A New York encounter & the democracy debate

by Dayan Jayatilleka

(October 06, Singapore City, Sri Lanka Guardian) The recent Asia Society question and answer session with External Affairs minister GL Peiris, was describes by veteran journalist Thalif Deen, head of the IPS New York bureau as a “lively interaction”.  Prof Peiris addressed the prestigious Asia Society, New York last month as the UN General Assembly sessions took place. The questions were civil, cordial but wide-ranging and penetrating, posed by the moderator and Executive Vice President of the Society, the youthful Prof Jamie Metzel. These are the very questions that are widely discussed in the Sri Lankan media and in society in general: issues of the concentration and centralisation of power, the 18th amendment, the abolition of term limits, the growing presence and the space occupied by members of the Rajapakse family, and so on. These matters are already out in the open, as befits a democracy.

The speech and the more important Q&A session are available on the Asia Society website. With his quiet self-confidence and sheer ability, Professor Peiris’ response to the smooth interrogation was deft and donnish in turn. Having watched that performance on the Asia Society’s website, I await the parliamentary No Confidence motion on the Minister, for its educational as well as entertainment value. My personal favourite moment of the interview was when Prof Metzel slipped a punch, saying that “anyone who reads a newspaper” knows about the allegations against Sri Lanka’s conduct in the last stages of the war, and that therefore Sri Lanka should open its doors to the UN Panel. Prof Peiris permitted himself a smile and a twinkle, while punching back with words to the effect that “anyone who reads the newpapers knows that far more powerful states stand accused of far more serious things, but there is no call for equivalent measures and mechanisms”.

The Asia Society discussion is reflected in the democracy debate that continues in the Lankan media, with its participants oblivious to the irony that any claims of dictatorship are belied by the very debate. Based as I am in East Asia, I could not help but notice the recent political crisis and its denouement in Thailand, and am also able to observe comparatively, the range of the debate in the media in this part of the world and that which is ongoing in Sri Lanka.

In one sense there has been a contraction in democratic space, but in another there has been an expansion or re-opening: I refer to (a) the post-war elections in the former conflict zones and (b) the proliferation of the mass media outlets which make for structural pluralism in sharp contradistinction to the state’s media oligopoly of the 1970s.

To assert that the contraction of democratic space is not episodic, conjunctural and reversible – as I argue – but that it is instead not only structural, but worse, systemic; that quantitative erosion has been transformed into a qualitative degeneration into dictatorship, is to abdicate the defence and utilisation of the democratic space that exists, and exists precisely because people have spilled their blood for it as they did when they braved the JVP’s bullets, bombs  and daggers to vote at elections in 1988-89.

In the last years of his life Leon Trotsky was engaged in a fascinating debate with two prominent followers within the Trotskyist movement. James Burnham and Max Schatman, the ‘ultras’ of his movement argued that under Stalin a counterrevolution had occurred which had turned the USSR into a state-capitalist dictatorship. Trotsky counter-argued that the USSR was a degenerated workers state but a workers state nonetheless, with collective forms of property. What it therefore needed was not a deep-going social revolution, but a more limited political one. He also argued for the unconditional defence of the USSR against the impending external (Nazi) aggression which would uproot the gains of the historic victory of 1917.

Decades later a similar differentiation was observable in a renewed debate within the global Left on the USSR. The pro-Soviet Communist parties adopted a stance of uncritical defence; the Maoists shrilly asserted that capitalism had been restored in the USSR which had become more dangerous than the USA; Fidel Castro and Che Guevara solidarized with and tilted to the USSR but held that its political line and certain practices were profoundly in error. A few years ago, Fidel wryly observed that had the Russians taken the line advocated by the Cubans, they could have won the Cold War.

My argument is analogous: Sri Lanka remains fundamentally a democracy, with whatever deficits and distortions, deformations and/or degenerations -- themselves attributable in significant measure to the depletion incurred in a thirty years war.

Not every ‘hegemonic project’ is one of tyranny or dictatorship, still less fascism! A hegemonic project has to exhaust itself, play itself out either due to its intrinsic contradictions or a drastic change in its external conditions. So long as the people feel a sense of external or centrifugal threat and the alternative seems complicit with or inadequate to deal with such threats, the project will neither be exhausted nor superseded.

Trotsky also attributed the character of the Stalinist regime to its isolation in a largely peasant society, deriving from the failure to break through to Western Europe. He had a point. It is empirically observable that isolation, external hostility and pressure emanating from sources seen as unsympathetic to the majority of the populace, only results in ‘target hardening’, i.e. hardening on the part of states and regimes which perceive themselves targeted. More: such pressures prove counter-productive in so far as they tend to rally popular support for hardliners and hard-line policies, discrediting dissent and ‘divisiveness’.

What Sri Lanka requires for ‘course correction’ and ‘democracy deficit’ reduction is far less drastic than what many critics think. In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Purloined Letter, the missing missive was hidden in plain sight on the mantelpiece which is why it was missed by so many, who sought it high and low. The same is true of the situation of Sri Lankan democracy today.   

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