible that the heart of Europe, whose heart is not really in the American 'anti-terror war' in Asia, feel less convinced. As allies of the US in the re-emerging Russian neighbourhood, they may have problem talking tough on human rights issues in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is no such impediment for them in the case of Sri Lanka, perhaps. Fading memories from the Second World War seems to keep their fears and fires on the human rights front alive, it would seem. It is one thing for the Sri Lankan Government to wanting to defeat the LTTE militarily, and also recording substantial success on that score. But it is another thing for the Rajapaksa dispensation to believe that it is an end in itself – or, the end would justify the means. It is also here that questions about what is the 'end' that would justify the means and what 'end' that the Sri Lankan State has in mind, for bringing an end to the vexatious and destructive ethnic war.

There seems to be a lulling belief in the Sri Lankan Government that the restoration of democracy in the East is an end in itself, and the mainstreaming of one-time LTTE cadres, led by the incumbent Chief Minister is a public demonstration of the same.

It began immediately after the Provincial Council polls and the installation of Chandrakanthan as the elected Chief Minister in the East. "It was a welcome first step," as good-neighbourly India had indicated when the process was set in motion by President Rajapaksa earlier. Today, the next steps remain to be taken. .

It is more so in the context of the emerging situation in the North. The Government has been claiming successive military victories against the LTTE. The Sri Lankan armed forces seem to have given the impression that it was capable of holing up the LTTE in the Vanni jungles even if an outright military victory may take time.

It is in this background that Government leaders began talking about possible elections in the North, too. It is in this context that a faster implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment and a greater devolution of powers through the APRC process assume significance.

That way, independent of the 'Sinhala' community tag, the Sri Lankan State needs to prove its sincerity to the Tamil community nearer home, and the international community, otherwise. The developments in the East provided an opportunity. The Government seemed to have started off well, but is either letting the advantage slip out of its hands, or is dithering, otherwise.

Democracy, devolution and development all need to travel together if President Rajapaksa's experiment in the East has to succeed, and also hold a candle to the North and the rest of Sri Lanka.There is much development in the east as there is democracy, both are there is but the progress has been tardy at best .

It is one thing for the Sri Lankan Government leaders to talk about the 'Eastern experiment' in world capitals, as many have been assigned to do in recent times. It is entirely another matter for the Government to convince itself of the consequences, nearer home, where it matters the most.

In this context, Colombo needs only to look at Afghanistan and Iraq, for lessons to be learnt – and not to be learnt, too. Democracy in electoral terms has been re-created in the two countries, yes, but that has not sustained the nations. War continues to rage, and the international community is too keen to pull out .There is however one saving difference between the situation in Sri Lanka and the situation in the other two countries. The Sri Lankan State is fighting its own people, under circumstances for which it alone cannot be blamed. The Sri Lankan Tamil community has a set of well-defined goals, as different from the 'separate State' demand of the LTTE. These are both identifiable and negotiable.

Granting that the armed forces are capable of bringing the ethnic war to satisfactory conclusion early on, the Government has little or no time to fill the political vacuum that may thus be created in the North. It is one thing for the Government in Colobo to claim winning the war, or even setting the democratic political process into motion, but it is another for it to win the hearts and minds of the people.

After all, it was the failure of successive Governments in Sri Lanka to win over the hearts and minds of the Tamil community that is behind the continuing war. The healing touch in their case should not only be applied. It should be applied in ways that the Tamil community feels and sees it. Else, the entire experiment and exercise would be counter-productive, and in more ways than one. It is in the absence of such methods that earlier experiments at peace-building failed.

To the extent Chandrakanthan's participation in a Sri Lankan Government delegation to Tokyo is a good beginning, like the other good beginning that his election too heralded. As the seat of the "Tokyo Donors' Conference" that has taken a greater interest and made huge investments in peace and development in Sri Lanka, that was a good first stop for Chandrakanthan.

The visit has also now revved up the international community's expectations for and from Sri Lanka. Producing another Chief Minister, this one from the North, that too when the re-merger question remains unsettled, cannot be a 'Second Beginning'. More sustantial, and more than substantial, needs need to be done. That alone would encourage the international community to participate in Sri Lanka's development with greater vigour than already displayed.

The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), headquartered in New Delhi. The views expressed here are those of the writer. email:
- Sri Lanka Guardian